Forever Altered

Several months ago a wind storm blew in, not entirely unusual during the fall but this one was different, more powerful. I listened from inside while the howling increased then settled, again and again. The sky looked normal, no threat of a tornado, merely ferocious gusts that erupted and abated. Trees older than me bent sideways, lost leaves but stood each time as the calm returned. Venturing out to take a look, I heard a crack, a splintering and watched in disbelief as a huge branch of our old maple fell right at my feet. Later when I took Chef outside to survey the damage, he struggled to see amidst the fullness of the remaining leaves, the mighty branches, just where the tree had broken. Walking amidst the fallen branches, I pointed out just where the tree had separated, glaring once he could spot the emptiness. 

As time has passed, with the ground covered in leaves and the winter sky above, the tree is marked forever by the part that is missing. Just as the weather folks warned of the potential for danger with this wind storm, so we were warned many years ago that addiction could take our son. We heeded the warnings, we sought treatment and interventions and prayer. Still, in the same way I couldn’t protect this beautiful strong tree, I was helpless to save my child. Every morning I look out at this tree and recognize that it is still standing, still providing shelter for birds and squirrels and probably raccoons, but it is broken, forever marred by forces stronger, more dangerous than  the strong root system or age. 

I wonder each morning if I am the tree, if I am still strong and mighty and able to continue a purposeful life, able to shelter others and experience joy as little ones gather around me, playing and laughing and watering more storms. Instead am I the broken branches which still lay in the yard, our grief robbing us of motivation to care, of the ability to do basic maintenance like shower and eat, never mind tend to our home? Most days I feel like those decaying logs, laying cast aside and neglected. I know that even those pieces do some good for the earth, for the smaller critters who burrow inside. Yet is that enough, to merely lay around and passively let live exist in my presence? 

Some days I can even claim to be the wind, to be strong and angry and forceful, seeking weak places and blasting my wrath. Mostly my anger has left me, the good work of the grief group I attended bringing me back into relationship with the God who created that tree and me and my son. All that remains is sadness. Big and deep and pervasive SADNESS. I look at the tree each morning and know that others may see just a tree, see that it has survived this latest storm and countless others. My eye though is drawn to the splintered spot, to the gaping hole where once a significant member lived. The tree will never be the same as before, that moment, that snap that forever altered it, is now part of the tree’s story, it’s history. 

I am broken, stuck in that moment just after a phone call that brought my nightmare, all of my fears into fruition. I hear the wailing, the keening, the screaming and know it was me, a howling wind that may have quieted for others but never leaves my soul. The branch of my tree that was my son lays in ruins at my feet, a promise of a life full and rich and joyful separated from the rest, from the strength of our family, from me. It is true that he is restored in heaven, that he is no longer haunted by his demons, his life may be characterized by all that I wanted for him here, now that he is there. Yet I am left looking at the missing parts, at the emptiness, at the destruction of hope. 

The wind came howling and broke my tree, opioids slid silently back into my son and broke him. I knew the power, the potential but we had weathered so very many storms before, I thought we could survive more, I thought our roots would protect us. Wrong, I was wrong. I could not protect him or us or stop the drugs from reaching him, anymore than I could brace the tree from a power so much greater than I.

Gentle breezes move the smaller branches, I take little notice. The damage is already done. 

Stella is 30

One of the gifts of finding God again is that I survived a hard day and didn’t crumble.  Yesterday was Stella’s 30th birthday, the 4th anniversary of her wedding and coincidentally, 4 years since I have seen my daughter.  While aching over the loss of this relationship, I was still able to celebrate her life and her presence on this earth. And I found joy.  All day joy as we cavorted with Plum, listening to giggles and chatter.  A bustling day as we sought ways to be occupied that didn’t involve screens on an unexpectedly unseasonably cold day.  We survived.

As we created 8 different colors of slime, as the glue plopped on the table and the food coloring stained our wooden island, I ached over the grandchildren who are not so indulged by grandparents who would foster a curiosity about science as well. As we coated the floor in baby powder to ensure maximum slipperiness, I imagined the day the house is filled with little feet sliding through the room.  As we bowled at the local university lanes and Chef gave up his turns to provide the most opportunities for Plum to practice, I could almost hear the lessons given to all the little girls who have yet to be taught by a patient grandpa.  I trust that one day we will be granted those chances, that our table will be surrounded by family again. I trust.

As I stole away a few minutes to crochet and consider all that my heart was wishing for, the boys took extra skein of yarn and created a disaster of traps upstairs, a tribute to the recent Home Alone binge Plum has enjoyed. Even as I reflected on the ones who were not filling my home, the ones who wouldn’t eat a cake or pie I made to celebrate this milestone birthday, the laughter filtered back down the stairs and into my soul. We love the ones who present, we beg God to bring the others back around. I knew my son was watching from above, relishing the ways we allow his own son to experience joy and fun and learning even as the messes pile up.  We kept living.

I don’t know what it will take, I fear what that might be, in order for her to call, text, email me again. I am sure though that one day it will happen and I will rejoice, forgetting the hurts as we begin anew. I will remember then as I do now all the years that preceded the estrangement, I will focus on the travels and parties and the every days that create a lifetime, that fill scrapbooks and facebook memories. I will glorify the One who builds bridges.

Happy 30th birthday my Stella, my Miss Pie.  I love you most, I love you forever. I imagined your day as you were the center of attention, as you ate some Boston Cream pie and taught your daughters to see their mom as a person also, one who is worthy of celebration and honor. Also, I pray you didn’t have to have pork chops for dinner. When you come back home, I will make your whatever you want, will welcome you as the prodigal daughter, we will feast and rejoice.  Until then, I know God has you.

Arrow Graduated

The first Sunday in November our church recognizes those who have passed on to be with God during the previous 12 months. A picture appears on the screen, a chime rings out as the name is spoken with reverence. This year was personal, this year my son would appear on the screen, just another reminder of what I was missing, how my heart was crushed by this grief. I knew it would be impossible to endure the service without tears, I didn’t expect the sobs that overtook me. More than the memorial services, this was the evidence that he is no longer with us. Yet something unexpected has happened since that chime rang out, since my smiling boy graced the screen. I saw not only what I have lost but what he has gained.

Most of these 11 months I have been angry at God, questioning why He didn’t save Arrow one more time. I felt tricked into believing in His power, I felt abandoned in my love for this child. When my pastor spoke about those people who all appeared on the screen, he opened my soul to a different perspective. Like a group of high school seniors, receiving their diplomas, ready to enter into the next phase of their journey, all those people on the screen, this class of saints, had entered into heaven. I saw the pictures of those my Arrow had joined, there were some real rock stars of the faith in his class. He is in amazing company. Further, my pastor reminded me that Arrow is no longer hindered by the demon of addiction, he is living his best life whole, without misery and pain and sorrow. He is finally who I knew he could be.

I heard a whisper this morning, a question from God, asking if I could see that He had had saved my boy. I realized that God had truly ached alongside us as we worried and cried and prayed for Arrow’s safety, for his freedom from drugs and alcohol. I heard God say, “Lisa, we tried everything and I knew it was time to bring him home, bring him closer to me. I will protect him for eternity. He is safe now.  You will one day see his smile, hear his laughter and you will rejoice as well.”  I know it sounds crazy, I rely on others to hear from our God, my hearing loss has been acute when it comes to the voice of God. Yet, still… today I heard the reassurance from the one who has suffered my anger and nudged others to comfort me in His place. I found a truth so deep in my soul that even I couldn’t ignore it, rebuff the knowledge. My arrow is safe and I no longer have anxiety bout the next phone call, about who might hurt him or who may be in the way of his drug-clouded choices. I know where my son is, I know who he is with.

His graduating class is one of true honor, some friends who I know are welcoming him and letting him know how much I miss him, they watched me grieve as well. I know he will be also be on the welcoming committee for those who come after.  He is safe.  He is whole.  He is watching his children grow, able to give his full attention to them finally. And I am able to forgive God and ask for forgiveness for my hardened heart. I get it. I finally see that he is indeed in a better place and he is a better man now.

I will surely still shed tears, I will spend some days sobbing over what I have lost. I will look at his son and see all the promise that Arrow once held as well. The anger though, that has surely evaporated, replaced with the breath of hope and unexplainable love that  entered my soul this morning.

Changing Time

The wonder of waking to see that my phone and the clock that has rested on the table on my Chef’s side of the bed are an hour apart, understanding that someone somewhere created a program to automatically adjust time while I slept on my device, leaving me with the chore of adjusting all the other clocks around the house to accuracy as time change Sunday arrives. Mentally considering each one that must be pulled from the wall, manually turned back to give an extra hour today, I can’t help but question why I should stop at just one hour, why not go back days, weeks, months. I was given an extra hour to sleep today but what if I had an extra year, 4 years, to go back and redo all the wrongs and the angry words and the missed calls and and and.  Where would I stop?

Ten and a half months have now passed since my son died, 7,665 hours that continuing to accrue and yet I am given this one extra? I want more, I want to go back years. I want to travel to the days of relationship with my daughter, I want to return to when her laughter filled my soul. I want to go back to the days before Arrow’s addiction charted a course we couldn’t alter, back to when he was silly and safe.  How many times must I twist the dial to get back to when life felt sweeter and full of possibility? Each day now brings me closer to the anniversary, December 29, which means all the first times so far have been preparation for this big event, the milestone that shows I have survived without him against what I have often desired. I made it through his birthday, his son’s, mine, Chef’s. Through holidays and spring flowers and starry nights and full moons, through little days and every damn Friday since I got that call that will always mark the before and after of my life. I could go back to before that, but really to set things right, I would have to go much further.

We must be careful with adjusting time, taking only that one hour. If I go back 9 years, I could mess up the sequence and never know my Plum, never hold that tiny baby and sing him to sleep, never teach him to drink from a cup and drop the bottle, never potty train this little boy or help him learn to sleep in the knowledge that he was safe and secure.  I wouldn’t hear his giggles and find Lego everywhere in my home. No, I must only take the 1 hour given, there is still too much to lose by going back which means I must have a reason to go forward. Just as I taught him to tie his shoes and step into the world with confidence, I take the next step and the next, stumbling and tripping and resting often, but moving ever forward.

Looking back is risky. My breathing slows, my thoughts create an impenetrable fog, I miss the sunlight on the leaves. Trusting that timing is above my station, that I cannot return to former days and cannot rush forward to a place where it doesn’t  hurt, I am left with today. One extra hour to wallow, to wonder, to wish, yet still the same 24. A fresh start, a chance to not make the same mistakes and seek forgiveness for those already committed. An opportunity to live into trust, that someone is programming the time to be exactly what I need. I’ll take that extra hour to be gentle with myself, I’ll offer kind words to someone who needs them, I’ll go to bed a bit early tonight and pray to visit with my children at least in my dreams.

How will you spend your extra hour today? May it bring you a sliver of peace and an offering of grace, a chance to tell someone you are sorry and you love them and you delight in their presence in your life. As we move the clocks back, we still must go forward awash in the grace of the Ultimate Timekeeper who understands every minute counts.

 

Gratitude Again

Where friends and family are pondering entering into what for many is the busiest season of the year, holidays hitting with rapid succession, my season has just ended. Preparing meals for our church gatherings each Wednesday and Thursday, two funeral meals, two huge church celebrations, and finally last night a catering for a rehearsal dinner. 7 weeks of intense cooking and planning and shopping all behind me, the quiet again ahead. The constant motion has provided little time to sit and think, to stew and reflect on all of my worries and heartaches, a respite from my emotional pain even as my body ached and rebelled and wished for sleep. As I consider my one neglected home and my critical need for a haircut, I can only see the blessings of this season and know that the sheer ability to say that is progress.

My sanctuary is the church kitchen, the place where I can just be, where friends wander in for a quick chat and a nibble, where people appreciate the gifts I have to offer and there is no pressure to smile.  Yet the smiles and laughs come easily there, the room where children come in and ask if “Miss Lisa needs any help” and proceed to carry out whatever crazy task I give them. Where sweet potato mishaps and a counter covered in leeks are merely part of the story.  This is the place in our church where people 20 years older than me come in to help wash dishes and set out salt and pepper shakers, where people trust me to guide them. I have been amazed at the grace that flows so freely, at the undeniable goodness of people I encounter. Each interaction, every single one, has been healing for me, as if each person took hold of my hand and chose to walk a bit of the journey with me, bringing me back into a restored relationship with the One who sent them into to the kitchen.  They may have thought they were painting a ham with marinade or finding serving utensils, but truly they were showing me a God I could love again, evaporating my anger with every bite of a steak sandwich or the hauling of tables around the room.  Grace, they all offered me grace that I lapped up as eagerly as they consumed the shrimp at the low country boil.

The disruption of two funeral meals in the midst of this chaotic season could have destroyed the momentum I was feeling, the deep sadness threatening to send me back to the couch. An elderly gentlemen who joined his wife in heaven, a man who exemplified a servants heart, that was tough. Then a young man, was too soon, just inconceivable that this could be happening again, although in much different circumstances than my Arrow. I felt honored to be in service, behind the scenes as families gathered to mourn these saints. I felt the wash of my grief even as I recognized that neither event was about me, not about my tears. I remember little of the memorial service we held for Arrow, I attended moments of each of these and allowed the words and songs to minister to me as well, selfishly trusting that the faith on display that we would see these men again to cover my son as well. Unbelievably , friends held me as I sobbed, surrounded me in my own pain and not a single one shamed me for not being able to focus on this very loss and not my own. How could I deserve this grace and love? The generosity of kindness reminded me that I will never deserve any of it, yet it is freely given.

Monday of this week I was given the opportunity to speak to a local fraternity about addiction and consequences. I looked out at these young men and saw promise, saw hope. Even as I shared our struggles with Arrow’s demons, I told them I don’t expect my story to change theirs, that no amount of talking and begging and pleading could save my son, surely they would ignore a stranger in front of them pouring out her heart. What I did remind them is that someone loves them as dearly as I loved my son, that they have value and worth in their very existence and someone would be devastated and broken if they make the wrong choice. I shared the truth that no one wants to grow up to be a heroin addict, that there are hundreds of choices that priced that end result and those steps matter. Looking out for their friends and loved ones, making hard choices to share secrets and act on concerns, that is where I pray they will go. These young men listened and asked beautiful questions and spoke one-on-one with me after. They offered me the opportunity to share my love for my son, something I regret not being able to do at his memorial. They offered me healing with their attentiveness and respect. Another step closer to restoration of my faith.

Finally last night, I was given the opportunity to cater a rehearsal dinner, the first time both sides of the wedding families met. It was glorious to be hovering around such sweet gentle people who laughed and shared stories and accepted the challenge to expand their own sense of family. What a blessing to be on the periphery of this joining, to hear the chatter and watch the groups morph into family, as if I were watching a birthing. New life happened in front of me, around me even as my heart was heavy over the loss of such a young life celebrated mere hours before. Circles, I saw the continuity of life and loving and again, felt my soul accepting the grace and healing so generously given.

Aching feet, groaning back muscles, the aroma of pesto and cartelized onions. I brought all into my home late last night to be greeted by a little boy voice. “Gran, will you snuggle with me?’ My Plum was supposed to be asleep already, I anticipated a glass of wine and my feet on the stool but instead got to hear some giggles and reminiscence from his day, the absolute best way to grow closer to the God who made all this impossible. This morning the dishes are done, the calendar is cleared and a weekend away with my Chef and Plum await. I know I will be traveling with a lighter heart and with too many people to thank for assisting along this journey. Grateful.  I am grateful and I haven’t felt that way since December 29th. I am being restored, a process that causes aching muscles and exhaustion. but my God, the view from the other side is amazing. Thank you to each of you who have held my hand, you are my hero and my deepest friends and I can say with honesty that I am thanking the God I have avoided for months now, for all of you.

No Light, No Grace

When I began this blog and considered the title, it seemed fitting to establish my roots in faith. I sought examples of God’s light and wanted to document experiences of grace as I journeyed through each day. But what now, when darkness seems to close in unexpectedly, when grief overcomes my ability to see or trust the Light? Certainly I have been shown grace as my emotions rule, as tears flow in the midst of everyday conversations or when I appear hardened and aloof, trying desperately not to feel in order to complete tasks. Truthfully though, I have discovered during this mourning time that I don’t find the light to be bright enough,  the grace I once knew was from God is little comfort. Marooned, angry, unable even to recognize a thirst for healing waters, I realize I have lost my ability to write as well.

What was comfort, a means to express what I often couldn’t say out loud, now feels like whining and moaning and pointless. Shall I say each day that I am sad? Shall I list all the ways I have displayed my anger? Who really wants to read such depressing drivel? How can I find my way back as a light-seeker when I am distrustful of the rays that break through, knowing the night is coming again, the inky blackness that mutes colors and turns all who move around me into shadows? Eleven years I was faithful in praying to a God, asking fervently for the prayers of others who seemed more deeply faithful, that my son would be given a way out of his addiction, that he would be safe and redeemed and restored. A pastor told me once, through the darker times, that my Arrow was working on his testimony, that one day he would share his witness. Taking this as a promise from one who had the inside track to God, I just knew Arrow would stand in church one day and thank everyone for coming alongside him in prayer, for propping up his family and caring for his child He would say he was now a believer and committed to a different life. I held this as a promise even when he was homeless and filthy, even when he was missing and the police were searching for him. I trusted this plan when he was in danger in prison and when he attempted suicide. I trusted God with my child, yet God took him anyway.

Tricked, I feel tricked. I search for a way back to God, a reason to go back to God. I still beg him to protect my daughter, to keep my husband safe, to watch over my grandchildren but I know He may not be listening to me. After all, why hasn’t He restored my daughter to us? Why is life often complicated and difficult with Plum’s mom? When is it going to go our way, when? Yes, we have a safe home and food in our fridge, we are mostly able to pay all the bills and our health allows us to participate in our church ministries. Still my deepest yearnings, my fervent prayers lay at the altar, abandoned neglected shriveled. I want the easy joys of restoration and relationship and celebrations, when do I get my share, my payback for the mistake of taking my son? Kubler Ross might notice I am angry and bargaining and oh so far from acceptance.

I listen as others who are mourning or have grown in their grief talk about the assurance of a better place for their lost loves, knowing I am rejecting their faith, rejecting the idea that the timing was God’s intention. How can I believe that Arrow was supposed to die alone in his kitchen with drugs coursing through his body, destroying the chance of listening to his children laugh and walk and run and play football? What sense does that make? How can I not feel rejected by the One I have followed, to give me this child only to rip him from our lives?  No, writing does make me feel better, see truths I may have missed. I can only rant and scream out with the ragged voice of one who has suffered a wound so catastrophic that wholeness will never be possible.

I am sad. Everyday I am sad. Every minute I ache and I search for answers that won’t come. Acceptance of this loss and of a new relationship with the One who pulls the strings seem far off, out of reach to a mother who just wants to hear her son laugh again.

The Long Game

A whirlwind weekend is coming to a close, today will be just as busy and yet the string of holy moments deserve to be considered each on their own. A vision begun over a year ago for a ministry pursuing restorative justice culminated in a 13 hour training with 25 folks who are interested in exploring mentoring relationships with those returning to the community after incarceration, those who are on supervision with the probation department. Each step of the wondering, wishing, planning, researching came together as we learned from a man who traveled from Vermont to help us establish the structure and resources and boundaries to take the next steps. His evidence-based approach has proven results and his wisdom was astounding. He gave to us freely, he challenged us deeply, he gave us much more than his presence for the 4 days we have spent with him. While I celebrate him, I am also in awe of those who chose to participate, those who supported us by providing meals and cleaning up the kitchen. The broad base of encouragement we have received allowed us to be fully present, to not miss a word.

I thought originally I was moved to be involved in this project after reading “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, a book which spoke to my social work heart. After developing a relationship with the men and women at the local probation department, later interviewing my own officer from almost 30 years ago, I thought I was doing this for my own healing. I even considered I was doing this because I had lost my son after 4 years of his own incarceration, it was 3 years ago today that we picked him up from prison to bring him home quickly and then on to his half-way house before he could finally return completely to our nest. I thought I wanted to be involved in this ministry to provide what my son lacked, a circle of support and accountability that would ensure a greater chance of success. I am motivated to save another mother’s child, even while I mourn the death of my own. Or maybe it was the echoes of the voices of women I left behind in prison, those who begged me not to forget them, to do something, anything to make their lives better. Each step along this journey has proven that my deep involvement with the ministry is personal, is healing to me as well, even as I see how it is already touching the lives of others.

We watched d a documentary of the Vermont program in action, we listened to the stories of  folks who are the core members of these circles as their lives post-incarceration unfolded.  Ugly resentment and jealously rose up in me as I desperately wished we had started this program 3 years ago so my son could benefit even as I watched a young man battle with his addiction and eventually return to prison. I became so invested in his success that when he fell, I was heartbroken again, tears too numerous to discretely swipe away covering my cheeks. And yet, and yet, there is hope.

Hope in the questions and searchings of those who attended the training. Hope in the commitment of those who filled out paperwork to come along side those struggling in our community. Hope in leaving where we are comfortable to step into an unknown, a place with no guarantees of big joys or happy rewards. I found hope and healing being in the presence of a community that is willing to see addiction and violence and manipulative behavior and then look deeper. I found the washing away of stigma as the flood waters of mercy and acceptance flowed around the room and my heart broke some more but in the best possible way.

I cannot not see the timing in this all, the fact that the grief group I agreed to attend begins tonight, an expected circle of my own of support and accountability, a place to look at my aching heart and my lost dreams and find comfort. I cannot not see the lights above the stairways at every entrance to the courthouse, small circles of light that shine on everyone who passes through the doors, lights that were shown to us at our very first meeting with probation, something you have to look for, that are missed everyday and yet they are unmoving, they are constant. I can see God deeply present in all we are doing, reminders of His love and unrelenting pursuance of our souls, of mine.

While I am filling my days with activity, pulling on stands of connection in order to avoid the overwhelming sadness that surrounds me, maybe I could be accused of avoidance, of not facing the loss and grief and devastation head on. I certainly point that finger at myself often enough. This weekend though, all the days and weeks preceding, meetings and copies and emails and planning, have kept me returning to the church, kept me within my safe circle where I can be vulnerable and authentic and still contribute to something bigger than the hole in my heart. That very willingness, that draw to connect, to accept the grace that is freely offered to me, I know I am merely riding on the backs of those who have stronger faith, deeper spirituality, less doubt. And that is okay. We all need to be carried sometimes, we all reach out, we lift others along the way too, if we are truly committed to this Jesusy thing. In the midst of all that is wrong and broken, I am borrowing the hope of others, the joys in possibilities, the new beginnings and the shared  pain of endings.

I see you God, I see what you are doing in placing those who deserve my trust right in my path, knowing that one day I might just extend that trust to you. The long game, where ultimately I offer up my entire life and heart to you, I see it. Today I can give the pieces that reflect your light, ever crowding out the darkness that once controlled my choices. This day I will rejoice a bit and be glad of new ministries and circles of support and accountability and maybe find some rest.