“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful servants” (Psalm 116:15).
It is precious as a rainbow above green velvet cliffs.
It is precious as the full moon on that warm night when we gathered to cry for him and laughed remembering him.
It is as precious as a Hawaiian lei. We cut the thread, we scattered the flowers, and the thunder waves of the North Shore sent them back to us, pink petals on our toes.
But they did not send Shawn back. He was not theirs to return.
He is his Maker’s.
He is not ours, though we can still recall the exact sound of his laugh and the precise tone of his voice, as if he had only just called out to us from the other room.
Last January, I stood on a moonlit shore listening to a legendary Hawaiian surfer tell me what he had seen and heard from his beach-front house on January 14. The hem of my turquoise sundress trailed in the water like a mermaid’s bedraggled tail.
I am no mermaid. I know maple trees, and I love the green hills of Chester County, Pennsylvania. The water that tugged at my dress frightened me. But this man had known waves for decades, and he loved the wild waters of Oahu’s North Shore. He told story after story, while I began to see rightly and truly the place where I stood. I began to see these dangerous waters through the lens of this man’s great love for them.
He spoke of fire and a noise like thunder and of waves so high it was as if the ocean understood. The ocean offered up its own anguish before we knew to offer ours. Shawn and the eleven men flying with him that night did not die unseen in a swirl of chaos. They died in a known place, in a much-loved place; a door opened for them, and arms of welcome enfolded them, in one of the most astonishingly beautiful places on earth.
“If I could choose the spot where I would die and be buried, I would choose these waves right here,” the man told me.
I have thought many times since our conversation of an Old Testament tale:
“As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind” (2 Kings 2:11).
And Elisha, who loved him, went on walking, alone, as the reflection of heavenly fire faded from his eyes, and the skies returned to their ordinary, silent gray.
There was no door in the sky for Elisha, and there is no door for us, as yet.
The fire has faded, and the wind has stilled. One year later, rainbows are harder to come by.
And yet, when I slow my usual busyness, when I pause and reflect, I realize that the hems of our clothing still trail through salty water. The turtle-dotted waves of the North Shore offered a kind of baptism, and we have not shaken that water off yet.
God willing, we never will.
This is living water. It poured from the cross when an innocent man, and the maker of us all, died to set things right. Shawn chose every day to hide his life in the life of the innocent One who defeated death, and so his death shares in the power of Christ’s own. Losing Shawn has left us shocked and grieving, yes, but the loss has also unleashed rivers of living water.
And even when we cry we trail streams of rainbow glory.
Shawn Campbell’s legacy.
Recently, I found myself digging around in the archives of this blog. I was looking for something particular – I no longer remember what – but I stumbled on this post from last December. I wrote it for Solstice, the longest night of the year. It would be one of the last posts I would write before Shawn’s death in January.
I have lately been remembering last year’s Christmas celebration. In my memory, those were the last innocent, happy days. Days when we had not yet known sorrow. Days when we had not yet seen the almost unbearable glory of God.
I was shocked to reread this post and realize I was grieving last December, too. Smaller sorrows, perhaps, but sorrows still. The words I wrote last December do not simply remain true; they are more true.
Strangely, they are also giving me more hope. Through some trick of faulty memory, I had placed the happy days in the past. I had forgotten that the greatest happiness – the most complete joy – is still ahead of us. We have not yet arrived.
But we are nearer. And every door of grief and suffering through which we pass brings us nearer still.
The best days may be yet to come, but in December I remember how much gladness is ours today. This was true for me last December. This is still true today.
Each December I think it will be different. This will be the year I shake my winter melancholy. This will be the year my delight grows day by day. These are days of ornaments and sugar cookies and twinkling lights. Aren’t they supposed to be happy?
But this year is much like every other year. The ornaments shatter, the cookies crumble, and those new LED bulbs cast a cold-hearted glow.
More than ten years ago, I spent a few December days watching my friend’s little girl. My friend was in the hospital laboring to deliver a baby boy whose heart had already stopped beating. Over the weekend, I took care of another little girl who has no idea her parent’s hearts are broken.
All weekend, in the background, Over the Rhine was singing, “If we make it through December we’ll be fine.”
This was going to be the year I would look on the bright side, but I have just about accepted that there is no bright side in December. Only darkness and the pin-prick lights on the Christmas tree, and tonight is the longest night.
At one in the morning on the fourth Sunday of Advent, my friend’s little girl threw up. When I found her, she was crying, and her beautiful curly hair was smeared with vomit. While I bathed her and toweled her dry, I thought two things: Why is this happening tonight? and Thank you, Jesus, that I can do this for my friend.
This is what we do in December. We bake sugar cookies, and we scrub vomit from the sheets. We cry for our friends and we cry for ourselves, and we hand out bars of chocolate tied with red and green bows. We make toasts to the new year, and we wonder how we’ll ever survive another one.
We pray come, Lord Jesus, come, and we remember that he already has and that he’s seen it all before. The vomit and the death. The good food and the hunger. The love and the loss.
I don’t know if I’m angry, or tired, or simply sad, but I will keep baking cookies. I will continue hanging ornaments, and I will make my husband climb up on the barn roof to secure a lighted star.
Because somehow despite it all (or because of it?) I still believe that there is a God up there in heaven who has made us this promise:
“I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:13).
We live somewhere between the promise and its ultimate fulfillment. It is a land where tears drop onto festive wrapping paper. A place dusted with cookie crumbs and peppermints. It is empty stockings hung by the fire, and it is our hope, perhaps a little shaky and unsure, that one day we will wake and those stockings will be full.
But it isn’t only a one-day hope. Perhaps if we make it through December we will be fine, but I don’t want to be fine. I want more than that. I want better than that.
I want gladness.
Gladness like the taste of sugar cookies and candy canes and the cinnamon rolls I make every Christmas morning.
Gladness like the face of a child when snow finally does fall.
Gladness like every bright, sweet gift that comes to us only in December.
His feet are clay.
As has ever been true of kings.
Some might say there is nothing in this to grieve. Nothing to cause fear. Certainly no reason for surprise.
What was true of Daniel’s king, was true of David, and true of Solomon, too. Has, in fact, been true of every man or woman to whom we have bowed or pledged our allegiance.
But I have heard the bitter weeping of the envoys of peace, and I am not satisfied with explanations or arguments or platitudes.
I go on dreaming. I go on singing. I go on telling tales of a better king.
This king “will take pity on the weak and the needy.”
This king will “defend the afflicted among the people.”
This king will “will be like showers watering the earth.”
My eyes have seen the king in his beauty.
I have glimpsed a land that stretches afar.
It is a peaceful abode and a place of broad rivers and streams.
No galley with oars rides them. In this place, even the lame carry off plunder.
Because the loaves and fishes are ever being broken and passed on, they multiply. Because the jar of oil is always being emptied, that jar is never dry. There is more than enough for me and my neighbor.
There is even enough for my enemy.
This is the song I sing, yet I cannot always be singing.
When I pause my song, when I wake, or when my story reaches its end, I weep.
I weep because the king we hold in our hands falls so very short of the king who ever walks on the edge of my dreams.
I sit by the river, and I weep when I remember all that I have seen. I weep when I remember the prayer of generations:
Thy kingdom come … on earth as it is in heaven.
*my own song is inspired by Psalm 72, Psalm 137, and Isaiah 33
We planted a tree on Friday.
It is a red oak tree, and we planted it for Shawn.
I’d ordered it in June for fall planting. It arrived at the nursery weeks ago, but somehow I never received the message. I found out it was ready only a few days before my family, the family I so rarely see, came to stay.
We have two shovels. My husband, brother, brother-in-law, and nephew took turns digging. My brother’s wife held the baby who was born the day of Shawn’s memorial service. The baby who shares his name.
The wind was a little too blustery for a nine-month-old more accustomed to Texas heat, but instead of carrying him back inside, I tried to block the wind with my body. I thought of how the tree will grow as he grows.
We tipped the tree out of its container and watered it well. I suppose its leaves were green when it was first set aside for us at the nursery, but now they are mottled with dark red like dried blood and bright red like the berries on our winterberry shrubs.
This tree is young, but it already knows what every tree knows: there is a space between life and death, and it has its own particular beauty.
The story of our world is a story of three trees.
In the beginning there was a tree of life, but we fell from that flourishing green perfection and went on falling until it seemed that death and evil and suffering would always have the last word.
He was like us, yet he did not fall. On a cross fashioned from a broken tree, he submitted to death and suffering, and so defeated them.
Now the power that carried him from death to life is transforming us from the inside out. And it is transforming our world from the inside out. One day that transformation will be complete, the distance between the way things are and the way they were always meant to be will be erased, and we will live in the green shade of another tree of life.
The leaves of that third tree, we are told, “are for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2).
I can think of few things I want more.
I can think of few things we need more because words wound as well as sticks and stones and bombs.
Is it only a far-off dream? A happily-ever-after story we pull like wool over our eyes during days of trouble?
The radiant leaves of Shawn’s tree say otherwise. When the wind picks up, I hear them whisper, “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life” (Proverbs 11:30).
Because of Shawn, a tree of life has spread its roots through our family and among many friends. It is as real as this red oak tree. Things that were broken in our hearts or our relationships or our ways of living in the world are being made right. Healing we did not even know we needed has begun.
Our world is caught somewhere between death and life. It is like a tree glowing with autumn color. It breaks our hearts even as it dazzles our eyes.
But the seeds for that third tree have already been sown.
Controversies may swirl and bullets may fly (both metaphorical and all too real), but we are not afraid. We are not dismayed.
We are too busy planting and tending trees.
And that will make all the difference in the world.
There are days that plod, one after the other, days of sameness and stasis.
Summer days are often like that. Sometimes it is a hard thing, and sometimes it is a gift. Our recent vacation days in the Adirondacks were a gift, but remembering them now is like remembering one long day, so slow and similar were they.
Then there are days when you can feel the planet tilting and swirling beneath you. These are days when change rushes toward you like the wind, and you are flung toward new horizons as if shot from a circus cannon.
All four of my children went to school on Monday.
It was only four years ago that we came to Maplehurst. Only four years ago that my firstborn walked all the way down our long driveway toward third grade, her first-grade brother trailing behind. My little boy stayed home for games of Candy Land, and our baby girl would be born in only a week.
Four years sounds like nothing at all, but it is nearly an eternity in the life of a child. This week, my firstborn walked all the way down our long driveway toward seventh grade, her fifth and second-grade brothers trailing behind.
And Elsa Spring started preschool.
Our little sorrows seem as nothing, especially when they are sorrows of abundance. How silly is it to cry for our lost babies when our arms are filled with growing children?
I too would laugh, I too would call this folly, except that I have seen how easy it is for me to discount every form of grief. Like so many, I privilege “closure” and “recovery.” Like a foolish accountant, I weigh the world’s sorrows on a scale. The loss of a child weighs the most. The loss of a spouse a little less, the loss of a sibling or a favorite aunt still less. The ordinary grief a mother feels watching her children grow and leave her behind counts not at all.
Why is it so hard to acknowledge that we all walk through life with grief for which there is, today, no compensation?
We grieve the baby we wanted but could never have, the baby who died too soon, the baby who lived but grew up to leave us.
We grieve, we grieve, we grieve.
In Housekeeping, her perfect poem of a novel, Marilynne Robinson writes: “The force behind the movement of time is a mourning that will not be comforted. That is why the first event is known to have been an expulsion, and the last is hoped to be a reconciliation and return.”
If we pretend that this life gives enough comfort and consolation to erase our griefs is it because we fear we can hope for nothing better?
If we assume that what is lost is lost forever, then why not take what little comfort we can, wherever we can?
But if we persist in the wild belief that the world will be made new and whole, that everything lost will be found again, then we must go on grieving.
To turn our back on sorrow is to turn our back on hope.
These are the things I tell myself, seven months after Shawn’s death. Twenty years after Michelle’s death. Twenty-four years after Sissie’s death. And four years after I birthed a baby girl who would not long remain a baby.
Time is cruel because it carries us so far from the people and places and things we have loved and lost.
Time is sweet grace because it propels us, ready or not, like it or not, toward a hoped-for day. A day when all the fragments of our lives, all the broken bits and pieces, will be gathered up.
On that day, the promise inherent in our precious memories will be fulfilled. The half-forgotten and the dimly-recalled will take on flesh, and greet us by name, and together we will go home.
I always know just how long it’s been since we moved to this old farmhouse called Maplehurst. I can judge it by the length of her curls and the stoutness of her legs.
I was eight-months pregnant when I watched the London Olympics surrounded by teetering piles of unpacked cardboard boxes. Elsa Spring was born six weeks after we moved in. This week she and I watched Olympic “gymtastics” while I held her on the sofa in the family room.
I wrote about our first year in this place in a book called Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons. I wrote about how small and slow this new beginning was for us. We had such big dreams. I wanted to see them realized immediately, but before we’d even unpacked all of the boxes, I had a baby daughter in my arms. Not long after that, winter settled in. Ice on the windowpanes. Ice in my veins.
That first year was a year for slow and small. Those first four seasons were all about be still.
And since then? The days have continued to feel slow and small and ordinary. It is only when I look back, only when I take in the full sweep of four years all at once, do I feel that explosion of new life.
Nothing has been small. Nothing has been slow. Nothing has been ordinary.
All along, God has been doing a new thing. And I am a witness.
What has happened in four years? We welcomed a daughter, we watched four children grow, I wrote a book, we built gardens, and we have almost filled our guestbook with names. I wrote about that, the guests and the flowers, in a recent piece for Art House America. You can read my quiet manifesto here.
We continue to dream new dreams for this place and for those who join us here, which means we continue to wade through the small, and the slow, and the ordinary.
The house is wrapped in scaffolding, but thanks to the care of two men, the one-hundred-and-thirty-year-old bricks haven’t looked this solid since the year they were laid. The worn, black shutters have been removed, and the day when we will reinstall them, either repaired or remade, feels impossibly far away. One by one, a local craftsman is restoring our windows, but it could be years before every window in this house is repaired. Yet once stripped and repaired, these old windows with their wavy glass will welcome cool breezes for another hundred years.
It feels, four years on, as if we are still in the messy middle. Those words I wrote in Roots and Sky have lately come floating back into my mind:
We love beginnings, and we privilege endings, but we live most of our lives in some sort of middle. Life is perpetually unfinished. That is its nature. – Roots and Sky, p 122
Unfinished it may be, but I can say with confidence that here at Maplehurst I have seen the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. And that is enough for me.
God’s goodness and the world’s grief are not as irreconcilable as I sometimes think. Four years ago, I could not have anticipated the sorrows that would visit us in this place. I wrote about the grief of that first, hard winter in Roots and Sky. I have written about other sorrows here on this blog.
Four years ago, I could not have anticipated how much would be given and just how much would be taken away. It is good that I did not know. It is good because I would have weighed it all in some balance. I would have asked if the gains compensated for the losses. Would there be more laughter than tears? More happiness than grief?
But I have learned that joy spreads its roots through laughter and tears. I have learned that sometimes we receive the most when something precious has been lost. Abundant life is mystery, not mathematics. Or perhaps, mathematics, which I’ve been told is the language of the universe, is more mysterious than I knew.
There is a wise woman in Proverbs. She is one who “can laugh at the days to come.” What will the next four years bring? I feel too sobered by the recent past to laugh. Considering time, I cannot help but tremble. It is so clearly held in hands that are not mine.
I may not be laughing, but I do feel very small and very still. Four years on, I am no longer fighting the wisdom of this place. So much has grown here in these four years: a baby girl, a book, a ring of apple trees. The soil here was always fertile, but we have watered it faithfully with our tears. I cannot say with certainty what we will harvest next, but I think the harvest will be a good one. Perhaps our best yet.
Perhaps our next harvest will be laughter.