You know how everyone asks, “Are you OK?” and we all say, “Yeah, I’m OK.”?
Well, I’m not OK.
And I’m OK that I’m not OK.
My husband died 1 year, 2 months and 19 days ago. He was my partner, my lover, the father of my children and my very best friend. So, no… I’m not OK.
I hope you’re OK that I’m not OK.
Several months back, a couple people at church suggested we read the book, “It’s OK you’re not OK,” by Megan Devine. The subtitle is “meeting grief and loss in a culture that doesn’t understand.” Great idea! Let’s read it and talk about. We threw the idea out to the larger community and more than a handful of us gathered with book in hand and grief in our hearts.
The discussion was rich. We slowed down the pace and allowed for lots of silence. We faced our grief and looked at each other in the eyes. We cried. We stumbled as we tried to find the right words. There was even laughter. There was understanding. We were not OK. And in that room we were all OK that we were not OK.
The author of the book, Megan Devine, who lost her husband suddenly, says, “grief is visceral, not reasonable; the howling at the center of grief is raw and real.” As I write these words, my grief is raw and real. And she’s right – the center of grief sounds like a howl.
Two days ago, my grief didn’t sound like a howl. It sounded buoyant and hopeful, while still being melancholy and mindful.
Two days ago a dear friend was “married again.” I’ve chosen my words here carefully. For some reason I prefer it to “re-married.” Her first marriage ended when her husband died from cancer. This friend has been one of my most trusted confidants this past year. She and I have discussed at length the consequences of death. Devine says, “Death doesn’t end a relationship; it changes it.” The consequences of a marriage that ends in death is that the marriage itself doesn’t ever end. The love never ends. It changes. We live with that love for the whole of our lives. Even when married again.
When she told me she was engaged, I wept on the phone as I muttered, “this is a miracle. You know that, right?!” She did know. Her heart has healed in such a way that it is both strong enough and elastic enough to love. Strong and elastic. How did such a miracle happen?
And now two days after her wedding, my howling has come back and I wonder how did her howling stop? When did it stop? Or maybe didn’t. Maybe the howling at the center remains but we move away from center over time. If that’s true, how far away from center do we have to be in order to not hear the howling? And our ability to hear the howling, does that have anything to do when you’re ready to marry again?
Right when I think I’m doing OK, I come up to questions like this and I feel so very close to the howling that I think I’ve barely begun to recover from Pete’s death. But Devine is right that we live in a culture that simply doesn’t understand grief. Although we don’t say it, we really think there is a time stamp on the grief process. We are uncomfortable that visceral emotions continue well into the second (and I’m told third, fourth, fifth year…)
I’m deeply grateful for the faithful friends I have who are OK that I’m not OK. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit that the day after I’ve cried or shared my howling grief, I wonder if my friends secretly wonder if it’s OK that I’m not OK. I wonder if I’ve made my world uncomfortable by grieving. I wonder if folks wish I would be OK because that would make our relationships easier. But I’m not OK and I just can’t will it into being. I can’t fake this, not this time, not with something this important. I can’t rush the healing of my heart. I won’t do it. And so I’m not OK.
Devine asks, “who knows what kind of world we might create when we turn to fully face all the ways our hearts get broken? What things might change? What kind of world might we create? When the full expression of what it means to love – which includes losing that which we love – is given room to unfold?”
For those in my life right now who have watched my face contort with tears, for those who have encouraged me to share my emotions, for those who have dared to listen for the howling at the center of my grief, and for those who are OK that I’m not OK, I am deeply grateful.
It’s been months since I’ve blogged. I’m writing but I don’t have anything clear to share. I could talk about the fear and excitement of walking into whatever is next, which is to say walking into this moment and the next and maybe even the moments that will be called tomorrow.
I could share how grateful I am for the life I have built with Pete. A dear friend reminded me that I am a builder. A builder of community, of networks, of programs, or businesses, and most important to me, my family. I’m really proud of what I’ve built, personally and professionally. It’s actually a really hard act to follow.
This moving on part of grief is less emotional and more exertion. I’m exerting energy in ways I have not before – like using new muscles. Like the muscle that is attracted to people other than my husband. Or the muscle to throw a party on my own, or invite people to dinner when it’s just me. I’m exerting energy to protect my time for my own sake and not for the sake of marriage or family. I have to figure out how to eat just for me, to cook just for me, to shop just for me. It’s a mew kind of workout being me… because I’ve been “we” for a very long time.
And don’t get me wrong, some of this exercise, a lot of this exercise is enjoyable, meaning I am finding joy in a lot of my days. And I’m even grateful that I cry a couple times each day too. I’m grateful that my body wants to feel all of it still. I’m grateful that I’m strong enough to feel all of it still. But all of the “feels” are exhausting.
I’ve never been one that lingers in bed in the morning. I wake like clockwork around 6am. And in the past, I got up, poured the caffeine and moved into my day. I read and journaled in the mornings. I used to do a lot of my thinking in the morning. But these past months my body is too tired. I still open my eyes around 6am but I often roll over and open them again at 7:30. And here’s my big secret – I waste time in the mornings! And by waste time, I lose 45 minutes looking at facebook marketplace. Or I fiddle between three websites that sort of have to do with things I’m thinking about – like finding a rug for my bathroom or figuring out why skin on my arm all of a sudden looks like crepe paper or why my computer has no more memory for the update.
And before I know it, it’s 9:20am and I haven’t journaled and it’s time to go to the gym. So, I write for half a second, get to the gym where I watch an episode of Grey’s Anatomy while on the elliptical. I lift; I stretch.
And then I go about my day which is always accompanied with the work of grief, which is to say the work of living after loss. This is what I mean by grief accompanying me. When I sit alone in stillness for three minutes, in my car, at my desk, walking to the coffee machine, I am acutely aware of the absence of my former life. It’s not just the absence of Pete (although that’s definitely there too). My life does not feel the same. I do not feel the same. It’s a haunting feeling I guess.
All of life is new. Same surroundings. Different Beth.
I cry a couple times each day when the haunting feeling shows up. Then I go through a series of helpful and unhelpful thoughts like – I don’t know what I am doing. How did this happen? I miss him. I’m grateful for him. Pete, did you see that? Yesterday was a good day. Damn, this is hard. I’m so tired of crying. I’m so tired, period. I don’t think I want to do this. Can I call out sick? I don’t want to call out sick, then what will I do? What would be helpful right now? I want a cup of coffee. I want to have a cup of coffee with Pete. You know what, screw that, I want someone to want to have a cup of coffee with me. I’m fun to be with. And I’m cute.
The particular combination of those thoughts take about three minutes and then I shake my head – yes, I literally shake whatever that was off. I exert the energy to move into the next moment.
As best as I can tell at present, the “work of grief” is to engage the feelings and questions as they come. The hard work of grief then is to not push them away or bury them. Feel it all - love and loneliness, sadness and serenity, fear and hope. Entertain all the questions - of where I am and where I have come from? Who am I and who will I become? How did this happen and how will I move on?
I remember the scripture used as a toast at mine and Pete’s wedding, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has planned for those who love God.” (1 Corinthians 2:9) History tells me this verse is true. I would never have conceived what God had planned for me up to this point and so it’s wholly possible I have yet to conceive what God has planned for me in my future.
Sometimes I get caught comparing myself to others – others who have lost a spouse and others who are my age or others who are in similar careers or anybody really. I worry about whether I’m doing things “right.” And of course everyone would tell me there is no “right” way to grieve. Everyone grieves differently. (That’s true by the way.)
The only “wrong” way to grieve would be to avoid the work. Grief work is not easy however and so sometimes putting off the work or taking a break is a form of self care. But ultimately grief has a job to do and it is itching to get to it. Grieving is not an emotion; it is a process. Grieving is a form of excavation.
One of Mateo’s first words was excavator. It sounded more like “ekavater.” He loves all kinds of trucks but we’ve got to admit that the excavator is a cool truck. The excavator has so many moving parts – the boom, the dipper, the bucket, the cab. It reaches. It extends. It’s sharp. And it’s small enough to work around a site. It’s an efficient truck.
I was reading one of his favorite truck books just yesterday that said, “Before we start building, we need to get the ground ready for building. And sometimes we need to take down trees or old buildings. Sometimes we need to make the ground level by adding dirt. The trucks do most of the work at this stage. Backhoes, breakers, bulldozers, and dump trucks work together to excavate the land.”
Yep, that’s the work of grief. Grief will take down trees and buildings. Grief will tear up old foundations. Grief will add new dirt. Ultimately grief will prepare us for new construction.
If I let it, grief will excavate a space within me that is vast, even cavernous. And if need be, grief will whittle a hole just big enough to climb out of myself. Grief will and has discovered new corners, new closets, new nooks within me that would have remained undiscovered if not for courageous excavation in response to loss.
And here is my most recent learning about this excavation process. I have the power to pause it. If I cling to the love I had with Pete, I pause the process of excavation. If I settle into the sadness of missing him, that too will pause the process of excavation. And there is nothing wrong with loving Pete still or missing him. But the clinging to it is what pauses the excavation.
The irony is not lost on me that I am leading a congregation right now who is about to tear down their church sanctuary in order to build another on the same site. The footprint of the new sanctuary is not quite the same so I believe there will be backhoes and breakers, bulldozers and dump trucks who will work together to excavate the land, making it level for the new construction. I’ve promised my congregation a “tearing down the sanctuary” party with chili and beer and a fire pit for s’mores or hot dogs. Most will experience a sort of holy sadness. There will be a recognition that what once was there was beautiful and sacred and meaningful to so many people over several decades. However, along with holy sadness will be holy hope. There will be a recognition that the ground beneath is strong. And we are courageous.
If we let it, grief will excavate a space of which no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived.
I attended a Disability and Youth Ministry conference last week. My colleague, Erin Raffety was one of the keynote speakers and my sister, Kristin was on the practitioner panel. I hadn’t put a lot of thought into my attendance personally. I was there primarily to support Erin and Kristin and to learn about the things they treasured. But I was in for a surprise…
In the opening worship service, four people shared testimonies about how the church has influenced, aided and sometimes hurt them as it relates to their varying abilities.
JJ wheeled up to the podium. Before he spoke a word, I began to cry. I tried my very best to hold my tears to a minimum, squeezing them between my heart and my jaw. My face was tense as I fought to maintain control of myself. What was happening? Apparently, I had forgotten that I lived with and loved someone who rolled through life with a wheelchair.
It’s not that I had cognitively forgotten that Pete used a wheelchair for his mobility, it’s that since his death I haven’t been thinking of his disability. When I think of Pete, or when I grieve Pete’s death, I mostly focus on the loss of my closest, dearest friend. I miss his partnership. I miss his touch. I miss having him to come home to at the end of the day. I miss his jokes – well, most of them.
But I don’t miss his wheelchair – or the symptoms that came with Secondary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis. I don’t miss his fatigue. I don’t miss him not being able to transfer from his wheelchair to another chair so that we could sit side by side. I don’t miss him not being able to dance with me.
Truthfully, since his death, those things don’t describe Pete anymore. For the first several months after his death, I have had “encounters” with him. I have felt his presence walk into a room. In these encounters, he stands just over 6 foot tall. He has held me, danced with me and walked beside me.
So back to JJ. He shared this experience of his journey through life with a wheelchair.
He grew up in a church that did not have an elevator and people used to carry him up the steps so that he could get to the sanctuary. This all seemed just par for the course for him. It’s how they did things. He didn’t go into how uncomfortable it was – although I imagine it was. He didn’t talk about feeling left out – although if no one was around to help him up the steps, he was literally left out. Instead, he said told a story that over time, the congregation began to age. And the pastor called for a capital campaign to raise money to build an elevator. And here was the reason: our members are too old to carry the caskets of our members up the steps to the sanctuary.
The church felt it more important to have an elevator for dead people than they did for JJ.
A damn broke in my mind and I was flooded with memories of Pete’s limited mobility. I remembered trying to figure out where we could go to dinner based on whether they had stairs. I saw us sitting at home, watching endless hours of television because he was too fatigued to go out. And I remembered hours of worry as I monitored his symptoms and questioned what was happening to him.
I had forgotten that living with disability is something that still very much lives inside of me. The needs and concerns of those who are differently abled matter a great deal to me. Their stories remind me of worry, anger, shame, guilt, sadness. And they also provoke in me resilience and contentment, joy and relationship.
Being married to someone with a progressive, debilitating disease forever changed me. I learned compassion and mercy in ways I would never have. I learned to advocate for people who are different than me. I learned to let go of thinking we are in control. I learned to be more welcoming, not just of others but even of myself. Mostly I learned to be aware.
Aware that life is fragile and therefore precious. I miss how living with someone who wheels through life made me aware of others differently abled people. Awareness is a treasure all by itself.
I thought I was going to the conference to learn about the things Erin and Kristin treasured. Instead I was reminded of what I treasure.
I’ve been in my new place almost four weeks. The dust has settled a little bit and I’m reminded again that Pete has died. Although there is a loneliness to that fact, I am not swallowed with grief at all right now. In fact, I believe Grief and I are working together to create a rhythm to my days. While I am enjoying the freedom of living alone, while I am figuring out who I am as a single person, and my next season of life will be, Grief is working its way within me. Grief is sometimes a very silent, yet busy companion.
This past Fall, I read Frederick Buechner’s Crazy, Holy Grace: The Healing Power of Pain and Memory. In it he was reflecting on what was going on within him after his brother’s death. I have returned to one paragraph from that section several times -
“I also want to get it right about whatever it is going on inside me now. There is a level of feeling where, after moments when the clouds seem to be lifting a little, it is suddenly all I can do to see the hand in front of my face. And there is a level of thinking, thinking back especially over our last few conversations, including the one within only three or four hours of his death when we said good-bey for good. But deeper down still there is a level that I know nothing about at all except that whatever I am doing there, it is absolutely exhausting. It is as if great quantities of furniture have to be moved from one place to another. There seem to be endless cartons of God only knows what to sort through somehow. The earth itself has to be bulldozed and shifted around and reshaped. A whole new landscape has to come into being.”
Buechner speaks truth.
The layers that he articulates must be true because there are days when I am so exhausted – and I’m not sure why. It must be that my internal world has been moving “furniture” and sifting through “God only knows what.”
I slept almost 12 hours the other day. And I went to bed early, 8pm. I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore and I was proud of myself for giving in. I thought for sure I would wake early and be able to write or read. But when I opened my eyes, my bedside clock read 7:30am. Buechner must be right; my body was “bulldozing shifting” the earth while I slept.
This “deeper down still” seems to happen without my cognitive awareness. Oh sure, I’m thinking about Pete all the time. Several times each day I wish I could show him something or tell him something. And I leak a few tears, a handful of times each day still. But there is a level deeper within me that seems to take my cognitive grief – the thoughts I have about Pete, or about me, or about our family, or about my new apartment, or about whatever it is I wish he could witness with me - and moves “furniture” or “earth” as Buechner wrote. My passive brain somehow knows when and how to sift through the cartons of “God only knows what” and file things in new places with new labels.
Grief is like introducing an entire workforce that lives within our bodies and minds. My workforce holds its own schedule with one agenda, healing me and ultimately transforming me into a post-Pete version of Beth. I would love to see the daily docket for this workforce. And who is, what is the foreman for this operation?
If I am to truly emerge healed and transformed, there is a tremendous trust I put in my internal self to navigate these deeper levels. I understand why some people might get stuck in their grief – it’s hard enough to do the active, cognitive work of grief but to also allow your the passive, yet heavy lifting work of grief requires self-trust.
So to my silent, yet very busy companion, Grief,
I’m grateful for you.
Hey Pete, I’m in California with your sister and her girls. It’s a sorority house here still. And they love you. And they miss you. If you can believe it, the last time we were here it was 10 years ago. We bought that great picture at the San Juan Capistrano mission. The one I had framed for you. It hung in our kitchen. You said it was a “window into God’s house.”
I am wondering where to place to hang it in my new apartment. I think I want it to be strategically placed. I think; I’m not too sure about much these days. But there is another piece that I believe will set the tone of my new place. It’s a watercolor that I bought after you died. A colleague of mine down in Virginia painted the first half of the “Prayer of St. Francis.” Of course you remember; we used that for our vows.
And if you were alive right now, and if we were moving to a new place, you would hear me ask you this questions, about which you would not care - Should I put shelf liners in the closets and cabinets? I know – not only do you not care but you would have to ask Alexa what shelf liners were. She would tell you that shelf liners are a way to protect the shelves from schmutz. We haven’t used shelf liners in the last two houses we lived in but Faith does it and she’s smart in things like this (things like this meaning “keeping things clean.”) By the way, Alexa is in storage and the grandchildren can’t wait to ask her to tell them a joke. They miss you.
Here’s another question for you – about which you may have an opinion but you’re not here to tell me. I may buy this used kitchen/dining room table. The chairs look comfy but I would want to replace the fabric. So I went with our niece Emily to JoAnn’s fabrics yesterday. I have five swatches of fabric that I like. (I think.) And here’s why I’m talking to you about this – I know, stick with me honey. Between this fabric and the two wall hangings I will create a color scheme and I don’t think I’m good at this. I don’t know if I’m able to tell what will make my new apartment feel like “home.” I can hear you asking, “is there a question in here somewhere?” Yes there is. Peter, what color would you be interested in making the dining room chairs? Yea – you don’t care. You would say something like, “as long as I’m at the table with you, cute girl, the chairs are fine.”
The truth is – that’s my answer too. As long as you were at the table, I didn’t really care what color the chairs were or what color scheme the house had. Sure, I have done my fair share of buying new throw pillows or curtains to change the feel of a room. But it’s not the furniture, the wall hangings, the color or comfort of the chairs that made home for me. It was you and me, and our children – and then their children that made home for me.
Remember how our house would feel the morning after we had a family dinner? I love that feeling. Remember the moments after work where I’d come home with Pho takeout and we’d grab bowls and chopsticks and forks. And then when we sit down and we pause and are grateful for one another and for yummy soup with jalapenos and basil condiments. I love that feeling too. I suppose making a home is about hospitality then. We made a home for one another.
And let’s be honest – you are really good at hospitality. Before we were dating, remember when I came over and asked if you had tea? And you did. And you made me tea and miniature crumb cakes that you happened to have in the house. They were Tastee brand, right? The boys don’t believe this story by the way – that you had miniature crumb cakes and that you served them to me on a tiny plate with tea. I remember; it was the first time you extended hospitality to me.
Whether they remember of not, they have your hospitality gene. They have created, both in their own way, a comfortable place for me to be myself time and again since you died. In their eulogy they made sure to mention your mantra, “if I have a roof, you have a roof.”
So maybe shelf liners and new upholstery fabric for chairs that I haven’t purchased yet is really not what this move is about. Maybe the move is about being hospitable to myself, creating a comfortable place where I can be myself. I have relied on you for that for over two decades. Can I ask you one more thing? If I promise to bring Pho home for dinner, will you join me in my new home?
I’m sitting on the floor in my new apartment. I’ve moved three grocery bags worth of stuff including a candle named “tranquility,” newly framed pictures of my family and a bag of Lindt chocolate that I received for Christmas. This will be the third time I’ve moved since Pete died. The first two were thrust upon me from the outside. Being evicted from my condo because I was not 55 sent me to find home with Dan and Faith. And then they purchased a new place, so I inched down the street with them. New space, new bedroom, same home though. Home is neither the stuff or the space.
During this time, all but my clothes have been in a 10x10 storage unit a few miles away. There have only been three things I missed during this period of separation from my things. First, I packed my guitar practice notebook by accident; that would have been nice to have. Over Thanksgiving, I borrowed a Kitchen Aid and a roasting pan to make dinner. The third thing I missed was my nativity sets, a ritual that I have learned marks not just the season but a movement in my spirit.
That’s it though – everything else that makes up the “stuff” of my life has been superfluous to my existence. There have been a couple times where I almost said something like, “well, my life is a 10x10 box.” But I was wise to edit that thought before it came out of my mouth. Very little of my life is in that 10x10 box. Life is an active word. It’s not static. And it cannot be stored. Almost all that brings me life has been readily available to me in hugs from my grandchildren, meals with my stepchildren and conversations with my friends. I have not once lacked for a place to call home, which I realize is not true for everyone; because of that I feel incredibly grateful.
So as I sit here by the window, next to the heater I am trying to imagine how all of my stored stuff will come to life in this new space. What will fit? What won’t? What will still feel alive when I touch it, move it, sit on it? What won’t? When I placed my stuff in boxes, I was not completely in my right mind. Pete had only just died. I am not sure what I packed, what I tossed, what I donated. While we were packing, tossing and donating, I remember asking myself, “will this furniture be part of my life when I move to my own space?” Will this mug? Will these wall hangings? In what way will this bring me life if I were to enliven it with my body, mind and spirit.
It’s going to be very interesting to open those boxes and find new resting places for my things. I’m looking forward to seeing them spread out from the cramped spaces of their box. I suppose I am looking forward to being reunited with my stuff but I am not expecting it to make me feel at home or for it to help make my life for me.
In fact, the empty apartment already feels very much like home. But I have felt at home at Dan’s for these past several months. I have felt at home on the couch at Joe’s over the past several months. I have felt at home at friend’s homes. I have not lacked for home. This move is not a quest to find “home.” Home was never, and has not been in the stuff that currently lives in my 10x10. No, this is a space for me to enliven on my own. Life is lived, not stored.
Four weeks ago, we (Dan, Faith and I) were stripping our beds and packing the last of the kitchen to move ½ mile down the road. Fueled with a bagel sandwich and an awesome piece of crumb cake, we worked alongside the movers until beds were made and the kitchen was unpacked.
Around 5pm, we sat down as a family around the dining room table to give thanks over pizza. It was then that I “hit a wall.”
That “wall” is probably why I haven’t posted since then. The truth is – I have hardly written about my grief for the past month. Not even in my journal. Instead I have plunged into the FX series, the American. I have slowly worked my way through Frederick Buechner’s Crazy, Holy Grace. And I attended the last several weeks of a Grief Share group.
We also celebrated Thanksgiving, our first without Pete. Two days after Thanksgiving, I celebrated what would have been my 22nd anniversary by distracting myself with friends, art and the Christmas spectacular at Radio City Music Hall.
In have settled into my new bedroom. I have tickled my grandchildren, talked and laughed with my stepchildren, and along the way have happily absorbed as much oxytocin as I’ve needed.
For me, this first year of grief has been one with lots of movement. I wonder if that’s what I needed. Sure, moving is hard; it’s jarring. But I’ve been such a gypsy most of my life (that’s what Pete used to say.) We moved so often when I was a kid that the most settled time in my life has been married to Pete. The last 22 years of my life has been incredibly settled.
But now? Now I feel unsettled. It’s interesting that this is corresponding to the season of Advent, a time in the Christian calendar when we prepare for the coming of Jesus. For me, this Advent has been one of being honest about who I have been and what I have done. This season has been imagining who I am becoming and what I might be about to do. Advent is not just a season of passive waiting for Christmas but rather active living.
Pete, in a world that is not mine, is getting to live the most true life he has ever known. This side of heaven, I am seeking to live the truest life I know in tandem with him… still very much connected and even covenanted to him. (I have been joking lately that “at best, I am married to a dead guy.’) I still feel very much married. And so in response to the life I think Pete has, in response to the beauty that he comprehends, I am putting one foot in front of the other… to live. To live as fully as I know how.
Pete’s memorial ended with a Dixieland band leading us out to the cemetery across the street playing Just a Closer Walk with Thee. The sad drawl of the trumpet and trombone. The constant beat of the tuba. When we arrived at the farthest part of the cemetery, the band leader stopped to let us know a bit of the New Orleans history of the funeral parade. When a musician had died, the band heads into the grave somber and leaves their friend among the dead. But in honor of the music that they made together, they march out dancing. This is called the second line. The second line was what I promised Pete before he died. In the second line, the trumpet transforms leads a new tune, confident and strong. The trombone dances through the bass line as if grabbing hold of our waist, twisting and twirling us as a skilled dance partner.
The most common song associated with the second line is - Oh when the Saints, Go marching in. Oh when the saints go marching in. Oh, I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in.
We left death behind us that day and we danced on the graves of the saints who have gone before us. It’s powerful to dance on death. Death will certainty have its say in each of our lives but death is only one moment. Death is the moment the breath leaves the body. But who is to say that the breath itself dies?
I have experienced what perhaps is the “breath” of Pete several times since his death. Or speaking theologically, I have been in the presence of the unique breath of God that enlivened Pete Scibienski. In the second version of the creation story, God breathes life into the first earthling, enlivening it with the ruach – the wind, the breath, the spirit of God. Take a breath. Seriously, stop and take a breath. You have it too. The wind, the breath, the spirit of God animates you.
Our breath is a powerful force. With each inhale we are created. At the top of the inhale there is sacred moment of pause before the exhale. With every exhale we let go, clean out, release what was. And again at the bottom of the release, there is another pause where our bodies put to rest the most recent moment and then our next breath resurrects us. Our breath is automated; we don’t have to think about breathing. It’s perhaps more accurate to say that we are being breathed. This is why I tend to believe the breath expire with our bodies. The breath, our unique breath continues – but where? What does the breath animate if not the body?
When I have been in the presence of Pete’s disembodied breath it has felt intact, held together by meaning and purpose. Like last week in church when I imagined him coming to church to share in the communion table with us. His unique breath was still very much him. Even in death, his “life” animated by the Spirit has purpose, a calling. Who is to say that the Spirit that animated Pete in his bodily life does not continue to animate Pete in his death?
This is most certainly an exercise in theological imagination. But let me tell you a secret – all theology is an exercise in imagination. Theology is imagination fueled by ancient words, personal experience, and communal understanding. Theology is not a science. Theology is idea in conversation with others ideas, stirred with hope… lots of hope. And right now, in month six without him, the hope that is stirring my current ideas imagines Pete having work to do even after his body is gone. I am so comforted to think that Pete continues his calling to encourage and love others, something at which he excelled. I am so deeply comforted by this possibility.
Yesterday was the first day that I can remember not crying. I don’t think it was the first day I went without crying but it was the first day that I can remember where my grief was not crowding me. I wonder if this has any correlation to the the imagination of Pete having a “life” to lead after death. By releasing him to the work of the Saints, have I released some of my grief as well?
Oh when the saints… go marching in… it is a dance. It is a stomp your way out of death dance. It is a let yourself loose, swing around with your neighbor, let it go kind of dance. It is the kind of dance enlivened by the breath of God – in life and in death.
Last week was Halloween, All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day. The Christian tradition has often celebrated these three days together, creating a festival of sorts. In my current context, Presbyterians in central NJ, we typically honor the folks who have gone before us on the Sunday after by pausing to name them during worship. There is a connection between the living and the dead that is worth remembering, celebrating, honoring.
This was the first year Pete was among those saints to be honored. I honestly hadn’t made that connection before Sunday and even while we were naming the saints who had been meaningful to our spiritual journey, I didn’t think of Pete. I thought of my grandmother and the first pastor I remembered from my childhood. I thought of a few of the folks whose funerals I had led. It wasn’t until we were celebrating communion later in the service that I thought of Pete.
You see, I have a friend, who is also a pastor; he has been a widower now for 15 years. He remembers looking desperately for his wife to appear during communion, perhaps now appear physically but in the way that Pete has been present for me so many times. Communion seems like it is the most likely place for us to experience togetherness with the dead.
When Christians gather at the communion table, we believe we are seated with all who have gone before us and all who have gone after us. The table extends beyond the barriers of this world. In fact the table resides in another realm. John Calvin, a leader of the Protestant Reformation (that has just celebrated its 500th year), believed that we are transported from our current space and time to God’s space and time. It is not that God meets us where we are at the table; we meet God where God is at the table.
So back to Sunday, I’m sitting in one of our fancy wooden chairs up on the chancel, presiding over the celebration of communion. The piano is playing. The servers are passing out morsels of homemade bread and tiny shot glasses of grape juice. I closed my eyes as I was breathing and praying for those in my congregation. And then I had a thought, “I wonder if Pete is here.” And then as quick as that thought came to mind another followed. “Well if you’re here, you better not have come without...”
I opened my eyes in surprise. I looked around the room. Was he here? Were they here together?
I had this interesting notion that Pete had not stopped being my wing man at all… he was just given a different job. He was part of the “church triumphant” - the church that exists above, beyond and outside of the church that exists for us.
I didn’t “sense” Pete’s presence when I had these thoughts as I have at other times. But I believed in Pete’s presence in a way I had before.
I have another story of Pete’s presence beyond this realm that I have held to mostly to myself. Months ago the friend of a deceased friend messaged me about an encounter with a psychic. “I’m not sure if you believe in this but...” someone she knew had gone to a psychic and this deceased friend of mine “visited.” During the visit he said, “I’m hanging out with my good friend Pete.” Nothing was mentioned of Pete during the session with the psychic. The psychic would not have known of the important friendship Pete had with this friend.
I sat with this for a day or two and then I remembered that during this friend’s memorial service, Pete shared about how they had met.
Thirty years ago, Pete had begun to reengage his faith with some neighbors who attended a Presbyterian Church. They invited him to attend when and if he wanted. They kept telling him the church was casual; he could even wear jeans. He took them up on the offer on Easter Sunday, not knowing that this Sunday is the one Sunday of the year where everyone dresses up. Pete would tell the story by saying, “I had one eye on the sanctuary and one eye on the door when someone walked up to me, put one hand on my shoulder and reached to shake my hand with the other.”
When Pete told the story that day at his memorial, he added, “I hope he was greeted in heaven the way he greeted me that day in church.”
For our deceased friend to say, “I’m hanging with my good friend Pete,” speaks to me of this space above, beyond and outside the church that exists for me, for us.
Was Pete in church on Sunday? Did he bring our friend? Were they all there, all the folks who had gone before us? What about all those who will go after us? I don’t know; we can't know yet. That’s what faith is – trusting when we are not sure.