May 17, 2012

Gestational age: 26 weeks, 0 days

Calendar age: 3 weeks, 1 day

Yesterday, my college roommate Ivar posted a supportive comment on Facebook when I gave a brief update about Gabriel’s condition. It was short, “Keeping you and Miri and Gabriel in our prayers.” I read that on my computer screen as I sat at home, and it made my heart feel like it was beating in my neck. I thought I would pass out on the floor. Why would Ivar make me feel like that? We got along fine.

I have had plenty of moments lately when I felt like that, some coming at the most mundane moments, like having my chest go tight when I missed the soap dispenser with my hand in a public bathroom while washing up. I tried to forget about that minor mistake, but my brain misfires often. When I try to brush things off, I will then feel like I cannot breathe.

I looked at a calendar and felt like there was something I was missing. Was it that tomorrow was the anniversary of Mt. St. Helens erupting, when I got pneumonia after playing with the very fine ash coating the bushes of my grandmother’s yard? (I was 1, and the doctors said I would likely have a lifetime of respiratory problems, but this did not happen.)

I put the computer away and got ready for bed. Folded in to the back of my daily prayer book was a handwritten list of people whom I pray for. It is a long-term list. I am pretty bad at remembering people’s immediate needs. It starts with people who have died. Grandparents, great-grandparents, church elders who have influenced me. In the middle of list was “James.” I read that and heard Ivar playing the piano eleven years ago in the gymnasium of our university.

There were more than a thousand people in the auditorium, most of them crying. Ivar was up on the stage with an expensive grand piano owned by the university. Ivar was a music major, and an excellent pianist. A plain wooden cross, about six feet tall, was about ten feet from him on the otherwise bare stage. Ivar played the melody to the hymn we sang, and a projector was put the lyrics on the wall:

Suffering savior, who hung on the tree

Suffering savior, who died for me

Suffering savior, who hung on the tree

Hear us, suffering Lord.

The music and the words were beautiful. We sang them because the author of the hymn was murdered a few hours earlier. The man who killed him lay in a hospital several miles away dying from the gunshot wound he put in his own head.

The two did not know each other.

Ivar did know the composer, music professor James Holloway, and he was able to rehearse this music quickly enough to perform it for the university at the vigil that evening.

I saw Professor Holloway only once when he led a student performance at chapel a few months earlier.

I was in the gymnasium for a confused jumble of reasons, the first being that he was killed near my dorm at 2:51 p.m., and I was walking on the pathway where it happened at 2:49 p.m. The killer seemed to be motivated by avenger rage, or a massively inappropriate retaliation to a perceived slight, or at least that was what his multiple-page handwritten suicide note seemed to indicate.

I saw these men dying. Soon, a small team of nursing students and students working for campus security assembled with a first aid kit and performed CPR on James. They shouted out the numbers of chest compressions as they did them, getting up to 16 before stopping to give him three breaths. I knew that 15 was the right number of compressions from a basic CPR class I had taken a year earlier. It was a pointless error to remember, but I wanted to do something for this man other than just pray.

By the time the first ambulance arrived, James was dead.


Students at the makeshift memorial at Pacific Lutheran University, May 17, 2001. (Photo by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

The shooter, on the other hand, was still alive, although I could see a red hole in the back of his head. The paramedics put a breathing tube down his throat, put him on a gurney, put him in an ambulance and drove away.

The words of this jazz canticle, which I was reading and singing for the first time, were more literally relevant now in my life than any religious text I had encountered. I had been interested in religion for quite some time now, but among my problems has been the Bible, specifically trying to interpret it literally.

Pacific Lutheran University appealed to both Lutherans and the general public. The classmates surrounding me in that auditorium represented a mix of Protestants of different levels of commitment to their religion. Some of them were very religious, organizing regular Bible study and prayer groups in the dorm, others were lightly religious Protestants, and others said they were “spiritual but not religious,” but wanted to go to a small school. I was rather jealous of the very religious Protestants because of the comforting center that their faith provided to their lives, I was interested in the faith of the lightly religious and yet I always ended up bored when I actually went to their services, and the spiritual but not religious people provided nothing to like nor dislike. I had spent the past three years trying to find my own way to fit in with these approaches, often becoming frustrated. I vaguely knew the limits of what I was willing to consider, or at least what was beyond what I would do – literalism on the one side, and a general opinion towards Jesus on the other side that left room for large amounts of drinking and moderate amounts of sex — just so long as you’re “safe” about it. These were broadly separated barriers, and I took it as my task to invent something real somewhere in the middle somehow.

This was a hard enough task before this literal truth slapped me in the face, this man who wrote about Jesus dying for us and then he died where I might have died.

Forty or fifty feet from me in this auditorium was my friend Brad, who after much careful study, joined the Eastern Orthodox Church three years ago and took the name Barnabas. I talked to him all the time about religion, God and humanity, but the services at his church were long, tiresome and strange. A few months earlier, he had handed me a copy of The Orthodox Church, by Timothy Ware, which included a quote from an Arab archdeacon traveling in Russia in the 17th Century, observing the overly long services: “Now what shall we say of these duties, severe enough to turn children’s hair grey…”

Ware’s book is a broad primer on Orthodox teaching and practice, and the quote is there as an illustration of a period of Russian Church history, (and for a touch of humor) but I extracted the quote to tell Brad what I thought of Orthodoxy.

And yet, whenever I talked about theology with Brad, I found the teaching of his church agreeable. What kept me from finding a church was original sin, or too much original sin. Pretty much every church I visited teaches that man is born in to the world sinful, and the ones that baptize infants do it because the child needs to be forgiven for a sin he did not actually commit, the original sin of Adam.

There were two churches I found that do not teach this, and oddly enough, they are the Unitarians, who are generally anti-dogmatic, and the Orthodox, who teach that babies are not born guilty, but they do have to deal with the consequences of the original sin, death, thus baptism is a restoration of the Christian’s life.

If you would have asked me two days earlier what I was looking for in a religion, I would have said something like, “simple, direct, interactive and encouraging of human rights and equality.” Orthodoxy seemed to be the opposite of all that, but now the possibility of facing God had become so literally present in my life, this idea of trying to convince Him of the qualities of my invented, individual religion became far less attractive. Having seen a far-too-literal representation of the crucified Christ in the man dying on the pavement and that six-foot tall wooden cross a few hours later on the stage with Ivar, I decided I wanted to see the risen Christ, too. Personal opinions will not get you there.

I wanted to have an answer to the chaos I had seen, and to my problems with religion, but I had to admit that I could not on either front. I just had to admit that I was weak.

While I stood in the bleachers of the gymnasium, this heavy death leaned against me like a big, lazy, hairy animal that cannot be made to lean somewhere else. I could change body positions to give one arm a rest from the thing leaning on me, but standing up straight, living with this new awareness of death, and not have shaking hands was too difficult.

Outside of the gymnasium, there was a press of students, many of them sniffling, leaving the building. The air retained a little bit of spring warmth as the day was ending. I told Brad I wanted to meet his priest and be baptized. His face did not change when I told him that, but he nodded, and told me that Pentecost services would be in a couple weeks. I wondered why he did not seem happier by my announcement, but I was starting to learn the difference between how Orthodox and Protestants view people’s stages in the spiritual life. Accepting Christ is not a bright-and-sudden “I found it!” moment, but the beginning of a very long task.

In the week after the shooting, I knew I had to get past the extreme experience that had overwhelmed me. The significance of what happened was so oppressive in its dominance of my thoughts at first, slowing my ability to do basic functions. While shuffling some papers on the kitchen counter at home, I accidentally pushed my $300 income-tax refund check off the counter and in to the trash. I meant to get it, but the negative thoughts shoved in and I forgot about it and drove for an hour. Then, I called my brother to get him to pull the check out of the trash. I got in trouble with the business office at PLU for submitting two time sheets for my student job on May 17. The first one was before the shooting, but my memory loss from the beginning of that day to the shooting was so complete that I truly thought I had not done it.

I would graduate and spend the summer working for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, where the city editor considered me “experienced” at breaking news because I managed to show up at a murder scene before the victim, live through it, and then write it up. It made me feel like I was writing my own obituary because it could have just as easily been me who got shot four times.

My editor would assign me another five murders before the summer was up, including one on my last day of work, causing me to perfect my “cynical reporter” tone and say, “What’s this I hear about a souvenir corpse you’re giving me as a retirement present?”

I never applied for another daily newspaper job, although it had been my dream all through high school and college to be an investigative journalist. I knew that the path to those kinds of project jobs included about ten years doing daily news on the city desk, which meant listening to police scanners and jumping up at a moment’s notice for car wrecks and shootings. That summer, I was able to put my “game face” on well enough to go to the crime scenes and ask the questions without falling apart. There was one exception about a week before my internship ended — I was assigned to write a story about a 3-year-old girl who had been beaten to death by her mother’s boyfriend. I went to one of the addresses where the mother had lived and found the girl’s great-grandparents out front. I identified myself as a reporter, they said that they did not want a story written, and I tried to ask a first question and could not make a coherent sentence. They stared at me until I wandered back to my car.

I was able to hold it together during the days that summer, but at night my hands shook. That feeling of writing my own obituary never left me. Before, I would wake up from nightmares and be comforted when I realized no one had died, but that moment was gone forever. After a year, I was able to sleep better at night, and the hand shaking was minimal unless something reminded me of that day in 2001. After 10 years, the strong reactions were almost gone. Ten years ago was last year.

There are pamphlets in the family waiting room at the hospital that include information about post-traumatic stress disorder. I have wondered at times if Miri and I will get PTSD from this experience, although this Gabriel’s birth and problems have not been as sudden as the shooting.

So far, this trauma is easier to deal with than the last one. My hands shook today as I thought about James Holloway, but they do not shake when I think about my son. We have had many scary moments, but lately things have not felt as “out of control” as they did when the PLU nursing students were trying in vain to resuscitate Prof. Holloway, their hands covered in blood.

I think the main reason I am doing better is that some day, I might wake up and my son can tell me that he is still there.