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
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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.

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.

Go For the Gold

Gold MedalI have never been, nor ever will be, Olympic athlete material. I suppose you could say that I live vicariously through world-renowned competitors, as I’m guessing many other folks do. I used to spend a significant amount of effort avoiding anything that resembled running or exercising, unless it had something to do with skating. I never had much exposure to water sports as a youth, so I have what you might consider a healthy fear paranoia when it comes to water I can’t see through and might contain critters. That is the main reason I made sure my daughter was exposed to water at a very early age. At age 5, she became a little fish, and soon after helped me learn an appreciation for swimming competitions (despite the parent-sitting-beside-the-pool-in-extreme-temps-in-Arizona thing). The result has been a glued-to-the-tube-for-five-consecutive-summer-Olympic-games-watching-swimming thing, aka. Michael Phelps fan.

As I was watching the first of swimming trials over the weekend, I was struck by two very different, very meaningful moments. The first was this commercial for Liberty Mutual Insurance, where an athlete replies to the question about what it feels like to receive an Olympic medal. She explains that the medals earned are all around us. It made me stop and think about all the things I’ve accomplished or received because of my persistence. A home I can call my own (kinda), a vehicle to drive, a solid education that has resulted in a purposeful career, supportive friends and coworkers that encourage me along the way – all those deserve at least bronze or silver. And then there is my family, immediate and extended, including some forever friends who feel more like family. I definitely got the gold when they were placed in my life. And then there is my beautiful daughter – the hardest-fought battle was for her existence and continued as I endeavored to raise a responsible adult. She is the most precious gold medal. Did I make mistakes along the way? ABSOLUTELY. I had plenty of false starts, fell off the beam, or landed badly. Were there times I wanted to give up? ABSOLUTELY. But God put some silver and gold-medal friends to lift me up and carry me when my strength failed.

The second meaningful moment had to do with the Team America win in the Men’s 4×100 Freestyle relay. The win alone was huge and showed so much heart. But the best part was watching those four men on the podium receiving their gold medals while our National Anthem played. Seeing a young man sing along, get emotional, and not be able to hold back his tears was inspiring. In a world where so many are encouraged to suppress their emotions because shedding a tear will make them look weak, his humanness and vulnerability showed through. I got a little emotional watching the display, and thought, “That young man is proud of the work he did to get to that place, passionate about what he does, and proud of representing his country for all the world to see.” You can watch it here.

So …don’t spend time comparing your achievements to others’. Count up your own medals and value the things and friends and family you have in your life. Be passionate about what you do, cover your spot on the team, and enjoy the rewards with emotion that shows the effort was worth it. Go for the Gold. And if you go home with a silver or bronze, be confident that you did your best.

 

Happy Belated Mother’s Day

I know! I’m behind. I’m using the excuse that I have too much on my plate. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it. So … below is a letter I wrote to my mother on her birthday five years ago. Earlier that year, I wrote a letter to my dad on his birthday, nearly ten years after his passing. I decided that maybe I should also write to people still living, expressing gratitude for their impact on my life while they can realize the acknowledgement. Many things have changed in five years, but the acknowledgements are the same. Here goes…

Dear Mom,                                                                                                                                                           5/1/11

Today is your 78th birthday. It seems like just yesterday you were turning 40 and everyone was commenting on the fact that you didn’t look your age. Some things never change. People are still saying it. Just thought I’d write a few things that have been running through my mind. From tales of your experience on the farm in Ohio, your fights with your sister, to your sharing of your faith through art, you have touched many with your talent and consistent prayer life.

I saw so many things that showed me the beauty of God’s creation through the way you experienced color and light. From the early years, life was about expression through art. I mean, who else’s mom drew detailed farm animals or flowers to keep them occupied in church? I fell in love with creating things with my hands because of you and I still love putting things together. When I’m bored in a meeting, you will most likely find me practicing different letter fonts or sketching a posed hand.

You also loved music and have great talent. Combined with Dad’s talent, knowledge, and love of music, you have blessed many. Even today as I sang “His Name is Wonderful” with the worship team, I remembered the privilege I had of singing it with you both and fought back the emotion of a beautiful memory. When I hear you singing a hymn during your devotion time in the morning, I feel blessed to know that prayer is reaching heaven on my behalf every day.

I’m sure you remember my ‘helping’ skills sometime in 3rd or 4th grade. You were planning a party and wanted the house to be spotless. I was helping to dust and wanted to do such a good job to please you. I thought I was doing my best when I completely covered the piano with Old English Oil. You saw how oily it was and got frustrated, telling me that now you had more work to do trying to rub it off. I was broken-hearted and went to my room while you finished. I will never forget your coming to apologize and asking me to forgive you for raising your voice when I had not meant to cause more work. It’s the one thing I have tried my best to model as a mother, because I respected you so much more for admitting a mistake. I’ve had to apologize to Lindsay many times, and I know I earned her respect as well.

Life changed after losing Chris and I know you felt you had to be strong. You taught me that when life is tough and things look the bleakest, there is always strength in Jesus to go on. As I go to practice on Monday evenings and look around the room at your chalk pictures and wood burning, I feel honored to have seen Jesus through your eyes.

It hurts to know you are in such pain and unable to create like you used to, I wonder why God would take away the talent you exclusively used for Him. Then I realize that it is because you have used up all the talent He gave you, sharing it with many, and allowing Him to multiply its effects, rather than hoarding it out of fear.

Last but not least is your humorous side. You rarely told jokes because that was Dad’s thing, but the occasions when you let loose with the dry humor were the best! Never feel bad about our giggling session on the way to Dad’s funeral. He was already relieved of pain and I think he would have wanted us to be happy for him.

Love always,

Your Favorite Daughter

If you haven’t done it already, CALL YOUR MOM! Remind her that all the time and effort spent was worth it. And if you have a difficult relationship with your mom for whatever reason, find another mom-mentor and connect for the benefit of both.