Good Morning December

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This December has been a weird one. Since we lost Johnny in October, I feel as if the months are drifting by, unnoticed. Or maybe this is just me having to grow-up much faster than I anticipated.

December makes me feel like a kid again, especially now that I’m out of school and back in Indianapolis. The city transforms with lights and trees and decorations. The sky dusts the naked trees with snow. I sit in my living room and gaze through foggy windows watching a mesmerizing snowfall. Why is it that year after year the first snow never fails to leave me speechless? But something is missing. This year will be different because we’ve lost someone.

I think of Johnny’s sisters coming home for Christmas and how I will want to cry with them. I cry with his best friend as we write cards of condolences to comfort friends in this holiday season. It has been two months since Johnny passed away and the absence of our dear friend is still surreal.  I begin to wonder if the human mind can ever fully comprehend death.

When I wake up to a new day, with fresh thoughts of grief and sorrow I simply rise and say “Good morning December. Let’s get through this together.” For December is not just a month in the year. If December were a character in a story he’d be tall and burly with a fur hat and wide leather boots, and deep eyes that tell stories of Christmases gone by.

I know I promised to write about something new, to leave the subject of death alone and blog about a more vibrant topic. But, try telling that to the bare trees and the empty cornfields and to the frozen earth where the grass is turning brown. Death is ever present on this side of heaven.

I feel as if December is mourning John’s death too. The stale air, the dead trees, the blood stained sky above a cold morning sunrise. Together we grieve.

And yet . . . together we look to the Lord to bring us through these dark valleys and grant us rest in green pastures.

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Death, a path we all must take

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It hit me yesterday. Just plain sadness. So I sat there and let it wash over me, refusing to fight, hide or minimize it.

Sadness comes to me in moments when I think of John and how he’s gone. In these moments I ponder where he is and what he’s doing. I silently weep and admit he is definitely enjoying life in heaven worshiping God, but I wonder what that looks like. Why am I saddened by this? Maybe because it’s so difficult to understand.

***

It’s another Friday on this side of heaven, and I’m determined to write about a new subject. . . Life.

Lately I’ve focused primarily on my body and not on my soul. As the thought of death has been haunting me these last two months, I feel a sense of frustration that I’ve only been thinking of death as the end of all things and not a mere transition from physical to spiritual life. My friend expressed some similar fears. She brought up C.S. Lewis and his series the Chronicles of Narnia, a story where children find a magical world by climbing through a wardrobe.

“This life is like the wardrobe, and Narnia is like heaven,” she told me. “We are just passing through.” We smiled at each other in spite of our fears.  I have to admit, no matter how you put it, death is still difficult to understand.

Last Sunday I watched The Lord of the Rings. This movie alone reminds me of Johnny. We watched it a lot when we were kids, acting out scenes and trading playing cards. One piece of dialogue in the movie helped me see life in a new way.

Pippin: I never thought it would end this way.
Gandalf: End? No, the journey does not end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take… The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back and all turns to silver glass… And then you see it…
Pippin: What, Gandalf? See what?
Gandalf: White shores… And beyond… A far green country under a swift sunrise.
Pippin: Well, that isn’t so bad.
Gandalf: No… No, it isn’t.

Okay, I’ve definitely deemed myself a homeschooler by quoting both C.S. Lewis and Tolkien in the same blog post, but nonetheless I am resolved to focus not on death, but on life. The life to come, the life Johnny is living now, and the life I am commissioned to live on this side of heaven until my new journey begins.

 

Death, A Daily Reality

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Weddings, babies, and graduation ceremonies are what I thought would fill the duration of my post-college years. But, instead I find myself attending the funeral of one of my best friends and then hearing about the sudden death of several other young people in my community. Life is weird.

For some I suppose this is a daily reality. Those in war-torn countries, people in crime infested neighborhoods. Maybe I was just spared this type of grief in my growing up years. In former days, death was the stuff of news articles, statistics, and maybe a distant relative or an old church member. Now, death proceeds from the mouth of a friend still in shock, it arrives in a church announcement, a phone call in the night.

Yesterday at church, I stood on stage with the worship team. Looking out into the congregation I saw so many grieving faces. A church elder got up and shared about the 20-year-old murder victim who was closely connected to members of our church. My heart sank as I shuffled the pages on my music stand before we started the next song.

Death is horrible. Now that I’ve experienced it I don’t retract in fear like I once did. Instead of being afraid of death I’m just disheartened by it. What is there to fear when you’ve already lost a very close friend? I feel united with my friends who are grieving. I look into their dimmed eyes and say, “I too lost a best friend.”

Not fearful however I can’t help but ask myself, who is next? What person in my life will be the next to go? Where will I be when I hear the earth-shattering news that yet another person has left this earth? Maybe it will be me. I rise in the morning and wonder if today is my last, and I go to bed at night thinking I may awake in a place called eternity. At a grief seminar last week I realized it’s good to come to terms with death, to ponder your own death. Just because you want to die doesn’t mean you’re suicidal.

I know this post is a little scattered but to make sense of death is very difficult. Once the griever, now I feel called to be the comforter. How do you comfort a grieving friend? What do you say to a father who has just lost his son, or a sister who has lost her only brother?

I am comforted by one thing only. The Lord is here. The Lord is with you. Most of the time there are no words or deeds to mend a grieving heart. But the simple act of being with someone can make the grieving process a great deal better.

How to grieve when the world moves on

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Johnny’s sister mentioned something to me this week about the world moving on when we are still sad and still hurting.

There is a tendency to stop and just sit down, like we did in the grass by his grave. To linger in the moment, as my mind seems to return to the night it happened. To stop buying food. To stop eating. To stop working or reading or updating social media.

What do you do when the world is moving on, when all that stopped for John’s death has recommenced its course?  How can you, when you are still grieving the loss of a most beloved soul?

Still.

It’s a strange word, as if the aftermath of a sudden death could ever come to recovery. The word “still implies that we will eventually be okay. Can I agree with this? Some say it will take a year, others claim two years. But since the sudden death of John, I feel we shall never be the same on this side of heaven.

The world has moved on. It has already changed since Johnny left. The grocery stores are decorated for the holidays, the wind has unclothed the warm-colored trees, and darkness sets in before the day is over.

The world is moving on, and people are talking of winter decor and seasonal Starbucks drinks. I listen, trying to enjoy this time of year like I always do. But then I look down at my chest and see a fresh wound still bleeding, still hurting. When my thoughts return to that night my heart aches. I search for something to ease the pain.

I cry. I don’t cry. I hold it in. I don’t hold it in. But still, there is no remedy for death.

Grief is a ruthless enemy. It strikes when you least expect it. It hits you while you’re down. It comes from behind and descends like a cold November rain.

I’m realizing that I cannot just move on as the world has. I cannot come out of this, unchanged. And one thing in particular that must change is time with God. If anything, death should draw me nearer to Him. It surely has. But still, I need something to combat this ruthless enemy.  A lamp to guide my steps as the world is moving on.

Psalm 119:9 “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word.”

Death was not intended for us

“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.” — John Donne

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I was sitting in the cozy part of the university student center, near the coffee shop. A blog post I’d shared on social media had brought an unexpected flood of attention. I scrolled through my analytics and realized I’d hit a record of blog views in one day, reaching eleven different countries in readership. I’d only shard it so my sister could find the link, but I must admit the response was rewarding.

My phone buzzed with a text from a friend about my post. He reminded me that God did not intend for us to die.

My last post addressed the issues involved in death and the reality of grief. I asked the question of why people have to die. Lately, I’ve been asking God this same question every time I think of John. I’m okay that John died. I know where he is and I know he is alright. But I’m not okay with death. Nor am I at ease with the thought that every relationship in life will end in sadness. It’s a difficult reality to swallow. Not only will every relationship end — this alone is disheartening — but every relationship will end in pain and sadness.

Great, what a life we have before us.

But, my friend who reminded me that God did not intend for us to die, also reminded me that we should take comfort in this truth. I once wrote that there is no comfort in death. Death is a result of sin and I’m learning to see that in Christ we can overcome sin. I know what you are thinking. Can we cheat death? No. But can we overcome the power of death, not the reality of it? To this I say yes.

I was waiting for my evening class to begin as I pondered this thought. The sun was disappearing, the night was drawing in and I realized that lately I’ve been thinking of death as the ultimate outcome.

I keep returning to this one bible character who walked with the Lord all his life. I can’t remember his name or which book he was recorded in. I heard a pastor say this man walked with the Lord straight into heaven. An ideal way to go. Death for the people in this world appears to be the ultimate outcome, but ultimate would imply that it is final. Although death is the finish line on this side of heaven, it is also the starting point on the other side.

My sadness for Johnny was first brought on by a longing to be with him, then it became a fear of facing death in this world over and over again until it was my turn to suffer this final enemy. I don’t know what I think of death now. But it doesn’t seem quite as scary as it first did. Not with the remembrance that God never intended for us to die.

“One short sleep past, we wake eternally, and death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die.” — Holy Sonnets; Death, Be Not Proud

A Grave Visitation

Friday was the one month anniversary since John died. His best friend and I went to the grave to pay our respects. I wasn’t ready for it. The night before I tossed and turned until I found myself in the kitchen chugging a glass of water to replenish the tears I’d cried in my bed.

The graveyard is an easy half hour drive from the city. A quiet countryside surrounds it with square farmlands and big roofed houses. Gravel crunched beneath our feet as we silently approached the grave. I trembled with pulsing thoughts that said, I’m not ready for this.

It was one of those moments in life that you never expect to live. To be in your early twenties approaching the grave of your dear childhood friend, on a Friday afternoon in November. Isn’t this the time of life when you’re thinking about who you should marry, or what job you should pursue, or what countries you want to visit?

How surreal it is to visit the dead. They hadn’t set a tombstone, so we stopped at the bed of grass that was raised up from the ground with the bouquet of flowers from the funeral at the foot of it. They were white and wilted with long green stems and their petals were starting to brown at the edges. It felt odd, the two of us looming over this plot of grass where his body was laid. So I told him we should sit down.  And so we did, and then we wept. . .

“I wish there was a tombstone,” I remarked. I’d pictured this moment in my head since the day my brother said we’d occasionally have to visit the grave. I wanted to see his name and the date and the bible scripture his parents had chosen to engrave in the stone. But no. There was just the earth and the flowers and the sky and the absence.

It was indeed surreal, too surreal to recount. Not pleasant, not healing, not restorative. Just sad. Sad that people have to die. Sad to think I too will lie in the earth someday. Sad to consider how many times we will return to this spot to grieve the loss of our dear friend.

Two is better than one. I’m glad I went with his best friend. We cried together. We prayed together. We sat in silence heaving deep breaths of autumn air, while flicking bugs off of us and listening to John’s favorite album through an iPhone speaker.

Leaving was harder than coming. As we drove away with the gravel crunching beneath the tires, I wept again, feeling the absence of John so very strongly. It would no longer be  the three of us.

***

Another week begins. And I am doing better. I was feeling so distant from God lately that I sat in church yesterday and waited patiently for a word from him. He met me in the back pew with a passage from Romans 8.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because[g] the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

I woke this morning ready to declare my usual greetings to God, but all I could manage to say was, “Thank you for grace.”

 

Afraid to live Afraid to die

Fear: noun; a distressed emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, or pain.

I suppose fear is a result of death, and that of sin. As expected, these days I am depleted by the fear of death than ever before. I use to think about death in a good way. It was my ultimate outcome, a sign of a job well done, the end of the race.

Now it scares me.

I fear losing another close friend. I fear dying when my time comes. How will it feel to leave my body, this vessel I call home, and to experience a state of bodilessness.

My fear extends beyond death. I’m now afraid to live. Afraid of making memories without him. Afraid of doing things we used to do together. Afraid of growing older than him, for he was always a year ahead of me. Afraid of stepping into new chapters of life and not being able to tell him about them. And most of all, afraid of forgetting things we did together.

When someone dies, memories are all that remain. Photographs hardly do them justice. But what of when I forget the sound of his voice, the way he walked, the expressions he made?

I was at first comforted by the thought of seeing him again; heaven seemed all the more near. But as one morning without Johnny in this world becomes a few dozen, I search in vain for that comfort?

I remember a famous line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” 

Last week I didn’t want to beBut with each new morning in this sad chapter of life I realize that Someone wants me to be. And as long as I am here, ’till the day I get to see Johnny again, I will carry out the tasks my Father has asked of me.

As I start a new week I pray these words from the Psalms, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation.”

The Death of a Friend & the Birth of a Nephew

Hospitals. Nobody likes them. I hadn’t stepped foot in a hospital for eight months. And then I made two trips within a week. One for the death of a friend and another for the birth of a nephew.

Because the two incidents happened so close together, Johnny’s death and Gabe’s birth, my emotions tend to overlap. I see my sister with her baby, that baby who grew inside her for nine months, that human soul who I just thought of as a swollen stomach for weeks on end. And it scares me, my mind tries to comprehend how this works.

How is a human soul born?

How does a human soul die?

But wait, it doesn’t die. For it was John’s body that died, not his soul. That’s what they tell me.

At his funeral . . . that wretched day when I sobbed on the porch of my house, mortified by the thought of seeing his body.

At his funeral . . . that awful day when we drove for an hour to find the place to rest his body.

At his funeral . . . his friend spoke. I didn’t know the man. It was a friend from his years when I was in college. The man was preaching a sort of funeral sermon, explaining the eternal life John’s soul was granted in Heaven. John’s soul, not his body, his soul. Like the soul in little Gabe that began when he was born.

The man at the podium loudly proclaimed into the microphone, “JOHN IS NOT DEAD.” Silence followed. Someone in the audience murmured an almost laugh. It was lunacy to say such a thing at a funeral, with the body of our friend resting in a closed wooden box just a few feet away.  I mean, really? Can you imagine what those words did to everyone? 

The words haunt me like a strange shadow, breathing into my ear, those words I so very much wanted to hear the night it happened. But no, I heard in fact the opposite.

John is dead. Despite the words that echoed hollowly through the sanctuary, despite the fact his soul lives on, despite the life God’s given him in heaven, John is dead. John died.

Three weeks from the day his life was taken, I still tremble at the thought. I still wish it was all a dream and I’d wake up wondering how someone so close to me could actually die. How could I go on when that person — who was a part of me and I of them — was removed from my life?

But no.

Three weeks have come and gone and I haven’t woken from this bewildering nightmare. Dreams don’t make sense in the moment but still we try to figure out how to keep going, or we come to a point when nothing about the dream is fathomable and we simply wake up.

There is no waking up after a death. There is simply the shock, and then the grief, and then something they call coping. Trying. Attempting. Figuring out what to do.

“I don’t know what to do.” I breathed these words into the dark air outside the hospital. We hugged, his best friend and I, in the eerie realization that it was just the two of us, and that Johnny, though inside the hospital, was no longer there.

____

I hold my nephew in my hands. This doesn’t feel real. How can my sister have a baby? I know it’s so simple. My mom had ten of these. But my brain for some reason cannot admit the change life brings. First she was pregnant, then he was born. First Johnny was here — we were texting hours before it happened — then he was gone.

Death is not a dream. Death is reality.

Navigating Life

I sat in a window seat of my Grad School building waiting for a ride from Adam. The sun had sunk so far into the horizon that the timid stars began to return from hiding.

It was a night like this, two weeks ago, that I got the call that John had died. I heave a sigh and wait.

Adam comes and we drive in his car to my parking garage. You could say I’m lazy not to walk the four blocks on my own. Or you could say I’d rather take advantage of a friend with a car than to brave the dark cold streets of Indianapolis.

Tonight in class we discussed the number of deaths from bicycle accidents in Indianapolis and how the city could try and lower the death rate.

Is it a coincidence? All I can think of is the dark road John was riding on when a car took his life. I tell Adam and he silently listens. For some reason his response is refreshing. I don’t feel choked up. I don’t feel panicked. I don’t feel the cloud that usually descends when I mention John’s name. But then again, I didn’t actually say his name. For to say his name makes it all the more real.

Adam tells me he’s looking for a church where he belongs. He asks if I ever feel like I can’t find community in the church.

Yes. I did a year ago. But that’s not where my mind goes.

I remember standing in the parking lot after a soccer game. It was not a month before Johnny died. He wanted to talk, so I stuck around even though my feet were swollen and hurting. Drops of sweat rolled down his face as he twisted an empty water bottle in his hands.

He told me he was searching for where God wanted him to be. So I told him to ask God to give him a sign. He took my advice with a slow nod, and I was surprised at his openness. Usually he was so guarded around me.

We talked for maybe an hour and when I left I hugged him, maybe, I don’t remember. I just recall how precious that moment was as the sky behind him was painted with orange and pink colors, as the kids in the park punted soccer balls into the goals, as we stood, the two of us, friends since childhood, trying to figure out life together.

My mind returns to the intersection with Adam and he’s asking me which street to turn down. I say go left, and we laugh because I’m pointing to the right.

I feel as if every guy or girl in their early twenties is searching for a place to belong.

Johnny, like Adam, was searching. In his life I worried for him, I wanted him to find that place. In his death I know God had him where he was supposed to be. I write these words to myself as well. In this life we are always searching, but let us not be distraught. God has our days numbered. We will all soon expire. Let’s make the most and live fully in the days to which we are assigned.

 

The Tall People Blog Tour

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I recently published a short story. You can find it on Amazon, combined with other short stories by various writers into a beautiful anthology.

I’m not sure how the idea for the story came to me. I just remember sitting in the lounge of my sister’s Manhattan townhouse, typing away.

I suppose it was initially inspired by an article my dad told me about as he drove me to the train station the night before.

The article reported a mother who drove her van full of kids into the Atlantic ocean. So I took the perspective of a life guard and fictionalized the story. Then I saturated it with the question of how valuable is a human life?  I’ve never written a story with such determination. It was almost as if the story was telling itself, coaxing my fingers to type it out.

***

How did I get it published? I follow a blogger named Ethan Renoe. What drew me to his work was an article on singleness he wrote in Relevant Magazine. I guess I was surprised to see a man writing on singleness. What? I thought singleness was a topic only women wrote about, me included.

So I became a regular reader of Ethan’s blog and one day he asked people to contribute to his anthology.

I scrolled through my google docs and came across this piece I wrote in college for a fiction writing class. The story is full of suspense and emotion. Ethan asked me to change the narrator to a female because,  as he put it, “It was very emotional in a way that most guys don’t think.” Makes sense.

The book is now on a blog tour and will appear across various blogs in the bloggersphere — yeah that’s not a word.

See more on this book tour from Geoffery Wolfe’s blog.