These are the words to a speech I gave at the First Unitarian Church in South Bend. My sister Julie also videotaped the speech, and it can be found on YouTube in 3 parts.
My children and I were dealt a major, devastating blow to our lives on July 16, 2008—a blow that has and will continue to cataclysmically change who we are and ever will be. On that early morning, at dawn actually, the man I had vowed to love all the days of my life, the loving and attentive father of my 4 children was riding his bicycle to school when a 21-year-old young man driving home from a night of partying struck him and left him to die. Five grueling days later, my Patrick died of a massive head injury.
Originally, Bill Skidmore was going to sing a song at today’s service. A song by Iris DeMent titled “After You’re Gone”
There’ll be laughter even after you’re gone
I’ll find reasons to face that empty dawn
’cause I’ve memorized each line in your face
and not even death can ever erase the story they tell to me
I’ll miss you, oh how I’ll miss you
I’ll dream of you and I’ll cry a million tears
but the sorrow will pass and the one thing that will last
is the love that you’ve given to me
I was particularly struck by the second line, “I’ll find reasons to face that empty dawn.” That’s what I chose as the title of my talk today…Facing the Empty Dawn.
Exactly 17 years before my Patrick was struck, I wrote in my journal. I was a young 24-year-old woman on the brink of a very full dawn. I wrote,
My journal; July 16, 1991; exactly 17 years before Pat was struck
Patrick, I have often told you how lucky and blessed I feel to have you. Sometimes it doesn’t seem possible. I’ve had a lot of dreams and hopes for how I want my life to turn out. I think we both know that dreams can hurt. Life isn’t idealistic. The real world can play cruel jokes on us it sometimes seems. Then why have I been so blessed to have the dream come true of the man I want to spend the rest of my life with? I want to be with you to discover and realize our dreams. I want to be with YOU when our dreams are shattered right before us.
And now we’re getting married. Marriage–a big word. Rest of our lives together. Share everything.
I feel so lucky, so blessed, almost in a dream. I’ve dreamed of my “perfect” husband all my life, and now I’ve found him. We have a good relationship. I know he’s not perfect, and I know there are going to be trying times. But, with the attitudes, values, ideas, hopes, communication we have now, I really think we’ll be able to make it.
Change, growth, love, moment, life.
We need to remember ebb and flow, most importantly when it’s ebbing. It’s not good to be constantly apprehensive, anxious of these bad times–I need to live in the moment and appreciate it for all it’s worth!
Yet, at the same time, I need to be aware of the ebb and to accept it as part of life. Pat and I have talked of this.
My promise to him is to accept and even appreciate both the ebb and flow, the tears and the laughter, the ups and downs, winters and springs, and to not give up!
We both have a lot to offer each other, our family, our friends, our world. Together, we can offer even more.
Patrick, you are what I want. You are the one I will love forever. Each year we’ll be two different people, always changing. That’s what I want! I want me to be, you to be, and our relationship to be dynamic, never stagnant for long, always growing.
Change can be exciting, life-giving, positive, adventurous, thrilling.
Needless to say, that full dawn appeared and gave light to a promising morning. Pat and I were married and had 4 beautiful children. We embraced our parenting with the same mentality as we did our relationship. We chose to love and to parent mindfully. To mindfully choose our paths, to be aware and open to the changes and difficulties of our new lives, and to accept what was given.
Little did we know that that “morning” of our marriage was actually a day in all its entirety and would be ended with the darkness of night and nightmares. A night in which I would have to endure without the one I needed most for strength. My love who taught me to be strong. The one who had faith in my strength when I couldn’t see it. When I entered into that night, I had NO strength. I still remember huddling, utterly terrified in the dark ICU waiting room in the middle of the night after being told Pat would not survive the night. I had yelled out, “I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT HIM!!!” My sisters and friend Kelly had clutched me and desperately reassured me that they would never leave me, that they would be there for me. And they were. And they still are.
The Agony of Grief
Grief is a tidal wave that overtakes you, smashes down upon you with unimaginable force, sweeps you up into its darkness,
where you tumble and crash against unidentifiable surfaces, only to be thrown out on an unknown beach, bruised, reshaped.
Grief means not being able to read more than two sentences at a time. It is walking into rooms with intention that suddenly vanishes.
Grief is three o’clock in the morning sweats that won’t stop. It is dreadful Sundays, Mondays that are no better. It makes you look for a face in the crowd, knowing full well the face we want cannot be found in that crowd.
Grief is utter aloneness that razes the rational mind and makes room for the phantasmagoric. It makes you suddenly get up and leave in the middle of a meeting, without saying a word. Grief makes what others think of you moot. It shears away the masks of normal life and forces brutal honesty out of your mouth before propriety can stop you.
Grief discriminates against no one. It kills. Maims. And cripples. It is the ashes from which the phoenix rises, and the mettle of rebirth. It returns life to the living dead. It teaches that there is nothing absolutely true or untrue. It assures the living that we know nothing for certain. It humbles. It shrouds. It blackens. It enlightens. Grief will make a new person out of you, if it doesn’t kill you in the making.
— Stephanie Ericsson
Through my night of hell, this entire community embraced me and my children and supported me as I struggled to face an empty dawn. The compassion we received will never be forgotten, and will always remain with us. Through this compassion, I was able to slowly, agonizingly accept the darkness in my life and peak forward to a new morning. It was with this constant compassion of my family and friends that I was able to embrace grief the way Pat and I embraced our relationship and our parenting. To embrace it with an open mind, open heart, and open soul. To accept the suffering mindfully. To take the horrendous pain of each and every breath and feel it. To feel it and simply know that there DID exist a dawn. I had no idea what a new day, a new life could possibly bring for me and my kids.
A new dawn always exists, simply by the laws of nature, ebb and flow, winter and spring, day and night. I believe, though, that it takes an active CHOICE to awake to the dawn. Emily Dickinson wrote, “Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open every door.” In my grieving, I trusted that there existed a dawn, but I did NOT know when or how it would come. I knew simply to open myself, every door, and say, “YES.” Yes to the grief, yes to my loss, yes to the pain, yes to what may come.
In the journal entry I previously read to you, I made a promise to Pat: “My promise to him is to accept and even appreciate both the ebb and flow, the tears and the laughter, the ups and downs, winters and springs, and to not give up!” I did not get my wish for Pat to be by my side when all our dreams were shattered, but I CAN keep my promise to him to not give up.
Harold and I met for lunch this past Wednesday to discuss our talk today. He asked me if I had felt despair during my profound grief. My answer was yes, I had feeling of despair, no hope. I was questioning everything—especially the reason to live—the ultimate “Why?”. Harold asked me what I had discovered as the reason to live. The most obvious, immediate answer is to choose to live for my children.
But in my darkest hours, I questioned even why they should live, why any of us should live. Patrick and I had struggled to depict for our children the merits of living morally, of working hard for what we believed, of deliberating and making the right choices. Pat was at the end of an intensely accelerated program at IUSB to become a nurse. He and I had sold our house and moved in with my parents so I could continue to homeschool our children and he could get his degree. We were looking so forward to his graduating so we could be our own family again and attain our many dreams. He died only a couple weeks before he was to graduate.
He rode his bike to school every day to live simply and frugally, to do his part for the environment, and to live the healthy lifestyle he so ardently believed in. He rode his bike with helmet, reflecting vest, headlight, blinking strobe lights. He was doing everything right! Yet, he was killed. All of it was simply and deeply UNFAIR!! I struggled with why any of us should have reason to live in such an unfair life.
I was given many answers to my questions of “Why?” by well-meaning people—“Pat was put here for a reason that was fulfilled. God needed him. Unfairness doesn’t matter in this life because all will be settled in the afterlife. You will be reunited with Pat if you continue living the good life. Etc., etc.” I knew Pat’s dreams intimately. His life was UNFINISHED! He was on the edge of fulfilling his career dreams. He loved me. He loved each of his kids dearly. WE needed him, not GOD!
So, when Harold asked me what pulled me out of despair, I had to sit back and really honestly think. It was NOT, I feel I can safely say to this audience, it was NOT a belief in a just and loving personal God. What I believe offered me the beginnings of hope was the knowledge of cycles of nature, the seasons, the ebb and flow, the rose and thorn, the storm and rainbow. The dawn after a dark night. I could simply trust there was a dawn. I was able to honestly, sincerely, without a doubt pass on to my children the hopes of a new dawn.
Henry David Thoreau wrote:
To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of men. Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me…. We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.
In the midst of my dark night, I had to also grapple with my feelings and response to Shane McGee, the 21 year old who killed my husband. Everywhere around me and my children, we were greeted with the most incredible acts of compassion. My children were learning from even complete strangers the power of compassion. Compassion came to across all religions, all races, all ages. Compassion was the binding And so, it was easy for me, to look at Shane McGee with compassion. To consciously choose to reach out to him. In this world that I was so intimately discovering to be unfair, I did not see how my wanting retribution could possibly make up for what I had lost, to somehow make it more fair.
I wanted to know more about this kid whose life had also been irreversibly affected by the exact same event that was changing my life. I was actually puzzled when I told the prosecutors I wanted to meet him, and they told me there was only one other case where that had happened. Most people I met thought it strange and even detrimental for me to meet Shane. But, they were very good at facilitating a meeting between Shane and my family just 2 nights before he was to be sentenced to prison. I, along with my family and friend Kelly, was able to meet Shane face to face and tell him in detail what he had done to me and my kids.
This meeting of victims and offenders is called “Restorative Justice” a practice which I strongly believe should be readily available for victims to choose if they deem appropriate. By my saying yes and being open to this restorative justice process, I believe I was given the opportunity to move past negative feelings, feelings that would keep me in the dark night, feelings that would cloud my new dawn.
My most intense, most despairing darkness of night, my horrendous hell, lasted for 6 months. It was around Christmas time that I came across a quote by Anais Nin which resonated so deeply with me:
“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud became more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
It was at that point that I could see the faint glimmers of my future begin to take shape in the light of a new dawn.
Since then, I continued to say yes to being awake. My kids and I have made giant strides toward a new life without Pat, of rediscovering who we are. And no, my grief is NOT over. I don’t live from breath to breath in agony anymore, but there ARE hours where I am revisited and crippled with grief.
My journey through grief is like Susan Coolidge writes:
“Slow buds the pink dawn like a rose From out night’s gray and cloudy sheath; Softly and still it grows and grows, Petal by petal, leaf by leaf.”
I do feel as though I have been awakened to an empty dawn, one that promises to be full of more. Of more laughter. Of more tears. Of more living. I remain open and vulnerable. As it should be. Pat’s gone, but his love remains always with me, Danny, Joey, Tommy, Laura, and all those he touched in his short life.
I have an epilogue. As I finished writing this talk, a particularly personal and poignant song came on for me to hear. It’s a song by Howie Day called “Collide”. When Pat was in the hospital on the 4th night, my family, friends and I went home, leaving him in excellent hands, knowing that Pat had an amazingly strong heart that would carry his body through to when the doctors would ease him out of his medically induced coma.
My children had been begging for me to take them to the hospital to see their Papa. I told them they shouldn’t see him in the state he was in, that they should wait until he woke up from his coma. They had been insistent, so I promised I would take them the following morning. The following morning, dawn, never came for their Papa. Late in the middle of the night, I was called by a desperate-sounding nurse to come to the hospital right away. In a state of utter shock and physical incapacity, I drove through the quiet, still, eerie midnight streets to the hospital. Through the entire drive, Howie Day was loudly singing “Collide” to me. Since then, it breaks me to tears and puts me into the initial throes of grief each time I hear it. But this time, after I finished writing this talk on the theme of dawn and being open, “Collide” hit me deeper than ever. Listen to this song: