Lasts and Firsts

The day this picture was taken, I hadn’t showered in about a week. I’d washed my hair in a bucket at our campsite, and that was all I needed to feel fresh and so clean clean. No makeup, just the warm brown of summer skin. And about five layers of clothing because I’m a paranoid cold person! No matter how I looked, my favorite place to be was always tucked right into his arm. Rob died six days after this picture was taken. It’s the last photograph taken of the two of us together.

2019 has been full of treasured “lasts.” The hardest year of my life has become the most precious, and I wish it didn’t have to end. 2019 is the last time I stood tucked into his arm. It’s the last time I heard his voice. It’s the last time he told me that he loved me. This most difficult year now has taken on sacred dimension. It’s the year that I saw time give way to eternity. My beloved and I now stand on two different sides of that veil.

I can hang on to lots of things, but time isn’t one of them. In saying goodbye to the old year, I have to say goodbye again to Rob. His death stills feels like “now” to me. But the new year’s beginning signals that Rob’s life and death are part of what has passed. The days draw on, each one separating me further from him and from the me I used to be.

Tonight as part of our family New Year’s Eve ritual, we wrote letters to our December 31, 2020 selves. We put them away where they’ll wait out the year till delivery on the next New Year’s Eve. I’m not the same person I was in this picture, and I know I won’t be the same person who reads the letter I open a year from now. I hope as she looks back at what is now my new year, she will see a year of treasured “firsts” beautifully designed for her by the One who is the Author of all good things, the First and Last, the End and Beginning. 

Goodbye, Old Year

As 2019 comes to a close, we’re wrapping up All the Small Poems and Fourteen More, our 89th family read aloud since we began keeping track five years ago and our 6th since Rob died. Ritual has provided refuge in our loss, and bedtime read alouds are among the most precious rituals we engage in together.

His voice is woven into so many of the great books we read together. We can still hear his Gandalf, his Homer Price, his Harry Potter. We all remember his voice as he read The Birthday Ball, our last read aloud together before he died. Nobody read comic novels with as much gusto. And even though we no longer feel his arms around us, we can feel his presence each night as we snuggle in and open a book together.

O Gracious Light

This week we completed our journey to Bethlehem. What a beautiful glow, all of the candles lit together! We couldn’t quite leave the candles behind, so we’ve continued lighting them into Christmastide (or until they grow too tiny for our Advent spiral). In our family prayer time on Christmas night, we prayed the “earliest known Christian hymn recorded outside of the Bible that is still used today.” In Koine Greek, the language the New Testament was written in, it’s called Phos Hilaron. When the kids were little, we prayed this prayer together every night for family devotions. We all know it by heart. When we could form no other words, we prayed it together the night we learned Rob had died. Since then, we’ve prayed Phos Hilaron on all of our monthly memorial dates.

On Christmas Day, the culmination of our Advent waiting, it felt right to use this prayer again. I am grateful for these ancient words that have been our guide and comfort these last five months.

O gracious Light,

pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven,

O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!

Now as we come to the setting of the sun,

and our eyes behold the vesper light,

we sing your praises, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices,

O Son of God, O Giver of life,

and to be glorified through all the worlds.

Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping.

That awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace. —

Jesus is Here

On the two month date since Rob’s death, the assigned reading for my day was from the Gospel of John, chapter 20 — the resurrection of Jesus. As I read the passage, my heart was drawn to the experience of Mary Magdalene. “Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying” (11). Sounds awfully familiar.

This sweet woman who carried the scars of her own challenging story is lost in sorrow. The Man who has transformed her life is gone. Could it be that all of the love and acceptance that He offered her has died with Him? Would her life return to how it had been before they’d ever met — scared, wounded, protective? How could she go on, having watched Him — and a piece of her heart — die on that cross? Surely Mary Magdalene felt this was like death for her too.

Her love for Him is so strong that even in her debilitating grief she is willing to seek Him out herself, to somehow try to undo what has been done. “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him” (15). Even if she cannot undo His death, Mary is desperate to do everything she can to honor His life, to bring Him back, if only in memory.

But can she? She can’t carry his body back from wherever the gardener has taken it, despite her bold assertion. She can’t roll the stone back to close the tomb. She’s not strong enough to do anything to right what has been wronged. Beneath her desperate request lies a deeper heart cry — “Give Him back to me, alive.” A request the gardener cannot ever fulfill. Or can he?

If he were any ordinary gardener, Mary’s cause would be lost. She would stand bereft, simply left to accept the horrible finality of death. The tomb gapes its dreadful message — this is the end and there is nowhere you can go to find Him.

But this is no ordinary gardener, and Mary is no ordinary mourner. Though she does not recognize Him present with her, Mary’s heart is still attuned to His. And when the gardener calls her name, she knows. Like a sheep that has heard her shepherd’s voice. Like Lazarus who has risen at the sound of his name. Mary experiences her own resurrection that morning when Jesus says to her, “Mary.” There is hope, possibility, a future. Jesus is here.

Two months ago today Rob died, and I still feel like Mary, standing before the tomb. The disbelief, the horror and the sorrow still compel me to question if this could really be happening. Like Mary, I want to make grandiose claims. “Tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” I know the finality of death that Mary knew. It feels like death to me too sometimes.

But today, in the shadow of death, I also am offered life. Beside the tomb, Jesus speaks my name. He offers me a foretaste of resurrection as I find my life in Him. There is hope, possibility, a future. Jesus is here.

At the end of the passage, John tells us, “[Mary] turned toward him and cried out …. ‘Rabboni’” (16). In her powerlessness and grief, she turns to Him and speaks His name also. If she is honest with herself, there is nothing more she has the strength to do. Grief is exhausting work. And yet, nothing more is needed. In the midst of Mary’s grief and ours, Jesus calls us. Our work is simple: turn to Him and call on His name. In His name is life both now and forevermore. There is hope, possibility, a future. Jesus is here.