There is a small city in east Texas nestled within rolling pastures and boasting a population of just over 600 people.  Seriously, as you drive into town the sign says “Population 612.”  And I thought I grew up in a small town.  John Cougar Mellencamp has nothing on this place!

I’ve been to Cushing twice now.  First, in 2008 to see my dad’s new hometown and meet his wife whom he had recently married, and then three weeks ago (July 2014) to see my dad for the last time.  His cancer had returned and his health had taken a dramatic turn for the worse earlier this year.  He had been telling us not to worry because he would be out to NC for my niece’s wedding in September.  They had bought his airline ticket and a dandy new suit complete with Texas cuff links and tie.  Meanwhile he told one of his close friends that he didn’t think he would live through the following week.  He was correct.  He died in the early hours of July 15th.

My siblings and I all spoke with him on the phone the night of the 13th, and we left town on the 14th to go and see him as we knew his time was short.  The 16 hour drive proved too long and just before we crossed the Mississippi, he crossed the Jordan.  My sister Laura and her family were a few hours ahead of the rest of us and arrived at his house approximately 40 minutes after he passed away.  Dad never did like to wait on us.  As we’ve reflected on it we all seem to agree that he really didn’t want us to see him in such a state.

When we received the news of his passing, my brother, two of my three sisters, one of my two nieces and my two oldest boys (9 & 10) stopped along the highway just inside the Louisiana State line.  We wept together, hugged, and then caught our collective breath and traveled on to Texas to say goodbye in whole different way.  The whole drive out there was an incredibly rich time with my family; we laughed, we wept, we prayed, we talked and we sat in silence…together.  Later my wife and my sister-in-law would fly in to join us.  

We pulled into Nacogdoches around 5:00 A.M. on Tuesday the 15th and slept in our hotel for a few short hours.  Around 8 or 9 I took my sons to the lobby for their not-so-nutritious-but-free breakfast.  The boys ate their waffles that had come out of a waffle maker in the shape of Texas and I drank my coffee while checking my Facebook news feed.  Then the tears started to come.  It seems odd thing to me that of all things Facebook would be the cathartic straw on the camels back, but when you come from a line of emotionally constipated males you take whatever works.  As I read through the comments and posts about dad, the prayers of loved ones and the condolences of friends it hit me… he’s gone.  No amount of mental preparation can stand in the wake of tears born from the depths of this kind of grief.

As the tears rolled my phone rang.  Technology and grief – there is a fascinating relationship worthy of exploration.  My dad’s wife Vicki was calling me from their home phone which, thanks to my Samsung, had a picture of my dad’s Facebook profile pic.  When I saw it… whatever early-morning peace was being had by the other travelers in the hotel lobby was evaporated by my now uncontrollable lament.  It wasn’t just crying.  It physically hurt.  This grief was more visceral and intense than any I’d ever experienced in my life, and my boys were watching.

Then came the 30 minute drive out to Cushing along TX route 21.  Mark, my brother, was driving as we winded through the lush and hilly countryside  towards Cushing to help make arrangements for the funeral.  My brother has always been the biggest fan of U2 I’ve ever known, and as he played their song “Sometimes You Can’t Make it on Your Own” the grief hit me again.  This time with more force than before.  Something about the scenery, the music, and the thought of my dad driving his Harley through the countryside was simultaneously beautiful and desperate.  There seemed to be a deeper level of sadness that resulted from being with my family.   A kind of reciprocal  grief that, on the one hand was excruciating as I watched the sorrow of my loved ones (especially my boys), but somehow comforting and altogether good on the other.  I really don’t know what to call this odd mixture of shared grief and gratitude… perhaps this is “love bearing all things.”

Cushing was my dad’s home.  It is a small town filled with people who genuinely loved my dad in the last years of his life.  During the viewing and the funeral there were stories upon stories of people who knew my dad and had become close friends with him during his 7 years there.  Towards the end of the funeral service people walked through to pay their last respects.  I was struck by the teenage boys, the elderly couples, the middle-aged moms… all of them in tears.  Tears for their friend who had lost her husband, and tears for their own loss of a friend.  Part of the story here that I won’t go into full detail on is that before my dad moved to Texas he had all but totally isolated himself from friends and even some of his own family.  That he was able to find friendship, love and embrace in a small but hospitable place like Cushing is a strangely remarkable picture of redemption.  

There is so much more to tell.  To say it has been difficult to finally sit and write this post would be a gross understatement.  While I’ve written and spoke on the themes of hope and fear, or death and loss, nothing has brought me to the crucible of grief like the death of my dad.  Paradoxically, nothing has given more depth to the hope of the resurrection.  Death is not “natural” nor is it final.  Does the idea of hope even make any sense apart from grief?  That will have to be another post, but in the meantime  my family and I “do not grieve without hope.”

One of the messages I received the day after dad passed was from a good friend who had suffered the loss of her dad at a young age.   One of the things she said was “No two ways about it. No matter how much you tell yourself that  ‘he’s not in pain anymore’ or that ‘he’s in a better place,’ it hurts like hell.”  I could not have said it better myself.  And that is the point… I didn’t have to.  My friends and especially my family have grieved this loss together, and we’ll continue together.  Thank you to all of my friends for your text messages, phone calls, Facebook posts etc.  Your reaching out has helped and your invitation to be present to our pain is very much appreciated.    May my heart become a more generous place for going through these valleys of grief… and may God bless the generous people in the small town of Cushing.  Thank you for loving my dad so well.  10553634_10153051259956632_2717171370709773303_n

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Not that they don’t have their place or that I never use them, but I’d much rather run outside.  In the elements.  Preferably through the woods.  Treadmills keep you from doing what you are telling your body to do… run that way.  It’s even worse if you go to a big box gym and have to look at mirrors while your run.  The hum of a thousand treadmills and the smells of a thousand runners under one roof.  There’s inspiration!

No.  I think I’d rather find a trail or even a track or a road.  For me there is a sense of freedom and joy to be off the not-going-anywhere-machines and enjoying a go-anywhere run.  Even running around in circles on a track is preferable to the treadmill.  But we all do it.  Right?  We all get on treadmills of some sort and continue to pound out the miles never really getting anywhere.  That is until something comes along and disrupts our routines of living – or coping if you prefer.  It is most often the frightful and many times painful experiences that cause the disruption.  Relationships fail, jobs end, lives come to an abrupt halt.  Then a haunting awareness seeps into our otherwise foggy consciousness and asks us a simple yet profound question: “what are you doing with the time you’ve been given?”  Or in other words, “why are you on this treadmill to begin with?!”

However, it could be an otherwise joyous occasion creating the same effect.  The birth of a child, a new job, a new relationship… Albert Schweitzer said that “In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out (treadmill). It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being.  We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”  It is in connections with “the other” that our lives are revealed for what they are and sometimes that revealing is not entirely pleasant.  Intimacy scares me.  I want to be known but I still want to control.  How’s that for an oxymoron?

“So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom”

It’s never an easy thing to tell somebody they’ve lost a loved-one but in this broken place it is necessary.  Last night (9/3/11) I received a text message from an old friend that simply read “hey man if u can call me asap.”  Since I hadn’t talked to this guy in probably 15 years or more I thought it prudent to call right away.  He relayed his remorse for having to be the bearer of bad news.  My best friend from childhood and adopted (not formally) brother had just been killed in a car wreck.

Adam Suits (6/1/74 – 9/3/11) is survived by a son, daughter, father, mother, sister and friends.

I make no apologies in that this post is certainly therapeutic as I wrestle with my own feelings and lack thereof.  Not unlike a lot of people I tend to have a delayed emotional response to such losses.  I’m sure that it will take me quite some time to unpack all the emotions and memories I have but I hope this helps.  For those of you that knew Adam I pray that my processing here will help you as you mourn your loss.

From soccer to camping to random acts of insane vandalism, we were inseparable as kids.  Actually that’s not entirely true.  Our parents DID separate us after an incident that provoked a visit from the local Sheriff followed by the FBI (who knew that blowing up mailboxes was a federal offense?!).  I don’t really recall exactly when Adam moved to Greesnboro but we were still very young and since we got to hang out every other weekend and all summer long it didn’t really bother us too much.  We were still able to get in plenty of trouble.

One Christmas I had received a paintball gun from my parents and that night Adam and I wanted to test its accuracy and strength.  So being the genius kids that we were we came up with the bright idea to shoot one another in the back.  Not good!  We had whelps the size of apples but it was something we always looked back on and laughed.

We attended youth groups together at our church and went to summer camps that were very rich and meaningful.  The love of God in Jesus Christ pierced Adam’s young heart one summer and I sensed the change was real and heartfelt.  Yes he had his demons later in life but that doesn’t change what I saw and experienced.  I’m frustrated to a great degree over what may have been for Adam, but I’m also certain that his joy is now complete and his heart is whole.  A few years later Adam would come to live with us full-time and finish high school with me at Trinity Senior High.

Like most brothers do, we got into plenty of fights.  Some were nastier and more physical than others, but we always stuck up for each other.  The summer leading into our Senior year we had attended a party that wasn’t really our “crowd” so to speak.  There were some guys that didn’t really care for my presence (something about me dating one of their ex-girlfriends – mmm high school).  I was never even really in great danger but just the thought of it put Adam on edge and he mouthed off enough that he pretty much scared the other guys senseless before anything happened.  Those of you that knew him know that he was not the kind of guy you want to piss off.  He had this other level to which he could take his aggression and anger and it was palpable to pretty much everyone around… especially if you were the focus of said anger.  While this would be one of his greatest weaknesses in life it was also a means of defending his loved ones and reflected a fierce loyalty.

As people go, Adam was a twisted mixture of virtues such as that fierce loyalty and he also suffered from intense self-destructive tendencies.  He was a talented athlete.  But the same anger and aggression that the football coaches loved to see on the field was the same anger and aggression that caused him to be kicked off the team.

As conflicting reports have come out surrounding his death the few variables that are consistent are:  alcohol, speeding vehicle, and Adam.  Not a good combo.  When I heard that I actually blurted out to my older brother, “that selfish prick!”  In truth it was a selfish act and I’m angry at what that now means for those of us mourning the loss.  I’m mad that I had to tell my mom and my sisters and hear them weep.  In memorial services we tend to only hear the good or funny stories and neglect the whole person.  But we’re called to love the whole person as we are wholly loved in Christ.  You can’t love people in slices. Adam was a great sinner and was a deeply wounded person for whom Christ died.  Seems to me that we do the gospel a disservice by passing over the very things for which we all are in need of a Savior.  So we remember that we too are but dust and are called to faith in the one who overcame death for his own.

The last time I spoke with Adam was about three weeks ago.  He called me to wish me a happy birthday and rag me about being so old… something good brothers do for each other.

I love you and miss you dearly.