Movies I Can’t Watch Right Now

Most of ’em. Most of ’em that I own, it seems like.

Certainly not our favorite, Angi’s and mine: Sense and Sensibility. Not because of any great dramatic loss in its story that triggers the pain. No reason other than the fact that it was our favorite.

Not Goodbye, Mr. Chips. We both kind of liked Brit-lit movies.  I never got to share this one with her. It was still in the wrapper when I made the mistake of trying to watch it weeks after I lost her, and completely came apart when Arthur Chipping (Peter O’Toole) said to his bride of twenty-some years, “Will we always be in love this way?” Because I suddenly remembered, from seeing the movie when I was fourteen years old, the scene that came next: the buzz-bomb’s motor cutting out, the shriek of air as it fell, the sound of her voice singing from the USO tent below.

sleeplessI can’t watch Sleepless in Seattle. Can’t handle Tom Hanks as Sam Baldwin telling the D.J.: “Well, I’m gonna get out of bed every morning… breathe in and out all day long. Then, after a while I won’t have to remind myself to get out of bed every morning and breathe in and out… and, then after a while, I won’t have to think about how I had it great and perfect for a while.”

I’m not ready to be there, Sam. Not now. If ever.

Won’t be watching What Dreams May Come, even if there’s a reunion in the afterlife painted by widower Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams) by his deeply grieving wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra).

No viewings of Love Actually. Don’t want to break down with Liam Neeson’s character Daniel when he remembers his departed Joanna.

Shadowlands is off my viewing list. Not going to put myself through Jack’s (Anthony Hopkins) loss of Joy (Debra Winger), or the unanswerable question her daughter puts to the renowned theologian.

Can’t watch the first five minutes of Up. Not a chance.

Not even the first five minutes of 2009’s Star Trek. No way.

These and a quite a few more are off-limits right now. They may be for quite a while.

It’s hard to imagine a Christmas without Love Actually. But then it’s really hard to imagine a Christmas without Angi.

Seems so easy to tell someone who’s lost half their life to buck up, cheer up, stiff upper lip … when you haven’t experienced a loss that deep yourself; or even haven’t for a long time. It’s easy even when you have. But it’s inconsiderate at the very least.

We all grieve in our own way.

We all mourn at our own pace.

And I think we all deal with it any way we can.

Maybe there will come a time when I can try out one of those banned movies again. Right now, though, just thinking and writing about them is costing me half-a-box of tissues. Still, I write to deal with it, as much as I can deal with it. Maybe I will deal with it better, someday.

In the meantime, I guess I’ll just have to be entertained with brainless comedies and storyless sci-fi and pointless adventures.

Yet even when I do get to the point where I can watch you again, Sam Baldwin, I will still be grateful to be able to think about how I had it great and perfect … for a while.

Advertisements

Quotable, To The Last

I like talking about Angi and remembering her, especially with others. I know this is awkward for some folks, and I respect that. But it helps to know that she’s remembered.

She could turn a phrase.

Even in her last days.

***

When she began to be really sick and when just getting out of bed and getting dressed was beginning to be a chore for her, we were talking about the commitments (financial and otherwise) that we might no longer be able to keep.

“We do the best we can with what we have,” I said. “That’s become my motto.”

My driven, type-A personality wife responded: “Mine is ‘I am not in control.'”

***

She became pretty much bedfast. As Angi’s appetite and ability to digest dwindled away to nothing, she would sometimes think of something that sounded good to eat, and I’d go get it for her. The refrigerator soon became full of things that she couldn’t eat. And her weight fell.

Once while she was struggling with a single bite of whipped lemon yogurt and failing, I shook my head in exasperated failure. “I feel so inadequate to your needs,” I said.

She smiled up at me sweetly and said, “And I feel so inadequate to yours.”

***

The chemo was progressing. Angi had begun to lose her hair; she had ordered a wig by mail that turned out too blonde and exchanged it (again by mail) for a darker one. The blood chemistry cancer markers had looked so good. But just days later, the CT scan told a different, damning story. When her medical oncologist recommended discontinuing chemo — that it was doing more harm than good to her comfort — and begin hospice care, she thought only a few moments and agreed.

We went home and stared at each other. Finally, I asked her: “What’s going through your mind?”

She hesitated a second and said, “I’m mad that I paid $325 for this wig and only got to wear it three times.”

***

In her last week, we opened our home to anyone who wanted to visit. Frequent visitors were our friend David and his wife Susan, the chancellor at WCU where Angi served as provost. As the cancer moved into her brain and the effects of starvation were becoming apparent, it was difficult for her to express herself with words. Sometimes they had different meanings to her than they did to the rest of us. Sometimes things came out that didn’t make sense at all. One of the last things she told David was, “I’m sorry I messed up graduation.”

He of course assured her that she hadn’t, and I assumed it was one of those things she said that just didn’t make sense. He told me otherwise: “Oh, no. We had talked about her taking a bigger role at graduation in a few days. She was just telling me she’s sorry she wasn’t going to get to be a part of it.”

***

The phrase that remained with her until speech was no longer possible was “I love you.” She said it to everyone who visited: family, friends from church, colleagues, neighbors, our doctor, hospice nurses.

It wasn’t that we all didn’t already know it.

She just wanted to make sure.

One Month

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.

One month.

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.

Running in vain.

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.

Borrowing Wisdom

Angela BrentonThrough the past few weeks of ongoing grief at losing Angi one capability at a time, I’ve been blessed by words of wisdom from many people, when I could not muster any wisdom of my own.

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 at night, 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.

A Few Words of Thanks

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:

Angela Brenton“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.’ “

I Will Bury My Wife Today

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.

I Hate Cancer

20130403-194937.jpgOne of my earliest memories of cancer is seeing a movie on television when I was a kid – I think it was “Stolen Hours” with Susan Hayward – in which a not-so-nice lady was humbled and humanized by it, and finally succumbed to it. When the movie’s characters talked about a brain tumor, I thought they were saying “brain doomer.” Back then, it might as well have been.

My other memory is of visiting a sweet elderly widow from church, bedfast at home from an untreatable cancer. Her name was Anna Clancy, and like many other residents of the area near my church in the Fountain Square area of Indianapolis, she was originally from Germany and had the accent to prove it. She knew she would never return there, but loved to see and share with us color slides from her homeland in her GAF stereo viewer. On one visit, she gave me the chocolate-brown plastic viewer and all the gorgeous slides; it was an early version of the View-Master. For a child like me with poor distance vision and no ability to fuse the images from my two eyes more than a few feet away, the device was pure magic. It turned out to be our last visit. I think she knew it would be.

I hate cancer.

It has taken shots at my maternal grandmother, my mom, my older sister and even me. It has threatened and taken relatives, friends, colleagues anf neighbors.

There’s nothing fair about cancer. I survived a pretty easily survivable type of it in my early twenties, but it took away my ability to father children. Sure, we’ve been able to adopt the two greatest kids in the whole world. But no thanks to cancer.

Cancer doesn’t care whether you are young or old, male or female, wealthy or poor, healthy or infirm, gay or straight, black or white or somewhere in between. It is very democratic. But it is not fair.

Now cancer is trying to kill my sweet wife Angi.

She is battling it with all her might, while it slowly saps every ounce of strength she has. I hate that she has to.

I hate that it sneaked up on her like a filthy thief. Pancreatic cancer has no outstanding symptoms. It’s almost always diagnosed too late.

I hate what it is doing to her; torturing her, starving her, drying her out, weakening her.

I hate what it is taking away from her: food and water, strength, comfort, health, pleasure, hair, dignity.

Yet no matter what cancer takes, it does not take away her patience, her persistence, her cheer, her love, her faith.

I hate what it is giving her: wracking pain, nausea, dry heaves, insomnia.

I hate that I try to help and there is not really one thing I can do to make life better for her, and I am still worn out at the end of the day.

I hate what cancer is doing to my family.

I hate having to sell our house because I’m not working fulltime and wouldn’t be able to make payments on it nor utilities for it if it fell to me.

I hate the prospect of having to move and not knowing when or where.

I hate what this cancer is doing to my kids, to Gran, to extended family and dear friends and church siblings.

I especially hate the stress and uncertainty this is all putting on my daughter, about to turn 17 and fighting her own brave battles.

I hate cancer, the slow torturing killer of loved and loving people. I hate cancer because it is evil. I hate cancer because it is of the accuser.

Cancer lies. And we know who the father of lies is.

Cancer murders. And we know who was a murderer from the beginning.

It doesn’t help to hate cancer. Just hating it doesn’t help at all.

But cancer isn’t a person. I don’t get any picture from scripture that there’s anything wrong with hating an evil thing. When I think about cancer, I can’t help but hate it.

No apologies.

I hate it.