A close friend has been at the hospital the last few days tending to his mother. She injured herself severely in a household fall by tripping on a braided rug that her husband has long refused to throw out in their bedroom.
Such are the vagaries of old age, and sentiment. Her broken ribs and swollen brain are being treated at the hospital, but she’s not sure it’s a good idea to go on. There is fear, and there is pain.
Her son is also in pain, of the emotional kind. There has been no more faithful a son than he. For two decades he has tended their garden. Mowed their lawn. Taken them to church when necessary. His own life is intertwined with that of his parents. Because he cares.
And because he cares, he is suffering now at the thought of his mother’s passing. She is alive, but barely. Sooner or later most of us go through this experience with a parent. A spouse. Or a friend.
I know people that have even lost children. Such abrupt dissolutions.
As I entered the house today, I glanced down to notice that the crocus in the front garden are already starting to drop their petals. We wait all winter for the first signs of spring. Then spring comes and sheds these bright signs of life as if they did not matter at all.
I have watched my mother die. I was there when she passed away 10 years ago. Recently I watched my father die as well. We emptied their house this past week. Filled a three-yard dumpster with all their former belongings. Kept a few keepsakes and practical items for our own.
My brother said, “I’m going home to get rid of 25% of what I own. If this is what happens to us when we die, I don’t want that.”
Three years ago this March 26 my wife passed away after an eight year go-round with cancer. She lived fully right to the moment she passed away. I have always said that I am proud of her for that. But life itself sheds its hold on us like petals on a crocus.
We are reminded of all this come Easter time. According to Christian tradition, even the Son of God shed those petals of life here on earth. The faith holds that our souls are borne into heaven if we have accepted the grace, and shed the brand of pride that prevents it.
Instead, we should hold pride in the mercies we can show others. I told that to my friend, the selfless man that has cared for his parents all these years. “You are in pain because your love is wrapped together with her life. That is pain your have earned through caring. God knows that we feel that pain, and it’s the knowledge that we are loved that sustains us through it.”
Walking right into the pain
Three years ago on Good Friday, I walked into the church I attend with tears barely concealed behind my eyes. My brother asked me why I attended the service so soon after the death of my wife, and I told him, “I’m walking right into the pain.”
That’s really the only thing we can do. You can’t escape it by walking around. It follows you like a shadow. And when I walked up to meet the pastor for a blessing that Friday evening, he was the one shedding tears in my family’s name. “You are in the right place,” he told me.
That does not cure it all. There is still the absence and the loss. The profound depression knowing that someone is gone, for good. That is grief. It must be reckoned with as well. But first we must acknowledge the pain. All else is folly. That can take time. It cannot be rushed. Yet neither can we dwell in the past, lest we forget there is life to be lived.
Preaching to the choir
I understand that church is not for everyone. I get that more deeply than you might think. My own father relinquished his churchgoing ways. He loved the camaraderie of the choir, but the words ultimately didn’t mean that much. It doesn’t mean he did not have a soul. And I do not worry for it. That is not the brand of faith to which I ascribe.
We are all flawed people, who need forgiveness for the things we do. And, we should do all the forgiving we can muster. Because the real purpose of those falling petals should be to let go the lies, and the hurts, the harsh words and the lost opportunities to say that we love someone.
That is the faith to which I ascribe. It is ultimately transcendent, even in all its fallen glory. It is not keeping the crocus past its time, but knowing that its coming and going is the real sign of hope, and of caring, and of things planted for the right purposes.
We read news of the death of David Bowie from cancer and what does it tell us? That he “lost his battle” with the disease.
It’s time for some changes in that sort of language. I’ve watched several people dear to me die from cancer, and they did not lose the battle. They won time instead.
Time to live. Time to consider the importance of the people they loved. Time that mattered.
Cancer is an indiscriminate condition that can cause death eventually. You don’t get it because you’re a bad person, but bad habits like smoking can cause it. Yet cancer can also come along because you’ve spent too much time in the sun, or had the bad luck to carry a certain cancer-causing gene. So to suggest that you’ve lost the battle is to make a pitch that the battle was lost before we ever knew it was begun.
Well, that’s rather true for all of us, isn’t it? Life itself is a pre-existing condition. Yet in defiance of that truth, we’ve all been living with a health insurance business that parses that fact for its own profit. And we deal with drug companies that jack the price of life-saving drugs simply because they can. It goes on and on.
Pushing through the market square, So many mothers sighing News had just come over, We had five years left to cry in
News guy wept and told us, Earth was really dying Cried so much his face was wet, Then I knew he was not lying
That means it can be an expensive battle to live, to pay for the right to continue one’s life. That’s immoral on its own, of course. But every time someone dies from cancer it seems we repeat that meme about “losing the battle” ad hominen (against the person that died) and ad infinitum (there but for the grace of God go I.)
So stop it. Make the ch-ch-ch-change in yourself when you speak of someone dying from cancer, or any other reason. They did not lose a battle against a disease or anything else. They won time to the best of their ability. And we should all honor that.
As for the memory of David Bowie, many of us had no idea he was sick. But even famous people deserve privacy. Perhaps something reached out to me through the cosmos however, because two weeks ago I printed out a bunch of chordsheets of his music and began playing his songs. Moonage Daydream is a tremendously cathartic bit of music to rip on guitar. It brings us back to those moments in life when music props us up against the perceptions of the world.
Bowie and I go back to the Ziggy Stardust album, which I revered as a sophomore in high school. The androgyny of the character and his person both fascinated and terrified me. At the time, it was not acceptable in any form to be considered feminine by those terms. Not in the tiny farm town where I lived.
I didn’t necessarily have the instincts to publicly display my curiosities. But like many young men I tucked my manhood between my legs and looked in the mirror wondering what it would mean to look like or be a woman. I have photos from that period when my facial features were delicate. Not yet a man. But no longer a boy.
To some people, such behavior and curiosities are abhorrent, wrong and unbiblical. Yet the courage of people like Bowie to bring those instincts to grace and acknowledgement have indeed changed the world, and for the better. The very idea that people all fall into plain and distinct categories is false and dangerous. It is the fascism of singularly self-directed purpose, and not godlike at all. Art, by contrast, explores the unspeakable. It sings it loud. Brings truth into the light.
Nature as well is both creative and forceful in its diversity. A society that collaborates with the forces of nature is a healthy one. The elements of the world that suppress and tries to murder the fact of diversity is one that fights against none other than itself. Men like Adolf Hitler, for example, made up their own version of reality. They try to cover their fears and insecurities with willful terror and murderous intent.
And that’s why David Bowie matters. His music and his leadership together changed the world. If anything, he battled a few s0-called demons in the process. But given the fact there are actually no such thing as real demons, he battled what the world threw at him instead. And in many respects, he won. And that’s the right kind of pride.
That’s the inspiration we can take from the passing of David Bowie. He forged a creative path that enabled him to overcome many fears about the world. He was born David Jones and chose his stage name from the inventor of a knife, it seems. Then he used it to cut both ways. There’s a powerful lesson in that.
A friend just texted me lyrics from the song Heroes. “We can beat them, forever and ever. We can be heroes, just for one day.” And that’s the best example of all. Thank you, David Bowie.
We all know plenty of people dealing with loss in their lives. A friend loses a child in the latter stages of pregnancy. Another grieves over the death of their parent or a sibling. We lose people to cancer, or car accidents, suicide or heart attacks. All these losses are carried with us in many ways.
Most recently my father passed away. The day he died I entered his room and cried heavily over the man who raised me. I also cried for the relative valor with which he suffered 13 years of stroke disability. The loss of his ability to communicate robbed our family of valuable time with him. We also lost a share of family history since he was unable to tell stories of his youth or his experience.
And a few years ago, my wife died of cancer after eight years of survivorship. We had been married for 28 years. That’s a lot of shared history as well.
Just a year before my wife passed away, my father-in-law died from complications related to heart problems.
And ten years ago in 2005 my own mother passed away.
All these losses have been processed in different ways. Yet all of them have converged in some way in my dreams.
Shred of guilt
Whether we like to admit it or not, there is often a shred of guilt that goes with losing someone we love. Working through that brand of guilt alone can take years. We might wish we could have done something more for the person we loved, or been there more. We might have wanted to tell them with more urgency how much we loved them.
None of these feelings are foolish or unwarranted. They are the very real consequences of having loved, and having lived. It is simply impossible to have lived perfectly, of having never forgotten to say “I love you” when it counts. So it takes time to grieve through these feelings as well as the raw loss of someone in our lives.
Before my late wife passed away, I sat down by her bed and told her that I loved her and asked forgiveness for any wrongs or ways that I might have disappointed her over the years. All relationships have some degree of failure in their mix. I thought it important to let her know how much I appreciated our time together, and to apologize for my own shortcomings. Her doctor had advised me to be absolutely positive in her last few weeks. Yet we’d been through quite a few things together, and I positively wanted to tell her how I really felt. That included a bit of confession. We all try our best, but love requires that we admit some of our shortcomings along the way.
Perhaps that is a brand of emotional w0rk we must always do on our own. The one recurring dream (every few months) that I have in relationship to my late wife is that she has returned somehow from the dead and I am in no way prepared to deal with that.
The dream typically finds her rising from apparent death at the funeral home to re-enter her life. I encounter her at parties or other events and don’t know how to engage. Awkwardly, I’m challenged in those moments to know what to do because I’m in a new relationship.
This is a painful dilemma in a dream world, much like those moments when you are trying to run away from some threat and are unable to move your feet. Dream interpreters say that not being able to run away in a dream… is a sign of general anxiety in your life.
That’s exactly how anxiety works, of course. It can focus on any topic, but it also invents its own realities. And so, in relation to grief, it brings that person back on the stage of your life as if they were alive again. “What do you think of this…” it wants to know?
Bad dreams and divorce
The anxiety of dealing with loss in a dream world is similar in some respects to a person living through a real life divorce. Rather than grieving through bad dreams, however, one is forced to grieve that relationship every time you encounter a former spouse in real time. That can seem like a bad dream in more than one way.
It takes just as much time to grieve through that kind of loss as it does to come to grips with the death of a sibling or a loved one. None of us can completely separate ourselves from the reality of a divorce any more than we can divorce ourselves from feelings of grief or loss with someone that has died. It’s part of your subconscious thoughts whether you like it or not.
Dealing with loss
In relation to our experience in loss, overall I feel our family has tried to deal with these experiences in healthy ways. Obviously, the pain of children grieving a lost parent is a different thing from a husband dealing with the loss of a wife. I think some of the guilt I am processing relative to my late wife is a shared empathy for my children in having lost their mother. The dream in which she returns to life reminds me that my work in helping them is not over. Nor should it be. She returns to me in dreams so that I remain sensitive to the fact that I am responsible as their living parent to keep her memory alive for all of us.
Rather than a nightmare, such dreams are instructive and healthy to the grieving process. In many ways, our family has found positives in our life celebrations together. We are not afraid to recall both joyful and amusing aspects of my late wife’s personality. She loved to tease but could also be petulant about certain subjects or beliefs. These dichotomous aspects of her personality do keep her memory alive. They can also be shared with others because they are honest. We can be unapologetically real about her memory.
Sharing burdens and friends
Also, my companion Sue is respectful and loving toward our needs. Being a companion to a “widow,” as she has done, is not always easy. For both the spouse and the new companion, it can be difficult living in the shadow of someone so loved. Sue has treated my children with respect for their mother’s memory. She has grown to understand them better as people as a result, because learning about their mother has helped her understand their own characteristics and values. And in our relationship, I have been very honest with Sue about my feelings in the 2.5 years since my wife passed away.
We did not leap into categories of emotions too quickly. It has been a prolonged “honeymoon” if you want to call it that, since we met and starting dating. That’s a necessary fact of our respective situations.
Sue was working through pain from a previous relationship when I met her. I was in active grief from having lost a spouse. I believe we’ve helped each other through, and grown as people as a result. We treasure relationships with both our sets of friends, and some of these groups have merged successfully, to the point where we no longer define friends as “Mine” or “Hers.”
Protection and risk
That is the protection. The risk is the investment in time and love we have made in each other. We have discussed the weight of that investment on several occasions. Dating in your 50s is not like dating in your 20s or 30s, when there are families to build and children on the horizon. Yet there is still an investment in the future. Even during the few years we’ve been together, we’ve felt changes in our bodies, hearts and minds.
We’ve also ached in real time over the challenges our children face and have shared the ache across family ties as well.
Through all this shared experience, it’s never been my process to compare Sue to my late wife Linda. The relationship we now share is clearly built on its own foundations. As stated, however, these foundations do draw from our respective pasts.
And interestingly, Sue’s actual first name Linda. She’s simply gone by Suzanne, her middle name, for her entire life. I first learned this fact in the first few months of dating her when her bike slipped and we visited the Urgent Care facility to get her checked out. The registration desk asked for her name and she stated, “Linda Astra.” Then she spun around to say, “I forgot to tell you. Linda’s my real first name.”
That was an odd little moment. But it was not lost on me.
We likely all know situations where in which the deceased spouse can become something of a legend or a saint in the lives of those who carry on their memory. Sometimes that sainthood can produce dysfunction among stepchildren or in other relationships where the new person in the family formula is constantly measured against the parent or loved one who went before.
That can create a “bad dream” in which people refuse to accept or show love to others. It’s much better to acknowledge that we all need each other. Those relationships may be in new or different ways those in the past, but that can be a good thing.
We have this one life to live. It is best to make life better for one another every way you can. That’s almost better than the Golden Rule.
A few weeks ago I attended a live music show led by my sister-in-law’s boyfriend Tom, a professional guitarist with a really good voice who performs with a crackshot bunch of horn players. Midway through the show the band played a couple numbers by the 60s group Blood, Sweat and Tears. One of the guest singers absolutely nailed the BSWT song, “God Bless the Child,” but there was another song running through my head the rest of the night. It’s a tune called And When I Die that was a part of the amazing lexicon of music produced in the late 1960s. The lyrics start like this:
I’m not scared of dying And I, don’t really care If it’s peace you find in dying Well then, let the time be near
If it’s peace you find in dying Well then dying time is near Just bundle up my coffin ‘Cause it’s cold way down there I hear that it’s Cold way down there, yeah Crazy cold, way down there
As a kid of 12 or 13 at the time, those were odd words to read. At that point in the life, the idea of dying was so mysterious, and most of the deaths of grandparents had happened before I even arrived on earth. My mother’s parents were both gone years before, and my father’s mother too. They were ghosts, essentially, about which people did not even talk all that much. It spooked me to think about anyone dying, for these reasons. But there was some strange hope in the song with the lyrics Go Naturally as well..
And when I die, and when I’m gone There’ll be, one child born In this world To carry on, to carry on
Many years passed before anyone close to me died. I lost a classmate from college track who became too dehydrated from having a cold while competing in track. His fever shot through 107-degree mark and he passed away in his room.
During that time of life (and like so many young people) I was grappling with the meaning of my faith, and whether it existed at all….
Now troubles are many They’re as Deep as a well I can swear there ain’t no Heaven But I pray there ain’t no hell Swear there ain’t no Heaven And I’ll pray there ain’t no hell But I’ll never know by livin’ Only my dyin’ will tell, yes only my Dyin’ will tell, oh yeah Only my dyin’ will tell
I had my own brush with possible death as early as my freshman year in college. Someone made a punch for the cross country team party and it nearly cancelled my liver that night. I could easily have died of alcohol poisoning. And what a waste that might have been. So much life left to live…
Give me my freedom For as long as I be All I ask of livin’ Is to have no chains on me All I ask of livin’ Is to have no chains on me And all I ask of dyin’ is to Go natrually, only wanna Go naturally
Through the mists of the years I learned that sadness and anxiety and depression could be scary things, but not as scary as giving up. On the few occasions when I felt like life was too much to bear, my mind considered what it would be like to end it all. But there was no motivation to do so. Perhaps my personal faith really did have a purpose. Here I go! Hey hey Here come the devil Right behind Look out children, here he come Here he come, heyyy
Don’t wanna go by the devil Don’t wanna go by the demon Don’t wanna go by satan Don’t wann die uneasy Just let me go Naturally
Then came middle age, and the challenge of managing a parent through the final year of her life. My mother died at age 80 in 2005. I was there when she passed away. Sitting inches from her bed, I could see that the week she spent in hospice was the right thing to do. She had experienced a stroke after a try at chemotherapy and her body was done with this world. That was so clear that my mourning was rich with that knowledge. It strengthened me to know that dying is in many ways not the end we all dread. It is a part of life.
And when I die, and when I’m dead Dead and gone There’ll be One child born, in our world To carry on, to carry on
That same year my wife was diagnosed with cancer, and I can tell you that scared the ever living daylights out of me. More than dying, cancer was a ghost of dastardly proportion. And yet we helped her survive through bout after bout of chemo, and our personal faith delivered small miracles that added up to one big miracle. She was still here. She had not yet died.
But after eight years her body was also through dealing with the rolling effects of chemo and surgeries and stress. I was sitting with my two children in our living room when she passed away. And days later, an astronomy student friend of my daughter staying over at our house to keep us company awoke in the middle of the living room in the middle to the sight of three floating orbs of light right at the spot where my wife had lay when she died.
There was nothing frightening about this to us. This was no hooky spooky ghost or something imagined by my daughter’s friend out of fear of death. This was a person with the mind of a scientist witnessing something beautiful and wondrous being the sphere of human imagination.
You can doubt us if you like. Or you can wonder aloud to yourself if what we see day by day is everything we can possibly know. There’s more than one way to go naturally, you see.
A few months before my wife died her own father died in a hospital bed. My wife raised herself from a cancer surgery two days after recovery and we made the trek to visit her father. The look they exchanged upon greeting each other was beyond the realm of language to describe. It was an eternal connection, something made from the fabric of time itself. A few days later, having seen that his own daughter had survived her surgery, her father passed into eternity itself.
And this past week my father died of ultimately natural causes. He was a stroke survivor for thirteen years. His four sons all visited him the last week of his life, and when his youngest had made a visit to the hospital one more time, my father passed quietly into death that afternoon.
The hospital called to tell me the news and I made the trip up to sit with my father in his room. I had a good, long cry at his bedside before kneeling down to say the Lord’s Prayer. He was no longer a praying man himself, I think he would have told you. But he said many prayers in other ways over the years.
Which leaves more than one more child to carry on. To go naturally is the greatest gift of all. Even if there are bumps and sways and difficult operations along the way, in the end we all go naturally. Death is part of life. It teaches and it cajoles. It offers us an ending to consider, one that we may try to write a little differently, and delay indefinitely, but it will come eventually.
Let’s admit this is not a bad thing. The enigmatic lead character in the movie the Green Mile is both blessed and cursed to live on, perhaps into eternity, watching his loved ones and found ones all pass away before him. He cannot go naturally into the night. He is given a glimpse of the burden of God and Christ himself. There is great love in that, but also a burden to care.
Which is why people speak of going to their final resting place. A good rest will often do you good. We may not know what comes in the great beyond, but what we know of getting there is enhanced by the fact of our very ephemeral being. It is ours to go naturally through our days, and love life in every way we can along the way.
The morning that my son Evan was born was both a great joy and a tremendous relief. My wife had gone through fifteen hours of labor contractions every three minutes. He came into this world around 7:00 a.m. on October 30, 1986.
The thrill of having your first child is complemented by the arrival of the second. Our daughter Emily arrived around 9:00 p.m. on a warm April 26, 1990. That delivery rushed along so fast that we needed to call friends and family to watch our son when we rushed off to the hospital on the heels of a spicy Mexican meal a few hours earlier.
The pain and humor of fatherhood is never-ending. Your children grow up so fast that it is the small moments you accumulate in your mind that constitute being a father or mother.
I remember one late afternoon when the sun was falling through the front window of our tiny Geneva home. My daughter was crawling around on the bare floor chewing on a flexible teething ring. The sun was bouncing off the floor and struck her blue eyes. I raced for my film camera and snapped off a few photos before the sun went down. Later when I showed those photos to a friend she quietly murmured. “Her eyes look like cracked glass.”
I also recall the first word of my son. He was sitting on the back porch with my wife who often held him in her lap and pointed to flowers and other natural items around the yard. A small sparrow landed beneath their feet and my wife said to Evan, “Bird.” And he repeated the word, “Bird.” He was six months old.
In fact word games became a big part of all our lives. On our way home from grandma’s house one December, we drove through Geneva where the Christmas lights were blazing and Evan had a question for us both. “What’s the word, ‘wreath?”
He was always asking questions about language. We laughed years later when he admitted that he never knew what we were talking about when referring to Forced Preserves. That would be ‘forest preserves.” As Emily Latella might say, “Never mind.”
With Emily it was always the purpose of language and song that mattered. We have a wonderful video of her in a pink ballerina dress practicing a Disney song. If the words did not come out just right she would stop and huff in frustration. Then she’d begin again. But you dared not interrupt her either. This was her challenge to complete and she did not want help recalling or repeating the words. That was her job, and hers alone.
It is true that the character of your children emerges early and lives in their core their whole lives. Through creative means we learn how they think and believe and play. But it is through their character that we really know them.
Sometimes as a father of adult children I want desperately to know what they are really thinking. It is of course easy to dwell on our personal failings as a parent. When a child calls and the phone call ends, you wonder to yourself, “Did I give them what they need? Was I enthusiastic to their purpose? Am I being a good father to them?”
Those questions surface more frequently in absence of the mother that raised them. I know they miss their mother because she was superb at saying the right things when they called. I listened to hundreds of conversations over the years. Her attention to their needs was superb.
But these questions exist whether someone is alive or gone to another place. All it takes is a missed phone call in this life to get behind in our relationships. While modern technology is great, and we see each other on Facebook and catch up by phone when we can, there is a strange back-pressure that comes from so much attenuation to communication. If you’re not careful, the pressures of communication can become an undertow. That’s true for all of us, and with everyone.
It’s important as a father to remember that your family needs their own space as well. So much of my own children’s upbringing was done by other adults and friends in life that I cannot claim all the facets of their character as my own. Those summers that my son spent over at a friend’s house building forts and beating each other up with floats in a tiny pool were critical in the formation of his personality. A father simply cannot provide all that input. That friendship. That love. It has to come from other sources too. The same goes for my daughter and those concert trips with her friends. It’s not the same if your father’s standing around at a concert. That has to be experienced on your own, and with your own community.
I do know that many parents struggle to know their full roles. When I encouraged my daughter as a teenager to invite the bands she’d met at concerts to crash at our house overnight during a tour, it was not always with permission of my wife.
Yet I knew the importance and resonance of that connection because where else in the world would you encounter such amazing people in a close circumstance?
The morning she woke up to find a fantastic group of musicians sitting around her bedroom singing and playing guitar could never be replicated again. Later she leveraged her musical connections to recruit the group Goldhouse to play at her graduation party. The band was about to embark on a concert series called Warped Tour. Their set was polished and when the first notes of the first song rocked through our oversized basement with 60+ people crammed into that space, people shrieked in amazement. My son turned to me in wonder and joy, shouting, “Ohhhh Myyyy Godddddd!” It was fantastic. And it was ours to share with our friends and the world.
It is our job as parents and especially fathers to support our families any way we can. Yet it was the morning after a long drive down to Illinois State University that made me realize the ultimate role of a father. We had left late the night before because my son was involved in a school play. Leaving at 10 p.m., we made it to the Interstate just as a deep fog settled over central Illinois. As the fog thickened, my son nodded off in the seat beside me. I focused on the tail light ahead of me for a couple hours until we pulled into the hotel parking lot. I turned to him and asked, “Were you at all nervous about the fog?”
“I decided to go to sleep,” he said matter-of-factly. “I figured if I woke up dead it didn’t matter.”
We chuckled about that and piled into the hotel to catch a few hours of sleep. He was excited to rise early and join his friends for the student state government convention he’d been invited to attend. We exchanged quick greetings and a partial hug. Then he walked confidently down the hall without turning back. I watched him go and realized that I’d helped raise a reasonably confident son. That made me proud. Yet is also made me feel alone. That’s fatherhood in a nutshell.
It hasn’t been easy for our family in a number of ways over the years. Yet my children have told me that they appreciated the stability and love found in our home. As parents perhaps we were sometimes a little too lenient in making them do chores. Yet our children were involved in positive things that occupied their time. There was plenty of time in life to learn chores it seemed. Many times they’d come home to tell of us some onerous task they’d just done for someone else’s parents. We’d laugh and confess, “Well, at least they’re learning responsibility somewhere.”
In the wake of my wife’s death I elected to begin dating and have been in a relationship now for two years with a woman named Sue that appreciates the legacy of my wife and respects my children. I try to do the same for her. Now her daughter is an intern with the magazine where my daughter is managing editor. We are an evolving family. Our lives have converged and convened in positive ways. We spend time together with my mother-in-law and other relatives. My wife’s best friend confided to me last year that my wife said she knew that I would date after she was gone. I thanked that friend for sharing that insight. This is not about forgetting my late wife. It is about companionship and love and supporting each other and our families.
It troubles me sometimes that so many people fail to grasp the value of loving relationships wherever they occur. This obsessive absorption with the idea of a “traditional family” is so lame and disaffecting it should be trampled underfoot by the crowd of people truly seeking love in this world. Aren’t we all sick and tired of the loss of love in this world? Can’t we dispense with the angry ideology that emanates from this selective reading of the Bible and its ugly byproducts.
After all, it was the literalistic approach to scripture that was used to justify slavery for years, and racial discrimination for the century after that. Long ago it generated crusades over faith and then helped lead to the death of millions of Jews through anti-Semitism. The rigid practice of patriarchal faith still foments a disturbingly immature view of women as property. Biblical literalism fuels an ignorant brand of politics that denies science and the educational process that goes with it. In the face of so much ignorant history why do we still even listen to people whining about “traditional marriage” based on a religious view that is clearly anachronistic and damaging to society?
Parenting skills and simple tools
Into this social void we wade… while wondering what the next generation will bring. Some people seem to worry that this generation of children is irresponsible and somehow lacking in important social skills. As a father that has met dozens of my children’s Millennial friends, I do not share that worry. I know their character because they helped raise my own children. I see great hope in a generation that cares not what race a person is. I see love in the fact that they don’t care if someone is gay or not. I (somewhat radically it appears) think this generation of so-called Millennials has an etiquette and a respect for self and others that older generations are simply failing to grasp.
For example, I know now to occasionally text my son or daughter if I’m going to call them. Why? Because it’s not always appropriate to answer you cell phone, but you can handle a quiet text to call later. If they’re occupied I don’t get voice mail. And quite often they’re occupied with other tasks and cannot take a call. There’s no imposition there.
That might seem like an affront to some. But as a father I look at it from a completely different perspective. I respect my children as well as love them. It simply makes sense to try to understand their social constructs and not impose mine on them. As a society we seem to have migrated toward this world where holding people at a disadvantage is considered something of a power chip and a point of pride. But it’s the wrong kind of pride. Barking about how millennials are poorly trained and communicate differently is not a sign of maturity. It is a sign of emotional immaturity and selfishness.
The right kind of pride is taking the time to examine why people react the way they do to the demands of social pressure, communications and opportunity. I think Millennials have evolved a patent way to accord each other respect. It’s the blunderbuss of a generation that complains about entitlement and then acts like they’re entitled to have everyone do things their way or the Old-Fashioned Way that is hopelessly out of touch. But that’s no surprise in a society where Winner-Take-All is now the social style of both politicians and the religious. It’s no wonder Millennials are running from politics and the church. Would you stick around to listen if people were sending their message in ALL CAPS ALL THE TIME?
Father’s Day lessons
It seems the real lesson we need to learn on something so familiar as Father’s Day is this: parenting is not a one-way street. It’s a partnership and a revelation as well as a responsibility.
The ultimate vision of a Father is that of God. And if we’re wise we also recognize that God doesn’t just want obedience and contrition from the human race. There’s a relationship there as well. God the Father, if that’s how you prefer to visualize the ultimate form of love, is basically wondering how we’re doing. He wants to know. Sometimes it’s the smallest moments and the smallest things that matter. If you cease paying attention and miss those, then life is not so abundant as you might like.
And that’s the real message of Father’s Day.
Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride, Character, Caregiving and Community, which chronicles the journey of his family through cancer survivorship. It is available on Amazon.com.
This coming Wednesday, March 4th I am speaking about the subject of loss for Lenten Services at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. I have already met with the Pastor to orient the discussion, which will center on how our family dealt with the loss of my wife due to cancer. So the topic is fully on my mind.
Last night I woke up at 2:00 with thoughts rolling through my head. I grabbed my iPhone and entered them into the Notes app. If you don’t write these thoughts down somewhere it’s so easy to forget what they are.
This was stream of consciousness stuff, so it’s not grammatically correct. Not even complete sentences. In some respects it’s better that way.
Sometimes your gain is your loss (hiding cancer) and your loss is your gain (blessings from caregiving and community). Blessed to be a blessing to others. Loss of activity. Loss of identity. Careful to recognize loss of hope. Blessings are miracles in real time versus miracles out of time.
Here’s what it all this means.
I have a friend whose husband had cancer and chose to hide it from everyone for two years. She was imprisoned in this world where he suffered through treatments and she could not talk about it to anyone. His concerns over his own vulnerability were what motivated him. He did not want to be seen as a cancer patient. This approach was actually part of a larger pattern of controlling behavior stemming from his unwillingness to accept the very real fact of his underlying depression. His “gain” in protecting himself from outside scrutiny was actually a loss in terms of letting others truly help him and their family. That made it all the tougher for my friend to endure.
How different (and difficult) that approach was compared to choosing to share your burdens with others. The very first week my wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer one of her friends (actually her boss) reached out to our family. We were so grateful to have that support. To her enormous credit this woman guided us through multiple rounds of treatment and needs over the next eight years. That was a gift that can never be repaid.
At times the blessings of that care were so great we felt compelled to share our blessings with others. That opened up channels of communication for people who confided in us. Some of these needs were simple. People actually apologized for expressing concerns about their situation. “I know my troubles are nothing compared to what you’re going through,” they’d often begin. “But I’m worried…”
Worry is almost always over losing something in our lives. We worry that we might lose our jobs with an illness or other difficulty. We worry about losing money. We worry about losing friends or relationships. We worry about losing the respect, trust or love of our friends and family members. The feeling of loss in our lives is almost constant. We’re always losing something, aren’t we? And we worry about it.
Recovering from loss
There’s a great passage in the Bible where a woman loses a coin and tears her house apart trying to find it. When she does recover the coin she calls her friends together to celebrate. That’s a metaphor for how God feels about lost souls. There is a universal tie that binds us when it comes to loss of spirit. We even speak of “losing our way” in life. That feeling of being lost and knowing loss is most difficult to transcend. Some people never pull free. They live with the feeling they are losing the battle. God doesn’t want us to live that way.
But even if you are not religious, there is sustaining hope in the very fact of life. You are here. You exist. You are the miraculous product of billions of years of evolution. You have free will. The choices you make do matter. You can choose to live in accord with all of human life and all of nature.
I choose to draw strength from both those scenarios. For me, the defining unity between God and material reality is love. It’s a very real thing, you know. It exists. It does great things. It sustains hope and heals wounds both physical and material. And as far as I can tell, God is love.
It is what it is
In our case we objectified our losses to gain some grasp of where the blessings still abided. Our phrase was “It is what it is,” That meant the cancer. The treatments. The loss of activities and joy in life. All that constituted loss
Cancer even caused us to lose insurance. Lose jobs.
But we never lost hope. That was the one thing we refused to lose.
Identifying with hope
Ultimately my wife lost her life to cancer. But she never lost her identity in the journey toward that moment. She retained her character. Refined it, in fact. At times it was something to witness. At other times it was something to support, encourage and even cajole. It was not always easy.
When she lay in bed after dying I touched her lips and told her that I was very proud of her. Hence the title of this blog and my book about our survivorship journey. The Right Kind of Pride.
We’d seen miracles in our lives together. These were not miracles that necessarily broke the laws of nature. But they were miracles of love and beneficial consequence. Favors of love and care that transcended expectations. Money that arrived through gifts when we desperately needed it. All sorts of things transpired that left us in grateful, happy tears.
So you can see why that stream of consciousness at 2:00 in the morning feels rather profound. It may seem jumbled in the cold light of day. In fact it is clear that loss is real, but you can thrive in the face of it. We all must do that, for loss is everywhere. From small objects to entire dreams, hope and loss stand in delicate balance. Choose not to lose hope and loss becomes something you can handle.
Sometimes life does not seem fair. We still need to take responsibility and pride in our hope when facing difficult circumstances. Then loss does not possess us.
The little brick bungalow in which our family lived for 10 years when the kids were little had only 750 square feet of living space. The house was cute, in other words, but not spacious. It also had one bathroom. That meant that when repairs were needed it took some planning to make it happen without putting everyone in jeopardy.
The tub was old and we hired some contractor to coat it with some form of material popular at the time. The wall tile needed to be replaced as well. The vanity was rickety. The toilet was too. Even the floor tile was due for a change.
I scheduled the entire makeover for a single weekend. It was an ambitious plan for sure. My wife and kids went to grandma’s house from Friday through Sunday night. It was just me and the bathroom for the weekend.
The work went well. It was all planned out in my head. The wall tile was tough to do because the plaster came loose from the backing. That meant a major patchup with wallboard compound was necessary. I never knew whether that was advisable, but it worked. That’s what counts around the house. It worked.
The sink and vanity and toilet came out and the floor tile was torn up. Underneath were rotted floorboards. A quick trip to the lumber store fixed those, and a lot of nails.
Now that the entire bathroom was stripped down it was late at night. Midnight to be exact. I’d worked solid for 14 hours and was pretty tired. And then it hit me. I really had to go to the bathroom. Number two. There was no toilet now. Just a dark hole in a flat floor.
That was a humbling situation, but I made it happen. It struck me that for thousands of years in human history this is how people got it done. One way or another, it all came down to one thing. Squat and go. No need to flush. No modern plumbing. Just a lone sole over a dark hole.
The next morning it was time to put in the wall tile and the floor tile. That took a few hours. The grout was done on the wall while the floor set. Then I put the seal down for the new toilet and put the new bowl into place. Like Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway I stood back and admired the modern contraption that plumbing really represents. All that to take care of our excrement. The world really is a humbling, confusing place at times.
All this work had to be done with care to avoid bumping into the new sealant on the tub, which was sprayed into place and therefore delicate for the first 48 hours.
It all got finished at exactly the moment my children came running back into the house yelling, “Daddy can we see the new bathroom!” Of course they also used it right way. That first flush of the toilet made me proud. Same with the working faucet on the sink. My wife walked in and said, “Is it safe?”
I secretly laughed but assured her that everything had worked out well. I shared the “poop in the dark hole” story and she just shook her head. No need for details, she told me. We all did our business while I kept reminding them to walk gingerly on the new floor. The grout was barely dry. But it held.
That’s not really a good way to do a bathroom makeover. It’s a simple truth that necessity demands a combination of determination and humility at times. The rewards of success outweigh the tough moments of personal doubt. In the end, that’s the right kind of pride.
Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride, a chronicle of cancer survivorship and facing life challenges in a positive way. It is available on Amazon.com.