On school “Career Day,” she sat at the back of the third-grade classroom. Her bright face was framed by two glittery barrettes. “What’s the funniest things you’ve ever written?” she asked.
“The funniest?” I said. Quiet settled around us like a fog, filling up one second, then another.
“To be honest, I tend to write about sad things. Those are the things that snag in my heart and make me want to understand them. I guess I write about sad things because sad things happen to all of us.”
She sat up straight in her desk and almost shouted, “My cat died!” She looked toward a corner of the room and then back into my eyes. No longer shouting, she said, “My grandmother died, too.”
On Valentine’s Day, our youngest will give her preschool friends paper cards covered in glitter glue and sparkly stickers. Her bedroom floor has become a Milky Way of pink and purple dust.
Valentine’s Day is also Ash Wednesday. That afternoon, Jonathan and I will gather four children and drive to church. “Dust to dust” and a cross of ashes on all our foreheads. Pizza dinner with our church family. Heart candies in pastel shades pulled from linty pockets.
Last year, I was not prepared for the terrible sight of a black cross on my little girl’s tiny, white forehead.
No, your heart says.
Yes, your mind insists.
This year, I am prepared. I know I will want to wipe it off. I will want to say to her, I’m sorry. But I will not.
Five years ago, she was born into this breathing world, and it is too late for apologies.
You are dust, Elsa Spring.
And so am I.
Christmas at Maplehurst was the glitter of snowfall. Epiphany was the sparkle of ice on the dark water of the neighborhood retention ponds. With my sister and her children, we feasted. We skated. We laughed, and though we did not talk about it, I know we also remembered.
Only two years ago, my nieces and nephews celebrated Christmas with their Dad in the house with the mango tree. Only two years ago, I celebrated Christmas with my parents, their grandparents. “We’ll slow down,” they said. “Maybe we’ll travel!” they said. We didn’t know we were all walking nearer to the edge of a cliff.
Each Christmastime, I find myself bracing for bad news. “What’s coming?” my body asks. “Nothing,” my mind says. “You’re only remembering.”
“Sorrow is always coming,” my heart insists.
The sparkle of Epiphany has been washed away by rain. There is no snow at Maplehurst, and the ice over the dark water is thin and broken. Now there is only fog.
“This is bad,” Jonathan says, driving our car toward church on Sunday morning.
“Ice would be worse,” I say. I mean it to be comforting, but the words slip away, and we are both quiet peering ahead along a road we can no longer see.
I turn toward my sons seated at the back of the minivan. “Remember, you may notice some of our friends at church crying. We are sad right now, and it’s okay to be sad. Do you have any questions?”
They have no questions.
Or maybe they do. Maybe it is only that they know by now their parents do not have the answers. At least, not the easy ones they may want.
These past two years, grief has visited family and grief has visited friend after friend, and though these four children are mine to care for, I cannot protect them from sorrow. I cannot pretend this world is different than it is.
If they must know sorrow, I pray, let them know comfort, too.
I’ve always imagined Lent as a season of subtraction. We do without. We live with less.
But the word itself is an old word for spring, and spring is a season of more. In spring, there is a very little bit more every day—more light and more life, as if joy were a buried seed and this is our one chance to watch it take root and grow.
Lent is related to lengthen, and this is the season of lengthening days.
I tried to explain all this to my kids at dinner, but I failed. Shrove Tuesday they love. “Let’s eat all the pancakes in the world!” Elsa said. But Lent? No, thank you. Though my boys were less polite than that.
Maybe that’s why I kicked them out of the room halfway through our post-dinner reading of C. S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian. They disrupted our family reading with laughter instead of their usual bickering, but that somehow made it worse. As if anything were more fun than listening to Mom read about lions and dancing trees.
Still, I wish they’d been there. I wish we could have talked about the turning point in this story, and how it all began when Lucy recognized her failure and stopped trying to defend herself. “I’m sorry, Aslan. I’m ready now,“ she said.
“Now you are a lioness,” said Aslan. “And now all Narnia will be renewed. But come. We have no time to lose.”
Come! We have no time to lose.
Time is flowing on, but time is also moving backwards. This is the meaning of renewal.
Renewal is spring made visible, but it is also winter undone. The tangled threads of the past are set right. Our mistakes are rewoven. Even the power of death itself has begun to be unraveled.
And we can participate.
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke … (Isaiah 58:6).
No doubt, I will long for some shortcut. No doubt, I will want to guide my children toward some other path. I will wish for them some easier way unmarked by grief or hunger or unanswered questions.
I will want to keep them comfortable, but comfort isn’t always our friend. Still, I think I’ll keep a few of those leftover candy hearts in my pocket. A little sweetness to share along the way.
What will we see when the fog rolls back and we arrive at Easter morning?
Perhaps not sunrise. Perhaps we must still wait for that. But even though we go on walking in the valley of the shadow, the sky above is pierced with starlight.
Look at that! we’ll say to one another. This night is more like noonday (Isaiah 58:10).
Then we will turn to our companions on the way, shining with so much reflected light, and we will say to one another: Remember that you are stardust, remember you are on your way home.
I look forward to Mother’s Day. My life brims with beautiful mothers: my own, my mother-in-law, my two sisters, and my sister-in-law. Though my four children never have managed to plan a breakfast in bed, they are not stingy with homemade cards and hugs. When I stirred my youngest awake this morning, she said, before even opening her eyes, “Is today Mother’s Day?” That’s how eager she is to watch me open the brown paper-wrapped craft she brought home yesterday from preschool.
But I remember other Mother’s Days. I remember Sundays when the annual recognition of all the moms in the church congregation brought me nothing but pain. I wanted what they had. Desperately.
Having a mother and being a mother are blessings, which means they open us right up to both great joy and great pain. It seems a fitting thing to remember this week.
I am grateful to my friend and fellow writer Sharon McKeeman for sharing her story of grief and Joy with us.
When I was young, I tucked my dolls into bed safely each night. When I was young, I drew haphazard flowers on construction paper for my mom on Mother’s Day. Life was simple and sweet, and I trusted that it would always remain so.
I didn’t know then that I would hold a son stillborn on his due-date. I didn’t know I would caress his perfect but lifeless body before the nurses took him from me. In those moments, life shattered desolate. I returned home from the hospital to my two young sons, and somehow, we celebrated Thanksgiving a few weeks later. My heart had stopped right in its tracks, but the North Carolina sun kept shining, and the rhythm of ordinary and holidays continued. I offered thanks around our turkey-laden dinner table, and I wrapped presents for my children at Christmas. Grief is a long road, but as the chill of the winter months turned to warm spring, I felt my soul begin to revive. Then one day I woke up, and it was Mother’s Day. How could I survive this?
I was afraid I would come untethered, scared that I might just float away. Shame, despair, and heartache were so very close that day, but miraculously Christ was closer. The One who made me and holds my son, wrapped His arms tight around me and carried me through that day. This didn’t numb the pain, but as my two living children kissed my tear streaked cheeks, I lived the truth that, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (Matthew 5:4 NIV) A mother just barely healing from sprinkling her son’s ashes in the sea, I was comforted. I can’t explain it other than I called out to Christ because I didn’t know how else to survive, and He surrounded me. He held me and didn’t let go.
I wish I could say that since then I have tucked my children into bed safe each night. Thankfully a healthy pregnancy followed the loss of my son on his due-date, but I lost another child when his heart stopped beating at sixteen weeks and another when her heart never began to beat. Even though I held three living children, Mother’s Day become a joke, a time to endure. Even as I collected hand drawn cards and red roses, my soul sank. While around me spring was bursting with life, my heart began to feel as dead as my womb. Despair and distrust of my heavenly Father grew until a friend reminded me that a weeping Jesus is always near.
Jesus entered this mess with us. He suffered and wept; He weeps with us still.
I came to rest in that truth.
I held three children, and I mourned three children. My arms were full, and my arms were empty. Through it all my Maker held me. When I was too weak, too consumed by grief, to hold on, God surrounded and carried me.
This spring an unexpected bloom has unfurled. After I held death within my body three times, a pregnancy blossomed into a healthy daughter who is filling my arms and heart. After all these years of mourning, we have named her Joy. Our family holds her close and breathes thanksgiving, but I know this happiness is just a step in our journey. There will be more storms, more barren months. The greatest gift comes in knowing that joy was not found alone in this precious little one, but in discovering that Christ weeps with me, and my Maker holds me so carefully that no tragedy can tear me from His embrace.
For every woman with empty arms and an aching heart in this season, I pray that she will feel a weeping Jesus near and comforting her. I pray that a miraculous joy will well up within, defy earthly pain, and speak heaven straight to her soul.
There is an everlasting spring yet to come, and even as these bodies of dust often fail us, its whispers take root in our hearts.
Sharon is a homeschooling mama to three sons and a daughter. She is a Midwestern girl at heart who now lives with her family on the sunny beaches of Southern California, where they enjoy reading together and playing in the surf. She is an author, educator, speaker, and photographer who shares more of her story as @sharonmckeeman on Instagram and at www.sharonmckeeman.com where you will find her blog, Writing in the Dust, as well as her newsletter, Mourning into Joy, which is filled with encouragement and resources for grieving mamas.
For weeks now my children have not been able to stop themselves from singing April showers bring May flowers. Even the four-year-old, she who serenades her dinner companions every evening with the months-of-the-year ditty she learned in preschool, knows that this song is not yet quite appropriate. But each one of them also knows that it is raining, again, and something new is just there on the far side of the horizon.
And so they sing.
Today is the last day of March, and it is raining cats and dogs. It is raining puddles and mud. It is gushing, washing, rinsing, quenching. I planned to visit the library, but this rain is too much even for the tall, waterproof boots I wear in the garden. It is too much even for my one remaining unbroken umbrella. I am drinking tea and typing these words instead.
Someone sent me a message. You know about trees. Tell me, why is my river birch dripping water? Why is it trickling, oozing, seeping, leaking? Is something wrong?
Nothing is wrong, I told her. All trees know how to sing, but some trees also know how to cry.
When the weather turns from warm to wet, a birch tree will drip, drip, drip.
Last year in Hawaii, I saw trees sheathed in rainbows.
The rainbow eucalyptus thrives in tropical climates. It is happiest in rain-washed places. It sheds its bark, and what remains are long, vertical strips of color: red, orange, green, blue, gray. Rainbows trickle, ooze, seep, and leak their colors down the length of each trunk.
I saw those colors from the car window as we drove toward the North Shore. We had flowery leis in our laps. Later, we tore the string and tossed the flowers and said one more goodbye to the man who died just there, above those waters. Somewhere just to the right of the rainbow and to the left of the singing whale, he went where we cannot yet follow.
I visited my friend this week and saw a rough wooden cross in the corner of her small sitting room. It was our Christmas tree, she told me. Now it is our Easter cross.
I’m sure her tree was beautiful. I have forgotten the name, but she said it was some rare variety: silvery and soft. That beauty is lost. What remains is harsh and looked out of place propped in the corner of the room. It can’t be easy, I thought, to live with this cross.
Some legends say that Jesus’s cross was made from the wood of an aspen tree. Apparently, these trees do grow in that region of the world. No matter where they grow, aspen leaves startle and stir in even a slight breeze. It is said the tree trembles for what it has seen and how it was used.
I read somewhere that in Hebrew the name of this tree is baca. This is also the name of the “Valley of Weeping” mentioned in Psalm 84. When I go to check my memory against the knowledge of the internet, I find that baca might mean balsam-tree. It might mean mulberry.
It seems there are many trees associated with weeping.
In Psalm 84, the Valley of Weeping changes as we walk through it. By the touch of our feet, it becomes a place of springs. Then the early rains come, but they do not bring puddles or mud. They bring blessing.
I do not want to walk through the valley. I am tired of tears (drip, drip, drip). I do not want to trip over the ugly, bare cross in the corner of the room, and I certainly do not want to carry it on my back.
Today, I do not even want the rain.
But I want the rainbows. I want the May flowers. I want, yes I admit, I want the blessing.
I want to know what the trees have always known.
I want to know what it is to be planted, planted so deep and so well, that not even death can pull up these roots.
Oh, death. Where is your sting? You grab at us. You scratch and claw. And what is revealed?
“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