A few days ago I was trying to take a nap (I was unsuccessful and that stinks) while baby recharged his batteries and I laid there in bed and listened to the chirping of the birds outside. It made my heart flutter. Spring. That feeling filled with sunshine and first kisses and nights sleeping with the windows open. I imagined the scent of lilacs stealing my senses just like it always has, thought how my soul kind of trips up on its self to see flowers flourishing in the large ceramic pots my husband bought me last year and anxious to introduce Joel to family outings at the park.
Spring is intoxicating. The honeysuckle, magnolia and hyacinth all holding hands and playing nice with each other. I always joke that I want to bottle the air and sell it. It's that wild. It's that perfect. It's long-awaited and longed for as I look at gray skies and twirl my hair, wondering when all the blah will drain away and I can bask and bake in sun. Everything smells better with the sun on it. Everything feels better. It's as though vibrancy is pumped back into my veins and everything feels like worth living again, even if the dishes, the laundry and the child rearing has increased rather than let up.
Just as there is contrast between the seasons, the cold, the warm, the gray, the yellow.... there is contrast in life. There is birth and there is death. A year ago at this time I was waiting for my body to kick into gear and send me to the hospital. My son turns a year next week (don't even ask me how that is even possible, I don't understand time anymore) and I remember how I spent all afternoon managing contractions, cooking my own recipe of homemade pizza (which ironically I made just this week) and recalling how I insisted we finish watching "24" before heading to the hospital (this had more to do with needing a goal to focus on and less to do with not wanting to miss an episode of Jack Bauer, I swear.)
But in the midst of reveling in the miracle of birth, I am also grieving for a loved life that has ended. Everything feels so human and so fleeting and so very precious. Nearly two weeks ago we lost my Aunt Joyce. Actually, I will rephrase: we didn't lose her. We know where she is. She is in our Heavenly Father's very loving palms. But the fact is, she's not here and so that does really feel like we've lost out. I always joked with her that I was her favorite and she always said she was mine.
She really kind of was.
I've thought for days about what I'm doing right now. I didn't know if I felt the call to write because it would be healing or because I felt I needed to pay tribute to a wonderful, beautiful woman who loved her family and her church. Who treated nieces like daughters. I have been close friends, not simply cousins, with her daughter, Jenny my entire life. There's only a couple years spacing us apart and we played Barbies and Monopoly and slept over on occasion and I inherited all of Jenny's clothes until she stopped growing at barely 5 feet and I kept getting taller (sorry, Jen.)
Because of my closeness with Jenny, it was always natural, always fitting, to be that close to my Aunt, too. Just after Joel was born, she showed up a few times in those early days to just drop by and see the baby. She brought my Grandma Mary with her one time and a friend I didn't know the next. Her excuse was that she was always coming over here to go to her favorite fabric store, but I'm pretty sure my precious little seven pound boy was a bigger draw than any bolt of paisley. She held him and loved on him and I felt she was proud of me, of my new calling as a mother. I felt like we hit an even deeper level of familial bonding: we weren't just a niece and an aunt. We were both mothers.
I cry nearly every time I head to Walmart, now, because in getting there, I have to drive by Main Street where that fabric store is. Just three or four days ago, I burst into tears because I had picked up a gift certificate for her for Christmas - Jenny had asked me to. And my heart broke: did she even get to use it? And I thought of the deli where I had lunch with her, my Mom, another of my aunts and my Grandma. It would never be all of us doing that ever again. I remember that day, what we ate and how the air conditioner next to us nearly blew us all away. I remember her holding Joel and snapping a picture with my camera phone.
I read a few days ago in Donald Miller's book, "A Million Miles in a Thousand Years" and cried understanding tears in the first few chapters as he wrote of his uncle's death. He said, "If you aren't telling a good story, nobody thinks you died too soon; they just think you died."
When my Dad called me to tell me the news of my Aunt Joyce's passing, I bent over in half and sobbed. I kept saying I couldn't believe it. For days later and even now, I often think and say to anyone near, "This has to be a mistake." Part of me kept expecting another phone call. One to tell me that it was really a massive error, they had gotten patients switched or charts confused or something, anything to explain that what was, wasn't. But that call never came. And so we gathered together, we cried while looking at old pictures and giving long hugs. We gave tearful smiles across the room and over flowers. And we said our goodbye for now.
The thing I am thinking today, on another tantalizingly spring morning, with cool and beautiful air circulating through my stuffy house, is this: why do we see death as the "bad ending" to the story? I don't know if it's because we're fearful of death or of leaving loved ones, or even, of leaving earth. I realize death is the great big unknown. But God is the biggest known we can have. Do I think my Aunt died too young because she was telling a good story? Yes. In a very big way, I do. Another quote from the book is this: "Somehow we realize that great stories are told in conflict, but we are unwilling to embrace the potential greatness of the story we are actually in. We think God is unjust, rather than a master storyteller."
Is there potential greatness in this story? Is the fact that my Aunt is now fully with God mean that her story is over? As Christians we know and believe that we are made fully alive in Christ... how much more is she fully alive now in Heaven than she ever was on earth? We tend to think so often that this world is it. That all of our committees and shopping trips and parties are the end all. And it's just not. What matters on earth is that you look like Jesus. And what matters in death is that you go to be with Him.
I fully believe that God is a master storyteller. The Master storyteller. I've seen it in my own life and as much as we have been broadsided by this grief, this aching in our spirits, we can see God's mighty hand. For instance: My Grandma suffered a minor stroke the week leading up to my Aunt's unexpected death. Because my Grandma was ill and in the hospital, it immediately drew the family together. My Mom got to spend nearly a solid week with her sister and their Mother. Had the stroke not occurred, when would have been the last time they were all together? Christmas?
My cousins and my Uncle were able to spend the last moments my Aunt Joyce had on earth with her. Near her. Loving on her and praying and grieving together, not separately or miles apart. Together. They got to say goodbye and not everyone gets that opportunity. Another bend in the story: my other Aunt lives in Japan, near Tokyo and we got word to her and she arrived in the States to be here for the visitation and funeral... she was here just before tragedy struck Japan.
I don't believe in coincidences. Years ago, my youth pastor's wife would say she believed in: "God-incidences". I believe in that, too, more than anything. I believe we are created in a story, even as we are blessed to create within the story we were created in. There isn't always rhyme and reason to everything immediately and sometimes you never figure our why this happened or why that person was in your life. But we do know from God Himself, that He works all things together for our good (Romans 8:28)... and we know that He finishes the work (the story!) that He begins in us (Philippians 1:6).
Who am I to say who goes to be with God "too soon"? In the program for my Aunt Joyce's services, there was an anonymous poem, entitled, "I'm Free". The final paragraph continues to make me choke on tears:
"Perhaps my time seemed all too brief.
Don't lengthen it now with undue grief.
Lift up your heart and share with me.
God wanted me now. He set me free."
I remember reading that the morning of her funeral and thinking: "What if that's true?" What if I believed that God really does want what is best for us and that no matter how much it burns and pains us, God loves my Aunt Joyce and He brought her home. She is free from this world and its stresses, burdens and heartaches. And not that He only wants what is best for her - but what is best for all of us. Who's to say how this story will end? I don't believe it is over now. I believe the reaches of my Aunt's love, her influence, her death, are far from over or explained.
A garden bench at the funeral, a gift to the family, had a quote carved on top that said something to the effects of how our chain on earth has been broken, a link gone, but someday, in Heaven, we would all be connected, again. I keep thinking about that and every time the sorrow feels so big and I sit here and I have no one to cry with, I think about how this is not the end. How my Aunt Joyce's story has a happy ending... and that ending will be when we are all together, again, in Heaven... where we will never, ever, ever be apart.
"When the perishable puts on
the imperishable, and the
mortal puts on immortality,
then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
"Death is swallowed up in victory."
"O death, where is your victory?"
O, death, where is your sting?"
~ I Corinthians 15:54-55