January 20th, 2015 § 3 comments § permalink

I’ve been trying to find a way to express what Dan Stults meant to me since I learned of his passing early last week. I wish I could tell him these things myself, but I missed my chance. I hope he knew, at least a little, what a difference he made in my life. I am an atheist, but I catch myself wishing I had a God to rage against, to pin the blame on for taking someone so young and so dedicated to changing the world. But I don’t have a God, neither the loving one Dan believed in or the angry one I knew growing up, so I have to make sense of the nonsensical on my own.

I met Dan when he and Jenny began attending the church I grew up in. Both Dan and Jenny immediately became very involved in church activities, especially with the youth group, which was mostly composed of sheltered, naïve homeschooled teens. Dan was the leader of the Junior High Boys Bible Study, but he made an unforgettable impression on all of us in the youth group because he loved, valued and challenged us.

Everything about Dan rocked the boat at our ultra-conservative church: His long hair, tattoos, and piercings were unforgivable enough, but he combined those with a willingness to stand up for the outcasts, and show, not just tell, the leaders that their dogma was stifling. He was as unacceptable to our church as the Jesus he loved would have been, had that Jesus happened to have wandered into a service at Community Church of the Valley in the early 2000s.

Dan once told me that of all the kids in the youth group, I was his favourite. I don’t know why, because I was a notoriously difficult teen. I had never been anyone’s favourite anything. Dan made me believe that I, a deeply depressed, angry, suicidal, self-harming teenager was a valuable person, worthy of being the favourite of the coolest person I had ever met.

Dan often engaged in long theological discussions with me, particularly about Calvinism. We both hated that unforgiving doctrine, but he believed it was a false teaching, while I believed that it was the only true interpretation of the Bible. That was a debate we never resolved.

At a youth group event, Dan let me lead a Bible Study for the other teens—including the boys. This was unheard of at our church, where adult women were not even allowed to teach teenage boys because it was believed that women should not hold any sort of authority over men—even when those “men” were still going through puberty. I’m sure Dan faced backlash for this, but he did it anyway.

In a church that preached that women must submit, could not lead, and were not even trusted to have intellectual discussions about the Bible, Dan told me that I and my female peers mattered. Our opinions mattered. When girls were praised for meekness, for gentleness, for submission, Dan praised me for my independence, passion, and my unquenchable yearning for truth.

A Memory:
I am lying on the floor of the church nursery; the floor is cool concrete, covered only by a thin layer of rough, industrial carpet that prickles my skin. I’m sprawled out like a petulant child—and really, what’s the difference between a whiny toddler and an over-tired 13-year-old? I hadn’t slept at all the night before and I was exhausted. We had had a church sleepover that Dan and Jenny had coordinated and supervised for the youth group, the first of its kind in our church (one of the many firsts Dan gave that uptight congregation). Now in the early afternoon of the day after, all the other kids had been picked up by their parents and I and my two brothers were the only ones remaining. The room was a mess, and there was no one else to clean up.

“It’s not fair that we have to clean up other people’s messes,” I was insisting.

“Sometimes we have to do things that aren’t fair in order to help others,” Jenny patiently explained.

More grumbled protests followed, but I grudgingly joined the clean-up efforts, feeling somewhat foolish for my outburst. Dan cocked his head slightly to one side and looked at me.

“What?” I said, expecting a rebuke for my childish behavior.

“You know what your problem is, Megan?” He asked, rhetorically.

I certainly had more than one problem, and I dreaded to know what this man who had always made me feel worthy really thought of me.

“Your problem,” he continued with a smile, “is that you have an overdeveloped sense of Justice.”

Where others would have only seen the poor behavior, Dan saw a strength that needed to be honed.
That phrase, “an overdeveloped sense of justice” stuck with me. It helped me to begin to understand myself when I was little more than a bundle of tumultuous impulses.

Dan taught me so much about myself and about life. Long after I left the church and divorced myself from all religion, I still kept in contact with Dan. I know it hurt him that I didn’t believe, but I could not (and cannot) reconcile the God of the Bible with the ideals of truth, justice, mercy and love that Dan held dear. But, despite an irreconcilable difference in the foundations of our individual beliefs, we always shared those same ideals. Ideals he lived by passionately, ideals that I hope to better exhibit in my own life.

I do not believe there is a God—angry or loving—directing the cacophonous opera of our lives. A God who let one of the best people I’ve ever known suffer and die far too young. Instead, I embrace the chaos, and vow that the kindness, justice, and mercy Dan showed me will be carried on.

I will always remember you, Dan.

Something Happened to My Blog

September 19th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

I don’t know what killed it, and I’m not smart enough to figure out how to fix it, so this is my acknowledgement that everything has gone to Hell.

Grandma Shirley

September 4th, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

I despise hospitals, although I am grateful for their existence. I hate the sterility and plastic and bare ugliness, punctuated by gaudy bits of colour: the red-faded-pink upholstery on the visitor’s chair, the obligatory, generic landscape print on the wall, the screen written and rewritten over with the green and the yellow lines and (watch this most closely) the pulsing red line, measuring life, as if it were so straightforward.

I thought we walked into the wrong room. I thought my father had made a mistake, and walked into the room of a stranger, a frail, sea-grey old woman. I saw her only a month ago, a little more frail, but still strong, still warm and living. Not like this. My brain lurched and reformatted, and as I looked closer I began to see the things I knew well, the features I’ve loved since I was a baby. Same face, but different skin–how translucent and pale!; same eyes, almost, but a little more milky; same lips, but thin and fading–had I ever seen her without lipstick before?

She was sleeping, so we waited. My mind didn’t play over the past, but peered into the future: into the long, grey days of waiting. Weeks? Months? Only days? Her memory is failing her more often than not, and now her own body has turned against her. When she eats or drinks, her esophagus closes, her lungs fill, and she will asphyxiate. Not today, but someday. It is certain, as certain as doctors ever will ever allow.

I remember the time I thought I was drowning and couldn’t breathe. I remember the way the water filled my ears and mouth and nose, and I sucked in death in reflexive panic.

Please, please, let her die without terror.

She woke up, and looked at us, recognizing her son and her granddaughter. I forced my thoughts to the present and smiled at her.

“I had a dream,” she whispered, “but it was a good dream, not another nightmare.” She won’t tell us what it was.

I took her hand and squeezed it, and cursed my inability to speak from my soul, instead making small talk with variations on the same set of declaratives we always resort to when words aren’t enough: it happened so suddenly; it was so unexpected; you’re getting better, though.

Get well soon. Get well soon. Get well soon.

The cliche becomes a mantra we repeat, hoping it will come true.

I sat for hours, watching her sleep, watching the lines on the monitor drawn and erased and drawn again, making small talk when she woke up, and plying her with water, with warmth, with comfort–all were refused.

We talked about the jobs she had when my father and his brother and sister were growing up. We talked about the houses they lived in and the struggles they had. My grandfather was a teacher, and he wasn’t paid much, but, Grandma said with a sigh, it was what he wanted so we had to make do. She worked as a secretary to accountants, she said she made a good wage, but then amended that to add “for a woman”. Her young adult life was spent in that strange time of upheaval when women were expected to be doting mothers, domestic mules, and hold down a job that paid them a fraction of what male colleagues were paid. But she made it work, somehow, and held together her family and her marriage until her youngest son was in college.

We talked about the horse she had as a child, a mare named Lady. She told me stories about the time she tried to teach her usually sweet and willing mare to jump, and how Lady had objected and, planting her feet, had sent her rider tumbling over her ears. She lived in poverty on a ranch in Oregon, an orphan by age eleven, raised by her uncle and grandmother in the throes of the Great Depression. She told me that the tiny house they lived in was actually a cleaned-out chicken coop, but she didn’t know that until she was an adult. She said that everyone worked, even the children, to try and keep the ranch going. Even her little mare Lady had to do the work of a draft horse.

They had to save and reuse and make do with everything, and oh, how she saved. Their house, that my father and aunt are trying to get ready to sell, is filled to bursting with things spanning decades–centuries, even–and just when it seems the end is in sight, the shop out back is discovered to have a loft packed with boxes of memories: my step-grandfathers blues and whites from his career in the Navy, my father’s Boy Scout badges and high school year books and scholastic awards, books of poetry now over a century old that my great-grandmother gave my great-grandfather, a three-strand pearl necklace that belonged to my great-great-great-great-grandmother, and every card and letter ever received for Birthdays or Christmas or Thank-Yous.

My (step-)grandfather comes in, and so does a Social Worker and they talk practicalities with my father. Grandma is sleeping again, but she wakes up every now and again and I wonder how much she hears and understands as a committee (however benevolent) discusses her
life and death as if she were a very sick pet. The plan says, “Do Not Resuscitate”–she doesn’t want to linger, artificially kept alive while her brain and body decay. My Grandpa agrees to this, but we all know the moment she stops breathing, he’ll call 911 and we’ll repeat the same process, ad infinitum, until finally the machines aren’t enough to play God anymore. I don’t say it, but I want her to stay, I want more time to hear the stories I should have been asking for my whole life. I want more time to hold her hand and kiss her cheek and call her Grandma, and hear her call me “Miss Megan”. But she is tired, and I am selfish to ask.

When I finally leave (long after my father and grandfather had to go), I tell her I love her, and she says it back in a voice that is barely more than a murmur. I walk out of the room and down the hall, and I can’t bring myself to look back. I hope she is sleeping, and I hope someone is there when she wakes.