Eulogy for a Tiny, Bright-Eyed Bird

Purple FinchOn Thursday, November 10, I got word that a 15-year-old girl in the church’s youth group had taken her own life.  I jumped in my car and went to the hospital where I found her mother in the waiting room.  I hugged her and hugged her, not knowing what to say and thinking it might be best not to say anything.  But on Tuesday, November 15, we held a memorial service for her daughter in a sanctuary full of grieving friends and family members and a few hundred tearful teenagers, wondering how such a thing could happen to one of their own. This is what I said:

Last Friday morning I went running with my friend Wallace Adams-Riley, Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church here in Richmond, and as we ran I told him what had happened the day before, Thursday, when I got the news about Kat.  I told him the whole sad story and he was a good pastor to me.  He listened, and consoled me, and promised to pray for me today, because he knows how hard it can be to try to find just the right words in times like these.  But when we finished our run he asked, “What was her name again?”  “Fink,” I said.  “Kat Fink.  I’m sure it means something beautiful in German.”  “It does!” he said.  “I had a friend in college named Fink.  It means ‘finch,’ you know, like the bird.”  And I did know the bird.  Finches are some of my favorites.  They are tiny birds with bright eyes and beautiful voices.  I thought, “How perfect for Kat, who seemed so fragile, so vulnerable—like a little bird—and yet who had those bright eyes and that beautiful voice.”  And then yesterday I looked again at the verse I read at her baptism, the one Bart read earlier from Matthew 6: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life…. Look at the birds of the air; are you not of more value than they?”

Kat was of so much more value than they.  I think about the words of Psalm 139 and how they describe her.  The psalmist says, “It was you, Lord, who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”  And so was Kat, fearfully and wonderfully made, and yet here we are at her memorial service, and many of us are wondering why.  Why did this have to happen, and what could we have done to prevent it?  I’m reminded of that story from John 11, where Jesus’ friend Lazarus has died and Jesus goes to the funeral.  It was there, John tells us, that “Jesus wept,” because he loved Lazarus so much.  Lazarus’ sister, Martha, comes out to meet him and says, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”  A little later her sister Mary comes out and says the same thing: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”  Can you imagine how that must have hurt?  And yet it’s something we all do at a time like this; we all begin to say, “If only.”  “If only I had been there.”  “If only I had called her.”  “If only I had been a better friend.”  But I want you to notice what Jesus does in John 11: he says to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.”  And she says, “I know he will, on the Resurrection, at the last day.”  But Jesus says, “I am the Resurrection, and the life.  Those who believe in me, even if they die, will live.  And everyone who lives and believe in me will never die.”  What Jesus is saying to Martha is that he is not responsible for Lazarus’ death; he is responsible for his life.  And I say to you—all of you who are thinking “if only”—you are not responsible for Kat’s death.  Kat was responsible for her death.  But Jesus Christ is responsible for her everlasting life.

He is the Resurrection.

“So, why did she do it?” you ask.  “Why did she take her own life?”  We may never know, but our best guess is that Kat suffered from an illness we call “depression.”  If she had died of cancer we would still be sad, but at least we would understand, wouldn’t we?  We know how cancer works.  But depression is different.  We don’t understand it all that well, but we do know that there are different kinds and different levels, from feeling depressed because you got a bad grade on a math test to feeling unending, unbearable mental anguish for no reason at all.  I don’t understand it all that well, but I understand it better after more than a year of counseling a woman in our church who suffers from severe depression, and sometimes contemplates suicide.  She’s been very honest with me about it, and she’s asked all the right questions.

When she asked, “Is suicide an unforgivable sin?” I said, “No.  According to Jesus the only unforgivable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.”  When she asked, “Is suicide ever an option? I said, “No.  Matters of life and death belong in God’s hands, and Gods hands only.”  When she asked, “What should I do when I’m tempted to commit suicide?”  I said, “When you feel your hand reaching out to do harm to yourself, use it instead to pick up the phone and call me, and if I don’t answer call 911 and say, ‘I need help.'”   Not long ago I got that call from her, and I was able to help, and I was so proud of her for calling.  But still she talks about pain that won’t go away.  She talks about wanting to do whatever it will take to make the pain stop.  But mostly she talks about this feeling of being down in a hole, a deep, dark hole, with no way out.

One day I asked her to describe that hole and she said, “It’s deep.”  “How deep?” I asked.  “So deep you can’t see any light at the top,” she said.  “How wide is it?” I asked.  “About wide enough to stretch out your arms,” she said.  “What are the walls made of?” I asked.  “Dirt,” she said.  “Do they go straight up or do they angle?” I asked.  “They go straight up.”  “And what’s the floor like?”  “It’s dirt, too,” she said, “And some gravel.”  Her answers were very specific.  They made me believe she had spent a lot of time in that hole.  But then I remembered something I did once when I was a boy and I told her about it.  My mother had plucked a chicken (some of you may know what that means), and she asked me to bury the grocery bag full of feathers in an unused part of the garden.  So, I went out there with a shovel and began to dig.  The dirt was so soft that I soon had a nice sized hole, but it was also so soft that I kept on digging until I had dug a proper grave for those chicken feathers.  I buried them, but then I moved over a few feet and began to dig again.  I dug most of the rest of that day, until I had a circular hole about six feet across and about six feet deep.  When I stood at the bottom I could stretch my arms out and almost touch the walls on each side.

The next day I dug a tunnel out of the hole and up to the surface, and then I covered the hole with some old boards and a tarp, and shoveled loose dirt on top of it until you could hardly tell it was there.  I dragged a bale of straw in there from the barn and scattered it on the floor of my hole until it was warm and dry and sweet smelling.  I cut a niche in the wall, put a candle in a quart jar, lit the candle, and put it in the niche.  And then I took my sleeping bag down there, and a pillow, and a good book, and a snack, and I wish you could have seen me, lying on that sleeping bag, my head propped up on a pillow, surrounded by sweet smelling straw, eating a snack and reading a book by the light of that candle.

When I finished telling that story this woman was smiling at the very thought of turning a hole into such a happy place.  I said, “Maybe you could do the same.  Maybe, the next time you find yourself in that hole, you could get comfortable, find a good book, light a candle, and have a snack.  And maybe you could let that candle be a symbol of God’s presence.”  And then I told her, “That’s why we light the candles in the sanctuary.  Every time we have a service in there we light the candles to remind us that God is present.  And God is present.  There isn’t anywhere we can go that God isn’t present.  Psalm 139 says: “If I make my bed in Sheol (which is really nothing more than a hole in the ground), you are there.  If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”  As it says in John 1: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it.”  And in Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for God is with me.”

God is with us.

And Kat…is with God.

–Jim Somerville

Transitions

On Tuesday of this week, my brother Gray helped get my dad into a nursing home.  It’s been a long struggle.  For the past three-and-a-half years Dad has suffered from severe anxiety and depression, lying on the couch during the day and tossing and turning at night.  It’s such a change from the man I’ve always known, who was optimistic, energetic, and enthusiastic, ready to change the world or chop a load of firewood, whichever was needed most.  We’re not really sure what happened.  My mom thinks it started when he stripped a piece of furniture and spent three weeks in the presence of those strong fumes.  The doctors disagree, and they’ve experimented with a raft of psychotropic drugs.  Nothing seems to help. 

And so Dad went to the hospital last week mostly because he lacked the will to get out of bed.  Mom called the doctor, who suggested that they meet him at the hospital.  After four days there, and a full battery of tests, a nursing home seemed like the best option.  My brother Gray, who lives in the same town (and who has been absolutely heroic in the care of my parents) sent this message to his five brothers at the end of  a long day on Tuesday:

Dear Brothers,

Today was a good day.

I picked up Dad and Mom from the hospital at about 2:00 and drove them to the nursing home. We were warmly greeted by a number of friendly staff members and taken immediately to Dad’s room. While the nurses went through the check-in process and helped Dad unpack, I took Mom for a tour, including a stop by the ice cream parlor where she made Dad an ice cream cone. By the time we got back, Dad was all settled in. I left Mom to visit with Dad, went and did all the paperwork and then dashed back to the office for a meeting. When I returned around 5:30, Mom was all smiles and Dad seemed totally content.

Dad’s is sharing a room with a very sweet and alert 90 year old man who worked in the CCC camps during the Great Depression and later served in the Navy. His sister and brother were visting from out of town and were very reassuring about what a nice place this nursing home is. That was really encouraging to all of us.

All of the staff that we worked with, or just bumped into while we were touring around, were super nice, cheerful and patient. A nurse and a physical therapist got a complete run-down on Dad’s medications, medical history, and current physical condition. I think Dad appreciated the professionalism and it probably didn’t hurt that they were both young, pretty, and sweet.

Mom was absolutely thrilled. She couldn’t believe what a nice place it was and that we could actually afford it. I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to see so pleased with our choice. She had been really determined to go the Presbyterian Home and I was afraid that she wouldn’t like any other option.

When we left the nursing home, Mom and I spent about 45 minutes practicing how to get to there. (It’s only a mile or so away from one of the hospitals that she has been to repeatedly, so we just had to practice on that small stretch of unfamiliar road.) It was cute. A lot like giving driving lessons to your teenager.  After a few tries, she seemed to have it down pat.

I think it will be a couple of weeks before we really  have a feel for how this is going to work, but like I said, it was a very good day.

With love,

Gray

Anyone who has helped a parent into a nursing home knows what a difficult decision it can be, and how many emotions are attached to that move.  I’m surprised by how grateful and relieved I feel at the moment.  Maybe it hasn’t sunk in yet.  Maybe it will.  But for now I’m simply thankful that such a good place exists, and that my dad is there.

And that my mom can bring him an ice cream cone.

Eat, Pray, Love…and Get over Yourself!

One of the books I read on my recent vaction in Mexico was Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (although I had to endure the good-natured ribbing of my brother-in-law, Chuck, who thinks Eat, Pray, Love is to books what Chocolat is to movies: kind of a girl thing).  I had started reading it on a staff retreat —just grabbed it off the shelf at the house where we were staying, read a chapter before falling asleep, and found it so honest and funny that I wanted to read more. 

Somehow it ended up in my luggage.

It’s the memoir of a woman who goes through a brutal divorce and the numbing depression that follows (at one point she talks about sitting in her living room with a sharp knife, wondering if she should cut herself just so she could feel something).  But then, almost miraculously, she gets the chance to take a year off, and decides to spend four months each in Italy, India, and Indonesia.  The memoir is mostly about that: about her four months of indulgence in Rome, eating her way from one gelato shop to another; four months in an Ashram in India, learning to pray from her internationally famous guru and a straight-talking Texan named Richard; and four months in Indonesia, sitting at the feet of an ancient Balinese medicine man and falling in love with a charming Brazilian businessman. 

The section about prayer, in particular, made an impression on me.  I appreciated the way Gilbert brought together mystical experiences from a variety of religious traditions and showed the similarities between them.  Apparently an ecstatic experience in the Christian tradition (think Teresa of Avila) is not that different from an ecstatic experience in the Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim traditions.  And I was impressed by the diligence with which she applied herself to the task: getting up at impossibly early hours and sitting cross-legged on a stone floor to meditate, chant, and pray.  But the more I read the more selfish this whole exercise seemed.  Gilbert wasn’t praying so that she could know the will of God and do it, but rather to achieve some sort of blissful union with the Divine that would give her inner peace.  And all the sources she cited, all the teachers she consulted, seemed to have the same end in mind: Prayer was not about others; It didn’t even seem to be about God;

It was about her. 

Granted, inner peace was what Gilbert needed, and maybe she had to find that before she could turn her thoughts to anyone else (later in the book she is inspired to do a very generous and selfless thing for a poor woman she meets in Bali), but I was struck by the difference between Gilbert’s guru, who wanted to show her the path to inner peace, and Jesus, who wants us to work with him to bring heaven to earth.  One way seems to be all about yourself; the other way seems to be all about others.  It makes me wonder if true inner peace comes when you get so deep enough inside yourself that blue lights start flashing in your brain, or when—like Jesus—you lose yourself completely in service to others.