Sunday, December 28, 2014

Ben



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I don’t even know where to begin.  I miss Ben so much more than I could ever write down or type into a computer.  I’ve tried to take notes on things that have happened and how I’ve felt through all of this, and I want to try and capture some of that, although I’m not sure why.  Partly because it helps me to remember some of those impressions, partly because I want to have all of this—photos, memories, etc.—in one place, and partly because I hope that it might be useful to someone else in a time of need.  I’m really not sure.  I was amazed to hear from so many people who have been through similar situations, and I feel so incredibly sad that they know how I feel.  I would never wish for anyone else to understand how I feel right now—to experience this pain and heartache.

To start, I will try and summarize the experience.  Kyle and I had been driving all day and had gotten home from California late Monday night, August 11.  I will always regret not calling Ben as we drove home.  Always.  I meant  to call him Thursday as I was flying out and again Monday on the drive back and let other things get in the way.  We had been playing phone tag and I have a voicemail saved from him just a week prior calling me back.  I was back at work trying to catch up Tuesday morning and received a call from Anne around lunch time.  I barely missed her call and got a text that saying that she really needed me to call her.  I called her back from my cubicle and still remember the feeling of shock and confusion.  She was very calm—still in complete shock—as she explained that the Virginia police had just called her to tell her that Ben shot himself.  When she said the Virginia police called, I thought maybe he got in a car accident, nothing serious.  Still I thought that he was ok when she said he was shot.  I honestly could not believe that it would be possible for him to be dead.  We talked about some of the details and decided that she would call the other siblings while I drove up to Salt Lake to tell Mom and Dad in person.

As soon as I began driving I started to sob.  My dearest brother, gone?  With no goodbye?  I couldn’t believe it.  My heart immediately began to ache as I spoke to him in my car.  I longed so deeply to give him one last hug.  To hold his hand or hold his body close up against mine so he didn’t have to go through that alone.  To just be there with him.  To hug him.  Please, just to hug him one more time.  To be there when he needed someone.  When he was in so much pain.  I longed for him more than I knew was physically or emotionally possible.  I so badly wanted to just wrap him in my arms—not even say anything, just hold each other.  And I received a very strong impression right then that he was being hugged—that he was in the Savior’s arms.  And that it gave him more peace and comfort than I could ever give.

I still tirelessly worried about telling Mom and Dad, and most especially worried about Mom’s health and how this would affect her.  I don’t remember any of the drive to Salt Lake—at one point I looked up on I-15 and didn’t even remember passing any of the cities that came before the exit I was at.  I was on auto-pilot during one of the longest drives of my life.  That drive is when I first broke down and just cried.  Hard.  To the point that my whole body ached—my heart most, but then my head began to throb and my whole body just ached from the pain of what I was experiencing.

When I opened the door to Grandma’s house, Mom was sitting at the kitchen table and Dad was on the couch.  They guessed that I was coming to share good news—probably that we were expecting—but Mom says she immediately saw my face and knew that was not the case.  Grandma said she had always been worried the most about Ben.  It took Mom a minute to actually believe it.  She started to write down his name and birth date on a piece of paper and then broke down, so we just held each other and cried. 

Mom, Dad and I then called the homicide detective and morgue in Virginia to get more information about what happened and next steps.  I searched for and called some of Ben’s closest friends and business partner in Virginia to let them know.  Not a single person I called actually believed me—they all thought it was some kind of mistake, that there’s no way this really could have happened.  That he would have done that.

I stayed with Mom and Dad until late that night.  I stopped at the office on the way home to grab my laptop, and then spent that night going through photos and typing up some thoughts to include in his obituary.  For the longest time—and probably still—I just wanted to know why.  I wanted some kind of explanation as to why this had happened.  I knew in my heart that it wouldn’t help, but I just wanted a reason.  None of us knew until after the fact, but Ben lost custody of his daughter, Maria, in July and she was officially adopted by his ex-wife and her new husband.  I’m sure that was unbelievably difficult for Ben—being a dad was definitely what brought him the greatest happiness, strength, and fulfillment.  I wish he would have told us.  He has always had ups and downs and suffered from depression and financial stress, but I didn’t know that he was in so much pain right then.  I wish I knew.

Mom and Dad left the next day (Wednesday) for Indiana and Kyle and I flew out late Thursday night. Maria and her Grandpa Johnson drove out from Iowa Friday afternoon and Tatiana drove all night with a friend from DC on Friday to be there for the funeral Saturday morning.  I heard from people I haven’t spoken to in a long time and saw friends I haven’t seen in forever.   It was particularly nice for me to have the Matsons and Beasleys there.  We stayed at Adam and Karen’s house with Brendan and Whitney and their family, and Jonny also stayed there the first night.  I’m so grateful that we were fortunate enough to be together.  Karen most certainly deserves some kind of award for being amazing, selfless, and taking care of all of us for days on end.  And her friends went above and beyond as well—I can’t believe how many neighbors and friends of Adam and Karen reached out.  They were beyond generous.

The family did a story night on Thursday where they talked about some of their favorite memories of Ben.  We were in the air and called in for some of the time, but missed most of the stories.  Anne took notes and shared most of the stories with me.  They talked about him loving sports and the outdoors, his visiting and staying with Brendan  on his mission in England, giving up everything to make a business work and always being an entrepreneur, his love for the outdoors, his love of food and talent as a chef, and his love of photography.  Mom talked about how they bought a pool table when he was in high school so that he and his friends would spend more time at the house.  I was mad because I wanted a pony instead and Adam was mad because they bought it right when he moved away for college.  All of the memories shared involved Ben laughing or making everyone else feel like everything was going to be ok.  The siblings remembered him sitting with me when I was crying and no one could get me to stop.  He would just sit there, rock me, and let me cry until I calmed down in his arms.  When I asked Dad on Tuesday what his first memory was when he thought of Ben as a child, he said it was that when all of the other siblings fought over dessert or whined, Ben would always give his away to make them happy.  He always noticed others and was so thoughtful.  It didn’t matter what we did together—played games, talked, went on a hike, or watched a movie on the couch—I didn’t ever feel like I needed to be anyone other than myself or say or do anything to impress him.  I was so comfortable around him and knew that he cared for me and loved me, that he would always be there and do anything for me.

Holding me as a baby, with baby Tyler July 2013:


 Ben & Anne:



Ben & I with Jeremiah and Wylah, my favorite picture he took on our hike to Bridal Veil Falls together:


Doing what he loved:


We handled the last minute details on Friday together as a family.  Mom, Anne, and I went to meet with the florist and I put together a photo slide show, we wrote or finished talks for the funeral and finished the program, and we put together a memorial for him in the church lobby.  We set out things that reminded us of him—camping and climbing gear, items from all over the world, pictures with friends and family, and even an actual tent.  Then Kyle helped Dad, Adam, Jonny, and Brendan dress Ben’s body for burial.  Kyle told me that he saw a side of Dad that he had never really seen before.  He was so tender and sweet with Ben, especially as he said goodbye and kissed him on the forehead.   The rest of us chose not to see him.  I didn’t want to remember him like that—cold and lifeless.  I think Mom and Anne wanted to see him, but the men told Mom that they didn’t want her to or think she should.  It makes it hard to find closure or really think that any of this could be real since we didn’t see him or get to say goodbye.  It seems like a horrible dream.

There were several tender mercies that we experienced as we were trying to get everything in place for his funeral.  The first is his burial plot.  Dad already had a plot in a local cemetery and figured he would use that, but then found that they wouldn’t let him transfer it to another name and would charge a ridiculous fee to open the gate for a burial on a Saturday.  Mom and Dad were frantic and didn’t know where to go or what else to do, but were reminded of a small, quiet cemetery in Brown County where Carolyn Guss (my Mom’s namesake) was buried.  It was the perfect spot for Ben—surrounded by trees, quiet, small, and beautiful.  They had a similar experience with caskets where they were trying to find something affordable and miraculously found one through the Funeral Chapel that was the right size and hundreds of dollars less than anything else they had seen.  Lastly, I was contacting as many of his mission contacts as I could find to get some photos of him as a missionary to include in the church lobby for his funeral.  His closest companion, Jake, had just moved and all of his photos were in a storage unit on the other side of the country.  We were setting up the lobby at the church the night before, and in walked Sally Baird with an envelope of mission photos that he had mailed to her.  She said she thought we might want copies of them.  I couldn’t believe it.




The kids most definitely helped me a lot, and as sad and out of it as I was, it gave me a lot of comfort to have them with me.  I wanted them on my lap or in my arms all the time as they really helped me to feel love and comfort.  As we were sitting in a room with the closed casket before the funeral service, Alexa kept saying she wanted to sit next to Grandma.  We told her to go ahead and she sat right next to Grandma and then reached out to hold her hand without any notice or prompting.  Kids are amazing.  They all picked wildflowers to put on the casket at the cemetery and Kyle still tears up when he talks about me holding Tyler as we walked away from the cemetery.  Tyler waved goodbye to the grave, said “bye bye,” and then blew a kiss to Ben.







In addition to my experience driving up to Salt Lake and feeling a powerful witness of the Savior’s comforting embrace for Ben, I also had several other witnesses of the Atonement.  Kyle sang “I Know That My Redeemer Lives” with an a capella choir during the funeral service and it was a powerful reminder to me in that moment that the plan of salvation is real and that the Savior does live and His promises are real.  I don’t remember when it was, but Brendan said to our family that Ben knew he was loved.  In that moment I received another witness that he did know how much we loved and still do love him.  That this wasn’t about him not feeling loved.  He knew it and that was comforting to me.

There were also some other things that helped me in difficult moments.  A neighbor sent me a beautiful rendition of I Feel My Savior’s Love (from the A Child’s Prayer / Primary Songs for Bedtime CD) that happened to start playing right as I was writing a difficult part of Ben’s obituary.  I was also reminded of a couple of scriptures that brought me comfort.

D&C 100:12 Therefore, continue your journey and let your hearts rejoice; for behold, and lo, I am with you even unto the end.
Moroni 8:16 Perfect love casteth out all fear [and sorrow, confusion, and heartache].

Songs continue to come on the radio that stir up memories of my feelings and love for Ben.  As I write this, Forever and Always by Parachute just came onto Pandora.  It’s a love song, but the chorus hit me about being together forever, loving each other forever and always through the good and the bad and the ugly, about the fact that they would grow old together.  Basically, what I always imagined Ben and I would do—that we would be friends forever and always, that we would grow old and have adventures together, travel the world together and always be there.  Stay With Me by Sam Smith came on the radio and again has nothing to do with what happened, but he repeats again and again “Oh, won’t you stay with me?  ‘Cause you’re all I need.”  How I wish I could beg and plead for Ben to stay with me.  Just stay with me.

Mom and I took an 8-week course on The Infinite Atonement by Tad Callister starting in September.  It was so nice to continuously study and be reminded of the Atonement and go through it together.  The most powerful thing that I learned was that everything about the Atonement is focused on us coming home to Him—the redemptive power, the enabling power, repentance, grace, etc.  Every single aspect of it is because He wants to welcome us home and will do everything in His power to get us there.  In the General Women’s Meeting right before General Conference, Elder Uchtdorf talked about how being a child of God is not a distinction you can gain or ever lose.  You will always be.  He's not waiting for us to comply with some rule or commandment to be blessed.  He is anxious to pour them out on us. He constantly pours blessings out upon us. Fear, doubt, and sin are what keep his blessings from reaching us.  He said, “There is one thing I hope you understand and know. You are loved by your heavenly parents. He knows you as you really are and He loves you today and always.”


I am reminded of Ben constantly.  I zone out while I’m driving alone in the car and think about him.  It’s still hard for me to not be able to call him while I’m driving home from work because that’s usually when we would talk.  I still want to put his name in the temple and include his email when I send something to my siblings.  I had to take him off of our Christmas gift rotation a few weeks ago.  I went to post a Facebook status update the other week about something Alexa said and when I clicked that I wanted to tag someone, Facebook asked me if I wanted to tag Ben.  I wish he was there to share the moment with me because I know how much he would have enjoyed it.  I cry when we sit on the couch watching a movie, when we lay on the beach on vacation, and when the kids say something that makes me laugh because I know how much he would love to be there for all of it.  That it doesn’t even matter what we’re doing if he could just be here.  Anne called me at work when I was in the middle of the same thing and at the same time of day as when she called me about Ben.  Without even thinking about it, my heart dropped and I immediately felt sick from the memory of finding out.  Silly things remind me of Ben constantly and I never knew how much my whole body would hurt because of it, not just my heart.  I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night from a deep sleep in tears, not even knowing why or what reminded me of him in my sleep.  My thoughts of the experience are less frequent now, but he is always there.  I miss you, Ben.  And I will always love you.


With Maria & Alexa November 2011, with Tyler and Alexa July 2013:


With Maria July 2014 (one month before he died):














Friday, December 26, 2014

December 2014 - Christmas with Brendan, Whitney, and Granny

The kids absolutely loved helping us set up all of the Christmas decorations and putting the ornaments on the tree.  We played Christmas music and wore Santa hats and they laughed and sang along.  Kyle (who continues to amaze me with his random and awesome skill set) even made a homemade wreath from the extra branches off our tree.  For at least a week Alexa would pretend it was Christmas morning every day when I got home from work and have presents for me that she had wrapped under the tree, typically some of her toys in a little box or wrapped in a t-shirt.



These pictures don't really fit in anywhere, but I have to include Tyler, the gangster thug, wearing my Thrive Life hat because he is obsessed with it right now and wants to wear it all the time.  He said his first full sentence this month: "Can I have some cereal, please?"  He is growing up so fast!


We celebrated our first Christmas on December 12 with the local Swingle clan.  Alexa was so excited to get an Elsa and Anna t-shirt (thank you, Aunt Peggy!) and to be able to hold Yeti baby Dean.  I made the boys and Chelsea some mustache mugs that say hello in their mission language, Peggy a sea shell Christmas tree, and Melissa some fun printed Harry Potter quotes.






Then we celebrated Christmas with Grandma and Grandpa Sweeny on December 15 before they left for Indiana.  The kids love their magic microphone, Kyle now has a press to make homemade Cafe Rio tortillas, and we're excited to finally have some snow so we can use our new sleds.  We signed Mom & Dad (Grandma & Grandpa) up for sign language classes in Taylorsville so they can learn to sign with all of their signing grandkids.

We took a fun wagon ride in Heber to go see Santa.  It was supposed to be a sleigh ride, but there was no snow.  The kids loved being pulled by horses and imitating their noises, petting their noses, etc.


Our next wagon ride (again, supposed to be sleigh ride) was even more special.  We met up with Ben's daughter Maria, her mom Jenny, and step-father Casey at Hardware Ranch in Logan while they are out here for the holidays.  Hardware Ranch is an elk reserve that eventually gets 500-600 elk on the reserve each winter.  We then grabbed dinner together after and let the kids play.  I was very surprised that Jenny came and appreciated the chance to visit with her some and get to know Casey better.  Also, we're very lucky that our car made it up and back down the snowy canyon to the ranch.  Thank goodness for answers to prayers.  It was wonderful to see sweet, happy Maria and give her big hugs.  She looks so much like Ben.




The highlight of my Christmas was having Brendan, Whitney, and company come stay with us from the 21-24.  The kids loved, loved, loved having cousins to run around with and Kyle and I loved having Brendan and Whitney to visit with!  We put Chase and Jeffrey in the crawl space with white Christmas lights and sleeping bags and it was pretty great.  Like sleeping in a carpeted cave or camping under the house.  Every little boy's dream come true.  Carra and Alexa got to have sleepovers together in the bunk bed.  One fun adventure was the ride home from Temple Square on TRAX (aka "the train!") together.  Our ward had the nursery come in and do the nativity scene for the Primary on Sunday.  Alexa was Mary and Caleb was the tiny baby Jesus in a laundry basket, kept calm with a steady supply of graham crackers.  It was fantastically adorable.  Here's the link to a video clip if anyone wants to see.




It was hard to say goodbye to Brendan--so loved having family here with us and it makes me miss the rest of you even more.

We spent Christmas Eve night at 98 year old Granny's house and had a great Christmas day with her.  It was nice and quiet and great to be together.  I made Alexa and Granny matching Christmas nightgowns to celebrate.


Merry Christmas to all of you!  We feel blessed to have you in our lives and are grateful for your love, hugs, and friendship through this trying year.  What a blessing it has been for me to study and learn more of the comforting and strengthening power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ these last few months.  I am grateful for the knowledge that our Savior did all within His power to bring us home.  What sweet comfort to know that His arms are open and that His love for us is always there.  Hugs to all of you.  We wish you the best in the coming year.