Taking a deep breath, I relaxed my hunched-up shoulders, made little circles with my head to loosen up my neck, and plunged in. Time to get this Christmas card started, though it didn’t feel like it would be any easier than last year’s card – the emptiness still echoed in my heart. “Let’s see which photos look good, how ‘bout, Bear?” I dragged a couple of photos into the card template. So far, so good. Our kitties, Katje and Rafael, looked cute curled up under the Christmas tree. My girl fairly beamed perched on Santa’s knee, the two looking for all the world like long-lost, but finally reunited, BFFs.
Looks good, I thought to myself. Then I dragged the photo of the two of us into the template and I wanted to bury my face in my hands. I sighed.
“What, Mama? What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know, Beary. I just look so…” I paused, searching for the right word, “…sad.”
“No, you don’t,” she insisted, already bored with this excruciatingly slow card-designing process and not anxious to pose for any more photos. “See? You’re smiling.”
And so I was. At least my mouth was. But my eyes? My eyes looked empty, lost, shadowed. Sad.
I looked up at the corkboard hanging over the desk. Christmas card photos from years past were tacked up there, and the three of us – Kevin, the Bear, and me – we looked so happy. You could almost hear the laughter ringing out from the candy-cane frame in one, and Beary looked as if she’d jump out of the photo for a big hug in another. Listen closely and the strains of a Christmas song echoed: “It’s the hap-happiest season of all…”
In all of those photos, my eyes lit up, sparkled, shone with love. Mostly because I was giggling at the silly antics my two photo-phobic goofballs got up to between shots. Both of them whined and fussed and dragged their feet as I set up the tripod and background, but as soon as I’d set the timer on the camera, the goofy faces began. Eyes crossed or fingers stuck in noses or tongues sticking out – they’d laugh and cut up and I’d helplessly, laughingly, beg, “C’mon, guys! Just a nice smile in this one, and we’ll be done. Okay?” It was like herding cats. And you can see it in the photos. You can see the barely-contained hilarity, the big guffaw of laughter that burst out after the camera flashed. You can see how very much love can be captured in just a fraction of a second, and when you multiply just that fraction of a second of love by all the seconds and minutes and hours we were together – well, that’s just a mind-boggling amount of love.
But now? Now I see the barely-contained grief, the under-eye ravages left from crying myself to sleep, the smile that tips the corners of my mouth but can’t quite convince the rest of my face to look happy. I see loneliness and sorrow and resignation. I see a me that I don’t recognize, because she looks nothing like the laughing wife and mother of Christmases past.
I thought — hoped — this year would be different. Last year was so hard; my grief was fresh and nothing felt right no matter how hard I tried for my girl. I was so relieved when Christmas was over and I could stop forcing the merriment. But the year flew by and now it’s Christmas again and I cry out, “God, help me!” because it doesn’t feel any different, any better, no matter how hard I try. I’ve gotten better at setting my grief aside sometimes, better at living this new life. But I still miss Kevin, more than probably anyone ever guesses when they see me out and about. I make candy, and sing carols, and buy presents, and carry on all our Christmas traditions, but never without thinking about the man who helped me create those very same traditions. The man who loved it all – from the magic of Santa to the miracle in the manger.
“Mama?” Her voice nudged me from my reverie. “Is the card almost done?”
I sighed. “Yeah, I think it’s as good as it’s gonna be.”
I looked at it again, the photo of the two of us. I saw my beautiful daughter, face glowing with her Daddy’s smile and her Daddy’s sparkling eyes, graceful and poised. But there in the black and white photo, winter trees bare behind us and no colors to distract, I saw something I’d missed before. The sad eyes were there, yes, always, but now I saw more. I saw a connection, two aching souls figuring out how to live with the bruises of grief. I saw the closeness the two of us have forged over the last twenty months, hard-earned through tears and misunderstandings and forgiveness and acceptance. I saw quiet beauty and immeasurable love. There wasn’t the merriment and mayhem of past Christmas card photos, but that’s okay – we’re just not there yet.
We’re in a place that God promised us, where He stays with us, loving and comforting and mourning and rejoicing. “The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame,” claims the prophet Isaiah (58:11 NIV). Or, in another, more poetic and beautiful translation from The Message, the passage tells us that God promises us “a full life in the emptiest of places.”
A full life in the emptiest of places.
A life with my girl doing the things her Daddy would love, if he were here with us. A life where we grow closer to each other and closer to God as we carry on in this world where something is missing.
Yes, a full life in the emptiest of places. I hope that’s what shows in our Christmas card this year.