On Climbing Cardigan – January

My oldest earthly son turned 22 this weekend.

This was a tough milestone, as that was the age of his brother when he crashed his car and became a citizen of heaven.

When they were little, my children believed all sorts of silly, erroneous things, as children are wont to do. As a child, I myself once believed that when your parents wanted to move, they would have to find a family to switch houses with, and I wondered how anyone was ever able to move anywhere at all.

My kids used to think that they would be able to catch up in age with their older siblings, stealthily gaining ground year by year, until, at last, they became the oldest, usurping all the rights and supposed privileges of the eldest, favored one.

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Now, it almost seems as if this has come true.

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I’m listening to a book called All Things New by John Eldredge. In it, he describes what the Bible actually says about the afterlife, and it is astounding. Hearing his words, I felt like a child again, finding out that my neighbors were not going to have to swap houses with some random people from New Jersey.

He speaks of what Jesus refers to as the palingenesia, or “Genesis again.”

When we die, heaven is just the place we wait until Jesus returns to restore, renew, Genesis-again everything to a state even more glorious than what we might imagine even heaven to be like.

Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago… (Acts 3:21)

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:5)

I’d read those verses, but somehow I had missed it.

Everything.

Everything.

New.

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The thought of living in this new earth, free of stain and sorrow, makes the waiting bearable.

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Perhaps we will all be 22.

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I hadn’t planned to climb Cardigan today.

After uncovering a nefarious plot in my father’s assisted living community to leave the residents woefully un-caffeinated (a headache, ever after drinking two cups of their supposed “coffee”), and after a faculty pond hockey game was cancelled due to decidedly un-wintery weather, it seemed there was still day enough to head up the muddy access road to check January off my list.

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Conditions couldn’t have been better.

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Although icy in spots, it was warm and sunny, with just enough wind at the top to feel vindicated in carrying a hat.

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Bare rock even poked through in places.

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Eldredge posits that in this all-things-new earth, we will be able to return to all of our favorite places. They will be the same places, but better, newer somehow.

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It’s hard to imagine a place more beautiful than Cardigan was today.

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The son who was first to arrive, to wait for the palingenesia, used to be afraid of eternity. He couldn’t wrap his little-boy mind around its enormity, and he sometimes cried that he wished it wasn’t true.

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O my son.

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We cannot wait to catch up with you.

 

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On Forgetting the Former Things

Today at church I saw a friend who knew my son.

He told me of a dream he had recently, where the two of them were hanging out, just sitting together on a couch, enjoying each other’s company.

I was happy and jealous at the same time, because since that awful Mayday, my boy has only appeared in my dreams one time.

He was carrying a laundry basket, of course, and smiling the biggest smile. His beautiful face beaming at me just about broke my heart, and I woke up wanting moremoremore.

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The end of the year is typically a time when we are to look back, to survey the landscape of the past, to catalogue the points and angles and dips and spans, consider the joys shared and the lessons learned, to pause and ponder and plan.

There were many firsts for me in 2017, many of them hard. My son’s first never-again-birthday, a hockey game in his honor, the dedication of his school bench.

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Lest I linger too long there, however, there were many good-firsts, too: The Princess’s first 50-mile race, the first college hockey game for my once-injured son, a bowl game win for the youngest, my dad’s first weeks living back in New England.

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The first year in the job that I love.

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I think there is a place for looking back. The death of my son has taught me that sometimes memories might be all you have left, unless and until the glorious reunion we are promised as children of the King. Without that promise, I think I might have gone mad.

I like to listen to podcasts when I drive which is, well, much of the time, and something Tim Keller said in a sermon recently seems end-of-the-year appropriate.

He describes a recurring dream, a nightmare really, wherein his wife is dead. It is the worst possible thing he can imagine, so the dream disturbs him greatly, as you might obviously expect.

The thing is, though, that when he wakes up, when he wakes up, and he looks over and his wife is still there, breathing-stirring-alive, it is a small picture of the joy that awaits us someday in heaven.

In heaven, someday, the awful-everythings become untrue.

Keller goes on to quote J.R.R. Tolkien in The Return of the King:

But Sam lay back, and started with open mouth, and for a moment, between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer.

At last he gasped: “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?” 

“A great shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known.

As I sit alone in my tiny house in the waning hours of 2017, it might be tempting to pre-determine 2018 as moreofthesame: more sorrow, more loneliness, more loss.

In a way, though, I have already survived my worst nightmares, but still the joy remains.

The transom measures hills as well as valleys; God’s plumb line reminds me that this is not my forever home.

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And even here, there are always new things ahead.

“Forget the former things;
    do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland…” (Isaiah 43:18,19)

On Climbing Cardigan – December

The forecast looked grim late in December  – temps in single digits, negative wind chills  – when I finally had a minute to breathe and think about this month’s climb.

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The students were gone, the campus quiet.

It was the day after Christmas, and the fam was readying to scatter to their various environs after a sweet couple of days together doing what we like to do best – play some hockey, work out, eat, and make messes, I mean, memories.

So after a furious sprint of packing, cleaning, and minor Jeep maintenance, the son-in-law, his brother E, and I headed out to Cardigan to try not to die.

I knew the road to the trailhead lot would be closed for the winter, which meant an extra mile in and out each way, but we had a shovel with us and were able to carve out a parking space at the gate with a few hardy others taking advantage of the sunshine and free beauty.

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Although it had only stopped precipitating the day before, a kind soul had risen early and packed down a fabulous path all the way up to the icy slabs at the summit. With boots and Microspikes, it was just a matter of putting one cold foot in the front of the other, up and up and up into the frozen marvel of this agreeable mountain.

Hiking with long-legged twenty-somethings when one is, ahem, older than that took some perseverance; they let me lead, and I felt at times driven along by their strength and enthusiasm. The son-in-law was even carrying a sled, with which he hoped to descend at a quicker pace than I could manage, yet still the two of them had to stop and wait for me to pretend to take pictures so I could catch my icy breath.

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I thought about how the snow covered the ragged places on the trail, how it smoothed the rocks and roots and ruts under a desert of white that made it both easier and more difficult to traverse. Boots could skim over silent brooks or break though hidden crusts in equal proportion. Because you just didn’t know what was underneath, what was coming, how to exactly prepare.

I thought about how hope is like that, sometimes heavier to carry than even grief.

The weight of it.

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Wondering when it will break, open, release.

The apostle Paul knew about hope, the unfulfilled wantingwaiting ache of it.

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He told us we could glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

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Hope does not disappoint.

Though I know this to be true, have proven its verity many times over, it still arrests me, gives me pause.

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We hope because we know there is something up ahead, something better, something worth waiting for, persevering for, suffering for.

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Something that will make the desert places, the sharp scales where our feet slip and buckle and crack, worth the neverknowingwhen but knowing just the same. 

We hope because we know this is not the end of the story.

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Heartache and injustices and hardship can quash our spirit or soften our hearts, but the choice is up to us.

God-love feeds us on a continual diet of hope.

I want to savor its sweetness, believe in its assurance, wait on its promise.

We are all hoping for something.

Elsewhere Paul writes hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Romans 8:24a, 25)

When we reach the frozen granite at treeline, I beg the young ones to forge ahead, and they storm the summit first, wait there for me.

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It’s too windy and cold to linger.

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I’m tired and ready to be done, but the walking seems easier on the way down.

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A hot shower awaits at home, and there are new adventures to plan, new hope chasing on the heels of hard.

I’m glad I had the chance to climb Cardigan in December. 

I think of that passage in Isaiah, and laugh thinking of those crazy, sturdy boys. 

Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31)

Soar. Run. Hope.

 

 

 

On Going Ultralight

I heard a commercial on Pandora recently while biking on the rail trail near my house.

Can I first describe how a rail trail is the perfect complement to an aging hip-and-knee’d athlete, for whom running, once an activity that held all the sweet answers to body and soul, has become like medieval torture?

Even I – even now – can fat-tire bike on a flatly graded, always shady, rarely rocky rail trail and can even, at times, illicit a comment from a small boy leaning upon handlebars who calls out as I fly past, “Wow, you like to go FAST!” while his sister, nearby, thoughtfully picks a bug out of her nose. It’s AARP thrilling.

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Without cars to contend with, I generally feel safe riding with my earbuds in, which is why I was listening to Crowder when this commercial came on.

A woman’s voice spoke of California Closets, describing how she asked her “closet consultant” if she could have a drawer devoted entirely to her sunglasses.

An entire drawer? Closet consultant?

I cannot tell you how much this disturbed me, having recently returned from a backpacking trip where I was trying ultralight for the first time.

For many trips, including Appalachian and Long Trail thru-hikes in 2010 and 2013, I used a standard weight backpack, full tent with fly, and carried not only changes of clothes and camp Crocs but also a stove, fuel, full-length sleeping pad and down bag.

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While there is nothing wrong with any of these items, I felt they were hindering my ability to walk longer days with speedier recovery times.

Lighter pack, happier feet.

This summer, I decided to ruthlessly evaluate the worth of each item I had been carrying and eliminate anything I deemed unnecessary, anything that I felt I could live without.

Camp Crocs? Nope. Longer days meant shorter times in camp, much of which would be spent in my sleeping bag, barefoot.

Camp stove? Yes, yes, 1,000 times yes! Coffee. Enough said.

Tent? How about a small tarp-and-Tyvek combo instead?

iPhone? Haha. Stop it. I may not be a digital native, but camera, iTunes, Audible, and emergency exit strategies are not optional.

Backpack? This was the tough one. Obviously, I needed a vessel to transport what gear made my cut, but my old Osprey was not only heavy, but also not waterproof. Don’t gear manufacturers think we will use their products outdoors? Where it rains? 

Sigh.

After visiting some local stores, reading various hiking blogs, and searching the internet, I settled on a Hyperlite pack with a few external pockets and smaller cubic capacity, which would force me to leave everything but the essentials behind. It weighed less than a loaf of bread.

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Armed with all this lightness, the Princess and son-in-law dropped me off in the Catskills for a week-long shake-down.

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One of the first benefits I discovered with my Hyperlite were two small hip belt pockets. These were the perfect size for snack and phone in the right and map and chapstick in the left, thus negating frequent stops with the takings-off of pack.

Two easily accessible water bottle pockets also allowed me to drink and walk without the awkward twisting required of my old pack, which kept the feet moving.

While pleased with my new kit, there is always an exchange.

Because I didn’t carry a tent with bug netting, I had to douse in DEET and camp at altitude – where wind could drive the pests away – making for long climbs on all-day tired legs.

Some nights were colder, and without the puffy coat I left behind, I had to crawl into my sleeping bag earlier than I might have previously, but, with judicious placement, I could still catch all the glowy rises and sets.

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There were other adjustments I had to make, but it felt good to go light.

I know I will continue to trade out and weigh, what is worthy and what is not, but in this season of my life, I feel it is time to let go of some sizable things that I was never meant to carry alone.

Fear of the future.

Unrealistic expectations.

 Sorrow.

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Actually, I think that last one might be with me a while longer, perhaps even forever. The excessiveness of it has shifted, though, and I know that I have a burden-bearer who lightens it day by day. He once said to the multitudes:

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

I really don’t ever want to get to a point in my life where I need a bigger closet to store the distracting weights that drag me away from the walk my Creator has mapped out for me, no matter the obstacles in the way.

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I want to yoke myself to Christ’s ample shoulders and let Him pull.

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The other day, The Princess called me a hoarder, and it stung.

I know she was talking about my propensity for stuff, which I am working on, truly; but sometimes we get so distracted by the challenges we face in this life that we forget the only thing of value that we can take into the next life IS life.

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So, be ruthless.

Why not start trying to live ultralight now?

On the Legal Limit

A sheriff came to my door the other day.

I watched, dust cloth in hand, as he casually pulled down the narrow street, slowed, and maneuvered his vehicle into my crowded driveway.

In those halting moments I watched, incredulous, while my heart took inventory of where my children were.

One, on the train to a Red Sox game.

The second, visiting relatives in another state.

The third, getting hours for drivers ed.

 

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Safe? 

I watched, frozen, as he got out of the cruiser and adjusted his sunglasses, prayingprayingpraying Jesus let them be okay, let them be okay, let them be okay.

By the time I forced my feet to the front door, my eyes had filled and I stood trembling, waiting to hear if (again) the future I thought I knew would be exchanged for one that I had never asked for, never expected, never wanted.

The trooper’s puzzled expression softened as I blurted out the explanation, that last time, a year and an eternity ago, when police showed up at my door.

What is the legal limit on grief?

How much is too much, how long too long, how deep too deep?

Because the thing about grief is you never know what might trigger. When opening the wrong drawer can cause collapse or a credit card offer addressed to your lost boy, despair.

How do you not frighten the youngest when he finally arrives home, whole, and you rush to embrace him, sobbing?

I was just driving, Mom, forthelove.

No. Such. Thing.

Because he was there, that other day, mowing the lawn when the police came and everything changed forever.

He knows.

Sometimes – most of the time – always – all you can do is grab hold of the hem of Jesus’s robe and whisper truth over yourself.

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He is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. 

Be strong and very courageous for I am with you.

Be still and know that I am God.

Let us approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Grace.

These promises fortify when our collective hearts hurt and give us strength for the moments that catch us off guard.

Because the thing is – and here is something I can barely admit – it could have been – the accident – it could have been so much worse.

You see, when my son crashed his car into a tree, he was beyond the legal limit.

There is nothing I can say that will change this sad truth, but not saying it when maybe, just maybe, it might keep you or your son or your friend or your brother from similar tragedy seems the height of irresponsibility.

How I wish I could go back to that day and remind him of all the times I told him Iwillcomegetyounoquestionsasked just pleasepleasepleaseplease don’t get behind the wheel when you’ve had too much to drink.

When the police came to the house to tell me there had been an accident, they weren’t sure at first who the driver was, and for a fleeting moment I thought, perhaps, it wasn’t him.

Imagine, though (speaking of wishes) wanting the dead driver to be somebody else’s son.

How could I – ?

I could not. I can not.

Instead, the one miraculous thing about that day is that even when it turns out he had driven close to 40 miles at speeds too terrible to contemplate, not one other person was harmed. He had been alone in his folly, and God protected the other motorists from his reckless choice.

I am thankful for that.

What my son did is irrevocable. I cannot change it, though it forever changed me.

We cannot control how other people hurt themselves, or us, or those that we love.

As I struggle to find the grace to live within these new boundaries that God has placed around me, I wonder how many people I have hurt with my own carelessness or intent.

All I can do, all any of us can do, is approach His throne, sometimes running, sometimes just barely crawling, confident that there is mercy and grace there for all of this messy broken, these jagged edges.

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My son did not wake up that fateful day and think today I am going to die. 

But because he knew Jesus, because, from a young age, he had grabbed hold of that merciful hem, those of us left behind can be free from the kind of crushing grief that is, in itself, a kind of living death.

It’s the kind of freedom that covers and enables and empowers us – to forgive and ask for forgiveness, to live focused on the next world while still having stumbly feet in this one, to have the kind of longsuffering love that is forgetful and patient and kind.

To caution others, for the time is always shorter than we think, but it’s never too late to celebrate your independence day.

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Luckily, the sheriff that came to my door this past week was simply looking for the previous owner, some other legal matter.

There is the robe. 

Hang on.

Grace.

On a Double Portion

 

T.S. Eliot once scribed that April is the cruelest month, but for me, now, it seems to be the month of May.

It wasn’t always that way.

Once, May held nothing but happiness and celebration: my wedding anniversary, my mother’s birthday and my husband’s, summer’s arrival with pansies and parties and Memorial Day parades, and, of course, Mother’s Day.

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Why God chose to allow May to become a mockery of all that once-was for me, I do not know.

When my youngest and I were hiking the Appalachian Trail back in 2010, we heard of another young boy and his father. They, too, were thru-hikers, and because little boy thru-hikers were a rare commodity, the father and I became Facebook friends, sharing intel and hatching a plan for the boys to meet somewhere along the 2,179-mile corridor.

One day, the stars aligned, and we all had lunch together at a shelter in a back hollow of Virginia. While the two boys shyly sparred with twigs and skated across the smooth floor of the shelter in their ragg wool socks, Tecolote (wise owl, he) and I discussed depleting fisheries, trail food, Lyme ticks, and homeschooling.

Eventually, we called the boys back, and Tecolote asked the boy Venado (wee dancing deer, he) to “recite the litany.”

Starting from their first day on the trail, 8-year-old Venado listed, in order, every place he and his father had ever spent the night on the trail.

Thistle Hill Shelter, stealth camp, stealth camp, Velvet Rocks, Moose Mountain Shelter, stealth camp, Imp Shelter, stealth camp, and on and on and on, until he reached the spot they had tented the night before.

Owen and I spent 158 nights on the trail; Venado and Tecolote, even more.

It was quite the list.

A long litany.

Sometimes, I am tempted to catalogue the catastrophes that have struck my life, in May and beyond. My own personal litany of loss.

Disease, drifting, divorce, death.

It might be tempting to linger there, reciting wrongs ad nauseam, but to what end?

Better to think in different terms, because God doesn’t do math the way we do.

His equations are unbalanced and unfair.

More for less.

Freedom for captivity.

Light for darkness.

Joy for mourning.

Life for death.

In fact, the prophet Isaiah assures us that God will provide for those who grieve in Zion – to bestow on them a crown of beauty for ashes…Instead of your shame, you will receive a double portion.” Isaiah 61:3, 5

It’s Mother’s Day, and I think of my son, the lost one. Ashes now.

What does a double portion look like in the face of such loss?

How do you ever replace one precious son?

His brothers and sister pull in close, and we form a circle, tight and strong. There’s healing there, a crown of beauty.

It is then that I look around, and wonder…

There are middle school boys everywhere. I’m surrounded.

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One is cruising along on a bike. Another is trotting faithfully alongside, huffing a conversation. One is cradling a lacrosse stick, another hitting him good-naturedly with a towel. One is throwing his backpack up in the air while still another repeatedly attempts to pelt it with any available object: ball, rock, hat, shoe.

Later, during room inspection, I watch an 8th grader dust his desk with a lint roller, another seek to conceal his dirty socks under a beanbag chair. There is wrestling.

I look upon this endless stream of boys, son upon upon upon son, stretching on forever, as far ahead as I can look. Mine once lived here.

Could that be it, my double portion?

Could I have been the mother to these boys had I not lost my own son?

It was not a choice that was mine to make.  Only God knows, and this is the hand he has allowed me to draw.

Pato and Tim and Briggs and Kin Wing…are these my boys now? An infinity of boys for my lost son? They are not replacements, because no one can. But they are here, while he is not.

God’s math.

His one Son, for the sons of man.

When my mind wants to rehearse my litany of losses, I will remember instead God’s promises in Isaiah.

A garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.

The year of the Lord’s favor.

Mays will come and Mays will go.

I will always be a mother.

Everlasting  joy.

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On Remembering Well

Today, you would have been 23 earth years old.

There is so much I want to remember about you, so today I pull out old snapshots and try to place myself back in each scene, willing the weather, words, wisdom, and wonder to bring me back to that time when you were here and whole.

Baby-you and college-you, silly-you and sober-you, you in tubs and ties and T’s and teams, in costumes and cowboy hats, surrounded and alone.

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It’s an ache-y pursuit.

I’ve been trying to throw away your old dorm fridge, the one with the Holderness stickers and the magnet that says life-is-not-measured-by-the-number-of-breaths-we-take-but-by-the-moments-that-take-our-breath-away.

Charley used it last year, and you know your brother. It came back dented and done, but still I cannot will myself to drive it to the dumpster and bid it adieu. So it rides around with me, round and round and round, until we end up where we began.

It’s crazy, I know that. It’s just a fridge, and a broken one at that.

But still.

I’ve just read C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, and the great man has me a bit unsettled.

Granted, I only understand about half of his words, but some of the things he confesses are darker than I thought him capable of.

Listen.

Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any new bend may reveal a totally new landscape….sometimes the surprise is the opposite one; you are presented with exactly the same sort of country you thought you had left behind miles ago. That is when you wonder whether the valley is a circular trench.

Or a fridge that follows you around.

But it isn’t, Lewis writes. There are partial recurrences, but the sequence doesn’t repeat.

The sequence doesn’t repeat.

That I understand.

Some days I gaze at a picture of your face and I can manage. I can pick up my bag and my mug of coffee and march into that rowdy room of middle school boys and smile and laugh and almost forget that tenuous place in my heart.

Other days, though – like today – like when Coach Sink reaches out to give me a hug in the dining hall and I choke it all back, chokechokechoke back the grief, hold it in until I can scurry to the closed-door-behind-me of my apartment and give that grief my full attention until it almost breaks me.

People are nice to us, Love, since you left. They are just so, so nice.

What good is it then to think of your cold hand?

What good to remember the phone calls from police or the sound of your brother collapsed on the floor, your sister’s sobs?

Grief could so easily become the dry that wastes me, but I am not interested in its insistent, vice-y grip.

I want to remember well.

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So I gather myself, meet our friends for dinner – Aggie, Zach, Ralph, Sue – and talk about heaven, of constellations and Jesus and an eternity of guilt-free gluten.

We remember you, son.

You were lovely and kind and courageous and strong, and you propped me up when I couldn’t do much more than slump through the day. You’d be so proud, now, of your brothers and sister and momma and friends.

We are remembering.

Thank you for the feather that blew across my path on the way to class this morning. The lone widening contrail pinking the sky when I woke. That fat robin singing on a dew sparkled branch.

It’s your birthday and I remember you.

How could I ever forget?