Today, the 25th of August, will have been three years since Joshua left this life for another, one that will have no end and is beyond any and all of our imaginations. He is without pain, sorrow, fear, or anything that would make his world less than perfect. How very hard it is to conceive of that as we attempt to go on in a world where sorrow, fear and death reigns in most parts of our planet. We hear or see glimpses in the news of the hatred, anger, and death around our globe where children have never seen nor cannot even imagine a world of peace where love and compassion are a part of common existence. Instead, parents have to watch them die, some through starvation while others become the victims of horrendous acts of savagery. Hatred, violence, and war are realities that these children and their families live with or die because of daily.
Joshua saw and experienced a small portion of this insanity and it not only changed his life forever, but took it as well. He became part of the collateral damage that the military talks of as the unfortunate necessity of war. He was not a civilian, but collateral damage never the less. We all know that this aspect of war is understated at best but more often than we would like to admit, the collateral damage incurred in war is a result of direct decisions made by the institution that had committed to protect their own as well as innocent civilians.. This was Joshua’s experience as well as thousands of others who lived and worked near the burn pits and were exposed to depleted uranium as well. As far as all those affected by war around the world hundreds of thousands to millions of people have become part of war’s collateral damage. Unfortunately there are more than I ever imagined in my company, a mother who had to watch her child die. Those of us who have experienced this tragedy knows that time seems to stop the moment we had to say goodbye, never to have the same relevancy in our lives again.
As others in my situation oftentimes say, “It seems like three days and yet thirty years ago all at the same time since going through the trauma of our loss. I understand that. Three days because the pain is still so raw and deep. Thirty years because it seems that long since I’ve seen his great smile or been able to talk with him face to face. But then again It feels like a hundred years since I’ve been able to hug him and hear him say “Hey Mamma”, his somewhat humorous but affectionate name for me. And harder yet, it feels like forever before I will be able to be with him again.
I know when I get to heaven and all the years of sorrow are behind me, my life and the sorrow and pain that filled it will actually appear to me as only a moment in time. That’s a promise from God that I believe fully and am so thankful for. But at present I’m still on this side of ‘forever after’ and locked within the bonds of time, so that very real ‘forever after’ still feels like an illusion, because I’ve not yet experienced it. That is simply reality and what I and so many others around the world live with day in and day out. I’m sure that sounds depressing and very honestly that part is at times. But thankfully that’s not all there is. (“We grieve but not as without hope.”)
But I have to remember that not everyone has the hope I live with which breaks my heart. I don’t know how they go on. The last few months have been hard for me for many reasons, besides the countdown to August 25th. I won’t go into all the reasons why, but two things have taken place this week that have given me yet another glimpse of that ‘hope’ we have in Christ, causing me to feel very grateful for the life I’ve been given.
This gratefulness exists in part because of what Joshua left behind He didn’t own much of anything besides books, ( lots of them), clothes, some keepsakes, and a truck. He was a graduate student when he was diagnosed with cancer. The truck went back to the bank, the clothes that I didn’t give away still hang in my closet or fill his suitcases, and the books, all still in boxes, fill up a big portion of the storage room in my basement. The books were some of his favorite earthly treasures. And the best part of them, somewhat like the body and the soul, he took to heaven with him (in his mind and heart), while their ‘bodies’ stayed behind in my basement. If you knew Joshua well at all you’ll understand the correlation.
So with possessions not of much consequence, the only other thing of real significance that he could have left behind is that which is not material, and can’t be seen or touched in a material kind of way. It is simply a ‘legacy of love’ possible only because of people and relationships that made his life meaningful and also gave him the opportunity to give and receive love. During his illness and after his death there were more people than we could have ever imagined that responded with love for him while also expressing appreciation for what Joshua had meant to them. We experienced that ‘circle of love’ throughout his illness and right up to his passing, finding out how powerful love is. It moved, inspired, and even helped to hold broken hearts together. People and love…the two most important things we can acquire, we found out, made him a very rich young man in life. And as heir to his ‘estate’ I have been the very fortunate recipient of those riches.
This week I had life changing experiences with five of the people from his ‘circle of love’ who continue to impact my life in deep and positive ways, which also allows me to feel something of the life of my son in the here and now. At first glance one might look at the external appearances of these five people and quickly categorize one as “the least of these” and the other four as “the best of these”. And in the way that Jesus pointed out this difference in the scriptures I suppose we could say that it is true of these five men. Four were given many gifts to use in this world while the one was given mostly obstacles in terms of his ability to succeed in making a living or impacting the world with the gifts and talents admired by our success driven culture.
The four are Joshua’s best friends whom he met while studying at Oxford in England while in college. Being young men of similar minds (intelligent and creative) and heart (all hold a strong faith in God) the connection was immediate for Joshua and a true gift from God. They created a strong bond that lasted until his death, and I might add to this day. They all serve on the Joshua Casteel Foundation Board. They are writers and lawyers, college professors and pre-med students. We could easily say that they are all succeeding in using their gifts well and are a success in their careers and in life.
The fifth young man I interacted with this week, Joshua met and befriended in high school. His name is Robert and he is a special needs young man who is two years older than Joshua. I believe I’m correct in saying that Joshua was one of the few good male friends he had in high school and most certainly the best friend he had during those years. They would talk often and we were able as a family to get to know him somewhat, thus seeing his fun sense of humor as well as his soft heart. He had a saying that he would often repeat to Joshua when he felt Joshua had something good happen in his life. He would say in his very genuine and yet funny way, “lucky… duck”, drawing the words out for emphasis. We all loved to hear his endearing tease and it became something we said to each other as well for fun and recollection of Robert.
I’m not quite sure when Robert’s faith journey began but he ended up attending the same church as our family attended during their high school years. He lived with his mother for many years and at present he is residing in a semi-assisted living situation and has a part time job. He is oftentimes sad or bored when I talk with him now. Joshua’s death hit him very hard. It is sometimes hard to understand his words, especially on the phone, where words can sound muffled and unclear. I imagine some may look at him in pity or silently give thanks that they are not in his position in life. A few may even make fun of him. And it might be hard for some people to say that he is succeeding in life. But, I have a very different opinion.
From the outside looking in, Joshua’s four college buddies and his high school friend seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum of life, but if one looks closer he or she might see that they are much more alike than they might appear at first glance. And in fact all five have something very powerful in common. I’m quite certain that they will ‘all’ leave what Joshua left behind when they leave this world, a very powerful ‘Legacy of Love’. (the kind of love we read about in the Bible)
“Love is patient, love is kind, is not jealous or boastful, it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on it’s own way, it is not resentful or irritable, it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1st Corinthians 13: 4-7)
Most of us who read that chapter in the scriptures usually walk away feeling fairly small in our attempt at achieving that kind of love. And I’m not suggesting that all of these guys epitomize this description of divine love. There was only one man who walked this earth who could fill those shoes. And He still died on a cross shamed as a common criminal. But I will say that each one has exhibited many of those qualities over the time that I have known them and in particular this last week in relationship to me. Let me explain.
As a board for the JC Foundation we have to make many decisions concerning Joshua’s life and legacy. And after a year or two of meetings I began to feel a certain attitude coming from the four guys towards me relating to our decisions about Joshua’s image. It surfaced again as we were discussing an issue concerning the republication of his book, ‘Letters from Abu Ghraib’. So after what I felt had been a long period of time involving a series of things said that i felt justified my feelings, I decided to write the guys a letter. And I did so, in a direct and justifying way, asking for clarification of their feelings or respect for my opinions and the realization that I wanted the same things that they did. It was a rather strong letter and I was a little apprehensive in sending a confrontational e-mail, as we had not had any real problems up to that point. But as I told them, they meant too much to me to let resentment begin to build and ultimately hurt our relationships.
It took only a few hours for the first response to my letter to come back to me. He began his response by ‘thanking me’ for trusting them all enough to be honest with them about my feelings! The next thing he did was express his love for me. And then he went on to say that he was sorry that I had been feeling the way I had, but it was not how he felt about me or my attitudes and he didn’t know of any feelings from the other guys that would substantiate how I was feeling. There were more thoughts expressed and also helpful suggestions for the issues we were discussing concerning the book that really helped me see some things in a different light.
My offended heart melted immediately and I was so touched by his letter that I felt the effects for days. First Corinthians love… he had hit about four or five of its qualities in the first two sentences in his reply to me. I immediately felt an inward rebuke that it was I that had missed an important quality of love in my interactions with them… “love is kind and “believes all things” or in other translations “believes the best of others.” His response made me look at my own heart and realize that I didn’t “assume the best” about them. I could have just shared my feelings with them and simply ‘ask’ if what I was perceiving was accurate. That would have been much ‘kinder’ and would have offered respect and trust. I experienced the power of love from his words to me. It built me up and made me feel valuable and heard, but it also caused me to look at my own heart and learn.
The Power of Love
The 2nd response came about a week later. He had been out of town. His response was equally as gracious. He expressed sadness over the fact that I had been carrying the feelings I had and apologized for anything he had done to cause them. He also expressed his love for me and then went on to discuss the issues with the book in a way that did not demean my ideas nor did he try to defend his opinions. “Love is patient, love is kind, it is not arrogant, and does not seek it’s own”.
Then came my third response which was every bit as kind and gracious as the other two. He also expressed his love as well as acknowledging that he would never assume to know Joshua like I do as his mother and that he would always want to defer to me when it came to issues pertaining to him. He then reiterated how fortunate he felt to be a part of Joshua’s foundation. While I never want to depend solely on my own opinions in our decisions for the Foundation, I so appreciated the love and respect he gave to me in his response. Again, “Love is patient, love is kind, is not resentful, arrogant or boastful”.
By then I was feeling heartbroken that I had not trusted them, and that I had forgotten who they were as people, men of great kindness and integrity. My repentant heart led me to apologize to all of them. And refreshing my memory of who I had known them to be gave me a renewed sense of gratitude to God for the friends He had given to Joshua and then to me. Their love took me from feeling offended and distrusting to grateful and convinced of their love and respect for me. I could do nothing but thank God for the amazing relationships I am blessed to have with these four remarkable men, part of the riches Joshua left behind. I’m sure Joshua is smiling as he sees that I now know them even better and can see them as he does.
The power of Love!
A few days later Joshua’s friend from high school called me while I was doing some work on the computer. When I explained that to him he said, “Well, I’ll call you later then”. About ten to fifteen minutes later he called back. And to be honest I felt a little frustrated at being interrupted again. But just then I could ‘feel’ Joshua and almost hear his words. “It’s important that you talk to him, Mom”. So I began to talk with him and he told me that he was a little depressed and bored. And as usual he asked how I was doing, and said that he was praying for me. And then like always, he asked about each of the girls and reminded me that he was praying for them as well. We talked about it being the month that Joshua passed away, and he added that like me, it is a hard month for him as well. He reiterated again just how much he misses Joshua. We shared our grief together and I told him I’d be praying for him too.
After talking for about fifteen or twenty minutes, I thought I heard him say that he would be praying for me (again) and I responded with how much I appreciated his prayers. But he replied, “No, I mean, Can I pray for you right now”?
A little surprised I responded, “Yes, Robert, please do”. I was heartened but mostly humbled because it is something that he has done on other occasions. After he prayed for me and my family I prayed for him. And then we said our goodbyes.
As I have mentioned, it is oftentimes hard for me to understand Robert on the phone, BUT NOT WHEN HE PRAYS! I heard every deeply personal, specific, and sweet request he made to God for me and on our behalf as a family of three women. (and their families). Once again I was humbled and so touched by the love of this sweet young man who has stayed in touch with me since Joshua passed away, always reminding me of his prayers for me. This time, however, I realized how precious and needed his prayers really were, especially during this difficult month, but also because of the many months of physical pain that I had been going through. I was more discouraged than I had realized.
When I heard Joshua say, “It’s important that you talk with him”, I have to admit I felt it was probably for his sake, because his life is so hard and there are so few people in it. But after that call I realized how important the call was for me as well and all that Robert has to offer me, a compassionate, genuinely caring heart, with a childlike faith in God, that Jesus Himself said is “precious in the sight of God”. And might I add, his is a life that has meaning and love that is powerful.
The Power of Love
Jesus said, “When you do this unto the least of these, you do it unto Me”. I wonder when I think about that verse if the poor, the disabled, or the mentally challenged are really “the least of these”…especially when it comes to Love.? Who really are “the least of these”? I have to say that after I hung up the phone that morning I felt like it was me. I didn’t offer to pray for Robert first. He led me in the right way! He was my teacher. Robert doesn’t have a high profile job, he can’t drive a car, and he has a select few friends, but when it comes to love, he has it all. Like Joshua, he is rich in what matters. And he shared his riches freely and genuinely with me just as Joshua’s other four friends had. They all loved in their own ways.
As I reflected on all that had happened as a result of the phone calls with Robert I also realized a prayer had been answered. I was inspired to do something that I might not have thought about without talking to Robert that day. I had been thinking of a way to honor Joshua on August 25th by giving to others and showing love, something we started doing on the first anniversary of his passing which helped transform a very dark day in many people’s lives into a celebration of who he was and a realization that his life and love will still go on. And as a result of my conversations with Robert about his transportation, which is walking for him, I decided that it might be helpful and fun for him to have a bike to ride around town. So I mentioned the possibility to him and he said that he would like that, but that he would also need a helmet. He’s not only loving but also wise!!
So, hopefully on August 25th we will go on a bike and helmet purchasing expedition and the pictures will follow this writing. (If by chance that day doesn’t work out, keep a look-out in the next week or so for the pictures).
I can think of no better way to honor Joshua this August 25th than to continue doing what he did while he was on earth, loving others… from his friends to the Jihadist prisoner claiming to be his enemy. It was a heart of love and compassion that led Joshua to live the life he did while on this earth and the message I believe he wants us to continue to share with our words and our actions.
One way I’ve chosen to do that is to extend love to his friend Robert with a special gift and honor the love that he gives to those around him. In addition I know Joshua stands with me as I express my love and appreciation for his other four friends by honoring them as the men of God that they are and that he knows them to be. The JC Foundation will become what it is meant to be because of the bricks of love they have laid as its ‘foundation’.
So, thank you, Joseph, Jacob, Chad, Tim, and Robert! I love you all.
And thank you to all of Joshua’s friends and family whose love has continued on in many and various ways from that first dark day to the present. You have all shown clearly;
THE POWER OF LOVE.