During the season of Advent 2003, I was eight months pregnant with Mack. Iz had just turned six and was dressed as an angel having participated in the Christmas Eve children’s pageant at our church. She leaned against me drawing on a notepad, the gold tinsel from her halo tickled my nose, and we smiled at each other when Mack moved and she could feel him through my dress.
“That is so weird, Mamma!” she giggled.
Advent is the four weeks ahead of Christmas, which will be familiar to those from a liturgical church background. In the Episcopal church, the annual creation of an Advent wreath with four candles and evergreens the Sunday after Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the Christmas season. But Advent is not just a preparation for the birth of Jesus but of his long-awaited second coming.
There is no way we could have known in that magical season of 2003 in anticipation of Mack’s birth that he would die suddenly nine years later on New Year’s Eve 2012.
In the almost seven years since his death, I have begun to appreciate the season ever more deeply. Advent is time set apart for us to face the dark places in our own lives and the world. It is a reminder that Jesus promises to return again and to defeat death once and for all. This is the comfort that no human can offer, and it is the grist of hope. A hope that assures me beyond any human understanding that I will see my son again.
But, until that time, Advent reminds us to keep showing up to life, to be present not just in the joy, but in the pain for one another.
“All of us who take on the risk of mothering take on the risk of living, and dying, because the two are inseparable,” wrote Brother David Steindl-Rast.
When I sit in the Christmas Eve service now and watch the bustle of young families preparing for the children’s pageant, I am grateful for the years of busy sweetness when Iz and Mack were young. I smile through my tears with golden memories of Mack in the children’s pageant in his preferred role as an animal. For many years he was a sheep until he was promoted to donkey and proclaimed to me in his costume, ears askew:
“Mom! I’m an ass!”
We laughed together then and I laugh now and feel his warm and joyful spirit wash over me.
How I love being their mom, how humbling it is to be loved with such abandon. My whole insides ache with love for them.
I have thought a lot about Mary and her consent to become the mother of Jesus. Her response to the archangel Gabriel “let it be” was just the beginning. Mary’s story unfolded far beyond the stable throughout Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. As a bereaved mom I returned to Mary with new eyes and had to release her from the confines of an annual pageant scene in a barn. I realized my narrow view of her was a fundamental silencing of a fierce and faithful woman that I had much to learn from.
One can only imagine the judgment and gossip swirling around Mary when she was first pregnant. She left town no doubt for some relief to stay with her older cousin, Elizabeth, who was by then six months pregnant with John the Baptist.
I have an icon on my writing desk that my husband C. gave me called “The Visitation” which depicts this meeting of the two women. When I ponder the significance of it I often think of the great women in my own life.
It especially reminds me of my friend E. She is also a bereaved mom and our sons were best friends and she loves Mack and misses him, too. She came to my house every evening through the frigid winter of 2013 and we would bundle up and walk the two-mile loop around our neighborhood in the sub-freezing cold while I cried sloppy tears and shared with her my latest dream, reading, or thought about Mack. She visits Mack’s gravesite and leaves crosses in the spring and pumpkins during the fall, and when I visit his site I know it is she who has been there, and I take a photo and text her and thank her for her love for us.
I learned from E. not to be afraid of the dark times of others. We don’t need to say anything or fix anything. Some things are broken and they hurt and they need to be acknowledged. We are called to show up, as awkward and imperfect as it feels, to assure each other that we are not alone.
Recently the daughter of a good friend died suddenly in a horseback riding accident. A courageous and passionate young life again cut too soon leaving the family in stunned shock as they learn to live into their new painful reality. She and her husband have been sent a stack of bereavement books, including one from me, that are piled on her hearth.
“What helps you most right now?” I asked her.
“Nothing really helps,” she said. “Except when my friends come to be with me.”
Sister Joan Chittister of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie speaks to this truth.
“Have you never been imprisoned by your fears, your embarrassments, your humiliations, your inadequacies?” Sister Joan wrote, “Because if you have, you know that only those who visit you can make a difference.”