Tag Archives: family traditions

Sand and Life and Two Years Later

It’s in that moment when the waves crash to the shore and I watch the tide pull back and pull everything with it, when shells skitter as they wash back into the sea and precariously-close-to-the-water sand castles crumble and dissolve, and footprints in the sand disappear – that moment when it seems everything is destroyed – that’s when I see it. An intricately formed sand shape, carved into the slope of the beach, pounded into beauty by the relentless surf. Standing firm in that moment against the tide, not disappearing, but letting the waves work to create something new and magnificent.

God, I think to myself, if that’s a message to me, it’s a beautiful one. Thank you.

We trekked across five states to the beach where we’d last vacationed with Kevin. It seemed the best place for us to be on the anniversary of his death – a new tradition and a beautiful memory to get us through what is still a very hard day. Trusting the hope of heaven to keep us going.

Two years ago, on April 16, I lost the love of my life. My daughter lost her Daddy Bear. In an instant, our world changed completely and forever. So much loss, so many tears, so much heartache…even still. I wasn’t sure how to go on without him, but I knew I had to, especially for our daughter. It wasn’t easy, but nothing about this life alone is. The idea of being cheerful and thanking God and believing that all things work for good – that seemed impossible…still does sometimes, if I’m honest. I felt so pounded some days, so pulled under by the grief and the tears and the missing him. Everything destroyed by the relentless battering of life. I sobbed at his graveside; I screamed into a pillow in my closet; I sang lullabies to my girl as I rocked her in my arms on our sad days. And when it all still seemed incredibly overwhelming, I simply told her what I had to believe was true: “Life’s not fair, but God is working good, Baby Bear. Always. We have to trust Him.”

Slowly, the days went by, then weeks and months, and we started putting the broken pieces of our life back together. She made me laugh and I helped her learn and finally we started to really live – not just exist. Parts of our old broken dreams and traditions got swirled around and mixed up with our new dreams and traditions and Kevin is still so much a part of everything we do every single day because he’s always, always, always in our hearts. We remember him with happiness and love and laughter and celebrate everything that was and is still beautiful about this family of ours that God carefully and lovingly created.

So we came to the beach, to be here on this hardest of days. We came here to be by the water he loved, that his daughter simply adores; to be in a place where the memories are all happy, where we were all so happy.

And at the beach, when I look one way, all I can see are the waves, the grief and loss, constantly rolling and swelling and sweeping the beautiful bits of shells, the beautiful bits of life, away forever. But when I look the other way, when I look ahead with faith and love and hope and joy, I see the shape of something more, the shape of something formed by the hardest parts of living, the shape of something breathtaking and intricate and resilient. I see those shapes in the sand. And I see something that felt impossible two years ago, but something I know Kevin, out of the deepest love, would want for me – something that God has planned for me.

I see a beautiful life. Not beautiful because it’s easy and carefree, because it’s not; the loss and sadness are part of me forever. No, it’s beautiful because God is using all the parts – the pain and the tears and the joy and the dreams – and forming them into a new story for me and my daughter. It will shift and change, as stories – and sea-sculpted sand creations – do, but it will be okay. It will be better than okay because God is working all things – all things – for good.

I love you, Kevin, I whisper it into the waves and the salty sea breeze. I love you and I miss you, but I’m taking you with me as I keep moving through this life with our girl. You always said I was strong and beautiful…I guess it’s time to find out.

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The Christmas Letter

We’d never done a Christmas letter before. Honestly, getting a decent family photo took up quite a bit of the energy I reserved for Christmas goings-on. Then to get envelopes stuffed, sealed, stamped, and delivered to the post office…well, adding a letter to that process didn’t seem like a “must-do” to me. But for some reason, this year my girl wanted to include a few words about what we’d been up to. So, I sat in front of the computer, staring at the cursor blinking on the blank screen, before I finally dashed this off:

We packed a lot of activity into 2014. We adopted a kitten, Katje, to join Rafael; played on the Florida beaches, wandered around the zoo and amusement parks; took in a baseball game and a Renaissance Faire; and had a wonderful time traveling to London and exploring that amazing city. We also started our third year of homeschooling. We wish you a blessed Christmas season and hope that 2015 brings you joy and happiness.

Not an awesome letter by any stretch of the imagination, but it hit the highlights and made her happy. I added a photo of her in London, on the Queen’s Walk by the Thames, waving a Union Jack with Big Ben in the background. Printed off three to a page, cut them up, stuffed them in the envelope with the photo card, and we were good to go.

But the letter I mailed wasn’t the letter that’s been in my heart this whole month. That letter, written by pointed grief on the shards of my heart, isn’t nearly so breezy, so carefree and merry, so filled with our traipsing and wandering. The only Christmas letter I really wanted to write this year is to Kevin:

Dear Kevster,

I miss you.

It’s Christmas again. Another one without you and that seems impossible to me.

Impossible.

Thought you’d like to know that we’re having cinnamon rolls for Christmas morning breakfast again – Beary already asked because she loves that tradition you and I started so many years ago…all because I didn’t want to cook on Christmas morning. We added some new ornaments to the tree and I wish you could see them because I know you’d love them – especially the one from Buckingham Palace. It’s a Palace Guard and I set him watching over your ornaments to keep them safe and protected; I just like feeling that something is taking care of them, nestled in the green branches, while I sleep.

Rudolph and all his pals are still singing under the tree, except Hermy won’t work this year, even with new batteries, and that makes me sad because his song is the one I most want to hear: “Why am I such a misfit?” I could sure use his squeaky elf voice singing to me right now because I feel like such a misfit at this season. I get cards with photos of happy, smiling families, and I tape them up around the dining room entrance and pass under all that joy every time I go to the kitchen, but inside, it’s hard. It’s hard to share the joy when all I want is a card with a Christmas photo of my whole family – you and me and the Bear – all together again, like always. I feel like I don’t fit in at Christmas, this season of joy and merry and family – because you’re gone and it feels like our family shattered and scattered like an ornament knocked from the top of the tree. Everywhere around me, there are bits of tradition and bits of my heart and bits of our Bear’s spirit – and even if I glue all those bits back together, something is still missing…You.

I planned a jolly season, Kev, a season that you would be so proud of. Our Elf on the Shelf has been up to some antics like you wouldn’t believe and our little girl is so caught up in the magic; it’s breathtaking to see. And I took her to see “A Christmas Carol” – she loved it, Baby. She loved every bit of seeing the actors on stage and the story unfolding: “God Bless Us, Every One!” And we saw “White Christmas” on the big screen and munched buttery popcorn and Junior Mints. And I surprised her with a golden ticket for an after-bedtime Christmas lights scavenger hunt. And we’ve done our Jesse Tree and read of the miraculous, unwrappable gift of love God gave us. And we’ve made sugar cookies and gingerbread men, and decked the halls, and raised the roof with our caroling. But all these things that we did to fill our Christmas with joy and love couldn’t fill the space you left behind. There’s still an emptiness, Kev, because you’re not here with me.

I miss you.

I love you.

Merry Christmas, Baby.

The Christmas Card

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.

Ugh.

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.

Joy in the Darkness

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The overcast sky allowed only a thin grey light to pierce the early morning shadows. I squinted my eyes, straining to make out the words in the book I’d been reading when the electricity snapped off. Rain fell steadily outside the window. It looked and felt more like a warm spring rain, even though the calendar showed us quickly reaching the end of the year. How could it be almost December already?

Unless I grab a flashlight to aim on the small print in this book, I thought, my reading is over until the electricity comes back on. I looked over at my daughter on the couch, her face lit up with the light from her iPod. She played Doodle Jump while the cats took advantage of the rare moment of peace and curled up on a cozy throw close by. As long as the battery held out, she was good for a while. The only sounds in the dim front room were the electronic sproings and beeps from her game and the soft splat of raindrops on the dead leaves outside the window.

There was a brief surge of light, a flicker of electricity that quickly went black again, but was on long enough to show me that the Christmas tree had been turned on when we lost power. My girl must’ve turned on the tree lights when she woke up earlier. We’d just put it up the weekend before, too anxious to get the Christmas season started to wait until after Thanksgiving like we usually did. With holiday songs streaming from the TV and those darn cats batting at every strand of beads I unwound, we’d made an afternoon of giggling and dancing and decorating the tree. Each ornament I handed her had its own story, and I reached deep into the past, into the story of her and Kevin and me, digging the treasured memories out one by one to present to her: this one from our trip to Chicago, and this one from Orange Beach, and this one from the year she loved Thomas the Tank Engine so much. Her beloved Dora the Explorer appeared on quite a few ornaments; so did Kevin’s New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys. Each green branch of the tree, bent under the weight of the colorful ornaments, became a page spilling over with our memories, heavy with our family history.

But now I stared at the tree, incredulous at what I saw perched in its darkened branches.

JOY.

The glittery lime green ornaments, in the shape of letters that spelled out JOY, sparkled brightly in the dim room, even though no twinkling white lights illuminated them.

I couldn’t stop staring.

JOY.

I’d gotten several boxes of those ornaments for twenty-five cents each at an after-Christmas sale a few years ago. Last year, I pulled them out for the first time, when I was desperately seeking some joy in a season that only felt melancholy and impossible in the middle of my grief. I stuck them haphazardly in among the branches, and they balanced precariously, which was exactly how I’d felt: stuck and off-balance in this new life without Kevin. I hoped they’d remind me to feel something – anything – during the Christmas season, because I needed to. For me, for Kevin, but especially for my girl, who still deserved all the magic of Christmas. It sort of worked, I guess, but the bright green color got a little lost among the dark green branches and sparkling lights and the overwhelming assortment of rich colorful ornaments, and I’m not sure I remembered to look for the JOY when I walked by the tree.

It was a hard Christmas.

But now?

Well, now, with the electricity off and the tree in solemn darkness, there was no missing it.

All over the tree, in all the hidden nooks and bent branches, JOY shone out brightly.

JOY.

In the midst of darkness, it shines.

In spite of the darkness, it glimmers.

Because of the darkness, it glows.

And I needed to see it.

Because Christmas is still hard this year. Kevin’s not here, and that’s not any easier to reconcile: the mourning and the magic. And in the midst of this season, I need to be reminded that God is still here, even when grief clouds my life and it’s hard to see His light, or any light, in all the sad, depressing shadows. He is still with me, with my girl, still guiding our steps and catching the tears. He is still holding Kevin close to His side, and me and my girl even closer, murmuring words of comfort, of peace.

He is still bringing joy to our life. Joy in the memories, joy in the love, joy in the hope only He offers.

When the darkness comes, joy shines ever brightly.

The Unremarkable Room

The room was unremarkable, really. Square-ish, small, with scuffed wooden floors and an outdated fireplace. But he could see the possibilities of that room and imagine it and in his mind it was the home library he’d always wanted.

“Hey, Baby Doll, we can line that wall with bookshelves and put a couple of leather chairs facing the fireplace. It’ll be great!” Kevin’s voice echoed in the mostly empty room.

His eyes shone as the space transformed in his mind. The scuffed floor disappeared as I entered his imagination. “And a cozy rug under our feet. Maybe a couple of lamps by the chairs for reading light. Oooh, and a low table in between our chairs for a cup of tea.”

“Quite right, old girl,” he clipped out in an appallingly bad British accent, then reached out to squeeze a hug around my waist. At my feet, our six-month-old baby Bear woke up in her pumpkin seat. Her Kevin-blue eyes blinked slowly as she twisted her head up toward our voices, then a giggle bubbled out.

“I think Beary likes this house, too,” laughed Kevin. “This is it. This is the one. Let’s do it.”

A few weeks later, with papers signed and new keys in hand, we moved into the house with the unremarkable room. The cozy rug went down in front of the fireplace and beautiful oak bookcases lined the long wall. We filled them with books, books, and more books – all the history we loved and read voraciously, arranged in a loose chronological fashion. No overstuffed leather reading chairs yet, but a floor lamp and an old lounge chair from Kevin’s bachelor days offered a place to sit, at least. A few toys scattered across the floor and a baby girl rolling in the sun lighting the room from double windows on the south wall completed the picture. No echoes in the room now, just happy baby babbling.

We surveyed the scene from the kitchen entry. “The books look nice, Baby Doll!” His voice rumbled by my ear. “Yeah,” I replied, “The shelves turned out so nice. And we’ll get the chairs eventually; it doesn’t have to be finished all at once.”

The years went by and the room never was finished – at least, not the way we’d first imagined. More toys found their way into the cozy space. A Christmas tree went up by the fireplace and Santa brought a play kitchen which fit perfectly, tucked into a corner of the room. An art easel and sturdy plastic Step 1 play table claimed the space on the rug in front of the fireplace. A bin of stuffed animals lounged in the warm window and a wooden train track nestled in the valley between the bin and the beautiful bookshelves. We laughed about how a tiny girl had taken over our hearts…and turned our dream library into a playroom.

A couple more years passed and we thought of the day when our girl would head to school and the playroom could finally turn to the library we still imagined from time to time. But plans changed again and the playroom turned into a classroom as Little Bear and I explored preschool fun together, then moved to full-time homeschool. When his declining health forced Kevin to leave work, he took on a new job as history teacher to our girl. Their matching blue eyes shone with pride as Beary recounted the morning’s lesson to me, with Kevin nodding when she glanced at him for confirmation about a fact.

I cleared the room out over the weekend. A hailstorm damaged our roof last spring, and it had started to leak by the fireplace in the classroom. New shingles and flashing fixed the problem outside, but some of the classroom ceiling had to be removed and replaced. A two-day project, I was told, but everything had to be taken out of the room before work could begin. Art carts and storage cabinets and bookshelves lined the hallway, while the classroom table found center stage in the kitchen. I took down all the maps and posters and the mostly empty room once more echoed with my footsteps. It felt like déjà vu.

The cats sniffed around, curious at the emptiness, and my girl danced around, delighting in the echo-ey reverberations that bounced off the walls. I stood in the middle of the room, on the still-scuffed wooden floors.

“Can you see it, Baby Doll?”

I heard his voice echoing from my heart.

I felt a tear slip down my cheek. Yeah, Kev. I can see it.

And I could, because I knew he didn’t mean the once-dreamed about library. We had a single dream for that room, but God gave us so much more, because our dream was so small and His plan is huge and perfect and He knew that a room filled with books couldn’t fill my life with the memories I’d need after Kevin died. I could see a laughing baby crawling across the cozy rug. I saw tea parties with Kevin’s crown perched precariously atop his head as he balanced himself on a toddler-sized chair. I saw our girl, completely splattered with paint, laughing gloriously as she swiped her hands across the easel and created “art” for Daddy’s office. I saw a manger and a reindeer and a Christmas tree with a little girl laying underneath, mesmerized by the twinkling white lights. I saw books and pencils and three-ring binders and our Bear at her study table, her little brain soaking up all the knowledge we poured over her. I saw all the love that filled this room every day and spilled over into the house, as the library gave way to a playroom and classroom.

That unremarkable room filled our life with extraordinary happiness and the memories of it all still echo in my heart. There is still so much aching and loneliness in my heart, but sitting there on the floor in that room echoing with Kevin’s voice and my daughter’s laughter, I felt a little less empty, a little more able to keep on going without him. We never got the library, but we got the life God allowed us to live – and, as Kevin predicted when we first saw the room…

It was great.