Sunday, January 12, 2014

(maybe time doesn't heal but God does: four year birthdays)

Today is our little son Gabe's fourth birthday.

Last year I wrote about scars and said that time heals wounds.

Daniel and I talked about that late into the night of our littlest man's third birthday and he told me:

It's not true.

Time doesn't heal.

How can you say that?

It's not better, he's still gone, we still have this beautiful-sad-awkward day of January 12 to get through.

How can you say it's not as bitter?  It's bitter for me. . .

And I knew then that he was right and my ability to be strong was only as strong as my tenuous grip on my emotions.  I wept hard that night last year.

I told him I would take down what I had written, because it is so important to me to speak truth, even in the grieving process.

Always incredibly supportive of my writing, he said, no, I needed to leave it, because if that's what I felt, I should say it. 

But that little statement:

[time heals]

has been in the corner of my heart for a year now.

I've wrestled with the concept. 

Does time heal?

When I was writing, I was referring to scars; if properly cared for, wounds stop bleeding and scar over.  You still see the mark of the wound;  it's not the same, but also not torn and bloody anymore. 

And so, in the case of skin tissue, time can be a part of healing.

Whenever the eternal is involved, our human analogies can break down and fail to communicate. How do you communicate the terror and beauty of Heaven touching Earth in Death?  Terror at the power and horror of severing ties with here; the beauty is the knowledge that a human soul is eternal.

Maybe time doesn't heal.

Maybe only God can give the grace and strength to go on, to work and live and see another day and another. 

Maybe time is a vehicle in which healing rides?

the wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round. . .

and the time vehicle brings us to number four.


I'm sorry to be blunt, but it is just a ridiculously awkward conundrum. 

It's a happy day.

It's a horrible day.

Should we have a party?  Go to Chuck E Cheeses?

Should we pretend it's a normal day and skip all the questions, tears, drama, people, hugs, and just hide out somewhere?

Should we acknowledge him publicly?  I mean, do you say, hey, it's my little son's birthday.  He'd be four.  But he's not here. 

Do you invite your family and let your closest people share in your day?  After year four isn't that a little weird?  I mean, do you wanna be the people that just never moved on?  (Those pour souls.)

 These are the very real thoughts faced by people who lose anyone close to them.

I have learned from experience that physically you cannot skip grief.  It rears it's ugly head in other ways if you choose to ignore it, stuff it under the rug, block it out with laughter and pointless TV.  It shows up in insomnia, heart palpitations, excessive sleeping, depression, panic, nightmares, and all other sorts of junk. 

As hard as it is, it's better to take a deep breath and face the fear of crumbling, the fear of not making it through, the fear of what people will think and just swim through.  You feel like you're drowning, and it's awful, but if you face it, then you come out on the other side of whatever battle you just faced and there's perspective and a bit of healing and a tentative strength and a gratefulness to God for His grace. 

So even if we wouldn't acknowledge the day of our son's birth, we would be faced with remembering because of the oddest things that happen right before significant dates. This week Daniel dreamed that two little babies died . . . but he was able to resuscitate and they ended up all okay, living, breathing.  Also this week I overheard a whispered argument behind the couch:

Cambria:  "I wanna know."

JD:  "I'm telling you, don't ask."

C: "I'm asking."

JD:  "I wouldn't if I were you!"

I said:  "What's up, guys?"

Cambria:  "I want to know if anyone did CPR on Gabe."

JD: "I told you not to ask, Cambria, you shouldn't ask!"

Ahhhh, four years later, and there's still stuff like that that makes your heart stop for a moment.

I think of the sweet missionary lady in her eighties whose baby girl died when she rolled off her bed and suffocated while her missionary mama baked a birthday cake This woman poured her life out in South America for the cause of the Gospel, she's wise and strong and has a firm grasp of theology and she said: "I still can't eat cake."   So if birthday cake still makes her heart twist, maybe it's not super weird that my little family starts processing Gabe's death and life again around about January 12?

We woke up this morning, a Sunday, got ready for church, ate the customary yogurts, started the coffee, loaded the van.  Daniel is technically on duty today, but took off a couple hours in vacation time in order to be with us for the day.  He asks me on the way to church if I'm okay and I say yes and then I return the favor and he says yes. 

I have a tight grip on my emotions because I am about to see 150 people and I have chosen not to hide out at home, but I don't want to go in and cause a scene either.  I tell him I am okay, it's not so sad, but that mostly I just wonder what Gabe would look like.  Four isn't a baby anymore. . . I trail off and feel the tears coming and blink and try to regain control since our 2 mile drive to church doesn't lend itself to emotional dumping and kleenex - make-up repairing.

Sweet Mrs A. hugs me tight and I manage to hold it together for that and I tell her I'm okay.  She says in typical Mrs. A fashion: "Well, I'm not okay!" and just a tiny crack in my armor happens because this woman I respect so much gives me permission to not be okay.

I can't concentrate on the worship music because I keep thinking about that day, and Gabe's birth, and how crazy happy it was and then since music is inextricably wound through all the highs and lows of our lives, I think about the playlists we've created for the births of each of our children. 

The music choices are quite . . . eclectic because our music loves are wide and varied. If you're a kid of ours, you may be born to gentle flower child praise music or quite possibly, Lady Antebellum.

I sit.

I stand.

I pass the offering plate.

Jacob was born on Newsong's Cherish.

Cambria, Phillips Craig and Dean's Pour My Love On You.

And little Gabe. . . I smile thinking that we did have quite a range on his playlist:  Lady A, Switchfoot, the flower child praise group 2nd Chapter of Acts singing O For a Thousand Tongues and Holy Holy Holy. . .

And suddenly I realize that's what I'm hearing: Holy, Holy, Holy.  The offertory.  O dear, this isn't good.  There is no stopping the hot tears overflowing.  I'd get up and leave but it's so awkward.  We're supposed to be stronger that that by now and sitting towards the front everyone would see.  I try to stem the tide but it's just not happening:

. . .right back in that hospital room with soft lighting and his little cries and it's really a boy and my sisters. . .

tears run down the inside of my nose and I try to wipe them with the back of my hand but it's just no use. 

This is why people who are grieving are afraid to come to church sometimes.  You have no control over moments like that and it's embarrassing and frightening to be so utterly at the mercy of being blindsided by a memory that is going to make you want to ugly cry into your husband's shoulder.

I pinch the inside of my hand with my fingernails until all I can think about is how much my palm hurts and that's the most effective way to stem the tide. 

Daniel has meetings and he promises to get a ride home with someone else:  I flee the people who love us, support us, care so much, because. . . I just am going to be a mess.  Right.  I shouldn't run.  I know.  But I have just a very fragile grip on my social competence today and I flee with the children, home to fajitas and Cambria making cupcakes for our little Gabe.  I bought orange balloons the other day and Jacob and Eli blow them up in the living room.

The balloons weren't necessary though, since besides all the love people continue to shower on us through phone calls and hugs and texts and emails and messages, we received no less than three deliveries of 4 balloons for our little man's fourth.  I think the Hy-Vee people wanted in on the party by the end of the afternoon.  Our people- even when I flee and run- are the best support, the best heart caregivers, the most kindest bunch of friends EVER. 

We take him a cupcake, something we've done every year.  We take the #4 candle.  This is the first year it's stayed lit.  We take the balloons.  The kids throw snowballs.  I'm spent and cried out.  Eli loses his shoe in the snowbank.  Jacob's balloon gets stuck in a tree.  He's mad because all on his own, he spent a lot of time writing a note to Gabe and attaching it to the balloon: "Now no one will see it."  Cambria, on a huge gymnastics/AmericanGirl McKenna doll kick,  writes a note to Gabe on her balloon: I love u, Gabe, Love, McKenna (cambria) I Love You God To. Jacob frees his balloon by throwing snowballs at it. 

They rise, little orange pin dots into the January gray sky and we watch till we can't see anymore. 

I kiss my husband, out there in the snow and with gravestones all around, including our son's:  I love you, Daniel. 

And I do.

We made it through another birthday, and my whole soul exhales with relief. 

Tomorrow we start back to school, and our nights are booked and our lives are full.  We are planning a mission trip, pouring into local church life, teaching our kids, preparing our taxes, skiing with family, loving how sweet and purposeful and just plain fun life is right now. It's pinch yourself amazing most of the time. 

Today is a bitter, sweet, salty tear, breaking heart reminder to me of the pain that exists here on earth. 

I am grateful for the gift of my little son's life, and that he was born four years ago today.  I don't think I'll ever forget his birthday; and if time doesn't heal, I know that God is close to the broken hearted, and that's enough for me.

Happy birthday, my sweet sweet Gabriel James.


  1. Same Sunday, much same emotions, same near-the-front seating at church, hot tears flowing, at perhaps the same time? - During worship. We're in the together, friend.

  2. Thank you for sharing so accurately. God uses your gift of writing. Sunday January 12 marked the 17th anniversary of our Karen's death. Same circle -- birth/death -- we will continue to trust God's love and provision for every experience and soon know relief in HIS forever presence. Heaven is real!

  3. Love you. Wish time did fix all of this. Not till heaven where he will wipe every tear away. So sad you have to continue to face this. Love how beautiful and brave you are.