Reflections & Ramblings: Volume Thirty-Three
I’m pretty worn out these days. I’m living in a fairly constant state of anxiety. Thankfully, over the years I’ve come to recognize my anxiety and have learned what helps bring me calm and peace. When I am feeling this way, my mind is flooded with all sorts of thoughts, little snippets of ideas, words, feelings, poems. I try to write them down when I think of them.
I’ve done this for years, off and on, always with the intention of following up and writing publicly, but I rarely find the resolve to sit down and take the time to do so. But one of my goals for the year and sort of my promise to my brother was that I would push through these sorts of moments and bring myself to write more and hit the publish button.
So here I am.
It’s been one month since my brother died. A month that has felt both like a year and, at the same time, like only a single day has passed. When I think back on the past month I find myself asking “How has it been a month already?” soon followed by, “How has it only been a month?”
I don’t get enough sleep. I don’t struggle sleeping, I just don’t go to bed when I probably should, and I have young kids that get up early.
The result of this is that I am perpetually tired. I’m not proud of it. This is not meant to be some sort of weird flex. But for better or worse, because of my lack of sleep, I rarely remember any of my dreams.
Over the course of the last month, this turns out to probably be a very good thing because I can only remember two dreams that I’ve had. Both of the dreams were emotionally overwhelming and deeply saddening for me, both in the dreams and after I woke up. The types of dreams that impact your entire day after waking from them.
No one truly likes to hear about other peoples’ dreams, so I’ll spare you the full details and attempt to give you a simple glimpse into what I remember.
In my first dream my brother was alive and asleep on the couch in my childhood home. In the dream I knew he couldn’t truly be alive, but it was like a gift of time being given to me, a workaround from the understood nature of time and space. Because of this I wanted to be wise with how I used this unique moment with him. He was lying on the couch when I woke him up from sleeping.
“Matthew! I know you aren’t truly alive right now, but since I have this opportunity with you I need to know what the passcode to your iPhone is!”
But before he could answer I convinced myself that the encounter couldn’t be real, that this all was a dream, and I woke myself up.
The other dream I had pertained to Ezra. The phone rang at my house and I picked it up. It was the elementary school principal. She told me that Ezra wanted to mimic his brother’s escape from school the other day, and so he left without anyone noticing right away. She called me as soon as they noticed he was gone.
I frantically hung up the phone and immediately ran out my front door. There was snow everywhere, but I ran as fast as I could to the lake in our village, where Micah had been seen just a few days before. (If none of this is making sense, you can read my last post about Micah running away from school.)
As I ran through the snow in my neighbors’ backyards, the partially frozen lake came into view. And in the distance, to my horror, I saw Ezra floating face down in the water. I reached the icy shore of the lake and ran into it as fast as I could, slowed by the water and ice chunks. I yelled at the top of my lungs, “NO!!!! NOOOOO!!! HELP ME!!!! NOOOOO!”
When I got to him in the water, my own head was barely poking out above the frigid water. I grabbed his body and dragged it with me. When I flipped him over on the shore he was completely blue. It was horrifying.
I was beside myself in the dream, and right before waking up I remember wondering to myself in a panic, how I could I ever move on from this? How could this be my lot in life?
And then I woke up.
Those are the two dreams that I can remember from the past month. I figure if I remembered more, they would be similar to those. I think it’s probably pretty obvious that my brain is living in a state of anxiety, fear, and grief.
I feel bad about feeling bad. I’m unsure if it is obvious to others that I am feeling this way. Do I tell them? Do I not? I don’t really know what the right thing to do is. I think Sarah is aware of how much the last month is impacting me. She sees it in my behaviors, she hears it in my short responses, she experiences it in my shortened patience. She’s probably more acutely aware of it than even I am. And that’s all while she herself has to be processing through the events of the last month in her own way as well.
I know I’m not truly in tune with the depths of my grief, though. I generally am not an explosive person in public at all. I like to think I am patient with strangers. If I am upset, I generally don’t let them know. I assume they are doing their best, and I give them some grace. But I had an experience the other day that showed me just how stressed I must be right now.
After a nice winter hike this past Sunday with our Boys Town girls, we stopped at a McDonald’s drive-thru to get hot chocolate for everyone to warm up. When I told the woman at the drive-thru that we would be needing eight hot chocolates she responded with surprise.
“Eight?!” she said.
“Yeah, eight small hot chocolates.” I replied.
Then there was a short pause before she responded.
“Yeah, uhh, sir, so it turns out that our hot chocolate machine isn’t working. Sorry.”
To me it was obvious that this woman just didn’t want to make eight hot chocolates. This same McDonalds conveniently has had broken equipment when we’ve needed large numbers of items for our girls in the past as well. My patience was nearly non-existent. On good days I already despise having to go through drive-thrus ordering this many items, but to be told they couldn’t do it pushed a button in me that I wasn’t ready to have pushed. Angry, I said, “Ok, then!” And as I started to pull away, right before I had rolled my window completely up, I blurted out “You suck!”
I couldn’t believe my own ears! Did I really just say that out loud like that? In front of everyone?
Sarah turned to me and said with a gasp, “Andrew!”
My whole van full of girls were equally shocked.
I tried to cover up my shame by blaming the McDonalds worker more. “Sorry, but this McDonalds is always doing things like this! How convenient that as soon as I tell them I need eight hot chocolates the machine is suddenly broken! It’s obviously not true! She’s lying!”
I’m embarrassed to tell this story, but I say it to give a glimpse into where I am at emotionally. I was mean to a random McDonald’s drive-thru worker who probably gets paid $10 an hour. That is something very uncharacteristic for me to do, especially in front of all my Boys Town girls and my family, whom I’m constantly trying to model appropriate behavior.
As I continue wrestling with the reality that my brother is no longer here, my mind has also been trying to comprehend the recent situation with Micah. I keep thinking, He could have died! How did no one stop a little eight year old walking in the street on a cold winter day? How did he not break through the ice and drown in the lake? I don’t understand!
It’s caused me to be a bit gentler with him recently. He still throws fits fairly regularly here at home, but I see them a bit differently these days. I see them as symptoms of living with large amounts of anxiety. His fits and tantrums are behaviors that he doesn’t want to have, because he apologizes for his outbursts often, but behaviors that come bursting forth after just the right buttons are pushed within him. I think the anxiety that Micah lives with utterly exhausts him. And he’s still trying to learn how to manage those feelings, how to develop healthy coping skills. He clearly is someone who tries to avoids being confronted with his anxiety, to the extent that he’s willing to run away from school.
I think I mentioned in my last post that there really isn’t any playbook for knowing how to respond to almost-tragedies. There’s thousands of stories and books on grief and loss, but I don’t know of many about almost-tragedies or almost-deeply life shattering grief. Sarah mentioned to me last night that maybe the closest story she can think of is one of the more historically powerful stories of all time: the Passover.
And as I think through some of the parallels I can see why she suggested that. We being very recently familiar with the encounter of death in our family, Micah’s situation felt as if the angel of death passed over him somehow, that he was guarded from that dark agent of grief and finality.
But the Passover story still doesn’t do it for me. The Hebrews were given a very specific warning, and very specific instructions for what to do: put blood sacrificed from a spotless lamb on your doorposts and your firstborn son will be spared. That doesn’t really fit in this instance. We were the ones warning the school about our firstborn son’s anxiety. And he slipped out through their doors of the school, and almost out of this world.
But he didn’t.
I still am unsure about what it is that I feel from this situation, or how to explain the emotions. Relief is definitely something I’ve been feeling, but still mixed with a sense of panic. That panic, the unresolved relief (is that an oxymoron?) is what clearly fueled my dream about Ezra.
Biblical imagery is deep. It openly engages with many of the emotions on the sad side of the spectrum. Laments, songs of grief and sorrow, questions about life and our existence and its meaning. The Old Testament is filled with wonderful poems wrestling with these sorts of unanswerable questions.
I’ve been thinking about an old Levitical passage about the process for acknowledging a person’s cleansing from leprosy. It involves two birds. One bird is killed, and then its blood is sprinkled on the other bird, which is then spared and let go in an open field. Cedar wood, scarlet thread, and hyssop are also involved, but they aren’t the details that stand out to me.
This process and the imagery of the birds has been rattling around in my brain and I can’t seem to shake it for some reason.
Here’s the process:
“The priest will order two live, clean birds, some cedar wood, scarlet thread, and hyssop to be brought for the one to be cleansed. The priest will order him to kill one of the birds over fresh water in a clay pot. The priest will then take the live bird with the cedar wood, the scarlet thread, and the hyssop and dip them in the blood of the dead bird over fresh water and then sprinkle the person being cleansed from the skin disease seven times and pronounce him clean. Finally, he will release the live bird in the open field.”
The details about the leprosy or skin disease really have nothing to do with anything I am experiencing, but the concept of these two birds intrigues me. (There are other passages that do this with sheep as well.) It’s mostly just the concept of one being killed and one being released that captures my interest, I suppose. But I feel like my brother was taken, and my son was released. Two birds. One killed, the other allowed to fly away, escaping the clutches of death.
I started this post thinking I’d write about some of the ponderings I’ve had about my brother since his death, but apparently I’m not ready to share all those thoughts yet. They’ll come out eventually, I’m sure. The situation with Micah apparently is simmering closer to the top of my mind and more accessible at the moment.
And so I’ll go ahead and call it quits with this post, I’m sure to write again soon. I’m glad I went ahead and pushed through with this one, even though I had no idea where I’d really go with it when I started.
I’ll end with a poem:
In the early morning glow
the curtains tremble
from the air blowing up through the vents.
Sarah’s asleep, her fingers move
delicately outside the covers
as if pointing her way through a dream.
The room is brighter than normal
a large blanket of snow outside
I see Micah’s face through the crack of the door.
He climbs into our bed
and slips under the covers
I hug him a bit tighter than normal.
He lifts up his hands
up from inside the covers
and interlocks his fingers with mine.
He whispers, “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
and I try my very best not to cry.