Good writing most always comes in the form of a progression. Whether it is a novel, a memoir, a newspaper article, or a blog entry, the competent writer finds a way to take the reader on a journey; the journey may be rational, artistic, or a combination of both depending on the genre and the intended audience, but the destination is always the same: the reader must eventually arrive at the writer’s purpose, the reason the words were written in the first place. Every compelling piece of literature I have ever read has followed this general guideline.
As a wannabe writer, and an avid reader, I appreciate quality writing. Which is precisely why I’m sitting in my parents’ dining room, staring at my computer, blood pressure slowly rising, stubbornly resisting the urge to slam my head against the table. Because unlike a fictional tale that obeys an overarching narrative structure — exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution — grief is disobedient. It is haphazard and unpredictable and infuriating. And despite my numerous well-intentioned attempts, I simply cannot put my pain in a box. It cannot, and will not, be contained.
Instead, it runs wild — ravaging and consuming all that it encounters, leaving destruction and desolation in its wake. I can’t stop it and I’ve found it’s better not to try.
So all I can promise you is this: I will do my very best to cage my rambling thoughts, to arrange my words in a manner that at least vaguely resembles a coherent composition. What follows is a journey into my present madness, and if I’m successful, we might (just maybe) arrive at my purpose for even writing this at all:
Glorify Jesus Christ. Honor Kailen.
“Be joyful in hope, PATIENT IN AFFLICTION, and faithful in prayer.” Romans 12:12
Since we’re talking about journeys, my recent travels seem like a reasonable place to start. As I stated in a previous entry, this trip almost never happened. When my best friend asked me to accompany him to Phoenix, I initially said no. And if it hadn’t been for a late-night (unplanned) campfire, I never would have changed my answer.
So that’s how it began — a trip to Phoenix via the scenic route. But by the first night, in a hotel in Burlington, Colorado, God was already revealing His grander intentions. I was not supposed to stop in Phoenix; there was more for me to do. I told Ben about my outlandish plans for continuing the trip beyond Phoenix and he immediately and overwhelmingly was in support. He and I both agreed that the timing was right; I needed to make it happen and it had to be now. As it turned out, the timing wasn’t just right, it was perfect — which tends to happen when God gets involved.
Ben and I finished our portion of the trip on Thursday night, four days after leaving Kentucky, when we arrived at his new apartment in Phoenix. We had seen extravagant countryside, including the autumn-specked Rocky Mountains, Canyonlands National Park, and the Grand Canyon. Over the weekend in Phoenix we went to a movie, played golf, kayaked, and I spent hours trying to organize the next leg of my #TeamKCT excursion.
The trip planning was easy. A little Mapquest, a few logistics, some minor budgetary tweaks, and voila! I was done.
Except for one minor (and by minor, I mean major and enormously enraging) detail: the rental car company.
It was Sunday morning. I had just done my devotion and had my coffee, and by all accounts, things were pleasant. Then I casually picked up my cell phone, casually dialed the number, and casually told Ben I was going to go casually reserve my rental car “real quick”.
It was then that casually turned to casualty.
I spoke with approximately 11 rental car companies in the greater Phoenix area. Approximately 11 of those conversations went like this:
Me: Yes ma’am/sir, I’d like to rent a car. I need to reserve it for pick-up on Monday morning, please.
Them: Of course! Absolutely. I can help you with that. What type of car do you need? By the way, this call is being recorded for quality assurance purposes.
Me: The cheapest available, please.
Them: How long will you be needing the car?
Me: I’ll need it for 8 days. I’m from Kentucky and rode out to Phoenix with a friend. Instead of flying back, I decided to drive so I could see a few sights along the way. I’ll need to return the car in Owensboro, Kentucky. Is that acceptable?
Them: NO PROBLEM AT ALL!!! Your price quote, including the one-way drop off fee, is $$$.
Me: Wonderful! Can I make the reservation over the phone with my debit card or should I come by your location?
Them: WHOA WHOA WHOA, hold the phone…debit card?
Me: Yes ma’am/sir.
Them: I‘m very sorry, sir, but you are clearly an idiot. If you are not a local resident, we cannot accept payment with a debit card. It is imperative that we have a credit card on file or you cannot rent a car.
Me: Uh, say again?
Them: You cannot, under any circumstance, rent a car with a debit card if you are not a local resident possessing a local driver’s license, a local paystub, AND a utility bill from a local utilities company.
Them: It’s the rules.
Me: Could I pay you in cash?
Me: Could I use my Dad’s credit card, then pay him back?
Me: Could I pay you in cash, then give you my Dad’s credit card number so you could hold it as collateral just in case I intentionally dump the car in the Columbia River Gorge or something?
Them: No. Also, this call is still being recorded.
Me: What if I gave you a blood and fingerprint sample?
Me: *mumbles assorted profanities*
Them: Sir, this call is still being recorded.
Me: Thanks for your help.
I (casually) told Ben the somber news and immediately started looking for flights back to Kentucky. But despite the sadistic rental car industry’s best efforts, God’s plans were not to be thwarted. I told my uncle about the situation, if for no other reason than to just air out my frustration, and his reply blew my mind:
“I’ll just drive out there and go with you. We’ll take my car.”
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama. I was in Phoenix, Arizona. That’s a 25-hour drive.
Monday afternoon, he was there. We loaded my bags and headed north.
What followed was an adventure that could have only been God’s idea. We swept through Zion National Park in southern Utah, then turned west through Las Vegas and into California. We then cut a swath through central California, starting in Yosemite and ending in the Redwood National Forest. From there, we proceeded north into Oregon, where we surveyed the wonder of the Pacific Coast at sunset and the Columbia River Gorge at sunrise. But we weren’t done yet. We brushed through Spokane, Washington, then turned to the southeast, summiting and descending the rugged hills of Idaho and Montana, and eventually arrived at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. We clipped Grand Teton National Park before heading due east to Keystone, South Dakota, where the magnificence of Mount Rushmore was on full display.
All these amazing places, so many #TeamKCT pictures, each one a token of memory I will treasure forever. First, I must thank God for His goodness, grace, and sheer creativity; second, thank you Ben and Uncle Brian. Without you, none of it would have been possible.
In total, my #TeamKCT westward excursion accumulated 103 hours of drive time, 6,272 miles traveled, and passed through 18 states. But what it meant to me to wear that shirt, to carry the lock of her hair with me, to stand atop a mountain and feel her on the breeze — those things simply cannot be quantified. It wasn’t an opportunity, it was a gift. And I am so very grateful I opened it.
On the night we got back to Kentucky, my uncle and I spent nearly an hour recounting the exciting details of the trip to my parents. As we talked about all the amazing things we had seen, we got our phones out and started showing them all the pictures we had taken (I have nearly 2,000). At a certain point, I forget exactly what we were looking at, my uncle said something that reverberated in my mind. He said, “The pictures simply don’t do it justice. You have to see it for yourself.”
I had to close my eyes and sit down as the emotion washed over me. Truer words have never been spoken.
When it comes to K, I hate pictures. I’m thankful for them, but I hate them. They’re no good; they don’t capture her. In Brian’s words, “They simply don’t do her justice. You have to see her for yourself.”
I stare at them. Not because I want to, but because I can’t stop. Shortly after the funeral, Kim and Jeff, Kailen’s parents, had to take pictures of her down in their house. Why? Because I would just wander around, lingering by them for hours, gazing at what was once mine. Kim probably said it best: “Bryan, you’re torturing yourself.” Yes. I am. And am yet.
Lewis said, “I need Christ, not something that resembles Him. I want H (his wife), not something that is like her. A really good photograph might become in the end a snare, a horror, and an obstacle.”
Pictures of Kailen are not Kailen. They are wormholes, soulless sinking passages through the substance of time forever linking the present moment to the tragedy. And in those passages, in those wormholes, it feels I have lost my mind. It feels I have descended into an immaterial madness. My breath and my sorrow are now one draught; my pain and my heart beat in rhythm. I am in the place where the only thing worse than being lost is knowing where you are.
The walls are closing in, and as they do, my brain desperately searches for meaning.
Again, from the mind and sorrow of C.S. Lewis came these words: “Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them — never become even conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?”
Reality is a bitter dichotomy: it is both elusive and unavoidable. And my goodness does it hurt. It is the pain that won’t allow me to see or think clearly; this earthly mind fails time and again.
Kailen is gone? What do you mean? Gone where? I’ll go to her, I’ll find her. I’ll do whatever I have to do.
6,272 miles we drove, through every landscape you can imagine, and not one of those miles passed without me staring longingly out the window, somehow expecting to see her standing in the dust and tumbleweed. The result was what I should have known (and did know) it would be: she isn’t there. The real problem, of course, is that she isn’t here either. She isn’t anywhere, or at least anywhere I can get to right now.
So the best my earthly apparatus of a mind can do is generate images, vast sequences of moments and memories, and place them together in some sort of collage. But I’m no artist. They don’t fit together right; I can’t re-create reality any more than I can travel back in time. So all I have are the sequences, the mental images of moments gone by. They are bright and colorful and I feel their warmth.
But they simply aren’t enough.
Much like a moist westerly wind portends a summer storm, these aches are a harbinger for the rage I know is coming. The anger is real, and in so many ways, justified. But that is not going to stop me from keeping my promise to you — I will not become a bitter, angry man. I will not.
satan** is trying to tell me that I didn’t want that life, that I didn’t want complete healing; well, he can shut his bastard mouth. The reality is that I wanted it too much. So much that it sealed itself out of my consciousness like an infected wound.
**I do not capitalize his name; this is not a typo.
The absence is deep. The sorrow is deeper. The loneliness and the anger are coming.
But I will not stop. I will stay in the fight.
You wrote it on my arm.
I miss you, beautiful. I love you.