Seasons

My father's last days, death, and burial all took place during the heart of the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany cycle of the church year. The parallels are amazingly appropriate. My dad, a church nerd just like me, would have appreciated the connections. Who knows - maybe he planned it this way. :)

I. Advent
There's that feeling you get. That sense. That urgency. That stirring in your belly that says, "don't think twice, just do." I couldn't wait, so I drove home. Something beyond knowing told me that I needed to throw a duffel bag, a toddler, and a cup of coffee into the car and drive five hours home in the dark of night. Some part of me without words to speak knew that it was time to hold vigil. To sit. To wait with my father until he died.

It is hard to put words to just how much food there was in that hospital waiting room, there on the fourth floor. Sandwiches. Oranges. Early Christmas cookies. Carrot sticks. Pretzel rolls. Deli meat. Leftover Chinese food. Chicken in lemon sauce. Roast potatoes. Salad. Chocolates. Pretzels. Potato chips. Cases of bottled water. Nobody wanted us to be hungry as we waited. Some Advent vigils are fasting matters. Our vigil was the absolute opposite of that.

That week in the hospital was borrowed time. Monday's surgery could have killed him. Monday's blood clot certainly should have. But instead, on Tuesday, he woke up. He talked with us about hospice, and cooking, and how much he loved the lemon ice and the big glasses of orange juice that they gave him when he was thirsty. He told us "I love you" when we left the room. He let the entire school board into his hospital room to give him a lifetime achievement award, and he thanked them. He made jokes. He let us kiss his forehead. He hated the IVs in his hands.

Isn't Advent itself a time not just of waiting, but of borrowed time? The moments of darkness that buzz with divine electricity, the painful energy that comes with knowing that you are waiting for something real. Something big. Something life-changing.

When things took a turn on Thursday, we camped out in his room, all evening, late into the night. We prayed and spoke words of blessing and sang songs of love and hope. We were all there. Everybody who belonged to him - wife, daughters, sister, brother - we were all there. We passed waiting hours with lore and laughter. We fended off the darkness by creating our own light.

There was no mystery. We knew what we were waiting for. But the grief of that future moment did nothing to prevent us from making sweet the present moments that we were living together.

II. Nativity
It was four days before Christmas. The sanctuary had already been decorated. In the corner behind the altar platform, the tall tree shimmering with white lights and golden ornaments. In front of the lectern and pulpit, red and white flowers. Down the aisle, candles flickering at the end of each pew.

And then, there, at the head of the aisle, for everyone to trip over and pass by and touch as they would come forward for communion, my father's casket, draped in white cloth.

This cloth, the pall, the symbol of his baptism, the white garment of God's grace and salvation. Baptism and death: both moments of birth, of nativity, of the labor of life, the transformation of the flesh, the symbol of something having commenced after a long time of waiting.

A manger, a baptismal font, a smooth wooden casket: all cradles to hold something holy. All places to contain the mystery of life changed into life.

III. Epiphany
It's the little moments that catch you by surprise.

The moment when you are staring at the pastry case at Starbucks and you tear up when you see the stack of cranberry bliss bars, because those were his favorite seasonal treat. The moment when you realize just how much your one-year-old son looks like his grandpa when he smiles just the right way. The moments when you stumble upon a picture of him that you weren't expecting to see, and the way that your heart jumps. The dreams that you have where he recovers. The times that you somehow think that you're going to get a do-over.

There are the pictures that you'd never seen before the funeral, of him dressed up as a cowboy as a kid, or hanging out with his siblings the way that we sisters hang out with each other.

There are post-church-council-debriefing phone calls that aren't quite the same when you talk to your mom instead of your dad. There are the new choral pieces that come on the radio that you would otherwise have rushed to share with him.

There is the realization that Mom is in a big house alone, cooking for one. There are the unexpected tears when you bake bread or think about his smile. There are the home videos that you can't yet bring yourself to watch because the manifestation of Dad's voice and mannerisms recorded there are just too much to take right now.

The little moments reveal all of the big feelings, the revelations about a life well lived and life so missed. The revelation and realization that memory and grief trip over each other all the time.

IV. Ordinary Time
This week, the paraments on the altar returned to green. The church, after the blue of Advent and the blazing white of Christmas and Epiphany, settles back into "ordinary time." No longer in the midst of a penitential season of waiting, no longer celebrating any feast days, the church goes back to business as usual.

It is the church's version of the January let-down that I always feel after the Christmas season is over. What a transition back to regular routines, where the snow and the cold are merely things to be dealt with instead of romanticized, where work is work-as-usual, where nothing is particularly special or interesting. It is time to settle in. To do the boring work of regularity.

This year, for a change, it feels nice to be back in ordinary time. After hospital rooms and funerals and first Christmases after loss, there's no energy left in my soul for anything else but the ordinary. Shivering in the cold as I walk to my car at the end of the day, to head home and cook an ordinary dinner (chicken, potatoes, carrots). After dinner, bath time for the toddler, and then his pajamas, and then rocking him to sleep in his own chair in his own room, putting him down into his own crib, heading downstairs to finish the dishes and to sit on the couch to unwind before my own bedtime beckons.

Ordinary life. Here in my own house. Here with my daily routines of email and writing and reading and worship planning and visitation and meetings.

Do not confuse ordinary with normal. There is nothing normal here. Life is divided up into before-loss and after-loss. Memories lurk. And there's that jolt when I reach for my phone to call my dad and then remember. There's a hole, something missing. Nothing is normal, not even a little.

But things can be ordinary. Ordinary enough to assure me that I will survive grief. That I have already survived grief. That life settles down, and you make it through the days and weeks. That the world yet pushes forward into a future. It is ordinary here these days. I am returning.

Comments