November 28, 2013

My dear, precious, and wonderful Annie…

I recently read “that there is no coming to life without pain, and that may well be true of what happens to us after death. The important thing is that we do not know. It is not in the realm of proof. It is in the realm of love.”

Two years ago tomorrow, your mommy and I entered into the unknown, not knowing how we would carry on having seen you, not knowing how we would breathe again having held you, not knowing how we would watch today’s sunset and tomorrow’s sunrise having felt your warmth and weight. There was once a time that my certainty of heaven was carried along by the winds of emotional circumstance. Heaven, back then, needed no explanation or grounds for existence. It just was. And Heaven had taken these beautiful shards of my heart into her care – my grandmothers and grandfathers, my own father. But saying goodbye to you that late November morning created in me an insanity and insatiable hunger to know why and how Heaven exists. I could no longer ponder Heaven’s bounds like an amateur astronomer, peering through some cheaply made telescope. I needed to see more.

And, Annie, your mommy and I have closed our eyes most nights with parched spirits and hungry hearts. Nothing can give us the pleasure that was rightfully ours but was so devastatingly stolen away. And few can understand the burden that comes from serving and worshipping a God who knows and understands what we do not. It’s as if an irreplaceable innocence fell along the path of where we’ve been, but the path has disappeared behind us and we’re forced to continue ahead. It’s unfair and perhaps the greatest pain we’ve known.

And time has done little by way of mending what was broken. Certainly, our lives hold joy. And your big sister and little brother are such mediums of that joy. Watching them grow and learn and live begins to fill in the areas that have long been empty. But I can’t say that all is as it should be. No. I can’t say that. You should be here, too.

Every so often, I’ll be watching Sara or Sam, and the light will hit each of their faces to reveal yours. I know it’s you. And while I’m warmed, while I’m held by the thought of you at two years old, the image gives way to the last time that I saw you, held in your mother’s arms at one day old. The cruelty and grace of my imagination causes me to linger on your voice, your smile, your hand in mine. I’ll never stop wishing these things were so.

I guess what I’m saying, Annie, is that I miss you. We miss you. And though the bitterness does come, it never stays. What I’m left with is an ache for restoration, and above all else, I choose to believe that that will only come at the hands of Jesus. I could be wrong, and there’s no doubt that a lot of days I question it all. Every piece. But something within me is still connected to you, Annie. And I know it’s no different, perhaps even stronger, with your mother. So I choose to believe that when I see you again, I’ll know. I’ll know why it is we could not have you longer. I’ll know why it is our hearts never fully mended. And He’ll be the one to tell me.

The day we drove away from the hospital, my mind fell on the empty seat behind us. I hadn’t even brought the car seat to the hospital, a thought that caused my heart to rage inside my chest. I could think of little else. But as your mommy glanced through her window, she noticed something and asked me to pull over. I did, and we found ourselves at a makeshift lot picking out our Christmas tree. Handing the lot worker a handful of cash, I wondered if he’d even believe what these people he was selling a tree to had just done, leaving their little girl at a hospital. But I paid without saying much, and we brought that tiny fir back to the apartment. And we decorated it.

Tomorrow morning we’re going to pick out a tree, Annie. Just like we did last year and the year before that when we had just said goodbye to you. Tomorrow we’re going to bring home a little fir, decorate it with your big sister Sara and little brother Sam, and we’ll let Joy and Sadness drape their arms over our shoulders. We’ll dance with them, and when the day is over, we’ll do what we’ve done now for two years – we’ll close our eyes, think of you, and we’ll wait for eternity.

I love you,

Daddy

September 20

I’ve been asked a lot about this blog. Mostly, questions about why I haven’t posted pop up. Every once in a while, someone will say something like, “I really enjoyed your writing. I wish you would write more,” and I’ll think to myself, “I wish that I knew what to write about.”

The truth is: I don’t know what to say anymore. I can tell you that since my last posting, our lives have radically changed. We now have a 7, almost 8, month old little bundle of won’t-let-anyone-get-sleep.

He’s cute, mostly. We named him Samuel and swore up and down we’d never call him “Sam.” But I, of all people, should know that what can be shortened, will be. (Mom, seriously, let it go. It’s “Gabe” for everyone else.) “Sam” it is.

We’ve also moved away from Kentucky, and I’ve taken a job at a church in Daphne, Alabama. My title is “Pastoral Assistant,” which is really just a way of saying “Associate Pastor” without infringing on the “process” of the United Methodist Church. (This blog post, by the way, is brought to you by quotation marks.)

Our little home we’ve simultaneously cherished and loathed is now sold, and we’re building (this always sounds so fancy to say that “we’re building,” but it’s really just that we’re buying a home that’s being built) a home in Fairhope. And pretty soon, it would seem, we’ll have a white picket fence with a golden retriever and 2.5 children running around the yard.

All would seem well, wouldn’t it? As if we’ve somehow “made it through.” You did it, Gabe and Lynne.

But I’m going to say this, and it’s mostly for the benefit of you who’ve experienced pain, and you’re wondering why it’s followed you for so long now:

We’re sad. And, at times, overwhelmingly so.

No move, no matter how close to home, can heal it. And I wish that I could say that my lengthy absence from the blogosphere is indicative of a change for the better in my life, in our lives. In all honesty, it’s simply been that I don’t know what to say. Words elude me, and I’m somehow left with this ache that needs to be expressed but lacks any medium. It’s like having paint and a brush yet no canvas. It’s frustrating.

I guess that I could say that God is still speaking to me. He hasn’t left me, and though Christian idiom would respond “Of course!” my heart is on edge. I’ve needed him lately to pick up some things in my life that have become too heavy. One of those things is how I can’t seem to go or do or say or think without feeling like I’m making the wrong move. And isn’t it just like life that in those moments I find myself most sad.

One of the greatest frustrations is that I still have to be a functioning member of society. I still have to work and earn a living. I still have to converse and communicate with people (and, for the love, why must so many be such…). I still have to be a good husband and a good father and a good son and a good employee and a good friend. But the majority of the time, all I want to do is to be nothing for no one and just lean into the sadness. I just want to be able to stop long enough so that I can hear God’s answer to my question: Will it always hurt like this? I just want to know that I’m not going to make it to 40 and 50 and 60 and 70 and find out that the whole time I was just covering up what’s real with survival tactics, that I spent my entire life disappointedly pushing dirt back into a 10-foot deep hole that had what I was looking for at 11 feet.

Does that make sense to anyone?

Now, I feel like someone out there is probably thinking at this point that I need to be on a strict regimen of medication and counseling. Maybe so. But I suspect that a lot of people out there feel the same way, that a lot of people out there don’t know why they’re sad, but they just are. And I suspect that even though I can’t think about Annie without mentally and emotionally curling up into fetal position, there’s a myriad of other things in my life that God wants to heal.

So, Lord, deal with those things.

Give me rest in the midst of sadness. Give me grace when I miss your rest.

Keep me from pushing dirt back in, and help me dig deeper. I don’t want to know you’re with me while I feel my way forward in the dark. I want to know that you’ll light up my way.

Teach me to love my wife and to love my children while making a solitary journey into my own sin and pain. Have mercy on me when I doubt you and curse you and blame you. Remember that my faithfulness is feeble and my resolve volatile. Remember what I’ve lost, and teach me what it means to hope.

Most of all, God, would you stop it all for a moment and let my heart catch up?

April 15, 2013

Dear Sara, Annie, and Sam,

Today, two bombs exploded in Boston near the finish line of the renowned Boston Marathon. I watched, to my horror, scenes of terror and destruction ripple through the streets which held old men and old women, young girls and boys, and mothers and fathers. I saw the graphic images, nauseated by the grotesque reality of what simple homemade explosives can do.

And so, Sara, I held your hand in those moments, turned off the television, and looked into your eyes. What I saw is an innocence that should never inhabit the same world as one where an 8-year-old child is killed by such cruelty of man. You overheard me talking to our neighbors about what was happening, and though I wish I could take back what you heard, I know that I cannot shield you forever. It bothered you, what you heard. And I could tell throughout the day that you were affected, not understanding why such things could happen. I’m so sorry, my sweet girl. This is the world in which you must live. It’s a world of hatred and cruelty, of evil and fear. There are beautiful places in this world. But those where man lives will harbor the darkness and corrosion of sin.

And yet, it’s among humanity where you will find God redeeming the pain, turning despair into hope, sorrow into joy. Don’t leave humanity, Sara and Sam. Don’t believe for a moment the lie that none can be trusted or that none are capable of good. You must learn that Jesus is in the mess, and more importantly, you have to follow him there.

There is no fear that overwhelms me like the fear of losing either of you. All at once, I’m angry, scared, and deeply wounded by a world that has been cast into perversion and mayhem. There seems to be no end to the horror that lies deep within man’s propensity toward selfishness and hate. But I cannot isolate myself or isolate you. See, the world needs you. It needs us. Where such great evils leave off, we must enter with a message of hope that is procured by a belief in greater things. You cannot become disillusioned, fashioned by the hopelessness sewn through poverty and death and hatred. My children, you must see that an empty tomb means everything to these things. Hope begins there.

Being your father means everything to me. It means that I hold the incredible responsibility of preparing you for good. My task isn’t simply to protect you or to make sure you succeed or ensure you marry and have children of your own and a steady job. My task is to disciple you and send you. My task is to love you and nurture your hearts, preparing them for a Spirit of truth. I wish that it was to guarantee that you will always be right here with me, that I might always be able to hold your hands and lead you through still waters. But that task is not mine to have. And your mother and I trust the One to whom it belongs.

My dear Annie, you’ve taught me more than I could have ever imagined. Your sweet life touched this world only momentarily, and yet I find that it consumed my heart with a joy and a love and a peace that some people never find. Maybe the most important thing that you taught me was that all really will be made right, soon and very soon. Chaos will cease and death will end. Mothers and fathers will mourn for their children no longer. Hatred will be overcome by unending love. And fear will be no more. I can’t wait to see that day, my girl. And I can’t wait to see you in it.

I love all of you, and I simply can’t imagine a world where you are not mine.

Daddy

November 29

I had found rest in the midst of heavy expectation. Lynne watched my light sleep from across the room and decided not to wake me. The movements that she once felt within her were no longer there. And for two hours she held shallow breaths to pick up the slightest indication of movement, of life.

But she found none. And after I awoke and approached her bedside, she spoke in tender words, “Baby, I think that’s she’s passed. I just want you to know. I didn’t want to wake you up. But she hasn’t moved for a while now, and I just think she’s gone.”

I held Lynne’s hand and kissed her cheek. The doctor and nurses came in, and it was time to push. I wondered at the sight of it all, at the joyful expectation that was heartbreakingly absent from the quiet room. Unsure of the way Annie was presenting, the doctor had an ultrasound technician come and once more we saw her sweet image.

*****

Today, Lynne and I celebrate Annie’s first birthday. We met with one of those nurses today over coffee and breakfast. She reminded us of that last ultrasound, and she told us with tears in her eyes of the heartbeat that she saw, the heartbeat that only she saw, the heartbeat that she had wanted so badly for us to know.

We did know that heartbeat. In all of it’s glory, we knew it. When Annie was born, the doctor declared, “We have a heartbeat. She’s alive.” And so, to our surprise, we held our baby girl and watched her live. For 45 minutes, the world cast it’s eyes on her and time stood silent and still. I was the father of two girls, two precious creations with heartbeats.

*****

My dear wonderful Annie,

I don’t know that your heartbeats will ever leave me. They faded like the light at sunset into a glorious sky and melded with my own. I feel you in every heartbeat, and so does your mommy.

There are things on this first birthday that we’ll miss. But we miss them knowing that our greatest celebration of your life pales in comparison to Jesus’ celebration over you. He formed you. He knit you together. And it is he who counts the wonderful heartbeats that we miss.

My daddy, your granddad, wrote a letter to me on my first birthday. He sealed it in an envelope and dropped it in an old cedar chest. It wasn’t until years after he died that we opened the cedar chest and found that letter. He told me about how I was the answer to many prayers and dreams. He told me how I’d never know how much he loves me. And he told me that I could never know the times that he thinks of me for no other reason than that it makes him smile. “Love always, as you grow up,” he signed, “your Father.”

I still have that old cedar chest. And I think perhaps that I’ll drop this letter in for you. I can’t hold your hand when you read it. I can’t see your face. I can’t know your smile or laugh or touch. But, my daughter, I know your heartbeat. And I will forever keep that with me.

Happy birthday, Annie. I love you so, so much.

Daddy

November 26

I had a golden retriever mix - mixed with what, I don’t know - growing up as a kid. I called him “Friend,” which might have been the most fitting name for a dog who knew no strangers. He had wandered up to the back door of our house before I was even born and made himself at home. Of course, the extra scraps of food each night at dinnertime made the transition pretty easy.

Friend was a neighborhood dog. I don’t guess there are many of those anymore. These days, people seem inconvenienced by the occassional canine wanderer. But our quiet, dead-end street loved him, and I wouldn’t be surprised if other people claimed Friend as their dog, too. He was just that kind of dog.

Friend was patient, more patient than most dogs I’ve come across. He was dealt a lot of blows from this rowdy little boy, and he took it all in stride. For the years that I knew him, he had an old soul and would lay with you for hours on end. I’d spend the cool evenings with my head against his soft fur, reenacting the sort of boy-dog relationship that I’d read about in books like Shiloh and Where the Red Fern Grows and Old Yeller.

Toward the end of Friend’s life, he had some trouble getting up and down. His eyesight failed him, too, as the cataracts slowly clouded over his puppy eyes. Then, one day, I stepped outside to see my mom crying, and I knew even before she said so that Friend had passed on. He had trotted down next to the fence, behind a shed in our backyard, laid down, and passed away.

My dad stayed out most of the afternoon digging a place for Friend. And so we buried him, there in the shade of the magnolia tree.

*****

I miss Friend and the home that he was a part of. I imagine that all of us past a certain age feel that way. I’m no old man, but I’m not young anymore either. Too much has happened, and in a sense, has clouded over these puppy eyes. Sometimes I sit on the edge of my bed at night, close my eyes, and try to remember what home felt like. The cool walls of the narrow hallway, the way the afternoon sun would light up the dim living room, the patch of ground by the back porch that never would grow a blade of grass, the curved area where the driveway met the curb that I would jump with anything that had wheels. I’ll just sit and imagine it all and wonder what it would be like to go back home for just a day.

I don’t know about you, but it seems like as each day comes, I’m grabbing for the last. It’s been especially true since last November. Just wishing that today was yesterday.

It all sounds depressing really, and I guess that it is. But I’m not so sure that the idea is totally wrong. Home, as I see it, is an Eden of sorts. It’s where things were right until death entered in, made a mess of things, stole all of the color and left a trail of grey. Maybe that’s why when I close my eyes and imagine home, the colors are so bright.

I think that if I wasn’t a Christian, I’d still be interested in Jesus. He and a lot of people that came after him talk about going home again. Sometimes when I’m reading about him, I get the sense that he was trying to point people toward home, just grab them by the shoulders and say, “This way, friend.” I get the sense, too, that all the miracles and signs and wonders, all of the exorcisms and resurrections and water into wine and multiplying food couldn’t do justice to the picture of home that he was trying to paint for us. It’s just that good.

From the way I understand things, God doesn’t want for us to look back on Eden with a sense of what was lost. What he wants is for us to remember that he’s making something new, and he already made a way to it. Jesus didn’t make a grand entrance to tell everyone about home. He brought the key, welcomed us to follow him there, and gave us a glimpse of home with his grand exit. “Don’t follow anyone else,” he said. “Follow me.”

*****

The above entry has been sitting as a draft for about 2 weeks. I didn’t really know where I was going. Just rambling, really. But the picture that kept appearing each time that I closed my eyes was that of my backyard and that old, tall magnolia tree. It towered over everything else. And there was just something magical about that tree. I can walk to it in my mind and sit in its shade, look up at my home, and feel a peace within my heart.

Over the Thanksgiving break, Lynne and I went to Annie’s grave. We told her “happy Thanksgiving,” held one another in silence, and finally wished her a happy upcoming birthday. Lynne found a small limb and wrote “happy birthday” carefully in the dirt.

We noticed to our disappointment that the grass hasn’t made it’s way over her grave yet. Wondering about this, I just happened to look up. I just happened to realize why the grass wasn’t there.

It is shaded by a magnolia.

September 28

Im beginning to realize just how careful I must be. I have to take care to stop, to force myself to a complete halt, and face the heartache that meanders just behind.

And it always catches up. Sometimes I’m caught off guard - when I don’t remember that he’s back there; when he brushes the sleeve of my shirt and whispers a November chill into my spring heart. “Remember,” he says and turns away as if he’d traveled all this way and spent all that time at my heels to say one word, over and over.

"But I always remember!" I shout back, cursing his insinuation that I had even remotely come close to forgetting. And so goes the short return trip to grey-lit hospital beds and holding my heart in my hands and feeling like I may never see innocence again.

*****

It’s getting cool here again. The daylight is becoming more timid, showing up later and leaving too soon. Days like this remind me that I’m nowhere near done with the hurt of absence, the pain of remembrance. Some people like to put a time frame on these sorts of things. Others consign to a lifetime of it. I don’t know what I think. “Here I am.” That’s what I think.

No one can really share in these things with you. You want them to. You want them to sit shiva with you indefinitely. You want them to scream at the injustice of having to watch others seemingly care more about Presidential candidate mishaps, chicken restaurant philosophy, and Facebook news feeds than why Jesus has your child and you don’t.

Every so often, I allow myself to drink from the well of pop culture and social media, but the rancid taste always leaves me seeking the waters of November. It seems that the only place that feels real is the very place that keeps me from the world around me. Cultivating relationships has become a chore. Answering the casual “how are you” has been like dodging bullets. I’m slowly following the call to “remember” and not turning around.

Maybe that’s where Jesus is.

*****

I’m beginning to realize this, and that it’s perhaps a misnomer to call it all a “journey.” I don’t really feel like I’ve journeyed anywhere at all. Not really. I feel like I’ve been uprooted and am waiting while the gardener tills richer soil. I’m no longer planted where others thrive, where the waters of innocence and light of common experience nourish. I’m uprooted, unstable, unknowingly about to be planted in different soil. Yet the fear that grips me is in my wondering, “Why must I be planted elsewhere?”

*****

Lift up your head
Help is on the way
And it won’t pass you by
You’ve just got to reach out your hand

Lift up your eyes
Love is on the way
And He won’t pass you by
You’ve just got to reach out your hand

Tybee Island, GA

Tybee Island, GA

August 24

Dear friend,

Today I met Jesus again.

He was glad to see me, as always. We met near the waterside at a lake near my hometown. I tossed a few pine cones into the early morning waters, and he watched intently, as if time was no bother.

Watching the sunrise with the Creator of the sun (yeah, the whold three-in-one thing can be confusing), I was surprised to see how much he took joy in its beauty. He soaked in the warmth like I do, closing his eyes just as the burned orange crystallized into a million sparkles on the glassy water. “What’s the most beautiful place to see it rise,” I asked wondering at the chance that it might be right where we stood.

Smiling as if knowing my thought, he said, “Here… with you. But you should’ve seen the first one.” We laughed. I realized though that it must have really been something. It must have been something before the killing began and brothers turned against brother. It must have been something before people forgot and gold was forged with adultery, before we messed the whole thing up by turning inward. I wonder how must brighter it was before babies died and mothers tilled the earth with angry hands and hopeless tears. Can you imagine the the way the colors must have melded seemlessly with the earth below, before creation was a disposable resource?

Anyway, we sat there for a while in the shade of an oak. A branch stretched over our heads almost touching the shoreline as if reaching out to check the temperature of the water. Every now and then a breeze would bring it to life and leafy fingers would tap the surface just enough to send circles out into the lake. “Tell me about Annie,” I said hoping that he would be willing to talk about her. I’m not sure why I thought that he wouldn’t because when I asked he smiled. It was a smile of recognition, of memories.

“She loves to dance,” he said closing his eyes. Turning to me, I could see that he had tears forming, “There’s not an ounce of saddness in her.”

I want to meet her, I thought. I had seen her before in one of these meetings with Jesus. But the meeting that I want is one that I can’t have, not yet. Thinking on this, I realized that Annie had somehow managed to touch this earth without losing the fullness of the sunset. She had entered into a dying world, and though dying herself, she never left the care of its Creator. Can you imagine being carried from this life into the next, drawing nutrition from the womb of your creator, and entering into the arms of creation? It would just be long enough to tell them about Jesus, just long enough that they could count the times your chest rose and fell, and then you would return.

“Does she know how much I love her?”

He looked down for a moment and then out across the lake. “She knows nothing else.” And I knew what he meant. That my love is his and his mine. That aside from the beauty of being with Jesus, she lives in his love knowing nothing else. Right there is where he wants us, you and me. He wants us there where beauty doesn’t have to be exchanged for ashes anymore.

That’s all, I guess. I just thought you would want to know that there’s a better place than this, a place that my longing for Annie keeps pointing toward. Not all is as it should be. But, my friend, it will be, soon and very soon. In the meantime, I just thought you would want to know the most incredible thing out of it all - he loves you. And of all the places he could be, the place that he wants to be is

“Here… with you.”

Your friend,

Gabe

July 24

This morning I woke up at 6:45 and was prompted to pray. “It’s time to meet while you’re not distracted,” He whispered humorously. It’s no secret that I’m terrible at mornings. Certainly, God knows.

After some convincing, I got up and wiped the sleep from my eyes. I went downstairs with a Bible and journal in hand, hoping that the creaking stairs wouldn’t wake up Sara. Lynne was already awake. “Okay, let’s talk,” I said and opened the Bible to Psalms, picking up where I had previously left off.

Psalm 146 - a lot of praising. So I read through it slowly, in a way hoping that as each word entered my thoughts, it would delve into my heart and make it real. I wanted to have praise in my heart, but honestly, anxiety and fear has been in the way lately.

Psalm 147.

And there He sat with His highlighter in hand and the freshly touched words of verse 3 - He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. I finished the Psalm but came back to the the verse. Marking a line beneath the words and writing in the space above, “07/24/12 Will this baby be like Annie? Ultrasound today.”

Returning to 146, I realized that what He wanted to give me, along with peace, was a song of praise. Finishing my prayer, I asked that He give me a song*, and immediately my heart recalled:

I love you, Lord
and I lift my voice
to worship You.
O, my soul, rejoice!
Take joy, my King
in what You hear.
Let it be a sweet, sweet sound
in Your ear. H

*****

So before the technician placed the wand against Lynne’s belly, I knew that I would praise Him, no matter what we found on that screen. I knew because it was within me, He had given it to me. He had given it to us both.

I squeezed Lynne’s hand and waited.

11 weeks** and a healthy baby.

* When I told Lynne about my prayer for a song, she immediately recalled this.
** We found out about Annie’s diagnosis at her 11 week ultrasound.

Sara playing in a shallow creek near the Montreat Retreat Center in Montreat, NC. (See July 18 post)

Sara playing in a shallow creek near the Montreat Retreat Center in Montreat, NC. (See July 18 post)