I used to write those letters every year, summing up the life of the Apple family in the past 12 months. I remember the joyful one I wrote in 1996, the year Aaron was born. I remember bits of several them: “This year the boys started kindergarten and third grade” or “This year the boys were in fifth and eighth grade” or “This year Jesse started high school…” or “Aaron pitched for Pony League this year and Jesse ran cross-country and track” or “We enjoyed a fun bicycle trip to Lancaster….”
I haven’t written one of these letters in the past few years. I got off track. I had a few Christmases in which I lacked Christmas spirit. Shame on me. It seems so silly now not to appreciate all the blessings I had each and every year. What would I write in a year like this one?
It started out as a fantastic year. We were feeling hopeful with the guys busy embarking on their exciting careers. Things changed the day Jesse died in August. The last four months of 2106 were a blur of grief. My life fell off a spiritual cliff but fortunately I was caught in the arms of the Lord Jesus before I hit bottom. The rest of my life must be a matter of trusting Him to lift me up and eventually reunite me with my son. If I fail to trust him I will crash and burn in the pit of grief; therefore, if I want to experience any more light and hope in my existence I have no choice but to trust him.”
That’s about it. I have made my choice. Between light and hope and crashing and burning, I guess I choose light and hope. Sadness is heavy like lead and there is nothing on this earth that can really lighten the weight. Only God in the person of his son Jesus Christ has the strength and the promise and the ability to relieve the sadness and redeem the fact of death. I used to think the idea of dying – as in ceasing to exist – was intolerable and therefore I sought to believe the one who said he came to overcome death. But if I thought my cessation would be intolerable, the idea that my child could cease to exist was 1000 times more so. If I believed Jesse had ceased to exist I would want to cease to exist myself just stop the agony of that thought. In that direction lies the abyss, annihilation, and darkness. I don’t want those things especially because I believe in my heart they are lies. The truth is an existence of love and everlasting life. The truth is light as in not heavy and also light as in not dark.
I could wish that it were more generally accepted that our loved ones live on, that we are conscious spirits who do not die when our physical bodies die, that we simply transition to a new level of existence. Everybody says they believe that and yet they feel sorry for me that I lost my son. I appreciate the love and sympathy because losing a child is hard and the death of the body and the end of the life as we knew it is horrible. All death is horrible. But I wish we all really believed that our loved ones are absolutely as alive as we are, far more so. I wish we all accepted that as established fact.
That way when I run into someone in the grocery store they could talk about their Johnny in college and I could matter-of-factly talk about my Jesse in heaven and no one would feel awkward or sad, once the initial shock of the great transition had passed. It is also sad to say good-bye to your kids when they go away to college or into the military too. It’s just that it may be a little longer before I get to see my son again. But even that is not certain.
Like a 19th-century American pioneer who has traversed the Great Plains and is now into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains with the skies threatening a blizzard, I now face the roughest terrain on my journey of grief: the dreaded holidays. My main concern is that I do not cast a pallor on the holidays for those others who are still living in a grief-free world.
One thing I have realized is that when your child dies you no longer live in the same reality you used to live in. You have entered a parallel universe, slightly askew from the old one. However, you find that in your new reality you have lots of company. You realize that people have been suffering this grief the whole time you have been alive but you have been oblivious, dressing your children in their feet jammies and hanging stockings and anticipating their faces on Christmas morning and assuming you would be enjoying their presence for the rest of your earthly life. I have been reading other blogs written by mothers who have lost children and have been to my first meeting of Compassionate friends.
Jesse was the most magical of children and seeing his bright face full of reverent wonder on a Christmas Eve was heaven on earth to me. No child fully lived that Christmas magic more than he did and no one expressed more joy on Christmas morning and no child (except Aaron) looked cuter in feet jammies. Now all those memories and pictures feel like a dagger in my heart. I don’t fully understand why. That child was long gone before he died. But the young adult Jesse was his continuation, the one who embodied the memories. His adult self was a satisfying replacement for the child who used to be. But now that embodiment is gone.
Well it is what it is and was what it was, and I am learning to live in the present. When I can let go of the past and live in the present, I can feel Jesse’s presence and can begin to appreciate his new kind of life and to look forward to being with him in that new life soon enough. We are doing some good things to help us get through the rough terrain of the December. We are going to celebrate his birthday on December 10th with a small gathering of family and friends – a potluck and cake and a slide show and maybe a candlelight trip to his grave, but I am really having second thoughts about the trip to the grave. I don’t think I want to do that. We are going to go away for Christmas to my sister’s house in the mountains – a big change in the way we have always celebrated Christmas. We are going to start a new tradition at home: an angel tree in Jesse’s memory and also to remember all the loved ones we have lost. Tom’s mother used to an angel tree and I always loved the idea.
This is my prayer for help during the holidays:
Dear Lord Jesus,
Out of all the millions of egg and sperm cells in his parents’ bodies You created wonderful one-of-a-kind Jesse, a beautiful child. His flame burned bright but short-lived on this earth and we are left broken-hearted, but not in despair as if we believed him gone forever. We live in the happy knowledge that he is alive and that the light he lit here on earth continues to shine and grow in the next stage of his existence.
I would like to stop looking back and what is lost and stop grieving for the kind of future that will never be. I ask Your help in living now in the new reality l, that You will help me to know and feel and experience the love and joy of what is now, and to be able to know and feel and talk to Jesse just as he is now. Tell him how much I love him. Amen.