August 23, 2002
Walking By Faith
This is one of those notes that starts out as one thing, but becomes something else. I hope you're okay with that. I believe I am.
I've alluded lately to a big secret. Some of you know what it is, and now I'll share it with the rest of you: we're leaving Kansas. Practically all of my work is in Washington, D.C., and so we're packing up and heading east. The movers, in fact, have been here all week, and I write this from the carpeted floor of our basement, my family asleep around me, as we camp out one last night in our home.
And I can't sleep, as I dwell on the fact that today is the last day I will own my house. That's a cause of elation for many in my position, and I suppose there's some relief we feel at knowing that half the transition will soon be complete. But there is also sadness, because this house has been the setting of our most beautiful moments as parents, as well as the great tearing, scarring nightmare that was most of 1999, the last year our daughter lived and breathed on the Earth.
I wonder if this is normal, to live in the serenity of untouchable joyous memories one moment, and in the darkest sadness and regret the next. I'm sitting in the room where Caroline used to lay down beside me while I did sit-ups, and roll her little body side to side in an effort to imitate me. And I'm sitting in the room where I fussed at her more than once to let me work, not knowing that the time to play was coming to an end so very soon. It's the room where we made up silly dances, and the room where I studied in horror the likely course of her brainstem tumor.
Every room in this house affords the ability to squint one's eyes and almost see her, almost relive being the parent of a living little girl. There's the kitchen where she sang "Jesus Loves Me" while helping her mother put away silverware, and the porch where she waited on the swing for me to come home. I can see her face pressed against the back door glass while she danced with excitement at my arrival. I can hear her knock on our bedroom door at 5 a.m., three stuffed animals and a pillow clutched in her arms, waiting to be picked up and tucked into our bed. I can still feel her last breath on my face, expelled with a sigh from her broken body as she lay in her mother's arms.
We tend to think of remembrance as something done in the mind, but the most poignant memories are those the whole body feels, when you can smell and hear and almost but never quite see what it is you haven't learned how to stop looking for. And so even today, nearly three years after burying Caroline in cold earth, I still feel an occasional surge of panic -- a father's urge to get to a child who no longer needs him. Leaving this house feels -- not figuratively, but literally -- like I am leaving my daughter.
But faith, the conviction of things not seen, intercedes. I have often wondered, in my self-pity, why I couldn't have grown up in a home like those of the children in my church, secure at such an early age in the knowledge of God's love for them. But the advantage the Christian who comes to faith after years of disbelief has over the lifelong Christian (and over the atheist) is full knowledge of both states. Faith is ultimately in the unseen, but to live in faith, well, that is a tangible matter; it is indeed the assurance of things hoped for. I have known what it is like to want faith yet to be unable to manufacture it, and to shun faith yet have it loom ever closer, squeezing out every alternative mental state. I think most atheists and most Christians get it horribly wrong -- faith can no more be chosen than can the color of one's hair.
And so I have this faith that has impinged on my life, and it helps me breathe past the moments of panic, by setting my mind on what lies ahead, when each of us is finally brought to the dark valley Caroline traversed three years ago, where we learn whether we are to walk it alone, or by the hand of a Savior. This faith tells me that though my body cries out at leaving our house, I should not despair. For the Christian, every step leads not away but toward those who have gone before in faith.
Of course this is unreasoned, self-soothing prattle to those who wait for God to justify himself by reconciling with what they believe their precious sciences reveal. The great tragedy inherent to faith and man's condition is that it can be neither reasoned out nor conjured. Those of us who truly love God, and those of you who do not, are separated by a divide that cannot be traversed by the will of man. I cannot summon words to express my thankfulness for being on this side of that gap -- and, I see now, for having lived on the other side.
Part of the joy of being on this side of the divide, and thus a source of sadness as we contemplate leaving, is that, contrary to the "me and Jesus" delusion of modern Christianity, our faith brought with it a covenant community. These people cared for us, fed us, guided us, wept with us, still mourn with us. I will never forget the Sunday morning they gathered around us, more than a hundred strong, me with my weakening child in my arms, and poured out their prayers and tears in requests that would not be granted. Like us they grew angry at a God who seemed not to hear them, and with us they learned that the same hands that wound us can care for us tenderly, and that this is perhaps God's deepest mystery. They are our family, because there are ties stronger than blood.
There is much more to say, but not tonight. We are moving, and soon we'll be within driving distance of the beach, and the mountains, and real barbeque (if you haven't been to North Carolina, this won't make sense to you), and Cheerwine, and Carolina football. The grandparents will finally be able to squeeze their little darlings to their hearts' content, and we'll relearn what it's like to drive on roads that have curves in them. We'll live on the hallowed ground where Bobby Lee whipped some respect into blustering Yankee generals, and do our small part to retake the Capitol from people who have long ago forgotten the purpose of the U.S. Constitution.
Many good things lie ahead, and we are thankful for these, just as we are thankful for the things we leave behind. We live joyful sorrow, which is the blessing bestowed by hope, which is itself the child of faith. I have on my wall a picture of Caroline, standing next to a beautiful purple clematis flower on a vine intertwined through the latticework of our deck. This year all the vine's flowers were gone by late July, the consequence of living in heat and drought. But early this evening, as I walked out onto the deck, I saw my wife standing below, crying. On the vine amidst the hulls of flowers long since blown away, a single purple flower had emerged.
It is these little things that sustain many of us, like a gentle voice singing with quiet persistence through man's self-obsessed din. Thus in myriad ways are faith's roots grown, often out of sight, until its fruit springs forth and surprises its possessor most of all.
And so you can see, I began by writing about leaving our home, and ended by talking about faith. But for some reason I am convinced that all the words fit, just as I am convinced that there are enough here for now, except for these, which are not my own:
"Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us . . . let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross . . ."
Posted by Woodlief on August 23, 2002 at 02:05 PM
Posted by: Peter Salomon at August 23, 2002 3:36 PM
Posted by: don at August 23, 2002 4:09 PM
Posted by: susanna at August 23, 2002 7:08 PM
Posted by: John "Akatsukami" Braue at August 23, 2002 9:30 PM
I second everybody. Have a safe trip to your new home!
Posted by: Andrea Harris at August 23, 2002 10:09 PM
We are sorry for your sadness but glad that your struggles offer strength to those of us who cannot imagine your pain. Our prayers are with you and your family.
And as someone who has known you on both sides of your knowledge; you offer proof that the God of the universe knows us all, and it is by his eternal grace that we have the privilege to know Him. The witness that you offer in your pain radiates to the world, and the work that He does/is doing in you is testimony to all who know you, whether they know it or not!
Much love and affection from friends in NC.
Friends who are thankful that you will soon be less than a days drive away.
Posted by: Gray & Avery at August 23, 2002 10:13 PM
Thank you so much for sharing your heart - you have touched many I have no doubt. And I have a calm assurance that the Lord will use your memories and your faith to salve the wounds of others and bring a measure of peace when and where it is desperately needed most. May His continued blessings be with you.
P.S. kick some whiney liberal butt in D.C. for us, okay?
Posted by: wylie in norman at August 23, 2002 10:27 PM
DC welcomes you.
I hate to interject such a serious and heartfelt post with a question such a mundane matter, but I have to ask: what is cheerwine?
Posted by: Gary at August 24, 2002 7:07 AM
Gary, I've seen (and tasted, years ago) Cheerwine in North Carolina and the Georgia coast. It's a carbonated soft drink -- cherry flavor if I recall.
Take care Tony. If you're going to do as Wylie requests, better get some steel-toed boots or you'll go through footwear like nobody's business.
Posted by: Kevin McGehee at August 24, 2002 7:28 AM
Beautifully written. And best of luck in D.C. I lived in D.C. for 12 years and can attest that if you're out to kick whiney liberal butt, you are moving to a very target rich environment.
Posted by: Donna V. at August 24, 2002 11:16 AM
May the Fortune smile on you.
Posted by: Boris A.Kupershmidt at August 24, 2002 12:08 PM
It is exceedingly rare that any blog post has ever brought tears to my eyes. The description of your daughter's life and death was incredibly touching. As a new parent myself, this is the sort of thing nightmares are made of, and I pray I never have to face the hell you must have gone through.
Incidentally, If you make it down to the Greensboro/Winston-Salem NC area, Let me know, and I'll have to buy you a Cheerwine, and show you a few good places for Lexington-Style Barbecue. If you are an Eastern BBQ fan, I know of one of those locally also.
Posted by: Tony Hooker at August 24, 2002 2:45 PM
Posted by: Your Community in Wichita at August 24, 2002 9:07 PM
It has been my honor to know Tony these four years we have lived in Kansas. First at work, then at church, and then as friend. Tony recently told a group of friends at a goodbye get-together that he was grateful for our friendship (as am I). I wanted you all to know that God sent me to Tony.
Several years ago we lost a daughter. Different circumstances, different suffering, same pain. During my grieving, a friend called me every week for more than a year from 1500 miles away to check on me. Jack had lost his son in a car wreck. He showed me what it meant to care for another in pain and I have been so grateful to have an opportunity to try to share with you, Tony. Jack died the same year Caroline did, and although I didn't have a debt to pay, he trained me. I only hope I did his training (and God's calling) justice.
I grieve your going. I will miss so many things like phone calls, drop-ins, spontaneous meals, Thursday lunches, your charming wife, and seeing your children grow up. I wish you could be a part of my children's lives from up close. I wish you could help me paint more of my house (thanks!).
And I celebrate your going. You never completely fit here - BBQ is BEEF here, the land is flat (as is the intonation), and border-staters just don't get the defining conflict of this nation. But I also think this move is the God-sent step in the healing process for all of you. I pray God's blessing and protection on you and yours.
I hope in some small humble way I have been a true friend to you the way Jack was to me. And so, finally, I pass on to you now the gift given to me. Do with it what you will. It comes without obligation unless your heart is stirred - at which point I think the stirring will be irrestible. That stirring will be from God as He leads you to help, or teach, or minister to, another who has lost a child. Surely I hope you never have this chance, but if you do, I challenge you to follow God's leading.
Peace to you and love from me,
Posted by: Steve at August 24, 2002 9:50 PM
Thank you for offering this meditation. You've touched on the one event I've always feared would be sufficient to destroy my faith. But I'm learning alot about grace these days, and this is a beautiful teaching. Be blessed.
Posted by: sainteros at August 25, 2002 4:48 PM
Thank you, Tony. God bless.
Posted by: Dave Trowbridge at August 25, 2002 6:40 PM
There isn't much to say beyond "Thank You" and "Good Luck".
Posted by: Mike Flynn at August 25, 2002 10:39 PM
You're welcome to kick my whiney liberal butt when you get here to DC... I, on the other hand, will welcome you as a brother in Christ to a place where much good can be done as we undertake our roles as God's stewards of creation and as our brother's keepers.
I hope you transition is a peaceful and joyous one. Thanks for your words.
Posted by: Pascale Soleil at August 25, 2002 11:29 PM
Best of luck to you and yours.
I want to go hug my fianc&eaigu;e now.
Posted by: Chris/Spoons at August 26, 2002 1:11 AM
Oops. That was supposed to be 'fiancé'. I was thinking in French.
Posted by: Chris/Spoons at August 26, 2002 1:12 AM
I don't spend inordinate amounts of time looking back on the past, in part, I suppose, because there is a lot back there I would rather not dwell upon. However, yesterday was my birthday and tomorrow is the first anniversary of my father's death. I am now the owner and resident of the house that my parents bought almost 40 years ago, when I was 10 years old. Yesterday, quite by accident, while looking through some boxes of books, I found a box containing a stash of cards and letters that I had forgotten about. (I didn't read through them; knowing they were there was enough.) Finally, a colleague told me this morning that he ran into an old girlfriend of mine, who is now married.
I say all this because this confluence of facts and events has gotten me reminiscing about the past. And I found myself particularly receptive to your eloquent and moving essay.
Of course, I have not had to undergo the experience of losing a child, which, as I mentioned to you once earlier, seems to me about the hardest hardship a person (two persons, actually) can face.
Unfortunately, I do not have the faith that you describe (although I am by no means an atheist).
Good luck with the move. Now that you will be living in DC as well as working there, you will have at your literal and figurative doorstep the misfeasance, malfeasance, nonsense, and idiocy for which our seat of government is unrivalled by any other place in the country (except, perhaps, for Berkeley in the idiocy department). I look forward to your future postings.
Posted by: jim at August 26, 2002 11:09 AM
Thank you for sharing your heart. May God grant you travel mercies and direct you quickly to the house and church that you will call home.
I sometimes wonder how our Lord's embrace will feel after I hear the words, "Well done, good and faithful servant." Some might think of one you would get from a strong yet gentle 30 year old man - but I think it will be with arms from a 2 year old, aqueezing your neck tight, and feeling a soft cheek next to yours. By faith we carry on.
Posted by: MarcV at August 26, 2002 12:03 PM
Thanks for the heart-wrenching and thoughtful post. It was beautifully written. God be with you. And He is.
Posted by: Tim Plett at August 26, 2002 12:24 PM
Well, welcome to the East Coast. If you ever need something in South Carolina, let me know, 'cause I'll be around.
Posted by: addison at August 26, 2002 4:46 PM
If only I could take that pain away. If only I could have taken that pain away.
Posted by: Llana at August 27, 2002 1:42 AM
Your article was sent to me by my son and truly blessed my heart. Your willingness to proclaim your faith in God-in spite of the loss of your daughter was thrilling to me. You will never know this side of heaven how many lives you have touched. God will use this as He has Todd Beamer's testimony and also Lisa, his wife. God bless you - and get rid of those liberals!
Posted by: Betty First at August 28, 2002 3:01 PM
Sid from A2 here.
Have a safe trip to D.C. God be with you.
Again, your essay moved me deeply.
Posted by: sid at August 28, 2002 6:23 PM
Thank you for sharing.
I have never tried to pretend to know the pain that lives in your heart, but I do know the joy that comes with being your friend. Thank you for being a friend to me. It's just more proof that our Great God has a special love for each of us. I will greatly miss you and all the laughter you brought my way. I will continue to pray for you and your wife.
Friends come and go Tony, but blessings last a lifetime. Thanks for being my blessing.
In Him -
Posted by: Sheri at August 30, 2002 1:22 PM