Our friend Lenny Bernotas, pastor of Trinity Bible Church, preached a powerful sermon at Gabe’s memorial service called “Grace for Gabriel.” One of the many things that stuck with me from the message was Lenny’s admonition to remember how Gabe lived, rather than how he died. He quoted from Philippians 4:8
Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
What good advice … wisdom from God … wise, peaceable, etc.
Today is five weeks. I’d like to redeem this anniversary by dedicating it to a celebration of Gabe’s life and legacy. I’ll begin with a poem I wrote about him 10 years ago. Next Friday, I’ll post some work of Gabe’s—a poem, rap, cartoon or video. Something that celebrates his life and incredible gifts. But first …
You came sparkling into the world,
a firecracker bursting multicolored across the sky,
your soft brown skin glowing with delight at
everything your eyes beheld—
I loved you from the first.
You spoke in sentences sweet
when barely a year had passed,
and when the wedding bells did ring
a granite floor was laid beneath your tiny feet.
The Lord has made a miracle,
he’s made one bright and true;
he sent it shining through the night
to come reside with us.
Never from that swollen golden crimson time
until this frozen grey has
my heart known a moment without
beating just for you.
[original poem © cas, 1998]
[photo: Making Scary Faces with Mom, Fairless Hills, PA, 1986]
From the beginning of this tragedy, people have remarked at how well my family is handling it. The other day, I joined the chorus and told Jeff he was doing really well for somebody who had never before experienced the sudden death of an immediate family member. He said, “I know my Redeemer lives and I’m not doing as well as you think.” I fully concur with his sentiments.
Having said that, there are some explanations for why we are doing as well as we are.
First, friends who’ve lost children have told us that the six month point is when the reality really hits hard. We are still in a good deal of shock, thank God, and fully expect things to get worse before they get better.
Second, we’ve been through hell as a family over the past five years. Gabe’s death feels like the horrific end to the whole terrible ordeal. As I wrote about last year in Christianity Today, Jeff and I left full time ministry primarily because our boys were not doing well. They were both struggling in numerous ways. They needed some TLC and we rented our lovely little overpriced apartment with the pool and palm trees as a place of respite for them.
[Irvine, CA, 2007]
When Gabe came home last summer after graduating from college, we had a blow-out one day about I don’t remember what. He dumped his feelings about these years and said something about having wanted to kill himself while he was at school. Contrary to what I told The Wheaton Record in the disoriented days after Gabe’s death, he never said when these thoughts began or how long they lasted. I took him seriously, but mistakenly believed that he would be okay now that he was home. After all, we had all experienced these fleeting thoughts in the midst of our trials and a primary source of his pain and stress was gone.
For a while, Gabe appeared to settle into normal life. More recently, I had become concerned again, and had suggested counseling. We tried to encourage him to find a faith community for support and friendship. His one attempt involved a conversation with a pastor who disparaged his beloved parents’ decision to become Anglicans. Jeff took him under his wing and gave him a job so that he could help him get off the ground financially and support him emotionally. We worshiped together at home on Easter Sunday.
We did everything we knew how to do to help Gabe. I can rack my brain all day and night about my own failings and the warning signs we missed, but I know that we gave our all to loving him and caring for him. Even in his desperate state, he was able to leave behind the words, “Dad, you are my hero,” “Mom, you were a great mom” and “Mike, you were my best friend growing up,” etc. Imagine if we had this outcome with angry words left behind. Gabe loved us and we loved him to the end. There is peace because of this. There is also great pain in knowing that our love wasn’t enough to save him.
[Winward Beach, Brick, NJ, 1985]
The third reason we are doing as well as we are is that Gabe always seemed to have a precarious hold on this world. He had his first serious asthma attack when he was 13 months old, 3 days before Jeff and I were married. I was calling the doctor all day long because he was breathing funny and was listless. She kept saying she was too busy to see him, but finally agreed as the day drew to a close. When she listened to his lungs, a look of terror crossed her face and she sent us immediately to the emergency room. Gabe spent the next 5 days in an oxygen tent.
There would be many such terrifying moments over the years, the last of which was 3.5 years ago. I had to fly to Chicago as Gabe was being placed in an ambulance with his lungs on the verge of collapse. I didn’t know if he would be alive when I got there. As I flew through the sky, I imagined what I would do if I was greeted with news of his death.
Gabriel had other physical traumas. The most serious was a brain injury a couple months after this last life-threatening asthma attack. It was 2 days before Christmas, 2004. As Jeff and I waited at home to decorate the tree, Gabe and Mike went to the mall to buy their dad a present. They returned bloodied and with Gabe incoherent and unable to remember the details of his life. They had been assaulted in a dispute over a parking spot. Gabe was knocked backwards to the ground. Because of his NF, the soft spot on the back of his head had never closed. A palm-sized area of his brain was exposed. It took him nearly a week to regain his memory and for a long time afterwards he said he didn’t feel like himself. But then, as always, he seemed to bounce back.
The point is that Gabe lived his whole life in the shadow of death. We lived in that shadow with him. We know we will see him again. The time doesn’t seem so far off to me and the loss is too recent for the ache to have really settled in. It comes over us in huge waves and then passes for a while. Also, I’ve lost many friends and a father when I was just a girl. Issues of mortality don’t weigh heavily on my mind. I’ve always known this life is but a moment. Perhaps Jeff has known it too from living with Gabe and me.
A fourth reason we are doing well is because we have to. We have another child whose whole identity is altered. It has always been Gabe and Mike. No other person has lived Mike’s experiences with him in the way Gabe did. He needs us to lead the way through this. We’re determined that this tragedy not destroy him or us.
[Pumpkin Picking, Wall, NJ, 1988]
Finally and most importantly, there is the comfort of the Holy Spirit. From the early moments after the police left our home, a verse of Scripture kept washing over my brain: A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. I was assured of God’s compassion for Gabe. The story of David’s response to his son’s death also impressed upon my mind. I identify with him in my better moments. He said, While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, “Who knows, the Lord may be gracious to me, that the child may live. But now he has died; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again. I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me. (2 Sam. 12:22-23)
Gabriel’s whole life was bathed in prayer. His was a long, intense struggle for such a short life. He overcame tremendous obstacles while he lived, more than most of us will ever have to face. When he died, for days, I kept saying, “My poor baby; my poor baby.” What pain he had to be in to do such a thing. He is at peace now. I’d much rather have him present with us and working through his struggles, but that option is past. As I wrote in Gabe’s obituary, our sorrow is surpassed only by the joy it was to have shared our lives with him. We will miss him every day of our lives, but we will live them with faith, hope and love. That’s what he would want.
[Atlantic Avenue Beach, Long Branch, NJ 2000]