On grief, gratitude, and hope…

Dad and I before walking down the aisle for Jeff's and my wedding in 2008

Dad and I before walking down the aisle for Jeff’s and my wedding in 2008

Today marks one year since my Dad died. I’ve written a lot about my dad in this space, and owe the name and formation of the blog to him. I’ve reflected on the impact he made in this world and my life, and how his last vision before dying was the inspiration for our daughter’s name.

He was a tremendous human being. An incredible husband. A beautiful, beautiful father. He was not perfect, nor was our relationship, but we adored each other. The hole of his absence is wide and deep. We walked (and ran) much of life together in close connection.

After running the Twin Cities Marathon together in 2009 with Team in Training (Leukemia and Lymphoma Society)

After running the Twin Cities Marathon together in 2009 with Team in Training (Leukemia and Lymphoma Society)

And so this year, Grief has been one of my most influential teachers. Though not a gentle teacher, I’ve discovered it to be a patient one, giving me the space and grace to feel whatever I feel and journey at my own pace. It’s taught me to embrace the crests and nadirs, the zigs and zags, in which my heart goes, rather than confining my soul to some kind of linear progression.

Some of the most freeing, helpful words I received at the time of Dad’s death concerned the seemingly conflicted things one can feel at the same time. My friend wrote,

I pray that you have the space to feel fully, without restriction, all the many complex and perhaps contradictory emotions you’re experiencing. Sometimes people (maybe even we ourselves) don’t want to give space for those contradictions. They want us to be only sad or only hopeful. Only angry or only at peace. Only faithful or only doubtful. But life, and trauma especially, is just so much more complicated than that. I guess folks don’t know how to deal with contradictions, and so it makes them uncomfortable; they’re harder to solve. But I guess that’s all sort of the point: this isn’t something that can be solved. It’s just something to BE WITH. It’s just something to allow to BE, that  moment when we’re smiling or laughing or just feeling OK, followed, seemingly without transition, by the moment we fall apart and wail.” 

 His words reminded me of the phrase our family coined in that final week of Dad’s life – “joyful sorrow.” It’s one to which I’ve returned this week as my soul’s heard the echoes of a year ago. How can a heart feel so much pain and so much gratitude at the same time?

It seems unfair, almost a cruel kind of punishment, that the price we pay for our closest relationships is the agony of sadness when the other person leaves. But the purest love and the most genuine loss always interlace.

I will always remember sitting in the living room with Dad just a few days before he died – he on the big, green recliner, me on the couch. “You know, Arianne,” Dad said, “your lives…they’ll go on.”

“That’s hard to imagine right now,” I said.

“I know,” Dad replied, “but they will.”

I couldn’t fathom it then, but life is an incremental guide, and with each day, I’ve heard God and Dad both say,

You’re doing it. 

I think the greatest gift we can give our beloveds who die is the promise to keep living with passion, loving with dangerous trust, and letting the cracked-wide hearts within us remain vulnerably open. Life will always be different, but it can be good. And while we don’t get over our losses or “move on,” somehow God – with gracious, gentle hands – folds them into the fabric of who we are. We become deeper, kinder people because of it.

One of our favorite places to walk, run, and talk - the bike trail near the Outdoor Campus in Sioux Falls

One of our favorite places to walk, run, and talk – the bike trail near the Outdoor Campus in Sioux Falls

A few months ago, I was in the midst of cleaning out my office at church after ending my job. In the morass of files, I came across  an email I’d printed off from my Dad. The email was from 2011 when I was in the midst of my final year in seminary. I was working on a thesis about spiritual and emotional support for families facing cancer. In the midst of that project, Dad wrote me this message. It was God’s gift of mercy that I found the note. I’m not sure what compelled me to print it off those years ago, other than it is my Dad’s heart, life, and theology, in sum. He wrote,

It is tempting, for all of us, to measure God’s blessing in some type of tangible way, looking at the “good gifts” as signs of His love and favor, and to “answered prayers” as evidence that God really is listening, and that we somehow changed His mind in mid-stream.  I don’t think that takes into serious account the nature of God’s sovereignty, nor the substance of prayer.  It is also easier for those who subscribe to the so-called “success theology” to lean into interpretations of life events in such a superficial way.  Anyone who truly plumbs the depths of suffering and evil in this world does not find such answers satisfactory for very long.  Given these past eight years, I have mused on such things quite a bit.

God truly makes the rain fall upon the just and the unjust.  The thorn is not always removed.  The cup not only doesn’t pass us by, it smacks us in the face.  But what do we find?  God is God (see Job).  In weakness, we are strong, and God’s glory is made known (see Paul).  A bold, but impestious disciple dies a martyr’s death, but not before turning the early church on its head, and paving the way for all of us gentiles to join the family (see Peter).  Joshua 1:9 becomes profoundly true.  The ultimate tragedy, the Cross, becomes our greatest hope.  It’s a very, very long list, indeed.  Ultimately, God is glorified by those who are faithful, in all circumstance.  And prayer becomes so much more than a Christmas wish list, with results predicated on whether I have been naughty or nice.  I believe prayer is much more about changing US — both in the singular sense, and in the communal context.  The power of prayer last summer, at least to me, was in the collective of family and friends, God’s people, approaching the throne of grace on my behalf, and what that means to us as fellow believers, and as a Christian community.  And I found great comfort in knowing I could pour my heart out to God, not so He would know what I was feeling or going through (He obviously had a pretty good bead on that already), but because that is what He has asks us to do.  I had a great peace that whatever the outcome, renewed health or physical demise, obedience and submission were the keys to all good things, and the fulfillment of the ultimate purpose of my life — to glorify my Creator.  And THAT is God’s sovereign will, I believe. 

Amen, Dad.

So as I remember Dad, as I give God thanks, as I exhale and inhale and live into whatever this new season will be, I pray….

 

Lord Jesus,

I let go.

I say thank you.

I pray Your glory in and through me.

 

I exhale,

releasing the breath that once gave me life.

I inhale,

receiving fresh breath for this season

where I will wail and wonder

with gratitude.

 

I will dance,

letting my limp remind my soul and world

that broken bodies learn new rhythms of beauty.

 

With You, pain finds a home

in something larger than itself.

And sacred scars hold haven over

wounds that bless.

 

O Lord,

I let go.

I say thank you.

I pray Your glory in and through me.

 

Amen.

Dad had a really soft spot for Sunny. She misses him too.

Dad had a really soft spot for Sunny. She misses him too.

 

 

 

“What’s in a Name?”

Eden, now 7 1/2 months old

Eden, now 7 1/2 months old

“Have you thought about names?”

My friends asked. My parents asked. Kind church members offering hugs in the receiving line asked.

Pregnancy invites all kinds of advice, but it also ignites curiosity and questions. I was surprised last year how many people asked me what baby names we were considering. I was also surprised by my response, considering I myself had asked that question of numerous friends, numerous times.

Whenever I’ve asked others this question (or when I was myself asked), I felt its rhetorical nature. Of course people have been thinking about names! What I  really wanted to ask was, “Will you tell me the name?”

Perhaps there’s a fear of judgment, or maybe the desire to surprise, but I think the deeper impetus to hold names close to the heart is their holy quality. Names are precious. The first gift we receive, some say. Names are a special and sacred treasure. No wonder we protect them.

We choose baby names for all sorts of reasons – perhaps we like the sound, its popularity, the meaning touches us, or every boy in the family has been “William” for ten generations. We can choose names as a sort of blessing or wish, a name that holds a virtue we hope and pray our child will live into, or a name we feel describes our child. Names aren’t a big deal to everyone. “What’s in a name?” some might say, echoing Romeo’s question. But for others, the answer is, “a lot.”

Last summer, during long car rides as we drove cross country to visit family, I’d open the “10,000 Baby Name” book and start reciting some options to my husband, Jeff. Deciding not to find out the gender of our baby meant the task doubled, as we needed to look at both girl and boy names.

For us, meaning carried the most weight. I’d read a name whose sound I liked, then discover it meant “bitter” or “sorrow” or “dog.” We quickly settled on a boy’s name (and now you are perhaps wondering what the name was), but a girl’s name proved elusive. I scoured internet lists, looked in my favorite novels, ploughed through the entire section of girls’ names in the baby name book. I queried friends – “What girls’ names do you like?” (in other words, “Can you please provide me the perfect girl’s name for our child?”). We found a few that felt okay. But I never felt like we found the girl’s name. There were too many syllables, I didn’t like the sound, or I thought it seemed trendy.

“We must be having a boy,” I told Jeff.

As the weeks passed and my due date approached, I started to feel anxious. I even had a dream that I delivered our baby, she was a girl, and we had no name. The weight of this name, this gift, was real to me.

The Facetime call with my parents one humid August afternoon put all of my name ruminating on hold. My father’s leukemia had relapsed. There was no cure. He would enter hospice care.

Suddenly, all our preparations for new life mingled with those toward death. Jeff and I immediately flew to South Dakota to share what would become my Dad’s final days. Thinking we had some time but unsure how much, I decided to stay with Mom, hoping to be of help as hospice care began, hoping I could elongate the moments and days as much as possible, hoping Dad would see his first grandchild.  At 30 weeks, our baby was theoretically still a couple months away.

Just 10 days after diagnosis, Dad and I were alone at home. The house was still, quiet, and peaceful, but Dad struggled. Situating him in the plush, green recliner, I grabbed his prayer quilt and draped it over his lap, tucking in the edges around his thin legs. Pastor Charles had brought the blanket just one day before – a beautiful tapestry of trees and tiny pieces of yarn, all tied into knots by the church staff’s prayerful hands. It reminded me of the Garden of Eden – God’s original home of wholeness and peace.

“I’m covering you with the prayers of your sisters and brothers in Christ, Tom,” Pastor Charles had said as he bent over Dad, blanketing him with the quilt.

I sat on the wooden chair beside Dad, wishing with all my heart I could make the breathing easier, the recliner more comfortable, the macaroni and cheese on the TV tray appealing. That I could somehow blow away the suffering and the struggle. Dad mostly kept his eyes closed, as if every drop of energy was needed for drawing in that next breath.

In breathless bits and bursts of words, Dad began to speak. “I see colors,” he told me. “And a bright light.”

“Dad, what colors do you see?” I asked, wrapping my hand around his arm, wanting to enter the vision with him.

“Red, blue, yellow….now orange. And there are trees and leaves and flowers.”

I thought again of the Garden of Eden.

“Oh Dad,” I said, “It sounds beautiful.”

Ever the critical thinker, he responded, “It is beautiful. But it’s bizarre. Like swirling art,” he said. Dad closed his eyes again. We hung suspended in thin air as heaven and earth co-mingled in the space of our living room.

Just four hours later, I knelt at Dad’s feet with one of my hands holding his and the other placed on my belly, kicking with life. My only language was whispered prayers within the walls of my heart. I spoke to Dad my love for him, and to my baby the hope she or he would be the first to embrace Dad when the moment came.

And then, Dad took his last breath on earth and his first in heaven.

The ensuing week was a flood of funeral preparations, visits from friends, filling of the freezer, phone calls, hugs, and lots and lots of tears. Jeff and I knew we needed to return to Indiana. That we needed to get ready for our baby who was due in two months. That we needed to simply keep living.

I hoped I would find space to grieve, heal, and hope once we returned home. The realities, though, of Jeff and I both serving as pastors and September being the kickoff month for the program year left my soul feeling crunched and my sleep restless.

A few weeks after Dad died, I awoke in the night. It wasn’t an unusual occurrence, especially as I neared the end of pregnancy, but the impetus of my awakening was different. It wasn’t the familiar dance of jostles and jabs from our baby, or my erratic internal temperature flaring.

It was a name. A baby girl’s name.

Eden. The name swirled with memories as I stared at my bedroom wall.

Eden….the Garden of Eden….I felt myself transported back to that  August afternoon when I sat on the hard wood chair and Dad shared his vision.

Eden. If we have a girl, her name should be Eden. God’s original place of wholeness and peace. The place life began. The place Dad is now.

The name blossomed like a seed that’d been germinating in my heart. I felt my restless heart start to settle, and a peace pervade. My mind turned to the Tree of Life, my favorite symbol for years. It’s woven on the large Indian yarn hanging on our wall, cut away in the silver necklace I often wear, painted with my brush a few years ago when my oil painting supplies were still fresh. Somewhere buried under all my life’s layers was the Garden all along.

At breakfast the following morning, I shared the experience with Jeff. I felt a mixture of excitement and hesitation. What if he didn’t like it?

“It’s beautiful,” Jeff said. My heart sung.

Only a couple weeks after my own vision, I awoke again in the night, but not to a name. I jumped out of bed as the fluid poured.

“Jeff! My water just broke,” I hollered. With similar panic, Jeff sprung from bed, running the few feet to the bathroom. He put his arm around me as I cried on the floor.

“It’s too early. It’s too early. It’s too early,” I repeated. “What if something’s wrong?”

“37 and a half weeks is in the window, Arianne,” Jeff assured. “It’s okay. We’re going to have our baby today!”

Eighteen hours later found me in a dimly lit hospital room. A choral soundtrack played in the background, Jeff held up before my face photos from my marathons as inspiration, and I journeyed through the worst pain I’d ever known. My doula stood beside me as I hugged the birthing ball, coaching me through each contraction wave until I could breathe again in its recession.

One hour later, my voice intertwined with that of our child. I watched our doctor’s arms guide our baby out. With a swift swipe, she lifted our baby up before me.

Soft, grey skin with vernix, a full head of glistening brown hair, eyes dark and wide, arms outstretched as though ready for embrace. My wet eyes scanned below her belly, as did Jeff’s. “It’s a girl!” he exclaimed.

Joy and complete surprise overrode the flurry of feelings coursing through my body.

The doctor placed her on my chest.

“Hi, Eden,” I whispered. Jeff’s arms circled us, all three of our heads huddled together.

“Eden,” Jeff said.

“Eden,” I said.

IMG_3248

My mom, back in South Dakota and eager for news, was one of the first phone calls. Her amazement over Eden’s name melded into my own wonder. She shared that earlier that afternoon, as I labored at home, my Mom went to a favorite park. Her friend had wanted to plant a tree in Dad’s honor. “I kept thinking, Arianne, it was just so good to see something living going into the ground,” Mom told me. A tree filled with life, hearkening to the Garden in our midst; a prelude to the bridge Eden would be, reminding us the Garden is both in heaven and on earth.

Eden, meaning “delight” and “paradise,” is who our daughter is and what she brings. When I say her name, I remember Dad and reflect on the past. When I say her name, I stroke her hair and imagine the future. When I say her name, my heart sees the Garden and the life that flows into new life. I’ve heard people say that when a loved one dies, they see them in dreams. My Dad didn’t appear to me, but he gave me a parting gift, a treasure, through one.

So, what’s in a name?

Heaven and earth.

 

“Ash and Starlight”

Dad and me, 7 months pregnant with Eden and just one week before Dad died

Dad and me, 7 months pregnant with Eden and just one week before Dad died

Last August, my beloved father, Dr. Tom Braithwaite, died after an eleven-year journey through cancer. Dad loved to sing.

My Dad, brother, and I all around the piano, with Dad and Matt singing duets the week of his AML diagnosis

My Dad, brother, and I all around the piano, with Dad and my brother singing duets the week of his AML diagnosis

It was a passion he shared with his brother. They regularly sang as a quartet at church, and after Dad’s death, my uncle commissioned a musical piece for the quartet.  He did not seek to memorialize or honor Dad, but rather, the message Dad lived and the gifts from God he shared. Timothy Takach,  founding member of Cantus, would write the music.

Last December, my uncle came to Fort Wayne to sing for my daughter, Eden’s, baptism. During his visit, he shared with me the secret of his musical commission. “I know you’re still not getting any sleep,” he said, “and I want you to think and pray about it, knowing I am truly fine either way,” he continued. “But, I wondered if you’d be willing to write the text, the poetry, for the piece.” Overcome with both the gift of this piece and the opportunity to have a part in it, I immediately agreed.

“The timing is perfect,” I said, as I knew I’d be headed to South Carolina in January for a week with my writing group.

Little did I know what was in store. The night before our 7:00 a.m. departure, my phone rang and on it was an automated message from US Airways. “Your flight has been cancelled,” said the fake voice. That was only the beginning. The next day would consist of sitting on the tarmac for two and a half hours waiting for a de-icing machine, two turbulent flights through which Eden howled (simply expressing aloud what we were all feeling), clothes drenched in spit-up, a missed connection, another delayed flight, standing on the middle of the tarmac in rain and wind waiting for a stroller in Charlotte, and lost luggage upon arrival in Charleston. The frosting on the cake was the delivery of my suitcase at 3:30 a.m. with the handle broken off, a fitting image for the start of the week.

Eden’s reflux fiercely flared, and I had next to no time to write as I needed to care for my sweet baby in pain.

It was Wednesday afternoon and Eden was blessedly asleep. God and I had a talk.

“How can I possibly write this piece, God? The week’s halfway done and I haven’t written a thing.”

“Buns on the chair,” God said.

I started roaming the beach house for the perfect place to write as I knew I needed ultimate inspiration for my limited time. I went to the porch, then the living room, then back to the porch, then upstairs.

“Buns on the chair,” God said again. I finally settled at the table near the kitchen and pulled out my laptop. I knew I had half an hour, maybe an hour. I stared at the white screen, the blinking cursor, and exhaled.

A quiet miracle happened. Memories, Scripture verses, poetry, music – they flooded my heart in one big wave like the ocean outside the door and rippled from my fingers onto the page. In 45 minutes, the piece was done. I was a formless mess that week, but the Spirit sat down at Her pottery wheel and said, “I can work with that.” My weary surrender coupled with Holy Hands produced the piece.

My writing group heard and held the piece. They heard and held me.

My writing group - the piece would not have been possible without them

My writing group – the piece would not have been possible without them

Upon returning home, I sent the poetry as well as my explanation of the piece off to the composer. For the last few months, he worked hard and was able to complete it in time for the weekend this spring when we interred my father’s ashes. The piece debuted at my home church, First Presbyterian Church in Sioux Falls, on April 12th, and was sung by the quartet of which my Dad was a part.

The poetry and its explanation are here, as well as a link to the video of the quartet singing.

“Ash and Starlight”

On waves where trembling feet

sink and dance there rises

between my toes a peace

Where heaven and earth embrace,

Where the ash in my mouth, the starlight in my bones

Weave together in wholeness.

 

I run

Carried on a strength beyond me,

Feet raging against soil I did not choose.

My eyes turn upward,

And through the grit, the tears, the joy

Long to glimpse the land of the living.

 

I sing

Adding my voice to the universal chorus.

Turning my song from a plea for deliverance

To a chord of gratitude

 

I love

Unfurling my hands in aching yes

and clasp the holy gift, which is this day, which is enough.

Another chance to live

– to burn with grace.

In this piece, I sought to speak – to pray – from my Dad’s perspective. I wanted to bring together some of the beautiful, enduring lessons Dad both learned and passed on to those around him. I reference favorite Scripture passages, pieces of music, memories, particular passions, and qualities of my Dad.

The first stanza begins with reference to the Gospel story from Matthew 14:22-33 where Peter walks upon the water to Jesus. This was a very meaningful story to my Dad and especially resonated with him in the last year of his life. Dad recognized that Peter’s (and his own) walk to Christ wasn’t a steady one. It included fearful moments of sinking as well as faith-filled ones of hope. One of the most powerful memories I hold of those final days with Dad is the deep peace he felt, even as death was near. Dad had such a security in his heart, and he sought to impart that same peace to us. He lived in the “thin place” where heaven and earth embrace. The “ash” and “starlight” also correlate with this weaving of heaven and earth. In the Genesis account of creation, we remember God created us from ash/dust. We and the earth are one. And yet, we are God-breathed creatures, fashioned in the image of our Creator who also made the stars beyond us. A personal story from the day after Dad died involves the earliest hours of the following morning. My Mom went out very early (probably 4:30 a.m.) to the hot tub in the backyard. As she sat in the dark and looked up to the sky, she recounted how all at once, the stars began to twinkle and sparkle. She immediately felt it was a sign and gift from Dad, now among the angelic choir above.

Following the first stanza, I use some of Dad’s God-given passions to structure the rest of the piece. Dad was an avid runner. He often referenced his journey with cancer to running a race, and drew deeply upon the metaphors of perseverance and stamina. A favorite Scripture of his was, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race. I have kept the faith” from 2 Timothy. Especially in his later Caring Bridge posts, Dad would sign them, “upward and onward.” He focused on keeping his eyes ahead, and as the illness raged on, grew more and more honest in expressing the range of feelings he had toward God and the world. God embraces our rage as well as thanksgiving. The reference to the “land of the living” comes from Psalm 27 – a favorite of my Dad’s. It was the place toward which he kept “running.”

Stanza three builds from Dad’s love of singing – something he did from a young age. He sang in numerous groups, from the South Dakota Symphony chorus to church choir to family sessions with his son, brother and myself at the living room baby grand piano. Dad’s singing was a true offering of worship. He loved to sing for church, sang at many funerals, offered music as part of the “Doctor’s in Recital” concert to benefit the Children’s Care Hospital and School, and more. It was a gift he stewarded so beautifully. Using the metaphor of “song” for his life and faith, I wanted to express how Dad’s prayer changed throughout his 11-year illness. At the beginning, Dad had a “battle” mentality. The disease was something to fight at all costs, and his prayers centered on deliverance from the illness and struggle. In the last years of Dad’s life, particularly those final months, Dad’s main focus was pleasure in and holy gratitude for the present moment – that one shouldn’t get wrapped up in the future or making plans for what’s to come, but rather, cherish God’s gift of today.

This is a theme I then carry forward into the final stanza. One of the main lessons I hold from Dad’s life is that of love. As painfully hard as his life was at the end, he accepted his circumstances with fortitude and grace – an “aching yes.” This is also a connection with one of Dad’s favorite poems – e.e. cummings “I Thank you God for this Most Amazing” and its lifting of all that is “yes.” Dad relished the day, and often spoke of how this gift was enough.

The last line about burning with grace harkens to the refining fire of which Scripture often speaks – that while our trials do not come from God’s hands, they are opportunities for incredible transformation. It also echoes some of the lines of T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding and the themes of fire. The flame is powerful and holds a ring of eternity. Our life in God carries from this world to the next in a seamless strand.

I wanted the last word of the piece to be “grace” as God’s grace is what sustains us and makes transformation possible. God’s grace undergirds our lives and opens us to love. I believe my Dad’s parting message was that all of life is both grace and gift – take it in, breathe it out, and thank our Creator.

Watch the video of the debut performance here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79iTSIdG7Xw