death

Where Grief and Gratitude Meet

Last week felt like one giant win for Chaos, Fear, and Grief.  It was a week marked by terrible loss. Innocent men and women in Paris and Nigeria and Lebanon and Syria lost their lives to violence. Men and women in my country lost their sense of human decency to fear and self-preservation. A friend of mine in South Africa lost two of his friends last week to cancer. And Jonathan and I and the rest of the Wheaton College community lost two of our beloved English professors in the space of three days. I don’t have words for the collective grief of the world right now. I barely have words for my smaller, personal grief, but I feel that I need to say them anyway.

Grieving people talk about how to make sense of loss or come to terms with pain. I don’t know how to do either of those things. I only know how to say thank you.

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Brett Foster was 42 years old, a brilliant man and gifted poet with an extraordinarily kind and generous spirit. Jonathan and I actually met in Dr. Foster’s Ancient Literature class at 9:00 AM Monday morning our very first day of college. Dr. Foster, listening to you read The Odyssey and The Aeneid brought these epics to life for me in a way I’d never experienced before.  I can still hear your voice in my head when I read them today. Thank you for sharing your passion, your insights, and your love for words with me.

The summer after our freshman year at Wheaton, Jonathan did a summer study abroad program in England led by Dr. Foster along with a few other professors. One afternoon he announced his intention to see a special exhibit and invited anyone who wanted to to join him. Jonathan was the only student who showed up, so he and Jonathan went tot he museum by themselves and spent the afternoon together. Jonathan remembers how incredibly kind, genuine, and down-to-earth he was, even as a professor spending time with a student.

Thank you for seeing beauty in the world, but more than that, thank you for bringing beauty to the world through your words, through your authenticity, and through your generous spirit.

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Roger Lundin was dear to me in ways I don’t know that I can explain. Of all of my professors at Wheaton, he was perhaps the one who left the biggest impact. His death was sudden, unexpected and also much too soon. Dr. Lundin was big in every sense of the word – a tall man with long lanky limbs ending in large hands and feet, a huge, booming voice, a staggering intellect, and an enormous, tender heart.

He had a memory like no one else I’ve ever known. I once went to his office to discuss a paper I was having trouble with. “This is what I want to talk about, but I’m just not sure how to tie it in with the larger historical context.” He leaned back in his chair and thought for no more than 15 seconds before saying, “There’s a book I think you can find in the school library,” he named an obscure title, “and around page 140 there is a paragraph near the bottom of the page that speaks to exactly what you’re saying.” I left his office and went to the library where I found the book and the passage exactly where he said I would.

Last fall when Jonathan was applying for graduate school, he asked Dr. Lundin to write him a recommendation. Being nearly five years out of college, he was apologetic and tried to remind him of who he was. Dr. Lundin wrote back, “Of course I remember you. I think of you and Lily often and wonder how you’re doing in South Korea.”  He said he would be delighted to write the recommendations.

Most significantly for me, though, he had a dear and tender spirit. Through years of classes with him, I was repeatedly moved by the way he spoke of his wife – someone he regarded as the best and most vital part of himself and whose wisdom and input he not only deeply respected, but found essential. During my senior year at Wheaton when Jonathan and I were engaged I started seeing a therapist. I was trying to come to terms with how someone as deeply afraid and distrustful of men as I was could possibly enter a marriage. I remember telling my therapist, “There are only four men in the world I’ve never felt threatened by or afraid of in some way: my dad (though I was deeply afraid of his disapproval), Jonathan, my friend Leigh’s dad who I grew up with, and Dr. Roger Lundin.” (I’m sure there were people I wasn’t thinking of, but that’s how I felt at the time. You get the idea, I had issues).

Dr. Lundin, I think I remember ever story you ever told. Thank you for making me love Emily Dickinson and Dostoyevsky, for introducing me to Milosz, and teaching me that literature and faith were inseparable. But mostly, thank you for teaching me not to apologize for who I am, and for making me believe that there were men in the world who could be trusted and that marriages really could be beautiful, equal partnerships.

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I confess that I don’t want to die and I think it’s brutally unfair that these men died last week. I am one of hundreds, of thousands, of students whose lives were shaped by these men and in a small way, it comforts me to know that I am just one of many who care deeply that these men lived and mourn deeply that they’re gone.

There is nothing I can say to make this sting less. All I’m left with is, “Thank you.” Thank you for sharing yourselves with me, and with so many others. Thank you for showing me how to live a life that matters. Thank you for being exquisite examples of lives well-lived.

The following is a poem that Dr. Foster wrote as he neared the end of his life. I want to finish with just this, Dr. Foster, you did give the sickness and the shivering meaning. And you and Dr. Lundin both showed us all how to go out singing. I’m deeply saddened that you’re gone, but I am profoundly grateful for the lives you lived.

Isaiah 43

I am making all things new! Or am trying to,
being so surprised to be one of those guys
who may be dying early. This is yet one more
earthen declaration, uttered through a better
prophet’s more durable mouth, with heart
astir. It’s not oath-taking that I’m concerned
with here, for what that’s worth— instead just a cry
from the very blood, a good, sound imprecation
to give the sickness and the shivering meaning.
Former things have not been forgotten,
but they have forgotten me. The dear, the sweet,
the blessed past, writes Bassani. Tongue is the pen.
Donning some blanket of decorousness
is not the prophet’s profession, not ever.
Not that I’ve tasted the prophet’s honey or fire:
I’m just a shocked, confounded fellow
who’s standing here, pumping the bellows
of his mellifluous sorrow. Yet sorrow’s the thing
for all prophets. Make a way in the wilderness,
streaming your home-studio-made recordings
from a personal wasteland. These are my thoughts.
I can’t manage the serious beard. My sackcloth
is the flannel shirt I’m wearing. But the short-circuited
months have whitened my hair, and it’s not
for nothing that Jeffrey calls me, with affectionate
mockery, the silver fox. It’s a prerequisite, finally—
being a marginal prophet, but a severe attention
to envisioned tomorrows must be present, too,
must be perceived as possible, audible, or followable.
There’s a hypothetically bright future for everything,
each wounded creature that is bitten, or bites.
And speaking of things overheard, you heard right:
if I have to go out, I am going to go out singing.

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Life and Death: You know, the little things

My great aunt passed away this past Sunday. I know for many people a great aunt is a more distant relative, someone they only see a few times during their life, but my great aunt was like a second grandmother to me. She never married and didn’t have children of her own. She was handicapped her whole life and my grandmother took care of her, so she was a part of all of our family events and gatherings.  When my grandparents moved from New Orleans to live next door to my family after Hurricane Katrina she moved with them into a retirement community right around the corner from my grandparents’ new home. And when she was no longer able to manage her own apartment, she moved across the street into the nursing home.

My great aunt, Eva Marie Hubert. Isn't she lovely?

She was 80 years old, but she was mentally sharp as a tack, remembered everything, and didn’t even need reading glasses to see things perfectly. She was born in 1931 and contracted polio when she was only 10 months old. For her entire life she wore braces on her legs. She used a walker, and later a wheelchair when she lost the strength in her arms required to use the walker. My husband and I went with my family to visit her on Christmas Day. She was sitting up in her chair, looking very frail and incredibly thin, but talking about how she didn’t want to miss the Saints game on Monday night and her friend who was bringing her a pecan pie later on. She loved to give gifts. As a child I remember that every time we saw her she’d have picked out a few little things for us and have them wrapped up nicely, even after she was retired and had very little money to live on. Even in the nursing home, she would take candy or little things that people brought to her and tie them up in little plastic bags and hand them out to others in the nursing home who she thought looked sad. This Christmas she decided to give each of her grand-nieces a piece of jewelry from her own jewelry box.

Here she is opening her Christmas present when we went to see her on Christmas Day

A few days after Christmas she went into the hospital with pneumonia and didn’t recover. It’s always sad to lose someone, but I genuinely know that she was ready to go. She had lived a very full life and she wasn’t afraid to leave it. I think my grandmother will be affected the most by her loss as she has been caring for her sister since she was a little girl, but we are all thankful that she isn’t suffering and that she lived such a long, full life.

While this post is partly meant to remember and to celebrate my great aunt, it’s also about those of us still here. Even though my aunt has been steadily declining over the last few years, the finality of her death has really impacted me. It may not be as jarring or as tragic as a sudden death or the death of someone very young, but it’s still strange to me that she was here and we were talking with her just two weeks ago and now she’s not anymore. It’s made me realize how attached I am to this life, in spite of all the little things I find to complain about.

I was talking to Jonathan a few nights ago about how there’s a sense in which I feel that I, as a Christian, am not supposed to fear death. I’m not supposed to long for more of life. I’m supposed to embrace the time I’m given, but rest knowing that when this life is over I move on to something greater. But if I’m honest, I do fear it to some extent. I like this world. I love doing life with my husband and having a home together. I want to have babies and to see all of the amazing places in the world. I want to experience cultures, learn languages, adopt a child, write a book.

Here is a secret about me that is going to sound terribly morbid. For some reason I could never identify, I have always believed I would die young. I have no reason to think this –no medical conditions, no family history of sudden, early death, no impulse to engage in dangerous activities. It’s just something I’ve always believed somewhere in the back of my mind. It wasn’t until my relationship with Jonathan got really serious that I was able for the first time to even imagine myself growing old –because I can imagine him growing old and I can’t imagine ever being without him. And I think maybe it is this underlying belief, however unfounded, that subconsciously drives my overwhelming desires to travel and see and go and do and be and not waste time doing things I don’t care about.

I know that as a Christian I am supposed to feel that death only ushers me in to something greater than I can ever imagine – the presence of God.  And I do believe that. But there’s something even about heaven that I’ve always found frightening. Jonathan says it is because we cannot wrap our minds around something as large as eternity and it’s unsettling to think about the unknown and the unknowable. We are always somewhat afraid of what we don’t know and can’t anticipate. Sort of like how I (and I think many people) felt right before I got married—you know it’s going to be the most wonderful thing and you are excited for it, but at the same time, you are sort of anxious because it’s something you personally have never experienced and can’t quite imagine. You don’t have a mental framework for it. It is unlike anything you’ve done before.

I am not one of those people who can just pretend to have the “right” perspective on everything. I believe that there are people who genuinely feel more excited about heaven than earth, who have a more eternal perspective on life and death. But I admit that I am not there yet. And while this distresses me because I have always wanted to give the “right” answer, to have the “right” attitude, to say the “right” thing, I also think there’s something to learn from my own frailty.

If I recognize that I love life and say that I’m so grateful for the minutes and the hours and the days that I’ve had and that I hope to have, why do I still spend so much of that precious time just trying to get through it? Why do I sit at work and wish the time away?  Why do I spend the week just trying to push through so that I can get to the weekend? If I make the goal of each day to get to the end of it so I can once again crawl into my lovely bed, will those days add up to a life whose goal was just to reach the end of it? And isn’t that the exact opposite of that driving force that (sometimes unhealthily, I admit) beats with my heart Go everywhere. See everything. Don’t waste your days.

Conclusion: it’s ok that I can’t grasp eternity and that in my frailty, I even find it somewhat frightening. There is grace for that. It’s ok that I love life. It is a gift. I can’t place all of my value on things I will gain or experience in this life, but I can take these feelings and allow the Holy Spirit to use them. To say to my wandering heart, focus yourself. Live with intention. Stop running through your days just trying to make it to the end. Be attentive and be present, even when all you want to do is go home. Be mindful that the life you want to live is made up of what you do with your individual days, not just a handful of special moments.

So…Aunt Nan, I hope you’re dancing for the first time in your life with no braces on your legs. I have no way of knowing how many days I have left, if there is any validity to my feeling that I will lead a short life. But I trust that whenever my time here is over, there will be grace to bring me home. Without fear. And I sincerely hope, without regret.