Tears in Heaven

 

 

Remembering the life lost this day one year ago…


Zach grad

Zach,

You are a force we can no longer see or touch, but whom we feel deeply and miss terribly.

Yours is a story written forever in our hearts.

Yours is a love we hold onto and build this new life around.

Love always,

Dad, Lisa, Aidan & Lainey

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“Tears In Heaven”

Would you know my name
If I saw you in heaven?
Would it be the same
If I saw you in heaven?

I must be strong
And carry on,
‘Cause I know I don’t belong
Here in heaven.

Would you hold my hand
If I saw you in heaven?
Would you help me stand
If I saw you in heaven?

I’ll find my way
Through night and day,
‘Cause I know I just can’t stay
Here in heaven.

Time can bring you down,
Time can bend your knees.
Time can break your heart,
Have you begging please, begging please.

Beyond the door,
There’s peace I’m sure,
And I know there’ll be no more
Tears in heaven.

Would you know my name
If I saw you in heaven?
Would it be the same
If I saw you in heaven?

I must be strong
And carry on,
‘Cause I know I don’t belong
Here in heaven.

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(Writer(s):  William Robinson, William Robinson Jr, Eric Patrick Clapton, Henry Cosby, Stevie Wonder, Will Jennings
Copyright: E C Music Ltd., Jobete Music Co. Ltd., Blue Sky Rider Songs, Jobete Music Co. Inc.)

Thirsty

I have been without steady internet until today and could not bear to write another entry pieced together on my Iphone, so I have been waiting. We are about 10 days into our new life here and it is, well…many different things.

I am up to my ears in my first week of school, immersed in an intensive course all day, every day this week, so I have little time to think or process or do much more than just show up and do the best I can in the classroom and at home.

I would love to say it’s all sunshine and roses, but that wouldn’t be truthful. There is mostly a lot of transition and all of the discomfort that comes from existing in that liminal space. I am standing at the threshold…still in between all that was and all that will be.

I feel disoriented and displaced, but I am trying to remain hopeful.

It’s as if I have been trudging through the hottest, driest, most barren desert for the past year, carrying the weight of survival on my back and our lives depending on my ability to put one foot in front of the other. I am so tired I nearly cannot see the ground in front of me and I have been trekking for so long without any real sustenance that my body, mind and spirit are beginning to deteriorate with each forward step. I fall to my knees and crawl sometimes, desperately seeking respite from the intensity of the elements around me, but they are relentless; there is nowhere to hide. I just crouch there with my face pressed into the sand for awhile, fighting for breath and summoning the courage and strength it will take to get up and keep walking. I am trusting that there is an oasis for me somewhere, but I don’t know where and I am depleted…exhausted…hungry…and so very, very thirsty.

I take a few more painful steps and stop to look around when I see it. Just up ahead of me shimmering in the distance.

Water.

Thirst

Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the hour
and the bell; grant me, in your mercy,
a little more time. Love for the earth
and love for you are having such a long
conversation in my heart. Who knows what
will finally happen or where I will be sent,
yet already I have given a great many things
away, expecting to be told to pack nothing,
except the prayers which, with this thirst,
I am slowly learning.

— Mary Oliver, Thirst”

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Defying Gravity

(This post was pieced together in the midnight hours during the last two days of moving and done entirely on my iphone…so just a head’s up. Please forgive the formatting and weird typing)

For my 25th birthday, I decided to go skydiving. I do not totally remember what my burning motivation was, but I recall wanting do something terrifying and to face my fear head on. Somehow my husband bravely and generously agreed to do it with me so off we went.

When the day came, we drove up to Lompoc, CA and got all suited up and oriented by our tandem professional divers. Basically, our job was to pay attention, know where the emergency pull strings were and remember to extend our legs when we landed so as not to break them unnecessarily. Since we were relying entirely on the skills and expertise of these complete strangers to keep us alive and safe, it was an exercise in complete and total trust.

I knew what I was doing was dangerous and risky, but that it just might also be a once in a lifetime opportunity. I had a relationship with fear that I wanted to break through; I didn’t want it to paralyze me and stop me from fulfilling my dreams and goals.

Of course , the reality of what we were doing didn’t really sink in until the tiny, rattley plane packed full of divers ascended to its diving altitude. There at 12,000 feet, I watched my husband silently fall out of the plane with his tandem diver, backwards from the plane’s exit hatch. There was something about watching him fall back with arms outstretched, knowing we were as high as we were, that made me want to vomit and stop the charade right there. But it was also the point of no return and before I knew it, I too was being pulled out of the exit door. I closed my eyes for that part and when I opened them we were free falling toward earth. Those seconds were the most frightening of my life; even now, just thinking about them brings hot tears of terror to my eyes. I couldn’t think or feel anything but fear and panic. There it was. The ground. My life. My mortality. Coming at me faster than a freight train. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t move, but I kept my eyes open and it felt like forever until the chute finally inflated and we were suddenly floating. I was still scared, but the velocity had shifted so dramatically that my brain could now make sense of what was happening. I was able to enjoy maybe 15 seconds of the whole thing as I took a deep breath and saw the Pacific Ocean to my left and the coastal hills to my right. Then the next hurdle was landing in one piece. And land we did.

This last year I found myself paralyzed with fear more times than I care to count. I have been pushed emotionally and physically beyond the point of exhaustion, irrational, discouraged, depressed, ambivalent and outraged. There were many points where I didn’t know how we were going to get through it.

Until a door opened.

And even then, this is such a huge risk we are taking at such a vulnerable time that it has made these last months even more tumultuous trying to prepare and transition. I nearly pulled the plug on the whole operation a number of times because the risk is so great and the variables so numerable. And the fear of the unknown–just too much.

In the end there I was again, facing all my fears, trusting something bigger, trusting myself, standing in faith, pushing through when I am “stuck” and ultimately, just doing it.

This new adventure wasn’t my first choice, but without even knowing how it ends, it was the best choice.

And here I am. Here we are. Finally.

Defying Gravity

Something has changed within me
Something is not the same
I’m tired of playing by the rules of someone else’s game.
Too late for second guessing
Too late to go back to sleep
It’s time to trust my instincts
Close my eyes and leap

I’m through accepting limits
‘Cause someone says they’re so
Some things I cannot change
But ’til I try I’ll never know

It’s time to try defying gravity
I think I’ll try defying gravity
Kiss me goodbye I’m defying gravity
(And you won’t bring me down!)

(My musical theatre roots are going to show right now because for the last few months I have been humming this song from the broadway hit, “Wicked”. Except now I am going to throw some pop culture into the mix of this wayward post because the version I keep singing is the one from Glee. So there ya go. Enjoy )

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A little less, a little more

Why do I keep doing this? Why do I write this way? Why the constant references to our losses and all of the heavy feelings that accompany them? Why this summer writing project which is once again mostly about DEATH? Why am I grieving publicly (especially given that I am a deeply private person)? I mean, don’t I want to move forward? Be happy? Get over it?

One of the best things we did for Aidan this year was to join a weekly child-grief therapy group (most losses were siblings and parents). The main purpose of the group is to “normalize” grief for children. They start each session by briefly sharing who in their life has died. Then they play hard for an hour not talking about grief or death AT ALL and they have loud, raucous, gut-busting fun (parents are in a separate room in their own group). Then the session ends with a closing ritual of sharing their favorite memories of the loved one they lost. It was a wonderful experience and so healing for him; we look forward to finding a similar outlet after we move.

I guess the reason I keep at all of this, especially through writing, is to sort of “normalize” grief on a larger scale, starting with my own community. I want to explore and embrace it all. I share our happy, blissful moments and memories right along with the heartbreaking ones. Intensity DOES lessen over time and you will probably see these death/grief posts evolve into ones with a lighter feel as we move into the next chapter of our lives. But I will never ever stop acknowledging how hard this life can be. And I will never ever stop celebrating what an incredible gift we have been given to live this awesomely intense human life here on earth. How breathtaking the gift is. How bittersweet some moments can be. The sorrow and the joy… I just cannot deny the blessing it is to be alive.

All of us have lost something or someone. Some of you have lost so big you can relate in one particularly empathetic way to what I write. Others of you have watched people you love lose big, so there is value in gaining a deeper understanding of some of grief’s many facets. And since death is inevitable, it means we are all going to lose some more as time goes by. It is certainly not a pleasant or welcome reality we have to embrace with some sort of new-age, flowy-gown, sun-kissed, chakra-balanced, zen-enthusiasm. It is perhaps just something for us to look at with a little less terror. A little less unknown. A little more compassion and a little more perspective.

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Reaching Out

Assisted by the magic of the inter-webs and the inspiration behind this blog, the universe connected me with an extraordinary woman last year. She had just lost her brother to suicide and was feeling all of the darkness. She found my blog, reached out to me and we began an email correspondence. It turned out she lives not too far from me, so we were able to meet each other in-person and a strange and wonderful sort of grief-friendship-sisterhood emerged.

There is the strangest comfort in finding someone grieving a similar loss. Grief can be a powerful connector in a general sense, because so many of us suffer and experience similar things. But when you talk with someone and can say “my brother” to each other with precise empathy, it’s a whole different bag of amazing.

I recently found one of the first emails I sent her where I wrote some of the things that helped me in the then twenty months that had passed since Andy died. I wrote this email two months before Zach died. It rather warms my heart to see how much of my own advice has saved me this past year. How my brother’s death sort of etched a deep and familiar groove for us to fall into when the unspeakable happened again.

I also see the differences. How some of the scenery and sensations changed this time around. Still, even though some is different, even more is the same.

My sweet sister-friend out there…Thank you for giving me permission to share what I shared with you. This post is dedicated to you because you are so brave and strong. I hope that you can see the reflection of just how incredible you are and I wish you deep peace and the kindling of joy as the rest of your journey unfolds.

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Here is an excerpt from my email on on June 20, 2013:
     I was just thinking, in response to your first email, of all of the things that have helped me over the last 20 months or so. Because I do want to tell you that it does get better. Somehow it does. It’s like 2 steps forward, 1 step back. Sometimes 2 steps forward, 3 steps back. But somehow, over time, you inch into a place that is more live-able. Where you can breathe full breaths of fresh air again.
     Also though, honestly, it’s never the same. I don’t think it should be, but still, it’s hard to reconcile. I think about this a lot because one of the things I am struggling with right now is that nothing I did in my former life fits anymore. For me, it’s like creating and building a whole new life. It’s overwhelming, and full of loss beyond the suicide itself, but I will also say there is freedom and excitement to it. After the numbness and shock wear off…and after months and months of grueling grieving…there just wasn’t room for any BS. What I’m seeing is that as much as I loved the old Lisa…and miss her…the new version of myself is much richer, deeper, bolder, kinder, freer, and more alive. It has come at a very high cost, yes, but it’s the unfolding of my life story. And I have to embrace the sacredness in that.
     For you, though, right now, that’s probably like blah blah blah. I know I felt like that. So here are some of the things that helped me in those first months and beyond. I also pray you know that I never want to sound preachy or like I have it figured out. I’m still learning and grieving and reeling. Though fortunately, for the most part, the intensity is FAR more manageable at this point…
  • Be extraordinarily gentle with yourself. Do all of the things that bring you healthy comfort and UNDERDO everything else. Take exquisite physical and emotional care of yourself as much as you possibly can.
  • SLEEP. Relax. Eat food that nourishes you. Comfort food is nice if you have any appetite in those first weeks, but over time crappy food just makes the grief and depression a million times worse. Eating clean and healthy food will give you a leg up in feeling all those feelings as they are and as they come.
  • Great self-care can be hard when you’re a mama. It’s okay if life changes completely—anything else would be a facade anyway. It’s also okay if you “underdo” a typical busy life for a year or two. This is uncharted territory for everyone and your emotional well being is paramount. Think of the oxygen mask scenario on the airplane. If you’re not taken care of, everyone else will suffer more. Right now, you come first.
  • Don’t hide your grief from your kids or husband. Not that you would, but I found that a hard line to tow sometimes. It’s messy and ugly, but its real. It’s hard…brutally hard…for everyone, but I think it’s actually a gift for our kids to see what real, messy and ugly life looks like. That it’s okay to fall apart. Eventually, things will come together again in a new and beautiful way. I have a new perspective that life is crappy and hard (in addition to all of its wonder and beauty) any way you slice it. While none of us wish trauma or heartache on our kids, it’s inevitable, and when life deals a hard and fast blow early on…it means a head start on building those amazing resilience muscles.
  • Take care of your marriage. It is likely your husband will carry this burden in a different way, and will need to pick up some of the balls that you usually juggle. Be upfront about what you need at any given moment. Even if what you need is to just let him know you don’t know what you need, so you’re going to go take a walk or drive or whatever and try to figure it out or stare at a wall or something to just breathe through the pain of the moment. When you feel a little more open, go on dates. Get away for a weekend. Even if it’s weird and awkward or feels funny. Do it anyhow and thank your wonderful hubs for treading water with you. Find something to laugh at whenever you can. That might feel awkward too. Awkward everything is normal. Accept and embrace awkward as one of your new friends.
  • On that note, also take care of the “family” unit in an obvious way. Do fun things. Keep up the traditions that you can and make new ones along the way. Some days the best you will be able to do is just show up. That’s ok. That counts.
  • Don’t be afraid of the pain. Kind of like childbirth–it’s there for a reason. When a wave comes out of nowhere, ride it to shore. It will pass, you will get through. Cry, rage, journal or breathe through it. Don’t worry about anything else but being in the very moment you are in.
  • Find an outlet and healing modality. Or several. Writing. Talking. Walking. Journaling. Drawing. Therapy. Massage. Hypnotherapy. Group work. Running. Hiking. Swimming. Reading. Music.
  • It’s also okay to check out every now and then. Crap TV is good for this. In metered doses. 
  • A lot of people won’t know how to be around you. They mean well and may even do or say the right things (while others straight up DO NOT), but you can just feel that they don’t get it. It’s weird. Some people may not show up at all. People you thought WOULD always be there. It’s all fine. Also it all sucks. One or two friends will likely surface as the ones you can count on. They may not know what you are going through, but they will know how to just be with you while you navigate these dark waters. Cling to them. If you can, tell them what you need. Even if it’s babysitting or laundry help or just sitting on the couch with you while you stare at the wall. You being open and honest and vulnerable and letting them take really good care of you will deepen your friendship in an inexplicable way (I found this happened with my husband also).
  • Embrace that wherever you are in any given moment, no matter how excruciating…is exactly where you are supposed to be.
  • Don’t feel the need to socialize, attend things or do ANYTHING that doesn’t feel nurturing. At some point, we all have to sit through soccer games or meetings when we don’t want to, but it’s okay to say NO even more. Even to your kids.
  • Reading “Understanding Suicide” by Kay Jamison really helped me understand suicide as an illness itself. I learned about the science and physiology and biochemisty of it. It’s not easy to read, but it helped me move forward on the path to understanding and acceptance (a path, by the way, that really doesn’t have an endpoint). 
  • There are some good books on grief out there. Lots of them. But the thing is, sibling grief is unique. And suicide grief is a whole other animal. Put them together and you have something that’s hard to find a “guide” for. Read what calls to you and pick the kernels of gold out.
  • Be ready for a rollercoaster with your family of origin. Everyone will feel this differently. Everyone will move into different stages at a different pace. Sometimes experiences will line up for closeness and healing, other times you might be catapulted into a whole new type of pain and alienation as you all figure out how to be a family without your brother. Losing him, especially so tragically, is a complete disruption to the balance and very existence of your family—no matter the dynamic before. It’s important to acknowledge that you aren’t just grieving him…but the death of your family as you knew it…and the end of the life you once had. It’s a lot of grief all at once. Too much, really. Which is why moment-by-moment is the only way to live through it.
  • Love yourself. Love yourself. Love yourself. Love your brother. Miss your brother. Mourn your brother. Wail for him and ache for him. Then love yourself, love yourself, love yourself.
I should probably stop there. Talk about overwhelming! I hope you are able to find something in all of that that resonates now. Probably something else will emerge two months from now and then two months after that. It’s a journey with no destination.
Just know that on your journey, there’s a sister who knows what it’s like to hear your own heart breaking over and over. 
We can do this. Moment by moment.
With equal gratitude for sharing yourself and reaching out,
Lisa
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Lessons from the Buddha

Death and hopelessness provide proper motivation–proper motivation for living an insightful, compassionate life. But most of the time, warding off death is our biggest motivation. We habitually ward off any sense of problem. We’re always trying to deny that it’s a natural occurrence that things change, that the sand is slipping through our fingers. Time is passing. It’s as natural as the seasons changing and day turning into night. But getting old, getting sick, losing what we love–we don’t see those events as natural occurrences. We want to ward off that sense of death, no matter what.

(Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart)

 

Our fish died yesterday. His name was Buddha Betta and he was exquisitely beautiful. If a fish could look like a majestic peacock, then that’s how I would describe him. Aidan named him and I am not sure where he got the idea, but the name stuck. However, he wasn’t just a pretty fish, he was also a joyful fish. When you approached his bowl with an enthusiastic greeting, he would flare his fins and swim faster, making eye contact with you and shaking himself to and fro. Mike even taught him how to jump for his food. Such a character, our Buddha Betta. When we got him, Lainey was about 18 months old and called him “Baddhu”, which remained a sweet nickname until his untimely passing.

 

He was also a strong fish. Tough as nails. On the day we brought him home over one year ago, he fell out of his container and onto the driveway as Aidan was getting out of the car, throwing everyone into a panic. As I muttered a series of expletives to myself followed by a few prayers for some sort of mercy on this poor fish who had only been in our care for 25 minutes, I hastily scraped him into a cup and ran him inside and into the sink. We then performed life-saving measures to get him into a semi-clean bowl with the appropriate water cleaning drops and watched him kind of float around in shock. My expectation that he would live was very low and I tried to prepare and cushion Aidan for the imminent death of his new fish. But Buddha surprised us and kept swimming.

Not too long after that, I walked into the kitchen one day to find that Lainey had pushed over a chair and was transferring dirt and plant food from the potted plant on the counter into Buddha’s bowl as she said, “Feed Baddhu?”

So we commenced the second round of life-saving-measures and life-expectation-management. But the Buddha lived again. 

Basically, he was the best fish ever.

So when I learned of Buddha’s passing in the midst of what is currently an incredibly chaotic and strained day-to-day life for us, I thought, “Really? Now?” Well, of course now; that’s how life works. So we braced ourselves to tell the kiddos, feeling especially bad about telling Aidan since this was his fish from the start.

After my last post, I probably don’t need to describe the implications of this death, the complicated overlay of grief and the potential for trauma triggers. I am sure you can just imagine.

So I will just recount a few of the heart-wrenchingly beautiful moments that unfolded when we told Aidan that Buddha had died. 

First, he needed to see it, and there was something liberating and reassuring for him in being able to see Buddha resting there lifeless in his fishbowl plants. Aidan threw his arms around me; I could see tears in his eyes and I actually felt washed over in relief. Aidan was grieving and letting himself feel it. That is a big deal.

Then we took Buddha out to the garden for a proper burial. I felt that familiar tug at my heart as we all thanked Buddha Betta for being such a great fish, but then Mike and I totally broke down as both kids reached in to the hole to “pet” him one last time (or for the first time really because, well, he was a fish) with their tiny fingers before covering him with dirt.

Aidan created a beautiful headstone, adorned with the flowers and plants from the fishbowl. It reminded me of the thoughtfulness I recounted in this post when he found a dead seagull on the beach two summers ago.

As Aidan arranged some rocks around Buddha’s grave, the tears really started to fall as he sought comfort from each of us. Lainey was so sweet as she repeated, “I’m sorry, Aidan.” Because what else do you say sometimes? However, his sobs actually comforted me deeply. To know that my boy could cry those tears freely when he needed to. To know that he wasn’t still numb. To know he felt safe enough with all of us to release whatever grief was there. “Mommy, Buddha was my best friend, ” he cried as I stroked his hair and kissed his salty cheeks.

After our ceremony, he seemed lighter to me all day; I could sense all that he was able to release just by feeling everything he needed to and accepting that this was just part of the game.

Children are such incredible teachers. Their honesty and vulnerability is a gift we should handle with delicate reverence. They are also masters of living in the present moment, embracing it for all it holds. For me, that is tricky business.

As the grace-filled and inspired Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron writes in her book, When Things Fall Apart (side note: if ever there was a book title to serve as my new survival manual, this is it.): 

Fear of death is the background of the whole thing. It’s why we feel restless, why we panic, why there’s anxiety. But if we experience hopelessness, giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives, an honest, direct relationship, one that no longer ignores the reality and impermanence of death.

There are about a hundred metaphors and images of life and death in this story, many of which relate directly to my family’s experience and some of which I thought of sharing in this post. I also had to not get too terribly heavy about it all because otherwise it’s just SO depressing, so I cheered myself up by remembering the episode of The Cosby Show when the family fish died (does anyone else chuckle recalling all of them gathered around the toilet bowl?). 

Anyhow, I realized that the only truth I really needed to acknowledge for myself (with a deep breath) is that ever-present paradox I am fumbling with so much right now.

In life, there is always death and in death, there is always life.

 

 

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Rest in Peace, Buddha Betta. You were loved and treasured; thank you for being awesome.

 

 

 

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free.

Blackbird fly

Blackbird fly

Into the light of the dark black night.

 

I was sitting in the backseat of our friends’ car that hot August night, looking out the window at the passing billboards and lights, willing myself not to throw up over and over and wanting with sweaty desperation to be anywhere but in that car.

They were driving us to the hospital to see our oldest son, killed in a car accident just hours before. We were supposed to be going to say goodbye, but I was already sinking into a numbness so deep and icy cold that any sensation you might expect was already gone.

With all that was in front of us, I just couldn’t stop thinking about our youngest son sleeping at home. The burden of telling him this news that I didn’t really believe myself yet weighed so heavily on me I had to fight for each breath.

How was I supposed to tell him? How could I do this to my beautiful boy with the tenderest heart who was just starting to reclaim himself and his family after the trauma of losing his uncle and enduring the horrendous aftermath of a suicide?

I agonized over telling him because I knew.

I knew the indescribable and often overlooked anguish of losing a brother.

After we got home that night, Mike and I crawled into bed next to Aidan. Somehow Mike fell asleep, but I just couldn’t. I stared at my baby’s sleeping face and saw his brother. I thought of my own brother, my grief for him now so forcefully displaced I couldn’t find it if I tried. My mind raced while my heart broke over and over.

We had debated whether to wake Aidan immediately and tell him or to give him the few extra hours of sleep. I didn’t want him to be angry with us for waiting to tell him. I didn’t want him to live his life feeling robbed of learning about this news sooner. But it also seemed like a cruel joke either way so I waited in the darkness for the sun to rise. Those hours were a death to me. Unknown. Endless. Silent.

When we told him, just a few minutes after he woke up, I felt the shock wave hit him. I saw that flash of pain behind his eyes, so dreadfully familiar now. I saw it two years earlier when the coroner came to our house and I had to tell him his beloved uncle was dead. I saw it in my parents’ eyes that same day. And then the night before, I watched it slice through my husband as his knees buckled and he cupped the phone receiver to whisper that Zach was gone. That flash. That instant when all I could hear was my own cry: “What? No no no no no NO!”

And then I watched the cloud of numbness descend upon my baby boy. It was something else for us to share, like a blanket we could cozy under together.

It was a strange comfort to feel so numb, almost protected, even if for a short time. But fear and panic were simmering underneath. Fear of what life was going to be like. Of what we were going to have to go through to get to the other side of something like this. Fear of what it would feel like when we started to thaw out.

But the debilitating fear that clawed at my throat constantly was the thought, “okay, so what’s next?” It didn’t seem like a matter  of “if” anymore, but more like “who” and “when.”

A few weeks later, before falling asleep one night, my boy gave words to the fear that was paralyzing us all.

Mom, it feels like so many people we love have died. I am so scared that something is going to happen to you or daddy or Lainey.

His voice was tight and his body was tense.

I was at a loss. I could not comfort him. I had no guarantee. I could only be completely honest.

I am scared too, my love. Terrified to lose you or Lainey or daddy. And I want to be able to tell you that we will all be around for a long time, but I don’t actually known that is true. So all I can say is that I will do everything I can to live a long and healthy life with you. And when I die, whenever that is,  I will still be with you in your humongous, beautiful heart. I will be in the air that you breathe and the dreams you dream. Losing me would be so so hard, but you will find your way. You will get through. You will find your joy.

He was quiet for a long time before whispering the prayer that tore through me.

Dear God, if anyone else is going to die, please make it be me, because I can’t bear to lose anyone else.

I could feel the splintering around my heart as I gasped,  ” Oh baby, NO!”

The hottest grief finally surfaced as I choked on the gush of tears.

It felt unnatural to hear my child pray those words, but how could I argue when I pleaded for the very same thing every day?

We clung to each other in silence for awhile, briefly floating in another dimension. No longer just mother and son, we were two souls intertwined. Connected forever and traveling.

Into the light of the dark black night.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise.

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(Blackbird, Copyright Paul McCartney/The  Beatles)

Written in our Stars

As my family walked into the California Science Museum yesterday, a woman approached us and meekly asked for money to feed her eight grandkids. I could feel that familiar wave of conflicting feelings rise within me as my brain and my heart battled for the appropriate response. Give her money? Find food? Say, “Sorry I don’t have any cash, but good luck to you.”?

I stopped and took a deep breath, listening to my gut/heart and choosing to act from love and compassion. As I fumbled for my wallet, this woman quietly revealed that her daughter had just died suddenly, leaving many children in need of…well, everything. And that her own mother died just last month, that she is an only child and feels so very alone. As she spoke, it seemed she was saying it all out loud for the first time and the weight it of it all was about to flatten her. Her voice cracked as she said, “I don’t know what I am going to do now.”

Good gracious mercy, what do you say to that?

After slipping a few dollars in her hands, I held both of them in mine and looked straight into her eyes, sharing for one brief moment her burden and her brokenness. That moment was all she needed to fall into my arms, gripping me desperately and ripping me wide open.

These stories used to seem so foreign to me, so sad and untouchable. But now I see them everywhere and I can’t help but to ask “why?”

It’s hard to live through tragedy without asking, “What does this all mean? What is the flipping point?” I get exasperated at the universe, frustrated and heartbroken to no end by the injustice and cruelty that abounds.

But I also marvel. I marvel at the opportunity we have to experience joy. To delight in things. To pursue happiness. We can actually find joy on a daily basis, moment to moment. How amazing is that? And I marvel especially that such joy and tenderness and beauty dwell so dangerously close to sorrow and suffering.

I marvel that we have the very privilege of creating life. That two cells come together to create something totally new and that this triad instantly becomes our “family”. That we spend our whole lives trying to figure out how we all fit together, how we relate, our origins both evoking our essence and validating our existence. Whether physically present or known only by name or memory, we wear our parents and their parents and their parents around our necks and over our hearts, for better or for worse. It seems we are tangled up in one another from the moment life begins.

I marvel that we can carry and birth babies, feel them move, hold them close, delight in them and watch them grow. But they aren’t really ours, it seems, and sometimes they die before we do, leaving us to experience an agony so deep and paralyzing it is hard to imagine living through it.

I marvel that we are given these miraculous bodies, so complex and strong and life-sustaining. But then these bodies fail us; ravaged by illness or deterioration, we suffer excruciating physical pain often beyond what it seems possible to endure.

I marvel that we have these sophisticated brains that are constantly changing and growing. Our minds give life to our ideas and feed our imaginations; they regulate our intricate body systems and nuanced feelings. And oh the wide array of feelings we get to experience! Some are so blissful we just keep wanting more and others are so painful we will do just about anything not to feel them. But sometimes our brains stop functioning properly: they get hijacked or cloudy or just shut down. Consequently, we must suffer the indignity of literally losing our minds.

I also marvel that good and evil have it out every day and that love and fear are so close to each other on the spectrum of what governs our thoughts and actions.

But what really gets me is that as humans we straddle this paradox of joy AND suffering our entire lives and can never seem to find peace with it. Not that we should find peace with it, but it’s hard for us to even wrap our sophisticated brains around such a contradiction.

The joy, the happiness, the fun…it’s so damn good it’s like a drug and we just keep wanting more. One more hit. One more taste. One more blissed-out moment. It’s our birthright, isn’t it? Aren’t we entitled? It’s so good that we can’t help but to cringe and crumble when things get hard. We are, after all, creatures wired for pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding, so it makes sense that when life becomes painful we say, “This is not right. This is a problem. It shouldn’t be this way!”

But what if the joy is really just a glimpse?

And what if the suffering is actually how it’s supposed to be? Part of the journey. Par for the course.

Written in our Stars.

What if when life is hard, like really hard…it means we are actually doing it right?

(This post is the first of eleven I will be writing this summer in a series called, “On Earth as it is in Heaven.”)

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Exciting News!

Dearest Friends and Family,
We have some big and exciting news to “officially” share…In August, we are moving to Boston so I can attend seminary for 3 years!!! 

Some of you know this is a dream and plan we were working toward the year before Andy died, but we shelved it afterward for a number of reasons. Life has been so brutal  since that we totally forgot we shelved it until recently, when a window of opportunity presented itself and we decided to revisit the dream and plan. Since then, the details and logistics have sort of fallen into place (school for me and work options for Mike) and we are so grateful for the opportunity. I will be attending Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA (part of the Boston Theological Institute) and have included a little info about the school at the end of this email.
For those of you familiar with my decade-long exploration of a call to ordained ministry, this is very much a part of that; however, I will be attending seminary as a lay minister for now, and I will be able to develop my own academic and field education plan to support my ministry vision, professional pursuits and intellectual interests so that if and when the time comes to continue down the path to ordination, I will have this particular credential and experience “under my belt.” I am so honored to be attending a school that is so committed to social justice, effective outreach, and fostering peaceful and compassionate global, ecumenical and interfaith relationships.This is an amazing opportunity for unparalleled education and training. 
 A cross country move is definitely exciting, but naturally overwhelming. We are sad to be leaving our beloved community of friends and family, but we are heartened to have such an amazing opportunity for freshness and adventure…a little “breath” of fresh air for us after so much sadness and heartbreak these past 3 years.
Of course, we never really know what the future holds, but it is our sincerest intention to return to California at the end of my program. We also hope to return “home” a couple of times per year to remain connected to our community. 
We will be having some sort of “farewell” opportunity at the end of July and we will keep you posted on our departure. I also intend to continue writing about our experiences at my blog http://lisadevine.com.

 

We want to thank you for your continued love, prayers and support over the years. We literally could not have survived without you.
Peace, love and many blessings to you always,
Lisa and family
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From EDS Mission Statement:
 

The purpose of Episcopal Divinity School is to educate lay and ordained leaders for Christ’s Church and for the world who serve and advance God’s mission of justice, compassion, and reconciliation…EDS is committed to growing in relationship with other Christian and faith traditions. Episcopal Divinity School is an academic community of biblical, historical, and theological inquiry that respects students as responsible learners with valuable experience, supports spiritual and ministerial formation, and provides tools for the life-long work of social and personal transformation.

The School’s dedication to God’s transforming mission challenges us to become an antiracist and multicultural community (see below for definition), embodying diversity and seeking constructive change. These commitments lead to educational programs enlivened by theologies of liberation, especially the many voices of feminist, congregational, ecumenical, and global studies. In our educational life we value critical intellectual engagement, prophetic spirituality, and social action…sustained by contemplation, worship, and prayer…Episcopal Divinity School forms leaders of hope, courage, and vision…

Central to EDS’s educational programs and formation is our emphasis on antiracist and multicultural learning. By antiracism, we mean working against the systemic oppression of people of color at the personal, interpersonal, institutional, and cultural levels. Multiculturalism refers to recognizing, understanding, and appreciating one’s own culture as well as the cultures of others. Multiculturalism stresses the social construction of differences—race, ethnicity, class, gender, age, sexual identity, religion, and physical ability—and the impact of these constructs on our learning, living, and ministry.

I love you and you are mine

Even though spring has been here for over a month, this first part of 2014 has been a long, hard winter for my soul. As months of depression give way to lighter days, I can feel a delicate unveiling of myself, like thin layers of fabric pulled back slowly from my face, one by one.

In this post, I described how I got to the breakthrough I had in January. Now months later, as this Mother’s Day comes to a close, I feel like I can finally begin to describe what it was and how it helped me.

Let’s start by going back to a Mother’s Day when Zach lived with us, nearly a decade ago. That morning, he took the time to wish me a “Happy Mother’s Day” before going off to spend the day with his mama. It was a simple sentiment, but his sincerity moved me. It was as if he was saying, “Thank you for what you are doing. Thank you for who you are for me. You aren’t my mom, but this thing we have between us and the family you have created with my dad…well, I appreciate it. It’s not lost on me. Thank you.”

 

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For no real reason outside of myself, I spent last fall feeling like an uninvited guest in the nightmare of Zach’s death. My grief for him felt untouchable, unreachable and completely undefined. For months I couldn’t find it and in the moments when I did, I didn’t know what to do with it.

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Until that day back in January when I had finally carved out enough space and time within me and around me to try to figure it out. It hit me suddenly and forced me to my knees. I happened to be hiking through a sort of man-made mini-gorge, surrounded by fence on one side and a mountain of stones on the other. I was literally stuck between a rock and hard place, forced to confront the truth I had been denying myself for five months.

 

I had lost a child.

 

I let myself feel that completely for the first time, and later that day, I said it out loud. I let it it pierce through my insides and hollow me out.

For a good long while it felt like I was going to die.

Before this, I had actually given myself a dozen “logical” reasons for not claiming this loss.

“He is my stepson; he didn’t come from my body.”

“There were only 12 years between us, certainly that’s not enough of an age-gap for me to feel like a parent who has lost a child”

“People keep asking me how my husband is doing. What about me? As Zach’s stepmom, am I not supposed to be suffering too?”

“I didn’t have the kind of bond with him that I have with my two youngest children. The ones I carried in my belly, then labored and breathed into life.  The ones I nursed, snuggled and rocked; the ones by my side each and every day. That’s really what it takes, right?”

But this was the biggest reason I heard constantly echoing in my head…

“He has two other parents to whom this loss truly belongs. If I claim him as mine, if this breaks me also, then it would somehow be disrespectful to them. An insult to biology. An undermining of his mother’s broken heart.”

But there I was on my knees. The hot, searing sickness in my stomach and the hardened wall of tightness constricting my throat as the violent shaking and wailing of my whole being revealed the truth.

That from the moment I met this blue eyed, red headed boy, I loved him. That I spent those first years getting to know him, his likes and dislikes, his joys and his fears, and then planning ways to enrich his life and to offer opportunities for learning, play and growth.

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That when his dad asked me to marry him, my “yes” was a “yes” to all of us. Our family. Our future. That every day and every forward thought included Zach. That when it came time to welcome him into our home full time, not just every other weekend, and with all of the messy circumstances surrounding that transition, I did not hesitate for one second in saying, “absolutely.”

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That when many of my peers were figuring out careers and futures or just doing what most people do in their 20’s, I was moving to a new town because it had the best schools. I rearranged my dreams and goals to work full time, commuting to a job that would help secure our future. I was packing lunches, going to back to school nights, coordinating schedules and sitting down for family dinners. We were saving for college, going to the orthodontist and doing science projects. I was aware that this time was a gift to his dad and me, but sensitive to the tumult, confusion and developmentally appropriate adolescent angst that existed for our son. So we had intentional conversations and we took him to counseling. We set boundaries and limits and modeled habits that were new for him.

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That when we found out we were having a baby, it was always about the four of us. We began building an actual house for our family. Four walls and a roof on a lot in the hills to start with, but mostly a home to live in and grow together.

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That I loved planning adventures and fun for us. I delighted in selecting birthday and Christmas gifts for him. I especially loved filling his stocking every year because he was so tickled by the deodorant, Axe body spray, mouthwash, gum and Chapstick.

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 That when he went back to live with his mom for a number of complicated reasons it broke us in so many ways. It was the first time we lost Zach and we grieved him hard.

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 That every day after that I worried for him. I missed him. I ached for our family.

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That I still championed his wildest dreams. That I brainstormed ways to support their fruition. That I never gave up on him.

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That the night we found out about his addiction was when we lost him all over again. It introduced a new sort of anxiety. A worry deeply-rooted and ever-present. Not without hope, but sometimes blind and desperate. We still prayed that somehow, someday, there would be a healing that would allow him to live the life he wanted. That whatever unreachable pain would reveal itself so that he wouldn’t always need to numb it with drugs. We acknowledged and apologized for our mistakes and committed to growing and healing with him.

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That my daily prayer became one of restoration and salvation for our son, this sweet boy who was dealt a crappy hand, him whose plans and dreams had been supplanted by prison bars and isolation. I still hoped that despite the grim statistics, his heroin addiction wouldn’t be the end of him.

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That his dad and I had nevertheless (as many of us who love addicts do) tried to mentally prepare ourselves in some way for that potential last phone call, the one where we would find out we had lost him forever. Of course, I never ever expected someone else’s addiction would kill him in such a tragic and accidental way while he was on the road to recovery. It’s a fool’s game to think you can prepare at all for a blindsided and broken heart.

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Yes, these truths have become mine. And there in the warmth of that January afternoon, amidst the rocks and the dust, I realized that he too became mine long ago. Part of me.

 

And so in, his death has destroyed a part of me also.

 

Somehow, I still hold onto a shaky and evolving faith that death is only a beginning. For him, most certainly, but for those of us left here as well.

It seems, though, you have to trudge through the darkness and muck first. And right now we are stuck with that gritty and inescapable reality.

That he is gone. That the person I was and the family we had is no longer. And that the family we might have been…will never be in this lifetime.

It’s hard to deny that any path to redemption might be awfully long and often unbearable. Harder yet to embrace that any resurrection story must includes these interminable days in the tomb.

But I remain thankful for this life and so very grateful for the gift Zachary was and is to me and our family.

There was a hymn sung during one of the two funerals we had for Zach. Although I had personally selected much of the music for both services, this song was chosen by his aunt and the organist sang it up in the choir loft behind us at the end of the service; it was as if it was sung by an invisible angel. The song was both familiar and unrecognizable to me, beautiful and somehow haunting. I had not really thought of it again until two weeks ago when I began humming the melody. I had to look up the lyrics to remind myself.

Do not be afraid, I am with you

I have called you each by name

Come and follow me

I will bring you home

I love you and you are mine.

….

 

(If you want to listen to the song in its entirety, you can find a version of it here)