Every so often I find the need to sort through my old sock drawer. In doing so I discover items long forgotten. Like that plastic thingamabob which obviously goes to something. I squirreled it away at the bottom of the drawer, assuring myself that one day I would find its rightful place. And there’s those same three unmatched socks, still lingering anxiously like the father awaiting the return of his prodigal son.
But I could have never imagined the heart stopping treasure I’d come across next…
Ten years before she died, my daughter Cherie and I took a trip to Boston. The town was abuzz because the Chicago Cubs had come in to play the Red Sox for the first time since game six of the 1918 World Series. Boston had turned Cubbie Blue with countless Chicago fans showing their colors as they infiltrated the city.
That also happened to be the weekend evangelist Harold Camping predicted the end of the world was nigh. Caravans of his followers lined the streets warning all who passed that Judgment Day would take place that Saturday, May 21, 2011.
Cherie and I agreed, if you gotta go, it might as well happen at a Cubs game. Even Fenway’s public address announcer joined in on all the hoopla. Piped in over the park’s sound system was R.E.M.’s song – It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).
For lodging, we ended up in the only available space left in Boston, some old boarding house at the end of the Worcester Commuter line. Our daily walk back and forth from the train station took us through a picturesque little neighborhood lined with trees brandishing their flowering spring buds against the bright blue sky. Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s recording of, “Over The Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” perfectly captured the flavor of those leisurely strolls together.
We took in all we possibly could of what Boston had to offer: Old Ironsides, The Freedom Trail, Cheers, Giacomo’s Ristorante, The Union Oyster House, cannolis at Mike’s Pastry, The Bell In Hand Tavern, Sam Adams’ Brewery, and of course beautiful Fenway Park.
Cherie possessed a certain magnetism when it came to people; she honestly didn’t know what a “stranger” was. In one tiny Italian restaurant she had engaged the entire room in conversation within fifteen minutes of our being there. At Fenway she rallied our section of right field into a cheering frenzy, and was credited by those fans for inspiring the Cubs come-back victory. She engaged people on the train, in the streets, and on tours. At the sports bar where we stopped in to watch the Bulls play the Miami Heat in the NBA playoffs, she ignited an in-depth exchange over Derrick Rose being an overrated point guard. This was the quintessential Cherie, always on stage.
We both agreed that if there was one song that would communicate the aura of our experience together there, it was Lyle Lovett’s “If I Had a Boat.”
Its lively melody and quirky humor wooed us. It brought to mind a fanciful and endless adventure, much like our four days together in Boston. It conveyed images of one standing at the bow of a vessel as it headed out to sea, escaping from the entanglements of life and voyaging out to a place of freedom, peace, and serenity.
The chorus of the song went like this:
If I had a boat
I’d go out on the ocean
And if I had a pony
I’d ride him on my boat
And we could all together
Go out on the ocean
I said me upon my pony on my boat
Often, when comforting a friend who had lost a loved one, Cherie would use the visual of a ship slipping out of sight over the horizon. She’d say, “On this shore there are tearful people waving goodbye…but over the horizon there is another shore: heaven. And there, one will find joyful people, welcoming them home.” She was always looking for a way to ease one’s pain.
…at the bottom of my sock drawer lay the handkerchief I had forgotten about. It had been a gift to me from Cherie on her wedding day. Wanting to assure her nervous dad regarding the journey she was about to embark upon, she chose these words from our special song and had them embroidered on that handkerchief.
No tears Dad,
…I bought a boat
I’m going out to sea
Those words brought a huge smile to my face back then. But today, still struggling a year and a half after her death, her words took my breath away. I literally couldn’t move while trying to grasp the new significance of her message. I swear I could feel her warm presence in the room with me. Once again I sensed her compassion, her witty humor, and her ability to always seem to know what to say.
Every now and again I awake feeling anxious and disoriented. It takes a moment before reality sinks in and I find it hard to believe this really happened. Evidently I was mistaken to assume that the odds of experiencing the oxygen sucking sadness of losing a second child was essentially zero — but here I am, again.
I’m not so naive as to think that I’m somehow immune to grief because of having gone through it before, or because of helping others going through it now, but I did forget just how bad it can feel. Seems that grief will again have its way with me regardless of my past experience.
The first anniversary of Cherie’s death is rapidly approaching and I’m having a hard time grasping the reality that this inspirational spark of my life is gone forever. Her absence is proving to be more impenetrable than I could have ever imagined. While doing my best to keep occupied, it’s in those moments of inactivity when my thoughts veer and I slip into the dank hollowness of never agains.
“Never again” is one of those bilateral phrases that communicates two very different perspectives. One comes from a place of control, e.g., “Never again will I settle for less than I deserve.” The other comes from a place of despair, e.g., “Never again will we be together.”
I’ve been really feeling her absence of late. The life of the party has left the house and it’s hard to accept that we will never again share a laugh together, or will I be entertained by her wild obsessions. There will never be another evening of sitting through her Wine Night ideas and listening to her describe every last ingredient of every possible menu item. Dear God, what I wouldn’t give for one more dramatic telling of “A Day in the Life of Cherie.”
There will be no more culinary adventures sampling spicy foods, craft beers, or insanely rich desserts. No more phone calls on her way to work, and then again on her way home. She’ll never again burst through our door, excited to share the deep biblical perspective she discovered that morning. I’m going to miss listening to her profound yet effortless prayers, witnessing her tender heart, and encountering her audacious zeal for those who had fallen victim to life’s cruelties.
Never again sounds so irreversible, feels so sealed off. I’m suffocating down here blanketed under the heavy weight of her loss. Cherie is just too deeply woven into the fabric of who I am for this to be anything other than an arduous journey. Tell me God, how long before my family finds the other side of this? How did we manage to do it when Jacob died? I really don’t recall.
Experience tells me that life will continue and my spirit will eventually be restored. Even so, that will entail a great deal of effort on my part and I’m just not feeling it at the moment. I have wore myself out stubbornly insisting on being the counterbalance to my family’s grief. They didn’t asked me to take on that role, that’s just who I am and it’s really hard to change that part of me.
Yet, my inner attitude doesn’t necessarily reflect my outer plight. I’m encouraged by the fact that my life contains much to celebrate, and I refuse to ignore my greatest joy. A joy not based on my external circumstances, but instead in the confidence that comes from the clear evidence of the relationship both Jacob and Cherie had with Jesus Christ. The assurance of their eternal salvation forms in me a compatible coexistence of joy and sadness.
Still, it’s clear that there will be difficult days ahead. I just can’t stick my head in the sand and wait this out, I have to process it all.
While dealing with the aftermath of Jake’s death, I discovered journaling. Writing has become my exercise in healing. Doing so moves me into deep thought and empowers me to candidly articulate my emotions. Best of all, in those rare moments when I’m actually able to open up and find no one at hand to hear me out, my journal always listens.
I’m aching to reach the other side of this first anniversary. In doing so all the first milestones will have come to fruition; yet the second year may just be the hardest. The second Christmas, the second birthday, the second anything is when I will have to accept the fact that she is never, ever coming back to this life.
While these “never agains” may continue to have their way with me for a season, I’m confident they won’t last forever. As for now, I am more acutely aware of the value of one very pivotal never again:
Never again will I assume the people I care most about will always be here with me in this life.
I’m taking advantage of every single moment I can…maybe we all should.
To say Cherie was “daring” seems like a stretch. For me the word generates images of stout athletic thrill seekers who are undeterred by the risk of injury or possibility of physical challenge. Cherie wasn’t exactly what we would call an athlete. The only sport she ever competed in was dodgeball, on an intramural college team aptly named “Out Like a Phat Kid.”
Neither was she blessed with keen coordination. Her feeble attempts at dribbling a basketball resembled a four year old playing Whac-A-Mole at the local arcade. Her foray into the world of snow skiing ended when she failed to let go of the tow rope, taking out the machine, and sending the line of skiers in-tow behind her tumbling like dominoes.
She did however possess a few smooth moves. Her rendition of Napoleon Dynamite’s “Canned Heat” dance, complete with moon boots and a “Vote for Pedro” tee shirt was epic; as was her signature presentation on how to successfully maneuver in place and poop into a hole in the ground — an ability she mastered during her time in Africa.
Teaching her to ride a bike was harder than it should have been. I’d run behind her with my hand on her seat, promising to not let go. Afraid to go it on her own, I thought she’d never let me remove the training wheels. So, I secretly adjusted them until the wheels no longer touched the ground. From that point on, they provided nothing more than a mental sense of security. She finally reached the stage where she was able to trust her own instincts…and she never looked back again.
But actually, Cherie was very daring. She was compassionately daring, spiritually daring, benevolently daring. She dared to care out loud. She dared to acknowledge the forgotten and include the strays.
She dared to share her personal embarrassments for the sake of a good story. Dared to stand firm in her faith even when she knew judgmental people would accuse her of being the judgmental one.
Cherie dared to step out of her comfort zone, and proved to be much more daring than her father.
One winter day she called asking me to come to a bus stop where I would find a homeless woman who needed a companion and a place to warm up. Unbeknownst to me, she had been engaging homeless people for some time.
Cherie had brought this woman something to eat but had an appointment that could not be canceled, so she asked me to come take her place. Reluctantly I agreed.
On the bench sat a homeless woman draped in filthy scarfs and a scruffy coat. She was eating the sandwich Cherie brought her. I honestly couldn’t tell how old she was, fifty maybe, but then again she could have been in her thirties. A hard life had obviously taken its toll. Next to her sat four nasty tote bags containing what was probably all of her earthly belongings.
She reeked like a wet dog, at one point the odor being so foul it took my breath away. I’m sure she noticed my reaction, an occurrence she was probably all too familiar with.
I’m ashamed to say that the father Cherie was so proud of turned out to be little more than a mouse of a man. While Cherie sought to lighten the woman’s hardship, I couldn’t muster up the same desire, much less offer her a seat in my warm car. While Cherie chose compassion, I opted to pass the woman off on someone else. I called the police and asked them to help her.
We talk compassion and justice, but expect someone else to run point on making even the smallest difference. That was Cherie’s pet peeve.
Cherie knew she couldn’t change the poor woman’s circumstances, but she could at the very least acknowledge her struggle. Even though she wasn’t present at that moment, I could almost feel her disappointment in me.
How did she become so comfortable engaging the marginalized, those whom so many of us pretend just aren’t there? It was more than simply having the time, the resources or the desire to help. She fearlessly stepped into their world and contributed something significant — she poured out a few precious moments of much needed kindness.
Maybe, adjusting those training wheels gave her a confidence that went far beyond riding a bike…perhaps all the way to soaring like an eagle.
On second thought, perhaps Cherie wasn’t all that comfortable in those moments, maybe she was just daring enough to walk her talk and live out her faith. Maybe this quote from Jesus had something to do with it:
‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25:40
This encounter wasn’t a fluke, this was the quintessential Cherie: inherently kind, sensitive to injustice, and driven by the passion that came from deep within her core… a passion tempered by the flame of Christ’s mercy and grace.
I know, being around me can feel awkward…truth be told, at times it isn’t exactly a picnic being around you either.
It’s obvious that you’re not sure how to act around me these days. Rest assured, I’m the same guy I was before her death. Same dry sense of humor, still flexibly dogmatic (if there is such a thing) and always a little on the cocky side. But mainly I’m just sad…very, very sad.
You may feel obligated to speak with me, and I might actually be eager for some conversation. But then again I might not. I don’t know what to tell you, it’s a crap shoot!
You may be trying to avoid me. I hope you realize you’re not fooling anyone. I can see you devising an escape plan as I approach. Please know, I don’t expect you to have some deep-rooted words of wisdom, a simple acknowledgement, a smile, or tap on the shoulder will do.
Did you know that making excuses for not attending the funeral irks me. Not because you didn’t show, but because I’ve grown weary of having to make you feel better about your decision. Your feeling guilty about that is something you’ll just have to cope with on your own—it’s not my job!
I’m not interested in your position on Covid-19, masks or vaccinations. Choose something else to talk about—really choose something else.
I’m not seeking advice from people who have no concept of what its like to lose a child..much less two. You don’t know…you don’t know…believe me, you really don’t know.
It’s hard to put into words how taxing grief can be physically, mentally, and emotionally. Processing information is like trying to push thoughts through jello. There are some probing questions that are more than I can handle. Being forced to respond to what feels like unsolicited interrogations is exhausting.
What I need right now are intervals of stillness. Moments that are mine and mine alone; short breaks where obligations and responsibilities take a step back. A span of time where curiosity and I are free to concentrate on just one single task of my own choosing.
For instance, today I crossed an item off my bucket list. Today I was determined to learn how to use chopsticks. Just a set of chopsticks, YouTube and me alone on my remote cerebral island. I’m not ready to catch houseflies in mid flight like Mr Miyagi just yet, but I am batting 1000 at snatching mini marshmallows from off a plate. Yay me!
Sounds crazy, right? That’s because you have no concept of what its like to live in the wake of the death of a child. But I do, and I’ll take these little victories, small steps towards recovering my sanity.
I don’t need to pour myself into yet another book on grief. I just need to bring simplicity back into my life — like chopsticks.
Tomorrow I think I’m going to take a stab at the perfectly poached egg. But tonight, me and my chopsticks are going to strut our stuff at our local Chinese restaurant.
So, that’s how I’m doing. I will get past this. But for now, I just need some time to process it all.
Covid took her life just four days after reaching the birthday she so dreaded having to face. Six months prior to her death she wrote this reflective piece.
What has my life been?
I’m living out the last of my thirties. In six months, I’ll be forty, and I’ll be honest… I’m struggling with it. It’s not that I think 40 is old. It’s just that these milestones seem to be markers in which we’re supposed to have reached certain points in our lives… I mean, that IS why they call them milestones, isn’t it?
And the truth is, I’m not where I thought I would be.
I remember sitting in 7th grade social studies class swearing to Ms. Brauer up and down that I really WAS going to be an actress. That this wasn’t just some crazy fantasy. Theater was my passion and I didn’t care if I ever made it to Hollywood, I just knew I would spend my life on the stage. She just HAD to let me choose acting for our career project. (Of course, I did often envision myself in interviews and walking the red carpet… But I really did believe that I would go about it the right way. And if I only made it to the lowly standing of Broadway, well, that would be fine by me. I was a true artist, not just some kid with a fantasy.)
What’s weird about the Hollywood dream was that I always imagined myself making some sort of difference for mankind. Some change that only my fame and status would allow me to be able to make. Those interviews in my dreams talked far more about my impact on the world than they did my latest movie.
I was serious about that dream, which is why I carried it all the way to college, where I pursued my BFA in Acting.
It’s funny how dreams come on so strongly and also fade away. I can’t think of a goal I was more passionate about in my formative years, and yet, I have zero regrets for switching my major to education.
People in Hollywood are really screwed up. I don’t want that life.
Thank God I can run into a grocery store on laundry day with no makeup, my now out of style Lula Roe’s on, and my day 2 hair in a messy bun without too much fear of being recognized. (Okay, a little fear… but not too much.)
I’m not bothered that the life I envisioned in childhood never came to be. But in a much more serious sense, turning 40 makes me feel like my life should be established into SOMETHING by now. There should be some sense of arriving into SOME kind of life. And I don’t know that I have.
I have several friends with their 2.5 kids and their adorable houses with their white picket fences. Eirith and I have no kids. We don’t own a house. We don’t even have a dog. I swear that my ovaries tick louder than the clock at night sometimes.
Ironically, I still don’t know if I even want kids. I mean, they seem like an awful lot of work. And as the world gets crazier every day, I’d probably just be terrified to let them leave the house. But then I think about how incredible my parents were and I imagine creating memories like the ones they created with me. I think I’d throw an amazing child’s birthday party. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just afraid that we won’t have any legacy to leave anyone. And when I’m too old to cook, I’ll be forced to eat chicken tenders at every holiday, because that’s the only thing that either of my nieces will ever eat.
I even sometimes, at random moments, wonder if I really need a house. I mean, after all, I hate cleaning our two bedroom condo. A house just seems like so much more work. But every time I try to cook for a crowd larger than 2, every time I want to invite guests over, I immediately HATE being stuck in the condo. There’s just something about needing quarters to do your laundry that makes you feel like you’ve never arrived in life.
But at times, I’m okay with the idea that it will be just the two of us. Sometimes I think that maybe the condo, while annoying and inconvenient, still frees us up more. And I don’t need that “normal” kind of life. But then what life do I have?
A therapist once told me that I was a herald. That being a herald was my calling in life. At first thought, it seems laughable. I’m the girl who never stops telling stories… so naturally, the title just seems like a nice way to say “I talk too much.” But truly, I know it means so much more than that. Historically, heralds were the ones who carried important news. They went before the King to announce his arrival. Sometimes they gave warnings to the people, sometimes news worthy of celebration. Biblically speaking, Timothy referred to himself as a herald and an apostle, one who taught in faith and truth. Whether in warnings, directives, or news worthy of praise, Timothy knew that his greatest, most important task in life, was to announce the coming of and share the message of the King.
You don’t think of heralds having fancy lives. You really don’t think of them much at all. Because their entire role had nothing to do with being seen. It had to do with showing, announcing, leading people to something far greater.
My whole life I have struggled with the need to impress people. The need to be a success. To be thought of highly. And honestly, I have a good career where I’ve garnered the respect of my colleagues, my superiors, and the pupils in my care (well, most of them…). I have been told by multiple people that I have more friends than anyone else they know. People have often complimented me and lifted me up and told me what a great person I am. And yet, it has never been enough. There is always some new event where I continue to need to impress. It always has to be perfect. There is always some awkward conversation that plays over and over in my mind, some memory that makes me feel like people will think less of me. No matter how many times I actually impress others and gain their favor, I never arrive at that point of truly feeling like I’ve made it.
I think it plays into what I’ve accomplished in life as well. I feel like I’m not keeping up with the world around me because I’m neither a care-free spirit who has traveled the world and lived life to the fullest, nor am I a mother who has built a beautiful home and family of my own…
The herald was an extremely vital and important member of society, and yet, no one was ever really speculating his life or his status at all. Instead, through him, they were brought to think about the King, and to learn more about themselves. And there’s something very freeing in that. As one who has lived a lot of my life on the stage, I’ve come to expect that all eyes are on me. And so I better have a fantastic performance to share.
But the herald’s job has nothing to do with his performance. It has everything to do with his message; teaching in faith and truth. That’s what Timothy devoted himself to do. And honestly, if I look back on my life that way, my heart is very full.
Over my teaching career, I have worked under many superiors. Two of which made me feel like they were just waiting for me to make a mistake so they could fail me. Both situations led to a very upsetting and embarrassing departure from the school. And it’s funny, because I’ve had far more bosses who have absolutely loved me and given me excellent evaluations… but no matter how many people have praised my performance, I have always remembered the two who belittled it far more. But if I switch my focus to my students… I have had several kids over the course of my career directly tell me that I made them believe in themselves when they never thought they would. A teaching assistant once told me that she loved being in my classroom because I always turned everything into a life lesson. And as a result, I’ve had kids tell me that I’ve changed their lives.
In my friendships, sometimes I struggle with feeling spread too thin to really give others the attention they deserve. At other times, I feel like I can be so self-focused that I make conversations with others about me. I have, on more than one occasion, hung up the phone wishing that I hadn’t spent so much time talking about me and wondering (again, still self-focused) if I look like a bad friend. And yet, my friends are still around. And they still tell me how much I mean to their life. I’ve been told that I’m an inspiration or that I am causing someone to look within and challenge themselves to be better. And I think, how can that be when I’m such a bad friend who forgets to reach out, or spends the whole call talking about herself? And yes, I definitely have flaws in those areas. But I think that what I miss is that even when I’m not teaching in front of a room, or public speaking on a stage, or writing a post for the blog I keep telling myself I’m going to start, and then sharing it on facebook instead, I am sharing a message all of the time. My life has actually been a series of messages: all of them pointing to the King.
In my grief over Jake’s death, I’ve shared the hope of eternity and the comfort of the Father.
In my honesty in my failings, I’ve shared the courage found in humility and the grace of the Savior.
In my almost failed, “I can’t imagine being in your shoes, I don’t think I could do what you’ve done” marriage, I’ve shared the completeness of forgiveness in Jesus, and the total power of the Redeemer.
My life has been one of a herald. And it’s funny that I started to write this because I was feeling sorry for myself that I haven’t obtained more impressive things in my life… And yet, typing this now, I’m reminded of the first time I ever did any “public speaking”; on stage, in the spur of the moment, without any time to prep.
I was standing in the second largest slum in all of Africa and I told a group of people who had shown up dirty, malnourished, and barefoot, that being in their country made me realize that the place I come from is very poor. And that it might sound crazy for me to say such a thing, because in America we have many things. We have large houses and multiple vehicles. There are people who have in ground pools. And yet, so many people have so much, they don’t realize they need anything else. They don’t have Jesus, and they don’t even know that they need him.
I told people that day that everything in this world, every luxury you could ever dream of, will one day fade away. And if you don’t have Jesus, you have nothing. But with Him, you have absolutely everything.
And today, I guess I’m the one who needs that message.
I have been pretty busy while confined to quarters during the COVID-19 lockdown.I’ve lubricated squeaky door hinges, tightened wobbly drawer-pulls, and synchronized every clock in the house. I’ve cleaned out closets, tidied up the office, shredded stacks of old files and swept the garage floor until I could eat off it. I tilled my garden soil, cleaned out flower beds, sorted through my fishing and golf equipment, changed the oil in my lawnmower, and eaten everything that wasn’t nailed down.Having finished watching Netflix — all of it, I decided to catch up with my Friends on Facebook. Continue reading →
I would love to have been a fly on the wall as my parents deliberated over the choice of my given name.As far as I know it wasn’t derived from some cherished family namesake, famous war hero, or celebrity — it was just a name. Continue reading →
As I watched the flickering red light vanish down the track an aura of melancholy filled the air. Kind of odd but somehow I felt cheated, much like the sensation one gets after foraging through a box of Cracker Jack and discovering it has no prize inside.The scene conveyed more than just the end of a passing freight train, it brought to mind the demise of an indelible feature of the American landscape. Continue reading →