You are my shepherd,
I shall not want;
You make me lie down
In green pastures.
You lead me
Beside still waters;
You restore my soul.
You lead me in paths of righteousness
For your name’s sake.
Even though I walk through
The valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil;
For you are with me;
Your rod and your staff,
They comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
In the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil,
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I shall dwell in your house forever.
Psalm 23, taken from The United Church of Christ Book of Worship
Whenever you are reading this, I wrote this on October 24th. My wife died yesterday. Regular readers beware, as this is my spiritual journal aimed at working through my own spiritual life, I am likely going to talk a lot about my grief in the days ahead.
My wife died yesterday. I walked into see her on the bed, not moving. She had been in horrible pain, with numerous health problems that most people don’t know about. Though she moved near exclusively with a wheelchair after her Arnold Chiari malformation caused an event similar to a stroke, she never viewed her wheelchair (or her crutches before them) as her health problem. It was her pain. Very few people knew the amount of pain she always was in. She was in constant pain. Some days it was bearable, when she could push into the background. Some days it was blinding, debilitating beyond words. In her own amazing way, she never let it hold her back. She might take a moment, an hour, to sit with it. But she always found a way to smile, to laugh, to be loving, to embrace every moment to its fullest. She never let her pain stop her from fully engaging life.
The night before she died she had been in severe pain all week, and when she was in bad pain I would sleep on the couch so my tossing and turning didn’t make her aches and pains worse. When I didn’t hear her stirring after the time she normally would have woken up, I wanted to make sure she was doing OK. I’d had some mornings she was so disoriented from her Chiari she needed help to get up.
When I walked in, she was not moving. I got down beside her on the bed. I whispered to her. Nothing. I held her. Nothing. I gave her a kiss. Nothing. I went through everything I could do to wake her. Nothing. My heart sank. Since her event like a stroke from her Chiari 2 years previously, this had been my recurring nightmare: waking to find her gone, without warning. Not wanting to believe that she had passed while I slept I called the paramedics. I had to do chest compressions until they arrived. I waited thirty minutes as they tirelessly tried to revive her, trembling and in tears the whole time. I had heard the words they were saying many a time as a chaplain in the hospital, which echoed through the doorway as everything went quiet: “Does everyone agree? Time?” I knew before they told me what they would say, “We’ve done all we can here. She’s gone”.
I want to wail like a child, to scream and let tears fall like the pummeling rain of a summer storm as I write about this. My life is in a blur, and I have trouble making sense of anything.
Her death comes as an unimaginable shock. There was no sign this was anything more than a severe pain week, although the headaches her Chiari caused had been worse than usual all week. Her day had been a great day, despite her pain. She had been working to organize a woman’s preaching festival in Durham, and had spent all day into the night there. When I picked her up at 9 pm, she was on top of the world. She was smiling and laughing. She was talking about the amazing women she met, about the classes she had attended, and about the hopes she had for the future. We had both been so busy, me with my work and her with her school & various projects we had barely had time for each other. But I took some extra time to sit, to talk, to listen that morning and connect. We really spoke and connected in a deep way on the way home from her conference, though she was exhausted. I treasure those last moments.
So when I pray Psalm 23 today, I pray in a blur. The words wash over me like water and I feel as if I am moving through motions, motions I learned long ago. This is the value of such ancient prayers of the church and of the people of God in all their iterations. These prayers give us an anchor, a foothold, when the world is crashing down around us.
As I pray I am struck by the image of God as a shepherd guiding me. People have been guiding me all day yesterday. The 911 operator talking me through doing chest compressions on my beloved wife. The paramedics. My brother and dad. Someone asked me “have you eaten?” as I checked facebook before bed and my answer was “Yes. I remember my brother putting a bowl in front of me of something at what must have been lunch and a bowl at what must have been dinner. I remember chewing, swallowing. I remember looking down to empty bowls. I cannot for the life of me say what I ate”. I am lost in alternately a haze of numbness and of unquenchable grief.
I am reminded that I am being guided. I don’t know if I can feel or see God guiding me, but I feel this Psalm invites me to embrace my shock and confusion. It is ok I do not know which way is up or down. It is ok I do not know what I feel or want. I can let others guide me. I can let others care for me. I can trust that in their loving care the loving care of the Good Shepherd, the mother and father of our souls, is present.
I am thankful for that hope. I cling to it like a sinking man in the waves.
Your progressive redneck preacher,