My Story: No. 2
Death: The Fall
It’s easy for me to find darkness. All I have to do is look at the news headlines, scroll through social media posts, or listen to the stories my more melancholy friends recount about their lives again and again. But there have been four times when the darkness found me; breaking into my life, ransacking my heart, and leaving me to sweep the mess under a rug.
The first time was actually before I was born. It was two days after Christmas Eve, 1962, when the Christmas tree in my father’s starter home was still standing, though bereft of gifts. My father’s wife, Frances, had her two infant daughters in hand when she opened the front door that morning. It was going to be a big day. She would drive her daughters to their grandparent's house, more than 4 hours away, and then head to the dental office where she was scheduled to have two wisdom teeth removed. She made it to the grandparents, then to the dentist, through check-in and through the two extractions; no problem. In post-op, she was looking forward to the future, telling the nurse about a shopping trip she’d planned with her mother-in-law once she was on her feet again. The nurse left for a few minutes to let her continue her recovery. But when she returned, Frances had died.
No autopsy was performed, leaving some to say that her death was the result of mistakes with anesthesia. Others say it was because of a new form of birth control Frances had been taking after having two daughters in quick succession. Both theories have some credence. The elderly dentist quickly retired. Scientific studies soon found that the high estrogen levels in the birth control pill caused blood to clot under certain conditions. Either way, the promise of that silent night, just three days earlier, was destroyed. My father was now a 20-something widower and my sisters, aged just 28 months and 15 months old, had lost their mother. The three of them moved into my father’s childhood home to try to pick up the pieces and start over again.
Darkness broke into my mother’s life when she was in her 20s as well. Her husband became verbally abusive and their young marriage ended in divorce. They sold their house and went their separate ways.
I wasn’t alive for either of these tragedies. But looking at them now, decades later, I see that darkness, like human disease, can be passed on from generation to generation.
More than twenty years ago, I was the solo pastor of a struggling church in urban L.A. One afternoon I met with a member of the congregation; let’s just call her Lyssa. Lyssa was upset about a change I had made to the church bulletin. Though I was fairly new to the position, I had already learned that such meetings were part of the job. As her pastor, I needed to draw her out and sincerely listen to her concern. But this meeting was going to teach me something I really didn’t understand at the time; the generational impact of darkness.
As soon as we were seated her entire demeanor transformed into rage. Her eyes, nose, and mouth contracted toward the center of her face as her white skin turned deep red and her mouth opened in an eruption of rapid-fire words and sputum shooting out at me. I managed to look over at two other leaders who were in the meeting with me. The expression on their faces told me that they hadn’t seen anything like this either.
When I shared this experience with an elder church member who knew Lyssa and her family, I learned that Lyssa’s mother had that same rage inside of her. Later, at a church picnic, I met Lyssa’s adult son. After realizing that I was the pastor of the church, he also transformed, unleashing a torrent of anger at me. To this day I haven’t learned what kind of darkness started all of this in that family’s life. But it was now very clear to me that wounds can be passed on from one generation to the next.
This lesson gave me a new way to think about the tragedies in my family’s life that had happened before my birth. Though we weren’t saddled with rage for three generations like Lyssa’s family, the wounds of Frances’ death and my mother’s divorce have had their own effect on my family beyond the generation that actually experienced it.
I will always be thankful that my parents had the courage to build a home together for my sisters and me; even after such personal encounters with darkness. A mutual friend of my widowed father and divorced mother suggested that they get together. They did and the rest, as they say, is history. The newly established Lovejoy family brought four deeply wounded lives together to try to heal and grow. On March 8, 1965, I was born. For the next eighteen years, they would provide a safe home from which I could venture into the wider world.
But then the darkness found me. My family moved to the United Kingdom during Easter break of my freshman year in high school. I say, “my family,” but neither of my sisters made the move. My oldest sister was already married and had the first of her three children. My younger sister was completing her college degree in Nacogdoches, Texas. That left my mother, my father, and me. By the time the three of us arrived in England, the freshman class at the American School in London had already formed the kind of cliques that are found in most high schools in the United States; the smokers, the druggies, the cool athlete partiers, the intellectual nerds, etc. I didn’t naturally fit into any one of them. For the first three months, I would go straight home after school, do my homework, and look for ways to pass the time. Mostly I ended up alone, listening to an album by J.Geil’s Band called “Love Stinks.” I can still sing along with most of the lyrics of that album.
Eventually, I was welcomed into one of the cliques, a group of people that really didn’t fit anywhere else. Some of us played sports but most of us didn’t. Some of us smoked, drank, and partied on occasion but that wasn’t what defined us. Despite our differences, we enjoyed hanging out together in different parts of London; an amazing city to live in, especially in high school. These relationships stayed strong until graduation, even after my parents began their slow and painful path to divorce.
It happened during my senior year in high school. The morning began as many others had in my family’s London flat. I woke up, got out of bed, and headed to the kitchen for a bowl of cereal. My plan was to eat, shower and dress before catching a red double-decker bus to the Finchley Road Tube Station, boarding the train to St. John’s Wood, and then walking to the school campus only a block away from Abbey Road.
But none of that happened. On my way to the kitchen, I saw that my father had spent the night on the couch. Immediately, a voice in my head told me that my parents were getting a divorce. But my heart couldn’t make sense of what my intuition had made clear. My father tried to explain it to me. He got up from the couch, sat me at the family dinner table, and slowly, earnestly explained what was happening. I couldn’t take it in. To this day I don’t remember what he said. I just remember that after the conversation he left our home. We never lived in the same house, together, again.
This was my first personal encounter with darkness. It locked me into a cycle of nausea that wouldn’t stop. I couldn’t go to school. I missed all of my classes running instead from my bed to the bathroom again and again. By late afternoon I couldn’t take it anymore. I was exhausted and had to take drastic measures. I didn’t simply hide my emotions under the rug. I shoved them into a concrete vault, sealed the door and added an impenetrable high-security alarm system. Then I flipped the switch and the darkness left me. The destruction left behind was locked away. My nausea ended. And the most deeply wounded part of my heart wasn’t working anymore.
My high school friendships kept me standing for the rest of my senior year. But after graduation, we all went to different colleges and Universities across the U.S. I felt quite alone at Trinity University in San Antonio. Out of all of my relationships in high school, only one remained.
It was a relationship that began in my sophomore year. I found the courage to ask a freshman girl out. Her short, sandy blond hair, cute nose and, as strange as it sounds, her cuspids standing out slightly from her incisors, caught my eye. I later found out that I was not the only one who had noticed her. I just barely beat out a friend of mine, a real “player,” who had planned to ask her out later that same day. She said “Yes” to me and that was a real point of pride. Our relationship developed and grew over the next three years of high school. And when I went to Texas she remained in London to complete her senior year. Though we were separated by distance, our connection stayed strong through regular phone calls. Or so I thought.
On a day like any other, I dialed her number from my freshman dorm room with anticipation. She answered the phone and her familiar voice reminded me that our relationship had persevered when all of my others had not. She always strengthened me to continue taking on the challenges of life.
But on this particular day, the intuition that had warned me about my parents’ impending breakup failed me completely. She told me that she had been going out with another guy in our school for months, even while we were having our regular calls together. They had gotten serious and she was now, today, in real time, breaking up with me. Then she hung up. It was the last time we ever spoke. I was left feeling blindsided and overwhelmed by that now-familiar feeling of the darkness breaking in. I fell to the floor. There was nothing left to hold me up.
I looked up at the cheap Cortega ceiling tile in my dorm room which had found new meaning as a metaphor for my life: dirty gray, textured with holes, nicks, and scratches. I closed my eyes.
I don’t know how long I was on the floor. But I remember opening my eyes again in a desperate search to find something I could hold onto. There was nothing but darkness. A sincere and childlike question emerged from my heart: “Is this what it feels like to die?”
Suddenly, another voice, ferocious and accusatory, batted my question aside. “When people die they have a family and friends gathered around them. Their tears confirm that your life mattered. But what have you got? You’re alone. There is no purpose, no meaning to your life. Everything has fallen down around you. Nothing is left except your regret; regret for what was and is no longer. Regret for dreams that will never be.” I was surprised to find that the raging voice was my own.
I ended that day corpse-like on the floor of my dorm room. The only hint of life was the tears that rolled down my cheek and fell on the floor. I managed to turn my head to look out the window. White clouds were moving across a deep blue sky. Life continued on.