This is the first in what may be a series of posts written in the wake of my son John’s death. I’m writing because there are few if any good answers found on the bookshelves of our homes and I have received a flood of notes thanking me for just being honest. That’s the point. The story below is raw. The picture was snapped while on a walk behind our house with my middle children and the dog Sunday, Sept. 24. This words below it reflect what was working through my mind as my kids enjoyed an Indian summer evening. — John
I think I heard God talk to me one time. It was when I was in jail, kneeling before a concrete bench and thanking him for letting me stay alive. I had bounced my pickup truck off a parked car and then plowed into that trunk of a big tree that took up the better part of someone’s front yard. Drying out in that cell a few hours later I heard four words in my head that seemed to come from somewhere else: “The war is over.” Could have been my imagination, could have been the alcohol or the fear or the little winged angel on my shoulder. Or I may have heard from God after 30 years of wondering where the hell he’d been. Whatever I heard, it was a provocative statement, one that has since had me questioning why I continue to want to engage in battles I can’t win.
That was about a decade ago. A lot has gone down since then.
These days, the voice of God is silent when I need it more than I’ve ever needed words. But not words for me, words for her. Words for the person who has been broken in half by the loss of a son – the hours of holding a lifeless child in a hospital room built for saving, not taking life. She watched as my body convulsed in tears and as I walked about the room in anger, unwilling to give my boy a meaningful embrace. Then she held him. Clung to him. Kissed him. Told him over and over and over that he is loved and how beautiful he is. And I thought to myself, the longer she does this, the harder the road to recovery is going to be. With every second of being together she was increasing the agony of being apart. I kept keeping myself from standing up and telling her to let go. I couldn’t stop her. She had fought for this child’s life. Felt like she was fighting doctors and me and God all at the same time for months. That war, one she couldn’t win, tired her out and threatened her life. After birth, that’s when she could finally enter into a respite only experienced when a mother holds her child. She was entitled to whatever she needed to feel a sliver of relief from unspeakable pain.
I was actually first person in this world to touch John Dempsey. His slippery little legs caught me by surprise as they emerged from his mom, but I held them for long enough to know I would be forever changed. Labor happened fast and I was the only one in the room for who knows how long. It was long enough to physically commune with my son, with my brother. It was all I wanted because I feared that holding him any longer could push me down a hole from which I would struggle to emerge. When the nurses and doctors flooded in the room, it felt like someone pulled a truck off my shoulders. And I just wept as I held Kimberly’s hand and encouraged her to do something neither of us wanted her to do. The doctor asked me several times if I was okay.
I write with such clarity and color so you can understand why both of us are confused right now. And to remind myself to be angry; to seize the anger and publish the remaining pieces of that anger without regard for the restraint I’ve practiced for 18 years as a journalist.
I’ll take you back a few years to amplify the anger and confusion a bit. Kimberly and I grew up with the same theology. It was based on the teaching that no one asks their father for a fish and is handed a serpent. Or an egg and is handed a scorpion. “How much more will your Heavenly Father…” That scripture was taken out of context for us just long enough to make us think that we were to consider God a friend. A buddy. A daddy.
I wrote this next statement before my son died, and I’m going to write again but with more force and conviction. I’m a dad. Put a bullet in my head if I treat my girls the way I’ve seen my wife treated by the guy we requested a fish from. She is busted wide open and there is no fixing her. No. Fixing. I don’t say that out of hopelessness. I say that out of experience. Too many times, for too many years I have stood helplessly by as she shook violent with sobs. We were together, but she was alone. And she was not crying or weeping, but sobbing over a broken home, a broken marriage and now this. She has buried within her a collection of pain that lies so deep, it is unbearable to watch when it crawls out from under the surface. And there are truly no words to confront that brand of pain with. I was 22 years old when I first saw it and I was unprepared. I’m 40, and still unprepared. It’s like I’m taking a walking stick to fight a grizzly bear. The sooner I drop the stick and just lay down the better my chances will be.
I have failed to be the healer I thought I could eventually be when I was 22. If anything, she has been my healer. As for Kimberly, her healing has come by way of those four little kids running around our house. She feeds them and they feed her. Then she feeds them more and they feed her. Where she once experienced deprivation, she now compensates by the act of nourishing and nourishing and nourishing. A farmer wants another row of corn. A journalist wants another scoop. A preacher wants another soul. She wanted more vessels in which to pour herself. I get it. It’s an occupation I don’t want to get in the way of, particularly after what we’ve been through.
God doesn’t seem to share my views, however.
A word my wife has used in the wake of John’s death is “betrayal.” This is something I disagree with, but am abiding in that idea because it is a legitimate response and one for which I have no answers. I feel we are living through a divine silence, a spiritual confusion akin to Moses’ 40 years of sitting in the desert and soaking in “wtf-just-happened-to-me?” I feel like there’s a promise somewhere in our rear view mirror that needs to be dusted off and recaptured. But she’s right: Any semblance of a promise once made to us sure seems like a disfigured mess.