“I’m fine, I think I’m doing really well, considering it just happened a year ago.”
The conversation is still fresh in my mind, although it took place over a year ago. The best part of family reunions is breakfast talk, and this one was with my oldest brother. With a father who was absent much of the time, this brother takes on the alpha role, and it seems to continue on, decades later.
Anyway, he asked me a second time, “Bill, really, how are you?”
“Really, I’m much better than most people would be after losing a child,” I replied very matter-of-factly. “But life is just much different now. I have absolutely no patience for bull-shit, no interest in unimportant things. I don’t care about anything at all that doesn’t make me a ‘better version of myself,’ more likely to do what I’m supposed to do while I’m here.”
“That doesn’t sound like much fun, there’s more to life than just the important things!”
The tone had suddenly become very serious. “Here’s the deal… trust me, you have nothing to worry about – I would never do anything to hurt myself, but I don’t really care if I live, or not. I’m ‘over it,’ and ready to check out”
My big brother’s face drained of all color. I continued, “If I were diagnosed with cancer tomorrow, I’d tell no one, and not even consider any treatment.” I was talking to a man in the midst of debilitating and painful prostate cancer treatment and recovery. I’d held his hand as he recovered from anesthesia. That was back when I thought divorce and the loss of my mother would be my darkest days, and the greatest tests of my faith.
He looked down at me as I had grown accustomed, he was the big brother with all of life’s knowledge, and I was Billy, the naive little boy. He was using his adult logic to tell me how “stupid” my feelings were. Except this time he was wrong. It was I that had the knowledge, the life experience.
I ripped back into him angrily, for the first time in my memory, It was as if he was from Mars, and had no idea what he was talking about, about how things really were. This time it was I who possessed all of life’s knowledge. I had lost my son, and he had no idea what he was talking about.
It seemed perfectly logical to me. If a 19 year old child, my only son, could die, the world would end soon for all of us. Perhaps I felt as though the world had ended already. My world had. This was not a metaphor, it’s truly how I felt. And if I was going to die soon, why would I get my oil changed, or get new tires, or cut the damn grass.
The shrinks nod approvingly, because apparently it’s just another stage to progress through, and mine were not uncommon feelings. I hadn’t sought out mental health therapy, but it seemed to seek me out. I’d been urged to visit, or even visited by organizations like Compassionate Friends, Rainbows, and ClearCause Foundation. These are some pretty awesome folks well versed in uplifting the survivors. But I’m a self-help junkie, and prefer to experience epiphany myself, especially if I can do it in a setting with my Lord and Savior.
Besides, like in the Tim McGraw song, Live Like You Were Dyin’, shouldn’t we all live like today could be our last day? The tragedy had tested my faith, and directed me towards (an attempt at) being that “best version of myself,” that Matthew Kelly talks about. In fact, it’s become my mantra when dealing with people myself, or pontificating to others – “Never say or do anything to someone that you wouldn’t want to be the last thing you ever said or did.” And, in fact that is most certainly a healthy “life vision,” the best way to navigate through our daily encounters with others.
But the problem is, how selfish it was making me. My focus of getting me through life righteously, would be much easier if it was a short life. And so when I hiked the Camino de Santiago, I always took the highest, most dangerous, risky passages at every opportunity. I agreed to jump out of “a perfectly good airplane” with my daughter Kayla on her 18th birthday, and I didn’t really care if my tires had been bald for a month. That was the stuff I did subconsciously, my self-destructive unconscious. My visible encounters with others took on the tone of, “What’s the right thing for me to do?” But not for their sake, but for my own. To get to heaven, but not just to get to heaven. Because it makes God happy with me.
Upon reading back over this last paragraph, I realize it sounds like splitting hairs, and very philosophical. Here’s what I mean – years ago, I heard a Buddhist version of a parable.
The student, after years of instruction, was told that his route to heaven was his mantra. It was whispered in his ear, and he was sternly warned not to share it with anyone. He asked the wise old monk, “What if I tell others of this mantra?” “That would give them all access to heaven, but you would lose your own salvation. It would be very foolish.” Shortly later, the wise old monk heard much commotion outside, and looked to observe his student on the street, sharing his mantra with his family, his friends, everyone, in fact, who would listen. The wise old monk rushed out to him, and looked down proudly, “You have learned well, and will most certainly join your friends in paradise.”
You see the difference? It can not be “all about me.” Getting myself to heaven may, in fact be the point, but a much more loving and effective way to do so is selflessly.
So what’s any of this got to do with my daughter being lost at sea?
Six days after we lost contact with Emily, I actually became angry with her for being so inconsiderate. How could she put her life in such peril? All of our lives had been torn apart, how literally destroyed each of us have been, how much pain her brother’s death had caused. What was she thinking?!! Clearly not thinking! Completely selfish and inconsiderate! I’d had this very talk with her as we flew back from China with his ashes. Our family could not withstand another loss. Blatantly discarding all consideration of her family, she disregarded us and our feelings, and went on a tiny sailboat in predicted rough seas, and… and…
And yet, here I had been doing the same thing for two years.
Much of last Thursday’s workday had been on the phone with the United States Coast Guard and with Emily’s big sister’s fiance (a yacht captain), and the parents of Emily’s friend (the captain of the 32 foot Tara), being strong and coherent. The rest of the day was spent squatting in the back room of my veterinary hospital embracing Cullen’s dog Svedka with tears streaming down my cheeks.
Then I drove home for two hours going 80 miles an hour in the rain on bald tires. “And so, when I hydro-planed to my death, surely my son would embrace me, and lead me ‘home,’ to our Lord.” How incredible will that be??? Much like Mercy Me’s hit I Can Only Imagine, I do look forward to that day! But somehow, now it sounds embarrassing to even write down those words.
Do I think the loss of my own life would be any easier for Cullen’s siblings? To lose their father, and new stepfather? And my own siblings? Any my wife? After already losing her first husband to lymphoma, I don’t have any more compassion and consideration for her than to take absurd risks with my own life, because I’m “over it?”
Psychologists call it cathexis.
It’s the emotional energy used in concentrating on a person, or the emotional value we develop and place on someone.
I had so valued my relationship with Cullen, that I had disregarded my own value to Emily (who I was now angry with for being so “selfish”), Camille (who is counting on me to walk her down the aisle in a few months and to love and embrace those grandchildren she has planned), Kayla and Noah (who already said goodbye to their first father when they were just babies), and Sharon, who has already had the love of her life ripped from her by cancer.
And on that sixth day, as my anger evolved into concern, and I found my voice cracking, and often unable to complete sentences containing her name. Only when I made myself numb could I speak matter-of-factly to the Coast Guard and others involved in the search. I flashed back to my steps to the pulpit to deliver Cullen’s eulogy.
Our “Camino,” this journey through life, is full of growth and lessons that must be learned through living, and not taught from someone else’s perspective.
I can not be told how stupidly I’m behaving, I must come to that realization on my own. In psychoanalytic terms, this process is called de-cathexis.
In order to refocus your life’s energies toward the future, you need displace some of that emotion onto other people and things in your life. This process cannot be rushed, it takes time.
There have been many lessons learned from the Tara’s being blown off course by a wicked storm:
- Many people, loved ones as well as strangers, have reconnected to prayer with our Lord. Seldom are our prayers so quickly and visibly answered. Thanks again to over a hundred thousand who bowed their heads for us. In the only conversation I’ve had with her since, Emily described this all as very humbling. If reconnecting others to prayer was the only consequence of this saga, its all been worthwhile.
- My big brother still knows more than I do.
- Emily’s a big girl, and gets to make her own decisions. I’m not allowed to get upset if she doesn’t see things from my perspective. I’d have gone on that sailboat too. I have many times. And she won’t learn the same lessons that I would have. She’s not me. Others travel their own journey, stumble and fall, and gain their own knowledge.
- My car handles much better now with my new tires.
- Sometimes, when the storm is too brutal, we must lower our sails, but then we drift and will eventually founder. I’ve learned that it must be raised again to catch the wind, and move forward.
Perhaps most importantly, I’m afforded the unexpected luxury of learning one of life’s valuable lessons, this time without tragedy. It’s much different than reading books on grief recovery assuring me that, “It’s OK to keep living. We don’t betray our lost loved ones by resuming life.”
It’s OK, or even required, to refocus some of that emotion, and reconnect with others that continue to love us, and also ache with their own bloodied knees. Much Love.