Wednesday, April 4, 2012

when my world started flipping

*this is the 4th in a series of posts, since i realized i had never really introduced myself. if you want to read from the beginning, start here. then this one and this one come next...*

i'll warn you in advance, this post is long and raw. you'll be getting a glimpse into my soul that even some of my closest friends and family members haven't, fair warning.

at 19, as newlyweds, you don't think life is getting ready to knock you around. well, a month into our marriage we felt the first blow when nathan started getting pains he couldn't really pinpoint. he missed a bunch of work, so needless to say when he ended up needing surgery to remove his gallbladder it wasn't covered by tyson insurance.

so we started out with instant medical debt.
debt isn't so unusual for newlyweds these days, but it definitely made us feel like we were getting a rude introduction to the "real world."

it wasn't much later that we were informed that we wouldn't be able to go up to st. louis after all--since we were 19 with no credit we needed a cosigner for the flight school financial plan, and ours backed out on us.

so, instead of planning a move we were looking at living in our "barnament" with me working as a cashier at wal-mart. nathan found work in eureka springs.

the second punch, but we rolled with it. we both enrolled in the local community college, figuring we could take classes the fall semester while we figured out how to make our plans work anyways.

nathan and i both turned 20 in august (i'm a day older than him). since there are a lot of summer birthdays on my dad's side of the family, we usually have one big summer celebration for everybody. that's what we did that year, 2004.
it was a great day. it was gorgeous, one of those ideal summer days in arkansas. we hung out all day, then that evening nathan and i decided to make a trip up to branson, mo, to catch a movie for our birthdays. we went to see alien vs. predator, a movie i've seen a couple of times since then but still couldn't tell you much about. we had a great night out, though, and got home probably around midnight.

when we topped the hill on our dirt road, i glanced over at pop and mom's house.

the yard was filled with cars.

my first thought was that everybody had stayed really late to play cards.
my second thought was that there were way more cars there than had been there when we left.

we pulled into the driveway and my heart started beating a little harder. that's when i realized something had happened, something bad.

my third thought was that one of my grandparents must have died, but that one didn't last long. even in a hometown as close as mine, people wouldn't have turned out en masse for that.

we got out of the car and i saw all our family and friends standing around, but nobody said anything.

pop came out of the crowd of people and started walking toward me.

that was all i said.

that was his answer, then i collapsed against him, sobbing while he held me and cried. my mom and sister joined us, but nathan stood apart a bit to give us that moment.

my brother was dead.

yeah--definitely the knockout punch being thrown that time.

michael was a tank commander, a second lieutenant in the united states army. he was in najaf, iraq, at the time, in a cemetery from what i've been told.
sometimes i'm struck by strange things, and the fact that he was killed in a cemetery was one of those things that has stuck with me.
an iraqi gunman managed, in the chaos of battle, to climb onto the tank (those are supposed to be invincible, right?) and fire into the open hatch.

michael was shot, along with another of his men. they were both killed.

the time after that is pretty hazy, and much of it runs together for me. that night, right after they told me what happened, i had to get away from the crowd for a bit. i've always been a private person, somebody who doesn't like to have my emotions all out there for everybody to see.

yeah, that's still you an idea of what a big leap of faith it was for me to start writing here.

that night i went for a walk out into the pasture. i eventually found a spot to sit on the side of a hill, staring into the darkness of the trees in front of me. i'm not sure how long i sat there, and i couldn't tell you what i thought about. i know i cried, and i know eventually my horse, red cloud, walked up to me and nuzzled my shoulder. i remember standing to bury my face in his neck and cry. eventually my tears dried and i was able to go back to the house.

i think it was the next morning that my parents got "the knock." i heard it, but i couldn't go into the front room where they were sitting. i sat at the bottom of the stairs in the other room where all i could hear were muted voices.

when we were finally able to go say our goodbyes, it took me quite a while to actually go into the room at the funeral home. it was almost as if there was a part of me that thought it wouldn't be true as long as i didn't see him.

that's still one of the hardest things i've ever done, walking in there.

i remember snippets of the funeral, but not very much. i do remember listening to the coats family sing "battle hymn of the republic" and leaning over to tell pop that they were playing a yankee song. that got a bit of an ironic laugh out of him,one of those ugly laughs that forces itself out through tears, the only one i can remember during that time.
       for all those people confused and/or slightly offended by me saying a "yankee song," michael was a civil war buff and had done reenactments as a confederate soldier when he was a teenager. i told you, i'm struck by strange things--that was one of those things.

at the graveside afterward, i remember the salute with the guns firing. i remember the flag being folded. then, i'm a bit blank until the very end when i knelt down beside the end of the casket and held on to the dog tag hanging from the handle. i almost cut it off and took it, but for some reason i didn't.

still wish i had.

so many people came to pop and mom's house to see us, to bring food (since in the south bringing food makes everything easier), to tell us how sorry they were.

to be completely honest, there were times that i wanted to scream! i wanted to tell everybody to just go away, to leave us alone with our grief.

there are things people say when somebody dies:
"he's in a better place"
"God just needed him with Him"
"God works in mysterious ways"
"Sometimes we don't understand God's plan"
"God works everything for good..."
when i heard those things, it got to be all i could do to keep myself from raring back and punching somebody. i'm by no means prone to physical violence, but i came pretty close then.

see, right then, i was mad.
it didn't matter to me that michael was in heaven, that he was home and happy.
what mattered to me was that he was gone.
i didn't care that God's plans were still in place.
i was mad that God hadn't saved my brother.
i was mad that a 23 year old with so much potential was dead.
really, i was just plain mad.

i didn't need people reminding me of God's goodness, i needed people to just sit down with me and say, "this sucks! it's not fair, and i'm sorry it happened."

so, instead of dealing with everything, i built a wall.
if i didn't let people in, i couldn't get hurt anymore, right?

for years after, there were times when i was doing the most mundane things and i would think about michael. the tears would start to fill my eyes and a lump would form in my throat, so i would tell myself, "i can't deal with this now. i'll think about it tomorrow."

very scarlett o'hara of me, don't you think?

i also remember being told many times that i needed to be strong for my parents. at the time, it seemed logical--michael had always been that one.
you know, the one to hold it all together no matter what was going on. with him gone i was the oldest kid, so that had to mean i was supposed to step into his shoes.

just in case you are ever put in a situation like this, please don't tell a 20 year old girl she needs to be strong when her big brother dies. i didn't need to be strong. i needed to grieve, to cry, to have my parents wrap their arms around me and take care of me.

i was still working at wal-mart, and i can't tell you how many people would come through my line and ask about my parents. usually i could give them the right answer: "it's really hard, but they're managing. it definitely helps to have such supportive friends and family. i'll tell them you asked about them."

sometimes, though, i wanted to ask: "what about me? why aren't you asking me how i am instead?"
     they were talking to me, but i felt invisible.
i'm not trying to take anything away from the grief my parents experienced. now that i have kids of my own, i can't even begin to imagine losing one of them.
what i am saying, though, is that it seems like siblings are often left out. it's unintentional, i know, but it happens. people seem to forget about the crazy, unexplainable relationship between a brother and sister.

my world was turned upside down that august. i watched my parents break down, something i had never seen before that. 
i saw people who had relied on God for everything, 
people i had always looked up to as examples of what a christian should be,
people who were everything to me,
    i watched them fall completely apart.

for a while, i didn't know if life would ever get back to anything remotely resembling normal.
nathan and i did start classes that fall. in fact, classes started the same week as the funeral. it was kind of nice, going to class, because although everybody had heard that a soldier with ties to the local community had been killed in iraq, most of them didn't know i was connected to him. for a few hours i got to get away from the sadness and pretend like my life was still normal.

i took calculus that semester, but i'm pretty sure i didn't learn it.

let me take a moment to say that i know this post is all over the place. part of that is due to the fact that i still can't think completely straight about that august. part of it is that i want you to really see me in this, and i know that if i plan out everything i want to say about this i won't be saying what i need to say.
if that makes any sense.

it took a while to learn it, but i think that one of the most important things i learned during all of this mess was that it is okay to be mad at God.
question Him.
yell at Him.
shake your fist and tell Him this sucks.

i know that may go against everything you've ever heard, but i really believe it.
because you know what?
the God i know, the One who got me through that time,
     He's a big God, and He can take it.
He can stand up to my questions, my anger.
He lets me pound my fists and kick and scream, then He puts His arms around me and just holds me. 
He says, "I know this is terrible. I'm sorry you are going through this. I heard his cries, and I hear yours."

this year, nathan and i celebrated our 8th anniversary.
this summer, it will have been 8 years since michael died.
there have been times when i've felt like my wedding day has become bittersweet, something i struggle with because it feels unfair to nathan to think of it that way.
 while it was a beautiful, extraordinary, amazing day, a day i will always think of as one of the happiest of my life, it was also the last day i saw my brother. he shipped out just after that, headed to iraq.

this is the last picture taken of the three of us together. instead of us all having gray hair and wrinkles, we were 14, 19, and 23.

looking at this picture right now breaks my heart a bit as i think ahead to sarah's wedding this summer and know that it will just be the two of us for those.

reading back over this post i am incredibly tempted to do a lot of editing.
if you know me, you know that's probably an understatement.
i've had to come back to this numerous times just to get it finished, though, and i know that if i start trying to make sense out of everything i've poured out here it may never get posted.

so, instead, i'll put this out there and i'll pray that you will see a heart that was broken and laid before you. more than that, though, i hope you'll see the God who was big enough to get me through this...and the punches that life has thrown since. that's a story for another day, though.


  1. The relationship of a brother and sister is like no other...the love and bond you share is like no other...I am so sorry you had to experience the heartbreak of losing Michael and didn't get to experience a long life with him. Some of life's heartaches are unbearable and you lived through one of them. You are very special and important to us and hope you can always feel God's arms around you, lifting you up when you can't do it alone. Hugs to you...Liz

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I am in tears right now. And I am glad you didn't change it, I have done that before, even deleted all of who I really was so as to present myself as better on the outside so I wouldn't scare away people with who I really was. Thanks for being real and I will be praying for you +


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