“Proof through the night.”
Good thing I randomly walked into the Smithsonian American History Museum on New Year’s Eve 2014 and stumbled upon the life-changing meaning of that concept, because it made March 23, 2015, starting at about 5am, the best day of my life, the real beginning of Life 2.0 with Sheila, Joe and Crosby, and now sweet little Eugenia.
Otherwise five years ago this Monday would have been a pretty shitty day.
Sheila heard two loud thuds as I crashed face-first into a stairwell wall and fell lifeless into the landing, and a few minutes later she calmly called 911 and gave emergency communications expert Brandi Palma all the pertinent information, and together they triggered a chain of heroic activity among dozens of other lifesaving experts like firefighter Patrick Evans, who arrived with other bad-ass first responder colleagues within minutes to get my paralyzed 200 lb body out of the house and into an ambulance enroute to George Washington University Trauma Center, where nurses, PAs, doctors, and surgeons put me in traction to stretch out my spine to prepare for six hours of spinal fusion surgery the next day, followed by a couple years of tedious rehab, constant pain, and ever-present anxiety about trying to return to the real world and (all of a sudden) learning be a good dad and husband. (You can read about some of that in Sheila's beautiful voice here.)
That could have been a rough day. But it was instead a powerfully positive inflection point, largely because, for some reason, New Year’s Eve 2014 had provided a pertinent lesson.
The first half of December 31, 2014 was very bad. My marriage was dying. Actually it was already dead, although at the moment I mercifully didn’t know it yet. My closest confidant in grief, Chip Kennett, was also dying, although at the moment I mercifully didn’t know that it was only 18 days away. And my self-important “most likely to succeed” dreams of professional excellence seemed in my depressed state of mind to be dying as well in an unhappy job.
I was in the process of developing my evacuation plans to start my life over in Georgia, but on New Year’s Eve 2014, I was alone in DC, and alone in my office at the FCC, distracting myself with cybersecurity information sharing legislation.
I profoundly dreaded – in a way, feared – the evening. What would I do? Kill time, of course… but to get to what exactly? Go to a bar with other “single” friends? Watch the ball drop in Times Square on TV by myself? Pretend it wasn’t New Year’s Eve and try to read a book or watch a movie until I was drunk enough to fall asleep on the couch?
My lovely younger sister Anna called me early that afternoon and gave me a pep talk that brought my head into my hands, sobbing silently, my office door closed as she talked with me, for two reasons: (1) what she said was very loving and rang true to me, and also (2) my baby sister was giving me a pep talk as my life appeared to be falling apart. (Funny fact: She and my mom were calling me from the road, on the way back from taking her daughter, my niece Marydee, to get a “baby” from BabyLand General Hospital in Cleveland, Georgia, the delightful and utterly bizarre place where Cabbage Patch Kids are born.)
Anna’s pep talk helped. Eventually I left the office and walked across the National Mall toward downtown. It was about 4pm, and I had no idea where I was going. I was just wandering. When I got across the Mall at the intersection of 12th and Constitution, I randomly decided to go left to the American History Museum instead of right toward the Natural History Museum, or across the street towards downtown. No idea why. It was totally random. There was no decision; it just so happened that I turned left. I had not been in the American History Museum in 25 years, since Franklin County High School took a group of us social studies students to Washington in 11th grade. There was nothing I was particularly interested in seeing that day. Maybe Dorothy’s ruby slippers? No. I was just killing time.
I listened to the newest Drive By Truckers album, English Oceans, on repeat on my ear buds as I wandered around the museum. That album is the soundtrack of that dark period. I wandered through multiple songs and multiple exhibits for probably an hour, and at some point ambled into the exhibit for the Star Spangled Banner, the enormous and now thin, cut up, torn flag that flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812, our first war of survival as a nation.
It's a great exhibit, but I was paying zero attention, just killing time as I walked past the historical explainers and the examples of rockets and bombs of that time period, and turned left to the main exhibit as the Smithsonian employee repetitively told us that photos are not allowed. (The light from the flashes damages the frail threads of the 200+ year old fabric.) The flag was laid out before me, behind glass, in a reverential dark room, with Francis Scott Key's verse in white capital letters behind and above it.
Something (spoiler alert, it was God) compelled me to stop wandering and to pay attention as my eyes crossed these words:
AND THE ROCKETS’ RED GLARE!
THE BOMBS BURSTING IN AIR!
GAVE PROOF THROUGH THE NIGHT
THAT OUR FLAG WAS STILL THERE…
To be clear, it was not a “voice from above” or an out of body experience. It was just an unmistakable moment of clarity, a palpable feeling of my gut being told: “Listen, son, pay attention.” And knowing that the deepest reaches of my soul wanted – needed – to do so.
I took my earbuds out – aware of the melodrama in doing so, but I couldn’t listen to music just now – and read those words over and over and over, probably 50 times.
What an exhilarating revelation that hit me in that moment. It is the very peril that we face – the rockets and bombs – that illuminates that which is good and true, namely this:
Love and peace and joy exist and cannot be extinguished.
Love and peace and joy are indomitable.
God’s grace (the flag) is still there, always. It will never go away.
Grace is indomitable.
We often (usually?) forget that, and too often it takes danger or tragedy or death or loss to illuminate that divine fact.
I left the museum that day in an almost goofy state of giddiness. Ok, not “almost goofy,” as I’m pretty sure I did a few indomitable MC Hammer “Can’t Touch This” slides along the sidewalk until I eventually regained my composure somewhere near 12th Street and started listening to the Truckers again.
But let's be honest: "Can't Touch This."
New Year’s Eve was great. I watched a movie and then texted funny happy things with my mom and dad and brother and sister as we watched Times Square together from DC, Chattanooga, New Orleans, and Eagle Grove. Then I spent New Year’s Day packing up my stuff to move into my own place, and later watching college football with Chip and Sheila. I told them a bit about the flag, and they laughed at me and also loved it. (Because of cancer, they had already learned what I had just learned.)
Chip and I assured each other through gallows humor jokes during the football games we were watching that everything would be ok on the other side of all this, whatever it was. In a more somber 30 seconds, Sheila and I assured each other we were through the worst of it, no matter what happened next.
We were standing right next to that stairwell landing when we had that tearful discussion. Weird. But everything we said was true. We were through the worst of it.
On January 17, Chip died. It’s his “birthday in heaven” as we and the kids now know it. (As Crosby would put it, “Duh. That’s what it is. That's when he went in heaven.”) My marriage’s late December separation became a divorce, lovingly the best thing for both of us. I would not start over in Georgia, because Joe couldn’t lose me too, right after he lost Chip.
All of it was excruciating, so extreme as to be indescribable.
But also, it was proof of God’s grace through the dark night of death and grief and loss and pain, as individual moments of piercing love, peace, and joy forced their way into our lives, filling our extremely difficult days with a brightness we had never before had the occasion to see.
It happened all the time, starting the day of Chip’s death, with rocket ships blasting the kids through the house and big plans for Joe to host the Patriots Football Sunday gang for the AFC Championship game the next day.
“No rest! Fly!” said two-year old Crosby.
“We’re gonna need some beers,” said five-year old Joe.
And on and on, day after every painful, loving, peaceful, joyful day.
So when I broke my neck on March 23, in a way it seemed an obvious – and sort of awesome – next step. This was just a black diamond run to show us the extremity of how great God’s grace is.
And yes, it is extremely great.
Let’s not forget that now, as this virus begins to takes its toll.
Let’s look for -- focus intently on -- what the rockets and bombs illuminate.
It is twilight’s last gleaming right now. We are entering a period of profoundly dark night. Nobody alive today has experienced what we are about to live through in the coming weeks. Thousands of our loved ones will die, and in many cases we will not be able to attend their funerals or mourn with our family members.
That is extreme darkness.
But look around as the rockets' red glare and the bombs bursting in air light up the night’s sky. What will be proven through this night?
In every moment of grief, in every person suffering loss, in every community mourning, there is love and peace and joy everywhere, all around us.
What will this peril illuminate?
At dawn’s early light -- and it will come, have no doubt -- what will we so proudly hail in ourselves?
Let us see -- and be -- grace in America. It’s up to us. We control that part of this night.
"We can do it." -Rosie
"We've got this." -Chip
In life’s most joyful moments and in the darkest of hours and seemingly impossible circumstances, there is grace. Abundant grace always abounds if you allow yourself to see it. This I know, and these are my lessons in grace.
Read about what came before Sweetness Follows at TeamKennett.com.