Our Easter feast began the day before, on Saturday morning. One hundred or so neighbors. Two thousand or so eggs. Warm sunshine and hot coffee. Conversation and sticky children.
Or maybe it began earlier that week. When my sister and her four children tumbled, along with the crayons and crumpled napkins, from their minivan. A three-day road trip from Florida suddenly ended.
It is Easter, and we have feasted. On cousins sprouting like weeds and epic games of Monopoly. On baby chickens discovering bugs and grass and baby lettuces discovering rain.
We have feasted on hard-boiled eggs turned somewhat unappetizing shades of blue and my mother’s recipe for Greek chicken.
But mostly, we have feasted on time. On moments stretching into days spent at the table side-by-side with family.
Family, for us, has always been feast or famine. Separated by miles, our mailing addresses like stars in a far-flung constellation, we do not relate casually. There is no dropping by. No Sunday lunches then home again. No Christmas gifts delivered in person. No grandparents to babysit for date night.
We have only not enough (telephone calls and emails) or too much (three daily cycles of the dishwasher and four of laundry just to keep the show running).
We know Lenten hunger, and we know Easter fullness.
Feast days leave little space for story-making. Not storytelling. There is time for that as we sit at table. Storytelling is a necessary part of celebration.
But story-making is born of hunger rather than plenty. It is our longing that reveals the contours of new dreams and new stories. Because we hunger, because we do not have, because we suffer, we search for meaning like desperate sailors search for land.
We search for cool blue in desert wastes. We search for Kelly green in stubborn snow.
In winter, we toss in our sleep, and we dream of spring.
In spring, we sleep dreamlessly and wake refreshed.
“For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
She was born on September 12 at 4:46 in the morning – two weeks before we expected her but not a moment too soon.
Here are the things I will never forget:
In a new home with no family or friends nearby, we were not alone. Not unprovided for. At eleven p.m. I admitted I might be in labor. The kids were all asleep (the three-year-old only just), and we called the one person we knew best in this new place: our realtor.
I wasn’t sure that this was really “it,” but I didn’t want to bother her at 3 a.m., so we called. She came. We worried some – what if the three-year-old woke up, and we were gone? What if he found a stranger in our room?
But what point is there in worry?
Jonathan said he had been reading the Bible that evening. These words from Psalm 121: “I lift up my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip – he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”
We knew then that he was with us. All night, he would be with us. And so we let go of worry and walked.
Too soon for the hospital, I thought, so we walked, up and down the drive, the milkyway just visible between the branches of so many old, old maple trees. We walked, I decided that yes, maybe this was real. Maybe it wasn’t too soon, and, at one a.m., we left for the hospital.
I felt foolish as we checked in. It’s still early! I’m just fine! And worry sometimes crept back in: will she be able to feed the kids breakfast? We have notes posted everywhere about our son’s allergies, but it’s complicated. What if? And will she be able to get them on the bus? And the three-year-old, will he panic? Cry for Dad to be there, making pancakes, as always?
But, we let it go again, and things moved fast and faster. The nurse said, “Just rest. Let me know if you need me.” Barely ten minutes later rest sounded ridiculous, and I yelled, “She’s coming!”
And she came. And she was beautiful. And we were stunned.
Jonathan left us an hour later, left us tucked into our room together, and he was home before anyone in the house woke up. Yes, he was there, making breakfast, when everyone came in, rubbing their eyes, to hear that they had a sister. That her name was Elsa Spring.
“Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, come with me. See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come.”
Song of Songs 2:10-12
Sissie and me, not long after our first shared "birth" day.
For fifteen years we celebrated our birthdays together.
Sometimes they were long-distance celebrations. Cards and phone calls. Sometimes a room full of people sang “Happy Birthday” to the two of us. Those years, we shared cakes and posed together for pictures. She entertained my friends with elaborate (and messy) party games.
She was our aunt, but we called her Sissie. I used to think the reason our relationship with her was special was because she had no children of her own. I’m sure now that it was really she who was special. I think she would have loved us that much even if she’d had a house full of her own kids.
Three days after my fifteenth birthday, she died on a long, straight stretch of country road. Twenty years ago.
Here’s the thing about losing someone you love (something I imagine most of you already know): it doesn’t hurt less, just differently. The pain doesn’t go away, but you do become accustomed to it.
Also, this: it grows.
Loss is not a one-time event. It reveals itself over time, becoming bigger and more unwieldy with each missed birthday, wedding, graduation, child’s birth.
I still enjoyed my birthdays after 15, it’s just that they felt lopsided. Too much me. Someone else always missing.
Thirteen unshared birthdays.
Until I turned 29. That day my son was born.
Me and Thaddeus. Our first birthday together.
This Saturday, we share our sixth birthday together.
I will celebrate my 35th birthday with a gluten-free, dairy-free cake. It will be decorated with Hot Wheels. I love butter, and I do not care for Hot Wheels, but I’m finally old enough to wonder whether Sissie really wanted to celebrate her birthday by orchestrating games of Chubby Bunny for twenty-two six-year-olds.
It’s not the wanting that matters (because, if I’m honest, I want a cake full of butter and wheat, I want a party attended by adults, and I want another shared birthday with Sissie). It’s the love that matters most. In this case, love looks like celebrating 35 with a Hot Wheels cake. Love means no time alone with my husband, just a date to see the latest Pixar movie with a six-year-old boy.
Small things that give me just a glimpse of a much, much bigger love.
Because love is a God who will one day restore all that has been lost (no matter how big that loss has become).
And love is a God who is always, every day, giving new gifts.
A birthday letter for one’s child should be a marker of all that a mother knows. For instance, on the day you turned three you had a scratch on your cheek and a bruise on your forehead. Your legs and arms were somehow both surprisingly long and impossibly tiny. You loved your balloon. You whined for more chocolate cake. You pronounced it so carefully: “choc-oh-lut.”
But you are almost entirely unknown. This doesn’t bother me or frighten me. At least once a day your father or I will laugh at you and say, “Who are you? Where did you come from?”
Your blonde hair sets you apart in our family. But it is more than appearance. Perhaps it is comparison. With two older siblings whose personalitites and interests have seemed long settled, you are less familiar. We are still getting acquainted. You are still getting acquainted with the world.
Or, perhaps it is a holdover. You were unknown for nine months before your birth. Boy or girl? We chose not to know. You were the little stranger born into the thoroughly familiar, the utterly known: our own bed, in our own apartment, in a city that felt like home.
There has been only one moment when I saw more. One moment when I seemed to glimpse the you that is still buried in your bones.
You were six months old. It was late at night. Your cough was so like a barking seal that we had no need to google symptoms. We could name it. By naming it we felt we had tamed it.
We had done no such thing. In the space between those known, nameable coughs your breath became jagged. Desperate. Each breath seemed just on the verge of not coming at all.
Your father spoke with the nurse on call, and I held you on the floor of the bathroom, your face hardly visible through the steam. I prayed for you.
So often prayer is just a desperate word or two. It hardly seems capable of traveling whatever distance lies between my mouth and God’s ear. But sometimes prayer takes over and I know that it does not come from me at all. It is more like a river, and I’ve just fallen in.
Sitting there, holding you, I was in that river and I saw something. It was as if that rushing river of prayer drew back the veil between known and unknown, seen and unseen. I saw You, the you that is never just a baby or a three-year-old, but the You that is every age, and I recognized how far away from me you would travel. I could see you bringing light into dark places where I would never go. It seemed to me, as I prayed, that there was a great struggle taking place in this ordinary, steamy bathroom.
Later, I recognized that this river of prayer was not my communication with God. It wasn’t my puny request for healing. A simple question to be answered “yes” or “no.” The prayer was God’s own roaring response to the darkness, the utter evil, that would end your life before you could do all that you were made to do. Or, more importantly, before you could become who you were made to be.
God wouldn’t allow it. Yes, the darkness was there with us, grasping at you as you grasped for breath, but God was shoving it aside. Saving you because we needed you. A “we” that includes so many more than just your father and I.
I don’t know exactly who you are or how far you will go. I do know your life will be beautiful, more beautiful even than these first three years. Your life will matter, more than it already has to your family. And I know you are one step closer today to the promise I glimpsed in that prayer.
You are three.
I grew up hearing Christians say, “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” Maybe you did too?
It’s a sentiment that makes sense to me. Plenty of not-so-great things (and some down-right awful) probably fall under the heading religion. Yet, in the days since Easter Sunday I’ve been thinking how grateful I am for relationship and religion.
Because Jesus came to us, we can see and know God. This is true not only because he died and defeated death, but because he lived. He lived. And now we know what life was always meant to be. Through Jesus we can relate to a God who is vast, beyond comprehension, and yet personal in his love for his creation. Now we live, not by bread only, but by relationship with the Word.
What good is religion, then? Isn’t it merely the false, the superficial, the man-made?
It is also the form so many souls have given (and will give) to their worship. It is an often intangible relationship made material: in bread and wine, the washing of dirty feet, the standing, the kneeling, the hands reaching out in praise and in prayer.
It is candlelight. It is incense. It is light glinting on a gold cross. It is a crescendo of voices. It is one voice reading Scripture aloud for an entire hushed crowd.
It is astonishing and creative.
It is beautiful and traditional.
Of course, it can also be awkward and frustrating. The uncomfortable pew. The piano in need of tuning. My five-year-old deciding he must visit the bathroom just as our row is ushered forward for the Eucharist.
Sometimes we do religion well. Sometimes not so well. And it sure takes a whole lot of effort. The musicians spend hours practicing. The tech-savvy come in early, stay late, and shrug off the irritated looks when the sound system malfunctions through no fault of their own. A dedicated teacher takes the two-year-olds outside for an egg hunt, and some important but often unseen person lingers behind to turn off lights and lock doors.
Is it worthwhile?
Jesus showed us the value in celebration, in gathering, and in breaking bread together. He read Scripture aloud, and he taught. He often prayed alone, but he also begged his friends to pray with him. And in his eagerness to eat a Passover meal with his disciples (Luke 22:15), Jesus promised that our rituals and God-given traditions will one day find their fulfillment – their perfection – in the kingdom of God.
For now it takes effort, whether we gather in a home, a school gymnasium, or an art-filled, stained-glass space. The bread must be baked. The invitations delivered. The space cleaned before and after. But, together, we are creating an outward expression of an inner joy.
We are saying “thank you” and “please come” to all that has been promised.
“Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before
the Lord our Maker.”