Grief in the Midst of Joy

In just four days, it’ll be thirty-two years since she died.

It will be thirty-two years since my mother died. I have to pull out a calculator every year to subtract from the current year. Surely, it hasn’t been that long. It hasn’t been this many years without her. It seems impossible to believe amid so much joy.

My sassy little girl started walking this weekend. She’d taken a few hesitant steps about a week ago but we went to a birthday party on Saturday full of four year olds and she wasn’t going to be left in the dust. She toddled across the room. She sat at the big kid’s table. She had chicken nuggets for the very first time and her smile was just so big.

Though she has no interest in my growing belly, I’ve started talking to her about her baby sister. She won’t be the baby anymore. She’ll have a baby sister. Of course, this doesn’t register at all but she will retrieve her baby doll from across the room and shove a bottle in its mouth with great force. Every time, she looks up with this great big smile.

I don’t remember how it was last year.

I don’t remember if grief consumed my entire January in a blizzard of tears, as it once did. I don’t remember if the change in climate made the days before Groundhog Day feel less heavy. Or if I was too tired from a newborn baby waking up to the world in new ways to notice that it was even that time of year again.

There has only been one Groundhog Day since I became a mother. Only that one, and I don’t remember how it was.

I only remember how my husband and I ordered Chinese for dinner because, as a New Yorker, this is my preferred comfort food. I remember the excitement of finding any restaurant that would deliver to our rural address only to be horrified by what was in that delivery bag. Jalapenos should not ever be in Chinese food. It was only this unsettled feeling that this is not how this day should be that remains.

There is that sense about this day for me. Somehow, the day my mother died should be set apart. It should be different. I want it to be different so that heaven might mingle with my ordinary world. It’s something I’ve felt in the days before. As the new year dawns, a sadness emerges. A sense of loss comes close. I’m more aware of what is missing than what might be just beginning and so I’ve allowed myself this one day to feel all of that grief but that’s harder to do with a giggling ball of energy always at my side.

She’s not old enough yet to understand what happened thirty-two years ago. It’ll be a few years yet before she has any real understanding of death, but she’s started to look more like me. When she smiles now, it’s my grin. She tilts her head like I do. She makes the same silly faces that my mom probably made with me. I don’t know how I’ll ever tell her that she looks like her grandmother. I guess that’ll be how grief feels for this season.

It’ll be caught up in this wonder and delight that I don’t get to share with my mom. It is that absence that I grieve every year. She’s not here to play on the floor with her granddaughter. She won’t be here when her second grandchild will be born. There will be a lot of love around these two little girls. They have three full sets of grandparents. They have a great grandmother and a military community that will always be there. There will be churches that will love them and watch them grow. There will be lots and lots of love, but it’ll be my job to tell both my girls about the grandmother they never met. It’ll be hard because I don’t remember her that well.

It’s something I’m struggling with every afternoon as my daughter naps. I sit down again and try to write about where my grief started. There are things I remember, snapshots mostly of doctor appointments and strange things that grownups said to me. There are a few memories where cancer didn’t overshadow, but I mostly remember her as being sick. I remember her dying.

I don’t remember what she loved and what made her giggle. Those are the things I want to share with my girls, but what I do remember is what we did after she was gone. I remember what it felt like to do fun things after my mom died. I still have that guilt. It’s what hangs on tight thirty-two years later. It’s why I’d rather hide and quitely mourn by myself, but I can’t. This year, my sweet girl and I will be in my favorite city before my sister tries on wedding dresses for the first time. There will be a lot of joy surrounding us as I try to figure out how to grieve in the midst of it all.

To Be Regular in Worship (Or Not)

In the middle of Advent, I joined a church.

It was important to me. I wanted to do it. I’m already a member of another church where I never get to attend worship, but I read their newsletter and pray for their ministry. We’ve moved too faraway for regular worship to be possible and I’ve wanted to find someplace to be known. I’ve wanted some place close by to belong. And so, I met with the pastor of my local United Church of Christ and expressed my desire to join this small tribe and waited until this day when it could finally happen. Even so, it felt strange.

It felt odd to stand in front of this lovely group of people and makes these promises I’ve so often asked others to make. Repeating baptismal vows should be so shaky. Not just for those who stand before the congregation to say they will, but for those seated and listening, it’s another chance as the church calendar changes and the birth of Christ comes to wonder if we’ve really done these things or if we need to promise to start anew.

To say again that I’m ready “to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best I am able.” It comes as a question. Or a series of questions to which I can’t help but stand a little taller each time I say “I will, with the help of God.”

Yes, I want to grow in this faith. Please help me grow. It’s why I’m doing this thing. It’s why I’m joining another church because I want to grow. Ore than that, I want my little girl to grow into this faith. It’s why I’m repeating these words. I want to be changed by this group of people in this place where we try together to celebrate Christ’s presence.

I want this. I’m ready for this. It’s why I pushed the pastor for a day to join but it feels a bit different the moment I stand there before all those people with my baby strapped to my stomach snoring soundly. It’s different and I’m not sure why.

I still get excited. I feel my chest soar and my back arch as I repeat these questions I’ve asked so many times of others. I remember all of them in that moment — every fourteen year old kid who sat in my office weeks before their Confirmation while we tried to figure out what these questions meant not just in the liturgy but for them at this moment, every one of the kids that couldn’t get onboard with these questions and refused to be confirmed much to dismay of their parents, every soul that came looking to serve and every broken heart that needed community. I knew every one of their stories when they answered those questions. I knew what had brought them to make these promises and why it was a big deal.

I also knew what scared them. I knew how many of them hadn’t been around church for awhile. They’d been hurt by the church somehow and they wanted to be sure that this congregation wasn’t going to repeat those wrongs. Maybe it was that that felt odd for me. Maybe I felt in that moment the weight of all of those worries add concerns. Maybe. But it seems it hit me most when that last question was posed. The one that asks if we will be regular in worship which I cannot quote correctly because I can’t even find my Book of Worship anywhere, yet I heard this question and I gulped. I wondered if I could answer it or if I should just sit back down in the back row.

It’s this question that has tripped up nearly everyone of whom I’ve helped to make these promises. It’s this question that I’ve interpreted again and again in each and every new member class. To every group of people at every church I’ve been careful with these words because I know that attendance in worship is changing. Though I would be there every Sunday as their pastor, I might only see these faithful people once or twice a week and that would still be considered regular. I never bemoaned them this, it’s just that I never imagined that I’d become one of them.

It hit me then. It has been more than a year since I’ve been anyone’s pastor. I’ve missed Sundays. I’ve slept in. I went to brunch before I’d had this baby in my arms. Now it was the question of whether or not I’d slept that night that decided my Sunday plans if I could even remember what day of the week it was. I wasn’t going to be a weekly worshipper. I was going to choose family time over church sometimes. Or I might simply choose not to drive the 40 minutes and go someplace closer. All of that interpreting I’d done for others on recognizing their own rhythms and staying attune to what their family needed to know the love of God was about me and my family.

It felt strange. Maybe it should always feel a little odd to make these promises, but it’d never felt this strange. All of the many times I’ve answered these questions before it felt radical. It felt like something was changing. Something g was shifting and that somehow, together, we were going to change things and it would be good. I’ve felt that each time I’ve stood beside others as they’ve made these promises with the waters of baptism glistening on their foreheads.

I’ve even felt it as I’ve flung water from evergreen sprigs into the pews full of bewildered people. The questions always seemed important. It felt like it was important to weigh each word and understand each enormous promise we were making. But, on that Sunday In Advent with my baby cuddled close to my heart, it didn’t feel like the questions mattered as much as my answers. All I know now is that it will be different. It will be different than it ever was before.