2008 by Jim Robinson
My little sister has died.
Her name was-is-Mary Jennifer Robinson Turner. She died in the same way our mother died, of a drug overdose, and at nearly the same age. All of us who loved and truly knew her had been expecting it, in a way, for many years. That's the way of things, when the person you love is an addict; you pray for them, and sometimes try to convince them to get help, but mostly all that does is make you feel just as crazy as they are. So you keep praying, asking and hoping for a miracle, because you know that even though the situation seems hopeless... well, you've seen miracles happen before, maybe even to you, in your own life. We have to keep the faith, after all.
We must have faith.
Because if God has created miracles in our own lives, miracles far beyond what we deserve... well, surely He will reach down and save someone else, someone far more pure and decent and childlike in their heart than we ever were or will ever be. Miracles do happen. So we keep praying.
When Jennifer and I were little kids, we did what brothers and sisters usually do. We played together, fought, and made up, and played together again as if we'd never been angry. Jennifer was the baby, three years younger than me. She and I clung to one another when bad things sometimes happened in our house. Whenever things began to feel dangerous we'd sometimes hide together. And when things were quiet, we played a lot of make-believe. I guess all of us played a lot of make believe back then. Back when there wasn't much faith. There was a lot more fear than faith.
When she was very young Jennifer was sweet and round-faced and beautiful. She had blonde hair and eyes the color of a perfect sky. I would sometimes tease her about her chubby cheeks, and one time I got mad at her and called her "hippo girl." I remember this very clearly. She adored me, I know now, and when I called her this name her face grew white with shame. I would give anything-anything at all-if I could go back to that place in time and take back those words. I wouldn't call her "hippo girl." I would tell her she was as beautiful as any princess in any fairy tale. I would tell her that when she smiled, something like soft innocence would fall all around everyone in the room like spring rain. I would tell her not to be afraid, that this time I would do a better job of protecting her, somehow. I would look into those amazing azure eyes and tell her that sweet spirits like hers should never have to see violence or endure betrayal, and I would pray with her now like I could not then that she would choose all the things in life ahead that were as beautiful and graceful as she. I would beg her to always remain as she was then, sweet and gentle and kind. I would hold her for as long as she wanted.
Being the youngest, Jennifer was the last child to graduate high school and leave home, and so not only had to experience the worst times of dysfunction in our house but also had to do so more or less alone. Our older sister Joette had married; I'd run as far away as possible, into my own selfishness, my own fear and shame. I can't remember having ever given a single thought to what might happen to my little sister or my sick mother, to anyone else in my family, for that matter. I only cared about myself. I only wanted to escape.
Jennifer was the most tender-hearted by nature, and would take more of the brunt of our mother's emotional illness related to bipolar disorder and addiction.
"What's wrong with Momma?" my little sister asked one day, as if she had just been made aware of some long-hidden secret. She had ducked into my room for sanctuary. And perhaps it was at times like this when I loved my little sister the most... and yet felt most helpless. Jennifer had always been the gentlest one, soft in spirit, easy to make smile or to hurt, and lonely somehow. I wanted desperately to protect her, but could not. She was always the quiet one, shy, and her question startled me, and startles me still.
"Nothing," I muttered, or something equally evasive, and tried to ignore her, to ignore everything. I just went on about whatever I was doing, pretending, fantasizing... Nothing's happening, nothing's wrong, just leave it alone. As a family we had stopped talking very much by then. How desperately we needed each other, and how hard we tried to pretend that we didn't. And I can still see Jennifer's face, looking up at me, waiting for answers I could not give then, and in many ways cannot give now.
I won't try going into what exactly happened to our mother, or, years later, to me, and to my sister. I more often than not see only dusty, empty rooms when I go in search back there, to that place of my past where my mind sometimes wanders but rarely lingers. I believe in words like psychosis and endogenous depression and addiction and bipolar disorder, and I believe in neurochemical imbalances and "bad wiring" of the brain. I can spout lots of technical jargon and use psychoanalytical language to describe some things science understands and some things it does not. I'm supposed to have some understanding of neurotransmitters and receptor molecules, but all that can't completely explain how people sometimes become lost to themselves and lost to the rest of us. And somewhere inside myself I believe in unseen darkness and demons, too, and on any given day, depending on how my own neurotransmitters happen to be firing or misfiring, I'm not at all sure where one set of beliefs leaves off and the other takes up. After so many years in my own recovery, sometimes all I can cling to is a knowing deep within me that God exists, that there is a world beyond what we can see and touch and feel, and that within that world evil exists, too. And I believe that for some of us in obvious ways and probably all of us in more subtle ways the disease exists and makes its home in more than just our flesh, and medicine alone rarely cures us. When all my training fails me, all I really know for sure is that being well-truly well-goes to a place within us that lies far deeper than the mere molecules that make us up, and that for whatever reasons our mother, me, my sister, all of us at different times began to fall away, isolated, staring out from our own internal windows at the intruding gray, mourning something lost that none of us could find.
And so I longed to but could not rescue both mother and my sister. I should have known better, of course; I counsel people all the time about it, telling them to let go, to hand over their loved ones to the only One who ever saves any of us, finally, if we're to be saved at all. But it's just so hard. So hard when it's someone we love....
The truth is, I have wondered in recent days if I could continue the fight. I have felt if not beaten, at least emptied. I have felt, honestly, that I can't much help myself any more, much less those people who come every day for my counsel. Tired. Hollow. I can't listen to any more pain. I can't walk another step in the darkness.
Still, my heart longs, and reaches out. This time....
This time, when this merciless disease has stolen yet another loved one from my life, some thirty years since our mother's death, something has been different. This time, by God's grace, I have not struggled as much in my soul with the crushing feelings of guilt and self-blame. This time, through Christ Jesus, I have looked into a lifeless face and seen both tragedy and great beauty, where three decades ago I saw only loss. This time, when lightly brushing my fingertips against a cold, colorless cheek, I have through miraculous transformation-both Jennifer's and mine-felt the overpowering truth that crushes death with nothing less than eternal life. Not an end, but a beginning. Not fear, but faith.
If the child in us is to reach beyond our brokenness and find our Father, we will have to rely on that most incomprehensible of things, a gift we have named but never mastered, and never will. Both beyond us and yet within us, it is a thing called faith. A willingness to call out His name from our own still pool, our own dark side of the road... wherever we are, no matter how far from home... He touches us with a love that is at once elusive and essential, impossible to comprehend yet only an embrace away.
That God is in the rain, the pain, the loving and losing, the hurt and healing, the sun and the storm. Faith that God is here when He seems most distant, that His hand is on both birth and death, love and loss, joy and tragedy and gentleness, the crime and the cancer, compulsion and cure, the laughter and the tears, faith when the God of all giving inexplicably takes away... faith that He longs to kiss the face of both angel and addict. With whatever humanity is left in us we rise to our feet yet again and choose to believe that in a world engaged in a war between horror and hope Christ somehow exists as a soft, still and sure place. We call on a faith that says He is unchanging though the very essence of who we are must constantly change or remain forever lost. Faith when prayers are answered, and when they are not. Faith that our time is not His, our minds not His, our perceptions and comprehensions only shadows of nothing compared to His. Faith against all reason that He is with us when we feel so helplessly alone. Faith... that no matter how many times we turn our backs on Him, He is forever facing us.
Goodbye for now, Jennifer.
I'll miss you.
But thank you for the gift.
I have faith now.
I'll see you soon.
- Jim Robinson
August 18, 2008