So the lights go out. And whatever was said before it or during it, you can’t escape that the lights are off and the candles are warm.
Every year we go to that Lutheran sanctuary – with the steps Mom was confirmed on, the cobbled aisle she walked down as a bride, the altar where they sprinkled water on my head in holy hope. We all pile into cars and minivans and occupy a pew or two to sing the hymns, speak the liturgies. We listen to the message about gifts or a virgin birth or good tidings and then we do the most honest, beautiful thing we could do: we turn the lights off.
2016 has been a year. I am not alone in feeling so. over. it. I would like to extend my most earnest Good Riddance to the year that took so much. Usually I am a silver-lining seeker, insistent on finding the Light to make up for the Dark. But this year I learned something.
The Light doesn’t always make up for the Dark.
I’ve seen several posts from authors and speakers I admire and from personal friends all beautifully expressing a redemptive quality about this year. That while it has been hard (and it really does seem like this year has been hard for everyone), it has also been full of good things that make the bad worth it. And usually that is my MO. But this year I have to say that some things are not redeemed, some things are much worse than whatever blessings they incur, some things are just not worth it. At least not yet.
My mother’s death is not worth the lessons learned, the honest-to-god beauty, the deepened relationships. It’s just not. I’m grateful – so grateful – for the things I’ve gained because of this nightmare, but I still wish we could wake up. And I can’t really overstate that an abundant amount of Good Stuff has come even as a direct result of her passing (which hurts to say). But I would shove it all right back into the hands of the universe with every ounce of force I have if it would bring her back for even an hour. One hour. To cuddle with her and ask her questions and tell her the things you can’t tell another person enough.
Those lights go off and the little boy who shares his Daddy’s eyes and my bullhead is mesmerized. He holds his candle like it’s the kind of things he’ll only see once. We light it with careful ceremony and he asks me if we’ll blow them out. I say yes and he says, “I don’t want to blow mine out… I want to keep it forever.” My heart swells at his genuine delight – at the way my children see the world as something good and beautiful and deeply enjoyable. The flame, he knows, is dangerous, but it is also so enchanting.
Then a drop of wax hits his little hand. His smile quickly flashes into fear and he drops the candle with a scream. Still lit, it falls between his legs as he scurries into the back of his pew trying to escape what he has been taught his whole life will hurt him very badly. He is so scared as I try to retrieve the candle and calm his cries. When I hold it up he wants nothing to do with it. He sits far from it in the pew behind me curled into the safe arms of his Gramma. He engages with the candle again only to blow it out – which now brings him great relief.
Holding the candle, my son got to feel the warmth in his hand, he got to see it up close and experience the sacredness of responsibility while he kept it upright. But holding the candle, he was also vulnerable to it. The candle danced in the dark among many other candles whose cumulative affect was to illuminate the high ceilings and close faces of a place where Love is supposed to reign. How gorgeous. But to my son, the magic meant very little. It wasn’t worth his close call with fire. This liturgy we do every year is no less meaningful and important: In the big picture Light wins and we get to watch how our togetherness allows us to see clearly, but sometimes on the particular level, candle in hand, it hurts more than it’s worth to partake in an illustration.
Love opens you to the best parts of being human, it digs deep trenches of grace and joy and peace. Love takes you outside yourself and delivers you to yourself at the same time. Love is light, it’s the thing that warms us and allows us to flourish: to see, to grow, to heal each other. But opening yourself up to love also makes you vulnerable. Sometimes the wax drops. In the big picture, I still believe it is always worth it, but the particular ways we get burned don’t always get cancelled out – at least not yet.
My mother lived full of beauty. She taught me with her example how to be kind, how to forgive, how to remember others. She showed me what it looks like to live in joy and gratitude regardless of circumstance. She found humor in everything. She exemplified friendship and loyalty, second chances, hanging onto love with stubborn fidelity. She maintained and bequeathed an unshakable faith I find as involuntary as breathing.
Simply: she didn’t have to die for me to get the Good Stuff. So I can’t say that the good things gained during her passing make up for her loss. They don’t. We would have gotten them anyway and now we’re left less whole without her. I am hopeful that someday it will be made up. But for now, the dark won this one. She should be here and she’s not.
Yet while her death burns and you know what, I’d blow that damn candle out if I could and stomp on it to make a big mess of it on the cobbled floor, the big picture of her life and our relationship is a giant room full of dancing flames. I would go through a hundred losing hers for the gift of being her daughter. I would never for a minute consider not loving another person for the future pain of their loss. Because oh. my. god. Truly. God is love, right? And I saw God my whole life in that woman, in all the people I tie myself to. They are directly correlated to her as she gave me this foundation – I can love because I am loved and loved well. I would never give that back. If the universe demanded it I would hold on tight and get dragged around the cosmos until it gave up. Love is worth it all. That’s something I didn’t have to learn this year, that’s the air I breathe.
The candle is out and my son might remember next year that he almost got burned by the light. He might think to himself that the risk isn’t worth holding that candle under the flimsy paper guard. He might enjoy it from a distance, his spot on the pew a little darker than the rest. I hope he’ll hold his candle again, but I also hope he remembers that it might burn. That he sits with the kids younger than him in future years and holds their candles for them if they’re scared, lets his own illuminate their faces.
I’m not done pushing into the light – seeking it out, celebrating it, sitting enraptured and pointing others to it when I can. And I’m not done hoping that someday it will all be redeemed. That there will be some great and final reckoning when every loss we suffer is given back to us and more. I am hoping for this with waning doubt and white knuckles. But I am under no delusion here that until that reckoning, some things remain underscored. Some things are not redeemed – not yet – and I won’t pretend that the gain makes up for the loss.
So I am glad this year is over. I’m grateful for another trip around the sun and the permission to be done with the last one. From those of us still smarting from the burns of 2016: whew….