I have a dear friend, Beth, who recently lost her sister, Karla. Karla struggled with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. But when an individual struggles with those heavy illnesses, they do not struggle alone. Often their families struggle alongside them. At Karla's funeral, Beth's husband, Max, delivered this tribute. It was so beautiful, I felt led to share!:
"Good morning, My name is Max Callahan, and I'm Karla's brother-in-law, the husband of Beth Johnson-Callahan whom most of you know as Major Frank and Miriam Johnson's daughter. This tribute to Karla begins with a purple balloon. There is a real balloon at the heart of my story that I will talk about in a minute. But what this tribute is really about is childhood. Over the years, I've learned many things from Karla, and among them the very deepest and most challenging life lessons. But what I learned most from Karla was about children. About raising children. About letting go of my own childhood to become an adult. And about what it feels like, as a child, to be left behind. Shortly after Beth and I were married we had the honor of becoming the guardians of two of Karla's sons, our nephews Jason and Brandon, who were then ten and eleven.
"At the time Beth and I married, Karla was in the throes of her disabilities, Bipolar and Borderline Personality disorder, which left her in some ways to struggle with forever being a child herself, subject to whim or sudden changes of heart. Like a balloon adrift on the wind, she would step out to pick something up from the grocery store and not come back for literally a year or more. This is not to diminish Karla as shallow or careless. Karla had an extraordinarily deep and tender soul. Inasmuch as she struggled to breach the threshold of her illnesses, she had a depth of feeling and understanding that was wise many times beyond her years. The pain of birthing children and ultimately having to let them go, to be raised by someone else, gave Karla a depth of insight that few people have on what a privilege it is to be a parent. It was something she ached for. Children, having them, loving them, wanting the best for them were at the core of her being. And though she was always openly thankful to us, it was always her aspiration to break through one day and to recover some of the years of parenting she had missed.
"The day before Karla died, we had a family get together to celebrate our daughter Avery's 13th birthday. Our daughters Avery and Abby, Karla and Beth and their parents got together at the Wesley Willows retirement center. Coincidentally, we also had scheduled a family performance for Palm Sunday in the chapel at Wesley Willows. Now, being a part of the Johnson family was a bit like being drafted on as a journeyman for a traveling roadshow. Frank and Miriam and their daughters have been performing as part of their family ministry at churches and community centers since Beth, my wife and Karla were little children themselves. And from day one, I've sensed that one of the prerequisites for marrying Beth, was that I could play an instrument and wasn't too shy to get up on stage and perform with the group. Within a few weeks of being married, I was drafted into this little band of troubadours doing musical performances, Christian magic and biblical narrations. But throughout our marriage, now 16 years, the member of the act who was always missing was Karla. I would hear about days gone by, when Karla would perform, but by the time Beth and I were married, Karla had "left the band" as it were, and although everyone was very kind to me, I always felt a little bit like I was just a place holder for the real McCoy.
"Completely out of the blue, a week ago Sunday, and the very day before Karla died, I had my one and only opportunity to see Karla perform. The ease with which it all unfolded, and the total absence of any fanfare, belied the delicate surprise that I was privileged to witness. Just like the old days, Karla performed with Beth and I got to witness many years after the fact, the same family magic that I'd only seen in pictures and heard about in stories around the dinner table. The rehearsal up in the Johnson's apartment was easy, casual. Our daughter Abby stood behind Karla and brushed her hair while and Avery sat with me and her Grandfather on the couch as Karla and Beth sight-read an arrangement of a song they hadn't performed together since they were in their early teens. When they performed in the chapel later that afternoon, for most people in the audience it was just a lovely little afternoon performance, but for me it was like seeing a reunion concert of the Everly Brothers, and it was as I'd been transported back to another time. There was Karla, at last, not looking like a 45 year old woman, but just like in the pictures in family albums I'd seen of her as a little girl, just a bit nervous, shifting her weight slightly from foot to foot, a little too far off mike, but blending in somehow perfectly, on pitch and in tune. The sound of the two of them together was easy and beautiful.
"The performance was followed by a little birthday party for Avery in the Dining Hall. Avery is now 13, an accomplished student. Karla was especially proud of Avery and excited to get together to celebrate Avery's first birthday as a teenager. It was as perfect a family afternoon as we could hope for. Had we known it was our last day, it would have been heavy, overbearing, not the gift that it was, light hearted, buoyant, playful. As we walked out to our car to drive home, Karla handed Abby a purple balloon that one of the staff in the dining room had given her. And Abby, distracted for a moment, lost hold of the string and the balloon rose up into the sky. No one was very much concerned. The girls are almost too old for balloons. But there was something about it, as it rose into the sky that struck me, and I felt drawn to watch it. So I stood there, away from the group, feeling a bit silly, almost obstinate, and I stared after the balloon as it rose into the gray sky. Abby wandered over, and grabbed me around the knees and watched with me. Every now and again asking "Do you still see it, Dad?"
"There is something about loss when it's fresh, that's especially painful. Because it seems like it ought to be reversible, even though it's so clear that it can't be. Like a balloon just after it's been let go, there's a feeling that, if one could jump just high enough or run just fast enough, or if it were to get caught in a branch, one could grab ahold of it. The morning after Palm Sunday, Beth called me at work to tell me that Karla had died. And it just seemed impossible. Karla was like a force of nature. She had withstood any number of addictions, illnesses and crazy mishaps. There were times at which she seemed to have almost superhuman powers. I had random thoughts that she must have a signet ring or an amulet. A day or so after she died, we stood in the hallway outside her Grandparent's apartment and puzzled through it together. Abby who is eight, was looking for a loophole, and reasoned sensibly "Auntie Karla said she was coming over to our house tomorrow. She promised, Dad. Does this mean she won't be coming" I shook my head. "What about my for my birthday?" Abby paused. "Or Christmas?" She was trying to find an occasion that would be important enough for Karla to come back. And part of me felt that it really wasn't that unreasonable. After all, we had made the plans just a day or so ago and we had Karla's number on speed dial.
"Karla was never confident like her older sister Beth. Karla was awkward. Shy. She felt out of place. Of the two, Beth was clearly the leader. And yet, for years, it was Karla we all followed. Every hair-raising step of her inadvertent journey, through bipolar disorder and addiction, carried her, and us along with her, like a balloon on the wind, rudderless from whim to whim, leaving collateral damage in her wake. And yet, with all the damage, the seeming disarray, there was always always a gift. Courage found at the last minute, when it was needed most. Resourcefulness against all odds. Steadfastness. And the journeys we took through the years. The stories. The adventures. The fury, the frustration. They call to mind Romans 5: "But we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; from perseverance, character; and from character hope. And hope does not disappoint."
"This was the miracle of Karla. To lead you, kicking and screaming, to that place where your hope is strongest, not because you wanted it to be, but because God told you it had to be. Not for yourself, but because you had to be there for someone else. Someone in peril. Sometimes Karla herself. Sometimes a young person she left behind. But as mad as you were, you could never stay mad. Because there was no malice in Karla's misdeeds. Like the a hurricane, or a bolt of lightening, they were just destructive natural phenomena of Karla's neurology, ethically neutral. And I believe that God marked the day before Karla's passing with that purple balloon for a very important reason which I will now explain.
"There is a passage in Matthew where Jesus speaks about two children. One who agrees readily to do a task, but then does nothing. And another who refuses initially but, later, thinking better of it, does what he's asked to do. And Jesus asks the disciples which child is heaven bound. When the disciples guess wrongly that it would be the dutiful child, Jesus says "you will never understand what heaven means". This is a jarring parable because it seems at face value as if Jesus is condoning slackers everywhere and encouraging us all to quickly make promises we have no intention of keeping. Several months ago, I was driving and talking on the phone to Beth about it and she said "well I think it has something to do with having a willing heart". I literally pulled off the road, because in a flash I felt I had caught the meaning. What Jesus is saying is that, no matter how you might try to do "the right thing" to "live a virtuous life" try as you might, and we all do, you are bound to fail. Your success or failure in accomplishing the deed is all relative. Only the willingness to try, is what has any meaning for God. Karla stumbled, and struggled more than most, and she fought with a neurological adversary that had taken up residence inside her own head. But whatever she did. Whatever the outcome, however she might fail to deliver. Her intentions at the outset were pure, optimistic, and full of hope.
"For anyone among us, who might momentarily think of ourselves as people who "deliver", or make the mistake of misinterpreting the meaning of Karla's struggle or wonder whether she was victorious in the end, God left us a simple reminder. Sometimes a balloon is just a balloon. But sometimes when you're looking at it, you feel the Holy Spirit telling you it's much more. I am convinced that God gave us that purple balloon to teach us about loss, to remind us that an ascent to heaven isn't a self-directed enterprise, but one of letting go, and allowing God to guide us, to mark Karla's passing for anyone who might worry about which direction she was headed with an undeniable indication that she was upward bound, but most of all it was to remind those of us who loved Karla, that the soul, like a balloon is made for celebration, that our best life lived by never forgetting that as we struggle to be adults, to master the circumstances of day to day living, we are first and foremost children, here to share in little family celebrations, birthdays, meals shared together, songs sung together, and for praying and rejoicing. To this, I know Karla would heartily agree."