Moving On But Not Forgetting

It’s hard to believe, but yesterday marked the three year anniversary of my father’s death. I feel as if I say this every time that I pass a milestone, but in some ways it seems like it was yesterday while other ways it feels as if it’s maybe even been longer than three years. Time if funny when it comes to loss and grief.

While the loss and grief are still new, there is such a tension as to what to do and how best to handle it. How do you grieve through the remembrance? How do you recognize the day without giving it too much recognition? What happens when the day passes you by and you don’t really do anything to remember or acknowledge it?

Every time an anniversary, birthday, or other significant date comes, there is always a tension in me as to what to do and how best to handle it. Do I live into it or move past it? What’s the appropriate level of recognition for it?

When it comes, I feel that I at least have to think about it, otherwise, I feel as if I’m not honoring it. Why is that though? It’s not like those we’ve lost can tell whether or not we are recognizing the day. It’s not as if we are hurting their feelings, they don’t know the difference in how we acknowledge, or don’t acknowledge, the day.

How do we honor the day and the memory of those who we’ve lost while not getting bogged down in the emotion of the moment or feeling sorry for ourselves? How do we continue to acknowledge the loss while still realizing how important it is that we are moving forward? How do we move forward without seeming as if we’ve forgotten the person whom we’ve lost?

The first few years after I lost my parents, I felt the need to stop at the exact time that they died. It was as if I needed to take a moment to remember, acknowledge, and think about them. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t been missing them all along, it just felt necessary to me, almost as if I was obligated to do something special in that moment. It was almost as if I didn’t stop to honor the moment that I was forgetting them in some way.

The thing about grief is that it hits everyone different. Even talking through this anniversary with my brother, he had a whole lot of other things going through his mind than I did. We’ve both had a very different approach towards the loss, mine was significantly impacted by my children (in a positive way), my church community, my friends, and my wife.

On the other side of the day, life moves on. It’s essential that it moves on, after all, we can’t stop it from happening. I miss my dad. I feel that pangs inside me when I hear others talk about conversations they recently had with their dads and I just want to say to them, “Enjoy every conversation and every word,” but I’m pretty sure that they do.

Time marches on and I can’t forget. It doesn’t really matter how I acknowledge the day, it’s just a day like any other. The remembering, the rituals, whatever they may be, aren’t for anyone else but me.

Today, I might walk a little slower, ponder a little deeper, sigh a little longer. I’m grateful that God’s given me another day and I’m looking forward to the day when I see my dad again.

Love you, Dad. See you again!

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They Say It’s Your Birthday

Mom and Dad 2001 - Don Miller PartyNo matter how hard I try, memorable dates still keep repeating themselves year after year. Anniversaries, birthdays, and other events, whether they are noted on my Google calendar or not are still embedded in my brain.

Today would have been my father’s 73rd birthday.

Birthdays were always a fun time in my family. At some point, after my brother and I grew out of parties and presents, we still converged upon my parents’ house to have dinner and cake.

The cake was always a Carvel ice cream cake. It was kind of funny to watch the cakes shrink in size over the years. As the price went up, the size shrunk.

Along the way, we developed a tradition where all of us (¾ of whom were decent singers) would sing probably the most atrocious version of “Happy Birthday” that anyone has ever heard. Although we could sing, we would somehow find a way to disguise our voices to sound like the most tone-deaf singers you could ever find.

I remember the first time that I brought my wife (then girlfriend) to a birthday. I think that I probably spent some time during the car ride explaining what would happen so as not to shock her. Thankfully, my explanation was good enough that she didn’t run away. It probably helped that she comes from a family with a wicked sense of humor as well.

The tradition hasn’t been well carried on with my own children, so I miss it terribly every time that a birthday comes around, especially the birthdays of my parents.

Today, I remember my father. He wasn’t perfect. He wasn’t athletic. He wasn’t even always funny. But I loved him dearly!

I can’t even begin to express how grateful that I am that I was blessed with him as my father. He did the best that he could with the shoddy example of a father that he had. He gave himself to his church and to his family. He sometimes worked too much. He sometimes got uptight. He wasn’t always the most patient of people, but he loved in a way that he could only have learned to love from his heavenly Father.

I miss you and love you, Dad. I am proud to be your son and to be a living legacy to the love that you showed to me. I can’t wait to see you again! Happy birthday!

The Eve of the Eve

It’s the Eve of Christmas Eve and I can feel the excitement starting to bubble up within me. There is anticipation of waking up on Christmas morning to see what’s under the tree. There is an excitement in me to take part in a Christmas Eve worship experience with my church. There is excitement in me to see how my kids drink in all that they will experience over the next few days.

Ever since I was a kid, I have loved Christmas. I would hardly sleep on Christmas Eve as my excitement was palpable and uncontainable. I would wake up while everyone else was sleeping and start organizing the presents into piles, making sure that everything was in order for when everyone was awake. I love the smells of Christmas, the sounds of Christmas, the memories of Christmas, and all that Christmas means to me and to you.

Every year that goes by, it gets a little harder to get into the mood. Life has a tendency of getting in the way. Whether it’s my own health issues or someone in the family’s health issues, whether it’s a tragic loss in my community or a loss within my family or church, somehow the challenges that we face in life can creep into our celebration and do everything they can to steal our joy.

I need constant reminders of what Christmas really means, and I’m a pastor. I can read the birth account in Luke, I can sing the songs, I can plan out the services, but I still need to constantly keep before me the fact that my celebrations are somewhat backwards. Why do I get gifts when it’s Jesus’ birthday? Why am I not focusing more on the fact that I received a gift for which I should be eternally grateful?

Today, there will be no running around doing last minute shopping. I’m hoping I won’t have to go to many stores at all. I’ve tried even to avoid some of the roads around the mall in fear of being impacted by those whose heads are mulling over their own “To Do” lists. I’ve taken care of most everything on my “To Do” lists, so I hope to just get ready.

While I certainly feel a sense of loss without my parents here, the holidays have a way of reminding me of all of the great times that we shared together. I can’t help but smile as I think about my mom playing her Christmas records on the record player while she was cooking or baking in the kitchen. I can’t help but think about my father’s booming voice as we sang Angels We Have Heard on High or O Little Town of Bethlehem or some other Christmas hymn. I remember all of the Christmas traditions that we had in our family and I want to do my best to make sure that my kids have traditions that they can carry on as well.

True, no one really celebrates the eve of Christmas Eve, but I can be the first. If it means that I remember a little bit better what I’m celebrating, then I’ll do whatever it takes!

And here we are…

wtc-introSeptember 11th comes every year. There’s no stopping it. For me, it’s a dual edged sword. Not only does it remind me of that fateful day 13 years ago when terrorists hijacked 4 planes and flew them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, but it also reminds me of my mom. September 11th was my mom’s birthday.

I could feel my anxiety rising within me a few days ago. No matter how much I tell myself not to get uptight about it as it approaches on the calendar, it’s easier said than done. I could feel the pit in my stomach, the tightening of my neck and back, and the long sighs that would somehow find their way out of my mouth.

Today is a somber day, a day to remember. When the United States first experienced the tragedy that happened 13 years ago, the tagline, “We will never forget” could be seen all over; coupling the tragedy with my mom’s birthday has assured that I would not forget either.

If you go to New York City, you will see the memorial where the towers once stood. Although I’ve not been there yet, I imagine that there is little indication (other than the memorial) that those events took place there. Things have been cleaned up and fixed. The memorial has been erected where there was once a gaping scar in the earth. While the visible evidence of the tragedy is no longer there, the mental and emotional evidence will always remain.

I can remember so much about that day as the news spread of what had happened. Living 50 miles outside New York City, it felt even closer to home. I knew people in the City, fortunately, they had not been physically injured in the midst of it all, but how many more lives were lost, families impacted, lives shattered and changed.

13 years later, are we any closer to peace in the Middle East? ISIS runs rampant, making the atrocious events and behavior seen in the past look like child’s play in some respects. Evil has not died, it still lives on. Hatred still fuels wars and disagreements. 13 years later, what have we REALLY learned?

Dates are powerful, at least they are to me. Maybe it’s because I’m a “numbers” guy. Numbers stay with me and I can remember them randomly. I will always remember this day. Can we all? But beyond remembering, can we move closer to finding peace? Can we put an end to the strife, enmity, and bloodshed? I fear that we can make a lot of noise to say that we want to move towards peace, but we can never quite get there……..not if we do it on our own.

Take a minute today to remember.  How is your life different today than it was had the events of 9/11 never happened?  What are you doing to make a difference in the world where you are?  Where do you go to find peace?  Many places that offer peace are simply offering shallow substitutes that don’t last but promise the world.  May you find the peace that passes all understanding, the gift of life. and the living water that offers those who drink the chance to never thirst again.

Striking Gold – Director’s Cut

I’ve asked 2 good friends and loyal readers to share their favorite blog posts.  Over the next few months, I will be sharing their thoughts and insights that they have shared with me regarding some of these posts.  I hope that what they share will add some new insights to some of my previous posts.

[Wanda writes: As I am getting older and my mortality is hitting me in the face, I realize how important it is to make memories and “moments in time” for loved ones to cherish. There is not enough wealth in the world to compare to sharing a sunset with someone you love – whether your children, parents or good friends. When we make memories, we never really leave our loved ones. Hopefully, the most important part of who we are remains intact, to be shared for generations.]

I knew it for years before she died, but since her death and since going through boxes and boxes and boxes of stuff, it has been officially confirmed: my mom saved everything. No joke. When I say “everything,” I mean it. I have report cards from elementary school, newspaper clippings for when I was on the honor roll in high school, drawings that I did in art class while in kindergarten, and a sundry of other mementos from my early life and childhood.

What’s been really funny to me is to see how some of these mementos have acted like mental dominos, triggering memories of other mementos which trigger memories of others and others and others beyond that. I can get lost in the memories that are conjured up by the smallest of trinkets or even the faintest of smells.

I found a tape of me singing that I knew existed but wasn’t quite sure where. My mom had played it for me over and over again as I was growing up. When I found it after looking high and low, I played it for my kids, who were getting quite a kick out of hearing their dad sing songs like “The Monkees” theme song, “Jesus Loves Me,” “The Odd Couple” theme song, and a few others.

It’s simply amazing to me how these things have the power of transporting me to a different time and place. That seems to be the power of our senses, all five of them, they can take us away to a place and time far away. With a simple sound or smell or word even, we can find ourselves dreaming about something that happened long ago.

I mentioned to someone the other day that I kept a bottle of my father’s cologne and my mother’s perfume right next to my sink in the bathroom. On occasion, when I’m feeling particularly nostalgic, I will reach down and pick up one of the bottles, put it up to my nose, close my eyes, and take a deep breath in. When smelling my father’s cologne, the day that it usually takes me to was a day when my father was in the rehab facility where he eventually died. I had realized how much of a creature of habit he was when he would get upset with me for not giving him specifics about when I would be arriving to pick him up. Smelling my mother’s perfume brings me back to Sunday mornings in church, sitting next to her, sometimes holding her hand, always feeling safe and secure with her by my side. It reminds me of how the house smelled when she was getting ready on all of those Sunday mornings.

One day, I told my dad exactly when I would be there to visit him and when I got there, I walked into his room to find him dressed nicely with a shirt and tie on. I searched my memory to try to figure out whether I was forgetting something. Did we have an appointment with an attorney or someone else that had slipped my mind? I didn’t think so. So, I said to him, “Why are you all dressed up, Dad?” He just looked up at me with a big smile and said, “My son was coming to visit me.” Cue the lump in my throat. What a special day it was and that’s the day that my brain conjures up every time that I take a deep breath of his cologne.

It’s ironic that things like homemade tapes and bottles of cologne might be considered “gold.” Many people might be looking around for the things that have monetary value, but those things pale in comparison to what I’ve found. These are the things from which memories are made. There is no price that could be attached to them, their value is priceless.

It certainly makes me think through what it is that I am leaving for my children. I hope that memories like these are the things that they value above everything else. When we spend time with those we love, we embed that time into our memories, creating moments that we can call up from our memory banks when we want them or need them. Those are the gifts to me and I am so grateful to have had them.

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 Memory

My wife reminded our family that a year ago, we were on our way halfway across the country for me to officially graduate from seminary. I had finished all of my coursework the December prior, but I had worked so hard that I wanted to be a part of a celebration to commemorate the day. A lot happened on that trip and even during that celebration, not the least of which was a reminder of the verses that my mom had kept on her bedside table in the months leading up to her death (story here). We had a great time as a family traveling through Asheville, Nashville, St. Louis, and Iowa on our way to St. Paul, Minnesota. It’s a trip full of memories that I hope my children will cherish for years to come.

The last few days, I’ve been reading the posts of many of my seminary friends who are celebrating this weekend and their own commencement from seminary. It’s brought up a lot of memories from just one year ago.

When I knew that there would be a ceremony in St. Paul, Minnesota, I talked to my wife and we decided that it would be fun to go out and celebrate as a family. After all, while I was the one doing the studying, my whole family contributed to my education along the way. They all played an integral part and for that I am thankful.

This year, our trip will be to Disney. With some of the money that I got after my father died, it made sense to use it for us as a family.

Disney…..the place where dreams come true. Right? Well, sort of. Disney has always held a special place in my heart. I grew up going to Disney World as my grandparents lived in Florida, not too far from Disney World. My wife and I, before we decided to start our family, took a “Last Hurrah” trip to Disney without kids. We had an incredible time together and have been waiting about 9 years to go back again.

As my kids are getting older, they are able to remember more and more. Every trip, every activity, every moment spent with them is being stored away in their memory banks. Some of the greatest memories that I have as a kid were the road trips that my family and I would take. Long Island for holidays. Upstate New York in the summertime. South Carolina in the summertime. There are so many memories couched in these trips that I could probably spend a year recounting those stories on this blog.

If I had a dollar for every time someone told me that life moves fast and that kids grow up before you know it, I would be incredibly rich. Instead of ignoring that advice, I’ve tried my best to seize the opportunities that come before me. I get a giggle out of some of my friends who take their kids somewhere special and they are more consumed with the airport than the actual destination.

I’m finding out that kids don’t care as much as we do about the things that we are doing. All it takes is some creativity and time and they’ll be pretty content with whatever they get. In a culture where screens have taken over and consumed much of the time of our children, we have to work harder to keep them engaged with things that stimulate their minds and bodies.

As often as I can, I want to help create a memory for my children. It’s the memories that have sustained me long after my mom and dad have been gone. It’s the memories that are the most valuable possessions that I have received from them, not money or other keepsakes.

Make a memory today!

What’s Been Given

memorial-dayI grew up in a small town in southwestern Connecticut. It was far from Mayberry, but it had a small town feel in many ways. One of those ways was during Memorial Day weekend. In fact, some of my fondest memories as a kid were of Memorial Day and the parade that they had every year.

My father was the pastor of a small church that was located right in the middle of the town. For a stretch, there was a group from the church who would make floats for the parade to commemorate those who had given and sacrificed for our country. For as long as I can remember, my dad would march in the parade somewhere. The parade would begin at a shopping plaza on one side of town and end up at the cemetery on the other side of town where there were a number of veterans buried. There a service would be held and my father would generally sing “God Bless America” and another patriotic song.

That was my memory of Memorial Day, a day that had been set aside to remember those who had sacrificed and given all for freedom. How fortunate I am to have those memories, both of my dad and of the day.

When most people think of Memorial Day, I fear that they just see it as a day off from work, a day where they can barbecue or sit out by the pool or lake. It’s been harder for me as I’ve moved away from my hometown to find places where I can remember the same way that I did as a boy growing up. It doesn’t seem like there is the same emphasis on Memorial Day as I was used to, but greater than that is the fact that my stage of life has not always allowed me to take advantage of some of the events and activities that are offered.

As I spend time today thinking about those who I know who have served and all of those who remain nameless to me but who sacrificed, I have to force myself to remain quiet, even if for just a moment or two. I need to force myself to focus on the meaning of today so as to not let it get past me.

My family was not a military family, although I had an uncle who was a Marine and a cousin who was in the Coast Guard. My family was not as personally impacted by wars as others were, but the depth of gratitude is no less in us. I am grateful that others have served, have sacrificed, have given all they had.

Today is a day to remember. Take time to remember that many have given everything so that we might have something called freedom. I am grateful to all who have given.

No thoughts and words of sacrifice can be spoken in my hearing without reminding me of the greatest sacrifice ever given and the gift of freedom that we receive through the One who gave all that we might have life. For that sacrifice, I am eternally grateful.

Freedom is rarely free. To those who have given and paid the price to maintain that freedom, I salute you. Thank you for all that you have done.

The Trigger

Nope, this post isn’t about guns. Not even close. Sorry to disappoint you if that’s what you came here looking for, but I would love for you to stay and read.

I watched a movie the other night that caused me to write a post yesterday. The movie had to do with a father-son relationship. It triggered something in me that was bound to come. Two weeks from today will mark the one year anniversary of my father’s death. And so, as I began to pour my heart out onto a screen, as I watched the white space be filled with black letters, I should have realized that the trigger had been pulled and that from here on out, at least for the next few weeks, EVERYTHING will be a trigger to make me think of my dad.

The other night, I was at a choir rehearsal and we were going through a hymn book for an upcoming hymn sing that we are having. As I called out the numbers of the hymns we were singing, I came to hymn number 444…..and I began to laugh.

You see, I grew up going to two worship services on Sunday, one in the morning and one in the evening. The evening service was much more relaxed and casual. The order was more freeform and flexible with much less of a liturgy than its morning counterpart. My father, the pastor, would lead the singing in the beginning and would ask for requests. He had a very quirky sense of humor, so he would oftentimes go off on a silly tangent that most people didn’t think was very funny……at least I didn’t, but that might not count since most kids think their dads are dorks anyway.

But as I called out the number……444……it made me laugh, because it made me think of him, of my dad. It made me think of how he would have said it. He would have rolled the number over in his mouth a few times, letting it fall out in a silly and awkward way. 444….spoken with his Brooklyn, New York accent, a big smile on his face, beaming from ear to ear with pride that he had found humor in a simple number.

And there in front of nearly 30 people, I felt myself nervously laughing if for no other reason than to keep myself from crying. I could hear his voice, not audibly and out loud, but in my head. I could see his face. I could just sense the warmth of his personality. And it succeeded at equally causing a smile and breaking my heart simultaneously.

As April 17th approaches, there will be more triggers, more reminders, things that bring me back to my dad. I need to write about them, I need to share them, because, in a way, when I share them, I share him. Far from perfect yet perfect enough for me, I miss him every day, and I look forward to seeing him again.

So, I hope you’ll forgive my tangents down Memory Lane as I recall the man who helped to shape me, who helped to instill in me the faith that has kept me going over these last few years. I hope that I can share a glimpse enough that you can see him, that you can hear him, that you can sense the warmth of his presence as much as I do.

Thanks for reading!

2 Hard Years

gibsons circa 1974 -edit 2Tuesday, July 19th, 2011 is a day that I will hardly forget.  It was just 5 days after my mother left the hospital for the last time with the news that she only had about a month to live.  From a month to 5 days, it’s kind of hard to believe.

There’s no easy way to tell someone that kind of news.  I remember early on in my mom’s journey through cancer, she was afraid.  In fact, it was the week after she had been diagnosed.  We were driving to yet another doctor’s appointment in the back of my aunt and uncle’s van and I was holding her hand.  She did not want to be a “wimp,” she told me.  Having seen her live through so much in her lifetime, I would hardly ever choose such a word to ever describe my mother, but that was her fear as we held hands and the tears streamed down her face.

I wondered, as she journeyed through the process, how much she was doing for herself and how much she was doing for everyone else.  My mother’s greatest strength was also her greatest weakness, she lived her life for her family and was selfless to a fault.  There was a part of me that felt that she just didn’t want to fight the cancer, but she did.  Not even capable of imagining what she was going through, I did my best to put myself and my desires aside and embrace her wishes.

Things ended much differently than we imagined they would.  We thought that there would be an operation, but through treatment, the cancer spread.  We thought that she would have longer time, but she had been so weakened by the treatments that her body could hardly find the strength to push through.

In the end, I think her will won out.  The human will is a very fascinating thing.  Through it, nearly impossible odds can be conquered.  Determination and will can drive a person.  I know my mom’s faith drove both her will and determination, she trusted that God was in control….we all did and still do.  It’s just difficult to trust while in the midst of the storm.

Her will won out because she waited until her best friend from high school got there to say good-bye and waited until one of the teachers who she had worked with arrived with her newborn baby before she finally breathed her last.

It was 6:30PM in the evening and I remember it like it was yesterday.  We knew that the time would be short.  My dad, still in shock over the course of events, had spent some time alone in the room with my mom.  My brother and I were taking turns reading Scripture verses to her.  As her breathing became more and more labored, I struggled to come to grips with reality myself.

Those last moments were among the most difficult.  As my mom’s breath grew more and more shallow, I remember how I began to watch the pulse on her neck to know exactly when she had passed.  That last pulse is embedded on my brain in a way that I will never forget it.  Even after she was gone, my dad struggled with the reality of turning off the oxygen machine since she didn’t need it anymore.  That marked one of the most painful moments of the day to me, a husband coming to grips with the loss of his beloved wife.

Yes, I can recall the events of the day with some vividness.  It’s hard to believe that it’s been 2 years already.  2 years full of more hardship.  My dad is gone.  I’ve had my own share of health issues.  I finished seminary.  My first and only daughter was born.  So much has happened.

Rarely a day goes by where I don’t imagine what Mom would be doing if she were still here.  She would have loved her only granddaughter.  She would still love her grandsons, her sons, and her daughters-in-law.  She would still be selfless.  She would still laugh and love as much as she used to.  She would still provide all of the wisdom that she so willingly dispensed.  She would have remained the pillar of faith that she was, trusting fully in her Savior.

I fully believe that you never quite recover from a deep loss, you simply learn to live with it.  I feel that way about my mom.  She was one of my best friends and it’s hard to fill that void.  My heart aches every day, but my kids are a reminder to me of who she was.  They remind me of the selfless love that she showed to me and everyone around her.  They remind me that there is still hope and that there is still life.

I fully expect that even after 10 years, I will still feel as if it was just yesterday that she was here.  I’m okay with that.  I will not stop telling stories.  I will not stop passing on what she taught me to my kids.  I will not stop shedding tears when they come.  I miss her, but I look forward to seeing her again.  It’s been 2 hard years, but one day, there will be no years between us…..ever again.