Yesterday, driving somewhere between church and various stores on a late and somewhat snowy afternoon, I suddenly realized: "I no longer believe that it was my fault."
There has been a certain expected weight, wearing down my entire self ~ body, soul, and spirit ~ that has lifted, in some inexplicable way, without my really being aware of it.
I miss Josh so much that some days I can hardly bear to go on. The good memories, the joy he brought into our lives and into his whole world ~ no, I would not want to have lived without them. He was a spectacularly joyous child, a brilliant and witty young man, more creative than I will ever be. I would not want to have missed that blond head, that mischievous giggle, that sight of a soccer ball arcing across the sky, those years in France and western Massachusetts and Chicago ~ not at all. But the knowledge of what I will miss, of what Josh himself will miss: I can only consider it a fragment at a time, as a matter of preservation of sanity and self.
But I no longer blame myself. It has been a terrible thing, to have believed that I could have said or done something to save his life. But depression is a brutal illness, and its flare-ups are sometimes deadly, and that's the way it is. It's like any other illness. The consequences for survivors are not, but the illness itself . . . yes.
I'm beginning to feel as if the strands of my life are converging, ever so slowly. When I started seminary, it was in part because I had had wonderful adult experiences of worship and learning and friendship in the church, all of which had nudged me into leadership, and in part because I had had a pretty typical experience with the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, which had kind of turned me inside out and brought me into relationship with God in ways I had had no idea were possible. I had some kind of thought that I could share all of that with other people, which I guess is as good a reason as any to go to seminary.
And then Josh died, by suicide no less, and God might as well have fallen right off that building with him. Seminary was mostly a form of torture. All those young people, many of them the ages of my own children, motivated and laughing and mostly involved with their own lives. All those professors, many of them my age, mostly avoiding me. One of them actually said to me, "I don't know what to say to you," and in two other instances, a guest lecturer and a senior administrator made jokes about suicide. (Even I won't put into writing the language that formed itself into unspoken responses in my head.) Mostly people talked about a Christian faith that bore no discernible connection to anything I found tolerable, and God was very, very silent indeed.
But even in that particular wilderness, there were signs of hope. Those spiritual directors of mine, gluing me back into some semblance of whom I had once been with their emails and conversations. A Key West Christmas in which the four of us clung to one another and dispensed with almost every one of our holiday traditions. (The Episcopalian midnight service during which The Lovely Daughter and I landed on the front steps in tears and listened to the rock band across the street shout obscenities despite? because of? the candle-lit church doesn't really count.) And finally, toward the very end of my last year, some ideas and course work that gave me a new way through Christianity, a way that made it possible for me to start to stake out some territory in which I might make a little home as a pastor.
(Which probably seems like the stupidest idea ever, doesn't it? What on earth possessed me to keep going to those classes and writing those papers? ~ when every mother I knew who had lost a child recently, including me, admitted that we forgot everything we read or heard within five minutes, max.)
As a pastor, I got into trouble almost immediately. My parishoners wanted me to talk about personal salvation, about how you have to ask Jesus into your heart, make a conscious choice, and you will be saved, which means going to heaven. I guess I can understand why they wanted that; it's what most of them have heard all of their lives, and it makes them feel good. Why, I'm not entirely sure, since it leaves so much out. But with a son who died of suicide, which might have been preceded by some kind of conscious rejection of God way before he got too sick to decide anything, there is simply no way I could ever make a claim that would exclude him. And with a whole circle of family and friends and colleagues and acquaintances who are all over the religious spectrum, kind of creating their own entire galaxy of theology, complete with black holes and meteors zipping all over the place, and also including those tiny subatomic particles that one of my college students told me about one day that I don't understand at all? Really, no; a very small story of personal salvation was not, in and of itself, enough.
I don't think I remember anymore what I thought, once upon a time, that my basic preaching and teaching and caring message would be. Something about God's extravagant love, no doubt. Something about Walter Brueggemann's themes of God's abundance versus human preoccupation with scarcity. Because those are the themes I was accustomed to hearing about in church. And I do, in fact, preach them, because I believe them, and believe them to be among the most important hopes which we can convey to people.
But the one I am interested in, the one I have been zeroing in on for these past six Advents and all the time in between, even when I didn't know that I was, is the one about the new heaven and the new earth. The healed creation. God's great project that began with the emergence of Jesus Christ into human life and will end when every tear is wiped away and death shall be no more.
That's all I really care about. Perhaps that's Josh's gift to me: that I know exactly what matters, that I can pinpoint exactly what it is that I believe and how it encompasses everything else.
When we were in Key West for Christmas of 2008, I wasn't sure we were going to make it. The Florida Keys feel like the end of the earth ~ my favorite kind of place really ~ but that year they really felt like the end of the earth, as if we could take one step into those serene waters and be gone forever. Maybe we were just beginning, down there at Milepost 0, the journey back toward Advent. It has been a long, long hike.