Page 33: Legacy – Part 3

Legacy part 3


October 3rd, 2017. It was early in the morning; the sun hadn’t even risen yet.

The sky wore the faint glow of predawn light, and the stars twinkled as twilight hung onto the night before the first sunbeam crossed the eastern horizon. Erica, Isabella and I walked outside to the car, our breath creating little puffs of steam against the chilly autumn morning. We were heading to the hospital; within a matter of hours, a new human life would come into this world.

This wasn’t my first trip to the delivery room, but I was just as nervous. Half asleep, Isabella sat in the back seat next to the little car seat which would carry her newborn baby brother.

As we drove to the hospital, I reached over and held Erica’s hand. I knew she was nervous and feeling anxious. Having a baby is a big deal and a significant life event for anyone on their best day. We had already been through so much as a family, so the size and magnitude of everything going on seemed so much more significant. Still, even though we felt moments of nervousness and anxiety, we relied on God and our church family who surrounded us with prayer, love, and support.

The car GPS said that the trip would take about 30 minutes – I think I got there a little sooner than that. As we pulled into the hospital parking lot, I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw Isabella had fallen back asleep. “Isabella, we’re here. Time to wake up sweetie,” I said. Isabella yawned and stretched, “Oh we’re already here? That was fast,” she replied, half asleep and half awake.

I pulled the car up to the very front of the building and into one of the parking spaces labeled ‘EXPECTING MOMS.’ “Wow, this is for real…today is the day…I’m gonna meet my son!”, I thought to myself.

Once we were all settled into the hospital, the whole check-in process took less than half-an-hour. Soon, Erica was escorted into her private delivery room, and we were introduced to the team of nurses who would be helping deliver the baby. The lead nurse took Erica’s blood pressure and other vital signs, while Isabella and I checked out the room where we’d be spending the next several hours. Then she began the process of inducing Erica’s labor. The doctor came in the room soon after just to fill us in on what to expect. I asked him what time he thought Erica might deliver the baby; he chucked and jokingly said, “Definitely before 7pm because that’s when my favorite TV show comes on!”

As the morning wore on, Isabella got hungry, so I went and picked up some breakfast at a fast-food restaurant down the street. When I got back to the hospital, one of Erica’s close friends from church was in the delivery room, keeping Erica company. Childbirth is a unique and emotional event for any family; even more so for ours. Although we were many miles away from biological relatives, we were never alone because we had our church family there with us. For the next several hours, Erica’s friend and Christian Sister stayed by her side, to keep her company, comfort her, and pray with her.

Soon lunch time came around, and the nurses were checking on Erica more frequently. Based on the progress she was making; she would be going into labor very soon. Around noon, the first wave of massive contractions kicked in. By this point, the nurse had already called the doctor, who was in his office down the hall and provided him an update. Based on how far apart and how intense the contractions were, it wouldn’t be long before Erica would need to start pushing.

As the contractions increased in intensity and frequency, the nurse asked Erica how she was feeling. Erica replied that she felt intense pressure and pain. When the nurse checked her progress in dialation, she was surprised and said that Erica was ready to start pushing. Then the nurse quickly called for the doctor to come in and begin the delivery process.

Meanwhile, Erica’s friend and Isabella rushed out of the room while the doctor ran in to start delivering the baby. We had agreed before hand that Isabella should stay in the waiting room with Erica’s friend while she was going throught the actual delivery.

Once the doctor arrived, he asked enthusiastically, “So, how’s everyone doing? Y’all ready to have a baby today?”, as the nurses helped him put on his gown, mask, and gloves. “How ya doing momma? Ya feelin’ alright?”, he said to Erica as he checked the charts and vitals. Erica tiredly replied, “Yes…I’m just ready…to get this done.”

“Hey dad, how you doin’ sir? You look nervous…you nervous?”, the doctor chuckled and joked. I smiled and replied, “I’m good to go doc…ready to do this.”

By this point, the contractions were coming closer and closer together and had merged into nearly one long contraction. The doctor looked at the monitor screen and waited until the next big one. “Alright Erica, you should be feeling another big contraction any moment…as soon as you do, I want you to push until I say stop…you ready?”,  the doctor said. Before he even finished his sentence, he suddenly shouted, “NOW!!!…PUSH…PUSH…PUSH…C’MON, THAT’S IT.

PU-U-U-USH!!!”

Erica’s squinted and winced, her face became bright red as she bore down and pushed. My hand went numb, and the blood left my fingers as she squeezed my hand until it felt like my fingernails were going to pop off.

One push…two pushes, then suddenly the doctor said to Erica, “Alight mom…you got this…this is it…this next contraction you’re gonna have this baby. You’re almost there. One more big push.” Then the doctor looked over at me, “Dad when I say ‘PUSH,’ I want you to tell her she’s got this…tell her to push as hard as she can.” I nodded and looked Erica in the eyes. “You got this honey…get ready…our little guy is almost here.”

I had scarcely spoken the words when Erica’s face winced up again, and the doctor shouted, “PUSH…C’MON MOMMA…PUSH!”. I echoed the doctor’s words and excitement, “Yeah Erica, push…ya got this honey…push”.

As Erica was pushing and bearing down with all her might, I saw the doctor quickly reach down and tell the nurses to get ready. One nurse stepped closer to the doctor, while the other went to check the heat-lamp, scale, and other stuff they would need once our baby was born.

While I was looking over at the two nurses setting up the post-delivery equipment, I suddenly saw out of the corner of my eye a wiggly, wet little person appear. “Well, here is he is! It’s a boy, dad! You’ve got a boy; did you already know that?” Before I could entirely focus my eyes and attention on what I was seeing, a mighty little cry pierced through the moment.

Meanwhile, what we didn’t know is that Isabella had refused to go to the waiting room and insisted on standing right outside the door to the delivery room until she heard the cries of her new baby brother.

Interestingly, the hospital had a tradition of playing a cute little tune over the announcement system everytime a baby was delivered. So, just as the new baby tune played in the room, another nurse came by and told Isabella that she had to go to into the waiting room. Even though she was filled with excitement, Isabella reluctanely complied.

As the nurses held my little boy in the receiving blankets, my eyes began to fill with tears of joy. Nothing and no one will ever replace my dad Michael, my little brother Benjamin, or my precious daughter Elizabeth.  But at that moment, it felt like the wounds caused by those traumatic losses were soothed with the healing touch of hope and life.

I determined in my heart that none of the darkness, trauma, and pain which I had to walk through would ever touch that little boy. I looked at him and vowed that he would be loved, protected, trained, and developed into a man who is confident about his God-ordained purpose and destiny.

As I held his tiny hand in mine, I leaned over and whispered in my son’s ear, “I’m never going to leave you son…your daddy’s never going leave you”.


Monologue:

When my dad Michael committed suicide, he didn’t know the cascade effect it would have across multiple generations in one family. He was stolen away by an unremorseful enemy of the human soul. Over the span about 30 years the same enemy, which caused my dad to give up hope, had lurked in the shadows.  It whispered wicked lies of self-loathing and self-harm to other people within my family.

The enemy wasn’t satisfied with merely causing misery. No, instead it delighted in creating pain and suffering, all of which is part of it’s ruthless and cold-blooded objective – to kill, steal, and destroy.

The same enemy, which preyed on my dad’s mind, eviscerated and consumed every shred of my little brother Benjamin’s confidence and self-worth. It weaved a web of deception and substance abuse around his mind – to the point where he ended up dying from alcohol poisoning two months before his 19th birthday.

In the years which followed the passing of my little brother, the enemy would end up wreaking havoc by stealing four more people within my family. Each loss echoed with a sense of helplessness; as if those of us left behind could do nothing to stop it. It felt like the enemy was telling us that we had to just to sit there, take it, and wait for the next one to happen. Heartache and pain became a repeated drumbeat through my entire immeditate and extended family…but for me, nothing was as personal or painful as what I had to endure in 2015 when that same enemy took my oldest daughter Elizabeth.

To see my child taken from me in the same violent way that my dad, her grandfather, was taken, was too raw, real, and personal. I knew that something had to be done. The destruction had to stop. Elizabeth was just a 15-year-old girl full of life, beauty, and promise…and yet that same enemy, who had destroyed and stolen the lives of so many other people in my family, took my daughter’s life too.

It was time to make that enemy pay.

And so I embarked on a journey of healing, purpose, and hope. It was an active counter-offensive comprised of six lines of effort:

  1. Strengthening my spirit and deepening my relationship with God.
  2. Healing my mind from everything I had suffered.
  3. Sharpening my life’s vision and taking active steps to make that vision reality.
  4. Recognizing chronic toxic behaviors.
  5. Defining and setting boundries on those who refuse to think, operate, or be in relationships in a healthy way.
  6. Knowing and embracing my God-created purpose and living it unapologetically and boldly.

To put action into these lines of effort, I leaned on two essential resources:

  1. A strong cadre of people who could speak life, wellness, strength, and help me rehabilitate my mind from the horrible things I had witnessed. These individuals were also dedicated to helping me sort through layer upon layer of damage which had been caused by the dysfunction, abuse, and manipulation I suffered through during my childhood.
  2. Fellowship with people who shared the same values of life, purpose, and faith. I became part of a family of Believers who could keep me accountable, provide encouragement, and pray with me as I embraced life with tenacity and intentionality.

As momentum built and I advanced along my six lines of effort, I began to see growth and changes. A vision began to take shape, and clarity of purpose was forming. This means building a legacy of excellence and prosperity in every aspect of my life – mentally, emotionally, physically, financially, and spiritually – a legacy where God’s very best is woven into the fabric of not just my life, but the lives of those who come after me.

My vision became plain – establish a legacy of life, promise, and hope built on the endless love of a Sovereign God.

Page 32: Legacy – Part 2

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Late July / Early August 2017.

“A little boy. I can’t believe I’m having a little boy.”

This thought kept playing over and over in my mind. I was so excited, but I was also scared. I questioned my ability to be a father to a son. For so long, I had carried the wounds inflicted on my heart and soul by my own dad; I didn’t want those to transcend to my own son. As much as I was filled with joy at the prospect of raising a little boy, I also spent a lot of time in prayer.

I wanted to be intentional and honor every engagement I had with him.

Another concern on my mind was the overall health of the pregnancy. Often times, a sudden and tragic loss, like the one we had experienced with Elizabeth, causes a person to be hyper-vigilant. As a person begins to heal and adjust to their post-trauma, they may still wrestle with fear and anxiety of another bad thing happening. This was our struggle. We were barely recovering from walking a parent’s worst nightmare – we didn’t want to lose another child.

That constant state of alert is a typical symptom and side-effect of a catastrophic life event. It was one of the many reasons why we stayed active and engaged with our counseling and therapy. Not only was the treatment a considerable help, but we were blessed to have such a beautiful and loving church family. Because we were the newest and smallest of all the expansion church sites, there was a tight-knit bond. They really became an extension of our little family. Each one of these Brothers and Sisters knew what we had been navigating and the journey that God had us on. Even though Erica and I wrestled with concern and worry, we were able to lean on our church family for prayer and support.

Then, towards the end of the second trimester, something happened, which caused the fear and anxiety to rise and suddenly return. For women who are 35 and above, pregnancies are often considered to be at a higher risk for complications, so about once a week, we would go in for an ultrasound. One afternoon, a few days after one of the ultrasounds, Erica received a phone call from the doctor’s office. “Hello?”Erica said, answering the phone. A few moments went by, and Erica didn’t say anything, but I could tell something wasn’t right. “Uh huh…yeah…ok. Well, is that serious?”, she said as the look on her face changed from puzzled to concerned. “Ok then, I’ll be in first thing in the morning…thank you for calling…bye-bye”.

While Erica was talking, I could sense that she was concerned, and I was wondering if it was the doctor’s office calling regarding the baby. “What was that all about?” I nervously asked. “That was the doctor’s office calling about the results from the last ultrasound…they said it looked like there were some unusual fluctuations in the amniotic fluid.”, Erica replied.

At this point, I went from just being nervous, to actually feeling scared. I could feel my heart rate go up, and my thoughts raced to a bunch of worst-case scenarios.

“So, what does that mean? Is the baby ok?”I impatiently asked.

“Well, they said that it could affect the baby’s development, so they want me to come in for another ultrasound and then have regular testing. That’s all I know. We’ll find out more tomorrow.”

Erica’s answer only seemed to feed my anxiety, but regardless of what I was feeling, deep in my heart, I knew that God hadn’t brought us that far or carried us through so much, just to let us down. Confident defiance rose up in my heart against the anxiety. I wasn’t going to let myself be shaken by a list of ‘what-if’ scenarios fed by the PTSD and grief, which I had been growing through and healing from.

The following day we went back to the doctor and went over the results of the last ultrasound. I asked a lot of questions, and by the end of the visit, I felt much better. The doctor and his staff told us that overall everything was going well, they just wanted to keep an eye on the fluid levels around the baby. Part of their diagnosis and instructions was for Erica to not be on her feet as much and to ease up on the work she was doing around the house. That meant I’d have to step up the pace at home and take on more responsibility.

Late August / Early September 2017.

Erica continued her weekly ultrasounds, and I went to as many as I could. My leadership at work was supportive and allowed me the flexibility to take care of Erica so she could get as much rest as possible, per the doctor’s orders. The anticipation and excitement grew with every passing weekly ultrasound. Seeing that little boy wiggle and kick on the screen made my heart swell with pride. The grainy black and white image clearly showed his strong arms and legs flexing as if he was showing off for us. Other times he would have his hands balled up in little fists blocking his face, like a rugged boxer waiting to throw the first punch.

At one point we asked the nurse if the ultrasound machine was capable of creating a multi-dimensional image. With the flip of a switch, the monitors suddenly displayed a vivid picture of our little boy. It was so detailed, that we could see the creases in his lips, contorts of his eyes, and little wisps on his head gently waving back and forth whenever he moved. “See that?” the nurse said, pointing to the little wisps, “that’s his hair…your son is gonna have a full head of hair.”

Erica and I looked at each other and smiled. I was born with a full head of hair too. I wondered what color his hair was going to be.

We only had about a month or so before we’d finally meet our little boy. We already had his name picked out too – Marcus. I chose that name on purpose and for a particular reason.

My dad’s first name was Michael. Now no disrespect meant toward my dad, but there is a lot of emotional gravity associated with that name for me. His choice to end his own life had a massively devastating effect which cascaded into the lives of everyone connected to him – his parents, siblings, my mom; but most especially my little brother Benjamin (whom he never met) and me. I didn’t want my son to grow up feeling like he had to somehow make up for the mistakes of previous generations, just because he had their first name.

I also didn’t want to name him Matthew, after me. I didn’t want him feeling like he lived in my shadow or somehow influence him to think that he has to mimic me. Yes, there are things I’d like him to model, but I don’t want my son to subconsciously feel like he’s a facsimile of me or anyone else. No, I want him to grow stronger, fly higher, run faster, believe deeper, and know God even closer than I have. I don’t want my son to suffer the pain and hurt that I did, nor did I want him to struggle with the guilt or shame that I did, because of poor choices I had made in the past.

I want my son to know that he comes through me, not from me – that he really comes from God. Most of all, I want him to see that he was created for a purpose, that there is a Divine custom charted plan for his life, and that he is surrounded and immersed with an endless and boundless love by the God who created the entire universe.

While I wanted to give him a name which is uniquely his and captures his God-given individuality, I also wanted to weave in something which would be a common thread between multiple generations. At the same time, the name had to have a strong and positive meaning. I believe in the power of a name; it’s something that we will hear and identify with every single day of our lives. From the cradle to the grave, our name says who we are. It becomes our identity. When I named my son, I wanted it’s meaning to be imbued into his very character, heart, and soul.

He will become a warrior and leader who stands strong for what is right, and he is an example of God’s graciousness and favor.

So, with my task and purpose clear, I choose the name for my boy. His initials MJM would reflect the linkage between my name, Matthew James Mattera, and my dad, his grandfather, Michael John Mattera.

I named my son Marcus John Mattera. Marcus means Mighty Warrior and Leader; John means God has been gracious and shown favor.


Monologue:

Looking back now, I understand how traumatic events can affect and color our daily interactions with the rest of the world around us. A common symptom is being hyper-vigilant; basically, having a sense of impending doom and that something terrible is going to happen unexpectedly. All of these are some of the reasons why my family and I were so immersed in our counseling, therapy, and faith.

Whenever faced with those feelings, I reached back and drew upon everything I’d learned so far – a combination of prayer mixed with other healthy coping mechanisms.

With the news of having a boy becoming more and more real, maintaining a healthy emotional, mental, and spiritual climate in our home became my number one priority. I didn’t want my son to be born into an environment which was tainted with grief, sadness, or depression. I didn’t want the trauma which we had experienced to skew or blur the lenses with which he views the world.

None of the dysfunction or pain which I had to navigate will ever touch him. His life will be filled with happiness, joy, and love.

I am establishing a legacy of life, faith, and hope.

Page 31: Legacy – Part 1

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Late summer / early fall of 2016.

Erica, Isabella, and I were wholeheartedly engaged in pursuing healing, wholeness, and growth.

This meant staying plugged into the counseling and grief therapy, as well as staying involved and connected with our church. Every opportunity for training and personal development was another chance for us to grow stronger as a family, further heal, and sharpen the vision that God had placed on my heart.

As we continued to grow, something new and joyful was about to take place.

The seasons changed, and the cool dampness of the Hampton Roads autumn slowly gave way to winter’s frosty touch. The holiday season was in full splendor; the sights, sounds, and smells of Thanksgiving and Christmas filled the air. With the joy and celebration came a lingering sadness – it was yet another season of festivity and family, which echoed from the silence left by Elizabeth.

Isabella, our youngest daughter, missed her big sister so much. She looked up to Elizabeth…she admired Elizabeth…she aspired to be Elizabeth in so many ways.

For over 18 months Erica and I had been so focused on healing and keeping our sanity, that we had nearly forgotten about the secondary and tertiary effects caused by Elizabeth’s passing; foremost of which was the fact that Isabella had been left as an only child. Isabella’s best friend and big sister was gone – and she felt all alone.

Erica and I could see and sense that loneliness. We were used to having two children to raise and care for, yet with Elizabeth gone, we all felt like we were trying to walk with only one leg and no crutches.

It was around this time that Erica started talking about having another child, but I had a lot of trepidation and uncertainty about bringing another life into this world. My heart still hurt, and I wasn’t sure if it had enough room for another baby or if I could ever love another child again.

Even though I had a lot of uncertainty about the whole idea of having another baby, I knew deep down inside that Erica was right. So, as the winter of 2016 drew to a close and 2017 began, the dawn of a new era was ushered into our lives.

February 2017.

February has always been a significant month for our family. Not only do Erica and I celebrate our wedding vows within the first week of the month, but within a couple of days of our anniversary is Elizabeth’s birthday.

As the first week of February passed, Erica and I celebrated our nineteenth anniversary, which was followed by the emptiness and pain left behind by Elizabeth’s birthday, who would have been 17 years old.

That was our second birthday without her, and it was just as painful as the year before. It also served as a reminder that this was going to be our ‘new normal’. Elizabeth was on the other side of eternity, but here on this side of the invisible veil, time continues to track forward.

The gravity of that reality echoed with me for several days. In my soul I knew that to properly heal and step into the purpose God had laid out for us, we needed to move forward, and that allowed me to open my heart and arms to another child.

One evening, towards the end of the month, Erica had some news to share with me. “Matthew…I took a test, and just to make sure, I took two more. We’re going to have another baby.”

My heart and mind swirled with emotions. ‘Wow! That was fast’, I thought to myself. “Really honey…are you sure?”, I asked with a puzzled look on my face. We had barely started talking about having another baby, I certainly didn’t think it was going to happen this quickly.

“Yup…I took all three tests, and they all said the same thing. I also know what my body is telling me, and it says I’m pregnant.”

In the days which followed this fantastic news, the reality of it all sank in, and as the joy from the prospect of having another child welled up, part of my heart also ached. I felt guilty about the happiness I was feeling. In some strange way, I thought I was being untrue to the memory of Elizabeth. ‘Nothing and no one can ever replace you, sweetie’, I would think to myself. Tears would well up in my eyes as I quietly whispered, ‘You’ll always be my little baby and princess…I miss you so much…I wish you were still here’.

One afternoon, about two weeks after Erica told me the news of having a baby, I was driving my truck to the dump to do my weekly trash disposal. As I was driving along, a sweet little song came on the radio. It was a song about loving a new child and welcoming a baby into the world. My heart came unglued and the mix of powerful emotions I had been carrying burst out as healing tears streamed down my cheeks, Through the sobs, I began to pray:

“Ok God, I get it. This is from you. Now is the time…but God, in addition to Erica having a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby, I ask one thing. Please let me have a son. If you give me a son, I’ll raise him to love you and be a strong warrior for your Kingdom. Please grant me the privilege of imbuing your Love, Word, and Law into the heart of a boy who will someday become a man. Help me be the father to him that you have been to me.”

That following Sunday, Erica and I added to the announcements list, which our pastor friend would share with the rest of the church, the news about us having another baby. As he went through the list of announcements, he paused, looked at the paper, and his face lit up. He looked up at Erica and me and said, “What! Is this true guys? Can I read it?”

I chuckled and told him yes.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I have an amazing announcement to make. Our friends, the Mattera family will be welcoming a new baby, and Isabella is praying for a baby brother.”

Everyone in our church family cheered and celebrated with us. Many of them knew about the difficult trials we had faced on our long journey; they knew how significant and healing having a baby was for our family.

Spring 2017.

As winter slowly passed, the prospect of having another life in our home was becoming more real. Isabella was actively believing and praying for a little brother. Erica and I secretly prayed the same prayer. A little boy meant so much on so many different levels. After the passing of my little brother Benjamin in 2004, I was the last male descendant of my father, Michael. That meant that unless I had a son, my father’s direct bloodline ended with me.

Once a week, Erica would go into the doctor’s office for an ultra-sound and checkup. The anticipation grew with each passing week; the heartbeat was strong, and the baby was growing at a steady, healthy rate, but we still didn’t know if we were having a boy or a girl. Nearly every night, I prayed that in addition to the baby being healthy, that God would bless me with a son.

Sometime around mid-May, Erica went in for another ultrasound. This time it was going to be a more detailed and lengthy process, partially so we could discover if we were having a boy or girl. Erica arrived at the doctor’s office about 15 minutes before me. I left work early so I could meet her for the appointment.

It was exceptionally warm that day; the sun shone brightly, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky; it was as if nature decided to skip the rest of spring and jump right into summer.  As I pulled my truck into the parking lot and walked towards the doctor’s office, my heart was pounding; I was nervous and excited.

I walked into the main medical building, met Erica in the doctor’s office, and the ultrasound technician greeted us. Soon we were settled in the exam room, and the procedure was underway.

First, we got to hear the baby’s heartbeat. Everything was strong and healthy. Then the technician asked if we wanted to know if we were having a boy or a girl. Time seemed to slow down. This was it…the moment I’d find out if we would be buying pink or blue; but more than that, I was going to find out if my last name would be passed on.

“Well, it looks like you guys are having a boy,” the ultrasound technician suddenly said. I could hardly believe my ears. “Are you sure?”, I asked in disbelief. “Are you sure we’re having a boy…how do you know?”

The technician chuckled and pointed to the screen. “Right here, see… it’s a boy.” My eyes became misty. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. A boy…I was going to have a boy! So many feelings and thoughts ran through my mind. I thought about all the years I grew up without a dad. I was going to have the chance to be a daddy to a son and teach him everything I wish my dad had taught me. I was going to raise a little boy and watch him become a man – a man of honor, integrity, courage. Most of all, I was going to teach him about our Heavenly Father.

When the ultrasound appointment ended, Erica and I both walked towards the elevator to leave. As I walked Erica to her car, she asked, “So how do you feel? You’re going to have a little boy; isn’t that exciting?”

I was beaming from ear to ear; my face hurt from smiling so much. I could barely contain my joy, “Exciting??? You bet it’s exciting honey…I still can’t believe it! I’m gonna have a son!”, I exclaimed.

Erica opened her car door and started the ignition. I leaned over and gave her a kiss. “I love you, honey…everything is gonna be just fine…I can feel it”, I said as a sense of ease and confidence washed over me. Erica smiled back and said, “I know love. I’ll see you back at the house. Oh, and don’t forget to call your folks and tell them the good news.”

“Oh my gosh, that’s right. I’ve got to call my family back up in Rhode Island. They’re gonna love the hearing the happy news”, I replied. “I better run…I’ll call them while I’m on the way to the store.”

I helped Erica shut the car door and blew her a kiss as she pulled away. I walked back to my truck and headed to the grocery store to pick up stuff for that night’s dinner. I was so excited…who was I going to call first? I thought about it for a few moments and decided that the first person I should call is my grandmother, Nanny. Every loss in our family was her loss as well. She had lost two sons, a grandson, a granddaughter, and a great-granddaughter to the same self-harm and self-destruction. This time, instead of grieving another tragic loss, we were going to celebrate a new life and a new beginning. Adding to that joy was the fact that my father’s line and lineage lived on.

Nanny and I spoke for a few minutes, and during that conversation, I could hear the smile on that sweet lady’s face. After I talked to Nanny, I called my oldest uncle. He had also been affected by the same losses in our family. My uncle was thrilled when he heard the good news. After everything that happened in our family, after all the heartbreaking loss, there was a promise of renewed hope. As I pulled into the grocery store parking lot, my uncle and I wrapped up our conversation. It was nice to share the happy news with my family after we had been through so much.

I parked the truck and went into the store. As I finished my last bit of shopping, I took a quick stroll through the kid’s toy section and went straight to the area where all the boy’s toys are – trucks, cars, action figures, jet planes, and cap guns. There were creepy critters like rubber snakes and plastic spiders along with fierce dinosaurs and lions. All the toys, I used to like when I was a kid, were there. As much as times change, some things still remain the same. All of these classic toys were just like how I remembered them from over 30 years ago.

There were so many toys, I wasn’t sure where to start. That’s when I saw the little pocket-size cars and trucks. I used to love these when I was a little boy. I’d spend hours playing with them, setting up races and roads outside in the dirt. I’ve been a ‘car nut’ since I was a kid; it’s in the blood. My grandfather Papa owned a car dealership when I was young, and it was in the family for years. Automobiles are part of our DNA.

As soon as I saw those little toy cars, I knew I had to get them for my boy. These would be the first things that we’d bond over as father and son. So, as I looked at all the different colors, makes, and models of these miniature vehicles, I picked each one individually, based on what I used to play with. Muscle cars with flames, exotic racers with pinstripes, and 4×4 trucks with knobby tires. By the time I was done, I must have at least two dozen cars and trucks in the basket.

My soul swelled with joy and hope – all the right things which were missing from my childhood were going to be given to my son. At that moment, standing there in the store, with little toy cars in my hand, I determined in my heart, that he was going to get all the fatherly love, guidance, and mentorship I never had growing up. The reset button had been pressed, and we’d crossed into the horizon of a new chapter dedicated to building a legacy of hope, purpose, and life.


Monologue:

Losing my dad to suicide, and then growing up without any fatherly direction, had a massive impact on my life. I felt abandoned, adrift, and alone. 20 years later, when my little brother died from alcohol poisoning, those feelings deepened and spiraled into a dark, angry place. In the late fall of 2007, when Erica and I found out that we were having another girl, I questioned God.

During that time I was at the height of my internal conflict with Him because of all the painful feelings I was wrestling with. I used to think to myself, ‘I already had a daughter. Didn’t God see that I needed a son to connect with, raise, and pass on my name to?’

But when Isabella was born in April of 2008, she captivated my heart. Everything about her was perfect, sweet, innocent, precious, and priceless. The time for a son had not yet come to pass. There was still much ahead of our family, and the road we’d end up traveling would take us through very painful territory. In the things which unfolded on that journey, God knew we would need Isabella. He knew that our home would require that sweet special presence that only a little girl can bring.

So, we didn’t have a boy until several years later. It would be after Erica, and I suffered the hardest most horrific blow any parent could bear – the death of a child.

Despite having to navigate a loss, that words can hardly describe, this was the appointed time and season for God to give us a son. After I had faced my darkest hour, experienced so much heartbreak, and seen so much pain – after I had seen my own daughter taken from me the same way my dad’s life was stolen – that’s when I was ready to embark on the journey of raising a boy into a man.

I was ready to train a mighty warrior and leader for God and His Kingdom.

I was ready to build a legacy.

Page 30: Learning to walk again – Part 2

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Saturday, May 14th, 2016

It had only been two days since I had planted a tree in remembrance of our daughter who we lost a year prior.

The time had come for my family and me to take the next step. It was time for me to answer the task and purpose which I felt on my life since I was a little boy.

Since the day of Elizabeth’s passing, that call from eternity had become a white-hot inferno deep in my soul.

Her passing had caused everything, which I had traversed and navigated throughout my life, to culminate into a massive center of gravity. Her loss was too personal and too precious to go unanswered. All the trauma I had gone through had to be used for good, but I didn’t know how.

Every tear, every loss, and every heartbreak stitched into the fabric of my life was preparing me for my created purpose. I began to see that God had woven a golden thread with each experience – the good, bad, and even the painful.

While I didn’t know what the details of His purpose on the map of my life looked like, the discovery of that purpose wasn’t something I’d be able to find on my own. The raw fire in my heart needed to be channeled and shaped into a usable forge in which God would fashion the tools I’d use to fulfill my life’s calling – and so, I felt God quietly speak to my heart. The first step in building that forge was to seek seasoned and wise counsel from people who have the time, resources, vision, and capacity to help steward and shape what I’ve been called to do.

My family and I were already actively receiving the best grief counseling available. Each therapy session played an integral part in piecing together the shattered pieces of our minds and helping us heal both together as a family unit and as individuals.

As we were already actively engaged on the road of emotional healing, it was also time to integrate spiritual mentorship and guidance.

We needed to go back to a church which we had attended a few years prior, back when we had first arrived in the Hampton Roads area. It’s a large and dynamic fellowship located in Virginia Beach, Virginia. They have a powerful and relevant message of hope, life, and purpose and the senior pastor is one of the leading voices in the faith community today; both in the United States as well as internationally.

In addition to our robust emotional therapy and grief counseling we were already getting; I knew that this particular church was where we needed to be, as we prepared for our calling and purpose.

I felt God speak quietly to my heart, telling me that He was ready and able to use every shred and fiber of our family’s traumatic experiences for good. But I had to be willing to come under wise leadership, take a step of obedience, and reconnect to a larger family of faith who could help me to carry and responsibly steward these painful life experiences properly. These experiences started with the loss of my daughter, going all the way back to the loss of my dad, as well as everything else I had walked through, in between those two defining points of pain.

Previously, the hour-long drive to the church seemed to justify itself through the excuse of convenience. It was a different time and my heart was in a much different place. Back then I wasn’t ready to ‘pick up the phone’ whenever I felt God calling me.

This time not only did I answer, but I also refused to ‘hang up’. This meant that I didn’t care how long the drive to church was. The blow of losing Elizabeth had me focused like a laser-beam pursue to the good that God wanted to bring about.

Sunday, May 15th, 2016.

It was a beautiful, warm day. The sounds, colors and sweet fragrances of spring caressed the senses and the sun shined as if lighting our path toward a new frontier. An invisible tether was drawing us back to a place where we belonged. Thousands of families around the area, state and country were all getting up to do the same thing we were – going to church. But for us, we weren’t just going to church – no, for us it was so much more.

We were stepping into a place where we’d be connected to life, find meaning, discover the good, and begin the journey of fulfilling our purpose. It was the place where I was going to learn to yield all the pain to God, learn to grow in fellowship, learn a new definition for the word brotherhood, learn to submit to leadership and discover how God’s fingerprints are all over every aspect of my life.

As we pulled into the parking lot and parked the car, it was a powerful and emotional moment for my family and me. The last time we had been there was with Elizabeth – in fact it was in that very same church that she had given her heart to Jesus back in 2013, shortly after her first hospital stay.  There we were, going back to the same church because she wasn’t with us anymore.

By the time we got settled in and the ushers showed us to our seats, our eyes were already welling up with tears. As the worship music touched our wounded hearts, the healing power of praise washed over my family and me – even my youngest daughter Isabella (who was eight years old at the time) had tears running down her cheeks. God was there, and we could feel it.

Following the service, Erica and I went to go get Isabella from Sunday school, but something in my heart said that I needed to go and introduce myself to the senior pastor, who was down at the front entrance greeting everyone as they were leaving. He’s a dynamic, personable and down-to-earth guy, whose genuineness and warm, engaging way with people sets the tone and heart of the entire church.

Typically, at the end of every service, there’s a line of people waiting to say hello or chat with him, so while I was heading over, I thought to myself, ‘There’s going to be a long line, and we won’t have a chance to catch up.’ To my surprise, as I rounded the corner, I saw the pastor talking with one of his staff members. No long line – no significant group of people. I walked up and introduced myself. We chatted for a few minutes, and he asked how everything was going. That’s when I gave him a quick background on everything that had happened in my family, and our reason for being back in the church that Sunday.

In that particular moment and encounter, I wasn’t looking for a solution – I was looking for connection and accountability. I sought linkage to a larger life-source and strong leadership to help develop my family and me spiritually, as well as relationally with other people. The calling which had been laid on my heart and the burden weighing on my soul couldn’t be answered within a five-minute conversation, and the pastor, based on his years of experience knew all that. After we talked for a few minutes, he asked for my phone number. He wanted to connect me to some other people in leadership in order to gauge the emotional and spiritual climate of my family, help me find my footing moving forward, and ultimately help me discover the size and scope of what God wanted me to do.

Later that afternoon, I received a call from one of the other pastors on the church leadership team. He and I spoke for about an hour and covered some of the more personal details and background of my journey. As the conversation drew to a close, we made plans to have coffee and talk more a few weeks later. He also gave me some background regarding the size and scope of the church and how they were continuing to expand to new locations, known as ‘campuses’ around the area and even across the country. In fact, the church had recently started holding services at a new campus in Chesapeake, which wasn’t too far from where my family and I were living at the time, so he provided me the address and service times.

The following week we attended the church’s newest location in Chesapeake. Services were held in a hotel conference room. Everything at the Chesapeake Campus was a near exact replica of the environment and dynamic at the central campus location, which is in Virginia Beach. The lights, music, and sound may have been on a smaller scale, but the Holy Spirit and God’s presence was just as massive and uncontainable as it was at the Virginia Beach Campus.

The new location was led by a campus pastor along with his wife and family. Immediately he drew Erica and I close and got to know us and our story. We had found our home and were fulfilling the beginning stages leading to our purpose, and the calling God had laid on my heart.

Weeks slowly added up into months. Erica and I were getting involved in nearly every activity that our new church home had to offer, and we were getting to know the rest of our new family. I had a tenacious drive to immerse us in a culture full of life and closeness with God. We joined a home Bible study, spent time with the other couples encouraging one another, and attended significant conferences held by the church. Each engagement was intentional and had a singular focus on us being accountable and being connected to a corporate network of Believers who have a positive life vision and strong faith.

The Chesapeake Campus became our new family. Slowly, priceless relationships were formed, and lasting friendships developed. This little family of ours was there to help us learn to walk again after suffering our most tragic loss.

August 2016.

Erica and I engaged steadfastly in our new life of faith and fellowship. Every Sunday, we were connecting on a deeper level with our church family, and every conference we attended downloaded truth and life into our hearts. Leadership, passion, faith, initiative, healthy thinking, healthy relationships, and how to live a life of excellence – all of these were tools and topics which were being added into our lives. The fire burning in my heart was being stoked and fueled, and the first pieces of the vision God had for my life began to take shape. Initially, I wasn’t sure where to start, but then I realized that He had already equipped me with much of the skills I would need to get the ball rolling.

One evening, sometime during the first week of August, I knew it was time to start writing, working on a blog, and sharing my story. I was at my desk upstairs in the loft and looking up information online on how to purchase a website name, how to start a blog, who the best blog hosting services are, etc. The flood of advertisements and information was overwhelming. My eyes ached from staring at my computer screen. I needed a break. Exhausted, I leaned in and rested my elbows on the desk, cradled my head in my hands and began to pray – “Father…how do I do this? I know you’ve called me to serve you and work for you. I’ve felt your hand on my shoulder since I was a little boy. You’ve been with me during every trial and tribulation. Through it all, you’ve never left me. I’m laying at your feet every bad memory and every painful experience. Use them for your glory and purpose, so that others may know you and see you as the loving Father that I know you are. Guide my hand and mind…give me the words to write and speak.”

After I prayed, I had peace in my heart. I got up from my desk, took a break and knew, that when a came back after a little while, God would show me what do to and how to do it. A few hours went by, and I went back upstairs to the loft, sat back down at my desk, and began to look for the best-rated blog posting services. Within a couple minutes, I came across one that allowed me to purchase a website name and had an easy-to-use interface for me to design and upload my content. ‘Whew…well that was easy, thank you, God’, I quietly said to myself.

Now the next step – choosing a name for my website and blog. Once again, I stopped what I was doing, prayed, and then took a few minutes to think and clear my mind. Then I took out a piece of paper and jotted down some words like: ‘destiny, purpose, driven, focus, plan’…and then all of a sudden it hit me, ‘I’m a career Sailor. I’ve served in the U.S. Navy since I was 20 years old. What does the crew of a ship use to know where they’re going when sailing the ship? They use a chart!’

All ships, merchant or naval, use charts when navigating the open seas or when they are near the coast and close to shore. The crew sails along a course which has been charted. These charts show the location of land masses, navigational aids (like buoys and beacons) and even underwater hazards such as rocks, sandbars, and shipwrecks. For things like storms or emergencies, the crew can make adjustments and change course, but all of this is still accounted for on the chart. The chart will show where the ship has been and where it is going.

That’s when I realized how everything in my life has been charted by God; meaning He knew what was going to happen and when it was going to happen. My life wasn’t by accident, that I’m not sailing the Seas of Life without a chart for me to look at or reference. Sure, I’ve had to navigate through some severe storms, and I’ve even run into some dangerous hazards, but all of them were on the chart. God knew where each storm and danger was…some I had to sail through and others I sailed around.

As I sat there and wrote the word CHARTED down, the word LIFE fit right next to it…followed by the number 365; because every single day of our lives has already been charted by God. He knows the terrible storms we’re going to sail through and the dangers we’re going to face – every hurt, every pain, every broken heart, and every tear – He knows them all, and if we let Him, He can use them…


Monologue:

            The Boat – Imagine a little tiny boat, on the open sea. The weather is overcast; the ocean is angry and choppy. The small boat bobs up and down, moving along as the frothy white-capped waves break against its sturdy hull. As this little boat moves along on its journey, storm after storm rises up out of the dark, murky grey. The winds howl and rage, lightning flashes, the thunder roars, and the sea beats against the little boat.

Now what I forgot to mention, is that our little boat was the smallest and seemingly least of all the other grand vessels back in the harbor. Our little boat didn’t look the strongest or fastest. Many people even said that it wasn’t much to look at.

People back at the pier overlooked it – and to those whom the little boat was entrusted, they either neglected or abused it.

The irony is that the seemingly least and smallest, of all the boats, has actually sailed through the deepest oceans. Our little boat has been plummeted by heavy wind and seas; it has sailed through back-to-back hurricanes, spent more time underway, and had fewer times in-port, than most vessels twice its size. Despite all this, there is something special about this boat. Despite its tiny and unimposing appearance, its hull and structure are stronger and hardier than most craft. It’s as if it was designed and created by its builder to withstand the harsh environment it was going to sail into – it was as if the builder knew ahead of time that the little boat was going to face storms that would sink any other ship – but not our small boat. Our boat is sturdy, strong, and brave – because it was made that way.

What no one noticed, not even the little boat, is that all those years on the high seas through storms and crashing waves didn’t weaken it. No, instead the years of turmoil and tempest made it stronger, faster, and more agile. Every crashing wave and gust of wind added strength and structure. The keel became stronger, the hull became thicker, and the beam became wider. Its engines burned hotter and cleaner.

Over time our vessel is no longer a little boat, but it has instead become a mighty warship – a capital ship that rivals and even surpasses all the other vessels it had left behind in the safe harbor, so many years ago.

Page 29: Learning to walk again – Part 1

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January 1st, 2016. 

After spending about two weeks down in Houston, Texas with Erica’s family for Christmas, we drove back to our house up in northeast North Carolina. The weather in Hampton Roads was cold and wet and seemed to mirror our internal emotional climate.

This was going to be the start of our first year without Elizabeth; a reminder that time continues to move forward. This was just the first step into living our new reality without her.

The distractions of the holiday season were gone, and my family and I continued to face the pain and emptiness left behind by Elizabeth. She had been woven into every layer and aspect of our family.

Elizabeth’s room sat empty, just the way she had left it the day she passed away. The door remained shut; it was too painful to walk near her room and nearly unbearable to walk inside it.

That’s when the waves of grief would come rolling in like a tidal surge. The stage of the initial shock after losing Elizabeth had already passed; by this point, we were dealing with the aftermath of trying to adjust to the fact that she was gone.

The traumatic and horrific images in my mind, caused by what I had seen that day, complicated the entire healing process. The smallest and seemingly innocuous of things would trigger a flashback – I certainly couldn’t watch movies or tv shows depicting graphic violence or blood.

Whenever my mind would conjure up the terrible memories, my hands would shake, I’d hyperventilate and weep uncontrollably. Many times, Erica was there to soothe and comfort me when this happened. She would hold me close as my heart raced, and my entire body became rigid. I would subconsciously bring my hands up to my face as if I trying to block my eyes from seeing something terrible. My fists would be balled up so tight that my knuckles turned white. I’d sit and rock back and forth until the emotions ran through and left me exhausted and drained.

Then there were the nightmares. My sleep was so restless that I’d accidentally wake up Erica. Countless times she had to shake me awake because I was trembling while mumbling and whimpering. I’d wake up startled with tears in my eyes.

All of these are just some of the classic symptoms of PTSD.

I knew that ‘just dealing with it’ and trying to carry the pain and grief wasn’t sustainable or healthy for my family or me.

My commute to and from work was either spent listening to sermons, Christian music, or in prayer – often accompanied by tears. The drive was about an hour, one way – by the time I got near the base, I dried my eyes and cleared my mind for work.

Once I got to work, my mind was clear enough to engage my daily tasks – although I was easily agitated and restless. My mind would always wander elsewhere. Not only was I having to traverse this unwelcome road of mourning, but so was Erica and our youngest daughter Isabella. In addition to my own wellbeing, I was concerned for theirs as well.

Our world had been flipped upside down and turned inside out, and we were trying to figure out how to put everything back together. During the initial days and even weeks following the heartbreaking loss of Elizabeth, time seemed to freeze; but as we continued to walk through the grief and embrace the healing process, we saw that the universe kept moving forward. A key and vital part to that forward movement was my family and I seeking counseling. Not generic ‘how-are-you-feeling-today’ advice, but intentional and focused therapy designed to address every aspect of our grieving process and the internal mental trauma.

And so, as time marched on, we found ourselves watching February slowly come upon us. It may be the shortest month on the calendar, but for my family and me, it’s the longest… February 9th is Elizabeth’s birthday.

February 9th, 2016 was on a Tuesday. 

Everything about that day seemed heavy. It had only been 9 months since she had left us. For 15 years, that was a day of happiness and joy in our home; a time to remember and celebrate the life of our oldest daughter.

Yet this time, there was no celebration. The silence Elizabeth left behind was especially loud on her birthday. Erica and I knew that the road of healing and wholeness was going to be a long one, experienced through an open mind and a willing heart accompanied by many tears. That particular moment was just the first of what will be a lifetime of birthdays without Elizabeth.

February slowly rolled into March. By now my family and I had been seeing our counselor regularly. We were not only hungry for help in dealing with the feelings of loss, grief, and sadness, but we wanted to find the strength to leverage our experiences for a positive and higher purpose. So, I immersed myself in the therapy and healing process.

Many hours were spent not only talking through the events surrounding Elizabeth’s passing, but also the other traumatic experiences that I’d been carrying in my heart and mind for years. Those counseling sessions were necessary and healing, but they also weren’t easy. Besides the grief and immense sadness, probably the most challenging side-effects from all the trauma were the anxiety/panic attacks and nightmares caused by the raw and graphic imagery I’d seen the day Elizabeth died. It was a lot for my mind and heart to process.

Although nothing was going to undo what had happened, only a holistic and comprehensive approach was going to be able to help me navigate the experience. Not only did I want to come through it all successfully, but I also wanted something positive to come from it as well. I knew that Elizabeth taking her own life was certainly not what God wanted, nor was it in line with His perfect will. I also believed deep in my heart that He can make good come from any situation.

I knew that God was going to use this, as well as all the other losses and challenges, for our good and His higher purpose – but the question was this – would I let Him?

Therein lied the paradox of healing: was I willing to steward the turmoil by turning it over to Him and how was I supposed to do that?

I was going to have to traverse each day, moment-by-moment, and face what had happened. The experience of losing Elizabeth wasn’t going away, so being in a place of denial wasn’t going to fix anything. The wounds caused by her passing were deep…very deep. In order to properly heal, it meant being honest with the size, scope, and depth of those wounds and then being willing to allow God into those same broken places so He could heal. That process took vulnerability, and intellectual honesty only found via a humble heart and an open mind.

Holding onto the pain would have consumed me. I tried that back when my little brother Benjamin died in 2004. When he passed away, I futilely attempted to drown my sorrow in things that only deepened my sense of loss and abandonment. This time there was too much at stake and on the line! The loss of Elizabeth and the details surrounding her passing were too raw, real, emotional, personal, and sacred for us to try and handle un-strategically or alone.

That meant only one thing – Erica and I would have to be in agreement and alignment as to what our next course of action was. And that’s what we did. Through the counsel of some very wise friends, including our therapist, Erica and I began to walk down this journey of stewardship-and-healing together.

As we approached the spring of 2016, I started to feel emotional strength slowly return. Something was beginning to stir up in my soul.  We had an unexplainable resilience and determination not to let our experience go unused. Not only did I feel it, but so did Erica.

In our pain, we discovered a passion for leaning on God more than ever before. We had become hungry for His healing, and in that healing, we knew that we’d discover His truth and higher purpose.

Whisper-by-whisper we began to hear God’s still small voice.

May 2016.

As the one-year mark of Elizabeth’s passing began to draw close, I knew I had to do something to honor her memory. I thought and prayed hard…it had to be something which symbolized life. That’s when I felt God speak softly to my heart – ‘Plant her a tree in the back yard’ flashed across my mind.

So, on Thursday, May 12th, 2016, I went to the local home-improvement store, headed into the garden section and started to look at the trees. I walked up and down, row-by-row until I found the right one. It was a little red dogwood tree. The leaves and blossoms were starting to form, and on the small information card attached to the trunk was a picture of scarlet leaves and light pink flowers. Those were a couple of Elizabeth’s favorite colors…I had found her tree.

Along with the tree I bought some flowers that I wanted to plant around it and three flat paver stones to lay on the ground, sort of as a memorial site to my little girl.

My goal was to get that tree securely planted in the ground before the afternoon school bus drove by the house. The last time I had seen Elizabeth alive, was a year prior when she walked off that very same bus. Although it was a year later, I wanted to plant the tree at a time when she was still breathing.

I pulled my truck into the back yard, dropped the tailgate, grabbed the shovel and began to break the ground. The clay soil was hard and unforgiving. It was back-breaking work; each shovel strike only seemed to move a few inches of dirt. Tears welled up in my eyes with each thrust of the blade. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see one of my next-door neighbors walk towards me. I looked up, and he asked if I needed some help. I politely declined; I needed to do this myself…there was too much meaning behind it. Judging by my emotion, he must have known why I was planting a tree.

Pausing for a moment to see my progress, he then insisted that I at least borrow his post hole digger. “It’ll make breaking through that hard clay a lot easier,” he kindly said. My hands were sore, and blisters were beginning to form. The clock was ticking, and I only had a short while before the school bus drove by.

After a moment, I took my neighbor up on his offer and borrowed the tool. “Take your time; no rush…you can put it against the side of my shed whenever you’re done”, he replied.

The post-hole digger made cutting through the clay much easier. Finally, the hole was big enough to plant the tree. I lowered the root ball into the ground, filled it in with garden soil, and added some fertilizer.

As the I shoveled in the last bit of dirt, the same yellow school bus, which had dropped off Elizabeth for the last time exactly one year prior, slowly lumbered by.

I looked down at my watch. At that exact moment one year earlier, I had seen Elizabeth alive for the very last time.

Elizabeth’s little tree stood tall in its new home; the breeze picked up and rustled through its tender branches and buds. I stood there with my back aching, hands blistered, covered in dirt, and tears streaming down my cheeks. “I did it Elizabeth…I planted your tree…now it’s time for mommy, your little sister, and I to take the next step”, I quietly whispered.


Monologue:

A severe wound requires extensive recovery. Injuries which take away a piece of the person, like the loss of a leg, require not only healing but also intense therapy and rehabilitation. Slowly, through many tears, doubts, and frustration, the person learns to walk again, even if it’s with a limp – each limp is not only a reminder of what was lost but a silent witness to the unstoppable combination of a tenacious heart and unashamed faith.

The loss of Elizabeth was a gaping wound which had ripped away a piece of our hearts and souls. Life for us had forever been redefined, yet somehow pain and trauma which should have crushed us only kindled a fire inside my heart. In the span of about 30 years I had been through more than several lifetimes worth of heartache and loss, but this time it was different. This had become my existential moment. Everything I had walked through growing up, and everything Erica and I had been through since we were married, fused into that one nexus point of indescribable searing hot pain. It was in that furnace that a new hunger was forged and an unquenchable desire to never quit. 

I wanted to fight back – I needed to fight back. But fighting back meant I would have to heal and grow strong first. I would have to learn to walk again…and then I could eventually run in the race set before me.

The only way God was going to use all of that trauma for a testimony was if I was relentless in both my faith and action. I had to partner with God…and that meant being willing to let Him in and start to triage and treat all the brokenness and hurt that I had carried for so long. 

Every wound and every scar needed to be willingly surrendered to Him because that’s where the healing process begins. 

In the two years following the one-year-mark of Elizabeth’s passing, doors began to open, and connections were woven which would be essential to fulfilling His purpose for our lives and the task that He set in front of us. Inches turned into feet, feet turned into yards, and finally, yards became miles. With each passing day, I grew stronger – as did my family. Slowly our purpose came into focus, the trauma converted into triumph and beauty was exchanged for our ashes. 

Page 28: Once upon a dream…

Once upon a dream...


The following is a real and true-life experience of my own; nothing has been added or embellished in any way.

Perhaps it was simply the heart and mind of a grieving father, processing the loss of his child – or maybe it’s something much deeper, and much more, as I believe it to be.

 I’ll let you, the reader, decide…


December 2015:

It had only been seven months since my little girl died. My daughter Elizabeth, who was blossoming into a beautiful young lady, ended her life when she was only 15 years old.

After spending most of our time trying to adjust our lives around the hole and vacuum, she left behind, we took our family Christmas vacation – but we were a family that was missing someone.

During the years I was stationed in the Hampton Roads area, my family and I had taken several vacations to Houston. Each road trip was like our own little adventure. But the Christmas vacation of 2015 was the hardest of them all – it was our first one without Elizabeth. It was a bittersweet experience. We were finally taking a much-needed vacation to spend Christmas with Erica’s extended family in Houston; but this time it was just three of us – my wife, our youngest daughter Isabella and me. The fact that there were only three of us is the part that hurt the most. There should have been four.

The road trips were so much emptier without Elizabeth. There was a sad quietness without her presence in the back seat. The typical annoying things, which siblings do to each other on a long car ride, didn’t happen anymore. Instead, Isabella sat in the back seat by herself. She kept a strong, positive attitude, but I knew that not having her big sister, hurt deep inside. The little joyful nuances, of our family treks, seemed to have faded. When I was driving through the different states, I’d see something that looked interesting. “Hey, kids look at that!”, I’d exclaim while pointing to whatever I was talking about. That’s when I felt a wave of grief roll over me and my heart would sink. There was only one kid in the back seat.

After arriving in Houston, we stayed at my in-law’s house, as we had often done. They had two spare bedrooms; Erica and I shared one and Isabella stayed in the other. Our vacations in Houston usually lasted about two weeks. Considering the distance and time invested into traveling there, we’ve always figured that we’d better stay more than a few days, just to make the trip worthwhile.

After a few days of sight-seeing and socializing, we started making final preparations for Christmas Eve dinner, and most especially Christmas Day. This meant last minute shopping to do and a bunch of presents to wrap; all of the typical holiday hustle and bustle that people do at that time of year.

I was exhausted from both the travel and running around town to all the malls and shopping centers. One morning, a couple of days before Christmas Eve, while I was catching up on some much-needed sleep, I remember dreaming.

The dream started out as nothing of particular note…probably something nonsensical and irrelevant. As is the case with most people, when I dream, one dream will slowly roll into another as the dreamscape changes; much of what happens makes no particular sense or has any reasoning behind it.

But this time something was very different. The dream neither continued playing its scene to completion nor did it morph into another, as they so often do.

Instead, I had an experience, which I deliberately reflect upon every time questions of life, eternity and the big “why” come across my mind. I intentionally recall the details and nuances to cast a ray of hope into my heart and re-ignite my perseverance.

While still asleep, I suddenly found myself in a room that was maybe 10ft x 10ft. It was a room that I’ve never seen before. The walls were white and its atmosphere light and airy. It had an overall feeling of pleasantness and was inviting. There was furniture in the room and what appeared to be either pictures or decorations on the walls. I only caught a brief glimpse and saw everything in my peripheral vision.

Before I could even take the time to study the room closer, standing in front of me was my daughter.

I was stunned and staggered with utter amazement. I was self-aware and understood that it was a dream. I knew that in waking reality, Elizabeth was not with us anymore. Because of all this, I vividly remember trying to contain my excitement because I didn’t want to wake myself up.  While I was gaining my composure, I noticed that Elizabeth looked absolutely perfect. Everything about her was right, beautiful and complete.

She was wearing a white dress or gown that fit comfortably and naturally. There was nothing exceptional or decorative about it, only that it looked just right on her. I remember being astonished at the complete perfection of her appearance; her hair had its natural bouncy brown curls flowing down her shoulders. Even her teeth were straight and perfect.

I took note of these little details because, in the months and even couple of years before her passing, Elizabeth had slowly morphed her outward appearance, fashion, and hairstyle to match the dark and depressing tones caused by the battles going on in her mind.

And although she didn’t have a severe need for them, Elizabeth had often complained of wanting braces.

So, as I was looking and taking in every detail of perfection, I also noticed that she had such grace and poise. Not sanctimonious or pious, but instead a total sense of ease, clarity and completeness. None of the darkness or depression which she had struggled with in her physical life was there anymore – it was all gone – instead, she was whole and happy.

As my mind began to accept what my eyes were beholding, I approached Elizabeth, and we hugged. After losing her so tragically and not seeing her for so long, my soul swelled with joy. Her loss had caused such a deep wound to my heart and mind; to be seeing her in such clarity caused waves of healing happiness to wash over me.

Interestingly, Elizabeth was also happy to see me, but her excitement was calm and tempered. I could sense that her happiness came from a position of no pain or mourning; no grief or sadness. Instead, she was simply happy to see me. I remember wondering how long the moment would last. I thought to myself, ‘If I get too excited, I could risk waking myself up.’

Although she was delighted to see and fellowship with me during our brief visit together, she wasn’t concerned or in a rush.  Interestingly, I sensed that fact and knew that she was neither hurried nor anxious about the entire experience. On the other hand, I wanted to hurry up and ask a thousand different questions about life, Heaven and eternity.

With my mind going a million miles an hour, I finally managed to contain my excitement enough to speak. I had so many questions.

The first question that I was barely able to get out and stuttered to ask was, “What is it like when you leave…what happens when you die?”

Before I could finish speaking, it was as if she could sense the full scope of why I was asking. My motivation behind that question was because I wanted to know all the details on what happens when a Believer in Jesus passes on. In the Bible, there are several verses which talk about a Believer being with the Lord at the immediate moment following physical death. (see Luke 23:42-43, 2 Corinthians 5:8, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

I grew up hearing these verses, and I firmly believe them. But when it’s your own child that is absent from the body and has passed on to the Lord, it raises a lot of questions, and your faith is challenged.

With Elizabeth fully aware of both my question and intent, she gently smiled and said, “I can’t answer that question while I’m here; I’m not allowed to.”

As she said those words, in my soul I understood the full meaning behind what she was saying. It was such a simple sentence, yet her intent and purpose for saying those particular words were clear. I knew that when Elizabeth said she couldn’t answer the question, it wasn’t because she didn’t know the answer. It was because she wasn’t permitted to give a detailed explanation and my human mind wouldn’t be able to comprehend the ‘mechanics’ of how our spirit enters eternity.

Part of me wanted to press and insist that she answer me – after all, I am her dad, right? As those thoughts passed through my mind, I sensed that I couldn’t insist. Yes, she’s my daughter physically, but spiritually she is no longer accountable to me.

Once I knew I was limited to the answer given, my next question was about Heaven; “Can you tell me about Heaven? What does it look like there?”

When the Bible talks about Heaven, it’s described as beautiful, peaceful and perfect. But I wanted to know how it’s structured. Is it similar to life here on Earth?’

I remember asking this specific question from a perspective of curiosity. I’m a naturally inquisitive person and have always been fascinated by scientific topics like astronomy, chemistry, and physics. As part of my military training and profession, I work in a specialty where the power of the unseen is harnessed all the time. Invisible satellite downlinks and uplinks with masses of data being transferred over the air and traversing thousands of miles across the globe and into space. There is a lot about my job that requires an understanding of energy, the electromagnetic spectrum, radio frequency, solar cycles, and meteorological phenomenon. So, when I asked Elizabeth to describe what Eternity looks like, I was expecting (and hoping for) a technical description.

The moment she answered my question, I could sense that she knew my reason for asking and my attempt to rationalize, with my mortal mind, that I’d be able to handle whatever explanation she gave me; no matter how complex or complicated.

It was as if she knew that I was trying to get technical information on how the topography and structure of Heaven are laid out and how the dynamics of that environment operate.

With a smile, she politely and calmly replied, “Dad, the red is the reddest red, the blue is the bluest blue, the green is the greenest green, and the light is perfect; there’s no shadow.”

I was stunned and humbled by such a simplistic yet pure answer. When Elizabeth answered, I knew right away she understood my hunger for knowledge, but she had deliberately given a short yet accurate description because my brain wouldn’t be able to fathom the size and scope of how that realm is really structured.

Accepting the fact that her description of Heaven was the most she was going to say and the most I could comprehend, I then stumbled over my words to ask my next question.

“Well, who have you met…I mean…have you met…”. As I struggled to articulate the question, I had a running list of all the people in my family who have gone to be with the Lord. Not only did I think of my passed-on loved ones, but I was also thinking about some of my favorite heroes from the Bible.

Names like Peter…Paul…John…David…Moses. Founders and fathers of the Faith who have gone before us long ago and are now in Paradise.

As it was with my previous questions, I knew that Elizabeth sensed precisely why I was asking, and she knew the roster of names going through my mind. She stopped me mid-sentence, smiled, and then pulled me close – “Dad, I’ve already met everybody.”

Relief and joy washed over me. I was ecstatic with the idea that my little girl, met and fellowships with the other people I love and the legends we’ve read about in the Bible.

Not knowing how long this breathtaking encounter was going to last, I quickly thought of the next couple of questions to ask.

I knew that she’s already met everybody, but I wanted to know if they are still aware of what happens here on our side of Eternity. Do those Believers in Paradise have cognition of what us Believers here in the physical, are doing?

With those thoughts racing across my mind, I asked Elizabeth, “Well can you all hear us…can you still see us…do you know what we’re doing?”

Elizabeth, once again already knowing the scope and motivation of my question said, “We can hear it when you pray to God and worship Him.”

Instantly I understood that Heaven rings out and echoes when our sacrifice of praise and prayer are lifted in deep anointed worship before the throne of God Himself.

Staggered by this knowledge and breathless from understanding it, I had a final question for Elizabeth. I wanted to know where this place called Heaven is. A place that we’ve all talked so much about.

Many of us imagine Heaven being up somewhere in the distant cosmos. Often, we look up at the stars at night and picture that one of those pinpoints of light is a positional reference point to Paradise, somewhere in the universe beyond.

Media, books, tv, movie – they all seem to frame a picture of a Believer traveling lightyears into the vast expanse through a dimensional rift leading to the other side. This was why I was asking – I had to know how far away it all really is.

Again, my analytical, and critical thinking mind was expecting a technical answer; perhaps something resembling a complex quantum physics equation or even a line from a science fiction movie.

Elizabeth, knowing I anticipated a wildly complex pseudo-science answer, smiled at me and lightly chuckled; “Dad, it’s a lot closer than you all think, it’s so close its vapor thin.”

When she said that, I knew that she was referencing all the imagery that was going through my mind; imagery which many of us have about how far we think Heaven is.

Elizabeth said those exact words with the specific intent of letting me know that those of us, which still live here in the physical, would be so surprised to know how close it all really is. Heaven is not some far-off place like so many movies and novels portray.

As I heard Elizabeth’s explanation, I suddenly understood that it’s a realm where none of our laws of physics have dominance; in fact, it’s a realm which is superior and yet so close. Everything about it affects the space and time we physically occupy. That realm is a plane of existence where much of what we see here is only a pale reflection of what exists there.

But it’s also not far at all. Therein lies the paradox; it’s here…but it’s not here.

It’s a place which is not understood or accessed through the tools and mechanisms of cold scientific analysis, but instead, it is a realm which can only be touched through a tender heart, hungry with an appetite ignited by innocent faith.

As those final thoughts flashed across my mind, the encounter with Elizabeth suddenly and unceremoniously ended…I woke up.


Monologue

Human beings are a curious bunch. Our thirst for knowledge was imbued into us by our Creator. Nations have spent time and treasure towards financing the research of both the seen and unseen phenomenon within the universe around us. We’ve made space probes, satellites, and radio telescopes equipped with sophisticated sensors and collection devices; all designed to help give us a better understanding of what is going on around us.

I can personally attest to knowing what that thirst for information feels like. It’s an urge I’ve felt since I was a boy and spent over 20 years barely scratching the surface through my occupation.

There is so much more going on than we can even see or comprehend. Trying to get an answer to it all, is like standing outside at night and looking up at the stars through a soda straw…the view and scope of revelation is extremely limited, to say the least. Apart from the lens of faith, the quest for answers is like looking for a needle in a stack of needles.

On the seemingly endless list of mysteries, there is one that surpasses them all – death. What, if anything, is on the other side that experience which nature itself has never reconciled with? It’s something which has been woven into every stitch within the fabric of the physical universe; even down to the smallest particles and the bonds which hold them together. It is the essential premise for the laws of thermodynamics. Simply put, everything breaks down, wears down and eventually decays. This is a state of existence which was set in motion shortly after Creation.

For a living breathing being, death represents the end of something. It is the end of their presence here in this place we call the physical realm. The death of the body is a hard thing to reconcile with. It has such an air of finality to it. Death attempts to take with it all the hopes of the future and all the wonderful possibilities. I believe that we, as human beings, were never meant to experience that harbinger of sorrow. It is an unwelcome aspect of our existence that we as a species have struggled to deal with.

My faith, according to the scriptures, tells me that God created the universe perfect and the world sinless. It was Adam’s choice in the Garden that was the catalyst for chaos; it is why we experience death and pain after so many millennia.

Yet because of His endless love and infinite grace, God integrated a Divine rescue plan. The failings of man, and the follow-on scourge of death, didn’t enter the stage of the cosmos, without God’s knowledge.

There is no distance too great, no chasm too deep, no sorrow too painful or choice too broken that His love can’t reach. Through the sovereignty of His omniscient will, He ensured that the specter of death would no longer have the final word. Instead, God reached out from eternity and stepped into time to restore the hope we had lost so long ago and He removed death’s final say.

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

1 Corinthians 15:55 (NIV)

Page 27: In our darkest hours… – Part 2

Dargest Hours - part 2

 – A picture of the Newport Bridge, located in Newport, Rhode Island, taken at sunset – 


June / July 2015. 

Following Elizabeth’s funeral, we stayed in Rhode Island for about two weeks.

We were surrounded by my extended family, whose company and fellowship was a welcome distraction from our loss.

The command I was assigned to, at the time, would have allowed me to stay longer; they even offered to temporarily give me orders to the base in Newport, Rhode Island. In a few short months, I’d be going right back anyway, to report for officer indoctrination, following my commissioning on September 1st.

As generous and gracious as the offer was, I had to decline. Our responsibilities tethered us back to North Carolina and the Hampton Roads area. Isabella needed to finish 1st grade, and Erica had a job back in Virginia Beach. Besides, we still had financial obligations, namely the house.

Still, so much of my heart wanted to stay in Rhode Island. I didn’t want to leave Elizabeth. In some strange way, as long as we were there, I felt close to her…yet I knew she wasn’t really there.

The long drive back to North Carolina is still a blur for me. The only memory of that ride, which really stands out, is when we approached the Rhode Island / Connecticut border.

As the ‘Welcome to Connecticut’ sign came into view, Erica broke down in tears at the thought of leaving Elizabeth behind. Each passing mile on our journey back to North Carolina, without Elizabeth, was another micro-step on our road of grief, mourning, adjusting to Elizabeth’s absence and eventually…our healing.

During the initial days and weeks following our loss, we began to feel the real weight of our grief. The colossal width and depth of the hole left behind became painfully real. When we returned back to our house, it no longer felt like home; instead, it felt like an empty shell. The place which was formerly our family sanctuary and a safe place had become ground zero for the most devastating loss imaginable.

Elizabeth’s room was nearly the same way, as when she had left it on the day she passed away. All her earthly possessions were still in their place where she had last put them. Her toys, trinkets, and gadgets…every little token and tome that reflected her unique personality sat untouched and motionless; as if frozen in time as a reminder of better days.

All her jackets and sweaters still hung up in her closet, and her dresser had all her clothes neatly folded inside of it. Her bed remained unused with her blankets neatly folded at the foot. Everything about her room echoed with the silence left by Elizabeth’s absence. Even her soft and gentle smell lingered; a mix of light floral perfume and hairspray.

Her room was right next to the laundry room and Isabella’s room. This meant that every time Erica and I went to do laundry or Isabella would go into her own room, we would be forced to walk past the place which had become a heartbreaking memorial.

The second and third order effects of Elizabeth’s absence permeated and shaped our daily lives. Meals, shopping, and even the most mundane of tasks were reminders that she was gone. Our lives revolved around Elizabeth. Her emotional and mental health needs added an extra layer to that orbit because she was on such a strict schedule of medication. I can’t count how many times Erica and I would suddenly stop and check to see if it was time for Elizabeth’s medicine, only to realize that she no longer needed it. Those moments were bitter reminders of how and why our little girl was gone.

She needed the medicine to keep from hurting herself, but because she hurt herself, she didn’t need the medication. It was a repetitive and vicious cycle of regret, pain, and grief.

Bedtime was also difficult. As the distractions from the day’s events came to a close, we were once again faced with the eerie silence. While the nighttime hours drew close, Erica, Isabella and I would all pile in the master bedroom and watch television for a couple hours before closing our eyes and laying our heads down to rest.

The ripple effect of losing Elizabeth sent shockwaves of both fear and loneliness into every family routine…including bedtime. Our youngest daughter Isabella, who was only seven years old at the time, was too scared to sleep by herself. Before Elizabeth passed away, Isabella would often bunk up with her big sister. She admired and almost idolized Elizabeth; to have her big sister torn away, so suddenly and tragically, had a massive impact on Isabella’s sense of security and safety.

For several months, Isabella was too scared to sleep by herself in her own room so we would let her snuggle up with us. Those times when she was able to fall asleep in her own bed, would often result in her crawling back into our bed while Erica and I were still asleep.

The deep wound to our minds, bodies, and spirits had left our souls feeling raw and sensitive. So much so, that we unconsciously began to filter out the former things which we used to find entertaining.

The types of music we listened to and the movies and television we used to watch, took a sudden and drastic shift. Suddenly we pushed out anything which seemed to graphically depict or glorify violence, substance abuse, greed or dysfunctional behavior.

It was as if our hearts and minds could only process the most innocent and pure of entertainment. Our senses couldn’t handle the harsher varieties.

Instead, our television viewing became a form of a security blanket. In the evenings Erica, Isabella and I would all huddle up together and watch re-runs of old, black-and-white, family-oriented shows from the ‘50s and early ‘60s.

Without us consciously trying, worship and praise music filled our home and car radios. It was a way for us to reach out to Heaven and keep God close to our broken hearts. We desperately needed His healing touch and wanted to invite Him close. My little family and I drew closer to God and leaned on our faith deeper than we ever had before.

The grief and pain, that the loss of Elizabeth carried with it, were something that words can scarcely describe. There was a huge void left in our family. A part of us had been ripped away, suddenly and with no explanation or warning. I knew that to survive, I would have to depend on the Eternal Arms of One who is bigger than the loss.

When my little brother Benjamin died from an overdose in 2004, I tried to walk that road alone. It almost killed me.

I knew that the weight of Elizabeth’s passing would be too much for me to carry on my own; so, I reached out to the one constant which I knew would never fail me…God. I leaned on Him, not just for my survival, but for the survival of my wife and youngest daughter Isabella.

A few short months after we buried Elizabeth’s body up in Rhode Island, I had to go back to my home state once more. I was selected to be commissioned as a Naval Officer; something which had been a heartfelt desire of mine for many years.

September 2015.

I had been in the Navy a little more than 17 years. After climbing the ranks as an enlisted Sailor, I had been selected for commissioning as a Naval Officer. It was a career-long dream of mine, and it was finally happening. My commissioning ceremony was held on September 1st, 2015. It was a big, momentous occasion which was attended by many of my shipmates and friends, who I had served with over the years; even my wife’s brother and his wife drove up from Houston to join us. It was an important event held aboard a battleship-turned-museum…the decommissioned USS WISCONSON (BB-64), located in the harbor near downtown Norfolk, Virginia.

Many of the people who I care about were there…except for one – Elizabeth.

As the guests arrived and every chair was filled, minus one. In the very front row, next to Erica, there was one chair which remained empty. That’s where Elizabeth would have sat. This would be the first significant life event, for our family, which she wouldn’t be attending.

Elizabeth had been a constant presence in our lives for almost as long as Erica, and I had been married. Her fingerprints were on nearly every major family milestone.

From our first apartment in San Diego to our first overseas tour, to our first house in North Carolina…Elizabeth had been part of it all, until now. My commissioning ceremony would mark not only the beginning of a new phase in my military career, but it would also become the first of many special moments, holidays and birthdays where her absence would be sorely felt.

A few days after the ceremony, I would be returning to the place where I had enlisted in the Navy back in 1998. As a newly commissioned Naval Officer, I was ordered to report to Officer Training Command, located on Naval Station Newport, Rhode Island. The irony of it all seemed surreal. Almost 17 years prior, I had left this place as a young man seeking to discover myself. This was the same place I had lost my father and my little brother. This was also the place where my extended family and I had buried precious other loved ones…this was the place where I had laid my oldest daughter to rest.

One day, while my fellow officers and I were on the main parade field finishing our daily physical fitness training, the reality and gravity of it all hit me. The warm September sun was accompanied by a cool breeze flowing off of Narragansett Bay. There I was, the man who had left so many years prior, returning to the same place where so much of my heart had been laid to rest and gone into eternity.

For the rest of my fellow classmates, it was just another training environment.  For me, there was so much more. It had only been four months since we buried Elizabeth in a cemetery, which was only 15 minutes away.

Throughout my military career, I always imagined going to the Naval War College in Newport and receiving training as an officer, but it never occurred to me the long road I would have to travel to get there…yet there I was; back where it all started.

It was a long six weeks of training. Erica and Isabella stayed back in North Carolina. I was by myself in Rhode Island, but I was never alone – God was with me.

On several occasions, when the training day secured, I visited the cemetery. The broken ground of Elizbeth’s grave was still fresh, and the grass was barely growing back. She still didn’t even have a headstone. That was something that Erica and I had a hard time coming to terms with and doing. A headstone represented accepting the fact she was gone, and it was a form of a final goodbye that we were not ready to say.

About half-way through my officer training, I was visited by a close friend and Christian Brother of mine. This is the same Brother who had taken me under his wing, back when we were serving aboard a warship together and engaged in Bible studies with, along with the ship’s Executive Officer, Supply Officer, and Command Chaplain. He is someone who supported me when my uncle had taken his own life, back in 2012.

I took my friend to the cemetery where not only Elizabeth is buried, but where my dad, little brother, uncle, and cousin are also buried. The tears in my Brother’s eyes welled up. The magnitude of so much loss was almost incomprehensible.

November 2015.

Following my training at the Naval War College, I reported for about a month of advanced technical training related to my new career field as an officer. During this season, my family and I pressed into the Hands of One far more capable than ourselves.

While I was in the advanced technical training, I was reunited with yet another old shipmate of mine. A fellow officer, and also a fellow Christian…someone who I had also worked with back aboard my last shipboard assignment.

By a stroke of Divine Providence, he was assigned to the same class as me. His wife became close friends to Erica and was a shoulder for her to lean on as we continued to traverse our road of healing.

My friend and I carpooled to and from class every day. During those car rides, I discovered what a great listener my friend is. We talked and prayed together; sharing in Brotherly fellowship.

I consider this particular season the beginning stages of something vital. It was in this season that a calling from Eternity, which had been placed on my heart as a young boy, began to take shape and form. I knew that as long as I stayed pressed into God, He would reveal to me what the next steps were.

As the final week of advanced training drew to a close, Christmas was on the horizon. This would be our family’s first Christmas without Elizabeth. Erica and I planned a vacation to Houston, Texas so we could spend the holiday with her family.

After a two-day road trip, we arrived in Houston and at Erica’s mom’s house.

While we were there, I had a powerful and compelling experience…one which I cannot shake.

I had a dream which echoes in my mind to this day…


Monologue:

Our hearts were heavy. How does a parent possibly process the loss of their own child – how does a little girl process the loss of her big sister?

In the months which followed, we discovered that we weren’t alone. The road of healing has no road-map. Instead, it’s navigated through trust and vulnerability, accompanied by many tears.

I knew that the size and scope of what we were traversing were too big for myself or family to hold onto. Only God and His healing touch would carry us through.

Ever since I was a little boy, I always felt God’s Hand on my life. I knew that He is always near. Through my early adult years, I pushed against Him. I carried so much pain, caused by traumatic life experiences and all the losses I had navigated through, especially the loss of my dad and little brother; but none of that compared to losing my own child.

Through these darkest hours, there was a Divine Invisible Hand which held us close. Deliberate engagement by seeking our comfort in the scriptures and prayer were the two main things which kept my family and me afloat amid our sea of grief.

In addition to securing ourselves in the healing arms of God, we found comfort in the empathetic company of friends and family who made themselves available 24 hours a day; seven days a week. We were covered with around the clock support by people who genuinely cared for us. Most of them were fellow shipmates who I had served with over the years, including several people from the chain of command aboard the last ship I had served on.

Chief among these people is my friend, and mentor;  the same one who had visited me while I was up in Newport, Rhode Island at Officer Training Command. He’s someone who, to this day, is especially close to my family and I. We spoke on a near-daily basis. His prayers and listening ear were two of the best medicines for my family’s broken hearts.

Sadly, for as many people who showed sympathy and support, there were others who seemed to pull away. For whatever reason, these were individuals who, in better times, seemed to be friends and some are extended family. They never came by to show their condolences, give us a phone call…not even a sympathy card.

A crisis has a strange way of revealing a person’s depth of character and capacity for empathy. In the middle of the battle, there are those who run towards the fight and seek to help…then there are others who shrink back and hide. Tragedies, like the one my family and I were facing, can make some people feel uncomfortable. They don’t know what to say or do. For them, it’s simply more comfortable to step away and try to pretend nothing happened.

But it’s those initial days, weeks and even months, following a crisis that are the most critical.

A piece of advice: If there is someone in your life, whom you even remotely value having a relationship with, I recommend being willing to step out of your comfort zone to be a resource of healing. Don’t feel pressured to say anything. In a loss as massive and horrible, like the one we were facing, there are no words to make the pain go away.

Just listen…plain and simple.

If you’re not a good listener but live close by, at least offer to help out with simple daily things like cleaning, grocery shopping or other household chores. Simple acts of kindness are a priceless investment.

Remember, a friendship which is advertised with words in the good times must be followed through with action in the bad times.

During the weeks and months following Elizabeth’s loss, my extended family in Rhode Island and a few close friends stood by us from the very beginning.

But there are also those who are outside of my family tree and immediate circle of friends who I owe a debt of gratitude that I can only hope to repay, by paying it forward to others who are hurting.

These are special people, whose names and tender acts of love and kindness I’ll never forget. The selflessness and bravery they showed, were instrumental in helping us cross through our darkest valley.

Throughout that first year, as my family and I continued to grow stronger and press into our faith, a purpose and plan began to take shape. Although I didn’t know it at the time, something was forming and rising inside of me. The clarity of what that was wouldn’t become evident until several of months later.

Page 26: In our darkest hours… – Part 1


Saturday, May 16th, 2015

96 hours had passed since Elizabeth died. My wife and I had just lost a daughter – our youngest daughter had lost a sister.

The days and weeks which followed Elizabeth’s passing had become a sleepless and tear-filled blur. Everything was moving so fast; our minds and bodies buzzed with fatigue fueled by grief.

The little girl, who 15 years prior I had helped bring into this world, was gone.

As parents, Erica and I were suddenly absent a child; someone whom we had been responsible for. Every aspect of her life was part of our parental decision-making process.

Elizabeth was our oldest child. That mere fact was a center of gravity for our family. The emotional and spiritual struggles which she wrestled with only deepened the orbit. But, in a sudden collision, our world was spun out of control, and our family climate was forever altered.

We were stunned and reeling from the shock of losing her.

So many choices to make, so much to get done and very little time to spare. Each decision and task were a painful and chilling reminder that my eldest princess was gone from this world.

During those initial days, we were surrounded by friends and family. Erica’s extended family had come from Houston, Texas and several of my fellow military warriors, who I had the pleasure of serving with, were also there; one of whom I consider a close brother-in-arms.

The day of the memorial service, I wore my dress blue uniform. So did my military friends. Our deputy sheriff friend came by the house in his squad car and escorted us to the church where the service was held. As we neared the intersection leading to the church, he put his lights on and stopped traffic so we could proceed to the church parking lot.

As Erica, our youngest daughter Isabella and I walked into the church, our friends and family followed close behind us. My warrior-brother sat close to my family and I. During the memorial service, my wife and I wept; it was another step in the surreal goodbye we were forced to say to Elizabeth. A couple of songs, which were special to her, were played on the church sound system while the pews were filled with many of her high-school friends and their families. There were so many people that there was standing room only.

After the service, so many of Elizabeth’s friends came up to Erica and I and hugged us. The sadness and pain in their eyes echoed our own.

Monday, May 17th, 2015

A private viewing was held at the funeral home the next day. Erica’s family joined us, along with my warrior-brother. His presence was a point of solidarity amid the painful chaos. The entire time he managed the phone calls and daily taskings that my wife and I had neither the patience or heart to deal with.

I remember walking into the viewing room where Elizabeth’s body was laying. As I walked in, my heart raced, and my breath was shallow. The last time I had seen her was five days prior. Considering what had happened, I didn’t know what to expect.

Turing the corner into the viewing room, the first thing which caught my eye was Elizabeth’s thick beautiful hair. The warm dark brown color was showing through the last bit of maroon hair dye Elizabeth had used a few weeks prior. She wore a long green dress that our neighbor friend helped pick out. As we walked up to the table where she was laying, Erica and I began to weep uncontrollably.

Looking at our little girl lying there, it was a tangible and very real reminder that our daughter was really gone. Erica and I stood by Elizabeth’s body for a few minutes; Isabella joined us moments later. As a way for us to connect with Elizabeth, even though she had already departed, Erica and I placed in her folded hands a small family photograph and Isabella gave her big sister a little plastic figurine of Elizbeth’s favorite fairy tale princess.

Our family had been broken…so were our hearts. This would be the last time we would look upon Elizabeth, on this side of eternity.

Meanwhile, my warrior-brother stood close by and slowly ushered in the other close friends and family who were there to show their respect.

As the viewing came to a close, Erica and I spoke to one of the funeral home directors. Following the viewing, would be the actual funeral and burial up in Rhode Island.

The director explained to us that, within a matter of hours, Elizabeth’s body would be transported, via airplane.

Erica broke down and began to cry. “She’s going to be all alone…on an airplane…by herself.” The heart of a mother was breaking for her lost baby. Erica and I felt so helpless and powerless; everything about what was happening was counter to our parental and nurturing instincts. We were still trying to take care of and look after our child, even though we knew she was already gone.

Erica’s tears and pain were mine as well. We both wanted our little girl back. We both hoped that we would wake up from this living nightmare.

Even though we lived in North Carolina, we were not from there. Aside from our neighbors and a few friends, we had no roots or connections there. Erica is from Texas, and so is the rest of her extended family. I, on the other hand, am from Rhode Island, where the rest of my extended family is also.

For years, Erica and I planned to move to Texas when I retired from the military. Back in 2010, we bought a house near the Virginia/North Carolina state line, because my duty assignment had stationed us in the Hampton Roads area. We didn’t have deep relationship roots nearby. No family and our closest friends were either our neighbors or some of the fellas I had been assigned with.

The heartbreaking decision of where to bury one of our children never factored into the equation: yet there we were…faced with that terrible choice. Were we going to bury Elizabeth there in North Carolina? A place where we were only transients and didn’t have any family?

What about Texas? Sure, we planned on moving there and calling the Lone Star State home someday, but where exactly in Texas? It’s a very big place and, at that time, our plans to move there were just a faraway whisper.

The tragic irony of having laid to rest so many others in my family in one location led Erica and me to a painfully logical choice. Elizabeth was going to be buried somewhere I had become all too familiar with. A place which had been visited too many times by others in my family, for the same reasons we were laying Elizabeth to rest. Elizabeth would be buried in Rhode Island.

I called my oldest uncle and told him about what Erica, and I decided. He agreed that we had made a sensible choice in the most senseless of situations.

There was so much to be done, and much of it actually needed to take place up in Rhode Island.

My uncle selflessly took it upon himself to liaison with the funeral home in Rhode Island and was willing to make some tough choices for us: picking the burial plot and choosing a casket.

Tuesday, May 18th, 2015.

Early that morning, Erica’s family had started on their drive back to Texas. My cousin (who is really more like my older brother), flew down from Rhode Island to join Erica, Isabella and I on the 11-hour drive from North Carolina to Rhode Island. Our grandmother, Nanny, was expecting our arrival and she had everything prepared at her house, for our stay. I would be returning to the place of my origin and roots. The same place where I had lost my father so many years prior. This time I’d be returning to bury my daughter.

While we were on our journey towards the final stages of saying goodbye, the magnitude of Elizbeth’s passing was having a rippling impact back in our local community. Her former classmates at the high school she had attended wanted a way to express their grief and say goodbye as well.

Out of concern, the school faculty had expressed trepidation about memorializing Elizabeth; they didn’t want to draw attention to how she had died or glamorize suicide, but at the same time they also wanted to be delicate and respectful of Elizabeth’s memory.

As we were driving north to lay Elizabeth to rest, the school and student leadership decided to organize a butterfly release. That afternoon, thousands of delicate little wings rose to meet the warm sunshine and fluttered in the breeze toward heaven.

Wednesday, May 19th, 2015.

The day of Elizabeth’s funeral. The warm sun and mild ocean breeze seemed to almost soften the somber and sad feeling that hung in the air.

I made some last-minute phone calls to my uncle, who had been coordinating many of the specifics with the local funeral home. Erica and Isabella got dressed up; I wore my dress blue uniform. As we drove to the cemetery, my heart was pounding. I had taken this ride before, and I knew every turn and detail. Every time I had gone there, it hurt; but never this bad.

Each funeral had brought with it a hope, that it would be the last one caused by the same thief who had stolen all the others.

Yet, there we were, heading to a place which had come to represent many of the unfulfilled hopes and dreams within one family.

As I pulled into the cemetery, I could see the rest of my family had arrived, as well as a few of the people who I knew from church, growing up.

Alongside I saw the hearse. My heart sank; I knew that in a few short moments, Erica and I would say our final goodbye to Elizabeth.

I parked the truck, and we walked over to the grave site where the rest of my family was standing. Awkward greetings were shared between us. We all knew why we were there – we had done this before. Everyone looked tired; each time something like this happened, it took a piece from all of us. The only thing we could do was stand and be strong for one another. A stiff upper lip and a sense of solidarity were the only things that helped us hold onto our collective family dignity and kept our emotions from coming unglued.

The funeral home had set up a small table with a few of Elizabeth’s photographs, as a way to give a visual memorial. The funeral director walked up to me, gently shook my hand and explained what was about to happen. He then shared a few words with the rest of my family before we proceeded.

“Mr. Mattera, I’ll need you and someone else to come and assist us.”, the funeral director said as he opened the back of the hearse. Slowly he rolled Elizabeth’s casket a few inches out. My cousin (the one who flew down to North Carolina and rode back with us) walked up next to me.

“I’ll need you two gentlemen to get on that side while my assistant and I get on the other side, and we will lift together.”, the funeral director instructed.

The funeral director and his assistant grabbed one side of the casket, my cousin and I grabbed the other. With one of us on each corner, we lifted and pulled my daughter’s casket out of the hearse.

I can think of a thousand horrible things in this world that no father ever wants to do…being a pallbearer for their own child is undoubtedly one of them. It’s an experience which left a massive scar on my heart, and one I’ll certainly never forget.

After a few short paces, in unison, we placed the casket onto the lowering device. My mother’s pastor shared a few short words and said a prayer.

A short while after the eulogy, the guests began to slowly leave. My aunt and uncle had arraigned for a quiet reception a few miles down the road, so they went on ahead. Erica and I stayed behind at the gravesite a few more minutes.

As the groundskeepers walked up to lower the casket, tears welled up in my eyes. My lip quivered, and body trembled. I snapped to attention and slowly raised my right arm, forming a salute.

“I love you Elizabeth…I love you…d-d-d-daddy loves you.”, I stammered as tears rolled down my cheeks.

This was my final goodbye to Elizabeth – but somewhere deep down, amid the howling winds and torrential rain which plummeted my soul, a small but unquenchable, white-hot flame of hope crackled and burned. It was as if that little flame defiantly resisted against the raging storm. I knew this wasn’t the end…in fact, it was far from over and the beginning of something so much bigger.

Death no longer has the final say…the grave has lost its sting.


Monologue:

For a parent, the death of a child is a reminder of how illegitimate of an intruder death really is on the human experience. Somehow over the years, humanity has become uncomfortably accustomed to elders preceding their juniors in passing through that invisible veil; in fact, we expect it and accept it as a normal part of the cycle of things.

Yet there is still an internal reminder of how foreign death really is. It pings deep within all of us, every time a loved one dies, no matter how old they were or how expected the passing was.

Still, we celebrate the life of those who lived long and fulfilled lives. We grieve their loss and miss them in their absence, but their passing is an accepted fact.

On the other hand, the death of a child resonates deeply with anyone who has a heart. A child dying is completely counter to the accepted order of things. It is a parent’s worst nightmare. Children are to be nurtured, protected and guided…they are our greatest legacy, for they carry with them a piece of us into tomorrow.

In addition to the massive and nearly indescribable grief, I felt from Elizabeth’s passing, there was a painful irony which surrounded her funeral. In that very cemetery, are the corporeal remains of precious loved ones, including my own father and little brother, who lost their battle to the same invisible darkness which had lied to Elizabeth and stolen her from us. Their lives had been cut short, leaving behind so much unrealized potential and so many unfulfilled dreams.

For my family and I, the weeks and months following our deepest loss would be some of our darkest hours. The complex waves of emotions which came crashing would solicit a variety of physical and psychological responses.

Our family had suffered a major loss. An irreplaceable part of our lives had been ripped away from us. There was an unexplainable vacuum left by Elizabeth’s absence; the silence she left behind echoed loudly. Her empty room and all her worldly possessions were a constant reminder that she wasn’t there anymore.

For 15 years Erica and I raised and nurtured that little girl. Everything about our lives was tailored and adjusted to the fact that there were four people in our family. Then all of a sudden there was only three. Little things, that most people take for granted, like grocery shopping, laundry, and cooking all of a sudden served as a reminder that someone was missing. We no longer bought Elizabeth’s favorite foods, our grocery list became smaller, her clothes weren’t in the washer and dryer, and our nightly family meals became nearly non-existent.

In fact, after Elizabeth’s passing, our house ceased being a home. A home is supposed to be a place of peace and safety; instead, our worst nightmare had taken place, right at the very center of it all.

I spent many nights waking up crying in my sleep from the nightmares caused by the things I saw that terrible day. They never really go away…the nightmares just happen less and less.

Through it all, there was one constant: God.

He is truly near the broken-hearted in their darkest hours.

During the following year, we discovered how near He really is…

Page 25: “All The King’s Horses and All The King’s Men…” – Part 5

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Tuesday, May 12th, early evening

A mother’s broken heart; a little sister’s pain…

My house had become a crisis scene. Two hours had passed since I made the 911 call. A few of our neighbors, the pastor of a local church, and a friend who was also a deputy in the county sheriff’s department, were the only familiar faces there to comfort me during those dark and terrible moments.

I desperately wanted my wife, but Erica was on her way back home from work, and everyone said not to call her…I was warned that it could lead to something worse.

After, what seemed an eternity, one of our friends saw Erica’s black car coming down the road towards the house. Everyone braced themselves for the inevitable. As Erica was pulling up to the house, she noticed all the cars and people. The driveway was blocked by one of the county vehicles, so Erica pulled her car to the side of the road, next to our mailbox, in front of the house. When she saw the emergency response vehicles, her first instinct was to wonder what was wrong. Her heart pounded, fear swept over, and her mind began to race…

‘Why are all these people here at my house? Why is there an ambulance? What happened? Is Matthew o.k.? Are the girls o.k.?’

As she was getting out of the car, our deputy sheriff friend took me by the hand and said we needed to go tell Erica what happened.

I was so terrified, barely able to comprehend the size and scope of our loss and what I had seen; how was I going to tell my wife, my best friend and the mother to our children, that one of our babies was gone?

My friend put his arm around me and held me close as we walked up to Erica. Before we could get all the way to the end of the driveway, Erica asked: “What the heck is going on?”  Looking around puzzled and searching for answers, she saw two of our neighbors there, who were also mothers and her friends. The look on their faces said that something was terribly wrong.

Erica looked back at me. The look of sorrow and anguish in my eyes triggered a mother’s instincts. Our friend, who had walked up with me, put his arms around both of us and gently told Erica that something terrible had happened to Elizabeth. Bewilderment and fear flashed across her face, “What do you mean something bad happened…where is she?”,Erica asked.

With a tone of sorrow and regret, he pulled Erica and me even closer and said, “Erica, Elizabeth’s gone…”. As the words exited his mouth, he looked back at me, as if prompting me to explain what those awful words really meant. I could barely comprehend what was happening, much less form the words, and yet somehow, in a painful whisper, I spoke.

Not wanting to believe what had occurred, she looked over at her friends, when they looked down with tears streaming in their eyes she understood. As the truth took root in her heart, she nearly collapsed into my arms with the wail of a mother’s broken heart. Together we stood there, at the end of our driveway, holding each other closer than we ever had before. We were walking through the darkest hour imaginable for any parent, and the only people we had to lean on were one another.

As Erica and I held each other, our friends gathered and formed a circle around us, as if to somehow help absorb some of the pain and to let us know we were not alone.

While we were huddled together in our embrace, Elizabeth’s body was being loaded up into the coroner’s van and slowly driven away. At that very moment, Erica and I looked up and caught a brief glimpse of the van; tears of sorry and anguish poured. Our little baby was in there, and there was nothing we could do to save her.

Our neighbor hugged Erica and asked her if she wanted to walk over to their house so she wouldn’t be exposed to the scene; Erica accepted the invitation. Shortly after that, the first responders slowly began to leave. Their departure only seemed to confirm that there was nothing else to do. This simply echoed the terrible finality of what had happened.

While everyone else was leaving, my friend (the deputy sheriff) walked back from the house and talked with me. He told me something that to this day still echoes in my mind. He said to me that one of the other sheriff deputies, who were there to assist, had found the keys to the gun safe…they were next to Elizabeth.

As soon as I heard that, my knees gave out from underneath me. “Oh my God! How? How could she have found them?”,I exclaimed in shock. As waves of sorrow crashed over me, I wept in disbelief. My friend and the other deputies explained to me that most likely, Elizabeth went looking in the closet for the gun safe keys. When she couldn’t find them in the house, she waited until I was in cutting the lawn in the back yard, before she went through my truck looking for them.

I kept thinking to myself, ‘How could this have happened? I’ve already lost so many people already…this can’t be happening. This is not real…maybe it’s just a horrible dream’. As soon as the thought of the entire experience being ‘just a dream’ crossed my mind, waking reality in all its raw and unforgiving vividness, came crashing back into my state of delirium. Gut-wrenching grief and agonizing sorrow overwhelmed me like an ocean swell.

After a while, the only people who remained where our friends: the deputy and neighbors, the firefighter and my wife’s friend.

In a small town, like the one we lived in, there isn’t a special team of people who come and remediate a scene like the one which had unfolded in my house.

There were things that had to be done. Hard things. The aftermath of what Elizabeth’s fatal choice had to be fixed. It was a task which took a special kind of courage. Without having to ask, friends and neighbors stepped in to help. I made my way to the neighbor’s house and meet up with Erica. Isabella was dropped off by a sheriff deputy shortly after my entering the neighbor’s home. Confused and scared Isabella walked over to us while we sat in the living room. Together, Erica and I embraced our youngest child and explained to her that her big sister was no longer alive. Cries filled with fear and pain came out of her, her little body shook in our arms as the words soaked in her mind.

That was the night that our house had ceased becoming a home. Something awful and unimaginable had happened there – but eventually, we would have to go back. While Erica and I waited across the street at the neighbor’s house, there were calls to make. People came by our neighbor’s house as the news of Elizabeth’s death rocked the foundation of our small community. Disbelief and tears flowed from everyone’s eyes.

I needed to call my chain-of-command, close friends and family back in Rhode Island. Each one of those calls would seem like I was reliving the moment all over again. By the time I hung up the phone with each one, I was drained and in tears. Some of the phone calls were made that day…others wouldn’t be until the following morning.

The phone calls…

Of all the calls I made that day there are a few which really stand out:

I called a close cousin of mine…but he’s really more like my brother. It was he who had lost his little sister, eight years prior, to the same darkness which had taken Elizabeth. He and I spoke for a little while, he cried with me and asked if there was anything he could do. I told him that I needed two things; tell the rest our family what happened and come see me as soon as he could.

The second call was to a buddy with whom I was working with during that particular season. He’s a guy who I had become very close to and share a lot in common with. He was there next to my wife and me in the days which followed. Being a fellow military member, and having traversed his own set of losses, he knew exactly what to do…just be there – plain and simple. Over the course of about a week and a half, I leaned on him for some of the simplest things…because everyday life and its mundane tasks were too much to handle.

The other phone call I made which sticks out in my mind, was the one made to a friend who I had become close to when one of my other uncles (one of my dad’s older brothers) had taken his own life, during my deployment in 2012.

My friend and I had served together aboard a warship, and he was part of that Band of Brothers that God had brought into my life so many years prior.

That night, when I called him and told him about the awful thing that happened, he stayed with me on the phone and prayed with me. He had become close to not only me but to my wife and kids as well. He knew the struggles we were going through; the pain, heartache, and turmoil that Elizabeth had been wrestling with. He and I stayed on the phone for over an hour, talking and weeping. Before we hung up the phone, we agreed on a date which would be best for him to come see me.

The next day I called my grandmother. That call is something which still causes emotions to rise up in me when I think about it. My cousin, whom I called the day before, had already passed the tragic news to everyone in our family, including our grandmother. “Hi Nanny…it’s me Matty”, I said, with tears in my eyes. I could hear and feel my grandmother’s sorrow and empathy on the other end. “Oh, Matty…you poor boy…”. As soon as I heard those words, the tears poured from my eyes. I tried to hold them back, but I felt like the same little six-year-old boy I was back when my dad took his own life over 30 years prior. Nanny was all too familiar with what I was feeling. She had already lost two sons and two grandchildren to the same self-harm which took her great-granddaughter…my Elizabeth. Of those sons she lost, one was my own father, and one of those grandchildren was my own brother. Nanny knew my loss…she felt it, and her heart broke for me and with me.

After I got off the phone with Nanny, I called my one of my uncles (my dad’s oldest brother). As my dad’s oldest brother, I’ve always viewed this particular uncle as the senior biological relative to whom I could call in a crisis. Not only that, but he also knew the sting and heartbreak of losing a daughter and two brothers to the same darkness which had overcome Elizabeth.

By the time I spoke to my uncle on the phone, my cousin had already briefed him as well. My uncle was expecting my call.

Hearing my uncle’s deep calm voice on other the end of the phone somehow made me feel stronger. I knew that he understood my pain and the hard decisions I would be faced with in the coming days. Even though my own loss probably brought back a lot of hard memories for him, my uncle didn’t let it show. He listened and gave me counsel on what were some of the most painful decisions any person or more specifically, a parent, has to make.

In the initial days following Elizabeth’s passing, a multitude of people came by the house to offer their condolences and drop off food and flowers. I remember there being mountains of casserole dishes in the kitchen and dining room and the entire house looked like a florist shop.

The first week was a buzzing blur of activity. Several of my military buddies from work also rallied around and offered whatever help they could, and Erica’s parents and siblings came and visited us from Texas.

Painful decisions…

When a person dies, there are harsh and painful decisions that need to be made. Sometimes, those decisions are made by someone who’s been designated in writing via a will. In other cases, the responsibility falls on the next of kin. In our situation, Erica and I had to make the hard decisions for Elizabeth, our own child. These were ugly and even morbid choices; stuff that no parent ever thinks about.

But there we were. Erica and I were faced with making decisions to questions which seemed to have crawled out of our worst nightmares.

Things like: was Elizabeth’s remains going to be buried or cremated? If there was to be a burial, where were we going to lay her body to rest? If we decided to have a burial, what kind of casket would Elizabeth’s body be laid to rest in? Which funeral home would handle the arraignments? Would we have a memorial service? If so where would we hold the service? How did we want the service to be structured? Was there going to be a viewing? Considering how Elizabeth had died, was a viewing even possible? If there was going to be a viewing what outfit was, she going to be laid to rest in? And so on and so on and so on…

These were all just some of the difficult questions Erica, and I would have to provide answers to, and we had a very limited amount of time to make these decisions.

Each time we were presented with one of these questions, our hearts sank, and the grief would crash over us. I remember mounds of paperwork had to be signed; every time I put pen to paper, my eyes would well up with tears, and my heart became overwhelmed. It was surreal and painful.

None of these problematic decisions could have been made on our own. Erica and I depended heavily on our close friends and family.

One of the hardest decisions was where to lay Elizabeth’s body for final rest.

This was when I relied heavily on my uncle back in Rhode Island. Erica and I knew for sure that we didn’t want to bury Elizabeth in North Carolina. I’m from Rhode Island, and Erica is from Texas. Besides our neighbor friends, we had no real connections there. Even though we knew that our daughter was no longer there physically, we didn’t feel comfortable for her body to be laid in a place full of strangers.

My uncle and I spoke on the phone several times during that week. He helped me figure out some tough decisions…what kind of casket and which funeral home. In a twist of painful irony, experiences such as this were sadly familiar to my family and me. We had laid to rest so many others who had passed in the same self-destructive way. Because of this inconvenient and painful familiarity, we had become unwilling experts in a subject which is too taboo and too painful for most families to even comprehend.

In the middle of our most difficult and darkest hour, there was one decision which seemed to provide an eerie sense of simplicity. Erica and I decided that Elizabeth would be buried up in Rhode Island, in a place which has become sacred ground to my family and me.


Monologue:

Following the phone calls to some of my closest friends and family were the calls to and from extended friends and even acquaintances. The news of our loss traveled fast within the network of people who had known us throughout the years. Social media was flooded with condolences and words of encouragement from people who we hadn’t spoken to in a long time.

 During my writing of this particular experience, I’ve had to call back those special people who were with us that day. People who were with my wife and I during our darkest hour; they stood as mighty oaks in a storm and let us lean on their branches as the winds howled, the rain poured, and the terrible lighting flashed.

 Traumatic experiences, like the one I’m sharing now, exact a toll on the human mind and memory. Science has proven it. Countless mental health professionals have studied it.

Seconds seem like minutes, and minutes seem like hours. Time itself seems to slow down, and the field of view narrows to only a few feet. Sights and sounds, outside of that immediate field of observations, become the mere whispers of your worst nightmare.

The mind will involuntarily form mental pictures and flashbacks of the traumatic imagery.

The human soul will remember the emotional trauma and feel it all over again.

The body will produce symptoms such as panic, rapid heart rate and racing thoughts, which can be triggered by sights, sounds, and smells.

Page 24: “All The King’s Horses and All The King’s Men…” – Part 4

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*** NOTE TO THE READER: THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS VERY RAW, GRAPHIC, AND PAINFUL DETAILS SURROUNDING MY DAUGHTER ELIZABETH’S DEATH ***

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015 – late afternoon. 

That was the day I found my little girl, Elizabeth, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound…

The oppressive darkness Elizabeth had been wrestling with for nearly four years had come to reap its final toll and steal my baby.

That day would bring with it pain and anguish that I didn’t think was even possible to experience. It was a day which felt like I was reliving the horror of finding my dad moments after he had shot himself, albeit over 30 years prior. It was the day my most precious loved one, and valued treasure would take with her, a piece of my heart forever.

The heightened drama and turmoil that Elizabeth was walking through had reached their destructive climax. During her last couple of weeks alive, it was even more imperative for either Erica or me to be home before Elizabeth got off the school bus. We didn’t feel comfortable leaving her alone at the house.

There were too many things there that she could use to hurt herself. In the past Elizabeth had tried to harm and even kill herself: hiding shaving razors so she could cut herself, taking a leather belt and trying to hang herself in her own closet, taking a string of Christmas tree lights and then trying to hang herself from a ceiling fan, and running into the kitchen to stab herself with the biggest knife she could grab – and these were just the attempts, Erica and I knew about.
God only knows how many other times Elizabeth tried to end her own life. The battle with an unseen dark oppressor, shrouded in suicidal and self-destructive behavior, was the primary catalyst for why she had been hospitalized on three separate occasions.

So, in addition to the precaution of either my wife or I arriving at the house before Elizabeth came home, we also made sure that our firearms were locked away and secured in a gun safe. Only Erica and I knew the combination to the safe and the location to the only set of override keys. We agreed that those keys would never be stored in the house or on our person. Instead, Erica and I hid them in an enclosed and discrete compartment, inside my truck, which I always kept locked.

I can remember that terrible day like it was yesterday. As soon as I pulled into the driveway, I locked my truck, walked into the house, then walked into my closet and changed out of my uniform and put on some old jeans and a t-shirt. I turned off the closet light, shut the door, headed into the garage and drove my green riding mower out onto the yard so I could mow our lawn.

After about half an hour of mowing, I was coming up along the side of the house, to cut the last few rows of grass on that particular side, before moving along to mow the back and then the front yard. I was driving the mower up from the back portion of the side yard and towards the front, which faced a small road that ran through our neighborhood.

Elizabeth’s school bus was lumbering along and pulled up to the front of our house. I slowed my riding mower down, lowered the throttle to idle, and waited for Elizabeth to walk off the bus.

The rumbling of the school bus diesel engine and the clacking noise caused by the bus doors opening and closing could be heard over the sound of my idling mower.

Elizabeth stepped off, walked across the front of the bus and started heading up the driveway. As the school bus slowly pulled away, Elizabeth looked towards me, and we both made eye contact. Her head was hung low, and she seemed exhausted. I eagerly smiled and waved enthusiastically at her. Considering what she had been wrestling with emotionally during the previous few days, I wanted to cheer her up. Elizabeth waved back and softly smiled as she headed into the house.

As soon as she walked inside, I looked down at my watch and figured I had about another half hour, or so, of mowing before I’d be done with cutting the yard. After I was done mowing the lawn, I planned to pick up Elizabeth’s little sister, Isabella, from school and then take both the girls out for a burger and fries at the local drive-through. Of course, all of that was dependent on what time I got done with my yard work.

I continued cutting the last stretch of yard on one side of the house and then proceeded to cut the back and then the front yard. Finally, after several passes and turns navigating both trees and flower bed borders, I was done mowing the lawn. I had just enough time to shower, change my clothes, and then take Elizabeth with me to pick up her little sister from after-school daycare. I would have to save the detailed edge trimming for the next day.

I pulled my riding mower back into the garage, pushed the gear-shift lever into park and turned off the ignition. I walked up the stairs leading from the garage and into the kitchen; that’s when I called out for Elizabeth.

“Hey Elizabeth, it’s almost time to go kiddo…we’ve got to go pick up your little sister from school.”, I said out loud.

No response… ‘but maybe she didn’t hear me,’ I thought to myself, so I tried again.

“Elizabeth…we’ve gotta roll sweetie!”.

Still, I heard nothing.

I walked down the hall and into the girl’s rooms and then checked their bathroom – they were both empty.

‘Maybe she’s upstairs in the loft, playing video games,’ I thought to myself.

So, I went and checked, but she wasn’t upstairs either.

I went back downstairs and called out for Elizabeth again…no response. I walked into the dining room and stepped onto the back patio. ‘Elizabeth…time to go.”, I called out.
Still, I heard nothing.

‘Hmmm…maybe she was outside in the front yard,’ I thought. So, I walked back through the kitchen, opened the door leading into the garage and looked around…she wasn’t in the garage either. I walked through the garage and past the tractor, still warm and smelling like freshly cut grass.
My eyes squinted as they adjusted to the afternoon sun. Walking up the driveway, I shaded my eyes with my hand and looked to see if Elizabeth had walked up the road, but I saw no sign of her.

I turned around and walked back towards the front of the house and then to the side…but still, no sign of Elizabeth.

At this point, I began to become concerned. A whole list of scenarios ran through my mind.
Did something happen at school that made her upset?
Did she run off?
Was she merely visiting her friend at the house up the street and forgot to tell me?
Maybe she was just playing a joke and was hiding.

Where was she?!?

Not able to find Elizabeth outside, I decided to walk back towards the front of the house and go back inside.
Walking up the front steps, something in my gut told me to check the master bedroom. As soon as I stepped through the front door, I looked into our master bedroom which was only a few feet away…perhaps she was in there.

As soon as I crossed the threshold from the hallway into the master bedroom something caught my eye. I saw that our walk-in closet door was wide open, and the light was on.
I thought to myself, ‘That’s weird, I shut the door and turned off the light before I went to mow the lawn.’

As those thoughts were running through my mind, I looked down and saw Elizabeth lying, face down, on the closet floor. Her feet, legs, torso, arms, and shoulders were inside the closet while the top of her head was in the closet doorway between the closet and bedroom. Briefly, from a distance, I could see the rest of the closet looked like it had been ransacked and was in shambles, but I was more focused on Elizabeth and wondering, why she was just lying there.

I paused for a second or two, and stood there confused…why was she on the floor? My first instinct was to call out her name again…so I did. “Elizabeth, what are you doing? We’ve got to go.”

Nothing…no response.

I knew something was wrong. The first thoughts that ran through my mind were: Did she try to hang herself again? Did she attempt to overdose on all the medication she had been prescribed?

If either was the case, I knew Elizabeth was going to need immediate emergency medical attention. I would need to call 911 and begin conducting CPR until help arrived.

I walked toward the closet, knelt down and gently shook her shoulder. “Elizabeth, what are you doing? Are you alright?”. Again, there was no response.

Fear began to swell over me like a tsunami. My mind quickly raced a million miles an hour, and my heart rate jumped until I could hear it like a drumbeat in my ears and my whole body felt as if it was one massive pulse. I could feel the adrenalin spiking – everything was starting to feel like it was moving in slow motion.

While I was still down on one knee in front of Elizabeth, I noticed a Bible was lying open right next to her head…on its pages was, what looked like, dark red splotches of ink or paint.

I knew something terrible had happened.

Getting down on both knees, I slid my arms, up to my elbows, underneath Elizabeth’s armpits, so I could lift her up, roll her over, and then lean her back.

As soon as I had enough leverage, I started to pick her up – but I wasn’t prepared for what I saw next. I was met with overwhelming horror.

“OH MY GOD!!! ELIZABETH…NOOOO!!!”, I wailed in agony.

What I saw was so terrible, so horrible, so morbid and so graphic that it hurt my mind and eyes; it sent searing pain into my soul.

On the floor was the handgun safe. It was open, and Erica’s 9mm pistol was laying on the floor. My thoughts ran wild: ‘Oh my God…how did she get into the safe? Did she pry it open? Did she somehow figure out the access code?’

Adrenalin fueled my instincts; I leaned Elizabeth back, jumped up, reached into my pocket, grabbed my cell phone and called 911. Desperately, I fought panic and fear. My head was spinning, and I could barely breathe, but I did my best to stay focused.
The only things that kept me able to function, in spite of the horror, were the grace of God and my years of military training. I knew I had to remain calm enough to call for help, check for vital signs and then try and save my daughter.

With the phone in my left hand, I knelt back over and brushed Elizabeth’s hair to the side so I could check for a pulse on her neck.

My heart was pounding so badly that I couldn’t tell if it was Elizabeth’s pulse or mine. Seeing how severe the damage was, I knew that there was little chance of survival, but my heart hoped regardless. I was willing to do anything so my little girl could live again.

The phone must have rung maybe only two or three times, but it felt like forever… “911, please state your emergency”.

I pleaded with the dispatcher and told her to get someone there right away…my little girl had just shot herself.

Meanwhile, the dispatcher calmly asked me if I knew how to check for a pulse and signs of breathing…I told her I did.
Leaning over and bending back down on one knee, I put my hand back on Elizbeth’s neck to check for a pulse…nothing. I put my finger under her nose and then my ear next to her mouth, to see if she was breathing…still nothing. I even put my hand on Elizabeth’s chest to see if I could detect any signs of a heartbeat or breathing.

I was trembling and shaken up so badly by the adrenalin that I could barely stand. As I leaned over and placed my hand on my Elizabeth’s chest, I lost my balance and accidentally shifted my body weight. The pressure of my hand pushed down on her chest, and I could hear the final breath of air that my little girl had drawn in, being pushed out.

I couldn’t be strong anymore. The reality and magnitude of the devastation and hopelessness started to hit me like an avalanche from hell. Tears poured from my eyes, my breath came in small gasps, and my emotions became unglued.

“My baby…my baby…my baby…please, God, …not my baby!”.

On the other end, the 911 dispatcher, who could feel my heartbreak and agony, did her best to keep me calm.
I told the dispatcher I didn’t want to be alone. I asked for one of the deputies by name. Someone who knew my family and had become a friend to us. In his off time, he’s a youth pastor at a local church, so he had the opportunity to speak and try to help mentor Elizabeth a few months prior. He knew about the issues we were wrestling with as a family.

The dispatcher reassured me someone was on their way, and that she would also relay the message to our deputy friend as well.

Moments later (which seemed like an eternity) one of the sergeants from the sheriff’s department came to the front door. As soon as I saw her, my strength left…she pulled me close and held me as I wailed and wept; my whole body was shaking, and I could hardly stand.

“Oh Jesus, oh Jesus, oh Jesus…oh Jesus…we need you…we need you!”, she prayed as she hugged me. Even in my darkest hour, Heaven had somehow placed with me, a fellow Believer, who could feel my pain and anguish…someone who could pray and cry with me.

Shortly after the responding deputy sergeant’s arrival, the rest of the first response team was on the scene in front of my house. Soon after they arrived, the other deputy friend of my family (the one who I asked for by name) also pulled up.

He was off duty when he got the call but, miraculously, he had just driven by our neighborhood when he got the message from the 911 dispatcher.

I saw the team of paramedics walk up the steps and they asked the sergeant where Elizabeth was lying. They had their first aid kits and an artificial electric defibrillator (AED). As soon as I saw it, I knew what it was…we have them aboard our Navy ships, and I’ve been trained on to use one.

For one split second, hope flashed across my mind. ‘Maybe she’ll be alright…maybe they can fix her…maybe my baby will be o.k.’, I thought to myself.
When the paramedics walked back out the front door a few minutes later, I saw the look on their faces…Elizabeth was gone. Nothing they could do could save my precious daughter.
Waves of sorrow and pain rolled over me again. I kept repeating to myself “My baby…my baby…my baby…oh God, my little baby”, as the tears flowed, I continued to tremble from the heartbreak.

Meanwhile, a couple of my neighbors could see what was unfolding, and they knew something terrible had happened. We were a close-knit little community comprised of a handful of families which looked out for one another. We were all friends and, in many ways, like an extended family. When they saw the emergency, they sprang into action to help.

Two of the neighbors came over. One is a firefighter friend of mine, and the other neighbor is a friend of my wife. Both were very close to us and intimately knew the challenges my family had been navigating during the previous few years.

My neighbors assessed the situation and tried, as best they could, to see how they could help. My other friend (the off-duty deputy) helped me into the garage and asked my wife’s friend to go inside the house, get a wet washcloth, a clean pair of pants and a fresh shirt for me to wear. Meanwhile, I just stood there staring off into space in shock. I remember that I kept repeating, “My baby, my baby, my baby…”.

I couldn’t believe what had happened. I had just seen Elizabeth alive only a short while prior. I told my deputy friend how she got off the bus and waved at me. My mind was buzzing and reeling; the size and magnitude of what I had just seen were surreal and felt like a living nightmare. While I was standing in my garage, in a state of shock and despair, my friend helped me change out of my clothes, which were covered in Elizabeth’s blood and he helped me wipe my daughter’s blood from my arms and hands.

As soon as I was changed, he opened the garage door again. My driveway and front yard were swarming with the team of first responders, a crisis response counselor and the pastor of a small country church, which we had been attending during that time.

Erica wasn’t home from work yet, and I desperately needed her to be near me. I wanted to call her, but everyone said not to. They knew that telling Erica what happened could have led to further catastrophe.

I remember trying to make sense of what I had just seen. It felt like everything was a blur and a haze…like the worst nightmare imaginable, but I couldn’t shake myself awake…because I was awake. It was waking reality which had taken a graphic, raw, and horrific turn for the worst.
So many questions ran through my mind at once…Was it all just a horrible dream? How could this have happened? How was she able to open the safe? How come we didn’t see this coming? Is she really gone?

Nothing made sense, and the world seemed to be spinning out of control. My instincts, honed by almost two decades in the military, kept telling me to stay calm and take charge, but the agony caused by the horror of my daughter’s suicide was breaking me.

There was nothing to take charge of; my daughter was dead…she shot herself in my closet, and I found her. The damage was sickening, and there was absolutely nothing anyone could do to put my little girl back together again.

While I sat there in my garage, my heart and mind could barely comprehend the size, scope, and magnitude of what I had just seen and walked through. My home and my family had just been assaulted by an evil and dark malevolence which had a dual track purpose: kill and devastate. The war, which had been waging on the unseen battlefield of Elizabeth’s mind, had come to a sudden and violent end; and there I was standing amongst the smoldering ruins and the precious fallen.

Erica was still at work, and Isabella was still in school…they still didn’t know about the horrible thing that happened. How was I going to tell them the worst thing they would ever hear? How was I going to explain that Elizabeth wouldn’t be coming home anymore?

Nothing could have prepared my wife and me for something so horrible, terrible and heartbreaking as the death of our own child.

We were living a parent’s worst nightmare, and the road we were about to travel was going to be long, hard and painful…


Monologue: 

I can remember these moments as if they occurred yesterday and recall every detail when I close my eyes. They solicit an emotional response: my heart beat increases, anxiety builds within my gut, my palms feel cold and clammy, and my armpits begin to perspire. As the images flash back across my mind’s eye, I shudder and tremble. They are vivid, horrific and sickening memories of a living nightmare which I had to endure.

First my dad, then my little brother, then all the other people in my family and now my little girl. I felt like I was being chased down by an evil sadistic predator, which had been following inches behind me through the years, in order to repeat its same hideous and vile plan of self-hatred and self-murder; and this time it decided to pollute and exploit my little girl’s mind and cause her to kill herself.

Over the course of nearly four years, my wife and I leveraged every resource, at our fingertips, to help Elizabeth win her war on her unseen mindscape against an invisible foe.
Any counter-offensive we tried to wage had proven ineffective because the adversary didn’t just reside on the biochemical and psychological planes alone. There was a third tier to the enemy’s position and strategy which had gone undetected and untreated.

By themselves, and absent of that vital third component, all the best-trained minds in the behavioral health field and all the best medicine and therapy couldn’t save our daughter and make her well again.

None of the world’s ‘answers’ provided a solution; they only gave a temporary reprieve in what had become a cat-and-mouse game. A game where the very life of my beautiful daughter had been at stake and was now gone.