My back was sore as I scrambled off the floor and the pile of wrapped presents to slide onto the couch and pick up my glass of port. I stretched and observed to Elizabeth that it has been a really challenging fall. There were three main challenges that I had been wrestling with; one at work, one at church, and one with Mack’s soccer team. All had resolved positively in the last week or so. We had made the rounds of all the relatives, in the week prior, so the kids had been able to celebrate Great Grandma’s birthday, see their grandparents and cousins before we settled in for Christmas. I was thankful, grateful that we were ending the year with good relationships and looking forward to a fun and exciting Christmas morning. Still, I sardonically quipped, with things looking so good at the end of the year, I hate to see what the New Year would bring.
New Year’s Eve. I didn’t even remember that it was New Year’s Eve. Mack was on a Life Flight helicopter headed to Penn State’s Hershey Medical Center in an effort to save him from a fast spreading blood infection. It was an amazing crew, on the ground and in the air, who did all they could, but Mack died in the air, before they touched back down.
That was the last Christmas Eve we had with Mack. The last Christmas. That year would end up being all of our lasts with him. Two weeks shy of his 9th birthday and he was gone. This is the 9th year since he died. January 16th will be his 18th birthday. He has been gone as long as he was with us. Yet his presence outweighs his absence, the time we had will always be more than they time we lost.
If we choose to make it so.
We could choose to allow our grief to overwhelm us, to become the sea we walk into and never emerge from, allowing the waves to overwhelm us. Some days, like today, we cannot help but walk to the edge even into the waves a bit, as the water swirls around our ankles, surging up, sucking at our legs. We will never forget him, never want to lose the memory or the pain of his absence, and so experiencing that grief again is not wrong, it is necessary. Yet we cannot stay in that place, we must choose to move our feet and step out of the waters of sadness.
If I am honest, in many ways my grief of the loss of Mack grows greater day by day. It is not so with my father, who died nearly three years ago at the age of 82. Dad had a long, full, faithful, and interesting life. While I know he would have been proud to see his grandchildren and great grandchildren continue to grow and accomplish so much and that he would have wanted to stay and comfort and care for his bride, his time here was over four-score years. An appropriate phrasing considering he spent much of his retirement as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator. We are able to celebrate Dad’s life and all that he accomplished and experienced.
Mack had not quite nine years; we had not quite nine years with Mack. Every day that he is not with us is another new moment to grieve. He would be a senior in high school this year. His buddies made sure to include him in the Senior Night of their high school soccer team. He would have learned how to drive (and, if he was like his father, he would have had accidents and learned the value and cost of auto insurance). He might have gone on dates, traveled to endless soccer tournaments, and…we don’t know what else. With the death of a child, every day there is something new to be grieved.
I have to be honest about that. We have to be honest about how hard it is when a child dies and how the grieving changes, but does not end.
“Time marches on…” In my head, I hear that as the voice over in an old Bugs Bunny cartoons, mimicking the movies and newsreels of the 40s. Yet it does. No more than the waves can we hold back the never ending forward progress of time. Christmas follows Christmas Eve. Inexorably, New Year’s Day cannot be stopped, it will follow New Year’s Eve.
U2’s “New Year’s Day” was the basis for a reflection by the Church of England’s Bishop Mark Wroe. I heard it on SiriusXM’s U2-XRadio this past week and, while the lyrics to that 1983 song were about the Polish Solidarity Movement, Bishop Wroe’s reflections about the importance of thresholds, of stepping into the New Year with the realization that we can shape our time, we can alter and adapt our experience into something healthy, holy, and new. “A calendar is more than a way of keeping time. It is a way of conducting time, embedding it with some small acts of ritual, repeated routinely, which remind us that while we are made in time, time is not all we are made of.”
We have been so fortunate that those around us continue to celebrate Mack’s life with us, day by day, moment by moment. Every day is the eve of the next, each moment leads to another. With each day comes the opportunity to remember, to grieve, but also to celebrate and to live.