Tag Archives: family

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.

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I Will Remember

She doesn’t sit and cuddle up with me as much as she used to, so when she snuggled her head into my shoulder and I felt her warm breath soft against my neck, the song rose unbidden and filled the air around us. I didn’t even think about it – just closed my eyes as her fingers tangled in the ends of my hair – and sang the words low into the night.

Toora-loora-loora
Toora-loora-li
Toora-loora-loora
Hush now, don’t you cry
Toora-loora-loora
Toora-loora-li
Toora-loora-loora
It’s an Irish lullaby

I remembered all the words, though it’s been years since I sang my Bear to sleep. I sensed, rather than saw, her beautiful mouth curve into a smile as she curled more closely into me. She remembered, too.

My voice broke as I struggled to finish the song through the tears that filled my throat and threatened to spill from my eyes. It’s so lonely, sometimes, being the only one who remembers. Her daddy fought so hard to stay with us long enough that she would remember him, to have her own stories to tell of him, but I’m the only one who remembers so many of the details of her life – our life as a family of three – before he died. If she’s to know the stories, the anecdotes, the inside family jokes – it’s up to me to hand them down, like some modern-day minstrel, wandering the lanes of my life with Kevin, weaving our story and giving her a sense of the family we were and the one we’ve become.

I could buckle under the pressure of being the family bard, and in that first wicked wave of grief, I did. I was frantic to remember everything and I showed myself no mercy. I couldn’t sleep anyway, so I wandered around in the night, blearily, wearily, trying to hold on to every memory that flooded my mind. Distraught, discouraged, drained – I knew I was going to fail at this one simple task: telling my girl about her Daddy.

I had to remember.

Then Grief’s heartless cousin Guilt moved in, making itself at home in the wreckage of my life. And I felt bad that I couldn’t remember the name of Kevin’s summer-league baseball team, or the names of the guys he roomed with in college, or the only phrase he remembered from high school Spanish. He’d told me all these things, but our daughter hadn’t heard them yet, and now…well, now, it was up to me and the answers weren’t right at my fingertips. So I got mad. Not at Kevin, but at cancer. Stupid, hateful, life-destroying cancer. If cancer hadn’t taken him away from us, our Bear would know these things, and more, about her Daddy. We only had ten years together – we were still learning things about each other, and now I’ll never know what I didn’t know about him.

The guilt and the anger and the grief pulled at me. I searched for joy and snatched moments of happiness, but those three dogged me and I worried about the things my girl would remember about me, about this time after Daddy died. I didn’t want her to think back to a frightened, irritated, worn-out mama who talked about keeping on and trusting God, but didn’t really seem to live it, who cried and yelled and desperately needed sleep. I needed to trust in the Lord with all my heart and seek His will and pray without ceasing and let Him comfort me in my mourning.

I needed to remember that my God will supply all my needs.

All my needs.

Even my memories.

He didn’t bring Kevin into my life, didn’t walk with us through the days of infertility and sustain us in the years of cancer, only to abandon me when Kevin died. He didn’t shower us with blessings, with comfort and joy and happy days, with heartachingly wonderful moments, and a beautiful Bear, only to leave me with no love and hope and no memories to hold on to in the dark days.

We will remember we will remember
We will remember the works of Your hands
We will stop and give You praise
For great is Thy faithfulness

You’re our creator, our life sustainer
Deliverer, our comfort, our joy
Throughout the ages, You’ve been our shelter
Our peace in the midst of the storm
….
When we walk through life’s darkest valleys
We will look back at all You have done
And we will shout “Our God is good
And He is the faithful One”

So I stop and I float and I pray and hold tight to His promises, and I live and love my girl and believe that all will be well; God’s working it out. He is good and He is faithful.

And I will remember. When I need to, I will remember, and she will, too. Words to a long-ago lullaby, stories of Kevin’s childhood, crazy travel mishaps, funny things that he and Beary did together.

But more than that, I will remember the love. Oh, the love. The glorious, life-altering, fill-me-up-to-overflowing love that spilled over and streamed through this home and bound the three of us together and created a family story we will tell again and again and again. That’s what I want my girl to remember most of all. The love. Whatever else I remember to tell her or forget to tell her, I want her to remember the love. God’s love. Her Daddy’s love. All the love we had for each other.

I’m pretty sure that’s the kind of thing you never forget.

“We Will Remember” by Tommy Walker

Sketching Life

I walked through the classroom on my evening rounds, putting away books and other stray bits of kid detritus that I’d found strewn about the house. She sat at the study table, busily drawing a page full of timepieces: a watch, a clock, a timer with seconds ticking off in a penciled blur. When she saw me walk by, she asked, “Mama, can I draw your portrait?” Drawing people is something she wants to be able to do well, so she practices portrait sketching whenever she can.

“Sure,” I answered and dumped my armload of stuff in the reading chair. “Where should I sit?”

“Across from me is okay.” She directed me to face her, and tilt away from the light just a bit.

“Do you want me to take off my glasses?” I’d be more than happy to, because I’d been wearing them for a week while taking steroid drops for an eye issue. The bridge of my nose hurt; my ears hurt. I missed my contacts.

“Ummm, no. It’s okay. I think I can draw them.”

A look of concentration settled on her face, and her pencil began hesitant strokes. She studied my face, then drew a few lines. Looked up again, then a few more lines. So serious with her work.

She caught me glancing at her paper and giggled.

“I know it doesn’t look very good right now, but that’s because all the parts aren’t there yet. It’ll look better when I put in the details.”

She got back to work and I settled back in the chair, my mind wandering, thinking about her words, because it seems that even when my girl’s not trying to be profound, she unintentionally says the most thought-provoking things.

It doesn’t look very good right now, but that’s because all the parts aren’t there yet.

That’s kind of where I am in life right now. Just last week, I ripped away another month from the calendar. Another page that carried me farther from the days when Kevin was still here. Still laughing with me and cuddling with his Bear and gathering us both in for a Family Group Hug. Still with us, making our family complete. It hasn’t gotten easier; waking up and moving through the day, I still half-expect him to wander through the garage door at supper time. He is still so much right here, that it’s hard to remember he’s gone. It’s hard in that moment when reality does hit and I remember: He died.

It doesn’t look very good right now.

I’m trying to float; I really am. I know it’s better for me, and better for my daughter. And some days are better than others. The Bear and I have become bicyclists of a sort. We load up our bikes and find a local trail, and it’s easy to float when I’m coasting down a small incline and the wind rushes against my face. I don’t have to think; I just have to feel. I even posted on my Facebook, “Feeling alive”, because I did. Watching my little girl’s legs pump furiously as she stood up on the pedals, preparing for the next bit of uphill trail, I felt alive and happy and so proud of her. She’s so strong, and she makes me want to be strong, as well, inside and out.

All the parts aren’t there yet.

So I take all the hard days, and the sad days, and days when I drown in grief, and I look at all the happy days, the laughing days, and days when I manage to float. It’s still kind of uneven, but that’s just how grieving works. Someday there will be a better balance; I know it. It’s just that all the parts aren’t there yet. There’s a lot left to be filled in. So many lines yet to be drawn in this sketch of my life. So many details that will help me live with the Kevin-sized emptiness I feel. I don’t know what the days and months and years ahead of me will hold. There are a lot of details God hasn’t revealed yet. He knew me before I was formed, and He knew that some of the details of my life would be hopeful and exciting, like marrying Kevin and the birth of our Bear, and others would be hard, forcing me to lean even more on Him, like cancer and death. I’m trusting Him with the details. I hope there’s laughter and adventures and opportunities to reach out and help others. I hope that when all the parts are filled in, my life looks good and God-filled.

She sketched a few more lines, then scrunched her nose up ruefully as she studied her incomplete work.

“I don’t know, Mama. You kind of look like a cartoon dog.”

We looked at the sketch, then looked at each other and burst into laughter.
Through her peals of merriment, I suggested, “I think maybe we need to add some more parts.”

Nora self portrait
(This is not the portrait we agreed should be called “Mama, the Cartoon Dog” – that one ended up in the recycling bin. This is a, I think, really well-done self-portrait of my girl from last fall, used with her permission. She’s even more beautiful in real life.)

The Pickle

The jar is still in the garage refrigerator. I’m not sure how Kevin managed to get it home sometime in those last weeks before he died. It’s the big jar – 2.5 quarts. Hauling that and his portable oxygen tank through the store couldn’t have been easy – but he loved those giant dill pickles.

The jar is still there, still half-full. He didn’t get them all eaten before he died, and I didn’t think about tossing the jar because cleaning out the garage refrigerator was not on my radar last summer. I barely cleaned out the refrigerator in the kitchen this past year.

I’m not sure what to do with the jar now. It’s obviously over a year old, but I don’t want to throw it out. Kevin touched it. That means something, though I’m not sure what.

***********************************************************************

I heard the garage door rattle up and the truck roared into its parking spot. For a second after the engine stopped, I could hear talk radio blaring through the closed windows and garage wall. Then it was quiet. The kitchen door still didn’t open, and I knew what was going on. Sure enough, when Kevin walked through the door to give me a kiss, his lips were cool and tasted of pickles.

“Ewww! Did you just drink pickle juice?” I backed away, holding my nose after a quick peck.

He laughed, admitted to his crime, and tried to pull me closer for another kiss, just to tease me. Little Bear had come running at the sound of the word “pickle” and now danced around our legs, jumping up and down. “Daddy, where’s my pickle?! Daddy, can I please have one of your pickles?! Please?!”

I just groaned.

And knew that in about five minutes, after he’d changed into some sweatpants and a t-shirt, the two of them would be sitting in the recliner, watching cartoons, and crunching on giant salty dill pickles.

Those two and their pickles.

*************************************************************************

We wandered around the Renaissance Faire, clutching various treasures she’d accumulated along the way: a dragon’s teardrop, a few jewels, a homemade pirate flag, some business cards. After the jousting tournament and her presentation to the queens upon completion of the Kids Quest, I asked her:

“So, Bear, are we about done? Is there anything else we need to do before we head out?”

We took a few more steps along the tree-shaded path, our feet making little clouds of dust in the road as we passed by the storyteller, dramatically waving her arms about to illustrate her story. Another few steps and then, very quietly:

“Well, Mama, did you forget about my pickle?”

The pickle.

We’d seen a cart by the jousting field. A black chalkboard advertised in scrawling white letters: PICKLES $1.00.

“Look, Mama! Daddy’s pickles!”

And I promised her we’d get one when we finished the Quest. And then, over the course of the afternoon, I’d forgotten because pickles have never been high on my list.

But she’s her Daddy’s girl. And those two love their pickles.

I looked at her pleading eyes, shook my head with a wry grin, and we backtracked through the village, on a quest for a pickle. I passed over the dollar, and my girl accepted the giant dill pickle with an equally giant smile on her face. We wandered down into the shady hollow and found a little bench, tucked back from the dusty trail.

CRUNCH! She bit in and the pickled skin snapped and the smell of vinegar floated in the air around us.

CRUNCH! I saw Kevin’s laughing face and tasted the dill on his mouth.

CRUNCH! Her cool lips brushed my cheek in a quick kiss in between bites.

“Daddy and I love big pickles, don’t we, Mama?” She kicked her legs happily, the smile never leaving her face even while she crunched away on her icy treat.

I nodded.

“Why do we like pickles so much, Mama?” She wasn’t necessarily looking for an answer, it was just part of the script surrounding my two pickle people.

I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders. “Maybe because you’re sour?” Her delighted laugh rang out through the trees. “Maybe because you’re so ‘dilly’?” Somehow a giggle escaped around the bite in her mouth.

It didn’t really hit me until later. But if I think about it, the whole point of pickling something is to preserve it, to flavor it, to make it last. And eating pickles is a way to keep Daddy close to her; it’s something the two of them shared – even down to drinking the leftover juice from the jar. Maybe she likes pickles so much because she loves her Daddy so much. Maybe eating these sour pickles flavors her memories of him with a sweetness only the two of them could ever understand. Maybe these giant dill pickles preserve Daddy in her heart, keep him with her in a way that only she can appreciate.

Those two and their pickles…

The jar is still in the garage refrigerator. I think for now…it needs to stay.

The Playdate

My daughter made a list the other day. A “Mama + Beary Playdate” list, written in her Daddy’s scrawl and taking up two pages from the notepad on my side of our homeschool desk. She stapled it together, added a sketch of the two of us, then brightly asked me, “Mama, do you want me to read you my list?”

She positively glowed as she ticked off all the fun stuff she had planned for us to play.

1. doctor
2. babies
3. school
4. restaurant
5. archery/nerf gun
6. snack
7. storytime
8. fort
9. dentist

She even included a list of snack ideas: garlic pretzels, tea, Triscuits, and pizza. “Because,” she reasoned, “we could order Domino’s and it could be delivered while we play.”

The sketch was of a blanket fort, with stick figures of her and me, a towel spread with our snacks in front of us, arrows pointing out “Mama” and “Me” – no Rafael, though. “He’s in the basement while we eat,” she informed me, “so he doesn’t try to sniff our food.” She included him in a second sketch, one where we’re all curled up together taking a nap – presumably after our full day of fun.

I smiled when she finished her presentation and I laughed and I hugged her to me. She grinned her Daddy’s grin and squeezed my neck back. “You’re the best Mama in the WHOLE world,” she declared, “and no, I don’t know all the other mamas, but I know you’re the best one for me!”

We’ve had a hard month, the two of us. Not hard between us, but hard because the permanency of Kevin’s death is settling in. He’s not coming back. And every day that goes by makes that fact a little more clear, despite the ridiculous notion in my head that he just stepped out for a minute and he’ll be right back. Even though it’s been a year, and he still hasn’t come right back. I’d read that the second year of grief can be harder on children, and I think it’s true. My beautiful little Bear has been more emotional lately, more anxious about us being separated. She’s become very protective of me, of my health, of me working too hard, doing too much. She’s trying to take on more tasks than her little eight-year-old self can possibly do. She guards our time, holds my hand, clings to me when I hug her good night.

I’ve been so careful to not juxtapose my grief with hers. She has a wonderfully unique brain, wired so differently from mine, and a distinctive way of processing the world. She experiences life so differently, and I can’t expect her grief to mirror mine.

But we’re struggling with the Kevin-sized abyss in our life.

We’re struggling with the motions of daily life, knowing Daddy is gone and with him, some of the goofy joy that the three of us created.

We’re struggling with being two, when we’re used to three.

We’re struggling with the crushing reality that every day for the rest of our lives we will wake up each morning and he will still be gone.

She sees the bruises of my brokenness. I hear the wistfulness in her words when she talks about her Daddy. We are surrounded by friends who help us at every turn, and we are held close in God’s hand as He comforts us. But still…we are just the two of us, holding closely to each other, trying to figure out this new life.

So…

She plans a playdate. Just the two of us. And she cocoons us in a blanket fort, sheltering us from our grief, if only for a while. And in this world, on this day, everything runs according to her plan. A day when everything turns out okay in the end, because that’s how it works in the books she reads. It’s a day when we can laugh and play and eat our snacks and cuddle and read books. A day when daddies don’t die of cancer, and they never have to say good-bye to their little girls.

She’s planning this day for the end of May or early June.

I think it needs to be sooner.

Like now.