People get tired pretty quickly of death, hearing about death, reading about death, talking about death, and I don’t blame them. It’s no fun. It’s mentally tiring. Eric says Hans’s guardian angel got tired. Hurricane Hans, as Eric called Hans when he was little, was a lot to chase around for 20 years and we could barely keep up! Not many others could either. There’s only so much of one’s thoughts on death people will read for so long. I don’t blame them for wanting good news, happy news, positive news. But this sucks and we’re still so sad, every day. We continue to absorb into our home the items emptied from the large boxes of Hans’s personal effects from the Naval Academy – his clothes, his shoes, his glasses, his uniforms, his books, his notes, his stuff, kites, boards, helmets, ice pick, climbing ropes, running shoes, etc. The boxes came on a really hot summer day in July. It took us a while to open each box and go through it all. His room is a mess, full to the brim with his things. I am still unable to find the small clipping of his hair which I cut right before he died. We are slowly sharing keepsakes and items with Zatha, Hans's friends, our families. Eric plans to wear his clothes, his watches, his cologne, read his books, maybe even use his kiteboarding equipment. Zatha is going to surf and skate on all of his boards. Eric says we have a lifetime to consume Hans.
Not Afraid to Live
Hans told me on multiple occasions that he wasn’t afraid to die, just as Eric told his mother at the same age. Hans told me that being dead was pretty easy and heaven is supposed to be a great place. And if there isn’t a heaven then he certainly wouldn’t know or be bothered that he was dead. He’d be dead. Sure, it would suck for those of us left behind who truly loved him, but, for the most part, everyone else in the world would continue on, he would say. He told me he never wanted to live critically injured or be kept on life support. He was practical and logical, just like his father. When Eric was four years old he was cornered by a magician who magically pulled a quarter out of one of Eric’s ears and gave it to him. The magician then pulled another quarter out of the other ear and gave that one to Eric as well. Eric’s mom told him to say ‘thank you’ to the magician. Eric wondered why. Those were obviously his quarters that the guy pulled from his ears, never belonging to the magician. Like father, like son – practical, logical, wise.
When Hans was 10, Zatha 11, we were living in Idaho. We had learned that our neighbors, parents to six children, back in Oak Ridge, TN, where we used to live, were both killed in a head-on collision leaving the two youngest children still at home, the older siblings grown and gone. At that time we also had a brand new kitten, Daphne our Manx, that, in her first days, we kept upstairs in the kids’ bathroom at night. On one particular night, after our normal reading routine as I snuggled each one before a last goodnight kiss, I asked, “What do you think about when you are lying in bed each night before you go to sleep?” Zatha, in her old soul, worry wart, global thinking, big-picture way said that she thought of kids like our friends’ in Oak Ridge, wondering how they survive after parents die, how they make money, buy groceries, get to school. Hans said, “I worry about whether the kitten will nibble on my toes again when I get up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.” Hans was practical, in the moment, a little less global.
Hans also had a pretty basic view of justice. He once bit a playmate as the young boy forcibly took a toy from Hans. When told to apologize to the other little boy Hans said, “Why? I’m not sorry. He was mean and took my toy from me.” He was rather black and white, honest, never sneaky. Hans would have been a just warrior.
Just prior to filming the last runs on his YouTube video “LandYachtz Top Speed" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=grRrpqKuZfg)
Hans was told by Eric that he couldn’t bear to watch him anymore going down the mountain at 50 mph. Hans chided his dad, “But why? You skied down mountains at 60 mph when you were my age.” We tend to forget our own youth, our own risk-taking, our own mistakes. We also tend to judge others for, and want to regulate, their fun, even if it doesn’t affect us directly. Some say everything we do ultimately affects everyone else somehow, and this may be true (six degrees of separation), but to what extent should we control what everyone else does? I find that after someone dies there is usually a push to change rules, make new laws, add more government oversight, restrict more activities, make more warning labels, outlaw skateboarding. And though Hans did not die from extreme negligence or someone else’s malicious intent, I mostly believe the opposite. We need more self-responsibility and fewer rules, more liberties and fewer laws, more freedom and fewer restrictions, more ‘yes’s’ and fewer ‘no’s.’
There is at least one mother in my neighborhood who thinks, “I knew something like this would happen to Hans.” But I tell you that I would rather have Hans as he was, out there having fun, taking risks, living life than perpetually sitting in his room playing Xbox, high on drugs, surfing the web, not really living, suffering safe boredom. Hans and Zatha grew up without a television. It wasn’t until after my dad gave us a computer that could play DVDs, when Hans was nine, that they could watch a movie on the computer occasionally. They didn’t request it often because the screen was small, the DVDs kept freezing, refreshing, pausing, or skipping, and the computer chairs were not too comfortable. Rather, Hans and Zatha were outside playing and exploring, or inside creating things. We let them learn how to unicycle around the dining room table, roller blade throughout the house, paint, read, write. We even had a ‘laboratory’ where they’d make up the strangest concoctions. Zatha made perfumes and lotions, Hans made ant killer.
Once one is accepted into the Naval Academy, one cannot show up on Induction Day with a major injury or illness, which would deem them medically unqualified, their appointment given to the next warrior in wait, and they would have to reapply all over again the following year. Three days before his Induction Day, Hans was on a quest to have as much fun as possible. Every day he was kitesurfing, surfing, wakeboarding, mountain biking, going to open gym at a gymnastics center, placing himself at risk for major injury or death every day. I asked him what it would take to get him to stay home for the remaining three days so he could at least start at the Academy. He said, “An Xbox 360.” I bought it for him and sure enough, he and his friends were glued to the couch for hours and hours over the course of the next three days. Funny thing is he had to leave it at home because the Naval Academy does not allow midshipmen to have an Xbox their first year there. Once he did get it again his sophomore year, he didn’t play it as much as he thought he would. He’d rather be outside.
Was Hans’s accident avoidable? Of course. Aren’t all accidents avoidable? Eric calculated that it took only 1/100th of a second from the time the back of the skateboard struck the rotating rear wheel and went almost vertical, to the crushing of the rear trucks into the pavement – no time for any skateboarder to make an adjustment. We will never know exactly how he got thrown from the board. The end result was quick as the same rear tire ran over his head. The buckled helmet he was wearing couldn’t protect his head from the weight of a Jeep. He was never completely reckless and always wore his helmet. So why did Hans die? Because he pushed the limits. That's what made him Hans. Aren’t most deaths, not just accidental ones, avoidable? I’d say mostly ‘yes.’
Earthquake? What were you doing living in a known earthquake zone?
Heart attack? Why did you eat bacon, stay so sedentary, watch so much TV?
Shark attack? Who really needs to surf?
Lung cancer? Why do you smoke knowing it presents a high risk for cancer?
Car accident? Did you really have to go to the store that night?
Skin cancer? Do you really need to go outside in the sun?
Being born? Didn’t you know you were going to die someday?
To avoid death at any cost is to avoid life. Hans was not afraid to die. Hans was not afraid to live.
An analogy with which Zatha especially connects is that Hans’s death was like chopping off a leg. It’s so awful and traumatic in the beginning, lots of bleeding and pain. It takes a lot time to heal from something that traumatic – surgeries, scabs, grafts, scabs, more surgeries, more scabs being formed and peeled or nicked off, again and again. Then there are the lifelong “ghost limb” pains and irritations, complications from the weight of the stump on a prosthetic limb, many scars. But that leg is gone, girl, gone. She has to learn how to live without that leg, function from a wheelchair for a while, get fitted and trained with that prosthetic, rebalance and recalibrate life and goals and abilities without that leg. And she will always feel and see reminders every moment of every day that it is gone. Life continues but everything is more difficult, and though she will eventually find good in her life, despite the leg being chopped off, that leg is absolutely, positively gone for the rest of her life, and her life is forever, definitely, and radically different without it. So it is for each of us.
Thus, truly I tell you, nothing good comes from Hans’s death. His kidneys and liver were doing a fine job in his own body. Everyone could see the twinkle in his beautiful blue eyes that, though now his corneas are helping someone else’s eyes twinkle, guided him and his friends on crazy adventures they’ll never get to enjoy with him ever again. His strong bones propelled him as he motivated those around him to engage with him in activities they may have never experienced without him, even though those bones may now be supporting someone else’s formerly broken ones. The skin above the wrists of his gentle, capable hands, probably now on a burn victim, will never be “pat-pat rub-rubbing” or hugging any of us ever again. He was fun, funny, engaging, honest, intelligent, silly, and loving. And he was a great steward of his body, doing just fine with it.
Hans wasn’t afraid to say, “I love you,” out loud and hug us all publicly. He said “love you” so easily and so much that he’d regularly say it out of habit at the end of phone conversations with even just friends and laugh about it. He was a great son, awesome brother, doting boyfriend, loyal friend, and would have made a marvelous husband, father, uncle, and warrior. Who knows how many countless others he would have positively and lovingly affected had he lived to age 90. I wish he were still alive, every moment of every day.
Nothing good comes from Hans’s death. We were going to break the mold, show the world we were the least dysfunctional family in the world. We were already an appreciative, giving, loving, adventuresome family when he was alive. Not one of us took life or love or family or each other for granted. We were already caring, sharing, hard working, sympathetic and empathetic. Eric and I knew that our main job was to raise our children to be beautiful, productive, inspiring, loving members of the world. We didn’t need Hans to die to appreciate our daughter. We didn’t need Hans to die to better love each other. We didn’t need Hans to die to learn empathy.
We had eleven foster children, not as foster parents but as a foster family – Zatha and Hans were just as important to those kids as Eric and I were. The kids looked up to Hans, he was a great role model. How many more years of love could Hans have shared with those around him had he lived to age 90?
Nothing good comes FROM Hans’s death.
Good comes DESPITE his death.
Parts of Hans's physical body are extending and enhancing strangers’ lives. Hans’s death did compel a friend of his to start hugging his mom. Hans’s death did inspire several to learn something new. The employees of the funeral home made money to support their families. The cost of his headstone (be sure to visit it after it’s installed, sometime before Christmas) paid the employees of the quarry in Pennsylvania from which the marble was mined. I’ve had people tell me to try to find the good that can come from Hans’s death. Nothing good comes from Hans’s death. Good comes despite his death.
God’s Plans or God’s Hopes?
I don't believe God called Hans up to heaven early because he needed more good angels.
I don’t believe God called Hans to save him from some future event or life that might have been more awful.
I know that people are well-meaning and most often don’t know what to say to someone who has lost a child, so I understand that what people say isn’t meant to hurt or sadden me, but I bristle at the most oft-quoted statements, “It’s all part of God’s plan,” and that we just need to “trust in God’s plan.” I don’t believe God had a pre-existing plan or purpose to kill Hans, to let Hans die.
I believe the term that is repeated to us many times about Hans’s death being “all part of God’s plan” is a modern misinterpretation of who-knows-what from the Bible. I am not a biblical scholar but surely the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic words in which the Bible was written are much more nuanced in their meanings, and the words “it’s all part of God’s plan” are simplified English translations for something that really means something else. How could a great and merciful God plan all the death and destruction and evil we face, how could He have a hand in planning things so awful and dastardly? I believe we must discover and embrace the good still in the world around us DESPITE all the death and sadness we face. But it surely isn’t “part of His plan” to kill Hans.
I don’t believe that God plans or brings death and sin and destruction. Who wants a God like that? I sure don’t. WE do all of that as humans; humans living with choice and knowledge and free will. Are murder and envy and evil and torture and abuse all part of God’s plan? Because if God’s plan includes all that AND the death of my son, who embodied all that can be good in the world, then that plan just plain sucks and I don’t want a part of it. It would mean we are just puppets in a perpetual, tragic, God-written drama of life with God as the master puppeteer and we merely His puppets. It would mean He orchestrates every single one of the gazillion of seconds of all of the billions and billions of lives on earth since the beginning of humanity. What about free will? What about choice? Jesus said not to worry about tomorrow, tomorrow will worry enough about itself, not because tomorrow is all planned out for us, but so that we live beautifully TODAY. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t make plans and just sit idly by, waiting for things to happen; rather we should plan (that’s why Hans and Zatha worked hard to fulfill their plan to take the difficult route of attending the Naval Academy) but not forgo LIVING and loving when we can because we are waiting for something to supposedly “happen” to us or for us in “God’s plan.”
I challenge any Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic speakers out there to confirm that maybe the original words “God’s plans” might actually translate to “God’s hope.” I would like to think that He has hope that we live and love to the best of our ability in our fascinating and glorious world, like Hans did; that when accidents or evil or destruction or death befall us we continue to hope ourselves that good will continue to find us, and we it, despite our sadness.
Everything Happens for a Reason. Not.
I also don’t believe “everything happens for a reason.” If every single moment or outcome supposedly happens for a reason, what is the “reason” for Hans’s death? To make us all who knew and loved him miserable? To make those who got his organs happy at our expense? What would be the reason for God to have a child raped then buried alive, or a madman chop someone up with an axe? What would be God’s reason or plan for allowing a group of terrorists to brutally behead innocent people? Or crash planes into buildings to purposely kill thousands? What would be God’s pre-exisiting reason to pick and choose every single horrible act and senseless death?
I don’t believe God only “gives us what we can handle,” because if He is responsible for Hans’s death then I don’t want any more kinds of those “gifts” from that kind of God. If it is supposed to be true, that we are only given what we can handle, then why is there so much depression and why are there so many suicides? Aren’t we supposed to be able to “handle” anything He does and plans for us? Does it mean He plans for some people to never lose a loved one before their time because those people are weak and obviously not strong enough for death to touch them, and so he spares them the horrible pain of losing a child? Or that people who really couldn’t handle what “God gave them” and suffer that deep depression or commit suicide are incapable and not worthy? I think it is self-congratulatory justification of prior bad choices, or how we respond to random events that make people say, “God only gives me what I can handle.” Translation: “God planned to give me a pretty crappy event, none of it my doing since it’s all His plan, so God obviously thinks I’m more awesome and strong and amazing than you, who hasn’t had anything really bad happen in your life.” We are handling it because we have to.
When bad things happen it is because we are imperfect human beings with our imperfect behaviors in an imperfect (though still amazing!) world. I do not believe God, or whomever or whatever you believe to be a higher being or energy force, is minutely orchestrating every moment of every day, of every life since the beginning of time. If He were, what would be the point of living? Things don’t ‘happen for a reason’ – we need to find continued purpose and reason in our lives after things happen.
Miracles and Blessings
Many like to credit God’s miracles and praise him, declaring themselves “blessed” when things go their way or an outcome is positive. For some reason, those words bristle me as well. Would you still consider yourself “blessed” with a miracle when your child dies? Or do you only praise God when you feel you are granted any little, or even big ‘miracle,’ like getting that new job, or missing an accident by 1/100th of a second, or having a certain person answering the phone at a certain time? Why was my son, our family, not granted any of those tiny miracles of timing, or monumental ones of healing after the event? Are we not worthy but you are? Maybe the translation and definition of ‘miracle’ has been warped as well. I still don’t believe He specifically “grants” each little parochial miracle in the world, because I believe that God’s miracles are much more basal and grand. His miracles are in the energy that binds our molecules together, the gravity that holds our bodies to earth, the electrical impulses of my brain that can coalesce my thoughts, transfer them to my typing for you to read and understand my words, our beautiful ability to reason and choose and DO, and the miracle of every person around you, and the miracle of the emotion LOVE.
We loved Hans so much and with the loss of so much love comes so much pain. We are in pain.
Zatha, our new Marine Corps officer, has jumped right into The Basic School at Quantico, where all newly commissioned Marine Corps officers go for six months before being assigned their specialty. Her days most often begin carrying her M16 and gear, hiking into the cold, wet woods before most of us even up for the day. She is still surfing and running when she can, being a badass herself. Those of you who know Zatha know that she finds a way to put a smile on her face and buck up to every obstacle she faces. But she tells me that Hans’s death overshadows everything she does. They were the closest sibling pair I’ve personally known. She feels very alone, that people might not understand her pain. Though she might be smiling on the outside, she is crying on the inside.
Our job as parents is to say ‘yes’ to our children. “Yes, you can touch that pretty object.” “Yes, you can help me paint.” “Yes, you can take that old computer apart.” “Yes, you can build bike jumps all over the yard.” “Yes, you can turn the back yard into an obstacle course.” “Yes, you can try that sport.” “Yes, you can move that river.” Ask Zatha about that last one sometime. Eric is the king of ‘yes.’
Eric enjoys his job and goes to work, still motivated about nuclear energy, energizing others at GE (pun intended) and saying ‘yes’ to new ideas with his fellow engineers. But every day he wears black to work to mourn Hans. He doesn’t know how long he will do this. How long does a father lovingly and outwardly mourn his son? People have called him the grim reaper, Johnny Cash, the preacher. He’s had people ask him if he’s “gotten over it yet” (really).
I wake up every morning and feel the dull ache of knowing that the rest of my life will be lived without my son. I cry every day. Sometimes I am hit with the thought of his death and am overcome with nausea. I feel it’s not fair. It shouldn’t have been Hans. He was awesome. We don’t deserve this. The rational, logical part of me realizes Hans is dead and there is nothing I can do about it. I must continue on with life and live it the best I can. I am not the only one in the world to suffer loss and there are many whose losses could be considered so much greater, parents whose children died in fear or pain. The irrational, emotional, selfish part of me wants everyone to suffer with me and as much as me about Hans. I keep hoping and searching for signs that Hans’s spirit is alive, for him to remain in everyone's thoughts forever. I want to put one of those huge stickers on the back of my car with Hans’s handsome face and the words, “In fun-loving memory of Hans Loewen, RIP January 8, 1994 – March 29, 2014. He was truly a badass.” God, I miss him.
From the beginning I have been scared of forgetting details of Hans's life, scared that I won't remember what I need to remember about Hans, how to remember, afraid that I will forget or have forgotten memories of him. It’s an alarming feeling. I feel like my head is buzzing all the time. Interacting with negative people who do not appreciate their life, who complain about things, complain about other people, who make excuses for not living their best still frustrate me. I'm not complaining about those people, I'm complaining about their complaining. Hate the action. Love the actor. But it may be the reason I do not feel like interacting with people so much now.
And though I feel as though my balloon of life has been deflated, never to be taut and shiny again because of this new and constant leak of air, I will keep trying to fill it – with memories of Hans, pictures of Hans, love for Hans, love for Zatha, love for Eric, love for life. Music and photos are still the most painful for me. I go along for a bit, thinking Hans's death isn't real, he's just away at the Naval Academy, then a reminder stabs me. A photo, a song, a place, a friend, a memory.
Eric and I have started stand-up paddleboarding (Hans was a surfing paddleboarder, much more badass) and we love it. It’s peaceful out on the water and we feel more connected to Hans. We’ve taken out Hans’s mountain bikes for some enjoyable trail riding, it's not too mountainous out here on the coast but the trails are fun and tricky. I’m still playing and teaching piano.
We have decided there are three ways from which to choose to go forward:
1. Get worse. Fall into depression, harbor resentment and anger. End our path in a muddy bog.
2. Stay the same. Plod along in our sadness. Stop enjoying life. Take a duller, shorter path.
3. Continue on our original, steady path of seeking awesomeness throughout life, being badass like Hans, shining like Zatha, hard charging like Eric, loving life and each other as much as we can.
It’s really all about love. Jesus taught love, Buddha taught love, God IS love. No matter what you believe in, love really matters.
Our lives were changed the moment Zatha was born, and we set on a new path with her in our lives. Our lives were changed the moment Hans was born. Our lives were forever changed the moment Hans died, and we have been catapulted onto another more sad and difficult path. Change always comes, whether we like or not, or are ready for it or not. So what do we do when we experience change, especially something so awful as Hans’s death?
We choose number three, despite Hans’s death.