This past weekend, I decided to reorganize my study. Mostly, this involved moving some furniture around, rearranging pictures, and sorting through myriad books collected over the years. As with any such task, the process served to be a stroll through the past. Each book, though sitting in its place and always readily available, lay dormant until held. Then, in my fingers, the time and place it was read awakened in my mind until placed on the shelf anew. Every picture, for years the victim of a fleeting glance, was a memory held and present, imploring its proper consideration in my heart. And as each and every book or picture lay in my hands, out of it came something new. These memories now belonged in this moment of my life, and so the present moment framed the memory. It framed the past.
There are several reasons I found myself in such a nostalgic and sober mood. Our long-time dog, Red, passed away. The grief of going through that process of loss triggered the grief of past losses, not just for myself, but for my wife as well. Then, this grief, while calling to the past, was also something new. This was the first loss that I had to explain to my five year-old and three year-old sons. They are still too young to fully grasp the concept of death, and so when we explained that it was Red’s time to go to Heaven to be with their Gaga, they knew it meant they would not see him around the house anymore, but that was about the extent of what they understood. Beyond the loss of Red, I know there are more significant days on the horizon: Lent and the year-anniversary of the beginning of the pandemic, Mom’s birthday, and the day Mom passed away. This year, it will be five full years that she has been gone.
It was in this frame of mind that I was sifting through memories in my study and happened to come across the “I Hope You Dance” journal given to Amber and I for our wedding. What should have been a purely joyful memory, framed by today, turned into an immediate search for the only entry that came to mind. When I saw what my mom wrote, oddly, I didn’t feel the pang in my heart to which I had grown so accustomed. It seems that with time, my suffering has transformed as well. Rather than the smart of something foreign intruding, the feeling is dispersed and permeated throughout every limb, breathed in and part of me, only to become a dull flicker at times such as this one.
Still, there was part of me hoping to read something so poignant, so meaningful to this very moment, and that was a hope unmet. Rather, I found my mom wrote exactly what I would expect her to have written. They were words that I had heard from her so often, that they, too, seem to be in my every nerve and sinew. When I read, “Our wish for you as you begin your lives together is to always put God at the top of the triangle with the two of you on equal corners below,” I cracked a smile. I had heard my mother explain marriage in this way myriad times, and it was as sure to be in her message to a newly married couple as the sun in the sky. Parents are our first and maybe most important teachers of the faith, and I am blessed to have had such a good one.
By the time I reached the end, the newness of reading these words in the present imposed on the past. My mom’s final words were, “I love you both very much and look forward to sharing great times with you and your family.” Of course, this is what is in my mind whenever I think of mom. I didn’t need to see her write it to know and feel these words. She never met Bennett or Luke. She barely met Tripp. All those great times never happened on this side of Heaven. That is the grief that I must face and the despair against which I defend my heart. It is my suffering that I must make new, that I must offer up to the Lord so that it might be redeemed.
At the same time, I cannot conflate the memory of my mother only with the grief I now feel at having missed all those great times together. I want her grandchildren to know her, and that can only happen if I share my memories of her. They deserve to know all of her little sayings, of how she made you feel just by smiling at you, and just how much she loves them. As I type out these words, I realize the best and maybe the only way that can happen is through me. I need to offer the part of her that is so ingrained into who I am to them. It is through my smile that they might feel so loved, and it is in my words that they will come to know her. It is upon me to teach them not only her love, but also the love of God.
Having finished reading the message and the moment having passed, I placed the journal in its proper place back on the shelf.