What we mean when we talk about dying

I started a Netflix binge on the show Altered Carbon. The cast is solid, the writing is skilled and the visuals sell the show.  The basis of the story, off the novels by the same name, is a futuristic world where there is now two kinds of death.  People have “stacks” in the back of their neck where their consciousness resides in a small disc.  You can die, if your disk is salvageable, and find yourself placed in a new “sleeve” if you have the means to do so.  You can RD “real death” if the stack is destroyed. The show dives deep into the meaning of death and immortality, faith and power.

One of the main characters delivers a stirring speech about death being the great equalizer, how it gives meaning and people weren’t designed to live forever.

I believe that, at certain points, God is trying to tell us something.

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Last month, my wife and I lost a baby.  She was pregnant 18 weeks at the time. I’ll never forget that night in the ER.  One of Val’s close friends is battling cancer a second time.  We are a country reeling from school shootings and acts of violence. The prospect of looking at mortality seems to be a current issue.

There is no coincidence that our faith systems operate on what happens after death and really our life systems do also.  Our days are either filled with meaning or denied meaning, stress or peace, life or avoidance.  Often, all these forces act together and sometimes within a few minute span.

Faith and death are connected.

I remember reading the Bible as a kid and agreeing, thinking that I believed it. It was an Okay Now What? moment. Then life happened.  I did eventually find myself in a genuine faith encounter and, after it, life happened again. The path is about the struggle and how we handle it. Mindset dictates action. Faith dictates mindset.

Though this isn’t always true.

Read through the Psalms, Jeremiah, the account of Peter around Easter and you’ll find imperfect people giving voice to their conflicts of faith and reality, hope and experience.

After Val had the miscarriage, Carter said to me, “Dad, I wish our lives were normal.”  I said that the hard stuff is normal, the trick is how you respond to it. Things haven’t been easy the last few months and sometimes faith is the act of getting up in the morning to do it all over again.

We take things for granted.

I usually spent summers, before summer jobs, at my grandparents. Now I’m typing this post at work, in my mid thirties, but I still remember weekday mornings.  We’d get in my grandfather’s truck and go to the diner that sat across from the French Creek Outfitters, a fishing and hunting store.  We’d have breakfast and go buy some lures to use that morning.

He’d pop a country music tape (Mel Tillis, Patsy Cline) into his truck and we’d head to the pond. I remember him methodically working his way around the shore casting and casting again. My young mind went off in many directions.  I’d think about school, tv shows, anything.

I’d kill for one more cup of coffee and one summer morning at that pond, for a few hours of conversation that I didn’t know I needed at the time.

Time keeps moving and death does give it relevance. Everything is relevant. Everything counts no matter how far we hide it under our mental gymnastics, addictions, conversations, media, and other means of denial.

Because in the end the sum of our lives is the moments we give and take, the ones we want to grab and squeeze and pull every single second from because it all slips away and that war has taken down great people and civilizations.  It sits deep in our heart and, over time, we decide how to deal with it.

Faith pulls us close and rips us apart. It also builds us up again one stitch at a time.

“I can’t beat it.”

Last night Val and I rented Manchester by the Sea. Let me first clarify things by saying, I know and understand the issues around Casey Affleck and his treatment of women and that I wanted to watch the movie from the viewpoint of what I could learn as a person and a writer.  It delivered well on both fronts.

Affleck plays a janitor whose brother dies of Congestive Heart Failure. The remainder of the movie reveals the ghosts from his own past as he faces his brother’s death and the care required for his teenage nephew.

(spoilers below)

You spend the movie rooting for Affleck to have a change of heart, that he’ll embrace the kid and stand in as his father.  In the end, he can only do what he knows.  He runs back to Boston and lets his nephew be adopted by family friends, even though he finds an apartment with an extra room incase the kid wants to visit on the weekend.

In their emotional final dinner together, Affleck tells the kid:

“I can’t beat it.”

When we face down grief and trauma, our response is often the same.

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Time freezes.

To avoid the pain we jump around. We think about the past or the future to avoid the present. We do whatever we can to not live in the moment. We check out.

Our smartphones become our pacifiers.

There are conversations floating in the air begging for our engagement and the effort is just to hard. We’re emotionally and physically spent.

We just can’t beat it.

I’ve recently taken small steps to combat this.  Every morning, before leaving for work, I pray with Carter if he’s the only one awake. If everyone is up, we all pray together.  It is a moment he looks forward to now.

I carry an index card in my wallet with three statements on it:

Find Joy Every Day/ No More Wall/ I am My Own Husband and Father

I’d been missing out on the joy around me, living behind an emotional wall, and feeling like I could only measure my worth as a father against those men I knew around me.

Everything, I realized, was wrong.

Joy is there, if you take a moment to see it. The Wall can come down if you take the emotional effort to work through it.

You can be the mother, father, husband or wife you want to be regardless of anything in the past or present. You can take a positive effort to shape the future and create your own identity.

You can create You.

This isn’t easy but it is part of my new journey. I hope you’ll join me and I know, one day at a time, things can change for all of us.

 

Broken Pieces

On Sunday, our church started a series on what happens when your life is shattered.  Pastor Bryan talked about the motorcycle accident that took the life of his wife back in June.

At the end of the message, a handful of people came to the stage and mentioned their own traumatic events.  They included a woman whose sister was killed in an act of domestic violence just three months before, a man fighting addiction,  a woman whose daughter had cancer at age 6, was cured by a blood transfusion only to contract HIV/AIDS and die from it years later, and Pastor Bryan’s sons talking about the loss of their mother.

We are sums of our experiences and nothing shapes us more than tragedy. Our reaction to grief may be the solution to change our future.

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Let’s take it a step deeper.  We are defined by our reaction to grief.

Train, research, workout, study, podcast, take notes, write books, do all you can to prepare and nothing matches the moment things all apart, that point you look in the mirror and realize something is wrong.

That diagnosis. That phone call. That argument.

The lines of demarcation that create our New Normal, the places that only exists as memories and warm summer afternoons, the ones we can’t go back to.

The starting point is knowing it is okay to grieve, to feel, to have the courage to face down what’s coming.

One of Val’s old coworkers is our age, married with two children, and starting chemotherapy this week for an aggressive form of cancer.

Her Normal has changed.

I wish I had a three-point summation, a quote, infographic, something to put a nice bow on this short run of thoughts, then I imagine her in a hospital bed tonight and I know that sometimes silence is the answer.

Presence is the answer.

Just being there, crying, holding hands and staying close.  Sometimes that’s all we have.

~Matt