[I wrote this in the airport yesterday. It is quite long, and I would understand if you don’t want to read all of it. The most important parts are probably the beginning and the end. It was mostly for me, but I wanted to share what’s going on.]
Last Wednesday night, I was driving home from Polyvalent practice at about 10:30pm when I listened to a voicemail from my parents. My dad’s solemn voice told me that my four-year-old nephew, Braden, had been attacked by a dog, that he was in Vanderbilt hospital, and that it was serious. I immediately called my mom, and she wept while explaining to me that the neighbor’s dog had attacked Braden, and bitten him repeatedly in the face. He had been rushed to Summit Hospital and then upon seeing the severity of the damage, he was rushed to Vanderbilt. My mom went to pick up my niece, Tori, who had witnessed the whole thing. My mom saw Braden just prior to him being taken away. She said there was so much blood that she couldn’t tell what the damage was.
I immediately felt anger. I don’t know why that was the first emotion. I didn’t know what kind of dog it was or whom it belonged to, but I hated the dog. I hated its owners. I imagined what the dog looked like and imagined punching it over and over again. I imagined yelling at his negligent, imaginary owners. I wanted someone to blame, but there was no one. I was home by the time I got off the phone. Brandy could tell something was wrong. I told Brandy what happened and she hugged me as we sat on the couch. I shouted, “LEAVE MY FAMILY ALONE!” But I don’t know who I was saying it to.
The next morning they prepped Braden for surgery, and I got the first flight to Nashville that I could. My best friend, Bryan, picked me up and took me to my parents’ house. They were waiting outside for me when we pulled up. When my mom saw me she immediately started crying. My dad was not feeling well but he was waiting, too. Tori had spent the night with my parents and stayed home from school. Tori bombarded me with hugs as soon as I stepped out of the car.
Braden was still in surgery. We didn’t know what was going to happen at that point, but things went about as well as they could. The dog had bitten through Braden’s cheek in several places and also bitten his eye. They had to stitch his cheeks as best as they could and assess the damage to his eye. The bite had destroyed one of his tear ducts, which they repaired, and it had basically destroyed his eyelid. They did their best to repair it, but there was muscle missing from it, and they will probably have to repair more of the damage later. The good news is that they don’t think his vision will be affected. His eye is still swollen shut at this point, so we don’t know for sure.
A few hours after the surgery, they released Braden and he went home. Mom, Tori, and I went to my brother, Brad’s house. Mom and I teared up when we walked in the living room. Little Braden was lying on the couch next to Brad, and he looked every bit as bad as you would fear. I was nervous to see him. I thought I might be grossed out or something. When I saw him, my heart was just filled with compassion. He didn’t talk very much, and he kept a pacifier in his mouth because it was so sore. He looked pitiful. My brother started crying and kept saying, “I just can’t believe this happened.” Amanda, his seven-month-pregnant wife, rubbed his arm. She said they had taken turns being strong. They had been awake all night in the hospital and no one came to sit with them.
While we were there, the next-door neighbor came over. She was holding an infant and her five-year-old daughter tagged along behind her. The little girl is one of Braden’s playmates. She gave Braden some toys and a card, and she also cried as soon as she saw him. I didn’t know who she was, but I could tell that Brad and Amanda were good friends with her. Over the course of conversation I realized that she was the owner of the dog who had bitten Braden. She had called animal control and they had euthanized the dog that morning.
I expected Brad and Amanda to be cold and angry toward this woman, but they weren’t. She looked nothing like the soulless owner’s that I had conjured up in my mind. She was a very real, very heartbroken single mother who hated what her dog did every bit as much as we did. My brother and his wife were bigger than I was. I just wanted to blame someone.
Brad and Amanda had to give Braden antibiotics, apply ointment to his wounds, and put a patch over his eye before he went to bed. He was so scared and hurt that he started screaming if they even approached him. My mom tried to sit on the couch next to him and comfort him, but he freaked out. When Brad came toward him with the ointment he started punching and kicking and screaming. He pushed my mom down on the ground and she fell into a chair, bruising her ribs. Amanda and I struggled to help her up, and Braden never stopped screaming. It was horrible. There are no words for the range of emotions I felt. Tori was sitting there on the couch freaking out and adding to the chaos. I told her to go up to her room, and mom and I went in the kitchen where we couldn’t see Braden. But we still heard everything. Horrible. Horrible.
The next afternoon, Brandy flew in and I picked her up. We went to see Braden again, and this time he seemed a bit more like himself. He was talking a little bit, but he didn’t want to leave Brad’s side. Tori went home with us to spend the night, and she was very excited that Brandy was there.
At this point, it may be good to explain how many things were going on while we were in Nashville. On top of Braden’s injuries, Amanda, his mom is pregnant. Tori saw the dog attack, and she was the only one who could tell us what happened. She was turning 11 the following Monday. My dad has very advanced cancer, and his health keeps declining. It has gotten so bad that my parents just bought a condo on a different side of town. They are moving there so that my mom won’t have to keep up with a yard and home repairs. I was coming to help my brother, to see my nephew, to celebrate my niece’s birthday, to visit my sick father, and to tell my childhood home goodbye.
Saturday, Brandy and I took Tori out for her birthday to give her parents and my parents a break. We took her to a place called Strike and Spare that has bowling, skating, bumper cars, bungee trampolines, and a bunch of other stuff. We did all of it. Brandy and Tori beat me at bowling. All three of us did back flips on the bungee trampoline. We laughed a lot, and for a bit, we forgot about all the bad stuff. We took Tori to McDonald’s, her pick, and then we took her to a cupcake shop to pick out cupcakes for everybody. That night we ordered pizza, sat around and watched a movie, while Tori stayed glued to her Nintendo DS.
The next day, Brandy and I started packing things. For weeks, I’ve been offering to fly up and help my mom pack. She has told me that I don’t need to worry about it, that she has been working on things little by little and there were plenty of people to help. I was shocked to find that the house looked very much like it always has. Not a lot was gone. We spent the next several days going through rooms, deciding what to keep and what to get rid of. Boxing up things that were moving. Boxing up things that were going to Goodwill. Boxing up things to give to other people.
The more time I spent going through old photos, old books, old record, old trinkets, the more the memories flooded back—the more it hit me what was going on. We came to Nashville to help my brother’s family, and we did. But we were there maybe even more to help my parents. My mom has been bearing so much on her own. She keeps the grandkids, she takes care of Dad, she cooks, she cleans, she packs, she gives, she gives, she gives. But no one is taking care of her. I can’t imagine how physically and emotionally exhausted she must be.
I felt frustrated that there was so little packed for the move. But the more time I spent there, the more I understood. There was so much to do that she didn’t know where to start. And honestly, this isn’t a fun move to an exciting new place. It’s a necessary move that marks the end of a very long chapter in my parents’ lives. It is the huge, tangible reminder that my dad is sick.
We moved into that house when I was one. All my memories of home and family are in that house. I thought I would feel sad leaving it. But honestly, there was so much to do, and so much meaning behind what had to be done, that I could hardly think about the house itself. I just want my parents to get out of that house and into their new condo so that they can rest. So that the stress of what to do will be behind them. So my dad can be at peace. He’s been selling the few assets they have acquired: stock he got from working for the railroad for over 40 years, the five acres they had bought in the 80s in hopes that they would some day build a home in the country. He has bought grave plots for he and mom and paid for his funeral arrangements. He is setting his affairs in order for mom and Brad and me. The condo is one of the final steps. And then what?
I mowed the grass one last time. We have a very big front and back yard. During my entire adolescence and early college years, I mowed the grass almost every single week. It takes a couple of hours on a riding lawn mower and then an hour or so doing trim work with a push mower. It’s hard work, but it’s cathartic. I found that I enjoyed it more now than I did when I was a kid. Maybe because I wanted to help my parents so much. Maybe because there is a theological significance to bringing order to the grass, the thorns, and the thistles that I was unaware of when I was younger.
At first, I didn’t think about anything in particular. The first laps, you focus on the pattern you’re making: dodging the tool shed, the fence, and the fig tree. After that, you don’t have to think a lot about where you’re going. So, you just think. I thought about school, songs, Braden. And then, I thought about all the times I had mowed the grass before.
I found my ragged, adolescent voice on that lawn mower. I used to sing at the top of my lungs—mostly Nirvana and Pearl Jam songs. It was so loud on the mower that I thought no one could hear me. After doing that for months, maybe years, my parents informed me that they could hear me from the house. So, I stopped singing on the mower. But I still wrote songs in my head. I can’t even remember how many Cool Hand Luke songs were worked out while I was mowing the grass.
I started to feel the old feeling of wanting to do a good job because I thought Dad might be watching. I was so scared of screwing something up when I was young. So scared that I would see Dad walk out and correct me or tell me a better way to do things. My dad and I haven’t always had the greatest relationship. He has always been a good father, and he loved and provided for us very well. But he had a way he wanted things done. It was often hard for me to know what that way was. And it was very hard for him when we didn’t get it right. In recent years, Dad has apologized more times than I can remember for being hard on Brad and me growing up. He laments not being more supportive and not letting us have more freedom. I’ve forgiven him for all of that, and I consider him a very good friend and mentor. But I guess the scars are still there. I was never scared that my dad would beat me or anything like that. I just knew he would correct me if it wasn’t the right way. I wanted him to be proud. I felt that again, but this time I knew he wouldn’t scold me or correct me. I just wanted to do a good job so that my dad could have peace.
I know that the hardest part of all of this for my dad isn’t his aching bones or his bloated stomach. It’s the fact that he can’t do what he has always done—what he was created to do. He had me to mow his entire garden down. You just can’t understand what that symbolized. My whole life, my dad spent hours working in his garden every single day. In the summer, my parents have always eaten almost entirely food that they grow. Tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, okra, asparagus, beans, corn, melons, peppers, rosemary, thyme, lemon balm, mint, cilantro. Slowly, my dad’s health has declined and rendered him unable to do the work of gardening. That’s his passion. And I was mowing it down. He will never sow in that garden again. Even if my parents weren’t moving, he just can’t do it.
He gave me specific instructions on how he wanted it done. Raise the blade to 6 on the turnips, lower it to 2 on the edges. Don’t go over the asparagus because they’re still good. He stood and watched as I destroyed in minutes what he had spent 34 years perfecting. Maybe I’m being overly dramatic. I mean, he probably does this every spring—starts over. But he won’t be starting again. At the condo, he can only grow tomatoes if they’re in a pot.
Brandy and I stayed very busy for three days straight. I went through the books and scraps of paper hidden in the old piano bench and found songs notated and lyrics scribbled. I found the original post it that I had written the beginning of Cinematic on. I pinged the detuned keys of that old upright piano, and then we put it on Craig’s List. We laughed at old pictures with my sullen expressions and bad hair. We found old drawings of Voltron I had done on the back of church bulletins. Sometimes, I’m glad Mom is a pack rat. We let a lot go, though. Moving will do that to you.
We kept busy, and I kept from processing too much of it at a time. I kept focused on the next thing. Wash the car, go to the store, load the boxes, unload the boxes. I worked until I was exhausted. My good friend Jessie found out that her mother has breast cancer, so we prayed for them a lot. My friend Adam’s family is sick. My friend Danny’s family is sick. My friend Steve’s son is sick. I prayed for them all. I kept busy. I kept focused on other people. Then, last night—my last night home, when I was utterly fatigued—it all hit me as I lay down. I heard Brandy’s breathing slow down and become regular, and I stared at the wall of my old bedroom. I lay there, and I thought, and I worried. I was home almost a whole week. I had missed school, I had missed leading worship at church, I had missed classes, I hadn’t gotten work done for my Old Testament exegesis paper. I hadn’t done the work for Polyvalent’s Kickstarter that I needed to. I hadn’t figured out what classes I’m taking this summer.
Then, I thought about Dad. And I cried. I cried and I cried and I cried. All night long until I heard the birds singing. As I lay there praying for my family, I was overcome with thankfulness for my wife. She puts up with so much, and I take her for granted. She loves me the way my mom loves my dad. She worries the same. She bears the load the same. She had put down work and clients and life, to be by my side—to help my family. I thanked God for her, and I asked that He would help me to remember what I was learning.
The more I thought about my dad, the harder I cried. Finally, Brandy woke up and held me. I told her I don’t know who to be when I’m home now. It’s my home, but I’m not home. I want to help, but I don’t know what to do. I want to either be a kid or an adult, but I don’t feel like either. It really hit me that my dad is dying. He is setting things in order so that he can leave. My dad is in so much pain. It hurts him to even lie down and not even the morphine helps now. His hip hurts so bad he can hardly walk, and he winces just to cross his ankles.
My dad got really sick right after Brandy and I moved to Florida for seminary. I have wanted Mom and Dad to be able to fly down and see us—to see our life and our friends and our cat and where we live and the seminary and the gardens and the restaurants and the farmers market and the gators. I want him to see our life, and most of all, I want him to be proud of me. It breaks my heart to think that he may never be well enough to do that. It breaks my heart to think that he may never get to hold our children.
I told Brandy, I don’t want him to hurt anymore, but I’m not ready to let him go. I just want him to feel better and be able to enjoy their new condo. I want him to be able to walk down to the community garden and pick tomatoes. I want him to play with Brad’s little baby boy when he’s born. But I don’t know if he’ll ever be able to do those things.
I’ve been studying theology for two years now. People sometimes say that theology is cold and academic, that it has no basis in real life. But today, I’m so thankful for my theology. I’ve been mad this week, but I haven’t been mad at God. I know that all of this pain and hurt is part of the curse that we all live under as a result of sin. I know that death and pain and suffering are unnatural, and they are not part of God’s final plan. I know that Christ, the Redeemer, is going to come and make all things new. He will give us new bodies that are incorruptible, and he will wipe the tears from our eyes. Lord, haste the day. I don’t know that I’ve ever longed for redemption so badly.