For almost twenty years, I have had a Mary Engelbreit calendar hanging in the same place in my kitchen. Tonight, as I stood washing dishes, I looked up and saw her succinct command: Give thanks.
And I thought about the fact that I do give thanks.
I know, I know, there are those of you who call me Eeyore, who wish I were a little peppier and forced some oomph into the monotone, but, in general, the Lord and I know I’m grateful.
And as I stood at the kitchen sink tonight, I thought about last Thanksgiving, when my father had been dead only a month, and my husband was still my husband–and recovering from his second heart surgery in 55 days. He was in our house, in his recliner, Andy Griffith and Barney Fife his constant companions.
And tonight, for a just second at the sink, I cracked open a door. I let myself think about how much my world has changed since last Thanksgiving.
It is the most astonishing thing–to be without your husband, to have declared null the words you spoke twenty-nine years ago on an August day, to negate them, to take every one back, especially when, for so long, you clung solely to those words. You meant them.
To have them taken away: to have your words taken away when words are everything . . . To watch them disappear and–after months, years, of crying–say, “That is fine with me,” to stand and watch yet another chasm open, knowing that if every cliff gives way, you will, in fact, survive–is a Red Sea moment.
That seems an overstatement—hyperbolic drama. A simple divorce does not compare to the parting of the Red Sea and the sparing of the Israelites. Who must I think I am?
I stood in church on Sunday night–Sunday nights in South Georgia are when the “real” worshipers attend (for those who don’t know me, the sarcasm oozes), when the facades fall off, when the congregation gets loud–and some of the adults were truly free in Jesus that night. They were, some would say, losing their minds.
And, in the back of the church, I noticed some teenagers laughing. Eyebrows raised, hands over their mouths, they whispered to one another, grinning at the fools.
And, for a minute, I admired their innocence, their complete lack of understanding of the reality that, truly, God is the only thing that matters; Jesus is the only thing that gets some of us through, that grace and mercy are truly sometimes our souls’ only sustenance.
There was so much that they had yet to endure, and I loved that.
I have a casual friend who is a sister in loss. I have never been to her home. I do not know her phone number. I cannot tell you what kind of car she drives, but we know loss, and we are sisters in faith–our bond is beyond texting and pool parties.
When we do see one another, we tighten the knots.
We bumped into each other one day in a Walmart parking lot. One of us, I can’t remember who, had recently celebrated an anniversary, had looked at a picture of her young, naive self, hopeful on her long-ago wedding day–and posted a picture on Facebook.
We stood between shopping carts talking about that picture, about the days when we hoped for bright futures, when we thought that they were assured. And my friend looked at me and said, “You almost want to say, ‘Don’t do it.'”
You look back at the young girl you were, at all that was ahead of her, and you want to say, “Don’t walk. Don’t take that step or that one. Don’t move ahead. Because the path is one of pain and sorrow. The losses are stacked like cordwood.“
But on our wedding days, so full of joy, most of us are ignorant of the sorrows to come. Like the teenagers in the church, there is so much we do not know.
On our wedding days, we anticipate unity and joy—the relational richness of Christ and The Church.
But within marriage, we also learn this: the losses in our lives reveal to us the character of God. Behind each loss, there is an assurance of His presence. He is present in our horrors.
In the loss of my granddaughter Stephanie Grace, I have seen the hand of God more mightily than I have in any area in my life. When I stood in that hospital room and held that lifeless baby, I could not have known that her story would reach–literally–throughout the world.
We cannot see the heavenly scope of our loss; we cannot know the extent of what God has planned when our treasures are taken from us. But when much is taken, when you lose babies and jobs and houses and money and health, when it is all discarded–that is when you know that there is only God.
There is only God.
He is our only hope, and even as a cleansed sinner, as someone who does MUCH wrong, I can say that He is faithful, that He has restored much in my life, that He has blessed me abundantly, through every loss that I have endured.
So, even in the loss of my marriage, in this stripping away, I trust in this: He is there.
I talk about cordwood a lot in this blog because that is how I see my losses. Stacked, heaped, piled high.
An elderly reader who knew me in my childhood once messaged me, saying, “Even from infancy, you have not had it easy.”
I cried that day because I had never considered it that way. I see myself as having endured much from first grade on, yes. But I had never thought: Even as an infant, even as a toddler, I was enduring. Brain surgery. Leg braces. Months-long pneumonia.
Even as a small child, I was suffering.
My brain tells me to count up the suffering, to count up the loss, to evaluate and contemplate and think about all that I do not have.
And I am without much.
I rearrange the things I have lost, these logs of heavy sorrows. I pitch a fit and try to throw them. Behind them, all I find is God.
All I find is God.
Five years ago, Thanksgiving meant dinner at my father’s. With my husband and my daughters and twenty other people. This year, there is no one. This year, a neighbor is making me a plate.
In the natural, it makes no sense.
As recently as seven years ago, I would have wanted to make this make sense.
But tremendous, all-engulfing loss makes it impossible to have anything other than God. Past a certain point, there is no comfort but the assurance of God’s presence and the fact that He will do good.
Lose enough, and it becomes easy to live in the day, to do that which is set before you–and on good days, you can even work with all your might. Endure enough, and it becomes twisted into your core that tomorrow is not promised, that all is dross.
You take out your scales–you weigh everything while simultaneously letting so many things go.
And it’s not trusting the process; it’s not time heals all wounds, it’s not relentless forward progress. Rather, it is simply this: You have seen everything stripped away, and you have seen what remains.
He is faithful through our pain, through our loss, through all our suffering.
The 21-year-old bride who stood in that church on that August day 29 years ago would, I know, be stunned to learn she’d spent two decades consumed by caregiving–and she never homeschooled–but her husband did. She would find it amazing that she was, in fact, the primary breadwinner twice. She’d be dumbfounded that she lived within a mile of her childhood home, taught for the arch-rival high school, had only one birth child–and only adopted one. The yoga would be hilarious to her. The pets, oh, what a surprise they would be.
I wouldn’t tell her about the losses. I couldn’t do that to her. I realize that, sitting here now, staring into the darkness of my yard: in the Walmart parking lot that day, my friend and I agreed: we would tell the young bride to run.
We wouldn’t tell her what would happen.
That is stunning: I wouldn’t even tell myself what would happen to me. I wouldn’t recite the litany of the things that I was going to lose. I would let myself be ignorant.
I could not say to myself: You are going to lose this man.
I could not say to myself: You are going to lose your father.
I could not say to myself: You are going to lose your granddaughter.
But I could grab that bride’s hands, clench them tight, look her in the eyes, and say, “God is going to sustain you in the days to come; He is going to be faithful, and you will stand strong in Him.”
There is so much pain in this confidence, but there is also so much confidence. Beneath the cordwood, there is this bedrock: Good will come.
And for that (and sometimes that alone), I will always give thanks.