When I was a kid, my parents had a set of Encyclopedia Britannica. They were bound in dark red cloth, probably 20 volumes, likely from the 50s. I referred to them occasionally on high school reports. I never inquired how much they cost or if my parents inherited them. They sat on a shelf in the garage gathering dust.
Two years ago, Mom moved out of that old house she and dad purchased in 1962. It was the only house I knew growing up. I’m not sure what happened to that reference set. I assume it went to Goodwill, or the dumpster. In this day of the Internet, it didn’t matter. It was obsolete.
What is not obsolete, however, is the need for reference. Regardless of means or medium, a reference is the use of a source of information in order to ascertain something. For example, if I want to know about the Diet of Worms of 1521, I would need a source to show you that it was an assembly of the Roman Empire to deal with the protests of Martin Luther, because you’re thinking it was about the practice of eating night-crawlers in the 15th century.
A reference provides answers. Death takes away both.
I lost my mom in July, which means I lost another reference to my family history. I can no longer call her and ask if we had a history of gout in our family. My dad has been gone for 15 years. I can’t ask him to retell me stories that he remembers about me as a little boy. This reference is gone, and I’m left to guess.
Monday was the first anniversary of Karen’s death. It, too, is a loss of reference. There are questions I can no longer ask. I’m left to wonder or speculate.
I can’t ask her why she didn’t say goodbye.
Death affects people differently, but it overcomes everyone universally. It is the last unknown, uncharted human experience. It’s the great equalizer of all humans. It strikes the rich and the poor. Both the marginalized and privileged have to face it. The 1% don’t get a pass.
I chose to write about this today because I have to believe I’m not alone. Somebody out there like me had a loved one that didn’t say goodbye. And while plenty of speculative answers have been given, I have no idea what the true answer is. She fell asleep on a Monday afternoon a year ago and never woke up. She passed six days later. And she took the reference manual with her.
Death isn’t tidy. It is not nice. It does not play fair.
I think that’s my point today. This is the word I am reminding myself. Some things are never going to be figured out. Try as I may, I can’t move on from it. It will always follow me.
I taught in theory against this question when I trained hosts in the restaurant. I never wanted to imply that something or someone is missing in the equation as a person arrives for service. I now know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of this question.
On my trip through New England, every time (every single time) I checked in with a host at either a restaurant, pub or brewery, they would follow up with, “just one?” Even the default setting on the Hotwire app assumes 1 room, 2 adults when making a hotel reservation.
My point isn’t about self-pity or to chide the service industry for lack of sensitivity. Instead, I have chosen to let it remind me about my new reality. The trip was planned in 2018 for two. It was realized by one.
It’s coming up on a year of my new reality and I still haven’t figured out how to answer the question, “So, how are you doing?”
Fine? Great? OK? Good? Not so good?
The fact is, they are all true at times.
I had a good time in New England. I drove about 1500 miles through eight states. Which mostly felt like a drive to Scotsbluff and back, except with better scenery. I listened to whatever I wanted to. I stopped whenever I wanted to. I stayed wherever I wanted to. I ate and drank wherever I wanted to. When did I ever do that while married? That part was great.
But when the occasional bartender asked me what I was doing in town, I usually led with the reply, “I’m on a discovery tour to learn what it means to fly solo in midlife.” The puzzled look led to my explanation that I lost my wife last year and she was supposed to be on this trip with me, so I decided to go ahead and complete it without her. I don’t have any other choice now. She’s not coming back for a command performance.
I guess what I’m saying is this: I’m not moving on, but I am moving forward. In my mind, moving on implies forgetting what was. I can’t do that. For good or bad, for better or worse, I can’t erase the last 30 years. They are with me and a part of my body and soul til I die.
Moving forward has its focus on the future, not my past. I don’t know what lies ahead, but I’m going to reach out and grab my share.
I’m going to keep traveling, because the open road tells me new stories.
I’m going to keep writing, because someone will hear their voice through mine.
I’m going to keep creating, because important things will eventually exist because my hands fashioned them.
I’m going to keep watching, because my eyes might see what yours don’t.
I’m going to keep setting the table, because you will always need a place to rest.
We had started saving for it back in 2018. And there it was, in the bottom of the drawer, the bank bag labeled Portland Maine 2020.
I needed something to look forward to. I refer to it as a finish line. I like to set them in front of me, sometimes daily, but especially during seasons that require unusual focus of my attention.
Irish Fest in Weston, MO on the second weekend in October was always a finish line after a long summer of Farmer’s Market, Market Meals and 15 hour work days on Saturdays. It was a push, but I knew it would soon be over because I could see the finish line ahead. Knowing that the life of hospitality follows this ebb and flow, it was an important practice that helped maintain some level of sanity, or at least it was a theoretical attempt to do so.
2018 looked like it might be a year of reprieve from the onslaught of difficulty that began in 2016. We drew a finish line. We had never witnessed New England and its colors of fall. We agreed that would be our anticipated destination.
We never crossed it together.
2018 disagreed with our hope that things might be letting up. We almost made it through the year. But November 2, 2018 marked the beginning of a new challenge. Cancer had returned for a third time.
Words like inoperable were included in this third conversation. The options seemed fewer. But this wasn’t my first rodeo. I vowed to make some new choices. They were choices she didn’t initially understand.
And maybe never did.
“You don’t seem worried!?!” This was how she took my choice to remain calm and remind myself that the Prince of Peace was still in charge of His kingdom, and I liked the privilege afforded me under that jurisdiction.
The road got quickly rocky and rough soon after that diagnosis. 2018 gave way to the assault that would be known as 2019, the year the biggest vow of my life would be discharged.. Exactly one year later, death finished its assignment and left her lifeless body in the temporary hospital bed in my side bedroom.
My new reality had begun.
In that new reality were new decisions to be made in a new way. I would no longer have to consult another on matters that would affect our future. It was no longer “ours.” It was only mine.
About a month ago, as I sat at my desk going through the stack of papers that needed my attention that I told myself I would take care of later, I pulled open the bottom drawer and found that bank bag labeled Portland Maine 2020.
I said goodbye to another friend yesterday. He was only 60. We were brought together through his music and our connection was forged through grief.
We met 10 years ago at one of his concerts. His music was an immediate salve for the collateral damage inflicted on me from the impact of my wife’s recent cancer diagnosis. Maybe I was just in the right place at the right time, but I’m too old to believe in chance. The odds don’t add up. I’m just not that lucky. There had to be Providence involved.
Over the years, we only connected through shows I would attend. I always made it a point to say hi before or after the performance. I served his band several times in my restaurant when they toured through LIncoln during that 10 year run.
I was floored when I opened an email from him about three weeks ago, telling me that he had a terminal condition and that he was in the process of transitioning. For the uninitiated, that means dying. Those who are in near-death awareness have a different point of view than those of us with our feet still firmly planted on this side of the River. His was a thin place. He was at that point of discovering that the veil between the natural and the supernatural, the physical and the spiritual is very fine and scant.
He told me in the email that he found my writing about grief a source of encouragement and strength to him. I would find out later than he knew of his decline several months ago. That would account for his many responses to my blog posts. Often, the very first “like” was from him. It started to make sense.
This morning, a beautiful one I must add, I ponder the reciprocation of our friendship that started and ended because of grief. His music was there for me ten years ago, and my words were there for him ten years later.
I had the honor of officiating his memorial service yesterday, a small gathering of family and friends under the shade of hardwood trees in a small public park. Here is a segment from that eulogy that I wrote:
“The Heart knows three languages. First are words. For me, as a writer, words are all I have available to communicate. When I sat down this week to write these words, I had to think through and find the right ones to convey what Steve meant to me and to you. In the written word, there is no nonverbal cue to access or rely on. There is punctuation and an occasional exclamation mark, but this is terribly inadequate. In this way, words can fall short, and I understand and accept that limitation as a writer.
As many of us in this audience know so well, the second language of the Heart is music. Music is what words want to become when they grow up, but words grieve because music isn’t reliant on them to communicate the Heart’s message. Music has access to rhythm, melody and harmony as well as words to convey its ideas. Steve spoke to us directly and deeply on stage and in recordings without even having to say a word.
But there are times that even music has its limitations, and so the Heart needs to rely on its third language, the language of tears. Tears allow the Heart to express the feelings locked deep inside the hidden places, that even words and music don’t know how to deliver.
When you weep with those who weep, you are engaging in a supernatural tongue that says more than you will ever know or imagine.
In the summer of 1995, I saw Andre Agassi on television, competing at Wimbledon. But gone was the signature styled long hair. The man had shaved it off. Buzz cut. Chrome dome. Clean as a whistle. He later admitted to wearing a hairpiece and even credited the worry about it falling off as cause for him losing a Grand Slam event.
I remember thinking at the time, if he can do it, I can do it.
I shaved my head that summer.
Like a lot of guys, I had thinning hair and I was tired of fretting over it. Fortunately I have a descent shaped, Blue Man Group-quality melon that was conducive to not having hair. So I assisted Mother Nature and removed what was still clinging to my scalp. I never regretted it and never looked back.
There was a weird adjustment period though. The looks of surprise from people I knew took some getting used to. My standard short explanation when people asked why was, “I wanted to look like Agassi.”
But even for myself, looking at my mug in the mirror, it took awhile for it to look normal. Every day for several weeks, I would startle myself when I walked into the bathroom first thing in the morning. But over time, that image became normal and now I don’t even remember what it was like to have hair to take care of.
I’ve recently noticed a similar transition in my new life. My first thoughts in the morning are not always about what happened ten months ago. I don’t move through the day out of a sense of what is missing. The identity of widower is no longer my predominant reference point.
I’m rediscovering myself. Who I am, instead of who I’m not. I have a new rhythm to my day, new patterns I have settled into. I’m doing much better.
Wholeness looks different now. I no longer react the same way to the new image I see in the mirror.
I just got home from attending and officiating the Warrior’s wedding in Idaho. He lives up to his name. He has always fought for my freedom.
It’s been 10 months since the state of a new identity was introduced to me. I am certainly in a better frame of mind today and continue to explore this new identity with courage and strength. But that doesn’t mean I no longer pine for the old days.
One insidious aspect of grief is the consistent invitation to the Pity Party that gets delivered at all times of the day. The problem with the Pity Party is that it’s not much of a party. There are only two in attendance.
Grief, on the other hand, is still willing to go out in public. Grief doesn’t need to isolate the two of us. It can be OK in groups of people as well as in solitude. Grief and Pity are easily mistaken for each other.
Grief allows for others to be happy. Pity despises that scene.
Four days in the beautiful mountains of Sun Valley, Idaho. Reconnecting with long-term friends and meeting new ones. Lots of conversation over craft beer and hiking trails. Great food and local drink. A picturesque ceremony in a botanical garden for a radiant couple.
I did pretty good until she walked down the aisle.
I’m the presiding minister, the one in charge of the flow of the formalities and I start to lose composure. The Beauty of Everything was too much to hold in. I stumbled through the opening prayer, holding off tears in order to come back and focus on the task at hand. It was their moment, not mine.
Through the vows, the rings, the pronouncement and opening reception, I did fine. But Grief is stealthy. Just when I think it’s smooth sailing from here on out, Grief taps me on the shoulder and points out an emotion that’s been overlooked.
It was during the dancing portion of the reception. I felt immediately alone. I had to excuse myself. I didn’t want to create an awkward moment. But I am well acquainted with the voice of Grief. It’s akin to a child tugging on your pant leg demanding to go to the bathroom, I know to respond right away.
Because like the little child, Grief’s needs can be satisfied just as quickly in the moment. Grief doesn’t like to hold it. When you gotta go, you gotta go.
So I stepped away, maybe for 15 minutes, and wandered through the floral and vegetal plantings in the botanical garden. I asked Grief what it needed. Here’s what it said:
“Thank you for paying attention to me.”
LIke any other good companion, Grief doesn’t like to be ignored. I am growing in that lesson these past 10 months, and I am a better man because of it.
I came back soon after and rejoined the wedding party. There was a conversation about flights out the next morning. The Warrior said in passing, “Too bad you didn’t plan to drive back.”
That started the imagination. Why would I not?
I can still hear my Dad saying, “Stop and smell the roses, son. You may never pass this way again.”
As the photos show, I smelled a lot of roses along the 3 day drive back home.
I’ve grown to appreciate the Open Road during grief. It continually tells me new stories along the way. The Four Walls of Home remind and retell the old ones.
My dad passed away 15 years ago today. And as regular practice on this blog, I repost the eulogy I wrote and read at his funeral. It includes a story I’ve told countless times over the years. And now that story is bearing fruit in the form of young fathers with their sons, telling me how the story has influenced how they parent. I’m very thankful to my dad who valued wisdom over logic and reason, and had an ability to recognize value in the seemingly small and mundane things of day-to-day life
I repost this eulogy from time to time as a reminder to my regular readers, and an encouragement to those new visitors who have never read it before.
Thanks for reading.
It took a while, as it does for most youth, to realize that the vistas of the world I was seeing was a direct result of the shoulders I was standing on. I thought in order to matter in the world, you had to go out and conquer it. But what I have learned from my dad, the man named Jack Shinn, I now believe that it’s just the opposite. You make a difference by simply letting the world come to you, and then offering blessing to each and every person that comes your way.
From time to time, I would make it back to Route 2 Box 162, sometimes bringing university students with me to visit the farm and experience the country life. Without exception, every person I brought there was greeted by my Dad with a hug and a kind word. Sometimes those students would later tell me how much that meant to them. Dad seemed to think that it may be the only hug they got, so he would offer it. It didn’t matter the color of their skin or how long their hair was, they got the same attention. You make a difference by letting the world come to you and offer blessing to each and every person that comes your way.
As I got older, this lesson became more and more evident. People would say to me how much they appreciated Dad’s smile or sense of humor or offering a piece of candy. They remarked how positive he always was, how willing he was to help out. In his latter years, he dealt with much physical pain, but you would only know it through the grimace on his face. He never complained about it and never allowed it to rule his spirit.
No summary, however, would be complete without the story I have told many, many times. It’s a story that encapsulates his life and what he valued most. It’s a story that happened when I was about 12 years old, but I didn’t hear it until nearly 20 years later. The story takes place at Route 2 Box 162 Bartlesville. With very few kids around my age, I had to learn how to entertain myself. Dad helped that effort by buying me a little Yamaha 80cc Dirt bike. That motorcycle provided me countless hours of fun. With 26 acres to my discretion, one would think that would be plenty of space for a 12 year old boy to ride. But for some reason, I decided to include the front and back lawn in that 26 acres. As you can imagine, motorcycle tires are not kind to growing grass, and it didn’t take long before a nice little path was worn around the front of the house, to the back of the house, then out to the pasture. Round and round I would go, living in my mind the adventure of being a world-champion racer, or being chased by bad guys.
This path was pretty unsightly, given that it was visible to everyone that passed on the road out front. One time a neighbor had stopped by to visit and he asked Dad this question. “Jack, how come you let your son tear up the yard like that? Why don’t you make him keep out in the pasture?”
Now this was a pretty logical question given the amount of land we owned, but my Dad’s wisdom sometimes defied logic. To know my Dad was to know what a deep reservoir he was. Even though he was a man of few words, he was also a man of countless thoughts and musings. In these past few days, I have read many of those thoughts recorded in the margins of his Bible.
I believe what set my Dad apart was his ability to look at his choices and side with that which was of most importance. In other words, he had his priorities right. He responded to the neighbor by saying. “The grass will come back” he said, “but the boy won’t.”
Now if you drive by Route 2 Box 162 today, you will see the grass has come back. The boy lives in Lincoln, Nebraska in a home of his own, with two kids of his own. He hopes to be the kind of man Jack Shinn was, a man who hopes that as the world comes to him, that he will offer blessing to each and every person that comes his way.
It’s amazing how a little item like a mask can be the source of such social division and outrage. Yet I have a simple thought to consider this morning, on how we got to this point.
Take a look at your social media feed, especially Facebook and Twitter. Count the number of responses of kindness and understanding.
That probably didn’t take long.
Now count all the posts that dismiss someone, something or their behavior.
My guess is you would never run out of examples.
Here’s a few from my feed:
Folks don’t care about anyone other than themselves.
Americans are hicks and hayseeds and won’t listen to science and reason.
The government is trying to take away freedom.
Nobody is going to tell me what to do.
People are just plain stupid.
Why can’t you just wear the f****n mask!?!?
Somewhere missing in our social conversation is the art of disagreement. Holding a different opinion than my neighbor should be expected and at the least, like the old bumper sticker pronounced, tolerated. Disagreement is healthy and normal, or I should say, it should be.
A serious problem lies in the dismissive spirit through which disagreement is filtered. My response to any controversy is representative of both my personal bias about my ideas and my conviction of who you are as a person.
I wear a mask when I go out in public. I don’t like the conflicting reports I come across that challenge the science and research behind it’s effectiveness. I see the common sense in it and since I have other priorities, I’m not going to die on that battlefield.
A mask is an easy thing for me to adopt, but a mask is not what piques my interest. I want to know why you think the way you do about it. I want to know why it’s a big deal for you either way. It makes for a better conversation
When I listen to friends who are either pro or anti-mask, I pay attention to a common denominator on both sides. I almost always see a reaction of dismissiveness. It’s easy to put someone down with whom I disagree, call them a name and dismiss their point of view. I don’t have to engage them any further. But when a person feels dismissed, they feel unseen and unheard. The human spirit does not do well when ignored.
To be an effective leader, I’ll never change anyone’s mind unless I make them feel heard, especially if we don’t agree.
Today we gather to remember Junarita Rachel May Shinn.
She had a rather unique first name.
Many, many times, her name was misread or mispelled, and mistakenly pronounced “Juanita.” In my entire life, I never met another JUNARITA. I doubt many people have. And wasn’t this woman as unique as her name?
Many of you knew her as the MAILADY, the moniker imprinted on her specialized Oklahoma license plate. (Like this one.) She was the one who gave you a piece of candy if you came out to the mailbox to greet her. Some of you knew what time she would drive by and sat underneath that mailbox waiting for her, didn’t you?
The MAILADY knew which of her senior citizen patrons were shut in, and so instead of leaving the mail in the box, she would take it up to the house, which was against Post Office rules. But to the MAILADY, proper hospitality trumped the rules, as good country folk do.
It was also common practice if someone wasn’t home to receive it, to leave a package that was too big for the mailbox with a nearby neighbor. And since she was also intuitively aware of which patrons weren’t getting along, she would know not to leave that parcel with a feuding neighbor, lest it end up in the trash.
Some of you knew her as Mama Shinn, the origin of which was a little embarrassing at the time, but I’m all grown up now, so I can tell the story. I played Little League baseball in Ochelata. I was around 5th grade. I wasn’t very good but tried my best. During one game, as I was at bat, the pitcher threw the ball and hit me square in the left rib cage with a pitch. Immediately, the air was knocked out of me and I fell to the ground in pain. As only a mother could do, my mom rushed out of the stands and ran out to home plate to check on me. I think it was Eddie Trottingwolf that reassured her, “He’s OK, Mama Shinn. He’s OK.”
To all my teammates, she was Mama Shinn from that day on.
Others know her simply as Miss June, the woman with the smile. I can’t tell you how many times people said to me, “your mama has the sweetest smile.” In her assisted living apartment, some of the staff would take their break in Miss June’s room, because she was an unusually pleasant resident and the staff just liked being around her.
Sometimes when folk get old, they start losing things, like hair, hearing, memory. (I forget what else) But Miss June never lost her smile.
I had the good fortune to be by Mom’s bedside in her final days, served by hospice in the home of my sister outside Springfield, MO. I watched her decline steadily. She lost her appetite. She eventually lost her mobility and was bedfast til the end. But hospice teaches us that hearing is the last sense to go, so talk to her as you would any other person. And I did that. After receiving the news of her decline, on Friday, I drove the six hours from Nebraska to be with her. As I arrived, I entered her room as she was sleeping. I leaned over the bedside, kissed her on the forehead and whispered, “I’m here, Mom. I’m here to be with you til its time to go.” She raised her eyebrows, squinted her closed eyes and..
She gave me that smile.
“My boy’s here…” she said.
I’ll never forget that moment.
She lost some things as she got old, but she held onto the important things that could never be taken away. Her smile. The kindness that produced it. Her faith that sustained it.
As a son, that is a precious gift.
In the following days, she gave me an example that I want to emulate in my final days. Though she spent most of the time sleeping and was in obvious pain, she didn’t complain. As I sat bedside, I felt uncomfortable and helpless as I watched her struggle to breathe. I prayed for her, asking God for mercy on her.
In the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus died, he spoke the words, “It is Finished.” What is “it?” We are taught that through His dying on the Cross, all of death had been defeated. So why did He leave it in place? If death is finished, why do we have to experience it? These were the thoughts interwoven in my mind, getting tangled with the sadness of being so close to my mom in her final hours.
Knowing that she could still hear, I played music for her on my phone; old hymns that she would remember. We also listened to scripture readings, mainly selections in Isaiah and Romans 8.
I’ve grown to enjoy listening to the Bible, because I take the passage in Hebrews 10 literally, “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” As I listen, I often encounter His Spirit differently than if I were just to read the words on a page.
On one evening, I kept Romans 8 on repeat, listening quietly over and over. On one pass through, as the narrator came to verse 16, the Spirit drew my attention inward:
Therefore, since we are His children, that makes us heirs, beneficiaries set to inherit—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ. It is this relationship that gives us the opportunity to share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
I paused the audio.
Share in His sufferings?
In that quiet moment, His Spirit reassured me, “She is sharing in my sufferings.”
Would you care to join us?”
As is common when I sense the presence of the Lord, I began to weep. Not out of sorrow this time, but out of worship and amazement.
At that moment, I had gained a new perspective on what I was witnessing in my mom’s cancer-ridden body in the back corner bedroom of my sister’s house. More than waiting to get it over with, more than enduring through the passing of my mom, I saw that she was in the midst of a fellowship with Jesus because of that suffering.
The famous passage of Psalm 23 affirms this appointment,
He prepares a table for me in the presence of my enemies
I love this picture because I’m a chef by trade. I find my joy in setting a table. For me, preparing a table is more than just putting food on a plate. Preparing a table means anticipating my guests that will sit at that table. It means knowing what will bring them delight. It means preparing to surprise them. It means going above and beyond their expectations with an experience they did not envision.
Even as death was waiting for the Number of Her days to be complete, Death does not get to disturb fellowship with Jesus. And Jesus doesn’t get up and leave until we’re finished. He prepares the table and even stays to clean up afterward.
At that very instant, I saw I was invited to His table. I was included to join in, to share in Jesus’ sufferings. He was welcoming me into fellowship and a union with Him amid the pain of sorrow. Because He, too, had experienced death, the worst death of all by carrying the sins of the world. Which means He knows what it means to hurt. He understands what I am feeling, and asks if I would like to join Him.
I know from recent experience the importance of grieving loss. I lost my wife of nearly 30 years to cancer last November. Death is painful. We hurt today because we lost a mother, a grandmother, a sister, a dear friend. I would encourage you, don’t bypass the pain too quickly. Jesus wants to fellowship with you. He knows that our loss of Mom, Ms June, Mama Shinn, hurts because her life mattered to us. We honor it by sitting at Jesus’ table, not by hurrying to get over it. He knows that our tears are not just expected. They are necessary.
We need not fear grief because it is temporary. Sorrow comes to pass. Joy comes to stay.
As a writer, I enjoy seeing how others use words to communicate. I’ve finally learned to stop comparing my writing to someone else who I admire or appreciate. There is no reason for me to try and sound like Seth Godin or Tyler Huckabee. The world already has their voice. I need to figure out how to sound more like me and try to keep getting better at it.
One place where I find the writing fascinating is on the bathroom wall. I don’t write on them myself, but I read with interest the messages and always ponder why they chose to write what they did.
I imagine some dude, his junk in one hand, a sharpie in the other, mustering up the drunken courage to pen his main message for all who come behind him to read. Here is his chance to communicate to a captive audience. What nugget of truth does he choose in the 30 seconds he has?
C’mon dude. That’s all you got? That’s the best you can do? That’s what you want to tell the world?
Yeah, I thought so.
I sure hope it stops there in the bathroom stall.
Any message that begins with the F-word should be received with caution. Anger won’t produce Hope. Rage only leads to more destruction. Don’t become like the one you despise.
Here we are, on the cusp of some very historic events that could lead to some profound social changes. And many people, especially young people, all over the world, feel a message boiling in their soul. Now is your time to write it for all to read. And I sure hope it’s more than “F**K TRUMP.”
There will be a lot of that out there, but that message isn’t worthy of anyone’s time. Any message other than one of Hope will eventually fade. Anything preached out of anger will burn out quickly. Cynicism be damned. Write a better word. Tell a better story. Create a better future.