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!

The Day My Little Hope Died

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I was a failure in my own mind.

My engagement ended.  I had hurt someone that I loved deeply.  My lofty romantic ambitions ended in a grinding and painful defeat.  I was not the hero that saved the day.

I was confused, embarrassed, disappointed and determined to make up for my failure to deliver as promised.

That feeling of obligation only intensified when my ex-fiance became pregnant to another man a bit later.  The relationship with the child’s father had not worked out.  I was worried for both mother and child.

I wondered how my friend would be able to provide and decided I would offer the best support that I could as a friend.  When I met Saniyah for the first time my fears began to subside.  Holding her filled me with a fatherly pride.

Eventually, as my friend and her child were sufficiently cared for in her community, my initial fears were replaced with a little hope.  Saniyah was real living proof that something good could come out of failure and represented hope that my friend would have the lifelong companion.

Nothing could prepare me.

It was a normal sunny spring day, March 26, 2009, a Thursday.  I was still getting adjusted to my life on the road as a truck driver and had run hard that week.

I was still on the road when I received a text message.  The contents, something about my friend’s baby being in the hospital, really didn’t register for some reason.

However, the message that came a bit later, the one telling me something unthinkable, I did understand and it hit hard.

“Why!?!”

My mind screamed for an answer.

There was a moment of intense anger.

Saniyah, only eighteen months old, was no longer with us.  She has been found in her crib lifeless and blue.  Her death caused by a combination of asthma and pneumonia.  There was nothing that could be done to save her.

My work week ended abruptly.  I told my dispatcher (whose office I was in at the time) that I would be unable to finish the week and had decided I would drive to be there for my friend.  Soon after I was on the road headed east.

A surreal night and a mother’s wail.

The morning sun had been replaced by dark skies and driving rain.  I drove through the torrential downpour, at the edge of control, the worn grooves of I-80 filled with water, and at a higher rate of speed than safe.

I arrived in Brooklyn that evening not even sure how I got there or what to expect.  I had left without any real plan where I would stay or what I would do.  All that mattered to me was that I would be there for my friend if she needed me.

I was soon feeling a bit better.  My friend was willing to see me, her composure was amazing and soon we were back at her apartment with the small gathering of family and friends.

I had settled down on the couch.  My friend was in the other room, which was connected by a large opening, she was looking through pictures as I chatted and then came a moment that will probably be with me to my dying day.

My strong friend, whose calm had been my comfort until then, let out a groan, a wail only a mother could make, and it was a sound that penetrated me to the deepest depths of my being.

That night, while she cried, I bit my lip and held back trying to be strong.  But in that moment something broke, something tore deep inside me, I stared through the hole down into a hopeless and terrible darkness that I had not known before.

That was the day my little hope died.

We buried Saniyah a few days later.  I recall staring at that little lifeless body, feeling helpless, overwhelmed and knowing that I did not have the faith to bring her back to life.  I would have traded my own life to give Saniyah back to my friend.

The hole that stared back at me.

I stopped talking to members of my immediate family who did not attend the funeral.  Before then I had been frustrated with a couple of my siblings who always seemed too busy when I called and now were too busy to honor the life of Saniyah.

It was not fair to them that they bore the brunt of my feelings (nor was it fair to the online community that I was a part of then) but I had a deep anger raging inside that could not be calmed.  They became the more tangible enemy that I so desperately wanted.

And then there was the guilt.  My friend had told me about Saniyah’s health issue and how the doctor seemed more interested in scamming the state than providing quality care.  Why had I not intervened then and insisted that she see another physician?

I was not thinking rationally.

I was trying to stay one step ahead of a monster inside of me.

But I could not always run fast enough and in moments where I felt helpless, things that would only cause a healthy person a bit of concern, my gaze would turn inside and the nightmare would catch up to me.

I would look deep into that hole that had opened the night Saniyah died and a despair that I cannot begin to describe in words would envelop me.  It is that thing of Lovecraftian horror, the words of Friedrich Nietzsche come to life, a terror that would leave me in pieces and sobbing.

My religion, largely an intellectual project, failed to provide me with good answers.  I was, despite regular church attendance, an agnostic for all intents and purposes.  My inability to protect those who I loved or prove my way to faith, along with a string of other failures to realize my dreams, left me hollow inside and feeling totally helpless.

The return of a new hope and purpose.

Tears still well up when I talk about Saniyah and the circumstances of her death.  Life is never the same after an experience like that.  But those episodes of helplessness and profound loss, of reliving that moment from the night she died, have gone away.

My anger subsided.  My estranged relationships restored and mostly better than ever.  My faith now built on foundation more substantial than the book knowledge that had been so woefully inadequate to save me.  I have a bigger hope now than the little one based in my own efforts.

After years of struggle and questions too big for my own mind, I realized that the hope Saniyah represented still lives on.  It is a hope built on trust on faith not of my own works and found in the sufficiency of God’s grace.

My temporary loss is heaven’s gain.

Broken noses, mangled plans and perseverance

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“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Mike Tyson.

I believe most reading can identify in at least a small way with the quote above. If you have ever been hit so hard that you don’t know if you will be on your feet again then you probably understand completely. Hits come in many forms in life and can interrupt even the best of our plans.

I have not taken a hit from a professional boxer, but I have had my nose bloodied a time or two.  My list including the vicious hit delivered by my brother during a pickup football game; that an episode that ended with me being hurried to the emergency room having suffered a deviated septum.  I had caught a lateral pass, turned, then *WHAM* a shoulder smashed into my head and suddenly I am on the ground (still clutching the ball) dizzy wondering where all the blood was coming from. That day my immediate plans were altered as severely as my visibly mangled nose.

Everyone has hopes, dreams or plans and success does often depend on hard work, discipline and execution of a plan.  However, planning is easy but real life isn’t always and the truer test of resolve is when an effort is met with a unexpected and disorienting blow.  It takes courage and strength to stand back up again, after looking at the lights above the ring, having been knocked flat on your back.  Our plans and the realities we will face can be vastly different things.  I believe most people who live long enough will experience times where perseverance requires overcoming obstacles of pain, loss and fear.

I have withstood many setbacks or small disappointments in life and have usually been able to keep a positive attitude about it.  I have built up a tolerance for physical pain. But there are other types of injury other than physical that do not heal in weeks or months and those are the real trials of my faith.  There have been a few moments in my life where it seemed as if all hope was sucked from my soul and faith was nearly impossible.  It is only, by the grace of God, with the help of good friends that I have made it this far.

My heart goes out to anyone who has lost a loved one.  The death of a close friend’s child was on of the hardest hits of my life.  I felt totally helpless, I could do nothing to ‘fix’ the situation for my friend and my heartache lasted for years after. My hopes and plans built around that child died on a Thursday afternoon with a piece of me.  I got out of bed each morning, some days better and other days worse, but down inside was a deep pain of heart that I could not solve.

I have found peace for the questions that raged inside after the death.  Still, there are scars for each battle I have faced and some circumstances remain that I have no clear answer for.  It can be easy to be discouraged when past experiences haunt you and is tempting to give up when overwhelmed by an opponent seemingly too big or powerful to defeat.  Each blow is different, every day of overcoming is a new battle and each one requires new courage and fresh resolve.  We can only pray for the wisdom and for sufficient provision of hope to get through each day.

We all have obstacles to face, blows to our confidence and our faith to overcome. Things like a cancer diagnosis, the agony of a rejection, or death can continue to trip us up spiritually or emotionally and sometimes for years.  It is in those moments where character is formed; one can become bitter, cynical or jaded and otherwise defeated by the odds against them, or one can also keep faith alive, believe tomorrow will be a better day and live to overcome.

Real strength is not quitting when a harsh reality smacks you in the face. Faith begins when it seems like giants stand in the way of promises for a future and when hope feels quite delusional.  Plans change, life hits us in the face, but with God all things are possible, so do not wallow in despair; regroup and get back in the fight.

Life and faith require perseverance. That, and some appropriate protective gear may also help as well, and especially if you are up against Mike Tyson or younger brothers.

Take care!