This past weekend I had a thought recur to me over and over again, at my beautiful cousin’s beautiful wedding.
How often we think, this is it! How easily we are lulled into believing we are settled. We get married, or buy our first home, or get our first big break job, or have a few kids… and we imagine there are no surprises left in life, except for the unpleasant ones.
The example of the abundant, surprising life my family has led is a good reminder to me that this is a false idea.
My cousins lived in central Florida for 11 years, in a tiny 3 bedroom house, where all six of them were born. (This reflection of mine probably really started turning wheels in my head when my one cousin teased me for talking like I’ll only ever have boys; there were three girls in a row in their family, followed by two boys which really changed the dynamic).
When I think back to how that would’ve felt, to be in the shoes of my uncle and aunt, they must have felt like: this is it. We have our house, our jobs, our babies that keep coming every other year, our family, our friends, our church. We made our choices and they’re pretty great, and life ain’t perfect, but it is good.
Then out of nowhere my aunt got cancer; they had to remove her uterus and suddenly the “babies every other year” turned into no more babies, when she was only in her early thirties. I know she thanked God daily for the grace she was given to say yes to each of the six babies she had had before, even though there must have been some dark days and sleepless nights in those early years. She had no way of knowing six would be all she could have. She had no way of knowing that every person she welcomed into their family would be a blessing she couldn’t have had if she wanted to just a few years down the road.
Then my uncle got a great job opportunity in Columbus, Ohio, and we forlornly helped our fellow native Floridian cousins packed up their tiny house and move to a sprawling house on a hill in the farmland woods of Ohio.
It turned out that the season that really defined them as a family were their Ohio years – not the Florida years. Their most enduring friendships blossomed there (besides us obviously ;)). Their defining memories. At least, I don’t know for sure if they would say that, but it’s how it seemed to me.
We moved a few years later – after my father got laid off from the job he had relocated for 2 and a half years prior – while my mother was expecting their 6th baby. I remember my dad’s faith life seemed to really beef up after that too; he kept a laminated prayer card above the kitchen sink that an elderly friend at Church gave him when he lost his job, with his sixth baby on the way. It was ugly – bright orange with early 2000 type font – and it read:
“God has not brought me this far
to drop me on my head.”
And He didn’t. My dad got a job offer in the last month of his severance. We didn’t make it all the way up to Ohio, but our adventure took us to settle in the Foothills of South Carolina, where our best-friend-cousins were only a day’s drive away, not two.
We were able to make so many beautiful memories with my loud, hilarious aunt and with her family; almost every thanksgiving and/or Christmas spent laughing til we were hoarse together. Eating too much and hiking it off in the crisp mountain air. Exploring the coffee shops of my cousins’ Ohio town. Then my aunt’s cancer returned after ten years in remission, and she passed away about 11 months after they discovered it.
My cousins, my family, have set a beautiful example for me of how to live: with intention, with hope, and with the awareness that everything could change, for better or for worse.
The greatest tragedy isn’t life lost in death; not if we believe in eternal life that awaits us. It will never be easier to accept – even Jesus wept when his beloved friend died, even when He knew the resurrection awaiting Lazarus! – the change that loss of a beloved one forces on you is cruel and harsh and I know there is a fierce ache left that never heals. I also don’t know that God plans for this particular wrench in one’s life… I don’t know that I believe He chooses it for us. I do believe that He cannot promise us a life free of loss, heartache and death here on earth, because of Natural Law and the death that entered the world of our forefather’s choosing; but that He can – and does -promise, He is preparing a place for us where there are no more tears. Someday we will be reunited for eternity.
In that lens then, the greatest tragedy in this short life we have in which to choose our eternity… the greatest tragedy is life lost in selfish, lukewarm complacency. There is a haunting beauty in the unexpected twists of our stories, in the bends in the road, especially when they force us to experience life more abundantly. (Jn 10:10). I look at my beloved family and I hope I can accept the surprises of my life with half of their strength and joy.