A Letter to Heaven

Two years ago, you went home.  On a dark and cold winter night we drove to the hospital with you and, when we left the next morning, you were gone.  Your mom was a little more than twenty weeks pregnant.  You’d made it half way.

Then you were called home.

I cried when I found out you were coming, not out of joy.  I was scared, to be honest, to meet you.  We never found out your gender but something tells me you were meant to be my little girl.

Your brothers grow each and every day.  Carter is so active and he has a huge heart.  Aiden is so smart. He loves to sit and relax, play his video games and watch his shows. They would have loved you. They still do.

I like to read.  You never found that out, but I’ll tell you because it’s important to me.  I read something yesterday that asked “how would you live if you had 6 months left?”

I thought about this question.

And my mind went to you. You had six months.  So what if I could live inspired, grab that time, know and remember every second of swirling emotion. What if I could see you as an inspiration?

What if I could live these days to make you proud of me.

The world is hard.  It is loud and noisy.  People get distracted.  I like to think the chaos was too much for you and God called you back to heaven because your heart was too pure for this.

Because we struggle.  We suffer. We hurt.  Your mom and I, our hearts were broken when we lost you.  Your brothers, they were so excited to meet you one day.

We’re not perfect, but we were your family.  We are your family.

You will always be in our hearts.

Until the day I see you again, my little girl.

~Your dad

 

Legend

The house was all dark wood.  Basement and one level set back from the road.  We’d park in the lot of the community pool that sat across the street, the one my uncle had managed for years. The smell was Thanksgiving, pure and simple.  Turkey, filling, cold iced tea. A long table sat in the dining area.

I remember the conversations, the jokes and stories.  My uncle’s voice was often the loudest and his laugh would get us all going.

In the beginning of November, he passed away.

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He was a teacher, a football and wrestling coach for thirty years.  As I look over social media I find his stories.  A student mentioned their house burning down.  My uncle had taken him in, without question, until the family was back on their feet. The stories from other students were numerous, the inspiration vast.  Men and women recounting the interactions with their teacher and coach who had often made his way to friend and loved one by the time they’d grown into adulthood.

Val and I recently attended the first home wrestling match of the season for the district he’d led all those decades. The athletic director had given us shirts that the wrestling team would wear for the season in his memory.  We’d worn them with pride.  After a moment of silence, the team made their way to us and each wrestler shook our hands.

Mourning has a way of creating evaluation. Val and I sat and made a bucket list and a plan to check items off as we go. We’re looking to the future with hope after some positive changes this month.

I’ve learned a few things from my uncle that will stick with me.

-Serve without hesitation. It may not be as drastic as taking someone in but, if you see a need, fill it.

-Find a passion. In this day, “career” doesn’t have the best vibe to it.  Still, it is a noble goal.  Find something that drives you towards long-term commitment.

-Tough love. Some of the stories I’d read were about my uncle’s tough love for this players and students.  He wouldn’t hesitate to correct if needed.  As parents, this can be a challenge and this generation of kids is not one that takes kindly to correction. Tough love is an investment that often pays off years later.

-Toughness. My cousin, his daughter, was an only child.  She’s a college lacrosse coach now and a member of the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame.  She’s a former Olympian and had found her way to the top of the sport.  I’d always heard that my uncle had treated her like an athlete, no different from the kids on his wrestling or football team. Don’t doubt your kids and what they can handle.  You’d be surprised.

Some of my best memories were spent on the porch of my grandparents’ house. After dinner the men would gather and have their iced tea or coffees.  They’d tell their stories. Now, I see it as what it was, a chance to step in the past for a few sentences and remember how things were before life got complicated.

We like to think that a new year brings new hope.  We make resolutions and try our best to change. The past two years have seen large shifts in our identities.  Val and I have both had to look in the mirror and answer some tough questions.  We’ve understood who we were and where we stand.  We’ve faced loss and hardship, trials and struggle.

Our boys are bigger and getting older.  We’ve learned the value of boundaries and how healthy ones look.  We found some unity and come together as the four of us do this thing called life.

I believe, deep down, changes are coming. There’s an assurance that’s only found from looking into deeper shadows and depths. Tides shift. Change is possible.

No matter how deep set the patterns, change is possible. No matter how dark the storm or cynical the soul.  Change is possible.  There’s no timeline on story.

Just a start.  Page one. In the beginning…

 

Night Swim

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This past weekend, Val headed to the beach with her sister and mother while I was home handling some errands and spending time with the boys.  On Friday, the pool we joined had a movie night/night swim. I took Carter over as Aiden was sleeping at my mother’s house.

We sat in the parking lot as the pool had closed their gate for thirty minutes to get the lights up and pool ready.  They were also showing a movie and had to get the large screen set on the lawn next to the pool.  As we waited in the car, the parking lot filled with families.  Other cars arrived and started dropping off teens for the swim.  When the time came, the gate opened and we made our way inside.

I took position on a bench while Carter played with his friends.  In about twenty seconds I realized how much time had passed.

Things I wish I’d known twenty years ago:

1/  Everyone is insecure- The crowd was a mix of the “popular kids” and the outsiders.  One girl ran past me telling her friends “People want me in the pool and you are all up here hanging out.  I don’t know what to do!” Some guys swam in full t shirts, others without. The posturing was interesting to say the least.  If there’s anything I’d tell myself at 17 is that all people are insecure, not just you.

2/ These years aren’t forever I thought everything was huge.  All the conversations, interactions, days in school and days in summer.  I thought it all mattered for the rest of time. It does not. Time is fleeting (in the words of the Rocky Horror Picture Show) and the sun will rise tomorrow.  Eventually, it fades to memories.

3/ Have fun– A group of kids stood off in the corner hanging out and watching the others swimming, laughing and joking around. I know, from my own insecurities, that I missed out often on experiences and taking chances.  Courage is not an easy thing, often it may seem  cool to stay off to the side, but you must take advantage of the moments and grasp them tightly.

Because soon you’ll be a dad, watching your son swim, and wondering where all the time has gone.  You’ll know, soon enough, he’ll want to be dropped off and ask you to wait in the parking lot.

The fear of a parent is not missing out.  It is not how our kids will survive and will they make it though to adults. The fear is not having enough time.  It is knowing that one day they’ll leave the house and start their own families.  One day they’ll have their own lives and your conversations will change.

You’ll watch them graduate, meet significant others, stand in front of you and exchange vows. You’ll see them in their own house and get the call one day that you’ll be a grandparent.

One day there will be no 10 year old to take to the pool. No player to drive to baseball practice. No head resting in your lap as you watch a movie on Friday nights. No one strolling into the kitchen to give you a hug just because.

One day they’ll be out there, on their own.

And you’ll think of the day you sat at the pool and watched him swim and you’ll wish, just for a moment, that you could go back there and do it all one more time.  Have one more summer night as the sun set, listen to the laughing and splashing, and maybe you’ll get up and join him.  Maybe you’ll tell him how proud you are. Maybe you’ll stop checking email and just be there in the moment.

Because one day he won’t. He’ll be the sum of his childhood out there in the world and, God willing, be a better man than you.

A Sum of Years

Can’t you just act ten years old?

i project as much as i can, a hurricane of noise.  He lowers his head.

i’m on my bike, a red Diamondback, riding across town with the sun on my face and all the time in the world. i take a dollar to Allen’s Variety Store and stock on up baseball cards and candy.

Go to my dad’s on the weekends and watch the Phillies on television while he mows the yard. 

Getting hooked on Are You Afraid of the Dark. 

The bullies. Eat lunch out of a brown paper bag and search for who looks at me and says something. 

Shoot pool on the weekends and smoke a cigar like i know what to do with it, smell of Cool Water cologne. 

Drive around for hours with Val in my first car, an 84 Oldsmobile with tan seats like couches. 

Walk King of Prussia Mall like it is a foreign country and window shop. 

Work in a factory during summers in college and come home covered in oil and dust. 

Graduate and wonder what the hell to do next. 

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Hired. Fired. Hired again. 

Move out. Marriage. 

Find out i’d be a father. 

Lay off. 

Struggle. Every. Day. 

i walked down the stairs as he stayed in his room. i sat on the couch.

Disappointment. Failure. Not living up to the ideal of what i could be and feeling never enough. 

The alarm sounds at 6:30.  Shower. Dress.  Put the coffee on. Make a thermos.  He comes down the stairs and lies on the couch.

Dad can you put on the PlayStation Vue for me?

Sure.  Why are you up so early?

I didn’t sleep well last night.

i tousled his blonde hair. He pulls the blanket over his shoulders.

i’m going to work, i say. Be good.

I will.

Back on my bike crossing town, winter jacket zipped tight.  Inhale and feel like i’m flying and still, deep down, know the pain is coming. 

One Day.

Broken Mirror

I met Val when I was sixteen and she was seventeen.  We’ve been together since 1999 and married since 2007. We’ve experienced each other as teenagers and adults, grown into the realities of marriage and children  and what it takes to build a life together.

One night, in the early years of dating, I was helping her brother put an air conditioner in Val’s bedroom window. They’d lived in an old twin home at the time and the place had windows that were likely original.  The window we were working on got stuck, probably because of the humid night, and I placed my hand securely on the sill and started to push up.

The thing wouldn’t move.

Two minutes later it finally moved and, in one swift moment, I put my hand right through the glass. The window shattered.

Thankfully, I made it without any serious cuts or wounds.

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There are moments where you look in the mirror and decide you’ve had enough.

The turnover to 2019 was one of those moments for us as a family.

We looked in the mirror and realized we were tired.  Tired of debt. Tired of being unhealthy. Tired of feeling lost.  Tired of just surviving. Tired of being tired.

So we decided to change things.

We’re back in the gym (I’m down more than ten pounds so far).  We are building our savings and finally designing a budget (starting Financial Peace University next week). We are attending church again.

Some of our goals may be common, but they are valuable to us: Finding authentic community, becoming financially solvent, being better parents and living in the moment with our boys, support a charity and becoming more generous.

We’ve decided to support Through the Heart, a non-profit that assists families dealing with miscarriage and infant loss. We remember how it felt for us and we’re so excited to help families dealing with the same.

I’m in the midst of reading The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday, a book that is changing my life about moving forward with purpose. I highly recommend it as every chapter is gold.

This path won’t be easy but, when you have a mirror moment, you can’t go backwards.  You can’t sit still anymore.

You burn the boats at the shore.

In many ways, this is a start we should have had years ago.  That’s the point though, to start, because as long as you’re breathing you have time to make a difference. We’ve spent too long not investing in ourselves and our family.

The time for change has arrived.

It is Okay to Ask Why

It is okay to ask why.

Today was the scheduled delivery date for the baby we miscarried.

It is okay to ask why.

When the bank account dips into the negative numbers and the cabinets are empty.

It is okay to ask why.

When you fight with your children and get the first “I hate you.”

It is okay to ask why.

When the roof leaks.  When the pipe clogs. When the car dies.

It is okay to ask why.

When your kid gets bullied, gets sick, struggles or suffers.

It is okay to ask why.

When it seems like God is so far away.

It is okay to ask why.

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Because God can handle our questions.

Can handle our honesty.

Can handle our anger and frustration.

Because faith is all those things.

Honesty. Anger. Frustration.

Because Jesus prayed to have this cup taken from him in a moment fully God and fully man.

Because the Bible says Do Not Be Afraid enough to make the point.

You will be afraid.

And that is fine.

Because faith grows through fear, strength through suffering, hope through doubt.

Because there are still empty tombs. Still dawn and dusk. Still a breath of summer wind and the crash and roar of ocean waves. Still a heart beating.

Still grace.

And one day grace will make you free.

Until then, keep fighting. Keep asking why.  Dig deep. Wrestle with a God.  Be a voice in the wilderness. Make an impact. Be a quiet influence.  Stand up for what is right.

Keep fighting.

Because one day the tide will turn and you’ll stand on the shores of Heaven.  You’ll see those who went before you.  You’ll experience pure and perfect joy.

One day.

We will meet our baby again.

One day we will come out of this. One day we will have peace.

Until then.

It is okay to ask why.

 

Let’s Talk- Identity Part 2

My son has a conversation problem.

Aiden is 5, Carter is 9.  Aiden can, and will, talk your ear off.  Carter didn’t happen to inherit his brother’s social abilities.  He likes to talk, don’t get me wrong, it can just be painful at times.  He tries, hard, to get approval from the ones around him.  We started enjoying some of the “older” Disney Channel shows that feature kids in school and, as we were watching yesterday, I was wondering about his future since he starts fourth grade and will be making his way to middle school soon enough.

Navigating social waters isn’t easy.

Some of my best memories were family dinners at my grandmother’s house.  We would eat the meal and desert, tables cleared, and cardtable top applied.  The games would commence.  I remember it took time before I had a seat at the table but, eventually, I was dealt in to some intense hands of Pinochle.

My grandfather and my dad were involved, my uncles and sometimes other family members.  I think it was there where I learned to talk.  My uncles, Lonnie and John, always had stories.  They always had a way to make you laugh and draw you into the conversation. It was these nights where I picked up the ebb and flow of what it meant to build social interaction.

Underlying anxiety speaks to a larger issue.

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Carter hasn’t had things easy the past few years.  He’s a great kid, athletic and active.  He’s also sensitive. We’ve dealt with bullying and that hasn’t helped anything. He wants to be liked. We all do.

We stand on the bridge of life pulled in two opposing directions:  I want others to like me.-I want to like myself.

For someone like Carter, those sides are often out of balance.

I believe it is that way for a lot of us.

Scroll through Facebook and you’ll find plenty of inspirational images about Capturing the Day! Hustling!  and You Be You! Even with these messages (and the people behind them making millions from seminars, books and podcasts) the drive is still there.  We still want to be liked, to be loved, to be accepted.

My goal for Carter this summer is to start helping navigate the social waters, to think about his attitude and mindset and be aware of what he’s doing when he’s doing it. To find security in himself.  For a kid that has dealt with anxiety, that is a steep mountain to climb.

Let’s take it down a deeper level and get real.  As parents, we want our kid to be liked.  I wasn’t the prom king or anything near that, but I had friends in a few different circles.  I didn’t have any deep friends and I dealt with bullying myself. I remember that feeling, like one of those cartoon black holes that opened under Wiley Coyote when he was chasing the Roadrunner, that space that felt like it would swallow me up.  Time slowed to a stop. It felt like being pinned against a wall by stares and comments, laughter and pointing. It felt like it would never end.

I don’t want that for Carter.

I don’t believe there is any surprise to the rise in teenage suicide rates.  The humiliation is easier to see and spread.  What was once material in the cafeteria or playground is shared to thousands on social media at the touch of a button. Kids don’t see a way out.

The company line, for those of us who profess a life of faith in following Jesus, is that we find our identity with him as a new creation. I believe this. I also know the hurt is real.  I’ve seen it in Carter’s eyes.

Security comes in impermanence, in knowing that it too shall pass.  In knowing that those hurting others were probably hurt themselves and only doing what they know.

Parenting is not easy.  Each day they get older.  Each day brings new highs and lows, challenges and success. The trick is to not miss a moment, to grasp and use it, to know that the moments will fade, the scars will heal. Life goes on.

I remember, as a kid, standing next to my dad at the beach.  We’d stand where the waves were just ending and watch as the sand was pulled back away and our feet were buried with the current.  Maybe that’s the point.

We are either moving towards the glorious turbulence of a fulfilled life or away from it, back on to the sand.  We must keep moving because, if we stand still, we’ll sink.

Crowds

I’m not a fan of crowds.

Give me a beach by myself and I’ll be happy.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I can attend things like church or concerts.  Put me in the midst of a crowded event where things aren’t moving and I’ll start to get uncomfortable. Crowds, besides being oppressive, can hurt us in other ways.

Our older son has had some issues in school the past two days.  As I read over the email from his teacher, I found myself getting frustrated. He hangs out with two kids in his class and, for some reason, they seem to be the center of trouble. And I know Carter is a follower.  He’s not the type to create issues.

So, he’s in the wrong crowd and we’ve found ourselves at one of those parenting crossroads.

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I’ve written before how I’m a fan of Pastor Erwin McManus out at Mosaic Church in LA. I remember, in one of his books, reading about how we are a society based on collective worship.  Youtube a popular artist playing live and you’ll find evidence in a second.  There’s an old clip of U2 playing Where the Streets Have No Name at a castle in Ireland and the sea of people is mesmerizing. It is, in condensed form, worship.

We are also wired to find community. As an introvert, this had made me uncomfortable more than once. I do believe that God places people in our lives to help us through the dark times and celebrate in the light.

I sat down with Carter yesterday and asked him about his friends.  I told him he needs to look at the choices he makes, that his friends will show him where he’s going.

We often stress about our own stories but, when your child is involved, their narrative sticks in your mind. More than once today I’ve thought about what he was doing in school and prayed he would have a good day.

I’ve had friends from when I was Carter’s age who’ve gone and had great success personally and professionally.  I’ve had others who’ve ended up in prison. At the time, these people were just my classmates, kids I’d see a few days a week for a few months of the year.

One guy I knew passed away from cancer the summer we graduated high school.

It can’t be easy being a kid today. Their processing demand is much more than anything we had to deal with. There are moments I sit across from him and wonder about the universe inside his mind.

This week has not been once of peace but I hope, as we go, we can find some. Carter will continue to find his own crowds.  We can only hope his internal radar gets tuned towards those that enhance who he is as a person, those he can laugh and grow with, the ones whose friendship will extended into decades.

The ones who will make him happy and challenge him to be a better person. The journey will not be easy, but worth it in the end.

Noise

I just went home for lunch.

Now where I work, I’m afforded the opportunity to do this as it is about five minutes from our house.  We’re in the midst of a winter revival in the northeast so it was nice to get into the warmth of the house for a quick lunch.  As I walked in, Aiden was sitting on the couch.

The living room was dark and he had a movie on Netflix (a total Matt Shaner move). I went to say hello and he shushed me.

“Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.”

I said, why?

“If you talk, Happy won’t sit with me.”  Happy is our cat.  Aiden loves the cat and the cat doesn’t like him.  Yesterday, for the first time, Happy sat on his lap.  This afternoon, he’s angling for a round 2.  He was watching the movie and keeping an eye on the cat, waiting for Happy to make his move.

Noise often disrupts our best intentions.

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We live in a world where we are afraid of the quiet. We’re hammered with images, sensory input from many screens. This normally splits people into two camps.

The first are like Aiden and myself.  There’s a home in the darkness and peace in the stillness. We can stand on a beach at night, breathe in the surroundings and get lost in the waves.

The others are like Carter and my wife.  Get lights on, go towards the lights, thrive in the sensory input. Stand in the midst of Times Square and feel hearts beat in time with the city.

The trouble comes in losing ourselves to both extremes as they can build walls. We defend ourselves with these walls and prevent others from seeing the genuine humanity inside.

I believe there is value in changing dynamics.

This week I had an email conversation with a friend of mine about church.  I told him I’d had this crazy idea. What if church could exist without a building? Without a paid staff? What if it was just random meetings to discuss life, spirituality, the Bible, and build community?  What if it meant random Saturdays doing work on the home of a disabled veteran? Or running a pop up soup kitchen in the middle of a city?

What if speakers were anyone who had something to say? What if worship came from a guitar or piano in the dark corner of a club?  Or a DJ set on the stage?

What if we haven’t scratched the surface of what God wants to do in our lives and in this world? What if a thousand years of history is no more than a heartbeat of practice?

We are standing on the edge of great things and the dreamers and visionaries, regular people with God-sized seeds planted in their souls, will carry us forward. The question is, are we ready to make the journey?

~Matt

Ripple Effect

My dad spent his career in a nuclear power plant.  For a kid growing up with Homer Simpson in his prime on television, this wasn’t a bad thing.  It was always an interesting conversation starter and he has some great stories.

One of the best involves breaking a light bulb.

His job, in the plant, involved many things including keeping reactors and other essential engines running smoothly. He was hired when they built the plant and learned things, literally, from the ground up. One night, a crew of guys needed someone from his department to oversee maintenance on a large machine as an alert had tripped.

My dad followed them to the area where the machine was housed.  After checking things out, he determined that a light bulb needed to be replaced as part of the repair.  He unscrewed the old bulb and placed the new one in the socket.  As he screwed it in, it broke in his hand.

This set off an alarm that tripped to other facilities up and down the east coast and cost Philadelphia Electric a good amount of money.

For every action, no matter how small or planned, there are massive consequences.

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If you are a parent, you know this is true. Try buying two different toys for a pair of siblings, believe me, it does not end well.  If you are a husband or wife, this is also true.  Little things that become routine will pile up until you find yourself buried under them.

You cannot turn on the news without being launched in the midst of the gun control debate. I remember being in high school when Columbine happened.  That day we realized that the world was changing.  Now, things that we hadn’t experienced until teenage years are happening at younger and younger ages. Bullying and suicide has become an epidemic.

Pain is real, ready for consumption on social media, and broadcast for all to see. In years where we may have battled our anger by riding our bikes across town, kids are finding sharp objects and turning the pain inward.

We spent the last weekend in Ocean City, Maryland.  I booked the days after Val’s miscarriage, in hopes that we could get away.  We found some seashells, as a family, and are planning on planting something in the yard and decorating with the shells in memory of what happened.

The boys each had a balloon and we stood by the ocean, white caps painting the waves and wind whipping through our hair.  I asked them to send a prayer up to heaven for the baby and, one by one, they did.  Carter and Aiden each said their own thing and they did it with authentic faith, emotion, and sincerity.  As they finished, one by one, they kissed their balloon and let it go.

We were frozen by the breeze at that point and, when they ran to the car, I stopped for a  moment and watched the red and blue balloons as they twisted on the air currents and made their way into the sky.

We are not a perfect family by far.  We have our issues. The boys fight like cats and dogs.  The rest of the trip had its own turbulence that comes with vacations, too much boardwalk food, and an overload of swimming.

In that moment, though, we had peace. We had a ripple of hope and the prayer of two little boys that made its way to Heaven. We had the chance to release pain and heartache, put it on the wind, and watch it rise.

We had the chance to be whole and we will walk forward, together, into whatever may come.