First, The Bad News
It was my daughter’s 18th birthday. December 5th, 2006. It was also day 10 of settling into our brand new home. The days between Thanksgiving and this day in 2006 were filled with moving in, unpacking boxes, going to Target for trash cans, toilet paper and cleaning supplies. We had just left our home of 20 years where we had raised four children. Moving back to our former neighborhood where we had lived when we were first married was like re-settling into a love nest, overlooking the Chesapeake Bay, reconnecting with the wide expanses of bay and sky.
The morning of December 5th, the phone rang…the NEW phone with the new ring…it was 7:30 am…kids getting ready for school…breakfast, coffee … happy birthday…Christmas will be here before we know it… what’s going on today???
“Kris, I have sad news…”
I will never forget those words… and my sister’s tear- filled voice… as long as I live…
“Les killed himself.”
Our big brother, age 62…He had just been home for Thanksgiving…which we all thought was unusual…he usually came for Christmas…but couldn’t take off from work for Christmas that year.
We celebrated Thanksgiving, he hugged me good-bye and returned to Houston…sat on his bed…alone… and shot himself with a pistol my father had given him many years before. They had been father and son in the Coast Guard…my dad a crack shot on the pistol and rifle team…sharing his legacy…
We had no clue as to his despair…he had never shared…
My husband, sister and brother-in-law and I went to Houston, settled his affairs and spent three days with his daughter…who had found him. I was anxious to return home and get beyond this nightmare. I couldn’t wait to get back to my family and resume organizing our new home…back to life as usual.
I was not prepared to be ambushed by an overwhelming sense of abandonment. Thirteen years my senior, he was one of my childhood heroes…a caregiver. I worshipped the ground he walked on. I was only five when he left for the Coast Guard Academy. The sadness I felt then, a dim foreshadowing of the complete sense of loss and helplessness I felt as he chose to leave this world. The season to follow brought with it some crushing lessons:
I would learn how it feels to realize that if he could do this, anyone could do it….my husband, my children, myself. Prior to this, one of the kids in their room with the door closed seldom provoked concern. After his death I would ask myself…what if…?
I learned about brain chemistry…the burning, full body wires of anxiety that trauma ignites.
I learned about being blindsided by memories… of him waking me up on Christmas to see what Santa had brought…going to the movies, Roy Orbison singing Pretty Woman on the radio … he, in high school, bringing home Chinese food. Hearing him practicing his trumpet upstairs while I was in our basement den watching I love Lucy…His voice on the phone saying, “Hi Sweetheart”…Taking me to see easy Rider after he returned from Viet Nam…buying me the first Beatles Album and albums by Peter, Paul and Mary.
I learned that a Folgers coffee commercial about a brother showing up for Christmas could undo my heart.
I learned that suicide is not a good idea. And now you must be thinking, “Well, of course it isn’t”. But let me tell you, it is one thing to hear about it and be heartbroken for a family going through it, but another experience altogether when your family is suddenly sucked into the dark, billowing wake of turmoil, guilt, grief and trauma that ripples out farther than anyone in that sorriest state of mind can fathom. Don’t ever even think of going there.
I learned that sometimes you can breathe deeply all day long. You can draw, cry, do aerobics and massage out your pain…but sometimes the brain chemistry really needs some help from the miracle of modern day medicine. It’s okay to get the drugs.
And Now, the Good News
The easy to read part is coming…the life giving part that is the whole point behind sharing a story like this…
We hear about the silver lining…How God promises to work ALL things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.(Romans 8:28) and that nothing in all creation can separate us form God’s love, including life and death. (Romans 8:35-39). But those are just hopeful words on a page until they are brought to life by the living God. This is what I want to say …
I learned, once again, in deeper ways than ever, that God is faithful and His promises are true.
When I was little, I prayed every night, after saying the “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” prayer, for two things. One, that I would not have bad dreams that night and two, that nothing bad would ever happen to me. Because I am human and live on this beautiful but broken planet, I have had many nightmares and some “bad” things have happened. During this particular season I learned some things that I feel pressed to share about God’s making good on those promises in Romans. The names I have applied to these lessons are:
God is Mystery
God is Our Reality
Lesson 1: God Speaks
Not long after my brother’s death, I watched the television series Planet Earth. It featured rare, striking footage of nature, filmed by videographers who must be the most patient and committed humans on earth. One of the animals featured was the musk ox. There was a herd moving on to forage for food in the snow. A baby musk ox was left behind…the narrative explained that, because it was weak, it would be left behind to die. The vivid picture of that lone, long legged infant, crying alone in the snow must have made a deep impression, because God used it to speak to me in a dream. I dreamt that my husband was seeing another woman, a friend of mine. Of course I was distraught. In my dream, I asked God what this dream was about. I was shown a repeat of the sequence of the baby musk ox, left alone to die. He spoke to me and said, “Your heart right now is like this baby…so alone, feeling abandoned, fearing abandonment.” Later I recalled the scripture that says Satan is like a roaring lion, prowling…looking for someone to devour. I was vulnerable to thoughts of abandonment by my husband…fears of someone else in my family dying, fears that I would die…I needed the protection of the Holy Spirit. Once I received that word from the Spirit, I surrounded myself with Her love and protection.
Another dream the Lord used to speak to me was a dream that I answered the telephone and it was my brother calling me.
I said, “Hello?”
As always, He said, “Hi sweetheart”.
In my excitement I asked, “How are you?”
He responded, “OK. I’m O.K.”
There were other signs of God’s love and presence…a rainbow one morning…huge across the sky upon awakening. A word in a card sent by a friend…”Be gentle with yourself.”
A vision…maybe just a sudden, vivid imagining while contemplating seeking God’s face and dwelling in His throne room…of a room made of what I can only lamely describe as pure, liquid gold light, emanating from a throne-like center…the lion and the lamb on either side…tall, stately beings… possibly angels surrounding. Beautiful beyond description…love and light…comfort and strength…I felt I was granted a vision from beyond the veil.
He speaks to me through dreams, visions, creation and the
words of a friend. Keep your eyes open. Watch…Listen…Trust…Abide
Lesson 2: God Sees
A little over a year after Les’ death, another of our daughters wanted to celebrate her birthday by going to Williamsburg, Virginia with a group of friends to spend the night at the Williamsburg Inn. At the Inn there is a fine dining room with dancing…a lovely sight we were…my husband and I out on the dance floor with five teen aged girls…all of us decked out in our finery. It happened that her birthday fell on Easter weekend so on Sunday morning we attended Williamsburg Community Chapel. As you might imagine, one bathroom plus five girls does not equal a punctual arrival. We were ushered up into the balcony with about a thousand other well intended worshippers who lingered just a little too long over Easter baskets, curling irons and mascara. We sat shoulder to shoulder through a sweet service. Throughout the service I tuned into the voice of a man behind me, commenting on the sermon…chuckling at the Pastor’s humor. It was all I could do to keep from turning around and checking to see who this light- hearted soul could be. The service concluded with the large choir singing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. It was so powerful that I longed to stand on my seat and raise my arms in praise. I looked at the people around me, jammed into their seats and wondered why aren’t we all climbing up on our seats and shouting? The most I could muster in our crowded balcony was a lifting of my upturned hands. The service ended and as we filed to the side aisle I came face to face with the mystery fellow who had caught my attention during the service. He was a slight, elderly gentleman with wire rimmed glasses and a light zip up windbreaker. He looked at me and spoke, “That was a wonderful chorus.” As we continued down the steps to the first floor I responded, “Yes! It was glorious!” by this time we had reached the bottom of the stairway. He leaned into me and spoke directly into my ear,
“I saw your reaction to it. I know who you are.”
With that, he continued out the door and disappeared. I repeated those words to myself, puzzled by them…” I know who you are? I saw you?” You know who I am? Then it dawned on me…the day prior to our trip, I had prayed to God, telling Him I was exhausted. I asked to hear from Him…that he would show me His face. That sweet man had been God’s messenger of love. I believe He was an angel. I stood in the church lobby, clutching my Styrofoam cup of church coffee, the realization of God’s love welling inside, spilling over in tears. You see me…You know who I am…I still reside in the joy I felt that day. In many moments since, I have heard those words, reminding me that I am seen and known and loved. In turn I am grateful to share that message with others because I know it is true for all of us. Sometimes we can feel it as I felt it in that moment. Sometimes it is just a thought that we can cling to in the darkness. He sees you, dear soul. He knows who you are.
God is Mystery
There were so many questions. The week before Thanksgiving, Les visited our parents in NC. A slow moving nor’easter blew in, taking out the electricity in my parents’ village. They spent the week together, isolated by ocean flooding during the day, the evenings talking by flashlight in in the dark. A few people who were important to Les wanted badly to see him but the storm kept them from making contact, one of whom was a woman we discovered later was a girl he had dated while visiting the Outer Banks as a teen ager. She had been in love with him her entire life. Their meeting may have given him some hope and kept him alive. Another was a cousin who had not seen him in years. The other was a favorite aunt. There seemed to be divine barrier that prevented people from seeing him. My sister and I wondered why they had been kept away. One often hears stories of people who were about to take their life and the phone rang or some other seemingly random intervention interrupted their plan. God’s answer to me was to show me the earth from His perspective. Something that appears senseless to us may have an eternal purpose. While I don’t believe Les’ suicide was God’s will and was the result of depression and spiritual abuse, I know that God is the consummate re-purposer and can rework detours from the original plan for our highest good to manifest His purposes. The image that comes to mind is a magical landscape of infinite dimensions. When we see it from a wide perspective its beauty is overwhelming. As we move in closer, we see that this luminous miracle of creation is actually a composite of intermingled images of beauty and tragedy. I don’t have to understand in this life why God allows this kind of suffering, but I trust that God is all loving and all just. It is the only thing that makes sense. Over time, I learned to give my grief and guilt to God, trusting in God’s ability to turn even the darkest times into places where Love and Light overcome.
God is Our Reality
In yoga, we talk about a peaceful place within that is always present, despite what befalls us. A place deep in our hearts that we liken to a still pool of clear water where the absolute peace of divine presence resides. It is a sacred place that no outer experience can touch. It was during this season of navigating grief and trauma that God so mercifully pointed out the reality of its existence. In this season of nagging, often intense anxiety, I was often uncertain that I could maintain my massage practice or continue teaching yoga. But from experience with this work I knew that, even if it was a struggle, focusing on the process required to be present to others could be healing for the practitioner. On one occasion after I had struggled to gather my wits enough to give a massage, I found myself during the session, in a place of deep stillness. Out of the stillness came a voice that said, “This is your reality.” In that moment I was being taught that that space of quiet presence was the most real place for any of us on earth. Everything else is transient, be it stress or strife or even happiness. The Holy Spirit laid out this message in the midst of my constant striving for peace. “You don’t have to strive for peace, just receive it.” In other words, peace is always present… because God’s love is present. The veil is thin, God is near. From that point, when I am in distress, whether once a minute, once an hour, once a day, I can stop and focus on becoming aware of the permanent peace of Christ. Right here, right now…within. Whether a true sense of Presence or just a thought…I know God’s peace is the truest reality.
It has been thirteen years since I was introduced to these truths about who God is. They have proven to be a trustworthy framework for learning more and more about the ways in which God cares for us. We are seen, God knows who we are, God speaks, and God love is so much greater than we can grasp. God is Mystery and because God is Mystery, we can trust the unseen outcomes to ultimate Kindness. How do these lessons resonate with your experience?
Those lessons, so hard won thirteen years ago, serve me well to this day. I still have a green flannel shirt in my closet that I took from my brother’s apartment 13 years ago. Over the years, every now and then, I stop and kiss the sleeve and say…” I Love you. I’ll see you again…”