Two Seconds From Forever

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Fire in the Sky

At first glance, I thought the light falling from the sky was some sort of optical illusion brought on by a combination of my in-flight meal laboriously digesting in my belly, and the double-shot of night-time cold medicine I’d gulped down just before the dinner. The sky outside my window suddenly transformed from the darkening purple of a typical mid-west twilight, to a beautiful albeit terrifying burnt orange. I watched the clouds at fifty thousand feet part like waves split by a speedboat, as an enormous fireball cut through the earth’s atmosphere, plummeting toward the ground far below my flight. For a moment, I was lost for the words to comprehend–let alone describe–what I was witnessing.

“The end of everything as we know it,” the stranger seated next to me muttered; his voice calm like a lazy stream.

“What do you mean,” I asked absently, watching the fireball streak through the low ceiling of storm-clouds. “What was that?”

“That, my friend, was World-War-Three begun. They actually pushed the button.”

My heart imploded. I stopped breathing, and my dinner lurched up my esophagus. “It can’t be. We’re America! No one attacks us! I’m not re–”

‘Not ready’ is what I wanted to say, but never spoke another word on that side of life’s veil. The flash was blinding, deafening and silent.

When The Stage Darkens

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We spend so much time chasing happiness. Have you ever stopped to think about how much effort you put into acquiring and maintaining happiness in a day? Some people shoe-shop. Some deer hunt. Others seek outside approval in  many different ways. At the end of the day, no one wants to face the night alone. Darkness has a way of reminding us of just how frail and fragile we truly are. At 3am, my new pair of Jordans can’t offer lasting happiness, unless they are propelling my body away from impending danger. And even then, that happiness in only temporary.

I think happiness is an emotional illusion. I learned a long time ago, reality can never measure up to the fantasies we conjure. I think that’s why we chase after happiness so hard. We love the idea of blissful euphoria 24/7, but we can never truly hold on to that. It’s just not reality. Real life is often too painful for happiness to remain constantly.

I don’t want this to be morbid. I’m actually going somewhere, so stick with me.

I think…and this is just my opinion…what we really search for is joy unspeakable. Joy is solid, like an iceberg. You see, the difference between happiness and joy is depth. Happiness is surfacecy (yes I just made that word up) temporary. It can hit instantly and last for a long time, or it can slowly build to a climax of short-lived proportions. But, in the end, happiness fades because it resides in the soul of man; that emotional room within us. Ahh, but joy. Joy lives deep within our hearts and resists the changing tides of life’s unpredictable waves. Even in the midst of pain and sorrow, joy can keep us sane.

A good friend just recently lost her mother. I know what she’s about to go through. The pain of loss begins as unbelief, until time draws it out. That unbelief soon becomes anger; the kind of anger that no new pair of shoes can never replace with happiness. But where happiness fails, joy strengthens and bridges.

I’ve heard it said that comedians are only happy when they are performing on stage, ripping the crowd. That happiness is a high like no other and, for that moment in time, the comedian is fully alive. But what happens when the stage darkens and the audience goes home? What happens when the comedian is left onstage in the dark without laughter ringing in his ears? Happiness can’t help him in the alone time. But joy reminds him that, even when the crowd leaves, the audience of one is still pleased and still loves him. Even in the darkness of a barren stage, the Lord’s joy grants comfort.


Dear T,

No one will ever replace our parents. I can’t honestly say that you will get over her passing. The truth is, you never will. Rather…you will learn to go on living your life without her in plain sight. But, she’ll always remain in your heart.

When I lost my Mom to cancer, I cursed God. Yet, he used that time in my life to draw me near to him. I really didn’t want to get to know him because I thought he was bad for me. But it turned out that the Lord wanted to plant joy in my heart. As I slowly began to yield, I found forgiveness for my wife, and I even learned to forgive myself for bad things I’d done in my pain.

My friend, I don’t know if you’re ready to hear this, but I hope you listen. Speak to God, T. Tell him what you’re feeling right now. Tell him about your hurt and pain. Tell him how sad you are over your Mom’s death. Tell him to *blank* off, if you need to! He already knows anyway. But telling him frees you to begin the healing process. And T, he will heal you, if you let him. The joy he has waiting on the other side of your pain will be enough to help you walk through any obstacles that lie waiting in your future. Know that you have family and friends who are praying for you and your family. Don’t settle for chasing after temporary happiness in this difficult time. I hope and pray that you seek after the Lord’s joy.

C.A.N.C.E.R.

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The world is imperfect. It is flawed. No matter how strong you think you are, no one hits as hard as the world. You can spend hours in the gym, strengthening your muscles for years, only to be floored by a debilitating disease within months of a diagnosis.

The world is unfair. It is cruel. Why do good people suffer while seemingly wicked folk prosper? Some days you can give everything you’ve got and still come up short and disappointed. Sometimes our best efforts just aren’t good enough to capture a respite in the never ending struggles of life.

My bible tells me that Adam and Eve ushered sin and death into the world with a single act of disobedience. For a long time, I struggled accepting that fact as an adequate excuse for God allowing cancer to claim the life of my mother. In truth, I didn’t want to hear a single word spoken about God, when she died. I blamed him. He was the cause of her suffering, and the author of my family’s pain.

You can’t really explain what its like to watch a loved one die an agonizing death to cancer. To say something superficial like, “It’s like watching them be eaten away, from the inside out,” just doesn’t bring it home for those who have never experienced it personally. You have to be there. You have to see the life literally drain from their eyes, a little more each day. You have to be there, during the Chemo-sessions, to know fire rages through their bones and there isn’t a damned thing you can do to stop it. You have to sit there next to them, holding a hollowed hand, as they struggle unconsciously grasping at the last raspy breaths of life, the day before the inevitable. Then you’ll know the secret rage at a God who would allow such sin to exist in the first place.

Ironically, cancer turned out to be the driving force that would force me to face God. I spit at him; called him names and ultimately asked that all important question. I asked the only question that really mattered.

“Why would you do this?”

When his answer consistently replied, “I love you,” man did I ever get pissed off! What kind of answer was that?! I needed to know! I deserved to know! My Dad, sister and brother needed an answer! ‘I love you’ was unacceptable! My rage intensified.

But…I realize now…that God is love. Sometimes we simply have to accept his decision not to tell us his reasoning, and trust that all things work out for good…even when we can’t understand why. Eventually, God broke through my pain. I can’t even begin to tell you how he took my rage and changed it into a love that I had never known before. I don’t have the secret formula. But, I know he took all of the anger and hurt I harbored inside, and replaced it with peace in understanding that he is in control.

Watching my Momma die was one of the toughest experiences I’ve had to endure. But in her death, God gave me a new life to live. I know somehow that …cancer and I will cross paths again. I can’t explain that to you. But…I know it. The next time we meet, I’ll have God in my life to help me deal with its presence. While I’m not looking forward to the inevitable reunion, I have faith that God will see me through it.

Loss

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The Lord awoke me at 4am, last Thursday. I didn’t have to pee, but I did have an eyelash poking at my eyeball, so I slowly made my way down the steps toward the bathroom. After a quick flush underneath the warm faucet tap water, I dried my face, stepped back into the hallway and glanced toward the dark living room. There I saw Pumpkin, our family tabby cat, sprawled out in a deep stretch; no different than the thousand times I’d seem him asleep in this pose before. In the past, he would hop up and lead the way toward the kitchen where his favorite treats were hidden in a low cupboard. I walked into the living room expecting him to pounce up. A tiny smirk lifted my right dimple at the old goofy furball. Just as I was about to speak, I flipped on the soft glow lamp, glanced down at my longtime pet and instantly knew.

Pumpkin had passed away in the night. His lifeless body lay there. His eyes were frozen open in an unfocused stare. His mouth was slightly ajar, as if suspended mid yawn. I was petrified. My heart lept into my throat. After what seemed like an eternity and an instant all at once, I nudged the back of his head with my foot, hoping to rouse him from some sort of weird sleep. But instead of his head bobbing, his whole body shifted across the carpet. Rigor mortis had already set his lifeless muscles. My heart sank. I dropped to my knees and rubbed a hand over the fur of his little head. His ears were cold. He was gone. My little furry son–whom I’d raised as part of my family; older than both Jordynn and Isaiah–had died.

Instead of breaking down, I prayed. My fingers wrapped around his little face. I bowed my head, and spoke.

“Lord, thank you for the 16 years of companionship you gave us with him. I’m grateful for the fun times. I’m grateful that he watched over Jordynn and Isaiah through the years. I don’t have a clue where the souls of pets rest, but if you could make an exception, please take care of my Pumpkin. I will praise you in the good and the bad times, Lord. This is a bad time. I’m gonna love you anyway. Goodbye buddy.”


 

Thursday afternoon was rough. My wife and I sat the kids down after school. I gingerly announced the news, then waited. Ten year old Isaiah, burst into laughter, thinking it was the best joke of all time…until his seventeen year old sister Dominque, broke down and sobbed. She was just shy of two years old, when I’d brought Pumpkin home as a kitten. Thirteen year old Jordynn paled. The youngest of our two daughters, she sat stoic on the couch, wringing her hands and desperately staving off tears. My baby had known Pumpkin her whole life. Twenty-three year old Tomas was the rock of the bunch. My son stood in the archway between the hallway and livingroom like a stone tower. Only his glum expression betrayed his heartache.

As I embraced Dominque and tried to comfort her, the air within the livingroom split with the worse sound imaginable. Little Isaiah’s world had just shattered. My youngest son wailed. He ran for his mother and curled into a ball, as she cradled him on the loveseat. I’ll never forget the sound of his cries. All I wanted to do was take away the pain. He was completely devastated…and I could do nothing to patch his world back together. Pumpkin had been his living stuffed animal. They’d shared food, against Isaiah’s wishes of course. They had fallen asleep together. They had played alongside each other. Isaiah’s life had immediately changed, and he knew things would never be the same again.

After some time, we gathered in a circle  and prayed for our beloved cat. We said our final goodbyes.  Isaiah cried long into the night. Then, there was the silence of mourning.


Tomas recently asked me why death hurts.

“Do you think we’re selfish because we want our loved one with us?” he asked. “Do you think we don’t really believe we’ll ever see them again?”

Friends, I’ll tell you what I told my son. My belief isn’t necessarily applicable to my deceased cat, but more-so to  loved ones in general. The bible tells us that every man is born with an inherited knowledge of God, deep within. I don’t care if you claim there is no God. Deep down within your spirit, you know God exists, because He put it in you. You may not recognize God, but that doesn’t make Him any less real.

Along with that, I believe that we all have a knowledge of death’s finale. When someone dies, we know we’ll never see them walking this earth, again. We can thank Adam and Eve for ushering death into the world, through sin. We feel it. We know it to be true. Why do you think people spend billions of dollars every year on creams, products, equipment and procedures in a futile attempt to retain youth? We fear death’s sting.

I think the pain of death hurts because, in our humanity, we will miss our loved ones, even if spiritually we hope their passing means no more pain for them. We don’t want to give them up. We don’t want to hear statements such as, “His time was up,” or “God called her home.” Although it is true that we all have an appointed time, deep down, we really don’t want to consider the implications of that painful truth. Some funerals are called, “Home Going Ceremonies” and toted as times of celebration at the passing of a loved one. None of us naturally celebrate the passing of our beloved. In the flesh, we want them around, because to be without them is painful…for us.

What if you knew, without a shadow of doubt, that when we died we would wake up in the perfection of heaven, and in the presence of Jesus Christ himself? You gotta get this, now: what if you knew this to be true? If your Mother were going to die of cancer today, leaving behind a horrible 6-month battle, would you still want her to stay here for your benefit or go where she would be at peace, without the troubles we still have to deal with here? That’s the struggle with humanity, I’m talking about.

I believe in heaven. I believe in God. I believe that when the faithful Christian dies, he (or she) will be present with the Lord at the appointed time. That’s being in the presence of perfection, folks! Who wouldn’t want that for their beloved? But, just as I believe in these truths, when my loved ones die, my humanity still cries foul.

Where death is concerned, I think we are a little selfish. And, I think that maybe some of us do question what happens after.  But, for those of us who believe in the words of Jesus, eventually, we find comfort in the passing of our loved ones. We live with a hope and an expectancy that they will meet us again.


 

We raised Pumpkin from infancy into adulthood. My kitty never had to fend for himself. He never fought an outside cat, since he was content to stay indoors his entire life. He never went hungry. He purred a lot. He played with us, and sometimes he bit us, when he needed an attitude adjustment. I will miss him meeting me at the door after work, not because he was happy to see me, but because he wanted  treats; bourgeois prissy boy. I will miss his affinity for the piano. I will miss his tenacity. If he wanted your food, he’d take it from you, if you didn’t fight him off first. I’ll miss watching him chase lasers, neckties and feathers. I will miss his weird sleep poses. I’ll miss his raspy meow. I will miss my furry boy.

Despite our loss, I accept the fact that his time among us was up. And I wouldn’t change a thing. Who knows the mind of God? Lord, I will praise you in the good and the bad times.

Wherever the spirit of my Pumpkin is now, I hope he’s happily romping through open fields of grass, with all the treats he could ever want.

 

 

Pumpkin “Spice” Smith

7/4/99 – 1/14/16

Beloved Family House Cat

When You Were Young

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The gift of youth comes equipped with all kinds of standard features: strength, desire, persistence, and tenacity. For some, it comes with a few premium options as well: passion to strive toward a goal, brave abandon, spontaneity, and the feeling of invincibility. When you are young, the world is your playground, and nothing seems impossible to accomplish. Friends are loyal and family will always be around to support you. Death is the furthest reality from your mind. Youth, by and large, harbors a heroic heart.

Cancer, however, does not respect youth. Cancer respects no one. It is indiscriminate and attacks all races, both genders, all social classes and every personality with the same hatred and disdain for human life that the devil possesses. Cancer is a bastard.  It can torture the young for decades or claim the elderly within months. It has no heart.

Laura Smith was the mother of three children. A devoted wife dedicated to her family, she worked hard for my entire life. Laura was a pillar of strength in my world. She encouraged me to go after my dreams, when I was lost, and she cheered for me, as my biggest fan when my talents began to rise to the surface. You see, my momma knew I was destined to become a writer, long before anyone ever saw it. And, although we had our differences from time to time, I never envisioned a time when I would go on without her.

Cancer had different plans. From the time of her diagnosis, I failed to grasp the gravity of what we – the family – were about to endure. While eight months may seem like a lifetime to impetuous youth, it turned out to be a mere blink of the eye, for the Smith family. Cancer ravaged her from the inside out, reducing my once strong mother into a helpless victim, seemingly overnight, before claiming her. You can’t understand the pain of watching a loved one die by cancer, unless you’ve personally experienced it. It changes you forever.

One of the hardest lessons cancer taught me was this: no one is invincible. Once you’ve accepted that cold hard fact, the light of youth begins to fade from your eyes. Reckless abandon becomes careful planning. Spontaneous glory seeking often times is shelved indefinitely. Goals change from absurd to practical.

Here’s a truth we won’t be told by doctors. Cancer doesn’t just kill the body. It also kills the spirit of loved ones, forcing them to rearrange life to accommodate the gaping hole left by its presence. Sure, life goes on. But, it drastically changes. Youth are forced to face mortality head on, in the wake of cancer’s very personal visit. The old are strong-armed into a life of remembrance, reflection and reasoning as they learn to live on without.

Right now, the family of Rickey Shipp understand exactly what I’m talking about. For them, cancer isn’t just the incurable disease that claimed another victim. For the wife left behind, and the three grown children learning to go on without daddy, cancer’s visit was very personal. 59years old is just too early to meet the Lord, in my opinion. It’s the age in which grandchildren are just learning to adore Papa. It’s the age in which husband and wife should be making plans to rekindle the flames of youthful love, now that the house has become a nest egg. It’s the age when Godly men nurture youthful Christian men, destined to become great, under his guidance. It’s the age to look up and be thankful for the hard times gone by, because you see the fruits of your labor in the personalities of your blessed children, who have grown into fine young men and women. The Shipp family will endure sleepless nights. Banner days won’t be celebrated as grand, without Rickey in attendance. The very meaning of life may even come into question.

How do I know all of this, without spending a day with the Shipp family? I know, because I’ve lived it. In some respects I still live it. My Momma won’t be here, to celebrate the release of my first book next year. She missed seeing her grandson sing hooks on key, for the Lord. She wasn’t alive when her daughter gave birth to a second son, or to see her youngest son become a father for the second time. We have a hole within our hearts than can never be filled by the same stuff it once housed.

But, God has a way of dulling the pain. He makes it tolerable, so that we might go on with our lives, in her honor. I live each day with the faith that my mother would be proud of the man I have become, and continue to grow into. I trust that God will comfort me in the days when I miss her fiercely. Most of all, I trust that the day will come, when I see her again through glorified eyes, because the Lord keeps his promises.

We are survivors of cancer: family left behind. While cancer’s unwelcomed attack may force us to consider death’s reality, I would say to all the survivors out there, fear not. We are never more alive, than when we face our own mortality. Once we see death for what it truly is, we strive longer, push harder, change quicker and move faster toward that which drives us. Beloved Shipp family, our loved ones may be gone from our physical presence, but their spirit lives on within us. The hurt and pain you feel will never truly die. Instead, use it to honor our loved ones by living your lives to the fullest! After all, this is what they would have wanted for us. Remember when you were young, and live your new lives the best way you know how.

On behalf of the Ennis Smith family, you have our condolences for your loss…