We have quite successfully banished grief from our lives.
Dying proceeds in hospitals. It leaves no lingering trace in the pristine spaces of our homes.
Death is sometimes marked in an old-fashioned way. We do occasionally carve the same old stones. Though the ancient words requiescat in pace have been abbreviated and largely limited to Halloween décor.
But then we follow the trail of job offers and changes of scene until the grave stones that matter, the ones we still see with our mind’s eye, lie miles away. We cannot bring flowers. We cannot bring our children and tell them stories of the one we knew and loved.
But somehow grief still finds us. It winds its way in on unexpected paths. And in unexpected places.
For instance, the garden.
An old tree falls, and we are surprised, embarrassed even, by our tears.
We learn practical gardening techniques, and give them misleadingly neutral names like layered gardening or four seasons gardening. Now, we cheerfully interplant our tulips and daffodils with shallow-rooted perennials. See! What fun! You and I need no longer be assaulted by the dying bulb foliage. Death is always camouflaged by the next blooming plant.
Always there is the next thing. We need never look back. Daffodils! Then lilac! Then azaleas! Then roses! Now hydrangeas! And daylilies! And late-summer dahlias!
There is no need to mourn the passing of the daffodils.
But if the gaps still find you … If the empty space in your flowerbed haunts your sleep even in the midst of summer’s blooming bounty … well, the horticulturists can help.
They have tinkered and fiddled (plotted and potted), and now you can purchase the solution to your sorrow.
Every plant now has its reblooming variety.
Reblooming lilac. Reblooming azaleas. Reblooming roses. Reblooming daylilies.
Dry your eyes. Take up your nursery catalog. Look for words like boomerang and knock-out.
Because even in the garden we need never say goodbye. We need never sit in quietness waiting for the return of every beautiful thing we have loved and lost.
For one year, I have heard this one word: return.
It is a word for the exile. For the younger son. For the wanderer.
It means home. It means healing. It means a new beginning.
“Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere … sound the trumpet throughout your land. Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each one of you is to return to his family property and each to his own clan.”
Leviticus 25: 9-10
Stepping into this new year, I have been reluctant to let this word go. I have not wanted a new word, or a new anything, but only more. More of what has been given. More of what has begun.
But isn’t that an ugly word, more? A greedy, grasping word? I refused to embrace it, until all I could hear was more, more, more repeating like a drumbeat in my head.
I gave in. I agreed to claim it … silently. I wouldn’t speak it out loud. How could I admit that my word, my prayer, for this year is so ugly? So easily misunderstood?
Until this day. It was three parts hair-pulling crazy (because no one can buckle their own skates, and the baby was determined to hurl herself out of the sled to faceplant in the snow), but it was one part glorious. A frozen pond for skating only yards from our front porch. Three children with Christmas-gift ice skates. On a Saturday. While the sun shone.
It was one part perfection. One part pure glory.
And it ended as abruptly as a bubble bursts. The older boy fell. The baby really was determined. But as we trudged back toward the house, the younger boy crying that his boots were full of snow, all I could think was we will return. There will be more skating. Every year, there will be more. I pictured a day when every child could strap on their own skates. A day when even my husband and I could step into skates and glide along. This is only the beginning, I thought.
The return is never a dead-end. No one returns to God only to say, “Now what?”
Instead, we turn toward God and see a door. Walking through the doorway, we discover … more. There is always more. To use the words of C. S. Lewis, “Come further up, come further in!”
To return to God is a way of life. It is a turning back toward wholeness, toward peace. It is like finding a home and feeling yourself stretching out to meet the years to come. Like a tree planted by water, those roots growing deep and deeper.
This is our second year at Maplehurst, and my word is more.
It is a song of praise. It is a song of joy. It is the song of the wanderer who has found rest.
And I cry, more, more, more.
The cherry trees behind our house may be old, but they are scattering yellow leaves like overeager flower girls before a wedding.
It isn’t time yet, I whisper.
But it is time. No matter what the calendar says, it is time. I know because I have seen this once before. On August first, we began our second year at Maplehurst, and this, yellow leaves on green grass, is the first return.
The first year is a surprise. The second is a return.
She is eleven months going on all-grown-up, and I have unpacked some of her older sister’s clothes. Here is the white dress Lily wore in her one-year-old portrait. Here is the rainbow-striped sunhat she wore our first summer in our 48th Street condo.
We no longer live in that city, though it was the first place that ever felt like home to me.
My first baby girl is also lost (replaced by a nearly-ten-year-old whose legs look impossibly long in their roller skates). Of course, she returns in memory, she returns in the soft curve of her baby sister’s chin, and, who knows, maybe she’ll show up again when I unpack this dress for a grandbaby someday.
Nothing good is ever truly lost (which is another way of saying that all is being made new).
Today, I reread my journal. I remember the wandering years. Those drought years when the smoke of Florida wildfires was like a pillar of cloud. Back then, I wrote down the words of Zechariah.
Though I scatter them among the peoples, yet in distant lands they will remember me. They and their children will … return. I will bring them back.
Moving to this place one year ago felt like this return. Once again, we would know the rush of four seasons, the familiarity of a good friend’s face, the comforting rightness of the words this is my home. All this while watching another baby girl grow.
But return is not a one-time thing.
One year in, and I know that life with God is all about return. I am returned. And every day I am returning.
The prophet’s words tell the story of my life. Of my rescue. They also tell the story of the world:
Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence (Hosea 6:1-2).
We die so many deaths, but we are never lost. The son of God gives himself up but is returned to us on the third day. And every day this world is made new.
If creation sings, then those are the words to her song. It is a song about birth. It is a song about coming home. It is the song of our God and our world.
I have seen these yellow cherry leaves before, yet I have never seen them before.
They have returned. They are new.
At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home.
There is a river, and it has washed my slate clean.
New home. New baby. New friends. New church. New weather. The year is new, and my days are full of new things.
Strangely, not one bit of it feels new. These are déjà vu days, and everything in them feels familiar and comfortable. As if I have already worn deep grooves into this daily life.
My baby daughter looks exactly like her sister, my firstborn. Holding this baby, nine years disappear, and I am a new mother again. I sit in the same rocking chair, she wears the same pink dress, and I sometimes can’t tell who is in my arms, the first baby or the last.
I tuck her into the same blue pram, and we walk beneath maple trees on our way to meet the school bus. I remember this stroller cutting through the icy winds on Chicago’s sidewalks, and I think I must have always known, somewhere deep within, that I was headed to this good place.
It is simply too familiar. I am not surprised by any of it. Only grateful. Deeply grateful.
I once wrote that I was living the first half of this verse: “Just as I watched over them to uproot and tear down … so I will watch over them to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 31:28).
Now I am living the second half.
My firstborn was a firecracker of a baby, and she broke me. In so many good and necessary ways, she broke me.
My fourth is like gentle rain in spring. One fierce and one gentle, they have both been good gifts.
There were years when all was uprooted. Now new things are growing. Both are necessary. Both are good.
I have been hearing this whisper for months, but now it is a shout: “Return! Return!”
I have said, “Yes, Lord, I am coming,” again and again I have said it until this moment, having just tipped over into this new year, I know I have arrived. I have returned.
And every day of this year, I will wake with one word in mind: return.
The poet T. S. Eliot says “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”
I have journeyed to my own beginning, and there is no surprise in this. Haven’t I always felt most at home with the One who names himself Alpha and Omega?
He is my beginning, and he is my end, and I have come home. I have returned; I am, every day, returning.
“My eyes will watch over them for their good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up and not tear them down; I will plant them and not uproot them. I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.”