Becoming Me

Boredom is the mother of invention. Or rather, in our house, the mother of maple syrup. At some point during our last three weeks of quarantine, my boys decided to start tapping our backyard trees. I regularly send them outside with nothing in particular to do, hoping inspiration or a game of pick-up basketball will emerge. Before I knew it, they were whittling taps from small branches, drilling holes in the trees that line our yard and setting up Dixie cups to collect the sap.

Rob was an industrious outdoorsman, and he gifted that enthusiasm to our children. He taught our boys when they were little how to use a knife, how to wield a hatchet and swing an ax. This enthusiasm for tools with blades coupled with a recent trip to a local sugar shack with their uncle and cousins produced an afternoon of boyish inspiration and a flurry of activity. Eventually the girls joined in too; and when dinnertime rolled around, more than eight trees in our yard had been tapped. They named themselves “The Top Tree Tappers, because we only tap the top trees!” Rob would have loved a creative activity like this.

For the last couple of weeks, gallons of sap have slowly filled my refrigerator shelves, awaiting boiling on Palm Sunday. Since our Holy Week will be much quieter this year without church activities to attend, I thought Sunday would be the perfect quiet day to add a little excitement. 

I decided to boil a gallon at a time and started to work at 10:00am after online church. I don’t own a cooking thermometer and I only briefly watched a YouTube tutorial, so it took a little while to get my process right. (I’m not much of a “follow the recipe” kind of gal.) The sap settled into a rolling boil, bubbling but not bubbling over, and I was all set. Now all I needed to do was wait. 

For the next four hours, I watched as the sap on my kitchen range slowly cooked down to a golden brown liquid. The faint smell of maple filled the room as I strained the liquid and brought it to a boil again. Occasionally the kids would pop in and ask if the syrup was ready, peering into the pot and marveling at how little was left inside. Maple sugaring is not for the impatient. It’s a lot of watching and waiting. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. A lot of work for a little bit of payoff.

Over the last eight and a half months, I’ve often felt the same way about my grief journey. I expend so much energy doing the work of grief — remembering, sorrowing, bravely facing each new day without Rob. When I look at my life, I marvel that so much is gone. Evaporated. What once felt filled to overflowing now seems so empty. Even with all of my hard work of grief, sometimes it still feels like I have so little to show for my effort. I wonder if my life is a pot that will boil dry. Some days grieving takes everything I have. 

I am always careful not to create a neat ending for the narrative of grief. Grief isn’t linear, and it’s certainly not an Aesop’s fable. I don’t believe every trial in our life is intended as an overt teaching tool. The world is a broken, sinful place. Sometimes bad things happen and — this side of glory — we will never know why. I don’t believe that I will look back on my loss with 20/20 vision years from now and say, “So that’s why Rob died.” I have released my need to explain Rob’s death; I will carry it simply as it is with all of its incomprehensible sorrow.

Nevertheless, loss — like every trial in this life — changes us. Grief shapes our identity in new and often unwanted ways. It boils away the excess. Loss clarifies and refines our vision. Almost nine months out from Rob’s death, I sense this change taking place in me.

Grief shapes our identity in new and often unwanted ways. It boils away the excess. Loss clarifies and refines our vision.

Three years ago, Rob and I did an exercise together to determine our top four priorities as a couple. We drew out a grid, talked through and ranked our own ideas. Over the course of a couple of nights, we narrowed our priorities down to four that would guide us over the next five years. It was a challenging, exhilarating activity to vision and dream and plan together. We recommitted ourselves to each other and to the shared vision of our marriage. It was a beautiful, loving process.

I’ve struggled for months with how to keep those priorities and visions alive without Rob beside me. And I’ve come to the realization that I simply can’t. Our old life together evaporated with his death, and I am left with only traces of that life I had to leave behind. Rather than desperately attempt to resuscitate what is gone, I must discover what my new life will be without him. Undeniably marked by his wisdom, love, and presence, but also uniquely my own. I still don’t know what that will look like. I’m only just learning how to live this life without him. I don’t know how to do this thing I never wanted to do.

By the end of four hours, the gallon of sap I faithfully tended had cooked down to just half a cup of syrup. I poured it into a Mason jar, and the kids happily dipped fingers in to test it out. They marveled that so little had come from so much. The end result was not what they had expected. The syrup on their fingers held the exact taste of the sap they’d sampled from their Dixie cups on the trees. It was remarkable. Though it looked entirely different, it was clearly the same substance. But through hours of constant heat, something new also had emerged. I wouldn’t put sap on my pancakes. But this stuff? It’s delicious.

Through grief, I am undergoing a similar process. Rob’s death is turning me into a new person, giving me a new identity. I want to resist it, but I can feel it happening. I don’t know who this emerging person will be. I wish I didn’t need to meet her. I wish I didn’t need to become her. I liked who I was before. In this season of grief, I am realizing that my life is in those hours where a slow boil is quietly changing what was to what will be. To be honest, this process hurts; I want to run away. It is for me another death. Rob’s death has changed me — is changing me. I am learning to be patient and tend myself gently as my new self emerges.

I will always be indelibly marked by Rob. I will always be his wife; he will always be my husband. I don’t know how I will hold that in the years to come; I’ve only just discovered a new me is emerging. Years from now, when I look back I don’t expect that all of this will make sense. Rob’s absence will always break my heart. Nevertheless, I am comforted to know that the sweetness of our life together will flavor whatever is to come. Rob’s life will always be a part of me, both the being and the becoming.

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