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 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.

Universality: Strength in Numbers

love-in-any-language-is-the-same…Often it’s the smallest little detail shared that makes me realize I’m not alone in my struggles, nor can I overcome or move through them single-handedly. In this post from nearly a year ago, I wrote about stories – everyone has one, and all should be heard before instead of passing judgment. Stories are a significant part of keeping us connected with other human beings, reminding us that lessons can be learned from everything experienced in life. But relating to others’ stories is not the end-all for learning life lessons and feeling supported.

I provide my clients with a worksheet about the benefits and concepts of group work, because that is primarily the venue that is used in my position as a counselor. (It seems like group work was originally promoted for it’s financial benefit of serving more clients by using fewer resources. However, the more I facilitate groups, the more I see the other benefits as the most critical.) The worksheet lists various terms that are familiar to the average person, such as hope, tolerance, feedback, and imitation, and explains their meaning related to group work. Other words are not as familiar – insight, cohesiveness, altruism, catharsis, and universality. Universality is a big word, and some struggle to even say it, but it has a very down-to-earth meaning. The worksheet’s definition – “others have my problem.” There it is. That simple. Others have my problem.

One of the reasons we struggle with a problem so much is that our thoughts lead us to believe we’re alone. Isn’t that special? I’m so unique that I’m the only one with this problem? I could be famous, maybe, because no one else in the history of mankind has ever experienced this problem? Maybe they’ll make a movie about me? But then no one would understand it and no one could play my part, except for me. Why do we struggle and isolate, thinking that we will somehow gain kudos for handling a problem all by ourselves? Will someone really believe we’re less of a person, whiny, or weak because we share our challenges? I drill this concept into my clients, having them share their stories, and watching as walls of pain and judgment come down. When a friend or a client shares their situation with me, I don’t judge them. And yet, I hold back and feel alone because someone would think I’m crazy for the feelings I have about a challenging situation.

This week, I had a conversation with a forever-friend, and realized there are similarities in a specific struggle going on in our lives. As I felt comfortable to share and relate, my friend was free to share as well. I saw so clearly this lesson I work to help my clients understand. Others have my problem. The details are different, but the underlying issue is significantly similar and warrants the emotional stress it causes. And sharing it, getting it out, gave relief and a very personal understanding of what universality means. Someone else in my world understands from experience what this is like. (What a relief that I’m not crazy.) I would never wish similar problems on an enemy, much less a friend, but discovering that this is the case gave me a boost that I needed, as I hope it did to my friend.

I am not alone. I have friends all over the world and coworkers close by who lift me up and understand when issues are overwhelming. I am fortunate. I am blessed. I can get through the tough times, because I know someone understands what this feels like.

And knowing that helps me believe that others also have faith and hope and respect and kindness . . . and LOVE.

 

Comfort: A right or a privilege?

I’m not sure why, but every time I hear a certain commercial, I feel some frustration. I’m sure you’ve heard it. A famous actress comments on a well-known brand of furniture by imploring the listener to “live life comfortably.” Something about the tone of the ad just comes across like there should be an expectation of comfort. So that we’re clear, I’m not against comfort. I like my comfortable bed, my recliner, my sofa. I appreciate having a comfortable, adjustable chair to sit in at work. I even enjoy a level of comfort in the vehicle I drive, despite its age. But I think there is a difference in wanting those things and expecting them.

Maybe it’s the month I spent in Papua New Guinea back in 1982. Seeing people satisfied with the very little earthly possessions they owned changed me. The way the people sang with uninhibited strength was energizing, to say the least. People walk for miles to get to a church service or carry heavy loads of produce or wares to care for their families. I watched a nurse clean and bandage the burned belly of an infant who had rolled into the fire kept going the majority of the day for cooking. As a layer of skin peeled off in her hands, I made an effort to hold back the tears. Then she told me that the child would most likely have serious scars due to the parent’s not understanding the need for changing bandages to prevent infection, as well as the lack of clean supplies.

Maybe it was the trip to a remote village in Alaska with a group of teenagers. It was clear that I take so much for granted when we were required to refrain from flushing any paper down the two toilets to which our group of 21 had access. And the only showers were a quarter mile down the road. They were coin operated and we tried to get two or three people rotated through on the $1.50/10 minute sessions. (Quite an interesting planning maneuver that was! I learned a lot from those teenagers and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.)

Or maybe it’s the occasional trips I get to make back to the place I call home. Seeing how simply people live and the strength they show by being satisfied with what they have gives me perspective.

I am not preaching here. I’m not saying you must turn your back on all things comfortable. I’m sharing my own new desire to live more simply. To not be drawn in by “stuff.” To always appreciate what I have and the wonderful people in my life who touch, move, and inspire me to be better each day. To even appreciate the people who have made me uncomfortable enough to grow and not be satisfied with anything less than my best.