321. Grief, Loss and Elvis

Grief… breathing feels like air slowly passing through holes in the lungs and entering the stomach, causing a loss of sensation throughout the gastro intestinal tract. Bloated emptiness feels nothing. Digestion stops flat. What is food to a dead man but mockery?

Hunger becomes only a hazy memory from another vague time period when food connected to flavorful living. The last taste of vinegar lingers on the back of my tongue… or is that formaldehyde? Fumes hover across the exhalations. Surely these expirations would ignite with a flame.

Each breath is like a ragged flagged mourner’s car in a funeral parade that gets waved through intersections while other bodily functions wait out of respect. The race is over. Only jerks cut into funeral processions because their lives are so much more important than the one whose memorial they are interrupting. Ironically, Death often gets priority when and where life is not respected. Still, everyone is merely passing through this life’s lens at different rates. Movie extras disappear unnoticed. Life is lived in the foreground, right? Front and center, here and now. All the leads are the loved ones in our lives. The anonymous dead fall breathlessly and remain inert behind the breathing.

The heart slows. It seems only an echo of a heartbeat, mere white noise, though that sounds too clinical and optimistic. This drum beat comes from an abandoned well at the bottom of which an abandoned child slaps an empty water bucket weakly, hopelessly waiting for no one to come. “Bump a bump… bump. Ba bump.” Mud oozes up between his toes.

My brain like plump ice cream scoops melts and drips off the cone until it all collapses on the baking sidewalk, leaving an empty cone for flies to devour. Butter brickle Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. Dogs lap up his liquified face. He was a good egg.

“He just died, that’s all. All the cardio problems finally won. His torso was a sharpening stone for scalpels. Scars every which way. He showed them to me once with an odd angry pride. ‘I’ve been carved more than a Christmas turkey’, he said.”

“I can handle death. It’s just that eternity is so long”, he told me later, quietly. I think he knew his time was near.

My body feels weighed down by concrete blocks under leagues of dark water. My executioner knows where.  Elvis resonates through the thick water in my ears…

“Are you lonesome tonight,
Do you miss me tonight?
Are you sorry we drifted apart?
Does your memory stray to a brighter sunny day
When I kissed you and called you sweetheart?
Do the chairs in your parlor seem empty and bare?
Do you gaze at your doorstep and picture me there?
Is your heart filled with pain, shall I come back again?
Tell me dear, are you lonesome tonight?”

“…Now the stage is bare and I’m standing there
With emptiness all around
And if you won’t come back to me
Then make them bring the curtain down.

Is your heart filled with pain, shall I come back again?
Tell me dear, are you lonesome tonight?”

So many questions, Elvis. No answers needed. He is lonesome. All those questions can be turned into statements, you know. ‘ I am lonesome tonight. I miss you. I am sorry we drifted apart.’ A plaintive man taking accountability for his failures again just doesn’t sell so well, however. Elvis is hoping that his ex-chicky lover is grieving, hoping to hear her say “Yes, yes, yes” to all these speculative questions. But wait!

Elvis: “Shall I come back again?”

Chicky: “No. Finish the ending. Bury the corpse of our love.”

Elvis: “But, but, but Baby!! I’m feeling a B side in this love of ours.”

Chicky: “Before its un-embalmed putrefaction gags us all.”

Elvis: “But Baby, all my horses and all my men can put the King’s pieces back together again. Jest, uh, trust me.”

Chicky: “No they can’t, Elvis. The pieces are not all here, and some are too tiny. Pulverized to dust.”

Elvis: “But, but, but Baby!! Baby! You aint seen nothing yet.”

Chicky: “Actually all I have seen is nothing.”

And it fades to a looping nightmare where you go searching for a bathroom that works in a world of broken plumbing. Long corridors of faceless folks who cannot tell you where the water lines are.  From leagues above your nightmare ears comes a bubbling Elvis through a wall of green Jell-O,  “But, but, but Baby.”

He’s got to stop doing that or my bla-bla-bladder will bu-bu-bu- burst. Self serving promises are embedded in his strumming questions.

“Am I lonesome tonight?” Less so without you. I can handle Death it’s just that Eternity is such a long time.

 

267. So Long, been good to know you, Eric

Lots of soft hearted, wet eyed folks gathered at King Street Church this past Saturday to say good bye to one of our favorite persons. It dawned on me at church the next day that Eric never preached a sermon or won a theological argument with anyone, but he won over many hearts for Jesus with his unbridled joy. Who plays “Joy to the World” at a funeral?  Eric.

I was asked to speak about Eric. I made the following comments during a celebration of his life.

Eric was a pure gift of love…

from a loving Father to a loving family. He blessed our community.

He was like a shared golden retriever who canoodled his head under your hand.

Before you knew it you were petting him and feeling better.

Eric had that giving spirit and knew where he was loved.

He tenderly blessed us all.

 

That blessed gift returned to the Giver last Saturday

Leaving us bereft:  stuck between breathing deep sighs of sadness

Or not breathing at all.

All good things come at a great cost.

The great pain and deep sadness we all feel today

Are measures of that big hearted guy, we knew as the Sexy Cowboy.

Yeah Buddy!!

 

You know, in Texas they have an expression for fake cowboys–

They say, “He’s all hat and no cattle.”

Well Eric was all HEART and no cattle.

I think he was afraid of cows.

 

Humor me for a moment and close your eyes:

Picture Eric sitting next to you with his crooked grin

With that bird swoop thing he did with his head,

 his bright eyes peering at you through his Harry Potter glasses.

 

Take a long look and smile back at him

And hold to God’s promise that we will meet again

In glorified bodies

Minus the pain,

minus the ills of this world.

 

Give thanks for what Eric’s life was… a loving gift.

 

Take your last hug and exhale.

Eric has a poker game to play with Evie

And everyone knows that she cheats at cards.

 

Well, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, pardner.

And this is the hard part:  it’s time to say farewell.

 

God bless you and So long, Sexy Cowboy.

Like the God who made you, You are unforgettable.

I did not realize how important Eric was until he was no more. In the eyes of the world he was in the margins, out on the periphery. However, I believe in God’s eyes he danced at the epicenter of what we call love.

Image result for blackbird in a loaf of bread picture

An odd image kept coming to me when I thought of Eric’s death. I saw a black bird pecking his way out of a loaf of bread.  It had been baked into the dough, I suppose. I knew the black bird was Eric and the bread was God’s word, the  Bread of life. I knew this was a resurrection and not an entombment. Surely, Eric brought God’s word to life for those who knew him. In Isaiah 55 verse 12 Isaiah gives this supernatural vision:

You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace;

the mountains and hills will burst into song before you,

and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how I will remember the Sexy Cowboy riding off into the sunset. There’s a party in them thar hills. Eric will save you a table near the dance floor.

 

 

 

260. Paint by numbers: Good intentions, old regrets and the unpolluted future

“Cliches, Anyone? Two for a dollar. Get you some red hot clichés. Right here. Buy one for your girlfriend, Buddy.” I have many well worn phrases and stories that I’ve passed out in therapy sessions like old buttons that fell off some threadbare pants or an ancient stringy sweater. Some are my own fabrications in the truest sense. I made them up, I think. In an old post, 205, I mentioned the turtles, coke machines and ducks analogies/parables that have come to me in sessions, figuratively speaking, I mean. Animals don’t make therapy appointments. People do. All sorts of people, and I have to try and figure out how to connect to their pain using only words.

One time I recall a guy telling me that he felt like a man with a knife in his heart. “I’m a dead man walking. See, if I leave it in, I die. If I pull it out, I just die faster.” He was an overly dramatic convicted drug dealer in the county jail waiting to go up state.   I processed his powerful image and thought there ought to be an answer in metaphor land that could solve this bloody morbid riddle. Hmmm. It dawned on me that if one pulled the knife out ever so slowly, allowing the wound to  heal every millimeter or so, that in metaphorical theory physics, one could pull a knife out of a human heart without death resulting. I offered him this solution. Fortunately for both of us he accepted it in theory. In practical terms, however, it would be difficult to get dressed daily with a knife handle sticking out of your chest. Then there’s the dry cleaning bills. And the jokes…”Ed, you look stuck.” “Yep, I just can’t get a handle on this thing.”

Other clients explain dysfunction in their lives with vaguely broad statements like “I’m a people pleaser. I’m a peacemaker. I avoid confrontation.”  Word play helps here, so I’ve found. Not to be cruel, but I point out honestly, “You know I’ve noticed that people pleasers are never pleased. Why is that?” “Cuz we’re too damn busy keeping everyone else happy.”  In a similar manner I’ve been known to say, “Peace makers are never at peace, you know?  They’re always shuttling about making everyone else comfortable, carrying the mail back and forth between two or more pissed off parties.” Well, you’d think that I shot the Pope. “So you don’t like peace, is that it?”  “No, I believe in peace based on truth and transparency not a peace that is based on not hurting anyone’s feelings.”  Ohh!!!   And to the avoiders of confrontation, I share, “If you avoid anything long enough, do you know what you get?”  “What?”  “A _______Void.”  “Truth, Brother. Hard as a kidney stone. Amen.”

Time and water and mood states work well on a spectrum.  Huh?  Time exists in three general concepts– past, present, future. Water exists in  three states– ice, liquid, and steam. Moods exist in shrinking depression, flexible adaptation in the moment, and in expansive anxiety. Interestingly enough, depressed folks tend to move slowly and perseverate on their frozen pasts. Healthy people move appropriately in the flowing liquid now, where healthy life is lived. Anxious folks live in the what if future as they come unglued and scream out gaseously like superheated teakettles. They bang against the windowpane of tomorrow trying to avoid their present emotions; while their depressed first cousins soak in ancient ice baths. It’s only the present folks who can breath freely and move and feel genuinely.

I remember a woman who tried to stop time. Her husband died suddenly at 42, leaving her a widow mother of five children. Shock and grief overrode her reality. Understandable, right? I mean after an emotional tsunami, what else do you expect? She developed a coping strategy based on fantasy, magical thinking really. If she did not change anything in her house, if she hoarded everything, then maybe her husband would come back from the grave one day and just resume life as it was in 1972. Believing this myth was less awful than believing the waterboarded truth that she was a widow with five young kids depending on her to meet their endless needs. No furniture could be moved, no walls painted, no appliance changed out. Obviously this myth was unsustainable, but like any good cultic belief it could be edited as needed,  and  it was. The organic parts of her life continued to grow and decay despite her fervent worship of the myth. Kids grew up. She ticked on like a broken clock whose hands could only stutter in place. She stored her wedding ring in a soup can that innocent cleaners took to the dump.

Irvin Yalom wrote a book called Love’s Executioner. He suggested that it is the role of a therapist at times to execute love. Now there are two or more meanings for the verb execute but not for executioner, the noun, i.e., the killer. Who wants to tell a nice widow mother of five that her husband is never coming back and she needs to find another way to do life? Like the drug dealer above, this honesty would be a chef’s knife through her weakly beating heart. Sometimes the disorder is kinder than the cure, though both are deadly.

I knew another woman who was so bitter about men who had hurt her throughout her life. Her solution was bitter isolation in a bunker lifestyle. A vicious guard dog named Sarcasm patrolled her property day and night. “Bitter Acres. Go Away!” her sign announced to visitors who never came. Listening to her strategy of eking out a miserable life till she died a miserable death, it occurred to me that bitterness is like a barbed wire bra worn to defend against potential perpetrators…but the only one to be hurt for sure is the wearer of the contraption. “That’s easy for you to say. You were never raped by a relative, were you? And you don’t have to sit across the holiday table from him every Christmas and try not to vomit while he spouts his Christian platitudes and conservative right wing politics.”

No, thank God, all I have to do is try to meet the survivors at the bonfire where pain and grief and worry are incinerated. When the dead are too many or too big to be buried, a fire of bones is in order.

 

 

 

 

235. Dry eyes

 I’ve had numerous clients over the years who have complained that they cannot cry or sustain weeping if they ever do have tears. What’s up with that?  The problem is not a lack of sadness, fear, trauma, or chaos. It’s a lack of direct connection to their feelings. Crying is a natural physiological reaction to certain stressors or mood states. How then do some folks manage to override nature and shut down the crying reaction?  You can find out about types of tears on the internet. Go ahead, no, wait, well I’ll just tell you. There are three types; the first two are not connected to emotions but to basic physiological functions of lubrication and defending against irritation. The third type, emotional tears, is what I’m talking about.

One person I know claims that she cried so much when her father died that she resolved to never be that vulnerable again. As a result she built up psychological walls and filters to prevent her from crying at all. If a tear should ever surprise her, as it has on occasion, she distracts herself, looks away, and reverses gravity somehow to reel her tears backwards, like rewinding an old videotape.  Any emotion in the sadness neighborhood is locked down also, so her range of emotions is narrower than most folks. You see, you can’t just trap one emotion without trapping a cluster of them, a constellation if you will. Emotions are like mice scurrying about your psychological cheese. Think about that for a moment. As a result she laughed a lot and maintained a helium balloon persona for the world to witness. Something was/is wrong, though. When adults strike you as cartoon characters, something is missing.

PhotoThen there’s Justin. He is proudly stoic. “Tears are weakness”, he says without any hesitation. “My mother abused me as a kid with anything that was handy… a wooden spoon, clothes hanger, toys. It didn’t matter. She was determined to make me cry. I refused and it made her all the madder. She’d say, ‘ I’ll make you cry!’ But I just bit down on my lip and gritted my teeth. I was not gonna let that witch see tears on my face. Not then not now. Nobody makes me cry, ever. When I was older, I’d laugh in her face. It pissed her off so much. It was like me spanking her.” Well, that’s the mechanism to shut off the tears. Problem is that emotional tears need to be shed. No matter how many you suck back or blink away, there are millions ready to burst forth. Tears have a job to do

Emotional tears are different from lubricating or anti-irritant tears. Apparently they are full of components lacking in  the other two, like red wine compared to plain water. It’s funny that such tears would be chemically different under analysis, something we know intuitively when somebody’s eyes are smoked out or under the influence of onion vapors. Emotional tears work in conjunction with facial expressions and vocalizations, body language and gestures that tell of the feelings connected to the tears. There is a matching context usually. Tears are the blood of emotions.

Sometimes at death tears won’t come to the grievers. Some may be in shock while others are tangled up in complex mixtures of fear and anger and love. At my father’s funeral I could not find a tear. I was stoic and reserved. My conscious mind was in “fix it” mode. What to do with our mother? What were the new expectations after my father’s death?  He was such an odd duck that it would be hard to grieve his passing at 68 years of age.  He smoked himself to death with Camel cigarettes over 50 years. My mother labeled him “an emotional cripple”, incapable of appropriate emotional articulation. He did not, however, cripple himself; he had help.

I think it was two years later that I was overcome with a delayed wailing  and whimpering of grief while watching the baseball movie “Field of Dreams” in my family room.  I got sucked into the story and the emotions involved as the protagonist tried to fulfill a mission given to him by an other worldly message coming out of a rookie farmer’s cornfield. “Ease his pain.” “If you build it, he will come.” “Go the distance.” My father was my baseball coach and originated from Boston. One of the clues involved in solving the mystery was obtained at Fenway Park… and I came unglued. Thought I was losing my mind. Fortunately my wife was consoling and wise. She sat with me and said, “You never cried at your dad’s death.” However this attack was not only tears but an intestinal tearing of emotional tumors that I spewed up. I was prostrate, gagging, emotionally vomiting.  I could not understand this horrific upchucking of undigestible dead animals dislodged from my stomach walls.

I asked God to take it from me; I didn’t want it anymore, though I was not certain what “it” was at that time. My head throbbed; my throat was raw; and my tear ducts were pumped dry. How could this be? Well, there’s a lot more to a human being than the conscious world, folks. You can carry disease or tumors or parasites in you all your life and not know it. It’s not such a big jump to memories and ungrieved losses hanging around the storage bins of your mind. Remember the mice analogy?  Well they were running wild all over my being when I saw Burt Lancaster tip his hat, knowing that he was dead and the heroes of this ballgame were all long dead. The infamous Black Sox of 1919, my dad would have known that story well. He would have known the weirdness of unfulfilled dreams that Lancaster’s character portrayed. He would have wept easily and often throughout this film, completely unable to articulate his feelings further than lachrymosity.

I watched the movie again a couple of nights later. I had a similar reaction at the same places in the movie. I was convinced that I had tripped onto something profound in my psychic life. Grief pressure poured out the second time, but it was not as crazy scary as the first go around. A little finch of wisdom sat on my shoulder, chittering, “It’s okay”.

 

196. contractors and incompleteness

I know I’m not the only one out there who has trouble finding and nailing down handyman contractors. It’s been the same story as long as I can recall… contractors don’t communicate well if at all. They might come if the job is interesting, i.e., has potential for a big payday. But the truth is that I’m not gonna talk about contractors. I changed my bloggin’ mind at church today, well sort of. The issue of not getting a guy to call me back about a bathroom vanity switcheroo or a laundry room sink disaster is not such a big deal. Plus, the garage door opener chain broke while I’ve been waiting for two floor jobs to be addressed at my workplace. Okay, there is plenty to gripe about with construction incompleteness, some of which I can do myself. The problem is that I can earn more money per hour and be happy with my work than if I try to use my clumsy hands to lay a floor or edge carpet or replace a sink. These are sinkholes for me to fall into and I don’t need the stress of my construction failures laughing at me from my daughter’s bathroom mirror as I cut another hose or pipe or board too short. I have done a lot of the work that surrounds me here at my home computer. I see my construction flaws daily, and no, I am not a perfectionist. So, I’m willing to pay $40 and $50 an hour for a crafty guy to bring some of my mess back to functionality, cuz living with physical incompleteness gets annoying in the First World. You know, you just want the mess or inconvenience to go away.

But today as Pastor Kyle spoke on James 1: 1-4, he focused on the trials in our lives that produce perseverance. I happen to like perseverance, tenacity, even stubbornness. Today’s post is the result of me destroying a finished blog I had written on legacies, complete with three photos. Somehow I clicked the wrong tag and blew up my first post 195. I took that as a sign to go in a different direction. It was a bit pompous and presumptuous. I go there often, I’m afraid. Anyway, Kyle’s second example of a trial was that of losing a child, how that can destroy one’s faith in Christ and be a faith wedge. I was struck emotionally and spiritually because almost 30 years ago my wife and I lost our second daughter at birth.  Her name was Lisa Ellen. She would be 30 next month, but I guess that is a pleasant redundancy for an old father who never held her.

It was complicated. She had a diaphragmatic hernia, which means that her lungs had no space to develop in utero. Her abdominal wall was perforated and her viscera pushed her lungs into submission. That’s okay in the womb, but you need lungs once you are born. Literally her birth was her death. She could not get that first gasping breath when she was delivered. She didn’t cry; she couldn’t. As she struggled to live in a breathless world, the delivery room turned into an E.R. code blue. My wife and I turned numb… and stayed numb for a year, maybe two. Yeah, that was a rough time in the silent valley of the shadow of death. Even thirty years later we get a dark feeling whenever we drive by the old farmhouse we lived in at the time… the baby’s nursery was set up across the hall from our bedroom. The crib with a mobile on it sat empty. I remember waking up next to the crib one night, having dreamed that she had cried. We had to take it down and pack all that stuff away along with our hopes and dreams for that little girl. I was 28. My oldest, and only daughter at the time, Erin was 2.5 years old.  She gave me Michael Jackson’s album, “Friller”, a week before Lisa died. I was so devastated that I don’t think I ever processed her young grief. It was all a blur. I just recall an insensitive nurse asking how we wanted to dispose of the body. She was impatient to be efficient and could not give us any grace.

For two years we were unfulfilled. The holes in our hearts were the size of little feet and tiny hands we could not touch.  We languished in anguish. We cried a lot and fell into a dark blue funk. It was not just grief but hopelessness as the barren months went by. It had been way too easy to get pregnant when we weren’t trying; now it seemed tragically impossible. I felt sad for Erin as a lonely only child. However, in this bleak space we found a closer place with God. I am sure that if we had been in charge of the script of our lives we would not have lingered in pain and hurt for so long. But that’s how God scripted it. Finally in 1986 we did get pregnant. We were filled with joy and trepidation. We knew how great and how awful a delivery room could be.

There was no debate on the name once we knew that it was a girl. Grace, it had to be Grace, undeserved favor of the Lord. A gift. An unearned blessing or reward. In late December of that year our Gracer the Eraser showed up, healthy and spunky and funny. Her presence healed the deep wounds that we had suffered. It felt like we had been crawling across broken glass for two years, shredding ourselves as we attempted to solve the problem of infant absence. Suddenly all that disappeared. We were complete.

So, Lowe’s might call next week and we could have the vanity by Easter, maybe. My floor tiles remain stacked at my office waiting for someone who wants to deal them like a deck of cards. We lift the garage door for now. It’s all good cuz it’s all meaningless stuff  that doesn’t matter.  My completeness is not sold in any aisle anyway. Life is a gift, Blog friends.