There are some characters you meet online and never forget.
Such was the case with Wayne_in_Maine, who could come off as a sort of cranky or cantankerous old man and yet seemed (even then) to have a golden heart under the bluster. There is a way or an intuition I have, that can cut through the harshness on the surface. I can just know when someone is full of themselves and cruel despite their nice-sounding words or truly compassionate despite their surface-level unpleasantness.
Wayne was the latter kind.
The first thing notable about Wayne was that he was intelligent, he had been a nuclear engineer, could articulate his arguments well, and clearly was not going to be backed into a corner. The second thing was that he had a very unique journey and a different perspective from the other ethnic cultural inhabitants of the MennoDiscuss forum. He had gone from a hippy leftist to a conservative-minded neo-Anabaptist and could speak with authority on matters of science unlike the religiously indoctrinated parroting their fundamentalist teachers.
Initially, I saw him as a sort of threat to my worldview, another person compromised by secular influence trying to get Mennonites to shift to his views, and yet later his perspective would actually strengthen my faith when it faltered against the scientific evidence clearly pointing to the appearance of age in the universe.
Because of Wayne, I learned that young-Earth Creationism (or YEC) is not necessary to have a sincere and grounded faith in Jesus Christ.
In fact, it might actually be a liability and cause many to fall into a serious crisis of faith when they go to university, study biology or almost any science and find out the case for YEC is not as clear as it was presented. That Wayne, a rational mind and well-educated, could both reconcile modern scientific theory and his faith was more useful to me (a critical thinker) than some Hammy tourist attraction put there to feed the confirmation bias of fundamentalist midwits. I came around to his position and haven’t looked back.
I have long respected Wayne despite our sometimes clashing and my occasionally coming away feeling unappreciated by him.
He was a man a conviction. He gave up lucrative career paths, actually tried communal living, literally sold all from what I recall, and had come much further in developing his own perspective than most do.
However, despite my respect, Wayne’s version of Christianity didn’t appeal to me. He had, inadvertently, pushed a friend of mine away from Anabaptism with one of his responses. I still believe his take on the rich young ruler account misses the mark, where he read the response of Jesus as a sort of legalistic prescription rather the same as we understand Luke 14:26 where Jesus says if someone “does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”
I know, for a fact, that he did not take that literally. He came across, from my limited ability to see, as a very loving father and committed husband. I can’t imagine him hating his family to prove his commitment to Christ. Nevertheless, he was adamant about being completely Anabaptist in his perspective about wealth or warfare, an inconsistency of thought that bothers me about him and others of that fold. It did annoy me too when he characterized the Orthodox tradition as “smells and bells” as if worship was supposed to be something other than a beautiful or full sensory experience.
The Cancer and Change
After I heard about Wayne’s cancer diagnosis, none of our previous sparrings mattered much to me. Wayne, despite our differences, was a true friend and someone that mattered to me. It was especially important to me, given my mourning of Uriah, to talk to someone coming to terms with their poor prognosis and yet not giving up hope.
When I reached out on Facebook Messenger, mentioning Uriah and my desire to meet with him, he replied quickly and with more warmth than I had expected. There was no standoffishness, as had kind of been a feature of his personality, he reciprocated the desire to meet and we talked about various matters of faith.
I took a look at some of the MennoNet discussions he was involved in and got a laugh together about the various bad arguments being used. That’s one thing about him, his humor was dry and always fun, or at least fun when you were on the same side.
It was a sort of therapy, talking to this different side of the pragmatic engineer. Truly, it was special, the man that I saw emerge in this final trial was different. My own thought was that this was the Wayne that was always there under the snide comment and cynicism. Men can put up their walls, to not appear vulnerable, and that was no longer there. We were just two old keyboard warriors with nothing left to prove to the other.
And that’s not to take away from anything he said as far as the grace he was given to endure to the end. It was definitely something spiritual. His testimony of faith was clear. As a friend described him, in this transformed version, “It was like he became a totally different person. Happy, cheerful, optimistic.” He would not be defeated in death and I wanted to hear more about how a rational man, such as himself, given my own struggles, could continue in hope of the eternal.
I had to think of this Scriptural passage:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
(1 Peter 1:3-9)
More important than all of his intellectual endeavors and Christian apologetics, theory or theology, is Wayne’s undying faith through trial is of the greatest comfort to those still in the fight. I never did get to have that face-to-face meeting that we had committed to upon his planned move to Pennsylvania to be closer to his daughter and grandchild. We had planned to meet in order to give us both something to look forward to when he did.
Now that meeting will have to change locations. Wayne took his final breaths yesterday evening, on August 12th, a couple of days after his 65 birthday. By God’s grace, in triumph, we’ll see each other on that other side.
I’m sad that Wayne remains a man that I’ve never met, in the flesh, despite our interactions over the years. However, in his terminal illness, there was also a man that I never met, that softer side, and feel blessed have finally met this man. I loved him and believe that he loved me too. I’ll remember our last interactions for much more fondly than our first. It was beautiful to see his golden heart revealed.
Part of my personal myth is that I was a “miracle baby,” spared from a very early demise by the medical intervention of nurses and physicians, including my uncle Elam, a pediatrician, who hand pumped air into my lungs while being transported to Geisinger Medical Center.
I had been born premature, suffered from a condition called Hyaline Membrane Disease due to my underdeveloped lungs, suffered a collapsed lung due to my hard breathing, and likely would have died without the advanced care that I received. I was a fighter, for sure, but my survival would depend on the skilled intervention of medical professionals.
My mother would tell me that story and also use it to remind me that God had a special purpose for my life. But what she didn’t tell me, until much later, is that my early trauma was actually caused by her doctor who induced labor.
My Medical Family
My mother had aspired to be a nurse. Even worked in a nursing home prior to marrying my dad. But life, including my sister and your’s truly, changed her plans.
However, as often is the case, these dreams of parents are sometimes fulfilled by the next generation and sometimes double. Both of my sisters are employed in the medical field and eventually even my mom found her way into a doctor’s office before eventually playing an instrumental role in the opening of Compassion Parochial Clinic.
My own role in all of this was to be my eldest sister Olivia’s first patient. Using her Fisher Price Medical Bag, she would check and treat my various imaginary ailments, and had her mind set on being a pediatrician like her well-respected uncle. And, after graduating high school, then acquiring a biology degree, she continued her education at Albert Einstein College of Medicine on Bronx, NY.
In fact, l feel that I may deserve a partial credit for having attended a lecture on the heart. Although, I may have missed the second half due to a terrible bout of drowsiness and was not the only one sleeping. Although, as a courtesy, I will not say whether or not my sister had succumbed.
Anyhow, my younger sister Lilian also picked a medical career, eventually became an RN, continued her education, and is now working on her licensing as a midwife. Her passion is welcoming babies into the world and is someone with a personality well suited for the job.
All of that to say that this exposure causes me to have deep respect those in this profession. One way to get on my bad list very quickly is to suggest that those in the medical field are only in it for the money and would deliberately keep people sick to cash in. Sure, there are bad eggs in every profession, some terrible doctors, but my sisters (like many of their colleagues) are there to help people get well.
That said, having family in medicine also removes some of the aura. My sisters are far more qualified to give opinions on medical issues than I am and yet they also are still human.
Doctors make mistakes, they’re fallible like the rest of us, with blindspots and bias. Plus they’re used to having totally ignorant people, who “did their own research,” challenge them on things they’ve spent years of their life studying, and can become tired of answering these inane statements—appear arrogant.
Physician: “Heal Thyself…”
People have very high expectations in regards to modern medicine. We’re supposed to go to the doctor and be completely healed.
But the reality is quite different from that. Once you get past the buzzing technology and laboratory developed chemical cures, the sterile well lit halls of institutions, our actual abilities are still quite primitive. Science may have given us better bandaid solutions than were available to our ancestors, yet there really aren’t that many miracles to be had.
My own expectations have lowered considerably after two injuries requiring expert examinations.
The first, diagnosed as Degenerative Disc Disease, brought me to the office of the renowned neurosurgeon, Dr. Rajjoub. I had terrible pain, loss of strength and feeling on my right side, my neck was really bad from what my family doctor saw on the MRI. My parents, after we waited what seemed hours, finally were escorted into the examination room and were full of anticipation.
Having done our own research, knowing the seriousness of my injury, it was quite certain that I would be under the knife soon. They would open things up, remove the bad, and fix me up better than new!
The physician strode into the room. He looked over the charts and images with intensity and then, without hesitation, “physical therapy” and started to turn towards the door. Stunned, my mom, speaking for the three of us, our mouths agape, “Wait, what?!?” It was as if he just told a blind man to rub mud in his eyes and was simply going to leave. He explained further, telling us about the risks of the procedures, how my neck movement would be limited after, and restated his recommendation.
Dr. Rajjoub was right. After weeks of therapy and further exercise at home, I was able to regain feeling and the use of my right arm. Sure, I occasionally have painful flare ups and may need the surgery some day, but the doctor had given me the right answer even if it was not the one that I wanted to hear at the time. Modern medicine has advanced, yet it is our body that still does most of the healing.
A Comical Contradiction
After tearing my ACL I met with an orthopedic surgeon to discuss the options available. Still active, I expressed my desire to get back in the game and he responded by recommending surgery. They grafted a part of my hamstring tendon in where the ACL had been and I spent the next few months becoming good friends with Rob and Bob at Keystone Care Physical Therapy and impressing the old folks there with my vertical leap.
Unfortunately, after a year of intense rehab, I was playing basketball and reinjured the repaired knee. So I went back to the orthopedic surgeon for a consultation and his advice? He suggested that maybe I slow down a bit, that I was no spring chicken anymore (a paraphrase) and should probably avoid strenuous activities. Excuse me?!? I had thought I went through the surgery and physical therapy so that I could actually use the limb, right???
But that’s typical of a doctor’s advice. He was trying to minimize the risk of my reinjuring my knee, to cover his own butt, and could I really expect him to say anything otherwise? To tell me to go full throttle again? I can understand why he would urge my caution. And still I can’t deny being disappointed. My thought had been that this surgery would allow me to pick up where I had left off and instead I got a cease and desist notice.
The Undiagnosed Nightmare
I’ve reconnected with an old school friend. I rode the bus with him for many years and we shared a first name.
It is quite astounding, actually, how we got reconnected. That being a story for another time. But one thing memorable about this old classmate is how he was always complaining about pain in his feet. At a younger age I had thought of him as being weak or a whiner. He had been diagnosed as being flat-footed.
However, it was a little clearer that there was something more seriously wrong when, in middle school, a fall, after a playful shove in the hall, resulted in a broken hip.
Anyhow, at our one-on-one reunion he would let me in on his the true source of his suffering and something that the medical professionals had missed. Something that doctors had initially told him was all in his head, that the genetic department of an area research hospital refused to even test, turned out to be Fabry’s Disease, a rare genetic disorder where the body is unable to produce a particular enzyme, which means the body is unable digest certain proteins, and is a death sentence if not properly treated.
He had gone through hell. A breeze on his skin felt like torture. They had treated him with addictive painkillers that basically turned him into a junkie. And his proper diagnosis came from an uncle who read a story about someone with similar symptoms, a revelation that prompted my friend to demand the diagnostic tests for the genetic disorder and only then did he finally receive the necessary treatment. The medical system had both failed and saved him.
The Miracle Hoped For…
Then there’s my cousin Uriah. Nothing, not the most advanced treatment in the world, could save him. The prognosis was never good, Synovial Sarcoma, but I held on to the hope that some new cure might come along, some miracle might happen, and he would survive.
It was hard to watch. First after one round of him taking poison, called chemotherapy and the only thing that will keep the corrupted human cells called cancer from growing, they decided that he would need to sacrifice his leg. This Uriah and his family did everything they could, he received top notch medical care at Walter Reed and elsewhere. But there was not much that could be done for him.
The limitations of modern medicine is a bitter pill. And those seeking ‘alternatives’ do not fare any better if diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. I know many strong-willed individuals, in partial denial of the graveness of their condition, who traveled to places like Mexico for some kind of breakthrough treatment and suffered the same fate. Better technology may come along soon and yet disease and death is as natural as health and life.
There is a myth, popular in some circles, that if a person eats right and exercises they will be rewarded with long life. Uriah was one of the most fit and disciplined people I know, there was nothing he could have done better, he was dealt a bad card.
“In 2002 James lost his 19-year-old son after he collapsed while running. He had been diagnosed with a heart arrhythmia by a cardiologist a few weeks prior and was released from the hospital with instructions not to drive for 24 hours.
“His death certificate said he died of a heart arrhythmia,” he said, but my son really died as a result of “uninformed, careless, and unethical care by cardiologists.” He explained: “If you have a patient with heart arrhythmias of a certain level and low potassium, you need to replace the potassium, and they did not. And they didn’t tell him he shouldn’t go back to running.” Communication errors, he said, are “unfortunately very common.”
What is left out of this story is that a century ago he would have simply died from the arrhythmia.
In fact, only half a century ago my great-grandfather died, a middle-aged man, of a heart attack because there were no surgeries widely available.
So, truly, modern medicine is a victim of it’s own success, things have improved so much from the time when many people died of many diseases, even at a young age, that we now expect perfection. Our ancestors, not too long ago, would have no treatment options, whereas we demand answers when the treatment fails.
Those who expect too much will be the most sorely disappointed. Those who expect to be saved from suffering by science will some day be faced with a harsh reality and, likewise, those who believe that there’s a cure for cancer being withheld are equally delusional. This idea that we have complete control, that there should somehow be a cure for everything, is a product of our success in medicine and also ignorance of what this success actually means.
Sure, some of us, like my grandpa, may have died on multiple occasions had it not been for medical advancements like Penicillin, prostrate surgery and pacemakers. But, even now, with the great progress we’ve made, we’re still all eventually going to wear out. Our bodies have a shelf life and all the intervention in the world isn’t going to do much to change that. Eat healthy, exercise enough, avoid getting hit by a truck, and you might see eighty years, maybe more if you have good genetics. But we won’t live forever.
So, before we become too critical, rather than only dwell on the failures, we should look at the advancement and appreciate the success. Results will always be a mixed bag, even those who have received the very best care, men like Steve Jobs, do not live forever nor will you. Even Lazarus, brought back to life by Jesus, eventually died. And my friend, the one with the missed diagnosis, would long ago have joined Lazarus had it not been for modern medicine.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It is hard to believe that another decade has already come and gone. This past decade has been one of many transitions for me, from the launch of this blog in 2014 to a big change in career a few years later and, on top of all that, a departure from the only religious identity I had ever known for another.
It was a decade marked by an extreme of faith, the high-water mark of my spiritual life, leading to the most profound of disappointments and suicidal despair, all followed by a rise again from the ashes. If there is such a thing as living a second life, a life after death, then I am living proof of that concept despite the scars.
Delusion, Disappointment and Divine Humor
This blog was started, mid-decade, to be a record of my journey and also a story of the triumph of faith within a Mennonite context. However, things did not go as anticipated, my enthusiasm was not shared by those who had the power to make a difference, and my misplaced faith ended up being fully exposed by the end of it all. That was the lowest of lows for me.
However, even in my lowest moments, in the midst of that, there was a moment of levity where my sharing my disgruntlement with the impossible Mennonite marriageability expectations went viral. That remains my most viewed and shared Irregular Ideation blog to date (and recently vastly eclipsed by a blog on another blog I curate) and my proof that God does indeed have a sense of humor.
It would be hard to give that up. And I knew the newfound popularity of my blog would likely suffer once I formally announced my departure from Anabaptism—which does seem to be the case as traffic has diminished since then—but that is also the kind of sacrifice that a Christian commitment requires:
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26 NIV)
For the first time in my life, I had left the comfort of the Anabaptist fishbowl for something bigger. Who knows what that will bring?
Dramatic Changes and Delicious Ironies
The move to Orthodoxy has been part of a huge paradigm shift and was pretty much the only option that I had left. It was a refuge to preserve the little faith that survived the collision with a terrible reality of my misplaced hopes. I certainly didn’t go to replace what had been devastated in me. And there are all of the problems found in every group of Christians from those recorded in the book of Acts onward—all of the silly squabbles and turf wars included.
Nevertheless, the beauty of Orthodox worship, the focus on Scripture and glorifying God in our song (rather than human emotion, etc) along with a simple (and timeless) Gospel message, helped me to move forward. Orthodox worship centers on our Communion together with God and (unlike the traditions I was most familiar with as a Protestant) they do not attempt to explain the explainable. At some point, we need to let go of our own understanding and embrace the mysteries beyond our comprehension.
Moving on from religion to real estate and other miscellaneous items, I started the decade paying down my debt for my first home and driving cars that probably belonged in a scrapyard. But then, in 2014, spurred by my other and disappointments, I bought my first new car, paid cash for a handsome black Ford Focus—my best purchase to date. In fact, I was so pleased with that purchase that I sold my prized (but high mileage) Jaguar XJR and bought a brand new Shelby GT-350 two years later when they first came out—an extravagant purchase which also led to some very meaningful friendships.
Anyhow, having reached the pinnacle of automotive excellence (at least for a working man’s salary) it was time to rest comfortably, save my money and relax a bit. Or, rather, that had been the plan…
But somehow (possibly working in an office with a bunch of restless Amish investors rubbing off on me?) I ended up buying a second property with the thought (at the time of purchase) that I would move in to and sell my old place in Milton. But suddenly that plan didn’t make sense anymore, why not rent the new house and build some equity instead? Needless to say, my ideas for a comfortable existence went out the window and, only two years later, now I’m working on house number three. Not exactly a business empire, yet more than calculated risk than I’ve ever taken on before.
In the time since my blinding hopes ran into a young Mennonite woman’s all-consuming ambitions, my feet have landed in three different countries (read more here and here) and all on the opposite side of the world. As it turns out, despite my self-doubts, all that I really needed was a good enough reason to go. I had started the decade thinking that I was incapable of finding my own direction in life, that I needed to hitch myself to someone else’s ambitions to get anywhere, and yet here I am moving on. Yes, very soon, echoing the central complaint of the young woman who rejected my offer of the impossible love, I will no longer be thirty years old living in Milton.
Where False Devotion Fails, True Love Prevails
I was wrong to hope to find the kind of love that is only possible with faith within the Mennonite context.*
That said, I was right about one thing: It is only that kind of love could ever motivate me to do anything worthwhile with my life.
Truly I did nothing, over the past few years, on the strength of my own effort. No, I’ve needed physical therapists, family, spiritual fathers, sisters, and brothers. Not to mention those friends on the road who made my loneliness bearable, also those who know my name at the various establishments that I frequent, my generous current employer and the many others who have positively impacted my life over the past decade. To all those people I owe a debt of gratitude.
However, there is one who has been there for me unlike any other, the one who didn’t lose hope in me despite my delusions and attachments to Mennonite dogma; the one who told to be strong for her, to get out of bed and go to church again. Everything I’ve done over the past few years would not have been possible apart from the investment of faith that she has made in me. She, as a person who has experienced her own personal misfortune, showed more love for me than those who claim to travel the world as a display of their Christian love.
In this coming decade, I plan to spend far less time trying to please the falsely pious and proud, who can’t be pleased and are obsessed with their own image, and more time with the downtrodden and truly humble.
That is the vision behind FACT, an organization of one, so far, that has already given me some hope that my seemingly divergent strengths and interests can finally be combined into something useful and good. I hope the vision of FACT will soon grow into concrete steps towards truly meaningful actions and compassionate solutions for OFWs and their families. But that, of course, will take more than my own personal efforts and I hope there will be others willing to put aside their doubts and help those who are already doing all they can do to better themselves.
*Mennonites, like people of all established religious traditions, are really good at carrying out their own particular programs and denominational prescriptions. Similar to their Anabaptist cousins more known for their barn-raisings, Mennonites love to help in disaster relief projects. They will also dutifully staff and fund their own private schools (or homeschool if they are more trendy) and now even travel the world as missionaries. All good things, I suppose. But all those things do not require any real faith on the part of Mennonite individuals, they are a cultural inheritance, a good way to find a romantic partner, an acceptable path to rise through the ranks, and are not truly sacrificial acts of faith or love.
Entering Into A Strange New World
In the past decade, my plans got turned upside down. I gave up on old dreams and, from the wreckage of my hopes, found some new vision. Had anyone said, ten years ago, that I would have three properties, traveled to the opposite side of the world, and converted to Orthodoxy, I would have probably laughed at them. But here I am, having started a journey to the impossibility and ended up here, perplexed.
We started the decade with a president who would seem more comfortable in a lecture hall and ended it with a persona built for professional wrestling, reality television, and trolling on Twitter. Yet, contrary to popular opinion or at least in contrast to the fears of half the population, the earth has not fallen from orbit nor has the moon disappeared from the night sky, life has gone on. Albeit, my assumptions, the idea that our political decisions are rationally based, had to change overnight. Scott Adams has persuaded me.
Over the same time, I’ve been processing the battle with cancer of a younger cousin and good friend, who just finished college and plans to marry soon, who already sacrificed a leg (in the past year) and now has new growths in his lungs.
So the fight will continue for him as it does for all of us.
One day at a time.
None of us knows what trials we will face in the next decade and yet need to continue to live in faith. I hope to be done with my inventory taking, soon break free of the transitional time I am presently still in, and finally have some of those long-awaited triumphs that have eluded me in certain areas of my life. But, at the end of it all, I can’t really tell you what this next decade will hold, whether Trump will win in 2020 or if there will even be a year 2030.
There is no point in getting stressed out about what we can’t know. Our life is a vapor, it appears for a little and then it is gone. So make the best of the time you have and don’t worry about tomorrow!