The Forgotten Ones

A year of reconfiguration. 

From when my world was blown open. 

And I’ve done most of my thinking in empty parking lots. 

Perhaps this year, your world was blown apart. Grief. Heartache. Depression. Anxiety. Anger. Addiction. Death. 

There’s a hole in your life, and it’s in the shape of your worst shame, your worst fears, your worst pain. And every good, joyful thing keeps slipping right on through the rend.

And now, it’s at Christmastime when perhaps you feel the most displaced.

You dream of home, but maybe you have never really had one. You dream of home, but maybe in yours there’s a gulf between you, and the ones you love. You dream of home, but the faces of the ones you long for have faded with the fires of time into nothing but ash.

You dream of home, but maybe it’s more that you’re wanting a place to belong, a place to rest, than a place to lay your head. You want a place to set down what ails you behind walls that feel safe. 

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It’s allegedly the most beautiful time of year. Meanwhile, you feel like a sojourner. Like you’re driving down rows of homes slowly and silently on snow covered streets. Headlights illuminating the pavement, your muddied reflection in the window. You’re outside looking in at the joy of families, of people.

And it’s worse than realizing that you don’t have what they have. You’re beyond feeling the ache to have what they have. You feel like maybe, it was never for you. You want a plug for the shame-shaped hole in your life, and it can’t be filled.

You felt forgotten this year.

Others were allowed to carry on, while you just carried pain.

You’ve worn the mantle of hardship this year, and you’ve really just wanted a place to set it down. Maybe it’s been longer than this year that you’ve been carrying the luggage for loneliness. 

You’re in a place where pain feels like the primary nerve, and you forgot what it feels like to belong so much that when your heart beats in your chest, it’s actually thudding hard against hope, and with the reality that you were made for more than this. 

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We think our pain sets us aside and ostracizes us. That it casts us out, like a vagrant flung out into the night to skid across the sidewalk beneath streetlights where no one sees them. That we have to carry our anguish alone. That it discards us.

This is the lie of pain that I have become versed in on dozens of starry nights, in empty parking lots while groceries melted in the backseat, and the streetlights were the only ones who knew.

In the place where I finally breathed. Where I exhaled. Alone. I let it out. My anguish. Where it couldn’t hurt anyone. In between running errands so that I didn’t have to stop. Where I didn’t need to bother anyone. Where no one might miss me for an hour.

This was and is the wall I built tediously. Encased inside the mistruths of pain and grief and hurt and anger. The belief that the only one who should have the burden of what hurts me is…me.

After many days of feeling forgotten and discarded. Like my pain was a hot potato for others that they didn’t want to end up stuck holding. Hardly anyone wants to talk about it. Who could have even said what I needed to hear?

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The lies of pain. The ghosts of failures past that tells you it won’t ever be the same. That it might not even be worth it anymore. That tells you that you are a ship lost as sea, already forgotten and mourned before you’ve even sunk.

It took many internal dialogs with myself and with God while the radio crackled for me to see. To see how many things…never really belonged to me in the first place. That I wasn’t just grieving something lost, I was really grieving what I really am: my humanity. And grieving the reality that I controlled nothing.

I was grieving that thing that left a hole in me, wondering why God wouldn’t just patch it for me. When the truth is that we are actually the patches that belong in HIS tapestry, and have been all along. He doesn’t fill our holes, He makes us a part of his woven glory for all of the tomorrow’s. And each imperfect square tells a story of how He has hemmed us in.

It took me a while to realize that my pain doesn’t shut me out. It is my pain that actually gives me a seat at the table, and a portion beyond words.

Especially at Christmas.

We forget that Christmas was really about saving. About the frailty of humanity. About needing something to fill us and plug our holes.

The peel of the bells pierce through the dark of the night telling all to come close.

A star in the empty skies that shone forth the way.

Angels and heavenly hosts that illuminated the crests of green hills dotted with their flock, and bid strangers, the least amongst them, to not be afraid. Not anymore.

I remember that the shepherd went out to find that one last sheep, and left the other 99 who were safe while he did. And it was His joy to do so.

I remember the father who welcomed back the prodigal son who left, and got lost along the way in his own mistakes and pride. Whose redemption had nothing to do with him, and everything to do with a Father’s unwavering love.

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I remember that no matter where I go, where the wings of the day take me or where my days might eventually end, that there is nowhere hidden I could go. Because I have been seen since before I came to be. And because nothing is hidden from Him. 

I remember Mother Mary of sorrows. At the foot of a rugged cross wondering why, and what it must have felt like for her three days later. 

I see time and time again that being in pain, is never reason enough to not be found. Never a reason to be forgotten. That it is never a reason to be lost entirely.

I see time and time again that pain is actually the reason that God came for us. That the author of all of me must know what it means to hurt. That to taste sorrow is to taste God.

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We find that we weren’t forgotten at all. We had just forgotten who are. 

Or maybe, we had to learn who we have really been all this time. 

And when we arrive at the place we were always been destined to be, we find He has already been there. Before us. Each step measured, each point charted in His map of the stars and eternity.

Every beautiful AND hurting thing named. 

And our heart will not beat so that we can live. 

It will beat because we are named.

Because we belong.

Because we are free.

Because we are home. 

 

 

 

 

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Veteran’s Day

When he stood on yellow footprints after filing off a bus hundreds of miles away from home. When drill instructors got in his face, and tossed everyone’s personal belongings in a heap in the middle of the floor.

I wasn’t there.

I didn’t drill with him.

I didn’t crawl through muck and filth on my belly and feel my clothes catch on barbed wire.

I didn’t do the push up’s with him. The runs. The PT.

I wasn’t with him when they placed the globe and anchor in his hand no larger than a fifty cent piece, but large with the weight of the spirits from thousands of men who went before him, and the divine plight of those of us who are sheepdogs called to protect.

I wasn’t there when he was deployed. When he worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When he stood watch in the cold under an Iraqi sky, and practically melted in the 120 degree heat.

When he carried his weapon with him everywhere, and his brain never ceased with the thought that any moment, he might be woken to find hell unfolding, and this could be the day he doesn’t come back.

I’ve never had to wonder what I might do in the case of all possible eventualities, and whether or not every important person in my life knows how much I love them in case I never get the chance to tell them again.

I wasn’t there to see he and his comrades form a bond that goes beyond friendships and brotherly bonds. When he was sharing tight quarters with men who snored and stank, and made him laugh and pissed him off because they were all beyond bone tired, and missed home and the taste of mom’s apple pie. Only he’d have readily died for any of them without hesitation even if they did occasionally fuck up and grated each others nerves.

I wasn’t there for the close call. The phone calls home after where he couldn’t talk about it. The bullets that whipped by his head. The anguish of trying to discern a civilian from the enemy, and for every caution ringing in his head like alarm bells.

I came into view when he was mostly through his four years of serving.

And we’ve since left that time in the rear view mirror of our Chevy blazer as we pulled out of our California driveway, and there was so much my young heart didn’t know then. I didn’t know how to help someone adjust from living that kind of high octane life back into living the life of an every day American who had never had to worry about such things.

I didn’t know how to quell the heart that didn’t know what it was to relax anymore. I didn’t realize the privilege I had in feeling safe in nearly every place I went. Where I could trust the stranger to the left of me in standing in line at the movie theater. I’ve never had to relearn how to drive a car without feeling like I wanted to pull my skin off for fear that the vehicle or pile of highway debris next to my car might explode.

I can’t fathom the depths of his ache for the faces that didn’t come home. I can’t walk in his shoes every day as he builds his life knowing that there were others who never got that chance to do the same. I can’t imagine sledging ahead forward, trying to leave those things behind in a race that feels like it’s run in circles.

I see the uniforms tucked in the back recesses of the closet, and try to never ask questions unless he seems ripe for my curiosity. I remind myself I couldn’t never understand in the way no man could ever understand what it’s like to see a yowling infant pulled from you and placed across your chest, and feeling the brevity of the universe cascade into one crescendo moment where you were suddenly sure that was all you were born to do.

And there he was, practically fresh from being out of high school, signing away eight years of his life and I wasn’t with him to see the pen in his hand flick across the line.

And still, it aches inside of me. Because I want the world to know. To see him. To understand what it’s cost him and taken away from him and done to him and molded it into. I want all of the thanks and gratitude for what my husband has endured, even though it would never be enough.

I’ve learned to be the casual observer and I see the way he gets quiet after watching certain movies or the news. I know what when fall encroaches at the end of summer and the leaves begin to change, something recedes inside of him. I have tried to imprint that on me, his silent struggle. I have tried to prepare myself to catch him should he need it.

And time marches on, and he knows I’m here. But what could he ever say? And what could I do to understand? When it seems like just yesterday I was washing uniforms and we were driving through the gates on base to get home. My role here is so small.

I try to understand what it would be like if the biggest parts of me, the stuff that makes me who I am, became a date on the calendar. If they hung in the back of the closet. A constant reminder that I don’t need to think that way anymore. Act that way anymore. If the world expected me to carry on and act accordingly. If I was the only one that knew those things hung like drapes in the back of the closet.

It’s something that never turns off.

The best I can do is tell him how proud I am of him. That it means something that he has never wasted a moment he was given since he came home that wasn’t given to someone else. He has lived a hundred sunshine, cloud filled and bracing lifetimes for those who never could.

In awe of those who never will.

And I have held his hand. Not knowing what I could ever do but stand beside him.

And told him that was enough.

Grief is not the end of you

I’ve been trapped in the same hospital room for a year.

I can still see the two rows of glass standing guard on either side of me, my fractured reflection in each pane as I walked past the silent sadness in each room. Doors and windows and off white curtains running into each other down a beige hallway. Dated floor tiles with brown specks become a river as the smell of antiseptic and thin cotton perfumed the air.

I can tell each hospital I have visited over the last ten years apart by the aesthetics Even though they all seem the same to me now. Even if it doesn’t matter anymore.

On my worst days, this is where I end up.

I replay this scene, and many others, over and over again in a devastating loop. And I hate myself for it. For being so weak.

A long road with nine years of hospital stays, visitor badges, and frantic phone calls that came late at night or early in the morning. How else would bad news travel save for 6 a.m. Sunday morning phone calls or 11 p.m. texts on a Tuesday? The faintly blue walls and fake flowers on side tables in hospital hallways were like lipstick on a pig.

Because no one could ever assure us that it would get any better.

It was a slow siphoning. A meandering descent.

Like a giant bucket full of water, with a minuscule hole drilled in the bottom, we didn’t notice the changes at first. We didn’t notice that the silver thread of my father’s life was nearly gone until one day it suddenly was. But we had silently been careening to that moment for nearly a decade.

And still, we weren’t ready for the impact.

On my worst days, I’m back by his side, swallowing a brick of tears and burning anguish as we all waited for the lines on his monitor to flatten and anger singed a bitter blister inside of me.

I couldn’t decide if I wanted him to stay or go, to keep holding on or to infinitely release, even though that had been his life for the last decade. Even though I had already asked that of him again and again. I couldn’t ask that from him even once more because he had done all of that, and more. What else can a father give?

On my best days, I remember that it won’t always be this way.

After his funeral, we made our way to a familiar small, sandy beach. The sky churned in a wild sea of gray, the clouds turning over like a river of lava, like they were hot and flowing until they piled on top of one another, building something unknown. The water was murky. The grainy sand bone white as it crunched beneath our feet.

Somehow, the fact that it was a less than ideal day that we had chosen to spread his ashes was actually comforting.

I’m new to this grief thing.

Before that day, I had thought that maybe, by the time we stood at the edge of the water he loved so much and let him go, eight months and a few mornings after he had left us, that it would begin to feel like true closure. When in truth, letting go of some of the last tangible pieces of him was a painful act more than it was transcendent.

The day was a confusing mess of gray, rain that spit from the sky, and winds that churned the waters below. The air stung our faces, and we let him go into something wild. We gave him over to the uncertainty, and that seemed to make a modicum of sense after eight months of being confused over how someone can truly be gone.

It didn’t mean that it was over. But it meant that we began to accept that truth of the matter. That we all fade, no matter what. That those around us will fade, and we might have to be here to watch. That life was still infinitely mysterious in its at times unforgiving nature. But in the tangled web of uncertainty and beauty, something beautiful still throbs even when we are broken. In darkness, something hopeful and light pulses even still.

We accepted the inevitable that we couldn’t escape. But by setting him free into the mist, right in the middle of it, we agreed that we were trying to figure it out. To discover our way through it. To make peace with everything.

I sat on that same beach, two months later. On Father’s Day.

Aviator shades on, shoulders out, freckled skin hot, the weather and the day could not have been any more different. This was my first time back to that same place, and I wasn’t sure how I would feel about it. Or in what state I would find myself.

Only on that day, in the place of my sorrow months before, I wasn’t alone on the beach. Families lounging on plastic chairs and beach blankets dotted the shore. People played in the warm and clear water. I found a spot beneath a tree and sat. Watching.

You would never have believed this was the same place.

I took my children swimming yesterday. Three busy bodied children in fluorescent swimsuits stood at the edge of the shore. The older two hesitantly let the water lap around their ankles, while my third child alligator crawled through the water, the soft sand pillowing under her knees.

My two oldest were afraid of the jelly fish. They were afraid of what they could not see. My youngest child hardly took notice of their worries, instead enjoying herself on a perfect day.

She hasn’t learned to be afraid yet. She just dives right in – to anything.

I assured my children that I was watching over them. That the waters were clearer than they thought. That they were safe. From jellyfish, from waves and all manner of scaled and clawed sea creatures.

They doubted me, while my youngest continued her fun, soaking up the moments and almost becoming too brave as she inched further out.

I marveled at how brave we are before we learn to be afraid.

I realized that I might never be like that again.

 

I remember being like them. Being stung by a jellyfish hidden in the gray waters. Rocked over by the waves until I swallowed mouthfuls of saltwater. Raw wounds on my shoulders and knees as the ocean flung me back and then began to pull me out again.

I remember feeling helpless. So many times in the last year, I have felt so helpless.

How weak we feel when life mercilessly knocks us to our knees. How it clutches  at us and shakes us until the air is ripped from our lungs. How it rubs us raw even while we still suffer. We feel small, like will never be brave again. Like we couldn’t ever be again even if we had the choice.

But really, it is after life has shaken us, has devastated us, has reminded us that its language was always uncertainty, that we should feel the most brave.

Grief is a torch that will only light our steps so much.

But it is peace the illuminates the way.

Grief is not the end of us.

Even as we make bedfellows with it for many days in the dark. Even as we begin to comfortably wear it. Even as we swallow it, hold it close to ourselves and count it only as ours.

I’ve marked my grief these last twelve months. I’ve made it my own, unwilling to share it. To talk about it. To expose it would leave me helpless. It has become a shield, something to wield. As I let myself cower behind it. As I try to forgive myself over and over again for feeling so weak that I can’t move forward. When I tell myself that I can’t. I can’t move on from when he left me. What if my life is unrecognizable without him? What might he think? 

How does one move on without a place for the ones they have lost?

Grief is a torch that shows us the path, but it is peace that illuminates the way ahead. It is peace that compels us to move and find our footing again. It is peace that wills us to be brave. It is peace that tells us that we must trust the uncertainty.

One day, I pray I will be far away from that room. Where our bodies were crowded close together. Where we held his hands and whispered to him as we silently prayed that maybe he heard us one last time. That he heard us tell him that it was okay, that we weren’t going to ask him to stay one more time.

Peace tells me that grief isn’t the end. My ashes become an adornment. The thin soot of my pain. It tells me that fire can be both devastating and cleansing, and that death can make the things left behind beautiful. It can be a catalyst. The fire that sparks. The end is only the beginning, for him in eternity and now for me, still on Earth.

Grief is the end of the chapter. But not the story.

Not of me.