Everyday Heroes…without Capes

Within hours of my wife passing, the vacuum my children experience was immense. Since that day, a small group of godly women have stepped up, joined what I call “The Mom Mafia”, and have honored the memory of their dear friend by loving on my kids in ways only a mother could. At times, that has looked like simply praying, or giving a hug or phone call when God prompted them to do so. Other times it looked like sending care packages to a freshman in college, taxi-ing my younger two to youth group or doctor appointments, or even helping out a single dad (who happens to be a teacher) by taking the kids school supply shopping while I was busy setting up a new classroom (which I’ve had to do for the last two years because my school moved buildings).

Each time my children have spent time with one of the Mafia Moms, whether it was with their brothers or by themselves, they have come away with their cups full to over-flowing. Each woman God has put in their life at this time who is helping to fill the vast void left by their mother’s death has a unique talent set which speaks to each of my kids individually and corporately.

At times, I’ve reached out to the Mom Mafia to request prayer. You want to know why I dubbed them “The Mom Mafia”? Get between a mama and her child, especially if that child is hurting. You won’t be standing there for long. These women do not fight an earthly battle with earthly weapons to leave temporal wounds. They fight a spiritual battle with stakes that make those earthly battles pale in comparison. They are each Generals in God’s army, who stand tall and don’t back down from a challenge. Many times, these women have each reached out to me to inquire about specific prayer needs…and other needs.

One of the members of this group of godly women has a standing date with one of my sons. Once a month she takes him out and gives him an hour or two of her undivided attention, usually over ice cream or some kind of meal. Monday was that day. When I dropped my son off at school this morning, I began to pray for that encounter. It’s been months since I’ve seen him glow. It’s been a difficult season for him. When I left work, I texted like I usually do, however, today I asked, “Where are you?” The reply I received was coy. It piqued my interest. Then the dummy light on my dashboard reminded me that I was driving on fumes and the thought left my head.

One of the only houses on my street in shadow this Christmas Season, I’ve been feeling guilty, trying to push myself to be more festive, trying to find more time and energy to continue decorating the inside and outside of my home so that it would look like a HOME. That feeling vanished when I pulled onto my street. The sight of my front lawn was hard to miss. When I parked, I was met by one son who was trying to hold in a bigger surprise, but his Autism makes it difficult for him to hide anything. I grinned at the sight. It warmed me that he met me at the driveway, albeit, he wanted to see my reaction. Nonetheless, he’d met me at the driveway and offered to help me bring in my things from the van. My youngest son was nowhere to be seen. As I entered the house, I locked the front door behind me and began the evening’s debrief with my son’s after-school caregiver – a good friend of the family, a good friend of my wife. Something was off, though. When I tried to walk the caregiver to the door, my son was blocking my path. He grinned, a bit mischievously and threw open the door. There stood my youngest, beaming from ear to ear. Then he began caroling!

When we piled into the car for the evening’s events, I listened in rapt attention as he explained his afternoon date with one of his surrogate moms. He was giddy. He was so full of words; they were gushing out of him almost faster than I could comprehend them. When he told me of the incredible time he had shopping at the Goodwill for something to brighten up the yard, he was nearly glowing himself. They had found the string of lights, the net of lights, and a “fake wreath” (I’m allergic to evergreen trees) and were heading to the register when he tripped, literally tripped over the box containing the nativity. The two of them found a plug-in to check the lights and purchased it all…”for $25, Dad!”

This Christmas Season alighted with a darker cloud than last year. We’ve only managed to get one tree up and decorated. (We usually have 3 trees because I love the Celtic tale of The Three Trees.) Pulling into my driveway on Monday and seeing the beaming child responsible for the light show, I realized that this Christmas Season just took a turn for the better. All because one of the Mafia Moms took an hour and a half of her busy schedule to spend with my child. I am truly blessed to get to work with these women who give me support in a vast sundry of ways. I could not parent half as well as I’ve been able to parent these past two and a half years without their help.

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“Of Whales And Of Malaga I Sing…”

It’s been a while since I’ve stopped myself long enough to sit and write. Somewhere in the midst of the last 2 months, I decided that I didn’t have time to grieve. There was too much to do. Too many late nights finishing lesson plans, folding laundry, and picking up the house. Too many long afternoons filled with appointments for the “dad taxi”. Too many weekends filled with catching up on sleep and taking care of my boys (whatever I could pack into the day so I wouldn’t have time to think, to ache, to cry).

It all started with my decision in August, on a plane back to Portland after returning my oldest son to college for his Sophomore year. There was a commercial for Ralph Breaks the Internet. I decided to boycott Disney. The last three Disney movies have left me in a puddle of my own making. It started out as an inside joke…with myself. Then it became an unfeeling reality. It was easier not to feel, or rather, not to tempt my heart to feel deeply. So I didn’t. Don’t get me wrong. It bubbled out every 5 or 6 weeks, but I was usually alone or in a setting where I could blend in and not have to deal with it. Sadly, along with the decision to stop grieving came a less conscious one…I put my book on hold. I allowed the busy-ness of life to come in and push aside a dream and a calling.

Once school started, I began treading water, trying to get everything done. It took nearly 3 months for me — the unstoppable force that is single-parenting — to hit the proverbial wall — the unmovable object with which I had a divine appointment.

I am truly tired of tears. They take too much time. They’ve been present so much in the last two and a half years. Amy and I made so many happy, joy-filled, ecstatic memories. Where were those? The truth? They were there, but the joy was marred by grief and the laughter was replaced by a small smile, followed by tears.

Somewhere I bought into a lie: It gets easier, Thom. Once I’d swallowed that destructive lie, it was followed by another one, more maniacal, more evil: It’s been long enough, Thom. It’s time to stop dwelling. It’s time to move on. Somewhere in our culture, we’ve accepted that everything fits into tidy timetables. Right? Don’t believe me? Get out your planner and begin to fill every half hour slot with the things that need to get done. When the slots are all full, that which doesn’t have room sits in the waiting room awaiting its “assigned appointment”.

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy CoverThe immovable wall came in the form of a novel I was set to teach this year. I’ve taught it before with great success. It’s one of my favorite “YA” author’s books. Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, by Gary D. Schmidt, has won many awards, including the ever-coveted Newbery Honor. My 6th graders and I began reading it during the last week of October. The curriculum requires me to read the book aloud with the students and not to let them take the book home. Why? To teach them to be active readers. To teach them how to understand literary devices. To teach me a very difficult truth.

It’s a book about a boy living in Phippsburg, Maine, in 1912. He meets an incredible girl his own age, and the two become more than friends; they become soul mates. Along the way, he encounters loneliness and loss, severe loss. Near the middle of the book, the main character comes within a few feet of a whale while he’s struggling against the tides and the waves to steer a small rowboat, with little success. For the remainder of the book, he is spurred on by the spiritual encounter he had with the whale. He longs to know “What was in the eye of the whale?”

The boy’s schooling requires him to read of the adventures and bravery of Aeneas as he leaves Troy and heads into the unknown to a destination, not of his choosing, in order to found an Empire he never imagined. The boy has his own adventure, his own unknown destination, and quite possibly his own Empire to found.

During the chapter where a significant character dies, I was not at school; I had a sub. I was relieved. I wouldn’t have to come anywhere close to that emotional part of the story. I could discuss it later with the students, no problem. But reading it aloud…well…I didn’t want to test my fortitude and my wherewithal to stay the course and not grieve.

On the last day of reading to the class, I broke. The thirteen-year-old boy was wrestling with his new normal. Instead of demanding he was done grieving, he vowed to never forget “to look at things straight” and he broke down in grief — he would never forget. At one point the main character says he has no one to talk with about the state of his heart, but he turns to a new friend a few lines later and bears his soul. Life continues. Grief continues…and may not ever go away. Life can only be lived through the grief, not avoiding it.

I stood in front of my class, silently crying, unable to read aloud as the realization hit me. I’ve been trying so hard not to feel. A colleague came into my next class period and read the end of the book with my next class since I was unable to do so.WIR2_Poster2

That was last Monday. But it wasn’t until Thursday night when a new friend of mine asked me about the state of my heart. I opened my mouth and I consciously realized all the things I’ve just described. On my way home, God reminded me of a memory from many years ago. It made me laugh, then cry, then laugh while crying.

I’ve dusted off the book and will begin seeking the help I need to get it published. And I might swing into a theater and watch Ralph Breaks the Internet. Who knows…maybe it’ll remind me of an incredible memory with Amy. It does center around a unique friendship: a beautiful young girl befriends a clumsy oaf and they go on life-changing adventures together. Now, why does that sound familiar?

The Boys Next Door

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Having the opportunity to watch my oldest son’s theatre talents usually leaves me in awe…and tears. This weekend was no different. The Boys Next Door is a play about 4 adult men who have differing mental disabilities, and their caretaker who, in 7 months, is pretty burnt out by the daily struggle to teach, “raise”, and keep safe little boys in man sized bodies. It addresses some interesting issues.

Micah’s character, Norman, was a 30 year old man with Autism. Having used his younger brother for his research study, Micah was incredibly convincible in the role. From the character’s obsession with keys to his repetitive tics, from his social awkwardness to his obsession with donuts, and from his giant heart for people to his crush on a girl, Micah nailed the role. He asked me to laugh loudly during the performance because my laughter in a theatre is infectious, but I found it very difficult to laugh through the overwhelming understanding and camaraderie I found in another character – Jack, the burnt-out caregiver who tries every day to direct his charges, to keep them safe, and to help them conform more to the world around them, because the world around them will not bend to their needs, or their unique disabilities. Each day ends with his frustration of things continuing to be the same, no matter what “Jack” does. I found myself drowning in grief, in guilt, and in anguish as I watched my son and this other actor playing out the relationship I struggle to have with my middle son who desperately wants to be seen as “normal” – not special, not unique, not Autistic.

There were times in the play when I wanted to bolt from my seat and hold one of the characters while they cried, while they struggled with their fragmented understanding of the bully-world around them, while they struggled to understand the trials with which they were dealing, or while they fought to understand the feelings they were having about people in their lives. My heart broke when “Jack” took a new job because he could no longer deal with his mistakes and frustrations caused by working with the disabled population. I wanted to scream, “Don’t quit! You have no idea just how much you really are accomplishing! You have no idea!”

I can’t say that God was telling me I was doing something wrong; that I needed to change how I approached my son; or that I’ve completely made a mess of things since Amy’s death; but I can tell you that it was sobering to look at my possible future when my son doubles his current age; to see my son’s future struggles with girls, and roomates, and weight; and to hear my own words echoing around in my head. “Don’t quit! You have no idea just how much you really are accomplishing! You have no idea!”

Amy – after Jesus – was the center of Gabriel’s universe. Everything he did needed to be somehow connected to her wants, desires, or permission. It wasn’t always like that. From birth to three and a half, my little Gus wanted no one but me if I was in the room. There was a day Gus’s choices radically changed; I can see it in my head, and have replayed it over and over in my head. It wasn’t because of anything I did, honestly. It was a turf war among siblings. From that moment on, Gabriel no longer wanted much to do with me, many times saying, “Why is Dad still here. I don’t need him.”

Two years before Amy died, she consciously began distancing herself from our son, suggesting, nudging, and finally forcing him to talk with me, to problem solve things with me, to ask for my opinion or permission. Not that I hadn’t tried to build that relationship, but because, by the time Gabriel was ten, I was a complete irritation, an annoyance, a distraction to his mother. He didn’t even want to share her with his brothers. It was a difficult two years, for which I am eternally appreciative of God’s leading Amy and I both through that frustrating exercise, day in and day out…often without change. When Amy died, there was a sobering question to which I had to have an answer. “Can I do this alone?!>” There are a few more questions related to that overwhelming black hole: “Can I reach through this barrier? Will Gabriel let me parent him? Will I be able to do this without sending him to live in a facility?” But as is often God’s design, I’ve had to wait quite a while for an inkling of an answer while He was changing Gus and me, not our situation.

This morning I woke to a text message from my little Gus: “I miss you and love you.” Has he said that before? Many times. But this time, in light of the play I experienced yesterday, I found a whole deeper meaning in his words. Yes, my little Gus still misses him mommy – the topic comes up at least every week or more. Yes, he still wishes she were next to him, to guide him, to hold him, and to love on him. And yes, my little angel is connected to his daddy, no matter how flawed I am.

For me, The Boys Next Door to me, in my house, have taught me much. Maybe change isn’t an impossibility, even in the face of Autism; it just sometimes takes the unexpected to remind me what God’s been doing in me and in my boys. I may feel like “Jack” from time to time – worn out by the adnauseum and exhaustion inducing Autism – but I’m not giving up! It’s not in my make-up to quit…any of my kids.

If you ever get the opportunity to see this play (there’s still another weeked of performances here at Biola in Theatre 21) go! The team here at Biola is phenomenal! You won’t be let down. You will be challenged regarding how you interact with people whom God has created “differently” than those of us who are neuro-typical, but you won’t be disappointed. Nor will you think you wasted money to experience such a moving and life changing play.

Eating my words

humble pie
Picture from: https://dribbble.com/shots/1695927-Humble-Pie-Type 

Not too long ago, I hit a wall…a pretty big, soul-shaking, attention-grabbing, painful wall. And the month that has followed has been a difficult one. Why? What caused the sudden stop which threw everything into the air, only to slowly fall around me in a jumbled mess? A conversation with my youngest. I was apologizing for failing as a dad for the umpteenth time. In the busyness of life, I’d not been home much, nor had I the time to really speak into my sons’ daily lives.

In the conversation that ensued after the apology, we began talking about physical health.

“I used to beg your mom to take care of herself when you guys were little, but she didn’t take care of herself until it was too late.”

With the wisdom, tact, and honesty of a child, my youngest prophet said something only he could. I had just told him he needed to take care of himself and not overcommit to the various things in his life clambering for his attention and focus. “But you don’t,” he replied. I opened my mouth to protest, to deflect, to blame being a single parent, but nothing came out. I simply closed my mouth again.

Usually, when my youngest “parents me,” I retaliate and push back, reminding him, “I don’t need a parent.” But in that moment, I felt the Holy Spirit say, “He’s right.”  Realization flooded me. It was time to eat a slice of humble pie.

“You’re absolutely right. I’ve been working 7 days a week, for 3 jobs, and volunteering at the church every weekend for the past 6 weeks, I’m never home, and I’m only getting 5 hours of sleep a night.” My mind was racing with the other ways I was not taking care of me.

1. I’ve needed new glasses for 7 years, and have had a new prescription for a year, but haven’t prioritized the purchase; someone always needed something, or Christmas was coming, or…or…or…

2. I hadn’t talked to my close friends in weeks, not actually talked, voice to voice.

3. I hadn’t spent much time in prayer beyond short prayers of blessing and “God…help!” in almost a month.

4. I hadn’t been in “big church” for 6 weeks. I’d been volunteering in children’s ministry each week, but hadn’t made it to the sanctuary for one reason or another.

5. I hadn’t spent any individual time with any of my kids.

6. I’ve gained all of the weight I lost and then some.

My heart was spent. After my son went to bed, I tried to figure out the reason behind my lack of self-care. After texting a few friends (it was almost midnight), I blearily came to the conclusion: I’m lonely, and I’m way in over my head. I’ve been spending so much time “doing” and trying to make ends meet and trying to help everyone else around me and trying to not deal with the physical loss, or rather the loss of Amy physically being here.

The first year, I was numb. The second, I spent focused on helping my kids find a new normal…and paying bills. In the deepest dark of evening, after my kids went to bed, I’d fill the space with anything that kept my mind from the loneliness: television, movies, books, cleaning until I fell asleep, sometimes in the recliner, among others…because the bedroom is the place I feel most alone. It was where Amy spent her last moments…and many of her last days. It’s where I expect to go talk to my wife after a long day. It’s where we talked, and planned, and dreamed together side by side, shoulder to shoulder, or spooning. It’s where I still expect (in that moment between opening my eyes and actually waking) to wake up next to my beautiful bride, watching her sleep, holding her hand. When I sleep in my room, I lay across the bed, with my head on Amy’s pillow, hugging another pillow, watching television until I fall asleep from exhaustion. I’ve not been taking care of me; something I swore to Amy I would never do. Some of the filler was simply filler, some sin, some depression, some simply spinning my wheels to expel all energy before having to feel alone.

This morning, sitting in service with friends, our pastor spoke on Peace using Philippians 4:4-7. The Apostle Paul was in prison, writing a letter to the church at Phillipi. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” he said. We’ve all heard the sermons about adversity and rejoicing. But this morning was different. Pastor Keith highlighted something I’ve never seen before: “The Lord is near” (v. 5b). A significant part of the sermon dealt with loneliness. Referencing Isaiah 7:14, Pastor Keith reminded us that God would send a savior whom we would call Immanuel — which means God with Us! “The truth of the matter is NOT that we draw near to God but that He is seeking us out. He is near to us. We are His sheep who what? We are his sheep who are going astray and He is seeking us out.”

“We often forget, in the midst of the circumstances of life, Jesus is near.” And where have the circumstances of life caught up to me? Missing the physicality of doing life with my soul mate – being so lonely I was filling every minute so as not to deal with the void. Losing a spouse is extremely lonely. That’s obvious. It never donned on me that God is near to fill that void.

I left church this morning with a smile only to pick up a book God led me to a week ago that told the story of the prodigal son. In it, the author explained that the towns in which the parable was set would require the prodigal son to take a “walk of shame” in returning home, past all the neighbors and villagers who would have known he’d left and all the juicy bits. The Father chose not to let him walk that shameful walk…alone. The Father ran to his son and walked that road with him…and walked his son, whom he loved, back home.

A month ago, when I was hit by that immovable wall, I began the baby steps of taking care of the things I should have been taking care of for a while. I’ve been back in church – three weeks in a row. I’m wearing a new pair of glasses and can read what I’m typing without blowing up the text on the screen. I took at least a month off from working in children’s ministry, after bearing my soul to my close friend – the pastor of children’s ministry. And I’ve been stealing every moment I can to spend with my boys. In the next week, 1 of my 3 jobs will end and I’m curbing the hours on the second so I can be available to my boys and to rest and learn to allow God’s presence to fill the void.

In my search for Joy, through grief, I was reminded of true Peace.

“And the Peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7, NIV).

“So, it’s not my fault?!?” finale

After each of us battled through the horrible weight of guilt and self-loathing, there was yet one more battle that had to be waged. I had asked too much of my oldest, and the repercussions of that event had a ripple effect I did not foresee.

Ripple effect
Source: lessconversationmoreaction.com

What follows is the final excerpt from the chapter in my book, Good Grief?!?, by the same name – “So, it’s not my fault?!?”

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Right around the time of Gabriel’s incident, Micah grew incredibly anxious. One Sunday morning I was trying to get everyone up and out the door for church. I had minutes to get out the door when Micah came down the stairs.

“What’s wrong?” I was able to ask in spite of the irritation I was feeling.

“I didn’t get to sleep until around 4:00 a.m.”

“How come?”

“When I close my eyes, I keep seeing Mom’s body. Then I open my eyes and I can’t fall asleep.”

“How long has this been happening?”

“For a few months.”

I was stunned. Immediately I felt guilty for not knowing, for being an unfit father, for not having expected this problem. Then a crushing realization hit me. I had caused this.

“I’m sorry I had to wake you up and ask you for help,” I managed.

“It’s not your fault, Dad.” I could tell he believed what he was saying, but I couldn’t bring myself to do so. We talked for a couple more minutes, then I hugged him and sent him back to bed.

At church, I reached out to Miss Michelle, asking for prayer. She’s a counselor who specializes in working with teenage girls, but I knew she’d know how to pray. What I didn’t know was that God had a plan to fully relieve me of my own, self-imposed guilt.

Michelle texted me back to meet with her after the service ended. I filled her in on my conversation with Micah.

“It’s funny, Thom,” she began, “I was just in a class about the brain this week, and I learned something that I think was meant for this moment right here. Micah’s self-conscious is trying to deal with the trauma. While we sleep, our brains deal with the events of the day and file away each event for future recall. When trauma happens, it can prevent that process from happening correctly. Micah’s brain is trying to file away the pictures of his mom, but as soon as he sees the pictures in his head, he wakes up and can’t get back to sleep.”

I listened raptly as she was talking, trying to take it all in. The anxiety building in me, however, was threatening to take over my vision and hearing.

“There’s a way you can help his sub-conscious file these pictures in his memory banks and move past this. Let me show you. While we talk, I’m going to tap on your knees. Keep talking. The action will help, I promise.”

I was nervous, thinking This isn’t going to work. Michelle is a good friend, so I decided to at least hear her out and “go with it.”

“Close your eyes, Thom,” she began. “I’m going to ask you to get a picture in your head, and then I’m going to begin tapping. Are you ready?”

I closed my eyes and nodded.

“Focus on the moment you first saw Amy the morning you found her dead.” I fixed the picture in my mind, wincing a bit. “Tell me what you see.”

I explained the scene to Michelle, including all the details I could, including Amy’s purple fingers.

“Now, how do you feel?”

I opened my eyes, startled.

“Close your eyes, fix on the picture again, and tell me how you feel.” Michelle’s tone wasn’t demeaning or correcting. She was simply compassionate. I closed my eyes again, slowly, and brought up the picture.

“I feel guilty,” I managed meekly.

“Why?”

“Because I wasn’t there. She died alone.” The words came out of my mouth before I really heard them. Then I fought to keep my eyes closed. My epiphany startled me greatly. I hadn’t really known I was still holding on to this guilt.

Michelle prayed.

“Now tell me what you see, Thom,” she directed.

I refocused on the picture in my head. It had changed drastically. Amy was no longer alone in the room. Standing just behind her, with His hand on her shoulder, was a man in a white tunic. He was glowing slightly. I couldn’t see Him clearly, but I knew immediately who He was.

I stumbled with my words, continuing to stare at the picture in my head.

“Um…Jesus is standing behind Amy. She looks at peace. Her hands are still purple, and she’s still leaning up against the wall.” I paused. “But she wasn’t alone,” I finished.

Time stopped. I couldn’t hear the many people still milling about in the church sanctuary.

I never left her side, Thom.

Rivers began cascading down my face. A weight I had not realized was crushing me lifted in that moment. I exhaled a breath I seemed to have been holding on to for nearly five months. Then I opened my eyes. Michelle had stopped patting my knees. She was grinning.

“Sounds like Abba wanted to heal you too,” she said.

I stood up and hugged her. I was overwhelmed with Joy and Peace.

“It wasn’t my fault,” I managed quietly.

“No, Thom, it wasn’t. And Jesus was with her the whole time.”

 

That night, after the younger boys had gone to sleep, I sat Micah on the couch and walked him through the same process. He was as hesitant as I had been. I reminded him that Miss Michelle was a counselor with a PhD. I also reminded him that she loved us greatly and she loved God too. He finally agreed to the “odd therapy” (his words). That night, both Micah and I slept soundly. Relieved of guilt and night terrors.

It always astounds me when God uses every day, “non-holy” things in our life to move us from point A to point B. For each of my boys, what moved them from point A to point B through the battle with guilt was different. But each vehicle God used was specific to each boy’s needs, personality, and maturity level. I don’t think they’ve all “made it”; grief doesn’t just vanish. The loss of loved ones stays with us for life. We miss them. We remember them with tears and with laughter. We wish we could talk to them, and we sometimes do, as we go about our day, as if they were still right next to us. The pain doesn’t go away. I don’t think it lessens either. I think God teaches us how to grow from it, and live with it, without it destroying us completely.

“So, it wasn’t my fault?!?” part 4

Two months would pass before the last member of this now all testosterone filled home wrestled with a similar question. With the added layer of Autism, Gabriel’s battle looked quite different than the rest of our battles, but it was a battle none the less. What follows is yet another excerpt from a chapter of my book, Good Grief?!?, in which Gabriel battled the demon of guilt.

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ASoUEvents
Source: NETFLIX

Friday, January 13, 2017, was a day I had been waiting for. The first season of A Series of Unfortunate Events had been released on Netflix. I read the books a few years prior and thought they were genius. I had tried to get my boys to read the books, but none of them took me up on the charge. I knew if they liked the show (which only covered the first four books) they might read the books. Everyone was going to be home and we were going to watch it as a family. It never donned on me before we watched the first episode (spoiler alert) that the parents die in the first two or three pages of the first book. What happened that night, was heart-rending, but I don’t regret watching it with them. It was the first time my “little man of great faith” began to ask the questions that would lead him to healing.

When the second episode ended, Gabriel bolted for his bedroom. It was a little odd for Gabriel to act that way so I followed him.

“Why did she have to leave ME, Dad?!?” He was screaming. He had emphasized the word ME; I did not.

“Honey, it was time for Mommy to go to Heaven. She’s not in pain anymore. She’s not sick anymore.” I was trying to be calm and reassuring. What followed was a cacophony of questions, sobs, tears, screams, and more questions.

After each question, Gabe sobbed while I tried to answer calmly and compassionately. I struggled with words. Amy was the Autism Whisperer. She always knew what to say. She always knew what Gabriel was trying to say, even when he was frustrated and his speech was coming out all jumbled in fits and starts. At first, I thought about trying to explain the “5 Stages of Grief” – a.k.a. D.A.B.D.A. Denial. Anger. Betrayal. Depression. Acceptance. After a quick thought, I realized I didn’t know how to deliver that information filtered for an added layer of Autism. I was struggling with my answers.

“How was she sick?”

“Why did her sickness have to kill her?”

“Why did Jesus have to take her?”

“Was it my fault?”

“Why wouldn’t she wake up when I saw her? I tried to wake her up! I tried! Didn’t she want to talk to me?!?”

“I kissed her on the cheek. Isn’t true love’s kiss supposed to wake the princess?”

The last two were the hardest to answer. Gabriel’s goodbye to his mother, before the mortuary attendants took her, was the most painful thing I had ever witnessed. He had kissed his mother on the forehead and on the cheek. Now I knew a little more. I thought he had just been saying goodbye; he was actually begging me to help keep his world together.

Unlike his brothers, Gabriel never blamed himself. He blamed Amy. She had been his world. He would have taken her place if it meant he would get to talk with her one more time. To him, Amy knew his orbit centered around her. How dare she leave him? How dare she?!?

I was struggling to calm him down. Each answer to his question brought more pain and more volume. Finally, Micah stepped in with a rescue.

“Gabriel, I got the new Hillary Scott CD for Christmas. It has mom’s song on it, the one we played at the memorial service during the slideshow. Do you want me to get it so you can listen to it?” The album is titled Love Remains, and it deals with some difficult topics, always reminding the listener that “Love Remains” – that is “God Remains”.

Micah retrieved the CD and put it into Gabriel’s boom box. I was sitting on the bed, holding a still sobbing little boy. He cued up “Thy Will”, the song Amy had listened to at least once or twice a day just before she died. As the song played, Gabriel began to calm down. When it ended, he was only sniffling.

“Can you play it again, Daddy?” he asked. Gabriel rarely called me Daddy anymore. I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking the term of endearment meant I had helped him understand, even just a little bit. I got off the bed, turned off the light, and re-started the song, this time pushing the “repeat” button. As the song continued to play, I stood there in his room, by the bed, holding my little miracle’s hand. I was taken back to the concert of prayer we had in our living room when we thought Amy’s pregnancy was not going to end with a healthy baby boy. The emotion coursing through me was similar in both places. Through the first three times the song played, Gabriel cried a little bit less each time.

After the fourth play, he asked, “Tomorrow, will you tell me Mom’s whole story? Everything you know about her, I want to know. Would you please tell me?” He was pleading.

When he woke the next morning, Gabriel was happy, really happy. For the first time in months, I saw true Joy in him again. Later that day I was driving the van and he was with me.

“Daddy, I have five questions today. Would you answer my five questions, and then tomorrow answer five more?” I smiled and nodded. His five questions:

“What happened on your first date with Mommy?”

“Were you nervous the night before you married Mom?”

“What was it like being married to Mommy?”

“How was I born?” (He liked hearing the story of his birth and his mother’s heroic battle with her body to keep the pregnancy.)

“Do you have any fun memories of Mommy?”

The whole car ride – nearly an hour – we talked and laughed. He was a different kid. It was nice having my “Gus Gus” back (as Micah had nicknamed him at birth – it’s a Cinderella thing). The fount of Joy that is Gabriel was again flowing freely.

“So, it wasn’t my fault?!?” part 3

It would be a while after both Micah and me allowed the guilt we felt to be removed from our shoulders before either of my other two sons fought a similar battle. What follows is the excerpt from the same chapter of my book, Good Grief?!?, in which my youngest realized the crushing weight he’d been carrying.

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We’d spent most of the Thanksgiving weekend with family. It had been awkward. We all felt like someone was missing. We were still in the phase of ignoring the feeling, but holidays made it especially more difficult. Emotions around the house were high. Micah had been in a car accident the day after Thanksgiving. That added to the stress in our home. It was a couple days into December when Isaiah hit the same wall, or rather the wall hit him.

Isaiah had started grief counseling shortly after Amy’s death. But it wasn’t working. He wouldn’t talk about anything of consequence for any length of time. Every time his counselor or I would bring up the topic of Amy’s death, Isaiah got jumpy…He would try to change the subject, often to something “funny”. Whatever it took to not have to talk about Amy’s death, he tried it. Sometimes he said what he thought we wanted to hear, but it was clear by the actions he was just talking for our benefit. Isaiah has a tell, however, that makes it easy to read him. When he’s overwhelmed, Isaiah runs away…or rather, he hides. When he’s hurting, he often lashes out at those close to him, for very petty things.

On a Sunday night in early December, Isaiah could no longer keep everything bottled inside anymore. It was after dinner. Isaiah and Micah had a loud verbal disagreement over something minor. I knew what was happening.

“Micah, just drop it. Isaiah’s in a mood. He’s just going to say hurtful things.”

I was trying to get Micah to break away from the fight and cool off. It didn’t work. Now he was just as mad as Isaiah had been. Micah felt slighted. He thought I was siding with his youngest brother. He didn’t think I was being fair; he was clearly right. When I realized my attempt had failed, I switched tactics. I apologized to Micah and told him he was right.

“I’ll take care of it,” I reassured Micah. “Let me talk with him.”

“You ALWAYS choose him over me! You ALWAYS take his side,” Isaiah retaliated. That’s when I knew the wall was near.

“No, I don’t,” I stated quietly and calmly. “I’m not choosing sides. I’m saying Micah’s right. Usually, I defend you, but you’re not right this time.” I knew that by talking quietly, calmly, Isaiah would be pushed over the edge. He wouldn’t calm down until he truly blew his top. Helping him reach that boiling point would lead me to the heart of the problem.

Slammed Door
Source: https://ubisafe.org/explore/dorr-clipart-slammed/

“It’s not fair!” He was screaming. “Just leave me alone!” Isaiah was enraged. He stomped up the stairs, louder than he had ever done in the past. I climbed the stairs slowly after him, further pushing the boiling point. He stormed down the hallway and slammed his bedroom door behind him. I took almost twice as long to climb the stairs and make my way to Isaiah’s door.

I knocked.

“Go away!”

“Isaiah, what’s wrong?”

“I said, GO AWAY!”

I reached down and opened the door. Isaiah was lying prone on his bed. His face buried in his pillow. When he realized I had entered, he screamed into the pillow.

I took my spot on the side of Isaiah’s bed. I put my hand in the middle of his back.

“Isaiah,” I began, just above a whisper, “what’s wrong? I know this isn’t about Micah. What’s really wrong?”

“Just please go away,” he said through the muffle of the pillow.

“I can’t, Isaiah. I need to know what’s wrong, and I’m not leaving until we get to the bottom of this.”

 

I sat on that bed in near silence, hand upon my son’s back, for nearly three hours. Every once in a while I would ask Isaiah “What’s wrong?” He never answered. Midnight had come and gone. I was tired, and I had to teach Monday morning. I needed sleep. I could have justified leaving and going to bed, but I knew the situation would multiply by morning.

Isaiah and I are so very alike. I usually know what’s going through his head in any given situation. It’s the closest thing I have to telepathy (which I’ve asked God for many times). This time I knew he was angry about something related to his mom. There had been so much stress in the house. Everyone had cried buckets, that is everyone but Isaiah. He’d cried…briefly. He witnessed my breakdown over Amy’s “missing” wedding dress. He’d listened to conversations Micah and I had while Isaiah was supposed to be asleep. He knew Gabriel was an emotional mess. I added everything up and realized Isaiah had decided not to feel. He saw everything falling apart around him and decided he’d be the stable one of the family.

I finally broke the silence.

“Isaiah, you’ve got to talk to me. I’m not going to bed until this is settled.”

He finally rolled his body a little to the right and looked up at me.

“What’s going on in your head?” I asked rhetorically.

“It’s my fault,” he whispered.

“Are you talking about Micah, or something else?” Isaiah sat up in the bed.

“It’s my fault,” he repeated. “She didn’t have to die,” he whispered.

“Honey, it’s not your fault,” I said, still rubbing his back.

“I should have heard her. I should have woken up. I could have helped her.” Each statement got a little louder.

“Isaiah, there was nothing you could have done.”

“You mean I didn’t do anything.”

“No. You couldn’t have done anything. When God calls someone Home, it’s their time. We can’t stop death.”

“But…” he didn’t finish.

“Isaiah, listen to me. The doctors believe Mom died of a blood clot. There wasn’t anything that could have been done to prevent it. She would have died if I had been upstairs in the bed. She would have died if you or your brothers heard her and tried to help. There was nothing you could have done.”

“Really?” he asked feebly.

“Really,” I replied, arms outstretched. Isaiah fell into my arms and sobbed. I cried with him.

When I finally got to bed that night, four hours had passed since I followed Isaiah into his room. I got a brief amount of sleep that night. Teaching the next day was easy; I was ecstatic Isaiah was no longer believing a lie, that he was free of guilt. It would be another month before Gabriel hit the wall.