Taking up space: The empty space

It happens to me every morning.

The day starts as usual. Waking up in the darkness of early morning to rescue a crying toddler from his crib, changing his diaper, and bringing back to bed with me, in hopes of snoozing for another half hour. Sam snuggles with me and kicks the covers off of his legs. He crawls around on the bed and looks for the cats. He pats sleeping Matt on the shoulder and pokes his nose. Sam hugs his blanket and flops around. He stands up to bang his hands against the wrought-iron swirls in our headboard. He reaches for the light of the digital clock and tries to grab my phone off of the nightstand. Sometimes he dozes off.

Matt's alarm clock begins its blaring, and his cell phone alarm goes off (it is the sound of dogs barking!). He hits snooze. After the second or third time through the alarm cycle, Sam gets restless and climbs off the bed in search of the cats, or his blocks, or a ball. I drag myself out of bed to close off the baby gate at the top of the stairs, and begin the morning routine. I brush my teeth and Sam watches, fascinated. I bathe and wash my face while Sam throws his blanket in the bathtub and cries when I won't give it back to him because it is too wet.

Hildegard circles Sam, rubbing her furry face against his, seeking his affection - they are special friends. Emme, on the other hand, saunters over to the bed that she might curl up and take a nap in the warm spots where Matt and I had been sleeping. Matt heads downstairs to organize his briefcase while I fumble in the closet to find clothes and Sam drags the laundry basket from the closet into the middle of the room. I trip over it and Sam pulls dirty laundry to the floor. I brush my hair and put on make-up while Sam swivels the standing mirror back and forth so that I can't see myself anymore.

Downstairs, Sam drinks milk and eats Cheerios while I fix him breakfast - oatmeal and bananas are fine, and plain yogurt is fine, but if I add strawberries to the concoction, he won't eat it. Some mornings he gets to eat leftover pancakes from a previous day's breakfast-for-dinner. He'll shove a handful of pancake into his mouth and then spit it out when it is too much to swallow. He'll grab the spoon to help me feed him oatmeal and he'll poke with his finger at any drips of yogurt that fall onto his tray.

In the midst of this, I feed the cats, find my shoes, and gather the necessary objects into my bag - replacing my phone in its front pocket, grabbing the book I'm reading and throwing it in amidst my wallet, my lip balm, and my keys. I find my jacket and wipe down Sam's face and hands. He resists the face-wiping but loves having clean hands. When I take him out of his high chair, I cross my fingers that he hasn't dirtied his diaper, because that would mean going back upstairs to do another diaper change, and we're running late already. He pokes his arms through the sleeves of his jacket, but protests when I try to put him in his car seat, though he calms quickly once we are driving.

We arrive at daycare, and as I open the door to get him out of the car, he pinches together his thumb and index finger repeatedly, making the sign for "bird," because he can see the bush outside his classroom window which is often filled with sparrows. He dances in my arms as we go through the double doors, because he loves daycare. He grins as I sit him on top of the cubbies to take off his jacket. He greets his friend Owen as we walk into his classroom but refuses to leave my side. When I hand him a cloth book to distract him and leave, he cries. But I know that he'll be fine in five minutes.

Every day, I walk to my car, smiling to myself about this beautiful miracle baby who is no longer a baby, but a toddler, who will soon be all grown up, because that's what happens. I get in my car, vowing that I'll finally get it washed after the sandy, salty winter, so that it is blue again and not dusty tan. I turn up the radio and head out of the parking lot.

And then something happens.

It happens every morning.

I turn from County 9 back toward Mill Street - Pizza Hut, McDonalds, Culvers, and QuikTrip taking up the four corners of the intersection - and while I drive that straight line on Mill Street toward the church parking lot, my mind starts wandering. Free from the bustle of the morning routine, listening to my favorite classical radio station at full blast, still feeling a little sleepy, my mind has space to take flight. The ride along Mill is about a minute and a half (we live in a small town!), but that minute and a half is plenty of space to fall deep into the space of introspection.

And I always think about Dad.

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Yes, it happens every day. My father died in December, and my mind has trained itself in these alone moments to use my brain-space and heart-space to think about this big, fat void in my life. Technically, I suppose that I am doing the work of grief. But it doesn't feel like that. It just feels like thinking.

Some mornings, the empty space in my brain fixates on the Sunday before my father died. I replay that Sunday evening, sitting in Sam's room, talking to my mom, who for the first time is getting teary and anxious about my dad's health, because he is being forgetful and mean and sleeping too much. I think about my snap decision to pack up the cookies I'd baked with friends earlier in the day, throw some clothes in a bag, load Sam into the car, and drive by myself, late in the night, from small-town Iowa back to Chicago.

Some mornings, the empty space in my heart remembers how naive we all were - as we should have been! - to think that emergency surgery to drain fluid from around Dad's heart would be a magic fix that would get him feeling better, and get him back to doing the work of chemo and rest, that he might yet beat this cancer filling his lung. I think about all the family and friends who gathered in the fourth-floor waiting room, and the way that I didn't pack enough clothes, and the way that everyone wanted to play with Sam because babies are a great antidote to grief. I think about Dad reaching up his weak hand to touch Sam's hand, and the moments of beauty and the moments of pain on his face in those last days.

Some mornings, the empty space takes the shape of all the moments in my day and week that I wish I could have shared with Dad. I cooked my favorite childhood meal last week - chicken paprikas with spaetzle. Sam ate the meal by the fistful. I took a picture and wished I could have texted it to Dad. He would have been tickled. I think about the times church politics have frustrated me, and how I would otherwise have called Dad to commiserate. I think about the new entertainment center that we've purchased, and how we are getting our floors refinished next week, and how we've painted the living room and dining room yellow, and I wish that he could see all of this work that we're putting into our house. I hear a beautiful choral work on the radio and wish I could tell him about it.

Some mornings, the empty space is forward-looking; I think about all of the things coming up this spring and summer that we would have done together, because he loved road trips and loved our little town in the middle-of-nowhere northeast Iowa. He would have come out to hear Luther College perform Handel's "Messiah," and would have wanted to come out to Empty Bowls, where he'd get to choose from hundreds of handmade bowls, pick his favorite, eat bowlfuls of soup from it, and in the process, support all of the feeding ministries that happen across town. He would have driven Mom out here for Mother's Day, and they would have come to my choir concert that weekend. They would have trekked out to help us with our garden, and we would have gone to the pool with Sam, and he would have chowed down on Scandinavian street food during Nordic Fest in July.

But most mornings, in truth, the empty space doesn't take the shape of anything nearly so specific. My mind simply rests on the void itself. "I miss Dad," my mind says into that gaping empty space in my head and heart.

At the moment of creation, God speaks into a void. Stretching out before God's eyes are both nothingness and chaos. And it is out of this swirling void God calls light into being. Light first, and then life. "Now the earth was a formless void," we read. In my imagination, this "formless void" sometimes takes the shape of a saggy, amoeba-shaped version of the globe, sort of like someone took the earth and deflated it, or turned it into a water balloon, or a Salvador Dali painting. But other times, when I imagine the formless void of pre-creation and the darkness hovering over the face of the waters, I think about something more akin to a black hole.

Black holes scare me. They have scared me ever since I learned about them at the Adler Planetarium as a child. How can something so full of nothing have such power to destroy? How can the gravity which keeps my feet firmly planted on the ground be such an ominous source of complete, utter obliteration?

It is one of the perils of grief and depression alike: the knowledge that empty space can have its own gravitational pull, and the fear that the void can destroy you if you get too close to the center.

The Psalmist groans, "​Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!"

But here is what the Psalmist also knows: that God has all power - and inclination! - to pull him from the void, to rescue him from the emptiness that surrounds him and threatens to crush him. "I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog" (Psalm 40:1-2a), and "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits— who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)

In the empty space of my head, when I think so deeply about the empty space left in my life by my Dad's death, the beating faith in my heart also knows that the God who calls life from the void is the God who pulls me from the void.

Right after Christmas, my sisters and I were brave enough to watch some old home movies from family vacations and classroom musicals and sisterly antics. There was footage of us building what seemed to us to be the world's tallest Lego tower. Stephanie stars as "Mom" in her fourth grade Thanksgiving play, "The Case of the Gone Gobbler." Bethany stars in a stirring lip-synch rendition of "A Whole New World" from Disney's Aladdin. I spend as much time as possible dodging the camera, because I was an awkward adolescent with giant red glasses who knew better than to let myself do anything embarrassing on film.

But most of the footage is from family vacations to Door County, Wisconsin. We went up there every summer, relaxing for family time at a log cabin on the beach of Lily Bay.

One of the videos captures my younger sisters playing together on the beach, as the summer sun is beginning to fade away.To a soundtrack of waves splashing behind them, my sisters have dug out a deep hole in the sand. They are dirty from their work. Their fingernails are filled with grains of sand and their feet are coated. They dig their hole deep enough that it fills with a few inches of water. Being old enough to hate the feeling of sand stuck to my skin, I feel no desire to do anything but, perhaps, peer into the hole, or maybe throw a rock into it. But my brave and silly sisters, in their exuberant childhood enthusiasm, each take a turn climbing into the hole. They don't have to tuck their legs too far under them to descend until only their heads were visible. In turn, they dump sand around each other's bodies, filling up the hole to the brim.

On camera, they take turns playing out the following scenario: Each pretends to walk along the beach nonchalantly, stopping abruptly when they notice a head on the sand, no body to be found. They feign surprise and wonder at this strange body-less head in the sand. And then, they feign equal surprise as the disembodied head jumps from the hole to reveal an entire body!

I wonder if this isn't the way that things go with the empty spaces, the voids, the griefs in our lives. On the one hand, they do have the power to engulf us. But on the other hand, if we aren't afraid to get a little dirty, to get sand wedged in uncomfortable places, we might just consider crawling into that empty space and letting it fill in around us. As long as our heads peek out, as long as we can still breathe and see, perhaps a hole can be a cozy place to stay for a while. You'll get cold after a bit, of course, and itchy. Your feet will get pruny in the cold lake-water at the bottom of the void. And when the time is right, you will leap from the hole and shake off the extra sand, and your sisters will laugh at you and with you and build sandcastles and jump into the lake to wash off.

The empty space is the knowledge that all things, for good and for ill, will one day pass on. The empty space is the knowledge that life is a process of being filled up with people and loves and memories and hopes and dreams.

It happened this morning, as I was driving back from daycare drop-off to sit here a while, at my favorite cafe, with a cup of coffee and an agenda to write as many words as possible. I turned onto Mill Street and my mind wandered off to that empty space at the table where my Dad used to sit. And I drove that straight line across town getting a little sandy, a little dirty, as I crawled into that hole and surrounded myself with love and memories.

The empty space is chaos and gravity and dirt. But the void of grief reminds me that I have loved deeply - and been deeply loved - and that this empty space is nothing other than the blessing of grieving a life well-lived, well-loved, and, now, well-missed. The empty space crushes my heart, but it is beautiful nonetheless.

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