It’s been busy the last few days. Spring planting is in full swing at the farm. New areas are being plowed and tilled making for a full acre expansion to Opal’s Farm. Meetings, continuing education classes, and discussion groups have filled my evening schedule. It’s all good stuff, mind you, but then the rain came…
Work is great therapy, but eventually the rain comes. It slows me down long enough for my mind to wander into places I’d rather not visit. Unfortunately, I must. It’s part of the grieving process. I only mention it because I got a text today that Jeremy’s mural at Manana Land will be taken down at the first of April. It’s to be replaced by one of Deborah Peoples, a local candidate for Mayor, to encourage folks to vote. A worthy replacement most times – getting out the vote, even in local elections, is a great endeavor – but not so much right now. I simply don’t want to let go.
Jay Wilkinson’s mural of Jeremy at Hop Fusion Brewery is the one I spend the most time visiting. Jay was Jeremy’s long-time friend and art partner. It means more to me a Jay wasted no time in getting the mural done. It was an incredible effort by someone who knew Jeremy well and painted as such. Still, I drive by the one at Manana Land on the way home some days and wave hello to my son. I won’t be able to do that much longer.
I didn’t want to hear that right now. I’ve been a ball of feelings the last couple of weeks. I’m not even sure how to label them as they change so rapidly. Grief is like that. I’d love to define them and to put them into words, but everything seems to fall short – shallow and meaningless.
The other day I was out at the farm. Roman, our Volunteer Coordinator was out there with me. He tilled one last row before he headed on to other obligations. I stayed behind to seed the newly turned soil. About halfway down the row I saw a toad that had been hit on the shoulder (do frogs have shoulders?) and was bleeding. I took him to the side of the bed and put him in a cool shady spot to rest. When it occurred to me that it might be a fatal wound I began to sob uncontrollably – over a dying toad.
It seemed like it the weeping would never end. What was wrong with me? “It’s a damn frog Greg! Get over it. It’s part of farming, right? He didn’t mean to hurt it. It was an accident.”
I don’t when it happened but suddenly, I realized that the tears weren’t only for some old frog. They were for my son. They were for the folks in line at the food bank up the street. They were for all the broken people in a broken world that no one sees nor tries to help.
They were for George Floyd, for Breonna Taylor, for Armaud Aubery, for Tamir Rice, and the list goes on and on and on.
They were for the 500,000 plus people that have died from COVID and the over 81,000 people that died from overdoses in the wear prior to May 2020. The tears were over the families of those lost – the fathers and mothers that lie awake at night, tears rolling down their cheeks, asking God why – why their child, their parent, their brother, or sister.
They were for Sandy Hook, for Columbine, for Parkland and all the schools, places of worship, or public spaces where mass shootings have taken so many.
All of that because of a bleeding Texas Toad…
Sometimes I simply need to let go, to cry it out, and even question the God, the Abba, who loves me more than I can possibly imagine. Why’d you let it get this way? Why, why, why? “My God, why have you forsaken us?
My sobbing eased and the tears began to slow. I slowly gathered myself together and resumed planting. The smell of freshly turned soil filled the air around me. The sun felt a little brighter and warmer. I remembered the days Jeremy came out and worked with me. God, I miss that, but at least I have that memory. My grandkids will soon be out here more when school is out and I get to see Jeremy in them.
My sadness and anger had passed. God didn’t make or let any of this happen. We did. Perhaps that’s where the anger comes from. I’m not doubting God as much as I’m doubting myself and doubting people. People let us all down at some point. That’s what all humans do. No one’s perfect, right?
Then I remember all the people I’ve met along the way that work diligently, often with little or no reward, to make our community a better place. I have faith God will set all things right one day. I dream of the promised “new heaven and new Earth”, but what’s my part today? God can create universes. I’m sure He could straighten this earthly mess out right away, but He invites me to be a part of the solution. He reminds me that we can do this so just do it…
“We must use our lives to make the world a better place to live, not just to acquire things. That is what we are put on the earth for. Solitude with God repairs the damage done by the fret and noise and clamour of the world.”
– Dolores Huerta
I looked back on saw that everything had been planted before the forecasted rain for the next day. I felt strong, no longer defeated, and hopeful. My tears washed away the frustration and grief that had been building up inside. Now I had a little more clarity. Vision returned. All of this because of an old toad…
I walked back to where I had laid the toad. He wasn’t there but I could see a place where he’d burrowed into the planting bed. Maybe it wasn’t a fatal wound after all. He may end up scarred like me, but we’d both be out there doing out part at the farm. That’s all we can do…
The sun hasn’t yet begun to rise. The darkness is silent and still – “not a mouse was stirring”. Even the freeway sounds are absent this morning. The temperature dropped below freezing last night in honor of Christmas I’m sure. It was seventy degrees here in North Texas last Monday and the weekend promises more of the same: but that’s tomorrow and this is today. I’ll pull my coat a little tighter, have another sip of steaming coffee, and relish the quiet.
I think back to Christmas 1982. At 4:00 AM my ex (she wasn’t my ex then just so you know…) shook me awake. “I think I’m in labor”.
I turned over and asked, “how far apart are the contractions?”
“I haven’t timed them yet”.
“Oh okay. Let me know when the next one comes”, I said sleepily.
I had awakened enough to know I needed to head upstairs to the bathroom. As I walked past the picture window along the stairs, I saw the snow coming down hard. Only about half of the chain link fence was visible. “This is not good”, I mumbled. When I returned to bed, she told me she thought it was a false labor. I crawled back in bed and fell back asleep.
I awoke a couple of hours later and once again slid out of bed and headed upstairs to make coffee. As I passed the window once again, I noticed that only the pointed tops of the four-foot fence were visible. I opened the back door to check on my car. All I could see was its blue roof poking through the snow. The driveway and the alley were covered in three feet of snow and even larger drifts. This really wasn’t good…
Adrian, our oldest, woke up and he and his Mom came in the kitchen. She put down and he promptly ran to the living room to see what Santa had brought. I poured the coffee and went into the living room. My Christmas morning excitement was tempered by the realization that my ex might really be in labor.
The snow continued to fall – and fall and fall and… You get the idea. Denver was in the middle of a “hundred year” blizzard.
About 9:00 in the evening my ex looked at me and said, “I really am in labor now”. The contractions were now seven minutes apart. I knew there was no way we could get my car out of the drive. I called 911 and explained our situation. Apparently, labor is not an emergency. It would be a four to five hour wait for an ambulance and we were told to go the nearest hospital labor and delivery rooms. I figured I’d been through one birth already. I mentally prepared to deliver a baby at home. I prayed – a lot!
There was a knock at the door about thirty minutes later. A gentleman had responded to the pleas for citizens with four-wheel drive to ferry paramedics around. Three paramedics greeted me as I opened the door.
We gathered go-bags and our son together and filed out through the path the paramedics had made to the door. They assisted my poor wife who, at 5’3”, was trying to make her way through the four feet of snow. Once to the care, the 6 of us (and all the paramedic kits) piled into an old Jeep Waggoneer. The driver informed my very pregnant wife that between contractions she would have to reach outside and keep the snow of the windshield as the wipers didn’t work. Of course, they didn’t…
We found ourselves in a strange hospital with a strange doctor who had obviously been there long past hi original shift (he was a bit cranky). We were just getting settled into the labor room when the nurse said, “it’s time”. My wife was wheeled down to the delivery room and I changed into scrubs. Less than an hour later I was holding a brand-new bundle of joy – Jeremy Alan Joel.
I slept in a nurse’s lounge that night. When I returned to my wife’s room, I was greeted with a Christmas gift that I’ll never forget – Jeremy in a red stocking with a Santa hat on.
When Adrian, my oldest son, was born, parenting didn’t seem as difficult as we thought. Then we had Jeremy. We’ve often joked (kind of…) that Jeremy made his appearance in the world with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other demanding to be fed NOW. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.
Sitting here on Christmas morning I’m reminded how blessed I am. For thirty-seven years I was given the gift of a son I miss dearly today. I was also given a Savior – God With Us – to walk me through the grief I have today. I’ve been fortunate to have people in my life who know what losing a child is like. I have a God that knows my grief even more so – “This is how much God loved the world: He gave His Son, His one and Only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in Him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to the trouble of sending His Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help and put the world right again” John 33.16-17 (The Message).
My son was a brilliant artist (our first home had the marker and crayon marks to foretell this), but his greatest achievement was threefold – Baillie, Izabella, and Lucas. Today I will think of the wonderful gifts he left us. The gift I offer him is honoring his gift to me.
Monday marked the official beginning of winter – the winter solstice. The first day of winter was sunny and seventy degrees. It doesn’t look like a White Christmas is in the plan. The winter solstice is also the longest night of the year. That sums up the whole year – one long, dark winter night.
In January there were reports of a new virus spreading in China. On March 11th, the World Health Organization declared it a global pandemic that’s taken almost two million lives since then. The economy shut down in March. Even when states began reopening economic recovery remained questionable at best. To top it all off, people lost all sense of sanity and decency over simple masks. Apparently, the right to go without one and violate common sense precautions trumps (yes, folks – pun intended…) everyone else’s right to health and safety. Don’t get me started. I have friends who have lost fathers, mothers, aunts, and uncles – many times in rapid succession. Please folks – this is serious so please be kind enough to respect your neighbors…
In February, the primary election season started. By August, candidates had been nominated and the real dogfight began. We were constantly bombarded with negative ads, blatant lies, bitter division, and juvenile behavior. We prayed for November 3rd to finally shut it all down, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. Donald Trump threw a hissy fit over his loss like a petulant child. His insanity and inability to deal with reality continue to stoke divisiveness and hate. Sometimes it feels as if we’re on a downward spiral that never ends.
In May, George Floyd was murdered by Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis Police officer, who stood on his neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds setting off a summer of mass protests. Black people, especially Black men, are killed all too frequently by white police officers. The growing list of people of color who died at the hands of white officers has often faded in public awareness as the news cycle changes to something shiny and new. Although there have been many media reports in the past about police killings and people of color, this one was different. The video showing Floyd’s murder was particularly heinous. It got everyone’s attention. Summer of 2020 came to be known as the summer of “racial reckoning. We can only hope…
Opal’s Farm lost one of its best friends on September 7th. Chuck Briant, or “Food Truck Chuck” as many called him passed away suddenly and left a void in the hearts of all of us at Opal’s Farm. His passion for feeding people and healthy eating was contagious. He brought more people to the farm than anyone could have hoped. He was one of our biggest fans and a friend of mine. I miss him and can’t help but get a little teary-eyed when I’m watering the farm. That was Chuck’s job. It’s hard to picture Chuck without a water hose in his hand.
Personal tragedy hit on May 29th, 2020. My son Jeremy was found dead in his apartment. This has been the darkest five months of my life. Jeremy’s was born on Christmas Day in 1982. My holiday spirit is understandably lacking. There are days when the grief seems too much to bear. I get to spend a lot more alone time at the farm during the winter. Most days are sans volunteers. That’s both good and bad emotionally. The winter solstice reminds me of the “long, dark night of the soul” St. John of the Cross wrote about.
Today is a new day. The winter solstice has passed. The light will stick around a little longer with each passing day; at least for the next six months. Then the cycle will begin all over after the summer solstice in June. That’s the way it is with the seasons and it’s that way it is with life – up and down, round and round…
I don’t know what 2021 has in store, but I have faith that, like the day after the winter solstice, the light will last longer with each passing day. COVID vaccines recently became available and perhaps they will help end, or at least diminish the destruction of the pandemic. Maybe we learned a few things over the last few months. We might even discover a better “normal” when all is said and done. We can certainly hope…
On January 20th, a new Administration will begin and maybe some civility will return to our socio-political discourse. I’m not overly optimistic but anything is an improvement over the last four years, even Washington as usual. The faces change but the song remains the same…
The racial protests of this summer start real conversations that lead to real changes. The Juneteenth caravan this summer was a diverse group of people celebrating Juneteenth. Onlookers – white people – held signs “We are listening”. Listening, not simply hearing, real listening and building new diverse relationships is the beginning of change. My friend Jim always told me that “once you’re aware you can’t become unaware”. I pray the solstice has come and the light will get longer and brighter on our struggle to build a just society.
I know I’m not the only parent to lose a child (and yes, Jeremy may have been 37 but he’ll always be my kid). I’ve joined “a club that no one wants to be a part of”, as my friend Edgar says. Grief doesn’t have an expiration date. 2021 will not be “better”. It will be “different”. I’m blessed and tremendously grateful for the friends I have today – friends who have allowed me the space to grieve and are still there to offer love and support. Some people are left to grieve in isolation. No one should have to do that.
Christmas and New Year’s will be emotionally onerous this year, but it doesn’t take away what Christmas represents – the birth of Immanuel, “God with us”. Each time I think of the gift God gave us I find hope. Despite all the hardships this year I know God is with us. He hasn’t given up on His kids. After all, the winter solstice reminds us of the light – the light that’s always there.
To each of you I wish a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!