Monday, August 26, 2019

WIDOWED: It ends with an "E"

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
John 13:34-35
The phone rings at 6PM Sunday evening, the display flashing the number of the medical examiner's office.  The two older kids have gone home with their partners, Allen has taken over the computer in my office, and I am sitting in the living room, sipping from a cup of tea and trying not to look at Ron's empty chair. I pick up the phone.
"This is Jenny," says the voice on the line. "From last night." I inhale sharply, the images and sounds replaying in my brain. EMT's. Flashing lights. Ambulance. Police. Hurried phone calls. Panicked offspring. 
"I wanted to tell you that we've ruled your husband's death as natural causes, due to cardiac arrest. He simply fell asleep and his heart stopped. He would have felt no pain, had no warning."
I let my breath out slowly. "Thank you," I say. "It helps us to know that."
There is a pause on the other end of the line. I take a sip of my tepid tea. My relationship with this young woman will be brief, based only upon this heart rending loss. I know nothing of her faith, but I say it anyway. "It helps us to know that Ron fell asleep and, when he woke up, he saw God."
Jenny does not respond. I wait, years of practice in hospital ER's and trauma
wards teaching me patience. "You know," she says quietly, "this job is pretty sad. I see a lot of the same thing, day after day. And the families I meet sort of blend together. But," and I think I hear her voice crack a bit, "I'm going to remember your family."
I manage a weak laugh. "Well, we're pretty memorable," I say, thinking of how my tall children--most over 6 feet--towered over the petite young lady who came to examine Ron.
"You are." I can imagine a smile. "Because your family showed me something I seldom see in this job. Love."
Love. It hasn't always been easy. There have been too many surgeries, too many hospitalizations, too many chunks of Ron torn away from us in the last 19 years. Things that should have been his responsibilities fell onto me. And the last two years, when Ron needed help with everything, were particularly grueling. To the outside world, it would appear that Ron's later life held little worth.
But the world would be wrong. Every time he was hospitalized, we were given a chance to demonstrate our faith. Not a surgery or an infection or a treatment happened without prayers for doctors and nurses, without hymns and Bible verses filling his room. Without cards from my students, holiday decorations, visits from our children, and as much love as we could pack into a ten by ten foot space. 
Matthew 28:19-20 tells us to " go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." As a new believer at the tender age of fourteen, I wondered if I would have the courage to enter the mission field and go to foreign and unknown places.
There are few places more foreign, unknown, terrifying, and unpredictable than hospitals. Yet those became our mission fields. 
"When I was examining your husband," Jenny continues, "I could see he had been well cared for. He was clean, no bruises, no sores. It was evident to me that he'd had excellent care. But even more than that was what I heard from you and your children in the kitchen." She sighs. "Too often I hear people arguing when someone dies, blaming each other, fighting over possessions. But you and your children were telling stories about your husband, crying some and laughing some, sharing good memories." Her voice gentles. "He was someone I wish I had known."
I am touched by her words and I choose my own carefully. "We know Ron is in
Heaven," I say. "We have faith that his struggle is over and he is with God."
"It was nice to see that faith," she says. "And I just wanted to tell you that, well, your husband and your family shared something special with me. Gave me some things to think about."
Jenny and I talk a few more minutes. She says I should feel free to call her if I have any questions about Ron's death. I know I will not. Jenny's entrance into our lives has been brief, but I cannot help but believe she is richer for it.
As I hang up the phone, I see in my mind flashes of the many hospital rooms Ron has inhabited. We planted seeds there. It had not been our choice, but we went into the world we had been thrust into and preached the gospel the best way we could (Mark 16:15).
I get up from my seat and head to the kitchen to warm my tea and as I do, I pause at the chair where Ron so recently sat, the chair where he died. I give it a pat and smile.
Even at the end of his life, Ron was an example to other people.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

VOICES FROM THE EDGE: The Art of Magical Thinking

You will go out in joy
    and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
    will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
    will clap their hands.

Isaiah 55:12

I am at my desk, editing a dissertation for a client, when Allen slides a piece of white paper to me. Before I turn to my son, I put on my "I-believe-anything you say" face. "Hi," I say.

"This will be Dad's new body," he says and taps the paper.

"Oh." I study the sketch he has made. The facial features are blurred, but the outline has broad shoulders, muscular arms, a slim waist, long and rugged legs, slender feet. It is clearly human, but I know certain attributes have been influenced by the places we have visited in the past two weeks: the tallest tree at Rosetree Park, the strongest horse at Linvilla Orchards, the oldest bridge at Smedly, the fastest speed skater we could find on Wikipedia.

This is magical thinking at its best and most concrete, Allen's firm belief that if he can just concoct the right ingredients, his recently deceased father will come back again in a new body, one not broken by illness.

It began with the trees of the field.

Allen, who lives on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum and grapples with a world that is too loud, too bright, and too overwhelming, came in from the Plaza down the street one day last week and said to me, "The trees are whispering Dad's name."

"That's nice," I said. "God made the trees and Dad is now with God."

He gave me a curious look. "Not yet," he told me.

"But you know Dad died. You know he went to Heaven and God gave him a new body."

Allen nods. "I know. But I also know that Dad fooled death before. Maybe he can do it again. Remember?"

I remember. The night of the car accident, the surgeon who put the pieces of Ron back together again said to me, "Your husband is a strong man. Only a strong man could survive that." Time and time again in the last nineteen years, surgery after surgery, Ron defied the odds. Until on July 13th, he didn't.

I try to reason with Allen. "But you saw Dad at the funeral. You were there when we buried his body."

My son nods. "That was his OLD body. He didn't need it anymore. This," and he taps on the paper, "is his NEW body."

I get it, or at least I try to. Even before Joan Didion wrote her landmark book on grieving, A Year of Magical Thinking, the strategy Allen is using was a known anthropological concept. In short, it is the belief that a series of actions--performed carefully and in order--will result in a desired event. It is an illusion of control sorely needed by my son, to whom the forever loss of his father is just too much to accept.

And that's where magical thinking comes in. According to St. James, Handelman, and Taylor (2011), magical thinking provides a connection to what has been broken and helps the thinker cope with cultural expectations of control. During the days between Ron's death and his funeral, Allen needed to hold himself together, shaking hands and accepting hugs, saying "thank you" to those who expressed their condolences. 

All the kids miss their father keenly, but Dennis and Bonnie have their adult lives, their jobs, their partners. Dad was an everyday fixture to Allen, a large presence in his life. It's left a gaping hole. It's not the same with just the two of us, he complains. Hard to play Monopoly with only two people. I murmur in agreement.

"So, just how does all this work?" I asked Allen on Wednesday as we trudged through Smedly Park in the rain. I breathed a sigh of relief when I remembered where the old stone railroad trestle was. Allen needed something "old and stone that was from ancient times." It was ancient enough for him, part of my ancient childhood. 

Allen whirled and faced me quickly, tears in his eyes.  "You can't ask about it," he said. "You just have to let it happen. You just have to believe."

And I do. I believe that any amount of magical thinking will not bring back Allen's father, but I also believe that at this moment it helps Allen to feel safety in an unsafe world (Philosophy Talk, 2018). Every time he proposes a new expedition we need to take that is part of his carefully constructed script towards designing Ron's new body, I remind myself that autism grief is not neurotypical grief (Fisher, 2012.)

In a way, we're all guilty of a little magical thinking. Is his insistence that he hears his father's name in the leaves of the trees any different from Joan Didion's inability to part with a pair of her late husband's shoes because he would need them when he came back? Of if he thinks his father will have a new body with the strength of a horse far off from the lady at the bank who told me that each morning she wakes up and smells the breakfast her husband, gone 17 years, made every morning?

You just have to believe. I believe Ron is no longer in pain. I believe he is happy in Heaven. I believe I will see him again. 

And sometimes, I hear the trees whisper his name.