On loving, losing, and then loving again

When I was a freshman and sophomore in college, I was a youth group leader at our church. Jill, one of my “kids,” had lost her mother to cancer when she was nine, and like other women at church, I felt drawn to take Jill under my wing. Her boyfriend Mike was also dear to me.

For my junior and senior years, I transferred to a four-year college about an hour away. On the way to Seattle, with my car packed full of dorm-life necessities, I stopped at the cemetery, knelt beside the grave of Jill’s mother, and prayed, “God, I can’t take care of Jill anymore. Take care of her for me.”

But in January of my senior year, Mike and Jill were both hit by a drunk driver and killed. Mike was 17 and Jill was 16. I never felt such raw grief before or since. But beyond the grief of losing two people I loved at the same time, beyond the feeling of wrongness when young people die, there was a sense of betrayal. I had asked God to take care of Jill, and now she was dead. My faith shattered.

The fact that everyday life continued around me felt like sacrilege. How could people go on about their business when my world had changed so profoundly? Nothing would ever be the same. The world, populated by billions of people, felt empty now that Mike and Jill were no longer among them.

But there was a time when I didn’t know Mike and Jill. The world didn’t seem empty then.

I didn’t consider that until two years ago. We moved to an intentional community and, shortly thereafter, a single mom moved there with her son, who was three-and-a-half at the time. Cooper and I fell in love with each other. His mom raised him alone 24/7, and I was happy to care for him when she needed to be elsewhere. But often, he would just show up, enjoying the free-range childhood that an intentional community on an island can provide.

About a year ago, Cooper’s mother decided, after a great deal of agonizing, to move two hours away to live with her boyfriend. Understandably, the dream of having a traditional nuclear family eventually outweighed the support she received from our intentional community.

I wept many times in anticipation of Cooper’s departure. How had I ever been content to live in a world without him? But I held him with open hands, believing in Richard Bach’s quote, “If you love something, set it free; if it comes back, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.”

Cooper and I get to see each other every month or two, now. Because of the distance between us, and how rapidly children grow, we have had to fall in love with each other over and over again. In spite of the fact that I’ve set him free many times, he keeps coming back.

I’ve lost a great many people, but I have also been surprised by joy. And as risky as it seems, it inspires me to open my heart again and again.

Bad boys

max_und_moritz

On Saturday night, I spent time with my reciprocally adopted five-year-old grandson Cooper. It was getting late, and I couldn’t find Charlotte’s Web, so I grabbed a German children’s book.

We snuggled on the couch, and I opened to the first page. Suddenly, I realized that I was about to expose this innocent child–who got so scared by Finding Dory that we had to leave the movie theater–to unimagined levels if mischief that do not end well.

“Cooper,” I said, trying to prepare him. “This book is about bad boys. Very bad boys.” At this, Cooper hopped off the couch, walked over to the Amazon Echo on the kitchen table, and said, “Alexa, play bad boys.” And Alexa did!

Theme song established, I began translating Max und Moritz for Cooper.

“Max and Moritz tied strings into an X, then tied delicious morsels to the end of the strings and left them out for the Widow Bolte’s chickens to find and eat. When they did, it tied the chickens to each other like a string of fish, and in their panic, they wrapped themselves around the branch of a tree. The hens laid one last egg, and then they all died.” 1-10

“The Widow Bolte cried when she found her chickens dead, but decided to roast and eat them. Max and Moritz smelled the chicken roasting, climbed up on the her roof with fishing poles, caught the chickens with hooks, pulled them up, and ate them.”

2-05

“The Widow Bolte blamed her dog, Spitz.”

2-09

“Next, Max and Moritz nearly sawed through a bridge, then taunted Taylor Böck from the other side. He came after them, the bridge broke, and Taylor Böck plunged into the water.”

3-06

“After that, Max and Moritz put gunpowder in Teacher Lämpel’s pipe.”

4-03

“The pipe exploded the next time he lit it.”

4-09

“Then, Max and Moritz put bugs in Uncle Fritz’s bed.”

5-13

“The boys broke into a bakery, fell into a bin of flour, fell into a vat of dough, and the baker kneaded them up and baked them. Somehow they survived being baked, chewed themselves out, and escaped.”

6-15

“After that, Max and Moritz cut Farmer Mecke’s sacks of corn, which made the grain run out. But Farmer Mecke caught Max and Moritz, put them in a sack, took them to the miller, and asked him to grind them up. The miller did.”

7-09

“And his geese ate up what was left of Max and Moritz.”

7-12

The end.

There was a moment of silence. I thought perhaps I’d traumatized Cooper. This was like no children’s book anyone has ever read to him.

“Again! Again!” he said excitedly, hopped off the couch, told Alexa to play Bad Boys, and snuggled in for a second round.


Max und Moritz was written by Wilhelm Busch and published in 1865. It has been read to generations of German children (including myself), who did not resort to lives of crime.

Go figure.

Grandpa’s role in history

Danny, my grandma, died in August–a few days after her 94th birthday. My grandfather died decades ago, but it wasn’t until Danny died that my uncles began sorting through the belongings they’d amassed over the years. That was when Dick discovered that Grandpa, an Army chaplain, had accompanied some of the defendants who were sentenced to death for war crimes at the Nüremberg trials to the gallows.

Grandpa with boxer

Grandpa in his “uniform” of engineer overalls and cap. He and Danny always had a boxer. Always.

Wait. What? The guy who looked like a train engineer because he always wore blue-and-white striped overalls and a matching cap? The guy who always had a toothpick in his mouth, looked a lot like his boxer, and could be counted on to have Coffee Nips on hand? That guy?

In addition to evidence of the role that Grandpa played at the Nüremberg trials, Dick found a hand-drawn map of the concentration camp in Dachau with Grandpa’s writing on it. We know Grandpa was at Dachau after it was liberated, but we’re not sure when.

Honestly, I don’t remember my grandfather as a kind man. Though he was a “man of God,” religion seemed to be largely an intellectual exercise for him—not something he put into practice in his daily life. He originally wanted to become a doctor, but World War II put an end to that, so he became a chaplain instead. I did not know him to be a spiritual man. He often insulted and demeaned Danny and my father, which made him hard to trust and still harder to like.

Retired Lieutenant Colonel Gary W. Roush, Sr.

What’s interesting to me is that, in spite of his Nüremberg and Dachau experiences—which might’ve led most Americans to draw unfavorable conclusions about the German people—it was Grandpa who met my mother, a German citizen, and insisted on introducing her to his son.

My German grandparents were Methodist descendants of Huguenots who were convinced Hitler was the Antichrist. At the end of the war, when Hitler was running out of men of draftable age, my Opa (grandfather) was drafted in his 40s and served as a cook in the Navy. My uncle was drafted into the SS at 17, but Oma (my grandmother) worked diligently to change that and succeeded. He became a Gebirgsjäger (mountain infantryman) instead, and both my Opa and uncle survived the war without seeing combat. Onkel Walter became a Methodist minister and met Grandpa, a Methodist Army chaplain, which led to the introduction of Mom and Dad. Which led to me.

Danny, Grandpa, and Onkel Walter with my uncle  Bill

Danny, Grandpa, and Onkel Walter with my uncle Bill on Mom and Dad’s wedding day

I owe my existence to Grandpa. Somehow, what I learned about his involvement at Nüremberg and Dachau helped me see him in a different light. He didn’t judge Germans by the worst he’d seen of them. He saw what author and historian Robert Abzug says was “the trappedness of good people in the machinations of history at its most evil.” He saw the good in my mom, wanted that for his son, and it didn’t take long for Dad to realize he was right. I have rarely seen a man love a woman the way my dad loved my mom.

When I look at the following picture of Mom and Dad, whose people had been enemies little more than a decade before they met, I think of the song, “Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.” I never viewed Grandpa as spiritual. But he held a practical vision of peace that enabled him to welcome a German woman into his American family. Peace began with him. And it led to me.

Mom and Dad on their wedding day

Irmgard and Gary Roush, Jr. on their wedding day

Soul mates, courage, and happiness

The “Happy” image from the Mixed Emotions card deck (c) 2012 Kris Wiltse

If I were blind, how would you explain “yellow” to me? “It looks like the sun feels on your skin,” perhaps. Or, “It looks like lemonade tastes.”

Until about a year ago, the term “soulmate” was just as inexplicable to me as “yellow” is to a blind person. Nothing you could’ve said would’ve helped me understand what it means–until I met Eddie and discovered the exquisite agony of finding my soulmate. Exquisite because I have never felt compatibility or unconditional love like this before. Agony because Eddie and I could not be together.

The best definition of “intuition” I’ve ever heard is: knowing without knowing how you know. I have only a nodding acquaintance with the concept of reincarnation, but when I met Eddie, I knew that our paths had crossed in many lifetimes. I also knew that we’d seldom been together. There were lifetimes in which I wasn’t allowed to choose my own mate. Lifetimes in which he was poor, I was a nun, he was a Jew, I was a slave, he was married, or we were both the same sex.

Though there were obstacles to overcome, we realized that in this lifetime, we could finally choose to be together. There was a price to pay, though. It would take courage to be happy. Eddie would have to unplug the life support of a marriage that had flat-lined years ago. He’d have to hurt people he loved and grieve the loss of what had been while simultaneously acknowledging and celebrating what could be.

The “Hopeless” image from the Mixed Emotions card deck (c) 2012 Kris Wiltse

It was as if Eddie had been in a ship that sunk so slowly, he didn’t realize he was underwater. Then, on realizing where he was, he swam toward the surface so quickly that his body could not accommodate his rapid ascent. He got “the bends” as his body caught up with his soul and the emotional work of processing endings and beginnings sometimes left him physically exhausted and ill.

Meanwhile, my heart and head were at war. I had never known or been known the way Eddie and I knew each other. I had never felt more safe. There were so many words we didn’t have to say, so much explaining we didn’t have to do because we were One. When I was with Eddie, I felt a sense of rightness that never wavered. But when we were apart, my head kicked in. The ghosts of failed relationships haunted me. I lived in fear of judgment. Eddie wasn’t a logical choice for a number of reasons, including financial ones, and it would take blind faith to keep putting one foot in front of the other and see where a life together would take us.

The “Loving” image from the Mixed Emotions card deck (c) 2012 Kris Wiltse

There’s a saying that I’ve lived by: leap and the net will appear. Eddie and I screwed up our courage and leapt. Life has been real, gritty, and often hard. But now, we are experiencing the enormous privilege of living it together–held safely in the net of unconditional love.

Recovering from emotional bankruptcy

Grief, by Kris Wiltse, for the Mixed Emotions card deck

Last Tuesday, while my son was at his father’s over spring break, I broke down. I came home from work, crawled into bed and cried, fell asleep, woke up, and then cried some more. My eyeballs felt like unhusked chestnuts from weeping, and I felt utterly depleted emotionally. It was a good thing it happened while my son was gone, because if he’d been home, I would’ve made it about him, somehow.

The problem? Maybe it’s the hormonal train wreck of my son’s adolescence and my menopause. Maybe it’s matters of the heart. Maybe it’s because I not only parent my son alone, but have started Whidbey CareNet, a nonprofit organization that provides free care for a hundred or more emergency responders on Whidbey Island. Maybe it’s because I have a 30+ hour-a-week day job, as well as two businesses (the Writer’s Refuge and Heron Lake Press) in addition to the nonprofit. Maybe it’s the fact that in providing care for a lot of people, I completely neglected to care for myself.

In any case, I had a week to pull myself together. Fortunately, several Whidbey CareNet providers have “grandmothered” me in and extend free care to me, even though I’m not an emergency responder. I received free craniosacral therapy and counseling, then went to a naturopath, who gave me a vitamin IV and prescribed supplements as well as dietary changes. I also spent time with three friends who make me feel nourished, one of whom offered me some CDs about the law of attraction.

I’ve been bah-humbugging the law of attraction since going through one of the most painful periods in my life several years ago, but I love my friend, so I took the CDs she offered. As I began to listen to them, I was reminded that when we feel good, it’s easier for good things to find their way to us. I had completely forgotten this, and made feeling good a higher priority.

When I awoke the next morning, I could barely walk. It was incredibly painful to put weight on my left ankle, even though I hadn’t injured it. An EMT friend checked it out, but it wasn’t a break or sprain. It felt like someone had taken the bones of my foot out, shaken them up in a paper bag, and then done a bad job of reassembling them.

I committed myself to feeling good that day anyway. We headed to the home of friends for Easter–friends I enjoy spending time with, and whose family I feel privileged to be part of. They lent me a pair of crutches to make it easier get around.

Then my son and I went to see a movie at our small-town theater, which is one of our favorite things to do together. When we purchased our tickets, we were told to hold on to the ticket stubs, because there was going to be a drawing for six dark chocolate truffles made by a local chocolatier. I knew those truffles would be mine, and I was right. They were a cosmic wink that let me know the law of attraction was working.

When I went home, I looked up “ankle” in Louise Hay’s Heal Your Body and learned that “Ankles represent the ability to receive pleasure.” Surprised? I wasn’t.

The next morning, I woke up in no pain whatsoever and was able to take a two-mile walk with a friend that afternoon.

Point made. Point taken. Thank you, Universe.

Judgment day

When I was in the fourth grade, my younger brother, sister, and I responded to an altar call at the Bible Baptist church in Rantoul, Illinois.

Now, it wasn’t like we weren’t Christians before. Mom had been raised a Methodist in Germany, and opting out of the state church to join a different one meant something. It meant you were conscious about your faith. Mom’s ancestors were Huguenots, who were driven out of France for being protestant, so consciousness around faith went back for generations.

cross in handWhy wasn’t that good enough? Because the salvation part was missing. So Mom took it up a notch, accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior, and encouraged us to do the same. Dad politely declined. (Actually, he threatened to start smoking again if Mom was baptized, but she did it anyway, and he never followed through on his threat.)

Salvation brought division into our family. The pressure on Dad to convert was unrelenting. We were right, he was wrong. We were saved, he was a sinner. Everything was black and white.

Eventually, I became a Sunday school teacher, youth group leader, Christian camp counselor, and a resident advisor in a dorm at a Christian college. The black-and-whiteness of my world made me feel safe, and Christianity brought order to my universe. But one day, I said to myself, “This is too easy. I can fit the God I believe in into a shoebox.”

I went out to my Grandpa’s pasture and prayed, “God, show me how big you are.” And then all hell broke loose. Mike and Jill, two of my youth group kids, died in the same car accident, and my faith shattered.

I continued to live by Christian principles, not knowing anything else, but eventually, after spending a year in Germany, I fell in love with a German man and we decided to move in together. Now, in Germany, this was no big deal—not even for Mom’s brother, a Methodist minister. But we decided to set up housekeeping in the U.S., and it definitely was a Big Deal for my family. For the first time, I felt the sting of Christian judgment.

Any kind of fundamentalism is based on a we’re-right-they’re-wrong sort of belief system, and judgment is its lifeblood. In the religious tradition in which I was raised, swearing was wrong. Consuming alcohol was wrong. Smoking was wrong. Secular music was wrong. Premarital sex was wrong (but so was masturbation). At the Christian college I went to, even dancing was wrong because it was a “vertical expression of a horizontal idea.” Thinking outside the fundamentalistic box was wrong. I could go on and on.

When it came time for Reiner and me to move to our new place, no one in my family helped—as they’d always done when I moved before—because helping would imply support for our decision to live in sin. Perhaps, by shunning me, my family hoped to encourage me to return to the fold, but it had the opposite effect. My family’s judgment hurt so deeply that I could no longer bring myself to judge others, and my Christian faith came to an official end.

Walt Whitman said, “Be curious, not judgmental,” and I’ve tried to live by that since. I fail daily. But I often succeed, and my world is much richer now that I love people who are different from me. Now that I respect and defend their right to be different. Now that I’ve given up any attempt to evangelize them into my way of thinking.

I would love it if my mother respected my beliefs. The little girl in me yearns to be loved for who I am, not condemned for who I am not. But, I’m not going to spend a single second judging or trying to unravel her belief system in an attempt to make her love me as I long to be loved. Her faith nourishes and sustains her, helps her make sense of the world around her, and gives her a group of like-minded people to belong to. It makes her happy.

In the end, I respect the differences in others because it makes me happy. I like who I am when I’m not judging others. Love just feels better.

The Lighthouse

Men in boats about to capsize,
look to my light with longing.
Envy my firm footing.
Do not know whether they should hold on to
their wrecked ships or
swim to shore.

They assume I’ve always been here,
safe and dry.
They do not know about the storm so violent
that I could not distinguish the sea from the sky.
About the night I released my hold,
grabbed my baby, and swam
toward hope.

© 2011 Petra Martin