So, as I drove home from North Dakota to Minnesota on New Year's Eve day, I prayed for a storm, again, but for a different reason. Given that winter break felt so short this year, and I felt so ill-prepared to return to work rested and ready to be "all in", I prayed for just enough snow and ice to push back the start of school by one day. (Now, anyone who knows anything about the school districts in the cities in Minnesota knows that that NEVER happens, so it was a BIG prayer to begin with.) Again, this prayer went unanswered.
And then, I got an unexpected storm. A storm I would never ask for via prayer. A storm that I feel like I have been caught in before, and thought that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime kind of storm. An "it won't happen to me" kind of storm.
On Thursday, January 3rd, I got word that our dear friend's dad, Ronnie, who I have always loved, and have always been loved by, was being flown down to Rochester, to the Mayo Clinic. He had been sick, and the doctors were not finding the root of the issue. Since Rochester is a quick drive for me, I touched base with the family right away to offer any support. I could drive down with groceries, do some laundry, just come and visit. As it goes, they weren't sure what would happen when they got there, so they would all just keep me posted.
Of course, on Friday, I woke up with a scratchy throat and the start of a nasty cold. I knew I could not make a visit to the ICU with a cold, so I went home, doubled-up on vitamin C, took a bunch of Mucinex and Zycam, and went to bed early in the hopes that I would wake up victorious over germs. I lost. I woke up Saturday all cough-y, and scratchy, and achy. Again, I would not be heading to the hospital. On the flip side, it was also the day of the NDSU Bison Championship football game, which my dear friends were supposed to be hosting a party for back home. I rallied a few friends of my own and we walked on over to Bunnys to enjoy the company of friends as we cheered on our hometown team - well, my hometown team! :)
Just before kick off, I got the call that all of Ronnie's test results from the few days prior had come back and there was finally a complete answer. Ronnie was full of cancer. The end was very near. The next decision was to fly him back home and help him get comfortable. I carried on about my day, thinking about how the family's day had just been turned upside down. The plans had started out as a wonderful day of fellowship with friends over football and beer, to a quiet day of waiting, just as a family.
By Sunday afternoon, Ronnie had passed from this world. I always think it amazing how the dying have to make the final choice to let go. Two of Ronnie's grandchildren had been out of town, and they came home on Sunday. It was shortly after they got to his bedside that he took his last breaths. I think that is amazing, and beautiful. I hope my grandpa waits for me someday.
My heart was sad. Ronnie was, as his daughter-in-law put it so perfectly, "a gentle giant". I would only have to add to that, "with an amazing ability to use humor". There was always a grin, always a comment, and always a hug available when I would encounter this dear man. My relationship with Ronnie goes back through our families, however, my personal relationship with him started when I babysat his grandchildren. Ronnie, and his son, Ryan, whose children I babysat, were the only two men that could give me a ride home at the end of the night without creeping me out. That's a complement, right? :) There was just something about the "Dads" - any of you that were female teenage babysitters will get this - that made a ride home a bit uncomfortable. But Ronnie? No problem. He would ask me how things were going, how the kids behaved... he made sure to remind me I was boss when I was babysitting (but not when he was around, he would say with a little grin). Still, years later, I would see him at the boys' baseball games in the summer, or around town in the winter, and he always had time for me. Our conversations were real, and I appreciate that.
I have to say, Ronnie has left behind an amazing family, and I am so glad to call them all friends. Last night, as we celebrated his life, his oldest son pointed out that Ronnie was ready to go. He was ready because he knew that we would all be fine, and we will be. I have to add that he was ready because he had raised up two sons that are amazingly capable of carrying on everything he started, taking care of their mom, loving their wives and children, and most importantly, carrying on his sense of humor and mischief. He will be missed, but his presence will remain clear.
Needless to say, this loss was the beginning of the storm.
Tuesday morning, I woke up to a text from my brother, "Larry G. passed away last night." I didn't personally know Larry very well. He became the Superintendent at my high school for my last few years there. He had a son a year younger than me, and a couple of daughters younger still. However, I know that Larry has had a great presence in our small town, and in my home church. He never greeted me without a smile and a kind hello. I enjoyed watching him interact with others, especially his children and grandchildren, because he always seemed to be enjoying life. It seemed as though he truly loved the world. I was sad for his children who are still young and losing their dad. For his wife, who is left alone so young. I was sad for his grandchildren that love him so joyfully and will wonder where he went, and for his unborn grandchildren that will never know their grandpa.
Tuesday night, I watched the news. I never watch the news. There was a St. Louis Park (the city I live in) student that had died from the flu. I wanted to see which school(s) she had attended, because my friend, Cheryl, teaches in SLP, and I was hoping it wasn't one of her students. At the end of that news bit, the next headline caught my attention, and the exact reason I don't watch the news came to fruition. I had gotten sucked in. "One-year-old left without a mother, and her husband is in jail tonight for her murder." Of course, it went to commercial break, but I was sucked in. I was closing down my computer for the night and listening more than anything when I heard, "Steven Johnson is under arrest tonight for the murder of his 32-year-old wife, Manya (pronounced incorrectly, of course) Johnson." At that, I lifted my head to see the pictures up on the screen. It was one of the most horrifying moments that I have experienced in my 34 years on this Earth.
Instantly, my heart raced, I struggled to breathe, and my stomach pulsed on the verge of throwing up. I rewound the clip to hear the details over again. I watched again. And again. I jumped to Facebook to confirm that it was Manya and Steve's pictures, and not just their look-alikes. The picture on my TV matched the profile picture on Manya's Facebook page. Already, on her FB page, were two tributes to the joyful life she lived. In that moment of panic, I can honestly say, I have never felt so alone and disconnected. I never realized when I left WA, that I left the Lutedome. I didn't know what to do, who to talk to... I just cried. It was 11:00 at night, and I knew that two of our friends needed to hear this from a human, rather than a computer screen. I called Melissa, out in DC, twice. I received a text, "Sleeping, U OK?" I called again. She answered. I gave her what I knew. We sat in stunned silence. We hung up. I called Nick, in Colorado, and his chipper voice greeting me with a, "What's up, Friend?" was enough to make me lose it. I sobbed into the phone, "I am SO sorry I don't call you more often!" which quickly tipped him off that this would not be a normal phone call. "Jen, what's wrong? What's going on?" - I love the amount of care that Nick carries in his voice alone. As I explained what I had just learned, we road the waves of this storm together.
The details that I knew were horrific. A shot to the head, dismembered body with a saw, hid in plastic bins in a friend's garage. A criminal record that none of us knew about stemming from a malicious rape after he followed a girl home, pulled in her driveway behind her, and lured (forced?) her into his car. An 18-month son at home, left without a mom.
How does this happen? Did Manya know about his record? Was she in a scary marriage all along? How could this woman who exuded enough joy for a hundred people at a time be caught in such an "it will never happen to me" kind of mess? How could someone as intelligent as Manya marry someone with a record as unpredictably scary as this man's?
Some of the answers come from just who Manya was. Manya loved like nobody I have ever known. She could give anyone another chance. Not a second chance. Another chance. She believed in everyone. I am convinced that she believed that loving someone well enough could cure, fix, and change them. And if that were the case, Manya could have cured, fixed and changed anyone. Manya's eyes sparkled with delight. Her giddiness was omnipresent. I only saw her frustrated a couple of times in our years of knowing each other, and even those moments were faced with a big, huge, mouthy grin and gritted teeth, as she would say, "This just sucks for now!" through the gritted grin. I remember asking her once, "Can you just stop smiling because your mad, this ONCE?" I don't smile when I am mad. Manya smiles in spite of being mad.
Manya and I met when we were RAs together at PLU. She was loud, happy, crazy, and boisterous. Nobody walked by her without getting her infamous, "Hello, Friend!" or ended a conversations without a "Good chat! Good chat!" and a hug. When I left PLU, we fell out of touch for a while, but luckily, through Nick and Melissa, I knew where she was and what she was up to. A few years before I moved back to Minnesota, the four of us met up in Minnesota at Nick's parents' lake home. We spent a day out on the boat skiing, and laughing. Hugs at the end of the day spoke love and the dreams of having our college days back where we could play together every day.
When I moved to Minnesota, because I had one friend (and Thank God for Mary, btw), I touched base with Manya quickly. I am so thankful that I did, because it was like moving back to PLU instantly. Seriously, the girl held enough energy to be the equivalent of the Lutedome. We recalled story after story after story on our first pie date at Chatterbox. We laughed until we cried and our stomachs hurt. It was like we had never been apart. From that point, Manya introduced me to all things Minneapolis-St. Paul.... the Chain of Lakes and every ice cream stop around them, Gopher football, I can't think of the name of it, but it was the equivalent of a Perkins, and we ended up calling it "The Old People Pie Place" (I know - it's not our classiest name, but all of the assumptions that you can conjure up in your head from that name? That's exactly what this place was.) I know exactly where it is, and I can't think of the name, but Manya loved their pie, and she thought all of the little elders were a bonus. Plus, it was priced for seniors, so it was a great bargain, too. We would go in and have pie, but inevitably, we would chit chat with another patron or two on our way in, and again on our way out. When we would leave, she would say, "Aren't old people just GREAT?!?!" with her big, happy grin, and her excited, clapping hands, and her bounce in her step. I, being only slightly more conservative, would laugh and shake my head at her, while agreeing with her and loving her zest for all things living.
It hit me that I live in Minnesota, and we don't often make national news, and even if we did, how was the best way to let all of our Lute-friends know of this horrific news? I hate finding things out on Facebook, but this time, it was the only way. I found a link to one of the stories with the fewest gory details... I didn't want to be glamorizing this story on Facebook, in front of her family who is living it. But, I wanted to let people know what had happened. With the Internet these days, people can find their own details, quite easily as I learned quickly, from just the basics. So, I posted to Facebook a link with the outline of the story, and drew in the attention of the Lutes I am connected to.
I didn't sleep Tuesday night, and I can only recall now, a few days later, the mix of emotions that stole my rest. The extreme kind of sadness that I have not experienced since Emily died. The utter fear of the unknown. The anger at this monstrous man who made vows to love Manya until natural death separated them. The anger at a God who would let this happen, even though I know it was not Him allowing it, but Him there to comfort and take hold of Manya the second she passed through to His presence. The disgust at what our world is coming to. The joy that rushes through my body just from hearing her beautiful name, Manya. The unfairness that I have experienced two of the "it will never happen to me" kind of deaths by random circumstance, of friends that were way too young to die, in my short life. The questions that will never be answered. All of it was too much. Too much to put to rest and sleep. I cried. I laid in the dark and stared at nothing. I tossed and turned. I felt heavy and empty. At 5:55AM, I felt a surge of relief that my alarm would be going off in five minutes, and I could get up and move. Of course, that would be the point at which I could sleep, because I woke up to my telephone ringing at 7:32, a call from my sister-in-law to comfort me. I didn't answer because I had to jump out of bed and run for the shower to be at work by 8 - all of which, I was quite sure Manya would laugh at. She would probably have gritted her teeth, with a big ol' smile and said, "Ugh! That SUCKS!"
Amazing though, how, all of a sudden, I felt like I had tele-ported right back to the Lutedome. By morning, my Facebook post was full of condolences shared, greetings, warm wishes, and stories. Instantly, I felt not-so-alone. I felt like the life of this amazing and wonderful woman was being honored beautifully. The details kept pouring out of the media, but Manya was stealing the show with all of her joy. The priceless time we all spent together at PLU was being evidenced by these re-connections and the rallying around a life beyond worthy of celebration.
Wednesday is a blur... I went to school with no make up, wearing sweats, just trying to get through the day. I hid and cried a time or two, but my mantra was simply, "Take a breath." I think one's body can seriously forget to breathe in the most excruciating moments when it would rather just be put to rest. I was there... at that place where too much pain envelopes all of the will to breathe. However, I was so numb, I didn't even notice.
Thursday morning, the death notice was that one of my first-grader's dad had passed away during the night after a fight against cancer was lost. If you could see this little guy.... he needs a dad. My heart, once again, broke a little more for this little one that has seemed lost in the shuffle of life since the beginning of the school year. Maybe there will soon be some kind of "normalcy" for him?
I drove home Thursday after work, for Ronnie's funeral. I caught up with dear friend, Rachel, as I drove. Another Lute, we could share in our stories, questions, frustrations of Manya's tragic death. We celebrated the life that Rachel will be welcoming in just a few weeks, as she gives birth to her first baby. I listened to music, loudly, and sang along when I could, cried when I needed to. When I got home, I hugged each of my family members, thankful for who we are as a team. They hugged me back, and I was thankful that they hurt for me, that I come from a place where love is so real and compassionate that we are never crying alone. I slept. There is something about being home, under mom and dad's roof, that brings sleep uninterrupted by nightmares, or crying. Sleep is an amazing necessity in times of crisis.
Friday morning, I woke up to one more notice of death. A co-worker lost her dad. My heart sank. This is all just too much for one person to be connected to in one week. I showered. I got ready for funeral number 1, for beloved Ronnie, and stepped out into another foggy day. But, at the funeral, there were words spoken by Pastor Fla, so gently, and compassionately, that brought me some peace, comfort, and the reminders that I will repeat daily for the upcoming week(s):
1. We aren't in control of the timing, there is never a "too soon", only a "Just when God says so" to bring us to the most peaceful, amazing place that exists beyond our understanding.
2. He accidentally made up a grammatically incorrect word once upon a time, and it seems to work quite well to bring some comfort to the fact that the deceased are "weller" than we are. We hurt. We are afraid. We are angry. We are sad. But Ronnie, and Manya, my student's dad, and my co-worker's dad, are "weller" than us, "weller" than they have ever been.
Ronnie died peacefully after saying goodbye to every family member he loved. I have agonized over the lack of peace that Manya must have been feeling in the moments before she passed. However, I am going to believe that the God she and I shared a faith in was with her, was providing her some form of grace and peace, and that the INSTANT her life was taken, all of the chaos and unrest was gone. She was scooped up into the hands of our Eternal Father of Peace and Love and comforted, celebrated, and held.
The pastor yesterday has died and been brought back to life after a serious complication with heart surgery. My words do his no justice, but hearing him talk about having been shocked 16 times, waking up briefly and telling a doctor, "Don't do that to me again." and then having his 17th shock and waking up and saying, "I told you not to," and hearing him talk about the fact that he was angry that he didn't get to stay in that most serene, calm, peaceful, beautiful place.... it is what I need to hold on to as I grapple with why we all lost Manya. Instead of focusing on the why, I will hold on to the fact that she is "weller" than she ever expected to be today. I will pray for her family, her friends, and most fervently, for her beautiful little Oliver. But as for Manya, today, she is well.
Each day, as I trudge forward, I breathe with a few less reminders. I cry a few less tears. I feel a bit less fear. But, man, I am still sad. I am still a bit shocked and numb. I think back to losing Emily, and I know that it was a slow process to get to a place where I could tell a story and not feel like I landed ten steps backward in the healing process. I am praying for everyone reeling over Manya's death, that we would each be graced with patience for ourselves as we heal as we need to, and patience from others as they support us and see us through.
This week has been too much. I know that God will use it to grow me. That, I have learned in the past. I have been stretched. I have been exhausted. My Facebook status on Wednesday night,
"I am going to bed exhausted, still stunned, and definitely aching tonight. However, I am going to bed feeling as though my time at PLU has been affirmed... the love that is exuding FB from friends, across miles, from relationships a decade old, is without a doubt, Priceless. I have been blessed to have spent four years with some of the most amazing people I will ever meet, and tonight, at the center of the relationships, is dear Manya. Being sad over the loss of a life means it was a life well-loved, and Manya's was well-loved because she loved well. And the photographer in me has NEVER been more thankful for photos that bring back memories, share stories, and allow me to laugh and cry, which will provide space for healing. Praise God for Manya's life. Ask God for comfort and peace for her loved ones. And thank God for blessing each and everyone one of us with her presence in our lives."
says it all.
And so, I will move forward. One step, one day, one breath....