When I write, I have the propensity to dither a long time over what to say and how to say it. This is mostly for your benefit, dear reader, but it is also a kind of protection for myself. What I want to do, if I can notice where my own two feet are standing more often, is write of the ordinary in-between moments that slip past me while I am wiping globs of dried banana off the floor and kissing sweet baby cheeks. These moments feel very menial in the present but in reflection are the substance of what it is I am doing with my life. Perhaps that is not very interesting of late. I am home ninety percent of the time and traveling between friends and the grocery store the other ten. But, I am realizing, I have a lingering grief that I have settled into rhythm with, like my friend Dickinson’s Death, rumbling alongside her in a carriage. It isn’t disconcerting. In fact I do feel like that old Death has really come to me “kindly,” and “because I could not stop for Death” in the first place.
Cody and I just finished watching the Lord of the Rings series. It drove me to the books, because I knew Tolkien would say things better. There is a scene at the tail end of The Return of the King, after Sam realizes that Frodo is taking him on one last journey before sailing with the Elves across the sea. Tolkien writes, “But Sam was sorrowful at heart, and it seemed to him that if the parting would be bitter, more grievous still would be the long road home alone.” What Sam doesn’t realize, and finds out only moments later, is that Gandalf has foreseen this intimate sorrow. Soon after Gandalf joins the party of travelers, Pippin and Merry arrive. Gandalf tells the loyal Sam, “it will be better to ride back three together than one alone.”
“Grief isn’t linear” is one of those completely true clichés. I see it everywhere now, in the same way you see a million Chrysler Towne and Counties passing you on the highway after you buy one. I’ve somehow been surprised that this saying is true. This is because you get to a certain point in your grief and you think, not that you’ve moved on, but that you’re okay now. You are most of the time, so this seems plausible. You have his picture on the fridge; you catch his eye while turning around, and you don’t cry. You don’t even feel like crying. You feel a little flat but you feel okay. But then you think of him another day and you just feel totally sure that he is still in Florida, in his room, saying something sarcastic and witty to his friends on his headset. For a millisecond you’re living in a parallel universe. And then there’s this tiny shock of grief again. Like slipping into sleep and being jolted awake. Your throat gets thick and your nose refuses to allow you to breathe and, totally without your permission, you are crying.
My first Sunday back to church after my cousin died, the guitar was pumping and the drums were beating and the lyrics were “death has been defeated.” I felt insulted. Not an angry kind of insulted, either at God or man, but the kind of insulted that has witnessed a car crash only to be told, “well actually you didn’t.” I had just seen the whisper of my cousin’s body lying foreign on his bed, a stranger to his own family as soon as a long breath carried him away.
Death will be defeated. Though it will be the very last enemy to be defeated, it will itself be destroyed. This is truth just the perfect size for my grief. It is God acknowledging the wreckage and saying to the stunned woman who saw it, “sit in the car for a while, and warm yourself. I’ll take care of the rest.”
I get daily quotes from Plough, and this was today’s fitting word from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“Celebrating Advent means learning how to wait.… Not all can wait – certainly not those who are satisfied, contented, and feel that they live in the best of all possible worlds! Those who learn to wait are uneasy about their way of life, but yet have seen a vision of greatness in the world of the future and are patiently expecting its fulfillment. The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come. For these, it is enough to wait in humble fear until the Holy One himself comes down to us, God in the child in the manger.”
And of course, God, the conquering King Jesus. Those of us who grieve are blessed with expectation. And also, which we may take delight in, we are those who will be comforted.