Svedka and the Gifts Left Behind

“I never really liked little dogs, but now that my wife is gone, ‘Sandy’ is all I have left of her.  My God, she loved this dog.  I don’t think I could go on if anything happened to her,” the old man told me as he clutched the Pomeranian. Sandy was getting on in years and had severe periodontal disease and now an abscessed tooth from years of having refused routine prophylaxis. Seventeen years or not, the old dog was suffering and we really needed to so some dental work, the risks of anesthesia were now irrelevant. But Sandy was not just this man’s pet, she was how he was gasping to keep alive this only remaining part of his spouse.

A Jack Russell Terrier named “Buddy” squirmed and bounced on the exam table, a complete lunatic. These little dogs (what we like to call Jack Russell Terrorists) are out of control on a good day, and this one was truly a “special needs” case. This dog hadn’t heard the word “no” in months, and was coddled and talked to in ways that defied logic, unless you know the story. Buddy had been best friends with the 16-year-old daughter of this couple – one of the teens killed last year in a horrific auto accident that made state headlines.

Cullen and his best friend Tim ran up the stairs with all the excitement and giddiness that would accompany a new puppy.  They had slipped out of Tallahassee after classes, passed us in Melbourne and spent the morning sitting on the ground in South Florida, with a litter of Siberian Husky puppies running, licking, and jumping all over them.  He would leave in Miami half of what he had saved that semester, from tutoring classmates in Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese, and return with so much excitement he was ready to burst.  “Svedka” was an absolutely stunning pure white Husky with eerily transcendent crystal blue eyes that would pierce into me.  I’ve been a vet for almost 30 years and had never seen a white husky before (although now they seem to be everywhere), and I was taken back at this beautiful creature.  She immediately squatted to urinate when he put her down, no surprise to me after a 4 hour car-ride, but Cullen was surprised and embarrassed, as he was so proud and thought everything about her was “perfect.”

Having had no prior knowledge of his stealthy plan, I was astonished and confused.  I do remember the YouTube video of the Husky howling “I love you” that Cullen had thought was so cool, playing it over and over in amazement and asserting that he was going to get one and teach it to talk too!  But my prodigy would be graduating at age 19, and leaving on a Chinese Master’s degree fellowship in just a few months.  “Have you lost your mind?  Why would you get a puppy right before you leave for two years in China?!!  Are you crazy or just irresponsible?” (One more thing I said over the years that I wish I could take back)

He just looked at me and smiled, telling me to calm down, that he had all the details worked out.  Tim would take care of Svedka while he was gone!  That seemed pretty logical to a 19-year-old.

Cullen Sved Puppy Sved Puppy Crop

Amy Hollingsworth authored a book entitled, “Gifts of Passage,” where she describes “gifts our loved ones leave behind.”  She artfully weaves Where the Red Fern Grows, the “Myth of the Red Thread,” lots of C.S. Lewis, and experiences from hospice care nurses into this masterpiece that finds the reader constantly nodding their head in affirmation.  This had been one of a dozen or more books I had been given when I was in the depths of grief after my darkest day.  The baby boy that I had prayed for and been given on my (our) birthday, nineteen years ago, would leave for China, and be killed in the strangest of accidents.

One can not comprehend the anguish of losing a child, nor be of any consolation.  Witnessing the sobbing of several old men when they shared with me the loss of their own child makes it clear that the grief, like the love, endures decades, and forever.

I have, however, come a long way.  I can type these words without weeping, although a later re-reading, as I proofread, will tend to prove painful.  We’ve struggled with lots of things to make sense of, or at least accept our loss.  I went to one Compassionate Friends grief support group for parents.  It was so depressing with many parents still hysterical with that drunk driver, or that f’ing cancer, or simply at God, and ironic that now so many were now drunks and addicts themselves, climbing inside the bottle or vial of Zoloft to be numb.  But I did not want any of this stuff.  An open, bleeding wound where my heart used to be would probably remain forever, but surely there was some form of healing to be had.  And so we worked on it, and “working through” grief is truly work.

Sharing stories and feelings with the rest of the family, mentoring with friends and priests, lots of conversations with our Lord, and my infamous 500 mile Camino de Santiago have all helped immensely.  I have become an avid reader, having read more in the last year than my preceding 50 years combined.  My days always start with a page or two of scripture to think about during the day, and usually end with a few chapters of my “book of the week.”

I’ve now read this Hollingsworth book three times, and always tear and laugh at the same places.  There is a legend in Asian culture of “the read thread” that connects and pulls certain people destined to be together or to impact each other in some way, providing  love, a lesson, or support.  Wending its way, crossing time and culture, spanning age and death, this red thread connects me to those whose stories would matter to me, would teach me.  Each gift has unraveled like a mystery, so that I have learned not only about the gift, but about the process I am going through to discern my own.  With each of these stories, the red thread tightens, pulling me closer to the meaning of his “Gift of Passage.”

This may well be what we Christians call “God’s Providence.”  Our days, our very lives are directed by our free, often stupid, choices.  However, His hand presents us with continuous new choices and second chances to live righteously – despite, or perhaps especially because He knows well in advance the outcomes, and how our time here will end.  His loving hand guides us to opportunities and choices where we can overflow His love, or not.

Hollingsworth tells of these gifts left behind – the most obvious ones are the conscious, intentional gifts of those who know they are dying.  Sometimes in a will or a list of “worldly goods,” or may be simply a conversation or heartfelt confession.  They plan out thoughtful comfort, meant to convey a loving message, something they want to be remembered by.  But the surprising gifts are those where an acute or catastrophic accident occur, where no one has had warning.  Such times the gifts aren’t so obvious but they become evident as the journey continues.  The “seeds have been planted” to help us cope, or even understand.  Like The Red Fern, there’s no way to know where seeds are planted until the red fern begins to push its way out of the soil.

Cullen had left many such gifts: Stories from his friends of his acts of love and kindness, memories of the recent times spent with us, the loving compassionate things he had said to complete strangers, the fighting people he had brought together, the itinerary he had planned for us to visit him in China, and the most loving text message he had sent me that very morning.

Svedka was also my gift left behind.  I had been so adamant that his getting a dog was such a stupid, irresponsible decision.  So after moving him out of his apartment at FSU, we dropped Sved off with Tim’s grandmother, Joyce.  We already had three big dogs who had destroyed the yard and made the house impossible to keep clean.  Our house was too full of dogs already.

IMG_2816

Svedka on floorboard under sleeping Cullen, on the way home from FSU

IMG_1544sf

Cullen inscribed a classmate’s notebook, “Cullen was here.” They later added, “For a reason.”

But on May 18th 2012, our home suddenly was very empty.  Much like our hearts, this house was desolate and drained, devoid of happiness and life.  We tried desperately to force some normalcy to feign sanity, especially for Cullen’s siblings.  So we sat on the bleachers, watching Noah enter the dugout with his head down.  Without prompting, each of the South Beach Dodgers went up to my 11-year-old son and hugged him that day.  As he approached the plate for his first “at bat,” he crossed himself and pointed to the heavens.  It was more than I could handle; before I left, I leaned to Shar and said, “I want to get Sved.”  She smiled through her own tears, glad that I had suggested something so rational.

I don’t remember Kayla and I speaking as we left the game and made that long drive.  Nor do I remember Joyce and I speaking.  Not with words anyway.  We wept as we hugged in her driveway; Svedka had already jumped in and was on Kayla’s lap, kissing her.  Now she rides with my old boxer, Nieve and me every day to work, and never complains about the long commute.  Most of the drive she leans against the back of my seat, often leaning her head on my shoulder.

These gifts are not a “consolation prize” for my broken heart, but rather they set in motion an anguish through which the real gift is given.  Like Psyche‘s rage against Cupid in C.S. Lewis’ Until We Have Faces, my real gift is that I have learned how to love, really love the god who separated me from my son.  The real gift is the transformation of the beast into something beautiful, a true understanding of the love of God.

Much Love.

IMG_6493   svedCullen Sved Carsvedsmile1

Advertisements

Haiti, Part 1 – Spring Break

Really?  You think I should just take off and go to Haiti for a week?”  I asked, incredulous at my wife Sharon’s random idea.  But it wasn’t really so random.  I’d wanted to mission there for a decade.

“Baby, Cullen’s going to be in China this summer, and then stay another two years getting his masters’ degree.  This is his last spring-break, and I think you should take him to Haiti for the week.  You’ve talked about going for years, and this will be good for you.

Cullen and I had been having a much better relationship, and he seemed so much happier, content with who he was since returning from his summer in Morocco.  At the time I wasn’t sure whether he had really “found Jesus” (or more correctly, fatigued by the incessant pounding on the door, finally opened it and let Him in), whether he was just “playing the game” and saying what he knew I would have wanted, or maybe just wanting to spend some moments with me before he left the nest.  It didn’t really matter at the time, I would embrace any of those reasons.  I had begged and pleaded for him to spend more time with us, as most of the preceding three years had spent at his mom’s house.  My son felt that I couldn’t possible see him as any kind of a role model for the two new ones in our home.

On the contrary, I insisted, “Noah and Kayla look up to you, and love you so very much.”  Cullen smiled and shook his head, “You and Sharon do not want them looking up to me, those kids are perfect!”  “Of course we do,” I insisted! (I hope as earnestly as I think I remember); We all have ‘stuff,’ and despite it all, you are a really smart person, and even more importantly, a really good person.  You are an awesome big brother for them, and a good friend.”

Sharon considered Cullen every bit as much her child, as I did Noah and Kayla, although the words were still fresh from our recent “remarriage” version of Pre-Cana: “Regardless of how much you will love your spouse’s children, when arguments and difficult times arise, it will be different.  You didn’t know them when they were cute!”

For some reason they are deeply repressed in my distant memory, but there had been shouting matches and arguments.  Regular hormone changes and adolescent rebellion were laced with confused angst that would come out, easily explained, if not justified, a bit later.  I knew what would become the eventual explanation for much of that rejection of our traditional, newly functional home.  I knew it long before he did.

But for once, Cullen actually wanted to spend time with me, and us.  That’s the stuff I keep ready for reference in my memory, one of the “gifts left behind.”

Cullen had planned to go to Michigan to spend his Spring Break week with Tim and his friends, but without hesitation, chose to spend the week with me.  He only had one class conflict with a test, and when she said it would be unexcused, he said something about her being unfair to him because of his religion, whereupon she laughed and allowed him to take it early.

When Sharon discovered that we actually were going to do it, she said she’d understand if I wanted it just to be Cullen and me, but that including Noah on our “boy’s trip” would be a good experience for him  as well.  I was thrilled.  Less than two years prior, when we were writing our wills, she had insisted that Noah and Kay would be going to Susan and Donnie, and now she trusted me to take her only son to another country, a third world country.  Besides, this would give Noah a chance to get to know his big brother before he left.

Kirby met us with an ear to ear smile and genuine joy at Port-A-Prince Airport.  As a hardline evangelical Protestant, Kirby had discussed several issues with me the week he stayed with us, a year earlier.  He seemed a bit surprised that a Catholic such as myself was actually familiar with scripture, and could reasonably well defend my faith.  Mainly, I think he was just relieved that Rick’s wife was loved by someone who didn’t actually worship statues, and seemed to know and love his same Jesus.

But my concerns were with what Kirby’s fire and brimstone approach to “some issues” might do to Cullen’s newly reconciled faith.  I now found myself less upset with Cullen, and more concerned with defending and protecting him.  Having never met Cullen, I was a bit anxious to see how they would get along.  Frankly I was concerned that Cullen’s mannerisms and body language would “give him up” and there would be tension, or even bigotry during the week.

This worry quickly vanished.  When Kirby found us at the Port-a-Prince airport, he swept us all up like we were old friends, and embraced my Cullen like he was family.

Kirby Kepner was Sharon’s late first husband’s childhood best friend, and had served for years as a fulltime missionary, serving a tiny mountain village in northwest Haiti. It was late, so we spent the evening at an orphanage called New Life Children’s Home, there in Port-A-Prince.  I glowed with pride as Cullen astonished him, so successfully speaking with the (mostly disabled) Haitian children.  Cullen was flawlessly fluent in French (as well as Spanish and Chinese, and conversant in Korean, Italian, German, Portuguese & Russian), so within about 2 hours had become conversant in Haitian Creole as well.  He and Noah wandered through the mass of their new brothers, demonstrating how to throw the footballs we had brought them, kicking their soccer ball, and just sitting and talking with those who could speak and holding those who couldn’t.  The horribly disfigured, disabled children, thrown away from even the poorest culture in our western hemisphere were carried out to lay on blankets for a few hours, under the shade of the one tree in the playground, as their care facilities were cleaned and changed.    Tears come to my eyes as I remember Cullen cradling one of these children without hesitation, talking to them in Creole as if they could answer back, unfazed as the saliva dripped from the disfigured mouth onto my son, as his brother Noah held the child’s hand that squeezed back in a gesture of appreciation.

This is another one of many memories later recalled when I read “Gifts of Passage,” by Amy Hollingsworth.

At dinner, we were asked to join the schoolchildren for their Wednesday night prayer service.  I quickly accepted the offer before Kirby could gracefully decline, “Bill, I had wanted to pray together with you and your boys tonight.”  “We can, Kirby, after their service, and for the next five days!” I replied.  I was anxious to see worship in this culture.

Kirby and Cullen probably got the gist of the hour of Haitian preaching, but I was only drawn in by the music.  Initially, I was fascinated by the native music, children singing, and rhythmic drum beat, and felt bathed in the Holy Spirit, it just felt so raw and authentic.  And then, I was drawn in by something totally unexpected.  In a night so dark in a world far away, these kids started singing songs that we sang every week at Holy Name of Jesus Church in Indialantic, FL!  How did they learn English?  Our voices couldn’t match their volume and enthusiasm as they sang beautiful harmonic duets of Chris Tomlin’s “Our God is a Mighty God,” “Here I am to Worship,” by Hillsong, and “You are my All in All,” by Natalie Grant.  It’s hard to put into words the emotions I felt, sitting with my two sons doing my best to join these beautiful Haitian kids in prayerful song.  About a minute into it I just put my head into my hands and wept.

Soon the lights came on, and I looked over to comment on how awesome it was.  “Wasn’t that so cool that we could sing these songs with them?!!”  Cullen turned with swollen, puffy eyes and said he couldn’t sing very much of it because he too had cried the entire time.

The next day found us cramped in a 4WD truck for 9 hours travelling on what I would have never before considered roads.  First we had to navigate our way through the 3rd World traffic in Port-A-Prince, where traffic lanes and signals were pretty much just guidelines.  Everytime the traffic came to a standstill (repeatedly), we were confronted by throngs of locals begging or trying to sell something.  Believe it or not we bought several scoops of fresh conch salad from this large woman carrying around a big wooden bowl of fresh conch, spices, peppers, and whatever else goes into the stuff.  Kirby said it was probably ok, since they use vinegar dressing, and not mayo, so we gave it a try.  It was INCREDIBLE, and the cultural beginning to a day none of us would EVER forget.

The boulders in the road, the mud, the heat, mountain cliffs with no guard rail, the incredible “Travel Channel” scenery made for an exciting journey up to Kirby’s mission in “Petite (T) Paradise,” in NW Haiti.  Much of the way up we listened to music on my I-Phone, with Christian music including every Matt Maher song ever made.  Music was becoming one of those things that was touching our senses very deeply, and Maher’s song “Hold Us Together” seemed to play every time we restarted the 2000 song playlist on shuffle.  It became so predictable it was a little eerie.  This soon became our unofficial “theme song” for our trip, which felt pretty appropriate as we sang along our memorized lyrics.

“…and love will old us together

make us a shelter to weather the storm

and I’ll be my brother’s keeper,

so the whole world will know that we’re not alone…”

IMG_2307IMG_2308IMG_2165

Cullen Two Girls Crop IMG_2177 IMG_2426

Saints & Mass Intentions – Part 2. And Morocco

Always a little teary and short of breath when I hear my son’s name at church as a soul we’re praying for, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the next intention.

If you haven’t glanced at “Part 1,” please scroll down a bit first; its a really quick read.

The kneeling moments after communion often touch me deeply, for a number of reasons.  As a devout Roman Catholic, I totally accept that the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, quite literally.  Even non-Catholics have shared with me how moving the reverence in a Catholic Mass is for our Lord.  And if you truly believe in His presence here with us, how else would you behave?  This in itself puts me in a special place.

The second reason is that one of my last memories of Cullen, my eternally 19 year old son, was kneeling next to him at an adoration service where the Holy Eucharist was present on the altar for us to reverence, meditate, and in an Ignatian way, to contemplate on.  Sarah Kroger was the music minister, and I’ve always been so very moved with her worship music.  After kneeling in prayer and adoration of our Lord, for over an hour, I looked over at Cullen.  I truly expected him to be dis-engaged, even texting, or at least at this point, sitting.  An hour is a very long time to kneel.  I was taken back to see my beautiful boy, kneeling in deep prayer, tears running down his cheeks, and a smile on his lips.  I was then also brought to tears.  My son knew my God in a way that I am, to this day, still in awe of.  He was conversing with our Lord, and so many of my prayers had been answered.

When he was a little younger, around 15 years old, my son was pretty typical.  Rebellious and a bit of a smart aleck, Cullen preferred staying with his Mom, cause there were few rules there, particularly concerning curfew, weed, and sleepovers.  He resisted going to Mass, and often butted heads with me on a few issues, but in retrospect, probably rooted in frustrations he had not yet come to terms with.  He was much more like me than he could admit at the time, with a deep seated compass and a very conservative nature.

A self described “polyglot,” Cullen was fascinated with all things linguistic.  At 17, he was fluent in Spanish, French, and conversational in German, Korean, Chinese, and Arabic.  He was up at all hours of the night studying Rosetta Stone and reading, and Skyping with friends all over the world, practicing and attempting to speak without accent.  Extremely intelligent, he was awarded his AA degree (having dual-enrolled at the local community college, he had completed his first four college semesters), and graduated from his high school after summer school his Junior year.  So, nine days after his 17th birthday, Cullen started Florida State University as a Junior, with majors in Spanish and Chinese Mandarin.  Wow.

Cullen participated in an international studies program in Fez, Morocco the next Summer, where he would earn enough credit hours to qualify for Arabic as a Minor degree.  After that 6 week study program, he was to stay for two weeks in Barcelona, Spain with the sister of his mother’s best friend, who lived there.  He planned to drop by to see us for a short weekend, then return to FSU to start the Fall semester.

We texted with a phone App periodically, but I do vividly remember Skyping with him one evening with his Moroccan family walking back and forth in the background.  At some point the elderly grandmother started shouting at him, glanced at me on the computer screen, then shouted again.  He laughed and explained that it was time for the family to eat dinner, and she treated him like all the other kids in the family, scolding him for not being seated at the table and ready.

I also remember vividly having the very serious conversation about his “orientation” in a Muslim country.  I pleaded with him to take this stuff seriously when he was there, because I wanted his head to come back attached to his body.

It was also around this time when I dramatically changed my approach to praying for him.

I am a pretty religious guy; I seriously study scripture and Church teachings, and try to apply them to my life.  I constantly converse with God, all day, every day.  I ask for favors and intercessions, I give thanks, and I beg for guidance.  So you could say I “pray” all the time.  However, at times, I have a much deeper, contemplative prayer time, such as after Communion.

For the longest time – for years, I prayed for Jesus to have the compassion to change Cullen’s orientation.  I knew it was so difficult on him, and that no one would “choose” to be attracted to the same sex.  A lifetime of prejudice and hatred was certainly going to accompany him.  I was sick with anguish about the physical and mental health risks.  And certainly, as I’ve expressed previously, I was concerned as to how this would affect his salvation.

It was about this point in time, after so many years, that I found myself no longer praying for my son’s “healing.”  “Normal” seemed to take a back seat to “healthy.”  I prayed for extended periods of time that Jesus walk with my son and keep him safe; To guide him in his decisions; To know how very loved he was; To realize that God was knocking on the door and it was time to open it.

God had made my son the was he was for a reason.  I’ll never know why.  It still seems unfair, and even cruel – unless there are other components to our relationship with Him that we just don’t understand yet. And, of course there are.

So I prayed, longer, and deeper, and more often than ever before.  I pleaded for my son to develop a healthy, happy relationship with my Jesus, who I knew so very well.  The Jesus I know loves unconditionally, because He is love, personified.  I begged for an intercession, by whoever was listening up there, to God to rescue my boy, to bring him “home” and keep him steadfast and righteous.

I had completed my 2 hour commute home from work on Saturday afternoon, about 2 weeks before Cullen was due to return from Morocco.  For some reason we had decided to go to Mass on Saturday, as something was going on Sunday that would keep us from all being together.  My wife Sharon had said something that led me to believe that my oldest daughter Camille was back in town for the day and would be joining us at Church, which I always considered good.  Apparently everyone was “in on it,” except for me.  So I remember being in a really good mood, anxious to see Cam and glad that she wanted to join us for Mass.  I’m sure I bounced, in my happy, dorky way from the parking lot to where I saw them gathered in the foyer in front of Holy Name of Jesus Church.

I remember the odd look on everyone’s face when I looked around and asked where Camille was.  Pregnant pause.  Then their eyes left mine, and looked towards the fountain, and the statue of Jesus.  Seated there next to Jesus was Cullen, with an ear to ear smile!

I get a little choked up every time I think of this scene playing over and over again in my mind.  We ran to each other and embraced, both with tears down our cheeks.

Not that my shedding a tear is anything unusual.  Everyone that know me, knows that I cry at SPCA and Hallmark commercials.

“Cullen!”  I exclaimed, “Why did you come back so early?”  I knew he had so been looking forward to being in Barcelona, in real Spanish culture, living with Spanish friends.  “Dad,” he explained, “When I was landing in Spain, I looked out and saw a Cathedral.  I never thought I’d be so glad to see a cross on the top of a church!”

“Every moment of every day,” he said, “Someone was trying to convert me to Islam … from the guy selling newspapers, to the pretty girl on the bench, to the host family.”  The proselytizing had taken its toll, and he was ready to go “home.”

From that moment on, Cullen was so very different.  He actually seemed like he wanted to spend time with me, with us.  He looked forward to going to Church, and discussing religion and spirituality with me.  At first I skeptical, it was just such a turn-around.  But it became more and more credible every day.  On Sundays, Cullen would call me from school, as he walked 45 minutes home from Church to his apartment, to discuss the homily.  How many college kids walk 45 minutes each way to attend church?

So, I digress.  But it does serve as background.  Anyway, it was August 27th of this year.  I was born on August 27, and so was Cullen.  That’s right, Cullen was my 32nd birthday present from God in 1992.  So of course I had requested Mass be said for Cullen on August 27.  And, even though I was expecting it, the mention of his name as the “special intention” of the day’s Mass found me squeezing Cullen’s cross pendant necklace, and looking down.

The rest of the Mass was a bit of a blur, except the mention during the homily of the patron saint for August 27th.

St. Monica.

The very same St. Monica who prayed and cried daily for the salvation and return to the faith of her son Augustine.

With all my heart I now believe in the intercession of the Saints on our behalf.  We are not here alone.  We are part of the “Communion of Saints.” The time/space continuum is certainly something that we, as finite creatures just can not grasp, but one thing is definite.  Is it a coincidence that Cullen and I were born on the feast day of St. Monica?  Lately I’ve just noticed way too many things and people woven together with that famous “red thread”  that Amy Hollingsworth discusses in Gifts of Passage.  I’ve come to the conclusion that there are no coincidences.

Life does not end with our mortality.  There is life on the other side, and it’s not somewhere else.  Our loved ones are with us in a very real way, and touch us in ways we can not even imagine.