Monday, January 31, 2011

It’s Not All Subtraction

In November of 1989 my uncle Bud, my mom’s brother, was diagnosed with cancer and passed away within a span of about two weeks. Our families (my Uncle Bud’s family is my Aunt Bea (yes, I have an Aunt Bea!) and cousins Cindi, Carla, Carl and Crista) spent several days in a hospital vigil---building beds out of waiting room chairs, trying to keep Bud comfortable, trying to comfort each other. My niece Maggie had been born in June that year. The first scene greeting me when I got to the hospital was my cousin Cindi walking down the hallway carrying cute Maggie. Maggie was a bundle of hope that we all sort of passed around while we navigated a very hard, sad life situation.

My mom later observed that Maggie’s presence was a therapeutic reminder that “life isn’t all subtraction,” which is what you think it is when you’re in the middle of a subtraction journey.

I was reminded of this a few days ago, January 20, when “buzzin” Cara (Dana’s “beloved cousin”) and her husband Aaron brought 8 lbs and 1 oz. of life into this world, a bundle of hope named August Christopher Chaney, pictured above. Life is not all subtraction.

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more glowing set of parents and grandparents (Dane’s aunt and uncle, Jon and Becky), aunt (our other “buzzin” Kirby) and great aunt (Mama Sue!). And August would make anyone’s list of top five beautiful babies of all time!

Cara and Aaron’s pregnancy and delivery has hit me at about every level of emotion available, of joy and of grief. I don’t think anything has yet touched me any deeper than when I think about how Dane would be LOVING this experience: pride over Cara and Aaron, love for them and their new family, a glow over Jon and Becky’s evolution into grandparent-hood, joy in the new Aunt Kirby, and Dana-grade enthusiasm over whatever she’d be knitting. It’s impossible not to experience these kinds of life events without the filter of “Dana would love this.”

The knitting element was really tearing me up, and then it struck me that I could ask our knitter friends to knit something out of Dana’s “stash” (the official yarn word for a knitter’s stored yarn). Dane’s knitter friends beat me to it. When I called knitter Carrie before Christmas with this idea (for a Christmas present) she said they had already been thinking about asking me to do that. And so I was able to give to Cara and Aaron for Christmas a hat (on August’s head in the picture above) and booties knitted out of yarn Dana had picked out. Everyone needs a group of knitting friends in life.

I’m also going to be hand-delivering a couple other knitted items. In fact, when knitter Carrie came by to look at Dana’s stash, we found a pair of baby booties that Dane had knit…not knowingly for anyone but as a project for a class. Wow. Those will be in the baby rotation along with a hat the knitters knit out of the same yarn and a beautiful baby wrap from Dane’s stash. (And speaking of knitting, if you’ve not read the post on “The Afgan,” you might want to give it a look. You can click here; it's a great story of love.)

A few evenings ago I was thinking about this whole concept of addition and subtraction. I was thinking about Maggie’s presence in light of losing Bud over 20 years ago, and about August’s presence in light of losing Dane. As I pondered this my eyes went to a stack of artful old books on the end table in the living room. One of them is the diary of my grandpa Clarence Shafer, my dad’s dad, chronicling the last year of his life, 1961. This was the year I was born. In fact, Grandpa Shafer passed away in August. I was born in September. I guess I was the addition that year.

And I guess all of us were an addition of some sort when we were brought into this world. This motivates me a bit. I want to be a worthy addition.

August Christopher was born January 20. I realized somewhere around January 28 that I blew right through January 23, a monthly mark of the date of Dane’s passing (December 23, which is also my other niece Katie's birthday, a nice addition reminder); I hadn't given the 23rd a thought this month. That’s the first time I’ve done that. I was obviously so caught up in the addition brought into the world that I was distracted from the subtraction.

Maybe as we journey through life it might be good to look for the additions. These aren’t replacements for our loss, but they are additions and they will help us heal through our subtractions.

I leave you with some images from my latest life addition, and a current photo of my nieces and nephew that shows Maggie today.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Surprised By Exuberance

One thing I’ve observed about the journey of loss and recovery (a word I’m trying to use more of these days; it might be forced, but it’s hopeful) is that the journey is not so much a progression as it is a collection of moments. Even Elizabeth Kubler-Ross explained that her stages weren’t meant to suggest a sequence we pass through, but rather feelings we’ll experience in the journey.

As these moments collect, some moments bring deposits of hope and resolve and add a bounce to the step. Other moments buckle the knees and subtract from the deposits. As I moved through the holidays and the one-year mark, I had some positive moments, but the knee-buckling moments took away more than was put in.

And then I had a surprising moment of exuberance this recent New Year’s Day that put the deposits over the top.

The moment should not have been a surprise, however, given that it came just minutes after a grandma’s prayer for her grandson, a prayer that included the request, “May his heart be filled to overflowing.”

This past January 1, I spent a good part of the day doing what I’ve done nearly every New Year’s Day of my life: watching football with my family. (And I must add, this was usually much to the chagrin of Dane; she saw New Year’s Day as a day for many more useful things than gorging on football; I eventually came around, realizing I don’t HAVE to go wall-to-wall football all day; I mean there are still three games to watch after 5:00 p.m.!)For the past few years the New Year’s family has also included my grandma, Ruth Swart, my mom’s mom (the same grandma I wrote about in a Carepage entry, who said from a tube-connected hospital bed: “We think about heaven all our lives and then we cry like a baby when we get close”). She lives with my parents, the blessed Miles and Bonnie, and also receives some shared care-giving from my sister Beck’s family. These days Grandma, if she’s not at church, her hair appointment or an occasional family gathering, you’ll find her in an easy chair, a wheel chair, her walker or her bed.

She’s daintily frail, but she’s alert. She can follow a football game. And she can dish out the trash talk in a hardy round of Phase 10. And this March she’ll be 100 years old. As I was leaving my folks this past New Year’s Day, I kissed Grandma goodbye and she said “We should pray if you have time.”

Who can NOT have time for that?!

So my folks and I gathered around her chair. I was expecting Mom, Dad and me, or a combo thereof, to pray. Before we all were kneeling, Grandma started in. (To start praying before all are kneeled is a bit of an etiquette breach, but, it’s Grandma.) Some quick background: As part of the frailties that come from 100 years of life, Grandma has what I’ve called the Katharine Hepburn voice quiver. So she’s sometimes hard to understand. That’s one reason why I wasn’t expecting her to pray.

It was the most forceful, understandable and eloquent I’ve heard her in 10 years. I caught every word, nearly every one of which was directed toward me. She prayed that God would direct me. She prayed that I would be open to His direction. We had talked earlier in the evening about a couple churches I might volunteer with. I wasn’t sure she understood the conversation. In her prayer she prayed, with detail, for both situations. She prayed that God would be with me in my aloneness in my home. She prayed that my heart would be filled to overflowing. It was a loving grandmother praying for one of her hurting grandsons.

About a fourth of the way into her surprisingly lengthy prayer I was overwhelmed with the historic nature of this moment—picturing Christmases she and Grandpa spent in Australia a long away from their precious grandkids. And I thought “I should hit ‘record’ on my voice recorder phone app” and then I re-thought: “this is a prayer, Bear, not a speech. Enter in and let yourself be prayed for.” So I did; and I was.

It’s a special gift to have someone in your life of great faith praying forcefully and specifically for you. It’s a bonus when you’re a middle-aged adult and that person is your grandma. At the “amen” there was no need for any of us to add a thing. It was all covered, including the “services” the next morning, “wherever the gospel is preached.”

As I walked outside the house to leave I was struck with the crisp clearness of the night sky. With a full heart, I toyed with stopping by an all-night park on my way home for some stargazing, but the single digit temperature knocked that thought away. Then it dawned on me that I was already out in the middle of nowhere (a beauty of Preble County), so before I got too far away from my folks’ house, on a dark country road, surrounded by flat fields of frozen corn stubble, I stopped, got out, and let myself be hugged by the stars.

Before I started star-hopping the constellations I’ve come to know, my first stop was, of course, “our star” in the Big Dipper (if you’d like a refresher on that story, click here to see the post). I pondered, and thought, and imagined conversation with Dane. I began to have a strange awareness that I was here, and she was There, the big There, the over the rainbow There, the beyond the stars There, the with Jesus There. It’s not like I had an open pipeline to the Megrez star, our star, in the Big Dipper, but I felt very sensitized to the fact that the spirit of Dane that I got to enjoy on this earth, the spirit that I was one with, is now on the other side of the stars. I don’t yet have a way to describe the feeling other than the fact that I was hyperaware of the contrasting realities between here and There.

Then I remembered that the date was January 1. January 1 was Dane’s spiritual birthday. On December 31, 1985, after several tumultuous months that included wrestling and arguing with God about His existence, Dane went to bed praying, “God, if I wake up tomorrow, I’m yours.” I could show you right now in her worn brown Bible, on the “Church Record” page, the first entry: “January 1, 1986 - - I am His”.

As I stood under a dome of stars in the middle of that quiet Preble Country road exactly 25 years to the day from that entry, I was overwhelmed with the fact that it was because of that spiritual birthday that Dane is now able to be beyond the stars. She is free. She is alive. She is whole. She is dancing. She is flying. She is playing. She is star-hopping.

I don’t know when I’ve felt more exuberant. The tools of grief dulled for the moment. Pain was distant. Loss was irrelevant. Hurt lost its sting. Tears contained joy, surprisingly. The overpowering feeling was gratitude.

It’s been the most profound instance of strength yet—a marker with deep roots that will not be lost.

And then I realized I was freezing.

Before I drove on I created a mental altar in my mind of this spot—this spot that I had ridden past on a school bus many times, this spot that I had jogged through in my teen/college-age years with my dad (probably telling him about this new great friend Dana in the college-age years), this spot that Dane and I had driven over countless times on our way to my folks. This spot is now the place on this earth where I felt my first real tinge of gratitude that my loss is Dana’s gain.

My heart…was…overflowing.

Grandma’s prayer was already bearing fruit.

I wanted to bottle up the spot. That not being practical, I did the next best thing. I peed on it. It’s what we Preble County boys do out in the middle of nowhere.

I'm praying and hoping that gratitude and exuberance for "There" will continue to win the day over the journey of "here."