All Saints Day

I believe in the great cloud of witnesses and the immortality of the soul. If Maria is not, then she never was. If the souls of our beloved dead do not continue to exist, then existence itself is an illusion. If they are not, I too am not.

This may sound cryptic, but my reasoning is simple. Persons are real. I am not just my body. My existence is not just the accumulation of atoms and chemical reactions. There is a real mind, a real soul behind my body. My thoughts cannot be reduced to mere neurons firing in my brain. If my thoughts are just the result of chemical events, then there is no real me. What I mean by “me” would only be an illusion. All persons would be reduced to collections of particles. The idea of personal being would be absurd. If this were true not only would Maria no longer exist, she would never have existed. What I believed to be “her” would only have been atoms and chemicals that I mistook for a person. I simply cannot believe this. Persons are real.

There is much about the afterlife that remains a mystery. There is much I don’t know and will not know until I too am absent from this body. But I do know that this is not all there is. Persons are real in this life and the next. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, some who are still living, and many more who exist beyond this fleeting life.

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Memory

I am forgetting her. I hate it. Now, over two years after her death, I have a hard time remembering her. I knew this was inevitable. The longer we live without her, the harder it is to remember what Maria was like. It’s been a while since I sat down and looked at videos of her. Most days it’s just too hard. When I do watch videos they spark my memory, but this just raises a difficult question. Am I really remembering her or am I forming my mental images of her on these videos? Videos are not alive. They are not her. Increasingly the memories I have of Maria are only the mental images from photos and videos. I can’t picture her in any other form. My other memories are gone. I am forgetting her.

When I was in my early twenties, I became enamored with the writings of Henri Nouwen. Nouwen was a Catholic priest, writer, and theologian. He was an academic who taught at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard, but he eventually left the prestige and acclaim of the university and moved to Toronto to live among and care for the mentally handicap. He left the best and the brightest to serve the most needy and vulnerable. I was impressed with his life.

I had initially borrowed one of Nouwen’s books from a library and then proceeded to purchase and read another fifteen or so of his books over the next two years. During this period of time I was developing my own philosophy of life and ministry. I thought a lot about my future and the principles I would live by. Like most ideological young men, I thought I had some great ideas about how I would impact and change the world. There were several principles that I was particularly passionate about, and I thought I was quite brilliant for developing my profound ideas. If only everyone was so wise as my twenty-two year old self!

Skip ahead seven or eight years. I had moved on to other authors and ambitions in my late twenties. I was married and getting more established in life, but I still believed in some of the key principles I had developed in my early twenties. I hadn’t read any of Nouwen’s books for a few years when I came across one of his short books that wasn’t part of my collection. I had no recollection of reading this book, but as I cracked it open, it all started coming back to me. I had completely forgotten about this little gem. It was the first Nouwen book that I had borrowed from the library years before. It is the original book that sparked my interest in Henri Nouwen, but I had completely forgotten about it. Then, I made an even more startling discovery. All of the brilliant principles that I had developed in my early twenties were taken directly from this little book! I wasn’t profound at all. I had simply stolen Nouwen’s ideas and then forgot that the ideas were his. So much for all of my youthful wisdom and originality!

This experience not only humbled me, it taught me something about formation and memory. I had no direct awareness of this book. I had completely forgotten it and could not have recollected any of its content. Yet, I was deeply formed by the book. I couldn’t have recalled its title, themes, or anecdotes, but the ideas it contained had penetrated deeper than my conscious memory. This book continued to shape my beliefs and my character long after I had forgotten it. It formed the man I was becoming despite the fact that I had lost the memory.

I wonder if my memories of Maria are similar to my awareness of that forgotten book. As I forget more and more details of her life, it does not mean that her value is diminished or that my love for her has lessened. It simply shows my brain’s inadequacy to sustain memory. All memories fade in time. My memories of Maria’s life continue to diminish, but her life, the person she was, continues to shape me, deeper than I am aware. I am forgetting her. But, her life still impacts all of us. She has shaped my family more than I can know or grasp. Her life mattered deeply to all of us, even if we can’t fully remember her life. Her life mattered, even if I am forgetting her.

The Streak

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All great streaks require consistency and resilience. Like Cal Ripken Jr.’s 2,632 consecutive game streak and Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hit streak, we are currently in the midst of a historic streak of our own that has taken lots of hard work and discipline. Jovi was born June 2, 2008, and since that day we have had at least one child in diapers. If my calculations are correct today marks 3,740 straight days of Borland kids in diapers (and this doesn’t even figure the 100s of days when we had two kids in diapers at the same time). We recently attempted potty-training Lucy, but had no success. We may try again in the next month or two, but I’ve got to admit that I have mixed emotions. While it would be wonderful to have a diaper-free-day, I’m competitive and recognize the historic streak we are currently on. But, like all great streaks, I know this one will end someday. If Lucy puts her mind to it, it will most likely end in a couple of months. If so, our new streak will being February, 2019…

Obituaries

2014-10-18 14.19.41I went to an elderly lady’s funeral this week. I didn’t personally know her, but I know some of her family. I teared up at the funeral, not because of the homily or songs, but because of her obituary. Every obituary has a “preceded in death by…” section. This dear old lady was preceded in death by her parents, husband, brother, sister, etc…and her great-grandson, Titus. I will never forget Titus although I never met him. His memorial was the most sorrowful one I had ever done at the time; surpassed only by Maria’s fourteen months later.

Titus’ mother is a good friend. Jill and I think of her affectionately as an adopted little sister. She and her husband were expecting their first child in February of 2015. The pregnancy had gone well. No major complications. And then I received one of those phone calls you never want to receive. The baby was due in just over a month, but his mother hadn’t felt him move for a few days. It just didn’t seem right to her. The doctors couldn’t find a heartbeat. The umbilical cord had somehow wrapped around his neck. Titus was stillborn at 7 ½ months. No real explanations. Just a tragic loss. A little boy whose life was cut short.

I gathered with the family on New Year’s Day, 2015 for Titus’ memorial. It was an intimate gathering; just family and me. What do you say to a sweet young couple whom several days before was eagerly anticipating the arrival of their first son, and then to have to labor, deliver, and hold his lifeless body? I read a few laments. We prayed some psalms. I reminded them that they are now parents. While none of us ever got to know Titus, he will always be their son and they will always be his parents. It was a painful day.

Seeing Titus’ name in the obituary this week moved me with sorrow and gratitude; sorrow because of the tragedy of his life cut so short, but gratitude because he is remembered. I didn’t know Titus, but I think of him and remember him. He was here. His life mattered. He is not forgotten.

I’m not quite sure why it is so important to those of us who have lost loved ones that other people remember those who have died, but it is vitally important. Those who have died mattered. They are loved. The world is not quite the same without them. To remember is to acknowledge their existence, their life, their death, and the giant chasm their loss has left in the hearts of those who loved them.

I had never thought about it before this week, but those who die so young are included in generations of obituaries. They precede in death their great-grandparents and grandparents, uncles and aunts, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, named in obituaries for generations until the memory of their life fades away into history. And, at every family funeral from now until my funeral, I will look for Maria’s name. I will see her name listed among the deceased, and cry, and remember. She was here. She was loved. She is not forgotten.

Two Possible Lives

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I can imagine two possible lives that look almost identical. The first life is our current family. We have had five daughters. Our middle daughter died. We still have four lovely and healthy girls and a lot of joy. And we have sorrow, fear, and heartache. Our life is messy and complicated. It is depressing and hard and good and beautiful. It is the life we have been given.

The second possible life I can imagine is our current family if Maria had never been born and had never died. I can picture our life as it is currently constructed: four lovely and healthy girls, lots of laughter and joy with very little sorrow, fear, and heartache. I imagine a happy family with less mess and complication. A life without depression. I picture a simple and happy life.

And the question I’ve been contemplating is which life would we choose between these two possible lives? You may think it would be a difficult choice, but it is not. We would choose the first life, our actual life, every time. The second life sounds easier and lighter. It is the happier of the two options, but we were never promised ease and happiness. In that life our hearts wouldn’t have been shattered and our family would feel complete. That life sounds so simple, but we would never choose it at the cost of forgetting. We’ll take the pain because it is the price of loving. We’ll continue to suffer her death because we loved her in life.

Today we remember Maria’s birthday. She would have been six. I can’t picture what she would look like or what she would be like. I hate this. How can I imagine a world in which she never was, but I can’t even picture in my mind what she would be like if she were still here? I can’t see her in my mind anymore, and it crushes me.

The birth of your child is one of the greatest days of your life. Six years ago this was one of those truly joyful days. Our child had been born! Tears of joy. Now, no more joyful tears. It’s mostly sad, but I’m still grateful for this day. Without this day she never would have died, and our lives would be easier. If she had never been born, we never would have lost her and our lives never would have been devastated. But I would choose this day and her life every time. Today is a sorrowful day, but I’m still thankful for it. I would still choose life despite the horror of death.

Loved and Lost

We’ve started reading poetry at dinner most evenings. Tonight I read this brief one from Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

I Envy Not in Any Moods
I envy not in any moods
The captive void of noble rage,
The linnet born within the cage,
That never knew the summer woods;

I envy not the beast that takes
His license in the field of time,
Unfetter’d by the sense of crime,
To whom a conscience never wakes;

Nor, what may count itself as blest,
The heart that never plighted troth
But stagnates in the weeds of sloth:
Nor any want-begotten rest.

I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
than never to have loved at all.

 

It reminded me of this passage I posted two years ago from C.S. Lewis:

“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one…Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”

Hope Beyond Hope

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Today marks two years since our beloved Maria died. It is also a Sunday marking the day we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord. Over the past two years I have found the most comfort in the suffering of Christ. The great mystery that God descended, took on human flesh, and suffered in our midst has strengthened me in my grief. Christ’s resurrection is harder for me to imagine, just as it was hard for the disciples to imagine as they watched His broken body hanging lifeless on a cross. Who could have believed they would see Him again, alive and fully restored? To imagine such nonsense is hope beyond hope. But it happened.

To imagine seeing Maria full of life again is a hope beyond hope. To one day see her walking by the river in the cool of the morning, the fullness of her humanity restored, and to hear her say, “Daddy, it’s OK. Come, enter into life that is truly life, and look, He is making all things new.” This is more than I can even dream. To one day hear the words:

For I announce to you redemption. Behold I make all things new. Behold I do what cannot be done.

I restore the years that the locusts and worms have eaten. I restore the years you have drooped away upon your crutches and in your wheel-chair. I restore the symphonies and operas which your deaf ears have never heard, and the snowy massif your blind eyes have never seen, and the freedom lost to you through plunder and the identity lost to you because of calumny and the failure of justice; and I restore the good which your own foolish mistakes have cheated you of.

And I bring you to the Love of which all other loves speak, the Love which is joy and beauty, and which you have sought in a thousand streets and for which you have wept and clawed your pillow.(Thomas Howard from Christ the Tiger).