In loss; in solidarity

Recently, two beloved friends lost a parent each. Both played important roles in holding me together after my dad died. In the process of plans and plane tickets and memorials and house-selling and moving, life was senseless. I wish I was present for you the way you were for me. I know you don’t require reciprocation. I am so sorry you know this moment.

The death of my father has had a unique, mercurial identity. An ever-present emptiness. A film of metaphysical opacity. Life has taken on a daily both/and; I am happy and I am hurting. I am present at my work and I am distracted by grief. I laugh with my son and I want to cry. In death, impossible contradictions are the only things that make sense.

Well-meaning others acknowledge the death of my father. Have advice and condolences. Some of whom have lost somebody, or many bodies. And still nobody knows it in its visceral, aching intimacy. My grief is wholly personal; as I imagine is yours. I won’t pretend to know your experience. And I am in solidarity with your being in the midst of it.

My grief has been an animal with wiry hair and sharp claws. It scurries around too fast for me to catch it. It’s good at hiding. It whispers from dark corners and screams when the light gets in. Sometimes it will be a song on the radio. A picture that pops up unexpectedly. An anniversary on the calendar. A simple question of “How are you doing?” Then the animal devours the moment, leaving a bloody trail of psychospiritual viscera. And the moment passes, life continuing on with its internet memes, news stories of atrocity, and mundane conversations about the weather.

I have noticed a few truths. It helps me to write about the experience. To sit in solitude and consider my mental, emotional and physical health. I am compelled into more honesty and vulnerability with people in my life. My survival demands that I get help where and when I can. A spirit of life and love invites me to live the practice of letting go of everything that does not bring light into my life. Because the animal inside needs darkness. And it will eat me alive if I let it.

To my friends and loved ones who can only nod and say “I know.” I see you. I hear you. And I love you. We do this alone, and we do this together.

A good friend gave me this. And now I give it to you:

Life isn’t (un)fair…

universe-hd-photo95-JPGA long time ago I stopped believing in a fair universe. From everything I’ve observed, life is a mix of intentionality, chance and inevitability. I have a small amount of agency; I work hard and pay my taxes and volunteer all of which come with their own rewards. But for the most part, life is just as likely to kick me in the balls as it is to let me win the lottery. Nature has no sense of justice outside of its laws of cause and effect. It is up to me to create fairness from an otherwise apathetic life.

When I believed God was in charge of everything, I had mantras like “it’s all part of God’s plan” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle” to fall back on whenever undeservedly bad things happened to good people. (let’s be honest, bad people deserve it, right?) Eventually they all became platitudes. Because as more curses and blessings stacked up, most of which without any catalyst, God’s plan began to look like trying to read tea leaves and God had a funny sense of what people could handle vs. what they should have to handle. In the end I was forced to reject the notion of a just God because a just God wouldn’t stand idly by in the face of so much injustice.

free-willNot just the kind of injustice that people intentionally cause; not crime or war or corporate greed or any of the millions of ways we dehumanize each other. I’m talking about the stupid everyday injustice, like car accidents and slipping on a patch of ice and breaking your leg. Accidents with horrible consequences. The butterfly effect of causality that reaps human life. I can’t even buy into the “free will” answer: God doesn’t intervene because he loves our free will more than he loves starving children. It’s bullshit, because that’s not love or justice, that’s an excuse. Therefore, I was left with either rejecting my preconceptions about God or believing in a lie.

Recently, my father-in-law passed away. While he was not perfect, he lived a good and clean life. He didn’t smoke. He drank less than occasionally. He was a runner. He attended church, was married more than 30 years and was an overall good man. He was diagnosed with throat cancer, which spread to his brain and eventually to the rest of his body. The doctors originally gave him 6 months to live. He fought for over 4 years until May 11th, 2015. There it is; blessings and curses all wrapped up in a whole ball of intentionality, chance and inevitability. If a just God did exist, this wouldn’t have happened.

BristleconeThe ironic part is I wish I still believed in a just God because right now I could really use something to blame. I want to look God in the eye and say “You are wrong! You did this! This is your fault and how dare you proclaim love and justice and mercy and compassion when you let good men suffer and die!” I am angry because Andy didn’t deserve to die. Not this way; not like this. He deserved better from his God than he received. There are millions of other people in the world who are more deserving than he was to die of cancer. This is a horrible statement but right now I feel horrible and selfish and hurt and confused and broken. And tired.

Right now I am just. So. Tired. Because what is the point? Why should I work so hard for ideals that go against the very fabric of the universe? Why should I care? In a just universe I’d be able to look at my son and tell him that life will be kind. But right now all I can tell him is that he will never know his grandfather; that he was robbed of having a good man in his life because life isn’t fair.

Life just is.

It is a hard lesson and I’m left with one lonely realization; if there is going to be justice in this world then I’m going to have to be the one making it happen. It’s up to me to create justice where it doesn’t exist. Because that is what I want to do. The responsibility has been passed from God to me and it’s a heavy load. 11238228_10153338843751934_1951030714927036305_nFortunately I know a whole lot of other people who are working to lighten that load. I know miracle workers on the margins of society who squeeze justice from life like blood from stone and I want to be just as strong and powerful and tireless as them. And maybe if I can just keep trying, keep believing in love and justice, I can make my father-in-law’s death mean something.

Because I think that’s what he would have wanted. And it’s what I want. Rest in love Andy. I’ll keep working on the justice.

Why I (still) believe in miracles…

That's right... I married into a clan of Scots...
That’s right… I married into a clan of Scots…

I have two families. The one I was born into and the one I married into. I know plenty of people who don’t get along with their in-laws. I’m one of the lucky few who not only get along with them, but love them deeply. They’re genuinely kind, overwhelmingly generous and welcomed me into the Ferguson/Marty clans with open arms. When Heather and I married, I truly gained another Mother and Father.

Having two fathers is a blessing. Both are men of deep faith, conviction and kindness. Neither are perfect, but they don’t have to be. Whatever flaws they have, they overcome them with courage and forgiveness. Which is why my heart broke when, just after Thanksgiving, I learned that my father-in-law was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Doctors give him 6 months to 2 years to live.

Who else can get away with this? Not me!
Who else can get away with this? Not me!

Mr. Ferguson Andy has pretty much done everything right. He has a healthy prayer life, exercises regularly, doesn’t smoke and drinks only sparingly. He just recently retired with my mother-in-law after a lifetime of service to our national parks. He lives in his dream house in his dream community. He lived life in accordance to the laws of God and man. If anything can be called premature, horrible and utterly unfair, it’s this diagnosis.

His response has been shockingly simple: listen to the doctors, follow the treatments, continue living life with integrity and purpose, and most importantly “God’s will be done.” It almost sounds absurdly zen, especially for a man who would be justified in being confused, angry and in crying out:  “As surely as God lives, who has denied me justice, the Almighty, who has made my life bitter…” (Job 27:2) Yet this is who Andy is; “God’s will be done.”

Generosity abounds!
Generosity abounds!

As the son-in-law, my role in all of this is to be the supporter; the solid foundation for Heather. She’s the one losing her biological father. I’ve only been able to call Andy “father” for 7 years. Which has been much too short; but I’ll continue to take what I can get. So I smile and love as much as I possibly can for both of my families.

The truth is, I’m hurting inside. I’m barely holding my grief in check. Like a little boy, I want to be selfish and cry and tell life to get the hell away; to tell death to stay away from both my fathers. To cry out and say “THIS IS UNFAIR! I WANT MORE TIME!”

But I’m not a little boy. I’ve learned a few things from the men in my life. The strength I have right now comes from what my fathers have taught/shown me:

Listening to sage advise or talking about girls. Can't remember which...
Listening to sage advise or talking about girls. Can’t remember which…

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

I also know a little secret. I’ve experienced a certain amount of serendipity in my life and Andy has a track record of beating the odds overcoming obstacles. He was in a serious motorcycle accident years ago, was told he may never walk (much less run) again; he ran anyways. He has already beaten cancer twice while finding time to work on his house, never mind the chemo treatments. He is a man of no excuses. If ever a man can defy the odds through strength of character or will of God, it is my father-in-law.

I love you dad.
I love you dad.

Which is why I still believe in miracles. Just being part of this family; my being married to Heather; my privilege in having more than I deserve… they are all small miracles, and they exist. Therefore, there’s hope. Always hope…

What am I (really) afraid of?

What we’re really afraid of

Halloween has passed. Kiddos ran around in costumes. Adults ran around in skimpier costumes. Everybody should be crashing from their sugar high. I love that we have a day where we confront devils and demons and things that go bump in the night. It allows us to face fear with a smile. But what I’m really trying to do is confront/distract/convince myself into believing I’m not afraid of death.

I know it’s ok to be afraid of it. Death is the end of conscious existence.  I don’t know about the rest of you, but I really like my conscious existence. My biology fights tooth and nail to hold on to every second of living. No wonder human beings have propagated thousands of stories about what happens after death and many more about how to live forever. It gives a false sense of security that maybe, just maybe, death can be cheated.


I don’t want to live in fear of death anymore. So I recently stopped worrying about the afterlife. It can’t be proven outside of a leap of faith and I’m no longer willing to entertain the idea. Most religions follow a pretty (not so) simple path to paradise: be a righteous person in how you live in order to gain spiritual rewards later. If I don’t follow the rules, I am damned for eternity.

But what happens when I stop believing? Do I no longer have any incentive to be a “good” person? I figure just because I no longer look towards heaven doesn’t mean I have to be a dick. I don’t need damnation to coerce me into doing the right thing. Kindness is still the key to my immortality!

All my grandparents have passed away, some aunts and uncles too; I had a friend (Daryl) pass more than ten years ago. Each of those people made an impression on me. Their smiles, kind words and personalities are all inside my memory. On days like Halloween, when I am supposed to laugh in the face of death, I take a moment to bring the dead back to life. I mourn that they are gone; I celebrate the fact that they lived, and let me live with them.

enjoy it while it lasts

In order to overcome my fear of death, I had to just accept that it will happen and stop worrying about what would happen after. Like my deceased loved ones, the only way I’ll get to live past my time is by making an impression on the hearts and minds of the people around me. My personal preference is to be remembered for being a good man. Therefore, I still strive for righteousness; but focused on the here and now, rather than the here and after.

How do you say goodbye?

Recently, my wife’s grandfather passed away. He had advanced stage Alzheimer’s. I remember meeting him before we were married. There was barely a person there. He lived another 6 years. He outlived his wife while in the care center.

Tonight, my wife said, “I’m confused. I feel like I should be more broken up about my grandfather dying.” My response: “What you’re feeling is probably relief. You saw him at his worst, and are happy now that he isn’t suffering.”

She said her goodbyes years ago.

People react differently to death. My own grandmother passed away a few months ago. I wasn’t able to go to the funeral because airlines wanted $700 for a ticket. I’m still not sure how I feel about it; I definitely haven’t dealt with the reality fully. In the back of my mind, she is still living in Arizona. Until I realize that she’s not.

I still haven’t cried.

Which is strange. I cry over stupid crap. I lost water weight after every episode of Touch on FOX. Don’t get me started over the first 5 minutes of Pixar’s Up. Doesn’t my grandmother deserve tears?

It’s not that sadness isn’t there. It is. I can feel it inside; I could feel it when I spoke with her on the phone for the last time. I feel it every time I talk to my mom and my aunt. I felt it when Heather told me her grandfather died. Grief is there, but it won’t come out.

Part of me feels my grief is selfish. My grandmother was an amazing woman filled with love, faith, and charity. She was a good Irish Catholic grandmother. Why should I cry over such an amazing and good life? She lives on in my memory, and if Christianity has anything to say about the afterlife, I am pretty dang sure she is rejoicing in heaven with Jesus. If anything, I should live my life better in her memory.

Maybe this is why I haven’t cried. To me, she isn’t gone yet. In my heart and in my mind, she is still with me. My memories keep her alive well past when her body gave out. She still makes me want to be a better grandson, husband, future father and human being. None of those things make me sad.

Like my wife, maybe I am just relieved that she isn’t in pain anymore. Her death wasn’t tragic or untimely. She had a full and good life. That is nothing for me to cry over.

I miss you grandma. Even if the tears won’t come.