December marks the end of our calendar year, and for many, it is a time for reflection over the past twelve months.
For me, since I also have a birthday in December, I like to honor the year with my own review, my own blog-sized marker in the vast internet world. Last year, I honored the end of the year and my birthday with this post — The Stinkin’ Algebra Birthday. I complained about having to spend twelve hours on my special day studying Algebra with my Autistic daughter, who was struggling in her first semester in college.
Okay, I didn’t just complain. I found things to be grateful for. I did. I counted my blessings. My parents. My sweet husband. My kids. And I wandered through the rest of December and the following months unchanged. Happy. Thankful. Grateful. Blissful, even.
Until everything changed.
And that’s what this year is about my friends. I could review the milestones. The grades that my amazing daughter has earned since that day we sat at my parent’s little table, scratching out equations with a dull pencil. We ate cold pizza when we needed a break and allowed ourselves to curse when needed. (If you curse and nobody but your mama hears you, you’re still a lady)
I could elaborate about my husband and how our love grows larger and deeper and more lovely by the day. I could even describe in detail how while my little boys are beginning to get pimples and need deodorant, I am getting more wrinkles and grey hair.
But that would miss the point.
This is the year that my life absolutely fell apart.
And then God put it back together. Piece by piece, completely different than it was before.
Last year, I celebrated Christmas with my family. My Grandma was in her nineties, and while she kept her sharp wit and love of attractive men and worship music, her health was failing. My mother stayed busy caring for her, stressed with the burden and privilege of loving a dying human being. My parents did their best to manage their relationship, but they were both overwhelmed, and my father would call me daily, several times a day, in the end, to blow off some steam and stress.
You see, he loved my mother, more than anything in the world. And it took watching her care for my Grandma, I think, for him to realize it. When you feel physical pain watching another human being suffer, it’s an indicator that you have become one with them. And that’s what happened to my Dad.
Watching my mother struggle through the hospice experience with her own mother tormented my father. And my poor mother had no choice but to sacrifice her time, her health, and every relationship, in order to see her mother to the finish line.
It was an excruciatingly painful thing to observe as a daughter. In many ways, I think I was ignorant, sitting there, watching it all unfold in front of me. My father’s vulnerability, my mother’s strength, my grandmother’s growing frailty.
And then it was over. One morning, after many, many nights of waiting, Grandma was gone.
And I breathed a sigh of relief. Her great suffering was over. A wonderful woman was finally HOME with her King.
My mother was devastated, as I expected. And my father still felt helpless because how do you fix grief? Grief isn’t a mortal wound. But it is untreatable by human hands.
They settled in to plan a memorial service. After they would escape to their happy place, a house on the water in Marco to spend time with friends and pick up the pieces of their wrecked lives.
Isn’t that the way life goes? At forty-six, I feel like I’m still learning. But one of the many things I learned this year is that life breaks you. If you’re lucky, it doesn’t break you every year, but life is a never-ending process of breaking you over and over again until you’ve learned all you need to learn, and then it is your turn to go home.
My parents were broken. I complained to my husband that I wanted my mother back. That I lost her in the process of her losing her mother. Now I think about how selfish I was. But what are we if we aren’t selfish beings, constantly trying to redirect our focus?
I turned the notifications off on my phone a few nights after Grandma died. I no longer needed to be available at any hour for my mother or father. Those last few nights and mornings were grueling, and it was time for a rest.
I put the silenced phone on my bedside table and cuddled with my husband in my quiet house. Even the kids were asleep.
I woke to the startling noise of someone banging on my front door. I sat up in bed, and realized they were calling my name. Was it a dream? Mike said, “Nobody’s at the door, go back to sleep.”
By the time they did it again, I was already out of bed, throwing some clothes on and running down the stairs. Even now, seven months later, that moment plays in my head like a scene out of a movie.
“Julie, come quick, it’s your father!” I go through it in my mind now and wonder how I didn’t fall headfirst down the dark stairs.
I bolted back upstairs and grabbed a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt. Hospitals are cold. I pulled my charger out of my wall. Waiting rooms have outlets and I can charge while I wait. I kissed my husband who stayed with our sleeping kids. Neither of us knew what I was walking into, but both of us thought that he’d probably hurt himself, and that we’d be taking him home bruised or battered, but alive.
My husband must have felt so helpless that night. Stuck in our dark home with no contact from me while he waited to hear any news. He had to have known it was bad when nobody called.
Dad died that night. He left my mother alone to pick up the pieces of her own mother’s death and the death of her husband only ten days later.
I guess I could be mad at him for smoking all of his life. One of my kids was angry when we told them that their grandpa died. One child smiled and laughed, because how else does a kid deal with such news? The other fell onto the floor in tears. The last stormed off enraged.
I could point a finger at God and accuse Him of dealing with my family so treacherously. I could ask Him, “How could you? I thought you loved me?”
But that would be a waste of time, now, wouldn’t it?
Because the most valuable lesson that this year has taught me is that both life and death are gifts. Triumph and tragedy can bring joy and new understanding. Life, health, success, and happiness aren’t the only great things in life.
This year, through these terrible losses, God showed me the miracle of tears shed with friends who show themselves to be great during a time of need.
He showed me the beauty of a church full of broken people, pulled together to minister to a hurting family.
He showed me the beauty of a new relationship with my mother.
He showed me how the greatest loss can be used to build the strongest faith. How grief digs down beneath the foundation of immature belief. It pours molten metal around shaky beams, freezing them in time, to never be moved.
Yes, sorrow really stinks. I’m not going to lie. I miss my Grandma. Oh, how I miss my father and his voice and his huge hands and hugs. His advice. I miss the lighthearted life that we had before this year took its toll on us.
But I wouldn’t go back. I can’t, even if I tried. God allowed life or time or whatever is responsible for this thing called death to completely destroy my world.
And that’s okay. Because what He built in its place is even better.
Today as I survey what’s left of my life after this difficult year, I can’t help but see the pain and recognize it for what it is.
But I also see the joy.
The book that I was given to write in the aftermath that I know will be a blessing to others.
The relationship between my husband and I that grows more solid and romantic every day — a reflection of the relationship my parents shared.
The example my mother has set for my entire family that faith doesn’t have to weaken after a loss. It can become a shining badge of strength through suffering.
The blessing of a warm bed and a loving embrace.
Last year, my takeaway was that love always comes with a sacrifice.
This year, my takeaway is so much more hopeful.
After loss, there is always Love. After destruction, He always rebuilds. After death, there is Life.
For every dark shadow sin casts, God creates a spark that can illuminate the blackest corners of life. This knowledge is the most beautiful gift this difficult year has given me.
Happy #46 to me. Can’t wait to see what the next year brings.