A Birthday Choice

The OB/GYN looked down at the young couple authoritatively and did his best to console them.  “I’m very sorry, I know how much you’ve been looking forward to another child.  But you’ve lost this baby.  I know how much this hurts, but you’re very young and have plenty of time to try again.”

The 29 year old looked up from the beautiful baby bump and met the eyes of the doctor. This father was a veterinarian, and as such had significantly more medical knowledge than perhaps most other expecting parents.

“But Dr. Shure, how can you be so certain? Couldn’t there still be a heartbeat even though your doppler stethoscope can’t locate it?”

The physician looked so soothingly compassionate.  “Bill, I’ve done this for a long time. Your wife has an abnormal pregnancy with a condition known as placenta previa, and although sometimes this corrects itself, this time it’s getting much worse. We need to get her downstairs for a D & C before she loses any more blood.”

This was before the age of Google, but hours had been spent digging into his medical books, leaving the young father with an irritating unwillingness to follow doctor’s orders.  “I’m not comfortable with your advice. I think we should get an ultrasound to see if the baby’s still alive.”  Dr. Shure’s compassion was becoming transparent as his confidence turned to arrogance.  “It doesn’t really matter.  Even if there’s a heartbeat, there won’t be very soon.”

Knowing very well that this would be self-fulfilling if they went downstairs, they nodded in agreement.  “We want an ultrasound,” they said in unison. “We’re Catholic, and we’re just not comfortable with abortion as an alternative.”

Dr. Shure was red-faced now and the veins on the side of his forehead were clearly visible from across the room.  “Well, I’m Catholic too, but this is important, you need to face reality.  You are making a mistake, and wasting time.”

Perhaps they had different definitions of Catholic, or different interpretations of what was important.  For them their faith was what helped them discern what really is important, as they face reality.  Risking his further disapproval of their blind ignorance, Bill clarified: “Well, we’re practicing Catholics.”

The door closed abruptly as the man they had chosen to help them bring forth life left in disgust.  And so the young couple was engulfed with fear as they looked down at the bloody sheets.  Before they could get her dressed, a nurse came in to assist. “The doctor doesn’t understand your feelings, but I certainly do.  I’ve made arrangements for you across the street to have an ultrasound performed, and they’ll be waiting for you.”

Their tears of joy were contagious with the entire staff at the imaging center, who now knew what was happening, and were all in tears.  Emily’s heart was most certainly beating, and it continues today.

It wasn’t an easy final 6 months of pregnancy, all spent in bed.  Any attempt to become vertical resulted in massive blood loss, and progesterone supplements were taken as a precaution against premature labor.

Of course the young man was me and today I remember that fateful day.  Beautiful memories of each of my five children have carried me through some pretty tough times. Today is September 13, and I celebrate one of them.  Happy Birthday Emily.

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Please help me celebrate by remembering precious memories of your own children, or siblings, or growing up. Recall a moment when something life changing happened. Give someone a hug and tell them how much you love them and how glad you are that they’re alive today.

Life is beautiful.

emilyotis

 

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If All Else Fails …

As I sped past the billboard, the words lingered in my mind, and even began to bother me.  “If all else fails, try Jesus.”  The well intended slogan had it all wrong, much like the “God is my co-pilot” bumper sticker.

Seriously?  What kind of friend would you consider me if I only called you when “All else fails?”  Wouldn’t that make me the “vending machine god” where we only go when we want something, or worse yet, when we want something, and all else has failed?

It also dips into the “prosperity gospel,” where the believer, one with “enough faith,” gets good fortune, and answered prayers., but when we don’t see that answer, it’s because of our weak faith.  Or –  “Hey God, I’ a pretty good person, I do good stuff, I don’t cheat on my wife, I don’t tell (big) lies, I gave to the homeless dude this morning.  I even go to church sometimes.  I’ve done my part!  What the hell do you want?  Tit for tat.  Quid pro quo.  I’ve done my part, now give me mine.”

Our parents saw it during the Cuban missile crisis.  Churches were packed, and lines to the confessional wrapped around the block.  We see it during times of crisis.  After 9-11, many returned to religion, or at least begging God, or whatever to come to our aid.  How many of us have gotten on our knees (at least metaphorically) and prayed over the past week for the safe return of two 14 year old boys that are complete strangers?

boys

Me too.  And I prayed for so many reasons.  I’m a father and I know the pain of losing a young son, and another child lost at sea for a week.  I know the agony of a family pulled apart, and a heart broken, and hemorrhaging still.  And I’ve seen so many lose their faith.  I’ve shared stories and tears with other parents, some of whom completely lost their faith after their own darkest day:  “How could a loving God allow …”

I’ve seen the faith of a child lost as the cancer took her aunt despite her pleas to her friend, Jesus.

Millions have reached up and asked for a favor.  Bring these two kids home to their families.

I informed God that this was the time for a contemporary miracle.  Show us a little sign.  How  ’bout a little trick? Jump through my hoop.  “Think of the increase in faith!  Think of those who will come home to you!  It will be all for your greater glory, Jesus!”

miracle

And, because I’m human, and it would all seem pretty logical, I still think all that is true.  But then reality crashes down.  You see, miracles DO happen every day.  But most go unnoticed, or written off as co-incidence, or nature, or lucky enough to have … “a good doctor, or whatever.”  Seldom does anything work for “God’s greater glory,” or increase anyone’s faith.

No, in fact, “faith” is an odd thing.  It has nothing to do with prosperity, or intellect, or merit, or even desire.  Lots of people smarter than me are atheists.  And lots of people smarter than me have strong faith.  (Although I have noticed the majority of physicians and other health professionals have unshakable faiths, probably they see the complexity of life, down at the cellular level, and realize the notion of a random construction of life is absurd.)

Prayer does unite us.  We realize that, although we’re walking this Camino by ourselves, we get much strength and consolation from our brothers and sisters.

Humbling ourselves in genuine prayer also reminds us how powerless we are to control our destiny, and that of our children.

Christians know that Jesus never promised us that we wouldn’t suffer, only that he’d be with us, and from my own experience, even carry us while we do.

Popular singer Matt Maher frames it beautifully, when he writes,

“Lost, everything is lost, and everything I’ve loved before is gone… Where were you when all that I hoped for,  Where were you when all that I’ve dreamed, came crashing down in shambles around me?  …  You were on the cross…”

Not as an excuse as to why He couldn’t help us, but as an image we can contemplate on:

He was in fact, fully human, and knows the fear and agony we feel.

And so we continue to pray for miracles.  And for comfort and consolation of a loving relationship, where we can enjoy life together, sharing our deepest joys and fears, and, sometimes, sit together in grief and loss.

Much of our journey here is a mystery.  Most of it.  But just because we’re not able to understand something fully is no reason to deny the only explanation for the journey in the first place.

We do continue to pray for the impossible.  Every father I know would cry in thanksgiving upon the return of these two boys lost at sea.  And we continue to pray for the consolation of such a faith that allows their families to continue to breathe and get out of bed each morning.  Because that’s going to be difficult for them  Trust me on this.

looking forward

This is the very essence of our Judeo-Christian mindset.  Compassion and encouragement.  As “Church,” we love and support complete strangers.  Because they’re not strangers.  Even on the other side of the world, we are connected, so we send our support and offer our prayers.  No, they’re not strangers at all, and we are our brother’s keeper.  We are often the only Jesus someone will ever meet.

We can’t explain these things to someone who doesn’t get it, but our lack of an explanation doesn’t make that connection any less real.

Much love.

kneeling_head_down

Shouting at an Empty Chair, Father’s day 2015

Tyrone presented the family’s new puppy in for his first exam yesterday, and brought along his son, “To meet me.”  I was taken back by this comment, and quickly replied that I was so glad that he had, and then I said something about how I was sure he was glad school was out for the summer.  I asked if they had plans for the summer, and Andrew, reaching his hand out for me to shake it, said, “Yes sir, I’m working as a camp counselor at Wadeview Park.”

“Really?” I said, “That’s fantastic.  What a great summer job!  What kind of a counselor? Will you be teaching, like arts and crafts, or more like a coach, supervising athletics?”

Andrew, who looked to be about 15, respectfully looked me directly in the eye, and said he’d be willing to do whatever they needed, working with the underprivileged kids there. I looked over at his dad, and I said, “Good job, what a great person you’ve raised.”

Tyrone agreed, “He is a really good kid,” but shook his head, claiming none of the credit.  But I knew better.  If nothing else, he had been present for the boy, and done his best to be a really good man.

What makes some fathers step up and be “Dad,” and others walk away or stay around, but not really be “present,” is such an important question.  What, in fact, is a “good father?”

bodrahn

Do you have to be perfect, never letting your shield down to reveal your human-ness?  Should you lay down the law, and be the disciplinarian (because you used to be so wild and get into so much trouble).  Or should you strive to be their best friend, letting them drink beer and smoke weed, high five-ing over last night’s “conquest,” and providing the latest and greatest toys?

I’ve seen both extremes.  I’ve been both extremes.  OK, not really so much the last one, although at some level, I really wish I could have been “closer” as a friend to all five of my kids.  But we don’t get any do-overs.  A priest at Whitehouse retreat in St. Louis once told me:

We are (and more specifically, that I am) much too hard on ourselves.  “The world only has one Messiah, and you (thankfully and most assuredly) are not Him.  You are not perfect.  You are the way God made you – imperfect, but with the heartfelt longing to be as good as you can.  And that’s good. But you can’t go back and do things differently, with all your new-found wisdom.  Didn’t you always act out of love?  Didn’t you always do what you thought was the best at that time?”

“Yeah, but…”

Yeah but nothing.  By continuing to add that qualifier, Yeah, but…, you deny that Jesus is the Messiah, the Redeemer, the one who makes all things new again.  We must strive to accept Him as our redeemer, and allow ourselves to be human.  You are how you are, and its so much better to accept that.  We are called to always strive to be better, even perfect, and we must try, day after day.  But we’ll never be perfect.  Not on this Earth.

You are made of blood and bones, breath and vapor.  You are the product of the genetics He orchestrated, and that imperfect nurturing from your parents, or lack of them.  Let Jesus carry the cross, you have plenty of other things to do.  As the song goes, “He is God, and you are not.”

A lifetime ago, I was doing everything I could possibly do to save my first marriage.  So in our first session with the marriage counselor, I proudly puffed out my chest and said I’d do anything to save the marriage, that divorce absolutely, positively was not an option.  Less than two months later, he was just as positive that it was the only option.  But we should continue on, to counsel with him, so we could be “better,” and so that we’d not keep “making the same mistakes” (presumably in our next attempts at a relationship).

And so, right out of his Gestalt theory textbook, the family therapist (sic) had me pacing around the psychologist’s office, shouting at my father, “seated” in the empty chair “What I really felt! What I needed so badly to tell him!”  When I couldn’t come up with enough garbage to dump on him, I was goaded and prodded, “Tell him about all those little league games, band concerts, award presentations, and wrestling matches! Tell him he should have been there!”  I continued to pace in silence.  “But shouldn’t I be shouting at his father?”

He looked at me like a deer in the headlights, “You’re enabling him, you’re giving him excuses, he wasn’t present!”

“Can’t I just forgive him?”

Fritz and Laura Perls' Gestalt Theory

Fritz and Laura Perls’ Gestalt Theory

“This will help you do that, you’ve got to put the blame on him!”

“But it’s not his fault.  I think he did the best he could do.”

I don’t think I went back to Dr. Tony after that session.

And so this father’s day I had much to reflect on.  And even more to let go of.  If I can let the old man off the hook, shouldn’t I do the same for myself?  It was a chair I’d sit in too soon myself.

Cullen's Empty Chair

Florida State University graduation, 2012

There are consequences to sins, and since we are social creatures, such consequences often impact others, including within the family and subsequent generations.  I think this is called Generational Sin.  The concept, I’d suppose originated with the “original Adam,” whose act of rebellion and disobedience resulted in our sinful nature, not coincidentally coined “original sin.”

Regardless of whether or not you buy into the whole Christian creation story, it’s a striking allegory.  Clearly, something happened along the lines of (I’d maintain, “designed”) human evolution and development where we as a species developed a sinful nature.  As a reasonably intelligent science based professional, I know of no other “creation” with the the willingness, or even the ability to choose to do evil.  And somewhere, somehow, we made the first act of defiance; Our greatest gift became our greatest curse.  Free will spawned original sin.

But God does not hold children, or present generations, morally responsible for the sins of their parents and ancestors. This is clearly laid out in Holy Scripture when the Israelites were blaming their troubles on the sins of their forefathers (see Jer 23:5-6, and Ez, 18:1-4).

Indeed, we need to look into our own hearts and repent so that we can find (and give) our own forgiveness and healing. God is surely not so unjust as to force children to “pay” in justice for the sins of others.

On the other hand, it is also true to say that the sins of our ancestors — right back to those “first parents,” do affect our lives today and leave us inheriting some pretty heavy baggage to carry around. With each passing day and event, I’m more convinced that we are connected by that “red thread,” or what ever you would call Providence, so that we can and do suffer both spiritually and bodily from the sins of others. We may think this unfair, but remember that the interdependence of the human race is also the source of most of our highest blessings, for example, the solidarity and intimacy of family life and the communion of love with all of us as brothers and sisters.

To make such supreme blessings possible to creatures with free will like us, our creator also had to permit us to misuse that freedom and interdependence, with all its tragic results.

This “interdependence” of the human race also means that the sins of ancestors and parents can affect us in other, more subtle ways. For example, some destructive conditions (such as alcoholism, depression, and hair-trigger tempers) can be passed down to us by genetic inheritance.

Moreover, the problems of our immediate parents and grandparents can be passed down to us in other ways, too.  If they set a bad moral examples for us as, sadly, people tend to do from generation to generation, or if they abused us or failed to give us the love we needed when we are growing up. In such instances, we can become “saddled” with emotional and developmental scars.

For instance, if we weren’t given the love we needed as children, we may spend our lives struggling to learn how to love others and ourselves. This does not make them fully “responsible” for our sins and all our problems today, of course, and we have the responsibility to take action to find healing for these generational wounds ourselves.

Furthermore, in a concept known as transference, we tend to see God the father much as we have had that model of fatherhood displayed by our own father.  If our’s was not forgiving, compassionate, and capable of unconditional love, it is extremely difficult to understand that our heavenly Father could behave in ways like this.  And how could we believe selflessness and unconditional love even exist, if we reject that Jesus came to show us that very thing?  St. Paul says Jesus brought this undeserved grace to the world as the “second Adam.” (Romans 5:12-21).

We did nothing prior to our conception to warrant or deserve original sin.  Likewise, Christians believe we do nothing to “deserve” this Grace that Jesus brings.  But we must accept it, we must open the door He’s been pounding on.  We must forgive, and accept His forgiveness, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Jesus the Christ came and suffered to show us how to love, what unconditional, undeserved love is.  When people fail to fully receive that gift from Him, through repentance and faith — i.e., if their contrition for sin and love for God was “half-hearted” in this life — then they remain in partial debt to God (still owing for, in theological jargon, “the temporal aspect of sin”).

Jersus at door 3

In His parable of the prodigal son, Jesus used the image of a family to teach us God’s love.  The “younger son” could not wait – and in demanding his inheritance, he effectively wished for a dead father, or at a minimum, felt that he was “dead to him.”  The only way for the father to allow his son to really learn to love was to allow him that free choice.  We all know how it ends, with the father’s unconditional love allowing the prodigal to return, but we often miss two points.

Is the father angry only grudgingly allowing this man to return?  No! In fact, from what Jesus describes, this father daily peers into the horizon, hoping to get a glimpse of his returning son! After all, he still loves his son!  In tears, he runs to welcome him home!

Although we play both of these character roles during our respective lives, it’s a harder concept for us to accept that more often than not we’re the other son, the good child.  Too many times, I shout up at Him, “You’re not being fair! I do what you ask of me.  I go to church.  I believe in you. I play by the rules!  And yet you allow this to happen to me? Yet I look around at other “prodigals” (from outward appearances) who have so much success and happiness.  Ouch.  The mirror is seldom a pain-free zone.

I was blessed to have a wonderful father. He was not perfect. He had his many faults. He didn’t lose his temper often, but when he did, I was sad and sometimes afraid and, now looking back, very disappointed, because I wanted our home to be “perfect.” Of course, it couldn’t be. But I knew absolutely, without a doubt, that my father loved me, and that he loved my children, and we were all blessed that he could show my oldest three just how much he loved them.

Jean M. Klein and my three oldest children

Jean M. Klein and my three oldest children

What is your story? Many of you have the vocation of fatherhood. Do unresolved issues with your own father or mother hinder your acceptance of God’s unconditional love? Do they cause you to have a negative relationship with your children? Do not let these keep you from experiencing the Father’s ever-faithful love.

Perhaps some among us desire to reconcile with our earthly father. We will need God’s grace either to ask our father to forgive us or to tell him that he is forgiven. If our fathers are already deceased, we can still do this, with or without the empty chair.

The prodigal son believes that his father will take him back, even if just as a lowly hired hand. Jesus paints a brighter picture: The father loves so much that he puts a ring on the son’s finger and kills the fatted calf.

We must believe that Our Father in heaven will do the same for us if only we go back to Our Loving Father. Pope Francis keeps reminding us: “God never tires of forgiving; we are the ones who tire of seeking His mercy” (cf. “Joy of the Gospel,” No.3).

The elder brother stands in the shadows with resentment and judgment, perpetuating his own cycle. But Michelangelo paints it so very clearly: We see how the cycle is broken: The prodigal son is on his knees, asking for forgiveness. We break the cycle on our knees.

Return of the Prodigal Son by Michaelangelo

Return of the Prodigal Son by Michelangelo

After all, we cannot help our sons become the men they need to be until we allow ourselves to return to the Father. We cannot help our daughters become the women they need to be until we enter into the kind of relationship which Jesus invites us to experience. Husbands here today cannot be the husbands they need to be if they are not coming before the Father like the prodigal son.

kneeling_head_down

Missing Our Parents, Helping the Hurting

Fifty years prior, his WWII daily K-Rations had included just enough unfiltered Camel cigarettes to start a life-ending habit that would eventually rob us of our newly sober father.

None of his children were with my father when he died.  Earlier that same day, Mom had assured me that, although he was in an oxygen tent and probably wouldn’t come home from the hospital, death wasn’t imminent.  .  I should start looking at plane tickets and adjust my schedule accordingly for probably the next week.

I was in surgery just a few hours later when the call came; my back slid along the wall and I wilted to the floor as the news was relayed to me.

I vowed to drop what I was doing if I ever received such foreboding news about Mom.  And I was with her, but only because I took seriously the news that she had stomach pains and was in the hospital for observation.

I tried not to let her see my gasp of horror when I entered the room and saw her in that hospital bed.  Who was this old person, with her hair flattened and unkempt, looking so feeble and weak?  This face glowed and smiled as she looked up to see who was clenching her hand and leaning down to kiss her.

Only then did it really hit me, and I was absolutely terrified.  My beautiful mother was, for the first time, very mortal.  Until that moment, when I thought of her, she was 48.  I have no idea why that age, but I remember her being that age, and regardless of how many decades passed; that was the image I conjured up in my mind when I thought of her, spoke with her on the phone, or saw her handwriting.

Maureen Blanton Klein

At about age 48, this is the way Mom will forever live in my memory. Maureen Blanton Klein

That day is mainly a blur.  A surreal experience where nothing made sense.  A Chagall or Dali painting where something, or everything, was out of place.  I had spoken to my mother the day before.  She was 83, but the picture of health: vivacious, bubbly, energetic, the quintessential do-gooder volunteer.

She was supposed to live for another 20 years; in fact had I built an extra ground-floor bedroom with a walk-in shower for her to finally retire to, when she decided to join us in Florida!

Mom had hosted a dinner party that night in her home, cooking and serving to 10 of her close friends.  When everyone was leaving, she remarked that she had a bit of a stomach ache and so didn’t want anyone to stay to help clean up, she’d just do it in the morning, because she felt like she wanted to go to bed.  She had not been sick a day before this.

Who was this person in this hospital bed, writhing in abdominal pain?  As the sole medical professional in the family, I would take upon myself responsibility for her proper treatment, “Where is her medical record? What have you found, and what tests have you performed?”  The staff smiled at me sympathetically, and condescendingly assured me that everything possible was being done.  I would certainly be allowed to look at the medical chart, if the doctor approved it.

The problem was that there was no doctor.  Her primary care physician sent her here in the middle of the night.  The admitting doctor then turned over her care to the “hospitalist,” what-ever the hell kind of doctor that is.  I certainly wasn’t impressed with him, or the system at St Francis Medical Center in Cape Girardeau, where Mom had been taken.  I’d now been there for over 6 hours and no doctor had even walked in the room to examine her.  I was “assured” that he had been by once and “saw” her, and was well aware of what was going on, because he had been on the phone with the nursing staff several times over the course of the day.  Finally, after my constant harassment, the nurse winked and told me he had consented to my looking at the chart, and that she’d be glad to “explain things to me.”

As we walked to the head nurse’s station she asked me a question that will forever haunt me, “You must take comfort that your mother is at least resting comfortably now, has this been an extended illness?”  When I told her, “NO! She hosted a dinner party just 9 hours ago, and hasn’t been sick at all,” she turned quickly towards me, and almost shouted, “REALLY?”

The medical record was astonishing.  The complete and total lack of any semblance of a medical workup was puzzling.  I remarked outloud, “She presented for stomach cramps and nausea, where are the blood profile results?  Why have a CT, or even a simple radiograph (X-Ray) not been taken?  The incredulous look from the nurse also haunts me. “Because, Mr. Klein,” the nurse now speaking matter-of-factly, she has a DNR request on her chart and on her wrist band.”

“Nurse, actually, I’m Doctor Klein, and I demand that you call the physician immediately.  DNR means (or so I naively thought) ‘Do Not Resuscitate,’ NOTDO NOT TRY!

“How can you possibly make a decision regarding whether or not to treat something, if you don’t even make a minimal attempt to diagnose?” I pleaded on the phone with “the hospitalist” (again, whatever the hell that is).  His condescending words also continue to haunt me, “Well what would you like me to do, doctor?”

I’ll leave this alone for now.  DNR is a blog posting all by itself.

Although Mom didn’t hang on for all of her children to kiss her goodbye, she did get to hear their voices on the phone.  She was fading in and out of our presence, and so we called two others, who were rushing to be with her.  Tears dripped from our eyes and off of our cheeks as this seemingly unconscious vessel opened her eyes and smiled when she heard their voices.  Her limp hand clenched mine firmly as my siblings told her how much they love her, and – goodbye.

I never got the time to grieve into closure.  I had lots of “moments,” holding my wife and children, as we wept together.  But mainly there was rage at this poor excuse for a hospital, and my own guilt.  Lots of guilt (probably more of that Catholic thing that seems to be a theme in my life), because I was the only one there with the medical knowledge to understand what was happening, and what was not happening.  And yet I did not stomp my feet, make a scene, and scream at the top of my lungs until a real doctor showed up.  (Clearly I realize a hospitalist is a licensed physician, my point being the system in this hospital, perhaps the entire state, is dysfunctional and absurd).

And then the unthinkable happened.  Much like a woman who later gets cancer in a second breast, a man who survives chemo only to die in an accident, or an amputee to later discover metastases.

The Christian band Casting Crowns seemed to feel our pain in Praise You in this Storm,

I was sure by now
God, You would have reached down
And wiped our tears away
Stepped in and saved the day
But once again, I say “Amen”, and it’s still raining

and Natalie Grant also knows a continued hurt with Our Hope Endures

You would think only so much can go wrong
Calamity only strikes once
And you assume this one has suffered her share
Life will be kinder from here
Oh, but sometimes the sun stays hidden for years
Sometimes the sky rains night after night
When will it clear?

Just a few months later, in the middle of the night, we received the second call. Our beautiful, wonderful Cullen had been in an accident.

Clearly, there are some things we just aren’t supposed to understand.  I don’t understand.

As unfair as it seems at the time, life does go on, and others are allowed to continue on “as if nothing happened.”  We live our own lives, we walk our own Camino, even when we travel with others.

Maureen Blanton Klein with William Cullen Klein

Mom and Cullen

Maureen Blanton Klein with William Cullen Klein

Mom with Cullen

William Cullen Klein and Sharon Tidd Klein

Cullen and Sharon

Maureen Blanton Klein with William Lewis Klein

Our beautiful mother in 2007, on my wedding day

I wrote this post last year, but could never bring myself to hit the “publish” button.  It just didn’t feel right yet.  Things were too raw.  Those of you who have lost parents, siblings, or the unthinkable loss of a child know all too well these emotions.

Recently, I participated in training seminars focusing on end of life, grief and bereavement, and some concepts regarding how best to support those “left behind.”  The only thing that seems to consistently help is our “being present” when others are suffering from loss.  There are no correct words that always apply; in fact most of the cliche’s that are said are absurd and (however well-meaning) actually deepen the hurt.  But at least these people tried.  So many people pull back from those they care about, because they don’t have something profound or healing to say.  And so they say nothing.  They disappear.  They do nothing.  And that is the most hurtful of all.

Some of who I considered my closest friends haven’t spoken to me since my son’s accident.  And yet two acquaintances, whom I hadn’t spoken to in decades, reached out to me after Cullen’s accident, because they too had lost a child.  Their kindness will never be forgotten.

Being present means you know they are hurting.  Since they are loved and special to us, we hurt with them.  Just sitting together, hugging, and crying.  You are let in not because of who you are, but because who you are is formed by your history with the hurting, and your personal knowledge of loss.  Empathy.  It’s not something you read about, or something you do.  It’s who you are.

Its the age old question.  Its that which shakes our faith to its very core.  Why must we hurt?  Why does tragedy happen to good people?  Hurt is the price we pay for our love.  We truly wouldn’t know light without darkness for comparison.  Warmth without the chill of loneliness.  Compassion without our own hurt.

Rather, embrace your pain.  For this pain exists precisely because you feel.  You have not loved and lost, you have gained so much because you have loved, and have been loved.  To feel is a chance to live, and a chance to love.

Reach out to those whom you love, especially when they are hurting. And not just when they’re hurting, and not just to those you love.

“You don’t choose a life, you live one.”

Camino to Morocco, Chapter 27

May 17th, My Darkest Day

Last night I lay in bed, unable to sleep, blaming the heat and loud Arabic chatting from the adjacent room. But the real reason was clear. My plan to go to Chefchaouen tomorrow was absurd, and only an excuse. So many people had told me how beautiful and quaint this little village was, almost like in Switzerland, and I just “had to go there.”  But this wasn’t why I was here. I wasn’t a tourist, on holiday. I was, like Dr. Tom in “The Way,” here, on “family business.” I hope to someday return for those reasons, but it will be with my wife, and certainly not on May 17th.

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What I needed to do was to back to ALIF (the Arabic Language Institute in Fes) again to talk to Cullen’s Professor. We had met, earlier in the week, but not really talked.

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I needed to sit in Cullen’s chair in room 100 again and see “his” classroom.

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I needed to sit in the courtyard and drink coffee and eat almond cake. I needed to wander around the university library and gaze in amazement.

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I needed to eat a camel-burger and drink a chocolate shake at the Clock Cafe. I needed to drink mint tea at the corner table in the cafe with pool tables. I came here to see the world through Cullen’s eyes. One last time, for him, with him.

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But I didn’t want to. It would mean saying goodbye, it would mean that I was checking these things off, and throwing my clump of dirt onto the casket. I didn’t want to, but I needed to.

I jumped out of bed, and swung open the door to again tell Allal that there had again been a change in itinerary. We are NOT going to Chefchaouen tomorrow.

And so we did all those things, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute.

On the last stop of the day, Allal had run across the street to digitally capture the moment. I sat at the cafe sipping mint tea, and he shouted to make the peace sign, because he knew our Cullen always did this in pictures.
And now, the end of the day, for some reason, and it was always unpredictable, I melted.

Allal pleaded with me not to cry. Today was the first time this year’s journey had immersed me here. I’d been in Morocco over a week, but this was the first time I would visit that place inside where I had such little control. After almost three years, I was, for the most part, in a really good place. But sometimes, and it was hard to predict the catalyst, the emotions would let loose. I had spent the day vicariously as my son, seeing these things with the same blue eyes we had gotten from my father. We tasted the same mint in every cup of tea, and overwhelming cumin and other spices in the food that was so different from what we had both eaten at the same table. We were drenched with same sweat, and burned with the same sand. We were feeling the same cultural amazement, and now had heard the same professor in the same room.

“Please, Mr. William, please don’t be so sad. Please don’t be always crying and sad!” This actually caught me a little off guard, because I wasn’t “always” crying, and certainly didn’t think I had been acting sadly. These moments were now few and far between. And even now, I wasn’t blubbering and wailing like I used to do. It was just a few tears running down my cheek, and probably wouldn’t even have been noticed under my sunglasses if I hadn’t started wiping them away.

“Cullen is with Allah, and it’s a beautiful thing, a wonderful place!” I’d had quite a few conversations about religion in the El Harrami household, and it was touching that he now felt comfortable saying such things in an attempt to console me.  “He is at salam, (peace).”

One of those conversations with Allal included his sister-in-law Nisrine, who knew well the observance of Islamic law. And not just the ritual observance, this family seemed to have dug pretty deeply, and knew in their heart that their’s was the true religion. So, I’m not so sure they were thrilled with the place I was willing to exit our hour’s-long conversation. If I was such a truth seeker, why would I be content with my “false religion?”

I suppose “turnabout is fair play.” Being reasonably well versed in Catholic apologetics, I was used to responding to concerns from Protestants dispelling misconceptions about the RC tradition. At the end of the day, we Christians really do agree on much more than we disagree on, and certainly the most important tenants.

In fact, my then evangelical wife Sharon and I had had this very conversation on our first date. She was incredulous that I thought my faith tradition was right and others’ were wrong. Not that it’s a perfect church, precisely because I (and other humans like me) are part of it; rather I hold that She’s been guided by the Holy Spirit through apostolic succession for 2000 years. If I didn’t believe my faith was the “true” one, I’d most certainly be somewhere else.

Anyway, so here I am, a guest in a home who thinks any reasonable person who takes the time to learn about the prophet and his writings, couldn’t possibly come to any other conclusion. In their minds, they were as “right” as I am. The fact that I have all sorts of rebuttals for Christianity, and “gotcha” questions for my Muslim family was irrelevant. Perhaps we were both, in our hearts, as good, as faithful, and as loving, as we were called to be. Perhaps our very same God had revealed Himself differently to different cultures, in a way most appropriate to them, and their customs, and traditions.

I sat silently there with Allal for a few moments, for a few reasons.

I did need to recompose, but I also rather enjoyed hearing my new friend, who had never even met my son, be so confident that he was in paradise with Allah.  The phrase Muslims almost always use to greet includes, “Salam,” which means “Peace,” or “God’s Peace.”  This struck me a bit, since Cullen often lifted his hand with the peace sign in photos.

Allal looked directly into my eyes as I lifted my sunglasses to wipe them again, “I know this, my brother, because he is your son. He must be so much like you. You are so loving and such a good person, my brother.” This was a bit much for me also, so I lowered my glasses again, took a final sip of mint tea, and said, “OK, let’s go.”

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And so I had done what I had intended to do. Cullen had had quite a “reversion,” a return to his baptized faith tradition when he had been here in Morocco. He had returned with a faith I was am in awe of.

And now I felt it too. He’d told me that every movement of every day he had felt proselytized, even assaulted in faith by so many here. I certainly hadn’t felt that way, but it was easy to see how a 18 year old could feel this way. And you had to be awe-struck, and even admire, their faith. Five times each day we would hear the Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. For some reason (I’ll address later), I wasn’t allowed to (visibly) be present to view worship in a mosque, but I found this most interesting, even compelling.

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It’s been called the most beautiful sound in the world, when the muezzin calls to prayer. I would differ in my preference, but I kind of get it. To be so focused on God, and doing what you feel is your reason for being here is a beautiful thing. it’s not all about me, it’s about why I’m here.

I saw so many things during “this year’s Camino.” This has been a culture shock x 10. On any of several occasions I saw things that would have made my son return from this place so changed, so deep, so much better than me.

I am thankful for so many things, and so many people – and you all know who you are. This has been quite a ride, and I am definitely better for it. Much love.

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I realize this is kind of a sad post, and i apologize for that. Lots of good, happy, and funny posts still to come. May 17 will likely always be like this. Sorry.

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“As-salamu alaykum”

Pounding the Door in Morocco, My Continuing Camino

As the dreaded 17th of May, our darkest day, draws near, I’ve been asked multiple times where this year will take me. My friends and clients just seem to know that the middle of May will find me on a sabbatical, of sorts.  In 2013 I hiked west from St. John Pied de Port, France to Santiago, Spain, the infamous Camino de Santiago.  This pilgrimage was depicted in the Martin Sheen movie called The Way, which my son Cullen and I watched the day before he would leave us forever.

2014 again found me at St. John Pied de Port, but last year I walked east to Lourdes.  This famous shrine, where the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette proved most fitting.  Who could know my grief more than the mother of Jesus after having lost her own son?

These are pretty clearly aligned with my journey and my faith, but why on Earth would I travel to one of the least Christian countries on the planet?  How could this piece possibly fit into the puzzle called my life?  Why would Fez be relevant to Cullen, my family, or my faith, on this journey that I often refer to as my “Camino?”

The year before he went to China, Cullen participated in another international study semester in order to garner the credit hours necessary for a “minor” degree in Arabic.  This would accompany his minor in French, and dual majors, in Spanish and Chinese.  Bear in mind, this was at age 19. William Cullen Klein would graduate from Florida State University in two years with four degrees, after finishing high school in two years, concurrently completing his AA through dual enrollment.

Although FSU did not have an official class placed in Morocco that Summer semester, Cullen fearlessly agreed to go it alone.  He was driven to get the credit hours only this trip would provide, so he would graduate with his four degrees, on the rushed schedule he had so carefully crafted.  But why was he in such a hurry? It was as if he knew his own timeline.

Cullen Climbing Stairs     Cullen leaving

Sorry, but when I start talking about my son, I just seem to go on and on and on.  And so, since I never tire of doing that, let’s do it some more.  This is an excerpt from my CRHP weekend retreat witness:

I loved my daughters more than life itself, but a man wants a son… On my own 34th birthday, William Cullen Klein was born.

(originally about 30 more minutes of my bragging about him here, and then:)

Adolescence was upon us and so was fear, confusion, and anger. This, of course, was manifest as rebellion. Good times and kind words were a distant memory.  The ball games, camp-outs, and fishing trips, dozens of concerts together, tossing the ball in the back yard, and even getting our Tae Kwan Do black-belts together – these were all a lifetime ago.  He hated me, my values, my Church, my house.

His unfortunate every other weekend with us served up dinners together with my new wife and two additional siblings, a midnight curfew, breath check, and of course, mandatory Sunday church. 

I realized that much of his behavior and emotions were from confusion and anxiety over those issues I’ve written about previously.

For years, I would kneel and beg God to remove his heavy burden. I prayed constantly, and made all sorts of offers, if Jesus would just show some of that compassion that I had heard so much about and make my son “normal.”

But I tried so hard for him to realize I didn’t reject him. I loved him so very much and I wanted him to know that it was truly unconditional. And I was so scared for him. 

So, about the time Cullen turned 17, I stopped begging for God to make him “normal,” and being angry at Him for being so cruel.  I began to recognize that I have a big God. A huge God that I could never begin to comprehend. A magnificent, omnipotent God who had made no mistakes, and is in control.

And so I started to simply pray for Cullen. That Jesus would meet him where he was. He had made Cullen the way he was for a reason, and that he was an incredible person, so smart and so beautiful, inside and out. And so I prayed that the creator of the universe would reach out and embrace my son

He loves him. He understands him. Through Christ, He IS the personification of love. And so, I prayed simply that they find each other. That God’s will be done.

Cullen spent the summer after his sophomore year studying on an exchange program in Morocco. I warned him about “you know what” before he left, and in that culture, well… I emphasized how much I loved him and wanted him back alive. He rolled his eyes, but knew both of those things were true. I prayed for him daily at Mass.

I was shocked at how God answered my prayers as soon as I changed the context of my prayers. I was amazed at the son that returned from Morocco.  Had his orientation changed?  Of course not, but it no longer mattered.  They had met.

“Dad, I looked out from the airplane in Barcelona, and you’ll never believe how glad I was to see a cross at the top of a church. He said every person, every day tried to convince him that Islam was the only way to God.  And so he kneeled with them in prayer several times each day. (They just didn’t know he was praying silently those prayers that he once found boring and pointless.)

My new Cullen wanted to go to Mass with us; he even had us pick him when he spent weekends at his mother’s. He went to adoration of the Eucharist, and truly knelt in prayer for hours. Not only had “they met,” Cullen had has a relationship with the creator of the Universe that I will forever be in awe of.  We’d stay up late discussing God, and Scripture, and theology. I reminded him that the word disciple means “learner,” not blind follower. Dig deep and learn about the real, historic Jesus, his teachings and how and why He loves us.”

So now, my dear friends, you see why Morocco is calling to me.

Cullen had a persona that was magnetic, and so even though he had no Florida classmates on the Fez University campus, he was adopted by new friends from Chicago.  I had no knowledge of this until Katie approached me after Cullen’s accident.  She and Victoria, and so many other kind loving beautiful kids from DePaul University reached out to my son and made him part of their own group.

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Cullen at DePaul table

Cullen had told me that he made friends with some classmates, and how funny it was, because he enjoyed talking with that upper-midwest, Chicago, almost Sarah Palin accent.  When he talked that way he had us laughing so hard we cried at the dinner table.  We still do, and although we’re not laughing so hard, they’re still very fond memories.

Morocco is the most religious country in the world.  99% of the country claims to be Sunni Muslim, the small remainder are Sufi Muslim, with about 360,000 Catholics, 50,000 Protestants, and 8,000 Jews.  Morocco is, in fact, the most Western of the African Muslim nations, both geographically and politically.  Religious diversity is allowed and encouraged, although it is still a capital crime for a citizen to convert away from Islam.

Katie and Victoria have planned quite an itinerary for me.  They’ve prepared a few phrases to learn (which I have on flashcards in my pocket), a history of the culture and relevant current events, and contacted a host family for me to stay with.  They’ve even arranged a guide for me to translate and take me to the University in Fez and places where they went with Cullen.

Unfortunately he was so fluent in Arabic and French that he was the only student placed in a family that spoke no English, so I’ll not be staying with them.  However, stopping to break bread with that family will undoubtedly be one of the first stops my “guided tour.”

We don’t really appreciate what we have and hold dearest until we feel a life without.  And so perhaps that’s why my son rediscovered his Christian faith in one of the world’s least Christian places.  I have no doubt that’s a device our Lord used as he relentlessly knocked on the door of his heart.  I imagine the intensity turning to a fist pounding on that door when the muezzin chanted the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, five times each day, until he opened it.

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“Be like men who are waiting for their master when he returns from the wedding feast, so that they may immediately open the door to him when he comes and knocks. (Luke 12:36)

 

And this will be consolation I hold dearest, deep in my own heart.    I have so much to be thankful for.

I leave on May 5th, and return May 19th.

Please keep me in your prayers –

Much Love.

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Prayer, Parking, and Presumptions – (How are prayers answered, anyway?)

The father of the bride was becoming frantic.  He sped up and down the lanes of the church parking lot, but there were no parking spots.  The wedding would start in four minutes! Time for bargaining.  “I know I skip church on game days, or when the bass are biting, or when I just want to sleep late – never again! – I’ll go every Sunday! FIND ME A PLACE TO PARK!!! I’ll never look away when a beggar needs a few dollars.  I promise!  Ok, Ok, I’ll even go to my in-laws next weekend.  AAARRGGGHHH!!! JUST FIND ME A PLACE TO PARK!!!”  Two minutes to go, and the car ahead backs out, opening a place to park.  “Never-mind God, I found one!”

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Are prayers answered?  How?  What IS prayer, anyway?  What is it for you?

Is prayer simply asking God for favors?  Is it begging, pleading and deal-making from a “fox-hole?”  Or is it a two way conversation? Certainly, the mystics claimed to hear the voice of God.  Saints Francis of Assisi, John of the Cross, Ignatious, Therese, Bernadette, and many more, wrote volumes sharing what they heard God say.

When I was walking the Camino de Santiago as part of my grieving process, I wanted desperately to hear Charlton Heston or James Earl Jones booming from the clouds, but was met with silence. However, a few hundred miles into the journey, it became clear that our Lord speaks to us in many, many ways.  That clumsy first attempt at blogging described dozens of these “encounters,” apparently quite common on that pilgrimage.

But you certainly don’t have to travel to Spain to encounter God in a very real way.  Many/Most of you may grimace at the idea of God “talking to you.”  Even the “churched,” especially if their faith consists of “checking the box” every Sunday, or even twice a year, may cringe at the idea of someone who claims to hear the voice of God.  SNL skits come to mind ridiculing Jimmy Swaggart and Oral Roberts.  But without “hearing the voice,” can we really get answers?

Answered prayers are news-worthy, because they surprise us.  Headlines, movies, and books are often written to describe cured cancer, inexplicable near misses, and unlikely rescues. These re-invigorate the faithful.  Which is good.  Except…

Why would you pray, if you didn’t honestly feel He was listening, cared about you, and was anxious to have these “encounters?”  If we really believe our prayers could/will be answered, then why is it newsworthy when they are?

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Perhaps we simply don’t know how to listen.  Its almost as if we hold out for an answered prayer to be accompanied by a vision, a voice, an apparition.  But, really.  If Jesus of Nazareth is really and truly here with us as we walk each step, every day, perhaps we should express a bit of common sense.

Was the father of the bride (above) expecting an explosion and a new parking lot, with the glowing Christ to be directing him into a parking place?  Wouldn’t a much more logical explanation be that He “directed” the driver of the exiting car to have business finished so they could leave when they did, so you could pull in just in the nick of time for the nuptials?

Likewise, how would the creator of the universe, create the universe?  Wouldn’t you expect it would be so through a natural phenomenon?  How absurd would it be for a big bang to cause itself?

Thomas Aquinas called it the First Cause Argument.

If there is no first cause, then the universe is like a great chain with many links; each link is held up by the link above it, but the whole chain is held up by nothing.

If there is no independent being, then the whole chain of dependent beings is dependent on nothing and could not exist.

For the smart aleck out there who thinks Steven Hawking adequately addresses this, I’ve read Hawking’s refutation, and even though he’s probably lots smarter than me, he misses the entire point.  He dismisses (see also addendum A) a “caused big-bang,” because:

You can’t get to a time before the big bang, because there was no time before the big bang.  We have finally found something that does not have a cause because there was no time for a cause to exist in.

But therein lies the problem, Christians (as well as most other faithful types) believe God is omnipresent (has always existed), and, in fact, created time, when He created stuff, and non-stuff (space).

It’s the whole “time-space-continuum” thing that makes me as dizzy as that ridiculous quantum physics class (that greatly contributed to my insanity).  Einstein’s insistence to keep asking, “What if…” results in (see also addendum B) his Theory of Relativity, and at least a profound theist belief in a Gd who directed creation. (addendum C).

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Time and space are characteristics of our world, not God’s. He is not limited by hours, days and years as we are. In fact, the Bible tells us that “with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Peter 3:8).

And so, if God is “timeless” and not bound by the concept which in fact, we believe He created, it follows that He sees all past, present, and future on the same page – all at the same time.  Therefore, we believe that He knows each of us intimately at the very instant of conception, when we are instilled with what we call a “soul.”  He knows each of our decisions, beliefs, rejections, and our final destiny.  “Clearly this all becomes fuzzy,” especially when we consider Calvin’s treatment of Gods omniscient knowledge of our choices and therefore our destination.  And since God made us this way, including the part of our brain which makes decisions, Calvin had it all figured out with his five pillars – only a “few are chosen,” therefore, most of us are in a bit of trouble.  But it’s not our fault, and we (obviously) didn’t really have free choice.  (That’s Calvin’s bent, clearly not mine).

I realize my line of reason seldom takes a strait line trajectory…

If, in fact, God is timeless, and we truly believe God can affect and effect the course of outcomes (possibly by giving us additional opportunities to make new “free” choices which change the course HE sees otherwise happening), then it seems to me quite plausible to take this a step further.

Since He sees past, present and future all together, can not He favor our petitions, effecting a change, even if we pray for something after its course has already been determined?  Let’s think about this with a simple example…

Suppose you prayed for an exam scheduled for today to be easy.  You were at the hospital all night with a sick mother, and never even studied.  You knew the test was important, and offered up your petition at her bedside.  Our Lord considered your position and … obliged.  You were THRILLED to see such an easy test.  Every question had an easy answer – it seemed like common sense.  Not only are you thrilled, your confidence in God, prayer, and faith has been affirmed …  UNTIL … The teacher announces that she had had commitments yesterday, and so prepared the questions the previous week – long before any prayers had been offered up.  Your prayers couldn’t have been answered, due to the timing.  It was just an easy test.

Or perhaps you’re on a sailboat and encounter an unexpected storm.  Treacherous waves, unrelenting wind, sounds eerily similar to the hurricane you remember so well.  For hours, all you could do was lower the sail.  The craft was awash, waves cresting well above and over the deck.  Heading into the wind she finds herself “in irons,” and the captain can only lower the sails, and hope the tiny auxiliary motor can keep some semblance of control.  Soon the storm has passed, but out of fuel, you can only drift with the current, and after three days encounter the friendly shores of an unintended island.  Haha, you knew you could do it, and you never really felt in danger.  So exciting, so exhilirating.  The adventure of a lifetime.

However, unbeknownst to you, literally hundreds of thousands of family, friends, and strangers had offered up prayers for your safety.  The fact that the petitions were offered AFTER the storm was over made them, of course, “wasted effort.”  Or were they?  Could the Creator-of-the-Universe have, in the aforementioned time-space-continuum, have considered the petitions about to be offered up, and changed the course that miserable storm was to have on you even before the fact?  Could the winds have finally relented, as you reached a current that would drift you into safety?

How are prayers answered?  I think in many ways.  And I purport that our questions and needs are addressed in many different ways as well.  Perhaps its presumptuous of us to assume that we have the cognitive ability to know the ways of the same Creator-of-the-Universe.  We don’t really expect to hear a deep, resounding human voice from the clouds, do we?  We would be stunned if that actually happened, so clearly we anticipate other forms of response.

We believe that God is love.  Not simply that He loves.  Not simply that He, through His Son, showed us how to love. But rather, that God is love.  Emmanuel – God is with us in the love that we feel from others, and for others.  164,882 people praying for my daughter, expressing love for a complete stranger in need, is in fact, the pure manifestation of God’s love and evidence that in fact, He is with us.

Much Love.

Thank You.

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addendum A:  Hawking’s argument of gravity’s role in the bang assumes that gravity somehow existed before the Big Bang, yet Hawking then goes on to maintain that nothing, including God, existed before the Big Bang. Hmmm … Hawking’s logic is selective.

addendum B:  <Planck?> Non Euclidian Geometry evolves into the concept of the “tesseract,” and eventually his Theory of Relativity.

addendum C:  although he rejected the Hebrew (and Christian) notion of a Gd with whom one has a personal relationship, and involved in each of our own personal decisions and destinies.