Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Fiction

Like the storyline of your favorite fiction series that the Author never finished and never explained why. That’s 43 to me. The story was a great one and its heroine unmatched, but to my thinking, it's unfinished.  

And, yes, it was so good. Every chapter, every line, every word. Late nights turned into early mornings. I wanted to know how it would end. I couldn’t quit reading, but then it all stopped. It was over before it was over. 

No epilogue or afterword. Just empty shelf space reserved for where the next volume will never go. 

It’s the 43rd anniversary of your birth, but 43 is only fantasy. It never happened. 

Oh, how I longed to know the rest of your story! The return back, the resolution, the changes that resulted from the fight. I think we did get those things, individually. You were resolved; I was resolved. Yet, in this life, we can never enjoy that victory together. 

I'm writing my half of that epilogue so you can read it when we meet again on that day in the land of endless sun. I can’t wait to see you, Anne-Marie. There’s all kinds of story I need to tell you. 

I don’t want to live my life in search of a perfect ending. I've got to learn to love the story as is. 

Perfection will never be realized on this Earth. Those things only happen in fiction. 


Sunday, April 10, 2022

The Greatest Day of My Childhood

We did what we could. I have a lot of great memories from my childhood. One thing that we didn't have was vacations.

Because everyday life was enough, fishing trips and church camps were about all we had. It was good and I'm grateful for that, but a couple of times a year, one of my friends would return to my small hometown of McMinnville, Oregon, from a faraway place and tell stories. I'd only crossed the Columbia River one time to go to Fort Vancouver, bringing my "states visited" list to a total of 2, including the one I lived in.

Except that one time. One time in 1990, our family took a trip to California to meet my grandpa--who I believe lived in Houston at the time--at my aunt's house in Stockton. We drove all night the Thursday before Memorial Day to make it happen. Yep, the biggest vacation I took as a kid was to Stockton, California.

That's not the whole truth because the trip wasn't exactly just to Stockton, but to Northern California. Stockton was just the starting point. That Saturday, Grandpa, my brother, Mom, Aunt Liz, Aunt Theresa and I went to Marine World/Africa USA in Vallejo, California, north of Oakland.

It was a real-life theme park, just like the ones that my friends talked about when they came back from their summer adventures. Sure, it was a knock-off Sea World, but there were dolphins and elephant rides and water ski stunts and a butterfly pavilion.

The little kid brain in my head was blown.  It was the greatest day of my childhood.

Aunt Liz, Mike, Grandpa, Aunt Theresa with Mom and I hanging on the fins.

Also, it was the most fun I ever had with Grandpa. We all were having fun being together and probably having the adults spending money they had no business spending. Our family probably struggled to smile, especially during that time, but that day was different. 

I didn't know that four years later, Grandpa would give me the first job I ever had at his auto repair shop downtown McMinnville, Oregon. Cleaning grease traps and sweeping floors bought my school clothes my freshman and sophomore years, but the lesson it taught me about what it meant to show up every day ready to sweat was even more important.

Ray Mullen wasn't pulling any punches. Grandpa didn't even care that I got my middle name from him. If I wasn't getting the job done, he'd tell me it was wrong and show me how to do it right. And I did, because it wasn't Marine World: it was the real world.

And that was the world Grandpa lived in just about every day of his life, except that one day. The greatest day of my childhood. I could tell Grandpa stories until you stopped reading, but that one day is the one I remember most.

I'll miss you my dear, grumpy Grandpa Raymond Mullen: 1931-2022.


Saturday, March 19, 2022

Presets

It's just another funny thing about being a widower.

This is what's so crazy about being a single parent.

That's the unique thing about being a person of color.

It's hard to understand if you're not a minister.

That's how it is if you're from a broken home.

We all have slots that we fall in to. Like presets on the car stereo, it's a default station that gets us to the frequency we want to hear. Expectations form a type of top-40 mix that pleases the ears of our audience as it perfectly fits the time signatures of every other hit single played earlier in the day.

And as we deal with other people, we punch the buttons. We hear what we want to hear on our favorite station. We're not going to take the time to listen to every station because we don't like every kind of music and we definitely aren't going to flick the tuner dial just to see where it lands because who knows what could happen?

The past few months has helped me realize that I'm more than just the presets. I'm more than my grief, my past, my skin color, my marital status and even my calling. What makes me unique and what makes me effective is that I'm all these things at once. There's even sometimes I inconveniently shift into the static of the in-between and I'm trusting that God knew what He was doing when He made me and that He's more than comfortable when I don't fall in the slots.

If you perceive me in one certain way, I don't blame you because it's human nature to jump to the presets. But for me--in this new season of my life--I'm ready for some surprises. I'm ready to spin the dial.  

I know the slots will always be there, even if they're not nearly as well-defined as society says they are. They really spill into every other, so I'm not looking for fundamental change. I'm looking to increase the bandwidth.

Let's go. God, I don't have to know everything.



Monday, January 24, 2022

Cheated (Seven Thousand and Seventy-Eight Days)

In the year since I lost Anne-Marie, I've heard the words of many grief counselors that say that the loss of a spouse is the most traumatic form of grief that a human being can experience. I'm not sure if that's true in every case, but their reasoning is that the loss is one that forever impacts your past, present and future. I understand what they mean now more than I did a year ago.

We had years of memory and inside jokes. Entire conversations communicated with just a tilt of the head or a tone of voice. The biological world calls it "symbiosis." Two completely different beings living in mutually-beneficial relationship, each supplying the unique needs of the other.

We weren't even close to it in those early years, but all those individual moments strung together like a chain became something more lovely than any one of those unique memories could be if left standing alone. The 24th of January didn't just cause a single break in that chain, it shattered all of the links.

In my present: to be left at 41 years of age as a widower was a mess. I didn't have any idea what I was doing. My experience was one of starting over as if I was a first-time parent, but not with newborns. Newborns don't know you're clueless; 12-year-olds do. 

People in my community tried to understand, but I'm sure they wondered what was wrong with me so many times. There's this whole other person that I wanted to be--and maybe even feel like I *used* to be--that went missing on January 24. It's not fair to you that you lost him. He's not the guy you befriended, promoted, hired to work at your company.

The days of future in front of me are longer pacing themselves along the map we unfolded years ago. The map has been respectfully folded up and put away. The map was run through the shredder. They told me I could keep the confetti from the waste catcher so I could throw it up in the air at every pity party I have for the rest of my life. And because I don't want to be unthankful, I've taken their advice just about every month or so. I wish I was more than half kidding.

I throw the shreds by the fistful, then stand alone as fragments of street names, date nights and kids' firsts rain over my head and fall back down on the floor as I descend into hurt, brokenness and regret. (Regret for what? I don't know. You'll understand better when you get here.)

To say I don't feel cheated some days would be a lie. But is there any cheating going on? Is mortality a celestial game to be won by the lucky few who are spared more tragedy than less?

I can't believe it. 

Anne-Marie was everything to me and it was never going to be any other way. If I believed in the stars, I would say that they all aligned for me on day one. On day seven thousand and seventy-eight, they all fell from the sky.

I don't put my trust in the stars.

So where does that leave me? It leaves me to believe that any man in my position would feel cheated, whether right or wrong. If you knew Anne-Marie, you may know at least a little of what I mean. You reading this that were close to her. You that were her family or friends.

Really, the whole world was cheated when we lost Anne-Marie. That is, in the sense that it's not fair. The ledger doesn't balance. The whys can never outweigh the why nots. All of that belongs to God and I'm learning to leave it there.

In the three hundred and sixty-five days that have elapsed since the seven thousand and seventy-eight ended, I've spoken to hundreds of people that have repeatedly ripped me out of the cocoon of my own crippling grief and forced me to realize that my precious and beautiful redheaded introvert impacted lives everywhere she went. The loss is enormous. It is complete. It is final.

And it is in the past.

That past is full of the sweetest recollections. Of inside jokes. Of entire conversations communicated with just a tilt of the head or a tone of voice. Individual moments strung together like a chain that is now mine to care for and to pass down to our children.

In my present: I cannot ever express my gratefulness (or my apologies) to all the people God has placed in my life. I know I'm not the same person I was before this happened. You see, my identity has been stolen. I'll probably never be quite the same. Thank you for keeping me around.

That thanks extends especially to my kids. Starting over with these two has been an incredible and enlightening. I'm pretty sure by now they know that I don't know what I'm doing because they're not newborns, they're teenagers now. Jesus help me.

As for the future? The day I started running out of confetti was hard. Days started coming around where I actually felt good about myself and my life. That last strong emotion of all those feelings that she made me feel is slowly fading. I want to hold on so bad, but I can't. It doesn't work like that. To heal means to have that grief calm itself into a resolute peace that it was a life well lived. One that is in the past, but what an extraordinary past it was.

And I think I'll get a new map. One to collect pencil marks and stickpens, highlighter ink and coffee stains. If that one gets shredded, I'll get another and another one after that. I promise not to hold on to the remains of what's lost for quite so long because there's always a road ahead.

I've crossed over from being your caregiver to being the caretaker of your legacy and I want to thank you for everything, Anne-Marie. You changed my past, my present and my future. I love you.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Strength

We are approaching the one-year mark of Anne-Marie's death. (I hate using the word "anniversary" in the context of tragedy. I think it should be reserved for happy occasions.) As we move through these last few days before the day, I wanted to post some loose thoughts that needed to land here on the blog, but hadn't found their place as of yet.

Anne-Marie had everything she needed all on her own. She had a good family, was artistically talented, got good grades. She didn't need me.

Part of the reason I write these things is because I believe that over these last several years, I've gotten credit for all kinds of things that had so little to do with me. Anne-Marie was strong. She placed herself in positions to be successful in life before I was there to share it with her. (And I hope I'm not misunderstood. I've found that sometimes a subject like this can be communicated in a way that makes the opposite point of what was intended.)

People for years talked about us as "high school sweethearts". Mostly true, but what people either forget or don't know is that we broke up after high school for a good amount of time. Why? Because, going into my 20s, I had stuff I needed to figure out inside myself. It was the ultimate "it's not you, it's me" because it was indeed 100% me.

By the time we were both headed toward college, we were headed back toward each other, but she would have gone to college regardless of whether I'd shown up again. She did well in college and went on to a career as a dental assistant. It was an extremely challenging environment. Anne-Marie had stories of things she went through in those first few years that--as her new husband listening to them at the dinner table--were as much as I could take. I was ready to drive to the office and bust some people up.

I didn't do that because I didn't have to. Anne-Marie could handle her own business and she did. Eventually, things got better and she grew in that position. She became the lead assistant until 2006 when she was diagnosed with cancer.

She beat back cancer and a year later she was back in her position at the dental office. Her whole upper body had been re-built through a couple of surgeries and she was experiencing pain that would never leave her because of it. Work just amplified it.

She loved that job and only left in 2009 because she wanted to care for her two newly-adopted children. How do I know she loved it? Because by 2015, after eight more surgeries and two more reconstructions, she was considering going back to work in a dental office during the hours the kids were in school.

The year 2016 trampled those plans when the doctors told Anne-Marie that her cancer had returned and would remain until it took her life. That was the year they officially qualified her as "disabled", though the government told us the label should have been applied four years earlier. Of course, she wasn't about make that phone call back in 2012. 

Of course, all kinds of treatments and procedures came along with 2016 and Anne-Marie lost some of those artistic skills she had when I first met her. Her singing voice went away with the treatments. Surgeries had taken her ability to play the piano--which she did so beautifully for 30 years--without intense pain. But "disability" isn't near as disabling as it sounds sometimes.

In 2017 we decided to buy a house and along with that, Anne-Marie elected to homeschool our daughter. This was a new benchmark of crazy for her. As hard as it was, it only ended by being ripped from her grasp in early 2018 when her oncologist told her the next surgery was for a tumor in her brain and would require months of recovery.

I think it took those 16-1/2 years of being married for her to really need me to get by on a daily basis. She'd taken cancer to the mat three times and won all three. Up to that point in 2018, she would even tell me how there was only one tumor left (it was a huge one in her lung) that she was just waiting for God to take away and finish the work He'd already started.

For sure, there were times I pushed her to give it one more try, but others I would look at her like she was out of her mind. The last few years of her life was probably a bit more of the latter.

When that consistent strength began to fade in 2018, I knew our lives were changing. I still saw it fairly often, but the vibrancy faded down into a more muted and contemplative tone. I could hear it when she would ask me to pray for her, when she would ask me to keep believing.

I still see it today sometimes in the hearts of her children and I'm reminded that strength like than can never remain isolated as a thing of observation alone. It's transferable. Her strength became theirs. Became ours, really. I count it as the most special gift.




Friday, December 31, 2021

We Are Not Destroyed

The Apostle Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians that we are "troubled on every side...perplexed...persecuted...cast down, but not destroyed."

Who is? We are. Specifically: God's people are. Not the people God forgot about. Not the ones who messed up a little bit. Not the ones God loves less. We are.

Everyone has their 2021 story and ours is a novel mostly of tragedy and crisis. (I made that pretty clear in my last post.) If group therapy taught me anything this year, it's that I'm not alone in my pain and if the Apostle Paul is to be believed, it's something we all go through. Even people God loves.

A year ago on New Year's Day, I wrote about "missing miracles". Those things are still missing.  In fact, the posters I hung on the telephone poles are curled up and faded. The phone calls with false hope have stopped coming in. I'm not sure about all that stuff Paul said, but I've certainly been pretty perplexed in 2021.

But my favorite part of this Scripture is "cast down, but not destroyed," because that really speaks to where we've been this year. Not forgotten, not unloved, but cast down. 2021 was that necessary reminder that down doesn't lose the title fight, tackled doesn't end the football game and behind doesn't disqualify the racer.

We are not destroyed and because we are not destroyed that means we're moving forward.

So come on, 2022. What do you got?