Saturday, September 8, 2018

When Life Happens

In early July, I began a post to talk about the death of Kris' dad.  He died suddenly in June.  Not so suddenly that we didn't get to spend his last three days by his side - but his illness was unexpected, and he went downhill quickly.  It was a turbulent time, to say the least.  Kris and I were already dealing with some heavy family stuff, two different situations back to back that rocked us and left us feeling confused and sad and honestly, like failures and beaten down.

Both situations were ones we had absolutely no control over, and yet we managed to feel the weight of guilt anyway and wondered if we could have done something different.  In August, I finally came to terms with it and believe that there is nothing we could have done to prevent any of it.  But it doesn't change the disappointment and heartache we felt at the time.  And in the grand scheme of things, those issues were just a blip on the radar.  They didn't impact us day to day - they were just things that went against the expectations we always just had.

Then on June 18 we got called to Columbia, MO because Kris' dad was very sick.  We got the call on Monday, the day after Father's Day.  We finalized things at home and work and then drove to Columbia that Tuesday morning.  We spent the day with Ken and his wife, Melanie.  Ken was in and out of sleep, due to the pain and medications he was on, but we had several hours of good conversation with him. Between his lungs and heart, the options for treatment weren't promising, but at this time, the doctors seemed hopeful.

Wednesday morning, Ken lost consciousness and they asked us to leave the room while they called a code.  When the doctor came to find us about 10 minutes later, they explained that one of the  medications they were giving him was too much and his body was just shutting down.  If they  addressed his lungs, it would affect his heart.  If they addressed his blood pressure, it could affect his ability to breathe.  We went from hoping and thinking he would go home to realizing that we were going to watch him die instead.

It was a surreal experience.  You see it on TV and in movies, and if you have never spent time with someone in their last moments, it's not far off from what is depicted.  Except that you never know when, how long, what will happen in between, or how heart-breaking it would be to just wait.

It was devastating to watch it happen.  By Thursday, while no one wanted to say goodbye, a lot of us were praying for Ken to die peacefully.  I don't think any of us wanted the bedside vigil to continue on through another night and day.  Ken was in a lot of pain, having trouble breathing, and wasn't really there.  Thursday evening, with his family gathered around, Ken died.  There was a sense of relief, but also a deep sense of exhaustion and grief settled upon us.  Now that he had died, we knew we could get about the business of really grieving what was lost and try to put the pieces back together of what life would look like now.

There was always a rockiness to my relationship with Ken's wife, Melanie.  Not dislike or anger, and maybe rocky isn't quite the right way to say it.  But we weren't close.  I know that for my part, there was a distance there.  As we spent those last three days with Ken and Melanie, I grew to respect Melanie immensely, and let her into my well-guarded circle.  I think that tragedy can do that sometimes.

Ken's death and that experience opened my eyes and my heart to let someone else in.  I have always struggled to be friends with women.  It's just a thing for me.  But I felt a love and respect for Melanie more in those days than I ever had before, and I am beyond grateful that not only were we able to be there for her so she didn't have to face it alone, but beyond that, barriers were broken and we truly became friends.  I watched it happen with Kris and Melanie and I watched it happen with Katherine and Melanie as well.  The three of us in particular all came away from this event changed in many ways, not the least being how we felt about Melanie.

And I want to quantify that.  I didn't see her in a negative light.  I just didn't really know her.  Part of that is on me.  I know I kept myself at a distance.  But overall, I think it is difficult when you're grown (or you think you are) and your parent remarries.  Kris and his mom were living on their own for many years before Ken and Melanie married.

For me, it was more like she was an aunt.  I'm not close to any of my aunts, really.  I'm not close to a lot of people honestly.  I hold on to my heart and I guard it carefully.  Coming through trauma, I do not trust easily.  And I would rather (for better or worse) close myself off from someone than risk having my heart broken.  So, while there was no reason for it, I kept Melanie at a distance.  These last few years, I feel like we were making more of an effort to get out to see them (they live about an hour and a half away-which also factors into it all), but it was still not something that we focused on.

But that week spent in Columbia by Ken's side, talking to Melanie and seeing her immense love for Ken, it opened my eyes to who she really was.  She was a woman who loved Ken beyond words.  They had ups and downs like any normal married couple does, but they loved each other and were committed to spending the rest of their lives together.  When I hugged Melanie that week and I told her I loved her, I meant it.

You have to understand, those words "I love you" do NOT come easy for me.  I do not say them just to say them.  If I am not "feeling" it or if I am upset in the moment, I will not throw them out carelessly.  I think about saying it and when my heart is in the right place, and I want to, I will say those words and I will mean it to the core of my being.  I don't want to say I love you just to say I love you.  I tend to tell my kids and Kris I love them regularly, but each time, I say it with meaning and purpose behind it.  Not just as a formality when we're saying goodbye.  It's real.  And Kris knows that if I initiate saying "I love you" it means something.

So, when I say I love Melanie, I do.  I think I had closed myself off previously, but this tragedy we shared together changed everything.  It allowed me to put my pride aside, put wounds aside from past words said carelessly, forgive and truly become the kind of person Jesus wants me to be - to help shoulder some of the burden Melanie was experiencing and would continue to long after those hard days in the hospital.  Getting out to St. James no longer feels like something we have to do on the weekend because it's polite or what families do.  It is a privilege and a blessing to go and visit with Melanie and Bosley (their dog, and our dog's brother).  We can't do it every weekend due to the distance and life in general, but we can make more of an effort to stay in one another's lives.

Ken might have been the reason we even knew one another, and he tied us all together, but the relationship won't stop now simply because he is no longer on this earth.  Honestly, in some ways, I expected it might.  It was one of those things I think about when I'm up all night - what would I do/think/feel if something happened to Ken - what would my relationship with his wife look like?  Would there be one?  It used to scare me.  What's the proper way to behave if that were to happen?

But when we went to Columbia, I felt a sudden kinship with Melanie I had never felt before.  And I know it was from God, because as I mentioned earlier, I guard my heart and rarely let someone in.  I feel like Ken's death has deepened my relationship with Melanie.  I know that God called me to stop being so selfish, antisocial, distant and any other number of things I tend to be.

And so not only was Ken not alone in his final moments, his family was healed.  Maybe even in ways we didn't know we needed healing.  I'll never stop being grateful that we were there with Ken, but more so, with Melanie at the end.  It bound us together in a way I could have never expected or done on my own, and once you're in my close circle you're in it for life.

I've gone back and forth on posting these pictures below.  Primarily because some might think it is in poor taste to take pictures at funerals or in hospitals like this.  But I think pictures like this are important.  I think capturing the tenderness at these heart-wrenching moments, because while the memory of why is painful, it matters.  I know that if it were me, I would want to have pictures like this after my loved one was gone.  A reminder of the great tragedy of loss, but also the sweetness, the sense of just being there and being grateful to have the opportunity to do so.  So much loss, so much tragedy and so many that don't get these precious days or hours or minutes in the end.

Kris talking to his dad, who was unconscious at the time.  But this is where Kris spent most of his time, talking to his dad, telling him it was okay to let go, praying with him, playing music.

I love this picture.  I hated seeing Ken so thin and struggle to breath, and it was hard to watch Melanie as she tried to be brave and face what was inevitable.  She did so with dignity and grace.  The tenderness with which she spoke to Ken and touched him and told him he could go, that he didn't have to fight anymore, showed me just how much she loved him and how he was a part of her.

Thanks to Kris' mom, all four of my kids and Brandon (Ken's other son) were able to make it to Columbia just a few hours before he died.  Katherine has a gentleness inside of her that despite the unknown or not knowing what to say or do, she sat next to Ken and held his hand.  Where I feel fear and anxiety in this type of situation, she has strength.
This was my "tribute" to Ken on Facebook the night he died (though there were so many other good qualities I could have highlighted):
If you ever met my father-in-law, Ken Bishop, you know he was a friend to all. He was one of the kindest people I have ever known. None of us were ready to lose him, but I'm so thankful to God we had these last few days with him and that my kids were able to see him one last time. Go rest high, Ken. Your work here is done.

The song below carries a special meaning for all of us now.  Kris played it several times when he and Melanie were in the room alone with Ken, but also when the room was filled with family in the last hours.  Because sometimes in tragedy, you can't DO anything.  Except be held.  We know that God was holding Ken as he took his last breaths, and God is holding us now.

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