Saturday (2/3) was the 5th anniversary of my mom’s death. Coincidentally, it was also the 4th anniversary of my dad’s death. (Mom had Lupus that gave way to Leukemia and my dad suffered a heart attack.) I tell myself that when the calendar came full circle and my dad realized that the years would all just be duplicates of the one before- without my mother – his heart gave up.
A Mama’s boy through and through, the loss is still challenging. I still have pictures of her on my desk and on my dresser, and I find myself staring at them from time to time, allowing my mind to let her move just enough to allow the photos to come alive. In the one where my brother and I are in our Christmas pj’s, sitting on her lap in the late 70’s, I see her hands pull us in closer as the photo gets snapped. In the one where she and my dad are smiling on our back porch, I see her eye squint a little because the flash never fails to catch her off guard. I still have dreams where she tells me that the kids are growing nicely and that she misses getting to visit with Ellie. I appreciate the short visit, and usually just find my way over to one of her pictures to watch them move again.
So it’s been five years since Mom died. And I struggle to find the perfect adverb to describe how much life changed. Catastrophically? Drastically? Suddenly? Thankfully? Finally? On this 5 year anniversary, I thought it’d be helpful for me to make a list of the things I’ve learned since she died and life changed as it did. And although I’m sharing these in a public forum, I have no delusions about them being universal.
1. Overwhelming stress forces man into the deepest recesses of himself. Job loss, death in the family, divorce, etc all work like a mine shaft to drop a man into his own well. What commodities he finds there will surprise him. I found plenty of overwhelming irresponsibility, the capability to behave in unspeakable ways, and the ability to disregard rational thought. At the same time, in the darkness, I met up with Paul- who sang while imprisoned – who shared his own struggles with me and called them a blessing – who reminded me that victory is sweet when the struggle is severe.
2. This, too, will pass. It has become the great equalizer. Knowing this: regardless of the season, another one is knocking on the door has been a source of strength as well as a healthy dose of reality. When we had no money, it passed. When we had so many questions, they were satisfied. When we had need, it was met. When we feared for our future, it came- and we were still in it! On the other hand, I’m reminded of my parents’ spending habits. My dad was an engineer and in sales. If you’ve ever eaten a Frito Lay product (my guess is that you have), it probably ran across a series of conveyor belts that my dad designed and sold to them for their Dallas plant. And when he did jobs for Frito Lay and Coca Cola, we were mafia rich and we lived as such. However, when those jobs didn’t materialize for a year, we had very very little. And after all the years of living with whiplash economics, my folks never prepared for the downtimes. If only I’d been wise enough to look at my folks when we had money and said, Mom, Dad, this too will pass. Keep your eyes on the calendar when things suck, keep your eyes on your appetite when things are good.
3. Ferris Bueller was right. Life moves pretty fast, and if you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you just might miss it. 5 years ago, I was in a totally different career. There was something that I loved about it- something that made me better than others, but that something was such a small piece of the job. In actuality, I was miserable but I’d latched on to a sliver of something so much larger. It was like becoming a pilot because I liked the smell of the jetway. I have found myself to be infinitely more happy when I take inventory of the aspects of my life where I suffer the flight because it’s bookended with jetways. When my folks died, up was down and down was up. Work became pure misery. I left that job and went through a string of other jobs, each one training me to take inventory of the things that I loved and the things that I tolerated. I was a construction worker, a guitar player, a handyman, a painter, a graphic designer, a consultant, a charity case, a social worker, a bum. All in the first year. (see #’s 1 and 2) I started to get a better idea of what it was that I loved about work (and ultimately about myself) and found a way to spend the lion’s share of time in the jetways and very little time suffering through the flights. Which leads me to…
4. Know Thyself. I have spent 5 years in regular, expensive, offensive-at-times therapy. When I started, I thought it was just to help me get over the loss of dear old Mum. But as I got into it, invested effort into it, and started working on my head I realized that there were elements of the heart and mind that I’d never thought about. After my third year of therapy I went to my therapist and said, “okay, I started by blaming my father for being emotionally distant. Then I blamed my brother for that of which we do not speak. Then I blamed my mother for distorting my worldview and building me into a marionette. What do I do when I’m out of people to blame?” He responded, “you just stop blaming.” This isn’t applicable to everyone, and it took me a long time to get to the point where I could say these things and actually believe them. But I think that we are soft, pliable, not-so-resilient beings. We get bent out of shape. We get little pieces broken off of us. We get dinged and scratched. I’m convinced that we spend the first 3.9 years of our lives on the assembly line. Then we spend year 4 in showroom condition. And as soon as we set foot in school, we get taken for a life of test drives. And I don’t know cars, but I know plenty about guitars. Every guitar looks great the day it gets sold. Every guitar goes through a period where it gets played, abused, used, dinged, and aged. Many guitars fall into disrepair and eventually get dismantled. Some, however, fall into the hands of a person who recognized the value in vintage instruments, and he relishes the scratches. He shows off the fact that the forearm contour has lost it’s paint because of stage wear. The back of guitar necks that have been played lose the gummyness of a factory finish and start to get a soft, satin feel. The fingerboard actually flattens out over years and the edges of the neck start to contour to the shape of the hand of a player. What one man calls a “beat up guitar”, Fender can make you in their CUSTOM SHOP for outrageous prices. The only difference between “old” and “vintage” is the marketing. And there’s nobody to market us besides us. I think every person could benefit from some time spent staring in the mirror, saying nice things to the person with whom he or she is talking. It sounds retarded, but it only breaks down when you invite a 3rd party into it (a third version of yourself telling you that it looks stupid for the two of you to be talking into a mirror).
5. God is real. I’ve been a believer for 15 or 16 years. I learned the party lines and tried to share faith with family and friends. I believed in God and had faith that I was saved through Christ crucified, but it was what I call an academic faith. I can describe what a steak looks like. I can even give you a job at a steakhouse and you can work with steaks and smell the glory of great steak cooked to perfection. But nothing gets you to that understanding of steak like eating a great steak does. This all seems very elementary on the surface, but I think some people suffer from growing up in a steak family, and the magic of great steak is lost – or at least covered up with other memories. In these last five years, I’ve found that there is no description, no writing, no story, no sermon, no movie, no substitute for being the Honorary Chief of Sinners, and having God reveal his love for you in Christ at that time. I’ve grown a little weary of going to church and hearing people talk about how they were victimized by others. I empathize with them and feel sorry for their struggles, but I find that it misses the point of the Gospel. Yes, come to Jesus when you’ve been broken and beaten. Come to the Father when you’ve been left out. But where are the testimonies of the still-active sinners? I found that steak tastes great to those who’ve been robbed. But steak becomes unforgettable and irreplaceable when a man has sworn off food, separated himself from sustenance, run away from those who can provide for him, and yet someone hunts him down in the deepest recesses of his well, and cooks the steak for him right there in the darkness.
6. Stereotypes and Archetypes are the cancer of the church. I was driving the other day, and a lady slammed on her breaks right as a light turned yellow. She and 2 other cars could’ve easily made a very legal turn, negating the need to wait through another very long red light. As is usually my style, I went on to berate her and to tell my boys why the lady was an idiot. (see #1) Later, as we got to where we were going, I see the lady pull into the same parking lot and go into the same store. This isn’t a devotional story, so if you were expecting some high-drama twist at the end, like she just came from her husband’s funeral or something, you won’t find it here. She was a normal lady. Nothing special, and in fact, I couldn’t tell you today what she was wearing or what she looked like. But I remember thinking that what was once a silhouette of an idiot in front of me was now a lady who goes to the grocery store just like me and has a name and a life. The point here is that Homosexual is a silhouette. Alcoholic is a silhouette. Sex Offender is a silhouette. Unbeliever is a silhouette. Fat person is a silhouette. A–hole is a silhouette. Those are easy, what about the harder ones? Pastor is a silhouette. Worship Leader is a silhouette. Good Person is a silhouette. Great Singer is a silhouette. We box, and compartmentalize, and order, and file, and build a nomenclature so that we can access information quickly. “Oh, idiot?, lemmeseeeee… yep- I know 4 of those. Alcoholic? Yeah, I can tell a story, too, because I have one filed away right here… I’m only 33, but I see more and more that people’s greatest weaknesses are also their greatest strengths. Everyone is a paradox. When we fashion people as silhouettes, we fail to see the dynamic of the human. (see #4) How can we save humans if we’re fighting silhouettes? How can we help the hurt when we try to illuminate the silhouette instead of bandaging the heart? I say, bandage the heart, and the silhouette dissipates. To that end, many of my favorite people on this earth are non-christians, because they’re less involved in being a spotter for God The Sniper. They’re living with struggle, and frankly, they’re living in the darkness that is their silhouette. (see #1)
7. Everyone needs an Addison Road. Thanks be to God.
(NOTE: This was posted over the weekend, but ended up disappearing off of the site. I’m reposting here, which means some of you will be getting this in your email subscriptions and feed-readers twice. If those of you who commented on the original post would like to repost your comments here, it would be greatly appreciated. Thanks, and sorry for the confusion. – ml)