Tag Archives: loss

(Ab)Normal

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I have experienced more than my fair share of disasters, but someone opened up a big tent for this one to include a whole lot more people. Thinking back to the first time I encountered an upside-down world, I recall a particular phrase that made me crazy when interacting with someone outside the disaster zone: Are things getting back to normal around there?

I strongly oppose throat-punching in general, but the thought did cross my mind.

While recognizing the innocent ignorance of the question, what made it particularly infuriating was the lack of understanding that “normal” is the first fatality in a major disaster. Normal is gone forever. Coming to terms with that is not easy.

Classes resume at Lipscomb University today, online of course, and my “student life” team is reinventing the ways in which we facilitate the special Lipscomb community while physically separated from one another. But there is nothing about today that indicates life returning to “normal.”

A new normal isn’t necessarily bad. Change is inevitable, and change represents an opportunity to let go of negative habits and routines and embrace positive habits and routines. What is bad about situations like this is that we did not get to choose the destruction of normalcy; thus, we did not get the opportunity for closure. We did not choose the new normal—it chose us.

So here we are in this new world, and from past experience I do not recommend devoting a lot of energy longing for things to return to the way they were before. That’s just not going to happen. Now grieving that loss is more than okay. We owe it that.

But once you are finished grieving, work to create a new kind of normal that is somehow better than ever.

Finish the Race, Keep the Faith

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Note: I wrote this post before the tragic helicopter crash in Calabasas near one of my old running trails, but the message still somehow applies. RIP to Kobe, his daughter, and all who died in such a terrible accident.

When I was fourteen, Shawn invited me to run a 15k in Memphis at Oktoberfest, and since there was little adventure in our small-town Arkansas life I quickly agreed. I was bright enough to know that fifteen kilometers equaled 9.3 miles but not yet bright enough to prepare by running more than three miles in advance. Coach Watson warned us, but we were invincible junior high schoolers, so we weren’t worried.

We rose in the early morning darkness and rode the hour and a half to Memphis in a custom van with Ethan and Everett. We thought both men were ancient, although I realize now that Ethan was only fifty-three (and Everett sixty-seven). Ethan was a legend in our hometown, completing over forty marathons, including three Bostons, and Everett was a legend in several ways—college football at LSU, one-time world record holder for sit-ups, pole vaulter in the Senior Olympics. We were unable to comprehend our great privilege.

The race was something else. I had only run a couple of local 5ks, so this was the first time I had experienced the exhilaration of a major race with a thousand runners—much less the distance. Filled with adrenaline we started way too fast, and at the second mile marker I could not breathe, where it occurred to me that I still had over seven miles to go. So I let Shawn, the far better runner, go on while I slowed the pace to focus on survival. I never stopped, in spite of the monster incline up Riverside Drive near the end. I may not be a natural runner, but I am naturally stubborn.

Last weekend, thirty-five years later, I remembered that race on a seven-mile run at Percy Warner Park, alone in nature with my memories. The trail is hilly, and the temperature was frigid, and as my aging body huffed and puffed up a small mountain I remembered Shawn’s impression of the whistling sound Ethan made as he inevitably caught and passed us at each race. I had to laugh. At an overlook at the top of a major hill I stopped to gaze at the Tennessee winter forest and realized that I love Ethan and Everett now more than ever. I was in California when each passed and could not pay respects in person, but they helped shape my life. And then I thought of Shawn, killed in that tragic automobile accident so long ago. My very first running buddy.

The cold and the hills and the memories combined to bring tears to my eyes. I realized that I am the only one left from that 1984 Oktoberfest quartet, the only one left even to remember.

I decided to dedicate the run to my old friends (may they be somewhere running in peace), so I turned from the overlook and hit the trail again—alone. Not sure why I am the only one still on the course, but as long as I can I’ll keep running.

Hold on to Joy

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Loving Joan was not optional. She was eminently lovable. I preached in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, for a decade and could count on Joan and Joel (or, “Joe,” as she called him) to be sitting up front cheering me on every time the doors opened. Joan cheered everybody on.

It was sad to hear that Joan died last week at eighty years young after a heck of a fight with cancer. But it would be a discredit to her memory to linger in sadness.

Joan was no stranger to challenges. Before my time in Mississippi, she lost her son in a tragic car accident. During my time in Mississippi, she encountered the American law of eminent domain when the government decided to put a highway through the house she and Joel intended to inhabit for the rest of their retirement years. After my time in Mississippi, her “Joe” contracted Parkinson’s Disease. And then there was the cancer.

But Joan never let a challenge dampen her positive attitude. She often quoted a line from an old sermon that she accepted as a life approach: Don’t let anyone steal your joy. Joan spent her life giving to others, but she jealously guarded her joy like she was Ebenezer Scrooge.

It has been years since I saw her in person, but Facebook worked its magic to keep us in distant contact. Joan “liked” lots of things on Facebook. That fit her well. Joan was a really good liker of things. She would have made it just fine without the frowny-face option.

One of my favorite memories came as a result of one of Joan’s worst days. Joan had two children, the son whose life was tragically cut short, and a daughter who was her pride and joy. Joan’s daughter pursued a successful career and chose to marry later in life. Joan was ecstatic about the wedding and could not wait to travel to the ceremony. But one afternoon, while shooing blackbirds away from the back porch, Joan fell and broke both ankles, landing her in a rehabilitation hospital and threatening her ability to make it to the wedding.

True to form, Joan kept her joy and started to work. She soon knew everyone in the hospital and worked hard at physical therapy with that beautiful wedding ceremony as her inspiration. The fateful day came when the doctors would decide whether she was fit to travel, and despite her very best efforts, Joan was not cleared for takeoff. I’m not exactly sure how devastated she was, but the rest of us were heartbroken.

In those days before Skype and FaceTime, we tried to invent things like Skype and FaceTime just for Joan, but alas, we were in over our heads. Joel traveled to the wedding alone, and the family had the clever idea to use a cell phone during the ceremony so that Joan could listen in. A group of us from church went to her hospital room that day to share the occasion with a corsage, wedding cake, and being good Southern church folk, sparkling cider. It was a party, but it was no pity party. I will never forget Joan trying to hand the cell phone to the rest of us during the ceremony so that we could listen and our laughing and frustrated refusals — This is for you, Joan!

It remains one of my best days. A terrible day somehow turned into joy.

That was Joan. And today, in her honor, and while mourning her loss, I will hold on even tighter to my joy.

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Summer of Twelve

SUMMER OF TWELVE

I hear tell we had another presidential election and that
London town hosted the Olympic Games,
But everything is hazy since that was
The summer my mother died.

Four years ago today.

Her traitorous liver transfigured her to a dark yellow
And took our sweet mother away from us.
“At least she didn’t have to suffer long” we said
To comfort ourselves.  To no avail.

Four years ago today.

I used to visit her office and unload my troubles as she
Patiently listened to my busy mind analyze the complexities of life.
I now suspect that she marveled and thought:
How did I make this strange man?  I wish she wouldn’t have left us

Four years ago today.

When she knew she was not long for this world she asked me to say
Words at her funeral.  I didn’t want to, but did, and made a
Blubbering fool of myself.  I’d do it again.  I’d do anything for her.
Even write an impromptu poem remembering what happened

Four years ago today.

– Al Sturgeon, Summer of ‘16