I am bound

Five years ago, I got a call while I was at work at the library on campus. My parents were conference calling me and my sister, which was always a red flag. That meant bad news.

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I went to one of the big stairwells with giant windows and sat on a window ledge, shaking, waiting to hear what was wrong. Mom’s cancer had been up and down for two and a half years at this point, but now, apparently, it was an entirely uphill battle. A battle so hopeless, by the time the general is telling the troops, the white flag has already been waved and everybody is starting to pack it in.

Three months, maybe. One month, more likely. A final expiration date, to put it crassly, I guess. What do you say to that news? I don’t remember what else was said. I remember hanging up, quietly sneaking back to my work area to collect my things and leave hopefully unnoticed, and then walking home.

I sat on the couch crying. My roommate/best friend Lexi came home, on the phone, and immediately ended the call. My boyfriend (now husband, bless him) came over. I was all tears and snot while they prayed for me and my mom and my family. I hilariously remember the snot vividly. The three of us walked down the street to get margaritas from the Mexican place just off campus. Then Tucker and I took my hammock to Lake Nicol, one of my favorite spots in Tuscaloosa. We sat there covered by a blanket. I cried. It was cold. My face stung from the cold hitting the tears rolling down my cheeks. It was so quiet.

Either that night or the next, we were at RUF large group, singing “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks.” Bad idea when your mom has limited time left to live. I wept, like actually wept, on the back row, Tucker and Lexi each with an arm around me. I’ve never felt so safe and so alone at the same time.

I cry every time I hear that song.

1. On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand,

And cast a wishful eye

To Canaan’s fair and happy land,

Where my possessions lie.

2. All o’er those wide extended plains,

Shines one eternal day;

There God the Son forever reigns,

And scatters night away.

Chorus: I am bound (I am bound)

I am bound (I am bound)

I am bound for promised land,

I am bound (I am bound)

I am bound (I am bound)

I am bound for promised land.

3. No chilling winds nor poisonous breath

Can reach that healthful shore;

Sickness, sorrow, pain and death,

Are felt and feared no more.

4. When shall I reach that happy place,

And be forever blessed?

When shall I see my Father’s face,

And in His bosom rest?

I don’t have any sort of resolution to this day. Mom died six weeks later. She got to see His face, sure. But I still have to cry every time I think about it. So that’s March 18th.

04 | let us be good to one another

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My mom died on May 7th, 2014. Monday marked four years. I often get the urge to go visit her grave, but being that it is 40 minutes away, I usually talk myself out of it. Traffic, you know? But yesterday, we went. Dad, Grandmama, and I went to see Mom. And just like every time since the burial, I expected to feel something, but I just... didn't. It feels so detached. It's just her name on the ground. I might as well be looking at any of the other hundreds surrounding hers. I did, actually. And felt about the same looking at their names. I spent a few minutes judging headstones like outfits. Any excuse to feel superior, I guess. Don't get me wrong, it hurts. But knowing that her body is down below my feet just doesn't seem real. It could just as easily be the bones of King Tut himself in my mind. 

I ate two macarons from the French restaurant Mom loved and imagined sharing them with her. Well, I imagined her having two as well, so we didn't have to share. That's usually how it went with things like macarons or donuts. I think she'd really like the lavender one that's my favorite. I think she'd speak with a little French accent to me after the woman behind the counter said "Merci, au revoir." We'd have a good little giggle. If she had been with us at the gravesite (I know, I know, bear with me), she probably would've said something about the humidity and definitely would have been sneezing the whole time due to allergies. She'd pull out one of hundreds of half-used tissues from her purse or pockets. She'd have big sunglasses on, a red-orange sleeveless shirt, white pleated shorts, a festive, colorful belt, and some sandals. Lots of clinking bracelets and bangles, a watch, dangley earrings. Maybe a big necklace. Big rings. Always with the big rings. She'd stand beside me and put one arm around me and hug me real tight while telling me she loves me. I'd probably make a joke that would make her look at me with her patented "I shouldn't be laughing because that was inappropriate but it was pretty funny" look, like when I (JOKINGLY) asked for a margarita at home one time before I turned 21. If it weren't a gravesite, she probably would have made us all take a picture together. She and Grandmama would've talked about "the monument" in small-town Alabama where a lot of my family is from. We would've talked about old relatives who have now passed on. All the funny stories, all the sad ones, all the tales that would rival a Faulkner novel with their southern gothic, twisted darkness. Those kind of stories exist, boys and girls.

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But she didn't do any of that. She's still down below in a casket covered by a concrete slab and dirt and grass. So we stood there, Dad, Grandmama, and I, looking at the headstone. Dad made a joke about the HEADstone. We cleared off branches and dirt so you could see her name and the marble trim. We looked into the woods behind the gravesite. We sat on someone else's memorial bench, just as Mom suggested. We looked at all of the Bible verses on the headstone and Dad talked about the significance of each one and their placement. I thought about her drinking coffee on the back porch, reading her Bible every morning. I thought about the voicemails I still have saved so I can hear her voice again. Grandmama said, "It's not too long before the rest of us will be up there with you, Laura. We'll see you soon. Have a place ready for us." We talked about how time seems so slow and agonizing here between her death and now and when we can finally join her, and how she's in a place that's free of time. All of this looks different to her. She's not waiting around for us like we're waiting to join her. For her it will feel like no time at all. For us it feels, ironically, like an eternity before we'll see her bright, beautiful, shining face in front of us again. 

I found a picture this morning that she had taken on her phone not long before she died. It was a picture of herself, smiling, with no hair. Calling it a selfie seems so wrong on so many levels, so we'll go with self-portrait. She looks out of proportion. She looks not right. Because she wasn't right. May 7th told us that.

I've heard of people who have dreams of their deceased loved ones where they come back long enough to leave them with some peace and comfort, some final words that couldn't be breathed in their lifetime. In all the dreams I've had of her since she died, she's disappointed in me, or annoyed with me, or angry at me. I won't get into the psychology of that right now. But Monday night before I went to sleep I begged God for a dream like that. I pleaded with Him that He would send my mama down to me one more time to love on me and say something to me. Anything. But that dream, that reach from the beyond, didn't happen. I woke up yesterday, and today, stuck in the same pattern I carry out each day.

It would be hard to reckon with that, with God's seeming distance, his holding me away at arm's length, except for C.S. Lewis. Most days I remember this little passage from The Magician's Nephew from The Chronicles of Narnia

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Up till then he had been looking at the Lion's great front feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion's eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory's own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself. "My son, my son," said Aslan. "I know. Grief is great. Only you and I in this land know that yet. Let us be good to one another.”

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I'm reminded by that and recently by a friend that God cries with us. Our pain is His pain. I can't say why He allows things to happen, but I take comfort in knowing that as much as I ache, He does even more.

Advent in Mourning

Since my mom passed away two and a half years ago, I have often found myself trying to fill the void that she left in my heart. It's a common part of the mourning process, so it feels like it shouldn't be important. It's nothing new, so is it even worth talking about? Surely by now, every part of the grieving process has been twisted, turned, examined, discussed, picked apart, analyzed, and broken down. Surely it is common enough by now that there aren't any lessons to be learned. But unfortunately, even if you think you've learned those lessons from watching other people grieve or reading about it, you don't understand it until you're going through it yourself. And then, even with an arsenal of books or podcasts, you're still left to figure it all out on your own. I was. And I've done it really poorly.

Advent started yesterday. It's my favorite time of year, mostly for all of the commercialized parts of it. I love when homes get sparkly and cozy and pine-scented. I love wearing red all the time. I love Christmas hymns, because they sound so pretty. But my mom is gone, and since then, this time of year doesn't give me what it did before. I ruminated on this question for awhile on Saturday: how do you celebrate Christmas without the person with whom you shared it most deeply? I've struggled with that. My mom and I made a point to decorate the tree together every year. We can't do that anymore. The very first Christmas Eve service after she died was mostly about Mary and her maternal relationship with Christ. That was killer. If the floor wasn't hard and noisy, I really would have gotten up and left. But we sat too close to the front for that. All of the signs of Advent, of Christmas, point me to my mom now that she's gone. So how do I find joy in this season? How do I adorn the tree without her? What do I fill that deep chasm with? How do you grieve someone and find joy in Advent?

And then the Spirit spoke. And He said to me, "You realize that they were not born and placed in a manger. Jesus was. He is who you celebrate. He is who you celebrate with."

This season isn't about family or friends, or parties and seasonal cocktails (though I'm planning for all of that), it's about the coming of Emmanuel. The Advent of God with us. He is the one who fills that chasm, and in fact, makes it overflow. He is the one who brings joy.


But still, it's hard, mourning during Advent. You still see the empty chair, you still miss that voice, that partner, that beloved. And mostly, I've tried to deny it. I put off grief for two years almost. That first Christmas, I spent the whole day snapping at everyone, reading Amy Poehler's Yes, Please in one sitting. ONE. I avoided everything and I don't think I ever admitted why. I'm sure it was easy to decipher, but I never said that I was sad. I never said that I missed Mom. Slowly I've learned how to grieve. Slowly, I'm sure, it will change. But I want to offer these tenets of grief that I've assembled in my head. I try to live by them every day, but especially during this time of year, I think it's important to practice them daily. This is how I mourn. Or at least, this is how I should mourn. This is how I will do holidays without one of my beloveds. While walking through the valley, I have found hope in one thing: that my pain would maybe one day serve to bolster someone else. Maybe one day, when someone else feels this pain, I can hold their hand and walk with them, as a guide, a confidante, a shoulder, a partner in commiseration, a source of truth, a fellow forlorn spirit. So to that end, I offer this.

  • Acknowledge in your heart that they are gone. Admit to yourself that there is a hole in your heart now. Look at their empty chair and give a nod. Don't hide facts from yourself.
  • BUT, don't dwell on it. Acknowledge, but don't focus. Take a deep breath. Look elsewhere and take a step away, whether it be in your mind or on your feet.
  • Take one moment in your heart to mourn the memories that can't be made anymore. Just as you've mourned a person and their life, grieve the laughs that may not happen. Grieve the empty space at the table. Grieve the person they were. Grieve the person you were. Grieve the people you both would have been if they were still here. It may not be the healthiest to mourn in hypotheticals, but you'll want to do it all the same, so just do it.
  • BUT, celebrate the ways they made you into the person you are. Celebrate how they gave you good things. Give another nod to their spirit and that empty chair.
  • Partake in something they loved- food, drink, activity, game, jokes. Give a toast in their memory, even if only in your heart.
  • If you feel up to it, create a space for others to grieve with you. Tell someone you are thinking of that person. Odds are, they are too. It isn't misery loves company, but memory loves company. Bring others into your pain, but don't let them dwell on it either.
  • Remember, when you start slipping away from "now," take a step- mentally, physically, whatever you need.
  • Cry if you need to. Tears always seem less bitter when you have someone next to you.
  • Finally, pray. This should really be your only step, but we are humans, trapped in a cycle of evil and brokenness. The more you ignore those two things, the deeper and stronger they sink into you, without you knowing until you're very suddenly a slave to them both. Don't allow that to happen. Better yet, ask God for protection, especially in those slippery moments of grief and pain. Read James 5: 13. Pray for now, for tomorrow, and for every day. Pray for the moments that will come in which you know you won't have the strength to trust and pray. Find someone to call in those moments that will point you back to God.

Because truly, He is your only true, reliable, trustworthy support. Only He can pull up the roots of evil and brokenness. Only He can keep you from collapsing and allowing the thick nastiness of grief to make you doubt your value and purpose, your God-given, God-held value and purpose.