Um, Happy New Year?! Ahem, cough. It feels silly saying it.
What was 2020? It was something with potential in the beginning. It was something to be concerned about in the middle. It was something to suffer from the middle to the end. Now 2021 looms and with fear and trembling we hope for something better. C.S. Lewis writes, in The Problem of Pain, that God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience but shouts to us in our pain. Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.
When I wonder why the crises of this year happened to me several things come to mind. First, why not? Why shouldn’t this happen to me or you or anyone? This virus is a force of nature. Death is a force of nature. Pain and suffering is a force of nature. Second, the timing is just coincidental. Had this been spread over a decade I may not have felt so flagellated. Or, is it coincidental? Did all this occur for some purpose? Is God shouting at us in our pain?
I did a poor job suffering. It was completely unfair to be forced out of work. It was frustrating to be ignored by the unemployment insurance agency. It was panicking to not know how long I wouldn’t work. It was enraging to suddenly lose my dad and under Covid restrictions and deprivation. It was reeling to have my mom diagnosed with cancer, break her wrist, discover her lung disease in a matter of a couple months. It was heavy to have another development of crisis; my father in law become critically ill, sedated and vented, with Covid, transported to a hospital 182 miles away because that was the only open bed for a vented patient, 40-some days in the hospital. All of this happened in 4 months. And under these 3 crises were other little burdens. My dads estate, his girlfriend, more stints out of work, not seeing eye to eye with friends interpreting the world and the pandemic, the mosh pit that is social media.
The layers of emotion have been depleting. Disbelief, shock, rage, anger, bitterness, depression, recovery. I haven’t only been grieving the death of my dad but also the death we seem to be living in. It has been an unprecedented year when we try to lean on the things that bring comfort and hope. Funerals are taboo, hugging loved ones, taboo, in person church, taboo, a day with girlfriends, taboo, a spa day, taboo, travel, taboo, gathering for holidays, taboo. At least I have this forum of writing. And everyone’s opinions; they are all shouting. The cacophony of voices are noisy. The noise is not helping.
Somehow, in the last month, a perseverance has overcome me. I think it’s reinforced by my being back to work. No matter how much we complain about a work day there is something essential and purposeful about working. But I think this new resolve is also because we have to be over the hump. It has to finally be Thursday right? If it’s Thursday then I don’t want to think about Monday’s complaints anymore. I want to look to the weekend. I want to look to Sunday.
In the spirit of looking into the light let me share some glimmers of life while we all experienced death groans this last year.
My baby, Wyatt, turned one. My eldest, Isla, turned four. I worked on my husbands ancestry lines. I refinished an old solid wood dresser from my husbands childhood. I got to see my out of state sister twice and for extended periods of time. I got to meet friends of my dad I never knew, I got to hear stories about his life. I got to spend a lot of time being my moms caregiver and discussing old stories together. I got to learn a lot about lung disease and cancer. I got to learn a lot about the rare autoimmune disease LEMS and the rare drugs that treat it; Firdapse and Ruzurgi. In fact I got to learn a lot about the rare disease/drug industry; development, competition, the FDA, cost, and loads more. My little ones have done many adorable things that I wish I had written down. Last week Isla used the word “technically” correctly in a sentence. She also told me she saw God (the nativity scene at all the churches). I’ve tried to emulate my kids during this time. There is something so educational and wise about a child’s innocence and ignorance. At their ages they don’t know what despair is yet. 2020 is any old time for them. They laugh and find joy. They don’t pout because of existential dread. They just pout for time with the other’s toy.
I think God is shouting at me to unlearn my self-pity. And perhaps a crises year was the megaphone. When our self-sufficiency is stripped there is still one comfort to lean on; Him.
It’s July 20th, 2020 and I’m trying to think of a word that encompasses what the last 4 months have been like for me, what it’s been like for everyone in their own way. I haven’t met a person yet that hasn’t had to ride the pandemic wave (or is it a burn?) without some other personal deprivation taking passenger seat in this wreck. Whether it’s not being able to gather for worship or participate in the sacrament of Eucharist, having to postpone your scheduled wedding, having the unmediated care removed from your prenatal care and birth, not being able to have the support of family after suffering a heart attack.
Demon. Maybe that’s the word.
On March 16th I had been back to work for 9 months since giving birth to my son Wyatt and taking maternity leave. 2019 saw a financial setback since I don’t get paid leave but we planned for it so we would be ok with one lagging year. By the beginning of March the US had been growing worried about the coronavirus Covid-19. It had swept China, Italy, more of Europe and was starting to become a tenable fear. March 11th WHO declared Covid a pandemic. March 16th Governor Walz (and Governors of all the other states) announced the closure of 11% of the labor force in Minnesota. In two weeks a record one-third of a million workers filed for unemployment insurance. When I went to work that Monday the language was unclear and I still didn’t know whether my industry was supposed to be furloughed. At 8 pm that night I received word that I am not allowed to go to work anymore. The furlough was in effect until March 27th. I had to scramble to get my personal belongings from my workplace. How was I going to pay for daycare? How could I take my kids out and maintain their spot? It was a two week increment that left things unsteady and unknown, not enough time to make any big decisions because potentially I was back to work March 30th. Little did I know these small increments would expand to just less than 3 months. I immediately applied for UI. I had worked since I was 15 and had never been on UI before. I was a novice. Turns out I ticked a wrong box and was sent into an administrative Bermuda triangle. I was told my employers HR could not help me. I called the UI phone number relentlessly. At this point I have my kids home with me, I took them out of daycare as we all got our bearings. I’ll never forget those phone calls to UI. I would be on hold for 3 hours everyday only to have my call disconnected. My 3 and 1 year olds would be tearing into something or getting hurt or screaming or crying while I’m waiting to have word about the money that will pay our bills which is less than half of ones income if you didn’t know. For 17 days my UI was stalled. I didn’t know if it would ever come. I was hurtling, sanity first, into despair. I could not believe what was yanked out from under me and was still learning what the potency of this virus is. I was a puddle of mixed emotions. Disbelief, despair, fear, anger and I was forced to depend on an institution that was unreachable, that doesn’t know me, for whom I am an abstraction, a number, a case. I’m not even the worst of it though. In Washington State my sister was denied UI for 8 weeks. You see, out there they paid out $650 million in fraud to hackers armed with people’s data from previous breaches. In order to rein in the deficit they halted all eligible claims, income that people desperately needed NOW. It was starting to feel like we’re a cat’s plaything. To their credit, I can’t imagine being the “one in charge” of all of this. Obviously no choices were easy and that’s simply what they were, choices. Choices based on the expert’s best predictions and guesses. I studied the experts findings too. After all, these guys were informing the policy makers. I subscribed to podcasts, I would spend 6 hours a day watching the news, I logged into CIDRAP to study the studies. This is what led to the country boiling over, the experts didn’t agree. Dr. Osterholm disagreed with his colleagues at WHO and the CDC had a different opinion than Osterholm and…Fauci…well, the opinion was evolving and the evolution was impacting peoples lives in substantive ways. Osterholm admits that there is still so much they don’t know about Covid-19. He also admits that the policy makers have to consider the culture with which they’re imposing restrictions. What type of mores and expectations do Americans have? He also admits he saw his grandkids for Fathers Day.
This last point makes me feel really slighted. The last time I saw my dad was Christmas and I regret never getting a picture of him with 9 month old Wyatt. In fact I never got a picture of him with Wyatt at all. I thought I had time.
I didn’t get to see my dad in March for Wyatt’s first birthday because of Covid. I didn’t get to see my dad for Fathers Day because of Covid. I didn’t get to see my dad at the hospital in May after a heart attack because of Covid. I didn’t get to see my dad at home while he was, as I was told, recovering because of Covid. Then in June my mom is hospitalized and I don’t get to support her at the hospital because of Covid. Both my parents NEED advocates. The telephone game is not enough.
I thought my dad was recovering and he was actually dying.
I desperately wanted to see him but was told it is too risky because of Covid. I wish I would have trusted my gut and saw him anyway. My sister from Washington State had come in town to help care for our mom and she made a date to see my dad on Saturday July 11th. I have to admit I was jealous. I had wanted so badly to visit him during this Covid-demon. During their lunch he was in a real bad way. He struggled to catch his breath, he was literally freezing to death. On the drive home he died in the car. The day I was told the news of his passing, I had been running through the sprinkler with my kids and we were just putting kabobs on the grill. At least during the pandemic-demon there was summer and outside. While I was running through a sprinkler my dad was in the throes of losing his life. I got the phone call and was in disbelief again. Four months ago it was the loss of my livelihood. Now it’s the loss of my dad. I picked up my sister and drove an hour up to Cambridge, MN to view him one last time, to view him for the first time since Christmas. He was lying on a hospital bed with his feet relaxed to the side, shoes still on. I scooted a chair across the floor to his bedside and told myself “shh”, he’s only sleeping right? Overwhelming disbelief. I took my mask off and looked down on his face. The Covid-demon didn’t matter anymore. It had infected my life without infecting me and now he’s gone. Not from Covid but from regular sicknesses that have been taking people’s lives since the beginning of time. Death is a sure thing that no amount of safety will prevent. Safety may flatten the curve but what it did for me was keep me from the things I call life. It kept me from doing what I know in my heart is best. We’re all trying to do what is best for each of us and that is an individual thing. Someone else’s Covid story involves losing their dad to the devastating effects of Covid itself. Ironically my dad didn’t die of Covid but he died gasping for breath nonetheless.
Covid didn’t take time off even after my dads death. We were told by the funeral director that we could not publish the date and time of his memorial service for fear of attracting a large number of loved ones which would make impossible social distancing. We had seen a very large, public, indoor funeral for a person that lost his life on May 25th, hundreds, thousands in attendance, and I wondered doesn’t my dad who is also a valuable child of God deserve a memorial with ALL his loved ones who wish to be there? In our grief we pressed our foot down and the funeral home relented. His memorial took place in the Rice St. neighborhood he had carved a life in and at the church he went to school. During the Lords Prayer, with the doors open in the back on a hot sunny day, his biker buddy cranked the throttle on his Harley Davidson and I literally imagined my dad’s soul joining his Maker on the highway to heaven. The day moved me. You always imagine how losing someone will affect you, at least I do, but it’s out of your control. My body just wept and I couldn’t stop it. I think it was the mounting pressures and mixed emotions these last four months had burdened me with. This force, like a herd of bison, trampled over me. It had tarnished friendships, it had deflated my spirit, it had made me question how courageous would I be if everything was taken from me? Would my gaze be toward the Lord? This Covid-demon had shone me for who I really am.
By weak I mean I have the same nature affliction that John Piper describes going to battle with here. Selfishness, self-pity, blame, anger and sullenness. The Covid deprivation made me realize how dependent I am on the things of this world. Niceties, comforts, property, ownership, self-sovereignty, freedom, the company of other people. And how much I failed to lean into the cross. For too long, deprivation ruined me, reduced me, and laid bare my faults. And this was just the deprivation of American freedoms. What if it wasn’t just a deprivation but a brutality? What if I was a number in a concentration camp? Oh how weak I’d be! My mind knows that the things of this world are temporal but my desires cling to them as if life itself is only the things of this world. But life is full of the glories of God. Glory that is attainable even in earthly deprivation. With the loss of my dad under the banner of Covid I am going to battle with my faults again, may my soul prevail over my flesh.
When I think of everything my dad had lived through in his life from 1939-2020 I imagine all the major challenges and frights and losses he had and yet he never despaired. He seized the day as the old trope says. He really did.
May God equip me with courage, resilience and hope when everything is taken from us except our life and even when that last vestige of property is taken from us as well may we find peace in knowing we have our eternal Father who breathed into us the breath of life, found value in our existence and welcomes us back home.
One last immortal post script for my father:
My dad, Dale, was 42 when I was born, the last chance for a boy out of a handful of girls. God gave him one more girl- Teresa Dale. For the formative part of my life he was an excellent provider. Oil changes, boot-strap perseverance, livelihood for the family, a strong blue collar work ethic. I love him for that. But for the last decade he let us glimpse his vulnerability, hugs and “I love you’s” became important, timely. He’s always been so strong but this was a new strength- tenderness, graciousness, calm. The kind of resolve a man gets when he’s focusing his life on what matters. What it made clear to me is that I was just getting to know him. All his life his animated stories had outsized him and now I was meeting the man the legends are about. A man of nine lives. A man who should have written a book. A person, a soul. A father who always loved his daughters, even that one four decades younger than him. A man who dedicated himself to the honor of those he loved. A man who loved life.
He was proud of us four strong women, all girls, which is just what he needed. And even though I was just getting to know him I am assured that he lived a full life and that he loved us.
Ever since my daughter’s birth there has been a looming… I really couldn’t put my finger on it… just, a wave of mourning. I feel scandalized putting this intimate feeling to print. It recently occurred to me what this funereal feeling is. Each month I look forward to with my child is a month of my finite and mortal life that has passed by. She just turned one and a whole year, poof, gone. For her, each day is the beginning of the rest of her life while my days are half used up. With the birth of the next generation in my little family I have intrinsically passed the torch. She is the flame bearer. Now my days are spent grooming her to blossom. I no longer matter as much. My contribution was born and now I wilt into the background. It is my daughter’s turn. Don’t get me wrong, I love that she is just beginning and I get to witness all her firsts just as my mother witnessed all my firsts. I wonder if my mother felt the weight of entropy in her life as I took my first steps, as I moved out of the house, as I moved on with my life?
I had never been afraid of death. I smugly felt ‘if my time is up it’s up’ as is a luxury of youthful thought. Two things afford a young person this carelessness. The first is that they haven’t acquired many things they love yet and the second is that death is a far off threat. How will I feel when I’m 60? How will I feel when I or my husband get cancer? I think I will wonder, “How did I get here?”
And you may find yourself
Living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself
In another part of the world
And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?
Letting the days go by.
-Once In A Lifetime by The Talking Heads
Isla makes me afraid of death. She will enjoy the years that have already passed for me and then she will lose me just as I will lose my mother. None of us quivers in our boots at funerals because we are still alive taking for granted all the days we’re endowed with. We drive away, get back to our kids sports practice, go to sleep, wake up. The sun is on time. We continue living. Eventually our family photos end up in a dusty flee market and the future buys them up for Halloween decorations.
There are generations of influential people in graveyards. Are there more dead than living? This is a tangent, but did you know there are thousands of pieces of debris orbiting the planet in low-earth space? Thousands of pieces of junk left behind by previous generations tethered to our conscious. The memories and buried bodies of people are earthly relics tethered to our conscious. We know they existed because there are traces of evidence but their imprint is a whisper in the wind until it becomes untethered and gets swallowed up by the universe.
So while Isla’s body is feverishly repairing and replacing cells my body is rusting. Eventually I will have crossed the threshold and my body will degenerate. I will grow mindful and ruminating while my daughter has perhaps bore a daughter herself. Finally I will breathe my last breath, drift off into the supreme deep sleep, and my daughter will hold a funeral. I will be remembered until some day I’m not. By then a fourth generation will take her first steps.
What is it all for?
As I become more acutely aware of my limited days I can’t help but feel panicked. I don’t want to die.
Too late, my time has come,
Sends shivers down my spine,
Body’s aching all the time.
Goodbye, everybody, I’ve got to go,
Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth.
Mama, I don’t wanna die
-Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen
How do I not languish in despair? I am in bondage to death.
This is how. I know of no other way.
We do not lose heart, although our outer body is decaying, our inner soul is being renewed day by day. We look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are unseen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. For we know that if our earthly body is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, a house eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this temporal life we groan, being burdened, in order that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. His life. Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge. Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord — for we walk by faith, not by sight — we are of good courage.
-paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:10
While someday I will be done here, I will not be finished.