Saturday, January 4, 2014

23 years isn't long enough to get over it

So, I posted something on Facebook about the loss of my son in 1991 that took many people by surprise. No, I don't talk much about this because it is still painful and intensely private, but it's probably time I did. I also want to show anyone who reads this that there was a lesson in this.

It's late December, 1990. I had a bunch of well paying gigs that gave my wife, son and me a bit of extra money, and since we were pregnant with our second child, it looked like we would need a bigger place. Just before Christmas, we moved into a nicer and bigger house. And, the manager of band I had been playing a lot with, Marcie - who lived in Sacramento, California had also decided to visit us, and she brought a friend with her. We had a new house full of people, and my fairly pregnant wife and I were contented. Our first child, Ian, had been a textbook pregnancy. No issues at all, and a nice short labor, and everything seemed good and on track. Until New Years Day, 1991.

It began when my wife came out of the bathroom and said she was bleeding, badly. There had been no indication of problems- no warning, no pain. We still didn't understand the gravity, but Marcie and her friend grabbed Ian and took him "shopping" while my wife and I made a hasty trip to the emergency room. When we got there, we found out that she was in labor at only 26 weeks. And, worse, they couldn't stop it.

A lot happened in a very short time. It's all a blur to me to this day. Shortly after midnight, January 2, 1991, my son Stephen Michael Miller was born, terribly premature. He was born alive, crying as all newborns do, but he's so small......and the neo-natal ICU did all they could. We had Stephen with us only a few hours, and we spent that time praying and singing to him. He slipped away, quietly, first by stopping crying and then smaller and smaller breaths and movement until death finally overshadowed him and took him from us around 11AM.

If you have never experienced the death of a child, it's truly something to avoid. I can't even describe it as pain; it's other-worldly. There are no words to describe the helplessness and the overwhelming feeling of unfairness, innocence lost- the only word I can use is "numb". My wife, who is normally an extremely affable person, completely and totally shut down and became totally catatonic. She cried a little at first, but that turned to just sitting there silently, a blank stare in her eyes - and the mere memory of that look disturbs me to this very day.

Then came the worst part of it- explaining it over and over to our friends and family. The doctors had no explanation, but our friends did. "There was probably something wrong with the baby", "these things happen", and a host of metrics by people who's only hope was to tell us that they knew how we felt- but there was no way they could. I knew they all meant well, but every time these well-meaning people would offer something of a platitude, it made us angrier and angrier and more and more reluctant to interface with anyone. My wife was now somewhere else entirely and could not speak at all. Neither of us could sleep. We just walked around like robots while Marcie and her friend kept Ian busy. This went on for days and got progressively worse.

Then, I got a phone call that, to this day, is the single most incredible phone call I've ever had with anyone. I'm sure that Mark Pauley, the lead singer from my band, Fair Exchange, doesn't even remember making this call, but that call literally changed my life. I have to paraphrase it a bit, but here's the gist of it:

"Hello?" I said.

"Marc? It's Mark. Look- I'm not going to say anything. I just want to listen to you."


"I don't know what to say." I said, completely dead inside. I really had no desire to do this again.

Silence again.

Then it started. First as a small, hot pit in my stomach, then rising up my throat like bile. It hit the back of my throat, kept going up into my sinuses, past my eyes, through the top of my head, intensifying like a fire. I got warm all over, and the finality of what I'd been through in the last few hours poured over me, pushing me down like an ocean wave onto the sand. It was a physical thing that pushed me back into my chair, took my breath away and replaced it with a wail I didn't know I could ever make. This was overwhelming grief, and I literally felt like this force pushed me out of my body, stood me next to myself to watch what was happening.

I know I made no sense in the phone call. I just blathered, incoherently. The amount of grief was astonishing- it had no depth. It just kept coming. And the whole time, Mark said absolutely nothing. No "I know", "I'm sorry" - just total silence, except for an occasional breath from him. I ranted against God and swore terrible things at Him for a good 10-12 minutes non-stop. And, then he said the words that changed my life- and this is a quote:

"In Jesus name, amen. Marc, I'll be there in 30 minutes," and he hung up the phone.

What Mark had just done hit me like a bullet. He showed me, in a very real way that God wants to hear these things from us. I've read it in the Bible- Job and David crying out to God, but I'd never experienced it. Some might say that this was catharsis, but I'm telling you it wasn't. Mark showed up at my house as promised, and we talked- I honestly don't think I've ever had a conversation like that since.

The other thing that this conversation did to change my life was to show me that it is actually ok to be angry with God. And, I REALLY was. I actually told God in the days between Stephen's death and his funeral to go away and leave me alone. I called Him names. I questioned His love for me- I was convinced that what I knew as God's unerrant love for me was a lie, and I told Him that. I told Him I wasn't sure he existed. How could He take my child and my wife from me like that? Where is the "all things work for good for those who believe in Christ Jesus"? There was no good in this.

But here's the deal- even though I was madder than hell with God, I kept talking to Him. And, He did exactly what my friend Mark had done- He listened and didn't offer me platitudes. By the time of the funeral, my relationship with my God had undergone changes of several orders of magnitude. Up until this event, my relationship with God was "reliance when convenient" as is most people's relationship with Him; now it was something much, much more.

There actually is a happy ending to this story of sorts. I will write that later.