Sunday, August 13, 2017

Autumn Is Forever

Autumn Is Forever
(for Rachel)

who we are can never be contained

forever in this flesh or written in stone

sooner or later we outgrow our selves and learn

by leaving what the trees have always known

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Every 15 Minutes, 2007

The following is the letter I wrote for Rachel's "memorial" when she asked us to participate in the Every 15 Minutes program the year she graduated, 2007. I remembered writing it, but I forgot what I wrote and where I put the letter after it was sent back to us by the director of the program in our area that year, April Hines. I found the letter recently as I was rummaging through a suitcase that contains many of my old papers and writings.

The event was heartrendingly real, emotionally speaking, even though we knew our daughter would be returned to us, safe and sound, at the end. We barely got through it, and were only willing because Rachel was passionate about participating. Jill and I had already been through so much: As a teenager, Jill had been hit by a drunk driver and her two best friends riding with her, Paige Roark and Theresa Motta, were killed; my best friend, Erik Kolar, died from Leukemia when I was 23 and my own sister, Vanessa Alexis Elliott, was killed in a non-alchohol related single-car accident while she was living with me and Jill and our children. Death and tragedy were already too real for us. The things you do for love...

Rachel ~

We are old enough to know the worst things can happen. We always hoped and prayed it would never happen to us. But here we are…
Because of the tragedies of the past, we always knew we needed to love you now. If we were taken from you suddenly, we didn’t want to leave you wondering how much we cherished you, how truly special and beautiful a young lady we knew you to be, how very proud we are of your accomplishments and your character. But, now, it is you who are gone, and we are left to wonder… Did you know? Did we make the most of those precious, fleeting moments God granted us to walk this earth with you?
Rachel, we have been so blessed to be your parents. You could not, and you will never know the joy you brought us, just being you, just being our little girl. 
We promise you we will not allow the bitterness of this senseless accident poison our memories of you. This will have to be God’s work. Your future was so bright in our eyes, and you were so ready for it. We don’t understand how anyone, drunk or sober, could deprive you of it. Once again, we will have to trust in the wisdom and goodness of God. His promise that everything works together for good and our conviction that you are in a better place are our only consolations now. With His help, that is enough.
We love you, Rachel. If only we could say it to your face.

Mom & Dad

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Independence Day

Elva Diaz was released from prison over a year ago, July 4, 2015. I wanted to write about it then but couldn't find the words. We always knew the day would come, that there was a date on the calendar somewhere that would forever mark the day of her release. I can't help but feel it is some kind of cruel irony that it turned out to be Independence Day.

By the State's calculus, Elva Diaz was credited with double time for time served of her 10 year sentence for Gross Vehicular Manslaughter. She spent over a year in county jail awaiting trial. So, after sentencing she spent 4 years in prison and was released on parole.

Hereafter, July 4th will be celebrated by Elva Diaz and her family as the day she finally paid off her debt to society for her crimes, was liberated from prison, and set free to begin a new chapter in her life. It means the end of the consequences she must suffer for taking Rachel's life. Elva's life will resume now much the same shape it had before the night of February 21, 2008. I'm still not sure what it means for us, but every year another celebration will be tainted with the memory of what we lost.

And that is just the way it is. And we, Rachel's family, must be learn to be satisfied and to let go of any desire for retribution. I still don't know what justice is, but I know that balance has not been restored. In a case like this, that was always an impossibility, though we may not always have acknowledged it.

The following is a transcript of text messages to and from a friend, transmitted on the date of Elva Diaz's release. The words of my friend are wise, and I have had over a year now to consider them. I'm not saying I am there yet, but they serve as a signpost for the way ahead...

7/4/15, 9:48 AM

Don't know if I told you, but Elva Diaz is being released today. They moved the date up to July 4th - Independence Day. Fitting for her but kind of a slap in the face to us. In any case, a new chapter begins...
Happy 4th!

7/4/15, 1:25 PM 

I hope this really does mark the end of a chapter for you both; say, the end of the Elva Diaz chapter. 
    If you never have to hear an update on this person again, if that chapter can start to close today, then this marks a kind of your Independence Day for you guys, and however she thinks of it is her own concern. 

    Goodbye, Elva Diaz. 

     And Happy July Fourth, my friends.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Sand Sculptures

Jill and I spoke at a recent Every 15 Minutes program for Biggs High School. Well, really, Jill spoke, and I sat and tried to hold myself together.

The kids who participated in the program are the good kids. Good kids aren’t the problem. It was obvious we were preaching to the choir. 

Rachel was one of the good kids. She wouldn’t drink and drive, and she wouldn’t let her friends.

Still: she was killed by a drunk driver. 

I’ve been over it thousands of times in my mind. There was nothing Rachel could do to prevent it. She did all she could do. There was nothing I could do to save her. That night Rachel’s life was in Elva Diaz’ hands… Only Elva didn’t know it. I’m not really calloused enough to claim she wouldn’t have cared, wouldn’t have acted differently if she had known. Alcohol made her stupid and careless.

What message from Rachel’s story could we relay to a group of good kids that aren’t part of the problem? We have no assurances. We can make no promises. We were at a loss for words. 

You can prevent yourself from killing yourself or someone else by driving while intoxicated, which is sufficient reason. But there is nothing you can do to prevent a drunk driver from killing you. I’m not saying there aren’t things that can decrease the likelihood. You can stay off the road. You can stay home. But people have been killed in crosswalks, on the sidewalk, people have been killed by drunk drivers while they were sitting in their living rooms.

You can pray for protection. 

But we tried that too, and it didn’t work.

We could tell from their questions that most of the Biggs High School kids are Christians. We confessed to them our faith and our confusion, our anger and our sadness. They came up afterwards to console and encourage us. It was sweet and compassionate - a decent, human thing to do.

When Darryl Spessard shared the story of how the life of his precious daughter, Andrea, had been taken by a drunk driver with Rachel’s High School during the Every 15 Minutes event at Orland High School her Senior year, Rachel had reached out to him with compassion and sympathy. The very student that played the part that Rachel had played - the victim who dies at the hospital - came to comfort us as Rachel had done. 

Rachel was that exactly that kid. There he was, and Rachel was gone. I couldn’t help wonder what would happen to him...

We were asked what lessons we had learned. The assumption underlying the question is that there is some meaning, some greater purpose to Rachel’s death. 

What sprang to mind was Anne Lammott’s words from her book, Help, Thanks, Wow: “Any snappy explanation for suffering you come up with will be horseshit.” But that’s not what I said. 

I said something like, “I don’t want to leave the impression that everything that has emerged from Rachel’s death has been bad. We have learned some really important lessons, we have experienced some really good things, met some really wonderful people we may have not have otherwise. In many ways, we are better people than we might have been. But all these things have come at too terrible a price. We’d rather have Rachel.”

My answer was honest enough, I thought, but not too honest.

This I know: Life isn’t predictable or safe. Eventually, it will kill you.

I heard the mother of one of the victims killed by the bombing at the Boston Marathon say, “It’s such a waste.”

I know the feeling.

Since Rachel was killed I have been haunted by the fruitlessness of her life, the senselessness of her death - the tragedy, the waste of it. 

Her death was not only a waste of her life, but of mine. I don’t know if time is money - but it is life. I’m reading a book called, The Exquisite Risk, by Mark Nepo. He says, “...wealth is time, not money.” Time is the real, precious currency of our lives. 

I spent my time, my life loving Rachel, and now she is gone.

What do I have to show for it?

A sand sculpture erased by the tide. I kept the ocean to my back, forgot it was there. Perhaps I supposed this one so worthy and beautiful surely would be spared...

The question now with the tide coming in, is love a good investment?

I don’t like the way the way things turned out, but I’m still convinced time spent loving Rachel was not time wasted. I love her still. Grief is only love in distressing disguise.

I believe - and this is my belief - I’m not going to blow anyone up to prove its veracity: Time spent loving is life well spent. I believe love is never wasted.

The bargain of life and of love is death and loss. These are not unexpected contingencies. They do not and cannot present insurmountable obstacles to love. We do not cease to love because we know we will lose, anymore than we cease to live because we know we will die.

James Joyce said, “We have only this one short life in which to love.” 

The challenge of life is to find the courage to love in passing. To go, loving. To love and let go. There is no other way to love in this world. And no better way to spend whatever time we have left.

Thursday, December 6, 2012


“There was another life I might have had, but I am having this one.”
Kazuo Ishiguro - Never Let Me Go

It’s been nearly five years since Rachel was killed. Shortly afterwards, Jill and I had dinner with a couple who had lost their son nearly ten years earlier. I knew they knew how we felt because already the man had asked me questions I hadn’t told anybody were on my mind. The burning question, I think, for both me and Jill the night we had dinner was: “Will we ever get over this?”

From my current vantage point, I can see the foolishness of the question. Then, we hadn’t yet fully absorbed the reality of what we were facing: the rest of our lives without our daughter. We were desperate for hope from someone who had walked the road ahead of us. The couple answered our question as compassionately and honestly as they could. Ten years after his death, they told us, they still weren’t over the loss of their son. For as long as they walked this earth, they never expected they would be. The going get easier, but it never gets easy; the hurt gets better, but it never goes away. We should have known. They had learned to live without him, as harsh as that may sound. In Life of Pi, Yann Martel says, “You can get used to anything...isn’t that what all survivors say?” And while getting accustomed to the loss of a child seems at first unimaginable, undesirable, heartless even, it ends up, after all, to be sadly, horrifically...possible. Perhaps even necessary. Our hearts sank there at the table as we imagined the road ahead. We didn’t want to drink this cup, but drink it we would, together. A bitter communion. 

The man we had dinner with occasionally attended and preached at our church. He had formerly been an elder. I took his place on the board. The couple had ceased attending before Jill and I began. I don’t think we had met the woman before the night of our dinner. Though I never knew exactly why she quit going to church with her husband, it is reasonable to assume she had spiritual difficulties in the aftermath of her son’s death that made it impossible for her. They may have had some understandable and all too common marital problems. I detected some uncharitable attitudes about her and the choices they had made... 

In the days before Rachel’s death I thought of the man as a tragic and somewhat heroic figure. I admired him, but, of course, I did not envy him. I remember being always aware of his loss, even when it wasn’t explicitly mentioned or acknowledged. Like talking to someone behind glass. You can have a normal enough conversation, but there’s always that between you. Content to just admire and pity him from a distance, I never wanted to know how this man had managed to survive. Like most, I didn’t think I could. I recognized it could have been me in his shoes, but I was so shamefully relieved I didn’t have to wear them that I never wanted to tempt fate by getting too close.

I recently heard a radio broadcast of a Jewish mother who had lost her son to a Palestinian sniper. She said that those who manage to survive the loss of a child must choose to live. Is that what happened? Did I choose to survive? I don’t remember, not consciously, anyway. Many nights I would have been content to close my eyes on this world and wake up in the next… But there is always something that must be done in the morning.

Predictably, Jill and I quit attending church. We made a valiant attempt to hang in there; we really did. But after some developments that required further commitment and demanded more involvement, we finally had a long talk in the hot tub and confessed to each other that we simply no longer had the heart for it. Though I still cannot articulate why, church had become more hurtful than helpful for both of us, and we couldn't stand pretending otherwise any more. We realized that we weren’t serving anyone, least of all ourselves, by staying there when we lacked any true desire. We haven’t been back to the last church we attended as an intact family since the end of last December. It turned out to be almost like an unintentional New Year’s resolution - except that we have uncharacteristically nearly perfectly kept it.  Our year without Jesus…

After writing that last sentence, I Googled it to see if anyone had written on that topic, and I found this blog post: The author speculates about the antithesis of a popular book from a few years back called, My Jesus Year. He qualifies his blog entry as merely “a thought experiment”, confesses how easy it would be to fall into the (bad, selfish, lazy) habits of “pretend atheism” and cautions people against actually trying the experiment for themselves at home. I have to admit, it’s scary how easy it is has been to drop the routine of a lifetime.

It would be an exaggeration, though, to say that Jill and I have lived like atheists for the last year. Practical agnostics, maybe. The truth is, God is still a central figure in our lives, even though we are less certain than we have ever been about who He is, what He is like, and what we can expect from a relationship with Him.

God and church are two distinctly different things. The Bible asserts that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Jesus, Immanuel - God with us - made an unqualified promise that he would never leave us nor forsake us. I learned from Oswald Chambers that because we lose our old idea of God does not mean we have thereby lost God, and the loss of our former form of belief and the birth of a realization more closely approximating the truth is perhaps always and necessarily painful and traumatic. Did we really believe the truth could be cheaply and painlessly acquired? Doubt is as undeniable and inevitable in this life as pain, loss, confusion, and disappointment. Christ felt abandoned on the cross, but I don’t believe even he ever really lost God. I don’t think that is possible. I hope not. When walk out of church, God inhabits the world we encounter outside the door. I really believe God is always with us, as near to and indistinguishable from our very breath and being. 

Dan Haseltine, the lead singer of Jars of Clay, recently blogged about his break with the traditional evangelical church. He said, “I have to believe that God is in our story.” It isn’t good enough for him or for me anymore to be told what to believe about God. We each have our own experience that has brought us to the place where we now find, or have lost, ourselves. Through no fault of our own we have fallen out of step with the rest of the parade. It wasn’t our plan. I was content teaching Sunday School every Sunday, preaching, serving as an elder. I would happily have remained in that place if I hadn’t been removed by forces beyond my control. Sometimes, surrender is the only viable course of action. Maya Angelou said, “ me undeniably that surrender, in its place, (is) as honorable as resistance, especially if one (has) no choice.” 

If God is in our story, and our story takes where we do not want to go, then it is an act of faith to surrender and trust that God has something vital to teach us along the way. Nothing else makes any sense to me. Right now it’s the only faith I have. In Life of Pi, the main character tells the inquiring writer that he will tell him a story that will make him believe in God. It is his story, of course. How else could he know? Martin Luther, the original Reformer, said, “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also in the trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.” I would add, he also writes it in our hearts and with our lives. How else could we believe?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

"How Could You?"

I was in bed, not very successfully trying to sleep with a fever from a sudden flu, while Jill edited a California Scholarship Federation speech Rachel gave when she was a senior graduating from high school. Jill was preparing for an Every 15 Minutes presentation dedicated to the memory of Rachel in Madison, New Jersey. I heard Rachel’s sweet voice, and felt Jill’s grief through the wall of what used to be Rachel’s room.
I was not actively thinking, or praying, but as I lay there listening these words formed in my mind: “How could you?” Of course, I was addressing God. It was an honest question as much as a reproach. As distressing as such an utterance may be to many devout, I know that God encourages honesty more than false decorum. I did not recant.
I feel like so many of my half-assed prayers never make it past the ceiling, but as I lay on my side looking through the bedroom door into the dimly illumined hallway, I could visualize the words slipping through the whole-house fan grill, into the attic, out the screened vent at the ridge of the roof, and into the night sky. I waited for an answer, but I received none. I only heard Rachel’s voice...and the enormous silence.
Along with the awareness of the violent, untimely, and senseless death of my precious daughter, what continues to torment me is the pain it continues to inflict on my beloved wife, Jill. I call her Angel, because she is a miraculous emissary of God. To me, she IS, very literally, the embodiment of God’s love. A life of being loved by this woman is more than I could ever hope to deserve. It is pure grace, and I know it. I can only be grateful. 
If I were God, things would be different for Jill… She has suffered too much. And if God can’t even be as good as I can imagine God should be, what kind of God do I claim?...
The answer came a few days later. Not out of the sky, but out of a book, the 
Bible as it so often happens, though God undoubtedly speaks in many other ways I habitually fail to perceive. 
I came across this verse, again: 
2 Corinthians 1:3-5
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ.”
What struck me as I read the passage this time is that God is progenitor of mercy and comfort. Good things. Good things that come as a response to bad things. Mercy is a restorative response to a justifiably punishable infraction of the moral order. Comfort is a compassionate, therapeutic response to pain. The passage doesn’t address the origin of evil or suffering, it only describes God as the source of the remedy for it.
Our modern western rational minds can’t help but draw the conclusion that the God who created everything out of nothing must ultimately be responsible for whatever is wrong with the world as we know it. The buck finally stops at God. Maybe it is a flaw, but this passage simply doesn’t go there. God is presented as the creator of comfort, not of suffering; God is the originator of mercy, not of the evil or the injustice that make it necessary. God is present in the cure not the disease. Wherever we discover healing in progress, we witness God in action.
For some questions, even good questions, there simply are no good answers. Not here and now, at least. 
“...we also discovered how important it was not to superimpose theological truths onto hearts that are broken. To do so simply missed the mark...The need we had to somehow refer this all to God and make sense of it was amazing. The only problem was it made no sense at all.”
Gregory Floyd - A Grief Unveiled
God didn’t respond to my accusation, gave no explanation. Instead, I was challenged to entertain the possibility that my presence in Jill’s life may be the very God I questioned, comforting Jill in her suffering and grief. Just as I recognize and receive from her the love of God for me, I must admit in myself the presence of God, comforting Jill. Maybe it is just a matter of simple human kindness. Maybe such things in such a world are never quite so simple… 
At the same time, as so often happens when we dare to talk to God, I also felt my own question turn on me: How could I? - as I confess I so often have - to love, to comfort her as I could, as I should? I felt the shame of my own selfish betrayals.
I am convinced that in the mundane operation of common decencies we join God at work. When we feel the pull of compassion, sense the inclination to comfort, it is the compulsion of God to act, because the response of a loving God to the hurt of the world is to make it better. God feels it and wants to fix it. How do I know? Because I feel it. That doesn’t make me God, but does mean God is in and through me. The Love of God. The Body of Christ. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012


I lay with my eyes closed in the darkness, awake.


The day before I carried the obvious truth like a hidden wound, acting as if I could live with it, as if anybody could. We had lunch with family in my sister’s restaurant, Farwood Bar & Grill. Unless you already knew the story, you could not have guessed. And I did enjoy our time together, because I realize more than ever that every moment with those we love is precious. But I am living a double life: living with gratitude while carrying this grief. Maybe life is never simple, but always double, triple, multiple. I walked around all day, thinking, “Four years ago today, this was the last day Rachel walked this earth. What was she doing at this moment four years ago? What was she thinking? What was I?” Blissfully ignorant. Thinking it would go on like this forever, or something approaching it. That there would always be more time…

I had a dream or a vision, what ever you would call it. Rachel pulled up to the curb in her Honda. Jill and I were out working in the yard. I put down whatever was in my hand and walked toward her with wonder. Jill too. Rachel jumped out of her car and ran across the yard to meet us, beaming, delighted, I think, to surprise us. She had been gone a long time, and we weren’t expecting her. There was this beautiful moment of joy before the realization that she was really dead and I was only dreaming...

It always feels like a betrayal to be able to go on living. Those who know better will say that is unhealthy thinking. It is, I know. I turned 50 on February 6. Jill and I spent the weekend in the Anderson Valley to celebrate our 24th anniversary. We took the long way home, touring the wine country just waking into spring, and stopped at a couple of unique places to eat we had seen on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. It was a beautiful weekend in every way. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was taking my leave, saying goodbye, likely never to pass this way again. I was painfully conscious that I was just passing through, that this strange and beautiful world...this life...doesn’t belong to me anymore, if it ever did. Though we mostly don’t behave like guests, but rather like we own the place and are trying our best to use it up, the truth is that we are only visiting here. But I suspect it is a dangerous mistake to let that keep us from forming attachments…

So, my birthday, February 6, was a Monday. We were stepping back into our routine after our extraordinary weekend. I wanted to be big about it, so I got out of bed as usual, made the coffee while Jill took her shower, and then sat in bed to read to her from the Daily Bible. As I read, a horrible awareness crept upon me: This was the passage we had read the morning Rachel was killed. I tried to read as if nothing was wrong, like I didn’t notice, but Jill stopped me to confirm the realization that was dawning on her, too. It was 5:00 a.m. and, after that, my day was already over...

Of course, I wonder about such coincidence. The day before, while driving through the wine country, different renditions of Amazing Grace had played back-to-back on the iPhone we were playing on shuffle through the car stereo. I asked Jill if she thought my smart phone was smart enough to know it was Sunday. Or maybe it was a sign?

We are haunted by the presentiment that maybe there is more to this life than the surface suggests. And tortured by the misgiving that maybe there isn’t.

The passage from Proverbs for that same day says, “The Lord directs a person’s steps. Why should we fret to understand every step along the way?” It’s true, I don’t know where I am going, so it is impossible for me to judge whether I am taking one true step in the right direction. Wiser souls would counsel me to let it go and simply let it be what it is. I’m not there yet.

Jill and I are reading Joan Chittister’s spiritual memoir, “Called to Question.” I am surely contorting the passage to fit my own interpretation, but she says, “Life is not about getting God. Life is about growing in God.” Presumably, we are all always in God, because there is no outside. She goes on to say, “We ripen. We learn. We hurt. We survive one thing after another. And we go the end, we gain what we came to get...One way or another life batters us until we get the unavoidable. Sometimes we get it with glory; sometimes we get it in disgrace…” The God who is life inexorably teaches us. We learn what we need to know. We are not our own. We do not know who or what we are to become. We simply trust the process, and the God of life whom we can only hope controls it.

What kind of terrible faith is this?

The morning I woke up to that passage, I took it as a cruel cosmic joke.

That is the human problem, older than Job, with which those who suffer struggle: Is the God who guides the process loving, indifferent, or malevolent? Does God torture us for amusement? What are we to make of this mess?

The problem with my interpretation of events is that it flies in the face of the message of the passage. It is the passage in Ezra that affirms, “God is good. His faithful love endures forever.”

In spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, does love really guide the universe?

I have come to the conclusion that I over-reacted. I don’t blame myself. One emotional law I have learned is that in the absence of convincing proof to the contrary (and, really, what is proof?), the most loving explanation is correct. I guess you could call it the benefit of the doubt theorem...or the benefit of faith. If God really is good, as I have heard and still, tremulously, believe, and really does love me with a love that endures forever and transcends time and circumstance, then it is just possible that reading that passage on my 50th birthday was God’s way of telling me I am loved - in spite of everything.

As Theodore Roethke said, “I learn by going where I have to go.”


This morning, February 21, 2012, I awoke and kept my eyes closed in the darkness. When I finally opened them and looked at the clock it was 3:31 a.m. One minute after Rachel was pronounced dead four years ago. The beginning of the rest of my life…

“I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

I learn by going where I have to go.”

Theodore Roethke - “The Waking”