*Author’s Note- This is an excerpt from a fiction story I’m working on called Dead Man Living. It is a story about the Grim Reaper reconsidering his line of work after meeting a revival preacher who is resurrected from the dead. This moment in the story Death comes to reposess the revival preacher, Ronnie’s soul. If it seems dry, well it’s a comedy about death so…
“Ronnie! There you are! Are you ready to go?” Death asked
“Not quite. I seem to have misplaced something,” Ronnie’s soul said.
Death was almost immediately annoyed. He was hungry for one. And for seconds, Ronnie of all people should know you don’t get to take anything, and I mean anything with you. He also had seen this before: stalling techniques; the souls of the formerly living want to linger. You know all the hubbub with ghosts and such, just stubborn people refusing to let go of honestly who knows what.
Usually it’s trauma, some distorted attachment that they can’t let go of. Sad really.
“Ronnie, I’d hate to state the obvious but you’re pretty much ethereal, you can’t take things in this state.”
“Oh pish posh. It’s not a thing, it’s hope: a substance of a different kind. Do you know of it?”
Death paused. He couldn’t register whether Ronnie was offering some kind of ironic sarcasm or was getting theological or philosophical. Either way, he hated it and knew if he did not act fast, lunch would hardly be enjoyable, and he would be required to get something quick and likely unhealthy which screws up everything because he had been trying to be more conscious of his figure as of late. Death counted to five and gave a sigh to calm himself.
“Is it possible we can look for it as we move? Certainly it is not confined to this rented tent.” Death said.
“Yes, I believe we can,” Ronnie conceded. “Though this tent belongs to my brother Bobby. He owns the tent, but he does also rent tents so it’s an easy mistake to make.”
“Interesting… Shall we go to my car?”
“Lead the way!” Ronnie had an odd enthusiasm about him.
The short walk to the car was awful for Death. Somehow a gust of wind had carried over the smell of manure from a nearby farm. The view was fine, in fact it was pretty good, hilly, green, and a valley to the left.
Death opened his trunk and motioned to it with his left palm facing upward, clinging to his scythe with his stronger hand as he glanced back and forth from the trunk to Ronnie.
Ronnie looked displeased. “Really? Why?”
“I don’t particularly feel like I have to explain myself,” Death said.
“Why not the passenger seat?”
“First of all, we’ve just met. We aren’t exactly old chums nor are we colleagues. Plus I get weird looks when people in your state are sitting in the passenger seat. Secondly, the scythe goes in the back seat which makes that off limits. And I have to point the sickle part so it hangs over the passenger seat which adds to the weird looks, and I don’t want to cause an accident. Admittedly, in my line of work you might wonder how that’s a bad thing, but I have morals. Lastly, in this state your propensity for comfort is practically obsolete, and it’s temporary.”
“Fine, I’ll get in the trunk.” Ronnie reached towards a blanket sitting inside.
“Hey! What’s the big idea? I’m not sharing this blanket,” said another voice from the trunk.
Death felt nervous.
“What! There’s someone else in there. You didn’t say that!”
“This isn’t a limo service.” Death nudged Ronnie with his scythe into the trunk and closed it.
Audible noise echoed from the trunk for a few moments while death carefully placed his scythe in the back seat so as not to scuff up the interior. Ronnie and friend settled down, as usual, because they are souls and don’t need “space.”
Getting into the driver seat of his all black Ford Fiesta, Death pressed the ignition, took several deep breaths as the classical station prepared him for the road ahead. He almost closed his eyes for a nap until he thought of lunch.
Last weekend I had a terrifying experience with panic and water. I decided to swim a good distance out into the ocean where I thought there was a sandbar. I saw 4 kids pretty far out and I assumed they were standing on a sandbar. They were coming back in and I was swimming out past them and the water kept getting deeper. I would push myself down to see how deep it was and when I got to about 9 feet, I concluded there might not actually be a sandbar in the direction I was swimming.
Here was my problem, I was already exhausted. Normally, when I am in the ocean I have a board and fins so I can swim fast and I can float easily. This time I had neither and was very far from shore. My other problem was I began to panic so reality was distorted. My arms were burning my heart was racing and I was contemplating screaming for my life to my friends on shore. But honestly I was so far out I felt like they would not get to me in time.
I’m writing this so I didn’t drown. I kept swimming while praying and thinking about how this would be a terrible way to go. Occasionally I would check to see if I could touch the bottom. My depth perception also did not seem to allow me to believe I was getting any closer to shore. So I swam and treaded and panicked some more wondering if I was being carried further out. But then as I swam and swam I put my foot under and about a foot lower than my body was the ground and I realized I had made progress towards shore.
So I swam a little more and hyper ventillated while I stood on solid ground with my head above water. No waves, no wind just water and ground and my terrified mind.
I know someone who drowned once. It was a surreal terrifying tragic experience. It was surreal because I felt the Lord had woken me up one morning during college to urgently pray from Psalm 18 that He lifts me out of deep waters not knowing why. I got a call later that morning from my friend Gabe which I missed and the Lord told me to intercede so I prayed until I got a hold of him. As it would turn out, on a canoe trip one of their friends whom I did not know so well drowned in the cold water after the canoe tipped over. Gabe, my friend Anthony and his brother, all of which I knew for most of my childhood survived. We had planned to canoe to this island and camp there. I remember I was planning to join them when we talked about it when I was home on break.
Drowning is scary to think about. Nobody drowns without a fight. But also we don’t drown unless we are in over our heads.
The last two years have felt like this. I feel I am in over my head barely catching my breath. Teaching has felt like this, church has felt like this, relationships have felt like this, life and death has felt like this. Though I feel I have developed endurance. In some cruel and sick way, I feel like I can get used to feeling like I’m drowning, like I’m barely breathing at all times. Sometimes I foolishly believe that it will feel like a leisurely swim, Like I will be able to just enjoy myself on the water. Literally that has happened. I have enjoyed time on the water with my board.
Metaphorically, I feel like the water has lured me in time and time again, and the water itself can seem pretty calm and serene, but it gets deep or all of a sudden I feel like somebody has loaded me down with a ton of weight and said “hold this while you’re barely keeping yourself above the surface.”
And then panic sets in, every sunday at 3 pm, I feel anxiety. Every time I feel rejection from the same places, every time I hope things will get better. In addition, every lame aphorism or cheap optimism that suggests I should fake it until things get better or until I change has proved a vain help.
And the truth is, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know if there is a better alternative. I don’t even know what brings healing. It honestly often feels like the best that can be done is to accept that these broken things might never be fixed. Where is the God who lifts me out of deep waters?
Would you lift me? Please, I’m not trying to stay in this place where I cannot breathe anymore. I need a wide place, an open pasture, a place where my body and mind and soul can find a rest that woud be lasting, like a month to breathe, to work yes, but also rest, to love and be loved. To delight in something good.
I don’t want to drown or even fear the threat of drowning. I want a tangible hope and peace and joy that doesn’t come with feeling choked by thorns and thistles or pain and sorrow or emotional and mental trauma.
I want to be led beside still waters rather than in deep water with my head sunk, gasping for air.
“He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters.”
If you came here looking for an answer or insight for how to deal with broken heartedness, I will state out the gate that I will make no such attempt at an answer. In fact, I’m not even certain if anything I write and share publicly today is real, true or right.
This is for the one, two or handful of people who have experienced a hope so adequately destroyed that their imagination, their very heart has suffered a deafening silence, a death and is left asking “is what has killed this part of me a result of love or a hatred confused as love? What has caused the death of my heart?”
Since this post will be mostly sad, I will offer at the outset a word of hope from Scripture paraphrased, “every seed must die in order to grow.” It is possible something can grow from death. It’s also possible something may not.
I should also mention: most deaths are not pretty. Maybe that’s not even right. All deaths are not pretty.
In order to demonstrate this I will describe what the death of a heart feels like:
It feels like spending a fair amount of time convulsing because there is a pain in the form of a straight line running seemingly down the center of your heart, like it has been perfectly impaled by something thin and small. Like the death itself was placed there gently, almost in stealth to where you can lie down to rest but can no longer dream. I had dreamed and imagined hundreds of things it seemed before the death only to now feel silence. In a way, the pain is not intolerable. It is not excruciating, in a sense it is not even pain because it is death, it is the absence of life; pain being an unfortunate or perhaps generous aspect of life is no longer present. It also feels like I have no energy to verbally speak, that audible words mean almost nothing during death, which is why it is strange that I feel I could write about this feeling and experience forever.
I am distinguishing here between heart death and heartbreak. It is moving past pain almost immediately to the nothing/numb that I think distinguishes the two. Heart death is categorized by its inability to dream.
Yet, the death of my heart is still being grieved by the rest of my body. The rest of my body is aware that the seat of my imagination (the heart) and the place where love was professed is no longer in operation. It is quiet, and somehow that makes sense since scripture declares that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. When it was alive, love could declare itself; in death one can’t articulate verbally what to even think or do or be or how it all exactly happened.
Also, heart death is impossible to anticipate when there is still lingering hope.
What makes heart death even more deceptive and harmful is that the memory is still active. I still have my thoughts and now those are left unguarded by the heart who at least when it was alive could color the thoughts hopefully or reframe them in love. The heart is the thing that scripture tells us to guard, “Guard your heart with all diligence for from it flows the springs of life.” Another potential translation of that verse could be: the reason to guard the heart is that from it can escape all that is living. In other words if you don’t guard the heart diligently, life, who you are, your grasp over your identity will escape you and you’ll succumb to death. So be careful how you share it.
I will admit I was not careful. I knew to be careful. My mind knew, but I chose not to be. And in choosing not to be, death came, which brings me to my next interesting tidbit.
The last 4 years I have encountered much external death. It almost feels I invited it when I decided to do a residency as a chaplain. It was as if I literally said to myself, you know what I should begin to experience in my 30’s that will help my pastoral ministry pursuit: death. So I encountered it, and ironically enough I was so unfamiliar with it or what to do with it that the first time I was called into a room where a patient was dying I assumed they were already dead and attempted to console the family even though the patient was barely alive. Now I feel so familiar with it, when it has come I have resolved that there is nothing left to do. Nothing carries the same meaning after someone or something dies. Everything that you do without the person you’ve lost is somehow different, less interesting.
It was helpful though, because you can choose to prepare for facing death or you can choose not to, and I can honestly say, whichever you choose I am not certain it helps much either way. That’s confusing though isn’t it. The preparation can’t prepare you so why prepare? The preparation we do is in allowing ourselves to feel, and in allowing ourselves to feel, we find we are carried through. I don’t think anyone can really know how they will respond to loss, and I don’t know if we ever actually accept loss before the loss occurs. Now we can decide how we will grieve loss, but when we are the ones dying, once death comes you no longer grieve, which is why again I don’t think my heart is grieving. I think it is dead, and my body may be grieving its loss and some of my body is angry, some of it sad, and some of it doesn’t know what happened.
My body is feeling feelings, yet my heart is numb or more accurately not alive. It is now buried like a seed waiting again to grow. In a sense it has arrived at a place it is most comfortable. It has been granted a reset, yet my body and my memory remembers. And in that memory and the way my body responds comes with a new opportunity to guard.
Think Groot in the Guardians of Galaxy. He becomes replanted. The fear in that is one wonders: what does a new heart actually entail? Do I have to mature my love all over again? Do I trust my heart or my body with someone else in the future? Or do I sit in death and continue to live life absent of imagination? If you sit with a dead heart, you have less work to do but perhaps less life to live. Unfortunately, you can’t escape your memory, you can hope it doesn’t color your future, but your memory may cause pain in the rest of your body and you may be confronted with how to then cope.
For me, the temptation becomes replace pain with more pain and the desire to cause more pain as a form of vengeance. (What is vengeance? Not violence in this case, but emotionally tearing someone down to the point in which their entirely reality and perception of themselves is blurred) But “vengeance is mine” says the Lord. All we can really do is hope the Lord exposes the darkness and that He will grant light to help what is dead.
And this is where perhaps the last reminder I have is helpful, though equally as sad. There are things worse than death. When suffering is prolonged, when you can no longer eat, your body stops healing itself, and you become no longer recognizable, when the cancer takes its toll and all your energy is sapped and you can no longer find help or comfort, I do believe death becomes a mercy for all involved. Eventually the body agrees with everything else and says to itself I can no longer handle this and the burden on others is too heavy to bear the extent of suffering it is enduring, and then death becomes a release.
This also is heart death. At some point, the only way forward through the persistent choices and emotional harm, distortion of reality and condemnation from those around you has to be death even if it is not your choice. It may feel like murder, but if that is what people want, if that is what the crowd demands and there is no intercessor, the only way forward is death.
(I should emphasize here since all this talk of death could be triggering and concerning and since we are coming off of national suicide prevention week, the utmost importance is that you find the courage, support, and self-love in order to endeavor to keep on living in the most literal sense, to not un-life ourselves even it feels like it has been done to us)
And the way through death must be more life or at least, the hope for life on the other side. But where does the hope come from if not from the heart. It resides in the heart but it always comes from the one Who creates it. God in Christ, the author of Hope, finisher of Faith, entirely encompassed as Love. And God Himself can do it because God Himself incarnated Himself in flesh to die so that we all may live even though we suffer.
You might find it intriguing. God did not prevent the death of my heart. Even though He was asked to protect it, asked to change it, to transform it, to redirect all love and affection, He still watched the death happen, the crushing and by people who the very heart that was crushed, formerly loved. God, the Father allowed, stood by and watched and seemingly turned His face away, perhaps not in disgust of the person suffering but turned His face away from the affliction as it also grieved His very heart. As it was too painful for you, it was painful for Him to watch, and while He let it happen, He also being God must have had a way to make it work together for good in love otherwise He would just be cruel and as disconnected from His creation as His creation is disconnected from themselves and inflicts harm and hatred on each other. But He cannot be cruel or disconnected based on what He says about Himself.
While I can describe a theological prescription as to how God deals with heart death and death itself, we might still ask, well what are we to do? What is my part in dealing with a dead heart?
And here is my solution:
At least do nothing differently.
If you feel like you loved well at one point, now, in the absence of your heart, keep doing what you were doing before. Don’t change your routine, or start thinking the worst of yourself, blaming or embracing a condemnation that wasn’t true. Little can hurt you anymore, so don’t begin to hurt yourself. Now you are free again to love who you are becoming. Do nothing but tolerate love as it comes. You don’t need to force something to happen.
You can’t hard work yourself back to life.
I don’t know if your heart has ever died, but if you’re reading this, you are still alive and something worth loving is still left.
My dad Anthony (Tony) Louis Passaro Jr. was born on August 23, 1950 over a month premature. He was the only child of my grandmother Mary and grandfather Anthony L Passaro Sr. My grandma had several prior miscarriages before the birth of her only child. From the little I know of his birth, I know he was small. I don’t know if there were any additional complications or considerations. What I do know from his stories is his childhood did not get easier.
He always spoke fondly of his friendships with the guys he played baseball with growing up. Myron and Louie were friends for life growing up together in Jersey City. They remained close throughout my own childhood as my family frequented the Jersey Shore and spent time with their families as well as with my Godfaher Jimi Beam and his wife Bernie.
My dad loved telling stories of his childhood on Poplar Street and remembering good times in Jersey City. I also remember the other stories, of a very difficult childhood, one in which he was physically abused by his father, an alcoholic, for being left-handed, seeing the way my grandfather harshly treated my grandmother, and my dads own difficulty with how the nuns treated him growing up in Catholic School.
Sometimes it is hard to know if it was this environment that shaped his personality as an adult or if he was already a mischievous child in Catholic school that warranted being hit with rulers and kneeling on rice. The stories from his Catholic schooling to me never sounded awful in comparison to my father’s home life, yet his journey within the context of Catholocism seems to be one that was not filled with thoughts of God as a loving Father and forgiving advocate. It could just be that a place meant to be full of solace and salvation brought more confused pain to my dad who as a child was probably just scared. My grandmother though, found a sense of peace and purpose serving the Catholic Church despite them not approving her eventual divorce from my grandfather when my father was well into adulthood.
It was not until recently I heard more of the stories about my dad’s college years and his early to mid 20’s and his first marriage to Holly. Maybe it was because St. Peter’s made their run in the March Madness tournament, that I was reminded he could not pass an accounting class in his college in Massachusetts so he transferred to St. Peter’s and attended classes in the evening for several years while working during the day, I think for the Jonathan Logan.
My dad worked most of his life in government social services settings, the Hudson County Welfare Board and then The State Child Support Office of New Jersey. While I do believe it made him a diligent public servant, I don’t know how much bureacratic government work did for his perspective on humanity. My dad was not politically correct nor would waste an opportunity to make an inappropriate joke. It is good he retired when he did because while I have never felt my dad was a malicious person, I don’t think he would thrive in the current cultural climate.
I know little of my dad’s first marriage; I know there was a slight age gap and they enjoyed watching hockey. Until I was an adult I often did not comprehend that my dad had lived a life before me. I was not born until he was 37, only 3 years older than I am now. As far as his second marriage to my mother, there is both much and little I could write about that, but it hardly seems necessary now. I think my parents would agree that the best thing that came of their marriage was me and my brother (which is what I imagine even couples who are happily in love might also say of their children).
In many ways, my reflection of my dad as a father has much more substance in the years that he raised me and my brother alone beginning in a third floor, two bedroom apartment in Briarwood when I was in 5th grade, roughly 1999. I shared a room with my brother and at that time myself being 10/11, my brother 16/17; I have fond memories of that living arrangement.
Thankfully, we lived down the street from my grandmother who fed us twice a week and who I often spent time with on the weekends. As a single father, I cannot imagine what he thought or felt during that time. I remember distinctly the things that felt normal, our weekly routine of meals that consisted of either tuna and tomato soup or ramen noodles, our medley of pizza rolls, potato skins, taquitos, and other frozen delicacies, and a weekly order from Vito’s pizza of either pizza or subs, always paid for with a coupon.
What I remember most though in those years was going to his softball games behind Pullens, a gas station that was right down the street from Taco Bell. Sometimes I would watch my dad with admiration playing the outfield. Other times I would disinterestedly play with GI Joes in his van. Either way I remember often going to Taco Bell after those games which truth be told is where my love for Taco Bell began. That Taco Bell on Sloan avenue is probably the place I have eaten more meals at than many places I’ve lived.
Dad moved us into a condo still in Briarwood around the time when my brother went off to college at Penn State. Then, it was just me and my dad throughout my teenage years. Sure he had girlfriends during various seasons, Barbara, whose children were my great friends and who I spent much time backyard wrestling with, and then Linda who was quite eccentric but showed kindness to me and my friend Ben. But many days it was just me and dad with our routine, school/work (him smoking on my way to school always having to ride there with the window down no matter what season), being picked up from a baby sitters, homework or going to softball games, watching tv on the couch or going to sports practices. My dad was great about normalizing our home life and never making me feel like we were struggling to get by.
One of my fondest memories that I had as a child was a trip we took to visit my Godfather Jimi when we went to Manhattan. My Godfather made me and many others laugh harder than anyone I knew and I felt like the luckiest boy in the world going to the city with my dad and godfather and hanging out for the whole day. I remember driving home and telling my dad we have to do that again. That was the only time we ever did something like that, but I can still vividly remember standing between them laughing on some street in Manhattan completely delighted.
We always had a vacation, usually to Wildwood where I got to bring a friend or was with friends, Scott Francis or Ben to the Poconos, unless it was with Barbara and her kids Billy and Timmy. We had plenty of daytrips to Lavalette to see Louie and Nancy and Myron and Debbie and their families. I could write a blog just of all the memories I have from those daytrips to the beach. Holidays had routines; every thanksgiving we spent with Patty Ann, Aunt Francis and Joey. Christmas and birthdays always had a consisted of a ton of gifts. Well into adulthood, my dad was still buying me wrestling figures and DVD’s even as I was selling a lot of childhood toys and trying to declutter. Dad liked the idea of getting stuff.
Whether or not my dad was intentional about it, he provided me with so many opportunites for memories and enjoyment even though I have some lingering echo of hearing him say I was never satisfied. I think in part because there was an emotional disconnect with him throughout my teenager years. I think being a father was not easy for him in every aspect because of his own childhood. I don’t know if he ever desired or tried or felt like working through his own trauma with his father would be helpful. I know before I was born, there were several years in which my dad was having to come to the rescue of his own his father because of alcoholism and debt which eventually led to his death. I imagine it was very difficult for my father to balance caring for his own father who had caused him so much pain.
As such, I don’t know if he ever entirely knew how to help me process life with the strong degree of emotions I felt. I don’t recall any conversations as a teenager that were particularly filled with wise fatherly advice. He did not talk to me about girls or my hopes or dream or vocation aside from perhaps listening when I said I wanted to be a professional wrestler. He allowed me to be largely indpendent in the process of applying to colleges. He certainly took me to visit schools and as I have mentioned made sure I had no substantial debt after college, but I felt very lost throughout my teenage years.
I have no memories of being disciplined by my dad. I never was punished, never had a curfew, would often stay out past midnight on the weekends before I could drive. He often would say, “He’s never given me a reason not to trust him.” And for the most part I believe that holds entirely true. I believe there was a grace on my life that kept me entirely disinterested in drugs, alcohol, being promiscuous or anything that could have led to getting into serious trouble. But I don’t know if he saw or recognized the things that actually troubled me because of maybe his own emotional threshold. I talked to a teddy bear into my teenage years. I played with GI Joes for hours some weekend nights up until I was 18, and I don’t think my dad saw or noticed that as being worrisome.
Largely because my dad liked to tinker with toys, his pinball machine, his records, his collectibles, his stuff. If anyone knows my dad, they know that his basement is enshrined with collectibles and things that entertained himself. Every night for over a decade he would lie on the basement floor listening to one of his 13,000 album. When we had cats, our cat Dwarf would sit on my dads back resting with him as they listened together to classic rock albums. My dad was good about routine and ritual and actually was pretty easily contented in some areas. Maybe that was how he coped.
In other areas, usually in regards to his health he could be stubborn. He never really quit smoking. He kept active playing softball all the way up to the day after his leukemia diagnosis. He loved softball. He has a shrine of softballs with his batting averages from each season written on them dating back to 70’s. He enjoyed inuendo and cursing which I shared with him up until the end of high school.
My senior year, which was an emotionally dark time, gave way to a season in college when my faith grew and potentially changed the way me and my dad related. I became immersed in my faith and dad might have found it hard to reconcile it with the Catholicism he endured growing up. It probably was even more of a challenge when I began pursuing ministry as a vocation. I remember trying to bridge the gap post college. I would regularly have him edit things I was writing, because he majored in English in college, a fiction story about a cheese delivery boy modeled after the life of King David and a nonfiction autobiography of my pastor hoping we would have points of reference for my faith.
At some point in time, probably when I started wrestling in New Jersey, our relationship began to form into something more simple and familiar. I think we both accepted the people we each were. By this point my dad was retired and married to Lorraine, still loving the beach still playing softball and now that I was living in the same state working and wrestling, I think our visits and time together did not diverge much. I loved seeing him at my wrestling events and playing pool in the basement and catching up.
Life in general for him was more routine until August of 2018. About a week before I was about to move to Charleston to work as a hospital chaplain in my first full time job in a ministry context, dad was diagnosed with acute myleoid leukemia. And for the 3 days before I was about to move and work in a hospital every day, I spent it with him in the hospital preparing to get his first round of chemo.
Truth be told I can’t describe his experience in detail because I don’t entirely know it because I was not there. I know his wife Lorraine was there every step of the way, and my brother saw the effects of the chemo. We did not tell my grandmother while she was living of dads condition so as not to distress her. I was spared of some of that distress by living far away for 13 months. He was in remission for a bit and then it came back and so did I, moving back to New Jersey, hoping I could be helpful. But a delayed bone marrow transplant in the midst of a pandemic, eventually led to him having to be in the hospital for 6 weeks without a visitor. I have no idea how he had the mental capacity to endure that.
But my dad did endure a very hard almost 4 years with leukemia. He sought aggressive treatment and it gave him what I hope was meaningful extra time, but it was a fight the whole way. When he went into remission again after the bone marrow transplant I moved again, back to Charleston perhaps naive or just perhaps hopeful that dad would have a lot more time. Though he managed to never get Covid, he had a couple of other complications before the lieukemia came back this past April.
Even with the diagnosis my dad remained hopeful and optimistic and felt he had no choice but to prepare for more aggressive treatment. Another round of chemo that did nothing other than leading to 4 lengthy hospital stays over the course of 7 weeks eventually led to the decision to stop pursuing treatment and come home with hospice. I will not write about those details but I will say, it was difficult to see my dad suffer but not difficult to care for him in the stritctest sense of dealing with him or his body failing. The difficulty lay in seeing my once and at times still vibrant aspects of his personality become dimmer.
That is the difficulty, the choice between the end of suffering and the hope for more out of life and how little power over that choice it actually ends up feeling like we have, like he had. And now as a I write this he is gone. It hits me in waves; I will not hear him again, hear him tell me he loves me, except for his voicemails that I have saved, to visit, to play pool with, to talk about the Rangers with, to listen to music with. I won’t hear is laugh or see his wide smile or the big nose we share.
If I had not at this point been clear because this reflection is too somber, my dad did enjoy laughter and having a good time. He was not a particularly serious person, though he felt things strongly. My large emotions likely come from him, my temper, my humor, my love for storytelling. He did not travel much, largely remaing in Jersey, never lived elsewhere, never waivered in his accent, always found a way to be inappropriate. He was always a breath or two away from a sex joke. Again if you knew my grandmother, it would hardly seem like they could have been mother and son. But I don’t know how much each person is exactly like there parents.
There is much I don’t know. I know I love him, and I will miss him and I know in a lot of ways I am the spitting image of my dad. I know that today. and I will know that tomorrow, and in the days to come, as the grief continues to come. I know it will be hard to think about the things he will have missed or rather I will have missed to share with him.
Our second to last phone conversation on Saturday July 9th, he was more awake and alert for over an hour and half, talking to my brother, and then to me on the phone where he kept commenting on the birds he heard coming through my end of the phone. I was reminded again that our last name Passaro means little bird, particularly a sparrow.
I’m reminded now of this verse from Matthew 10:29-31
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
I am comforted that in my dad raising me, and for the brief time I was able to care for him that ultimately, there is a Heavenly Father responsible for all of our ultimate care. I’m thankful for the dad I was given to enjoy and love even if it has too short of a time.
The last time David sees Jonathan the son of King Saul, they kiss, they weep and David mourns knowing he will never see him again and says, “The love of Jonathan surpassed my love for women.” David had quite a few wives.
To this day one of the best chapters I have ever read in a book comes from C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves in his chapter on friendship/phileo love. His argument is that while friendship is not the kind of love that is necessary for human survival, friendship is the kind of love that makes life worth living, that adds joy to life.
I think about this when I think of Jesus when he calls his disciples friends. Friends allow friends to know what they are up to and what their intentions are and this can be both fun and freeing. Friends agree to be a part of each other in adventure and interests.
This is the reason why I think losing a friend is so hard to bear. Friends are people we have given ourselves to in a social contract of complete choice. I have chosen to allow you in and you have chosen to allow me in. Obviously friendships can vary in depth of intensity and intimacy. The ones we have given more of ourselves to usually require a deeper level of commitment, accountability and trust.
If a friendship becomes too intimate without honesty it becomes confusing.
If a friendship becomes too committed without accountability and boundaries, it can become codependent and toxic.
If a friendship has trust without intimacy it is unbalanced and susceptible to collapse on an unknown foundation.
Here is the other side of friendship that is unlike affectionate familial love or romantic love. Those two require commitment to exist and sustain and to break commitment is neglectful. You fail to fulfill obligation and covenant in the case of family and love/marriage if you walk away. In friendship, that social contract can end without demand. Mourning is probably necessary, but friendship has no obligation because what it was based on in the beginning was mutual agreement.
This becomes slightly complicated in the context of the family of God. We can’t entirely walk away from family when we have the same Father so we have to learn to simply coexist despite the end of friendship because the implication and demand of the kingdom is to love even if a friend has become an enemy. The kingdom can have enemies even from within (David and Saul). Christians have in the past been known to kill each other over doctrine. Now they kill one another with ostracism or with bad doctrine rather than over it.
You might be wondering if you’ve made it this far, how do friendships end? In David and Jonathan’s case the urgency of their lives on different plains of trajectory and Jonathan’s eventual death marked the end of their friendship. The book of Acts gives us a picture of people who parted ways but there is no indication if they considered one another friends or merely partners.
The fact that it does not seem that it was an easy parting of ways does suggest that there was some level of relationship that made it difficult to separate. But in 2021, it is easy to maintain friendship with people I rarely see.
It takes effort to end friendships in the Kingdom, concentrated intentionality to avoid people you see with regularity. Somehow despite that concentrated effort, it is unavoidable apparently to not coexist as family. So instead we occupy space as family in light of the reasons that we have chosen to abdicate friendship.
Here are some of the reasons we make the choice to abdicate friendship:
-betrayal abandonment (John Mark, presumably the writer of the gospel of Mark is for a period of time uninvited by the apostle Paul to travel with their missionary party because of a perceived abandonment) When people feel like they were left in a moment when they needed partnership, they have an easier time leaving behind friendship.
-exploitation/being used, while this is something we tolerate in most areas, work, church, service, without much thought, within the context of friends, there is mutual expression of give and take that often goes un-communicated among friends. There is usually a self awareness that comes with this give and take and usually an acknowledgement when the balance is tilted in one direction. But there comes a point when someone perceives they have given too much or too much has been taken and a boundary has been crossed.
-discontentment with what or who you have, one of the complaints I hear most often among friend groups is people not liking when other people ask, “who is going?” Because of an abundance of options or social equity which I have discussed previously people try to evaluate who will be at places in light of many “good” options. It’s weird and in a way it’s still using people. I only ask who’s going to avoid people.
-triangles, whether they be romantic triangles or relational triangles, these are breeding grounds for miscommunication and hidden motives. Someone is usually hiding something and avoiding something in order for the triangle to break its bond. As is the case with triangles one person is usually left to be the side that gets dropped. This in some ways can strengthen the bond of friendship/codependency of the remaining sides.
-death, often the most permanent but also preserving of the friendship. When we mutually lose a friend there is a shared understanding of fondness with which the person is remembered. Death is a loss but one outside of our control. This in some way makes it the most tolerable if we are able to accept that there was nothing we could have done. And so we have the potential to mourn without the uncertainty of what could have been done differently.
Why even write or talk about a topic? Why even give voice or expression to the loss and process it in a public way. Because I think this loss is in some ways inevitable. We are prone to mistreat and use one another for our own benefit. We are prone to miscommunicate and say something hurtful. We are prone to walk away to pursue a greater desire or perceived need. And we are prone to exploit people until they become no longer useful to us.
And these are things we do to our friends not just our enemies. Maybe we will think twice or think more deeply about the way we treat one another. Maybe we will pause to think if we are treating someone as collateral to gain traction with someone else. Maybe we will learn how to be more selfless in our affection and lay down our lives for friends.
It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting.
I don’t know how prepared you are to give of your tears or how familiar you might be with what that entails. I’m going to write a bit about mourning this morning. Grief, loss, and death, I know are not necessarily fun topics to read about. I don’t know a lot about pandemics, the spread of viruses or the long term effects of these things, but I am fairly confident that if political leaders and people are willing to show any hint of prioritizing stimulating the economy and bailing out large financially irresponsible big businesses at the risk of spreading a deadly virus, it’s safe to say that some compassionate folks may have to take up the business of empathy and grieving.
*Scroll to the bottom if you just like practicals*
And that person might be you or me. So here’s how:
Tears are beautiful. One day, in the Kingdom of Heaven there will be no more use for them. But here, now, tears of the emotional variety are a visual display of our pain and our stress and our empathy. As they are released chemicals are typically released in our body that calm our mind and relieve us of physical pain. In this way they are chemically associated with doing good for the inside.
It is important to keep in mind that the capacity for tears or crying is more important than volume. So like anything crying too much or persistent crying amidst a depressive episode could yield little to no benefit. It’s important to discern and distinguish between the two.
Yesterday, my mom put her cat Tabitha down who was 19 years old and had kidney failure. I cried a bit on my drive to her house thinking about my mom during this season of quarantine, thinking a little about Tabitha and how interesting of a cat she was. Those tears were in some ways helpful because I was prepared to empathize with my mom and imagined what it was like to lose a pet but also adjust in a season when being home a lot and perhaps for a extended season is necessary.
Later on that evening, I cried again while being exceedingly frustrated and uncertain even scared about what decisions to make, feeling like life is still out of my control and being frustrated and double-minded about how to live out what I feel called to in the midst of my current vocation after a season where I already felt isolated for the previous 5 months. These tears were less helpful, but still helpful. In part because these tears were more a response to an unclear uncertain emotional framework that had me stuck on myself. If I was still crying those same tears now they would not be helpful and perhaps self-indulgent.
Let’s return to loss and grief and death though for a moment. Some of you may have experienced the loss of a loved one. It was a deep loss that you may have not been prepared for and suffered or may suffer still as you learn to adapt to a new rhythm without that individual. Sometimes their loss might still illicit tears or sadness but hopefully, that loss has not kept you unable to find fullness in life.
Hopefully, you found a helpful ritual or prayer or found ways to accept the loss and have been given new eyes of appreciation for others. Hopefully, also, you will be presented with the opportunity to help others walk through their own grief and loss.
My hope is that this will not be a season that you will be called upon to do that, but there is a chance in the coming weeks even months you might know several people who lose something or someone due to this virus.
Not all loss is death, but death feels the most permanent. And in seasons where isolation is already becoming the norm if someone were to die while others are isolated and may not be able to mourn as easily communally, we will need to be diligent in helping to heal those who suffer loss.
We have power to minister and bring healing to others when we stay alert and aware in the midst of our own loss, to not checkout and isolate, but to remain available. To be reminded that others too will suffer the loss of spouse or grandparent or parent or child, that while our grief and loss is unique in the individual or thing lost, the experience of losing is not unique to us.
So a couple of practicals:
-Imagine you are in their position, in the coming weeks it might not take that much imagining (we’ll see)
-Listen more than spouting advice or cliche phrases of optimism (Scripture written in an encouraging note or a timely word spoken gently might be helpful but listen first)
-Pray for them
-Make sure they are fed and checked in on
-Affirm that they are loved, again gently
-Maybe not a reminder for the one suffering, but death is not the end of everything and it is a part of life; death might become more normalized, but Jesus has promised us eternity with Him for those who believe. So yes, a priority on the restoration to or perseverance in their most important relationship.
-Remember God is with us in our tears
You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?
It’s hard to imagine the heart failing of someone who loved me so well.
Maybe she was finally convinced we’d be okay without her. Maybe her body was just finished; certainly not her mind. Maybe it was just time.
I think I’ve learned you can prepare to make an end of living, but not death, for the moment or moments between life and life. The middle space that grief takes up. You can plan logistics of funerals and finances and forgiveness, but you can’t take a pulse of grief and parcel out emotional energy or therapy sessions to navigate the middle piece of what loss will leave in its wake. Because of this we ritualize. We have ceremonies, and sift through possessions and pictures, some of us hoping the deceased will visit us.
And after the rituals we return to life and vocation hoping the deceased will visit us. And then we form more community, hopefully enlarge our families and churches, hoping the deceased will visit us. But Jesus doesn’t want the deceased to visit us because Jesus doesn’t want death. He wants living and living abundantly, and Jesus wants the living to gather and in time the formerly dead to be seen in light of the resurrection with a glorious newness. It’s my only real consolation.
Any other emotional appeasement is not a hope I’m interested in. Merely being at rest or ending suffering is not enough. Life gained in full in the glory of Christ as a Christian has become the bare minimum of my desire, but it is also the ultimate. It’s what I wait for and allows me to mourn as one not without hope. Because that hope also has the power to end or comfort me in my mourning.
Now I turn to Mary, my grandmother:
You didn’t leave me, you stayed with me for a season.
It’s hard to accept your gone when you remembered our visits and held me to my words. You kept track of the time like you knew it was short but looked forward in time like you’d live forever. It wasn’t a lie; it was you weaving the story I think you knew I wanted.
I was as proud as you were while wrapping your bingo nickels
I’ll cherish the smirk you gave me the last time I “stole” your cookie.
And even though your hand won’t hold back I’ll try to hold your heart. Lord Have mercy
You were too busy living, enjoying simplicity to worry about dying. Christ have mercy
You were showing me, I believe, that death is not something to worry about. Like Jesus, it is something we can be angry about and mourn, but it mustn’t be something that hinders living or the hope of resurrection. Death might be inevitable, but death is defeated, and I’m currently becoming okay with the fact that it was your turn to pass through it, into glory. Lord have mercy.
When I spoke with Gabe in February or March, of my visit to you in January, he felt I spoke of you like one should speak of their spouse. I wanted to you to meet her (I mean, I’d like to meet her, but I wanted you to meet her), not that I needed your approval, just so I could share you with her and her with you. I mourn that. I own that. I’m sorry for that. I’m not sure anything changes because of this, but my imagination placed you there at the celebration. If you have time, please come with the Lord. Invite friends. Christ have mercy
Thanks for all you’ve given me, it would be impossible to repay you or even out the scale of love. I think you would want it that way. You win gram, but we are probably close to even in Pokeno. Lord have mercy.
I thought you might live forever, and now you will. To Christ be the glory.
The eventual end of grief is an eternal promise we look forward to. In the meantime, Jesus assured us that happiness is available to those who grieve because of a present promise for comfort. For any comfort to come, there must be a hope. Sometimes that hope is cloudy.
Sometimes grief which would love to linger is lightly carried away by the wind of the Spirit. Sometimes, God places you in circumstances that no emotion you could feel is adequate.
This week I received two phone calls virtually simultaneously to respond to, circumstances completely opposite and unfamiliar to me. One was to the West Wing of the hospital to the Labor and Delivery unit, the other call to the East Wing, the Emergency Department. Both instances had to do with babies, one joyous, one tragic.
I responded to the situation I felt I was needed least first. A family was adopting a healthy baby girl from a woman who delivered the baby, and the birth mother requested I pray a blessing over the baby and the adopting parents. So, I prayed, had no parental advice to really offer and affirmed the sense of joy in the room, despite being unaware of any dynamics as to how this situation came about. I was happy to be a part of it, but lingering in my mind, was the other call I knew I would be responding to immediately following that moment:
A one-month year old without a pulse that would not make it.
For 3 hours I offered prayer and presence and became witness to parent’s and grandparent’s grief. I offered some of my own grief but mostly I observed, stood silent, waiting on God.
Together, we’re all waiting, not always in grief, but we are all waiting.
Waiting for Life
In 2 Samuel 12:15-16, there is a Scripture that is concerning: “After Nathan returned to his home, the Lord sent a deadly illness to the child of David and Uriah’s wife. David begged God to spare the child. He went without food and lay all night on the bare ground.”
The child doesn’t make it. After 7 days, the child dies. David mourns for 7 days then stops once the child dies because David is aware that the child will not return to him. God’s grace was enough to spare David’s life but was not extended to David’s child. It seems utterly cruel, doesn’t it?
In Scripture, the prophet Nathan affirms that the child’s death is the result of David scorning the word of God. This theologically seems like a bad look. It would be much easier to explain the circumstances using the Devil as the scapegoat doling out punishment for David’s sin, but Scripture does not give us this luxury.
Instead, we get a God that seems willing to employ extraneous means to keep his people tender-hearted. And this, I feel, is a viable tactic of God. God will use grief and the worst of circumstances, perhaps circumstances God authors, to return humanity to the love of God.
I will by no means try to explain the why nor use this or any tragedy to try to convince us that these are demonstrations of love. Rather, they are circumstances that give us pause, cause us to reevaluate, to seek what’s preeminent, namely seek God, the Author.
There, at the end of our grief, is resurrection life and belief.
I had one of those deathbed Jesus moments last week. I was with a patient while they died whom was reconciled to God the week before. I did not save the man, all I did was remind him that God was willing to forgive him because of the work of Jesus Christ.
All I could write, after the patient expired just prior to 3:00 AM was, “I watched a man live.” Dying and living and dying and living again. This is what we profess as Christians. We reincarnate twice as new versions of ourselves. The first time we likely look no different(spiritual new birth). The last time we are promised a glorified body to house an eternal spirit.
In between we die a thousand little deaths, with a thousand degrees of heartbreak, with a thousand more disappointments, mingled with hundreds of thousands of things to be grateful for. Our life becomes challenged by what we are willing to focus on. Do we choose to focus on that which brings us life and light or the things that remind us of our dark and weakness?
What we focus on dictates how we live out our salvation. Will I barely make it through each day or will I function in faith and confidence in the power of the Spirit?
My first learning goal in chaplaincy formation was to become comfortable with death/loss. I’m changing it to become more acquainted with resurrection life after death and loss. Little joy is to be found in the losing and the dying, perhaps none. The hope of the resurrection is what our lives need when we are consumed by our own weakness. The alternative is to fixate on our dying disappointments that intrude on our endeavor to live and love.
I Am So Weak
Admittedly, amid this endeavor, I am so weak. I am increasingly more aware of my sin-f-illness, accruing the debt of its deadly wages.
When will I stop paying what I cannot afford to give?
Are there any riches I have saved in an eternal account toward the wealth of knowing Christ?
If I have any wealth from heaven, I would like to invest it in service to the Bridegroom Christ who is both my Creditor and Debt Payer, in the prospect of marriage and family, in service to the Bride, the Church. Treading on bankruptcy in Spirit does not seem to offer the generous hand I hope to give.
Yet here I am, a chaplain, who prays daily with people teetering between their first life and final breath, some trying to make restitution for their next inhale, hoping to love better or love more or love longer. I try to assist them in their desire as I forget my own failure to also love better, love more and love longer. Only to become more self-aware of ineptitude in the torment of my own ego.
I am willing to experience more freedom and wholeness at any cost. But does it ever cease to feel like I grasp at ethereal concepts? I want reality, but I am weak. I want love and to give it, but I am weak. I want to let go, but I am weak. I need help because I am weak. But I am willing for the Spirit of Christ to intervene. Maranatha
Sorry for cursing in my last entry. I’m not much of a verbal curser. I probably curse 10 times a year. I had a swear jar at work when I worked in construction where I put a quarter in every time I cursed or every time someone thought they heard me curse. There were six quarters in it over the course of close to two years, two of those quarters because I accidentally said curse words in Portuguese. I don’t curse because I love words too much. I don’t want to waste them. When I do curse, I am confident God will forgive me and hope I don’t take forgiveness for granted.
With that said, let me tell you about the hell of a night I had.
Chaplaincy can be utterly terrifying. After working a normal 8-hour day of visiting patients and family, I responded to two calls that occupied my time from 6:45pm-midnight.
The first call, a patient was dying, 20-25 family members gathered in the ICU. I prayed with the patient and most of the family before they removed his breathing tube, then after he passed away I prayed for the family. The two minutes I walked away from the room was when he died. I walked up moments after feeling goose bumps from the changed air of one less person present. Death is still surreal to me.
There was a part of me that wanted to be in the room when it happened, but someone dying also feels kind of like an intimate moment. Afterwards I stood around, got ice waters for family, tried to remain available and then 45 minutes later, I left.
I got a call from the switch board operators to visit another patient who was not dying but wanted to see a chaplain at the other hospital (the one I sleep at). I drove back, stopped at Taco Bell (where else? I had a coupon I had to use). And arrived on the patient’s floor at 10 pm.
And I walked into darkness. You’d think being in a situation where there is death is dark, but what’s darker than bodily death is walking into a room that smells of cigarette smoke body odor from someone who is somewhere between alcohol withdrawals and dehydration.
He also took an hour and a half to tell me his life story in third person, which consisted of getting saved, going to prison, solitary confinement, being a bouncer for a strip club, getting married five times, having 7 sons from different wives, persistent substance abuse, witnessing a church bus driver molest a 9 year-old girl, paying for his son to have a failed threesome on his birthday, 18 consecutive seizures, renouncing Jesus and probably something else I missed. (He gave me permission to share his story, but part of me wishes I never heard it)
We prayed, he worshipped Jesus for 6 minutes or so while I sat and thought about how nice it would be to go to sleep in a world where shit like this didn’t exist (also I literally just wanted to go to sleep). Instead of sleeping I wrote about it at 1 am trying to find God in it.
Instead, or perhaps in showing Himself to me I have this Scripture from Psalm 130:3-4 making rounds in my head:
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.
I’ll be honest, after hearing the guys story I kind of felt like this guy doesn’t deserve salvation. I then reflected on my own life and realized I also don’t deserve salvation.
But one terrifying attribute of God is the depth and length of forgiveness Jesus Christ offers us. Most of us aren’t even fully aware of the depths of our sin. For some us, the surface sins are enough to overwhelm us.
Forgiveness terrifies me because if God is real and is as holy and good as He says He is, the psalmist of #130 is right, if God kept a tally of how much mine and your actions suck, we wouldn’t be able to stand. If I kept a tally of how much the actions of some people I would like to call friends suck, I would cut them off completely.
Instead of fearing the implications of forgiveness, we are tempted become users. I let myself be so used by some people. But, so does God in ever greater quantity and in darker depths of quality. God ascribes purpose to the blood of his Son. That costly blood cleanses our guilt, our conscience only for us to likely use again, to accidentally attempt to re-crucify.
Okay maybe you don’t, but I do. And yet I have tried to make it my job to minister forgiveness to people in the midst of their filthy, shit-stained, sulfur-scented dump heap of a life as they drain oxygen from this fallen world.
Yet in that darkness, in that pit Jesus promises to reach in and love us with a light that is simultaneously as bright as the day and as subtle as the flicker of a single firefly in a field at night.
During the minutes in which this patient of mine uttered the words, “Thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus, thank you for your presence again,” on repeat; I sat there tired, numb, wondering what I am also most afraid of.