The Un-Birthday

Today marks the second birthday that we will be remembering Tricia without the joy of her physical presence.

I’m discovering that moving on from a loss doesn’t mean we erase the significant days of those people we love who most shaped and shared our lives from our calendars. It may just mean that we change the context in which we commemorate them. Just because I change the context of something doesn’t change the significance of it.

I have decided that on this side of things I am going to take a different approach to the way I observe Tricia’s birthday. Frankly, I am clueless how to celebrate something as personal as a birthday without the one I’m celebrating being present anyway. So this year I am choosing to look at it like the scene in Alice in Wonderland where the rabbit and the hatter are throwing themselves a “un-birthday” party. Alice, of course has no concept of what a un-birthday is but she soon learns it is the other 364 days of the year that aren’t her birthday that are worthy of celebration.

This year I am celebrating Tricia’s birthday by moving toward celebrating her “un-birthdays” – those moments we have over the other 364 days of the year that remind us of a beautiful life. I will celebrate her when I talk to our daughter and see glimpses of her in Lauren. Lauren’s laugh, her strong sense of principles, a certain determination, the way she waves her hand to make a point, and the sparkle in her blue eyes that she inherited. These are the daily joys that come on the “un-birthdays” which I can celebrate repeatedly.

I celebrate Tricia as I remember something she would say to me in the form of encouragement when I am feeling like I’m swinging in the wind at things that don’t come to fruition fast enough to suit me.

Sometimes when I drive in to Nashville from being out of town and see the skyline on the horizon I remember how fearful I was of moving here over twenty-five years ago and I quietly mumble to myself, “Thanks, Sweet Pea,” for her believing in me more than I did.

I can even celebrate her in the fact that she had our deck built with the stairs going down the wrong side of the house (in my opinion) and I laugh at that disagreement with every trip down those steps.

There won’t be a cake with Tricia’s name on it today. We aren’t going to get together and ceremoniously blow out her candles. Those are beautiful expressions but those aren’t ours to do now. What I will do is continue to celebrate her “un-birthday” tomorrow and each day when I see the glimpses of what she left here – a beautiful, bright daughter, a host of friends, the lasting impressions of her generosity, a circle of people she impacted and empowered, and a laugh that will stay in my mind as long as I remember her.

And occasionally, when I trudge up and down those blasted deck stairs that honestly should have been on the opposite side of the house.

True Poverty

Jesus, my Brother and Lord, I pray as I write these words for the grace to be truly poor before you, to recognize and accept my weakness and humanness, to forgo the indecent luxury of self-hatred, to celebrate your mercy and trust in your power when I’m at my weakest, to rely on your love no matter what I may do, to seek no escapes from my innate poverty, to accept loneliness when it comes instead of seeking substitutes, to live peacefully without clarity or assurance, to stop grandstanding and trying to get attention, to do the truth quietly without display, to let the dishonesties in my life fade away, to belong no more to myself, to not desert my post when I give the appearance of staying at it, to cling to my humanity, to accept the limitations and full responsibility of being a human being – really human and really poor in Christ our Lord. – (Brennan Manning: Reflections for Ragamuffins)

The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
Lamentations 3:25-26

Waiting on the Lord is something I’m learning a little more about than I ever cared to know, quite honestly. It is one thing to say that I belong to Jesus and that I have a certain hope as a Christian. It is quite another to say that I am willing to let go of my excuses, facades, strip myself of all my favorite substitutes, and lay myself bare – poor before Him (as Brennan Manning’s prayer so vulnerably articulates) and simply wait.

About six months before Tricia passed away I was having a session with my counselor. I was tired, frustrated, and numb. I began to share about all the ways that my life seemed to be dictated to me. My reality felt very decided for me by my circumstances as a caregiver and while I complained about it on one hand, there was a certain safety in it on the other.

After listening to my “I feel so stuck” speech for the bazillion-and-seventh time my counselor became unusually quiet and began to speak in a very cautionary tone as if she was treading into the conversational equivalent of a walk across a frozen pond.

“David, when Tricia dies I believe you will experience some very anxious days. There is likely to be a level of anxiety that you haven’t encountered even in her illness.”

“No,” I snapped back, “I may be a lot of things – sad, regretful, heartbroken, and even relieved, but anxious is NOT going to be one of the things I feel. I can promise you that.”

She smiled and continued her verbal trek across the icy Lake David.

“Well, time will tell,” she said. “But I believe Tricia has represented a barrier between you and several things that you haven’t had to confront yet. Suddenly it will be open season on things like vocational changes, new relationships, professional opportunities, personal risks, – all things that you haven’t even considered, let alone pursued simply because of your situation. You will be free and fearful at the same time and you will have to honestly ask yourself what you are going to do with these new options. You need to be prepared for that. As much as you’ve been shackled by her illness, you’ve also been protected by it and losing that safety net can produce anxiety.”

Sure enough, in the days and weeks that passed after losing Tricia I began a journey of restlessness like I’ve never experienced. I felt as if I didn’t belong anywhere. Nothing in my life was the same. I was no longer married. I lived alone in the house we built together. I had too many choices. No one necessarily needed me. Life was moving on and I felt as if I was left standing at the station waving at it.

When the subject of a season of fasting here at CCC first came to my attention I initially felt that it was just one more time I was being asked to give something up. Upon more prayerful reflection it occurred to me that I needed to treat this as a season of investment instead of a season of doing without. I realized as I approached praying for our church, prayer for change, and prayer for direction for us as a body I am demonstrating that I need that prayer for me. Life without excuses and substitutes is not for the faint hearted.

I’m finding that peace can reside in the fear as well as the freedom. And waiting on the Lord is simply waiting – quietly, patiently, and purposefully as we acknowledge all of our human limitations. For me, embracing the poverty of Christ is less about what I sacrifice and more about embracing His.

From Here

In the two weeks since my wife went to heaven processing thoughts for me has been like being inside of one of those wind machines snatching at swirling dollar bills. My thoughts swirl around me and only some of them I actually manage to retain.

I’m not one who by nature considers myself to be scattered. Yet, in these last ten plus days I have started the washing machine and forgotten to put in clothes. I’ve walked away leaving the dishwasher door hanging open never putting away the entire bottom rack of dishes. I’ve even gone to appointments on the wrong days because I’m not reading my calendar accurately. Some details I’ve carried out fine. Others are blowing around in my brain as I clutch at them only to find they’ve slipped through my grasp.

Those have been the easy things, to be honest. Over the past fifteen years I have been so oriented to watching the clock in order to make sure I was home in time to turn Tricia in her bed or make sure she had her lunch that I feel out of sorts when I realize those tasks are no longer necessary. Nothing takes me as long as it used to. I wake up every morning and still wonder if I should go check on her first thing. I’ve reached for my phone to call her and see if I can bring her something from the store. If I sit down in the living room to watch TV I have to remind myself that she won’t be lonesome in the back of the house without me coming in there. I don’t have to offer to share my dessert or make sure her laptop is powered up or turn in my order for medical supplies.

I’m going through closets, drawers, and keepsakes of hers and I find myself wanting to ask her if she thinks we should save something. When is it okay to throw away a person’s hairbrush? What do you do with keepsakes that meant more to the person you lost than they ever did to you? Is it okay to admit that I never liked the color of our bathroom even though she did?

I feel a bit like the man who went to sleep on the airplane and missed his connection. When he got off the plane he expected to be in Cleveland and instead he found himself in San Diego. I love the weather in San Diego but I’m used to the weather in Cleveland. I can predict the weather in Cleveland. I have no idea what people do in San Diego.

From here I will learn to enjoy the different weather. From here I will adjust to the vortex where a week feels like a month. I will learn to think with more intentionality. From here I will continue to grope at random thoughts however incomplete knowing that eventually I will get to retain a few more.

Reality and My Doorstep

When reality finally catches up with us it confronts that which we think we’ve already come to grips with. In other words, we only think we know what we believe about something until we are actually confronted with it.

We often discover that maybe we adopted our beliefs in a vacuum. We can’t know precisely how something is going to feel until it finally shows up on our doorstep. This is when we realize that maybe reality isn’t quite as easy as it seemed in the vacuum.

When Tricia and I were newly married we were those people who judged the young parents of children in dining establishments and movie theaters. Fit-throwing, noisy toddlers were not going to be a part of our family because we were going to make sure our children knew how to behave in public. Not too many years later I found myself carrying a screaming two-year old of my own out of an Italian bistro in Green Hills after she suddenly decided she didn’t want to be there any longer. Covered head to toe in Fettucini Alfredo from the mini-meltdown we were apologizing to every patron we passed as we gathered our belongings like scavengers and took the long walk of shame out the door. Suddenly, my ideas about what I thought I would do in a situation vaporized before my eyes as the unending siren swell of my own child’s voice in an otherwise quaint little eatery became my glaring reality.

I used to have pat answers about divorce until some of my best friends were confronted with complicated and painful realities in their marriages resulting in the end of something that neither of them had categories for nor could have anticipated.

I had all kinds of solutions about addiction and what alcoholics looked like until I woke up one day and realized I was one.

Many of our cut and dried views regarding sexuality work great until the day one of our teenaged children come out to us. Reality suddenly has a face and a name and we love them.

Living wills, discontinuing curative meds, and medical powers of attorney, which allow me to make choices on behalf of a loved one, are where I live now. It was much easier when this was all a hypothetical vacuum before reality took a dump on my doorstep.

Reality rarely shows up dressed as it was in the brochure.

We are going to be changing my wife’s care plan as she continues to struggle with degenerative MS. She is no longer going to be on meds that aren’t working for her. She’s no longer going to be whisked off to hospitals and emergency rooms at the first sign of a crisis. Even with the gift of great friends and healthcare professionals to help me think it all through, at the end of the day, reality doesn’t feel like I thought it would. It makes what I thought would be a cut and dried decision another peek through the dark glass known as faith.