Dealing with Death and Despair

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Writing tributes has become one of those things that I’ve done.  It feels right as a way that I can give back to those who have positively contributed to my life.  It is said, “a person dies twice: once when they draw their last breath, and later, the last time their name is spoken.”  So, by writing, I feel like I’m extending the legacy of those whom have lived as an example and deserve to be remembered.

My thoughts were to do the same for my cousin Uriah.  To honor him as someone who was there for me, as the brother who selflessly cared for his special needs siblings, as the young man mature beyond his years looking to contribute to society in a positive way, as a listening ear and true friend during some of my darkest days, as someone who never complained about being dealt a very nasty card and had every right to the question God.

A picture from Moyer Christmas a few years ago

So far I’ve collapsed under the weight of the task.  There is simply no way to put into words or adequately describe the loss of a close friend.  The other tributes I’ve written were for those who had basically lived a full life and, more importantly, cases where I could take a step back from the subject to capture their character.  I’m simply not skilled enough as writer to give a summary of someone who meant so much to me.

But, still, since his death is something that occupies my mind and since grieving is a process that most have experienced, I’ll write about my own experiences with him and the feelings that I’m currently sorting out.  I’ve decided to talk about death and despair.  And not with anything glowy to offer as an alternative either.  And yet also not as someone who is defeated or ready to succumb to hopelessness.  Yes, I’m battling with some depression, but down does not mean defeated.

Anyhow, the blog from here will be in two parts.  First the events of the past couple of years from my own perspective.  Then, after that, going back a little further for some additional stories about my interactions with Uriah and why this has brought back some of the identity related questions and traumas that has been the overall theme of Irregular Ideation.  It is relationships that define and show the depths of what a person is.  Hopefully by sharing from my own eyes it will be easier to understand what manner of man Uriah was.

The Strange Lump On Uriah’s Ankle

After finishing up at Bloomsburg University, Uriah decided to enlist.  I’m not sure why exactly, he was always up to a challenge, the National Guard was a way to serve his country and give back, and it was always something to put on the resume.  I’ve always flirted with the idea, despite being raised in a conservative Mennonite culture that preached against military service, the structure appealed to me.  But, unlike me, Uriah followed through.

A rare picture of Uriah without a smile.

He excelled in basic training.  He was motivated and willing to put in the work to be at the top of his class.  One testament to this tenacious spirit was that a painful lump developed on his ankle.  Uriah, unlike a ‘normal’ person, decided to continue with his training rather quit to get immediate medical attention.  He reasoned that it was better this than to repeat basic and simply endured.  I’m doubtful this made much difference as far as the final outcome, but it did mean that he was active duty military during the fight and received the very best care possible.

It was when he came home, over the winter, to visit family and get this lump checked out that I first heard about it.  I decided to visit over this time and it was definitely concerning.  Still, I was optimistic, I had had a lump removed from my shoulder area before, my sister had a tumor in her abdomen removed, and there was no reason to despair about this.  We would wait on the results of the biopsy and pray for the best in the meantime.

We would soon find out that this tumor was malignant and when chemo didn’t do enough, the choice was given: Allow the to cancer spread or amputate.  Uriah elected to do the unimaginable for most young and active people.  He had his leg removed below the knee.  This was hard enough for me.  I couldn’t possibly imagine having to make this kind of decision.  To go from runner, weight lifter, and athlete, to having to learn how to walk again!

Some nifty attachments
Me trying to be positive, like Uriah

But Uriah, for lack of a better expression, took this huge setback in stride and committed to physical therapy.  It felt very fortunate too that he was in the military, Walter Reed is a prosthetics leader and he very proudly showed me the attachments available that would eventually enable him to run again.  Besides this, he also had the wonderful Shanae in his life, and knowing my lifelong struggles in the romance department, this was something significant for me.  Lumps, and loss of limbs, life goes on.

The Terrible News, Moments Bittersweet

A little over a year ago, and about a year after losing his leg, soon after Uriah’s new normal began to slip from my daily prayers, came the awful news: The cancer was back, this time it was in his lungs and the prognosis was not good.  My heart sank.  And tears flowed.  Uriah would not be with us for much longer and there was very little that could be some about it.

Still, I would not allow this dark cloud plunge me into despair.  If we couldn’t save Uriah then we would give him a most glorious send off imaginable.  My imagination ran wild with ideas, a day that would be unforgettable, with my brother flying him and faking an emergency landing in a nearby city where us cousins would be waiting to whisk him away in a waiting limo, maybe a mock car chase with him in the passenger seat of my Shelby, with police in on the fun in pursuit around the closed airport, me yelling “we only live once!”

Alas, that was never meant to be.  Uriah needed medical treatment more than a memorable adventure, the pandemic shutdowns followed soon thereafter (briefly changing the mood from: “Oh no, Uriah’s going to die” to “Oh no, we’re all gonna die!) and then his marriage to Shanae.  That last item being a far better send off than this bachelor and a bunch of crazy cousins could provide.

A handsome couple

The last year with Uriah served to highlight his bravery even against these impossible odds.  Uriah, even with late stage lung cancer, refused to stop living his life and made time to be with those who loved him most.  On multiple occasions, when the restaurants were still open, we dined out together.  Me and him or joined by friends and cousins.  These are some of the most beautiful and cherished moments of a very stressful and emotionally draining year.

However, of those moments, one shines above the rest.  Uriah, probably only because he was Uriah, asked me if he could come visit my church sometime.  Of course, I was thrilled by this, that he would think of this, and soon the arrangements were made.  Nobody seeing him that day would have guessed he was terminally ill.  He looked as strong and vital as ever.  The highlights when Father Seraphim, who I had ambushed together with Uriah, agreed to anoint him and pray for healing.  I also had the opportunity to take Uriah on one more ride in the Shelby on the way home.

In the week that followed the anointing something amazing happened.  A text message from Uriah with the first good news since his lung cancer and prognosis were revealed.  The tumors had shrunk!  Could it be possible?

But this relief would only be temporary and the next time I would see my cousin he was no longer looking so invulnerable.

Over Thanksgiving Uriah, his condition already deteriorated, became infected with the Covid-19 virus.  He was not doing bad from what I had been told.  Unfortunately, after walking into the hospital, he was soon put on a ventilator and his loved ones told he would likely never be taken off of it.  Still, my courageous friend had yet one more trick up his sleeve.  He ended up, at some point, ripping the ventilator out and was breathing well enough on his own.  It was fantastic.  I prayed he would be able to go home and he was going home.

My optimism remained until my last meeting with him.  I figured as long as he was fighting I would keep hoping for that miracle. 

I had not been able to see him for months, partially due to my own bout with Covid-19, and also because he was under the care of his parents and Shanae.  I may have missed the opportunity to see him entirely had it not been for my cousin David declaring that he didn’t think Uriah wanted visitors.  I thought to myself, “we’ll see about that,” and I sent a text message soon thereafter.  Uriah told me he wanted to see me and directed me to Shanae, I asked if David and another friend Derek could accompany me.  We planned for the next Saturday.

I had known, with the cancer spreading throughout his body and now unable to walk because of diminished lung capacity, that Uriah wouldn’t be an image of health.  Still, actually seeing him was a little jarring, he looked rough, and I realized that, even if the lastest longshot treatment option would work out, there was irreparable damage.  It was a struggle for him to breath.  But he still ate a slice or two of the pizza that I had brought.  It was their wedding anniversary and an honor to be able to be there despite the circumstances.

Four friends in better times

When David and Derek said their goodbyes, they offered a fist bump.  But it did not seem appropriate.  I offered a hand shake, I wanted to clasp his hand and look him in the eyes.  My last words to him were to tell him how proud I was of him.  It was only a few days later that I received a phone call during the day from David.  Uriah had passed away that morning.   We had done we could, he fought like a true warrior, never complaining or falling to despair.  He died short of his twenty-fifth birthday.

The Time Uriah Asked Me For Advice

I am a good bit older than Uriah.  I can’t remember exactly how and when our relationship took off.  But he had his own unique version of the Moyer cousin humor and a rare determination.  I recall him out running, as teenager, with bricks in the backpack he was wearing.  He wanted to be the best at what he did and put the work in too.  He was a decent athlete, played basketball and soccer, and I knew he was becoming a man when I could no longer take him in a wrestling match.

When Uriah enrolled in Bloomsburg University, I had very little doubt in his abilities.  He was extremely intelligent, someone mature beyond his years, and thus it came as a bit of a surprise when he reached out to me asking for advice.  We met at Weaver’s for some pizza and ice cream.  And when there he expressed his doubts.  He was thinking about dropping out and wanted to get my opinion.

Of course, as one who has long struggled with feelings of having buried my talents, having quit college before obtaining a degree, to open I urged, “don’t be like your loser cousin!”  I went on to explain the lifelong benefits of a degree, my own regrets, and encouraged him to continue on pursuing his dreams.  

Uriah would go on, finish that first year, and continue through the next year.  He was on the Dean’s list, evidently a good student, and would graduate with his criminal justice degree.  It was something that made me immensely proud, especially that I had a small part in his success, and it seemed as if even the sky wasn’t the limit for him.  He had done the thing that I failed to do.  Not only that, but he had met Shanae while on campus and there was a budding romance between them.

Taken from Uriah’s Facebook page

As I look back my feelings are mixed.  On one hand, my advice came with an assumption that he would live a long life, that his degree would open career opportunities.  Uriah never did get that far, he never had an actual career, so what was the point of all that hard-work and discipline?  My nihilism creeps in.  As the book of Ecclesiastes begins: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”  But, on the other hand, and as if to throw a wrench in my despair, had Uriah quit he would not have Shanae to accompany him during the last two years.

The Friend That I Didn’t Want

I’m a very idealistic person and loyal too.  I remember my plans, as a child, to eventually live with my brother Kyle.  I mean, we were peas in a pod, we understood each other, why would we ever go our separate ways, right?  But, eventually, I had to come to terms with the fact that my siblings, including Kyle, are very motivated people and were destined to have their own lives away from me.  Our childhood together a passing phase and not permanent.  It’s tough, yet necessary for progress.

However, having learned this, I was not prepared for what happened when a close friend, a wingman for many years, got married.  I’m not sure what happened, but right after his wedding he basically disappeared.  And, after the first efforts to reconnect failed, I decided that he simply didn’t need the relationship anymore and had moved on.  To this day his wife is the only person who has shown any interest in maintaining a connection and it truly is baffling to me.  Is this normal behavior?  Should I be concerned?

Anyhow, this friendship of over a decade that vanished overnight left me wondering what friendship really is?  It also made me wary of making such an investment ever again.  If someone like this other friend could completely abandon our relationship, effectively ghost me, was it truly worth becoming connected at this level again?   I almost felt lonelier having lost a friend, my romantic life wasn’t helping that, and when someone else started to emerge as a friend (Uriah) I wrote the following in a journal:

Uriah is a faithful something.  I suppose he is a friend, although I don’t know if I want any friends really, not after [omitted].  I feel antisocial, I am sick of people and yet would not fare well alone.  Last weekend proof of that.

I was dealing with many things at the time, in rehab and off of work because of a knee injury, and still reeling from the loss of a friendship.  Once bitten, twice shy, right?  I was reluctant to allow someone else to become close.  I felt better to be in control, to keep some safe distance between myself and other people.  

Nevertheless, a stronger bond did continue to develop between Uriah and myself, he was capable of intelligent discussion, completely trustworthy, and never judged me.  My ideations, given the feelings of betrayal, were extremely dark and it was safe to express them with him.  He helped me to not take them, or even myself, too seriously and provided a bit of a reprieve.  And when I holed up he persisted.  There were times we sat quietly together.  I knew that he cared.

When I left the Mennonite church many of the people that I spent years with made no attempt to connect.  There were so many relationships pursued and never reciprocated.  Or, when there was relationship it was forced, a part of their religious duty and not real.  Uriah was always genuine, like I try to be, and was never going to be a fairweather friend like so many others.  That’s what makes it so especially hard to lose him in a manner completely unexpected.  

He’s the friend that I didn’t want because losing friends is too painful.  In the weeks following his death my desire was to withdrawal, avoid intimate relationships, and protect against future disappointment.  Of course, avoiding pain and risk is not a way to live and in the intervening weeks I’ve started to force myself to reengage.  I can’t bring Uriah back, he’s gone.  But there’s no point in joining him in the grave.

The Questions That Cannot Be Answered

The hardest part of Uriah’s death is where it leaves his parents.  Ed and Judy are two of the hardest working and most dedicated parents I know.  And for reasons we’ll never know three of their four children suffered terrible seizures.  Renita Gail, I carried out to the cemetery on a cold day many years ago.  Uriah’s two remaining siblings, Aleah and Isaiah, have not developed beyond a certain point and require constant care.

My wonderful aunt Judy

It goes without saying that there were many hopes that evaporated with the passing of Uriah.  He was the strong and healthy son, someone more than willing to help with Aleah and Isaiah, and now he’s gone.  It is unfair.  There is no way to understand why misfortune visits some.  Perhaps that is why the book of Job was written?  To put to end this notion that people get what they deserve only good things happen to good people?

There is nothing I can offer that will come close replacing a young man who was my better in so many ways.  It would be silly to even try, he was one of a kind, tall and handsome.  He got the intelligence and work ethic from both of his parents.  He had the compassionate heart of his mother and quirky humor of his father.  He was their legacy, the one who was supposed to carry the Derstine name and support them in their old age.  

Uncle Ed with Uriah

Being a pallbearer for Uriah was a great honor.  However, carrying that casket up that icy hill, like I had with Renita many years before, came with the burden of the many unanswerable questions.  I won’t even attempt to answer.  But maybe if I have another son, I’ll name him Uriah Edward and tell him someday about my cousin, my aunt and uncle.  I have not heard one complaint from them Uriah’s parents.  They feel the loss more than anyone else and yet their resolve to trust God is encouraging to those of us with our many questions.

A very cold day

Dealing with death isn’t easy, especially not when it is someone so undeserving and special.  I’ve been battling against depression and despair over the past few weeks, despite having a year to prepare, and I suppose it would be strange to feel nothing in such circumstances?  But I don’t plan to linger here.  I acknowledge the feelings, I lost a friend, a rare kind of individual.  There will never be another Uriah.  There are no easy answers.  But I will try to carry the legacy of Uriah as far as I am able.

Uriah E. Derstine

March 15, 1996 — February 4th, 2021

Memory eternal!

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