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.

Morning Sky Over Central

It is windy today as I walk toward the subway. Leaves of varying shades of brown, yellow, and faded orange dance in the street, nature defying the human view of a Monday morning.

I turn the corner on Massachusetts Avenue, and the morning sky over Central Station in Cambridge meets me with beauty and hope.

My heart has hurt for many people in these past few weeks. It has hurt for the finality of death and the pain of poor decisions; the sadness of relationships that are struggling and the deep loss of heartbreak. It has hurt for the poor and the homeless; it has hurt for the refugee and the displaced. While I am not paralyzed with the pain, I am feeling it acutely. Like living with a chronic illness, it is always there. But every day, a new morning emerges. Every day the sun rises, whether I can see it or not. Every day there are points of laughter and joy.

So it is today – the morning sky at Central resisting despair, painting the sadness of the world with its splash of color; redemption at its finest.

The Psalmist tells me that joy comes in the morning. “Weeping may last through the night,” he says “but joy comes with the morning.”* Words written many centuries ago, but they don’t grow old. Instead, they rise with the morning sky over Central.


*Psalm 30:5b

“Just Your Presence”

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A beautiful article in the Boston Globe today tells the story of a woman who is dying. She invited her friends over for a luncheon, a chance to celebrate while she still had life. One of the friends verbalized her feelings of awkwardness and helplessness in the face of her friend’s suffering. As she did so, the woman who was dying looked up at her and said this:

“There’s only one thing we really want,” she said gently. “We just want for you to be here with us. Just your presence.”*

Through the years, I have thought a lot about a theology of suffering, and the ‘fellowship’ of suffering.

Most of us struggle awkwardly in the face of pain and suffering. We don’t know what to do. We are afraid to say the wrong thing. We feel embarassed, don’t want to make the situation worse. And so we avoid suffering; and when we avoid suffering, we avoid those who suffer. Because there are many things that cause suffering, we sometimes end up avoiding the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the displaced.

We subconsciously reason that we can’t do anything anyway. We can’t change the situation, and we don’t want people to feel worse, so we avoid them all together. C.S. Lewis in his classic and beautiful book A Grief Observed talks about becoming an embarassment to his friends.

“An odd by-product of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don’t.”

A few years ago, as I was thinking about suffering and a theology of suffering, I wrote the following:

it’s too much for you to bear, but I will sit with you, I won’t leave you alone.

There is something about suffering that longs for someone to sit with us, to sit with us through the pain. It’s the fellowship of suffering. It’s the words ‘you are not alone’ put into action. The sitting bears witness to our pain. More than a card or a casserole the familiar, patient presence of another says to us “it’s too much for you to bear, but I will sit with you, I won’t leave you alone.”

So often we want to move people through the process of pain, suffering, and healing at our own pace, on our own terms. We want to impose our own schedule on the process of pain in another. We want to make pain and suffering controllable, manageable. Why is that?

Perhaps we feel helpless in the presence of the pain of others. We are not in control. We would do anything we can to make it all okay. But we can’t. We can’t make the pain okay. We can’t explain away suffering, and when we try, we tend to make up reasons for suffering. We end up forcing bad theology on people. A theology of suffering that has to have answers, instead of a fellowship of suffering that simply needs the presence of another. We speak too soon and our words are the salt in an already terrible wound.

Like the doctor or midwife that walks a woman through labor, not hurrying it along, aware that the body has to move through each stage to have a successful outcome, so it is with suffering.

The fullness of our presence can offer hope and comfort, and so we must not leave people alone. This is the fellowship of suffering. 

“If your friend is sick and dying, the most important thing he wants is not an explanation; he wants you to sit with him. He is terrified of being alone more than anything else. So God has not left us alone. And for that, I love him”**


If you are interested in reading a post that speaks to what not to say to people who are suffering, take a look at Stupid Phrases for People in Crisis. 

*Cancer Brings it Home

**from interview of Lee Strobel with Peter Kreeft, Boston College

An Album for the Unexplainable

On the afternoon of July 6th I was sitting on the 47 Bus coming home from work when I got a phone call from my daughter, Stef. She was crying so hard that I couldn’t understand her. When I finally realized what she was saying, I too began to cry.  Her best friend Brit had lost her husband to a tragic accident. At that point the details were sketchy “Joshua died. Brit’s Joshua died. It was a car accident.” Brit is a soul-friend from Stef’s gap year in Italy. Stef had been in her wedding, she had received pictures of Brit and Joshua’s newborn baby practically as soon as she was born, and now she was hearing over the incomplete communication system of a cell phone that the love of Brit’s life had died.

Until that phone call it had been a picture perfect summer day with seemingly few cares. 

I first met Brit in 2011. We had just returned from Christmas in Egypt when she arrived on our doorstep via an international flight from Calgary. Not only was she one of Stef’s best friends, she also fit in with our family in every way – her sense of humor, her love of deep talks, and her love for the Middle East.

I saw her again a week ago. It was another international flight that had brought her – this time from Toronto.

A lot has happened to Brit during the four years since I’ve seen her. A marriage, a birth, and a death.

I think about Joshua’s death and I can’t categorize it with the regular things of life. It goes into the album that I call the Album of the Unexplainable. I’ve put several things into that album through the years. The death of Dr. Peter Hover, a beloved doctor and father of four who died in Pakistan. The death of my friend’s husband, who died in her arms while on their honeymoon in France. The death of Amy Jo – who woke to see her newborn baby, and then died never to see her again. The older I get, the fuller the album becomes. And now the death of Joshua – young, talented, new father, beloved husband and son, a man who was studying to become an Anglican priest.

If I think too hard about it, I know I will go crazy. Because it is unexplainable. It makes no sense that Joshua should die. And don’t tell me that only the good die young, or that Heaven has another angel, or that everything happens for a reason, because frankly – when it comes to the album of the unexplainable, those sayings are nonsense.

If we are honest with ourselves, I think all of us have an album of the unexplainable. Because there are things in life too difficult to understand, there are things in life that must remain a mystery. We see but a cloudy vision of what is to come, and we are given fractions of understanding, but never the whole. 

I watch Brit and I’m amazed. She is so beautiful and she grieves with such grace. “How do you grieve with such grace?” I want to shout. But the answer to that also lies in the album of the unexplainable. I watch her carry her daughter Eve on her hip, laughing, talking, caring for a baby that needs her for every single thing. We laugh together watching 50 First Dates, quoting the more zany lines the next morning. We drink tea and go to a cafe; we talk and for a moment it seems life is normal – but it’s not.

Connected to the album of the unexplainable are the people left behind. Some of them have left the faith, others continue to believe in a God of love and compassion. Brit walks in faith of the day when she will see her Saviour and her beloved Josh.

She carries on, with a missing limb. She grieves every day, but she goes on living.

On Joshua’s Facebook wall I see this:

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, pioneer of the conscious dying movement, lived to regret having described the common features of the grief journey as stages. She came to see that everyone grieves differently and that science collapses in the face of the mysteries of the heart. There is no map for the landscape of loss, no established itinerary, no cosmic checklist, where each item ticked off gets you closer to success. You cannot succeed in mourning your loved ones. You cannot fail. Nor is grief a malady, like the flu. You will not get over it. You will only come to integrate your loss, like the girl who learned to surf again after her arm was bitten off by a shark. The death of a beloved is an amputation. You find a new center of gravity, but the limb does not grow back.

When someone you love very much dies, the sky falls. And so you walk around under a fallen sky.*

I read these words and I think about Brit, an amputee walking around under a fallen sky. She is walking under a fallen sky, but she does so with grace. She is walking under a fallen sky, but her head is held high. She continues to love greatly and give constantly.

And I realize that even as she walks through these valleys and shadows, she emerges every day as one who walks in the light. Brit and baby Eve help me make sense of the unexplainable. Even through death, they radiate life.

As I’m thinking all of these thoughts, I pen these words, desperate to remember:

Today may we be reminded once again that we know the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We worship a God of miracle babies and ladders to Heaven; a God who wrestles and marks for life; a God of laughter and mercy. A God who will turn despair and confusion into hope and clarity. A God where one day at his feet we will bow in awe and the unexplainable will be no more..  

Thank you Brit – for grieving with grace and for navigating the unexplainable. You will never know the witness you and Baby Eve are to the God you love.

Excerpt from CARAVAN OF NO DESPAIR
forthcoming from Sounds True (November 1, 2015)

It Just Doesn’t Go Away

IMG_5986It just doesn’t go away – written anonymously

This week at Communicating Across Boundaries we received this letter. We’re putting it out there and inviting you our readers to help us know how to respond.

I’m appealing to my community out there who grew up with Where There Is No Doctor or The Village Medical Manual. I need your help. It seems that I have developed this thing. It’s a malaise of sorts and it lives deep inside me, down at the bottom of my soul, in the lurking murky waters. I don’t know how to really even describe it. It’s thick and tangible. It washes over me and erodes joy and contentment at times when I least expect it.  

I’m afraid I may have a chronic case of ennui. Most of the time the symptoms lie dormant but occasionally—when my routines are disturbed, when life is a little off kilter, when friends are traveling, —they flare up, these “feeling(s) of weariness and dissatisfaction: boredom.”

What advice can you give me? What prescription would you write? Are there home remedies you would suggest?

I’ve tried ignoring it. I look away. I pretend I didn’t see it. The shadows out of the corner of my eye are just shadows, I reason. In the ignoring it does seem to shrink, I think, a little. And just when I get excited that maybe it’s vanishing, maybe it’s gone, it bubbles up again inside of me. Very. Much. There.

I’ve tried exterminating it. I’ve tried talk therapy. I’ve imagined exorcisms and interventions. I’ve tried waking up and pretending I’m normal. I’ve wished it away, washed it away, worked it away. But alas, to no avail. It always seems to comes back.

I’m afraid it’s chronic.

What do you think is wrong with me?

Is it an addiction to adrenaline? Am I just longing for adventure and excitement? Am I looking for something to look forward to?

It is residual grief and sorrow that comes from a life of perpetual transition. Too many goodbyes. Too many separations. Is it merely thick sadness?

Is it restlessness? Is there in me another type of biological clock ticking and tocking telling me it’s time travel again? to move far away? Am I somehow unquieted, unsettled? Am I really just bored?

To be honest I think it’s all those things. I’ve lived, by God’s complete grace and kindness, most of my life in a bigger playground. I grew up in Asia, graduated from college in North America, met my husband in the United States, we spent the first years of our married life back in Asia. It’s been a grand life. We’ve seen a lot of places, had coffee in a lot of cafes, traveled on a lot of airplanes. It’s hard to settle down. And although we’ve lived in the United States for almost a decade, it’s still hard to shake this thing that lingers inside me–this grief-adrenaline withdrawal-unsettled-restlessness at work in my soul.

I’m appealing to you whatever your medical training may be: doctor, nurse practitioner, midwife, chiropractor, auyrovedist, naturopath, homeopath, quackyopath. What remedy do you have for me? My symptoms seem intense these days. I need your advice!

Can you relate? What would you suggest? How have you pushed past this in your own story? Marilyn and I would love to hear from you.

High School Graduation – A Question of Punctuation

High School Graduation—A Question of Punctuation by Robynn

I think the difference between the ending of my high school career and the ending of Connor’s is rather like the difference between a period and a comma. A period, in the realm of punctuation, indicates, “the full pause with which the utterance of a sentence closes; end, stop.” Most of the world calls this grammatical point a full stop. In many ways my life ended on my graduation day. It was over. I came to a full stop. Yes, there were new sentences yet to be entered, but on that day, life as I knew it had come to a close.

A comma, however, is a punctuation mark that separates words or groups of words in a sentence. Connor’s graduation will serve as a separation, a pause, between spaces. His primary education chapter is over. His university chapter now begins. His momentum will not slow. He’s turning a corner, he’s picking up speed. There is so much joy all over this story! It’s fun to stand back and watch. Prom and after prom parties. Senior Skip Day. Graduation. After grad parties. Receptions. Cake. Balloons. It’s a celebration drenched season. There’s a lot of happiness around these parts.

I find myself in a stir-fry of emotions and comma confusion. I’m thrilled for Connor. There’s so much joy! But I’m also battling waves of grief and memory as my own experience is called to mind. I know the comma is the appropriate punctuation but I’m tempted to use a period instead.

My graduation from high school was a world away. I graduated from a small international boarding school in the Himalayan foothills of Northern Pakistan: Murree Christian School. The graduation ceremony was held on a Friday evening in the “Big School” –an old British church built in 1857, later converted to a high school. Chairs were set up. The stage was cleared and arranged. The pianos were tuned. Although there were only five in our class the entire community came to our graduation. They filled the auditorium. By the time the quartet of pianists started to play Pomp and Circumstance, there was standing room only.

Once we had formally and slowly marched on to the stage the program began. There were speeches from the principal, Phil Billing, the Chairman of the board, Mr Burrows and Philip Lohr, a genuinely brilliant man, our valedictorian. Out of a class of five I was the salutatorian with an (un)impressive grade point average of 3.21. I gave the salutatorian speech that evening. I seem to remember that our class sang, Michael W. Smith’s Friends are Friends Forever. Then there was that moment where all five of us moved our tassels from one side of our mortar boards to the other and the ceremony was over. Really the transition had just begun, within hours we’d be moved from one side of the globe to the other.

A reception was held in the dining room where mothers from the junior (grade 11) class had prepared cakes and cookies and punch. The room was decorated with crêpe paper streamers and balloons. Before our class would reach the reception though we stood around the periphery of the staff lounge and the entire community walked past to say goodbye. Our “aunties” and “uncles” –missionaries our parents had served alongside filed past. Younger students, teachers, dorm parents, cooks and administrators that had watched us grow up all came to say goodbye. Many of them had taught us Sunday School, or proctored our exams, or helped keep the statistics on Sports Day. Younger students had looked up to us. We had been their “big sisters” and “big brothers.” The community had known us and our families for years and years. And now they came to wish us well, to commend us to the great grace of God, to remind us that we were loved and that we belonged to them.

Each hug was an ending. Each squeeze meant impending loss.  These were people we would never see again. And we knew it deep inside. We were saying goodbye, not just to high school, not just to childhood, but to everything. We were saying goodbye to community, to culture, to our sense of connection. We were bidding adieu to our place and our people. Our lives as we knew them were ending. We were essentially attending our own funerals, or so it seemed, and the grief was intense.

But for Connor it’s entirely different but I’m not completely sure in what ways. His class is the size of our entire missionary community in Murree. There will be a service. The class of 2015 will be surrounded by community: parents, grandparents, younger classmates, teachers, administrators. Here each individual student has a reception on their own—in their backyards or at the park, at their churches or their community centers. Mothers make the punch and the goodies. Family and friends will gather to wish the graduate well, to celebrate his or her accomplishments.

As a foreigner-mom looking ahead to this significant milestone I’m not sure what to expect and I feel nervous. I have friends that have coached me. I know it will be fine. Connor will walk across the stage. He’ll shake hands with the appropriate person and receive his diploma. I’m not worried about him. I’m a little worried about me. I feel this well of grief, still not dry after all these years, being mysteriously tapped again. I find myself grieving again the loss of myself—although those ‘deaths’ happened years and years ago. I don’t want my own experience to overshadow Connor’s. I don’t want this to be about me. I want to enter Connor’s experience with joy and gladness. We are so proud of who Connor has become. He’s an incredible young man with great passion, great commitment to justice, with discernment and gentleness. He has a great sense of humour. He’s quick witted and candid. I want this to be about him!

I will watch and I will learn a lot…these are new things for me and I’m still crossing cultures most days. I intend to enter Connor’s world and fully experience the giddy exhilaration. I’ll keep my story separate for now. Later when it’s over, and the cap and gown are scattered on his floor, and he’s driven off with his good friend for their road trip adventure (that they’ve been planning all year!) –then I’ll cry. I’ll cry for me the high school graduate and all that grief I still mysteriously feel. I’ll cry for me the mother who’s done mothering this one. I’ll cry for those old losses and I’ll cry for these new losses too. I’ll cry because I wish his experiences were more like my own but I’ll also cry because I’m glad they aren’t.

We Said Goodbye

It’s my daughter’s birthday today. Way before 9/11 happened it was Annie’s Birthday. For years we had a dilemma – we wanted to celebrate Annie even as it was fitting to commemorate the losses on that day. But we wanted to celebrate her and rightly so. Why does evil get to win? Why can evil co-opt a day forever? Annie isn’t the only one who has a birthday that day – others do as well and babies will be born in the future. Because that is life in its complexity and paradox. 

Today we celebrate her a thousand miles away as we said goodbye to her a few weeks ago. So today I write, not about her birthday, but about saying goodbye.

*************

She came in September and we said goodbye in late August, when the long summer nights begin to grow cooler and daylight no longer stretches for hours.

Two years ago we said hello at the international terminal at Logan International Airport, the arrival area thick with people all straining to see those they loved. She had her two signature, hard-back suitcases and her cat, a black, white, and orange kitty who she lovingly rescued from the garbage in Cairo.

She left a world of activists, artists, journalists, and humanitarian workers where long nights were spent discussing things as important as Egyptian politics, the latest news, and who would be meeting at Stella bar for drinks the next day. She left a community that loved her, and one she loved back and entered into life in the chilly North East where it can take years to connect with people and winters can stretch on as vast and cold as the Egyptian sky is blue and hot.

And then we said goodbye. She’s moving on to another city and a new stage in her life. As I typed this piece, boxes were everywhere, some completely packed, others waiting for those last items.

We are doing the dance of parenthood: that dance that moves back and forth like slow jazz, one moment being too bossy, the next moment keeping our noses out of her stuff.

We said goodbye in the early morning cool, beside a van packed tight with all her earthly goods, save the American Girl Dolls.

We said goodbye with lumps in our throats, brushing away tears as though they were annoying bugs, instead of the healing fluid of the heart.

We said goodbye to having her in our daily life, an unexpected gift, and all the things that are her — both amazing and annoying. The books, the dishes, the cat, the cat fur, the clothes, the smiles, the extreme laughter, the talk, the butt jokes, the tears.

We said goodbye to two years of God-given time that we never expected.

And with the goodbye, we raised our glasses to this first-born daughter – resilient, beautiful, talented, funny, irritating, brave, engaging, and lover of all things champagne on a beer-budget.

And we went back in the apartment and shouted loudly “We’re empty nesters! We’re empty nesters”, the parental dance changing in an instant.

My oldest brother says that now that I’ve written a book I am allowed to quote myself so here goes. “All the world feels caught in these goodbyes, goodbyes that bruise and hurt but remind us that our hearts are still soft and alive. For a dead heart doesn’t hurt with a goodbye, only a heart alive to others feels the pain of that goodbye, the difficulty of leaving….” From the Goodbye section of Between Worlds page 202

Goodbye Annie Rebekah Gardner – God be with you.