Dear Catherine

It seems fitting that I write to you today. It was you who encouraged me to write, said that I had a way with words. You told me to write often, vulnerably and honestly. You said it would occasionally be painful, but that I would be a better person for it. With the end of 2014 approaching and a new year just ahead, it’s to you that I most want to write.

It’s been quite a year. I am writing at my kitchen table and imagining you sitting across from me. You purse your lips because you know I’m writing about you. I give you my best, “Do you think I care?” glance. You cackle and I laugh. How I wish this were really happening.

While this is a letter I would normally consider extremely private, I have learned that grief is deeply lonely. And so if my letter to you can help give voice to another person’s grief, then I think it is worth sharing.

I recall certain aspects of 2014 with clarity, intermixed with huge gaps of time that feel lost. I suppose the fog is normal. January and February were so busy for me with classes and physical therapy and traveling.  I remember the last time I saw you. It was the end of February and we had breakfast together. Afterwards we went to your house so that you could show me all you had done for your Etsy shop. Once again you floored me with your creativity and hard work. When it was time to go, I remember standing in your living room and saying, “I won’t hug you because I don’t want to get cat hair on you and make you sneeze.” I wish I had hugged you. I’m so sorry that I didn’t.

The day we lost you happened to be Ash Wednesday. How painfully appropriate to lose you on a day that begins a season of mourning. I find myself intentionally recalling that day in detail. It hurts to do so, but it’s become my lament for you. I speak aloud the day’s events to proclaim the day’s injustices and the loss felt by so many. Each tear is my crying out to God, both in sorrow and anger. Time has made the burden of losing you bearable, but time has not made your death acceptable.

Grief is such an intimate experience and can be navigated in very different ways. There have been moments of agony unlike anything else I’d ever gone through. And in its midst, irreverent moments broke through. I found myself laughing at you and your silly ways, perhaps because I was so tired of crying for you. I knew you’d understand. I knew you’d do the same. I realized that the one friend I needed most in dealing with my loss was you.

I hate having to choose between talking about you in present versus past tense. Past tense suggests that you are no longer you, or that you no longer matter. Present tense denies the loss of you and all the pain felt. Neither is fitting. It’s just one more thing that sucks about losing you.

I graduated in May with a degree that you regularly reminded me made no sense to you. “What are you going to do when you finish?” That never bothered me because most of the time I didn’t know either. Now as I move ahead with my work, I often wonder what you would say about all of it. Would you grow increasingly annoyed with me as I became busier with theology and church? Would you finally start to understand what I am trying to do? I remember the day you gave me Cheryl Strayed’s book Tiny Beautiful Things and said to me, “I think what she does in this book is what you could do for people regarding faith and God.” Now that I think about it, maybe you got it all along and were just waiting for me to catch up.

I have so many things I could share regarding our children. But those are their stories to tell. Let me just say that you’d be so proud of them all. Walking alongside them in their grief has helped me, sometimes even forced me to deal with mine. I’ve learned from watching them and listening to them. Where I have at times inundated myself with thoughts of what I should be feeling or doing, they have been much more patient with themselves, willing to accept who or where they are without judgment.  My logic has often made grieving harder by adding expectations or time limits to the process. The kids seem to more readily able to acknowledge what is real, set aside what they cannot deal with, and come back once they are ready, particularly when someone is there to “come back” with them.

I think the hardest part about looking into the New Year is facing a full year without you. It feels like another goodbye in this process, and goodbyes aren’t getting easier. Our friend framed your words from last New Year’s Eve for me, and they continue to resonate deeply:

Create a wish list – not a must do list. There are 365 days in which to try and make something on the wish list happen… Don’t rush it. Approach new things with the outlook of nothing ventured, nothing gained. What you gain may not be what you expected. Look forward to the surprise but know that some of the best gains are not tangible and cannot be measured. Be kind. Be generous. Be yourself.

I’m sorry you only got 64 days last year. It’s just not fair. Thank you for what you taught me. Thank you for believing in me. I will approach 2015 with courage and anticipation because that is what you would want. You lived your life quietly yet your absence continues to leave a deafening noise.

To you my friend, I love you.

Jennifer

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The Perfect Dog: part 2

184001_10150094379129299_4124971_nAbout a year after we got our beloved Lucy, we traveled from Pennsylvania to Michigan. Jeremy had work where his extended family lived, so we packed up the car, Lucy included, and traveled 650 miles for our week away from home. Although his parents were in Arizona for the winter, we stayed at their house which was on a lake. While Jeremy worked, the kids and I enjoyed the beautiful setting. We walked and explored and relaxed. Ice was still on the surface of much of the lake, but we knew that it was thinning.  I repeatedly warned my eight year old son, Isaac, that he could not walk on the frozen lake because it might not be able to hold his weight.

A few days into our vacation, with Jeremy not vacationing but rather away and working, the kids and I ventured outside with Lucy. Isaac was looking for anything to pick up, throw, or pull apart.  Liv, who was not quite two, was by my side and barely able to walk with all the clothing I had on her to keep her warm.  While in the midst of our exploration, I heard a sound that didn’t register. I looked around and on the lake about 20 feet from shore was Lucy. The sound that I had heard was her paws navigating the ice as she slipped and jumped and played. As I opened my mouth to angrily call her back to shore, the ice broke and she went completely under water.  Her head came up and she placed her front paws on the ice’s edge.  She attempted to pull herself up, but couldn’t get her front legs high enough to pull her back legs out and onto the ice. The kids were silent. My mind raced.

Lucy attempted a second time, a third time, and a fourth time but failed.  With each attempt I could see ice breaking and her getting weaker. By this point I was using my most upbeat, I’m-not-freaking-out voice to call her. “Come on, girl! You can do it! Come on, Lucy! You got this! Come on now!” While yelling, I was also thinking, “My dog can NOT die with the kids here to watch.” Seriously. I clearly remember thinking that her drowning in that lake on that day was something I could not allow. I think this refusal to stand by and watch was my mind’s way of pushing me forward into action. I made a decision in that moment that I would do everything I could to get that dog out of the water alive. I was cognizant enough to know that I couldn’t put my life in danger, but there had to be more I could do.

And so I formulated my back up plan while I continued to call for her. I figured the water was maybe 5 to 6 feet deep where she was. I would send Isaac with Liv to the neighbor’s house to get help. Meanwhile I would run to the garage and grab some rope, tie one end to the fishing boat on the shore nearby with the other end tied around my waist. This would enable me to walk to her with some connection to shore. I had unsettling images in my head of her slipping under and beyond the ice’s opening and my trying to get her. I kept planning and calling for her and planning and calling for her while keeping an eye on my kids. Isaac was now calling her too while Liv silently watched by his side.

Lucy continued to try to get herself out of the water, but she was pausing longer in between tries. She wasn’t pulling herself up as high. I thought, “This is it. Either she gets it this time or she’s giving up.” I called her with every ounce of my being knowing that my next move would be a sprint to the garage while yelling instructions to Isaac to take Liv next door. And finally, miraculously, Lucy did it. She got her front paws far enough onto the ice that she was able to just barely get one back paw up as well. She scooted herself forward and eventually got the other back leg up. She crawled to the shore’s edge and collapsed once she reached us. We wrapped her in towels and I carried her to warmth. The kids were thrilled. I sat down and wept. All the emotion, the intensity, the fear, the near loss, the what if’s overwhelmed me and I shook uncontrollably as I cried.  My kids stared, unsure of why I was crying since Lucy was now safe.  I could see their alarm as I kept crying, but I couldn’t stop. I cried until I had nothing left.

When Jeremy returned later that day, we told him what happened. He scolded me for even considering going onto the lake to get her. But as I think back, I am quite sure that while I would not have done something stupid, I would have tried whatever was reasonably possible to get her safely back to shore. In this near tragedy, I learned that I am able to stay calm and be proactive in a crisis, and a complete wreck afterwards. I learned that miracles do happen. I learned that love can be painful, because even the thought of loss hurts like hell. I learned that my kids come first, but my pets are a close second. I learned that dogs need to be told to stay off the ice just as much as eight year olds do. And I learned that a good, hard, shoulder-shaking cry is cathartic. I was crazy mad at Lucy that day, but even still I’d have to say she’s the perfect dog.

The Perfect Dog: part 1

While growing up, I wanted a dog that would play and run and follow me around. I wanted a dog like I had seen in so many movies that would nuzzle next to me when I was sad, and rescue me if I ever fell down a well. What I had instead was a lump-on-a-log dog, a lhasa apso named Fluffy. She slept, sniffed,  and constantly wandered out of the yard. She didn’t really play or cuddle, and she hardly lifted her head when I entered the room. Even when I was sick and pleaded with the most pathetic eyes I could muster for a companion to help me through my long day, Fluffy was ambivalent. She was a huge disappointment. Unfortunately Fluffy lived a long and happy life, and so my childhood dream of having the perfect dog was never realized.

Jeremy and I weren’t married long before we fostered a golden retriever named Sierra. We weren’t in a position to have a dog, particularly a big dog, but my heart couldn’t resist and neither could Jeremy’s. This was my opportunity to finally Sierrahave a real dog. Fostering turned into adoption and we loved that dog dearly. She was calm, trusting, loyal, playful, and attentive. All it took was a lingering look and she would get up from where she was and plop down right next to me. That dog stole my heart.

We didn’t have her quite a year before we had to find her a new home. We were moving cross-country and into an apartment. I knew we could not give her what she really needed – outdoor space and lots of it. Letting her go was tough because I wanted to see her grow old. I wanted her to be there when we someday had children. She was a perfect dog, but she wasn’t meant to be my perfect dog. And so my in-laws helped us find her a new home. She went to live with a couple who owned a farm. Sierra would spend many years to come roaming acres of land all day, being companion to the farmer and playmate to his grandchildren who lived nearby. We would hear regular updates on our beloved Sierra, and how the grandkids would take her home with them because they couldn’t bear to part with her at the end of the day. Sierra lived a long, full, and wonderful life.

After we settled into our new home, we went to the local animal shelter to pick our next companion. Sierra had affirmed for me what I knew I wanted, and it was time to get our perfect dog, for keeps this time. We would look for a smaller dog. Thanks to Fluffy, I knew to avoid the toy breeds but I was sure we could find a small dog with a big personality. We walked into a large room which housed many cats. There was a desk in the room with the shelter’s volunteer sitting there. We told her we were looking for a dog. In the corner, caged, were two adorable dachshund brothers.  “Last of a litter” we were told, and about 10 months old. I hunched over the crate and opened the door.  One brother came out immediately and confidently greeted me.  The other stayed back, timid and shy.  I looked up at Jeremy : “We can’t just take one, especially the outgoing one.  It would devastate this other guy.”

G&SSo off we went with our two new dogs, newly named Gilbert and Sullivan, forgetting to ask why they were caged in the cat room rather than being outside with all the other dogs.  We would rue that oversight. We quickly learned that our dogs hated all other dogs. In fact there was a long list of things they hated. They hated doorbells and door knocking. They hated visitors. They hated sharing, even with each other. But what they lacked in love, they made up for in personality. Sullivan was sneaky and naughty. He would pull out all the trash but be far away from the scene of the crime when we got home, leaving his brother in the rubbish while sitting innocently on the couch with his head slightly tilted to one side as if to say, “I don’t understand why Gilbert would do that.” Gilbert was loyal but dumb. Sullivan would lure Gilbert off my lap by romping around, an invitation to play, only to jump onto my lap as soon as Gilbert jumped down. And Gilbert would fall for it every time. We were never bored with those two. We had them for over 10 years. I loved them, but I promised myself we would never own another dachshund. They were not the perfect dog, by any stretch of the imagination.

When it was time to get another dog, we had finally learned an important lesson: I cannot make a logical decision regarding animals.  The greater the need, the more I feel compelled to respond.  If I went to the shelter, I would probably come home with the three legged, blind dog.  We now had two children, ages 7 and 1.  I wanted that childhood dream dog for my kids and for me. Jeremy wanted a dog who would run with him. But I knew I didn’t have the strength to pick that dog, because everyone wants that dog. So Jeremy went to the local shelter, alone. After a half dozen visits or so, he found our Lucy, a black lab mix. She was four months old and big-screen-adorable.  She romped and played and cuddled with all of us. She tackled our 7 year old and his friends, and was attentive and gentle with our 1 year old.  Lucy was everything I ever wanted in a dog.  And she would stay ours. What I longeFamilyd for in my childhood, I was able to give to my kids for theirs: an affectionate, playful, loyal, loving, will-drag-you-out-of-a-burning-building-if-needed dog. It was a gift they might never fully appreciate, but one that has made all of our lives better. We all need a Lucy, in some shape or form.

 

 

a painful racial divide

I have been struggling for weeks over what to say or do regarding the racial tension I hear all around me.  I don’t know how to help those who need it.  The gaps I see between perspectives are daunting.   And the last thing I want to do is add to the hurt.  I have family members and friends who are cops or married to cops or children of cops.  I have friends who have experienced painful encounters due to the color of their skin.  People are dying unnecessarily.  I sense a deep complexity to the racial divide because pain comes from so many places.  Pain can be a powerful force that shuts down progress.

I first began intentionally engaging in conversations about the racial divide during the George Zimmerman trial.  As I listened and looked for ways to participate, I learned some important lessons along the way.  Perhaps for now, these lessons are what I can best contribute to the conversation, although my fear is that I will help no one and offend everyone.  Nevertheless silence doesn’t seem right.  So, as a 45 year old white, middle-class woman who feels compelled to look for and proclaim God’s grace, and who can’t help but cry out at what feels like its absence, here we go.

  1. White americans have no idea what life is like for people of color.  The closest we can get is a bit of understanding by learning what our non-white friends, neighbors, family members, and fellow citizens experience day in and day out.  A black friend shared that when he taught his son to drive, he had to include teaching how to safely manage being pulled over by cops.  He didn’t say “if he was pulled over” but “when” because my friend himself had experienced random stops many times, not initiated by any violation other than seemingly the color of his skin. This friend was a teddy bear of a man, a gentle soul.  And yet he knew that feeling targeted again and again could cause frustration to build, so he had to teach his son how to navigate the frustration without losing his dignity, his freedom, or worse yet, his life.  I had a 17 year old son at the time and had never thought to teach him this.  I assumed that if pulled over, my son would be treated fairly.  Justice is not experienced equally.
  2. People who aren’t cops or closely connected to cops cannot fully understand the sacrifice made by cops and their families.  As with any profession, you’ve got outstanding cops, awful cops, and mediocre cops.  I am not dismissing legitimate concerns of the militarization of our police force or the excessive use of force.  But the cops I know personally have a genuine desire to protect and serve their communities, and they regularly put their lives at risk to do so.  Worry is par for the course for spouses and other family members.  It is not an easy job for anyone involved.  Sacrifice is not universally understood.
  3. All lives should matter, but rarely do in a debate.  Someone often seems to be disposable.  The cop’s safety or the safety of the cop’s family isn’t important because of what the cop did.  Or the accused isn’t important because of present allegations or prior offenses.  Whatever side we are on is the life we lift up, often at the expense of the other.  Either we must value all lives or we ultimately undermine everyone’s life by attaching worth to any given person.  We must remember the humanity of all regardless of whether or not we agree with them.
  4. The issues of poverty significantly complicate the matters of race. I was helping with transportation for a mother of two.  She had recently been homeless.  In hearing about her life, the challenges she faced, and the complexities within her familial relationships, I realized that I would most likely never face homelessness because I had been given a skill set to avoid it and had parents with resources who, in a worst case scenario, could prevent me from experiencing abject poverty.  I assumed this to be true for all people, but not so.  My friend had more challenges on good days than I faced on my worst days.  It wasn’t just about getting a better job, but also about transportation and childcare and some family members who didn’t want her to succeed too much.  It was learning money management skills and getting a drivers license for the first time in her life.  What I had taken for granted as normal childhood experiences were not normative for my friend but rather things she had to work hard for on her own and with many obstacles along the way.  Poverty is excruciatingly complicated.
  5. Most people either focus on the systemic issues or personal responsibility, but both are needed and important.  However the area of personal responsibility must be navigated respectfully and with humility.  Let me illustrate.  I have never struggled with my weight.  As a thin person, it would be arrogant of me to talk to people who do struggle by giving advice as to how they could be more like me.  It might be tempting to convince myself that I am a stronger person but that would simply not be true because weight has never been my struggle.  Too often, my friends who have never lived in poverty or who have never experienced racism assert their opinions as to how one should improve his or her situation.  Know what you can contribute to the conversation and what is beyond your understanding.  

One of the best decisions I made was to engage in ongoing conversations with people who weren’t like me, didn’t think like me, and saw things differently.  It broadened my awareness and understanding.  It exposed some of my assumptions and prejudices.  It has allowed me to hear more clearly.  Michael Brown, Darren Wilson, Eric Garner, Daniel Pantaleo, Tamir Rice… these are human beings.  Our hearts should be breaking for the lives that have been lost and for the lives that have been ruined. And yet,  as I sit and consider what’s at stake, I find myself questioning if I should even speak at all.  These are painful, difficult, complicated issues.  We don’t need more noise.  We need to do better.  I guess if there’s one point I need to make, it’s that all lives matter.

A Lasting Legacy

When my son was two, we were living on a barrier island in North Carolina, having just moved from Las Vegas.  My husband and I were figuring out what this new life would look like personally and professionally.  While many of our peers were already well into home ownership, 401k’s, annual vacations and such, we were increasingly aware of our lack of all of the above.  Even though we were happy, we kept questioning whether or not we should be happy. Neither my husband nor I had a career we were passionate about.  But we were paying our bills and able to see the ocean from our little cottage that we rented for $400 a month.  Our son had everything he needed and then some. Yet persistent and nagging questions continued:  Am I doing enough?  Am I building a legacy that will continue beyond my life?  I looked at friends who seemed to be so much more successful. Ours was a simple life.  We didn’t have much. We didn’t need much.  We didn’t want much.  But was that right, or good, or the way it was supposed to be?  Were we being selfish, or poor stewards of talents we had?  I honestly didn’t know.

One afternoon I was walking on the beach in kind of a prayerful way.  For me that means I’m having a conversation in my head and I’m hoping that God is listening.  I was saying this mantra, “What should I be doing?”  In other words, is my life going to matter beyond our little family of three?  Again, in looking back I believe the source of my anxiety was more about the comparison to others than my own sense of satisfaction.  After a quarter of a mile or so into my walk, my thoughts were suddenly and abruptly interrupted with questions posed to me:  “If you raise your son to feel loved and to love, will that be enough for you?  If no one will ever know the depth of how you’ve loved and sacrificed for him, will you do it anyway?”  I have had a few experiences where I felt moved to my knees because of being overcome by emotion, and this was one of those times because I knew without a doubt that the answer was “yes”. For me, importance and legacy have never been about self.  I didn’t want to be famous or successful.  I wanted to make a difference.  I didn’t want to be rich.  I wanted to be kind and generous.  And in this little boy of mine, I had seen from the moment I laid eyes on him my greatest opportunity to give. In the two years that followed his birth, I had made choices and gave up things to make more time to be with him.  I didn’t need to spend every waking moment with him.  I wasn’t interested in entertaining him.  But I wanted to be there for him.  I wanted him to feel safe and loved and cared for.  There would be time for home ownership, 401k’s, and careers.

At the time, I thought God was giving me a dose of humility by saying “It’s not always about you!”  But I now see the exchange differently.  My lesson that day was about a shift in thinking from how the world measures success to what I believe God cares about.  It’s not so much about what I was doing in life, but how I was doing life.  I had a pastor who talked about form and function.  He would say that function is what we are trying to accomplish, and form is how we will accomplish it.  It is natural to look for one’s worth in the eyes of another.  And there is value in seeing how you are perceived.  But no one can give you a lasting sense of self-worth.  What we tend to compare, because we are able to compare it, is the form.  What does a successful person/career/appearance/parent/marriage look like?  But the reality is, it’s function we should be paying attention to.  Function is about quality of one’s character; his or her integrity.  You can be an honorable attorney or you can be an asshole social worker.  My initial question about legacy wasn’t “How am I doing?” but rather “How am I looking to the rest of the world?”  And in a leveling response, I think what God said was, “Wrong question.”  What I saw when I looked at my son was not what I wanted to do, but who I wanted to be.  God wasn’t trying to humble me, but rather encourage me.

There are many ways success is measured – financial, network of friends, familial relationships, causes we support.  But none of these things determine who we really are.  When I question what I am doing or whether I am far enough along, when I worry about failing or not amounting to much, when I feel powerless over the life I’m living, when I wonder what is the point, I remember the question posed to me on that day almost 19 years ago:  “If no one notices what you have done, would you do it any differently?”  The moments I am most proud of in my life are the moments of sacrifice or acts of love that went unnoticed because I was more concerned for the recipient of that act than what it meant for me.  That’s the kind of person I want to be, and that’s the legacy I want to leave behind.  I want people to remember not so much what I did, but rather who I was.