November has always been a difficult month for me. Before 2010, the majority of those troubles were of the self-imposed, “first-world-problems” variety due to my choice to forgo Thanksgiving dinners so I could roll around with other sweaty malnutritioned guys in spandex in gymnasiums across the country but, at the time, those struggles were as real to me as anything else. That all changed on Monday, November 15 of that year when I flatlined in the emergency room of Auburn Regional Medical Center from septic shock caused by a bladder infection, and Kristen and my parents had to watch five excruciating minutes of CPR followed by a week and a half with me on life-support, not knowing whether I had brain damage or not.
And it was another Monday, exactly 53 weeks after my brush with death that I lost her to her addiction – the most cunning, baffling and powerful disease on this planet – just two short months after our wedding. It goes without saying that each November since has been an emotional roller coaster for me and everyone else in my life. It’s hard to put into words the effect those two events and that one person had on my life. Oddly enough, it reminds me of a lesson I learned back in seventh grade art class.
I remember coming into the classroom to find my teacher standing behind a table filled with a myriad of ceramics; pots, vases and tiles in all shapes, colors and sizes. It was just when I started to get excited about what I could only assume was a pottery lesson that the teacher pulled a hammer out from under the table, donned a pair of safety glasses, and proceeded to smash all the beautiful clayware right in front of my eyes. I remember being stunned, wondering why she would lay waste to someone’s handmade artwork and if I could possibly reconstruct them somehow.
As you can probably imagine, the day’s class was on mosaics. It was all about taking something broken and creating something memorable. Whereas a blue ceramic vase may spend most of its life hidden in a cupboard only to be seen once or twice a year, it’s pieces, when placed together with those from other broken items, would hang on a wall and be appreciated every single day. It’s this idea that helped me cope with Kristen’s passing four years ago, because I could see that we were one of those mosaics.
When I was hurt almost 12 years ago, I was that dumbfounded seventh grader all over again, only this time it was my fractured identity I saw laying in a thousand little pieces on the hospital room floor. It didn’t matter what the cute rehab nurse said about me still being able to “do life”, I wanted the girlfriend I had at the time, I wanted to fix my body, I wanted the life I thought I was building. It wasn’t until almost 6 years later that that same nurse wandered back into my life and, using some of her own broken pieces, helped me cobble together a life I never could have fathomed when we had first met.
Losing my wife so suddenly was by far the most difficult thing I have had to endure. After all, it had taken us six years realize we were soulmates, and we burned through the two we’d had together at such fevered pace that it felt like the only matter of weeks, especially the second year after having my near-death experience raise the bar that much higher. But as that Thanksgiving melted into Christmas and into New Year’s and beyond, that story from junior high comforted me like a warm a blanket. It reminded me that I’d been shaken to my core like this once before, and if I could muster a little faith, maybe time would help me make peace with it somehow.
So here I am, four years later. And once more, the life I have now is unlike anything I could have imagined in the days and weeks after she passed. Kristen taught me so much over the eight years we knew each other. Her unshakable optimism brought me out of my shell and showed me how to do life, and her tragic flaw taught me infinitely more without a doubt. Our struggle with her disease led me down a spiritual path that has fundamentally changed the way I look at life. It also revealed the importance of getting next to people who have been where I have, and it’s quickly become my life’s work.
And while I had to grudgingly admit at the time that sometimes soulmates come into your life for a season or a reason, it’s starting to make a lot more sense in the last year or so. Here’s a hint.
So for everyone out there who may find themselves entering this holiday season with a cracked vase or, God forbid, a few shattered hopes and dreams in their hands, you are not alone. Hopefully with time you’ll come to see how this current trial gets folded into this messy but beautiful mosaic we call life. I know that’s been the case for me.