Resuming where we left off last week…
A few weeks ago, Janet and I made the final arrangements to have her admitted to home hospice. It’s clear that Janet has been talking to Frannie because she now understands what “hospice” really means: Mom is dying soon. The three of us spent a lot of time last night hugging and crying. This is a very hard time and “letting go” is becoming very real.
One of the things that I have learned over the years is that grieving is a complicated business. In 1969 a woman named Elisabeth Kübler-Ross came up with what she called the 5 stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). While her work has come under some criticism in more recent years, it doesn’t take a genius to see that degenerative conditions like HD, complicate things by requiring you to basically start the process over every morning, because every morning there is a little more of your loved one “missing”.
For me, grief has become an open sore that is constantly getting picked raw. Thus even on good days, I have noticed that I tend to have a very “thin skin”. It’s as though all my capacity to deal with the world is used up by the normal flow of the day. Consequently, even small problems can leave my emotional reserves “overdrawn” and throw me into a tailspin. I imagine that this is what the next few months are going to be like, until Janet actually passes – and probably afterwards too.
But that’s not the whole story. The fact is, no story is over until God has His say. I just finished a piece that I wrote for the church newsletter that consisted of some thoughts brought up by the classic Eagles song, Hotel California. Besides ending with The Greatest Guitar Duet in Rock-and-Roll History, its words tell a story that haunted me for a long time. The thing was, I lived in California for several years, but they weren’t good years. In fact, they pretty much stunk. During my time in SoCal, I made a lot of mistakes and went through a lot of changes that left me feeling empty inside. I got to thinking that since California was the problem, all I had to do was get back to who I was before I moved to California. Then things would be good again. Then my life would be back on track – as the song said:
“…I had to find a passage back to the place I was before…”
Unfortunately there was one small problem with that approach:
“…’Relax’ said the night man, We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like, But you can never leave!”
In other words, the hope of getting back to who I was when I left the hills of southern Missouri, was ultimately a false one. No matter how hard I tried, I could never leave behind me California and all the pain it represented. Eventually, though, I learned that the line I took as hopeless, really wasn’t. The point I was missing was that while its true that every experience permanently changes who I am (which is actually the point of the song), it’s also true that God uses the “stuff” I go through to help form me into what He wants me to be – and that includes something as tragic as the looming death of my beautiful Janet.
With that realization, I began to grasp the utter pointlessness of looking at past mistakes and life events from the standpoint of, “If only…”. The hard truth is that there is absolutely nothing that I can do to turn back the clock and undo my mistakes. As lawyers like to say, you can’t unring a bell, and as I know from my own experience, you can’t unmake mistakes. But just because I can’t do it, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. As a believer, all of those failures in my past are opportunities for God to step in with His redemption and grace. There is nothing that is so broken that God can’t fix it. Divorces, deaths, relationships, you name it – God can, and does, redeem it all.
In Latin, there is a motto that I have come to love: semper prorsum. It literally means: “always forward”.
I started out this blog a couple months ago by talking about a wedding in our family. As we now come to the end of the first phase of this blog – the “historical” part of this story, I can see a parallel between marrying someone and losing them to illness – which if you think about it shouldn’t be too surprising.
For example, we tend to think about both things in terms of events – weddings and funerals – when in reality they are processes that can start months or even years before the culminating event. For example, you don’t become united with a spouse all at once, rather you start drawing together the moment you first meet. In the case of Janet and I, that first meeting took place in a Friendly’s restaurant around the corner from Symphony Hall in Boston. Likewise, when you are losing a spouse or loved one to a terminal illness, the letting go doesn’t occur at the graveside. For us it started when we got the diagnosis of Huntington’s Disease sitting in Dr Cotugno’s office in Washington PA.
Another similarity is that, for both of these processes, the fact of what is going to ultimately happen starts as an intellectual concept that seems at first rather unreal despite our recognition that it will occur – someday. Then somewhere along the way, something happens that turns the ephemeral someday into the reality of today. For me, our wedding became “real” the first time I looked at Janet as we were doing something mundane like washing the dishes and I said to myself, “Yeah, I’m going to spend the rest of my life with that beautiful woman. I done good.” For our family, the point of grasping the full import of our impending loss came when we admitted Janet into home hospice and I said to myself, “Oh God, I’m not going to spend the rest of my life with this beautiful woman.”
One of the things that grief can do is turn your head around and keep you pointlessly fixated on the past. If only we had argued less, if only I had taken her dancing more, if only I had spent less time working away from home.
But you don’t find hope dwelling in the past because hope is about the future. It wasn’t so long ago that I couldn’t visualize tomorrow at all. When I tried to think about the future, all I saw was an endless string of dull, gray todays. Now I can sort of see to Christmas, which is good because we hear at Christmas one of God’s most beautiful names: Emmanuel – “God With Us”. This name assures us that God doesn’t stand back and view us in a detached way from some far-off heaven. Rather, God is committed to walking with His people as they walk through whatever dark valley that they must traverse.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol*, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the dawn,
If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,
Even there Your hand will led me,
And Your right hand will lay hold of me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me,
And the light around me will be night,”
Even the darkness is not dark to you,
And the night is as bright as day.
* ”…make my bed in Sheol…” is a euphemism for dying.
Hence, the line means, “Even if I am dead, behold, You are there.”
In Christ, Amen ☩
A prayer for when you are viewing life in the rear-view mirror…
“Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. It is right that I should at all times and in all circumstances bless You for your timeless love. But today I want to bless you especially for being by my side throughout the troubles of life. Please give me the faith to not reflexively obsess about past sins that I have confessed and You have long-since forgotten. Teach me to always “face front” as that is the only way that I can see where you are taking me. Amen”