A new day, a new beginning, a new year …
I’d like to say that I’m looking forward to all that 2016 will bring, but to be completely honest, what I’m feeling is more like trepidation and less like excitement. I would say that I’m looking forward to the blessings that 2016 will bring, but only if I could stipulate that those blessings should be ones I recognize as such, like happy and healthy children, peace and prosperity. No blessings in disguise, if You don’t mind. I would like to open my arms and heart wide to welcome the New Year, but I’m reluctant, more like a bouncer, arms crossed and scowling at the riffraff. Except that I’m too slight to intimidate any riffraff.
It could be that I’m still up to my eyeballs in Christmas crap. Decorating for the holidays can feel so festive, but dismantling all those Santas and snowflakes is a chore, even if also a relief. Maybe I’m just recovering from all the recent quality time with family. Or suffering from the self-imposed post-holiday Betty Ford rinse cycle.
I’m acutely aware of the range that a year can bring – incredible joy and unspeakable pain – and I’m bracing myself. I don’t get to choose my favorites, like I do with the assorted box of See’s candies, carefully selecting the marzipan or dark almonds and avoiding toffee, Bordeaux or anything covered in milk chocolate. I’d like to open the door to the New Year just a sliver, enough to make sure I like what I see in my future with time to slam the door closed if I don’t.
Too bad life doesn’t work that way.
Then again, I’m on a path I most definitely would not have chosen, and here I am, living a life full of joy, faith and passion. Along with a few oddball pets and a mountain of stinky athletic socks.
It’s a little nutty, this life.
I try my standard places for inspiration: I read, I run, I bake, I text my girlfriends. I treat myself to sushi for lunch. Nope. Still not feeling ready to face the day, let alone the year.
I go to church, hand in hand with the love of my life. We sit. We pray. We listen. The priest is talking about the Holy Family and making the point that what makes the family holy is not its perfection, because even the Holy Family isn’t perfect. Which is a huge relief, in light of the fact that this particular imperfect mother has left her imperfect children home to sleep while she and her imperfect husband sneak off to an imperfect church for a few moments of relative peace (without the relatives). Even the Holy Family suffered their share of disappointments, disapproval and one especially cold but memorable night in a barn.
No, the priest continues, what makes a family holy is the willingness to respond to God’s call. To say yes when He asks. Which seems easy enough in theory, but He rarely seems to ask for anything simple. He usually dishes out something new, or complicated, or non-traditional. It’s hardly ever popular. He has this way of setting us on a path that we didn’t expect and maybe don’t want. Even if Joseph didn’t audibly express any doubt about where this unexpected pregnancy would lead, I imagine he must have at least raised an eyebrow when the angel wasn’t looking. I’m just saying. That kind of yes is a big ask.
Sometimes we don’t get much of a choice.
Tim and I were both widowed in 2007 (Debbie from cancer / Sam by suicide), and each of us vowed never to live through that again. I did not want to open my heart – or my children’s hearts – to that vulnerable place, love. Tim and I met the following year, introduced by a mutual friend. Naturally, we fell in love. Humble pie is one of God’s favorite entrees.
We married and blended our family of four sons, two rotten cats and a little black dog. Then we added an “ours” puppy. We have all eight of our parents and in-laws. In our years together, we’ve celebrated two 50th wedding anniversaries for our collective parents (with plans for one more in June and a 60th wedding anniversary in the spring), three 8th grade promotions, two high school graduations and one college degree. We’ve held each other’s hands at several family funerals, suffered through the range of illnesses from garden variety flus to pneumonia to a significant concussion, and only one broken bone (but multiple x-rays and considerable experience with the local urgent care facilities). We are down to two teenagers, a defective hunting dog and one cat with a sock fetish at home. It’s not perfect or without struggles, but we are weathering life’s sunshine and storms together. We chose to respond to God’s invitation to love, and that yes makes our own little family holy.
In this season of resolutions, renewal and motivation, I am mindful that God will not love me more if I keep my weight down or get my salary up or pursue another degree. Or even if I say yes when He calls, but you have to know that I will be thinking about Jonah and that whale. In the interest of expedience, I will try to take a deep breath, bite the no that sits so naturally on the tip of my tongue, and say yes.
God doesn’t ask for perfection. He extends due dates and allows for do-overs. He appreciates laughter. He takes a little willingness and runs with it.
Sometimes the challenge is recognizing the ask when it happens. I’d like to think I’d say yes more readily to a winged messenger, bathed in light and accompanied by an angelic chorus. So far that hasn’t happened. The best I get is an atta girl after I’ve taken a few tentative steps in the right direction.
I spoke at a gathering of bereaved families over the holidays. This is the kind of activity that causes my husband and children to snicker and call me names like Grief Girl. I might not recommend that you depend on your immediate family for the confirmation that you’ve found your calling in life. As the event grew closer, I found myself becoming less enthusiastic about my participation. I was starting to regret my yes, but I really like the woman in charge of the program. So I took a deep breath, forced pen to paper, postponed a few holiday preparations, steadied myself with a prayer and a cup of coffee, wrapped myself in a favorite sweater and set off to the auditorium.
The program consists of music, candles, two speakers (including yours truly), a “Sharing of Names” and a video. And snacks, of course. I only know a handful of people in the room. Those in attendance range from young to old, inexperienced to credentialed, and none of that matters, because we are all heart-broken. It’s that simple. The Sharing of Names is a ritual where each person in attendance speaks the name of a loved one whose death they are grieving. Some speak through tears, some in shock from a recent death, some still reeling from a death decades ago. Cancer, murder, accident, suicide, old age, youth. These deaths are not anonymous, our loved ones have names and stories. We are a community of hearts who know love and its twin sister, loss. Grief is a powerful bond in its universality, and we find comfort in this safe space. I feel honored to be a part of this beautiful ceremony. But that’s not why I’m here.
As the participants continue sharing the names, I hear a name that I recognize, a unique name, a name I remember from a baby announcement about the same time I was sending out baby announcements myself. I do not want it to be true, but I cannot dare to believe that I misheard. It is, as I said, a distinctive name, belonging to the child of a dear friend whom I had lost connection with. That’s why I’m here. Thank goodness I said yes. My little yes covered a lot of territory in that hour.
Sometimes my inclination to say no is reinforced by my propensity to seek approval, because yes, the validation matters to me even though I know it shouldn’t.
The first time I met Debbie’s extended family was at a party celebrating an aunt and uncle’s 50th wedding anniversary. It was no small affair; the uncle is one of thirteen children. Two of Debbie’s favorite uncles greeted me eagerly. One retired military and the other a former union leader, they were both big, intimidating men. They loved their niece, and even though they were broken-hearted over her death, they welcomed me with open hearts. They didn’t blame me or punish me. I didn’t ask to be widowed, and neither did Tim. The uncles were well aware of life’s mercurial nature. They had experienced enough of life’s unpredictability to know that fairness or fault did not necessarily factor into the system. They knew that family can be the most ardent proponent and the harshest critic. They knew that the best you can do is to live with integrity and love, because you won’t please everybody. They pushed Tim to the side, flanked me, and prepared to introduce me to the many siblings and cousins. One of the uncles leans down to me and growls into my ear, “Darlin’, some of the family won’t like it, but that’s tough shit.” And so we proceeded into the ballroom.
I think about those protective men, and I cannot help but grin. I start to believe that I could greet the New Year with a tiny, little, apprehensive yes, fortified by my guardian uncles and their tough shit attitude.
I leash up my trusty walking companion, and we open the door. I cannot accomplish the whole year at once, but I can get there one breath at a time, with Faith at one shoulder and Love at the other, and Joy waiting expectantly at my feet.
All right, 2016. I’m ready now. Let’s go.
Wishing you light and strength on your New Year’s path. And today’s Yes.