The blog is dead. Long live the blog.

Yes, it’s been more than a year.  I have excuses.  They’re boring.  They don’t matter.

Why did I stop writing?  When it comes down to it, there was a time when I wanted to write and then for a while I didn’t.

Right now I’d like to try again.  This should be fun.  Thanks for coming.

(Please note my desperate attempt at a catchier domain name.  I paid for it so please use it.)

https://not-another-blog.com

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Back with a whimper

It’s been seven years today.

For the first time since he was killed my family isn’t together and I thought it’d be fine.  And it is.  But it’s harder than I expected.

Today, as usual, distraction was my drug of choice.

With a clinic remodel and meetings to run I was sufficiently busy at work today. But now, the construction workers have gone home to their families or possibly to the bar, and as staff trickles out the busyness and the sound have suddenly ceased.  And along with it, my buzz.  (For those of you not following my witty metaphor, please see the one sentence paragraph above.)

And it sucks.

So apologies to those of you who called, sent a text or emailed.  Please forgive my inability to cope like a regular person.  I’ll be in my head if you need me.

lowlights

I’ve had this one in the can for a while but haven’t posted anything for  some time because life has been full since I last did: a new baby boy, a two-year old little girl realizing that the little boy was sticking around, diapers,  work, and more diapers.  And this post is ugly.  It doesn’t fit with my life and my mindset right now.  Yet somehow I still have this nagging feeling that I need to push forward, to force myself to grieve through the current happiness I feel. So here we go again.


I don’t remember very well the sequence of things after we’d left the hospital.  The first week was a strange mix of equal parts heart shattering sadness, no-nonsense practicality and waiting.

Coffin shopping, for example, was terrible.

There were quite a few of us who went.  Too many of us, I think.  We sat around uncomfortably as the salesman talked us through our options.  I don’t remember any part of his pitch, only thinking how much I wanted to leave.  We went into the showroom and I tried to focus on making a wise decision, hoping to alleviate my mom and sister of the responsibility.  Within a few steps of being in the room she crumbled, sobbing something I couldn’t decipher into my right shoulder.  She collected herself and our group started to slowly plod along again.  But again, she simply could not.  The coffins arranged in a circle so our natural inclination was to walk counterclockwise around the room but with each wave of grief my mom and I moved a few steps toward the center.  Everyone tried a few more times to move forward until finally I started pointing my mom in the general direction of each of our different options for a few seconds between sobs.  Finally, after surveying an assortment of chrome,  powder blue, airbrushed and bedazzled boxes, we decided as a family on a simple wood finish.  Then we got the hell out of there.

Funeral suit shopping was practical.

I can’t remember exactly how many days passed between his accident and the funeral.   On day three or four maybe, planning for the service was in full swing and somebody mentioned that those of us without a nice suit should probably get one.  The mall was a mess of minorities, high-schoolers and soft-pretzel aficionados soaking up the free air conditioning.  So in the middle of the high desert summer I bought a poorly fitting black suit and was grateful for the distraction.  I did a number of inane activities that first week.  I adjusted the sprinklers.  I canceled his part of the auto insurance.  I walked the dog. I skimmed the pool.  I didn’t immerse myself in what was happening though, which is probably why grief now comes to bite me in the ass at unexpected moments.

And the waiting was… waiting.

I’m no good at waiting now and I wasn’t good at it then.  For me, the worst part of waiting was the re-grieving every time a new relative or old friend would show up.  This sounds selfish.  Maybe it is selfish, but that first week was a series of feeling emotionally crushed, crying until the tears ran out and recuperating, just in time for the damn doorbell to ring and do it all over again.  By the end of the week I dreaded seeing anyone for the first time since they’d found out.  I began to avoid eye contact and dodge the condolences of others.  In retrospect it was pretty self-centered for me to do so, because my dad influenced the lives of so many besides me.  What I can see now is that their breakdowns at seeing my family was the equivalent of me seeing my sister on the side of San Fernando road.  (https://upinmyownhead.wordpress.com/2009/09/22/get-lost/)  I could have respected that better.  I tried to, but day after day it wore on me and I subconsciously told myself that it wasn’t my job to deal with this and carry them as well.

Because the reality was that while many of them were there to support us, and walk through this trial with us, a whole lot more of them needed to be supported as well.  But I wasn’t their guy.  I’m still not their guy.  For a while my dad was their guy.  From the way some of their lives have transpired over the last few years, it would appear that some of them still need someone to be their guy.

At one point someone stopped by who I had known growing up.  He’s a few years younger than me.  Covered in tattoos, he was a large man now and there was a woman about fifteen years his senior trailing behind, her mannerisms suggesting that they were in a relationship. As he approached I suddenly recognized him.   We made eye contact and he wept, telling me that he’d “fallen away, you know, made some mistakes.”  He paused, collected himself, and smiled slightly.  “But your dad, man, when I heard about your dad it hit me.  I just want you to know that when I found out I recommitted myself to the Lord.  I’m turning my life around bro.”

I paused, collected myself and didn’t smile slightly.

“My dad was good man who invested a lot of time and effort into you as a teenager.  If it took him dying to make you realize that you needed to take your relationship with God seriously, then as far as I’m concerned you can go to hell.”

Like I said… lowlights.

Seeing is believing.

I haven’t written in months.  From an emotional and prosaic standpoint, I feel paralyzed.

This is not a shock to most who know me but, I like to plan.  Everything.  And right now I have no plan.  However, in an attempt to move forward I will post again, fearing that my words will fight against me and that authenticity won’t seep through the figuring out as it happens out loud.  I am not a fan of external processing.  I am not a fan of rambling.  Yet here I begin to do both.  Please bear with me.

I remember only fragments of the rest of that first day.  When I think back its like the dreams you have where you are aware of the general mood and activities in a room but you can’t identify everyone around you.  I remember pulling into the driveway of my parents’ house, and walking up the sidewalk, past the oil stains left from the old crappy pickup I had in high school, noticing that the sprinklers had been left on for too long because there was standing water in the flower beds despite the summer heat.  I remember walking into the living room to faces that were friends of my parents but simply people I knew peripherally and the simultaneous irritation, uneasiness and strange comfort I felt that they were there.  Walking back to the master bedroom with Mandy and Ana, I remember thinking that maybe, somehow, somebody had really screwed up their information, that my Dad was still at the hospital, simply needing surgery for a broken leg or needing observation because of a bad concussion.  Sure, it would be inconvenient to fix  the truck and my parents’ insurance premiums would go up but they’d  be able to handle it.  I even hoped that maybe it was someone else.

I’m not proud to write that.  But I did.  In my confusion and frustration I hoped that it was one of the asshole firemen that worked overtime to pay for a boat instead of coaching Little League, or a prisoner from one of the fire work camps.  Who cares if the world is short one more absent father, rapist or tweaker I wondered until I opened the door and realized that this wasn’t collateral damage as my immature brain had rationalized in the twenty or so steps it took to get down the dark, carpeted hallway.

As concretely as I can describe the sidewalk and my thoughts leading up to my mother’s room that had previously been my parents’ room I can’t adequately describe the grief, the absolute gut-wrenching realization and subsequent weeping that we shared as a family minus one.  My description wouldn’t convey the true weight of the situation.  It’d be like an actress crying on a Showtime movie, cheap and unconvincing.  I’d probably use clichéd phrases like gut-wrenching.

Within an hour of arriving I remember my mom asking me if I wanted to see him.  I did.  So we slumped into another company car and drove past the strip malls of my hometown to the one hospital that served the entire valley.   I remember walking past someone sitting on the dirty concrete steps and somehow smoking in the heat and wind outside before I entered the somewhat antiseptic, somewhat sick smell of the facility.   We shuffled into the ER quietly, through a side door past the overcrowded waiting room.  A nurse raised her eyebrows in objection at first, opening her mouth to speak until she saw the firefighter uniform behind me and the slow shuffle of my mom, who’d been there earlier in the day.

I paused and the chaplain led us to a back room, motioning for me to stand in a hallway.  I could hear some low voices and what sounded like a dentist’s drill coming from behind a thick metal door.  After knocking politely once and then a bit more forcefully a second time, the voices stopped.  A young woman poked her head out, wearing a rushed, slightly irritated expression which also eroded quickly when she realized who we were.  She mumbled to us that she needed a minute and turned back into the room.  I could hear several curtains opening and closing and when she returned she forced a smile before quickly darting past us down the hall.

I don’t know what I expected, but on the ride over we hadn’t exactly discussed the logistics of what would occur when we arrived.  It suddenly became apparent though that if I was going in I was going it alone.  So I stepped inside and closed the door behind me, quickly walked down a dimly lit area between two hospital beds to avoid the option of changing my mind and suddenly there I was.  Suddenly, there he was.

For anyone reading this hoping for salacious details or for anyone reading it starting to feel uneasy and nervous, you can both feel disappointed and relieved respectively, because all I will say is that my Dad looked like he had died in a car accident.

I spent only a few moments standing there actually.  I tried to say something meaningful but it felt forced and strange, so I tried to think something meaningful instead.  But in trying to comprehend and process the day’s events I felt utterly confused and drained.  I simply muttered, “thanks Dad,” and left hurriedly.

Looking back I don’t know what I gained from seeing my Dad, the guy who was the best man at my wedding, in a state that none of us would ever hope to see a loved one, but I don’t think I lost anything either.

I certainly didn’t gain any closure.  Someone talks about closure and I want to punch them in the face.  For me, people who gain closure are extremely intelligent and emotionally advanced, people I’d like to be more like someday.  But I also fear that they might just be really adept at hiding their brokeness, resolving to push on with life despite feeling shitty most days.  Maybe they just drink more than I do.  Either way, I still feel like I’m “closing” so to speak, so seeing my Dad certainly didn’t achieve that.

I also didn’t gain any peace, to be sure.  If anything, that was a moment when my eyes were as opened to reality and the harshness of said reality, as they’ll ever be.  I love my life right now.  I love that I have a beautiful wife who loves me despite my flaws, a little girl who cracks me up and forces me to try and act like an adult as I raise and nurture her.  I love that I have a son coming any day now, someone to carry on my family name and get bloody and/or dirty with.  I feel fulfilled in my work.  I am grateful to have a roof over my head in a place where I get to do the things I love to do year-round.  But I don’t rest in these things and while I enjoy them, I can’t say that I feel peaceful in the midst of them, because I wonder not if, but when, the carpet gets yanked out from underneath us again.  (Does anyone want to jump off a bridge yet?)

If anything was lost, maybe it was my illusion of innocence.  But in losing that much was also gained.  Being blessed with a stable family growing up, and a father who took his responsibility to equip me to be a man someday, I felt confident in who I was.  At the time of his death, I was a college grad. I was also already a husband who had worked two or three jobs at once in an effort to support my new family and now had aspirations of a bright future in medicine ahead.  I don’t want to appear as though I was cocky because that wouldn’t be accurate, but I had reached the point where I was coming into my own.  I had taken what I’d learned through observation and direct instruction from my parents and then tried to act like an adult and somehow, it was working.

But suddenly, painfully, my safety net was gone.  I didn’t get to call my Dad and talk about the Dodger game for a few minutes before I asked if I really needed to bleed the brake line if I was just changing the pads.  I didn’t get to go snowboarding with him and tell him right before we got off the chairlift how glad I was that he told me to avoid a high maintenance woman.  I couldn’t ask him about budgeting or investing.  I couldn’t observe how he mentored others or led in a church setting.  If I wanted to build another piece of furniture , like when we’d built a bed for Ana and I as a wedding present, I could follow plans, but I couldn’t expect him show me how to fix the mistakes.

But in looking back, five years, removed, I see his imprint in what has transpired in my life even though he hasn’t been around.  The safety net was never gone because he showed me how to be the person who could find an answer, or be a leader, or fix the mistakes I’ll inevitably make.  And so for that, Dad, I still say thank you.

Get lost.

We got lost a while back.

Ana and I woke up early and packed up the hundred or so toys we cart around each and every road trip even though our daughter prefers to play with one faded pink and very tattered stuffed pony.  With Mia strapped into her cracker encrusted car seat we headed for a greasy spoon diner on the other side of L.A. The destination was a place called Canyon Country, which sounds idyllic but is just somewhere you’ve heard of because it’s home to Magic Mountain and, well, it burns just about every fall when Santa Ana winds whip the flames started by some bored and/or misguided teenager into a state of emergency and the local news stations froth over the chance to cover something other than water rationing and weather reports.  But today there were no plumes of smoke hanging ominously over the 405 as we skirted the busyness of LAX, passed the Getty nestled into its own pretentious hillside, seemingly judging the filth and chaos below and eventually descended into the San Fernando Valley.  Past the improbably traffic free merging of the 5 and 210, we chose the 14 and sped up and over the first major hill on our way to breakfast.  The AM radio always turns to static here.  Your car pulls a little to the right as the wind greets you harshly.  A cemetery sits up on a hillside to your left and is a startling swath of green  in an otherwise brown and desolate landscape.  If you’re not paying attention you can really fly down this steep grade.  Coming back from college, eager to see my family and future wife I’d often look down to see my spedometer pushing 90.  And as you’re speeding down this treacherous slope, eager to get to your destination, you’d probably miss Newhall Avenue as I did on this fine June morning.

Because MapQuest (God bless it) had told me get off at San Fernando Road.  When I’d reviewed the directions the night before I felt a pit in my stomach, remembering the last time I had exited that road, almost five years prior.

*                    *                     *                    *                    *

The chaplain had finally picked up Ana and maneuvered his way through the hellish freeways that criss-crossed the southland on this day when smoke did hang ominously over the roadways.  As we crested the same hill I remember feeling the heat coming through the closed passenger side window I had pressed my throbbing head against.  We turned right off the freeway and stopped suddenly, directly behind an identical looking late model squad car.  The chaplain left the car running and was silent, looking straight ahead.  I saw the passenger side door open slowly and a pale face that I vaguely recognized step out unsteadily into the hot summer sun and smoky air.  Her eyes were terribly swollen and her complexion splotchy from crying.  She stood there for a brief moment, head slightly tilted, squinting into the glare of our windshield, wondering what came next.

I can’t say that in that moment I had a concrete thought that things had changed forever, but seeing my sister, I knew it all the same.

I squeezed my wife’s hand, took a deep breath and stepped out of the white noise of the air-conditioned car into a blast of heat, and a burst of wind and the sting of smoke and the  roar of the freeway… all silenced by the wail of my little sister’s cry piercing through it all.

We stood in the middle of the chaos and wept, her tears wetting my shoulder, sobs literally shaking us both as cars sped by, anxious to get the hell out of this godforsaken place while we stood overcome with tragedy trying to adjust to our new reality.  My wife joined us and after a few minutes I became acutely aware of the chaplains standing outside their doors looking at the ground but silently encouraging us to get back on the road.

*                    *                     *                    *                    *

Last June we drove for another 10 minutes before I realized our mistake and ended up being late to breakfast to celebrate Father’s Day with my in-laws.  Because San Fernando Road as I later learned had been renamed… Newhall Avenue.  Rumor has it that the city of Newhall had undergone a recent transformation of its downtown and in an attempt to distance itself from the gang-ridden San Fernando Valley it decided to change the name of its main thoroughfare.

I envy Newhall Avenue.

Because while a city council was able to change the perception of an area with a few thousand tax payer dollars, I can’t change my reality.  And on bad days, the reality hits me hard.

I walked my sister down the aisle on her wedding day.  I walked down the aisle for my graduation from grad school without him in the auditorium. I introduced my daughter to only one grandpa.  My mother is a widow.  But worst of all…

God allowed this to happen.

And on those days I feel lost.  Where do I go from here?

Is this awkward for you?

There’s a point in every friendship, working relationship or passing acquaintance I’ve developed post 7/13/04 that I always come to.  Somebody will say something along the lines of, “So where do your folks live?”  (According to this example I must only have conversations with people over the age of 65 because I just used the word “folks,” but nevertheless..)  And I get to decide.  Do I simply say, “Lancaster,” followed by some obligatory comment about the wind, or crime, or heat in the city of my childhood so that we can move along with our respective days?  Do I burden them with the responsibility of reacting to the fact that I don’t go home to visit “my folks,” and instead only my mom?

The way I see it, it’s a delicate balance between three options.

I’ve tried to be quick about it, blurt out the city name and move along.  But most people haven’t heard of Lancaster, so they drill down a bit more and inevitably come to a question about what type of work my parents do or something like that.  So I “tell” them.  But again, even here I have the choice and I’ve learned to play with my verb tenses.  “My mom has worked with the school district and my dad was with the fire department,” has been a recent favorite because it implies retirement and I can usually squeak by.

I’ve tried to be partially honest.  I just answer that my mom lives in Lancaster and then grimace internally, because I feel like the element of ambiguity allows people to speculate.

“Maybe his  parents split up long ago, maybe he never met his dad, maybe his old man’s in jail…”

I don’t like the possibilities it affords for my family’s reputation and I feel like it makes me seem like damaged goods, that maybe I can’t change a flat tire because daddy wasn’t around and I was too busy watching Golden Girls with my mom and sister before I went away to college, painted my nails black, listened to the Smiths and struggled with my sexuality.  But that probably reveals more about the way my screwed up mind works more than anything else.  (Have I just driven another nail in the coffin of our future interactions, dear reader?)  Either way, it eats me up inside to give people I don’t know or trust the ability to fill in the gaps as it pertains to my loved ones.

Lastly, I can bring their day to an awkward halt.  Often, choices one and two funnel down to this last result if the person is genuinely good-natured and well-meaning, really “trying to get to know me.”  In this case, I use phrases like, “my dad passed away in ‘04,” and again I feel sick inside because its a sugar coated explanation that lets us both off the hook.  Because passing away can be cancer.  Passing away can be dying peacefully in your sleep.  Passing away is an open casket funeral for your beloved grandmother who had been relegated to the nursing home several years before, where she probably played bingo and drank root beer floats and got her hair done once a week.  Sometimes though, if I’ve already tip-toed around the issue with someone else earlier in the day I don’t have the energy to spare them the awkwardness of dealing with my pain.  So I tell them.

“My mom lives in Lancaster alone because my dad was killed in a single car accident five years ago.”

It happened a few weeks ago actually.  A co-worker asked while working on something else.  She was doing the “stop and chat.”  Our conversation was pleasant.  She’s pleasant.  But I also was preoccupied and didn’t feel like I could multi-task a diabetic care plan and the thought required to give her a pretty answer.  So I told her and then looked away, because I didn’t want to witness the blank stare or drum up any pity.  It is what it is.  It’s not her fault that she asked but it’s not my responsibility to sugar coat it either.  There is a middle ground I believe.  Because its also not my right to ruin her otherwise pleasant day that should have included an otherwise pleasant conversation with me.

It’s not just about the other person’s reaction either.  Frankly, I hate the fallout.  Option A: Someone you don’t really know all that well tries to empathize with an issue you yourself haven’t wrapped your head around.  Good times.  Option B: Someone you don’t really know that well engages their “too much too soon” emotional shield and becomes the cold hearted son-of-a-bitch you feared they might be.  Either way, nobody wins.

And as much as I hate reacting to the reactions, I’ve been on the receiving end of vulnerability when you’re just trying to engage in some small talk.  It’s uncomfortable.  It’s inconvenient.  It’s not my obligation to give this person an adequate response according to the spiritual gifts inventory I took at church last Sunday.  So I get it.  I really do.  But I’d like to think that there has to be a better way.  I’ve been slow to post over the last few weeks because I’ve become acutely aware that people are actually reading these words.  As much as I appreciate the comments in person and on the site, however, I’d like this week to make a request.  Should you choose to respond, please respond to this idea:  From a practical standpoint, how do we as Christians and/or non-Christians actively respond to others in their times of grief, loss, struggle, etc..?  How do we strike a balance between the weeping and gnashing of teeth with someone we just met which would be ingenue and the other extreme of avoiding eye contact, or any contact for that matter, with those that we do know on a personal level and probably should suffer alongside for a while?  For me these are questions that don’t necessarily have answers but I am interested to hear any thoughts…

“Don’t take the 60, it’s terrible this time of day,”

I said as the chaplain sped through downtown Pomona, clearly ignoring the advice I was offering.

“I used to be stationed out here,” he fired back while simultaneously putting his blinker on to do just that.  I imagined he was still wondering why the 24 year old who needed a hair cut was studying to be a physician assistant (or as he’d put it earlier, “so what is that exactly?  Is it like a nurse or something?) instead of a firefighter.  He had shown up in his formals, the dark navy blue uniform I’d only seen my dad wear to his promotions over the years.  I wore flip flops and a Dodgers hat turned backwards.  A customary moustache (they must hand them out when you graduate from the academy) adorned his stern, middle-aged face.  He greeted me with a firm handshake an a crapload of awkwardness.

“Jeremy?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Jeremy, I’m going to brief you on this situation.”

I rose from my chair because it seemed like the thing to do if someone was being briefed.  Maybe I should have saluted.   Mr. Guizado scurried out of the room, leaving the fingerprinted boardroom table behind.  I leaned against it with one hip trying to steady myself in a less-than-obvious way.

“Jeremy, Captain Elkins was involved in an accident while traveling home from a fire this morning.”  I braced myself.  Obviously this didn’t sound good.  “He was taken to Antelope Valley Hospital and we need to get you there right away.”  I exhaled.

“Yeah, yeah, OK. Let me call my wife.  I already packed up my bag.  Let me pull my truck around  so I can follow you…” It makes me laugh now to see how I tried to start “doing” right away, how I tried to take control of the situation.  Internally I wondered what the implications of “taken to the hospital” meant.  It implied to me that my Dad was still at the hospital.  But that in and of itself was a scary proposition.  As mentally locked in as I had been over the last week while studying for finals I now felt completely scrambled.  Yet externally I was trying to have a pissing match with the guy who was coming to supposedly escort me through a traumatic event by giving him instructions.   He interrupted me abruptly in the midst of my planning.

“You don’t understand.  You need to come with me.  In my car.  Your sister and wife are being taken care of.”

So I slid meekly into the tan vinyl passenger seat of his squad car and shut up for a few minutes while he fumbled his way down the most congested and winding street in Pomona toward the freeway I begged him not take.  I tried to distract myself with the “scenery.”  Taquerias, lavanderias, panaderias, carinecerias, and… Starbucks.  I glared at my reflection in the window of a antique shop, squinting through the heat rising up from the potholed blacktop as the blinker ticked off rhthmically and my nervous chauffer sat uncomfortably in his own skin, waiting for the light to change.   When it did, he flipped on the lights and siren, floored it and… almost rear-ended a wall of cars standing still in the midday gridlock.

So we sat and didn’t talk.  Because I had questions and this suit didn’t have answers.

Forty-five minutes and only a few miles later I  couldn’t handle it any more.  Captain Uncomfortable had been flipping through AM radio, wading through the conservative talk and ranchero music for traffic reports and they were all bad.  A series of fires and accidents had slowed L.A. to a hot, smoggy crawl and we were right in the thick of it all.  So I spoke.

“Sir, if you expect to go to the hospital quickly, maybe we’d better take another route.  It’ll be a long drive but maybe if we head out towards the 138…”

“Dad’s dead,” he interrupted.  The radio crackled.  The breaks squeaked and we stopped again.  A mini-van with rims turned onto the shoulder and sped past a line of frustrated drivers as I struggled to wrap my mind around the statement my defacto clergyman had just blurted out.

My hypervigilant brain went on autopilot.  I think the conversation with it went something like this.  “Brain, did he just say ‘Dad’ in a way that implies familiarity, as though he were my sibling, and ‘Dad’ is someone we share?  Didn’t he tell me that we were going to the hospital?  Why are we still on this godforsaken freeway?  Why would we go to a hospital if there is nobody to see?  Why is he still fidgeting with the radio?  Does he think it will somehow change the current sigalert we’re drowning in here!?….”

Apparently I didn’t say anything because he felt compelled to reapeat it.  “Dad’s dead.”  Turn radio dial.  Brake late.  Stop suddenly.  Sigh. Repeat.

Until I tore the door handle from the frame of his car.

Still in an obvious state of shock I turned to face my momentary man of God and stated calmly through the hot tears starting to blur my vision of his finely pressed suit.  “I want you to turn this car around.  I want you to go to my house and pick up my wife.  Now.  And unless there is anything else you need to clarify as you’ve been lying to me so far about the fact that my father is dead, I don’t want to hear your voice the rest of this car ride.”

As he exited the freeway I tossed his handle into the back seat and tried to lose myself in the urban sprawl outside my window.

“I told you not to take the 60.”