Wednesday I posted on Facebook:
If I were to blame/be angry at God over the death of my beloved wife, then I must also blame/be angry with Him over the death of His Son.
If I were to credit God with the resurrection of His beloved Son, then I must also credit Him with the resurrection of my dear wife.
Did God bring sin and death into this world or love and life? Which was His desire for us, His children?
Would the two pairings have meaning at all if not opposed to each other? Or if the other did not exist?
Eden was never intended to remain paradise, then; nor was it a mere crucible or test tube. Eden was meant to be the first battlefield.
And so what was within God’s will — sin and death — was not itself God’s will — love and life — but necessary for His will to have meaning to us; to enable us to choose love and life over sin and death.
To choose His will for us and not what gratifies self and kills the soul.
I can’t put this in simpler words. This is the only rational response I can pose to the great gaping WHY that challenges us all.
God is not to blame.
It is simply the way things MUST be, for anything to have meaning or purpose or significance.
It is not bigger than God.
It is the way He chose to make it fair for us to choose.
And we must choose.
Now it’s Saturday, and the day is done.
I — we, my family, all those who love her — lost Angi one month ago today.
What will we choose?
What will I choose?
Will I choose to continue believing, go on trusting?
A friend who has experienced the loss of his wife as well as a dear child (in a way that I feel certain would have broken me) commented on this blog recently that after such an experience, it was possible for him to keep his faith for a while. He said that for him, it was about two months.
I keep putting on the brave face. I keep writing to encourage myself, and sometimes it seems to encourage others. I keep busy, putting off having to deal with the loss fully. There are so many other things that require my attention. I have plenty of excuses to procrastinate.
But the cracks in the courage still show up. I can weep. I can patch them up. I can cover them over with a smile and brave words.
Still I know the measure of joy I knew is gone. It will always be gone, as long as I live and breathe.
And I find there are things that I still can’t do.
I can’t seem to find time, make time, put myself to the time to continue posting submissions at New Wineskins. I have commitments to people. I have proposed to myself extending the current edition about “Lament” to a second month, into which we have gone an entire week and a day now. I just can’t seem to do what needs to be done.
Yes, I believe the e-zine still blesses people. The blessings I receive by e-mail and Facebook message from folks who’ve been blessed by it still outnumber the railings and the condemnings by quite a good margin.
Yes, I believe Angi would want me to continue working at it, keeping it up to date and fresh.
Yes, I still want to do it.
I just can’t seem to now. Not yet. It hurts to try. It hurts to think about it.
And I wonder — though my friend’s comment was in no way a challenge, dare, or warning; simply a personal observation — how long will my faith persist before the cracks start to show?
Two months? Three? A year?
I don’t know.
It would be so much more than a shame, a pity or even a tragedy to be fighting and running for the prize in an arena of witnesses, then let the accuser cut in … give up the fight and quit the race; not finish the course.
Not keep the faith.
How long can I keep faith flying on wings like eagles before my pace slows to a run that grows weary and then a walk that ends in a faint?
If I were truly alone, it would not take long at all.
But I’m not.
There may be people who can go it alone, and walk and run and fly solo on a wing and a prayer and a book of scriptural verses.
I’m not one of them.
Like the author of St. Patrick’s Breastplate, I need Christ before me in the pages of the Word, yes.
I need Christ behind me in the witness of His saints, yes.
I need Christ above me, bearing my prayers to His Father, absolutely.
But also …
I need Christ within me through His Holy Spirit.
I need Christ about me in the surround of His church.
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
If you don’t need that, I suppose that’s fine for you. But I know what I need. What I’ve always needed. What I need now more than ever before. What I always will need, in increasing measure and greater grace and wider fellowship and deeper love and endless trust.
Until the day I breathe my last.
And it’s only been a month.
First, from Craig Smith, a colleague and former supervisor, who may not even remember the exchange. When his father passed away many years ago and I was dumbstruck for words to comfort, I stupidly said to him: “I can’t even imagine losing my dad. How do you deal with it?” He shrugged matter-of-factly: “You just do.” Those may not seem like profound words, but through his delivery of them and the kind of person he is, they were. They helped me through the loss of my dad a few years later, and they have continued to help me. I decided even before losing Angi that you can deal with adversities well, or you can deal with things poorly — and it’s usually easier for your family and those you love if you deal with them well.
Second, from Mike Cope, a former minister at our church home in Abilene, who wrote “Megan’s Secrets” about the challenges faced by his indomitable young daughter and losing her at a tender age. Among those words were the advice to accept with grace the words and actions that others offer intending to comfort and encourage you when you are grieving … but only sting and hurt instead. You take them in with the spirit in which they are given, not necessarily the content of them. That is true grace. I’ve come to think of his advice as a corollary to the Golden Rule: “Receive from others as you would have them receive from you.”
Third, from Amy Ray, Angi’s chemo nurse who (in a very brief span of time) became a dear friend. As Angi lost more of her faculties, she could no longer speak but could still understand what was spoken to her; even smile when her cousin Roger said funny things to her. It was at this time, when Angi had been off chemo and in hospice care at home for almost a week, that Amy called me to ask about her. “Keith,” she said when I told her, “Have you given her permission to die?” I immediately (and thoughtlessly) answered, “Yes, of course!” but as we talked, I began to understand that Amy meant that I needed to tell Angi that. So as Carol, Roger’s wife, sat holding her hand, I went in to Angi’s little bedroom-made-hospital-chamber and told her.
“Sweetheart, this is going to be really hard for me to say. But these last few weeks while you’ve slept, you’ve been talking in your sleep, and the only word you’ve said has been ‘Huh-uh.’ I’ve wondered if you’ve been telling the Lord you’re not ready to go yet. I just want you to know that if He comes for you again, you don’t have to say ‘huh-uh’ anymore. You go with Him. You leave this suffering behind.
“You’ve made everything so easy for us. We’ve sold this house; it closes tomorrow! We’ve bought another one that will be perfect for us. You’ve done everything anyone could do to bless our lives more than anyone could have asked. I’ve talked to Matt and he understands how much you’re hurting, and that you may not be with us by the time he can get here, and he’s alright with that.”
About that time, Carol motioned our daughter Laura in and she sat on the bedside by her mom. “And this one is stronger than she has ever been! You’ve raised her strong and smart, and she can handle anything. So we all want you to know that if the Lord comes for you, and you have anything to say about it, you go home with Him. We’ll be alright. We will miss you like everything. But we’ll be alright.”
Angi had a restless night, beset by pain, and about 4:30 I gave her a couple of soda straw-fulls of water — all she could still swallow — and that seemed to calm her so she could sleep.
Sometime between then and 7:00 when I awakened next to her in the recliner, she went home.
There are words of wisdom that change your life. Some of them are in poetry, some hidden like treasure in scripture, and some come from the lips of those who love you.
But the words of wisdom that I borrow most often came from my friends (you know who you are) who learned that their second child, still in the womb, would only survive at best a few minutes into this world. That is exactly what came to pass. The minister of their small home church conveyed their words to him, at their request, during the memorial service for their little son:
“We don’t know why God took our sweet baby home so soon. We don’t know why these things have to happen. But we also don’t know why He has blessed us with each other, with a wonderful marriage, with a beautiful little daughter, and with a loving family and friends.”
As I mourn Angi, these words of wisdom put life in perspective for me.
And I will always be grateful to God for the people who were willing to let Him speak through them to me.
Sometime in the wee hours of this morning, while my kids were still sleeping, I made a choice. I made a choice to not grieve like those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13) anymore. At least for a while. My family was going to need me to be strong for them today, and I was committed to expressing our appreciation — at the close of Angi’s funeral service — for the kindness shown us during this difficult time. So I tried to settle on what to say. This is what I remember saying:
“I wanted to be able to express my family’s gratitude for your presence here today, to honor Angi, and for the ways that so many of you have ministered to us for the past few weeks: For the cards, notes, letters, gifts, gift cards, flowers, favors, meals, Facebook messages, Twitter tweets, and CaringBridge comments … but especially for your prayers, which have sustained us in a way that I can’t explain or deny.
“From here in Little Rock to Sylva, North Carolina to Springfield, Missouri to Malibu, California to Abilene, Texas — really from all over the country and the world, we have received encouragements through your prayers. Even now, the people of the tiny church in Sylva where I sometimes preach are refurbishing the house we bought so that Angi wouldn’t have to climb the stairs to reach a master bedroom — and about two dozen volunteers from WCU are set to move us into it next weekend. That’s how they’ve put their prayers in motion.
“A lot of you know my family and me through Angi and a lot of you are here because you know Angi only through me and/or my family. If I could paint an accurate portrait of her with my words, I’m convinced that the only people who would leave this place sad are those who didn’t get the chance to really get to know her.
“Like so many of us, the diamond that was Angi’s life was multi-faceted: daughter, wife, mother, cousin, aunt, author, lecturer, conciliator, mediator, employer, employee, colleague, Rotarian, community servant, friend — the list would go on and on — but to me, the facet in which she reflected grace most brilliantly was that of educator.
“You would only have to read online Angi’s keynote address at the “Conference for Ethics and Praxis in Communications” at Azusa Pacific University last year – titled “Forgiveness: The Wound That Wants to Be Whole” — to understand that Angi’s gifts at preaching far exceed mine. But the ministry she chose for her life is higher education — because she believed in people — and the years spent at Christian universities, because she believed in God.
“As her husband, I too saw that facet shine, and I learned a lot from Angi.
“I learned that one of the secrets to loving people is that nothing about them — age, gender, height, weight, size, shape, race, ethnicity, color, faith, choice to not believe, sexual preference, wealth, position, station in life — none of those things about people really make a difference. You just love them. If they disagree with you, you just love them anyway.
“I learned that from Angi, because that’s what she did.
“I learned that one of the secrets to listening is that your eyes are often just as important as your ears. You make connection with people with your eyes when you listen, and your ears will follow. And if some self-disclosure is embarrassing or difficult for them, and they look away — you look away, too. Then you reconnect with your eyes and let them know that it doesn’t matter; that they are accepted.
“I learned that from Angi, because that’s what she did.
“I learned that one of the secrets to forgiveness is to forgive completely. When people hurt you or let you down or even betray you, you let go of it completely. No grudges. And it’s so incredibly freeing.
“I learned that from Angi, because that’s what she did.
“I learned one of the secrets to a perfect marriage — not that we were perfect; we just wanted to be perfect for each other — is really simple: Nothing that you want, no desire, no goal of your own, is more important than the needs and desires and goals of your mate.
“I learned that from Angi — and I had to learn it quickly and soon in our marriage! Because I was the other partner who had to hold up my end to make it perfect — and that’s what she did.
“And all of the things she did, or said, or was — all the things she taught us — were because she wanted more than anything else to be just like Jesus of Nazareth — and I don’t think there’s anything that anyone could say to refute that. All those things give life meaning, and purpose, and significance.
“Many universities have the custom of selecting a professor — often by their students — to deliver a ‘last lecture,’ a kind of capstone address for the school year. The things Angi taught us are her legacy, her ‘last lecture’ if you will. She didn’t write it. She didn’t deliver it to a gathered audience like this. She did better than that. She lived it.
“Now you and I, we have the opportunity to live it, too.
“I want to close by saying something that you won’t hear most husbands say:
” ‘Thank you for embracing my wife.’ “
It’s four in the morning and I’ve been awake for an hour.
I’ve committed to trying to express my family’s appreciation for the great kindnesses shown to us during the past almost-three months at the close of her funeral service later in the day.
But about all I can think of, over and over, is that single sobering sentence:
I will bury my wife today.
I will bury my wife today.
I will bury my wife today.
She suffered terribly these last couple of days, but that is now over.
Peggy Angela Laird Brenton departed this life, officially, at 8:30 a.m. EDT when the hospice nurse checked for heartbeat and called the time.
I slept poorly last night and am exhausted tonight, making all the decisions and trying to think of all the things one must think about when a death has occurred and you are buying a house and people who love you are begging to help while you dash off the next morning on a 600-mile trip to arrange for a funeral and mourn and bury your wife; help her mother in her choice of whether to stay in Little Rock, go on back to Texas to live near her nephew, or return home with you and your daughter.
Whose seventeenth birthday is today.
Laura is resilient. She is young.
Harriette is much older and so fragile.
I’m pushing the outer envelope of middle age and I’m just broken.
Angi was just a little older than me. In the prime of health and life. Careful about her habits. Far more faithful to check with her doctor than I have ever been. But nobody could have seen the cancer exploding within her.
It came on so fast. She was just diagnosed two and a half months ago. She just entered hospice home care a week ago today.
And all that beauty, loveliness, brilliance, compassion … you who know her, you fill in the blanks. You’ll fill up pages of them.
It’s all gone.
Gone, except in our hearts.
My wife. My love. My very heart.
When I can write again, I’ll write about borrowing wisdom. Because I don’t have any wisdom anymore. I don’t have wise words or answers or platitudes or a systematic theology that covers this subject.
Just an ache and an absence and an emptiness and a loss.
So many friends have reached out to say, “I have no words.” They’re so right. There are no words.
Right now, there can only be dust and ashes and sitting in silence.
Thank you for your prayers, and sitting with me in the ash heap, and for handing me a fresh potshard from time to time so that the wounds may be scraped clean.
I remember it like it was yesterday.
Because it was yesterday.
I awakened a little troubled, because I had picked up Laura early from school the day before due to her texted complaint of a sore throat. Sure enough, when I had gone to get her, she felt a little warm and had very little appetite for a teenage girl before lunchtime. Since her pediatrician had canceled Laura’s appointment for this Friday, we just planned to go in during open clinic hours yesterday morning and see whom we could see.
That worked okay. I brought her home. I took Angi to chemo for her regular three-Tuesdays-in-a-row-one-off appointment. I got Laura’s prescription.
That’s when things got weird.
I didn’t go on to work. I had intended to. I just didn’t. I went home (thankfully). I’m not sure I knew what day it was or that I should have gone to work. I’m not even sure I was aware that I was employed, or where, or doing what.
I went home. I think I checked on Laura. Asleep again, as I recall. I helped my 94-year-old mom-in-law Harriette with her TENS pain control unit; one of the wires to an electrode was loose. I went upstairs to the bedroom.
And, as nearly as I can tell, I stared for a couple of hours.
I may have posted some things on Facebook and Twitter. Looking at them later, I couldn’t remember writing them. Or at least, writing them the way they were written as I was reading them. (I’m not sure – I think Facebook may have had some sort of retro-server malfunction too, which confused me even more. I was seeing posts from several weeks or months before, but time-stamped just hours before.)
Things got weirder.
I started remembering dreams. Vividly. From months and years and even decades before.
And I could not tell the difference between the “reality” in the dreams and the reality of my waking life. One seemed just as valid as the other. Even when they contradicted each other. I would describe it further, but that is all I can remember. The specifics are gone now.
Somehow I became aware that Angi was texting me that it was time for me to come and pick her up.
I had no sense of the time that had passed. It seemed like only seconds since her previous message that it would be at least another half-hour.
Shaken, I got in the car and went to pick her up. Except that by the time I got to the turn for Route 23, I could not remember why I was in the car or where I was going. Within a couple of stoplights, I was able to remember that I was supposed to pick up Angi. But where? The doctor’s office? The hospital? The cancer center? They’re all on 23. It had to be the cancer center.
While the chemo drip finished, I tried to collect myself. But Angi could tell something was wrong, and once we were in the car, she asked me. I have no idea what I said in the conversation that followed, and I can usually recall fairly recent conversations almost word-for-word — conditioning from years of journalism. I’m sure it was disturbing. She told me later that I had told her about the waking dream-recollections, and being unable to connect with reality.
By the time I got home, my chest was hurting pretty badly. After getting Angi comfortable on the sofa on the main floor, I went upstairs to try to nap it all away. I slept for about an hour. In the meantime, Angi called our doctor. When Harriette called up the stairs for me, I woke up — had missed Angi’s texts about the doctor being willing to see me. I called his office to confirm the appointment. I was really confused by then, and still hurting. I can only imagine what I sounded like to the receptionist. She spoke to my doctor, who told me to get to the emergency room and under no conditions was I to drive.
I had to go downstairs to Laura’s room to wake her up and ask her to drive me. I hated that. She stuck with me as I checked in. I couldn’t remember simple things that I was asked. I couldn’t remember everything that had happened earlier. I just knew that I was confused and my chest hurt and that I couldn’t remember earlier in the day where I was supposed to pick up Angi.
And my teenage daughter — bravely battling severe depression herself — had to see me break down in tears.
The hospital staff ran me through all the tests you can imagine in short order – lots of attempts to draw blood from these redheaded slippery veins of mine for bloodwork; a CT scan of the brain; a chest X-ray for the heart and lungs.
All normal. Or at least, within normal parameters for a healthy 57-year-old male.
About three hours later, my mental fog was beginning to lift. I knew what had been going on, though I was committed to stay another hour or so for a second round of bloodwork to confirm.
My chest was congested, probably from chest cold or allergies. But more importantly, I had been experiencing a silent (painless) migraine. I’ve had them before. I lose about 30 or 40 points of I.Q. when they happen to me. I can’t think. I can’t remember clearly.
But this one was clearly the worst and longest one I’ve ever had, and with perceptual/cognitive symptoms I’ve never had before. Fortunately — I think — I have only vague impressions of the lost hours and bizarre connection with my subconscious dreamworld. In college, thirty-some years ago, I did a self-study in the library to learn about schizophrenia — and a lot of what I experienced feels very similar to what I read about all those years ago.
It is no fun to feel like you are developing schizophrenia.
Migraines can be triggered by many things — including stress — and I have been doing a lot of stress lately. Look up any “stress points” chart and you’ll see that my family and I have been racking them up like we’re trying to set a new record. Severe change in a family member’s health? Check, check. Major mortgage? Biggest we’ve ever had. Buying, selling a house? Check, check. Oh, and eight months later: Check, check. Change in residence? Moved two states over. Change to a different line of work? Check. Change in financial status? Oh, yes; many medical bills. Spouse starts or stops work? Angi can do a couple of mornings a week at best. Change in work responsibilities? Yup; whole different job. Change to a different line of work? Yes, I’m trying to move from part-time to full-time employment. Child leaving home? No, we moved away from our son and left him to finish his schooling. Change in church activities? Started preaching from time to time. Change in social activities? Yes, we don’t get out anymore. Revision of personal habits? Yes. I’ve been trying to pick up the things Angi has done for years, chauffeur family members who can’t or shouldn’t drive, keep up with the things I’ve always done.
I think I’ve pretty well popped the stress cork with the sum of those points.
I exceeded manufacturer’s recommendations.
And I broke.
I’m much better today. Still trying to clear out the chest with Mucinex. Still having a few disturbing flashbacks to the missing hours yesterday; little glimpses with greater clarity into the Great Unclear.
I happened across my family doctor in the local grocer’s this evening and caught him up. He seemed relieved. He’s just a couple of years younger than me. He’s seen a lot.
For no better reason than “I want to,” I’ve chosen to take comfort in that.
You can look at troubled life and say, “It could have been a lot worse.”
You can look at troubled life and say, “It could still get a lot worse.”
You’ll be right either way.
For the past few days, I’ve been reading blogs and sites and posts by people who have struggled with crisis and tragedy in their lives. I’ve posted honest comments. I’m struggling, too. I don’t yet have a Unified Field Theory for the problems of theodicy. I don’t know anyone who does.
I continue to believe God is good, even though He permits good and bad to happen to good and bad people. I don’t know why. I think bad things happen to people at the instigation of Satan, the accuser. He lives to hurt and torment because he hates people to the core. I don’t know why. I am convinced that it all somehow has to do with a greater good, a level playing field for the fair competition between good and evil in this world and each of us chooses the outcome of her/his own personal game.
I understand that you can quit, give up, give in, give out, stop giving, surrender. That’s how you lose. You lose faith. You lose hope. You lose love for God, for others, for self, for life.
I could do that. You could do that. Anyone could, given enough stress points and the will to choose.
But it’s a zero-sum choice. If I give up on faith … on life … on God, well, as the Zack Mayo character in An Officer and a Gentleman so eloquently paraphrases Simon Peter:
“I GOT NOWHERE ELSE TO GO!”
I hope I remember that.
Do you think it might be that the reason God is sometimes silent is that there are simply no words to say?
Is it possible that the Lord is silent for 36 chapters of the book of Job because He is so grieved over what has befallen His faithful servant that He can say nothing, do nothing, but mourn in silence?
God permitted what happened to Job. He instigated the conversation with the accuser and deliberately drew Job into it. Intervening in any way to relieve Job’s suffering would have broken the terms of agreement about what the accuser can do to Job and would have affected the outcome of Job’s faith — the faith of a servant in whom God has placed His own faith.
All that God can do is weep in silence at the undeserved suffering of His servant Job.
Until it is time to reveal His own justice and restore what has been unjustly ripped away.
Are there words for God to say when David — confessedly guilty of lust, murder and possibly rape — begs for the life of his unborn child even when God has told the king through Nathan that David’s sin will result in the child’s death? The words have been said. Of all people, the king of God’s people must understand the consequences of sin.
All that can be left is for God to mourn with His servant David, in hopes that the silence will bring peace to his soul.
Until the time when Nathan’s words “Your sin is forgiven” are confirmed through the birth of a son and heir.
And in the garden where Jesus prays the same prayer for His own life, three times, sweating blood in recognition of the injustices, beatings, scourgings and crucifixion to come — what could God say? Jesus had set His face resolutely toward Jerusalem. He had predicted many times what was to come. God had already spoken publicly, twice, to identify Jesus as His Son — with the instruction to those hearing that they should listen to the Son. And one more time to confirm that He had glorified the Name, and would glorify it again.
So God watches and listens to what Jesus had committed to suffer as it unfolds in utter sin, rebellion, self-will and hatefulness on behalf of mankind. To have sent twelve legions of angels to rescue this perfect, sinless Son would have undone all the good the Son had lived to accomplish.
There were no words. Not even darkness, earthquakes and the rending of a temple veil between what is holy and what is not could express the immeasurable depth of God’s broken heart.
Until the time when He restores all things to the way they should be in heaven and on earth.
Sometimes I believe there are no words.
And even God is silent.