The Sixty-Eighth Letter: Death and Life and Alleluia

Five Easters Ago...

Five Easters ago, taken a few short weeks before the first Bean was born.

Dear Daughters,

Yesterday was Holy Saturday.

We transplanted oregano I had rooted in water from last year’s herbs and then had nursed all winter long in small pots scattered around the house. It felt like an appropriately liturgical activity, getting our hands dirty together, trying to teach you to be gentle with the roots, appreciating the way new life can come from cuttings of old plants, watering the fresh soil. We’ll see if they survive.

Your dad also built a 20-foot long raised bed to plant our ten baby tree saplings in. They’ll live there for this next year or two and then get placed into their forever homes, flowering beautifully as so many central Kentucky trees do. You played with earthworms while your dad and I broke up the soil.

We had neighbors over in the morning for an Easter egg hunt, which I confessed on social media I didn’t feel much like doing (okay, not really at all) but was grateful we did, hopeful in the building of relationships, so strong as I am in the conviction that loving our neighbors has become such a cliche in Christians circles that we forget Jesus actually might mean our literal neighbors.

We let you open some Easter gifts while Facetiming with family.

We ate Thai food for dinner with friends.

Your dad prayed at dinner, mentioning our particular prayers for those who are mourning, those who are dying, those to whom the whole world feels dark and lonely and sad. He mentioned that we wait this day, Holy Saturday, knowing what death feels like, knowing that Jesus has died, but also knowing that because of this death we know life and freedom and light. Life gets the final word. But we dwell in the death for a season because we must.

Yesterday, the mother of one of our sweet friends from church died.

Yesterday.

Yes, yesterday while so many children across our town and state and country were picking up Easter eggs and gorging themselves with candy, our sweet friend lost her mother.

This is the tension of Holy Saturday.

This is the already/not-yet tension at the heart of our faith.

This is the reason I love the liturgical calendar so much.

We don’t always “feel” the seasons we are walking through. And sometimes we feel them too much. Life in this broken world is real and painful and dark. And carrying lilies down the aisle this morning at church will not change that.

It just won’t, girls.

Now, the truth is, most of us will pretend that it does. Most of us will open Easter baskets, get all fancied for church, take posed family photos in front of beautiful flower beds (if the isolated thunderstorms in the forecast don’t gather overhead), and we will stand when the congregation stands and we will sing “Christ the Lord is risen today,” and we will ring our bells every time Alleluia is said. And I, too, will ring a bell. My grandmother’s beautiful pink glass bell.

But I will also remember my grandmother’s death, and I will remember the year I carried a lily down the aisle for her, and I will see my friend who lost her mother a few weeks ago carry a lily down the aisle for her, and I will remember when you toddled down the aisle and carried a lily for my grandfather, and I will hug my friends with broken marriages and sad hearts and anxieties about their children and their parents’ health, and we will all say Alleluia even though we are hurting inside.

Because being the people of God, saying “He is risen indeed,” doesn’t mean life doesn’t hurt big time.

And when you’re an INFJ like I am, a highly-sensitive person, an empath, and you feel the weight of the world’s burdens like I do?

Easter doesn’t make that go away.

So my tears will probably flow over a bit today, because Easter is so full with love and beauty and grace. But we only have it because of death and suffering and darkness.

I feel like I want to say that to you every Easter, my sweet girls.

I want you to open your Easter basket and love the beauty that is inside (and it’s not candy, by the way–none–just art and silly putty and puzzles and rubber frogs because why not). I want you to love the banners and the procession and the bells and the orchestra. I want you to learn to chime in “Risen indeed” when someone greets you with “He is risen!”

But when you are older and reading these letters, I want you to know that it’s okay when you don’t feel like Easter.

And I want you to keep in mind that there are others around you pretending to feel like it, pretending that their hearts aren’t broken and full of sadness.

And that’s okay, too.

He is risen, girls.

He is risen indeed.

Alleluia.

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

The Forty-Sixth Letter: Pappy’s Old Shirt

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Dear Daughters,

When I was back in Pennsylvania last spring, my grandma gave me two of my pap’s old shirts. One is thick and flannely, an assortment of grays and blues in plaid, and the other is thinner, a turquoisey green with a small stitch of pink throughout. There are a few stitches of white at the corner of the pocket where Gram repaired it at some point. She told me this was one of her favorites of his shirt collection.

I slip it on sometimes when I need to rock the baby and I don’t want my sweaty skin to keep her from drifting off to sleep.

I wore it last week while in Santa Fe at an art workshop.

A little while ago, a strange thing happened. As I grabbed the shirt from my closet, a series of quick thoughts ran through me. This is Pappy’s shirt. Why do I have one of Pappy’s shirts? Oh, that’s right, Gram gave it to me. Why? Because Pappy passed away on Christmas Eve. Really? He died? Yes, I went to the funeral. That’s right. The funeral.

That’s strange, right? Being confused about the death of a beloved family member? I mean, I wrote about the funeral and how Pappy was such a badass who had lived a life of transformation.

So of course I know that he passed away. I know it. Of course.

But for that brief moment, it was as if I didn’t know it.

For the last sixteen years, I haven’t lived in the same state as the majority of my family members for more than a few weeks at a time. Still, our family, all branches of it, feels really close to me, because I grew up around most of my cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents.

But I don’t live close to any of them now, not physically, and so I miss out on the day-to-day memory-making that comes from family in community. The whole in-your-business-whether-you-want-them-to-be-or-not phenomenon. I don’t have that.

And I miss out on having those family members getting to know you, girls, and watch you grow and change, which I’ll confess makes me a little sad.

But I also miss out on something else. I miss out on missing those who have died, I miss out on the gap that comes into a life when a loved one is no longer present.

It’s not that I don’t mourn and grieve, I do. I am a cry-er, and I’ve spent lots of time crying over loss. But sometimes I am startled to realize that I live inside a memory that keeps them alive.

That sounds kind of weird. I just read it out loud. Let me try to go about this another way.

When I welcomed my neighbor into our house for tea this week and poured boiling water into Grandma Wise’s green teapot, I thought of my friend Katy from Texas. She had me over for tea dozens of times during our years in Waco. Yesterday, pouring dark black tea into the matching green mugs, I remembered Katy’s teapot stand that kept her pot heated by a burning tea light candle, and I thought to myself that I should get one of those, and as I thought that, it felt as if Katy were still alive. It was as if I had forgotten the news of her death, as if I could open the mailbox today and receive a letter from her, addressed to me in her loopy cursive script. She passed away four years ago.

When I make the bed in our guestroom upstairs, and I shake out the blue star-patterned quilt my grandma made me as a wedding gift, I think of her, and I often forget that she’s been gone for seven years this fall. Seven years. I might have been the last of the grandchildren to get a quilt for a wedding gift. We’ve been talking about her a lot recently because it’s sweet corn season and you both love corn pancakes. She used to make them for me when I was a little girl.

When I go back to my in-laws’ house, I often expect to see Oma or Opa come wandering out from the new addition where Mimi and Papa now sleep. It’s not even a “new” addition any more, but in my mind it is where the great-grandparents still live. They were both gone before the baby was born. 

I can imagine Beanie rocking in the big recliner in my dad’s living room. I think of the room where your dad and I sleep while we visit that house as Beanie’s room. She died before you both were born.

I know the apartment where Uncle Stephen lives was built originally for Pappy Sands, and when I think of that living space, I think of eating dinner with Pappy toward the end of his life. He called me Betsy, I think, or maybe Betty, during that last visit, and I didn’t know if he was trying to be funny or not. But the thing is, it feels as if he’s still there.

I am surprised repeatedly that your dad has never met Ginny, one of my beloved grandparents, who died while I was in high school. She’s still so alive in my memory, her tapioca pudding, her chocolate chip-heavy cookies, that she must still be living. That’s how it feels. She must be. Your dad probably feels like he knows her, of course, for as many times as I’ve mentioned her.

That’s the way memories work, I suppose. Or maybe just my memory works that way, because of my love of a good story, of strong memories, of family, of loving deeply, of being empathetic and overly sensitive in all the good and bad ways.

So.

Maybe I’ll continue to be perplexed when I grab Pappy’s shirt out of the closet. I’ll have that split second of confusion, unsure why I even have this shirt in my possession.

Or maybe, someday, it won’t seem strange that he’s gone.

But regardless, I’ll be thinking of him when I wear the green shirt with the pink stitching, the repaired pocket, the thin cotton. And though it seems cliche to even write it, I’ll be keeping him alive in my memory. And in your memory of my memory.

Because I’ll be telling you the story.

That’s what I do.

I wear stories.

I tell stories.

I live stories.

I suppose it’s how I do my remembering.

Love,

Your Momma

 

The Forty-Fifth Letter: Funerals & Eulogies

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Dear Daughters,

I’ve been to a lot of funerals in the last few years. Between your dad and me, we’ve lost six grandparents since moving to Kentucky. That’s a lot. And our church community has lost a significant number of members in recent months.

So I’ve been to a lot of funerals in my life.

And I’ve heard a lot of eulogies.

A friend of mine who is a few years older than I am–so she’s in her late 30s–told me she has never been to a funeral.

Talking with her got me thinking back to the funerals of my childhood. The first one I remember was the funeral of my maternal great-grandmother: Grandma Ebersole. My memory of her is mostly of the later years of her life, when she was small and frail and lived with my grandma. She dressed plainly, I believe with a head-covering. Her hair was white. She was little in stature, and for me to think that, given that I was a child, albeit a big child, is telling. She must have been small.

I don’t remember much of that funeral, except that there were distant relatives around and it’s the first time I remember becoming aware that my mom had cousins and used to be a kid once, just like I had cousins and loved to play with mine.

My great-uncle “Woody” died when I was a little bit older. He was my paternal grandma’s brother. And also my great-grandma Woodward, my paternal grandma’s mom, passed away. Because they both had lived in Ohio, and I used to visit them both in the summers along with my cousin Angela, those funerals run together a bit. But I was old enough to feel those losses as someone who, well, as someone who remembered.

At Grandma Woodward’s funeral, the Family Circle sang. My dad offered the eulogy. I remember hearing my dad’s voice breaking, and realizing again the way intergenerational relationships work–he had been this woman’s grandson, and she had been his grandma, and he had been a boy once, and that meant that my grandparents would die, and I would be a grown-up with my voice cracking as I remembered their lives, too. Some day.

I am now that grown-up.

I still tear up when I try to talk about my grandparents who have passed away.

I’m tearing up now, just writing about it.

(This probably won’t surprise you, when you’re older, because already you see my cry all the time, over books or articles or sad news or happy news, and you come over to me and rub my arm or my back to offer comfort in the only way you know.)

I’ve attended funerals as a family member of the deceased, and I’ve attended funerals as a friend of the deceased, and I’ve attended funerals as a mere acquaintance, which makes it sound less than what it is–a member of the community that did everyday life alongside the deceased.

The last two funerals I’ve attended have been that kind–funerals of folks I know through church, who have had an impact on me because of their service to our congregation and to the wider community. I knew these women as strong and courageous and independent. I knew them as encouragers who always asked how I was feeling when I was pregnant, who checked in on me when you both were born, who always commented on how big you were getting.

But I didn’t realize how little I really knew them until I went to their funerals. I only witnessed, in my years here in Kentucky, a small glimpse of their whole lives. It was an inspiring glimpse, but it was only a small fraction of their story.

They had both lived such incredible stories.

And we live in a small town, so their stories affected so many other people’s stories.

That’s what you find out at funerals.

You go from knowing how a person interacted with you to knowing how she changed your whole community.

My friend who has never attended a funeral told me she feels a little morbid about attending funerals, like when people she knows lose loved ones and she wonders about whether she should go. She feels like it’s kind of weird to watch others who are mourning.

I don’t feel that way. In fact, as I sat in a funeral at our church last week, listening to the stories of a life that had worked to bring about the Kingdom of God, I thought to myself: I should really attend more funerals.

Maybe that’s how we can learn to be better human beings.

Maybe that’s how we can witness the genuine loss that every death brings to a community.

Maybe that’s how we participate in the beautiful heartache that is life in community, the sacred ordinary of life lived alongside others, the scars we feel on the hands and feet of Jesus as we offer our own hands and feet to the world.

And maybe that’s how we start thinking about what our own eulogist would say about us.

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

The Thirty-Fourth Letter: Where, O Death?

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Dear Daughters,

We live a few blocks away from a funeral home, so I’m reminded every other day or so of the reality of death and suffering. On long walks, we pass by cars full of mourners, with you two happily in the stroller eating your snack, oblivious to what’s going on. On our way to head out to eat for dinner, on the way to Lowe’s for a quick construction run, on my way to reading group, heading to a playdate, picking up your dad from work when it’s raining: those who have experienced recent loss are nearly always present. I drove by black-clad mourners on my way to get a soy latte this morning.

I have always found this reminder of death in the midst of life helpful. It’s a proverbial wake-up call each time, that whatever is on my mind or burdening me at the moment is fleeting and that there is real suffering all around me.

I love our church’s Easter tradition of carrying lilies down the center aisle in memory of loved ones who have passed away the previous year. The preschooler carried one this year, in memory of my grandfather who died on Christmas Eve. The plant swayed as she walked, but she made it safely to the altar.

As the lilies pile up in the front, filling up the absence left when the altar is stripped at the end of the Good Friday service, our congregation stands and sings “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” I can never sing the song, of course, because as I watch my friends carrying down lilies–or those years I’ve carried them down myself–I think of all the loss we’ve experienced as a community. I think of all the meals we’ve delivered. All the prayers we’ve prayed.

My throat catches, and I don’t sing. Our loved ones die, and we feel so much pain.

The lyrics to many of the great Easter hymns, including “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” have a line or two echoing the sentiment of 1 Corinthians 15:55: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (sometimes the King James Version just says it best).

I counted at least three references to that verse in the songs we sang Sunday morning. And, I’ll confess, it kind of annoyed me each time.

A friend of mine who lives many states away texted me an update about her dad, who is having significant health problems and was in ICU. She was travelling back from visiting with him, and she concluded with, “I’m exhausted and sad. But He is risen, so there’s that.”

So there’s that.

Where, O Death, is now thy sting?

One of my strong and beautiful friends lost her husband suddenly last year. She carried a lily down the aisle at church.

Where, O Death, is now thy sting?

A vibrant 26-year-old mother in our town was diagnosed with two forms of terminal cancer this week. She was given three to six months to live.

Where, O Death, is now thy sting?

I can tell you where. It’s right here.

Right.

Here.

People are hurting all around us, girls. It is hard to live in this world and know pain and love people who know pain. And we get numb to these words of Scripture–O death, where is thy sting?–and it kind of makes us, okay, me, mad. Or sad. Or frustrated. Or helpless.

All of it.

Sometimes I think we sing Where, O Death, is now thy sting? followed by Alleluia (adding a little salt in the wound) without remembering that many among us don’t feel encouraged by the creeds. And I’m talking about those of us who do have faith in eternal life, who do sincerely believe that eternal life brings relief from suffering. We know it intellectually, and we might even know it on a deeper level, but it doesn’t always ring true to experience.

What we feel is the very real sting of death.

The very real sting of our loved ones being diagnosed with cancer. Of babies dying. Of marriages crumbling.

I have faith, girls. Most days, I have it in spades. But I have faith alongside a healthy dose of reality, which is that life in this world hurts a lot of the time, and I don’t want to pretend that’s not the case.

I am careful when I write condolence cards because it’s too easy to be trite.

Of course, Easter reminds us that death does not get the last word. I appreciate that message. But I think we need to be careful where we go from there.

Easter does not tell us that we won’t feel the very real pain of losing loved ones in this life.

We can believe and have hope in eternal life and in the good God whose own creation sings praises, while we also say, no, I’m sorry, there is a sting of death.

Part of me hopes that you feel the sting of death a lot, girls. Because that means you’re really living in the world and loving people.

And I hope when you see full parking lots at funeral homes, you are able to pause and reflect on the death and suffering that coexist with your own lives, that trump your own annoyances and frustrations and pride and self-centeredness.

But I also hope that when you see Easter lilies, you remember why we carry them down the aisle on Easter morning. I hope you remember this little nugget of the truth of Easter that sometimes gets buried: even when we’re sad and exhausted, He is risen.

Because there’s that.

Love,

Your Momma

 

The Twenty-Seventh Letter: Funerals, Faith, & 2015

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Dear Daughters,

My grandfather died on Christmas Eve. He was 92, a decorated World War II veteran, and an overall former badass.

Yes, I can say words like that even though you aren’t allowed to.

In my memory, he was a calm, pinochle-playing, itchily-mustached, white-haired handyman who, right on cue, hollered “What?” whenever I declared “Red” was the color I wanted to play in Uno. I never knew the tough guy he used to be: the red-haired, hard-drinking, angry, physical beast he was before he met Jesus. Those were a lot of the stories we heard at the funeral—stories that woven together spoke of a life of transformation.

During the service, some of my cousins shared poems they’d written about him, and afterward an old friend of the family approached me. “I was surprised we didn’t hear anything from you,” she said. I hadn’t shared anything because I hadn’t written anything.

The truth is, I haven’t written much this last year.

I’ve painted and colored and brainstormed and blogged and read lots of really good novels, but my own creative writing has been a struggle. It’s been a difficult year to be present and attentive, to cultivate the practices necessary for introspection and revelation and seeing the world sacramentally.

Whew. This last year. It was a doozy.

I’m sure it was a beautiful year, too—your first school year, first haircut, first flower girl dress for the eldest; first words, first steps, first birthday for the baby—but it’s hard to remember all those moments of grace. As much as I hate it, the beautiful moments are not the ones that stand out in my memory. It’s the heartache I most remember, I most carry with me. It’s the sobbing on the phone with friends and family who are hurting. It’s the texting conversations about mental illness and unspeakable pain, the sitting in doctors offices to try to share burdens, the taking food to friends who have suffered so much this year. It’s the insomnia and what-if’s and not understanding how yet another person in my close circle of friends could possibly be diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, could possibly be carrying this pain for so long, could possibly…could possibly…could possibly…

That was what 2015 felt like to me, girls.

And then Pappy died Christmas Eve and I went back to Pennsylvania to be with my family, to give hugs, to be present. And in the midst of mourning, I heard stories of hope and transformation, stories of courage and Coca-Cola, stories of heartache, loss and love, fatherhood and forgiveness.

These were stories of faith.

Of faith.

I hear those stories and I’m a little bit jealous.

It’s not that I don’t have faith. I do.

And it’s not that I find it harder to believe in, say, the tenets of my faith or God’s faithfulness or the redeeming narrative of scripture, when I am confronted with the world’s pain, with my loved ones’ pain. No, my instinct is still to believe.

It’s just that, well, some days it’s hard to remember how to have faith. Hard to know what that looks like.

Sometimes, I think it simply looks like surviving the day.

Sigh.

2015 was full of a lot of those days. Days of mere survival.

And that’s okay. We made it through, girls.

We made it.

Love,

Your Momma