What Gets Lost (2)

We ran circles around each other, Amber and I. We played in the front yard of the house we had rented in East Tennessee. Amber was four. I was older and starting to feel it.

“James, your mom is on the phone,” Linda called from the open front door.

I walked into the house, picked up the phone, and said, “Hello.”

“James, I have some bad news. Your father is dead.”

It was October, 19th, 1982. He was 71. Milligan College, where I had just begun teaching, was on Fall Break, I had just returned from visiting my parents in Georgia. The ’82 Chevette we had driven down to Georgia was still half-packed.

Only a day or two before, he had handed me a check for $100. “Take this and buy yourself some tires,” he said. He always checked my tires and my oil whenever I visited. “Don’t tell your mother, She’s funny about money, you know.”

A few minutes later we drove away. I glanced back and saw him standing in the driveway waving then….”James, your father is dead.”

“How?”

“He was under your aunt’s house fixing a water pipe and just died.”

Sudden cardiac arrest.

She found him one his knees under the house. Some pipe tape dangled from the leaky pipe he was fixing. He had slipped away so suddenly that he didn’t bother to fall over.

I told my mother that I’d call her back and hung up. I sat down on the edge of the bed and cried.

After a bit, I got up, told Linda what had happened. Amber overheard me.

“We have to go back but I can’t stand the thought of riding in that tin can again,” I said.

I sat down at the kitchen table, the phone in hand, and called the airlines.

“Daddy, what are you doing?” Amber stood by my side

“I’m calling to see what it would cost to fly,” I said.

Her eyes widened and she said, “Are we going to heaven?”

We drove.

I dropped Linda off at her parents’ house in Atlanta and went on to my parents’ house in Carrollton. It was a tiny house. Built in 1950. I was born in July of 1950. We moved into that house in October that year.

My mother and I sat down at the yellow Formica kitchen table in the kitchen. That’s where we had eaten every day, except Sundays, when I was growing up. (Sundays we moved into the dining room.)

We talked from the time I got there about 11 p.m. until about 4:00 a.m. the next morning.

“I’ve got to go to bed,” I said.

Just before I got up, she said something that taught me something about what gets lost when a loved one dies. She said, “You know what I’m really going to miss with him gone?”

“What?”

“I’m going to miss sitting on the front porch, drinking coffee with him, talking, and waiting on the mailman.”

I thought about that comment a lot. I would have thought she would have simply said, “I’m going to miss him.” But, she didn’t. She pointed to a specific moment they shared day after day and said that that was the thing she was going to miss most!

I knew why that meant so much to her. They had both worked hard for years. Neither of them made any money to speak of. That didn’t bother them. My mother was fond of saying, “James, remember: if you have a roof over your head and clean sheets you just about have it all.”

No, they had other problems. My dad was fond of certain libations and my mother was absolutely not. It caused a lot of tension in my growing up years.

But then, one day, just out of the blue, he quit. By the time that he died, he had not had a drink in 5 years. So, to sit on the porch, drink coffee, talk, and watch for the mailman was to my mother a taste of heaven.

What gets lost when a loved one dies? The Person, yes. But, also the Patterns, those daily rituals that seem such a commonplace.

When the beloved one dies, so do the patterns, the commonplaces that constitute our existence with them.

We drink our coffee…alone.
We talk to ourselves.
We wait for the mailman…

We grieve.

What Gets Lost (1)

A friend I made 62 years ago lost her 42-year-old son on Christmas Eve. While I have not spoken to her, I can only imagine the pain that she and her husband are enduring. Since I heard the news, I have thought a lot about my friend (I haven’t had the privilege of meeting her husband) and what she must be going through.

I have also spent some time thinking about what I have learned about grief over my many years of coming alongside the grieving and stumbling along beside them. That is one of the most difficult learning processes of life: learning what to say, what not to say, when to say what you just have to say, and wondering whether in that moment you have anything of value to say at all.

One thing I have learned is that a lot gets lost when a loved one dies. That is what I want to write about over the next few posts. Grieving people have taught me much over the years about what gets lost when a loved one dies. As I thought about the things they have told me, a way of remembering them just emerged in my mind. I call that way of remember the 4 P’s of loss: (1) Person, (2) Patterns, (3) Projections, and (4) Prospects.

The Person

It doesn’t take a genius to see that when a loved one dies, your greatest loss is the loss of the person. But what is a person?

Not long ago, I spoke to a team of emergency transport pros about the experience of a heart transplant. They are an important part of the logistical train that gets an organ from the point of the donor to the point of the recipient. (You may not know this but when a transplant surgeon is notified that an organ is coming, s/he doesn’t just get up and drive to the hospital. No, the surgeon is picked up and transported via an emergency vehicle with sirens and lights flashing. Time is of the essence.)

What I wanted them to understand was that when they transport an organ they transplant much more than an organ. Given the way we think of hearts, I believe that is especially true when they transport a heart! They transport all of the loves of that heart and all of the love that was given to that heart. Culturally speaking, they transplant the essence of the person, the center of his or her loves, the center of all his/her disappointments and the many griefs they have experienced in a lifetime.

I came to that way of thinking about it after getting into a conversation with someone who objected to what transplant patients sometimes experience: “I feel like the donor is with me.” The objector argued that no one says that when what is transplanted is a kidney or a pancreas. Further, she argued that the heart is merely an organ, a collection of cells, arteries, and valves. That’s it.

At one level, she had a point. As I asked one of my cardiologists who was “taking a little piece of my heart’ in a biopsy, “Dr ____, when was the last time someone told you they love you with all their pancreas?” It’s a weird feeling for the guy who is snipping away bits of your heart to chortle…chortle…and…chortle.

So, my dialogue partner had a point. However, she was also guilty of being ‘nothing buttery.’ (C.S. Lewis) A heart is nothing but an organ.

I wanted to ask her if she regarded her child in the same way- simply a collection of cells, organs, valves, pipes, and other mechanisms.

I didn’t ask but I doubt it.

Well, just as a heart is not simply an organ, so a person is not simply an animated, mobile bag of organs. A person is an organism but a person is also a host of other things. S/he is invested with our affections but also our hopes and our memories and our dreams and our needs, etc.

So, when a beloved person is lost to us through their dying, much more than the person is lost with them.

That I will take up next time.