Earthquake, Fire, Tsunami, and Radiation in Japan

How does one face such as catastrophic event as Japan’s recent earthquakes and tsunamis? Where does one go to get hope?

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It simply numbs the mind to consider that one minute people can be drinking tea with family or friends, and the next have one’s home torn apart by the earth’s shaking or have it washed away by the tsunami that follows. I know the helplessness that I felt during our Paso Robles Earthquake in 2003, which seemed overwhelming, but was nothing compared to what the Japanese are facing.  It’s the same powerlessness one feels in the face of any natural or even man-made disaster. But what we had took only two lives and only destroyed a few buildings.  My mind can’t fully take in the tragic destruction the Japanese have lived through this weekend as they saw their way of life fall apart with their homes and workplaces.

I read in my newspaper that the Japanese are the people most prepared for an earthquake, yet when it came upon them, many froze in the face of the shaking they got. Though some remembered what they had learned in their drills and dove under furniture to keep falling walls and objects from hitting them, many panicked and ran outside where there was even more danger. Preparation can go only so far in protecting one in the face of such horror.

Here a community steps in to help when a neighbor’s home burns to the ground. In Japan, where one’s whole community may be destroyed,  one has to figure out how to survive without a home, food, water, and, perhaps, without hope. One cannot just be taken in by the community, because it, too, may be in ruins. No one knows how long it will be before help comes, before communication and power will be restored, before one knows if family have survived. I imagine myself in that situation and I don’t know how I would handle it. Do you?

I am reminded that much as men want to be in control of their destiny, they aren’t. Such disasters force us to confront the big issues in life, the meaning of life, and who really is in control. We might wonder why God allows these catastrophic events, even as we trust him to help us get our lives back together. It is humbling to recognize we are but men — men who are dependent upon God.

I am reminded of the Biblical Job who lost all he had in a short period of time — his home, his wealth, all his livestock, and even his children. Then he lost his health. Of course he wondered why, and his wife told him to curse God and die.

Job knew better, even in the face of “helpful” friends who said he was probably being judged for some secret sin. Instead of listening to such counsel, he took his questions directly to God. In Job 38-42, the Lord appeared to Job from a whirlwind and answered the questions of Job’s heart with more questions designed to show Job how little he knew of the mind and works and plan of God.

After all this Job replies “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see thee; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes. ” It is after this, and after Job follows the Lord’s command to pray for his friends,  who had given him false counsel in ignorance, that the Lord restores his fortunes and his health, and  brings comfort through Job’s siblings. He also given more children, just as many as he had lost.

In the face of immense suffering and loss, Job held onto his God, and when he couldn’t understand, he took his questions to the only one who could answer — God himself. He’s the only one who can deal with our questions, and we have to be careful not to try to “help” as Job’s friends did, with platitudes. Surely we here in America will do all we can to provide physical help. But hope and answers  only God can give.

‘Tis the Season to Reminisce with Our Picture Albums

I noticed as I looked through our family albums this week that many who have left us still live in the albums, frozen in time, and in the hearts of those who love them.

Sandy (right) making mochi with her family last Christmas Day, 2009
Sandy (right) making mochi with her family last Christmas Day, 2009

Friendship is one of the most precious of life’s gifts. Those friends we have kept up with for over forty years are irreplaceable. A group of friends is rudely reminded of that this month, as it lost the first member of this group to cancer on  November 30. She fought a long and hard battle, but the cancer finally won.You can read more about Sandy and her family tradition of gathering to make mochi on Christmas here.

Her family and friends and others she has inspired over the years are gathering to remember her the day after Christmas, and since they are getting together — a rare occurrence since we are scattered now over several counties and even   states — we are also planning a surprise for someone else who means a lot to all of us.

Our children, Sarah and Jason, Christmas, 1987
Both our children are gone now, leaving at ages 14 and 34.

This  surprise has us all thumbing through our old photo albums, as well as our more recent ones, and,  in the process, I’m sure I’m not the only one strolling down memory lane. And I’m sure I’m not the only one realizing that half my albums are peopled by multitudes of pictures of those who now live on a different plane. So it’s a bittersweet trip. Jason loved life and Christmas and left us while riding a jet ski in 1991. Sarah enjoyed Christmas more than life, which she chose to leave in 2009.

My mom with Jason and his cousin Bobby in 1990, Jason's last Christmas
My mom with Jason and his cousin Bobby in 1990, Jason's last Christmas

This picture, too, has only one living person left, my nephew — the one with dark hair. Mom and Jason are both gone. We lost mom to cancer in 2005. I was privileged to be able to help care for her in her last months, and I’m glad she lived close to me so I could see her almost daily during her last years.

Rich entered our lives in 1993 when we moved to our current home in

Celebrating a mini Christmas with Rich and Bobby the week the weekend after in 1994
Mini Christmas celebration with Rich and Bobby in 1994

Templeton, California. My nephew, Bobby, also spent a year with us in 1994, and we had a mini Christmas  celebration with Rich, who was like part of our extended family by then, that year. He is another dear friend whom we continue to miss at Christmas and every Friday night, as that’s the night we used to meet for dinner and Bible study together. This was taken during our small Christmas celebration the week after Christmas, since Bobby and I and my husband went south to Mom’s over the actual holiday. Rich left us in 2003. Rich used to say he didn’t take pictures because the picture in his head that is always with him, is better than any he could take with a camera.

With that in mind, what about those in our pictures still living on earth? Some may be casual acquaintances, but many will be the people we care most about. Do they know how much you care? Might not this holiday season be a good time to tell them? After all, you never know if it will be your last opportunity to reveal what’s in your heart. Whether you are 14 or 94, or whether they are, not everyone makes it to 70 — or even 17.

Pictures keep us frozen in time, as we are frozen in place in the hearts who love us. Just as my parents and I were frozen in place on this, my sixth Christmas, so

Mom and Dad have gone on, except in my heart.
Mom and Dad have gone on now, but this Christmas with them remains in my heart.

I still carry them in my heart 61 years later. The real album is my heart. It is there the pictures come alive bringing back laughter in times past, and, sometimes tears as I miss them, especially those who seemed, like Sandy, Jason, Sarah, and Rich, to go much earlier than they should.

Thoughts After a Memorial Service

Why wait to pay tribute to your friends at a memorial service? Why not tell them how much they mean to you while they can still hear you? Here are some ideas.

SkyRose Chapel at Rose Hills Memorial Park
SkyRose Chapel at Rose Hills Memorial Park

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In February 2010, I attended a memorial service for Ann Sakiyama, whom I was not privileged to know as well as most others who were there. It was a beautiful service, a final tribute from all who knew and loved her.  We went because we have loved her husband like a brother for over forty years. Though the old group of which we were all a part in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s has spread out geographically, we are still dear to each other and try to be there for each other when someone is going through the deep waters. I last saw most of this group of friends at my daughter’s memorial service last June.

As we all gathered to eat together after the service, I probably wasn’t the only one wondering, “Who’s next?” or “What will they say at my service?” When we met, we were all under thirty. Now most of us are retired or approaching retirement. At least one has survived a heart attack. Another fights cancer. Each time we gather to mourn a loss, I know we are thinking that we don’t want to gather for this reason again very soon. As someone said when we were leaving the luncheon yesterday, “Let’s have the next get-together be a party, not a memorial service.”

What a great idea! What would be really memorable would be a relaxed weekend in the same hotel or resort where we could meet and tell each other now, in person, what we have appreciated in each other over the years while we all still have mouths to speak and ears to hear. We used to attend retreats together, why not another now, while we can still do it, for the express purpose of celebrating what our friendships have meant all this time? So much we leave unspoken and wait to share when the words can no longer be heard. Some of us spend money to attend high school reunions to be with the people we haven’t kept up with.  Why not spend the same money for a reunion with the group of people you really do care about?

If we can’t physically find a way to do this, why not set aside some time to write some notes to your old friends now – while they can still read them. Why wait until they are gone to write your thoughts of what they meant — to their surviving families? Not good with words on paper? Pick up the phone. Not good with words at all when it comes to feelings? Maybe just a note or a hug with the words: Your friendship has meant more over the years than words can express.

Feel really uncomfortable about doing this? Practice on your family. No one needs to hear our tributes more than our family members, whom we often take for granted.  Some of you have already lost parents, spouses, or children. I hope you had time to let them know how much you loved and appreciated them before you had to say a final goodbye. If you still have them, start letting them know now how much they mean to you. If you have to leave them suddenly, don’t let them be wondering what you thought of them.  Don’t assume that your unspoken feelings have been picked up.

I always try to make sure that when my husband goes out the door to go to the gym every day, he knows I love him and want him to come home safely. I try to make sure that if we have quarreled, all is well between us before he goes out that door or goes to sleep. I let him know he is irreplaceable in my heart and life and a special treasure and gift from God. I was also fortunate enough to have realized before Jason’s accident that children do die suddenly, and I made a special point after another family lost a child a few days before we lost Jason to tell Jason how much I loved and appreciated him. I’m glad those were his last memories of me.

These are the kinds of thoughts I have as I look into the faces of those I care most about when we mourn together. I hope that at the next memorial service, the one we are mourning will have heard our personal tributes in person ahead of time, before it’s too late.

What do you say after you bury a daughter?

It’s been a long three weeks since we learned that our estranged, adopted daughter, whom we haven’t seen nor heard from in fourteen years, took her life…. Many people simply can’t deal with the spiritual issues surrounding a suicide. It is our contention that no one but God truly knows the heart of a person or what drove them to such drastic action.

Sarah, the child we knew.
Sarah, the child we knew.

It’s been a long three weeks since we learned that our estranged, adopted daughter, whom we haven’t seen nor heard from in fourteen years, took her life.  There’s a reason I haven’t been blogging for a while. This kind of information takes some processing. Sarah was the last of our two children. Jason, her natural brother, went first, in a jet ski accident, in 1991, when he was fourteen.  Sarah lived to be 36. Before she left home we had issues we could not resolve.

I began this late last night. It occurred to me this morning that in my exhaustion I left out the picture of the delightful little girl Sarah often was — the young girl you see to the left.  She delighted in animals, in helping to make our home orderly, in playing the piano, and, most of all, in her relationship with her brother. She had a lot of artistic talent. She simply had trouble trusting adults and being honest in her relationships with others. That’s why many of us had so much trouble understanding who she really was, and which of the selfs she presented to others was genuine. She may have been some of all of them. I often wonder if she herself knew.

I believe she spent a lot of her life searching for her identity. She was very interested in her roots in her natural family, and that may be why she  decided to cast her lot with them rather than with us in her later years. I have heard that for many years she had blamed her mother for some of what happened to her as a child. It is interesting to note that one little envelope in the package of pictures her husband sent to us contained some inspirational clippings and bookmarks, two of which were the “Footprints” poem many of you are familiar with, a “God Made Us Friends” verse by Rebecca Barlow Jordan, and a verse I will save for the end of this. Also in the envelope was a picture of her with Jason and a yellow sticky note with these words: Mother: I blame her for nothing — I forgive her for everything.

Sarah came to us at the age of nine through the foster care system, along with Jason, whom we had met first because he lived in a foster home next door. Unlike Jason, who had merely been neglected by his birth parents, Sarah had been sexually abused by her birth father. Though she was in counseling almost her entire eight years with us, she was never able to bring herself to confront the issue and work it through. This resulted in some unresolvable problems when she was almost 17, and that put her back into the foster care system, by her choice. After that she was in three foster homes, at least two of them with people who had especially requested her because they had known her when she was still living with us.

In the first home, she functioned pretty well at first, though she still would not obey the rule of the county that she could not be alone with the 37-year-old man(whom I will call M) she had been secretly meeting while she was with us and for whom she ran away.  M falsely accused the foster family of abuse and they almost lost the foster baby they had been planning to adopt. Naturally, Sarah was removed from that home.

Sarah was next placed with a “real” foster family. That means that this family already had other foster children and had been fostering for a long time. They were on a budget, and Sarah complained she had actually had to drink powered milk instead of the bottled milk she had been accustomed to at home and in the first foster home. At her request, Sarah was moved after two weeks into a home that had gotten a license just to take her in.

This third home should have been an ideal match. The father of the family was a professional musician, and Sarah was also a talented pianist. The family, although not extremely wealthy, was  more economically well off than the average family in the community. They had a large home in one of the better sections of town and  a landscaped yard with a custom swimming pool.  Sarah was definitly able to live the good life there, above what she was accustomed to, and probably considerably above the lifestyle of the average foster child. This home was tailor-made for Sarah.  Unfortunately, she continued to break the rules, and the family had to send her back to the county system.

From there she went to a group home, where she discovered that what she considered restriction when she was with us was nothing. Now she really couldn’t do those things she told the county she couldn’t do when she was with us. She really couldn’t go anywhere without supervision, she couldn’t sneak out a window in the middle of the night, and there were other restrictions she never had at home. She discovered the hard way that if you will not accept reasonable boundaries, the time will come when you  will have stricter boundaries enforced you cannot get around.  After spending some time in the group home, Sarah finally agreed to visitation with us — in fact she called and wanted us to bring her home for a visit when she had refused to see us before.

We had had hopes she might finally be ready to come home and work on resolving issues, but that wasn’t what she wanted. She wanted to come home simply because she thought she’ have more freedom since we couldn’t keep 24-hour watch as the group home did. She wanted to make phone calls that she wasn’t allowed to make from the group home and use us to evade their rules. When we didn’t bend, she asked to go back and then tried to get us to drop her off  an unmonitored location instead of where we were supposed to take her to meet her social worker. (The group home’s location was supposed to be a secret, so the workers would meet their wards in public parking lots and take them back to the home.)

When Sarah was 18, she was released from the county system. For a time she worked as a live-in aid to some elderly people, but none of these elder care positions lasted long. She occasionally called me for a recipe or to help solve some problem during that time, but we never were able to talk about much of substance. During part of this time she lived with M but she also lived for a time with my brother’s family, and then with her half-brother’s family.  She did not stay very long in any of these living situations. We last heard from her after we moved to Paso Robles in 1992, while she was staying at a ranch not too far away. She mentioned she might come visit, but she never did and she never called again.  We later heard from her half-brother that she had moved to Colorado to be with an aunt (birth family).  Later she moved from there into a common-law marriage that lasted for 14 years, until her death on May 13, 2009.

We got the tragic news from Sarah’s half brother. He had been contacted by the aunt, and she had been contacted by Sarah’s husband. We were immediately thrust into issues such as who was next of kin by law so that we’d know what part we would have in planning for burial and the memorial service. We were given the number of the funeral home in Texas, and we were able to contact the husband. We learned from him that Sarah had made known at the beginning of their relationship that if anything were ever to happen to her, she wanted to be buried beside her brother in California. All of the California family had already wanted to comply with those wishes, but we didn’t want to act against the husband’s wishes, whatever they might be. He wanted to comply with Sarah’s wish, and gave us permission to arrange everything, since he could not afford the tremendous expense.  We have spent the last three weeks trying to see that Sarah’s wishes were carried out.

Yesterday was the culmination of this.  The memorial service was held around the grave Sararh now shares with Jason at Forest Lawn Sunnyside in Long Beach on  June 6, 2009.  It was an informal service where the message was split between Bob, Sarah’s half-brother, and my husband, Kosta. Bob began by putting  Sarah’s life as he had witnessed it since her birth into context for those of us who had only seen part of it.  Around the grave were Sarah’s mother’s mother and sisters, her father’s mother, Bob’s family, my brother and his family, and some close friends.  (Sarah’s parents had preceeded her in death.) After Bob shared the stages of Sarah’s life on earth, my husband tried to give the mourners some encouraging words and offer some hope from his unique perspective as to where Sarah was bound.  He focused on Romans 8: 28 through the end of the chapter.

Many people simply can’t deal with the spiritual issues surrounding a suicide. It is our contention that no one but God  truly knows the heart of a person or what drove them to such drastic action.  People like to make rules about what God will or won’t do in some situations,  But God cannot be put in that sort of box.  Some people think that suicide is an unforgivable sin, but nowhere in the Bible is it judged so. We are told that when someone belongs to Christ, no one can snatch him or her  out of his hand. In Romans we are told that nothing can separate a believer from the love of God. There is always room for hope.

Sarah had a very difficult life journey.  As a child she had to face what most of us never have to.  These early experiences made a lasting impression. If a child is physically crippled, we don’t expect her to be able to perform athletically as well as a child who was always physically healthy. Yet we seem to have the same moral expectations for children who are spiritually and emotionally crippled as we do for children who have lived normal emotional lives in intact and emotionally supportive families. We tend to look only at actions and judge a person’s heart. God sees it all. He has always welcomed the captives and loosed their chains. He died for us while we were yet sinners. Not a one of us is righteous in ourselves. All of us must be dressed in the righteousness of Christ. At the gate of Heaven, it is not our good deeds that will gain us entrance, but our faith that Jesus took our sins upon himself and met the standard we could not meet to bring us to the Father.

We have reason to believe Sarah believed that. There was evidence, according to her husband, that even in her life with him she believed that. We know that Sarah was being treated for depression at the time of her death. Depression, like cancer, is an illness. Like cancer, it can lead to death — this kind of a death. We believe any judgment should be left in the hands of God, who knows all the details and what they mean.

After the service, most of us went to Bob’s home to share our memories, including a big box of pictures Sarah’s husband had sent to me. (He was, unfortunately unable to attend because of the travel expenses.) All of us had been hungry to see what Sarah had looked like as an adult. Except for her grandmother, Bob, and a couple of other relatives, none of us had seen Sarah since she was about 20.  Even Bob and her grandmother hadn’t seen her for a couple of years, when   she made a visit to California.

As we looked at pictures in small clusters, we exchanged information, as each had different experiences with Sarah at different points in her life. All of us pretty much agreed that although we loved Sarah, she had trouble receiving it and being able to feel loved. We told her often that we loved her, but she seemed to have a wall up that kept the message from getting through.

Bob and Sarah’s grandmother had known Sarah since birth. But Sarah’s best friend through her high school years was also sharing her perspective, which as a confidante, was quite different. Three families Sarah had lived with at various times were also in the room, including us, so we all shared the pieces of the puzzle we had — all hoping for a better understanding.

In these situations, no one of us will ever fully understand why Sarah found it necessary to end her life — including Sarah’s husband, with whom we talked on the phone for three hours.  All of us have a unique grief experience. All of us will take some time to work this through. Our parenting journey is over now, but our love for our children is not. Here is that other clipping, from a newspaper, whose author we recently found to be Julia Napier.

If you are ever going to love me,
Love me now, while I can know
The sweet and tender feelings
Which from true affection flow.
Love me now
While I am living.
Do not wait until I’m gone
And then have it chiseled in marble,
Sweet words on ice-cold stone.

If you have tender thoughts of me,
Please tell me now.
If you wait until I’m sleeping,
There will be death between us,
And I won’t hear you then.
So if you love me, even a little bit,
Let me know while I’m still living
So I can treasure it.

If you would like to know more details about Sarah’s life story and see pictures of her growing up, please check here: Sarah: The Suicide of a Child It deals more with the living Sarah, her problems growing up, and what factors  might have contributed to her fatal choice as an adult. It also contains useful resources for others dealing with this kind of loss.


Untimely Deaths?

Yesterday I learned that an e-friend’s baby had died in the womb. She realized she hadn’t noticed any movement, and the doctor confirmed that her small heart had stopped beating. Her much anticipated child would have to be buried when born. She will never know what this child would have become, and would never be able to bring her home. Such an untimely death!

But is any death timely? We do expect to see the old die. But not the young. Little did I suspect that when my barely 14-year-old son left on a water-skiing day trip on August 27, 1991, I would never see him alive again. I considered that death quite untimely. A vital member of our family was suddenly removed from our table. I would never know whom he might choose to marry. We would never be grandparents. I would never know which career he finally would have chosen.

In 2003, we lost a dear friend, only 44, suddenly and unexpectedly. He was a regular at our table on Friday nights and on holidays. And then he was gone. Way too soon, in our opinion. At least he left no wife and children, but he was like another son to us. And he, too, left a hole in our lives.

And now we know of another young man, in business with his wife. They have small children. And he is sick, always in and out of hospitals, sometimes near death. And his parents have lived with the knowledge that since birth he has been in danger. And we hope and pray he will continue to live to see his children grow up — that he will not meet an untimely death.

I have wept with many mothers who have lost sons who were not yet out of high school — some in accidents, some with illnesses they didn’t know about, but all suddenly, without warning. Untimely

And yet, it seems that no matter when the grim reaper appears to take someone, it is not timely. My own mother, at 89, who had said she had no real reason to continue on, was shocked when she received word from her doctor that she had only two months left. And all of a sudden, that seemed untimely to her. She found out then why she wanted to keep living. But it was too late, and she departed on schedule, finally giving in to the inevitable, not afraid, but still wishing she didn’t have to leave us behind.

When I lost my son, I still remember the words that brought me the most comfort. A pastor’s wife wrote to us, and shared that her brother had died at the age of 16. She shared these words from Psalms 139: 13-16

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be.

———————————————————
Excerpted from Compton’s Interactive Bible NIV
Copyright (c) 1994, 1995, 1996 SoftKey Multimedia Inc. All Rights Reserved

My Comforter reminded me that there are really no untimely deaths in the eyes of God — only in our own eyes. All of us live as many days as God has planned for us — no more, and no less. And then he takes us home to make us perfect as we can never become while still here.