Hurry Up and Don’t Die: Life, Death and Lessons on Self Compassion & Forgiveness

MO 2005

MO 2005

I fell asleep at the wheel when I was 18 years old, shortly after graduating high school. Friends and I woke up at the wee hours of dawn to go to the Live 8 concert in Philadelphia. After an energetic 95 degree day focused on music and ending poverty, I drove friends home tired and dehydrated from the summer sun. After dropping off my last friend, I woke up at 12:15 AM with the caustic blast of an airbag flying into my face, quickly discovering that I ran into a telephone pole, splitting it in half, the upper portion now dangling from the telephone wire. I immediately called 911. Police came and asked if I had been drinking. “No. You can breathalyze me!” I called out, “I fell asleep!” “It’s just that this is a lot of damage for just having fallen asleep,” the officer retorted. As the ambulance came, I glanced heavenward in prayer, my soul in chaotic communion with God, and made a promise that I would live it right. Not take a breath for granted. I took my heart by the hand in firm grip. “You’re going to be passionate. Keep your complaints to a minimum. And above all, you’re going to take this life, love it, and love others,” I declared to myself, releasing my flexed, pointed finger and gritted teeth. I then proceed to cry, turning my fuming fingers into open palms, and slowly rested my tear-drenched face into them, learning a lesson on self-compassion and how absolutely compulsory it is.

MO 2005

MO 2005

I arrived at the hospital, where my dad met me bedside in an exam room. “I am so sooo sorry,” I apologized, leaning in for a hug. He reached back immediately. “I’m just glad you’re ok; I’m glad you’re ok.” The x-rays showed no broken bones, so with gauze and a pain prescription, I was sent on my way. “I’m sorry to wake you up, Dad. I’m really sorry for doing something so stupid.” “It’s ok; I’m glad you’re ok,” he persisted.
I fell asleep (in my bed this time) and woke up to a raw, scraped chin, fresh tender skin scattered among hardened scab. In the days to follow, I had loving support from friends and family. Two ten-year old girls that I coached came to my house with handmade cards that still hang in my room today. I remember telling them that I was afraid parents wouldn’t trust me driving their kids anymore as a babysitter. “Don’t worry, they’ll still trust you,” their little selves promised me. They gave me hugs and walked back to play at the neighborhood pool. A few days later, my name appeared in our local newspaper under police reports. Ashamed and embarrassed that the whole community could see my recklessness, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of love I received. Family gingerly encouraged me to slow down. To stop doing so much; to simply do what I’m doing, confident that it’s more than enough. I listened. For a little while at least. But over the past 10 years, this experience developed an impulse to “hurry up” and “do more” because I learned that we aren’t guaranteed tomorrow, tonight, or the next hour. I didn’t realize the promise I vowed to myself—to never to live out of step with my values, to always live with passion and bring life into the world—would be a tall order, an impossibly high standard that turned into “I need to do and experience everything as quickly as possible so that I don’t waste time.” 

I overextended myself in too many activities the next few years, developed an anxiety and depression disorder, and shamed myself for living in this anxious state when I “should” be living it joyfully to the full. Through therapy and medication, I got much better, but was still lusting after experiencing everything.

This turned into cutting corners trying to breeze through seasons of pain, confusion, and suffering because hey, we could all die tomorrow, right? And if I might die tomorrow, I certainly don’t want to waste today in sadness. So rather than allowing myself to fully experience difficult “wilderness” seasons, I tried to skip that part altogether. But that’s not how growth works, turns out, and no one is exempt from sadness, anger, and pain just because they might die tomorrow. 

Sometimes I rushed through conversations so that I could talk to that person, only to rush through that conversation to talk to this person, in hopes of developing rich, meaningful relationships as quickly as possible, wanting to meet everyone on this planet that I possibly could, forgetting that people aren’t penciled in items on a to-do list; we’re chock full of emotions, stories, things to learn and teach each other, and these deep connections take time. And time never seems to be on your side when you’re living like you might die tomorrow. Life never seems long enough when you act like it stops the same minute as your heart, forgetting about all I’ve been taught about life after death. I guess I’m a little scared of it turning out to be fallacy, but I know in my darkest moments that I need this hope of heaven. 

The “do more, quicker” mentality caused me to live erratically rather than learning something about patience, about seasons, about the beauty that comes from living the questions, the uncertainties. It caused me to search for answers now, which has some perks to it, but often has downfalls of arriving at wrong conclusions in a harried attempt to maximize time. We can’t know how things will turn out. We don’t need to, either. As Rainer Maria Rilke once said,

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

I guess that’s it- that’s where I want to be right now. I want to live the questions, live the uncertainties, live the risks and searchings and yearnings. Live that now. The answers will come in their own timing. We have 24 hours a day and I can loathe that they aren’t enough or I can assert the fact that this is all we have, so enjoy them and be fully present.

The accident that I thought was supposed to teach me about “living life to the full,” I realize 10 years later was actually a lesson about grace, forgiveness, self compassion, to be gentle to myself and others. To learn that “living life to the full” is a fluid experience— sometimes it means pondering the Pleiades, tracing its outlines with your finger toward the sky, feeling the edges of each star from 50 million miles away. Other times it means identifying the thing you’re actually afraid of and conquering it. For me, that fear was wasting time. It meant reminding myself when I felt stuck as though getting nowhere, that I was indeed not wasting my life. It meant giving myself grace when I felt like a let-down, when I was working in a job I hated, stuck in a cycle of anxiety. And other times, living life to the full meant looking up at the sunset no matter the latitude or longitude, and finding it beautiful.

I’m also learning that although we’re not guaranteed tomorrow, there is such a thing as adulthood, and older adulthood, and retirement… so if my things aren’t crossed off my bucketlist by the time I’m 30, that’s ok; in fact that’s great-each of us might have a lifetime of adventures to look forward to, maybe, just maybe…

So may we live today like it could be our last and may we remember that we have a God who has a home for us even when that last day comes.

May we savor sweet conversation, taking our time through each word, hug, tender kiss.

May we realize that we will always want more time in the day, but even on our death bed, our time really hasn’t run out.

“I’ve told my children that when I die, to release balloons in the sky to celebrate that I graduated. For me, death is a graduation.” -Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross
One of the girls I coached, who gave me the angel figurine featured in this picture shortly after the accident.

One of the girls I coached, who gave me the angel figurine featured in this picture shortly after the accident. It still hangs in my room today. July 2005

The Panoramic Intersection of God, Family and the Open Road: Part I- 2014

The black and faded grey asphalt of I-95 southbound leads straight into the sunset. Trees on the interstate edges cascade from bare brown to hunter green with the passing of each new state. A free, soothing feeling comes back to me, … Continue reading

Ashes of Hope: My Love of Lent but Not of Murder on a Cross (PLUS 40 Days of Sustainability coming soon)

Even the winter won’t last forever. We’ll see the morning, we’ll feel the sun.
We’ll wake up in April, ready and able, Sowing the seeds in the soil.
Even the darkness cannot disarm us. We’ll see the morning, we’ll feel the sun.
-Audrey Assad

Easter is what many would argue to be the quintessential turning point of the Christian faith. The crux. The climax of the story. The thing that you must be able to articulate into carefully formed sentences depicting your belief, as though words and theology solely define your spirituality and very existence. Perhaps from all of this lies the basis for the trite messages that I, along with so many others, have heard about the Christian faith. “Jesus died for your sins.” “Jesus paid the debt.” “Jesus stood in your place and died for you so that you might have life.”

And if those words bear truth and meaning to you, I have not come to take them away, nor discredit them.

It’s just not the Jesus I’ve come to know, face-to-face in my human spiritual struggle. 

The Jesus I’ve come to know didn’t die at the hands of a blood-thirsty, vampire-like God who needs to see someone murdered in order to forgive people. The Jesus I’ve come to know, and the God to whom he points, is a rebel. A revolutionary who challenged the privileged and elevated the marginalized. Who spoke out of turn, unafraid to make people think harder about themselves and the world around them. Who taught us to slow down long enough from our exhausted minds to “look at the birds and flowers,” and to be a visionary in whatever issue your culture is facing.
Direct from the mouth of this revolutionary contains the most gripping parts of the Eastertide story, in my experience. The pieces that I rarely heard pastors and Bible study leaders quote. The part where Jesus, our supposed role model, screams up at God, “My God, My God, Why have you screwed me like this?”  Because that’s life, that’s reality. That’s the affirmation I look for when I’m stuck in the mud and mire and all around me are hope-depleted apertures crying out for just a flick of mercy from a kind and loving God, begging for auspices that come from this Divine Light. And to hear Jesus utter these same words gives me confidence that I am in good company when I am in the thick of the squall and my once blithe heart feels incapable of coming back to me. When I’m a low that low, that’s when I know I’m only a few steps out from mercy. Because we, like Jesus, get to experience the surge of joy that is the resurrection, ashes of hope that sing of redemption.

I think these ashes of hope are what the soul longs for. Beyond a good love story, a good hope story. To know that all of our troubles will not be squandered, but used for fodder to keep these tales of beauty-from-pain alive. To give us the fortitude to know, anchored in our core, that it doesn’t matter what comes our way, for it won’t last forever. But the feelings of hope and the aftermath of beauty will hit us so viscerally that we tear up at the thought, “I didn’t know life could be this good.”

This is why I haven’t given up on Lent or Easter, despite some of my theological wrestlings and frustrations with the traditional teachings of this spiritual season. Lent draws out the heart’s ability to draw nigh to your Creator. A 40 day season containing strong, beautiful symbolism. Death from life. Life from death. The two are inseparable. Hope is reborn, recycled out of crushed pain and heartache. The timing of this season enhances the meaning all the more to me, as we begin Lent in the waning winter, in which it is still snowing as I write this. But we end Lent well into spring. During those 40 days, shoots on trees develop, buds blossom to form magnolia flowers- my absolute favorite tree on this planet that reminds me there is no cold that cannot be endured to eventually give way to life. The sun graces us for 2.5 minutes longer each day, until we’ve accumulated some 177.5 minutes of additional daylight come Easter evening, thanks, largely in part, to Daylight Savings Time. (Can you tell yet that spring is my favorite season and consumes many of my thoughts?)

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Copyright MO 2013

And so I don’t know where your heart is this season. Maybe it’s hiding in guilt and shame, underneath a veil of many coverings, because you feel it has gone so far awry from any sort of “straight and narrow.” Maybe your heart is parched, longing for a bit of this hope story. Or maybe your heart abounds in a joy so full, that it might cry droplets of gratitude onto baby seedlings that will soon lean their faces toward the sun for the first time. But one thing I do know, as we forge into spring, is that all around you, life begs your soul to awaken, and if it cannot awaken on its own, let its colours take you to places unknown until hope uncovers and your soul sees vibrant hues ablaze in beauty.

But there will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears.
And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears.
Get over the hill and see what you find there
With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair.
-Mumford and Sons

    

Coming tomorrow: My 40 Day Sustainability Plan- Come observe Lent through environmental social justice

The Stories Our Pictures Tell Us, Or, What I Learned from Sitting Alone for Two Hours in a Closet

                                                                                                 
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We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot — “Little Gidding”

I just got back from a wonderful weekend in Philadelphia with my family. I always tell people from out of town that though I grieve summer’s end, the best time to visit PA is in the fall, where the gold, crimson red, and yellow trees will call you into attention, causing you to notice every little thing around you that you’d normally overlook. This weekend was no different. The sun shone all weekend, tall trees telling tales in goldenrod and setting sun orange.

It was a good weekend. One of those weekends that make you look deep inside of yourself and feel absolute gratitude for getting to experience it, all of it. I spent the majority of the weekend at Villanova University where hundreds of students put on the world’s largest student-run event for Special Olympics.  Cheering loudly, I’ll never forget the way they lined the walkway back to our cars, and high fived each athlete, as though we were married couples walking out to a procession line. When I told them thank you for their abounding energy, they just smiled, and replied, “We love this. It’s our favorite weekend all school year.”

I woke up the next morning and got to run with Special Olympics athletes in a 5k, delighting in the sun meeting my bare legs. November 2nd is far too into fall to be able to wear shorts, but today is different. The sweet 70 degree sun smiled at our legs. We danced the night away in the gym at the annual dance the students run, there we did the Cha Cha Slide, the Cotton Eye Joe, and The Wobble, whose choreography and lyrics I still don’t understand.

I watched my sister play soccer Sunday. For far too long in our relationship, she was the one watching me, and now I was thrilled to give back that time and attention to her. It was, perhaps, a moment of reconciliation, as if to make up for lost time.

As Sunday evening approached, the sun sunk at 4:58 PM thanks to daylight savings time. An extra hour of sleep? No thank you, I’d take an extra hour of daylight over extra sleep anyday. After sunset, I went upstairs and noticed a journal peeking out from my closet. Curious, I decided to take a look. Inside lie four boxes filled with letters, greeting cards, old swimming times, old swimming workouts, high school and graduation pictures, and friends’ wedding programs. There were printouts of old AIM conversations with boys I had crushes on. My polka dot scrunchie I wore way after scrunchies stopped being cool. I’m always a good 3-5 years behind the latest fashions.

A strange, but wonderful sense of nostalgia warmed me up like chamomile tea on a snowy day. I’m re-reading a wrinkled letter from one of my good guy friends from high school. One of my best friends created a senior project where students were asked to anonymously submit essays describing their experiences of love in order to “purge their feelings and maybe come to some resolution.” I don’t think it was until my binge in the closet that I fully appreciated the magnitude of her endeavor. Guys and girls alike anonymously poured out the most vulnerable parts of themselves on paper. I can’t believe he even gave me his letter, so personal. So visceral. I felt like I was reading a journal entry from a 35 year old who’s looking back on the thing or two that he’s learned from the journey he’s been on since he said “I Do” at an altar.

Their were greeting cards marking birthdays, apologies, thank you-s, and just-because’s. There was that note that my neighbors wrote me right before we all thought I’d be leaving for Peace Corps. Though I’ve made peace with my decision, it still stings a little bit each time I come across that name, or see a piece of paper of something I signed in the copious amounts of paperwork that the process entails. It hurts a little when dreams die. It hurts a little when you remember a part of yourself that was so filled with life, pulsating, passionate life. If I’m honest, there’s a part of myself that I never fully regained when I said no to my dream. Even though I’m most grateful for the ways in which I’ve healed since that time, looking back on ourselves and our lives can be hard, can’t it?

There’s my grandfather’s passport. I never got to meet the man, but from what I hear of him, he was the most amazing person. I’ve only ever seen pictures of him with the family or alone in solitude in his church robes. He was a pastor, a thinker, and I’d love nothing more than to pick his brain. He died at all-too-soon age of 53 from a heart attack in the middle of his kitchen. It hurts, doesn’t it, when you don’t get to meet the people that you want to meet? When lives are interrupted without your permission? Now, all that’s left in my hands are a picture of him at this last church service in Illinois before he and the family moved to PA and his old passport. I began prodding my dad for passport explanations. Why did he go to Russia, and South America, and who did he go with, and how long was he there for? Half of the stamps we couldn’t decipher, after all it was an expired passport from 1971.

There’s cards from my grandmother that all looked pretty standard: Hallmark cards signed in small, shaky cursive- “with love, Grandma.” I loved her; I know I did. It’s just that she had an aneurysm in 1985, just a few years before I was born. My only memories of her are of when she was in a walker. She and my aunt would come over for every birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas you name it. We would blow up whoopie cushions, put them under her seat, and after we heard the fart sound, we’d erupt in laughter while she proceeded to ask us to stop it. We would just keep laughing. And we never stopped it. I loved her presence; it felt like home whenever she was in our house. I just doubt that as a kid, I fully appreciated her. And she’s gone now. I still remember that dreaded phone call at my friend’s graduation party in June 2003. When the phone rang on my friend’s house line- I didn’t own a cell phone at the time- it was my mom on the other line. “I need you to come home now. It’s about Grandma.” And so, as soon as I got home, we went to Artman Nursing Home, where I saw a dead body for the first time. It was weird. And I didn’t like it. So I cried. We left, not talking much, and a week later I went to my first funeral. Our neighbors were there, as they have always been for every major life event. I still remember Mrs. Beerley giving me a big hug, as she looked me in eye and said, “It’s ok.” I hope Grandma knew how much I loved her, even when I didn’t express full interest in her life. I know she’s chock full of stories, like her husband (my grandfather), whom I also didn’t get to meet because life was cut short.

There were newspaper clippings from our local newspaper. I grew up in a neighborhood in which teachers came to school early to provide homework help. It felt safe. One time, the crime section read: “Three flags stolen from Flourtown Country Club golf course.” Really, I’m not making this stuff up. There’s also that time, because our town was so small, that I got in this same crime section for careless driving. It was an early morning, a long day and even longer night on July 2nd, 2005, as friends and I spent the day at Philadelphia’s Live 8 concert advocating for global action to end poverty, especially in Africa before the G8 summit. At 12 AM on July 3rd, I crashed into a telephone pole, wrecking public property (along with my car) and was even told I had to pay for it. A week later, I re-lived it all over again as I read “Melissa Otterbein, 18, cited for reckless driving….” Fortunately, I’d built enough rapport with the parents whose kids I coached and babysat. As I received cards from these families, all I could think was, “Hopefully they didn’t read the newspaper.”

I found some old CDs in the memory boxes, including a couple Christian cds. I stopped listening to Christian radio about two years ago when I grew tired of hearing infomercials about how there’s new aged speakers on Oprah who are leading people astray and if we really love people, we shouldn’t let them listen to these people. I grew tired of their cheesy slogans that they would repeat multiple times per hour. “Family friendly, kid safe.” What about those of us who don’t have kids? Does that mean public radio is evil? I hardly think so. Anyway, as I drove home later on, after I had left the closet, a strange familiar came over me as I found myself nervously singing the words again for the first time in a long time. I thought about the times when those songs carried me though difficult nights, when things weren’t so good at home. Or when I’d have those occasional teenage relationships dilemmas, experiencing life’s stress, but oh, I was happy. It didn’t even feel weird anymore to sing these songs. The attachment felt peaceful, like I could enjoy it while keeping it a safe arms-length away. I guess that’s where I am with Church now. I love God, but seem to keep Church that arms-length away. It wasn’t God who scared me, it was Church, well, just some Churches, that often minimized how I could find the love of God in my sister’s smile instead of ancient text that angered me most of the time.

It’s funny, I spent almost two hours in that closet and left the room a lot messier than I found it. I figured it would give me a good reason to go back in there the next time I’m home.  It’s amazing where photos and cds, or letters and decorations and old newspaper clippings can take us. It’s amazing how words on crinkly paper from a decade ago can help you make sense of today. It’s amazing how a box of photos that we can no longer reprint because we stopped using 35 mm film about the same time we stopped playing with pogs can spark up warm fuzzies and fear all in the same memory. TS Eliot once said,

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

I sense that in my boxes of nostalgia. I sense that we’re on this journey and the good, the difficult, the crushed, the joyful all carry us into our future in untied fragments. Someday, some great-grandchild might finger through our letters and CDs— what the hell were those, never the less tapes?–and smile. Perhaps they’ll ask their parents about us or put us back in a box. Or perhaps if you lived a life bold enough, they’ll proudly place your picture on a nightstand and smile at it when they wake up in the morning on their way to work.

It’s a strange life. We live it once. That’s it. And all that’s left are the memories. Half of them, we forget about, until an old photo jogs our memory as though we need basic instructions on how to look back on very own lives that we created. We do things everyday that we won’t even remember doing tomorrow, let alone 40 years from now. That’s weird.
But I hope when you go to bed tonight, you feel the love of those people.
I hope you keep taking those photographs, even if you’re scared to document this time of your life because you don’t want to re-live the pain you’re going through right now by finding it buried in the pixels of an old photograph. I hope you keep writing those journals, even if you don’t want to read the sad tale you documented on paper ten years from now.
Or maybe you’re having the time of your life, too busy to sit down and even capture it. But one day, though, someone’s going to look back in order to find themselves because they got lost too. We all get lost. I’m trying to keep up with these memories in order to make sense of my life and maybe you are too. It’s amazing how five people can experience the same event, but none will recall it the same exact way with the same exact details. We each bring forth our little vignettes and keep our lives sustained into another year, another decade, another century, or even millennium. It’s ok to look back on your pain. It was a part of your struggle. I only hope that the painful parts of your story will find some healing. I hope there’s days you can’t pen down because you were so overwhelmed by the privilege of being alive that even if you tried to write it down, no one would get it. Perhaps you too, just like TS Eliot will live along some day and be able to put back the pieces. We’ll find ourselves and lose ourselves until we glance up to the endless sky in these cracks and crevices of darkness and of light.

“It’s a victory to remember the forgotten picnic basket and your striped beach blanket. It’s a victory to remember how the jellyfish stung you and you ran screaming from the water. It’s a victory to remember dressing the wound with meat tenderizer and you saying I made it better…” -Jenny Hallowell, A History of Everything, Including You

Thoughts in the ICU.

I have her black and white newspaper picture hanging on my bedroom door. She’s 17, an exchange student on the beach in Brazil, riding a motorcycle. Her Brazilian community wrote a newspaper article about her in Portuguese. It’s probably my most favorite picture of her, telling me the story of my mom before she was a mother. She seems so full of life, so spunky. I bet we would’ve been friends had I been around during the ’60s. But I guess I got lucky; instead of just a friend, I got a friend and a mother.

She’s not “La Garota da Motocicleta” (The Girl On The Motorcycle) right now, but that spirit is still in her; I see it, even though there’s tubes and cords and a central line running through her body. I’m with my family in the ICU at Chestnut Hill Hospital in Philadelphia. It’s quiet, minus the steady beep of the EKG monitor, signaling life, and hope, and of the steady rhythm of another day to be alive. My dad touches her forehead and my sister pats her on the shoulder. I kiss her on her cheek, pausing, grateful for this moment. It’s been a long time since I’ve kissed my parents, especially on the cheek. But in this moment, I’m grateful to be close and at peace.

We sit there, in silence, with the occasional interruption of updates from the nurse. “We’re monitoring the blood pressure; as you know it’s low again. This is just more fluids to help aid in that process,” she says, changing an IV bag.

The first person my age that I knew to lose their parents was my friend Sarah, during the last month of our senior year in high school. Her parents died in a car crash and her mother was the art teacher at our middle school. It was the first funeral I’ve been to for someone’s parent, and shortly after, friends and I headed to Sarah’s home. That’s the first time I was introduced to “sitting Shiva,” a practice in Judaism in which family members receive visitors in the home of their deceased love one, for seven days. Shiva translates to “seven” in Hebrew, based upon Job grieving the death of his father for seven days. Traditionally, during the period of Shiva, mourners sit on low stools or boxes while they receive condolence calls. Often, doors are unlocked to allow visitors to enter quietly without knocking. Once in the presence of mourners, it is customary to wait until the mourner speaks before greeting the mourner. A minyan (prayer service) is held for the mourners each day during shiva. Shiva creates an atmosphere of condolence and support while allowing one to disengage gradually from the life of their deceased love one.* There’s something about this tradition that I find so beautiful.

Though I am hopeful for my mother’s recovery and personally not anticipating death, I think about Shiva. Sitting in this room in soft silence and occasional chatter between my family, I feel as though I’m celebrating a living shiva, feeling melancholy, and yet a very real, sincere peace.

There’s some connection I feel to my mother, as I think about all she’s experienced during her lifetime. My dad shows me a picture of the two of them, before they were engaged. My dad is on the left with dark, shaggy hair, and my mom to the right, in long, blonde pigtails and bell bottom jeans.
“Who is that?” we ask my 29 year old sister, who has Down Syndrome, while pointing to the photo.

“I don’t know.”

“It’s Mom and Dad,” I tell her.

“Looks weird.” She states, never having been a bashful one.

We laugh.

I watch her breathe with the support of intubation. Occasionally, she tenses and one of the tubes fills with liquid. She’s sleeping and under heavy medication, but still able to make small coughs that help bring the fluid from the pneumonia that’s gathered in her lungs. It’s strange to think, in this moment, that there was another time, and another place (not the ICU),  in which my mom and I were once connected. I feel as though right now, I’m a fly on the wall, or a shadow of my spirit, zoomed out, as I picture my mom holding my brother, then my sister, then me after birth. It’s a humbling experience to think about a day I can’t even remember, but a day that was quintessential to my very life. It’s in this moment I’m acutely aware of what a gift it is to have loving parents to bring you into life in this world. I suppose I may never know fully unless I become a mother one day, but here, in this moment, I’m as close to “getting it” as I might ever be. We all make sacrifices for each other. Fathers. Mothers. But right now, I see most clearly the amazing gift we each receive from a woman who uses her very body to provide life to another. Don’t get me wrong, women who choose not to have children can live every bit as sacrificially as those that do, but for right now, I’m looking at my mother in a hospital bed. And I’m so grateful that she, along with my father, made my life possible.

“Better get going,” my dad motions to my sister and I. Lauren, my Aunt and I are going to go home to make dinner, then head to the movies for a laughter break.
But I don’t want to leave.
I’m so sick of living my life focusing on getting tasks done.
I’m tired of half-listening to my roommate when I come home each day, as I tend to the dishes and listen to her talk in between my clanging of pots. She never does this when I talk to her. She stops what she’s doing and looks you into the eye…No, no, no. She looks into your heart.
Dinner can wait, I think We can order takeout to make it quicker. This time is much, much much more important. My sister and I linger over her bed for another twenty minutes. The nurse told us that even though she’s under sedation, she can still hear us, and encourages us to talk to her in short whispers as part of the healing process.

“Love you Mom,” I whisper softly and give her another slow kiss.

My sister and Aunt and I leave the room, and I glance back through the glass window to see my Dad, currently on furlough, sit quietly beside her, where he’s been since her admission ten days ago. Last weekend, I watched him brush her hair, gingerly, especially at the ends where a few tangles had gathered. As my siblings and aunt and I talked in her room last weekend, he stood beside her bed, touching her forehead every few moments or so. As I walk further away from my mom’s hospital bed, I admire his love. He always knew how to keep people a priority and go out for a run when his head needed clearing. I love that about him.

I don’t think this is it, but I was told there’s always a chance. I think that spunky young woman on a motorcycle is going to beat the pneumonia, heal from the staph infection which triggered her initial hospital admission last week, and come back from this in due time.

But what do I know.

What do I know about death.

What do I know about what it must feel like, to be near it, or perhaps around it, or perhaps still far from it, but not too far.

I don’t know.

But I remember the words of my youth pastor who watched her own mother pass away:

“I will tell you all this–never be afraid when this time comes. You could actually see Mom’s spirit leave her body, hover a while, and go. She looked so happy, so peaceful. It was one of the most amazing moments of my life.”

I cling to this hope, and the hand of my sister as I whisper “I love you,” steadfast with the optimism that I will be back here tomorrow, watching her chest rise and fall. But even if for some reason, I cannot, I let the words and experience of my youth pastor nestle deep into my heart until a satiated peace comes over me.

I’m sitting a living shiva.
And I’m so thankful for the prayers and support of friends and family like you.

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*http://www.shiva.com/learning-center/understanding/shiva/

 

Hurry Up and Don’t Die (Re-learning lessons from life/death experiences)

I fell asleep at the wheel when I was 18 years old, summer after graduating high school. I woke up at 12:15 AM with the caustic blast of an airbag flying into my face,2005 corolla crash phone pole quickly discovering that my car was halfway on the sidewalk, the other half still on the road. I ran into a telephone pole, splitting it in half, the upper portion now dangling from the telephone wire. I immediately called 911. Police came and asked if I had been drinking. “No. You can breathalyze me!” I called out, “I fell asleep!” 2005 corolla crash“It’s just that this is a lot of damage for just having fallen asleep,” the officer retorted. The arrival of the ambulance ended our back and forth. I was brought to our nearest hospital with tears in my eyes, shocked but relieved that I felt ok, and quite scared of what my parents would say. Someone had already notified them and my dad met me bedside in an exam room. “I am soo. soooo. sorry,” I tell him, leaning in for a hug. He reached back immediately. “I’m just glad you’re ok; I’m glad you’re ok.” After the x-rays came back showing no broken bones, I was handed some gauze and a prescription for pain and then sent on my way. “I’m sorry to wake you up, Dad. I’m really sorry for doing something so stupid.” “It’s ok; I’m glad you’re ok,” he persisted. I fell asleep (in my bed this time) and woke up to a raw, scraped chin, fresh tender skin scattered amongst hardened scab. In the days to follow, I had loving support from friends and family. Two ten-year old girls that I coached came to my house with handmade, colorful cards. I remember telling them that I was afraid parents wouldn’t trust me driving their kids anymore as a babysitter. “Don’t worry, they’ll still trust you,” their little selves promised me. They gave me some hugs and went back to play at the pool for the rest of the day. One of the moms on the swim team I coached gave me a hat. “You’ve got to keep that chin exposed to as little sunlight as possible,” she said, patting my shoulder. A few days later, I found my name in the police report section of our local newspaper, ashamed and embarrassed that the whole community could see my recklessness. All of that was countered, though, by the love I received. Family emailed me and gingerly encouraged me to slow down. To stop doing so much and to try just being me, doing what I’m doing, confident that it’s more than enough. I listened. For a little while at least. But I often think of that memory now and feel an impulse to “hurry up” and “do more” because I learned that we aren’t guaranteed tomorrow, tonight, or the next hour. And I’ve been driving myself crazy ever since.

I’ve cut corners trying to breeze through seasons of pain, doubt, confusion, and suffering because hey, we could all die tomorrow, right? And if I might die tomorrow, I certainly don’t want to waste today in pain and sadness. So rather than allowing myself to fully experience pain or difficult “wilderness” seasons, I’ve tried to skip that step altogether. But that’s not how growth works, turns out, and no one is exempt from sadness, anger, and pain just because they might die tomorrow. I wish I would let myself go through painful processes without white-knuckling my way through, trying to control my emotions, my circumstances, rather than let God do God’s thing God’s way. In the process, I end up seeing my dirty fingerprints all over my life when I could have seen even more of God’s tender fingerprints implanted on every scrapbook story page day of life.

I’ve rushed through conversations so that I can go talk to that person, only to rush through that conversation to talk to this person, in hopes of developing rich, meaningful relationships as quickly as possible, forgetting that people aren’t penciled in items on a to-do list; we’re chock full of emotions, stories, things to learn from others, things to teach others, and these deep connections, the ones that mean the most and are savored the deepest, take time. And time never seems to be on your side when you’re living like you might die tomorrow. Life never seems long enough when you act like it stops the same minute as your heart, forgetting about all I’ve been taught about life after death, the hope of Heaven, etc. I guess I’m a little scared of it turning out to be fallacy, but I know in my darkest moments that I need this hope of heaven; my soul would die without it. I can live as if life ends at the grave or I can dare to dream that there is something bigger, something larger, something longer, something that will never, truly ever end.

The “do more, quicker” mentality has caused me to be erratic rather than learning something about patience, about seasons, about the beauty that comes from living with the questions, the uncertainties. It’s caused me to search for the answers now, which has some perks to it, but often has downfalls of arriving at wrong conclusions in a harried attempt to maximize time. We can’t know how things will turn out. We don’t need to, either. As Rainer Maria Rilke once said,

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

I guess that’s it- that’s where I want to be right now. I want to live the questions, live the uncertainties, live the risks and searchings and yearnings. Live that now. The answers will come in their own timing. We have 24 hours a day and I can loathe that they aren’t enough or I can assert the fact that this is all we have, so enjoy them and be present for them.

And I’m also learning that although we’re not guaranteed tomorrow, there is such a thing as adulthood, and older adulthood, and retirement… so if my things aren’t crossed off my bucketlist by the time on 30, that’s ok, in fact that’s great-each of us just might have a lifetime of adventures to look forward to, maybe, just maybe…

So may we live today like it could be our last and may we remember that we have a God who has a home for us even when that last day comes.

May we savor sweet conversation, taking our time through each word, hug, tender kiss.

May we realize that we will always want more time in the day, but even on our death bed, our time really hasn’t run out.

“I’ve told my children that when I die, to release balloons in the sky to  celebrate that I graduated. For me, death is a graduation.” -Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross

One of the girls I coached, who gave me the angel figurine featured in this picture shortly after the accident.

One of the girls I coached, who gave me the angel figurine featured in this picture shortly after the accident. July 2005