Holding Vigil

The word Vigil is defined as “a period of keeping awake… to keep watch or pray.”

Monday morning, I rolled over at 5 am and picked up my phone to check the time. A small box on my phone lit up with a news story about a mass shooting in Las Vegas the night before, and I instantly became aware. This wasn’t a shooting in some far away place that I’d never been, this was Las Vegas, a place that had once been afar away home for me.

After my parent’s divorce, my dad had moved to Vegas, and I had a sister who still lived there now with her children. I’d spent many summers there as a teenager, seeing shows on the strip and swimming in pools. As an adult, I’ve visited Vegas dozens of times. My first relationship with a man had been long distance with a guy in Vegas. I could easily picture the crowded casinos, filled with exhausted tourists from every corner of the country all there to celebrate some birthday or new job or anniversary, all hoping for debauchery through alcohol, gambling, shows, food, and sex, all escaping life and hoping to leave it all behind when they left.

“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” the slogan says.

And not, a mass shooting, something no one could ever escape from again. This wasn’t something that could be left there.

As I scanned through the details of the story, I began seeing social media posts about this being the “worst mass shooting in modern American history” and numbers were beginning to show that dozens were killed and hundreds injured. And then the opinions started showing up on Facebook and Twitter.

“If they had been keeping the Sabbath Day holy, those people wouldn’t have died.”

“This is what happens when we elect a misogynistic bigot like Trump and expect him to lead us!”

“Another left-wing conspiracy, another fake shooting, more Fake News for people to use in their agendas, just like Sandy Hook!”

“I blame Hillary Clinton for this! If she hadn’t divided this country like she did, things like this wouldn’t happen!”

“I can’t wait for the news to start blaming gun control laws and racism for this. Political correctness is what is wrong with our country!”

It took me a few hours to give voice to my feelings. As I went about my day, news stories kept flashing on my phone, nearly all of them about the killer. Who he was, where he came from, what was known about him, how many guns he had, what his relationships were like, who his father was, what his motives were, what his habits were. One article talked about his love of country music and gambling. And I knew the public was just eating it up, feeling titillated by the details of the life of this man who had just become one of the greatest mass murderers in American history.

But my mind went to the reality of the event itself. I’ve been to Mandalay Bay for shows and to the Aquarium, and I’ve walked the area outside of it. A bright flashy country music festival, in its third day of production. A large stage and a crowd of thirty thousand fans, all there to celebrate life and escape. They were drinking and dancing, sleeping, texting, taking photos and posting them on line, sending texts to their loved ones. And then, suddenly, gunfire. At first everyone held still and the music continued, people thinking it was electric sounds or perhaps fireworks. But as hundreds of rounds of ammunition rained down on the crowd, bullets hit targets. They flew through cowboy hats and lodged in heads and necks and chests and arms and backs and legs. And then the screaming and the running started.

For (approximately) 15 minutes, the gunfire continued. Loved ones made critical decisions to leave wounded spouses and friends behind, they scrambled to call for help and to search for missing loved ones, they launched themselves over barriers and fences to safety, they lay on the ground trying not to attract notice. They screamed, their adrenaline surged, and they texted frantic messages to people back home, not knowing if they would live or die.

As a therapist who does crisis work, I pictured talking to any one of these thousands of people later on. They would share their confusion, locked in time with the sights and sounds and images of what they witnessed, in shock and unable to get it out of their brains. Those images will stay with them for the rest of their lives, altering them forever. Tens of thousands of people, who will never again escape the feeling of what it is like to sit there helplessly as those around them are being slaughtered, a sensation generally on military veterans learn to live with.

And many were altered even more. Husbands lost wives. Wives lost husbands. A man shielded his wife from gunfire and she held his hand as she died. A cop protected someone else and yelled at his wife to run to safety, only to later learn she’d been killed. Back home, parents and kids and siblings, neighbors and co-workers and friends, began getting the news that someone they loved, who they had just seen, had been violently murdered, and for all of them, they would never be the same.

These victims, the ones who were wounded and the ones who were killed, they are real people. Teachers, veterans, police officers, students, hairdressers. They have loves and lives, homes, jobs, hopes and dreams. And in a blast of gunfire and blood, they were taken.

And somehow, unless you knew one of the victims directly, the public only wanted to know about the assassin, and to rage about their politics, and that part, that made me hurt and angry beyond belief.

So I decided to hold vigil. Instead of turning off the news because it was too painful, instead of getting lost in the psychology of a madman and mass murderer, instead of ranting about the poor morals of elected officials, instead of expressing outrage over what some celebrity did or didn’t say, I chose to remember the victims.

For two full days, I searched for names and identities. I found photos and locations. I began posting photos with brief descriptions of each person who was killed. These are the ones who deserve to be remembered, just like the victims from the Pulse shooting and from Sandy Hook and Fort Hood and Virginia Tech and Columbine. These are the lives that must remembered.

And once I set aside my outrage and replaced it with grieving, once I addressed my pain and fear and gave it voice, I realized I could start to heal, and I could start to decide what to do with this.

In today’s news cycles, we are assaulted with a barrage of things to be afraid of and outraged over, and even the biggest stories tend to cycle through every couple of days. We are no longer talking about the hurricane in Puerto Rico, yet the people there are still struggling to recovery. And by tomorrow, we will no longer be talking about Vegas, instead just shrugging it off as another shooting in a country that can’t seem to stop having mass shootings. And then we will be caught up in our outrage over the next story.

And while we constantly move forward to the next news story, there are events from the past that we still can’t escape from. This country hasn’t healed from the assassinations of JFK, or Martin Luther King, or Harvey Milk, or Abraham Lincoln. We haven’t moved past 9/11, or Watergate, or McCarthyism, or Wounded Knee, or Pearl Harbor, or slavery. Will this be remembered as a time of change, or another forgotten news story?

Because for these families and victims, who will never recover, this isn’t something that can be forgotten. And what happens next time when it is my family, or yours, who is impacted?

How do we take these lessons, and how do we make change?

Those are questions that I need to answer for myself tomorrow. But today, today I grieve.

Vegas

 

 

 

 

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On your wedding day…

 

Hey Kurt,

You were supposed to get married this Saturday. I was texting Elias, and he reminded me that this Saturday was the big day. Or it was supposed to be.

When you first told me you were finally engaged, I remember sitting back and day-dreaming about what this day would look like. I know you had different plans for the actual event, but this is the way I remember imagining it:

Your yard would be immaculate, full of flowers and trees, benches you made with your own hands adorning the edges of the yard. It would have been the perfect sunny day, cool and warm all at once, with shade for your guests. The rows of chairs would be filled with your loved ones: your sons, your stepdaughters, your mom, your coworkers, your best friends. I would have been sitting there on the front row in a suit with a flower on my lapel, and brimming with pride and joy for you. I’m sure I would have been crying, much like I’m crying now.

I envisioned strings, playing beautiful music and welcoming you and Elias as you walked down the aisle hand in hand, both incredible fit and trim and sharp in your suits, all your hard work at the gym having paid off. I know how you would have looked at each other, in the eyes, hand in hand, as you recited your vows, and pledged love to each other for the rest of your lives. I remember how you looked at each other.

It’s hard having you gone, my friend. Your presence just loomed so largely in my life, and so consistently, that I don’t know if I would have been able to predict it would be like without you.

Elias and I text sometimes. We remember you. We think about what you would have wanted for us, in our own ways, after you were gone. We’ve met up a few times to talk and share, but most of the conversation comes back to how we miss you. He’s healing. He’s hurting a lot, but healing. Staying busy with work and friends, planning his future as best he can. And I think all of us who miss you are much the same, in lesser degrees.

I just sit back sometimes and think about how abrupt it was that you left us. You had unfinished wood working projects, new accounts coming in at work, yard work and wedding plans and a bachelor party and a honeymoon all coming up. All the hikes you went on, all the ground you walked upon. And all those miles we traveled together, all of our road trips and long conversations. You know that section on Facebook, where it shows you all of your memories on the same calendar date over the past several years? You come up on my feed nearly every day. So many memories, Kurt! Moab and Denver and Mexico and Vegas and San Diego. Coffee catch-ups and house parties and nightclubs and lunches and hikes. It’s almost ridiculous to realize that you were not only my best friend, you were my primary support system. If someone asked me to list a next of kin or an emergency contact, I would have given your name, and you would have shown up when they called.

I miss you, my friend, but that’s easy to tell. I’m doing well enough, staying social and busy and engaged. I’ve traveled a bit lately, to Seattle and to Island Park; you and I would have texted constantly during both of those trips, and I found myself wanting to tell you things and you would have made me laugh.

Despite all that, I’ve been a little more withdrawn lately. I find myself expecting less of people, staying quiet for longer periods of time. I’ve spent more time solo, and more time quiet when I’m around others. And that’s okay, at least for now. I think it’s a pretty healthy way to process grief overall. But I know you, too. If you were here, you’d show up and you’d be worried about me.

I keep getting little snapshots of you throughout my days. The birthday party you threw me, where you made everyone there go around in a circle and tell their favorite stories about me. The going away party you had for me when I moved to Seattle and how you always gave me a place to stay when I came back to visit. How you always, always answered me and showed up anytime I needed you, like the time you helped me assemble bunk beds for my kids and the time you picked me up when my car broke down. These memories and a thousand thousand more.

God damn it, I miss you, my friend.

This Saturday, I’ll with my sons, but I know it’s going to be a tough one. It was supposed to be your day. Elias is going to ascend a mountain in your honor that day. I’m not sure how I’ll honor you yet, but I want you to know that you’ll be on my mind. I’m working on a book right now. (You were always telling me to write a book). When I finish it, if I finish it, you will very likely be the one I dedicate it to.

I’ve told you this a lot of times already, butĀ  I just want you to know that you changed my life. I still hear your voice of reason, your laugh, your sage advice.

I help people grieve for a living, so I know it’s a process. I’m getting there. The people who mean the most take the longest to get over. And you’re gonna take a long time.

I love you, my friend. And I miss you.

Chad

Kurt10

 

 

Numb

numb

 

It’s been a painful and very strange week. One of those weeks where I spent a lot of time glued to social media, unbidden, because that is how we experience the news lately. The events in Orlando impacted me on a profound and painful level. I was outraged and the selfish and bigoted Tweets sent out by calloused politicians, I was horrified by the stories of the victims whose lives were cut short right in the middle of living, I was saddened and exhausted by the long painful rants and speeches by friends who were in pain.
My kids weren’t with me this week. I think that would have helped. They approach the world with sheer joy and wonder. But they were camping with their mom, out of reach even by phone, leaving me to my own devices.
And the stories of the survivors coming out now, their wounds beginning to heal but their hearts far from it. Working as a counselor and spending time absorbing the pain of others as they process through their own struggles and feelings, many of them related to Orlando as well.
And now it is Friday morning and I sat down to write, something that always helps me sort out how I’m feeling. I searched my brain for topics to write about, stories I want to tell. I have a long list in my brain. But after several minutes of staring at a blinking cursor on the keyboard, I realized this was the story, typing about the general realization that I’m numb. And tired. But mostly numb.
There has been a tremendous amount of joy this week. I attended a local vigil in tribute to Orlando and hugged dozens of friends who were grieving with me. I had meaningful conversations over coffee with a few friends. I made major progress on a book project that I’m working on. I exercised and felt confident. I saw outpourings of kindness from strangers over social media who were loving and supportive.
Numbness is a natural state for me after days of feeling too much. My body just reacts with numb after a while. It’s that feeling where you can’t quite sleep and you can’t quite sit still and you can’t quite find the motivation to do anything, where you roll with the punches of your day: gym, coffee, do the dishes, fold the laundry, one foot in front of the other. I’ve been eating nutritious foods and soaking in sunlight and drinking water and doing all of the right things but it is still taking its time, and taking its toll.
Tomorrow the sun comes up. I’ll be with my kids again and we wiill play in the park and sing songs and draw pictures. We will go on treasure hunts and tell stories and count bugs on the sidewalk. They are my greatest salve and balm and remedy.
I see the good and wonderful and bright in my life more clearly than ever. I embrace slow and steady positive change over time. I measure myself where I am against where I was and I just keep climbing. It is a beautiful world. It is. Despite terrible and painful things at times, it is a world of incredible beauty and love.
I’m better at taking care of myself these days, letting myself be numb for a bit and letting myself find joy, setting boundaries where I need to, prioritizing my insides before I can do that for others.
At this point, it is impossible to tell what the long-term impacts of Orlando will be, but I believe that they will be positive ones politically, that gun control laws will change, that politicians will stop conceding to the NRA, that LGBT people will be better understood and more widely embraced. For me, I’m not sure what I’ll learn yet, but I’ll come out of all of this changed, altered a bit, more aware of both the darkness and the love that exist in the world.
But first, I write.

Reconciling God

God.jpgMy thoughts have turned to God lately.

Everyone has their own individual experience of God in their lives.

To some, he is an ever present listener, hearing consistent loving petitions about problems, struggles, and hopes, granting blessings when he sees fit, when he sees it best for the person praying.

To some, he is a great punisher, delving out vengeance to enemies and sinners, punishing with swift and mighty judgment.

To some, he is absent, sitting on high, having forgotten Earth, leaving man to his wars and violence, illnesses and vulnerability.

To some, he is a father, loving, forgiving, giving sound advice with a strong arm and a soft heart.

He can fill any role for any person. He’s God.

And in truth, he is all of those things, a collective being with billions of children who each see him differently. He is constant only in that he is unknowable. And while hey may or may not exist in physical form, he exists powerfully on Earth in the hearts and minds of the humans. His name is the most used name. He’s in nearly every text, tome, and poem. He influences every relationship and interaction. He wields the passing of laws and the execution of justice. He sets morals and guidelines. He gives and he takes.

In my experience, in my small and humble station, God loomed large, a product of my own consciousness and mortality. A being of contradictions who gave directions like “be perfect, even though you can never be perfect” and “repent constantly for forgiveness, even though you are a sinner just for being born.” My view of God was so often influenced by the words of white older men who I considered inspired, men who had a specific plan for me, and that plan did not involve being gay.

And that rift within my view of God became a rift within myself, one that lasted decades. The idea that God created me, innocent and without blemish, and yet he didn’t create gay people; he loved me, but he didn’t want me to sin, but I had to sin and I needed to ask forgiveness but even if I didn’t he loved me he was just disappointed and I should feel bad but not so bad that I would grow distant from him because that would be a sin too and I would need to repent because I was perfect just as I was and I also needed to change that for him. I saw myself as perfect, and broken; desperate for a cure for homosexuality, but selfish for wanting a cure and even more selfish for not wanting one. It was an impossible space to dwell within, as impossible to define or comprehend as God himself.

I learned to live outside myself, which is ironic because that is also where God dwelled, outside myself, a great collective, made up of my experience of him and the experiences of every other person who ever lived.

My best friend recently died. It was abrupt, sudden. He was there, and then he wasn’t. I can still feel him sometimes. He once sat in that chair, he once occupied that space, his laughter once filled my ears, he once hugged me tight, he once cared with his whole heart. And I can still feel all of those things, a spirit, an echo, a presence, a ghost. He’s there, but he isn’t. But he still exists within and without me, conjured by my memories and experiences, and by the memories and experiences of all those who loved him.

And that, it dawns on me, is how I now see God. I no longer believe in a tangible, defined God whose traits are classified by older men I have never met. I see him where he touched me, where he forgot me, where he denied me, where he made false promises, where he gave me comfort and where he took it away. And I can still feel all of those things, a spirit, an echo, a presence, a ghost. He’s there, but he isn’t. But he still exists within and without me, conjured by my memories and experiences, and by the memories and experiences of all those who loved him.

I don’t pray any longer. I don’t address God aloud or even silently. But I experience him still. He influences me and he influences the world around me. He is the very essence of my origins, the very concept of my early developing sense of self.

He’s there, and he isn’t.

And I’m here, until I’m not.

Eulogy for Kurt

This is a copy of my eulogy for Kurt at his memorial service last night:

“This is an informal event, but I write better than I speak, so I have written my words down tonight.

My name is Chad. After years of trying to cure my homosexuality by being an active Mormon, I came out of the closet just over 5 years ago, and I moved to Salt Lake City as a newly single father of two sons, an ex-Mormon who was beginning to date and experience life for the first time at age 32.

As my family and friends went bonkers over these life transitions, I initially found support and understanding in a group of gay fathers, all who had stories similar to mine. Among them was Kurt Peterson, another ex-Mormon father of 2 sons who came out later in life. I always enjoyed Kurt but it wasn’t for a few years that we started growing close. He read my story on my blog and we began talking, more and more, and within months we had become best friends, together often and constantly in contact. We must have sent a hundred thousand text messages to each other back and forth over the years.

We began traveling together–on hikes, to hot springs, to Denver and Moab and Seattle and San Diego and Las Vegas, and best of all, an epic cruise to Mexico. We could talk forever and never run out of things to say. People often assumed we were a couple, but it was never like that. Kurt and I were brothers.

I share of lot of myself in my writing, but people make the mistake of assuming they know me well. I’m a relatively private person. But Kurt knew everything about me. About my childhood, my family, my hopes and dreams and aspirations, my children, my exercise routine my habits, my daily life. And I knew the same things about him. We quite honestly never had a single fight. And God how we laughed together.

Kurt was a solution finder. He looked at any situation and found hope and happiness. He thought like a builder. He could see the parts and the tools and the process of creation and work on something until it was complete. That may be the greatest skill that he taught me.

Kurt was a very complicated person, but there are some simple truths about him. Kurt was blunt. He was bossy and straightforward. Kurt went out of his way to know the truth about a person. He might walk up to a stranger and, within sixty seconds, be asking them something uncomfortable like ‘why is it you are single?’ Kurt was generous. He was kind. He was funny. It took a lot to make Kurt angry, but when you did he let you know swiftly, then forgave you justĀ  as quickly. Kurt was passionate. He had an ability to make each person he was speaking to feel like they were the only person in the room that mattered.

And Kurt had an incredible heart. He loved fully, in every part of his life. He loved nature, especially the plants of springs. He loved to dance. He loved history and knowledge. He loved his job. He loved people as individuals.

Kurt loved his sons, Zach and Ben, in a way that is difficult to comprehend, and with a capacity that can only be understood if you have children and love them in the way that he loved his. Kurt loved his origins in Iowa, his home and heritage, his mother and father, his siblings, his marriage to Victoria and his raising of their daughters Anna and Emily.

Over the years, I saw Kurt get his heart broken a few times, and he saw the same happen to me. We were there for each other. But in the last few years, something wonderful happened. He met Elias Rios, a Peruvian man two decades younger, a passionate dancer who loved Taylor Swift and gymnastics. It never should have worked, but over time, something happened. They fell in love, the kind of love you only see in fairy tales, hard and deep and fast. Kurt found the love and the life he had been looking for his entire life. Kurt and Elias–I joked and told them their celebrity couple name was Kurtias–They had something I can only hope to find some day.

The future was unfolding for Kurt, with everything he wanted and loved: his home, his yard, his career, his sons, and his soon-to-be husband. He was so blissfully happy.

And then, last Sunday, five days ago, my best friend, my brother, my favorite person…

he died.

And it hurts. He was so happy and had so much life left to live.

I could say a million things more, but I’ll conclude by speaking to Kurt. I have a feeling he’s right here with us tonight.

Kurt Peterson, look at what you’ve done. Look at this room full of people who love you. You’ve changed me, Kurt. You’ve changed all of us. You made me a better person. You saw something in me, and then you helped me see it for myself. And I think that maybe you did that for everyone you have ever come across. Look at this room full of people who love you.

I have a lot of beautiful friends, but you, sir, you were the best of the best. I will miss you fiercely and often for the rest of my days.

Thank you, Kurt Peterson, for changing my life.

Thank you, my truest friend. And goodbye.

KurtandElias