Friday, March 9, 2018

Chapter 2

In our lives, there is love and death. Like some crazy movie script, these two realities are intertwined; woven like some twisted joke that gets played on

 Most of us know love. We know the feeling that comes from falling in love and finding that special person. Sometimes, it takes us a few swings of the bat to get the home run, but ultimately it happens for us. But, when you put yourself out there for another person, you open yourself up to loss. Sometimes it happens when you are old and grey, other times it happens when you are just grey. Sometimes it happens after 50 years, others after 21.

  At the ripe old age of 16 I met her. I thought it was pretty cool that she wanted to play football with the guys on Saturday. Years later I learned that was her way of trying to get my attention. There was something special about her, something magical.

We had our starts and stops, especially during the college years. But we found ourselves together, ready to take on he world and all the things that would come our way. We moved 6 times, to three different states. We found ourselves wrapping our head around infertility, the loss of a parent, the loss of an unborn child.

 In our life, I learned so much from our time together. We grew up together, we learned how to be adults together. We learned how to parent an autistic child together. And yet, in her death, I learned so much more about life; so much more about what it means to give yourself up for another person. Ours was not a perfect union, none-are. However, it was ours, the good and the bad. For 10 days shy of 21 years, she was my better half. We truly complimented each other. Where I was strong, she was weak. Where I was weak, she was strong. And 10 months after getting the inital diagnosis, the life was taken from her eyes.

Those who have gone through loss, gone through grief know that life is not replaceable. What was lost is forever lost. You can never replace one human being with another. What you had stays with you forever; what you lost stays with you for the remainder of your days. It is what it is and you are forever changed.

Reading all of that might drive some to the edge. I'm going to live with this for the rest of my life? Yes, but hope springs eternal. The human heart is made for love. There is an infinite ability to expand, to love. I remember a story my mom told when my brother John asked her which one of your kids do you love best? She told him that she loves each one equally, even though the real answer was child number 3.

When the time came to open myself up to a new life, I was willing to risk the pain, the loss, the grief, all in the name of unforseen happiness for an unknown amount of weeks, months or years. There was the fear of being letdown, the fear of opening up and being shut-down, the fear of not having what I had with Theresa. I was going to have to risk all of that in order to move forward in life. And that was OK. What I had with Theresa was unique to Theresa and I. What eventually would come next would be unique to me and the woman lucky enough to share deep and unrelenting love of life, post loss. They say that expectations are often our greatest hurdle to happiness. We expect perfection, we expect familiarity, we expect the happy ending.

But happy endings are a lie, a giant pile of BS. For in every ending, there is sadness. It doesn't matter if it happens when you are 95 or 45. Goodbye means an ending and in an ending there is always some sadness. In the mortal life, joy comes from the journey, not the destination. It takes a unique person to love again after great loss and a special soul to accept such love. That love is ripe with complexity, rich hues and detailed tapestries. The grieving grasp the shortness of life and appreciating the beauty of the moment. Those who have lost know that nothing is guaranteed. To those whom who much is given, much is expected. I have been give many gifts through the process. We pray in our Divine Liturgy, "For every good gift, ever perfect gift is from above, coming down from You the Father of lights".

I've been blessed beyond all comprehension to have found my good gift, my perfect gift. Jennie and I are both Chapter 2's, coming to that place in life by vastly different paths. Things that she has to deal with are foreign to me. There is no shared custody for me, there is no having to put on a happy face in front of her kids with the guy who tossed their life into chaos. There is another woman in her kids life, someone she has to share 1/2 of the kids time with. All of these things are unique to spouses of divorce. I told Jennie one time that I think it is easier to deal with the death of a spouse than it is to deal with the death of a marriage through divorce. I've held her hand, talked her off the ledge when her ex-spouse changed his mind over custody and parental visitation. When he sat in her kitchen and lied to her face, saying he wasn't changing his mind on custody when he had already visited with an attorney to begin the process of changing the arrangement. In those differing paths, I see pain in our kids.

For Ryan, it's the sadness of never seeing his mom again, never hearing her voice, never having her attend the milestones in his life. In a strange twist of irony, the pain for Jennie's girls comes from the pain of having both of their parents in their lives, just not at the same time; sharing their mom with a new man and his kid; sharing their dad with a new woman and her kids. Traveling to a new home every couple of days.   And yet, there is such great hope for all of us. The joy of hearing Ryan ask when we are going to see the girls again, the joy of hearing him tell her good night and love you. The joy of hearing him say he can't wait until we are all in the same house. The joy of getting pictures from Jennie's girls, the silly faces, the smiles, the overwhelming use of emojis. The crazy roadtrip to San Diego, the joy of seeing the first reconciliation. The joy of having in-laws who actually like me. The joy of #GUTI.

Both of us are mending while we are blending. We are born to love, wired to connect and long for companionship. I've been blessed with two great loves in this life. While they share many great qualities, they are not comparable. Each have a spot in my heart, each of them is unique and wonderful. Jennie is my perfect complement. In those areas where I'm weak, she is so strong. In those areas where she is weak, I'm the strong one. My girl is a feeler and that is rubbing off on me. It is well with my soul. They each have a place in my life, like independent chapters of a damn good book. For those who face a similar fork in the road, quiet the crowd and listen to the voice of your own heart. You are not required to live your life within a box built by a stifled culture that is unwilling to accept growth, change and re-birth. Learn the fine art of saying $#@% off.

 My priest likes to ask the question how many books are there in the bible. When someone rightly answers 73, he says no, there are 74. The 73 the church included and the last one you are writing. With all due respect to Father, there are 75 in my book.

 This is your life to live. This is your story to write. Your loss did not end your ability to write new chapters in your book of life. After all, the chapters you still have to write might well be the best part of your story. I so love my chapter 2 and I believe it will be the best damn story written by man. Every good gift, every perfect gift is from above coming down from You the Father of lights. Jennie Stine, you are my good and perfect gift.

Discernment - Should I Stay Or Should I Go

Discernment is a word in the English language that does not get used much in our modern world. In a Christian context, it is perception in the absence of judgment with a view to obtaining spiritual direction and understanding.

In 2013, I started discerning a call to the ordained ministry in the Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Church. Through prayer, spiritual direction and encouragement I applied and was accepted to the 2015-2019 Deacon Formation Class at St. Cyril & Methodius Seminary. And ever since that acceptance, I have been in a constant state of discernment. One of my favorite prayers contains the words, “make straight our path, confirm us in the holy fear of you”…My path of study, formation and discernment was anything but straight.

 During the application phase, I was dealing with an aging mother diagnosed with Stage III ovarian cancer. As we all started to settle into a routine and I was about to leave for my first summer session at the seminary, Theresa was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of breast cancer. Everything I had in me told me to withdraw from the program and take care of things at home. However, I was made to promise that I would get on the airplane and make my first trip to Pittsburgh. No one could have predicted that before I finished my first year of formation and distance learning I would encounter one of the largest bumps in the road: the death of my spouse and my child’s mother. Yet, through all of that, I got on the plane again, made my way to Pittsburgh and completed the second year of in-residence classes.

The second year of distance learning and formation was anything but straight. There were so many distractions and peaks/valleys, several that I brought on myself, others that just go with the job description of single parent to a special needs child. Through all of this, I managed to rock the academic portion of my formation. My grades in year 2 were better than year 1 and year 1 was pretty damn good. The other parts of formation: Spiritual, Human, Pastoral…not so much. Although I would argue that I have been through an aspect of pastoral formation that no celibate priest has ever been through and never will go through…walking yourself and your 10 year old child through the death of a spouse.

To be perfectly clear, there were mistakes that I made along the way. There were many missteps that I made along the way. We learn from those mistakes/missteps and we move on. And to be unequivocally clear, as Keith Urban says, “I’ve forgiven myself for the mistakes I’ve made”. If you want to question me, criticize me, you better have walked a similar path to me. You say that you have lost your parent(s)? Yep, me too in 2003, right before I made a giant career change and moved to Quantico, VA to begin training as an FBI agent. I can tell you, with zero hesitancy or uncertainty, that losing a parent is low in the stress department compared to losing your child’s mother.

 That statement is not to trivialize the loss of a parent, but until you have walked my path, you don’t know what you would do in the same situation. And speaking frankly, I don’t care what you think you would do. It’s all speculative on your part. All of that background brings me where I am at today.

When I went back to Pittsburgh, I thought that maybe I was over the hump and year 3 and 4 would be good to me. As it turns out, the discernment phase was about to hit a critical mass. Any candidate for holy orders, diaconate or presbyterate, live in a fishbowl. A big, giant, fishbowl that all people look in on. At any step of the process, anyone involved in formation, to include the candidate, can say this is not a good fit at this time.

Truly I was at a fork in the road and needed to make a decision. I spent several hours, sitting in the seminary chapel, with only candlelight in front of the icons. My prayer, as it has been so many times, was simple….Lord, make straight my path and let me know if the path I’m on is the right one. I woke up the next morning with a feeling that my primary vocation was to family, and not the parish family at this time. I am called to be a husband and father first, and maybe an ordained deacon at some future time.

This path was made clearer to me when I found out that my Eparchy would require me to wait approximately 5 years after remarriage to apply for formation. In order to make sure that no feelings are hurt or bridges are burned, I completely understand that decision and know that it is founded in the best interest of everyone involved.

I wanted to know what that meant for my intellectual formation. Much of year 3 and 4 is focused on the mechanics and specifics of being a deacon. If I continued with my studies, would my eparchy accept that when the time came or would I be dragging my sorry butt back to Pittsburgh to start anew. Sadly, no one seemed to know that answer and I made the decision to withdraw from the entire formation program at that time. There is a financial and time commitment that I don’t see a positive ROI at this time.

 The decision came to me driving to work and it came relatively easy. I am going to miss the 15 guys that remain in the program. They are good, holy men, and I am not sure I am at their level right now. I see some road trips in our future when they are ordained to the Diaconate. I won’t be surprised if there are a few presbyteral ordinations in their future as well. I can see my long bearded friend, AG, as my future spiritual director!

One thing I know is that Ryan needs a loving family more than he needs a Fr. Deacon Patrick. And I need a loving family more than I need a murmuring mass of humanity at this point in my journey. I have found that, and that vocation deserves my undivided attention. I can still be of service to my current parish, my new parish - wherever that may be- and to the people I will meet along the way. Life ain’t always beautiful, but it’s a beautiful ride.

 “ Lord, blessing those who bless you and sanctifying those who trust in you, save your people and bless your inheritance….Grant peace to yourd world, to your churches, to the priests, to our government, and to all your people. For all generous giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from you, the Father of Lights; and we give glory, thanksgiving, and worship to you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages.”  

Turn The Page

4,589 days. That is the number of days from 9/20/2004 to 4/14/2017. That is also the number of days that I owned the house at 7W Calle Mantilla. In those 4,589 days there we so many good memories in Sahuarita and a few not so good ones.

The initial closing date was supposed to be 4/21/2017, but that was moved up at the request of the buyers. Anxious to stop paying two mortgages, I was happy to accelerate the closing date. The packing & boxing of everything started in earnest on Friday 4/7/2017 and that brought some sadness to Ryan. On Sunday he was pretty ramped up and when I finally got him to talk about what was going on, he said that the process of getting things ready to move made it all real. He said that he now knows this isn’t a dream that he was having, hoping that he would wake up and his life would be the same as it was BC (before cancer).

We talked a lot about that and he ended up in a much better place at the end of the talk than he was at the beginning of it. We talked a lot about how we were writing the ending of the first book, while we have already started writing the beginning of the second book. That seemed to resonate with him.

The movers were scheduled for 4/11/2017 and within a couple of hours they had substantially everything removed from the house. We ended up carting some stuff away in the cars, making several trips. Stopping by one last time on Thursday 4/13/2017, I stood in the empty house that was about to no longer be mine. Wow, there was a flood of memories that came to mind.

 They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so here are several thousands of words to those memories.  

Life Ain't Always Beautiful, But It's A Beautiful Ride

"No, life ain't always beautiful, tears will fall sometimes. Life ain't always beautiful, but its a beautiful ride..."  

Those of you who use Facebook are familiar with the On This Day (memories) feature. They will bring up pictures that you previously posted. Today, Facebook brought up a picture of an event that took place 365 days ago.

 On 3/21/16, Ryan’s life was turned completely upside down when he asked me “Is Mom going to die”. With those five words, and my one word answer of “Yes”, things got complicated really fast. I had already known this was happening some 6 months prior, but we decided to keep that from Ryan until it was getting closer. As I was driving to work after that reminder, I thought of the five words that I finally prayed in October 2015, “If It Be Your Will”.

 There are those who have written that the number 5 in the Bible symbolizes God’s Grace. There is no doubt in my mind that the 5 words chanted by me in 2015 and the 5 words asked by Ryan one year ago unleashed a flood of grace on our lives.

It has been 365 days of crazy, exhaustion, sometimes emotional chaos, a total reordering of priorities and healing. For two years my life was chaotic. My mom was diagnosed with Ovarian cancer in 2014. I was running her around town to various appointments, surgeries and treatments. On top of that, I was working full-time, applying to the Diaconate program, parenting an Asperger child and keeping everything moving forward.

In 2015, Theresa was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer, mom’s ovarian cancer returned and the chaos intensified. There weren’t enough hours in the day to get things done and I let myself go.   In the chaos that was my life from 2014-2016, I shot up from 185 to 220 pounds and had let my fitness level get to an abysmal level. I remember my FBI physical that listed my BMI at 31.6, labeling me as obese. My blood sugar was elevated, my cholesterol was off the charts high. I was an absolute mess.

 In the month leading up to the death of Theresa, I managed to drop 5 pound due to the chaos that was my life. Shortly after Theresa died, Ryan told me that he was worried about losing me too and that was the moment I knew I had to make some changes. I had already decided to swear off alcohol as I didn’t want that to become the crutch to lean on which could spiral out of control. I started an exercise program called Insanity and looked forward to the ass-kicking that it gave me every night. Exercise for me was cathartic. When I was in the zone, nothing else mattered or concerned me.

 The results were quick and energized me. I wanted to be healthy; to be around for Ryan for another 50 years. It felt great to focus on me. When things got confusing, when things started to pile up, I would lace up my shoes and run. Exercise was the single greatest thing for me in dealing with the giant mess that had been made of our lives.

Strength in Mending

Ryan and I had a long talk a few weeks ago about mending. He told me he was feeling anxious about the upcoming anniversary of Theresa’s being born into eternity. We talked a while about all of the hard things we’ve been through and how much stronger those things made us.

 As I’ve written about before, dates mean something to me and we wrote those dates down: Our anniversary (4/28, +10 days); Mothers Day (5/8, +20 days); Fathers Day(6/19, +62 days); First day of school (8/8, + 112 days); My birthday (10/1, +166 days); Nana moving to Kansas (10/8, +173 days Nana’s birthday (10/23, +188 days); Thanksgiving (11/24, +220 days); St. Nicholas Day (12/6, +232 days); Christmas (12/25, +251 days); Ryan’s Birthday (1/24, +281 days); Valentines day (2/14, +302 days). There is something very visceral, something very therapeutic about looking back on the road you’ve traveled.

 I shared with him an article on a blog entitled “Don’t Get On The Anniversary Train”. This article was forwarded to me by Jennie, who had read it and thought it was a great article. I asked him to read it and talk through what it meant to him. The crux of the article is that we do not honor our loved one by getting sucked into sadness and focusing on the end. Life is difficult regardless of your road, but you won’t ever make it better if you become bitter or angry. Instead, we remember all the good times we had, all the good memories that we made, enjoy telling people about Theresa and what a wonderful person she was. We agreed to focus on the memories, the celebration and the journey.

 As it turns out, Pascha falls very late this year, April 16th. Jennie and I talked about what we were going to do and the idea came to spend Easter weekend in Phoenix. We are going to celebrate the hope of the Resurrection: Jennie, Patrick, Ryan and Irene, spending time with Kathleen, Art, Briana, Gabe and Emmy. We will attend the Divine Liturgy at St. Stephens Cathedral, celebrating the Resurrection of Christ and remembering this gift by visiting the St. Nicholas Columbarium to celebrate Theresa’s being born into eternity. We can honor our past, remember our good times, all the while making new memories on our journey forward. 

 We have been blessed abundantly in the last 365 days. Out of the pain of sitting on the cold tile floor with my sobbing 10 year old, one year ago, has come a wonderful vision and path that we are walking. Into our life came a beautiful soul, Jennie, along with 3 wonderful kids who have captured my heart and soul.
All the kids met for the first time on February 25 and it was such a wonderful time. Watching them interact, talk, play; was like they were biological siblings, not strangers who just met for the first time. Two families, each who have walked very different, painful paths, intersected and started walking forward together. When I look at our journey forward, I know the depths of the love that God has for Ryan and I.      


δόξα στον Ιησού Χριστό
Glory to Jesus Christ!

Today Is A Good Day

Back in February, Ryan and I went to the clubhouse. I was going to the gym and Ryan was going to play at the teen room. As we were leaving, he pointed at the advertisement below and asked if we could do this. It looked like fun and since he asked I said lets do it. The story behind this walk centers on the builder and designer of the Rancho Sahuarita community. His name is Bob Sharpe. He was diagnosed in 2016 with a terminal brain cancer, but chose to actively live out his remaining days. He said “I realized I had everything to gain by spending the remaining days of my life having an optimistic, positive and grateful attitude.” “Waiting for the other shoe to drop can be stressful, but only if I allow myself to waste the precious time that I may have left by worrying and postponing doing the things that make me happy.” One day, Sharpe’s son called him and asked how he was doing. He responded by saying, “Today is a good day.” That simple phrase became the rally cry for his family and the theme of the walk. They had T-shirts, bracelets and other items with that phrase. Everyone got a water bottle and bracelet that had that phrase written on them. Before the 5k began, Ryan ran over to the craft table and created a sign to carry during the walk. As we were walking, several people asked him about his sign and he was quick to tell them why he was walking and all about his Mom. Those were great moments. He has moved so far from the little boy who didn’t want to stay in our house, ride in our car or have anything to do with past memories to one who chooses to thrive and seize life every day. We started walking and Ryan thought we should stop after 2 laps as that was good enough. We talked about the people who gave us money and that we owed it to them to finish the race. As we were walking around for lap 2, we talked about how hard Theresa fought the fight even when she was tired, sore and didn’t want to continue. As we rounded the top of the lake, Ryan asked if we could run the last mile. I figured this would last for about one minute so I said let’s do it. To my surprise, he ran all of the last mile, only stopping to walk for 30 seconds. We ran that last mile in just under 9 minutes. That’s pretty good for an old man and a 11 year old Minecraft gamer!

          After the walk was over, we drove up to our Oro Valley house to take some items and setup some equipment. As we were driving, the song It Is Well came up on random play. I could hear Ryan singing the song as he was playing on his phone. "Far be it for me to not believe, even when my eyes can't see. And this mountain thats in front of me, will be throw into the midst of the sea. Through it all, through it all, my eyes are on you. Through it all, through it all it is well." Yes, Ryan, it is well. To everyone who gave money to this cause, thank you from both of us. The event raised over 360K for cancer research. Factoring out the family members of Bob Sharpe, Ryan was the 7th highest fund raiser for this event. Today is a good day!  

Orphaned at 50

      The title of this post seems strange to write, and is probably even stranger to read.  But that is my reality right now.  I lost my fi...