3 Years

irene and jon 1974It’s hard to believe, but this week marks the three year anniversary of my mom’s death. Without having to look at the calendar, I probably could have told you that it was coming just by the growing tension rising up within me. My anxiety level rose almost like clockwork, signaling to me that this day was on the horizon.

I think that I can safely say that a day hasn’t passed when I haven’t thought of her. For the first year, I struggled not to pick up the phone in an effort to call her. Fortunately, if I had done that, my dad would still have been there, but that only lasted for a short time, maybe five months, before his own decline.

There are reminders of her all around. A “Praying Hands” plaque over my vanity. A framed picture of a North Carolina lighthouse on our wall. Framed photographs throughout the house. Then there’s the car that she drove, bought with her own money, still holding that lingering scent of her. Every once in a while, I’ll sit in the driver’s seat and drift off, remembering a different time and place when things looked a little more promising than they ended up.

I just remarked to someone recently, I think it was my brother, that the day that I see her again she will probably say that it only felt like hours or days since she last saw me. I hardly think that the sentiment will be echoed by me, but I look forward to the day still.

Life has changed since that day and it will continue to change. Navigating that change is the challenge.

I am grateful for the time that I had with her. I am grateful for the relationship that I had with her, relationship that I saw as fairly unique. It’s not every mother and son who gets along well, there was always a special bond between us, right until the end.

I remember the last time that we really talked. I knew that the end was near and so did she. We sat on the couch in her home and I told her that I was lucky because not every son could say that they had a special relationship with their mother. Our noses met and we rubbed them together, something that I do with my daughter often. That moment hangs in time, captured in my memory to forever remind me of what I had.

My father chose to put the phrase, “She is not here, she is with Jesus” on her grave. My brother and I wouldn’t argue, we weren’t the ones burying our wife, our partner, our love. He did the best that he could, but he was a shell of who he once had been by the time that they moved and they received the news that no one ever wants to get. I don’t fault him for his struggle, I can’t say that I would have done any better and I hope that I never have to make that comparison

She is gone and yet their affairs still remain open as I try desperately to close them. All I want is some amount of closure and selling their home will be a large step in that process. Every day I pray that it will happen and I know that the day will come, but when? It’s not that I don’t want to remember them, but I want to remember them away from that place, the place which marks so much pain and unrealized dreams. That place where she breathed her last breath, I could do without having to grace those walls with my presence, it took far too much of my energy, both physical and emotional.

Three years isn’t a long time, but in some ways it feels like a lifetime.

I love you, Mom.

A Selfish Prayer

bob dylanA year ago, I prayed a very selfish prayer. I knew that my dad was coming to the end of his days here on earth, but I had been so beaten down by the events of the years leading up to that day that I just needed a break. Having been a Bob Dylan fan for the better part of my adult years, I jumped at the opportunity to go see him when he came to Richmond. I bought tickets well in advance of the day, unable to foresee the circumstances that would be playing out as the day of the concert arrived.

As I watched my father’s health decline, I was seeing the perfect storm ensue and wondering whether or not I would have to forego seeing this musical legend because my father had passed. My insides were in knots. I felt like such a jerk. I loved my father and here I was, hoping and praying that he would last one more day so that I could have a few hours to spend with my wife seeing Bob Dylan.

It wasn’t the money that was the issue. If I had had to give up the tickets or if I had been unable to go, it would have just been money. It was really just the opportunity for a break. Between seminary, my church and job situation, my mother’s failing health and eventual death, and now my father’s rapid decline, it was hard for me to get to the surface to catch a breath of air before the next wave hit. As crazy as it sounds, a simple excursion to a Bob Dylan concert could function as that for me.

So I prayed……a selfish prayer. I asked God to preserve my father for just one day. I asked that my night be free of phone calls that he had fallen, that he would stay in his bed, that his heart would keep beating, that he would rest on earth for one more day. I just wanted one more day.

And that’s what I got.

My wife and I went to the concert. My phone never rang. My dad lasted through the night, but that was his last night on earth. I woke up the next morning and spent the entire next day by his side. I read to him, I sang to him, I prayed with and for him. I kissed him. I waited. And that next day, after spending the whole day with him, he breathed his last breath while I sat there by his side.

I wrestled in my spirit whether I had done the wrong thing or not. Should I have forgotten the concert to spend time with my dad for his last night on earth? Should I have not been so selfish? Could I have done more? These questions and so many more were running through my mind.

The reality of loss and grief is that when we go through them, we need to be careful to take time for ourselves. If we aren’t careful, we can be overwhelmed with all of the duties and responsibilities that fall on us, the caretakers. If we don’t stop to care for ourselves, we can easily find ourselves on a decline emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually.

I took the time that I thought I needed……and I prayed. I feel like God heard my prayer, selfish though it might have been. I’m glad he did and I’m glad that I had that one night to step away, to find solace in the music. The next day, reality rushed back in like a tidal wave, and I think that I was a little more ready to deal with it because of a selfish prayer that I had prayed, a selfish prayer that I felt like had been answered by a gracious God.

Destined To Be

As the one year anniversary of my father’s death approaches, I can feel myself getting more introspective than usual. It feels like much longer than just a year as so much has happened over the past 12 months. This month is a busy month, for which I am grateful, with the swan song of the month being my birthday on the last day.

A friend and I were discussing the concept that movie watching can be a spiritual discipline the other day. I was glad to find someone else who appreciated the spiritual searching that could be evoked through watching films. It was a reminder to me that I need to get back into my 2014 Watch List as well as my 2014 Reading Plan. After choosing a few movies to share with this friend, I found one to watch myself.

It was a typical story of a son who is struggling to find his place having been abandoned by his father and having lost his mother. Just typing that sentence flips a switch and reminder to me that his story was similar, in a sense, to my own. But this son, Nick, is struggling as a writer, trying to figure out how to exist. His life is marred by broken relationships, failed job attempts, and a general misdirection. Then, he meets his father.

His father contacts him to help him after he has been evicted from his apartment. The encounter is brief and they don’t see each other again until Nick is working at a homeless shelter that his father checks into. The awkwardness is palpable as Nick interacts with his coworkers who have already begun to form ideas both about Nick’s father and about Nick. You can see the looks, you can almost hear the whispers as they see this man whose life has been marked by failed efforts and relationships, and Nick comes to the place that so many of us come to in our lives, the place of questioning whether or not we are destined to become our parents, for good or for bad.

It’s a question that I have pondered more than once in the last few years. There are times that the desire to buck up against the life that my father lived seems to drive me, evoking a defiance in me as I claim that I will not make the same mistakes. Which such passion and defiance, it becomes humbling when those very same mistakes seem to be duplicated in my own life, and I realize that it’s not about trying to undo what’s been done or even making sure that I don’t make the same mistakes that my father made. It really comes down to identity. Who am I?

While there is a driving force that causes me to run far and fast from the evidence of my father that I see in me, to be consumed and focused on that makes it seem as if there was nothing at all good in him, it’s a focus on the negative, on the areas of improvement that he had in his life, and that’s just not fair. Somewhere along the way, I was enlightened to his story, growing up in Brooklyn, the younger of two boys, an alcoholic father, a working mother, and eventually, living in a single parent household in the formative teen years. When I began to understand what he had gone through, I realized that he was doing the best that he knew how considering the circumstances that had shaped him.

Every child who has experienced the difficulty of their parents will always ask the question of whether or not they are destined to become like their parents. Every hint of anything of their parents in them can cause them great dismay and disappointment. I’ve tried not to let that drive me though. Like I said, my father made mistakes, but they didn’t define him, nor should they have had. There were areas of improvement that I have taken notice of and am doing my best to work out in my own life, but I do them in accordance with who I am, not who I don’t want to be.

At the end of the movie that I was watching, the need to not become his father drives Nick towards “success.” He writes the book that his father always claimed that he had written. He pushes away from the addiction that entangled his father. He chooses to live in truth rather than by spinning a web of lies. But he does take something positive from his father, he chooses to use his life to help others and becomes a teacher in an urban setting, helping kids to learn in a difficult setting.

Who are we becoming? Is it really about destiny? In some way, I think it is, but I feel like it’s way more about who God has made me to be than about who I’m trying to avoid being. I am grateful for my father and my mother, both of whom were full of strengths and weaknesses. When I see glimpses of them in me, I hope that they are good glimpses, I hope that they don’t cause me to run and hide, I hope that they might be characteristics that my children will look at and see as beneficial to carry on.

If I see glimpses of things that I want to avoid, I don’t panic, but I ask myself what I am doing to change and why. Some of the greatest growth that I have seen in myself has been when those faults and flaws have been pointed out to me and I’ve made steps to change, not by myself, but with the help of others.

I am grateful that I had two parents who I was proud to say were mine. I am grateful for the way that they raised me, successes and failures alike. I am grateful for those glimpses that I see of them in me and even in my children, for those are the memories of who they were and are, the legacy of who they’ve made me to be.

An Anniversary In Heaven

tony and irene wedding46 years ago today, my parents were married.  They had met a little less than a year before, on January 23, 1967 at a roller skating rink with a church group.  They were engaged on July 4, 1967, and then on January 13, 1968, they were married.  This is their first anniversary together in heaven.

The road to my parents’ marriage was not an easy one.  Both of them had difficulties during their years of growing up.  Abusive or alcoholic parents.  Poverty.  There were certainly more difficult upbringings than they had, but there were simpler ones as well.

My grandma, my dad’s mom wasn’t fond of my mom.  He was the youngest, the baby, and it was probably difficult for her to find anyone who could meet her standards.  My dad was thrown out of the house for dating my mom.  He lived at the seminary.  My mom typed his seminary papers.  They persevered.

In Matthew 22:30 Jesus says, “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”  While there isn’t a need for marriage in heaven (the bride and Bridegroom will be together), that doesn’t necessarily mean that we won’t know each other as we did on earth.  Our celebrations will be different there, they will center around the ultimate wedding feast.

So, there’s really no need for them to celebrate their marriage to each other, just their marriage to the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, but it’s a celebration.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think about them or miss them.  Today, I celebrate them together.  There is sadness for me, but not for them.  There is loss for me, but not for them.

Happy anniversary, Mom and Dad.  I hope you’re celebrating well.  Thanks for finding each other, because you did, I’m here.  I miss you and love you.  I’ll see you again someday…..

Brace Yourself

November 2010 0022 years ago at this time, I was preparing for my mother’s funeral.  The day after the funeral, my family and I packed up our car and headed to Connecticut to visit family.

It was the first time that I was back in Connecticut since I lost my mom, which probably seems obvious.  Even though I like to prepare myself for things, somehow or another, I didn’t expect the level of emotion that I would feel when I passed through my old hometown.  In fact, as we drove up the Merritt Parkway, I could feel my body beginning to tense up and I wasn’t sure what was happening.  Then I realized that we would have to drive right through Darien.

Every time we go to Connecticut, there are certain things that we like to do and certain things that I like to do.  Do you ever remember your parents driving you by their old home when they were young?  Funny, I don’t.  You see that kind of thing happen all the time, and maybe you’ve experienced that before, but I never had that experience.  My brother eventually looked up my dad’s old neighborhood, but I wouldn’t know my mom’s old neighborhood if it was in the news.

I guess we have a tendency to start traditions with our kids that we feel that we missed when we were kids.  That’s what my approach has been.  When we go back to Stratford, Connecticut, I always like to check out the old house.  When we went to Asheville not long ago, I wanted to let the kids see our old house.

While those houses hold memories for me, they just don’t evoke the same kinds of emotions as the house in which I spent 27 years.  Both of my parents are gone and the mere thought of driving by the old house puts a huge lump in my throat.  My brother has to pass it on the train a few times a week but I just don’t think that I’ll feel compelled to see it until I have to, which could be a long while from now.

This coming week, I’ll enter the church where my father served for more than 36 years to honor him and celebrate his life with those who knew him from Connecticut.  Just like driving through my hometown for the first time after my mom’s death, I’ll be bracing myself.  It won’t be easy.  Many hours were spent in that church sanctuary, both during services as well as late nights when I would practice piano and write music.  It’s hard to say exactly what that place means to me and even harder to figure what kinds of emotions it will evoke.

My advantage all along has been that, as a musician, I have experience in “performing.”  There are just those moments when you have to step into a situation and almost “leave” your body.  Those times when you know being fully present may end up being way more difficult than you can imagine.  So, you just put the game face on and get through it.

Ironically, while my father died on April 17, 2013, there was a big part of him that died the last time that we were all in that church in November of 2010.  Months later, he died more with my mom’s diagnosis.  Months after that, he died even more when he lost my mom.  So, while he’s only been gone for 3 months, I started losing him almost 3 years ago, if not before that.

All I know is that life hands us situations that are sometimes unexpected, catching us off guard and by surprise.  But it also hands us situations that we expected or we saw coming, but just like a car accident that you know is inevitable, you just sit back, wait, and brace yourself.  You can’t avoid it, but you can at least do your best to stay as protected as possible.  I guess that’s just what I’ll do.

The Brilliant Things They Told Me

respect-your-parents-proverbs-wisdom-luke-reynoldsI’m not exactly sure when the transition happens, if it happens the same time for everyone, or if it even happens for everyone, but at some point in my life, I experienced that moment where my parents went from being complete idiots who had no concern for my well-being to incredibly brilliant individuals with lots of love in their hearts and wisdom in their heads.  Well, it’s probably a big overstatement to actually think that I ever thought my parents were complete idiots, we just never had that contentious of a relationship.

I feel pretty blessed that I began to learn this lesson early on, maybe earlier than some people.  I also feel blessed that my parents really were wise and loving, something that not everyone is able to say.  I was blessed to have had a close relationship with my parents in their last years on earth.  I didn’t know that they were their last years, but I am glad that I did things the way that I did.

It’s always much easier for me to take things from people who don’t come across as if they’re really full of wisdom.  My mom was one of those.  She never went beyond a high school education, although she wanted to.  She never worked in corporate America.  She simply assisted elementary school teachers as their aide for 25 years, and through her experience there as well as her own life experience, she gained a wealth of knowledge and wisdom.

She was primarily a good listener, which is important in my book.  If you think you’ve got anything worthwhile to say to people, you better be a good listener.  Not too many people will give you a second listen or give you the time of day if you come across as a used car salesman.  That’s a very important lesson that I learned from my mom.  And my dad always used to tell me that advice that isn’t asked for is advice that is ill-received.  Those words so penetrated my brain that I adopted the practice of asking people before telling them what I thought, especially if it’s a potentially divisive or contentious issue.

Over the few years before my mom died, it was her and my wife that I would constantly go to for the wisdom that I was looking for.  My wife, as different as she is from my mother, has many qualities that I rejoice she shared with my mother.  It still goes back to that most attractive quality: the ability to listen.

My dad had some tendencies to share opinions and wisdom without prompting, but I attest that to the fact that he was a man and sometimes that gene seems to fall short in the male brain.  But he was always willing to offer what he could and was probably way more helpful than he ever gave himself credit for.  He certainly doled out his fair share of wisdom to me.

All of these things come to the forefront of my mind as I raise my own children.  I hope and pray that one day, my children might be saying the same things about me that I am saying about my parents.  I hope they don’t feel like I offer them advice that makes them resent me.  I hope that one day, after those difficult years of me knowing nothing at all, that a light might go on in my children’s brains and they might think I know a little more than they think I know.

One day, I will make the same transition with my children that I made with my own parents, the transition from parent to friend.  Maybe that day I will be wise in their eyes.  There’s no use in worrying about it now though.  For now, I’ve just got to figure out how to get through today without losing my mind.  ‘Cause that’s just the stage of life we’re in right now.