In Grief as In Love

I missed a blog post on Thursday, April 12. I’ve connected with you all consistently and without fail every other Thursday morning at 6:00am since January 2017. And I missed Thursday, April 12. That was almost a 30 post run in a lovely and work affirming cadence. And then, as with my meditation timer a month ago:

Week 1.

This post is Week 1.

And that is okay.

It is okay because I had no idea what to say. I had everything to say. I had nothing to say. And so, I will share with you all – my friends of face seen and unseen, met and unmet – my heart’s tragedy.

On Friday, April 6th, my amazing, sweet, thoughtful, smart, funny and without equal 17 year old nephew Thomas, took his own life.

Thomas – as each person in this world – was a one time story of his own making. And for each individual who was fortunate enough to know him, they had their own Thomas. I suppose I’d like to tell you about My Thomas.

My Thomas was an infant when I first met him in Hawaii. My sister lived there in 2000 and for the years thereafter as my brother-in-law was in the military. I was in college and my parent’s paid for me to fly out to visit. And to meet my very first relative of the next generation, Thomas James Joyner.

I took multiple trips to Hawaii to visit my sister with her new son and later, in 2002, with her new daughter. My sister is 7 years my elder. And eons beyond in wisdom. She has always stood on her two feet ever so landed in her center and knowing who she is and how she is meant to walk this earth. She gives of herself wholely and unapologetically. She is my hero. She always has been and she always will be.

My hero gave Thomas to the world. She and my brother-in-law offered up this miracle of a creature. A babe who watched and absorbed. My first glimpse of life everlasting in a new generation, Thomas was a child of curiosity and insatiability. A babe who called “Auntie!!! WIPE ME!” across the house in Hawaii and would not let his mother do the job. A toddler who was entranced by his uncle – my older brother – using his mini-excavator to take down a dead tree in my parent’s front yard. A kiddo who stared at my then boyfriend (now husband) in 5 year old awe as Greg laid beside him on the floor, snores wracking the room while Thomas tried (unsuccessfully) to concentrate on “Shark Tales.” At 6ish, he walked Washington, DC at Christmas time with his family, Greg and I to see the National Christmas tree. And he became so exhausted that he began to fall every 10 steps or so as small legs gave up their goods. He and his family snuggled in my 600 square foot apartment that weekend. Love and joy and family in a pile. (And probably some whining now that I know what small children are like in the same room with their parents.) 7 year old Thomas and his sister carried the rings at my wedding. His face a bit of a grump, bowtie on and endurance in full effect. Thomas, my husband and I floated in my grandparent’s magical Banister River when I was weeks away from delivering my first babe. His father, my dear brother-in-law, sat on our ancient brown Aqua Patio pontoon boat feet away, arms crossed watching us with classic stone face and intermittent single eyebrow raise. Thomas and I were in awe of my humongous belly’s natural buoyancy. Floating me up to the surface each time I tried to go vertical in the water. We giggled as I tested physics over and over again. Thomas held each of my 3 babes with his classic wonderment and peace at the miracle of infancy. Thomas liked Sprite, ate inhuman amounts of ice cream sandwiches and drumsticks in a row at the lake, and read insatiably. Dark chocolate was his love and chocolate pie one of his soul foods. He loved to ski tube and could not turn down my son’s requests to join him. He asked questions of my husband like the one he posed via Facetime only weeks before his death, “Uncle Greg, does the perfect movie exist and if so, which one do you think it is?” In case you’re wondering, one of Thomas’ picks was “Shawshank Redemption.”

I remember he told us it shone clear light on hope when there appeared to be only hopelessness.

Thomas spoke his mind. And his mind was amazing. It saw nooks and crannies that I could not begin to fathom. It was curious, creative and ever inquisitive. Thomas was kind with a heart too big for his body.

At Thomas’ memorial service, the walls of the church rang with peace and deafening space. We spend so much time in our lives clamoring and grasping for S-P-A-C-E and yet when a bright soul leaves a body, it’s like the space is deafening. The service was beautiful, moving and all that it should have been. It was a church filled with Hawaiian flowers, Hawiian shirts and dresses and immense love for a life well lived. Immense love for a soul fully accepted by those who saw him, treasured him and elevated him.

Following the service, there was a family picnic to which all were invited. It was in the spacious backyard of a dear neighbor’s home and a shimmering creek runs through the rear of their flat, green yard. A playset is on the side of the yard, a sandbox in the middle – my children call it “Ms. Laura’s playground” as it sits directly across the street from my parent’s house, the childhood home of myself, my sister and my brother.

I’m clearly a lover of words but there are no words for the heartache or the heartburst that I have experienced in alternating moments over the past two plus weeks. In certain moments, it is like my heart could implode into my center. And in other moments, it could explode into the limitless universe.

At this picnic, there was a Grace unlike any I’ve ever felt or witnessed.
In that backyard at that picnic, it was a moment of heart explosion.

High school friends’ of incredible Thomas sat creek side by the sparkling waters. Some walked in the cool, trickling flow. My small children crawled around with my niece’s amused 15 year old friends in tow playing “Lion King” and roaring life into the trees, the blue sky and the green green grass. Each family member was greeted by face after face of far past to current days and held in love and light. My parents each had their own circle of beautiful love from 60+ years of life and affect on this world. My sister’s in-laws had their own personal web of military life strewn far and wide come together on that green green grass. My brother-in-law and sister were held in that backyard by friends from childhood to college to Tennessee to Hawaii before returning back to their Virginia roots – held in laughter and tears and everything in between. My niece was encircled by her adoring cousins and her friends who see her jewel of individuality perfect in every way. My brother and I were seen and touched by childhood family friends – voices of yesteryear from every corner enveloping us in tears, love, laughter and curiosity for our “now” lives. My own high school, college and “grown-up” friends showed up both in body and in heart with their unique acceptance, their compassion, and their graceful wordlessness. Pure presence.

We walked on Holy Ground that afternoon. We walked on Holy Ground because Thomas’ physical absence invited immense space to fill. And that immense, vast and indescribable void for a moment in time was filled with trees, fresh spring leaves, water, birds, flowers, homemade food in bellies, and the wholeness of love from every direction of Grace. My life was already forever touched by my family’s knit – one of perfect complexity in weave and color. My life is now forever touched by seeing my family’s reach – a gift given to us by Thomas and not to be underestimated.

Thomas felt his thoughts and emotions deeply and passionately to the quick of his bones. They were ideas and feelings that he could not ignore and could not escape in intensity. In my own way, I get that. Starting in adolescence and straight through early adulthood, I battled demons of intensity that I escaped in the only way I knew how. And I lucked out. I emerged on this side of adulthood and have the gift of standing and looking back.

I also have another gift. I have the gift of teaching others and helping them to Be In It. To feel the intensity of this life – which can very abruptly spiral into the anxiety of this life – and to know that it is okay. That this body has got you if you can lean into its gifts. That the ground has got you. That your breath has got you. That your heartbeat has got you. And that it can and will carry you to the other side if you can find the support that you need to ride the current wave.

And so, I will continue to do my work but with such clear focus now and such understanding on so many more levels that my path is mine to walk. And to ride. And to stumble. And that you and I are on it together. We are coming together in this moment through my words and your eyes and we are in a time and space of something more than “Me” in my body and “You” over there in your’s. You get to meet me through my words. And I get to meet you through your Presence. And that is magical. That is a gift of this life.

One last thing. You do not need to say “Rachel, I am so sorry.” And you do not need to ask me, “Are you okay?” As my sister so beautifully has said over and over, “There are no words. There is you feeling what you need to feel. There is me feeling what I need to feel. And in doing so, we can just be together.” As we give each other the space to do so, we honor Thomas’ kindness and compassion. Pass along a kindness today. Honor the space of another’s feelings that may not mirror your own. Allow yourself the gift of stepping into a human Being human, and I will do the same.

Be ever so well,

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