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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Saturday, March 22, 2014

How Far Gone

As I experience it, grief is a consuming state of existence.  I would say "state of mind," but it is not merely mental.  It fills the body and more.  In its moments of intensity, it expands to fill the griever's universe.  That intense state, however, is not sustainable.  Sometimes it lasts a few seconds, sometimes much longer, with an aching that erupts physically.  The tears, sobs, body movements, catching of breath, moaning sounds--these usually bring a measure of relief.  They may also leave behind a residue of cloudiness, of fatigue, and of distraction.

What I read in books, and what I hear from friends who have lost spouses or children or other beloved ones, is that grief can make a kind of progress.  My friends bob and mj patterson-watt are insistent that it is not what some people want to call "moving on," which implies that their daughter or my wife becomes less relevant or central to who we are.  Rather, I think it is that the freshness of the would can begin to heal as one adjusts to the new situation.  My relation to my beloved has entered a new season, dominated by memory and memorial rather than by touching, seeing, smelling, hearing bodily presence.  This does not say that Everly is not still in my life, even in me, speaking in my thoughts, singing and dancing through my imagination, pointing me in the right direction as my partner and guide.  But admittedly, this presence is now muted and even more thoroughly mediated through my perspective on who she is.

Sometimes disturbing, and sometimes to my relief, is that this progress seems to include longer periods of coasting along within my day-to-day affairs.  Frankly, I need to be more consistent in carrying out my responsibilities and duties at work or in family business.  People are very gracious on this matter, respecting what I have given in the past and honoring my current inability to focus as well.  What I am trying to explain here, and simply to understand for myself, is the slow evening out of my emotional road through sloughs and valleys and potholes and pit-traps.  At first, every day was a struggle.  Then there were more level days mixed with sad days several times a week; then, maybe once a week.  I'm not saying that every day does not bring its moments of tears, but over time they have become less likely to dominate the days.

If we call it progress, it is worth noting that it is not exactly inevitable.  The leveling out of emotions may not always be a sign of improvement.  It can also be a superficial dampening, a deadening of the loves that drive humans toward the good.  Our language is filled with imagery about what keeps people going, what urges people to action.  There are the motion words:  motive, motivation, what moves someone, e-motion.  Words like passions and drives speak of what stirs a person and draws a person forward.

Augustine sometimes employed the word "loves" to convey this idea.  The "loves" for Augustine are about our desires, our longings, what we want, what we need.  Rightly directed, they draw humans toward, or push toward, the good for which human life is intended.  Most famously, he speaks of this in the opening lines of Confessions, saying, "Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts find no rest until they rest in you." 

Thus, to have dulled emotions, lessened hopes and aspirations, diminished joys and sorrows, may not indicate progress.  It can sometimes be a diminishing of desire and love for what is good.  It can be a forgetfulness that hides the beauty for which one rightly grieves.  Forgetfulness is a dangerous pattern of life in many ways, covering over good and evil from the past and how they should shape our living now.  Forgetfulness is a favored stance in a culture such as ours, whose wealth is founded on slavery and sustained through oppressive neo-colonial economic systems.  We don't want to remember those things.  They create too much dissonance in the midst of prosperity. 

Personal forgetfulness allows a person to think, "I am self-made.  Look what I have achieved, all on my own!"  But no one is self-made.  Anyone's success emerges from a network of relationships and help from others.  Forgetfulness is the opposite of what I want from grief's progress.  It is in remembering well that I believe progress will come.  Remembering the blessings poured into my life from knowing and living with Everly--this is what I hope will continually grow and take the foreground in my mind and body so that the memories of losing her, though present, take their place in the background.

This wordy prologue is my way of trying to say that it seems to me that I have been coasting for some weeks now.  In one way, it is a kind of drifting that means I have reached a point in grieving where the next steps will be a challenge.  In conversations with friends, I have been wondering how to discern the path God has for me in the remainder of my years.  Up until now, I have believed that the path of my life was united to the path of Everly's life.  God's leading of Everly and God's leading of Mike were one and the same leading, and our discernment was worked out in an unending conversation about our faith, hope, and love.  More than thirty-three years of that process leaves me unprepared to go on with her now present but muted voice.  She remains in and with me.  Her words and deeds are etched upon my life.  Our joint destiny is embedded in the genes, faces, and hearts of three extraordinary, marvelous young adults.  But the conversation is harder.  I'm trying to circle around to its echoes by talking with friends who have known us and share many of the convictions Everly and I have lived by.  Some are telling me it's time to go deeper with grief counseling, and I think that is right.  I am not above seeking help where it can be found.  So one part of the leveling out can be seen as drifting as I consider how to keep going.

Probably another aspect of coasting is my pulling back.  Sometimes, pressing into a struggle is too daunting.  So I've tried to put my energy into work as I can, although that's not yet up to what it should be.  I've had some spells of working on a couple of research projects.  I've been trying to carry water on some things my Dean needs done and for which I am well-suited.  I think this also means that I have pressed into the grief struggle a little less.  That may be a kind of self-preservation.  My emotional energy capacity has never been very high.  In graduate school, I remember confessing to a colleague that I was feeling a lot of anxiety.  His incredulous response was, "Mike, what would it look like for you to be anxious about something?"  Part of the reason for being even-keeled is that I quickly get worn out by intense social interaction and emotional investment.  So I tamp down the emotion to keep myself going.  That may meant that I'm probably dealing with some grief fatigue.

I hope, however, that some of the difference is also that I am making some progress.  I am too inexperienced to know what progress in grieving should look like, but I suspect it includes a kind of wound healing that allows a person to experience the loss of a beloved without becoming constantly or steadily overwhelmed.  What once manifested as days and hours of deep sorrowful longing seems to come over time to reappear as sharp moments of poignant grief, a few tears, a mixed memory of loss and blessing, amidst more usual day-to-day experiences.

I am describing the process of my own experiences.  My three children are in the same time capsule in which I live, under the shadow of death cast by a powerful, enchanting, winsome, loving personality whose manifold tendriled threads append themselves to, even invade, every moment and space we inhabit.  How they find this process unfolding, whether they see progress or stasis, differs in each life.  It is clear that we are not all on the same schedule, that our setbacks are different, and that our sense of progress, or lack of it, varies with our times and places.  One of the heartaches of being their dad is wishing for them to have the gifts of their mother in their life, gifts that I cannot replace.  Everly and I were drawn together by our common loves and our fascinating differences, and in her absence I am left offering the loves we shared, my differences without hers, my brokenness and learning to mingle with theirs.

This week was the week in which the 18th of the month came and went.  That marked eight months since Everly died.  There was a heaviness around me for days.  Moments of painful grief kept cropping up.  So Friday morning I made a point of doing something that often helps me focus and uncover thoughts and feelings just below the surface.  I turned on some music.

This time it was an album by Kyle Matthews, See for Yourself.  One song began with lines that hit me hard.  It is written from the point of view of Lazarus, the friend of Jesus who died and whose life was given back when Jesus went to his grave.  It begins by referring to his sister's grief.
Mary's anger could not be denied,
'If you'd been here, he would not have died.'
While anger has not been a dominant emotion of my grief, I don't deny that it has cropped up at times.  But rather than anger, the response I have to such an image of this sister's grief for her brother is more like that of a child who feels helplessly deprived and wishes intently for any way to recover the loss.  The words awakened this helplessness buried just below the surface.  The song goes on to describe Lazarus's thirst to know the stories of God's deliverance, coming to the statement, "Guess I never knew just how far gone I was."  Whatever it means in the framework of this song, it struck me as describing the depth of my sense of helplessness, my aimless drifting, my intensity of sorrow.  The awakened emotion began to stir as a storm in my chest and throat.

How deep is the loss?  There is no clear answer.  It goes as deep as I have existence.  It's not like losing an object or a possession, something that is not part of oneself.  So reflecting on "how far gone" I am points to the absence of the one who was united to me, in whose life my life participated.  "How far gone I was" reminds me that it is not only Everly who is gone, but it is the "us" that is gone, or at least demolished so thoroughly that it requires a rebuilding under new conditions of existence.

The other song that touched me most deeply is one of Kyle's most well-known compositions, a reflection on baptism called "Been Through the Water."  It links three episodes in the life of a man, from his youth, his young adulthood, and his old age, and examines the significance of baptism across the long narrative.  The final stanza depicts the man with his grandson, gone fishing, and commenting on his old-age pains, "Soon I'll be free from these pains."  Now this is, of course, an aspect of Everly's death that is very present to me.  She spent the last years of her life struggling with a great deal of pain.  The last two months seem to have intensified her pain even more.  The words reminded me that she has been set free from her pain, the pain in her stomach, her back, her arm, her hip, her leg, and just about any part of her anatomy.  For this, I have tried to rejoice.  I would not have her back with me only to again suffer great pain.  She deserves to be free of it.  Yet it seems I would have her back at any cost.  So this thought both reminds me of the price she paid to continue loving us, and the reason I ought to be happy for her not to endure any longer in this world.  It's a joy mixed with hurt, a mournful joy.

The refrain of the first song again spoke to me in those moments.  It has Lazarus telling what it is like to have life flow back into his body.
'Cause I feel my heart start to beat again
'Cause your word is life.
Your word is life.
Your word is life to me.
And I feel my chest start to breathe again
'Cause your word is life.
Your word is life.
Your word can breathe the life back into me.
Now a narrow baptist reading might take "word" to strictly mean the Bible, but that is not the primary use of the term theologically.  It is a way of describing the movement of revelation from God to humanity, whether in creation, in prophetic proclamation, in the Spirit's quickening, or in the incarnation.  It is a way of saying that God has come to humanity with good news.  James Evans argues that the doctrine of revelation and the doctrine of liberation are united, for to begin to know who God is, is already to be liberated from the false gods and ideologies that justify domination systems and enslave human beings.  This word of hope rang true to my sense of helplessness.  However far gone I was, God's word brings light, life, liberation, and restoration to my predicament.  Because Everly now rests in the loving presence of God, I also may receive the grace of being in the presence of God with her.  For God, the Hound of Hell, pursues me to whatever depth I might dig for myself or fall helplessly into.

So Friday morning was a day to find myself immersed in the work of grief.  Rather than coasting along, I was pulled back into the intensity of loss that is Everly's death.  But the very way that it happened is a reminder that I am not alone in it.  It was the words of a song, shared by many people, written by a friend, and infused with life by the Spirit, that stirred me to this important work.  I can't say for sure if it is progress or stasis.  But I do know that as I grappled with these matters, the same Spirit stirred another friend to invite me to get out of the house, take a walk, and converse.  That crisp morning among the trees and hills of north central Durham helped me frame my inner life in the larger realm of creation and redemption.

I am wounded, perhaps broken.  Healing is possible, and in fact seems to be happening in tiny steps.  And I am not alone.  Somewhere in there may be some progress.

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