grief

Hard Lessons

The cigarette lighter on the dashboard popped up with a metallic click, and my brother flashed me a grin. We were little kids that had been left alone in the car for just long enough to make mischief. He grabbed the black plastic top of it with his fingers and pulled it out sharply. He flipped it around to look at the business end briefly before showing it to me. I leaned in close, hypnotized by the orange glow of the tightly-wrapped coils.

As if reading my mind he said, “Go ahead. Touch it.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

I hesitated. “It’ll hurt.”

“No it won’t,” he scoffed, as if I’d just said the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard. “It tickles.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Try it.”

I looked at him, trying to read his inscrutable expression. Then something—naivety, trust, hope, curiosity—got the better of me. I reached out my finger.

I can still hear the hiss. And my bet is that my brother might have suffered some hearing loss from my howls. He tried everything he could to quiet me, to say he was sorry, to keep us both out of trouble, but I fully intended to cry until the pain stopped or the tears stopped. That took quite awhile.

Trust your gut. That’s what I learned. But it was a hard lesson, as so many of the most important ones are. Many of them have burned a lot deeper and longer than the tip of my finger did that day.

I wish we could learn everything wrapped up in the warmth of safety and comfort. I wish we could learn all our lessons from laughter and light-hearted living. There’s little doubt that I have gleaned a thing or two from moments like these, but the majority of my most soul-shaping lessons have come as dispatches from despair. Maybe that’s a result of being hard-headed or hard-hearted; more likely, it’s simply the result of being human.

Frankly, to live means that good lessons get learned in awful places. When we fall we learn to hope. When we’re scared we learn to have courage. When we’re hurt we learn to be resilient. And when we mourn we learn to live.

And that may be the worst one of all. How cruel that death should teach us how to live.

It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Ecclesiastes 7:2

The living will lay it to heart. The living would very much like to tuck those moments and those lessons behind the woolen socks and shut them up in a dark drawer forever. The living would like to say, “I’m fine” and mean it. The living would like for the boat to stop it’s infernal rocking.

Last weekend I went to the house of mourning when I attended the memorial for my grandmother, a woman who lived a good life for 101 years. Dear friends were just at a very hard funeral, one where a well-lived life wasn’t lived long enough. And today after work, as I crossed the church parking lot toward my car, I got caught in the flow of mourners streaming out from a late-afternoon funeral, and I politely pretended not to notice the deep sighs and sniffling.

These kinds of moments stir up the chattering of big question and… something else, something a little louder. C.S. Lewis describes it this way:

God whispers to us in our joy and shouts to us in our pain.

Joy and celebration warm the heart, but hardship gets our attention. Hardship makes the heart steadfast, tested, proven, fired, and refined. I’m not looking for some silver lining, but I am trying not to refuse the lessons, the tiny graces that salve these wounds.

Leaving Something Behind

More than six years ago my grandmother knitted a blanket for our son, Finnden, her great-grandson. She finished it before he was born, a mint-green rectangle made from bundles of knots fashioned into interlocking triangles. During those long early nights when Finnden couldn’t find sleep we’d lift him out of his crib, place him in a swing, and tuck him in tight under that green blanket. He’d calm down almost instantly. Soon, he couldn’t sleep without it, and his attachment to it grew as he did. Before he could walk he’d sit in the middle of the room, surrounded by toys, but his eyes would anxiously scan the room for the only thing that mattered: the blanket. When he could walk he would wander from room to room in our house with it trailing behind him, dirty and ragged.

The blanket went back and forth from the house to the car so many times that we started to wonder if the odds would someday turn against us and we’d accidentally leave it behind somewhere. One Christmas, Gi-Gi-Ma (as the kids call their great grandmother), surprised us with two new blankets, exact replicas for his own but in miniature. These became our walkabout blankets, perfect for bringing along in the car and holding in the stroller.

The blanket became such a cherished treasure—and she derived such joy from Finn’s attachment to it—that Gi-Gi-Ma started making more. She was already in her late nineties, and there was no telling how many more little ones might yet appear, so she made a few extras, and my mom tucked them away. As each new child was born—Ellis, Evie (my brother’s girl), and Ona—she was given a blanket of her own.

This blanket-making business also had the added bonus of keeping my grandmother, Esther, busy, though it doesn’t seem so long ago that she didn’t need things to keep her busy. She’d always been a social butterfly with an easy laugh and a gracious smile, and she’d often have a card game going or a friend to visit. But my memory plays tricks, and I have to remind myself that the ebullient version of my grandmother has been disappearing bit by bit for awhile now, a sign of something like an ominous hiss from a bicycle tire.

In these last few years, as her eyesight failed along with many other aspects of her health, knitting was still something she could do. Even as her mind was weakening she was able to knit just a little. But then she couldn’t anymore, and all of us were thankful that we had these knotted treasures secreted away.

Four weeks ago Finnden started kindergarten. That morning Karen and I surprised ourselves a little with how well we were coping. No tearful goodbyes. No forlorn waves as the bus carried him off and around the corner. None of the melodramatic scenes I’d always imagined there might be. We saw him off; I took a deep breath, exhaled a deeper sigh, and then I was off to work.

That afternoon Karen texted me a photo, a picture of Finnden’s blanket sitting on the bench by the door where he’d tossed it before rushing out to meet the bus. Underneath the picture Karen had typed the words: It hasn’t moved.

Somehow, the sight of that made it far more real for both of us. The blanket wasn’t being dragged around behind him throughout the day, nor was is sitting balled up on his lap while he watched cartoons on the couch. He wasn’t begging to take it outside in the sandbox or waiting at the top of the basement steps for Karen to bring it up from the dryer. Our boy had moved on to something new and exciting, and he’d left something precious behind in the going. His blanket, sitting lifelessly there on the bench, was a reminder that our boy had stepped into a new world, one where we couldn’t go along with him in the way we always had.

We all move on, and it usually means we leave something behind.

This past May my Grandma Esther turned 101 years old.

Last Thursday evening she passed away.

After I received the news I could think only of Finn’s blanket and how still it had lain there on the bench a few weeks ago. At that moment, a few hundred miles away, Esther’s body lay still, finished with what had become the increasingly difficult labor of keeping things going. As I think about her now that stillness elicits a sense of finality and a flood of tears. But Esther has already moved on to something, something unknown and beautiful. She’s stepped into a new world, one where we can’t go along with her just yet.

And that means that for my mom and uncles and all the rest of us who knew and loved her (since the former always begat the latter) we have stepped into a new world too. Like Finn, taking giant leaps up the too-tall steps of the bus that first morning, we are taking huge strides into the unknown, and maybe without a full sense of all that we leave behind.

But I’m so thankful that we have a cherished treasure to come home to at the end of the day. Whenever we want or need we can come home to the memories we have from walking alongside a life well-lived. Those memories are the knots that knit us together. We can pick them up, feel the well-worn weight and the warmth of them and find comfort.