Unexpected Gifts

“Habit and self-complacency are almost always a sign of spiritual stagnation.  The complacent no longer feel in themselves any real indigence, any urgent need for God.  Their meditations are comfortable, reassuring and inconclusive.  Their mental prayer quickly degenerates into day dreaming…For this real reason trials and tribulations can prove a real blessing in the life of prayer, simply because they force us to pray.  It is when we begin to find our real need for God that we first learn to make a real meditation.”

— p. 72, Thomas Merton, Spiritual Direction

In my mid-thirties, I unknowingly hit a patch of habit and self-complacency.  Married eight years, pregnant with our second child and gaining post-doctoral hours in clinical psychology for licensure, I would’ve said life was good.  I went to church every Sunday.  I believed God existed and knew He cared about me.  I was known by others; friends knew me intimately.  I thought I was living a meaningful life, even one filled with sanctification (God’s characterological growth process to holiness).

Then, June 29, 2006, my son died at 34 weeks in utero.  My world turned upside down and I leaned into God and my community for stability.  I questioned God’s love for me, my family.  I questioned whether I’d done everything I could to keep my baby alive.  I was woken up to my “go with the flow” life and realized my marriage was almost dead, my faith was based in service rather than an active prayer life and I hadn’t experienced joy in a really long time.  I grieved not only my son’s death but also my habit of being distracted by looking ahead, which kept me from thoroughly enjoying the time he lived in my womb.  I hadn’t known that was all the time we had together.

What I know now, that I didn’t know then, is that it would take six years before the cloud of grief would lift.  It would take eight years before my marriage would emerge out of being an emotional desert.  The gift of being aware in the present moment has stayed.  It is the surprise that emerged out of this horrific trial.  As well, the habits of my marriage died with my son and from these deaths, a new kind of marriage emerged that required a gestational period much longer than 10 months.

This June we will celebrate 20 years of marriage, the day before my son’s death anniversary of 11 years – only God and His unfathomable ways could create a web of death and life being so closely connected.  I believe if my son wouldn’t have died, my marriage likely would have due to our self-complacency and our lack of awareness of how much we needed one another.

These days, I can’t get around the reality that we all need one another as much as we need God.  I call myself lucky to know what it means to be naked and in need in order that I may be an “other” for those whose life situation stripped them of all their proverbial clothing.

Today, tears can run freely down my cheeks with no need to wipe them off.  Today, I can come to God in protest that a college freshman should be able to break down on the freeway without getting killed by a 24 year old driving too fast as well as a mother of three young children who has lived a life serving Him should be able to find a successful breast cancer treatment without facing the news that the cancer has spread.  I can no longer go back to a life of self-complacency because God showed up in the form of community, both divinely and humanly orchestrated, when I was devastated.  Now, knitted in my bones is the reality that even if I don’t have an urgent need, I’m part of His Kingdom here on Earth, which makes another’s urgent need my own.

So I’d best get praying:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,[a]
    but deliver us from the evil one.[

 

From Earth to Behind the Veil — A Birthday Remembrance to Amy Jensen

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Palm Springs – Graces Retreat

Dear Amy,

How has the world traveled around the sun three times since we were last standing together in a circle of women, champagne in hands, raised as we sang “Happy Birthday” with a gusto that wasn’t quite felt in our eyes.  Together, our lips pushed into a semi-smile we hoped looked real when you rang out, “And many more.”  It made me want to weep, your sincerity.

I didn’t disagree.  I hoped along with you for a miracle recovery but reality was setting in.  You now needed assistance walking up steps and uneven ground but this was before your left arm stopped working.  The later happened around Valentine’s Day, four months before I threw a pink rose onto your casket saying my last visual good-bye.

You loved roses.  You loved holidays.  We haven’t resurrected your cookie exchange.  We made a gallant effort that first year but found it’s in fact you who made it…well, our annual cookie exchange.  With your strict rules, your festive dress, your organizational genius that created the hype, the commitment, and the extra details in our presentation that moved us to hope for one of your coveted prizes.  (Material prize, irrelevant.  Bragging rights, priceless.)

Your kids are adjusting; Jeff is so committed to helping them.  He hosts dozens of gatherings at your house – yes, it still feels like yours – bringing so much life and laughter (and angst over Seahawk’s play calling) to make your absence manageable.  He’s still a writing machine, working on multiple creative projects (as to be expected).  Jeff has grown in his organizational skills.  You left a huge hole.  However, he and the kids continue to search for and hang the perfect yearly calendar that holds everyone’s events and appointments.  Last year, he and Lauren chose an outhouse-theme.  Maybe you could check with Freud on the interpretation of this choice.

There are a few things I want you to know.  Those tears and worry over Ben, that he would be a harsh and mean brother, that you weren’t able to stop being triggered by him so that your words came across harsh and mean – well he’s thriving.  He’s gentle and kind.  He’s finding himself behind the camera.  Whether video or digital, he’s working on perspective and angle.  He creates and directs, YouTubes and has a whole set up in the den. He even set up Elisha’s YouTube channel after I failed.  This to say, he’s an amazing older friend to the boys in our community as well as an older brother.  He’s loving – doesn’t complain about sharing a room with Nathan.  You would be proud.  I’m proud.  He’s coming out of the darkness from living much of his childhood with the knowledge that his Mom had brain cancer.

Lauren is coming out of her own darkness.  She laughs for real now – not with sadness beneath it.  She looks just like you.  She’s no longer comforting with food so you don’t need to feel guilty for causing her to cope with an unthinkable stress – a mother’s cancer diagnosis.  She too is an amazing creator.  You would love the room she and Tisa created.  (Tisa was sent directly to your family from God.  He is good.  She has so many skills you loved and hoped to pass on to your kids.)  Tisa took your old fabric from Baby Bubbles and made a valence and quilt.  They created her desk with fun organizers for all her necessary tools – pens, colored pencils, paper, lip gloss and her current favorite- candles.  I swear you directed it from heaven.  I think you would have done it the same.  That first year was hard, for everyone, but it showed most visually with her.  It was hard to walk through her room.  Piles.  Clutter.  You would’ve had a fit but this was fitting for her.  She needed to express her grief by holding onto things.  She needed this time, this expression.  After all, it’s impossible to say good-bye to a mother but somehow we make it through and she has, and does.

Nathan.  Nathan still doesn’t quite understand where you’ve gone.  His five year old self just can’t process good-byes where his mother doesn’t come back.  He loves Godzilla and I’m not sure I could write that if you were still alive. I suspect you would have censored this decision of Jeff’s, said it wasn’t age appropriate.  You may have been right but for Nathan it’s been splendid.  His imagination is vivid.  When he’s interested in something, he roots himself in that world, just like a tree.  I can’t keep track of all the names, places, or relationships in this Godzilla world. Luckily, he’s patient and sets me straight when I confess my ignorance to him again and again.  He’s a great cuddler.  You would’ve loved holding him while he shares his stories.

I don’t think I saw your family so clearly before.  I would’ve described it as your business/ organizational talents undergirding Jeff’s creative genius.  But I had it wrong then.  My perspective was stilted.  I underplayed your creative self as I underplayed Jeff’s energizer-bunny self.  Yet, I see it so clearly in your children.  They are products of a creative powerhouse couple, they lean into their grief that will never leave them (after all, no one forgets their mother no matter how much time has passed) with boundless creative energy.  Whether it’s making videos or taking photos, designing clothes or drawing comics, and whether it’s holding up the latest droid family member from Godzilla whose story is told, your giftings are present in your children.  As an aside, I wish we were working out our daughter’s “best friend drama” that occasionally creeps in to their relationship.

I also want you to know I’ve forgiven you.  I’ve forgiven you for the isolation, at times the neglect, and the depression that stole your life while you were still breathing.  I hope you’ve forgiven me for the judgment and anger that must have come across at times in our rawest moments together — me wanting you to live in connection and you wanting it all to go away.  I realize now, what I didn’t know then, that while I was eager to help, to be with you, I wasn’t eager to lay with you in your bed during the times you just couldn’t make yourself get up.  I didn’t know how to live in your world – as an individual with a terminal condition.  Death’s door – warp speed ahead.  I like to think I’d do it better this time.  I’d like to think I would be a little more like Mary, a little less Martha.  At least I’m trying to have my life reflect that now – a gift you’ve given me through your death.

I carry you inside of me: your confidence that I can write this darn book, your loyalty that no matter what circumstance I find myself in, you’d have my back, your love for tea and doing things proper, right.  I carry you with me in the hole left behind once our memories together stopped.  You, my friend, are remembered.

And so, I raise my glass and salute you, “For eternity, my friend.  Until we see each other again in the land of many more.  Happy Birthday.”

I love you.

Kimber

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Inspired by My Grandma and My Son

Grief is like being naked in a lake full of people with swimsuits.  It makes you feel raw, exposed, at times embarrassed, especially when people are staring at you while someone else is leaning close with words you know have something to do with you and your situation.  Your situation, whether it be a tragedy, a major devastation, is really only yours to tell, to disclose.

Grief is like doing a triathalon.  You can have people cheering for you from the sidelines, running beside you, but it’s you that has to will yourself to keep going.  It’s like when I wanted to walk after transitioning off the bike to the run but a kind man ran beside me for the first mile saying, “Come on.  You can do it.  Follow my steps, it will only hurt for this first mile, until the lactic acid is worked out of your muscles.”  I was twelve; the man, significantly older and not worried about his final time.  I tried to stop a couple of times, but he was there, reminding me that my legs would get used to this new motion — running.  He was helpful in getting me through the tough stuff, the stuff I couldn’t have done on my own because my mind wouldn’t let me but I’m the one who ultimately had to make the decision to run instead of walk, to take his encouragement rather than listen to my legs screaming, “Stop! Stop!”  Grief is this way, people come along beside us but they aren’t feeling our debilitating pain, or thinking the thoughts of our own death because the pain is so great or making decisions other than taking that drink, that smoke, that sniff because surely it is all too much to bear without substances altering our experience.    Ultimately, it’s me who has to choose to lean into the pain, to bear the pain, to move through the pain until it eases, isn’t so sharp.

Grief feels like it reaches inside and squeezes your gut, your intestines, your appetite.  It makes you feel like something has gone terribly wrong and somehow it will never be made right.  It’s a signal, the signal, nothing will ever be the same.  It cannot possibly be the same.  Humpty dumpty will never be put together again, and really, how could those million little pieces fit together to make the whole it once was?

Grief is like a pause button.  An interruption to the regularly scheduled program.  Like a mass shooting.  Or an earthquake.  A change in power.

Grief is like returning home only to find the barn has burned.  Then 20 years later, when it still smells like ash, the tears come.  The visions of the rope swing, the saddles, the canister of oats, memories of stalking wild cats and groundhogs.  I can still see them waiting at the gate.  For me.  Ladybug, my Shetland pony.  Thunder, my Quarter-Thoroughbred mare.

I can still feel you against my belly.  Swimming.  The color of your eyes – never determined.  I miss you, Baby Long Beach.

I can see you in your recliner, sleep-watching the football game.  Stuck in 1990.  I miss you, Grandpa.

I can see you in your garden picking raspberries.  Waving at me while I drive by on the golf cart.  I never saw you in the hospice care facility, you didn’t make it before I could see you one last time.  November 27, 2004.  Cancer.  I miss you, Grandma.