This weekend at an adoption conference, the speaker, Susan Hillis, referenced this painting by Ivan Aivazovsky. I’m fascinated by it. You can see the mast of a ship as it goes down in the center of the painting. On the bottom right are two tiny lifeboats barely making it in the water. The painting is dominated by waves that are enormous, gorgeous, complex, layered. The lifeboats are so small they seem laughable, ludicrous, in the face of the all-consuming grayness of the storm.
It seems appropriate, this first morning of Lent, to be waiting for news from a dear friend whose son has surgery every six months of his life. (I’ll let that just sink in–every. six. months.) I’m waiting by the phone for news and wondering at the timeline–did they just wheel him in? Was his surgery delayed? How soon is too soon to get word? My heart breaks every time he goes; these vigils are a routine part of our lives now.
We are also keeping vigil from afar this morning while my husband’s grandmother begins the long journey home. It may be hours, it may be days, but it seems the time has come. We’re doing laundry and getting ready to head there soon, hoping to hold her hand and see her once more. My girls are beginning the process of talking again about losing a beloved great-grandmother.
My grandfather died when I was twenty; I’ve lost my other three grandparents in the last fifteen months. We buried my last grandmother less than a month ago. This last year has been a strange time of grief and joy. All three were in their late ’80s to early ’90s. My parents and aunts and uncles had been caring for them for years. The gradual decline made their deaths less sad in some ways. They were ready to go. They had been in pain. We said our good-byes over and over as they faded away.
For each of them, their funerals were lovely memorials to the faithful lives they had lived, a chance to reconnect with relatives, a chance to remember the funny stories. As my uncle said, my Nanny (who just died) was “an experience.”
My girls have known and loved almost all of their great-grandparents. That is a gift. The first thing my daughter said yesterday when I told her Grandma Goudeau isn’t doing well was, “But who will have tea with me?” Tea time at Grandma Goudeau’s house is a formative memory in her life. Those memories can never be taken away and for that I’m deeply, deeply grateful.
The thing that seems the hardest to me when grandparents die is that it is the end of an era. It’s not just losing them, it’s losing all the visits home, all the holiday reunions, all the cousins-running-around fun that ends with their generation. We all lose something as we move up a generation.
We become a bit disoriented. At least, I have.
Today on this first day of Lent as we tighten our belts and begin to fast and think ahead of how to prepare our hearts for Easter, I’m struck once again at the wisdom of the scripture and the traditions of the church.
I need this time.
I need the language of loss and waiting and grief.
I need to hear others say, this is hard, we can make it, we are waiting too.
Maybe it’s because I’m a deep-end-of-the-pool person, a “winter Christian” (in Martin Marty’s clarifying phrase). Maybe it’s because the waiting for this new baby from China is starting to loom large–when we have a picture and we’re still not there, you will have to hold me. every. day. Maybe it’s because I still think we are stinking crazy to follow God’s call for a special needs baby (it’s a good crazy, but crazy nonetheless). Maybe it’s the dissertation that, despite the best efforts I have ever put into any project, seems endless, pointless, enormous. Maybe it’s the waiting with friends for a job. Maybe it’s still waiting with friends for children to come, whether through adoption or pregnancy. Maybe it’s waiting for news that something, anything, has changed in areas’ of my friend’s lives that I can’t blog about but that I hold close in my heart every day. Maybe it’s waiting for news on the surgery. Maybe it’s just being, in the grief, with my loved ones.
For whatever reason, I need Lent this year. And I need, more than ever, the underlying sense that after these dark and holy forty days, Easter will come.
I woke up with the phrase of a poem I had forgotten I knew running through my mind. Maybe it was the picture from the conference this weekend that jogged the line loose in my memory. The first thing I did was to pull out a worn book of poems to find the line, underlined twice with loopy notes in my undergraduate handwriting beside it. (“Important!” 20-year-old Jessica tells me, with a star and an extra exclamation mark to prove it.)
In 1875, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a poem called “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” As he says in the brief dedication beginning the poem, “To the happy memory of five Franciscan Nuns exiles by the Falk Laws drowned between midnight and morning of Dec. 7th. 1875.” The poem is full of some of his strongest, boldest imagery as he calls his country to hope despite the loss (I love this phrase: “The Christ of the Father compassionate, fetched in the storm of his strides.”)
But it is this line that won’t let me go this morning:
“Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east.”
This first Lenten morning as we orient ourselves again (literally, turn ourselves east toward the dawn), let him be the dayspring we seek. Let the dimness not overpower us. When the darkness seems too much, let him be the crimson-cresseted east.
And as we fast and focus and wait, let him easter in us.