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Labor Days, Or Learning to live as TP

Labor Day. What does it bring to mind? Work, sure. Also, ironically, play–how many people frolic or relax on a day off from paid employment today? Understandably, mothers might think of the unforgettable process of birthing their children. I think of that, and many other days like and unlike them, today.

One year ago, on Labor Day Monday, I crept into my bedroom where Jon was still sleeping. “Hey,” I said softly, touching his shoulder. “Want to come have coffee with me and the baby?” He murmured something indecipherable, his eyes still closed, and I repeated what I said. Then he opened his eyes, like I’d pricked him with a pinpoint. “The baby?” he said, with a searching look. I nodded. He got a huge smile on his face and wrapped me in a  hug.

That is a sweet memory. It’s all the more poignant because that pregnancy never resulted in a baby, and it began a year of days and weeks of contractions of grief, buoyed by hope and indescribable blessing, with yet more lessons of patience and suffering. It’s been a lot of labor, and there’s still more to come.

***

The day Christian was born, August 5, I labored in a quiet room. 

I hadn’t want to walk into the hospital. We’d gotten everything together, driven through the sunny morning to a coffee shop, then gone on to where our son would be born. As we approached the front door, I hesitated. I almost stopped. I had known about this moment for months. I knew Christian was dead and that he needed to be born. But I knew that once I walked through those doors, the end was near. I would walk out of them without my son. 

All through that quiet day, I watched clouds form and dissipate and reform outside the window. I saw the rocking chair, meant for laboring mothers, sit empty. It was sad, but it was simple. That chair was not meant for me that day. 

I was glad for the sunshine and the clouds. 

***

Grief is a funny, sneaky thing.

The pain of loss is mostly dull, like a quiet ache that one learns to accept because it doesn’t disappear. I expect it at certain times. At church, always at church. Driving past the cemetery. Reading a newly-arrived condolence card. These times make sense. They are direct reminders of Christian and of what we mourn.

Sometimes I can feel it coming, like a creeping storm. I received a call from a medical group, evaluating my stay at the hospital. I answered questions because I wanted there to be some formal record of the compassion we experienced–me, Jon, and Christian. But I wept when I got off the phone.

Jon stopped by our kids’ school, where another volunteer and I were cleaning and organizing in the library. We went by the stairwell to talk. He’d ordered the headstone, but after seeing more options–why is even death in our culture drowned by consumer choices?–wanted to see if I wanted something different. We spoke briefly, but I could feel the wave rising, the emotional wave threatening to crash. I couldn’t switch from school mode to grief mode. “I’m sorry. I can’t talk about this any more,” I said, abruptly. He nodded. He got it.

Sometimes grief flares up sharply, cutting my breath and choking my throat, at times I least expect it. On a hike with my daughter, after just marveling at the wonders of the view on the mountain, I see silvery-green leaves quivering in a soft breeze. Why should the shimmer of leaves, when a moment before I was alive and joyful to the wonders around us, make me want to weep?

Our girl walking down a mountain trail, while I try not to cry.

How do people live with this? I think. I know of harder cases, the ones that I think would be more difficult to bear. The parents who’ve buried three adult children, all of their children. The new friend who had a stillborn son this year. And yet how can anyone learn to live with this or any suffering except to slog through it, to labor and be carried?

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden,” Jesus said, “and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Not “I will take your heavy burden.” But rest. The crosses are still there.

It is exhausting when it hits, this grief. I wrote this a few weeks ago after writing down some theological thoughts pertaining to grief: “I stand here, fully caffeinated in the morning, dishes washed, list getting checked off. I’m in my prime time. And after thinking about and writing these few words, all I want to do is crawl back into bed and sleep, deeply and without dreams.”

***

Yet I go on. What else can I do? People have been so incredibly kind. They are sympathetic and encouraging. “You are so strong.” “Thank you for your witness of Christ.” I am grateful, but my thoughts are garbled, struggling to reconcile the incongruity. I know hope during grief is good, but I do not feel good, or at least worthy of any special attention. This is gagging on a translucent, existential gnat to most people–most probably just mean to be sincerely supportive, while a small part of my brain hears them presupposing some herculean act of will on my part, Emily the Mighty Sufferer, standing athwart hopelessness and yelling, “Stop!” But I know that I am utterly powerless, and I can’t help feeling uncomfortable with the comments. What else can I do?

My choices seem woefully stark. Truly, all I can do is either reject God or surrender to His mercy. To definitively reject Him is to enter a darkness that frankly scares me more than it entices me, though the temptation to push away is real and angrily persistent. But I am so afraid of the hole that rejection presents that this means that it’s not an option. So I surrender to God’s mercy, to Christ’s bleeding hands. And even the surrender is weak and childlike, like a newborn mewing sibilant cries for food. He does not even reach for the nutrients he so desperately needs. He opens his mouth in helplessness and need. That’s all. Just as I lay, one day old, before a pastor in a hospital room, baptized into Christ in tiny weakness, I turn again into that premature babe. I am not yet grown. I do not yet understand.

Rev. Dr. Gregory P. Schulz knows this cognitive searching. In The Problem of Suffering: A Father’s Hope, the pastor, philosopher, professor, and husband and father watched and wrestled as two of his children suffered and died. Kayleigh, his daughter, was almost one year old. Stephan, his son, was fourteen. “I often look at the crook of my right elbow and know it as a sacred place [the last place he held his son, Stephan]. Now I want to understand, if I can, what it means for me to feel the way I do, not just about Stephan’s suffering and death, but how I feel toward his God.”

I know how he feels now. I too confess the hope of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Cognitively, I believe this. Theologically, I cling to this. Emotionally, I break under this necessity–that we die, that we need the hope of the resurrection. Death is awful.

Christian’s grave in August.

I visit Christian’s grave alone sometimes. They are quick stops to clear away fresh flowers that have withered–how incredibly fast they wither and brown–and to pray. I gaze at the mountain and take deep breaths in the quiet of the trees and wind-swept stones. I watch the antelope that quietly graze in the clear spaces between the dead.

I visit my son’s grave to place my hand over him. I can still see the place where men cut away the grass to turn it back before the hole, the hole that holds the small box in the earth where our son’s body lies. I grip the grass, and smooth it, and I can’t seem to stop wanting to touch it. Because, I realized, it’s the closest I have to touching my son in this life. I weep when I touch the grass, and I weep writing this. Weeping is part of my soul’s rejection that death was ever supposed to be a part of life.

Then I stop weeping, and I go on, resting on Christ, the only One who keeps me going.

***

Approximately 87% of the time, give or take, I’m in daily life mode. Pouring yogurt and milk, wiping bottoms, clearing and cleaning and sorting and planning. 15% of the time I’m thinking, or reading, and of course the times and the roles–and the percentages–overlap. Vocations don’t always neatly delineate labor. It just happens, and I do what’s in front of me. The 2% of grief hides much of the time, but when it emerges, it feels like 200%.

Jon and I visited with good friends one Friday night. Lisa sat with me at the table while our husbands smoked cigars outside and the kids ran amok and alternately watched a movie. “How are you?” she asked, reaching for my hand. It was a creeping storm grief moment, one I had seen coming. I shared and cried, and she cried, and then she suddenly jumped up and ran down the hall, emerging again with a roll of toilet paper that she unrolled slightly, tearing off some sheets. “I’m completely out of tissues,” she said, handing me the paper portion. “So you’ll have to use this.” She set the roll on the table in front of me. We spoke some more, and the tears rolled down my face.

Just then, her husband came in. He took in the moment in a glance, and then said, “I brought the beer in for you, Lisa, but I think Emily needs it more.” He said it gently and caringly. But it was funny. I laughed through tears. Lisa did, too. 

The beer and the TP.

I never wanted to be a part of Those People, the ones like Pastor Schulz and the church people who lost three children and my new friend Becca who lost her son this year. Before, I admired them and others, and I feared what they shared. I secretly hoped I’d never, ever, have to be where they are. It’s like an out of body experience sometimes, explaining to people who don’t know our story, and I’m listening to myself speak calmly about Christian, his life and his death, while the whole time I’m incredulous. I’m not actually the one talking, am I? Did this really happen to us? 

But I am one of Those People now. And sitting with Lisa, and looking at the toilet paper, I thought, “Yep, that’s what this is. The TP Project.” The Toilet-Paper-necessary-for-tears, the Time Project of living here while waiting for eternity, the Those People embrace. Because the fact is that unless I am one of Those People, hopelessly broken and in need, I don’t really need Jesus. No, I didn’t need Christian to die to believe that the Son of God dead, buried, and resurrected is true. But loving Christian, and living and laboring through my own helpless grief, continually points me to our Savior who labored mightily for me and for him. The grief will go on, but it will not last forever.

I’m a little TP. I giggle, and wipe away my tears, and drink a beer. And the labor goes on.