In the Quiet

Private Or Public Directions On A Signpost

I don’t recall struggling with anxiety immediately after the loss of my father. Maybe I did and I just didn’t know it. Things were a whirlwind of grief after I returned home from the funeral. The truth is that after all is said and done everyone but you go back to their normal life. That’s when it gets really hard.

I attempted to go back to school. I was only a few weeks shy of finishing my spring semester, but after a day of dragging myself to classes and explaining to professors and classmates what had happened, I just couldn’t do it anymore. Someone looking on the outside that had not experienced the death of a parent may not get why I couldn’t just pull myself up by my bootstraps, hunker down and finish the few weeks left, but I couldn’t. I felt numb as I withdrew from my 17 credits. All that work I was forfeiting. Why? Because I had just experienced the greatest loss of my life. For me it was okay. What were they? Credits? I was getting almost a full refund because of my circumstances. After staring death in the face my perspective had radically changed. If I wanted to do school at a later date I could. It wasn’t the end of the world. Losing my dad was. Right then and there what I could do was go back to work and try to find my new normal. Anything more than that was just too much.

The days and weeks passed and three months later I got engaged. It was such a happy time for me in the midst of my grief. We had a 10 week engagement that kept my mind busy. Even though grief was very prevalent, our wedding was sweet and happy and full of joy. I married my best friend. My brother walked me down the aisle and my mom bravely rejoiced with us in her dark cloud of loss.

My first inkling of anxiety began months after we had been married. At the time I didn’t know what it was but looking back I can solidly pinpoint it and label it. When it came time to travel I’d suddenly get a bad feeling, like something was going to happen. A very bad thing. Death. I felt responsible to stop that bad thing from happening so we wouldn’t go. If we went and I had felt like we shouldn’t and something bad happened it would be all my fault. I couldn’t endanger my husband like that. We had friends getting married in Seattle which was over four hours away and it was wintertime and I had a bad feeling. I was sure we would die on icy roads or in a car wreck or from falling boulders. We didn’t go.

This happened a few more times and my husband was always very supportive of me. But this wasn’t like me. I was the one who loved a grand adventure. Since when did traveling mean death? I had the where-with-all to recognize that I had changed and that wasn’t my normal. I chose to push through the bad feelings and I began to live my life again. It took a lot of prayer and trusting God to push through the stifling fear I had. I made little anchored memories to help me. I had a routine I would repeat in my head so that I could get in the car and drive across the state or climb on a plane and fly across the country. I would remember all the times I had “bad feelings” and then I would remember how everything ended up okay. The bad feelings were lies. I needed to trust God with my life. If it was my time to go, it was my time to go. I refused to not live. It was hard. It was painful. It was tearful. But I got in the car. I got on the plane. I lived.

As the years went by my fear began to evolve into a deeper and more strangling hold. I began to fear the death of my husband. I would think about it constantly and imagine every which way he could die. It was a terrible fantasy I could not turn off and it tormented me. It was a silent spirit killer that I kept hidden. Somehow I had it in my mind that I was doing something wrong by struggling with my fear. I didn’t want my husband to die, so why was I thinking about it all the time? If I told anyone they might think what a weak and terrible person I was so I struggled in silence. Hiding. My brain was focused on good and healthy things but it was also equally focused on fear and death. This went on for years. I lived in shame. I couldn’t turn off the fear. What was wrong with me? Wasn’t I a strong Christian? I felt like such a failure.

About five years into the struggle (after we had adopted our first two children…that’s another story) my best friend moved to Montana and I planned a trip over President’s Day weekend to go visit her. My husband was out of town for work and it was the perfect time to go. It was only a few hour drive but it was through the mountains and it was still pretty wintery out. I planned the trip, loaded up my two kids and felt the fear rip through my body. At that moment I made a decision. I turned around and looked at my two precious children I had received and I thought about life and the fullness of life. I thought about friends, family and living. It wasn’t living for me to cower in fear. It wasn’t living for me to bow to my emotions. I may have to live afraid. But I was going to live. I pulled out my little anchored memories that reminded me I would be okay and I started my car, put it in drive and I went. The bad feeling was only a bad feeling just like all the other times. I got there just fine with my two kids and had a wonderful time.

On the way home I was tested again in my fear but again I refused to cower. It had started snowing in the mountains and it was time for me to leave. I buckled my kids in the car, hugged my best friend goodbye and headed toward I-90 to go home. The tears began streaming down my face as I headed into the snow. I specifically remember quietly sobbing through the pass but pressing on. I drove all the way white knuckled but I made it. Sometimes you just have to do life through the tears.

That trip was a huge victory for me to continue to travel even though anxiety was now a part of my life. I just didn’t know what it was called. I began to learn what was real instinct and what was anxiety. As I explored this I could feel the difference. Anxiety was rooted in fear. Usually irrational fear. A real instinct was rooted in calm and peace. It was that gut feeling you get. The knowing. The God-given sense and warning to listen. It was strong and solid not empty and futile like anxiety. At first it was a small difference but it was there and I began to differentiate what was true and what was not. I ruefully acknowledged that my emotions and feelings were so good at lying to me and I was so good at listening.

Someone who does not struggle with anxiety may not know the mental exhaustion that one experiences. The energy it takes to get the mind ready to do something grappled in fear. The mental checklist I had to go through before a trip. I would take every fear and look it face on. I would hang it out in my mind like laundry and look at it. I would recognize the irrational and I would remember all the times I had been fine when I had the bad feeling. After I had done all of my mental gymnastics I was ready to go on the trip or do whatever it was that I was afraid of. But not until I had gotten my mind ready and the only way I could was through prayer and discipline. I had to take every thought captive, ask God for help and then do what I knew I should do. Even though I learned coping mechanisms on my own I still hadn’t dealt with the root. The root of my anxiety festered for years until I finally crashed. However, it was in the quiet time with God that I was able to stand during this time. It may have been shaky…but I could stand. In the quiet is where I stood. In the quiet is where I still stand.

A New Beginning

Pair of Adult Bald Eagles (haliaeetus leucocephalus)

After the phone call from my mom letting me know my dad had passed away, I had a couple of days to pack, make arrangements with my job at the coffee house, contact my professors at school and coordinate travel to Iowa where he was to be buried. It had been less than a week since I left New Hampshire and before I knew it I found myself back on the plane and headed to the Midwest for the funeral.

I don’t really recall which airport I flew in to or who picked me up but what I do remember clear as day is walking up my grandparents cracked and well worn sidewalk to their two story house in the little town of New Albin. I knew this visit would be unlike any visit I had done before. As I swung open the door to my grandma’s familiar kitchen my grandpa shuffled toward me crying. I had never seen him cry so this was a new and uncomfortable thing. He just kept saying how sorry he was. I knew he was sorry for himself. I knew he was sorry for me. I knew now for sure that this was for real.

The first order of business was the wake. I had never been to a funeral before so I just kind of went along and did what I was told. It felt so surreal and I kept wishing it hadn’t happened; only to be reminded by people, by flowers and finally by my dad’s casket arriving that yes indeed this time in my life had really happened. I hated the reminders.

I felt awkward and strange as people I knew and didn’t know told me over and over again how sorry they were as we stood by my dad’s closed casket. Me too. I was sorry too. The sorries were like a constant, slow and winding river. I couldn’t see around the bend to know when they would ever stop. After an hour of “I’m sorry” and “How are you doing?” I looked a lady straight in the eye and told her I was doing great. She stared back at me in confusion and I dare say disapproval. She finally moved on shaking her head. I just shook my head back and I moved on to. I moved on to the basement where everyone was eating lunch and plopped myself down in a chair. It was sort of like a reunion but it was a very odd one. A mixture of a ray of gladness to see the living with a constant shadow of sadness for the one gone. It was a delicate balance and I gladly admit the people handled it well.

The next day was gloriously bright and beautiful for the funeral. We arrived at the church and were part of the processional down the aisle to be seated up front close to where my dad would lay. My mother read my dad’s favorite passage of scripture, the love chapter. My brother played the piano while I led the congregation in song. He provided the harmony as the music soared on the chorus of “You are Awesome in This Place”. The most comforting thing happened next as we sang that song. A strong beam of light pierced down upon us through the windows and warmth enveloped both of our bodies. I have no other way to explain it except that I felt the physical presence of God rest upon us and the whole congregation. The music sounded louder. The music sounded cleared. The music sounded right.

The pastor shared, people shared and I read a story about my dad that I had written called “The Warrior”. The funeral seemed to swiftly rush by and as we exited out of the church my heart was touched as I looked out over the packed pews and saw it was standing room only. There were people that had flown as far as Alaska to pay their respects and the impact of their presence was not lost on me. We wandered out into the yard and the somber mood had visibly and physically lightened. People were chatting and catching up and waiting to follow the processional to the graveyard for burial. It was like a giant sigh of relief had escaped now that the service was finally over. I began to see the importance of closure and saying goodbye. It was hard. It was exhausting. It was relieving.

We rode in the procession to the little graveyard just outside of the town of 300. As we stood on the grass by the freshly dug grave I began to sing the verse “Praise God, Praise God” from “Amazing Grace”. Everybody joined in and after the pastor shared a few more parting thoughts. As the service ended and people began to mill around someone said, “Look! Over there! Can you believe it? Only at Steve’s funeral!” There above the grave site flew a bald eagle and a moment later another one swooped in to join him. On that sunny April day two bald eagles graced us with their presence. God had given us another gift. People began to clap and as I looked around everyone had their necks craned to the sky and their hands shading their eyes watching the majestic birds circle. Wide smiles of disbelief graced many faces showing an intermingling of joy and grief. I recalled a verse in the Bible, “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” Isaiah 40:31

Although many were pondering the end of my dad’s life that day I knew he was simply at the beginning. A new beginning. His eternal beginning. Because he believed in Jesus Christ he was now in paradise. I stared at the eagles and reminded myself that now my dad was simply on a long vacation. A very, very long one. But at the end of that vacation I knew I would see him again. Not lying on a bed almost unrecognizable with sickness but running and strong. He would not be weary anymore. He would not be faint anymore. When I finally get to heaven there would be no more separation. That was my hope. Because of the power of the cross I would not only see my dad again but I would be with him forever. Eventually. With that I turned my back on the place where my dad’s body lay fully aware that his spirit was gone and headed back to the car to my new beginning. Life without my dad.

Guest Post by Marsha Breeser: “One Cold Kiss” an excerpt from “Two Suitcases”

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**After posting my blog yesterday my mom reminded me that she too had a written account of the loss of my dad. So here by permission I have posted her remembrance of my dad’s final moments. Thank you for allowing me to share mom!

“One Cold Kiss”

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith;”

                                                                                                                     I Timothy 4:7

In my heart I sense the time is drawing close. Steve will not live much longer. Two days ago another patient who received a transplant died. At that moment I sensed God prompt me to pray that He would make it clear that if Steve were to go off life support I would have no doubt as to why, and when I would direct the doctor to do this.

I lean over and kiss his cheek. It feels cold. My mind trails back to Alaska when he would come in from his fieldwork. I would kiss him on his cold cheek. His moustache was usually full of ice. How fitting the last kiss is cold.

It is time. Leitha, his doctor approaches me in tears. She tells me a massive intra-cranial bleed signifies the end. Now I need to make the most dreaded calls of my life. Before I give the okay to disconnect life support I want to prepare our children. First I talk with Cid. He weeps over the phone. Later Niki cries too. With those two phone calls go any illusions I may have had that I can protect my children from pain.

I am thankful for Ellen, Mike, Dave and Sharon who surround us. We are all tired and hurting. The respirator is unplugged. We settle in the room to wait on God’s timing. And it did take time…11 hours. At one point I say to Steve, “You are doing it again. The doctor said you would die and here you are hours later, still breathing”. We all speak to him, believing he can hear. Our words reflect his personality and fighting spirit.

Tiredness seems to envelope me. I fear I will fall asleep. I pray, “God please let him take two quick breaths and die”. I don’t want him to suffer or struggle. I look up to check the monitor. His heartbeat over the last several hours has been gradually slowing. As I lay my head down Mike calls my name and points. The monitor shows a flat line. Steve takes two quick breaths. I catch my breath with awe. Dave pats Steve’s arm and says, “Well done good and faithful servant”.

God how marvelous that in a twinkling of an eye we can be absent from our bodies and present with You. Thank You that death is not the end, but the beginning of life with You. Help those of us left behind to patiently wait our turn.

In the End

さようなら

My dad would have been 65 years old today. It made me stop for just a few seconds and wonder what he would’ve done these past 18 years here on earth that he has been absent. But just a few seconds. No sense dwelling on what would never be. What is the point in that? It would just reap a harvest of sadness where acceptance has been resident and I’m not about to evict that occupant.

The day I arrived at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical center relieved that my dad was still alive but slightly horrified and unprepared (even though my mom warned me) at the condition he was in was the day things began to change for me. I was staring death straight in the face for the very first time and it put a reality in my heart that was not there before. Death truly was real. I believe that although I couldn’t recognize symptoms of anxiety or remember having any at the time that this was where the seed was planted in my life. The seed that eventually grew into a monstrous vine that entangled me, bound me and laid me flat.

My dad continued to hang on to life after I arrived. Days passed as he was in and out of delirium. One of his closest friends from Alaska had flown out and day after day we sat vigilantly keeping watch. We talked to my dad and I sang to my dad. We ate bad pizza, drank vending machine soda and wearily met each day wondering what it might behold.

Since my dad had been in the hospital quite frequently and for long periods of time over the course of his treatment the staff had a fond attachment to him. The day after I arrived my dad crashed and the nurse who he affectionately called “Wayner” (his name was Wayne) rushed to do his job as they tilted his bed to make the blood rush to his heart and then did what needed to be done to stabilize him. But my eyes weren’t on my dad. They were on Wayner. He was clearly distressed and upset. Only after my dad had stabilized did the frenzy and deep concern in his eyes dim. A great respect for nurses planted itself in my soul that day. This man loved my dad. How could he not? He was with him day in and day out serving him and relating with him. He was a welcome balm in our time of emotional depletion.

It wasn’t just the nursing staff that was fond of my dad but the doctors were too. Every morning during rounds before they could talk over his chart and discuss his progress (or lack thereof) they had to play “Name that Bird Call”. My dad would play them a bird call and then they all had to guess. Even in the hospital my dad’s delight for wildlife could not dim nor his love and enjoyment of people waiver.

Gone were those days though of chipper rounds and laughter as the staff miserably failed at bird naming. Instead, there lay my dad. I knew that God could do miracles but as I looked upon him and prayed for his healing I knew his time was winding down in this world. But still I prayed, faithfully. Knowing that sometimes healing comes through death.

Two weeks passed and my then boyfriend and now husband showed up for the planned visit to meet my dad and family. I tried my best to prepare him for the state my dad was in, but just like me he too was shocked at the condition of my father. By now he was in the ICU and even though we all held out hope I knew that he would not be coming home to us but rather he would be going home to Him.

As the time drew near for me to leave to go back to college I was torn. Do I go back as planned like my dad would want me to do or stay until the end? Did I need to be there when my dad passed from this life to the next or should I keep doing what the living do best. Live. I decided to go. It seemed the right way to honor my dad. To keep living among the living.

On our last day at the hospital my boyfriend and I went into his ICU room one more time to say our goodbyes. My dad had not been awake at all while Matt was visiting. I leaned in to tell him I loved him and that I was headed back to college now. Spring Break was over and it was time to go. As Matt stood by my side and spoke promises to my dad that he would take care of me my dad opened his eyes. He looked first at me, and then he looked straight at Matt resting his gaze gently upon him. Then he closed his eyes and I knew that was God’s gift to me. Perhaps it was God’s gift to my dad too.

Loading the plane to head back to school I sat next to Matt in the window seat and began to cry. The plane was full and I knew people were staring but I didn’t care. As the plane taxied and took off I knew that was the last time I would ever see my dad alive again. So there on the plane headed home with each second putting more miles between me and my father, I cried unashamedly for the upcoming loss of my dad.

A few days later I got the call I was waiting for. The call that told me my dad was gone. My roommate wrapped me in her arms and just held me as my mom told me the story of his passing. They were all around his bed because hours before they had taken him off of life support. They suspected he had a brain aneurism and there was no response so the decision was made to let him go. However, my dad couldn’t just die. He had to live for awhile longer because that was just the kind of guy he was. Strong and full of life that even off life support his heart beat on. My mom, my uncle and my aunt and some family friends were there. Tired and wanting my dad not to suffer anymore my mom quietly prayed in her heart, “Lord, let him take two quick breaths and die.” So he did. Two breaths later and my dad entered into glory. Two breaths later and our lives were changed forever.