I’ve never been a stellar cyclist. Balance has always seemed to elude me. One false move or glance and I’m wobbling all over the trail struggling to remain in the upright position. The best piece of advice I was ever given was this: Don’t look down at where you are, but ahead to where you want to go. Not just for cycling; this is a metaphor for living. More than ever, I’m learning to look ahead to where I want my life to go instead of looking at where I am now. If I look at my current situation, I can become anxious and full of doubt, making me lose my balance and risking a crash.
It’s not easy, but it is necessary. Hilary was fond of telling me that everything is temporary; nothing ever stays the same. Whether a season was good or not-so-good, she would just keep going until it changed again, despite her own anxiety and fears. I don’t know that I fully appreciated her tenacity at the time, but now I’m trying to follow in her footsteps. Grief can provide ample temptation to remain stuck and intentionally choosing to re-join life–even find some joy in it– can feel like betrayal, as if somehow you’reover it.
But I’m trying. Today it was a bike ride. A good friend had upgraded his bike and gifted me with his original ride. Although the saying goes “it’s like riding a bike; you never forget,” it took me a while to get the hang of it again. In my favorite park, I found my footing and actually enjoyed viewing the scenery as the gears clicked into place.
While I’m far from mastering changing gears, literally and figuratively, I’m learning. With a change in vocation, I’m navigating uncharted territory. Trusting my own instincts, learning from the experience of others and leaning into that still small voice are the markers that are guiding me into this new foray. Like never before, being vulnerable, quick to admit, I was wrong and I’m sorry, and setting healthy boundaries have become part of my daily existence. Each day has begun with the questions: What lessons am I going to learn today and do I have to learn them the hard way again? Strange as it seems, I look for Hilary in these moments. She was so chill when it came to making mistakes and owning them (eventually!), so I find myself wondering what she would do in the situations I’m finding myself in; what advice would she give. Funny, I never sought advice from her when she was here; I wouldn’t have dreamed of it. Now, however, I’m kind of in the world she once inhabited. One where pain, anxiety and defensiveness are the norm for my charges, I’m constantly wondering how she dealt with the incessant onslaught of emotions. In the still small voice in my spirit, I hear her two cents worth being thrown in: Remember mom; everything is temporary.Don’t get stuck in where you are, but where you’re going. You’re killin’ it, ma.
It was a day of goodbyes. As I made my final trek to Owen Sound, it occurred to me that this would be the last visit I would be making to this little city to visit family. This was the day before Derek was leaving to join our son in Kamloops, BC. But before he could leave, there was some things that needed to be taken care of.
The bathroom for starters. As far as ex-wives go, I think I’m pretty awesome. Arriving at his home as the moving truck was wheeling away meant the only thing that remained was the clean-up. While Derek gathered a load of garbage to take to the dump, I was up to my elbows in Mr. Clean and soapy water. Yeah, I was helping to clean up my ex’s house. Some people marvel at the fact that we can be civil–even kind towards one another. If you haven’t figured it out by now, life is too short to be treating anyone–ex’s included–like an ass hat. Perhaps more so in the last few months, we’ve extended more grace to one another than in previous years, but it’s only been slightly more of a stretch. Whether or not we were able to keep a marriage together had no bearing on the fact that we had brought two children into the world together.
And since we had been together to bring those children into the world, it only made sense that we should be together when we returned one of them to the earth.
After the house was in order, it was time to head to the park. Seated in the front seat of Derek’s car, I cradled a soft velvet bag that contained all that remained of our daughter, Hilary. Focusing on the road ahead, I anticipated our final walk.
Harrison Park is a landmark in the city of Owen Sound. This vast expanse of woodland was donated to the city by a man of the same name, and for years, it had been a favorite place to enjoy nature. Each step along the trail with Hilary still snuggled against my chest, brought back over two decades of memories. I remembered summers of swimming in the pool nestled in the forest. Both Hilary and her brother Cameron were like tadpoles, swimming under water and only coming up for air when they absolutely couldn’t hold their breath any longer. Famished after a swim, we would make our way to the Inn for an ice cream cone. Our Saturday morning ritual was breakfast at the Park Inn and the kids always insisted that we sit in their favorite server, Andrew’s, section where he would talk to them like real people. I noticed that the bird sanctuary was still home to the peacocks. As toddlers, the kids would compete to see who could out-screech the peacocks, much to the chagrin of other park-goers. In Hil’s later years when she would come to see her dad, a visit wouldn’t be complete without taking her dogs, Ebony and Lila, for a romp through the forest– winter, spring or summer–it didn’t matter.
Derek had taken over carrying the velvet bag and I snapped pictures of my favorite places in the park. A field of trilliums that the long-awaited spring had finally yielded, created a beautiful carpet for the forest floor. With the trees finally in bloom, a primordial canopy sheltered us as we went about the business of sharing Hilary with the woodland. I watched with sadness as Derek set about finding the perfect places. I’d never seen him indecisive in the thirty-plus years I’d known him, so I acquiesced to every place he chose, letting him anoint flowers, ferns and paths where Hilary’s feet no doubt had tread.
If I’d wondered if Hilary was hovering over us watching the proceedings, I was quickly assured. Just as Derek had shared Hilary with the river, a dog came bounding out of nowhere, and jumped on the precise spot where Derek had poured her ashes. The dog jumped and frolicked in absolute joy. We looked at each other first in shock, and then burst into fits of laughter. With her love of dogs and any four-legged animal, we knew it could only be Hilary making her presence known. This act alone brought a peace and comfort that was much needed.
Finally, I asked if I could have some of her ashes. Derek went to hand the container to me but I simply held out my hand.
“You want me to just pour it into your hand?” He seemed surprised.
“Sure, why not. It’s just Hilary.”
I think he was a little hesitant at first, but did it anyway. The ashes, which more closely resembled sand from a beautiful white beach, actually seemed warm in my hand. I looked intently at the contents, reminding myself that I was only holding her carrying case; her truest self–her spirit–was everywhere.
I released the ashes into another part the river, at a spot where I was sure she and her brother had stood, watching for fish, frogs and whatever else they believed lurked beneath the water.
We walked for a while in silence when Derek turned to me and said with a serious voice, “Uh, Monica…”
“I think you’ve got Hilary on your pants.”
I looked down at my pant leg to see white finger prints on my thigh. “Oh well, she was always getting into my clothes.” I didn’t brush her off.
While it was a bittersweet occasion, it only seemed fitting that we made the pilgrimage back to one of the most memorable places that Hilary enjoyed; whether with friends, family or in solitude. I’d like to think that wherever she’s walking now is far more beautiful than any place her journey on earth took her and that one day, we’ll be walking the same path again.
I was already in the waiting room when Barbara walked into the office. Although we’d yet to meet, somehow just watching her enter the space let me know she was my assigned peer support person for the survivors of suicide group I’d joined. She had the look of someone who was carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. Even when she tried to smile at the receptionist, sadness wouldn’t let her.
greeting was almost apologetic. Like we
were embarrassed by our common thread, we made awkward introductions.
“How long have you been bereaved?” I’d learned the lingo; you don’t just come out and ask when their loved one had taken their life.
been about three years.”
I was stunned. Three years? She looked like it had just happened three weeks ago. She was, well…so pained. I silently declared that I would not look like that in three years; hopefully not in three months.
Barbara recounted stories of learning to push away the people who didn’t help but only added to her pain, how she ceased to make her son David’s favorite foods and telling people that she had two children—not acknowledging that one no longer made earth his home.
“Monica,” Barbara sighed. “Losing David was like losing my leg. I can get a prosthetic leg, or use crutches, but I will never walk on my leg again. It’s like that.”
In my mind, I just couldn’t fathom the hopelessness with which she spoke. It sounded to me like she didn’t think she had a choice.
“I feel like I need to stay connected with things that used to bring me joy,” I processed aloud.
“That’s good,” she encouraged, then landed the sucker punch, “But don’t have the expectation that you will have joy. Highly unlikely.”
“Are you a woman of faith?” I asked.
“No,” she responds shaking her head. “David used to talk about his favorite Catholic church. I don’t know if he ever actually attended it, but every now and then, I order a mass and attend. I only do it because he liked it.”
I suppose this is where I get stuck. While I am grateful that this woman who has also suffered this unimaginable loss would take the time to enter my pain, I can’t help but feel that we are walking a totally different path. I’m not suggesting that a relationship with God is the only source of hope and peace, but as I listened to her words, the over-arching theme was one of a loss of hope and a lack of desire to find it. Much of her ‘advice’ centred around white lies, denial and pushing away. I honour her vulnerability and willingness to share, but I simply can’t go there.
I recently watched the based-on-a-true-story movie, Breakthrough, where a mother is desperate for her son to recover from what should have been a fatal accident. She overhears people talking about the futility of her prayers and medical intervention, and is devastated by their comments. She announces that her son’s hospital room and the adjacent waiting rooms were to be filled with words of life and hope, and if people couldn’t find something positive to say, they needed to leave. I hear you, sister.
I choose to believe in God’s goodness. I choose to believe that while there may be pain in the night, joy will come in the morning. I have to choose this daily. I don’t know when that morning will be, but I’m trying to embrace the hope that comes with it. I’m not deflecting, lest anyone should think otherwise. My one-way yelling matches with God and Hilary–for that matter– would prove otherwise. These past few days when the sun has deigned to shine on me and my situation, I have attempted to embrace it–even find joy in it. I used to find joy in running (ok, more like a slow jog), but just putting one foot in front of the other has been an effort, but I want to, so I try. I signed up for another session of musical theatre; it’s ok–not spectacular– but I show up. Same with my writing classes.
I. Show. Up.
I recognize that for some, experiences with God–or how He’s been portrayed by others– has left you with more doubts and questions than hope and answers. But for me, He is my Source of strength. Most days I have no clue what He’s doing in my life. I don’t understand much these days, but I choose to trust. I choose to believe that God will work with whatever daily decisions I make, just as He worked with Hilary’s decision. I know that she is in heaven because of the decisions she made in her life before she chose to end it. If I allow myself to believe that it’s all down-hill from here and my life will cease to have any meaning, relevance or joy, it’s like choosing to lie down and pull the earth up over me. In the words of Hilary, “That’s a hard no!”
The dark days will come, I know. I might be triggered by a song, a smell, or even a phrase, but I’m not going to go looking for them in expectation. I know they are there; no one needs to tell me, but thanks for reminding me. What I am going to do is to choose to move forward in my grief, with the hope of a day that’s maybe better than yesterday. Because hope deferred, definitely makes the heart sick and I’m ready to feel something else in my ticker.
I had signed up for Musical Theatre, a class at the local Arts Centre. The thought of getting up and singing in front of an audience after a twenty-year hiatus scared the crap out of me, which was precisely why I wanted to do it; to step out of my comfort zone. A man I had briefly dated had once said to me, ‘ Are you sure you want to do that? With your low and gravelly voice?’
‘Screw you,’ I thought. For that very reason, I signed up.
It was nerve-wracking and I struggled with the fear that I would get up on stage and botch it supremely. Hilary was supportive and told me that I could do it and to not let the criticism of a guy (whom she’d never met but had already decided she heartily disliked), discourage me from going for it.
After her death, I wasn’t sure I should or could. I was afraid people would think I was getting on with my life far too soon after losing her, but I realized that to not go ahead was like letting fear and doubt win, so I went for it. I’d missed a couple of classes and only returned for the dress rehearsal. Both teachers, Susan and Yo, and my fellow students were amazingly supportive and created such a safe space. Susan assured me that if I decided not to sing in the final performance, but rather just come to hang out with the gang, that would be fine too. My decision was made based on the fact that if I didn’t show up, I’d just be sitting at home feeling sorry for myself, and kicking myself for not following through. I pushed through my misgivings and put on my costume and make-up and showed up.
you make it to the other side of the greatest loss imaginable, you realize that
it would take a lot more than stage fright to take you out. So what if I bombed? What was the worst thing that could
happen? The audience would applaud
politely and forget me as they sipped their morning coffee the next day.
I remember walking through the back hallway towards my stage entrance, my mic was in place, and I was listening to my fellow-student, Deborah begin her song. I was next, and as I quietly stood at the back of the theatre, there was an unbelievable calm. I had no jitters; my heart wasn’t racing and there was a giddy sense of excitement to get in front of the audience and just sing my three-minute song. Cue music. I entered from upstage right into the spotlight. I vaguely remembered seeing my sister in the front row and was glad that we had been instructed to focus our gaze at the control booth at the back of the stage above the seats. I didn’t want to see anyone. As I sang, I was aware that my timing was off and I was not synchronized with the backing track, but I didn’t care; I knew I would catch up. I was having a conversation in my head the whole time I was singing; ‘Oh my gosh, I’m actually doing it. I’m singing in front of an audience and there is no fear. I’m doing it!’
As if being led, I looked to the upper-most right-hand corner of the theatre where I noticed a bright stage light. In my minds eye, I could see Hilary watching from the rafters. ‘I’m going to go for it,’ I decided. In practice, my voice would crack or disappear altogether when I would attempt hitting the higher notes that Ella Fitzgerald sang in her rendition of Someone to Watch Over Me. Not tonight. Tonight, I’m singing for Hilary and I will not disappoint her. I took the final line of the song and raised it up to those rafters from where I was sure Hilary was watching. Perfection—at least for an amateur. And then the applause. I could hear my friends whooping it up from the middle of the audience. With an almost imperceptible grin on my face, I exited to where my fellow students were waiting back-stage. Hugs, high-fives and congratulations greeted me. Relief. And then the tears. Tears that I had finished what I’d started and Hilary would have been proud. Tears for the realization that I’d no longer have this distraction from my grief. It was a bittersweet crescendo at the end of a symphony.
As Nora McInerny says in her Ted Talk about grief, grieving isn’t about moving on, rather it’s about moving forward. You carry your loved one with you wherever you go, into your new normal, whatever that looks like. The grief will continue; there is no expiry date. But you are allowed to move forward with your life—enjoy it, even. After all, the show indeed must go on.
I’m in a movie. A movie I’m pretty sure I’ve seen before, except I’m playing a major role and I don’t like it. It’s the one where the police call and want to come to my workplace to speak to me. Why? I ask rather curtly. Already I don’t like the sounds of this. In the movies I’ve seen, when the police show up with their caps across their chest, it can only mean one thing, and it’s not good. Immediately, my mind tries to justify the why, like somehow I can change the outcome I’m instinctively dreading. Maybe it’s about the 911 call I made a few weeks ago when a neighbour was using his brother-in-law as a battering ram against the wall outside my apartment? I try to assure myself with this possibility. But I know it isn’t. I feel it deep in the place where I don’t want to acknowledge a truth that is about to be revealed.
Within an hour, I’m numb. Sitting in the back of the cruiser being taken home, having learned that my daughter is dead. Learned that my daughter took her own life. Shit. I won’t be able to finish my musical theatre class. The thought passes through my mind like a stray hair falling onto my face, and I brush it away. Funny how the human mind creates thoughts and ideas to distract you from the Big Feels. Protection from the brain imploding on itself.
Fast forward about a month, and we’re at the funeral. It’s a blur. Standing in the receiving line greeting people; some I knew and some I didn’t. Listening to the same thing over and over, So sorry for your loss, or How are you? I realized that I was not offended by the how-are-you question, despite peoples instant mortification over asking what they were sure to be the most insensitive of questions. It’s not. It’s what we do, people. Relax.
The question that did bother me, and still amazes me that no one was throat-punched for asking, was:
“How did she die?”
She took her life.”
“Yeah, but how?”
Breathe in. Breathe out.
” I don’t see how answering that question will serve either one of us. I prefer not to talk about it, if you don’t mind. (Even if you do mind, you cretin).
So now it’s been almost two months. People still ask how I am. My response varies, depending on how it’s asked. The casual and heartfelt, “How are you doing?” doesn’t irritate me, but the serious, “How are your doing?” has my nerves wound like a cheap watch. As if the person asking has suddenly acquired a PhD in grief counselling, I outwardly cringe. What if I blurted out that I was suffering from nightmares that wake me up in a cold sweat, or responded with, I’m freakin’ awesome! Thanks for asking.” Suffice it to say that I’m probably lying if I say I’m fine, or I’m okay. I’m not. Yet.
My emotions run the gamut on the regular. I’ve walked through the grocery store and been a total wreck in the toothpaste aisle. Who knew that seeing Toms of Maine toothpaste would reduce me to hot mess in aisle 7, or seeing a display of live-edge tables at a farmer’s market would have me giving the artist tips on cerenova wood finishing? (Cuz that’s what Hilary used.)
I’ve been told that I’m so strong, so courageous. No I’m not. I’m sitting in the same track pants that I’ve worn all week, and I may or may not have remembered to use deodorant this morning. I’m high-five-ing myself for actually using the stove/oven to cook a meal. I went for a two-hour walk and I feel like I’ve climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. I’m hanging on; that’s it.
Distraction has been both a friend and an enemy. Friend in that I can just zone out and not feel anything, and enemy in that I can just zone out and not feel anything. Face Book posts have been particularly subjected to my scrutinous eye. As if there is some sort of AI that can tap into your brain and read your thoughts– or people suddenly have a passion for suicide awareness–posts appear talking about how suicide removes the chances of tomorrow being better. No shit, Sherlock. My question, and the one I posed after said post appeared, was this: Do the same people who tsk, tsk those who succumb to their feelings of hopelessness, have the same opinion of doctor-assisted suicide? Is it more dignified and acceptable for someone to decide to take control of their life/death when they are terminally ill, than for someone who decides that living with their illness–depression/ anxiety is equally excruciating? I’m not a proponent of either, but I’m not gonna judge you. The other FB post that another well-meaning person (pftt) posted was from a suicide awareness group. The whole idea of re-naming the act of taking one’s life from “committed suicide” to “died by suicide”. Again. It’s just my opinion, and perhaps I’m not in the right frame of mind to have one at all, but my question to this post was, “Does anyone notice that the only people posting their opinions on this are alive? Does anyone know what someone who has ‘died by suicide’ wants it to be called? It doesn’t change the outcome. I. Don’t. Care.” I’m sure I was really popular that day and perhaps people thought I was on my side of cyber space, bawling my eyes out. Nah. I was just irritated by a sudden surge of benevolence where previously there had been none.
I guess my message in this rather in-your-face blog is this: Suicide isn’t easy to grieve and it’s not easy to talk about. I’m just feeling my way through this and I have no idea what I’m talking about other than expressing what I’m feeling in the moment. If you want to help anyone who is grieving any kind of loss/death, don’t ask that person what they need. They don’t know. Trust me on this. What you can do, is this: That one thing you know you’re capable of doing, do that. If you know you can bake someone their favorite cake, do that. If you know you can just sit in silence with that person, do that. You don’t have to have answers and you don’t have to say anything profound. And, oh, just thought of this one: Don’t say our loved one is in a better place. They’re not. The better place is with us.
Be assured that my hope and faith is, and always will be, in God, lest anyone feel that I require a faith-lift. God knows my heart and He also knows I haven’t felt like myself lately. He’s got broad shoulders and can take anything I throw –literally and figuratively– at Him. As for the rest of you, I hope I haven’t burnt bridges, alienated anyone or generally pissed you off. Not my intention; just pushing inside thoughts to the outside. If I have, I offer my warmest condolences. (Please see Nora McInerny’s TedTalk for that reference!) https://youtu.be/FlaMOn8_1bc
No pictures to go with this blog, unless anyone wants to see me in my sweats with no make-up.
I remember the day well. I was on my way to a workshop and stopped at a local fast food place to grab a bite to eat. I bit into the sandwich and felt something hard. Wow, they must have over-cooked the bacon, I thought. Turns out, it wasn’t a piece of bacon, it was part of my tooth.
I looked in the vanity mirror of my car and cursed myself. It had finally happened. I had this horrible habit of gritting my teeth when I got angry about something– a passive-aggressive response to any irritant that I didn’t want to give voice to. I wouldn’t even be aware half the time that I was doing it. My kids would pick up on it right away and ask what was bugging me; I’d lie and say nothing, but the next question was:
Then why are you gritting your teeth?
This time it had been my daughter, Hilary, bringing home a puppy; something I had explicitly told her not to do. We’d had the conversation before; an apartment was no place for a dog–specifically MY apartment. But she did it anyway and I was angry. Angry that she had not respected my decision on the matter, and angry that she couldn’t see that a puppy would not satisfy the void she was seeking to fill.
On this particular day I had come home to find Phoebe, said puppy, crying in her crate. Hilary was nowhere to be seen. As much as I didn’t want to be responsible for this creature, I couldn’t bear for it to be crying alone in her bed, so I took her for a walk, pissed off, gritting my teeth all the way.
Months later I’m in the dentist’s office with a brutal tooth ache but more importantly, I have this chipped tooth I can no longer bear to look at. Hilary had suffered the same fate about a year earlier when a friend’s dog had abruptly snapped his head up and caught her under the chin, chipping her front tooth. She went through her Instagram account and found one of her followers who’s dad was a dentist and immediately went there, explaining how she’d found him. She left with her beautiful smile restored, happily flashing her new grin. And now I was sitting in the same dentist’s office sobbing, as I explained how I’d come to find him; through my daughter, but unlike her, I can’t go home to show her my beautiful smile because she’s gone. I had just returned from our home town where I had tended to every detail of her celebration of life; the music, the scriptures, the pictures, the flowers….everything. I was left with a throbbing pain in my mouth that was only surpassed by the ache in my heart.
The dentist’s demeanor softens and with each word, he dismantles my fear of dentists and I’m learning to surrender and trust the process. I’m sensing Hilary hovering over the scene, encouraging me to relax and warning the dentist to go easy on her mama. He does a quick appraisal of the cause of my toothache and with a gentle hand on my shoulder announces,
“We can look after that another day, but for today, I want to give you back your smile.” and he gets to work, gently and skillfully filing and re-creating my front tooth.
Tears silently slide down my cheeks as he makes the repairs. I hear the hygienist’s soft sniffles as she assists him. In that moment we are all aware that he wasn’t just doing a routine dental procedure, but healing a deep wound. Each day prior, I was looking in the mirror staring at the evidence of my frustration at things I could not change–people and situations. When the dentist handed me the mirror to see the finished work, I didn’t see a chip or any flaw; I saw reconciliation and forgiveness.
There is so much more I want to say about the passing of my beautiful daughter, but for now I just want the reader to know that amidst the worst kind of grief a parent could endure, my daughter restored my smile. I think it was a prophetic act on her part, to show me that a smile can be restored. There may be pain in the night, but joy does indeed come in the morning. I’m not sure when that morning will be, but I trust Hilary and I trust God.
There are seasons when people mysteriously just show up in your life. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but there is an unmistakable sense of a deeply meaningful purpose. The thought occurs to you that perhaps you’re actually entertaining an angel, not a person. The following story is an example of one such time.
It was the end of the school day and I had time to kill before the bus came to shuttle me the hour long drive home. Never one to be part of a huge crowd, I had a few select school friends, but none of them remained in the building at the end of day; most of them lived near the school and went home directly or they took off to their part time jobs. My usual habit was to go into the gallery overlooking the gymnasium to watch whichever team was practicing and complete the homework that had accumulated in the course of the day. Today it was the senior boys volleyball team and ancient history. It was mildly amusing to glance up from time to time to witness testosterone at its finest, but for the most part, it simply filled time until I was breathing in diesel fumes on the long bus ride home. Today though, one particular kid caught my attention. I didn’t know him by name, but I knew he rode the same bus as me. He was an Aboriginal guy from Winnipeg who apparently was living with his aunt, uncle and nephew in a modest home in a little hamlet along our bus route. He was tall and lanky and didn’t carry himself like most of the jocks in our school. He was nonchalant and casual at first glance, and to most, he wouldn’t even pass as being athletic.
I slid my history homework into my backpack, not taking my eyes from the court. Without any perceptible effort, his fingers shot the ball across the net like they were spring-loaded. A set-up for a spike would see him slam the ball down on the other side of the net without an ounce of exertion. What really got me was the smile that never left his face. There wasn’t a trace of determination or striving; he was simply in the moment.
Within a half hour, this volleyball prodigy is tossing his gym bag into the seat in front of me. He’s changed into his street clothes, but beads of sweat are still glistening along his hairline. He glances back at me and smiles a warm greeting.
Shyly, I lean forward. “Hey, I was watching you guys practicing just a while ago. What’s your name?” Immediately I felt like an idiot; he probably thinks I’m hitting on him. Why did I say that I was watching him? Ugh.
If I come off as awkward, his response doesn’t show it. He extends his hand to shake mine, and with the same warmth introduces himself. “My name’s Alden Red Crow. Nice to meet you.”
“You play really well,” I continue. “Where did you learn to play like that? It’s like your fingers just send the ball across the net like a cannon with no effort at all; it’s crazy!”
I wasn’t at all prepared for his response. “It’s a gift from my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” Same smile, same eye contact.
“Oh. Uh, cool….” I had never heard anyone give anyone else credit for their talent, much less God. I turned away to mask my look of confusion and surprise.
“Does that surprise you?” he asked, as if reading my thoughts. “I’m sure the Lord has put some talents in you as well, Monica.”
He already knew my name! I wasn’t sure what it was about this guy, but his candor and his confidence had me intrigued. I had to know more about this mystery guy.
This chance encounter began a curious friendship between Alden and me. While I was already attending a church with my family, I was discovering that I hadn’t been taught nearly a fraction of what this guy was uncovering and sharing with me. Over bumpy back rode bus rides, he would gently challenge what I believed of God, of one’s identity and purpose in this life. I had never really given these questions much thought; I went to church every Sunday, but it was more out of that’s what you do on Sunday than out of a desire to go deeper in the things of the Lord. The idea of a relationship with God was a foreign concept to me; I saw God as this stern bearded patriarch who sat on his throne watching and waiting for us to screw up. So when he asked me if I’d like to visit his church with him, I jumped at the opportunity.
Attending his place of worship was just that–a place of worship. There was neither a red hymnal nor an organ to be found. Hallelujah. There was a guy with a guitar and the songs were put up on an overheard projector and people sang with passion and conviction. Hallelujah indeed. Before the service even started, people gathered in smaller groups and talked. To one another. They shared what was on their hearts and people actually prayed for those that were going through difficult times and in need. They didn’t just offer a benign, ‘I’ll pray for you brother’ ; they prayed right then and there. There was a sense of community I hadn’t experienced in my own church. Of course when I was grilled by my parents about going to a Pentecostal church, I had to remain aloof about the whole experience and assure them I wasn’t leaving our local parish; Alden’s was just another church.
One day when he and his extended family picked me up for church, he slid a bible across the back seat to me. “Here,” he said. “this is for you.” He’d inscribed the following verse in the front cover: Psalms 19:14 :
When Alden asked me if I had received Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior, I was confused. What did that even mean? He explained it to me on a day when our cross country team was travelling to another school for a competition. “It’s about being upfront with God, Monica. It’s you telling Him that you want what He died to give you. It’s confessing to Him that you believe in Him, asking Jesus to come into your heart, forgive you for all your failures and to become the Lord of your life.”
It seemed too easy–one simple prayer and I cash in on eternal life? But Alden had a way of planting an idea in your head that you just couldn’t shake off. So one day after school, I headed up to my room, yelling to my Mom over my shoulder that I had homework to do. This barely got any response beyond a shrug–good. Nervously, I knelt by my bed with my new bible open before me. I didn’t know exactly what to say; it felt a little bit like a formula that one had to use to get an audience with the King (a false belief that years later, I would need to rid myself of). I just began talking to God, or whoever I thought was listening. I recited the prayer of salvation, as best as I could remember, and then I waited. I’m not sure what I was waiting for–an angelic host singing the Hallelujah Chorus or for fireworks to begin exploding in my head or my bedroom. But on this side of heaven, seemingly nothing had happened. I didn’t feel any different. To be honest, I was a little (okay, a lot) disappointed. I would need to discuss this with Alden; I must have done something wrong.
My concerns were met with Alden’s trademark wide grin and twinkling eyes. “Monica,” he assured me, “trust me, if you said it, He heard you. There isn’t a fanfare–at least on this side–but He heard you and He and the angels are rejoicing in your decision. It takes a while to mature to a place where you’re aware that you and God are talking; that you’re having an actual conversation. You’ll get there.”
Well, it took me several decades to get to that place. Alden and I remained friends, but the world and all of its temptations were in front of me. Instead of sitting with Alden, I found myself sitting at the back of the bus with the ‘cool’ crowd doing stupid things like sipping Canadian Club from the coke can that was passed to me far out of the watchful eye of the bus driver. (Turns out she knew all along). I knew I was heading down a slippery slope, but every time my eyes met Alden’s and I would feel the weight of conviction fall upon me, he would just give me that smile that said I could do no wrong. When our final year of high school arrived, Alden and I parted ways. Never wavering, he continued to see the best in me. I was planning to go into horticulture (never happened, thank God!) and in my yearbook, he wished me well and left me with Proverbs 3:6:
“In all your ways acknowledge Him, and he will make straight your paths”
I never saw Alden again, but thirty-five years later I still carry his high school picture with me. I’ve moved several times over the years, but he’s always come with me, packed in box, or shoved in a secret compartment of my wallet to later be showcased on the fridge as a reminder of who introduced me to Jesus . There have been many detours and wrong turns along my life’s path, but I have matured into the woman Alden always believed I could be; one who hears the voice of God and listens. While certainly not perfect, I am still on the Potter’s wheel being formed into a useful vessel. Like many readers, I remain a work in progress and I know that He Who began a good work in me will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6)
There have been times when I’ve wondered if Alden really was a boy I met in school, or whether he was an angel sent by God to start me on this journey. Over the years I’ve asked old school friends if they remember him, if anyone knows where he is. Most don’t even remember him, which leads me to wonder if perhaps it was the latter rather than the former. Is it even possible to have a picture of an angel? I don’t know. All I know is that this young man with the spring loaded fingers and a twinkle in his eye lead me on a journey that has, and will, last a life time. Thank you Alden Red Crow, wherever you are.
I was just finishing up my shift at the welcome desk at my church when a middle-aged man approached the counter.
“Umm…I signed up for the Friday night equipping classes, but I think I picked the wrong mountain.” He looked completely out of his element and my look of confusion probably wasn’t helping when he referred to ‘the wrong mountain’. “Yeah, I uh… I picked the ministry class, but it’s probably the wrong one; I’m just a construction worker.”
Then the bell went off. The mountain he was referring to was part of the Seven Mountains Ministry training sessions our church was offering . “Okay, I gotcha. By the way, do you minister to your co-workers in your role as a construction worker?” I asked with a smile.
His look was painful. “I try. I mean, I used to be a drug addict and then Jesus saved me. I want to share that with people, but–”
“Then you totally belong on the ministry mountain,” I interrupted. “Your ministry is anywhere you are that you are sharing the Good News,” I assured him. “Some pastors would say that people who evangelize in the workplace have a greater ministry than a preacher who stands in front of the congregation every Sunday. Plus, you have a very compelling testimony.”
His posture straightened with renewed confidence, but he still had questions. “Okay, cool. It’s just that I don’t know enough. I mean, I feel like I don’t know how to do it; I don’t know what to say.”
“What’s your name?” I asked.
We shook hands. “Jeremy, can I tell you something?”
“When I was wanting to share my faith with my family, I spent a lot of time talking; trying to explain it through words. It did not go well. Then one day, I spontaneously hopped in my car, drove two and a half hours to my parents and proceeded to clean out and plant their flower beds. It took me over four hours to do it, and I still had to drive the two and a half hours back to the city.”
Jeremy had that look that said he was wondering where I was going with this.
“During that time, Jeremy, when my back felt like it was breaking and my nails were full of dirt, I heard the Lord speak to me. He said, ‘This is how you teach them about Me. Not through words, but by being Me–loving them, serving them.’ “
Jeremy was all smiles by this time.
“See?” I bubbled over enthusiastically. “You don’t need to worry about having the words, you just have to have the heart to love your co-workers. When you need the words, God will give them to you.”
I’ve been giving a lot of thought to radical obedience lately, so when I heard that gentle whisper in my spirit that said, pray for him, the time between hearing the command and following through could have been measured with an angel hair.
“Jeremy,” I asked. “Can I pray for you?”
Before he had time to react, I had reached across the counter and took him by the hands. I took no notice of my supervisor at the desk with me, nor the other people milling about the front foyer, as I prayed for my new friend. When I said, amen, I looked up to see tears streaming down Jeremy’s face.
“Thank you,” he said, wiping the tears with the back of his hand, “That was a surprise.”
“Yeah, God surprised me with that one too,” I laughed.
My prayer for Jeremy and my prayer for you, the reader, is the same:
That you would know that you are qualified by your heavenly Father, and you cannot be disqualified by your past nor future mistakes. That you would be assured that God can take your mess and turn it into your message. That when you don’t know the ‘right words to say’, the Holy Spirit would fill you with words that would blow even your own mind as you hear them leave your mouth– and that would create in you a deeper hunger to know and seek understanding of His word. I pray that you would have an intimate encounter with the Lord where He reveals just how much He intercedes for you, cheers for you , protects you, and just how very much He loves you.
You could have put a potato peeler in his hand for the duration of the war, but you could never have convinced him to pick up a gun.
While not as well-known as Desmond Doss, the American medic whose heroic efforts were memorialized in the movie, Hacksaw Ridge, Laurence Morton, too, was a conscientious objector who served in the Great War.
“There’s no glory in war,” he would tell me during the many visits I shared with him, sitting in his window sill in the nursing home where he lived, listening to his stories. “The medals are worth nothing. The war was worth nothing.”
This particular conversation took place during the planning stages of a pilgrimage back to the place where it all began-Vimy Ridge.
Morty (as his friends referred to him) had been invited by Veterans Affairs Canada, to return to France to observe the eightieth anniversary of the Armistice, where he would also receive the Legion of Honour Award, France’s highest decoration for his contribution in the Great War.
While he was excited at the prospect of seeing France during a time of peace, there were some obvious concerns, too, both physical as well as emotional.
“I’m too old to travel,” he argued.
“That’s kind of an eligibility requirement for this trip, Morty. You have to be old.”
He gave me “the look” that said I was pushing my luck with this centenarian. I gnawed on my bottom lip to keep from laughing. I knew he would go and he knew he would as well; it was too good an opportunity to pass up.
Without prying too much, I asked how he would feel about visiting his brother’s grave. While Laurence had been vocal in his refusal to take another man’s life, his brother Louis, ironically, had been a sniper. He had been killed by the enemy three weeks prior to the signing of the Armistice Agreement.
Nodding, he whispered, “I need to see him one last time. Yes, it’s the right thing to do.”
Laurence Morton had been born in 1896 in Rat Portage, in northern Ontario. When war broke out, he said he “prayed with heart and hand” that he could serve his country. In 1917 he headed for France.
“We thought it would be the time of our lives,” he had told me wistfully many times.
Unlike Doss, it didn’t appear that Morty took too much flack for being a conscientious objector. In fact, he was revered among his comrades.
“I remember one night in the bunk house,” he recounted. “I was just kneeling beside my bed, praying the way I always did. It got real quiet all of a sudden. I looked up from my bunk, and I saw all these fellas just staring at me.”
While definitely different than his fellow soldiers, his integrity and compassion appeared to make him stand a head taller than the rest. They knew that he was the one to come to for support, advice, and just about anything, when in need. Apparently this included cash, when their army pay was denied. This would happen when the soldiers would go into a brothel for a night’s entertainment and leave with a case of syphilis.
“I always got my money back. I was good at keeping things quiet and I didn’t judge them boys.”
Refusing to fire a gun did not preclude Morty from hauling its ammunition for the 16th Canadian Infantry Battalion.
Referring to gun cotton, he laughed, “I hauled that blooming stuff all over the country. We never thought of it exploding. If it ever blew up, they wouldn’t have had to dig a grave for me!”
So, that particular Remembrance Day, I played hooky from work. Determined to catch a glimpse of my friend, I set up on my sofa, tissues in hand, to watch the event coverage from France. I was not disappointed. The camera scanned the veterans, and, as if just for me alone, the camera zoomed right in on Morty, looking older than his 101 years, if that were even possible. He suddenly appeared fragile, something I had rarely seen in this man.
I learned later that Morty had become somewhat of a celebrity in this, his second trip to France. Being relentlessly sought out by reporters to tell his story, he learned to dodge probing questions and to answer the mundane ones with his quick wit.
When asked by Sunday Star reporter, Laura Bobak, what his secret to long life was, he responded, “I like to breathe, as it satisfies the necessity for living.”
Morty satisfied the necessity for living for another three years after returning home from France, but he just wasn’t the same. Wounds believed to be long-healed had resurfaced with his visit to Louis’ grave. I couldn’t begin to surmise what thoughts were going through his mind in his last years, but I’m sure there is no glory in war was one of them.
Have you ever found yourself in a place where you’ve felt utterly unqualified for the task before you? A job or challenge that seems just too daunting and takes you out of your comfort zone? Maybe you have a boss that continuously adds to the, “…and duties as assigned” section of your job description. It can leave you feeling frustrated, vulnerable and afraid. It can be tempting to give into fear and instead of stepping out and trying, you retreat and do nothing.
I’m in a bit of a season of seeing the mountain as insurmountable, myself as an ant compared to the giants I’m facing, and I’m definitely not in my comfort zone–anything but.
I think it was because of a devotional that I’d read, but I found myself pouring over the story of Gideon in the Old Testament. I’m typically not an OT kinda girl; I find the words of the prophets and judges hurt my brain, but this time around I had an “ah ha” moment.
Back story: Israel was worshipping Baal–this didn’t exactly put them in God’s good books. In anger, He turned them over to the Midianites who were bullies. Everything that the Israelites had, the Midianites took. The Israelites would grow a crop and the Midianites would come along and harvest the spoils long before those who had toiled the land could reap the rewards. Israel was starving to death but because the people were out-numbered and afraid, they simply hid and waited for death.
One day, Gideon is busy secretly threshing wheat at the bottom of a wine press (to keep it hidden from the enemy) when he hears, “Hey! Mighty hero! The Lord’s got your back!” Not realizing that he’s actually speaking to Angel of the Lord, he whines, ‘Well, if that’s the case, why is all this happening to us? What about all the miracles we heard about in Egypt–why is he handing us over to the Midianites now?’ The Angel went further to tell him to ‘Go with the strength you have…..I am sending you!” Still, Gideon continues, ‘Our clan is the weakest in the entire tribe of Manasseh; and I am the least in my entire family!’ (my paraphrasing of Judges 6:12-15)
The story doesn’t stop here. Gideon discovers that he’d actually been talking to the Angel of the Lord and thinks he’s done for, but he’s actually commissioned with a pretty daunting task–taking on the Midianites. Before the battle is fought, God has to deal with more of Gideon’s insecurities and quite frankly, his audacity. The Angel of the Lord commands him to take down the Asherah pole that his father, Joash has erected. He does it at night because he’s afraid to be seen doing it in daylight. All goes well; his father tells the disgruntled tribe that if they have a problem, they can take it up with Baal. After dodging death at the hands of his clansmen, Gideon was clothed in power by Spirit of the Lord. Despite this, Gideon still wants God to prove that He is Who He says He is and will do what He says He will–not once–but TWICE. God patiently indulges him and confirms his assured victory for the umpteenth time with the ol’ fleece on the threshing floor test. God then makes Gideon pare down his large army of thousands, to a mere three hundred men. When the night of the battle finally occurs, God says to Gideon, ‘Go for it. I’ve given you the victory, now go claim it. But if you’re afraid, take your servant with you, sneak into the camp and listen to what they’re saying. You’ll know for sure that you’ve got this when you hear what they’re saying.’ Turns out Gideon is afraid and goes into the camp with his servant and as was foretold, he hears the very words assuring him of his impending victory. Then he moves. He is obedient to everything the Lord has told him to do and victory comes swiftly and sweetly as promised. (Paraphrasing from Judges 6,7)
So what does this story reveal about you and I?
We can read about Gideon’s poor self-image, his fear, and even his boldness to test God over and over, all the while shaking our heads, but are we really any different? When we know we’ve heard from God but He’s asking us to do something that we don’t want to do, are we not like Gideon, asking for confirmation–a sign that we’ve really heard correctly? When He centres you out for a mission, are you the one discrediting your own talents, abilities, telling Him He’s got the wrong guy/gal? Or do you decide that it wasn’t Him at all, it was just a crazy thought that drifted in your consciousness so you dismiss it?
What strikes me about this whole encounter is that before Gideon even knew that he was getting his marching orders, God was already speaking identity over him. He didn’t say, “Hey, Gideon!” he said, “Mighty hero!” He didn’t say, “I will give you strength,” he said, “Go with the strength you have.” Even though Gideon argued with the Angel, crying, “I am the least in my entire family!” God still saw his potential. He had no doubts because He knew who He’d created Gideon to be. Despite being from a tribe that had deserted the teachings of Moses and was worshipping a false god, Gideon was still God’s first choice to showcase His glory.
God calls, ‘Hey! Creative Artist!!’ and you say,
‘Who, me? I didn’t even go to art school; I’m like the worst artist ever!”
The Father responds, ‘Create with the talent and gifting in you, sweetheart.’
Are you looking at all the mistakes you’ve made, your status, or lack, and deciding that they disqualify you for a blessing? You’re not that powerful, sunshine. The Israelites seriously disqualified themselves, but still God wanted to bless them. Look at how many times Gideon showed fear. God didn’t turn away in disgust. He actually knew that he would be afraid, and he worked that into the victory. He knows when we’re afraid too, and He doesn’t turn away; he works it into our stories too. ‘The only caveat is that He wants the glory. He will often take away your army, your resources, and comforts so all you have to rely upon is Him, as He did with our mighty hero. Just as He knew who He created Gideon to be, He knows who He created you to be. He will work all things for good for His glory. He did it before and He’ll do it again.