Painful Anniversaries, Part 2: Birthdays

chris-at-age-2Remembering my brother is not an option for me. Rarely does a day go by that I don’t wonder how he would look, what he would be doing, who he would be impacting, what kind of prank he would be playing on a friend or unsuspecting acquaintance. Celebrating his birthday is one of those days that cannot be overlooked, despite wondering if others think it is weird or creepy to celebrate the birth of someone who has died. At this point, I really don’t care what anyone thinks. In the short fourteen years he served as my brother, his part significantly impacted who I am, and I can’t forget that. Ever.

first-family-photo

I have a feeling he would rather have had a brother, but that didn’t stop him from teaching me to read before I entered Kindergarten. He brought home the old Dick and Jane books and took the time to tutor me.

holding-my-hand-at-the-lake

He broke his arm one summer and wore a cast, but that didn’t stop him from holding tightly to my hand at the edge of the lake while our family was on vacation.

He didn’t have to take me out sledding one snowy day when all his friends were sick, but that didn’t stop him from borrowing their runner sled, telling me not to go down the hill by myself, then yelling at me because he cared when I did so, only to cut open my forehead as I slid under the barbed-wire fence at the bottom of the hill.

chris-and-vicky-portraitHe didn’t want me playing with his toys when he wasn’t around, but that didn’t stop him from inviting me to his room for hours on Sunday afternoons to build Hot Wheels barricades (from C batteries, toy car tires, popsicle sticks, and army men) and watch the cars crash them or laugh as the cats chased them down the track.

He didn’t allow me to play his records, but it didn’t stop him from playing them for me, despite the damage I could have caused him had I mentioned to our parents that he was the reason I knew all the words to the songs on a Carpenters’ album.

He didn’t have a lot of money to buy me birthday gifts, but that didn’t stop him from giving me just what I wanted: a shipping box with a string tied around it that he quickly cut with his switchblade to let out his cat’s kitten. (He loved animals so much, I think he just secretly wanted to keep one and that was the only way Mom would let him.)

He didn’t have to tell me what was going on with him, but that didn’t stop him from sharing how much it hurt him to spend so much time working and studying (because he thought it was expected of him) to not be able to join his classmates in sports and fun activities.

He didn’t have to have me in his wedding, but that didn’t stop him from asking me himself, even though his bride-to-be wanted the same thing.

He didn’t have to spend his money to give me a fabulously fun 14th birthday, but that didn’t stop him, even when he wouldn’t ride some of the rides because he struggled with motion sickness.

He didn’t have to take me to school on his motorcycle when he stayed with us just weeks before his accident, but that didn’t stop him from making his little sister feel like a million bucks riding up on campus with her very handsome big brother.

He didn’t have to be a friend or show kindness to those who felt less-than, but that didn’t stop him from loving the underdog and wanting them to feel like someone cared.

Today he would be 60 years old. And he is not forgotten. In his 20 short years, he impacted far more than most people do in three times that many. I only hope to live my life to show that a life cut short was not in vain. To impact the world in his memory and make him proud to have had a little sister. Today I celebrate Christopher Alan Boggs.

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Painful Anniversaries, Part 1: Accidents

calendar1Difficult memories have a way of punching me in the face, each year over and over, and this year is no different. Occasionally, it’s been because I just look up and see the date, like an unexpected but automatic explanation of why I’m emotional or why the day just went chaotic. Other times, like this year, the significance of the number of years has been on my mind for weeks.

Chris was just one week shy of age 20 when the accident happened, experiencing his birthday unconscious and hooked up to all kinds of tubes and machines. He’s been gone twice as long as he was alive. In reality, it was a lifetime ago. And yet it feels like only a few years. As if I were able to see and speak to him today, and things would be no different. He would still tease me mercilessly. And then hug me as if he would never let go.

I was only 14, and just beginning to not be the “stupid little sister.” He had only moved away from home earlier in the year to work and save money for his wedding. He wrote me letters addressed “Stoogehead,” which I still have safely filed away in a drawer. He gave me the ultimate gift in asking me to be in his wedding that summer. He was the first to introduce me to the “big kid” amusement park, King’s Island, for my 14th  birthday less than two months before. (Oh, how I wish there were photos for proof of how special it was for me.)

The news of the accident reached me late in the evening, just before the lights-out bell in the dorm. My family had gone to a state park to celebrate his birthday a week early, but since school had just started, and friends had just returned from the summer, I chose to bunk in the dorm room with my best friend, who is still like a sister to me. I heard my name over the intercom, requesting that I go to the office. (Getting called to the office wasn’t unusually strange for me, except that the school year had barely started and it was 9:00 P.M.) I walked down the stairs and outside to the other building thinking, “Something happened to Chris.” I’m not sure why, but somehow I knew.

The two staff members who told me that Chris had been hurt didn’t know the exact details or how critical the situation was, but told me that he was being transported to a larger hospital. I waited to allow the tears until I left their presence, thinking, “If I cry when I don’t know how bad it is, they’ll think I’m stupid. But I want to cry because I don’t know how bad it is,” knowing that it might be hours or days before learning details other than second-hand. Fortunately, I had friends with comforting shoulders to listen and soak up my tears and even cry alongside me. Morning came, and the school president announced in chapel that his condition was critical, and I shed more tears, wondering how I would make it through a day of classes and get anything from them. During my first hour English, I was summoned from class to ride the 85 miles to the hospital, sobbing most of the way, or trying to shield my eyes from the sun that now just seemed to set them on fire. Arriving at the ICU and seeing this nearly 6 ft. tall, strong, healthy guy breathing only to the tune of the respirator was surreal and unimaginable.  His skull was fractured and he had a blood clot on his brain, I was told. How could this be? Why couldn’t it be me instead of him?

Today, September 17th, marks 40 years since that accident that resulted in the death of my older brother, my only sibling, Chris. It isn’t an event to be celebrated, but it’s there. On the calendar. Showing up year after year. Seared into the memory like a brand that won’t be overlooked. A scar that has healed, but is ugly and can’t be unseen. I want to ignore it, but it won’t be ignored.

Invitation to Your Life

Today I had the privilege of speaking to a group of more than 50 men who have worked hard to complete a substance abuse treatment program inside the local jail, 14 of whom were my direct clients. Many would wash their hands of the chemically-dependent, writing them off as the lowest of society. However, they are sons, brothers, and fathers, and I’m honored to hear their stories and help them see there is hope for a different future. This is what I said to them:

“I am currently reading a book called Love Does by Bob Goff. He writes short anecdotal stories that he relates to the action of love rather than love as a feeling.

One story was particularly interesting to me as I read it and thought of you all and the work you’ve been doing to change. He calls the chapter, There’s More Room, and says, “I used to think I needed an invitation to get into most places, but now I know I’m already invited.”

The shortened version goes like this:

He explains that he has been to the White House to visit on numerous occasions, especially around Easter because of the “swanky” Easter egg hunt happening on the White House lawn, but has never been invited to it. His family would show up and hide eggs along the fence that separates those on the “inside” from the rest of us. They’d dress up and pretend to be part of the “distinguished gathering.” He was always tempted to roll an egg under the fence to see if guys in suits might tackle him and talk into their sleeves. They would use a small area to hide eggs, so they were easy to spot, but his kids were young and probably just thought they were experts at finding eggs. He wanted them to know they were included in important things, that they belonged, that they were invited.

There are lots of events he never got invited to – the Oscars, Paul McCartney’s birthday party, or a space shuttle launch. If he did get one, even to the White House Easter egg hunt, he would definitely go. There is nothing like feeling included. He says there is only one invitation it would kill him to refuse, yet is tempted to turn down regularly. All of us get the invitation every morning to wake up and actually live a life of complete engagement, of whimsy, a life where love does. The invitation doesn’t come in an envelope. It’s ushered in by the sunrise, the sound of a bird, or the smell of coffee. It’s the invitation to actually live, to fully participate in this amazing life every day. Nobody turns down an invitation to the White House, but plenty of you have been turning down the invitation to truly live.

Turning down this invitation looks different to all of us. It could be using a chemical substance or any other number of addictive actions to numb some painful experience or memory. Someone called us a name or put a label on us, and we believe we aren’t worthy of the invitation. It could be distracting ourselves from seeing what isn’t normal because we have not been prepared to deal with it appropriately. It can also look like refusing to forgive or not being grateful for what we have or being chained to fear or envy. It could be fear of reconnecting with a friend because it’s been too long and we are ashamed to have allowed so much time to come between us. It could be that our friends have been participating for years and we’re ashamed to show up late.

We receive an invitation to live each day and sometimes we forget to show up because we’re just tired or have convinced ourselves that we weren’t invited. But we are invited. Every day. Over and over again. When you don’t show up, others will. And yet there is still room for you.

Two things happen when we accept the invitation to participate in life.

  1. Obstacles and hurdles that seem insurmountable aren’t. Things we believe disqualify us don’t.
  2. It’s contagious. Others watch and see that life is amazing, and start believing the invitation is open to them as well. There IS room for them, too.

So, you’ve spent about 18 weeks here, clearing your mind and your body of chemicals that are capable of damaging your body. Understanding that the choices you made are not who you are. Opening your eyes to the opportunities that are yours. This place is not a place to live your life. But this is a place to start again. This is your invitation to truly live a life of engagement. To fully participate in the work of showing up. Time to show up for the real party called life. Welcome to your amazing life.”

In reality, these words were not only for the graduates. Much of the content was also directed at me, as a reminder that I need not wait around for the perfect storm to put things in motion. I must get moving, taking each small step after another to create the life I want.

Goff, B. (2012). Love does: Discover a secretly incredible life in an ordinary world. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.