A Grief Observed (Preemptively)

This post describes, in part, the effects of a degenerative neurological condition called Huntington’s Disease. Any negative behavior on the part of my wife should be attributed to that condition. Any negative behavior on the part of myself should be attributed to my need for God’s ongoing grace.

If you would like to read our story from the beginning, you can start here: How We Got Here…

This week we welcomed a new member to the Porter household. Her name is Lawtay and she is a 6 month old boxer mix. She is very gentle, loves to cuddle, and is already helping to support me and Frannie too. The only problem is that she may end up being a bigger dog than we originally expected. Right now she weighs 40lbs and according to the vet is a little underweight. By the time she’s full grown, she could be a 50 to 60 lb dog…

Janet is spending more time alone (her choice) but occasionally gets very persistent about calling Frannie for things that she either has no control over, or are things that are already done. Finally, I had to tell Frannie to not answer the phone when her mom is in that sort of mood. At the same time, Janet fell again this week and sat on the floor for a couple hours before getting herself up. She didn’t have her phone with her and she fell because she refuses to use her walker, which she needs. I have talked to her about getting a LifeAlert-type device.

If you are of a certain age and live in the US, you likely remember the TV commercials where an elderly actress intones the now famous line: “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” Random thought: I wonder if the company exported the commercial anywhere else?

However, Janet has resisted that assistance too. She says that she doesn’t want something hanging around her neck. Maybe if we could find something that she wore like a watch, or pinned to her. In any case, it may be time to stop asking her, and to start telling her that we are getting something.


When I first started writing this blog, I frankly didn’t think Janet would live very much longer. This was perhaps understandable because last November she was talking constantly about wanting to die. In fact, one of the first things I wrote was a death announcement with blanks for time and date of death. As it turns out, it was just perseveration – this time on death. One benefit that the exercise of writing Janet’s death announcement brought out was that it got me wondering what it would actually be like for Janet to be really and truly dead.

This week I have been rereading C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. I first read it many years ago and it was, at the time, a rather academic exercise of the nature of, “Oh isn’t that terrible what he went through.” Needless to say, my experience of the book is markedly different now. Now, there is nothing academic about it. Now, I have some “…skin in the game…” In fact, when I was starting this blog, many of the names I considered were variations on the title of that book.

For those who are not familiar with the book, Lewis wrote it in response to the death of his wife Joy Davidman, from cancer. However, it didn’t start out as a work to be published, rather its genesis was a collection of notebooks that he kept around the house and wrote in during the time in which he was recovering from his wife’s death. Because these notebooks were essentially just between him and God, he exhibited in them an extraordinary degree of intellectual and spiritual honesty. Moreover, many of the notes read as though he felt that Joy was, in some way, watching over his shoulder to make sure he was being honest. In the end, he didn’t hold back on any thought, any feeling, any idea, or any doubt – and he did have doubts.

It was only later that it occurred to him to take the contents of these notebooks and get them published, and when he did so, it was initially under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk.

That story also explains one of the most striking features of the book: When he went to turn it into a book, he didn’t try to take the raw material and forge it into a continuous narrative with a beginning, a series of obstacles that he had to overcome, and then finally the requisite happy ending. Rather, the book consists of short paragraphs, and even single sentences, that document isolated moments in his life and the thoughts that went with them.

As I began writing this blog, I had two prayers: 1) that I could become even a fraction of the author that Lewis was and 2) that I could be as honest as he was. As it turned out, writing is, at its core, simply a skill like brain surgery or pipe fitting. Consequently, it is something that can be learned. (Having a good copy editor who studied English at Purdue helps a lot!) The second goal, however, is a far harder nut to crack, at least in part because, unlike acquiring a skill, it is an ongoing battle. Intellectual and spiritual honesty is always a struggle because (for me at least) there is always that voice in the back of my head telling me, “Oh no, you can’t say THAT. People will be disappointed. People won’t like you anymore.”

But even if you aren’t writing for the eyes of others, this type of honesty is critical because it helps keep us grounded. There is a popular meme on line that says:

The most common lie
that humans tell is:
“I’m okay…”

Unfortunately, we don’t just tell this lie to others, we lie to ourselves too. We tell ourselves that we are “okay,” when the truth is that we are far from “okay.” For example, one of the many things that Lewis observed and documented is the trouble he had pulling together the motivation to even shave in the morning. What difference did it make, he mused, whether his cheeks were smooth or scruffy?

But he openly discussed weightier matters as well, and he examined each one with an unflinchingly honest eye. He talks about his doubts about who God is, and His motivations, doubts about his own faith, doubts about the nature of grieving, doubts about Heaven and the afterlife, and even doubts about his love for his late wife.

We often think that when sharing with others that we should avoid the “soft spots” in our faith and concentrate on the places where our faith is the most sure and solid. But is that approach always the best policy? For me, the answer to that important question depends on the point of your sharing. If the point of the conversation is to highlight what a wonderful person you are, then yeah, that sort of sharing will probably serve you well.

If, however, the point is to help the person you are talking to, then it might not be the optimum approach. I have mentioned before that by training and by vocation, I am an engineer. One of the mistakes that I often see young engineers make is to think that our customers want us to be able to recite preformulated answers to their problems. Now, while these sorts of inquiries do typically lead to the formulation of a solution, what makes a customer feel comfortable with us professionally is (paradoxically) not the answers that we present, but the questions that we ask.

I would assert that the same principle is in play for matters of faith and life. When someone asks you how you are doing, perhaps they are just passing time with small talk. But perhaps too, they are wanting, or even needing, to open a dialog with someone who understands their weaknesses – not a Superman or Wonder Woman who has everything all sorted out. Perhaps when you are talking to someone, the thing that they need to hear above all else is that they can survive the worry and the doubt. I can’t tell you how many times I have felt so low that I prayed to last just one day longer than Janet so I can see this thing through to the end.

But I can also tell you that those feelings pass. I can tell you that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I can tell you that in spite of doubt and fear, there is always hope to not only survive, but to thrive.

In Christ, Amen ☩


A prayer for when you are weak with doubt…

“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 strength and the strength You give me. But today I want to bless You especially for my weaknesses, but not because your strength is visible in my weakness, but thank you for the weakness. Thank you for giving me the wounds and scars that allows me to relate to those in need, and offer them hope for the future. Amen”

Getting Reacquainted with Old Friends

This post describes, in part, the effects of a degenerative neurological condition called Huntington’s Disease. Any negative behavior on the part of my wife should be attributed to that condition. Any negative behavior on the part of myself should be attributed to my need for God’s ongoing grace.

More symptoms this week. For some reason, Janet wants to have the TV on, always tuned to the same news channel, but she always has the sound off and she sits with her back to the TV so she can’t even see the screen. But even if she could see the screen, it wouldn’t mean anything to her because she can’t concentrate long enough to read the headlines that are scrolling by.

The bigger problem though is that she is becoming increasingly demanding. Looking back over the months and years, I am struck by how often I told myself, “This is the worst, it couldn’t possibly get worse than this!” Only to come back a couple months later and say, “I know what I said before, but this is different. This really is the worst, nothing could be worse than this!” And so it went week after week, month after month, year after year.

In fact, this week I wrote a letter to a friend, and I was trying to explain to them Janet’s current condition – and mine too. That discussion in turn got me thinking about how long it had really been, not since Janet was “Janet” (that’s far too nebulous a metric), but how long has it been on a more personal level. How many years has it been since we last shared a warm embrace? How many years has it been since we kissed? How many years has it been since we last shared a bed? – Or worse, how many decades since we shared a bed and she really wanted me there next to her?

I wish I didn’t have to, but let me remind everyone that these questions aren’t about sex. They are about the loss of intimacy. They are about isolation. You think two months of quarantine are hard? I can do that standing on one leg…

Finally, it’s also becoming increasingly obvious that Janet’s short-term memory is shot. It has gotten to the point that if “someone” gets angry and yells at her, 30 seconds later she will have forgotten that the incident had even occurred. So, no problem right? I can blow off steam and experience all the cathartic benefits of my self-taught primal scream therapy technique, and no harm is done because she won’t remember anything I said.

Well, not quite. She may not remember, but I do.

Growing up, I always read a lot.

During the summer, I would ride my bike to the local drug store every day to see if they had gotten in any new science fiction books. I always loved science fiction because good science fiction always dealt with the big “What if…” questions of life – like the way authors like Arthur C Clarke, Ray Bradbury and Philip K Dick used starships and aliens to explore very terrestrial issues like racism, bigotry, life, death, war, peace, freedom, and even what it means to be human. Then later, people such as Rod Serling and Gene Roddenberry used the new media of radio and television in the same way. Though to be fair, Roddenberry’s first heroes weren’t space explorers, but included a Highway Patrol officer (played by Broderick Crawford) and an intellectually over-qualified hired gun named Paladin.

Later, as I got older and my tastes shifted (slightly), I read Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and in so doing, learned that the Lord of the Rings is not really a story about Hobbits, and it’s possible to have a very happy ending where everyone dies at the end of the book. But from these works (and especially Lewis’s more serious writings), I came to understand that so-called “Christian writing” didn’t have to be shallow and transparent. It too could be intellectually thick and thought provoking. Remember, it was God who said, “Come now, and let us reason together.” God wants His children to travel through His world with their brains engaged to the fullest extent that they can be.

So what does any of this have to do with right now? Well, during this government-imposed downtime, I have taken the opportunity to revisit some of the literary friends I haven’t seen in a few years.

First, I dropped in on C.S. Lewis. His words are always carefully chosen to mean exactly what he intends – no more and no less. Now I am nowhere near his level, but when writing these posts I do find myself editing and re-editing sentences until the words are just right, and they roll off the tongue when read aloud. Many people don’t know that much of Lewis’s work started as live radio broadcasts for the BBC. I believe (with only the flimsiest of evidence) that Lewis envisioned his words as being spoken, even if only within the reader’s head. For example, in A Grief Observed (which dealt with the illness and death of his wife, the American-born author and poet Joy Davidman, from cancer at the age of 45) he wrote:

“Nothing will shake a man – or at any rate a man like me – out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.”

Been there, brother…

About the only limitation to his writing is that most of it was in response to specific issues. What happens if a Christian author starts at “first principles” and logically presents the case for our belief, step by step. What you get is Francis A. Schaeffer. Writing from his home in Switzerland, he produced a series of books that, at the time, irritated and infuriated evangelicals because they started, not with the Bible, but with the world around us. Beginning with the deceptively simple question of “How do you explain the world?” He builds the case that the Judeo-Christian worldview is not just a reasonable answer to life’s big questions, or even the best answer. Rather, he shows that it is the only answer that fits all the facts.

Recently, I re-read his book He is There and He is Not Silent. The only problem I found with it is that I kept stopping to go back and check and recheck the copyright date, which was stubbornly stuck at 1972. I had to keep checking because the book reads like it was written last week. But be aware that Schaeffer is not an author that you just read. Earlier I used the term “intellectually thick.” To help you understand this term, for “thick,” you can if you like substitute: “dense,” “viscous,” “concentrated,” or “condensed.” Metaphorically speaking, Schaeffer’s intent is primarily not just to give you pat answers, but to send you on a journey of spiritual discovery, where every sentence is a sign post pointing to a path for further study and inquiry. A view which, if you think about it (and you should think about it), nicely mirrors Lewis’s comment about self-discovery cited above.

Moving on, the third author I want to discuss represents a completely different side of who I am. This friend is a poet from Lebanon (the country, not my hometown in Missouri) named Kahlil Gibran. Most people (or at least most Americans) will recognize at least one thing he wrote because President Kennedy quoted him in his inaugural speech with the famous line, “Ask not what your country can do for you…” Though, I suppose I should say, Kennedy misquoted him. The actual line as Gibran wrote it was, “Do not, as the politicians do, ask what the country can do for me, but ask what you can do for the country.” In his beloved homeland, Gibran was both a poet and a political activist.

I always appreciated his perspective because, when talking about Jesus, he spoke as someone who grew up in basically the same culture. One of my favorite books of his is Jesus, Son of Man. The book consists of a series of “interviews” with people who knew, or at least heard of Jesus. The people included disciples, family members, former customers of the carpentry business, and a few that had only heard rumors but who, nevertheless, were able to formulate complete opinions about Jesus.

To make it clear what his own views were, the last interviewee was identified as “A man from Lebanon, Nineteen Centuries Afterward”. But if you read it, don’t expect a clear-cut logical discussion or explanation. Remember that Gibran was a poet. And so in beautiful poetry he sadly describes how little the world has really changed, even after 1900 years. For Gibran, we still meet the characters from the Gospels every day: Peter, John, Mary, Judas – even Caiaphas and Annas, who were judges then and are judges now, and still living lives of entitlement. He then goes on to describe the excesses carried out in Jesus’ name and finally ends with a simple prayer:

And may God forgive us all.

But as with all really good poetry, its words are not simply read. Rather, they (and the imagery they embody) are to be read, felt, worried over, wrestled with, and ultimately understood on a level that might not be expressible in words. A friend of mine once said poetry is a way of talking about things that are ultimately un-talk-about-able.

The last point I want to make is that there is a good reason for all of us to look back from time to time at the ideas and people that influenced us. For myself, this reunion has allowed me to see exactly how deep some of these influences run. For example, whether anybody else can see it, to me Lewis has clearly impacted my writing style. Likewise, I have internalized Schaeffer’s advice to not only consider what people express outwardly, but also to probe further to discover the message behind what they express, as that message is often more important than the words, music, or art of their outer expressions. From Gibran I have learned that it’s sometimes okay to not understand God because He is, well God, and we are not.

In case you are wondering, no, this is not a complete list of my influences. For one thing, it makes no mention of family members. Likewise, it doesn’t include James Burke, Chuck Jones, Philip Melanchthon…

In Christ, Amen ☩

A prayer for when you are feeling introspective…

“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 how You, The Master Potter, has molded and shaped me. But today I want to bless You especially for all the people who have helped make me who I am, especially {   insert names   }. Guide me as I influence others, that I might have a similarly positive impact on them. Amen”