This time last year we knew. Another tumor had presented and Mom’s doctor just told us that the treatment wasn’t working. Mom realized without trying to that she would not be with us much longer and she made peace with it, mostly. She was ready for her pain to end, she was ready to be done fighting, she was ready to “be with Jesus.” She wasn’t ready to say goodbye; really, for us to mourn her. She didn’t want to be the cause of our grief.
So as she laid down to get through another headache and imagined at any point she may not wake up, she made us promise her that this time of year – specifically my youngest’s birthday, just days away – would be happy. That we wouldn’t let the pain of losing her overshadow our celebration of him and of life. She held our hands to this vow on the bed where four of us plus baby cuddled up and talked about “my birth into Heaven.” That is the focus, she said. His birth on the earth and hers into Heaven.
It wasn’t a fair ask. How could I have said no to the woman who gave me life, whose greatest joy was my kids? She lived up to her name – it means “brave” and she was. She had no fear of the one thing us humans can usually bond over being afraid of. She was ready to die. But she was afraid it would hurt us. She wanted us to be okay and she wanted her grandkids to know how deeply she loved them. She thought that focusing on the parts worth rejoicing would keep us out of pain so I promised her.
But I’m breaking my promise.
When Mom first got diagnosed I was just weeks pregnant and my Gramma put her hand on my tummy and said, “This baby is going to be what keeps us going.” And he did. My mother lived for these kids. Literally. She fought hard and kept them in the crosshairs of her purpose. She imagined graduations and weddings and great-grandkids and they gave her strength. She said that having them around – whining and all – was better medicine than any narcotic at Stanford. They helped us look for Heaven in the midst of Hell; as his birth approached we looked forward to new hope, a fresh chapter in a story which had become so bleak.
A long time ago Charles Wesley wrote this beautiful line in a hymn: “Anticipate your Heaven below, and own that love is Heaven.”
Love came to us on April 6, 2015. His birth accompanied the last snow of the season on an otherwise sun filled day; Mom held me up and put a cold rag to my forehead between contractions – she had more energy and strength than she’d had in months. She mothered me into motherhood for the third time and when he was here among us we all just stared. He was Hope. We could taste it. We heard the promise of tomorrow in his sighs, let tiny fingers grip us in holy covenant: this will continue, life wins. We knew Love. We knew Heaven.
And we knew it, in part, because we also knew Hell. This little boy would be a bright spot regardless, but his brilliance is undeniable and ravishing because of it’s context. His presence rips apart the black-out curtain that came with her diagnosis and her death. In the darkest days of my grieving his smile shines like a beacon to what will always be true: that there is, no matter what else, Love. I cannot look at him without remembering. I cannot be near him without feeling Heaven.
During his pregnancy I was worried he would have all kinds of issues. I spent his first trimester in California helping her recover from her surgery and getting her set up with treatment. His second trimester I was traveling back and forth and the entire pregnancy was spent in waning fear and optimism for what came next. Nutritionally, I consumed copious amounts of Oreos and salt & vinegar chips after bedtime to de-stress and hormonally, I’m sure he got way more than his share of cortisol. I thought for sure I’d give birth to a neurotic basket case who would have to learn how to be happy.
Instead I got this kid who not only finds a million reasons a day to smile, but makes the rest of us smile, too. We laugh on the hour with his antics and expressions. He is such a beautiful boy. He smiles so easily and laughs loud. He is curious and clever and he gets this one specific look on his face when he’s about to do something he shouldn’t – eyes squint, head tilts, mouth turns right up. He’s Light personified. Sometimes I look at him and think he’s glowing. He reminds me a lot of my mom. I was so worried that he’d have some cloud over him because life was so dark around him. Instead he scooped up whatever light he could find and brought it with him, extra to share.
So I can’t keep the promise I made to my mother; we celebrate this child absolutely: wholly, completely, without any hesitation. He is heart-burstingly lauded around here. But I cannot separate what my son was born into from his coming. I can’t focus only on the parts worth celebrating. Her absence at his parties will always sting, the memories of Aprils past will always haunt. While I’ll always be grateful for the end of her suffering, I’ll probably never be able to celebrate how that came about – I’m too jealous of Heaven to be happy about her birth into it so soon.
I can, however, look for it here. There is the smell of mercy in the morning (fresh brewed, organic roast). There is joy in the flowers on my table and peace in the rain on my window. There are angels singing in their laughter and my golden gate is a dirty metal door with a $15 wreath on it. My people are heralds and saints and we go around singing truth when we can, raising our voices for the ones who can’t. And when I look at the little boy who came during snow on a sunny day I know that Heaven is mine.