“No Such Thing as Mundane”

Photo taken by Stan Brown on February 4, 2020

“Wonderful! No such thing as mundane!” The caption is typed over a picture of a book titled Glory Happening: Finding the Divine in Every Day Places. Of the many things that have struck me these past days, I keep on coming back to this caption – for it captures my brother and his view of creation and the world.

My brother Stan is my second brother of four. Growing up, Stan was the life of our family with a quick wit, a fast tongue, a quick temper, and a passion for all of life. He was a spicy child and a spicy teenager. Both of us could raise our parents’ wrath more quickly than our siblings could. We did not fear conflict; we often looked for it. The story goes that our siblings looked on at the grief that we caused our mom and dad and decided “it’s just not worth it.” So if you look at it that way, Stan and I were real gifts to the family.

When I was in junior high, Stan came to me in a rage one day. The boarding school grapevine had relayed to him that his little sister had been smoking. He didn’t come to confirm whether it was true or not. He knew, of course, that it was. He looked me in the eye and he said to me “If you don’t write and tell our parents that you’ve been smoking, then I will.” “Okay” I sniffled “I will!” And I did.

In high school, Stan’s favorite jeans got two holes in them. One on each butt. How he managed that is extraordinary, still more extraordinary was that he cut out two perfect round patches, about 4 inches in diameter made of bright Sindhi Ajrak. He sewed the patches with tiny stitches all around. To the family, it was a work of art. Not only were his jeans now wearable, but they had these bright butt patches that were incredible. His work was uniquely unappreciated by staff and he was sent to the principal’s office and told he was indecent. When our mom found out, she was mad. Why on earth didn’t they appreciate the careful stitching and ingenious patches? Indecent how? He won that round with our mom, which was good as it turned out to be a far longer lasting relationship than that of the teacher who turned him in.

Stan’s passion for justice and advocacy began early. He was quick to see injustice and to stand up for it. I benefited from this on more than one occasion, but the one I remember best was when he took my 11th grade Physics class to task one day, including the teacher. It was an all male class besides me, and usually I tolerated the teasing fairly well. But not this time. This time it sent me into tears. It was one joke more than I could handle about my body or my brain. Stan, who was volunteering at the school during a year off from college, marched up to the Physics lab and told the teacher off. Though I don’t know exactly what he said, his words packed a mighty punch. I know this because that was the point where my teacher’s treatment of me changed, and the class – ever the adolescent boys of hero worship, followed their master.

Life moved on and we both became adults. I was the first family member to meet his wife, Tami, in Chicago. Stan introduced us and then left for California. As hard it was for them, for me it was a gift. Tami became a friend before she became my sister-in-law. Stan was smitten and on a rainy day the following August, Stami was born. He had found the one who his soul loved, and his life changed.

Through the years, being able to see each other became more of a challenge as life took their family to Kenya, Turkey, Kazakhstan, and Colorado and our family to Pakistan, Egypt, the US, and Iraq. Yet always when we did connect, it was the gift of being with a person fully alive and fully present.

On the past couple of years, Stan has had this uncanny ability to show up and surprise us. At one point we looked out our window in Cambridge and there was Stan! Peeking in our front windows like a wanted man, except that he was grinning from ear to ear. He did the same thing three days after our daughters wedding in September. Suddenly there was a knock on the door of the home we had moved into less than a month before. It was Stan! It would be the last time I would see him on this earth.

Siblings are a precious gift, a solid geological formation* in the midst of a world that is constantly changing. Friends may come and go, but family has to be there. It’s the law. And it’s a given that we take them for granted – we just know they will always be there. Until suddenly – they’re not. Until suddenly, they are gone with a phone call. I used to think everyone got “the phone call” once in their life. But I don’t think that’s true. Most people I know have not. In my sleepless nights I wonder “Why us?” Why were we the ones to get the phone call. What I’m really saying is “Why did you leave us? We miss you so.”

And then I think of all the times I missed telling him I loved him. All the times I thought “I need to call Stan.” but I didn’t call him, because he’s a sibling, and he’s always going to be around, and I knew he’d still love me if I didn’t call. Even my call to him before he left for Thailand came after he had boarded the plane and went immediately to a voice mail message.

My last text to Stan was horribly perfect. He had sent a screen shot of the weather here in Chiang Mai. It was 79 degrees, a clear starry sky, and Valentines Day. I texted back “I love you. I hate you.” It was the day before he died.

The tears come at odd times and they flow like they will never stop. The hole he has left is enormous. The collective grief and loss without doubt, but beyond that is the deeply personal, unshareable grief and loss of his beloved wife, daughter, and son. It is too deep to grasp, and yet, the God he loved is deeper still.

My brother’s life on earth is over. His life now has a dash in it: 1956 – 2020. The most important part of our lives is in the dash between – told and untold stories, lessons learned, people loved, all of life in a single dash.

It was back in December when Stan posted the cover of the book on glory. And though it was about a book, all of his pictures, indeed his life, reflected the tension of seeking out and searching for that glory in the midst of a broken world that groans.

This was Stan. From a leaf on a tree to a beloved grandchild and everything in between, nothing was mundane. The gift of Stan was a gift indeed. A gift from God, to and for the glory of God.

Note: People around the world have stories of Stan – this is just one of the many that will come out in the months that follow his death.

*Our son Joel first used this when speaking of his brother Micah. I love this description of siblings.

A Slice of Life in Charlestown – Volume 2: Death, Debts Forgiven, and Fitting Rooms

Two years ago today my father died. There are times in life where you remember exactly where you are at a pivotal moment. I was at work, chatting with my dear friend and colleague, Suzana. My dad had been declining and we knew the end of his life was drawing closer. Still, no matter how much you expect it, you never really expect it. That thin line between life and death; between heaven and earth. It’s a mystery.

I remember him today. It’s a beautiful day here in Charlestown, and he would love where we live. It is Boston at its prettiest in our neighborhood, with gas lamps that shine their light day and night, and neighbors who say hello to each other.

So I remember my dad today and I pause in gratefulness for his life and legacy.

Debts Forgiven

I am always on the lookout for a good story. There are plenty out there, but unfortunately we don’t always hear them. But on Wednesday I heard a great story on forgiven debt.

Evidently a group of churches in Chicago have decided to help almost 6000 people pay their medical debts. The total cost? Around 5.3 million dollars. ⠀ ⠀

In the next few days, each person will receive a letter in the mail with information on the payment and these words “⁣may you have a beautiful, wonderful holiday. Your debt has been forgiven. Enjoy Thanksgiving.”⠀ ⠀

I grow weary of bad news and cruelty, of incompetent leadership and lies at high and low levels of government. I grow weary of petty meanness – in others, yes – but in myself even more. Then I hear a story like this, and I know it does not stand alone. I know there are other churches and other people doing work that matters, living out their faith in actions big and small. And I am convinced that these small acts matter in big ways. These small acts make a difference, and we may never really know of their true impact. ⠀ ⠀ ⠀

One of the ministers from one of the churches involved in the debt relief effort said this about the decision: ⁣”Well, I began to cry because I knew what it would mean for – it was exactly 5,888 people. I’ll never forget that number. I knew what this would mean for them, that it was a new start for people.”⠀ ⠀ ⠀

A new start. Your debt is forgiven. What amazing words those are! The link to the full story is here. You’ll be glad you listened.⠀

Warning: You Are Entering the Fitting Room!

I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the more I believe that fitting rooms need a warning sign. A warning sign that says “The mirror may reflect things that surprise, shock or astound you! Please refrain from sudden outbursts!”

Here’s the back story: We head off to a family wedding in Florida today. I love weddings, I love family, and I love palm trees so I’m looking forward to it.

In thinking through what I would wear, I realized I’d like to look a little firmer. You know that thing called gravity? It creeps around and through you in the oddest ways!

I had limited time, but I was armed and ready – or so I thought. I picked up a few things from the rack of undergarments and headed toward the aptly called “fitting room.” Five minutes later, busy with Lycra and straps, I caught sight of this stranger in the mirror! I shrieked! “By God, who is that? Who is in my fitting room and what is she wearing?” Thankfully the store was short-staffed, so no one came to my aid, because the moment after I screamed I realized that the chubby, wrinkled person in the mirror was me.

How did I get to be HER?

What? How could this be? How could the beautiful, lithe, me who I thought I was be Her of the Stretch Marks and Muffin Top? I gasped in horror. Where is the me who I thought I was?

While those of us who are of a certain age have our own challenges, any female who has reached the age of being able to go to the fitting room alone knows the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” that are part of the shopping experience. Too often we women drag along men, expecting them to  make a potentially self-esteem damaging experience easier. It rarely happens and I can’t count how many couples I have watched in the same scenario.  It goes something like this:

She: You don’t like it. (in flat tones) He: I didn’t say I didn’t like it. (in defensive tones) She: But I can tell – you didn’t say anything. If you had liked it you would have said something. He: It’s not whether I like it, it’s whether you like it. She: But I need an opinion. He: Look, I don’t know women’s clothing. I guess I like it. Maybe you need something that doesn’t have stripes. She: I knew you thought I looked fat(in an accusing and hurt tone, eyes welling up). He: I did not say that. She: Let’s just go.

It’s a set-up for failure of both parties. We are desperately looking for words of  affirmation and have a completely unrealistic expectation of what those will sound like. 

But back to my experience looking for undergarments. As I laughed at the stranger in the mirror, I thought about our bodies and our souls. How one can be revived daily, and one is daily losing something. What if I spent as much time on my soul as my body? There is so much to think about in that statement. But I’m not going to unpack it here and now. I’m going to leave you with the vision of me screaming at the me in the mirror. “By God, who is she and what is she wearing?” The person in the mirror started laughing, and strangely – so did I.

Routines & Nesting

We are settling into something of a routine here. Though there are boxes in our cellar, this has become a good place to call home and nest for awhile, and we are loving the neighborhood and this little red house. We have begun family dinners with my daughter, son-in-law, and nephew and we have already had a couple of overnight guests. This is a true joy for us. The neighborhood provides beautiful walks, sunrises, and sunsets in a truly historic area of the city. What a gift!

Kurdistan is close to our hearts but far from our bodies and in moments of honesty we confess to each other how difficult that is. We pray and talk about our friends and Kurdistan all the time, and we are with them in spirit during this difficult time of history.

If you’d like to read more on the Kurds, this is an excellent site: The Time of the Kurds.

I began this post with death, and I will end it with the same by leaving you with a quote from the highly acclaimed novel – Laurus.

“⁣Each of us repeats Adam’s journey and acknowledges, with the loss of innocence, that he is mortal. Weep and pray, O Arseny. And do not fear death, for death is not just the bitterness of parting. It is also the joy of liberation.”

Laurus

Betsy – An Extravagant Friend

Betsy – An Extravagant Friend

We are in Athens, mere steps away from the Acropolis that sits high above the city inviting people of every tribe and nation to come and walk its ancient paths. It is the height of privilege to be here and I am deeply mindful of this.

And though Athens has its magic that I could write many words about, it’s not what I’m choosing to write about today. Instead, I want to write about an extravagant friend.

Her name is Betsy and on Christmas Eve, she died.

She died at home, surrounded by her family – her big beautiful family – a husband of over 40 years, children, and grandchildren. After God and coffee, Betsy loved family, but she also invited many into that family. I was one of those people.

I met Betsy when I was 29 years old. My husband and I had arrived in Cairo with our three small children a few weeks before. I was desperate for friendship. We limped our way through the first few weeks and then on the same day both of us had encouraging breakthroughs in unexpected offers of friendship – his through a man named Fred Perry, mine through Betsy. When we look back on this time, it was these two friendships that were the starting point in helping us unpack our bags and hang our hearts in Cairo.

I was emotionally and spiritually lonely. As I sat with my three kids in my fifth floor walk-up apartment one morning, loneliness flooded over me and tears quickly followed. I reached for the community newspaper, lovingly called the Maadi Messenger. In between the “I am Fatima. I wash kids and clothes” and “Learn Arabic quickly!” ads was a section on community activities. There, under community Bible studies, was the name Betsy McDermott and a friendly “Call if you’re interested in joining a Bible study.” I resolutely picked up the phone, checked to make sure the neighbors were not on it as it was a party line, and dialed the number. The next minute Betsy’s unforgettable “Mcdermott Home! Betsy speaking” came from the receiver. It was a voice from Heaven. I paused and then launched in to a halting introduction.

We talked for 45 minutes and by the end of that call I had a Bible study, a best friend, and a wise mentor. Just minutes before we hung up that day, Betsy said “You sound so familiar! Are you sure we haven’t met before?” We figured out that we had mutual friends in two missionary families who had lived in Karachi and knew both of us. We had indeed met! We met when I was in junior high and she was in high school. She was in a singing group in high school with our mutual friend “Auntie Grace” Pittman. It sealed the friendship in ways I could never have expected. She understood the third culture kid piece that I didn’t even know was a word.

With that commonality, I was invited into Betsy’s world of friendship, and what an amazing world it was! It was a world where coffee and hospitality were like oxygen. They were followed by laughter, listening, deep theological discussions, and always long talks about family. It was through this world that I met Martha, Karen, Marian, Christine, and a long list of others who had been invited in and were feasting at the table of friendship.

Betsy’s home became my sanctuary. At Betsy’s house, everything was better.

Expatriate friendships come with an asterisk, and that asterisk is a reminder that all friendships end with goodbye. If you can survive the goodbye, there’s a chance that the friendship will survive the ocean chasms that separate continents. The first was a partial goodbye. Though not separated by an ocean, we were separated by a bustling city of 15 million as we moved to a different part of Cairo. I grieved not being able to drop in on a whim. It was my two-year-old who took on the grief. I remember one day saying goodbye to Betsy as I hopped into a taxi to head from Betsy’s house to mine. Stefanie looked out the window at Betsy and burst into tears. She took in all her mama’s emotions and instead of having a lump stuck in her throat as I did, she grieved in big, gulping two-year-old sobs. I can still see Betsy’s startled face through the grimy taxi window as she waved goodbye.

Two years later, Betsy moved from Cairo to London and the chasm of people became an chasm of water. Although our across the city move two years earlier was difficult, this was now a different country, different time zone, and different life. I didn’t know if I would make it. But the friendship survived, and Betsy’s home in London became my yearly friendship and therapy session. Along with that, we kept in touch through letters, visits during the summer when we were both in the United States, and phone calls. When I unexpectedly found out I was pregnant just before Christmas in 1995, I had told no one. I got off the plane in London after Christmas and burst into tears with Betsy. She hugged me tight. “You’re so lucky!” she said – and in that moment, I began to believe it.

We left Cairo in 1996, but the yearly trips to London continued as I faced the most difficult adjustment I had ever made within a small town in Massachusetts. Soon after, her oldest child began university in Boston and I got to briefly see her on her periodic trips to visit him. In 1999, Betsy moved to Rochester, New York – just 15 minutes away from where my brother lived. Her home there continued to be a place of peace and grace for my life. I was struggling with many, many things – but at Betsy’s house I had a temporary respite. I could relax in her hospitable embrace.

It was in 2003 when we began to see less of each other. Our family moved to Phoenix, her kids began moving away, and trips that included each other were less frequent. Periodically we would reconnect, and it was always as though I was the only person in the world who existed. Our friendship continued with the competition of adult kids, aging parents, and grandchildren. We were now lucky to grab coffee once a year. At this point, I knew she had breast cancer but she was doing well. Each time I saw her she seemed to become more beautiful and more resilient.

Betsy was a third culture kid. She had been through coups, wars, and earthquakes. She had her appendix taken out by an undercover CIA operative, had evacuated countries, and raised her own kids around the globe. She was as comfortable at a fancy dinner party as she was in a slum in Cairo. The stamps in her passport had more stories than a book could contain.

With this as her background, it’s no wonder that her heart was the size of the globe and filled with people that represented that globe. I got to be one of them and even though her heart was heavily populated, when you were with her you thought you were the only one.

More than that, Betsy had a deep relationship with God that affected everyone around her. “Scarcity” was not in her vocabulary. She gave in abundance, serving countless people. Her ears and her heart heard the wounds and tears of many. She radiated the joy of being alive. Betsy was extraordinary.

I wish I could get together one more time to tell her how much I love her, how she met me in my tears and my weakness and gave me strength to move forward. I wish I could thank her for the coffee and friendship, both served so well. I wish I could hug her and hear her laughter and voice one more time. I wish I could thank her for her extraordinary generosity.

I can’t do any of those things. But I can learn from her. I can learn more about what it is to open my heart and my home to people, not afraid that the love or coffee will run out, not worrying that there is not enough to go around.

I learned so many things from this friendship. I learned that faith is a journey and that to question doesn’t take away a rock solid foundation. I learned that loving people is costly – it cost Betsy to love, but she did it and made it look effortless. I learned that hospitality opens up our world and our hearts grow larger.

I didn’t know that Betsy was so near the end. To Betsy, suffering was matter of fact. At my dad’s funeral over a year ago, I asked her about her breast cancer returning. She looked at me “Everyone has something” she said. She didn’t have a mental scale that she kept, weighing her suffering compared to others. She welcomed it with grace, and in doing so had room to comfort others. It was after Thanksgiving that I learned she had stopped treatment and was in palliative care. It hit me hard. I had just welcomed a new grandson into the world and found out that my father-in-law had died. The contrast between life and death felt tender and raw; the veil that separates these two so thin.

For Betsy, that veil was lifted on Christmas Eve when a host of angels welcomed her into the arms of a God who is above all extravagant – extravagant with grace, hospitality, and love; a God who never acts from scarcity but from an abundant well of goodness.

And so I grieve. I grieve not having a last coffee with her. I grieve not having a last hug. I grieve not having a last heart talk. I grieve that I will never again hear her voice or listen to her laugh.

I want to hug my friends and family a little tighter and open my door a little wider, I want to love out of abundance, not out of scarcity.

And so Betsy, I thank you. You lived and loved extravagantly and without hesitation. May I learn to do the same.

The Life of a Good Man

The life of a good man who has died belongs to the people who cared about him, and ought to, and maybe itself is as much comfort as ought to be asked or offered. And surely the talk of a reunion in Heaven is thin comfort to people who need each other here as much as we do.“*

It was a year ago today that I knew my father would soon die. I had seen him just one weekend before, but even through phone calls I knew he was nearing the end of his life on earth. The last time I spoke with him was a year ago today.

Usually he said a few words and then passed me on to my mom. He was tired, and we all know that phone communication is not easy in the best of times. This time my mom was not around, and I am so grateful. We talked longer than usual. I don’t remember all we said – when the relationship is good, the communication between a Dad and his daughter is comfortable and significantly insignificant. But I do remember that he said this: “It’s a strange thing, this dying. You don’t know when the Lord will take you. You just have to be ready.” They are sweet words of a man who loved his Lord. They are sweet words to remember.

On October 24, just four days later, my dad died. I received a text in the morning on that day. I was at work. The text was from my mom. “It seems that Dad has left us.”

And he had. It was not a dramatic death. It was just a leaving. My brother was walking him to the breakfast table.

“Just seven more steps Dad.”

“I don’t think I can go on”

And just like that, he was gone.

There are so many things I want to tell him. So many things that have happened. I want him to know that Stef and Will are engaged. I want him to know that Annie and Ryan are having another baby. I want him to know that Lauren and Sheldon are having another baby. I want him to know that Tim and Kim are in Saudi Arabia, that their family has expanded to include Baby Alina – Allie. I want him to know that we moved to Kurdistan. I want him to know that Mom is doing so well; that she is amazing and though she misses him more than she would ever let us know, she continues to love and pray and care for this big family scattered across the globe.

I piously want to let him know that his many Bibles are with various grand children, that one is in Thailand with Lauren and seeing it in a recent picture made me cry. I wickedly want him to know that his desk is gone! That his wife carefully went through his things, shedding tears and nodding smiles, but that the desk itself that we jokingly called the family heirloom is gone.

It’s not all good news. There is plenty of heartache to go around, but he would want to know those things as well. Because he didn’t shun heartache – he took it in, and it troubled him. But he knew where to take it. He gave heartache and joy to God, one for the burden lifting, the other for the gratitude.

I have felt his presence deeply this past month, partially through a calendar of family pictures, partially through those memories that naturally emerge during anniversaries.

In all this, I would not want to bring him back. My understanding of God and eternity tells me that though we may have beautiful glimpses of eternity in this life, we see only dimly. When we see face to face we will be astonished at the beauty that awaits us. Physically he suffered, his body was hurting and he is free from a cough that was painful and debilitating. He, who was always so strong, was weak and tired. And now, he who did not dance is dancing with angels. My heart grows larger just thinking about it.

Loss is a strange thing, and the loss of one who is old and has led a life of service, love, and forgiveness is not mourned as a tragedy, but it is still mourned. Mourned for the missing of his smile and laugh, of his prayers and jokes, of his elephant dance and his place in our big, extended family. He is mourned for the father he was – steady, principled, rock solid, with a smile that went to his bones. Mourned that his laughter is no longer our benediction at family gatherings. He is also remembered as one who first loved God, then loved my mom, then loved his family.

So today, I remember. With a grateful heart and some tears I remember his life and his death. I remember the last time we spoke, and I am so grateful that of all the words that could have been said, my last words to him were “I love you Dad.”

“I don’t believe that grief passes away. It has its time and place forever. More time is added to it; it becomes a story within a story. But grief and griever alike endure.– Wendell Berry


*Wendell Berry A Place on Earth

Dear Dad, I think you would have loved Mom’s birthday….

Dear Dad,

Soon after you died, I began planning Mom’s 90th Birthday. As I planned, I would periodically panic – something seemed to be missing. Now I know that something was a someone. It was you. Normally I would have talked to you about it, talked to you about what you would want to add, talked to you about the place and especially, the food! But that was impossible because you’ve been gone these seven plus months.

I remember last October how she told you she was going out to buy a dress with me and Stef.  You looked right at her and told her to buy two – one for your funeral and one for her 90th birthday. Even in the midst of your hard last days, you knew there needed to be a celebration. I think she knew you weren’t long for this world at that point – you were so willing to let go of money. Where you were going you wouldn’t need it!

I wanted to write to you today because I miss you and I think you would have loved Mom’s birthday.

We got together at an inn in Fairport, right near the Erie Canal. Family came from as far as Thailand, Kazakhstan, Istanbul, and Greece to as close as downtown Rochester, because movement, even with its high cost, is in our family’s DNA. The area was perfect and the weather even more so. The Inn on Church is at the corner of Church Street and South Main. The rooms are spacious and lovely, boasting all their original character with new amenities. There is a large wrap around porch with plenty of rockers and a sign that  invites people to sit a spell and join the “Porch Sitter’s Brigade”. Inside was enough space for 42 of us to congregate, first for breakfast on Saturday, followed by a late afternoon tea – something that you know Mom loves.

You would have loved the breakfast of fresh fruit, muffins, and a gorgeous frittata with bacon, potatoes, cheese, and just enough spinach to look healthy. We laughed and talked over breakfast, so much to catch up on since we last saw each other at your funeral. There was time and space to walk, go kayaking, sit and read, or play croquet in the back yard.

Early evening came and we gathered for a high tea of scones, bread, ham, salads, and cupcakes made by one of your granddaughter’s. The head table’s unseen guest was not Jesus, but you.

And then we celebrated Mom. We went through her life with poems, songs, skits, memories, and prayers. We laughed a lot and choked up some as we thought of you being gone.

It’s a long way from small town Winchendon to celebrating a 90th birthday, but it happened! Some of your grandsons began the program with a tale of Mom’s life until she went off to college. Your granddaughters did you proud as they reenacted the young Polly with a crush on Ralphie. There may have been references to a former girlfriend – Joyce – but they were quickly squashed as Aunt Ruth and Aunt Charlotte remembered your wedding and Aunt Ruth led us in singing “Saviour, Like a Shepherd Lead Us”. Her voice is beautiful; her spirit more so.  Still more of your kids and grandkids went through stages of her life – Pakistan, 8-Acre Woods, South Hadley, and then retiring in Rochester. A couple of your kids remembered you as a couple, one in a rhyme that would make your heart swell with pride. Singing and prayers for the past, present, and future finished the program.

Our hearts were so full – full of the joy of memories, full of the time with each other, full of the love that you and Mom so generously gave; the love that she continues to give.

And oh how we missed you. You would have loved celebrating the 90th birthday of the love of your life. These past months since you left us have not been easy for her. Losing you was like losing a couple of limbs and half a heart. Those losses would make anyone limp a little. No matter how much the rest of us love her, we can never love her quite enough, never love her the way you loved her.

But though she lives with these missing pieces, she still radiates joy, wisdom, and strength. She continues to pray for all of us; continues to reach out to others and allow others to reach out to her.

Toward the end of the program, your grandson, Michael, sang a hymn. He sang it with his beautiful, strong voice and though I know where you live there is extraordinary beauty and singing like we’ve never seen, from our still limited perspective his song was a taste of heaven.

I’ve included a verse for you, because I think these words may best express what your dear Polly is experiencing.

What though my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Savior liveth;
What though the darkness gather round!
Songs in the night He giveth:
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of Heav’n and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

So what can we say? It was amazing, but we sure do miss you. 

Losing My Umbrella – Some Thoughts on a Father’s Death

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I am looking through old pictures when my eyes begin to blur with salty tears. So many of the pictures I’ve been looking through are pictures of my father.

Whether summer or winter, there he is – his familiar face with his ready smile. My dad smiled from his bones. It was never fake, never false, it was who he was. I look at pictures from years ago and pictures from last summer with seemingly little difference. He is there, he is strong, he is fully present, he is smiling.

When your father dies, say the Irish

You lose your umbrella against bad weather.

This is the beginning of a poem by Diana Der-Hovanessian that describes how different cultures express what happens when your father dies. It’s a good beginning. Anyone who has lost their father can write their own when my father died moments. In honor of his birthday coming up on June 7th, here are mine.


When my father died, I lost a rock, someone who was steadfast and secure in a shifting world.

When my father died, I lost the offer of a bowl of icecream whenever I visited.

When my father died, I lost someone who asked me every weekend of the summer “Are you heading up to Rockport this weekend?” How he loved Rockport!

When my father died, I lost the ability to say “Hi Dad!” and hear his strong reply “Hi Marilyn!”

When my father died, I lost his well-worn jokes, told with so much laughter he could hardly make it to the punch line.

When my father died, I lost a piece of enthusiasm and love for life.

When my father died, I lost a birthday and a father’s day. There will be no more cards to send, phone calls to make.

When my father died, I lost one grandfather for my kids. I lost his earthly prayers, but his heavenly ones remain.

When my father died, I lost pieces of my childhood, now buried in a piece of earth.

When my father died, I lost my umbrella, my raincoat, and my hood. He was all those things and more.

When my father died, I lost his presence, but I kept the memories and they are sweet.

When my father died, I lost him, but I didn’t lose myself – because he never wanted me to be anyone else.

When my father died, Heaven became a lot sweeter and a bit closer.

When my father died. 


SHIFTING THE SUN by Diana Der-Hovanessian

 When your father dies, say the Irish

you lose your umbrella against bad weather.

May his sun be your light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Welsh

you sink a foot deeper into the earth.

May you inherit his light, say the Armenians

When your father dies, say the Canadians

you run out of excuses.

May you inherit his sun, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Indians

he comes back as the thunder.

May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Russians,

he takes your childhood with him.

May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the British,

you join his club you vowed you wouldn’t.

May you inherit his sun, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Armenians,

your sun shifts forever

and you walk in his light.

The Holy Work of Grieving

Why must holy places be dark places?”*

Two days ago, my friend’s dad died. In twenty first century vernacular – she “lost” her dad. “Lost” is such a silly thing to say – like she needs to just go searching for him and she will find him; like it’s a child’s game of hide ‘n seek.

“Lois – just look for him! I’m sure you’ll find him.”

My dark humor comes through as I think about this. We humans delight in deceiving ourselves about death and loss by using words that are ambiguous and sweetly horrid.

As I heard the news, I immediately revisited my dad’s death and the resulting losses. The first picture taken of Lois and me together was on the banks of the Dead Sea. Each of us is holding hands with our dads. Our dads are so young and so alive. Two adventurers – as at home in Pakistan and Jordan as they were in the United States. They lived between worlds – learning languages with sounds that seemed impossible, deciphering a script that was completely foreign, and traveling to places that topped the U.S State Department watch list. They learned about Middle Eastern hospitality; about what it was to send their children to boarding schools; and about friendship in a Middle Eastern context. Most of all, they learned what it is to follow a faith until the end and to never give up.

Grief sets its own agenda, it cannot be controlled. You don’t know when it will flood over you and what the manifestation will be, but when I found out that Lois’ dad had died, the impact of death flooded over me and I found myself grieving.

I am grieving for Lois and I am grieving for myself. I am grieving because we will never again sit down with our dads, never again speak with them on the phone. I am grieving because when we spontaneously think “Oh, I should talk to Dad about that!” it won’t be possible.  I am grieving that two good men are gone and they are not lost – they have died.

All of the physical pieces of grief are present – the nervous stomach, the choking in my throat, the distraction…I realize no one ever talks about the taste of grief and yet there is a taste. It’s gritty and it makes my mouth dry, a bit like sand.

But I find as I grieve that grieving is holy work.

How have I never seen this before?

In C.S. Lewis beautiful but lesser known book ‘Til We Have Faces, the protagonist says “Why must holy places be dark places?”  I think about this and the holy work of grieving; the holy ache and the dark places of tragedy and pain that come across the lives of anyone who identifies as human.

When I stop analyzing grief and simply allow myself to grieve – this is when I know it is holy work, for it is in these times of greatest need that I am most aware of how much I need God.

The holy work of grieving is the place where holy tears fall. And as grief and tears come, so does comfort; sometimes through human arms or words, sometimes through God’s seeming silence, but obvious presence, sometimes through the Psalms.

The holy work of grieving is ever present in the Psalms. Written with full knowledge of the human condition, they speak with authority and complete understanding of how fragile we are. The Psalmist, a master poet, writes of grief and rage, of depression and sorrow. Softly, lyrically, with grace and great love these Psalms continue through generations. They were there for our dads; they are here for both Lois and me.

“He heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds.” Psalm 147:3

And I know in my heart, my soul, and my body that these words are true.


*C.S. Lewis in ‘Til We Have Faces

Death, Loss, and TCK Grief

Yesterday I unexpectedly found myself by a lone bench on an empty ocean front. A boat was just off the shore, solitary but securely anchored in the sea. I ached with the unexpected beauty, the symbolic solitude of the boat. I felt like this boat. Alone, but securely anchored. As I stood there, a scarf wrapped around my neck shielding me from a chill wind, I thought about the last couple of weeks.

Loss is a curious thing. You lose someone, and suddenly all the unrelated losses in your life seem to merge together and attack you like a virus. Grief is similar. When you open your heart to grief instead of pushing it to the back of your heart until a convenient time, you open yourself to other seemingly non-related grief.

Many of you know that I recently lost my dad. As I’ve allowed myself to feel, I have opened the door to memories of other times of grieving and other grief patterns that are seemingly unrelated.

But grief is grief, and loss is loss. They connect together like a dot to dot child’s book, creating a picture that represents something much bigger than just one dot.

About 11 years ago in Phoenix, we sold our house. The house was not that special in terms of its design and build, but there was something about it that grabbed my heart. There was something about the large yard that swept out to the open sky, nothing but the Gila River Indian Reservation behind us. There were sunsets every night that bathed the sky with unimaginable colors – red, fuchsia, orange, yellow, chartreuse – and so many that I couldn’t possibly name them. An archway at the back of the yard led to a seating area and a bee-hive shaped fireplace. We could sit for hours in that area, just talking, listening to one of our kids play guitar, relaxing under the desert sky.

I would sit with morning coffee on the patio watching humming birds, marveling at the energy that their tiny bodies could produce.

While the sale of the house was still pending, we had some work being done. I would go over to the house while contractors worked their magic to repair and update doors, floors, and counters.

At this point, we were moved in to our new house – a lovely home less than two miles away. There was no logical reason to feel sad, no logical reason to grieve.

But sitting in that house under a whirring fan, listening to the rhythmic hammer of skilled workmen; sitting on the patio and looking out to the desert plants, I began to grieve in a way that I had never grieved before. Seemingly unrelated events and losses of people attached themselves to this thing called grief. It could have become a monster that controlled me, but instead, in that desert home, where citrus trees and Bougainvillea brought brilliant color to dusty brown, I let it go.

I grieved like I’ve never grieved before.

I grieved leaving home and going to boarding for the first time. I grieved saying goodbye to best friends. I grieved the end of first love, a childhood grief made more poignant by the unresolved grief before. I grieved leaving Pakistan, with an ache in my throat and stomach, with tears caught in that place where they can’t be released. I grieved leaving Egypt, my ‘adult love.’ And added to that grief, I grieved the loss of the Middle East studies program my husband had sweated blood to begin. I grieved the realization that I may never live overseas again, an ache in my bones.

And in that house in Phoenix, that nothing-special-track-home with its beautiful yard, all these griefs flowed together, wave upon wave, memory upon memory, feeling upon feeling, stirred up and churned up like a dust storm that must run its course. And when the storm has passed, dust leaves behind its grit and its taste on every surface.

I don’t know why it surfaced at that time in that way. It seemed to make no sense. Perhaps I was allowing myself to grieve in a way that I had previously been unable. I’ll never know. I stopped trying to analyze. I let the grief flow. Like allowing nausea to run its course without interference from pills and cures, I found that with the grief came comfort. No human caught my tears. No flesh and blood comforted me, only God, in the sounds of a whirring fan and in words committed to memory:

Oh my God you search and you know me,

you know when I sit, you know where I rise;

you perceive my thoughts from afar…

My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place,

when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw my unformed body;

all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.*

Then the work was over. The house sold. It belonged to someone else. Too soon, I thought. I had more griefs to name, more sadness to resolve.

According to the conventional wisdom, third culture kids suffer from unresolved grief. Hidden grief, the experts say, is a significant struggle for us. I don’t know. I have done no research. I only have my own experience.

But I did find, alone in an empty track home, solace in naming my grief, and comfort in verses that had rooted their way into my heart. And God, whispering comfort in the sound of a whirring fan, met me.**

The grief and loss dots are connecting again with my dad’s death. The picture is bigger than his death, it encompasses far more loss. But I’m not afraid to face it, because the monster created by unresolved grief is far worse than grieving.  And next to the grief is life in all its joy and sadness, waiting to be lived.

In the words of Frederick Buechner: ”

“What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”


*Psalm 139

**Short excerpt from Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging

The Funeral Cocoon


November has come and the golden-red hope of Autumn is rapidly turning to bare trees and chilly winds. It is a cold time to lay a coffin in the ground.

We sat in a small chapel at the Massachusetts Veteran’s Cemetery in Winchendon, Massachusetts.  Winchendon is the town where I was born, where I took my first breath outside the womb. Now it is the town where my dad’s earthly body is buried. The chapel at the cemetery overlooks a sloping lawn going down to graves lined up like hundreds of large dominoes, representing many families and uncountable losses.

My dad’s gray casket dominated the front of the chapel, a cascade of bright red roses on its cover. The service was short and scripted, a fitting service for a burial. I smiled at the salutes my father received from those military men in the audience. He would have loved it! Though we never saw him as a military man, his two years of service after high school afforded him a free education, a burial spot, and military salutes.

After a reception at a nearby church, a couple of us headed back to the cemetery. The dirt was fresh and a small marker indicated where the headstone will stand when it is ready. The flowers from the casket had been placed at the head of the grave. We stood silent. This was our final goodbye.

I have been wrapped in the funeral cocoon, a cocoon of safety, where you are somehow aware that this is not the time to truly grieve. It is the time for memories, family, a celebration of life, and a funeral, but it is not the time to grieve.

This funeral cocoon wraps around my mom and we marvel at her strength. But that is what the funeral cocoon does: It wraps you in grace and strength.  Within the cocoon she can meet and greet countless people, respond to the constant ‘how are you doings’, eat and converse like she has a whole body instead of a body that she is supposed to live in even though it has been sliced in two.

Anyone who has experienced the loss that death brings knows well this cocoon; a swath of strange, numb comfort that envelopes the grieving.

The time will come when tears will fall until exhaustion takes over. The time will come to sit with the grief, to let it flow with abandon. The time will come to acknowledge the soul-deep ache of loss.

But for now – the funeral cocoon is enough.

In Memory:Ralph Edward Brown, June 7,1926 – October 24,2017


On June 7th, in 1926, a baby boy was born to a family in the city of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He was fourth in the family, joining three sisters, a mom and a dad. Two years later his youngest sister was born and the family was complete. He was named Ralph Edward Brown and he is our father and grandfather. 

His mother–the original Annie Hall–struggled to nurse him. He seemed unable to take either breast milk or regular formula and almost died. It was the milk man, aware of the concern of the family, who suggested to Annie that she try sweetened condensed milk. Having nothing to lose, she diluted this in a bottle and to everyone’s astonishment and as though ordained by God, he survived and thrived. All his life he claimed that he owed his love for sweet things to his early diet.

At four years old, tragedy struck the family with the death of his father during a hospitalization for a broken leg. Annie, left with five children and a broken heart, raised the family with grit and grace during an era when life was not kind to a widow and her children. He recalled a community of friends and relatives, many from Morningside Baptist Church in Pittsfield, who walked alongside the family during this time.

Ralph grew into a young man with a personality and character as large as his smile. He entered the Air Force branch of the military on graduation from high school, but instead of flying planes and braving enemy combatants, by his own admission he spent his entire military experience in bureaucratic paperwork, filling out tedious forms in triplicate. Two years later thanks to the GI bill he was able to attend Gordon College, at the time a Bible college in the Fenway area of Boston, and it was there that he met his life-long love, Pauline. Pauline evidently stole his heart after a couple of “Joyces” and perhaps a “Ruthanne” – he has never been totally clear on this. They were married in 1951, sixty six years ago this year, amidst mountain laurel and a host of relatives and friends.

They welcomed their first-born on March 16th, 1953 – a boy, Edward Ralph and a year and a half later their lives dramatically changed. 1954 had them taking a 3-week journey by ship to a country that would become their home for the next 35 years, the country of Pakistan. Ralph became as comfortable sitting cross-legged on the floor in a Marwari village and eating onion curry as he was preaching from the pulpit at Morningside Baptist, followed by a pot-luck church supper. Over the next few years, they also added Stanley, Thomas, Marilyn and Daniel, followed by seventeen grandchildren and fifteen great-grandchildren — so far.  

In 91 years of life there are many stories. Some are known by your children, while others remain untold. If we wrote all our stories and memories, this memorial service would be tediously long instead of a loving tribute. But there are three things that our dad and grandpa has held to in his life. His love of God, his love of family and his love for fun. From his legendary ability to swish a basketball through the hoop from the midway point on the court to his absolute consistency in an alcohol-free lifestyle; from discussing ordination of women to discussing infant baptism; from his first granddaughter Melanie to his last grandson, Jonathan, he has remained a steady, Godly example and force in a world that often shifts with the wind.  

In his years since moving to Rochester, he has settled in here, made many friends, and treasured and valued many friendships that he found here. The whole family is so thankful to the people at Ridgeland community church, for giving them a church home, and for Browncroft Community church for giving them a second church home. 

During the nine months of struggle with the illness to which he finally succumbed, Ralph continued to treasure the friends, family, and all of the fellow believers who together have made a home for Mom and Dad here in Rochester.  

While his last months were a struggle, he got to see his youngest grandson graduate from college, his granddaughter get married, and to see two great grandchildren that he hadn’t yet met. 

Every night, his good night began with words of thanksgiving. And, while his last words were ’Tom, I don’t think I can make it’ (meaning to the breakfast table), we know that in those last steps and last breaths of his life, he was carried to eternity in the arms of his Lord. He lived out the words of one of his favorite hymns:


In Christ alone my hope is found;

He is my light, my strength, my song;

This cornerstone, this solid ground,

Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.

What heights of love, what depths of peace,

When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!

My comforter, my all in all–

Here in the love of Christ I stand.

Empty Spaces


I walked through the darkened living room just now and gave a little gasp as I looked toward your spot. 

Your chair is so empty. 

Gone is your big personality and sheer joy at being alive. Gone is the glass of water, the box of tissues, the tank of oxygen. Gone is your Swiss Army knife, as faithful a friend as an inanimate object can be. Gone is your wallet, your tums, all those things that helped ease some of your struggles in those last days. 

Gone. Empty. 

What once was full is now empty space. 

Mom just brought out a laundry basket of your clothes. I see your shirts and pants, empty of the body and spirit that once filled them. 

Those LL Bean sweaters I loved buying you at Christmas, complete with a coupon for more? They are empty, the arms that once filled them are gone. 

In truth, no human word or comfort will ever fill these empty spaces. People made in the image of God cannot be replaced. 

There are so many that live with these empty spaces. I think of the more recent ones – Brit, Jayna, Bruce, Chris – now, Mom and our family. But there are so many more. 

There are empty wombs and empty hearts; empty cribs and empty beds; so many empty spaces. Some spaces are visibly empty, others are invisible – hidden wounds of the heart. 

My cousin sent me these words the other day – and how I cling to them. 

“There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve — even in pain — the authentic relationship. Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer 

I cry out to God, the God you reflected so well. 

And in the darkness the space is still empty, but his love is present. 

But Still – It Hurts


Dear Dad,

I’m up early and all is dark outside. They say it is going to rain and even now I hear the drops splatter on the pavement outside.

I woke up thinking of you – your life as it was before the last six months, your life as it was the last six months, your life as it was when I saw you a couple of weeks ago.

I heard the news from mom about 9 in the morning yesterday. “It seems that Dad has left us. Waiting for Sherry.” Short messages change our worlds in big ways.

I was at work in my small, government sponsored cubicle. It seems it doesn’t matter how long I had been expecting a message like this – it still came as a shock.

I am your only daughter. It’s probably a good thing. Knowing myself and my “Princess” tendencies, it would have been a travesty to have to share that status. Early memories make me smile. You and me at the beach in Karachi, you holding me by the ocean, letting the waves come onto my good leg while my broken leg was perched on your lap. You driving along treacherous roads in the Kaghan Valley and other long trips in our trusty brown Landrover across Pakistan. Camping in the apple orchard at Bach Hospital. You and mom meeting us at the train station – us a bit shy from being so long away from you, you with your bear hug so excited to see us. You protecting me when mom and I were harassed. You and me at the Old Mill restaurant in Westminster, eating a delicious dinner as you tried so hard to find ways to communicate with your stone-faced teenager. You and me, as I walked down the aisle to say vows that you already had learned are impossible to keep without God.

I remember saying goodbye to you and mom at Heathrow Airport as I walked off to catch my flight to Glasgow. I didn’t look back. I couldn’t look back because if I had, I would have been like Lot’s wife – paralyzed, turned to stone and unable to move forward.

And then there were the trips you made to wherever I lived: Chicago, Islamabad, Cairo, Essex, Phoenix, and Cambridge. You meeting each of our children for the first time, proud grandfather to all five of them. Family was your priority and we all knew that.

Every single day you and mom have prayed for this great, big, continually growing, messy, beloved family. Every.Single.Day. And usually, by name. My early memories of you kneeling beside your bed as you raised your prayers to God are solidly planted on my memory; your later prayers as I sat with you and mom eating breakfast equally so.

You’re gone and I now face what so many friends and family have faced – realizing that your death on earth is final.  I will never again see you in your chair, your face turned toward the doorway as I walk in to your home.  We will not share a good curry or bowl of ice cream together, I will not have the joy of hearing your voice on the phone asking me how I am doing. Your laughter will no longer be our benediction at family gatherings.

Worst of all – you will never again do the elephant dance on this earth.

I am so grateful that you did not suffer for too long, grateful that the end was swift. I am so grateful that you are free of pain, your body whole and strong, your voice and laugh echoing across the heavens. I am so thankful for so many things, too many to list. Your death is truly a severe mercy.

But still – it hurts.

“He was 91” I tell people. “His life was rich and full, lived across oceans and continents; he lived and loved well.”

But still – it hurts.

Your death is not a tragic death – except the way all death is – and you leave a beautiful legacy, a family so rich in love and grace, a family that is spread across the globe.

But still – it hurts. It hurts so much.

I will miss you so much. I will miss your tangible love, I will miss your audible voice, I will miss your concrete presence.

Oh I know I will see you. I know you’re in a better place. I know that “Heaven has yet another angel.” I know all those silly things we say to people to make ourselves feel better.

But what feels best right now is just to say that it hurts and I will miss you.

Oh how I will miss you.

I love you Dad. And for all of us still here? Please pray for us – I think you may have better access now.

With all the love I can give from your favorite daughter,

Marilyn


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A Fight to Live

On Sunday afternoons we observe post liturgical nap time. It is a sacred time where the apartment is absolutely still as we go to our respective spots and either nap, read, or rest in general. We have done this as long as we have been married and I don’t believe it will ever change.

This Sunday I curled up on our impossibly soft couch with an article in the New Yorker called “The Death Treatment”. What is normally a restful time was interrupted by a chilling read.

The article centers around the story of Godeleiva and Tom, a mother and a son in Belgium. In September of 2011 Godeleiva sent an email to her son and daughter telling them that she had filed an euthanasia request with a Doctor Wim Distelmans and was waiting the results. Her reason? Psychological distress. She had been in therapy since she was 19 years old and was now 63. She was done, finished – it was time to die.

Wim Distelmans, a Belgian oncologist, has become a sort of celebrity in Belgium. His accomplishments are not artistic, though some may call them so; instead he is seen as one who is promoting a “tremendous liberation” for promoting assisted suicide as a human right. He lectures across the country – at clinics, schools, and even at cultural centers.

When Tom received the email declaring his mother’s intent, he talked to his supervisor who basically told him there was no way Distelmans would approve the request without first talking to the family. But the next time Tom heard from his mother was the day after she was euthanized. He received a letter written in past tense saying she donated her body to science. The rest of the article dives deeply into the Belgian law and it’s intersection with Tom’s personal story and his struggle to come to terms with his mother’s decision.

The practical implications of the law in Belgium gave me an icy chill and at one point I thought I might have to stop reading the article.

In the past five years, the number of euthanasia and assisted-suicide deaths in the Netherlands has doubled, and in Belgium it has increased by more than a hundred and fifty per cent. Although most of the Belgian patients had cancer, people have also been euthanized because they had autism, anorexia, borderline personality disorder, chronic-fatigue syndrome, partial paralysis, blindness coupled with deafness, and manic depression. In 2013, Wim Distelmans euthanized a forty-four-year-old transgender man, Nathan Verhelst, because Verhelst was devastated by the failure of his sex-change surgeries; he said that he felt like a monster when he looked in the mirror. “Farewell, everybody,” Verhelst said from his hospital bed, seconds before receiving a lethal injection.

The laws seem to have created a new conception of suicide as a medical treatment, stripped of its tragic dimensions. Patrick Wyffels, a Belgian family doctor, told me that the process of performing euthanasia, which he does eight to ten times a year, is “very magical.” 

I know people with all those illnesses and disease states. I know them and I love them. They teach me much about what it is to live well in the midst of suffering.

For terminal illnesses, the Belgian law requires that two physicians consult on the case while the non-terminal cases require three. But, the article states, doctors are applying “increasingly loose interpretations of disease”.  Indeed, 13 percent of those euthanized in 2014 did not have a terminal illness.

“We at the commission are confronted more and more with patients who are tired of dealing with a sum of small ailments—they are what we call ‘tired of life.’ ”* 


Six hours from Boston, in the city of Rochester, New York, a man I love very much is nearing the end of his life. He is 91 years old and he is my father, my dad. He has a cough that stuns the onlooker and his body is weakening by the day. He can no longer do the things he loves, the things he has done his entire life – some simple, like driving, others more involved, like traveling across the country and the world.

Yet, despite his body betraying him, he continues to fight to live. “We live by degrees – we die by degrees.” As long as he has breath he will fight to live. He sees life as a gift, a gift from God. He does not see suffering as something to be avoided at all costs, but something that can, and is, redeemed. He does not see suffering as a mistake, an omission of God’s love, but a place where his love can shine through.

“Suffering is not the absence of goodness, it is not the absence of beauty, but perhaps it can be the place where true beauty can be known…That last kiss, that last warm touch, that last breath, matters — but it was never intended for us to decide when that last breath is breathed.”**

My dad is suffering, but he is still living. Because living matters. Because my dad’s story matters. Because my dad’s story is not complete on this earth until God says it’s complete, until he enters into the glorious grace and arms of his Father and hears the words “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”


As I finished the article, the light was fading into dusk. Autumn’s soft chill had me wrapped in a blanket and light from both outside and in bathed the room in a soft glow. My mind was alive with thoughts and feelings of life and of death. I often struggle with tears as I think about the universal suffering in the world and the personal suffering of individuals. But as I thought about the article I had just read and contrasted it to my father’s fight to live, I had a moment of crystal clarity: My dad’s fight to live is a beautiful grace.  

“I do not feel like I have the courage for this journey, but I have Jesus—and He will provide. He has given me so much to be grateful for, and that gratitude, that wondering over His love, will cover us all. And it will carry us—carry us in ways we cannot comprehend.” from Kara Tippetts

*From the article: Although their suffering derives from social concerns as well as from medical ones, Distelmans said that he still considers their pain to be incurable. 

A Brief Reflection on Airports and Life


I am bleary-eyed at the Orlando airport. There’s a reason why the infamous “they” tell you to get to the airport early – long security lines extended far into the lounge area. We sighed as we inched our way through, a bright green electronic sign informing us that the process would take 35 to 45 minutes. 

Earlier we dropped off a rental car. As I handed the gentleman the keys, he asked me if I was Parisienne. I smiled “no” pause “but is that a compliment?”  “Oh yes!” He replied. My children laugh at me as the glow of an early morning compliment radiates off my 57 year old non-Parisienne skin. 

And then we trudge our sleepy way to security. Unfortunately, the compliment did nothing for a bad hip, so my ego has been kept in check. 

A busy, international airport is an odd way to end a family funeral. You go from familiar to anonymous; from engaged in conversation to people-watching; from significant to one more passenger in an enormous travel machine.

Yet somehow it works. It’s a bridge between worlds, and I am not expected to communicate on this bridge. I simply cross it. 

Death and funerals are a pause in life’s paragraph. A pause before continuing into more sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. They are an important pause, sometimes changing the rest of the story. Many resolutions based on the brevity of life have happened at the death of a loved one. 

Many would voice sadness over this – the question of why it takes something as permanent as death to make us pause and reflect. I think it is a gift. We are usually far too busy with the ordinary to realize that perhaps change is in order. But then, in the middle of the ordinary, the everyday chores stop so that we can remember a life, and in remembering reflect on our own. 

So in this airport moment between worlds, I stop. I pause. I pray. 

I thank God for the gift of life, and the gift of death – the circle of a broken world on a journey to redemption. 

The moment passes, the flight is ready to board. We are on our way home. 

Dear Dorothy – A Letter to my Mother-in-Law

Tomorrow I will board a plane and travel to Florida for my mother-in-law’s funeral. Since we found out last week, I have been thinking about death – how final it is, how permanent it seems, and how unreal it is until you are actually back in a place where the person lived.

I read these words in an article on grief:

“Dying is not a technical glitch of the human operating system; it’s a feature. It’s the only prediction we can make at birth that we can bank on. Everyone will die, and it’s very likely somebody we love will die before we do.”*

They are true words in an otherwise mediocre article.

Memories have resurfaced – some that make me laugh out loud. My mother-in-law was a force of nature. It’s impossible to compress a life into a blog post, and I won’t try, but I want to share some memories of this force who was Dorothy. Thank you for reading.

*****

Dear Dorothy,

On a hot July Saturday in 1983, I received my first phone call from you. I had begun dating your son in February, but he headed off to the Middle East on a study trip in May. It would be a long summer for me; an exciting one for him.

So on that July day, your phone call was welcome. You introduced yourself to me as “Clifford’s mom” and I remember voicing surprise at your southern accent.

“Well, what did you expect” you retorted! “That I would talk like a Yankee.” And that was my introduction to your quick wit and comebacks, something you passed on in no small way to your sons.

In late summer, after Cliff returned from the Middle East, we took a trip to Florida to meet the family. We arrived on a gorgeous day and went straight to dinner at a restaurant.

I was nervous until you looked at me and said:

“The service has been terrible at this restaurant the last 12 times we’ve come.”

“Then why do you keep coming back?” I said. It was the perfect opener to help me relax.

Later that week, as I came into the kitchen ready to head out for a trip to Disney World, your eyes took in my outfit from head to toe, and you said “Well Cliff’s safe with you. No truck driver is ever going to pick you up in those pants!” Cliff looked at me and confirmed your opinion. No one had ever told me how bad I looked in them. Thank God I found out sooner rather than later.

Through the years, you amazed me with your artistic and creative ability. Whether it was China painting or sewing, you knew how to do it. My children wore sweatsuits with embossed designs, drank tea out of tiny china cups that you had exquisitely painted, even admired china cremation urns that you were making for a funeral home.

There are two memories that still come to mind after all these years. The first was a time when your youngest son, Greg, and your husband, Richard were sitting in the family room discussing the weight of football players. I could hear them from the kitchen.

“Did you see the weight on that guy? Wow! 240 pounds! How about that other player? He’s 300 pounds!” And on went the discussion by two men who didn’t have one extra pound on their bodies.

Suddenly I heard you come up behind me. You were laughing so hard you could barely speak. You finally stopped long enough to whisper in my ear “Did you hear them talking about weight? Thank God they don’t know what I weigh!”  I joined you in laughing. Both of us had a struggle with weight that wasn’t easily managed, and having two thin men discuss body weight just added insult to what was already difficult. But laughter was something you did well, even when it was at your own expense.

The second memory makes me smile hard. Again, I was in the kitchen and Cliff and the kids were resting somewhere in the house. It was early afternoon, and you had gone out to do some errands. I heard the living room door open, and then heard a “Psst.” You repeated it. I went to the opening between the kitchen and living room area, and there you were with two beautiful boxes.  You slowly opened them. In each box was the most delectable fruit tart that I have ever seen. The perfectly fluted crust was piled high with cream, then fruit, then more cream. They were magnificent.

As I surveyed them with shining eyes, I realized that there were only two of them.

“Shall I call Cliff?” I asked, thinking that you had bought one for him.

“NO!” you retorted! “This is for you and me! I didn’t even buy one for my son!”

We sat at the kitchen table, like two naughty little girls, savoring a stolen treat. We laughed and whispered, eating every single mouthful and then wiping the cream off of our upper lips. It was heaven.

Something about that moment has stayed with me all these years. Any mother and daughter-in-law combination has its challenges, and ours was no exception. There were times when I fought hard and you fought back. But the shared treat of that moment was a communion of understanding — understanding that sometimes moms need to forget the needs of the rest of the family and eat rich and creamy fruit pastries.  Perhaps also, understanding that sometimes the mother-in-law, daughter-in-law relationship needs those occasional moments away from the rest of the family to forge a bond.

Your life was not all easy, and there were times when I saw glimpses of that.  By the time you were in your early twenties, you had four active boys and were raising them all over the country followed by the world. You knew what it was to pack up and move multiple times, say a million goodbyes, and leave places you would never see again. Yet you made sure that those kids were able to see every sight possible during those four years in Europe. I imagine these last few years with increasing health problems, a husband who is struggling with his own health, and a scattered family were some of the hardest. But every day, you got up, and sometimes that’s all any of us can do.

And now you’re gone. It’s not real to me yet – it won’t be until I see Richard alone at the funeral. Your quick answers won’t be a part of this weekend’s gathering. You won’t be chiming in with opinions and laughter. But you will be there, because we will be celebrating you and your life. We will be celebrating the creativity, laughter, quick quips, tenacity, and personality that were uniquely yours.

I hope I will get to eat a creamy, fruit tart and as I do, lift my eyes to Heaven and thank you.  I love you and I look forward to the day when I see you again in another time and another place. Perhaps you are already saving a fruit tart for me.

*Time Magazine, 4.24.17

Broken


Over the weekend, the father-in-law of one of my colleague’s was badly injured in a bike accident. When I inquired as to how he was doing, he simply said “Broken”.  With multiple fractures and bruises, that is the most descriptive word possible. 

Broken. 

Early this morning we received word that my mother-in-law died. Her body was broken and could no longer sustain life. Tears well up as I think of my father-in-law kissing her one last time, saying “I love you,” those words that formed their union so long ago and her slipping away. It only takes a moment to go from life to death. 

Broken. 

In my faith tradition, this week is all about broken. Beatings, betrayal, denial, and a cross. You can’t get much more broken. A mother who has to watch her beloved son die, his body broken and on display; a beloved and trusted friend denying even knowing you; a crowd condemning and wanting blood. 

In truth, I don’t want broken. I don’t want death. I don’t want betrayal. I don’t want denial. I don’t want pain. I want to rush to Sunday and the resurrection.

But life doesn’t work that way. Our world is not as it should be. And though we see beautiful glimpses of redemption that startle and amaze us, we still face all that is part of this broken world. 

This week is not about platitudes, it is not about trying to rush to the Resurrection. It is about praying in the midst of all that is broken. It is about identifying with the suffering Christ. Only then does the Resurrection become real to us; only then can we grasp the significance and glory of a risen Saviour. 

So I sit as one broken – broken by sorrow of death and loss, by pain, by the weight of difficult relationships. And in the silence of the broken I know God is near. 

If you are weary of sorrow and pain, if you are face to face with tragedy and death, with the broken bones of a weary world, know that you are welcomed into the arms of God.*

*from A Broken World Meets an Advent Season

On Death and Living in the Moment

Today’s post is from my daughter-in-law Lauren. She is amazing and I love her words in this piece. You can read more about her work here. Thanks for reading!

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“Bikini Baby” Baby Lauren and her dad. 

New Years Eve, four years ago. 

It was 9 days before my dad died, but we didn’t know that then. Cancer doesn’t give you a timeline. It just kind of chooses to detonate in weird increments – it progresses quickly when it wants to and chills when it wants to. All we knew was that the doctors started sending over hospice nurses and we had reached a point where they no longer could help his body, but just give morphine to help while his body drowned.

New Year’s Eve was never a crazy important holiday to us, but it was still a holiday. And something about holidays sort of illuminates the cracks of your life, the good and the bad. I remember reading people’s Facebook statuses of “this year was blah blah blah”. Be it good or bad, I couldn’t read what people were saying without comparing it to my current misfortune. I was angry that good things could continue while he was suffering and I was mad when people talked about how they had a hard year because their car broke down. Get over it. And then I’d feel wildly aware of my selfishness. It was a horrible cycle.

We knew the upcoming year brought death. It brought dread and we knew it. We didn’t know when exactly or what it was going to look like, but we knew it was coming. So to survive, my heart changed its syncopation with time. I switched from the typical “new year” grandiose thoughts and dreams and wishes of the upcoming year to thoughts and dreams and wishes for the next minute. The next hour. Looming death bends time a little bit like that. It makes you despise and cherish purgatory.

My dad was watching TV and I was watching my mom watch him. We both saw the space between his spirit and his body getting bigger and bigger. I was receiving texts from friends and family asking “how are you doing, Lauren?”. Well, I’m watching the coolest dude on earth suffer slowly and I know I’m not very emotionally articulate right now but like, I’m really f&%ing mad. And helpless.

This cocktail of emotions would start small as a pit in my stomach and then it would slowly overwhelm my entire body until I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t be in the room for another second. I wasn’t okay with it.

So. I forced my husband (God bless him) to make up a “New Year’s Eve show” with me to perform for my dad. Just like I had done when I was young, except with more alcohol this time. We slaved over this performance (honestly, “performance” is giving us way too much credit, but we really tried). My mom would come out and ask what was happening and I’d tell her to go back because she was ruining the surprise and I’d catch her making “I’m so sorry” looks to my husband. When we went in for the “performance”, I was legit nervous. I wanted to make my dad laugh and I wanted to take the weight off of the night and off of his chest. We stumbled through it. It was bad and we started over so many times but my parents watched like they had always watched for my entire life. God bless them, too. That’s A LOT of questionable performances they had to endure. At the end, my dad turned to my mom and earnestly asked her “Did I miss something? Was that it?” The four of us erupted in laughter. What I wouldn’t give, to be back there in that small Arizona room, cackling with the three of them.

And then the ball dropped and my dad reached over and kissed my mom at midnight. I remember wondering if he didn’t move all day so that he could reserve enough energy so that when it came time, he could kiss his wife at midnight. I remember the sheer gratefulness that he made it to midnight. That my mom didn’t have to be alone for it.

I’m trying to focus on that feeling. I know a lot of people are scared for the upcoming year. There’s a lot of dread and fear surrounding general humanity, not to mention political changes happening. I get it and I feel it. And we can’t ignore it. That’s ignorant and irresponsible. 

But I also think we can incorporate other feelings that come with choosing to live in the moment and being open to the small gifts of the moment. And we have to love each other and have sympathy for all pain, however big or small the world tells us it is. Selfishly choosing insecurity of how to handle and acknowledge our neighbors’ pain, over empathy, is barbaric. 

Anyways, happy 2017 – I hope that we are able to find the silver linings in the dark and gratitude in the now.

Conversation and Laughter at a Funeral Home

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The New Comer Funeral Home is in a primarily residential area in Rochester, New York. It is a one story, unassuming building and the only indication that its business is death is the word “funeral.”

We arrived at the funeral home on a bleak and rainy Friday afternoon for an appointment at 1pm. No one had died. There was no funeral on the calendar and there were no frantic, tearful phone calls explaining to relatives far away what had happened. Instead, it was a preplanned appointment to talk about a funeral, to talk about death.

Years ago, a friend of mine made the observation that everyone feels free to talk about sex, but when you bring up the subject of death, for some reason, it isn’t proper. Our family has never been one to live up to the cultural standards of any society we have lived in. Most of us have always lived counter culture, so making an appointment to talk about death not only seemed reasonable, but also wise. My mom and dad are 88 and 90 years old, respectively. For their ages, they are healthy and happy. This is largely due to my mom’s bran muffins, and the care she gives to eating healthy. I also believe it’s due to their general attitude toward life and their belief that life is not really life at all if God is absent. An autopsy would never show that as a factor, but I believe it none the less.

But Mom and Dad will die someday. And the someday will come sooner rather than later. As they have talked and planned with each other, they brought their children into the conversation. This appointment was strategically made to include my brother Tom, who they live with, as well as me while I was visiting them.

As we walked through the door, my dad said “Should we set a date?” “Then we could send out ‘save the date’ cards!” I enthusiastically replied. This casual response to a fate that awaits all of us set the tone for the entire visit.

The conversation ranged from the price of coffins to what the funeral home could provide for the family to how to pay for the funeral. We found out that a one paragraph obituary would cost 300 dollars. We all saw the absurdity of that. “I’m a blogger” I said. “I’ll let people know.” We talked about style of coffins. “Do you have a cheap, steel coffin that looks like wood?” asked my father. The answer was yes – but the cheap price didn’t seem quite so cheap to us.

The man we spoke to was down to earth and frank. “No matter what kind of coffin you get, Mother Nature always wins.” A coffin will not prevent decay – earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust – our bodies are our earth clothes, not our eternal garments.

He said they take all kinds of payment – at which I grabbed my brother Tom’s arm and said “Which of the brothers shall we give?” We joked, told stories, and talked seriously. My parents talked about some of the deaths and funerals that they had been a part of in Pakistan, and I told the story about how the first flowers I ever received from my husband were from a colleague whose aunt had died. Turns out, the aunt had been my patient at a hospital 45 minutes away. The difficult conversation was made easier because we made it so.

A movement has begun in the western world called “Let’s have dinner and talk about death.” It is based on a book of the same name. The movement began because this is one of the most important conversations that people in the West never have. We spend so much time and energy on trying to look younger and live longer that we forget the importance of addressing the inevitable. The idea is to engage families in the conversation and provide them with the tools to have a good conversation about end of life care.

I believe that talking about death while we are still alive and well is an unselfish and important conversation. As it says on the web site for “Let’s have dinner and talk about death,” difficult conversations can sometimes be the most liberating.

We left the funeral home in peace with no small amount of laughter. My parents have lived well – and now they plan to die well.

The day will come when we will grieve and cry deep tears over the ones that we love; when the conversation at the funeral home will no longer be theory, but reality. Talking about these things before they happen helps us to know that we can face that day with the certain truth of these words:

“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust:
in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died, was buried, and rose again for us. To him be glory for ever. Amen”