“It is your season, Elizabeth,” our priest greeted me, more than eight months pregnant and my body filled to bursting with our son, John, during Advent 2003.
“It is,” I laughed. “I can’t wait to hold him!” Our daughter, Izzy, six at the time, was dubious about a little brother joining her domain in January. We began reading the first chapter of Luke out loud feeling a kinship with Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, enjoying the company of her cousin Mary while they were both expecting their sons.
And, like their sons, our John, nicknamed “Mack,” came to us in that miraculous way that children do, somehow familiar and yet fully himself. A special soul that had the enviable ability to know what he wanted with little angst. A morning person like me, many days I would come downstairs in the pre-dawn hours to find him hunched over his worktable, the only light from his headlamp, his robe draped on the floor around his chair, constructing a new Lego. I would stand and watch him, he knew I was there.
“What?” he would ask without looking up, a smile turned up the corner of his mouth.
And, as quickly as he came, he returned to the Lord in the sound and fury of a helicopter into the night sky, rushing him to the children’s hospital to try to halt the blood infection. He died en route New Year’s Eve 2012, two weeks shy of his ninth birthday.
Mack. Mack. I always say his name out loud because it sounds like rain. How I long to hold your face in my hands and see your Teddy Bear brown eyes. How I long to kiss the tip of your nose. I long for you.
Until Mack died, I had not thought a lot about Elizabeth and Mary also having to bury their sons. We don’t hear from Elizabeth again, but in Luke 2:33-35 Simeon blessed Mary and Joseph, with the newborn Jesus, and said to Mary:
“And, a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”
Yes, that is what grief feels like.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (d. 1945) wrote about enduring the death of those we love, “It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve — even in pain — the authentic relationship.”
In the early months of grief it is too painful, even an affront, to see anything beyond death and loss. But, even in my darkest moments I couldn’t shake the sense of something other, something else, something, in the emptiness that Bonhoeffer refers to. I began coming again in the quiet hours to my desk in the same space I had shared with Mack, to tend to this little shoot of newness in me. I am here, Lord. I am here, Mack. Help me.
It is Advent 2015 and shortly beyond Christmas it will be the three-year anniversary of Mack’s death. The emptiness remains but it has become a sacred space. It is a space where I slowly realized that Mack still is because love does not die and our story is not finished.
In this season of Advent, Meister Eckart (d. 1327) speaks to our deep desire to be home with those we love, both here and there, already but not yet:
“God is at home. It is we who are in the far country.”