When the Good Memories Outweigh the Grief: Tools of the Trade

more-toolsSix years ago, I wrote this letter, wiping the tears away after each line. Missing my dad and his goofy jokes, his heart for people, his beautiful tenor voice.

“Dear Dad,                                                                      1/7/11

Today would have been your 82nd birthday. It’s hard to believe you’ve been gone almost 10 years. Just thought I’d jot down the memories that have been playing through my mind today. From stories of your childhood, pranks you pulled in high school, lame and over-used jokes, to your tender heart for those experiencing troubles, you touched many with humor and love.

I experienced so many things because you felt strongly about showing Chris and me the world.  Many times we vacationed in places where significant time walking caused your legs to shake in pain all night, preventing sleep. Never did that hinder you from taking us to visit more beautiful and exciting places the next time, even enduring the long lines to the wild rides at King’s Island.

Your love of music has not been lost on me. I remember hearing you yell from the other room for me to stop singing and go to sleep. I was only four or five, but quoted the words from Redeemed, “I sing for I cannot be silent.” You tried to hold back a smile, but I knew you were proud that your love of music was in my heart. When I played in a recital or sang in church, no matter how many mistakes I made, you thought I was perfect. I’m not sure I can ever listen to someone else tune a piano without missing you.

I remember riding along in the big trucks with you to pick up gravel, lumber, hay from Ohio, or Sunday evenings on the bus transporting college students who were anxious about the narrow bridge across the river. “Just close your eyes like I do,” was your reassuring retort that brought laughs from some and nervous looks from others. Were you surprised when I got my CDL and drove a school bus?

When I made mistakes or bad choices, I knew you were disappointed, but you never stopped loving me. So many times you could have said you tried to warn me, but you didn’t. You weren’t perfect, and you never claimed to be, but your example showed me that nothing can separate me from God’s love.

Losing Chris changed you, as it did all of us, but in that most painful time of your life, when anger towards God might have been justified, you leaned on Him even more. Singing in The Messiah was something I looked forward to as a child, but the reality of it was even better. Watching tears stream down your face while you directed ‘Surely He has born our grief and carried our sorrow’ was evidence of your faith. Anyone who had any feelings couldn’t sing half-heartedly, knowing that you knew firsthand what grief and sorrow felt like. You always said you wanted to direct a choir of angels singing The Hallelujah Chorus when you got to heaven. I like to imagine you’re doing just that.

These are the things you taught me: Love God with every ounce of energy. Laugh. Sing. Love family. Laugh. Sing. Love people. Laugh. Sing. Serve others. Laugh. Sing. Be honest. Laugh. Sing. Work hard. Laugh. Sing. Enjoy coffee.

When I shared with your one-and-only granddaughter your story of fighting God’s call to preach because you wanted to be famous as a pianist, she said, “But Mom, Grandpa was famous.” She knows that you have touched, moved, and inspired students who are ministering for God around the world.

You live on in my heart!

Cheers! (With a cup of coffee, of course!)”

There is so much more to what he taught me, especially the coffee part, and one of those lessons smacked me in the face today. While it is unusual to have damp weather here in the desert, we have recently had plenty of rain. Consequently, my front door swelled a bit and was sticking, making it difficult to open, particularly for my mother. I finally remembered a DIY fix for the situation I learned from my dad, and stopped by my local hardware to look for some graphite powder. While I was browsing the store, I realized that my dad’s piano tuning tool kit (that I barely saved from being passed outside the family after dad passed) probably still had some, so I headed home.

Opening that case brought back a flood of memories like a forty-foot swell on a stormy ocean. It traveled to Papua New Guinea three times for dad to repair pianos for missionaries, completely funded by gifts from people who loved him. (One of those times, I got to go along and help him re-string the bass section of a piano and sing along with him in services.) It moved to Arizona with him when he left his beloved Kentucky mountains to retire and live near his one-and-only granddaughter. It probably recognized many of the curvy mountain roads, and I recognized the many familiar tools and the many spare parts he had saved because he would need them sometime. (I came by my hoarding issue naturally.)

As you can see in the photo above, the tuning fork is worn from more than 50 years of use. The mutes and felt strips, the tuning hammer have not been touched in years. The tool he designed and had made to more easily insert the cork straps, the clamp to reapply ivory on keys, the worn out sandpaper paddle are all idle. And there was the small black and blue oil applicator with graphite powder.

I smiled and remembered all the times I dutifully watched and learned as he worked his craft with pride in a job well done. And I felt grateful, and loved, and proud. More than the grief.

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Painful Anniversaries Part 4: Funerals

chris-graveIt was the coldest, greyest day I’ve ever experienced. Maybe because my heart felt like a stone. In one of the most beautiful settings in the country, a rustic chapel nestled in the lush mountains, an event so sorrowful occurred. Like an oxymoron. While it might be easier at this point to call it a celebration of life, when the life was taken at such a young age, in the moment, it didn’t feel like celebration. At all.

My cousin’s beautiful bass voice rang out in a touching song. My strong, but tender-hearted uncle choked back emotion to speak about my brother and offer words of comfort for our family. If I remember correctly, he said that God wanted Chris with Him because He saw  how special he was. He quoted Isaiah 6:1,”In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.” I’m not sure I understood how he was relating it to the situation at the time. Now it makes more sense.

Sleep overtook me on the 2-hour ride to the cemetery. It was the next hill over from our home and could be seen from our dining room window. Probably not the best choice, but no one plans ahead for the burial of a 20-year-old. It was a 15-minute walk and ended up being a place of solace for me through the years, but that day it was agonizing.

Much of the day, again, is a silent video playing in my head. A few details still comfort me:

  • I walked out of the chapel alone after saying my goodbyes and leaving my parents and sister-in-love to say theirs. I walked down the steps wondering if I could even survive the day, much less a lifetime without Chris. Just a few feet away stood my oldest cousin and his wife with open arms that grabbed and held me tightly under their umbrella, shielding me from the rain. Great love can be shown and felt during great trauma.
  • I don’t ever remember seeing so many flowers at a funeral, sent by people whose lives had been touched by my family. They also expressed their sympathy in writing, evidenced by the stack of cards for my parents. I received two that were just for me: one from my English teacher and the other signed by each of my classmates. Somehow they got misplaced over the years, but I wish I still had them. I don’t know if they knew exactly how special those cards were.
  • I was recently reminded that some of my schoolmates made a point to attend the funeral that day. I wish I could say that I had remembered that over the years, but I didn’t until prompted. I guess my grief clouded a few details, but I hope they know how much it means to know they were there even now.

It seemed like the longest day of my life. Had my circumstances been different, I could have easily been the high school dropout, or turned to any of a variety of behaviors to fill the void. Just days later, I told one of Chris’ friends that I didn’t want to live. And I didn’t. But God. The first time I heard Britt Nicole sing this song, I sobbed like that 14-year-old girl who just lost her only sibling, but I was also reminded of Who has been beside me all this time.

“I remember the moment
I remember the pain
I was only a girl
But I grew up that day
Tears were falling
I know You saw me

Hiding there in my bedroom
So alone
I was doing my best
Trying to be strong
No one to turn to
That’s when I met You

All this time
From the first tear cry
To today’s sunrise
And every single moment between
You were there
You were always there
It was You and I
You’ve been walking with me all this time

Ever since that day
it’s been clear to me
That no matter what comes
You will never leave
I know You’re for me
And You’re restoring

Every heartache and failure
Every broken dream
You’re the God who sees
The God who rescued me
This is my story
This is my story

I hear these people asking me
How do I know what I believe?
Well I’m not the same me
And I saw the proof I need
I felt Love I felt Your grace
You stole my heart that day

You’ve been walkin’ with me all this time

All this time
From the first tear cry
To today’s sunrise
And every single moment between
You were there
You were always there
It was You and I
You’ve been walking with me all this time”1

I want to live every day to honor Chris’ memory, to make sure his death is not in vain. A friend told me this week that I am a survivor. And I am. But I don’t want to only survive. I want to thrive. Allowing myself to be vulnerable and write is the best way I’ve found to do that. Because others have been vulnerable before me and helped me grow.

1 Written by David Arthur Garcia, Benjamin Glover, Brittany Waddell • Copyright © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group

Painful Anniversaries Part 3: Death Notices

calendar1I was awakened early when the phone rang at approximately 0500 that morning. It was right outside my bedroom door. My parents had come home from the hospital the previous evening to shower, rest, and do laundry before returning to stay by my brother’s bedside in the ICU 85 miles away. Given the situation, it couldn’t be good news that early. I could hear my dad’s shaking voice as he responded to the call. His weeping indicated the broken heart of a father at the loss of his son. My mom’s tears joined in like an awful, discordant tune. As the tears began to form, she entered my room and sat on the edge of my bed. “You’re an only child now,” she said, but I already knew. For the longest time I wondered why she gave me the news that way. I suppose it’s extremely painful to say the words, “Chris is dead,” when Chris is your son. Is there any good way to say it?

Just a short time later, a colleague of my parents showed up to drive us to the hospital and to gather with other family to plan a funeral. A funeral for a 20-year-old taken too soon. Dad sobbed most of the trip – that kind of sob that shakes the body. I was sitting by the window, begging God not to take him, too, because I was certain that his heartbreak was going to cause a heart attack.  There was talk of concern for my grandmother’s hearing the news and a plan to ensure that she had family or even a physician available. She had been a big part of Chris’ early years while my parents lived on their property as they finished college. Life was unraveling in slow motion.

We spent most of the day at my grandparent’s house, and I will always be grateful for the presence of my aunt, uncle, and older cousins. They were a force of nature, bringing calm strength to the chaos of emotions while the “arrangements” were planned. I’m fairly certain that all of us were hanging on by a thread just to survive. Other details are a blur, but I still have a silent movie of the day that runs in my head. No voices. Just pictures of sitting on Grandma’s front porch swing, a seemingly insignificant item, but in reality, a huge source of comfort due to its familiarity.

chris-at-age-20It was today. October 5th, 1976. Not a year has gone by that the emotions of that day don’t come to mind. There aren’t always tears that accompany, and the wound isn’t raw, but the scar is still there, and sometimes a glance at its ugliness is overwhelming. Why us? Why me? Why did I, with only one sibling, have to be left alone? But if I had to pick one of my friends to experience a similar loss, I couldn’t do it.

When I hear the first verse of Cry Out to Jesus by Third Day, my throat tightens up and my heart leaks from my eyes. And I’m reminded that I always have someone who hears my cries. Who dries my tears. He is the Ultimate Comforter.

I don’t write to gain sympathy. I write to process and relieve the pain in a way that gives freedom for someone else who is grieving, no matter the length of time, to understand that each of us handles it differently. It may get less intense or tears may become less frequent, but there is no statute of limitations on grief. I wish someone had informed me 40 years ago.

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.

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.