Remember all the Y2K panic? All the computers might shut down and the world would go nuts. The fitness center I worked at had a new computer system being put in place and we were assured we wouldn’t crash and lose all our data.
It began on December 28, 1999 – my 18 year old brother went to prison for three years. Heart break. Sadness. Visions of what might happen to him in prison haunted every waking moment.
Y2K rolled into the world without a hitch. A lot of folks sighed with relief that the computer world didn’t collapse.
The evening of March 8th, I entered my home to hear my mom leaving a message on my answering machine. We’d just attended Wednesday night prayer meeting. The first time my husband had ever attended church with us and he hadn’t minded it. Hope entered my heart that just maybe, Jesus was knocking on his heart. Until I heard my mother’s distraught voice. I snatched the phone up and received the news that my 20 year old cousin, Jeremiah, his girlfriend, and another friend were killed in a car accident. The bottom fell out of my world. Crushed in spirit.
And then I was alone with my grief for the night. My poor husband went back to work all night long (after having worked all day) so that he could leave the next day with me to travel the two hours to my home town where my cousin and most of my family lived. It was the longest night of my life.
We traveled over the mountains and arrived at my Uncle’s and waited for family to arrive. With each new arrival came a new round of grief and gut wrenching sobs. The kind where you wonder if you’ll ever be able to stop it. But the most painful was the arrival of my favorite aunt, my cousin’s mom – they lived out of state. It hurt so much to see her sweet heart ripped out. I remember praying, “Why her, Lord? Why? Why didn’t you just take me instead?”
Etched permanently in my mind are the faces of grief. The hugging, the crushing heart pain, and grief that made the entire body ache.
Hubby and I went to pick my mom up from the airport later that day. We walked past her sitting on a bench twice because we didn’t recognize her. It’s amazing how grief can alter our features. She reflected how the rest of us looked and felt. Hair disheveled. No make-up. Slumped in clothing that appeared to just hang on her frame. Sadness oozing down her face. Defeated.
Amidst the fog in my brain, I knew I somehow had to get in touch with my brother. For what ever reason, he was moved around the state a lot so locating him wasn’t easy. When I finally located which prison/jail he was currently in, I had to leave a message about what had happened and ask that he be allowed to call my uncle’s home. I still wish I had just told them there had been a death in the family. Instead I told the truth and asked that they have him call. I requested they not tell him what had happened but they told him anyway. Turns out he was local and for what ever reason, they were going to allow him to attend the funeral.
So much of that time is a blur but not enough of it. I have zero recollection of where my three year old son was during any of it. I clung to my mama for the week.
The viewing was horrific. My poor aunt had to shop twice for a turtle neck that would cover his broken neck. I know that some folks need the viewing for closure. I learned I am not one of those people. I’m not really sure if anyone in our family wanted to go or if we all showed up out of duty. I could see the caskets from the hallway and that was more than enough for me. But when my uncle hit the floor in the viewing room, I went in to check on him. My eyes couldn’t help but wander. I vowed then and there to never attend another viewing. Ever.
The funeral was unbelievable. The families agreed to have a joint funeral and burial for my cousin and his girlfriend. They are buried side-by-side. My cousin’s girlfriend was only 16 years old and she was popular at the high school. They were both well loved by anyone who ever knew them. The funeral was held at his girlfriend’s church which was enormous. But it couldn’t hold the over 1500 people who showed up. The place overflowed and spilled outside all over the church grounds. It was overwhelming and there were a couple of times I had to redirect my aunt away from folks who say the wrong thing at the wrong time and place.
My brother showed up in the throng of the crowd with his prison guard. The guard was kind enough to allow him to sit with my mother and I and the rest of our family, while he stood at the front doors. I recall thinking how trusting the guard was and how easy it would be for my brother to slip away in that crowd. Thank goodness he didn’t do that!
To this day I cannot listen to the songs, Arms of the Angels by Sarah McLaughlin or One Sweet Day by Mariah Carey and Boys II Men. Those songs wrench my heart out and throw me right back into that time and place.
The sadness from the loss didn’t go away for a long time. Depression knocked on the door and I opened it wide and said, “Come on in, I’ve got nothing better going on.”
A month later, my brother-in-law called me at work to tell me that one of my husband’s best friend’s had been killed on his motorcycle. New cycle of grief. Another viewing, another funeral, and another hurting family. I went to the viewing, even after vowing I’d never do it again. My husband hadn’t been to my cousin’s and wanted to go and I couldn’t let him go alone. I think we’re both on the same page about viewings now. This time around there was a wake to celebrate our friend’s life. One of the sweet and funny videos shown was from our wedding just four years earlier.
Tragedy has a way of changing who we are and propelling us into action. I realized how short life could be. I was spinning my wheels working for someone who treated me like crap. I was constantly lectured and teased about my weight by the owner of the fitness center. I was a whopping size 6 and 8 while working there. At one point, he called me into his office to lecture me on gaining weight. With his door wide open – he wasn’t a quiet man – so that all the managers and those who were coming and going for tanning, could hear everything he said.
My boss used to tell me I’d never be able to leave my job because he gave me free childcare. “You’ll have another baby and be stuck here forever.” My cousin’s death lit a fire under me. I realized that I could find a better paying job that offered health insurance and the money saved from my hubby having to pay for healthcare, would be enough to cover childcare. I had no problem finding a job. In fact, I had two positions that I turned down, who continued to pursue me. When I found the right job and gave my notice, he was shocked. It was a nice victory.
My husband followed suit and found another job and we moved to a new town, a half way point for both of us to commute. That was 11 1/2 years ago and we’re still here. That move changed our lives. At work my husband was plunked down next to two Christian men who witnessed to him everyday. We befriended the neighbors who were Christians and witnessed to him as well as invited us to church. A little over a year after our move, my husband gave his life to Christ and things have never been the same.
While the rest of the world prepared for the computer crashes of Y2K, our family could never know the life crushing changes that were headed our way. The good-byes we never got to say. The memories that were all we’d ever get. In an instant, it’s over.
I didn’t realize until this year that the reason I dislike New Year’s is because it leaves me feeling apprehensive. I know first hand how quickly life can drastically change and scar. How a New Year may not be initially filled with any hope.
But there is always hope. Even in the midst of something I’d never wish on anyone else. The pain of loss never lessens with time, despite what is often said. Any given moment, it can be as real and raw as the day of the accident. We just learn to manage it better.
If you are in the midst of this kind of grief, I empathize with you. Know that when your time of mourning is through, there will be light at the end. Joy will return. Don’t allow anyone to rush you through it or tell you how you should be feeling or acting.
And please, if you know someone grieving, let them grieve. Don’t tell them you know how they feel. You don’t. I don’t know how my aunt feels at losing her son. I know how I felt. I know only how I grieved the loss. Often times, it’s better to just say, “I care about you and I’m here for you.” than to say anything else.
* In the first photo, my cousin is the one in the red sunglasses holding my hand.
Linking Up With Missional Women