Death Religion Suffering

See the forest for the trees

Despite snow on the ground, the kids and I trick-or-treated on Thursday. Jake, in his race car costume; and Kate, in her Bo Peep costume. We put on snow boots and – with their cousins and aunt – performed the annual ritual of walking from house to house, laughing and joking and slightly stressed out… and, of course, yelling “Yay!” after every piece of candy acquired.

All of us – every single one – reminisced about last year. It was happysad.

On Halloween, a picture from last year of the four of us — me, Jake, Kate, and Jeff — popped up on my phone. There was Jeff: dressed like the old man from Up. And the kids: dressed as PJ Masks. And me, wearing a pumpkin shirt. Jeff’s IV pole is visible… you may even notice that he’s getting a blood transfusion as we walk around the floor. And behind his mask, he’s smiling.

I keep remembering how – for almost all of November – Jeff picked away at the kids’ Halloween candy stashes, first eating all of the ‘good’ candy (anything sour; most things chocolate), and then resigning himself to the remaining candy. Even though he couldn’t walk well; even though he had a bedsore; even though the pressure in his abdomen was enormous from the ascites; even though his feet were so swollen, that it was difficult to put on his shoes… Jeff was still insistent that he have that candy.

“What else is left up there, Jess?” he’d ask.

I’d pick through the candy, prioritizing Sour Skittles or Swedish Fish. I’d definitely pull out Snickers or Twix. And I’d make a little pile and deliver the load to Jeff’s blanket, where he’d enjoy a fleeting and truly sweet pleasure that his body otherwise denied him.

As the pain got worse, Jeff would also get high and eat that candy, and the ridiculousness of the whole scene was so hilarious that it often trumped the tragedy of it.

“Jess! This candy is amazing!” he’d say, slightly muffled because he’d be mid-chew.

I recently reread the Caring Bridge posts from this time last year. Everything must have seemed so obvious to people who were looking at things from the outside…. who could say to each other what I couldn’t say in a Caring Bridge post: that everyone dies, and Jeff’s time was closing in fast.

Those of us super close to the nucleus of it all… we couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Around this time last year, I started to see the forest.

I felt tired. I was so tired.

And Jeff was in pain. So much pain.

By the end of October, we had lived a lot. I had my first panic attack on October 5. On October 11, Jeff found out that his story was ending. In total, Jeff spent 18 days in the hospital during October. His pain started to become unmanageable. On October 15, I went on FMLA. From October 22-26, we were in Houston. For most of the month, I was sick and shaky and congested and feverish. And Jeff’s body continued to become more of a prison. October was tough.

Last October reminded me of what it’s like when I run a half marathon: I know there is an ending, but I can’t think about it. I can’t even think about the next mile marker. I refuse to think about the next water stop. All that exists is the moment and the next step in front of me. It’s actually very liberating, because I’ve chosen that level of consciousness. I have chosen to release control of everything beyond the moment.

Last year, I had to ignore the forest, even though I sometimes saw it. I couldn’t acknowledge – for long, at least – that there was anything much beyond that moment in time…. beyond that next step. But it wasn’t liberating. It was terrifying.

The highs were intense, and the lows were raw. There were moments when I wanted Jeff to acknowledge reality so that I could too. But there were also moments when I was so in awe of his stamina and will to live, that I fell in love with him all over again.

My psychologist has told me that denial is a wonderful thing. That we should all thank God that we have that function in our brains, because denial is our body’s way of telling us that we’re not ready for reality yet. And — he went on — when we try to push people out of reality before they’re ready, it can be drastic. When we can, we should meet people wherever they are in their grief. Sometimes, we’re not the person to nudge them out of denial and into acceptance. We simply honor where they are.

Last year, the reality I could fathom — Jeff’s illness and imminent death — was debilitating. And the reality I couldn’t fathom — sleeping in a bed without Jeff; living life without the person I was closest to in the world; explaining to my children that their father would die; being a single parent to two kids and working full time — was catastrophic.

I’ve often heard — and often used myself — the phrase “see the forest for the trees” in a negative way. But now I know: I need both. Tension exists in all parts of life. An argument about safety is in tension with arguments about autonomy. An argument about change is in tension with arguments about preserving what’s good. And I used to think that arguments about death were in tension with arguments about life.

But they’re not.

Now, I realize that life and death aren’t in tension with each other, in the same way that trees and a forest aren’t in tension with each other: they are two ways of looking at the same thing. They coexist. They are friends, in fact.

You have to have a forest to have trees. And you have to have trees to have a forest. Life is nothing without death; and death is nothing without life.

There are times that I must worry about the immediacy of things in front of me. Sometimes, it’s a matter of carrying on each day. But if I miss the forest, I’m also missing the transcendent, the ethereal, the philosophical. I’m missing the existential. I’m missing the spiritual.

I don’t regret focusing on the trees last year. I actually don’t regret much of anything during Jeff’s illness and death. A year later, I am taking stock of it all and trying to figure out not necessarily ‘why’ it happened — I’ll never know that. But I am trying to figure out how to redeem it by turning it into something good. It bothers me that Jeff doesn’t get to do that too.

But then I remember.

Jeff’s story is so much bigger than any of this. Now, he is constantly and eternally wrapped in love. He knows no pain. Although, to us, it seems Jeff was cheated, it does not seem that way to him. When we are reunited as a family, it will seem – at the moment of death – like we have never been apart. Jeff knows the trajectory of our lives, but also, he knows how small – and still important – those stories are.

In “On Life After Death”, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross writes, “All the hardships that you face in life, all the trials and tribulations, all the nightmares and all the losses, most people view as a curse, as a punishment by God, as something negative. If you would only realize that nothing that comes to you is negative. I mean nothing. All the trials and tribulations, the greatest losses, things that make you say, ‘If I had known about this I would never have been able to make it through,’ are gifts to you. It’s like somebody has to temper the iron. It is an opportunity that you are given to grow. This is the sole purpose of existence on this planet earth. You will not grow if you sit in a beautiful flower garden and somebody brings you gorgeous food on a silver platter. But you will grow if you are sick, if you are in pain, if you experience losses, and if you do not put your head in the sand but take the pain and learn to accept it not as a curse, or a punishment, but as a gift to you with a very, very specific purpose.”

Jeff knows that now. He knows that everything has the potential for good. He does not need someone to ‘temper the iron’, because he understands things that we cannot. He is not limited to a mortal body, with its wonderful complexity and frustrating limitations. He is not limited to space. He does not feel sorry for himself. And although he feels our pain, he knows that we have been given a gift. And he is interceding on our behalf, so we can figure out that “very, very specific purpose.”

If I can accept that all of this was for good, then that is freedom. And, too, if I can accept that – because of Christ’s death and resurrection – the kids and I will be reunited with Jeff, then that is freedom yet again. And if those things are true, then I am free to love and free to accept however God wants to mold me.

I have to live life by looking at the trees. But if I love the world, then maybe I can glimpse what the forest looks like. I have to try, so I don’t miss the forest for the trees. But when I die, the forest will be a beautiful that I could never have conceptualized.

Jeff and I will stand there together, looking at the forest – the world – finally fully capable of understanding it. When I picture it, I think of Jeff – still looking out at the layers and colors – saying to me, “I love you.”

Then, I picture him slowly turning his face toward mine. I sense it, and I turn my face to meet his gaze. In that moment, I am intuitively reminded of all the pain after Jeff’s death, but of all the love that rushed in to fill that loss. Love from people that I never could have expected or imagined. I am also aware of how Jeff never felt far after he died, and how it seemed that he was always urging me toward something. And now, in this moment, it all makes sense.

He smiles a smug smile and says, “I told you so.”

1 comment on “See the forest for the trees

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