Grief

On All Saints Day 2008, my Father passed into the next world or is awaiting the resurrection of the body into the glorious renewal of heaven and earth.

I weep when someone else is suffering the loss of someone loved. I weep when I read about someone dying who I care deeply about though never met them. For instance, reading the death of C. S. Lewis in The Narnian —which is a matter-of-fact journal entry Warnie (Lewis’ brother) entered into his journal on November 22, 1963—made me weep. Grief makes me connect with the cathartic memory of my Father’s death, even years after his death.

In some ways, I became a different person when my father died. I lost my focus. All my neuroses became exemplified, even seven years after the fact. I became a much more serious person. I was more goofy before my dad’s death—in the style of Saturday Night Live. Though I have been fearful all my life, I became more so, if that’s even possible. In some ways, the death of my father is like a stone weighing me down, like those in Dante’s Purgatory.

Let me rewind a bit. It is the year 2001. My father was diagnosed with multiple myloma, a cancer of the bone marrow. I was in college at the time. My roommate told me my mom called and needed to talk to me as soon as possible. I called back.

“Your dad has cancer,” my mom said.

I didn’t know what to feel. I don’t remember feeling anything. It was before September 11, 2001. By the time 2002 rolled around, my dad’s cancer went into remission. After a personal and national crisis, I shelved all feelings and cares about the disease aside. I was too engulfed in college and friends, building friendships and knowledge that would last for the rest of my life. By the time I graduated college in 2003, I was depressed and lost. I moved back home with plans to move back to my college town with friends and “try to make it.” By the time late May or June came around, my sister broke the news to me.

We were driving toward route 80, crossing the bridge that passed over the highway. If you were in an SUV, you could see the Delaware Water Gap in the distance.

“Dad has cancer again,” she said.

My eyes glossed over, blurring my vision with tears. I wouldn’t believe that my dad couldn’t beat this disease. He had already gone into remission, less than a year previous. He was always the athlete, rowing crew in college, running track. Later, biking and running and designing the addition to the house I grew up in. He could do almost anything. He had rebuilt car engines as a teenager. Fished for pike and large-mouth bass. Made a great living. Taking us on all kinds of adventures in the United States: Maine, New York City and upstate, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Yellowstone Park, the Bahamas, St. Lucia. So I tucked the thought of my dad suffering through this disease in the far corners of my mind. I moved back to the Philadelphia area that summer. But only lasted there for four months.

I had come home for Christmas as a temporary recovery. I had gotten into a car accident that Black Friday at midnight after working at the mall. The Jeep, Virgil as I called it, was done for the very next day. Virgil led me through Purgatory, but could not go on with me to Paradise. I no longer needed a teacher, but a saint to guide me.

My dad arranged for a rental car. I drove that back to New Jersey. And Christmas Eve night I wrestled with God about returning home to Frelinghuysen for a time. I did not want to return. There was nothing for me there. I had no friends to return to. No job. Nothing but family and the disease my father had. After an entire night of wrestling God, I came to the reality that I would return to Frelinghuysen. I had promised to throw my best friend a bachelor party in the Philadelphia area. Then I would return to New Jersey for a time, committed to rebuilding my relationship with my dad and helping him get to doctor appointments. The year was 2004. It was the most trying year and five months of my life.

While taking bereavement training at the Carroll Hospice Center (Dove House) in 2012, recollection of my own grief resurfaced.

There is an activity of remembrance when one loses a loved one: to describe the one lost. This is what I wrote: In my case, I will remember my dad. He was about 5’8” although he joked about wanting to be taller since I am six feet tall. He did lose some height as he went through radiation treatments and vertebrae fused together. He had green eyes. Dark brown hair. Some crowns on his teeth made of gold. He would get really goofy sometimes, especially after a long day at work (coming home around 8:00 p.m. or sometimes midnight). He would be very talkative. I get like that; I get jazzed after a healing service and coming home at 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. I talk a lot and become almost hyper-verbal. Sara falls asleep as I talk to her.

I don’t know if my mom could handle late-night talk about how a town meeting concerning zoning and the comical things Joe Buchette would say, such as, “call him a liar.” Joe Buchette was a WWII concentration camp survivor who came to the states and lived in New Jersey. All I knew was he was a client of my Dad’s and quite a character.

My Dad was physically strong. He built the rock wall in the front yard of the house I grew up in and spent twenty-four years in. This wasn’t a puny wall with small stones either. He had hands like vice grips. One time my friend’s sunglasses frame got bent and my Dad, with his thumb and forefinger bent the toughened metal back in place.

My dad was a landscape architect and planner; he was licensed in NJ, NY, and PA. He was creative. He designed the addition to the house I grew up in. He could draw well. When we’d go out to dinner, my dad would draw funny cartoons on the napkins when my sister and I were young. Such as some character peeing on something. These cartoons were not drawn in the privacy of our home, but in the public, in restaurants, where we were supposed to be reserved. Juvenile? Yes. We would all laugh a lot.

My Dad was funny. He knew good humor. Growing up the son of an alcoholic and a nurse, he needed to find comedy in the tragedy of self-indulgence and precise scrutiny of the sick and injured. He was mostly a quiet person, much like me. Yet, when he had something to say, it was pertinent. He was an adventurer. He enjoyed solitude after being around a lot of people all day and being the boss.

Dark Night of the Soul

Much like my father, I too enjoy solitude away from people. Yet, I promised to rebuild my relationship with my father and help him through his disease. In 2004, my dad decided to go the experimental route. He was sick of the usual cancer treatment. The killing of his body’s natural immune system. He sought treatment in Boston, a five hour drive from north western New Jersey. I made it my prerogative to drive him there once a week.

After my failure trying to “make it” in the Philadelphia area, my body was spent, my stress-level was high, though I did not know it because I internalized and deluded myself from my own turmoil. I was also in a crisis of faith. All that I had learned about Jesus Christ in high school; all that I learned in college about church history and the truth of sin, God and the beauty and goodness of God was challenged. I was never angry at God. But while on a sort of sabbatical from “normal life:” getting a job, meeting someone, I vowed to rebuild my relationship with my father and assist him to doctor appointments in New Jersey and Boston, Massachusetts. I also made it my mission to truly set out and understand faith in Jesus Christ. Did I truly believe in the God that Christianity proclaims? The one who came and died for the life of the world? The one who rose again and will come again?

So in between times of driving my dad to different places, I read about St. Francis and Thomas Aquinas. I read almost all of C. S. Lewis’ books, G. K. Chesterton, church history, Eugene Peterson, Richard Foster, and the Bible. St. Augustine’s Confessions. I wanted to visit the depths of the Inferno rising through Purgatorio, and finally reaching the good in Paradiso. Dante’s excellent poem would have helped me make sense of my dark night at the time. I became a monk of sorts, but with no community. I was more like a desert father, not retreating to the deserts of Egypt, but to the woods of New Jersey.

I would talk to my best friend over the phone and e-mail. He helped me see the goodness in the dry and dark desert I was in. These are the kinds of conversations we would have:

Matt: This quote blew me away.  I read it today in the paper.
“Fear not.  We are an Easter people and hallelujah is our song.”
That’s by John Paul 2.
Man, I wish I acted like an Easter person.  I wish I could live in the light of that victory on a regular basis. Actually, I wish that I wished that. And, man, an hallelujah is usually the farthest thing from my lips all the time. I long to have that easy joy…

My response: I hear you on that….
My mind can be my worst thing.
Yet God’s mercy surprises me quite often though there be a long delay
in between.
Remember Christ fills us with his power and peace and even Joy though
it may not be an outward Joy. He is the one who fills us to encourage
the multitudes who are fearful and lost and crying for something they
do not know what. Joy is not an easy thing to attain all the time. But
sometimes it is a weight on the heart that in hard times melts into
the system. Through the hard times, Christ is our Joy and Peace and
the fire makes us stronger because He is teaching us something and/or
preparing us for something later on.
I don’t know why I said that but it’s said. Jesus is all sufficient.
Because we can make it through the hard times, the fires and forging,
the gospel claims true in our lives as Christ lives in us.
I pray that something that holds our hallelujah’s back, our Joy, our
Peace–Jesus rid it. May we learn and practice hallelujah; be an
Easter people.

Another exchange: So, guys…
Icons in worship. The good? The bad? The ugly?
I know a lot of Protestants really freak out about icons because they view it as idolatry. Is it really that harmful? Isn’t the image a focusing point of worship?
I mean, don’t all Christians use icons in worship? Whether it is a mosaic or a crucifix or a picture of Jesus holding a lamb or even a mental idea of Jesus–aren’t they all icons?
I honestly don’t think anyone can picture God as He really is. I mean, wouldn’t that just blow our minds apart? In order to worship and still live, we need to form images of God that are as true as possible to His reality but still ‘not him.’ Right? So it takes an effort to always remind ourselves that we are not worshiping God “as He really is.”
That’s why God’s role, as CSL puts it, is as the great iconoclast. Every now and then he will blast our icons of Him and give us a fuller picture of who He really is.
That’s why I don’t think icons are a bad thing, but they do demand a spiritual maturity…to recognize the finiteness of our images compared to the infinateness of God.
What do you guys think?
Matt

My response: I think to look at them as a meditative object takes spiritual maturity.

 But here’s something: What we see or feel or hear all adhere to imagery–well more specifically, to our senses–whether manifested in mind or in actually seeing or faith itself…knowing something that is good is good. In the temporal we have reminders to bend our wills toward God. Nature itself, religious images, hearing a fine piece of music that for some reason bends you to thinking or praising Christ.

 Reminders of good things are not bad. When we worship the good thing instead of God, it is an idol. We worship God because he shows us His good in all good things. Looking at creation, I am reminded of the greatness and creativity of God.

I think we have a limited view of God, but through images and things that draw ourselves to God, we see a part of Him. And this will change (and become fuller) as sanctification continues. He leads us to all that is good and will show us His goodness in all things. (2005)

*

Icons

Shadows of the divine
Copies to remind,
Focus the will
To meditate
On the One true grace,
God.

Crucifix:
Body slain
Man-God meeting
redeeming.

Precise pictures
Proclaiming truth.
Making God present
Through remembrance,
Transcending time,
Transcending space.

Cross upon a spire
Memory of debt paid
Raising eyes to the heavens.

Do not proclaim
To shame your brother
As though icons be idols.

All is image,
Which we cannot escape.
The God in all
Will not claim one thing,
But speak in all.

These are the conversations that would keep me afloat during the dark night of the soul. On early mornings that I would drive my dad to Boston, I had nothing in me. I had zero energy. I would drive to Goshen, NY or Poughkeepsie and then could not go any further. I could not focus on the road. I felt terrible. I couldn’t see straight. I was under an enormous amount of stress though I could not identify it. I just thought I was overly tired. I had to pull to the side of the road. Luckily, my dad wasn’t in such a terrible shape that he could not drive. But I felt guilty as the treasonous in the ninth circle of hell. Where was God in this thing—in all things—as I put it in the e-mail above? Where was this goodness and beauty of God?

I saw the truth. I saw that I was incapable of helping my dad perfectly. In truth, I was and am a wretched sinner who has no power to do anything. Finally, we arrived in Boston after a six hour drive. We ate at a Cheesecake Factory and then went in search of Dana Farber Research Hospital. We were lost in the beautiful city of Boston. We stopped the car to talk to someone on the street to ask where Dana Farber was.

“Dana Faabaa,” the local Bostonian said. He directed us to go straight ahead and turn at a street I can’t remember.

My dad and I laughed afterward. Joking about the Boston accent. It was good fun. Once we got to Dana Farber, my dad was led to a room where chemical therapy would be administered. This type was a purple experimental liquid with unknown results. I could not look at the IV in his arm—there was blood seeping into the plastic tubing. So I went to the cafeteria to get us some lunch. My dad wanted a salad. So I got something and my dad’s salad.

I returned to my dad’s room in the hospital. I gave my dad the salad.

“Where’s the salad dressing? Who eats salads without salad dressing?” he said.

“Suck it up,” I said. This was the extent of most of our conversations. I was a snarky moody person. I still am. But I hope I have more grace than I did eleven years ago.

Most nights, we would stay in a hotel and drive home the next day. Other times, we would make these Boston visits a small vacation. We would visit historic spots in Boston, we went to Fenway Park once. My dad almost collapsed on the short walk back to Dana Farber after the baseball game. We went to Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. Another time we went to what looked like Martha’s Vineyard in the off season. We (me, my sister and my dad) got a hotel overlooking the Atlantic. We would sit in silence gazing upon the beauty of the sky and ocean. It was magnificent.

When I would return home to Frelinghuysen, I would retreat to my cell and read. The strange hermit residing in my parent’s home reading; seeking truth, feeding on it. I had to consume the Word of God, His instruction that later it would blossom into fruit. I hoped anyway. In another sense, my sin needed to be hacked out of me. I needed the justice and mercy of God, which is also his love. To make me something more than myself. My sin would not be tolerated or condoned, as C. S. Lewis put it. “That tooth must come out, that right hand must be amputated, if the man is to be saved.” Wickedness is hateful to God.

My discordance had to be put in tune or in harmony. The image of God within me is the most important thing to God. It has been marred in the fall. In my ever-so-present tendency to sin. To cause problems and issues in myself and between me and others. It is a sickness that needs healing and wholeness. I was a dormant dead-looking winter tree. All the leaves shed. Standing in the cold of the frosted winter. But inside, the tree is alive, preparing for the spring. My sister reminded me of Lady Guyons’s analogy of the dead tree in winter. She even printed a picture of a magnificent oak in the winter—it is a black and white photo—that has much significance for me. I wasn’t sure how much more I could take of living in New Jersey with a sole focus of helping my dad. I failed miserably after a year and five months.

All the while, my dad worried about me. A son with no job? A son with no purpose? He talked to clients of his—one a teacher to try and get me a job as an English teacher. He said I had the perfect personality for a teacher. I substituted for a little while, but hated it.

Then I got a temporary job at a library. I enjoyed that job, but had aspirations to move out of New Jersey. I had come to the conclusion that I had no strength to live in isolation any longer. I moved to Maryland in the summer of 2005. From July 2005 through 2008, I would drive home to New Jersey many times. One time, my mother called me and said my dad was in the hospital, and I needed to come down. She said to wait until the morning to leave. I left in the morning, but I couldn’t sleep, so I left at 2:00 a.m. I got to Frelinghuysen at 6:00 a.m. and promptly went to bed in my old room. There was much weeping in these three years. My roommates did not understand the pain I was going through, but I didn’t blame them. In those three years, my dad was near death twice. At one point, he had become very thin. It was unlike my dad. He had always had muscle; he was never fat. To see him like this was disheartening. His strength gone.

I remember an image of my dad after several years of suffering. He stood in the back yard looking toward the woods. Cane in hand. He walked toward me at a slow, contemplative gait. My dad had become frail though he was only in his mid-fifties.

In one way, moving to Maryland was an escape. I could not deal with the fact that my dad was becoming frail. This wasn’t supposed to happen until he was in his 80s or later. I wanted to live my life away from pain and suffering. But the reality of pain and suffering burst through often. In 2007, my father was at my wedding, which was a blessing, as my wife’s grandfather was dying. Then my wife’s brother (and my friend only thirty-two years old) died in June of 2008.

In the last year of my father’s life, he had gone from using a cane to using a walker to using a power chair. I hated seeing him in the power chair. At fifty-five, he was supposed to be vibrant, living life, thinking about retirement. But he was reduced to incontinence and not being able to walk freely, except to slowly walk up the spiral stairs to go to bed. Mind you, he had had four bone marrow transplants in seven years and was about to have a fifth.

It was a Thursday night. I was in Maryland in the apartment that was on the second floor of a beautiful Victorian. My mom called me from Arkansas. My dad at this point, after many failed treatments, sought the best medical care. He was at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. He just had his fifth bone marrow transplant.

“Honey, your dad is really sick. He is very sick,” my mom said.

“What do you mean? Do you want us to come down?” I asked.

“Whatever you want to do,” she responded.

I didn’t know how to take this. What did she mean he was very sick. My dad had been very sick for seven years. He was at death’s door twice, but had always pulled through. After I hung the phone up. I went to bed. Sara (my wife) fell asleep. But I was awake. I knew my dad was going to die. I wept bitterly.

Numb

My brother-in-law died five months previous. Now my dad was dead. Dead on All Saints Day. I thought that beautiful. It was also my parent’s anniversary, which was romantic, but strange as to how rocky their relationship had been.

My Dad’s funeral was beautiful. It was in a Catholic church up in New Jersey. The casket was present before the altar. The priest, Father Steiger, presided and explained the meaning of each item present: the cloth over casket—my Dad is clothed in Christ. The Christ candle burning–Christ is the light of the world and the life who brings us to His kingdom and raises us to new life. The crucifix above the altar reminded me of Christ’s death, but would soon be resurrected—which He has promised to those who believe in Him. I wept with everybody else, especially when receiving communion—the reality of Christ’s promise of resurrection made known in the consuming of His flesh. The music was powerful and more meaningful than I remember because of such heightened emotions. The funeral service was one of the most meaningful, beautiful and powerful moments in my life.

The burial happened in the rain, but I don’t remember much. In a way, rain seemed to be God’s weeping with us at our loss. I helped carry my dad (me at the front of the casket) to the hole dug in the ground. It was final. I wouldn’t see him physically in this world any longer. Visiting my Dad’s grave is always meaningful. I speak to him and tell him more than I did when he was alive. I look at the other graves and see the Last Day when Christ will call forth all who have died, judge, and usher those to heaven or hell. I remember my dad in the Eucharist and have Father Jim or Father Charles remember my dad in the Eucharist in the week of November 2nd.

After my Dad died, I had a dream. I was in the house where I grew up. I was outside and was with my dad. An angel came. He showed us hell, but then showed us heaven. My dad and I talked, I don’t remember about what, but knew he was in heaven. My best friend also encouraged me after my dad passed. He told me he had a vision or dream. He saw Jesus welcoming my dad with open arms and my dad walked toward Jesus.

All I had ever wanted between me and my father was a mutual understanding of our faith. Christianity, my faith in Christ, Christ’s faith, was the most important thing in my life. I wanted my dad to know how important Christ is to me. I don’t know if I ever gave a good witness of Christ to my father. But somehow this dream confirmed my longing. After all, it’s God who mends all things, who redeems all things, including relationships. He is the life of the world, renewing all things. Though we are blind and weak, Christ is the strength and sees all things to its end. Many of these things ruined by the twisting of the good or loving the wrong things is turned on its head by Christ’s redemption of the world. When we are weak, He is strong.

In the midst of beauty and goodness, there was grief, a numbing, confusing journey. I remember going to work in a haze. I wasn’t present at all. One of my co-workers had come out announcing her homosexuality as identity. She was joyful in her identity finally understanding “who she was.” I was locked in the cage of grief. Going from day to day in a state of melancholy, oblivion.

That Christmas, Sara and I went to New Jersey to celebrate. It was the most depressing Christmas. As a child, my mom would be in the throes of depression, so Christmas was hardly joyful. I would focus on presents received and build my new Lego sets, play guitar, or lose myself in the flames of the fireplace, while Christmas music played in the background and we would eat a plentiful dinner. We were in the trappings of joy—a façade, while our innermost being was melancholy building distance between ourselves. But the Christmas of 2008 had no trappings of joy; it was raw and cold, though the flames in the fireplace burned. I tried to lighten the mood with some Bailey’s Irish Cream (a longstanding holiday tradition), but all it did was sink myself into the depths of grief, the heaviness grew.

*

The clouds hang low on the 31st of October—All Hallows Eve. Hope and melancholy press down from above. The leaves fallen to the ground in red, orange, yellow, and brown. The trees prepare for a long, cold winter. Losing their beauty to thrive inside, digging their roots deep.

Heaven’s glory of the eternal nears. Our immortality reminded in All Saints Day. He comes in the form of a cloud to bring the earth toward heaven and heaven toward earth. The earth and all that is in it trembles for the day of renewal. The King and His communion always worshipping and blessing. The earth and world of men blessed from heaven. The veil between heaven and earth thinning.

At the same, there is assault on the kingdom. From evil men and the evil One and his minions. The battle rages spiritually, in prayer, amongst angels and demons. The Evil One seems to gain ground, but the Victory over death has already occurred in history. Though the Evil One gains many for his side, the strength, grace, and power of Christ is terribly stronger.

The communion of saints in history, in time, and in eternity, the reality of heaven upon earth.

The rose has lost its hue in the Autumn and Winter, but the vine still lives and Spring is near. Likewise, the corn crop dies and is harvested. But its dead seed falls to the ground and springs to life in the nearing Spring. Spring is but a season away.

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