On March 16th, 2013 my friend Thomas died gut wrenchingly unexpectedly in his apartment. Thomas is the kid brother of my best friend, college roommate, and grafted in sibling, Susanna. Thomas and I weren’t really friends in the sense that we were actively involved in each other’s lives but we were friends in that we loved some of the same friends and family dearly and by default, were strongly connected. I remember visiting her home over breaks in college and Thomas would leave work early to hang with us both, to smoke Swisher Sweets in the back yard and listen to them recount their shared childhood, even though he was more reserved. He usually leaned back, quiet, taking in our incessant amount of half jokes and poorly delivered movie lines, with a small smile that always seemed to suppress which one of us was going to lose our marbles first. But really it was he who was nuts about Susanna, which was always apparent and adorable. While Sus definitely has cheek pinching cuteness herself, it was Thomas who was just so dang cute. It was more than the shaggy, tangled mess of hair, and the shorter frame, or the way he shoved his hands in his pockets in a cool, carefree manner, or that he unicycled. It was just an all-encompassing trait. He had the most distinct, adorable laugh. I think the last time I really got to hear him laugh was at our friends Ashley and Justin’s wedding rehearsal, when he pointed out a small child fervently straining his small arm towards the handle of the frozen margarita machine while his Styrofoam cup waited patiently to receive its goodness. Thomas didn’t feel compelled to avert the kid’s efforts so much as laugh hard enough for the kid to stop and stare at him. I love that memory so much. Memories are such a strange and incredible animal. It seems in my experience the moments I think I’ll recall most vividly are the foggiest and the ones that stick the most seem to cling without my consent. Sometimes I just want to think about what he looked liked over and over, anxious I will forget. Every memory holds the pressure to remember but what I’m learning in a season of loss is no substance of remembering helps the hole that person leaves in your world. The thing that will always speak louder than words of consolation or remembering is the acute reality that Thomas is never going to look me in the eye or crack a laugh or tell me about his plans.
Sus woke me up that Saturday with a phone call I hope no one has to experience. The day and weeks ahead filled with a sadness that seem to stain deeply the feeling that things would ever be normal or happy. I left the house to expend physical energy, hoping that I would be able to sleep later on, and that I would feel something other than the excruciating pain of the loss of Thomas but also knowing that Sus was altered and everything would be different. I went to a Panera shell-shocked, sitting with a bowl of soup next to a teenage couple breaking up.”Jeremy, when you drink it makes me question our relationship. You were totally flirting with her and that hurt my feelings!” Jeremy squirmed under the apparent pressure to control this volatile date, “You said it was fine for me and Sarah to be friends and that’s all last night was. If I could undo it then I would.” The sloppy bun head clamped her lips shut, hiding some ugly truth. The two held hands, as if it would bring them closer together. Thomas was going to be married. What’s the point of talking it out? You either need her, Jeremy, or you don’t. I picked at my soup, their argument starting to be muffled by my foggy mind and pounding heart. This was a mistake. Leaving my house was a mistake but I knew it all was a mistake and there was nothing about it that could be revisited or reversed.
The night before the visitation, I was packing my bags figuring out my travel plans while on the phone with my dad, who was concerned about the impending snow storm. “I would feel better if you waited it out and left for Oklahoma the next day.” He cautiously advised, as a sense of helplessness welled up in me to the size of a biting retort “I don’t care if I have to drive 20 miles per hour the whole way, I’m leaving tomorrow morning.” I snapped unfairly, slumping down in the center of my walk in closet. “What should I wear?” I asked him after a moment, feeling so deflated the question didn’t feel like I was the one asking it. I knew I was putting him out of his comfort zone. “Let me get your mom on the phone, Pumpkin.” I looked up at the rack of clothes, scanning for an answer. What am I doing on the floor? Why does deciding clothes feels unfair and impossible? This is so stupid. “Hi baby.” My mom said and I immediately felt guilty that my Mom had all her children safe and well in her world. “Mom, I don’t know what to wear. Do I need to wear pants or be dressy…?” I trailed off, unable to finish my thought. Somehow deciding what to wear had become more than deciding what to wear. Nothing in the closet was going to work. I was trying my best to mask the sobs that ensued. I felt like that closet was sucking me in. Any time I was on the phone with Sus, or friends, or family it beckoned me with privacy and guilted me with an atmosphere of dread. I hate my closet now. Some days I just need to change shirts before heading out the door and can conquer the closet. But most days if I linger longer than a quick second, looking for a particular sweater, or I run across that gray skirt I ended up wearing to the funeral, it really just makes me regret having clothes in my closet and needing to go in there. But in the same breath, I want to always dread going into that closet.
The drive to Oklahoma City to be with his family went through every in climate Missouri and Oklahoma had to offer, first incredible wind, a snow storm, sleet, rain, and by the time I left Tulsa it was cold and sunny – not a cloud in sight. My emotions were about the same. I was determined, filled with dread, anxious to arrive, reluctant to get there, sick, sad. I drove in complete silence for the entire seven hours in the car battling the worst cold I’ve ever had that momentarily provided welcomed distraction. I made that same trip six months later to go a music festival with Susanna and Thomas’ two best friends and their wives. There are some trips that need a second chance, to face your dread and relive your memories just to try to make sense of what you can, to try to heal in whatever weird form healing wants to take root. Susanna texted me to let me know by the time I would arrive she’s probably be in the shower and to just let myself in. I did and sat in the eerily quiet living room with Freddie, the family canine. We stared at each other a long time until she came out and we hugged, throats tight, Sus showing me how to be the bravest I’d ever been. “What can I do?” I remember asking. She just pressed her lips tight and looked up, as if to read a to-do list scratched at the top her skull. “We need to pick up a prescription and make sure my uncle gets to the visitation on time.” No tears. Just a solid hug that said “I’m here”. It wasn’t what either of us expected but it felt safe and we headed out to do stuff that just had to be done.
I can’t tell you how proud I am of her. I know grief does weird things but there was something innately ‘Susanna’ in her wish to make sure everyone was taken care of. She worked that visitation room like it was natural. She smiled at Thomas in his handsome outfit that she picked out and looked over at me and grinned at my tears, “There they are!” she welcomed them, grabbing my hand and letting a few escape with me as we stood at his side. Moments later she spotted a family member to greet. Survival. The weekend felt like pure survival. My heart felt like it was going to give out for Thomas’ family. This wasn’t MY brother, my son, my nephew, and the pain was so unexpected moment to moment - one moment feeling normal, laughing, eating cold ham and watching My Cousin Vinnie and the next moment quiet, exhausted hurt. Breathing was a struggle watching Sus help her mom pick out a dress the morning of the funeral or trying to sing “Abide With Me” at the service. It was impossible at the graveside watching his fiancé sob. It was dull suffocation willing myself to get in my car and leave that casket there and watching Thomas’ dad put on trench coat and walk slowly to his car to head home. I found myself vomiting to the Starbucks barista that night before heading back to Sus’ house, unable to connect to the wireless on my work computer “I just came from a funeral and I can’t connect to the internet.” I blurted, horrified to discover tears began pouring without my consultation. I was such a mess. The late night conversations with her family that night were precious. There were the tiniest flecks of hope in them. Maybe they glittered ever so quickly only to hit shadow, but it was there.
As it would happen, at the beginning of the year I asked the Lord to teach me how vulnerability through grief. There are a lot of things I could have tried to cultivate in my life, in the hopes of being a gentler person, but this was the thing that pressed in on me, deeply and without obvious reason. I’ve tried to write this many times throughout the year, as one loss lead to another, but I find myself towards the end of the year, unsure of how to unpack the year and examine my lessons in grief. I had no idea what the year would hold, especially with the death of Sus’ baby brother. I’ve lost my grandmother, my great-grandfather, childhood family friends Ben and Tyler, the unborn baby of my dearest friends that we’ve prayed years for, my honorary grandmother Kmomma, and said goodbye to a relationship I’d held on far too long, all in the last nine months. As hard and unbelievably sad this year has been, I’m in the outer rim of these losses, feeling more pain for Thomas’ family – especially Susanna, my mom and dad, my grandmother, Ben and Tyler’s families, my friends.
I’m grateful for my loved ones opening themselves up to me, to entrust their loss with my daggerish attempts to support them. I’m a loved person and I’m loved by the most incredible people who point me to Christ in their heaviest of boots. My friends are velveteen rabbits, worn thin, buttons and zippers loved off, ragged, tired of hurting, but steady, offering what little energy and love remains in their reserves to walk with me. I hope you have the honor of knowing those kinds of friends.
I’m learning how supporting someone in loss is both complex and simple. It’s willing yourself into hurt. I have the choice that Susanna does not. I’ve learned I can be a jerk, selfish, needy to the people who need my support most. I’ve learned my car is my safe place to cry. I’ve learned that only one person can fall apart at a time, so be sensitive to who needs to fall apart most. I’ve learned that Sleeping At Last singing to me feels like the hug I can’t get when I need it. I’ve learned that death is the least natural part of being human, reminding me that I need to grace to just get out of bed some days. I’ve learned that I too, will lose more of my loved ones without my consent and no amount of mental preparation ever prepares you for the sting of it. I’ve learned the power in prayer with the body of Believers. I’m learning that to heal is being angry and upset and praying and making those desperate phone calls …often. A lot. That it’s opening yourself to others with the good chance of being impaled with insensitivity or ignorance of those who surround you. I learn that God is both silent and loud and no amount of anger or sadness or “good attitude” will make Him make corrections to His story. He is both hard to lean on and yet the only place to go. He is wild and he is a haven. I am learning that He holds us together and He is enough.
Abide With Me – Henry Lyte, 1847
- Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide;
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.
- Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see—
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
- I need Thy presence every passing hour;
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s pow’r?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.
- I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness;
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.
- Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;
Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.