My dog Willow has died

Willow was a good dog. We adopted her from the Humane Society in 2011 at the age of 4. I had been wanting a dog for years, but I was working ridiculous hours at the university and taking night classes. It wouldn’t be fair to have a dog stuck at home when I was on-campus for 10-12 hours a day.

She joined our family the day after I graduated with my BA.

Her name had been Tarheel, and it seemed to me like she hadn’t been well-socialized with other dogs. She was small for a Labrador Retriever, and I suspected she had been kept in a run because, when let loose in our backyard, she would just run back and forth in a straight line.

But she bonded with me immediately. She was my constant companion, rarely even tolerating being in a different room from me. I spent months working with her and other dogs, and she got better and better. She lived to love me and to make me happy, and I never felt like I quite deserved it.

She had two nicknames:

  1. Widdershins, because for the longest time she would spin in circles whenever excited for dinner, or excited about anything else, but would only spin counterclockwise. Willow Widdershins Stublefield.
  2. Triangle-Ears because her ears would perk up whenever she thought food or anything else interesting was available.

She didn’t mind the cats at all. Eventually, they came to tolerate her.

She was definitely my dog. She liked everyone, but I was the one she followed and obeyed. For the last 6 and a half years, I have been working from home and she has been my co-worker every day, on the sofa in my office right next to me. For 10 years, she has slept on the floor next to the bed, right beside me.

I was hers and she was mine. But she liked April too.

She generally pretended like our kids didn’t exist. If they were between me and her, she would go right through or over them if we weren’t careful.

She lived 13.5 years. On the way home from the vet, who diagnosed her with kidney disease, I checked online and learned that labs typically live 10-12 years. In dog years, I think that means she was 94.

I think we gave her a good life. I know she made my life better.

I cried so hard at the vet. I knew when we adopted her that this day would come. I’ve been prepared to mourn her since that first day. But it was still hard, so very hard, and I wept on the floor in the vet’s office while holding her.

I’m crying now.

I’m going to be expecting to see her come around a corner in our house for days, maybe weeks. I keep expecting to feel her nudge my hand or put a paw on my leg.

She was such a good dog.

I’ll miss you Willow. I love you. Thank you for being my friend.

My Uncle Dave has died and I have some complex feelings about it

My Uncle Dave lived in Arkansas, and when I was young (starting in 4th or 5th grade, probably… maybe 6th, I don’t recall), we began visiting his family almost every weekend. By junior high, I would also spend a week or two at their house in the summer without my parents there. I spent a lot of time at their home, hiking through their woods, swimming in their pool, eating their food, playing video games with my cousin Neil, teasing and getting teased by my cousin Charelle, and just being a part of their family.

Uncle Dave was an alcoholic and a drug user. I’m pretty sure he was abusive towards Neil. At least, that would explain the anger issues that Neil had that prompted him to try and murder me most weekends when we visited.

I never experienced peer pressure from my schoolmates. Dave was the first to try and make me drink beer, and once when I continued to refuse he just poured his can over my head while cursing and yelling at me.

One summer, my cousin Neil and I accidentally lit a field on fire with some bottle rockets. It was state land, and we were terrified that we would be arrested and our lives were over. Dave called the fire department and covered for us. We didn’t get in trouble at all. Neil bought me a sports drink at the corner shop (which was actually a mile or two away at the end of a dirt road) and we were allies for a day.

After my parents got divorced (I was around 12 years old and in 6th or 7th grade), I never heard again from my dad’s side of the family. I haven’t seen Dave, his (now ex-)wife, or my cousins since before my parents got divorced. I did get Charelle’s phone number so I could invite her to our wedding in 2008 because she was always kind to me, but she had a scheduling conflict and couldn’t be there, and that was the last we spoke.

I don’t entirely know how I feel about Dave dying. It was inevitable, really. My dad said he had a heart attack, but I know he was still abusing drugs so that likely shortened his life.

He wasn’t a bad uncle to me, all things considered. He taught me how to split firewood and how to skin a deer. How to dispose of the guts of deer and turkey. How to fish, how to clean them, and how to smoke salmon and trout. One of our main sources of meat, when I was growing up, was hunting on his land.

I can’t miss him because I haven’t had a relationship with him for almost 25 years at this point. But my inability to fully parse my feelings is what indicates that my feelings are complex. I have so few ties to my childhood and to my past, and one more is gone I suppose. But it has actually been gone for a long time. Really, I can’t be certain how much of a relationship was ever there.

For a few minutes, I considered attending the memorial. I’ve thought a lot over the years about how I would react to seeing my cousin Neil again who inflicted so much torment and pain on me that I nearly committed suicide the night before having to visit my uncle and his family for yet another weekend. At this point, I think I have enough distance and enough of the Holy Spirit that I can extend grace even if I’m still working on full forgiveness. As for my uncle, it’s not like the death of a stranger. I knew him, and he played a large role in my childhood. Not an altogether positive one, but there are worse stories than mine, and so I don’t feel like I can be too upset about it all.

He is gone. He wasn’t all bad. I hope that others will be better, and I know that I will be. Dave is one of my inspirations for fatherhood and for being a good husband because he modeled what one oughtn’t do. I do believe that he loved, but I also know that he was broken and drug-addled.

Goodbye, Uncle Dave.

Frenetic morning

First, our dog unplugged my alarm. I usually wake up between 6 and 6:30, but instead April woke me at 6:50.

Then, I immediately took the dog for a walk… and discovered that a cat had been hit by a car last night and was lying at the end of the driveway. I couldn’t be certain, but I thought it was our neighbour’s cat, Mellow, which was heartbreaking. I grew up in the country, and if one of our outside animals was hit by a car, a neighbour always brought it home in a trashbag with condolences, so I figured I ought to do the same. After the walk, I got the cat and knocked on the neighbour’s door.

Then I showered, dressed, grabbed some breakfast, and got to work a few minutes late after dropping April off at OTC. I tried to call people to let them know I would be late, but my phone kept dropping the connection, potentially due to the storm we’ve got in the area right now.

It turns out that it wasn’t Mellow. I’m glad–that makes it better, somehow. But it was still a very sad thing, and I want to go home and sit on the couch with our cats and dog.

Tears aren’t selfish

When my old friend Mel passed away a week ago, I decided to go to the funeral. Part of me knew it was coming, that his health was failing more rapidly, and that subsequently a funeral would be held, but I hadn’t thought about it. I didn’t feel any particular need to go. But last Sunday morning as I worshiped and prayed and cried, I knew I ought to. I wanted to say goodbye, and to see his family one last time to tell them how grateful I was for the role they played in my life.

Those invited had been instructed to wear bright colours by way of celebration, and we were repeatedly messaged that we were not mourning Mel’s passing but instead were celebrating that his pain had ended and that he was now with God in heaven. I’m not a bright colour kind of guy, but I made the concession of not wearing a suit and I chose a purple shirt, which was about as festive as I felt comfortable being. I get where they’re coming from — yay, he’s not in pain anymore! ((Mel was dying of pancreatitis and had been for a long time.)) — but grandchildren no longer had a grandfather, I no longer had a close friend I could talk with and on whom I could rely, and his community lost a well educated and loving teacher of the Word of God.

The Southern Baptist tradition of which Mel was a part focuses a great deal on the concept of “celebrating, not mourning” people’s death. It seems that not all Southern Baptists take this to the extent that Mel’s church and family did, however; April said she felt like she was looking in on a culture of which she was no longer a part, and yet it felt very different from what she grew up seeing and experiencing. People wore bright colours, but other than their claims that they were celebrating, there didn’t seem to be any actual celebration going on. It was like people had this extreme cognitive dissonance that resulted in everyone present being somewhat uncomfortable.

When I expressed my condolences to Crystal, Mel’s widow, she replied that she was sad he was gone but she was trying not to be because such sorrow was selfish; we shouldn’t want to hold on to someone who is now with the Lord. When I later thanked her for her love and role in showing Christ to me and helping me become Christian, she denied that she really played a part in it and instead ascribed everything to God. When people wept, they seemed to do so bitterly; they were not bitter because Mel was gone, but because they had the audacity to shed tears. As the daughter spoked with a choked voice, she proclaimed herself as celebrating.

It was the worst funeral I have ever attended. ((This isn’t quite fair–I’ve gone to funerals of non-Christians who grew up in a Christian family, and the despair and deep sorrow there is far worse. This funeral was bad in the sense that no one really talked about Mel. April and I have gone to three funerals for her side of the family in the last six months or so, and at every one there were lots of stories told, memories shared, and good times remembered. It is called a “memorial service” for just this purpose, and in sharing the stories we help ourselves remember and hold onto the love we felt for the deceased. At Mel’s, it felt more like people wanted to remember, and yet felt like such actions were like trying to bring him back from the dead and deny him his reward in heaven. Since they couldn’t help remembering and feeling sad, they blamed themselves for feeling selfish instead of just accepting the sorrow and channeling it into a spirit of celebration.)) There were hardly any stories told of Mel, either remembering or celebrating his life. The only person who spoke was the pastor who had known him for a short while, who could only comment on Mel’s enjoyment of cooking, hospitality, and that he was a faithful servant in the church and taught Sunday school regularly. No one remembered him, in the sense that we could have been talking about almost anyone–no one shared what they knew or loved about the man. Instead, a song was sang, and several songs were played, while we all sat awkwardly wondering what these particular songs might have meant to Mel. We watched a poorly edited video of pictures without context ((Provided as a “gift” from the funeral home. It was like they went through PowerPoint and used every slide transition available, then went and downloaded some others to throw them in there so every picture would have a unique, crazy, and random transition.)) and waited for it to end.

When it did, the attendees were dismissed row by row to parade past Mel’s open casket and say our final goodbyes. I have never understood those who grasp at the corpse, touching its face or hands, leaning upon it or hugging it. And yet, I did find closure in reaching out and placing my hand on the casket, and in whispering silently to myself, “Goodbye, my old friend.”

I cried, and if my tears were restrained, they were not out of shame or a feeling of selfishness. I believe that showing emotion is part of being human as God created us to be. Emotions must be tempered by wisdom, but even Jesus wept, and his tears were anything but selfish. My restraint was because I might not have stopped once I started. When I begin to weep over the passing of a loved one–when I throw off all restraint and let the emotional experience sweep fully through me–I recall and relive the death of everyone else I have lost. Tears that are shed honouring life are not selfish. I will not go to the opposite extreme and say they are selfless, but I will declare that they honour life and the memory of the one who is gone from us, who we will no longer see on a daily basis or be able to talk with, and that such honour is understood and respected by God. He does not denounce our tears. God gathers us into his arms and lets us cry as long as we need.

I am glad we went, for in saying goodbye to Mel I found closure. Three days of depression and sadness ended and I was ready to move on. I am glad I knew him, and I will remember all the great and Godly things he did for me, as well as his weaknesses and faults so I might learn from all aspects of his life. I will remember as well how painful it is to have one’s thanks rebuffed, and how cold and inhuman (how odd and unChristlike it seemed!) to present a facade of celebration and curse one’s own tears for being selfish. ((No one can celebrate when they are attempting to repress their emotions–repress one and you repress all.))

Too often, we feel that to live as God wants us to live, we must repress and stamp out our humanity. That to be like Christ is to be like an automaton. I do not think this is what God desires. Instead, we should be seeking to become more human, to be what God had intended us to be before sin entered this world. We should dance and shout and sing, weep and fall and put on ashes, and never deny what God made us. Tears are not selfish. No, they simply express deep and abiding love, sorrow, and perhaps hope for a time to come. We weep not because we are weak, but because we are strong enough to become holy. ((Consider this a postscript: As I conclude this, I am reminded of part of a conversation last night April and I had with our friends Brian and Courtney. We were discussing funerals and the prevalence of caskets in America, and how Americans do their best to dress up and hide away death because they are afraid of it. Is the concept of tears as a negative, and of mourning the dead as unseemly, a Christian interpretation or an American one that has been imprinted on some Christians? In looking at how the Jews and earlier Christians up until a few hundred years ago responded to death, I tend to think the latter.))

False Dreams, False Memories

Though it wasn’t a major component of my dream last night, I knew as I slept that my ex-girlfriend had committed suicide some time in the past. The knowledge wasn’t a shock, gut-wrenching and eliciting tears, but rather the feeling was one of an old sadness. I thought of her and was sad that she had died, and by her own hand.

When I awoke, this knowledge lingered and I continued in my sadness. As sleep fell away, however, I began to examine the memory, confused by my reactions and thoughts. If she had died, why hadn’t I called her husband to offer my condolences and assistance? Why didn’t I remember writing about it, and why hadn’t I attended the funeral?

The first place I turned for answers was Facebook. Surely if she had really committed suicide there would be a long list of posts from people on her wall wishing her peace and offering prayers for her family. Of course, what I found was nothing of the sort. She had taken some sort of quiz recently, and posted some new photos.

There are dreams that strike us, that shake us with a fear and horror that refuses to dissipate upon waking. Instead, I am left with this quiet sadness, all the more poignant for all the true memories of death and suicide that likewise refuse to leave.

I don’t begrudge that sadness–I think it is an important part of being human and capable of love. I do wish it could be restrained however, and kept from spilling over where it is not needed.

Funeral Leave

Flossie EadesApril’s grandmother passed away over the weekend, so we are on our way to Fenton, Missouri (near St. Louis) for the visitation and funeral. We will be back tomorrow (Wednesday) evening.

I don’t really know April’s grandparents that well, and of the two sides, I know her mother’s less. Flossie was already afflicted by alzheimers when I met her, and though she was able to attend our wedding, she and I never conversed.

The general sense I have gotten from April’s family is that her passing is something of a blessing. She lived a long and happy life with lots of children and grandchildren, and the suffering caused by her disease is at an end. She is with Jesus now, and we would all agree that is a good thing.

As I thought about her and her husband last Sunday at church though, I began to choke up a bit. I can’t picture April’s grandfather in any way other than stoic–a hardened old man who doesn’t let anything bother him. I thought about seeing him at the funeral and what he would look like, how he would act, and I pictured him standing normally, accepting condolences, thanking people, but generally speaking he would be OK. He doesn’t seem like the sort who would break down in tears.

When I put myself in his place, however, it makes me weep. The thought of losing the woman with whom I spent my entire life, to whom I have been married for decades, and now being alone… it is terrifying. I met with someone after church to pray for him and for the rest of the family, because I simply cannot imagine stoicism in the face of such loneliness. It is one thing to have always been alone, but quite another to lose the one you love.

In addition, I prayed for the married men I know, that they would become strong husbands who can support their wives, and that they would be vulnerable and devout. I pray that God strengthen us so we can continually support our families better. So we can become holy like God is holy.

With every death, I think of Walter Slovotsky. I leave you with these valuable words:

When you say goodbye to a friend, assume that one of you is going to die before you ever get to see each other again. If you want to leave something unsaid, fine… but be prepared to leave it unsaid forever.

Severely Disturbed

OK, maybe not severely, but enough that it’s bugging me. April and I just watched a few episodes of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (we’re trying to finish this season, which is due back to the library tomorrow, and we’d like it to be overdue as little as possible), and one of the main characters died. This was followed by the most intense two episodes of grieving and sorrow I have ever seen on television, and it brought two things to mind.

The first was that, though I am intimately familiar with those reactions, those feelings, those heartaches, there is no one I would feel that way for anymore… except April. I would not grieve like they were, like I did for Lynette, for anyone but my wife, and I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or not. Part of me longs for that intense emotion in a somewhat macabre fashion, because any intense emotion is indicative of life to me, but I fear it as well. Because April is the one closest to me, and the only one, I have to really work hard to keep myself from worrying, obsessing even, about her safety and health. What would happen, if something were to happen to her? I’m not sure if I’d be completely and irrevocably broken, but it’s hard to tell.

The second thing it reminded me of was Lynette’s death and subsequent funeral. Seeing her in the coffin, seeing the coffin at the funeral. Memories of its colour (white, with blue highlights, birds, blue flowers and ribbons…); that they didn’t actually lower the casket while we were still at the cemetery; of speaking to all these people who had no idea who I was; of walking around for hours the night before the funeral; of weeping like I had never wept, uncontrollably; the piano keys wet from my tears because that was the first place I could find to sit after seeing her lying there, white and terrible.

I was able to stop mourning after about three years. To let go and begin to move on from all the death that accompanied my high school career. To remember and cherish the memories, but to stop grieving over Lynette, and Rick, and Dallas, and Jennifer, and everyone else, more than a dozen in all. To let the sorrow go and start healing.

But tonight, I remembered. I don’t know whether to thank Joss Whedon and admire him, or curse his name.

Cobblestone Jaunt

We’d set out as the sun would set,
Dusk settling like child’s blanket,
Comforting chirp of insect’s mate
And frogs who sought their hunger sate.
The small town crossed and crossed again
With naught an hour passed, and then
We’d head back home, assured we’d share
Another walk without a care.

Those days have passed, those times are gone;
Though can’t reclaim, still rise the sun,
And now I walk on clean poured stone-
The cobbles gone like bird that’s flown.
My eyes downcast in silent cloak,
Lost in my thoughts and sorrowed hope:
Someday I’ll find a friend to walk,
Someone to share cobblestone jaunt.

The Bus Stop

The bus stop filled for all to see
Through dirty glass, light filtering
As sun sets over cold city
And man looks over busy street.
People rush past to board the bus,
Yet still he stands in silent hush
With phone forgotten in numb hand.
The voice falls silent like the land.

One slow blink as bus does leave
And turn his head with naught to see.
This busy street teeming with life,
Yet all has fled his little life.
Blink again at child’s play
Across the street at end of day,
Yet sight moves not his shattered heart,
Nor sound reach soul that’s lost its part.

A woman walks in stately grace
Past man who wears a mask in place
At that bus stop so they will see
Nothing of his silent plea.
She walks up Fifth and turns at State
Carrying day’s conquests to take
Them home to family, home to child,
Home to peace, leave city wild.

He slowly blinks and slowly falls
Down to his knees as cloud’s soft pall
Smothers setting sun so soon.
And yet no dirge, no soothing croon;
His jacket lead, his tie a noose
His clothing feeling tight, yet loose
As seem to shrink himself, and world
Fades as final flag is furled.

Someday he’ll rise and travel home,
Relate the tale that stranger told.
The sun will rise, the world will spin
Life will go on, but without him.

Hourglass Eyes

As my glassy eyes reflected polished ash,
I realized that I never understood
Why the living mourn the dead.
These hypocrites who never cared
For Jones-most never knew his name-
Now standing mute, ranks of inconvenient
awkward office mates.

Mike told me that we all die.
It’s true, I thought, slipping my hand
To the breast of my coat.
The tobacco, held tight in its roll-
Just as we’re held by the sonorous
Supplications of the priest-
Came free. They heard the click of my lighter.
I did not care:
They would be dead someday too.

Thoughts of hypocrites and caskets
Left my head with the first drawn breath,
And it seemed as if all the blood
Drained from this coil to be
Replaced. That incense, holy and pleasing,
Filled me like the fluid that filled Jones,
And I exhaled our obituary,
My eyes reflecting their prison.