My mother-in-law moved to Cincinnati just over two years ago. Her husband passed a couple of years before that. She lives in a retirement community within walking distance of Ty and me so that we can take care of her because she suffers from dementia.  Unfortunately, she’s stuck in a very negative place where she can’t remember how long she’s been here or how miserable she was before she moved here.  She lived alone for few years before moving here and she voluntarily decided to come, even though it’s a decision she now regrets.  She will tell anyone who will listen (several times) “There’s no place like home.” She hates where she lives now.  She just wants to be back in Springfield, KY with her husband, her dog and the house they used to live in.  She is a lovely woman. She is very friendly and outgoing and has been more like a mother to me than a mother-in-law.  At this point in her life though she is hard to be around for more than a few minutes at a time because every few minutes- usually five minutes at the most she will repeat how unhappy she is with her life and how she just wishes she could go back home or “the good Lord” would call her.

We love her and we try to be patient with her and when my patience wears thin I remind myself that I can see myself in her.  Similar to her, I either want to go back in time or all the way forward to when I go Home. This in between is killing me. Everyone tells her to cheer up.  Make the best of your life now. She is living in a great place. She has friends there. There are all kinds of activities. She doesn’t have to cook or clean.  It’s like being on permanent vacation in an all inclusive resort.  “Just be happy with what you’ve got.” they say to her.  “You had a good life with your husband and your kids.  You’re living in a better place than you’ve ever been in. You have your daughter close.  What more could you want?”  But, she won’t hear it.  She can’t hear it. She is homesick and as she tells us over and over “This is not my home.” 

So, as I deal with her phone calls and her repeating over and over “There’s no place like home” every time I see her, I try to keep in mind that I’m doing the same thing. She can’t cover it up because she has zero short term memory. So, two minutes after she says something, she’s very likely to say it again. It’s not her fault. I have to maybe tone it down I guess.  I need to put on that happy face more often. No one wants to be around that negativity all of the time.  People want us to be happy.   But, yeah, Margaret. Now I know what you mean. 

I wake up from a dream about a job I left over 20 years ago. I was back in the office meeting old friends again and reminiscing about our times together. I had to give a speech to the office. I’m now sure of the topic. As I wake up I’m thinking about the past and how it shapes who we are today. I have been hearing from multiple sources there are no accidents. What happens happens for a reason and we have actually planned it. My thoughts turn to Mrs. Richards, my fifth and sixth grade teacher.

Up until fifth grade I was known as a bit of a problem child. I had been in trouble with teachers since at least first grade. I remember carrying home the dreaded notes saying I was uncooperative or “talked back”. I didn’t want to take the teachers’ suggestions preferring to do my own thing. For some reason in fifth grade I was in a split classroom with both fifth graders and sixth graders. I think it was an experiment. It was called an “open classroom”. We had very little time when the whole class was listening to the teacher drone on. We worked in small groups or independently. We could leave the classroom whenever we liked, we just had to grab the hall pass. At the beginning of each week we contracted for our assignments for the week. Scheduling them was up to us. As long as we completed them, we were free to procrastinate or we could cram them all into Monday and Tuesday and spend the rest of the week doing exploratory stuff. That’s what I chose to do. I loved it. Because it was a split class, I had Mrs. Richards two years in a row. Mrs. Richards was the first teacher I can recall that really got me. She loved me for who I was. Because of my dry sense of humor, she called me Groucho. She sent glowing reports home to my parents. She boosted my self esteem so much that over 40 years later I still think of her. I can still remember her voice, her face and her mannerisms. Thinking of that brings me comfort when I get afraid I’m going to forget Shayna. Surely I will remember her for as long as I do Mrs. Richards and God forbid I live another 40 years.

I’m sure she had no idea while she was on this earthly plane how much of an impact that teacher had in two years on that scrawny little kid in her class or that over 40 years later I would credit her with being a big part of who I am today. There are moments, people, events in our lives without which not only would our lives be different, we would be different people. The older I get, the more I see the purpose in what can seem to be randomness.

When I get discouraged about the way my life is going, especially when something I don’t like happens, I find it helpful to reflect on events in the past that either seemed devastating or insignificant. None of them were insignificant. Being in the right place at the right moment made all the difference in the world several times.m I think of my first job that I got by meeting a VP of Columbia Gas at a dinner. I had a migraine that night and almost didn’t go. That job sucked. I hated where I lived. I tried to get out of it for four years, but that job led to me being in Lexington, KY at the moment and day when I met my wife at the gym. Had I not gone to that dinner, no Ty, no Kayla and no Shayna. Going to that dinner that night seemed inconsequential at the time. Even the things I thought were awful worked out to put me in the right place at the right time and taught me invaluable lessons.

Maybe some day I will see Mrs. Richards again and be able to thank her for the role she played in my life.

Today is not a good day. It’s four days after Christmas.The sun has gone into hiding again and I’ve got more things to do than I have time to do them.  I decide I need to get out of the house so I take a trip to the grocery store and then to White Castle for some sliders. I was near a White Castle last night, got a whiff and the crave for my semi-annual splurge kicked in.

At the grocery store at 1 o’clock in the afternoon are a bunch of old people.  I don’t know if it’s seniors day or what but I’ve never noticed so many old people in the grocery store. They’re shuffling around, bent over. I’ve never wanted to get old, I especially don’t want to get old now.  The thought of living another 20 or 30 years is enough to send me into immediate depression and I already wasn’t having a good day.  I leave the store and head to White Castle.  I don’t go often and I’m pretty sure the last time I was here was with Shayna because Ty won’t eat their hamburgers and Kayla doesn’t eat beef.  I think of Shayna as I order my six sliders. I think of the first time I took her to White Castle.  It’s a story we have told over the years. It was just Kayla and Shayna and I.  Shayna was only five years old, but I remember it like it was yesterday.  As I’m eating my sliders I’m getting more melancholy by the minute.  Maybe I won’t come back to White Castle anymore. These might be my last ones.  I’ve been eating White Castle sliders since I can remember, but I won’t ever be able to eat them again without thinking of Shayna.

I get in the car to head home and on the radio comes The Carpenters song Superstar.  Karen Carpenter can move me to tears on a good day, but today the tears just start flowing.  I think of how Karen has already passed.  Lucky.  Then, comes George Harrison up next. George has already passed.  I want to be where they are.  I’m just bawling in the car now. It’s been a long time since this has happened. Sometimes it seems like the tears are over, but I don’t worry about how many tears there are or when they come anymore. They come when they come.

I decide I need to put my head down, stop thinking about decades out and just focus on getting through the day. One more day.

Today at church is the Burning Bowl Ceremony.  This is an annual service at the church we are now attending.  We write what no longer serves us from the past year or years and we burn it to symbolize letting it go and releasing it.  We don’t literally burn it since the church doesn’t have a chimney, but we shred our pieces of paper, maybe even more powerful as you can hear the shredders grinding away all of the things we are leaving in our past.

When the pastor talks about letting go, the first thing that comes to mind is Shayna.  I mean I’m not taking Shayna with me into 2016.  2015 is the year I have to let her go.  This is what comes to mind.  What a crazy thought.   No way I’m letting go of Shayna. That will never happen, not in 2016, 2026 or 2086.  So, let’s just set that aside. What else do I need to let go of? I think of control.  I need to let go of control.  I am a control freak.  I realize I try to control everything.  From the smallest thing- little noises that bother me- I can’t stand the sound of people eating, to trying to control Ty as if she is an extension of me, to judging myself all of the time for not being as enlightened as I think I should be by now.  My desire to have perfect self-control so I can stop suffering actually causes me to suffer.  That’s it.  I write down control on the paper and all of the ways I’m going to try to give it up this year.  I start my my march to the shredder.  

During the service the pastor brings up The Work of Byron Katie.  I haven’t read the book or take any of the courses mainly because the little I have heard about it rubs me the wrong way, kind of like Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking or Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life (which I have read).  There is this bit in Byron Katie’s work about “Loving what is.” Frankly, I don’t know what that means, but I cannot accept it for the way it sounds. I can try to accept what is.  Eventually, we have to accept what is.  There is nothing more futile than going to war with reality.  It’s a war you’re going to lose every time.  But, I don’t have to love it.  I’ve been working on accepting Shayna’s death.  Really, really hard. I force myself to face the reality. I try to find the good in it. I try  to find the purpose in it. I try to look at the big picture, to think long term. I’m doing everything I can find to do.  A couple of weeks ago I thought maybe I hadn’t accepted it, but I was at least resigned to it.  I was no longer fighting it.  Now I’m pretty sure I was wrong.

I’m reading a book now called “I’ll Meet You At the Base of the Mountain”. It’s written by a woman whose 21 year old daughter passed in an automobile accident. I can relate to just about everything she says and I appreciate her being so honest. I feel as if my life is over. She has three other kids (all older) and a husband and wants to live for them, but she talks about the urge to step in front of a bus.  Yes!  I feel that too. It’s good to know I am not the only one.  The pain here is just too much facing the reality of a life without one of your children knowing that we are always only a moment, a literal heartbeat away, sometimes we just want to take that step. Thank you Donna Visocky for your unfiltered honesty. I can also relate to Donna’s headfirst dive into the “woo woo world” as she calls it. Reading everything she could about the afterlife, reincarnation, mediumship, NDEs, etc. etc.  It’s become my obsession. All I want to do is learn more, meditate on it and share it with anyone who will listen.  But, what I can’t relate to is Donna has found new purpose in her life. She changed her career after her daughter died. I haven’t finished the book yet, but she seems to accepted that Kristi’s passing was part of the plan for her Donna’s soul growth.  I’d still take Shayna back in a heartbeat if I could.  Yeah, I believe I planned this, rather we planned this, but what the hell was I thinking at the time?  I could go back and smack Spirit Brian sitting in heavenly realms right upside his spirit body head.

The reason I have to confess I haven’t accepted this yet is I still haven’t accepted the idea of living years or even decades without Shayna. When I hear a parent say it’s been 10 or 15 or 20 years since his child passed, I cringe.  When I hear a parent say anything other than I miss her like crazy, I don’t know that I ever want to get there.  When I hear a parent say “I have joy in my life again”, I tilt my head like a puppy when a human does something he just can’t grasp.  "Huh?“  I guess I will have accepted this when I can think about Shayna’s passing without wanting to die myself.  And if that is truly the measure, I don’t know that I ever will accept it. Maybe that’s not important though as long as I keep putting one foot in front of the other and making it one day at a time.  Acceptance is a big goal. Maybe it shouldn’t even be a goal.

Kayla has been home on Christmas break for just over a week now. When Kayla is home, we catch up on our movie queue. I love watching movies with Kayla because we both have this sense that movies and books, fiction, so often capture the deeper aspects of life. We watch them together then we have great conversations about what they really mean. I’ve come to believe that a lot of what artists produce is actually channeled, given to them from higher sources. In the same way the authors of the Bible were inspired, Spirit whispers greater truths to people who then express that through philosophy, art, movies, books, etc. As I’ve been watching these movies, I’ve observed something else. The Observer- that being me.

In meditation one of the major goals is to discover who we truly are. The first step is to realize we are not our bodies. In no particular order, we then have to realize we are not our brains. We are not our thoughts. We are not even our minds. As we peel away all of these things that are parts of us, we come to the true us, the one who stands behind it all- The Observer. The Observer is the essence of who were are, the one having this experience. The Observer is never born and never dies. The Observer exists outside of this physical realm. The way I picture it now (and this is based on what science is now saying about physical reality), this is life, this universe is basically a hologram, a projection. It arises out of consciousness, but it doesn’t exist independent of consciousness. Like a movie is a projection of light onto a screen that tells a story, such are our lives.

When we first sit in that darkened movie theater, we are well aware of the people around us and the chair we are comfortably and safely sitting in, but at some point after the movie starts, we find ourselves caught up the action. Our focus has narrowed, our attention has been drawn in. We are that action hero on the screen. When she turns a corner and something jumps out, it’s not just she who is danger, we are in danger. We jump or we scream. We feel the tension of the plot. We cry when characters die. We cheer when they have a victory. But, at the end of the movie, the lights come up and we remember we were never in any danger. None of the actors in the movie are dead because their characters died. They’re home with their families. They’re reading their next scripts. All is well, but we have been thoroughly entertained for those couple of hours.

This is what I have been reflecting on lately and I find it helpful. It’s not that life has no meaning or consequence. It’s just that it’s not as bad or as permanent as it seems while we’re still here immersed in it. My goal is to be able to broaden my picture, at least for a while, even while I am still here in playing my role in the movie. My role is important. The feelings and experiences we have while we are here we are meant to have and to experience fully, but sometimes I need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Sometimes when a shocking moment happens, like the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones (Google “red wedding reactions” and watch the videos on YouTube), we have to remind ourselves that “It’s just a movie.” Everyone who shot that scene is fine. The actor who played Rob Stark isn’t dead, the character wont’ be in that show anymore,but it’s going to be OK. Then, we settle in and enjoy the rest of the show.

As I come back into the neighborhood today, as always, I notice the purple ribbons that the neighborhood girls put up to mark Shayna’s death. I can say the word death now. For a long time I had to use “passing” or “transition” because the word death has such a negative connotation. But, as I’ve fully embrace death is just another word for a transition and we don’t truly die, the word has lost its sting. Christmas Eve is six months to the day from the day Shayna passed from this life into the next life.

Even as the Christmas decorations went up at the neighborhood entrances the purple ribbons are still there. And many of our neighbors still have them on their mailboxes and around their trees. It’s always bittersweet when I see them as I’m out for a run or when I’m driving back into the neighborhood. The fact that our neighbors would put them up in the first place was humbling enough. The fact that so many people have kept them up for what is exactly six months now is astonishing. I pray a little prayer of gratitude each time I pass one. Anyone reading this, know that Ty and I both still notice your gestures of solidarity and we are most grateful. A neighbor is out for a walk with her dog and passes our house I think most days. She stops to tell Ty and me that every time she passes the house, she prays for us. Wow.

Time, time, time…. the ribbons are a reminder of the passage of time. Some of them are starting to fade a bit. It has been six months after all. I’m grateful for the fading. I cheer the fading. Time is something I have difficulty with and I think many of us do. The physicists are beginning to tell us time is just an illusion. This is a concept I cannot grasp or can only grasp fleetingly. If time is an illusion it sure feels real. Time, for most of us is an enemy in the sense that we never think we have enough of it. We see our bodies aging, we see things changing and it’s a reminder that our time on this Earth is limited. After a brief period in childhood where we all way to be adults (oh how foolish we are), we want to slow it down. The more we age, the more we want to slow it down. So, we try to cheat time. We chase the Fountain of Youth. We dye our hair, we bleach our teeth, we get face lifts. Anything to avoid admitting to ourselves that time is running out. We’ll do anything, anything for another year, day, second. Time is not my enemy in that way anymore, but time is still an an enemy in another way. Nothing will keep me separated from Shayna, but for the moment, time has won a battle. Time, I have news for you. You will not win the war. You stand between us. Only time separates us. But, Time’s defeat is inevitable. Time can’t help but pass. And every day, as those ribbons fade, as the seasons change, as my beard gets more white hairs in it, I am one day closer to my victory.

I wake up to a warm Christmas. It’s almost 50 degrees. It’s been a warm late fall/early winter. Some people are bummed about the weather. I’m happy about it. First, I hate cold. Second, I haven’t had to think much about it being nearly Christmas. Christmas? Bah humbug!

The days of getting up early and going downstairs to see what Santa brought have been long over. Christmas lost some of its excitement several years ago, but Shayna kept much of it alive. Today, we have to make some decisions. Traditions have fallen by the wayside. Everything changes, even traditions. Once they no longer serve us, it’s time to let them go. For the last several years Ty has gotten the girls pajamas for Christmas. They would open them on Christmas Eve and wear them to bed that night to have them on for the pictures on Christmas morning. In keeping with tradition, Ty gets pajamas for Kayla this year. We typically have Cornish game hens for Christmas dinner. I still remember the first year we had them. Shayna must have been around five. She called it “bird” and she loved having her own whole bird to devour. She ate nothing but “bird”. No sides at all. At the end of the meal she sat there uncomfortably stuffed once dinner was over . Ty has suggested we have lamb this year. The problem is though Ty’s mother doesn’t like lamb and Kayla wont’ eat it. Having Cornish hens is going to be a big trigger, but we decide to have them anyway. I’m thinking if I’m still here next year maybe we’ll have Chinese.

We’ve decided we can’t spend the whole day in the house, so we decide to go see a movie. It’s always a challenge finding a movie the four of us, now the three of us, all want to watch. We finally talk Ty into Star Wars- The Force Awakens. This forces Kayla to get up at a decent hour so we get to see her in the morning. We don’t have time for our traditional Christmas breakfast. I go for a run to clear my head. It’s warm enough for shorts and a t-shirt. I pass several people on the road out walking and running on Christmas morning. I get back, wake up Kayla and we’re off to Star Wars.

After Star Wars, Kayla opens her presents. Ty and I have decided to not exchange presents. It’s impossible to buy for each other after this one together. I get her something small. She gets a gift for me from Shayna and she and Kayla give me a gift. It’s good to watch Kayla opening her presents, but this is when I mis Shayna most. The excitement she brought to the gift opening is missed by all of us.

Dinner time rolls around. I grill the Cornish hens, Ty makes the rest. We have a pleasant meal, the four of us. Again, I think we’re all thinking of Shayna as we devious our “bird”.

After dinner Ty returns her mother to the retirement community and we decide to watch “The Green Mile”. Kayla has never seen it. While Ty is cleaning up the kitchen Kayla and I have one of our philosophical talks about the meaning of life, non-linear time, the oversoul, light topics like that. After The Green Mile is over, we all talk about the curse Paul Edgecombe is given, the fact that he is going to live a VERY long life, perhaps hundreds of years and will have to watch not only his wife, son and everyone he knew in his early life die, even people he meets later in life he knows he will outlive. In the film, the character John Coffey makes a comment about how one of the executed prisoners is actually the lucky one. I think we can all relate.

My friend asked me about tears. I actually didn’t have many tears. That is not a good or a bad thing. It just is. I don’t analyze the number of tears anymore. They come when they come. Tears are my body’s way of expressing itself when I’m just full and there’s no other way to get it out. The lack of tears don’t indicate a lack of the emotion, it’s just not overflowing at that particular moment.

It’s after midnight. The day is over. We have survived Christmas One without Shayna. One day closer, one Christmas closer.

Wow. I cannot believe I miscounted the number of funerals I have attended this year. I left Willy’s out. How can I leave out the funeral of an 11 year old of one of my very good friends? I drove 3-½ hours each day to attend. So, the count is actually six. Two 80 year olds, a 46 year old, a 16 year old, an 11 year old and my 15 year old. That is more funerals than I’ve been to in my life combined.

Today is the funeral of the a neighbor and friend. Victoria was in Girl Scouts with Shayna. She was also on the volleyball team with Shayna. I look at her parents Tim and Joan as they are participating in the burial rites of their precious baby daughter. I know what they are feeling. I look at them as I looked at Dawn (Willy’s mother) and I feel like I can literally feel their pain. This happens at several times during the service.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago death is no-thing and death is everything. At these funerals, that is brought home all the more. I know the pain of the parents now. I think I can relate to the pain of the spouses. But at the same time I know the “departed” are right here. I picture Shayna with Victoria there together trying to comfort us to know avail. The death of a sixteen year old is tragic. No amount of faith changes that. It’s a rough day. But for Shayna and Victoria, I’m sure they’re saying “It’s no big deal. It won’t be long. I’m right here.”

After the funeral we head to Columbus for the family Christmas celebration. This is a day I’ve dreaded. I love my family. They are good people. But, it’s all about small talk and I’m just not much for small talk. We walk into my brother’s house. It’s full of people, but conspicuous by their absence are Shayna and my Aunt Betty who passed a couple of months ago. Her husband, my father’s twin, is there.

I get through it. I put on a smile for everyone. I join in the talk, play six to eight black men for them. We exchange gifts. Ty and I talk afterwards. She was feeling the same hole without having Shayna here. The thing is there is no where I want to be. Here, there…. does it really matter? It’s all the same. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. We have the drive back home, have to pick up the dogs, do the shopping for Christmas dinner and get it all done before everything shuts down for Christmas. What a week it’s been. Already had two funerals. Just one more day and Christmas will be over.

Suffering- the Buddha said it was unavoidable.  If you’ve lived on this planet long enough to read this, you’ve had at least a taste of suffering.  But, what is suffering?  Is it the same as pain? Is it really unavoidable?

For me the definition of suffering that works best is when our desires don’t line up with reality; or maybe more accurately when we cannot or do not simply accept what IS.  If we reject the reality of what has happened, what our current state is or what we think our future state will be, we suffer.  If we dwell on the way life SHOULD be rather than the way life is, we suffer.  Pain is inevitable. Things are going to come along that hurt us- physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually.  No one, not even the most skilled or enlightened person is immune from pain.  Suffering occurs when we decide the pain isn’t what is or isn’t what should be.  Suffering is optional.  The avoidance of suffering is simple.  If you want to avoid suffering, just accept what is. But, just like pain is not the same as suffering, simple is not the same as easy.

In American society we are taught to be the masters of our own fates. We are taught to make things happen.  We are goal setters. We are doers.  We are creators and builders.  As a man, I’m expected to be a take charge person.  I’m trying to be “successful”.  When things don’t go as planned, I am supposed to evaluate why that happened and make a course correction to get back on the path.  When my ability to do that isn’t good enough to make it happen, I suffer.  For the past 15 years I’ve been working on this, knowing the goal of accepting what is, but it goes against human nature, against American culture and against the way I’ve been indoctrinated as the leader of my family.  So, I suffer and I suffer greatly.  There is hope however.  I am getting better. It’s a difficult thing to admit I’m not in control of my life, but knowing this life is not the be all and end all of my existence helps.  Becoming detached from outcomes and only focusing on effort is a long slow process from where I started, but with meditation, prayer, reflection and study, it’s possible to change the programming. Even setting the goal of being “enlightened” of ending suffering can be a cause for suffering if we cannot accept where we are right now. It’s a paradox wrapped in a conundrum.  Seeking to end suffering can be a cause of suffering itself.

The other day I saw a bumper sticker that just set me off. “With God All Things Are Possible”. I wanted to pull the guy over and scream at him “No they are not.”  God will not change the past. God will not grant you immortality in this body. God will not bring back the dead.  Not everything is possible. Step one to eliminating suffering is to accept not all things are possible.  You can never accept what is as long as you believe that if you only have enough belief or if God sees fit, He will wave His magic wand and fix it for you.  

A friend sent me a very interesting article on how we deal with pain.  We can avoid it. We can try to heal from it.  Or we can accept it and try to learn from it.  The first two approaches can lead to suffering.  You can only avoid the pain for so long.  Healing from the pain sounds like a good idea, but if you think there’s a quick fix, you’re going to suffer.  The third approach will minimize or maybe even eliminate suffering.  We can, if we can step back from it, find lessons in pain.  Pain can be redemptive.  Pain can be a motivator. In fact, I would argue that pain is the best if not the only motivator.  We don’t change things until something causes us discomfort or even pain. However, when the pain comes, if we haven’t got the proper perspective, we suffer.  Suffering is not redemptive.  So, the pain will come. When it does though remember that while pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.  

Today I am attending the third funeral in four days. The fifth of this year.  I have been to the services of two 80 year olds, a 15 year old, a 46 year old and today a 16 year old.  

As Dannion Brinkley so succinctly said “If you’re breathing you’re leaving.”