Do? More.


Don’t believe this. Not for a second.

From a very early age, we teach kids to identify themselves by what they can accomplish. When a baby can flip over from back to stomach, we ooh and aah; when she learns to sit up, we applaud; when she stands for the first time on wobbly, uncertain legs, we celebrate the triumph; and when she takes her first tentative steps, we announce that she’s becoming a “big girl.”

It continues throughout childhood – each physical or developmental marker brings another round of Facebook statuses, Tweets, videos and pictures. The first tooth lost. The first day of school. The first dance. The first game. Every achievement documented, celebrated, and cemented in the child’s head as the surest way to understand themselves.

I am what I do.

Naturally we don’t let that idea remain. We tell our children that they are more than their accomplishments. We try to instill in them that their value lies not only in what they can do, but also in who they are. We teach them that they are intrinsically valuable – even without doing a single thing, they are beloved and special and worhty. We say that, and then spend most of our time praising them only for things they do. It’s our default setting.

Heck, even Aristotle sad as much: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, it is a habit.” The connection between identity and productivity is dadgum hard to override, because we understand that there are bad things that happen when a person gets too caught up in what he or she can or can’t do. I mean, I’ve seen elementary school kids crushed because they didn’t get an A on a spelling test. I’ve seen high schoolers devastated because they didn’t get into the college of their parents’ choosing. I’ve seen adults completely adrift in life after losing a job they thought was their dream.

We are what we do.

Since we’re human, things are naturally complicated. We shouldn’t solely define ourselves by our actions, but our medium for expression as individuals is throughactions: thought, communication, creation. We cannot tell the world who we are unless we do something. But we go awry when we come to believe that what we do is all we are, and that when we can no longer do those things that make us us, then we are no longer someone who matters.

It’s what makes nursing homes so challenging. Same as hospitals. We hate being reminded we have limits; that the very thing that makes us feel alive – our physical/mental capabilities – will be stripped away. People struggle with aging because it’s a regression to the mean; it’s the universe’s way of telling us that we are finite, we are frail.

We are not gods in flesh.

When we come to the end of ourselves, we wrestle with the notion of value. Life becomes an existential cage match. If we cannot do, then what good are we? If we’re merely clogging up the planet, using up money and other resources better spent on those who can create, why should we linger? Why spend our last days as a museum piece that only teaches it’s hell getting old?

I’ve heard those questions from the lips of people who’ve gotten old, gotten beyond their prime years of production: why am I still here? What good am I?

My grandmothers both ask me that question when I go to visit. I look at them and I see life, my life, sitting there in front of me, and I wonder, how do you not know you’re valuable? I look at them, aged and beautiful, and all I can think of are things like sunshine and laughter and meals and hugs and wisdom and prayers and guilt trips and love. And I love them for ALL of it. Every bit. I don’t necessarily remember any one single act (though we do have a few stories to tell) but what I remember, more than the lifetime of doing, is the person who did it, and did it all, because she loved.

Maybe she can’t get her shoes on anymore. Maybe she doesn’t sleep well at night. Maybe she is reaching a point that she’ll require someone to watch over her the way all of us worried parents watched over our own children, someone who can encourage and celebrate each accomplishment, regardless of how small. Maybe all of that and more.

But there will come a day when neither one is here. When both will have gone the way of all people, when both will be a marker next to the marker for a good man who went before her. And when that day comes, I will wish not for her to do something for me, not for her to create or accomplish anything. I will simply wish like hell that she were still with me, that she still existed in a form I could hug or kiss or look at, simply because she’s who she is. My grandmother.

Funny, isn’t it? We spend so much time trying to do something, and not enough time enjoying who those somethings make us into. We think about that only in the end, only after it’s too late to truly appreciate the person for themselves. I think about friends and family today who would give anything to have just a little more time with a Pop, or a Nana, or a brother or sister or a child…

We are not merely what we do. We are more.

Love someone for that today.

Surviving the Death of Your Child

ImageI don’t normally post blogs based on what people are Googling, but the last three days I’ve seen an inordinate number of hits on one of my posts, When Your Baby Dies, and noted that a lot of people searched the word “stillborn” which led them to my site. And I’m not talking about a spike of 10-20 hits, I’m talking in the hundreds. Despite being plugged into the daily news and doing my best to stay current on global events, I can’t for the life of me think of any reason that people would be searching so frequently for that term, or landing so often on my post.

But in the interest of helping those folks out, I’d like to tell you how to survive the death of your child.

Please keep in mind, my daughter was a full-term stillborn, so my experience is radically different from someone who lost a child outside the womb. I can’t imagine losing one of my children (my wife and I now have two, a boy and a girl) and having to go through the process of burying them and the memories we made. I can’t imagine how it would feel to stand in Jon or Ella’s bedroom, knowing that they were never coming back. What it would be like to not feel my son’s arms wrapped around my neck again, or not have my daughter beg me to bounce her on the trampoline until she collapsed into my arms, laughing too hard to stand.

I think, honestly, I would die.

I know some of that pain, having experienced it with my stillborn daughter, but the grief is different when you mourn lost potential. Losing someone you’ve had for weeks or months or years…I don’t know. But I do know this: there is a connection between all of us who have ever lost a child. We know the deep sorrow of seeing a future wiped out before it could be fulfilled. We know the intense horror of having to ask “Why?” and “What could have happened differently?” without ever getting a satisfactory answer. We know what it feels like to willingly offer our own life for the life of our child, begging for the chance that they might live and we might die instead.

And we know the futility of such begging.

If you’ve ever picked out your child’s clothes, knowing that it would be the last thing they’d ever wear, you know that sometimes simply breathing is like being pierced with a knife.

If you’ve ever had a doctor look at you, eyes full of fear and mouth devoid of words, you know that the universe itself can seem small and cruel.

These are the pains of losing a child. They are not easy. They are not short-lived. They are not understood by many, save those who have drank from the same cup. They are, however, not permanent, at least not in the sense that each day feels like a fresh reinvention of the concept of hell. Eventually you will wake up and realize that you can go on. You will wake up and realize that the death of your child, though still with you in each heartbeat, each moment, is not going to kill you too.

Surviving the death of your child isn’t easy. It requires help, professional as well as personal. You need to go see a counselor; a therapist; a doctor; a spiritual advisor. You need to spend time with friends and family who may not understand your grief, but won’t shrink away in fear when it surfaces. You need to write down your thoughts, scream obscenities to heaven, cry until you fear dehydration, and battle the twin terrors of exhaustion and insomnia.

If you want to survive, you have to fight. If you give up, you’ll die too.

Only it won’t be the physical death you perhaps long for; it will be the death of your soul, your emotions, the part of you that makes you you. No one is strong enough to walk through a child’s death alone. You’ll crave solitude, and it will be an important part of your healing, but you’ll need community, a group of people who can and will go with you through the struggle, especially in the first few months when the world goes to hell and you can’t even make yourself care about eating a bowl of Frosted Flakes.

It’s a bitter irony, I suppose, that the one thing that helps you survive is family. And yet, it’s true.

If you are one of the many people who have searched for info on stillbirths, or have been moved by life events to read When Your Baby Dies, I sincerely hope that you have the family you need to survive the family you lost. If I could offer any other advice it’s merely this: with the right people around you, the best way to heal is to go full-on into your grieving. Don’t push it off. Don’t try to play hero. Don’t pretend it only hurts a little.

Embrace it. Run into the burning building that is your soul. Once the flames have gone out and everything has been reduced to rubble, you’ll find that by the grace of God and the strength of the people around you, you’re still standing. You’ve survived.

That’s what we all hope for. May you find it.

Slick Father’s Day

That’s Slick in the hat. Happy Father’s Day, Mr. Ron!

I’ve had this blog post rambling around in my head for over six months now, and today I’m finally going to write it. I’ve wrestled with this one because it’s about a person I consider family, but we’re not blood related. In fact, we don’t really see one another that often (Facebook helps, but only so much). And to be honest with you, I’m as nervous writing about this man as I was writing about my dad.

But after six months of trying to figure out an angle, trying to think of a legitmate reason to write about this person (beyond my own feelings), I finally have the perfect lede: it’s Father’s Day, and I want to celebrate one of the fathers I’ve been privileged to know.

His name is Ron Wexler. Or, if you go by his license plates, DWG CRZY or SLICK.

I know Mr. Ron because I lived across the street from him growing up. He was the crazy neighbor – had a loud motorcylcle, a sweet black Torino, and his very own Coke machine on the back porch. A University of Georgia season ticket holder, he had me convinced as a kid that the G-Day was a religious holiday much in the same way Christmas was.

I’m writing about him today not to embarrass him, or curry favor with him, but because as I’ve thought about Mr. Ron, I’ve come to understand just how influential he has been on my life. And I want to celebrate that influence this weekend, as a tribute to him.

See, Mr. Ron wasn’t the conventional father figure. I was best friends with his step-son, Pete, and every time I spent the night at their house, or just spent time over there, it was like walking into an alternate universe. Mr. Ron drank beer, so there was always some in the fridge. He had strict rules about what you could and couldn’t touch, which rooms you could and couldn’t go in. He used colorful language and metaphors that were a bit more adult in content than my parents’. And occasionally, he could get upset and scare the living crap out of you.

I type all that knowing that there are some people who will read it and immediately go into judgmental mode. It can’t be helped. Once upon a time, it bothered me too because it was so different from what I knew. I would see or hear something at Mr. Ron’s and come home and talk to my dad about it. And my dad would look at me and say, “That’s just Mr. Ron.”

That helped. I would see my dad go over there to help with a project, or to borrow a tool, or just stand in the driveway and talk, and I began to learn something valuable: how to love a person for who that person is. My dad was different from Mr. Ron, yes, but neither of them let those differences get in the way of their friendship. And I learned that, as different as Mr. Ron was to me and my family, we were different to him. I also learned that the things that made us different were often matters of personal taste; the things that brought us together, our sense of what was right and good in life, were more important.

So I learned to roll with the punches, but more importantly I learned to love Mr. Ron as much as I loved my dad.

I called him “Sir” anytime he asked me a question. I did as he said whenever he gave me an instruction. I told him how I was doing in school, shot baskets with him in the cul-de-sac, and spent a lot of time just talking about life, because his knowledge and experience of life was so fascinating. And he always gave me his time.

When I told him I was headed to the University of Georgia after high school, you’d have thought I’d told him he’d won the lottery. He was as proud as my own parents, and almost five years later, when we came home from my collegiate graduation, he did something that will stick with me the rest of my life. He’d hung, across the front of our carport, a huge sheet of butcher paper, and he’d written “No longer a pup, he’s a BULLDOG now!” in huge, black letters.

A handmade banner to welcome me home and celebrate in my accomplishment.

My parents cried. I cried. I’m pretty certain Mr. Ron didn’t, but I know he was happy for me, just as he was happy for me on the day I got married, and when each of my kids was born. I also remember him being there when my daughter died. I know his eyes were red that day.

Over the years I’ve been able to keep up with Mr. Ron, either by being part of milestones in his family’s life, or him being part of milestones in mine. I performed Pete’s wedding in his front yard, and shared the joys of his first grandchild’s birth at a baby shower in his house. Lately, we’ve seen each other at funerals more than anything else – at the funeral for his father-in-law; at the funeral for my grandfather. I guess it’s a sign that we’re both getting older.

Regardless of when we see each other, we still talk about life – whether it’s football, or golf, or cars, or parenting, or retirement, or whatever else might be on his mind. I’m still amazed at some of the stuff he says, but I’ve noticed a mellowing that gives him a very wise perspective. He and his wife, Ms. Carolyn (I’ll have to write a blog about her later – she certainly deserves one!) are still living life to the fullest, whether it’s road trips to Georgia games or spending time with their grandkids, and that life yields some wonderful observations about what it means to be human.

I drink it up when I can.

I’m going back and reading this as I type it, and I know I’m not really nailing the man down. But even if I tried, I don’t think I could; this is man who defies easy description. Just as I could never write the definitive profile of my dad, I don’t think I could for Mr. Ron, either.

But I can tell you that he’s impacted me. Taught me to look beyond the usual categories and behaviors that we often use to organize the people in our lives. Taught me that people don’t have to believe as me in order to be decent, kind, wise people. Taught me that, come heck or high water, you stay faithful – to your wife, your team, and yourself.

For those reasons and a host of others, I want to wish Mr. Ron a happy Father’s Day. And I want him to know that I love him, and – as always – wish him and Ms. Carolyn the very best.

And if you know SLICK, you wish him the same things too.

All Grown Up

My parents on their wedding day, looking ridiculously young.

Yesterday was Mother’s Day, so naturally I spent some time with my mom helping homeless families pack up and move. She didn’t seem bothered by the fact that I forgot to get her a card.

There’s no punchline. My mom serves as our church’s coordinator for Family Promise of Gwinnett, which means that two or three times a year she’s responsible for transforming our church gymnasium into a home for people who don’t have one. She wrangles volunteers, schedules meals, provides transportation, and just in general spends time with families who are going through a hard time.

And she excels at it.

Obviously she has a lot of help with the details – we happen to have a lot of wonderful volunteers at our church, and they buy in on Family Promise like almost nothing else. I think it’s the idea of seeing transformative work right in front of you, of being able to see our church’s faith lived out. But at the center of all of these volunteers is my mom, joking and laughing and loving every person involved.

My dad is the silent partner in this venture; he’s the behind-the-scenes fella who makes sure that what needs to be done gets done. And to watch the two of them work together is to realize what makes their 38 year-old marriage so effective: they are as perfectly balanced as the Flying Wallendas. Watching them also reminds me why our home was so popular as a child–people just love them and are drawn towards them.

It’s weird as an adult to look at your parents through an adult lens. I often find myself looking at them as if I were still under their roof and their rules (a frequently quoted maxim during my youth); in fact, I often look at the entire world as if I were still a youth easily brushed to the side. It’s only been recently that I’ve settled into my adulthood, and part of that transition has been looking at my parents as peers.

Of course, my parents had me young (Dad was 22, Mom 20), so in a sense they’ve always felt like peer leaders; that’s not to discount their parental authority, because they had that in spades. (I still tell people my dad would whip my butt if he heard me being disrespectful to an elder, because he would.) But it’s more to acknowledge what I’ve been realizing: that the journey of parenthood is the simultaneous growing up of your kids and yourself.

So in a sense, realizing my own adulthood is to realize theirs as well. And what magnificent people they are: kind, generous, hysterical, fun to be around, genuinely welcoming, tireless caregivers to grandkids and grandparents alike, faithful, fun-loving, and wise beyond their respective 58 and 56 years. Watching them this past week, as they served the families at church and my own family, was to see the rare beauty of human nature, fully expressed through the grace of God.

Far from the people they were when I was a child, my parents are all grown up now, which means that I am too. It also means that one day the process will move to the next step, when we all move up a role in the cycle of life: I will become the caregiver, they will become the cared-for. It is a role I will relish because they have shown me how to carry it well.

I didn’t see or speak to my mother after our morning together; she had some Family Promise duties to fulfill, then went home to crash. I had church and then time with Rachel’s family. But despite not being together, I felt closer to her and my dad than I ever had before, in part because I felt in my heart the magnitude of what their lives mean to me and to others.

It was probably the best Mother’s Day we’ve ever had.

What Makes Us Human

I was up late last night following up different threads of conversation on my post yesterday about Trayvon Martin. I had a lot of different perspectives coming at me, and I was doing my best to make sense of each opinion, each passionate statement, each frustrated comment. It meant being up way past my normal bed time, but it was worth it.

In the middle of it all, around 12:10, my son, Jonathan, woke up crying.

At first I tried to ignore it. He’s the cuddler in the family, so if he’s awake and sleepy, he wants someone, somewhere, to hold him in their arms and rock him off to Dreamland. This usually means a solid 20 minutes in his room, in this little blue glider, rocking back and forth while patting him on the back or rubbing his ears. When you, as an adult, are on the verge of psychotic break from lack of sleep, spending an extra 20 minutes awake is not a pleasant thought. Sounds harsh, but it’s true. So I just kept on typing.

But after about a minute, the cry changed. It wasn’t the usual low, barely awake kind of cry that he makes when he wakes up too early; it was higher-pitched and panicky, as if he were suddenly aware of something being wrong around him. I immediately got up and went into his room.

His covers were thrown in two directions, and his little legs were draped strangely off the edge of the bed. Jon was sitting up, his hands in front of his mouth as if frightened, and when he saw me he reached up and said, “Hold me.”

I did.

We sat down in the glider and I began the back and forth motion that he finds so comforting. He put his head on my shoulder and nestled his chin into my neck so that his small, rhythmic breaths tickled me on each exhale. His hands found their way to my biceps and rested there. And his heart, beating rapidly at first but slowing down with each glide forward and back, soon fell into rhythm with mine.

Just me and him and the nighttime world.

Holding him, I realized that he was my son and I loved him dearly. You carry those thoughts around with you on a daily basis – you know them like you know the sun rises and sets – but much like a sunrise, you don’t always stop to appreciate the true beauty contained therein. Enclosed in the darkness I felt strangely protected, strangely at peace with Jon and myself and the future. And for some reason, in that moment of peace, I began to think about Trayvon Martin again.

I began to imagine the pain of losing my son before he could grow into a man. The sorrow of seeing a life full of promise cut short. I know that some have speculated about Trayvon’s character – heck I have had my questions – but holding my son last night, I realized as a father, it wouldn’t matter to me if my son were acting a punk or not. Rocking there with Jonathan I instantly knew that I would, for better or worse, always see my son as the tiny, soft, fuzzy-headed boy asleep in my arms.

And I knew that Trayvon’s parents are probably the same way.

I think we forget things like that quite often. We see people as they currently are and believe that the present iteration is all they’ve ever been. It makes things easier for us, I suppose, if we don’t have to think about politicians or criminals or actors or sports figures or our coworkers as anything more than what we know them to be right now. It makes it easier to pass judgment, to form an opinion, to live our own lives, if the people that surround us everyday are two-dimensional characters.

Heck, one need only look at some Patch comment threads to see that truth come to life.

But occasionally we are reminded that we are not surrounded by mere characters; we are, in fact, surrounded by human beings who live and move and breathe and have a past just like we do. And many of those beings have been profoundly broken, or profoundly loved; many of them have dreams that have been thwarted or hopes that have been dashed; some of them wear hoodies and some of them are nervous neighborhood watch captains scared out of their minds.

This is what makes us human.

But whatever else we can say about them, we can say for sure that once upon a time they were small and innocent just like we were, just like our kids are. And somewhere, someone will weep when they are gone. Somewhere, someone will not see the same person we see lying in the casket; somewhere, someone will see their tiny child, their special little someone, the love of their lives – gone from their arms.

I think that’s what Trayvon Martin’s family is experiencing: not just the death of their 17 year-old son, but the death of that tiny little baby, innocent in their arms. Maybe that’s why they keep showing his picture as a younger boy – because that’s what they keep seeing.

I put my son down after a solid ten minutes of rocking last night, and as I did I kissed his cheek; the tear that fell on his little face glistened from his nightlight. Jon smiled and wiped the tear away, but not the kiss. Then he rolled over and pulled up his covers, which I so carefully tucked in around him. I knelt there for a minute longer, just staring at him, wondering what he will become, what he’ll be like, who he’ll choose to be as he makes his way through this big, bad world. The tears flowed freely.

When I stood up, I kissed him again and then headed to the door. Stopping there to look at him just one more time, I whispered “I love you” from the deepest part of myself and heard him sigh in response.