My brother was in town earlier this week. Such a rare, mundane thing: lunch with my brother. But he lives a day’s drive away, and it’s rare that we have the opportunity to indulge in something so basic. Good conversation over somewhat decent Mexican food, seeded in advance with the history of our entire existence. And magnified by the intensity of our more recent shared experience.
2021 has been a year; we keep saying it, over and over. We talked about that, Eric and I; about how so many voices say, It’s been the hardest year ever, but then what if it wasn’t? What if next year is harder, still? There are people all over this world who would hardly say this year qualifies as the hardest, ever.
We decided it’s better to live each moment, as it comes, and deal with the present. Or, at least, we agreed that to be a preferable way of being.
Our Blue Christmas service happened last week, and I decided to open the time with some remarks of my own. It was personal and raw this year, in a new way for me. My dad died in October, hugely important because he was my dad, but – quite honestly – his was another in a long line of deaths and losses crowding 2021.
It has been a hard year.
So I stand up and begin the time with an invitation, a beckoning, and I’m thinking of myself and the thick, sticky, hot pile of grief that’s been lodged in my chest for months now; and then I hear about the man who came to our first Blue Christmas service in 2009 – the year we began – because his wife died in December of that year. He has come every year since, for 12 years.
And I am certain that my fresh grief aligns with his of 12 years and they probably look and feel quite the same. Pain is pain; loss is loss; we are marked forever with the absence of what we love in places that bear the imprint of passion, friendship, trust, loyalty, intensity. And we are changed, realigned, readjusted, reoriented.
(That prefix – “re-” – gets a workout when we journey through our grief; what is aligned, adjusted, oriented is tweaked and formed into something that bears the mark of the original, but slightly off-center…)
Listening to a beautiful conversation between two thoughtful men whose faith informs their public lives in ways I deeply admire, I was struck by Andrew Peterson’s description of the way his yearly Behold the Lamb of God gatherings end. Every time, the musicians gather at the front to lead the room in an a cappella version of O Come All Ye Faithful, followed by a scripture reading, followed by the singing of the Doxology. The room is still, expectant, aware, and ready; it happens every time, and as so many people have made this event a part of their Christmas tradition, we know it’s coming. Peterson said,
“It’s become a kind of liturgy…thousands of shows, the same thing. And there’s something so comforting about knowing that’s what we’re about to do. With the same group of friends, more or less…and so it’s a long obedience in the same direction.“
I didn’t go, this year. They did not bring Behold the Lamb to Richmond and I couldn’t muster the energy to drive 150 miles. I grieve this loss, too; this liturgy for my own personal journey through Advent, shared for years now with my dearest friends.
Another checked box; it’s been a hard year.
There is always someone grieving, somewhere. To count myself among that group has stripped the color from my life; I move in sepia tones, in shades of gray. Bits and pieces of color slip in here and there, and I don’t doubt at all that spring will bring with it a vibrance of hue that I’ll experience deeper and richer than ever before, because I’ve straddled these days of overcast shadows.
I miss my dad; the reality of his absence sneaks up on me and seizes my heart with a ferocity that overwhelms the simplest of motions. This life, without him, becomes more real, day by day. Though the years and illness had ravaged his body, I was still a girl with a daddy. Redefining my existence as “without” is a delicate, fragile territory I am exploring, with tremendous hesitancy and some reluctance.
But I’m inching forward, one tentative step at a time.
After Eric and I had lunch, knowing that what’s left of our nuclear family was, for the moment, all in the same little down, I did what I could not do since late October: I drove back to the funeral home to pick up my dad.
His ashes, that is. He’d been safely kept by the kind folks who help us navigate all these unseen challenges; Charlie had said, Whenever you’re ready… And so, when I was ready, I went in. Heavier than I thought, I carried him with me to the car, feeling my way forward in this new terrain.
Let’s go for a ride, Dad. Like old times.
I’m surprised at how this bit of liturgy has helped, this corporeal gathering of what tangible thing we have left. We humans have figured out how to honor the dead and grieve our loss, and there’s something to the notion of having the heaviness of someone’s being with us. My dad was with me for the entirety of my life. The weaving of his influence into my soul, his legacy in my life – those are real things. But this week, my brother came to town, and that living, flesh-and-blood connection gave me strength to reach backward to complete the next step of this process.
I’m starting to explore those last days, the time in the hospital, the hours we functioned knowing that we were ushering Dad out of this life into the next. The moment he stopped breathing. The adrenaline – the energy required to be present for every one of those moments – was a powerful force. I sense that there is much to gain by remembering, returning, revisiting…
(There’s that prefix again….)
And I can’t help but think of the ancient words of wisdom:
There’s an opportune time to do things, a right time for everything on the earth:
A right time for birth and another for death,
A right time to plant and another to reap,
A right time to kill and another to heal,
A right time to destroy and another to construct,
A right time to cry and another to laugh,
A right time to lament and another to cheer,
A right time to make love and another to abstain,
A right time to embrace and another to part,
A right time to search and another to count your losses,
A right time to hold on and another to let go,
A right time to rip out and another to mend,
A right time to shut up and another to speak up,
A right time to love and another to hate,
A right time to wage war and another to make peace.
Making the most of this time, this day, this present moment. May it be so.