Jun 18, 2015

15 to 15: Death

So here's the rundown.  Wednesday, April 29, 2015 was exactly 15 weeks until our 15th anniversary.  So in a countdown to the big day, I decided to start a weekly series of anecdotes from our 15 years of marriage.  I am calling it 15 Weeks to 15 Years.  Since everything needs a hashtag, it would be #15to15.  I am utilizing the blog because I have a propensity to yammer a lot when I'm writing and no one would want to read a long status update.  So be looking for these weekly entries.

There is a curious phrase in a typical wedding vows.  "'Til death do you part."  I find it kind of interesting how in a moment where a couple is celebrating the beginning of their lives together, they are reminded that life has an expiration date.  That could be a morbid proposition.  But death is a part of life.  The whole "Circle of Life" thing.  You know, you've seen The Lion King.  It really isn't possible to look at a life together and leave out death.  It paints an incomplete picture.  Death is an unwelcome visitor, but a persistent one.  And it is often in those most painful of moments when a person's true mettle is discovered.

With my life with Heather, death intruded early in our marriage.  Less than a month after our wedding day, Heather's beloved aunt Pris was taken by cancer.  It was a difficult situation.  Pris' illness came on quickly and took her far too soon.  Pris and Heather both had a love of strawberry decorations.  We have a lot of strawberry stuff in our kitchen.  After Pris died, we actually received some of her strawberry collection.  So she and Heather had a connection that went beyond even their genetic bond.  I fortunately had met Pris one time - right after my father had passed away.  [As serious as this post is, a good funny "dark humor" story is in order.  My father died on a Tuesday.  I went down to West Palm Beach for the funeral and then returned to Tampa so that I could attend a collegiate conference in Jacksonville with the church where I worked.  Heather's family is from the Jacksonville area, so they went to the mall to meet some of Heather's friends.  Pris and her husband Ed were in town, so they came along.  It was the only time that I would meet Pris.  When I walked up to meet the family (we were not dating yet - not for another eight months), Heather's mom saw that I was a little down.  "What's wrong?  You look like someone died."  Um...  I looked at her and then at Heather.  "Yeah, my dad did four days ago."  I get good mileage from that with my mother-in-law.]  I was not able to go to the funeral, having used too much time off for my recent honeymoon.  It is hard how closely those two events are linked.

Less than a year after we got married, my mentor lost his father suddenly.  I knew all too well how that felt, so we drove together to Dothan, Alabama just so I could give him a hug.  It wasn't even a question of if we could make that work; it was just what needed to be done.  Then came 9/11.  Josiah was being induced on that fateful day.  We once again were faced with the juxtaposition of extreme joy and extreme sadness.  Even though we were nowhere near the terrorist attacks, the memory of them are interwoven with our firstborn's arrival.  As I'm sure was the case with most Americans, processing that event was difficult for both of us.  The mammoth loss knocked us both for a loop - a very difficult thing when also discovering how to be parents. 

After moving to Orlando, we experienced a miscarriage.  We didn't even know Heather was pregnant until things were already ending.  We were out of town that weekend and she was feeling weird.  It was surreal to find out about the pregnancy in the urgent care center, immediately followed by the news that it wasn't going to make it.  How can you mourn something you didn't even know existed?  But it still ached in both of our hearts.  Thankfully, Natalie came along very soon thereafter.  My mom's mother was my last living grandparent.  She desperately wanted a great-granddaughter.  Natalie was her first, and she was born one day before my Grandma's birthday.  So it was a very neat arrival.  About nine months later, Grandma passed away.  I so distinctly remember how much she loved my kids.  She was so impressed by baby Josiah and so thrilled to meet Natalie.  This woman would babysit for me when I was younger and it was such a cool feeling to see her holding my kids. 

Heather's grandparents on her mom's side moved to Jacksonville while we were still there.  I was so blessed to be able to get to know them and love them.  They were such cool people and they really filled a hole in my life.  I had lost three of my grandparents before I graduated high school.  I had gained a new pair, which was awesome.  Unfortunately, we also got to experience the inevitable decline that comes with people in their 80s.  The funny, witty, intelligent man that was the powerful cornerstone of a family became a shell of his former self.  He passed away in Heather's first semester in Medical School.  We had three kids who had grown to love these precious folks as well.  It was the first loss that hurt the whole family.  Heather came home from Anatomy lab to that news.  The kids were so lost and confused.  As parents, you have to put your own desires and feelings on hold sometimes to take care of your kids.  That is a difficult lesson to learn - having to grow up when you are still processing your own grief.  A few years later, we lost Grandma Blann too.  It was even harder for us and our kids.  They were older and more connected to her at that point.  But I have always loved to see how tender my wife can be as she helps someone navigate difficult times.

And then there is my mother's battle with cancer.  While it has not claimed her yet, her diagnosis is bleak and undeniable.  It has been very difficult, wrestling with the reality of losing my mom.  She has been such a huge part of my life - friend, buffer, encouragement, refiner.  I hate even thinking about a time when she will not be around.  Through this entire season, Heather has been right there with whatever I need.  It could be an understandable explanation of confusing medical news.  It may just be sitting there and holding my hand.  I have no doubt that I would not have handled this well at all without Heather's love and support.

I would love to be able to avoid unpleasant situations, especially ones like I'm talking about.  But I see something so incredible in my wife in those moments.  It can be in something as simple as making our kids take a gross medicine or something as major as helping someone deal with horrible loss.  She just radiates love and comfort.  I have seen it happen.  When we were on vacation this past Spring Break, we went to the Uzdar-Hazy Museum - a branch of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.  [Side Note: If you can go there when you are in DC, DO IT!]  A man had what appeared to be a stroke as we were walking by.  Heather took over the situation, calmed down his family, treated the man, and directed the security team until the paramedics arrived.  I watched as my wife transformed into an incredible professional.  My kids looked at her like she was a superhero.  I absolutely love watching her as a doctor.  I can't even explain how much it moves my heart to see her making a difference in families that need her.

I'm about to get preachy here.  I know that it has become a popular stance to rip the medical community - accusing them of being part of a conspiracy, being brainwashed by pharmaceutical companies or whatever.  I get so angry when I hear this position being promoted.  If people could just know what the average doctor actually feels and goes through.  If they could see them crying when they can't find a way to rescue a child.  If they could watch a doctor allow a parent to scream at them or accost them - just to give them an outlet for their grief.  My wife is not part of some conspiracy.  She has sacrificed years of her life to be trained to help people.  That is all she wants to do: help people.  I see her heart break on a regular basis when dealing with kids whose lives are destined to be brief and difficult.  She is going into a field where she will spend most of her time dealing with kids who are not going to survive into their 30s.  Why would someone do that?  She wants to be there for those kids, for those families.  And she hopes at some point to discover something that may change those odds.  She is going into Death's backyard and fighting, instead of just waiting for him to do his dirty deeds.  For someone to wantonly declare that this woman has anything but the best interests of others at heart, well it makes me extremely angry. 

There are lots of things that makes me love my wife more than I did when we got married.  But few things have made me love her more than watching her handle the worst that life can throw at her.  I see the compassion and love that she brings to people who are in the throes of grief and despair.  I feel the comfort she brings me.  I know the agony she feels when she cannot fix the unfixable.  This is the side and depth of her that I never would have known without experiencing pain and loss.  So, while I would never wish for those events, I am glad to have this person by my side through them.

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