HOPE: One of the Three Great Virtues – Faith, Hope & Love.Both a noun and a verb. A powerfully optimistic state of mind and attitude firmly grounded on a tenacious and confident expectation in a positive outcome and victorious end-result, despite feelings, past experiences, or present tense circumstances. Hope fiercely stares past the odds, defiantly refuses to quit, surrender, or die, and is an inextinguishable ember of which helps fuel the fire of faith.
“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Hebrews 11:1
“This hope is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls. It leads us through the curtain into God’s inner sanctuary.” Hebrews 6:19
Over a period of about 30 years, I’ve lost six people in my family to suicide and self-harm – my dad, little brother, two uncles, a cousin, and then my oldest daughter. Over the years, I’ve shared this personal journey with many people, and I’ve discovered that most of them aren’t equipped mentally or emotionally to process something so heavy.
Apart from the four years I lived in Maryland, I grew up in our nation’s smallest state – Rhode Island – whose unofficial slogan is “The Ocean State” and motto is a simple yet powerful and boldly emblazoned word across a blue ribbon underneath a golden anchor encircled by 13 gold stars: HOPE.
Rhode Island is where I spent most my childhood and youth, a place that holds precious pieces of my heart. It has the perfectly preserved fingerprints of early colonial American history woven into the fabric of its culture and architecture, as if time forgot to touch many of the buildings and side streets from over 200 years ago. Along the coast, there is a vibrant and robust seafaring presence imbued into the heart and soul of its natives. For a local Rhode Islander, names like Charleston, Narragansett, Wakefield, and Galilee conjure up images of quaint New England villages nested against grayish-green seawater, fishing boats with nets hanging over the sides, and the shrill cry of seagulls gently gliding aloft over the harbor. Rhode Island summers are post-card perfect; warm and vibrant, as the air carries the salty and briny fragrance of the Atlantic Ocean crashing along the rocky shoreline of Narragansett Bay.
Little towns dot the coastline with houses and business tucked up to the sandy beaches. When I close my eyes, I can still see and hear the frothy white-capped waves as they crash onto the sandy shore and seaweed covered rocks. From mid-May to the beginning of September, these coastal towns bustle with tourists from all over New England and far away as New York and New Jersey. Throughout the summertime, people congregate along the Narragansett Sea Wall for a relaxing stroll, a cup of frozen lemonade, or a scoop of freshly made coffee ice cream atop a waffle cone. The sea wall, which is about a one mile stretch of artfully crafted concrete hurricane barrier wall, leading along famous landmarks like the Narragansett Towers, the Coast Guard House Restaurant, before conspicuously ending at a small stone well-house seated in the middle of the intersection South Pier Road and Ocean Road.
From across the Narragansett Bay, you can see the islands of both Jamestown and Newport, as well as the large iron and steel bridges which connect them. The main towers of the Newport Bridge (officially known as the Claiborne Pell Bridge) rise an impressive 400 feet above the water, and its main span is just over 1600 feet, making it the largest suspension bridge in all of New England. On a clear day, the skyline of the state capital, Providence, is visible from the bridge deck. A visit across the bridge and into Newport will reveal a rich nautical heritage and wealthy legacy – from the shops, restaurants, and sailboats at Bowens Warf, to the cobblestones of Thames Street, to the mansions which line Bellevue Avenue. But there is one place there that holds a special emotional significance for me – the U.S. Naval War College, one of the world’s premier professional military development institutions. Its presence has been a center of gravity for the rich maritime and nautical heritage of Rhode Island since 1884. I would see and hear about that place growing up. When I enlisted in the Navy in 1998, little did I know that I’d eventually attend officer training there – albeit only four months after we had buried our oldest daughter Elizabeth in a North Kingstown cemetery about 13 miles away.
Along with many of the descendants of Revolutionary War colonists, there is a mix of cultural backgrounds. My hometown and state became a melting pot for immigrants throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries; hardworking people who brought with them rich stories, music, food, and bold dreams of building a better life in Rhode Island and along its vibrant coastline. It’s in that same spirit of searching for a new beginning that I enlisted in the military. I left my home in the Ocean State to become a Sailor in the U.S. Navy, a young man on a search of adventure, a quest for purpose, and, most of all, the discovery of myself. While I was traversing along the road of life on my military journey, I would be revisited by the same dark specter who stole my dad when I was just a little boy. I felt like no matter how far away the Navy took me or how many robust layers of military structure surrounded me, none of it could stop that invisible adversary from repeating its background soundtrack of destruction and horror.
Then, on a warm afternoon in the middle of May 2015, that soundtrack roared to a crescendo as my whole world collapsed upon itself. That day, I got home early from work and had enough time to catch up on some chores outside. I was on my rider mower when the school bus pulled up, and my oldest daughter, Elizabeth, stepped off the bus. I waved hi to her, and she casually waved back. That was the last time I would see my daughter alive on this side of eternity. A short while later, I walked into my house and found my little girl lying dead in my closet, violently and horrifically taken the same way I had lost my dad over 30 years prior.
The size and magnitude of a loss that graphic and that raw is almost impossible to fathom. During the weeks that followed Elizabeth’s passing, one of the biggest things that stood out in my mind was: “First my dad…then my brother…then all these other people…and now my child.” The tragedy woven into my family fabric had now become sacred and profoundly wounding. I told myself that it has to end – no more!
Growing up, the loss of my dad made me feel alone and searching for a father; in my mid-twenties, when I lost my brother, I was angry at God and pushed Him away – but when I lost my little girl, I didn’t blame God; He didn’t do this, but I knew who did. The same adversary, which wove the dark and tangled web of lies, depression, self-hate, and self-hurt that took my dad, took my brother, and had taken the other family members who hurt themselves, had also lied to my little girl and stole her from me. I wanted to make the enemy pay for it – he killed my little girl. There was going to be a reckoning, and that was the beginning of something.
All my life, I felt a Divine Invisible Hand on my shoulder; I used to fight and resist it. I thought I could navigate life on my own. I used to keep God at a distance and only ask Him for help if I thought I needed it. This time I decided to put my hand in His so He could heal, lead, and guide me into what I was for.