Thursday, June 11, 2015

Around the Bend: A Meditation on Death and Life

We had gathered all together / We had come to say goodbye
To the heart of an old soul / Who was far too young to die
And in the still you could hear the angels cry

Davey runs through the roses / And Davey danced through my life
I can see him up there with Moses / Right next to Jesus Christ
While I'm standin' at the crossroads / Wonderin’ what's around the bend
He's miles from here / Beyond the atmosphere / Just ashes in the wind

- from "Ashes in the Wind" on Kathy Mattea's album Roses

I was serving as a worship leader. Right before the band walked on stage, someone pulled me from the wing and pointed to a group of teenage girls, huddled together in the front row.

"We need someone to offer a prayer. You've been through this. Will you please say something?"

Nine years ago this week, my brother's best friend lost his little sister in a car wreck. Karson was sixteen. She was full of life and laughter. She was smart, athletic, pretty. Everyone knew she had a bright future. In a moment, she was gone.

I took a breath and dared to look at the young girls gathered in the darkened sanctuary, and my heart broke for them. Karson's teammates and friends cried as they held one another up in a tangle of hugs.

I knew that kind of pain. Six years earlier, I had lost my best friend. Amanda had just graduated from high school. She was the most outspoken, loving, silly, wise person. A few days after she donned her cap and gown, my closest confidant died in her sleep. 

As the praise team assembled, I took the microphone and addressed the teenagers. I told them how sorry we all were. How it didn't make sense. That it was okay to be sad. And angry. And then I said something that, at the time, I thought was helpful.

"Someday, the pain won't be as bad as it is now."

As soon as those words escaped my mouth, I locked eyes with Casey. She shook her head and didn't look back up for the rest of the service. Casey was Karson's friend. She was also Amanda's sister. Casey and her grieving friends didn't need anyone telling them that time would heal their pain. Nobody in the throes of such trauma needs anything but the space and permission to grieve alongside sincere friends who will cry with them.

I'm not a worship leader anymore. I serve as a director of programs for a congregation I love. On Sunday mornings, I stay behind the scenes as part of the tech team. A couple weeks ago, the church recognized our graduates. It happened to coincide with the 15th anniversary of Amanda's death. 

Our young people sat up front, sporting their graduation robes. A couple of them shared words of thanks and their plans for the future. Our graduating violinist played a gorgeous farewell. Blinking back tears, I played a slideshow of our graduates' baby pictures and school photos. I couldn't help but think of my friends who find it hard to celebrate on such occasions.

Just two years after Karson died, her big brother AJ passed away a couple days shy of turning 23. My brother Allyn, who had been AJ's rock through the loss of Karson, suddenly experienced that sort of torturous pain first-hand. 

I have witnessed powerful moments of grace in my life. None more meaningful than when my brother embraced AJ's mama Margo and sister Taylor as his own family. Through the years, Margo and Taylor and Allyn have loved one another with more urgency and understanding than any blood ties could compel. Allyn's daughter carries AJ's initials - a living testimony to an eternal bond of brotherhood.

Allyn, a gifted athlete, coaches basketball for underprivileged children. I lead drama for middle schoolers and high schoolers in Crossflame Youth Choir. It's a healing and humbling thing - pouring yourself into others. Somehow, working with young people, we feel a connection to our old friends, lost too early. Taylor and Casey - and Amanda's other siblings Sara and Jason - have all entered vocations where they get to serve the most vulnerable in their communities. I often think it is their early experiences with pain that help enable them to extend such great compassion.

My Crossflame kiddos light up my life. When I hear giggles echoing from the rehearsal space, I'm often transported to Amanda's house and hear her rolling laugh again. And when a brave teen attempts a solo for the first time, my mind drifts back to our high school choir room, and I relive the beauty that was AJ's singing voice.

This week, a few of our youth choir kids became unwitting members of that painful fellowship of young survivors of loss. A local boy - a rising senior - was killed in a car crash. As I read the remarks by some of my young friends on Facebook, I prayed for their tender hearts. I pray still.

I want to tell them that it gets better. And it does I suppose. The pain never really lessens, but the physical manifestations change and become bearable. Eventually, breathing returns to its unnoticeable, natural state. The actual heart ache becomes more of a memory than an every-moment sensation. The pain begins to lie dormant. Sometimes, seemingly out of nowhere, it comes roaring back to the surface for a few hours, a couple days, some weeks. 

But what's to be done? We press on. We're left here to wonder what's around the next bend. We start planning and dreaming again. We take some risks. We make mistakes. New relationships are forged. And before too long, we realize we're living again.

There's nothing to replace the ones we've loved and lost. Margo and Taylor won't ever feel the same joy about the month of June as everyone else who welcomes the fun of summertime. Amanda's family will always feel her absence. Weddings, birthdays, and holiday gatherings will always feel incomplete. But they all continue to live and love and even laugh and celebrate.

I miss Amanda. I've never been so empowered to think critically as I was when we would sit around her kitchen table and debate everything from unfair school policies to patriarchy and feminism. And I miss AJ. I've never been hugged like I was by that big teddybear of a man. I've never quite experienced the feeling of home I had when we would all gather around the table as a family with AJ and Allyn racing to see who could put away the most corn pudding. 

Sparky, Allyn, Jeddy, Daddy, Pop, and AJ goofing around in West Virginia in 2002.
Other than my brother and daddy, all these dear people have passed.

I will always miss them. Allyn will always miss his brother. And my Crossflame students will always miss their friend. 

But I'm thankful. In the midst of tragedy, beauty can still be found. I know what it is to love and be loved. And so I'm more intentional about sharing love and grace and joy in my own life. I know what it is to miss the presence of someone special. And so I strive to see the remarkable in everyone and revel in simply spending time with them.

In a few days, Crossflame will begin our summer tour. We'll play with orphans, refurbish old buildings, hold hands with lonely octogenarians, sing songs of hope and justice. We'll laugh and cry and work together. And the first of a lifetime of healing moments will begin to ease the ache in my young friends' hearts. And I will remember Amanda. And AJ. And the other saints in my life who helped teach me how to love, how to grieve, and how to hope again.

We'll return home. I'll hug my niece tight. My brother and I will trade jokes. My parents and I will talk late into the night. I'll make music with my talented roommate. I'll see glimpses of dearly departed friends in the smiles of new ones. And, when the inevitable waves of grief crash over one of us, I'll know the tide will turn. And I'll give thanks.