“[Grieving] requires a lot of love, and love is a harsh comforter, because only love makes genuine loss possible. You can’t lose what you never loved.”
Richard Lischer, Stations of the Heart
“There is a hole in the world now. A center like no other of memory and hope and knowledge and affection which once inhabited this earth is gone. A perspective on this world unique in this world is gone. The world is emptier.”
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son
I felt like I was giving an elephant a prostate exam.
Other than a few crumbling, quarter-size chunks of drywall, the light fixture and the plastic junction box came out without incident. After that, it got a little hairy. Within moments, I was balanced on top of a ladder with my arm inserted almost up to my shoulder through a narrow opening in McConnell’s ceiling, burrowing hopelessly through mounds of 20-year-old pink insulation.
It could’ve been such a simple project.
But, damn—leave it to McConnell to stick me on this end of the only home improvement project he boasted of completing from start to finish.
It was years ago that McConnell poked his head into my office to ask me if I wanted to hear how he had, once again, rescued the beauty. I knew by the gleam in his eye that he was baiting me as he had countless times before; for as much as Craig was a masterful husband and father and friend, he was most surely a masterful storyteller. And it was his narratives and keen eye for holy irony that unfailingly led me again and again back into the glad atmosphere of Heaven.
So I pushed my chair back from my desk and took the bait, inviting him to share another one of his tall tales with me.
He took a seat and began:
“So, Lori was sick of the access panel door to the attic crawl space. She’s been nagging me for years to make it disappear so the wall would look better. Of course, I came to the rescue. Cut some drywall, mudded, taped, and voilá: no more door, no more nagging. Who’s the stallion now?!”
“McConnell, well done!” I responded, “I never knew you were both a romantic and a skilled handyman.”
“Well, unfortunately, that’s not all. That was two weeks ago. Last week is when I heard them.”
“Heard what?” I asked.
He paused for dramatic effect, looking out my office window, as if remembering a far-off land filled with pirates and treasure.
“The squirrels, Morgan. They’ve moved into the attic. And if all the running around is any indication, they must be storing a hell of a lot of nuts up there.”
I smiled, realizing exactly where this was going, and offered the punchline on his behalf:
“And the one way to get after them is—or was—the attic door.”
“Precisely,” he replied, offering that subtle wink that always beckoned a person deeper into his tale.
McConnell’s “successful” seal-off-the-attic-access-home-improvement project soon gave way to four-plus years of turf war with the rogue squirrels who decided to lay siege to his attic and prepare for the end times right above his favorite reading chair. Truth be told, he might have been able to bring about a cease-fire simply by patching the rather small hole that the squirrels had torn in the stucco right at the eaves and were using to get inside the attic. But he elected for another tactic, because, in his own words,
“There are always two games to play. You’ve got to know which game you’re playing and which one you want to win the most.”
And for Craig, it was always the prize of the story that he was after.
So war it was. Think Eisenhower at the helm of the D-Day invasion, or Roosevelt leading the charge of Rough Riders in Panama. The strategy and stories never ceased to flow into my office.
His first strategy involved a BB gun.
Week after week, he relayed his epic wilderness stalks through his quarter-acre yard, ducking behind bird feeders, judging the wind, analyzing the barometric pressure, and always consulting the solunar tables. He would purposefully allude to every methodology and nugget of vernacular he’d heard over the years from our own stories of chasing actual big game in Colorado wilderness with our bows.
Looking back, in all his reported escapades with his Red Ryder lever action, I know of only one confirmed round that he ever fired. I heard that story one day when he offered this sheepish confession with a very red face:
“It was just after shooting light on a Saturday morning. After having executed a daring spot-stalk-and-ambush around my house, I sent a round right at the squirrel’s vitals. As I went to reload, I noticed something else moving out of the corner of my eye. And that something was looking right at me. Turns out it was my robe-clad neighbor out picking up his newspaper while sipping on a cappuccino. Suddenly I realized what he was seeing: me, armed, crawling in his bushes.”
After that incident, Craig retired his only firearm, packing it away next to his electric chainsaw, which was padded carefully with his collection of retired flip flops from decades of beach life in SoCal.
It was then that he chose to take his squirrel-hunting obsession to the next level.
He became McConnell, the Trapper.
At his peak, Craig was working several traps around his suburban yard, and he’d happily describe long sessions of chumming the traps. (Not only the specifics regarding the type of peanut butter, but also his procedure for maximum effective application at the end of meticulously arranged trails of bird seed, cunningly designed to lure unsuspecting bushy tailed vermin to imminent death.)
I began to notice a resonance between his trapping tactics and his preference for scrupulous liturgy in random things. For example, when making a Manhattan, he insisted that it is always to be poured over clear ice and never cloudy. It is never shaken, always stirred, while facing west (as a salute to the great sea). And when pouring the finest rye, one must pour for a count of one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand. And then, with dramatic pause while still pouring, “and this is for the pope.”
With little success, I offered him squirrel recipes and walked him through the basics of home taxidermy, encouraging him to put up some skins for homespun apparel that would appropriately complement his new name, for by then he was insisting that I refer to him only as Trapper.
But he would have none of it. He told me his ethos was purely catch-and-release.
It was months into his extensive catch-and-release ventures that I decided to set some bait of my own. I asked Craig how he was handling the commonly known and uncanny ability of squirrels to cover long distances and instinctively return to their home range once released. He looked at me incredulously, realizing he had been outsmarted by vermin, and asked me to say more. Evidently I had enough currency to convince him that I knew what I was talking about.
Before long, my years of being a padawan to this master storyteller finally paid off: he took my bait and became paranoid that the squirrels he released over five miles away were actually beating him back to his suburban home to fortify their collection of winter vittles in his attic. After that, every squirrel he saw unnerved him, and he endeavored to identify each one based on unique markings and behaviors to determine if they were really coming back or not.
Then came level three.
It was a chilly spring Friday morning when McConnell showed up in my office, looking a bit rattled. He explained rather sheepishly that “a big-ass black ball of fur with a white strip, fangs, and claws” was stuck in his squirrel trap. He needed help.
We dug into the internet and watched one video after another on how to remove live skunks from squirrel traps. Interestingly, most were filmed on location in Arkansas or West Virginia and nearly always included broad, sweeping soundtracks and minimally clothed assistants. It was the heavyset man in the beekeeper suit and motorcycle helmet who won our allegiance; we looked to him as our sensei to train us for level three.
We followed his every directive, pulling out our very best skunk trapping attire, asking our friends to accompany us, not only to play a fitting soundtrack, but also to provide moral support in the event that we heard, as the videos say, the two most feared words in skunk-trapping:
Who would’ve thought suburban life could be so fraught with daring and delight?
I’ll never forget stalking, synchronized with McConnell, gently and step by meticulous step, tarp in hand, toward the skunk. It was at that moment that I knew the best stories can only be written once they have been truly lived.
To the dismay of onlookers, we were remarkably successful on our first attempt, eluding all spray and acquiring my very most favorite skin for our collection.
The stories, oh, the stories.
It was yesterday, somewhere between shoving my hand up the orifice in his ceiling and the subsequent shower of spray-insulation that poured from overhead, that I began to weep.
Lori, Craig’s bride of 40 years, was downstairs. It was the day after he crossed over into the fullness of Life after 64 heroic years in this world and a seven-year battle against cancer. The Spirit led me to swing by Lori and Craig’s home in the early morning hours for the second day in a row, this time to honor my fallen comrade by checking on his bride. I had no idea what to say or what to do. The day before, I had carried one of my closest friends and a brother to my heart out of his home in a body bag. It was my second experience of carrying a man I love out the front door of his own home, leaving behind weeping and wailing hearts. It is two too many for this soul to comprehend.
After an unanswered knock, I found my way upstairs and beheld Lori, radiant as ever, in the early morning light. Could it be that just 36 hours before we had all huddled in their master bedroom, holding Craig’s weakened, broken, blessed body, speaking words, offering tears and stories and worship and silence?
As I gazed at Lori, her beauty moved me, and my first thought was,
This is a woman who has been well loved for 40 years.
My second thought:
Damn. What I would give to have Craig back. Right now. Right here.
Lori and I were granted a few hours of sacred conversation in that morning’s hush, a fresh round of stories of agony and hilarity, both of which, Norm Maclean reminds us, are necessary for salvation.
Only after that did I ask Lori if there was anything I could do for her.
“Morgs, you know, my friend is flying in and will be here in a few hours to stay in this bedroom. I’ve had this ceiling fan, still in the box, forever. Do you know anyone who could install it?”
How grateful I was in that moment for having installed several in my own home only a year before.
“You bet.” And as Lori and her family made their way downstairs, I began to assess the situation.
The room was wired for an overhead light but lacked the proper support to mount the metal junction box for the fan.
What I needed was access to the attic.
McConnell, you dirty dog…
The one project you boasted about.
I laughed to myself, and I cried.
Yet again, the narrative of this man’s life flooded my soul. The irony that I would be here, yet again, taking the bait, on the butt end of one of his great stories.
The tears, while quiet, became heavier and heavier.
A home filled with grieving family was not the place to pull out a drywall saw and undo McConnell’s plastered masterpiece that brilliantly blocked the only access to the attic.
I headed to the hardware store and explored plans B, C, and D before deciding on a retro install bar that apparently was well-suited when your buddy drywalls over the only access panel to the Squirrel Shangri-la.
A few hours later the fan was installed, and I turned on the breaker, savoring that moment of amazement that touches the soul of any man who has done any sort of electrical work:
And then there was light.
I watched the fan blades turn and felt the warm air of summer begin to move through the McConnells’ second-story guest bedroom.
I listened to the sounds of his grandchildren running around the house below, playing as if it were any other summer day.
I wept for my friend.
And then I wept for much more.
I was flooded with grief. First for Craig, and then for my brother Lance, and then for every place I have fallen short in my relating to all the people I so dearly love. I wept for the poor, the broken, and the needy. I wept for all the not-yet in this world. I wept for all the unfinished in me.
And I wept.
And I wept.
And watching the fan blades slide gracefully around and around, I prayed.
I asked God for those blades to turn and turn in the days and decades to come, and in their turning to call forth through their momentary perseverance the very breath of God.
The breath of God into this home.
Into these hearts.
And as I walked out of the house moments later, I imagined that in some season to come, another family will one day turn this house into a home as the McConnells have. And some unknown man will also hear the pitter-patter of squirrels in his attic packing away a feast of winter’s provisions up in the eaves. And he will look all over the house and call out to his wife,
“Honey, I’ve looked everywhere and I can’t find the damn access panel to the attic.”
At that moment, I laughed out loud, thinking of how hilarious that moment will be to Craig. Holy Spirit, quicken me with joy precisely when that future moment comes.
And on that day I’ll mix myself a Manhattan of which McConnell would be proud. And I’ll remember when I was covered in insulation and giving an elephant a prostate exam in his home.
And I’ll think of the thousand stories I wish I could live with him again.
I’ll remember the pints we shared at the Whitehorse in England and the Scarborough Hotel in Australia, and countless more.
I’ll call to mind the campfires around which we sat shoulder to shoulder at Bart’s Globe and Anchor ranch in the Colorado Rockies, at Konka in South Africa, and at Mount Snowdon in Wales. Too many to name.
And I’ll remember his raunchy baseball-cap with the attached gray ponytail that always seemed to show up just when I was taking life too seriously.
I’ll think of the countless missions we shared, partnering in battles for the hearts of men.
And I will likely weep again.
I pray on that day I will have the faith to believe more deeply that all is not lost, that the best is yet to come.
That I will become the kind of person who has made peace in my soul with the reality that we must die so that we might truly live.
That we are eternal souls who are on pilgrimage.
That we are being made ready for a world that whispers to us with the blowing air of every ceiling fan.
And a marvelous Reality that will envelope each of us who is willing to give it our consent.
As for this moment, the summer sun has tucked behind the rocky bluffs of Ute Valley Park behind my home. I watch evening’s last light slip away, and I look at pencil and paper and a empty glass that once held the best damn Manhattan I’ve ever made.
Thank you for teaching me that to give the gift of my time and my presence toward loving another soul is the greatest gift of all.
Thank you for teaching me much more about loving people than you did about squirrels.
And I will see you again.
But not yet.
C.S. Lewis said of his own grief,
“If I knew any way of escape, I would crawl through the sewers to find it.”
Where and what is the Father inviting you to grieve?
I want to encourage you to risk grieving, in every way the Father would winsomely want to lead you. Below are some more suggestions that might help you in the process:
A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
Stations of the Heart by Richar Lischer
A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser
Lament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstorff