My friend is dying.
It’s one of those weird truths that doesn’t seem real — like a distant memory of a movie of someone else’s life I saw once, a long time ago. It’s a reality that stands next to my own reality, strangely separate from the rest of my life, and this is made true by the fact that we have not seen each other in years, not heard each other’s voices in as long. Though our friendship had been relegated to liking pictures of each other’s kids on Facebook, ask me for the names of my core group of friends, the ones who make me feel known and who hold a piece of my history — the ones you can count on one hand — and her name would be on it.
When I was younger, I never understood people who dreaded the holidays. What’s to dread? I always thought. Candy and sparkles, food and presents. It was the most wonderful time of the year! It started in October, with my birthday, of course. It traveled through the orange, black and brown hues of Halloween and Thanksgiving, which always makes me think of my late Uncle Jack, his laugh, and cocktail peanuts. It all culminated, of course, in the big day of tinsel and presents. New Years was a let-down, the last guest who didn’t know the party was over and it was time to leave.
The extended family we would sometimes visit back then on Thanksgiving is a lot full of intelligence and humor and deep, beautiful brokenness. We are all from a long line of dysfunction, pain, addiction. Of course, I never saw any of that when I was little. I only ever saw the laughter, and since I grew up pretty much an only child, I wanted to wrap that laughter around me like a winter coat and mittens, something soft and warm to guard me against the loneliness of a latch-key kid. But I was so much younger than everyone else, even there among the bigness of my family, I was always alone.
Still, I mourn for my childhood view of the holidays, when a container of oily mixed nuts could make a day feel special. Now, as I get older, I notice the dying around me, and the thanks I give is less about the turkey and more about the seconds ticking by. Every holiday season becomes an exercise of hope — will we have another one together? My parents are officially elderly now, in need of more care and attention, and the wondering and machinations of who will be where, when and how they will get there is a stress that falls squarely on my shoulders. I am the season’s cruise director, master organizer, head buyer, main taxi driver. I’m too overwhelmed and exhausted most of the time to find the cheer.
But I do find moments. Moments of deep breaths and presence, of leaning in, even into the shitty parts of life. Of feeling all the feelings, remembering the memories, even when they bring pain.
Every year, as I start to bake, it is as though I am conjuring my grandmother — a master baker, dead for 34 years already. My fingers kneed her bread dough that I will turn into a gift for my mother, so she can once again taste her mother’s bread. I lean into the Kitchen Aid mixer, inhale the scent of its engine’s work and I am instantly transported back to my grandmother’s kitchen, and the work of her wrinkled hands, the butterscotch hard candy she’d make in huge sheets and then crack like glass into pointy shards for eating. A snowfall and cookies in the oven transport me instantly to a holiday memory of Gram’s cookies baking in my childhood home, where she was visiting, shuffling across my mother’s kitchen floor in her housecoat.
I was too young to be willing to lean into her dying, and those first holidays without her were hard.
Now I am older, and I am willing to notice the dying all around me, and it is cause for thanksgiving. It makes me lean into life; I recreate the smells and sights and sounds of my childhood for my children. I give them a legacy to carry; I purposefully create memories for them to bring with them into a future where they will certainly, some day, feel broken.
Noticing the dying — it creates an urgency to hug friends, to hold them longer. I tell people I love them sooner and more frequently. I notice that people tend to be taken off guard by the love. Even I am knocked off my feet by the love. It’s a strange thing that happens: when you begin to really comprehend the love of God, and the urgency of our mortality, you start to notice that the love was there all along. When you notice the dying, you notice the love.
We don’t always notice the love for all the brokenness. We become consumed with our brokenness and our pain. Broken friendships, broken families, broken hearts. After those fiery passions of our youth were seemingly extinguished into a steamy disappearing act, there comes a time when you brush aside some of the wet, dirty ashes and find there’s still an ember. But it’s an ember of a different sort — it’s slow burning and steady and it understands its purpose: re-ignition.
It’s from the ashes of our dying that we can reignite true love — that crazy Jesus love that stays despite the raging bullshit we humans love to create. It’s in the dying that we notice the love and can let it wash over us. When we finally have the courage to look the dying in the eye, to open up our brokenness to the cruelty of this life, that’s when the love comes in.
It’s the love of friendships, reconnected. It’s a dinner date with a friend I thought was lost to me for all sorts of drama and pain. We left each other in injured silence, went about our lives. I grieved like I was mourning the dead. And like resurrection work, out of those ashes came some text messages. Short at first, and intermittent. Then longer conversations. Then reconciliation coffee. Next, resurrection dinner. From the dying we can find the love.
It’s the love of the oldest of friends — the ones from 6th grade, the ones you shared crushes and maybe kisses with, but the timing, your behavior, your everything was always just wrong — but you can reach out when your shared friend is dying and say, “I want to talk about her, and you’re the person I think of when I say I want to talk about her.” And though you haven’t seen each other in years either, he says, “I’m here,” and “I’ll fly there.” While nothing is really okay, this makes everything a little okay. This is leaning into life — even the shitty parts — and it’s noticing the love for the dying.
It’s the love of sitting with another friend who wishes she was dead, and you hold space for her. You just be there with her in her wishing. You take precautions. You ask the right questions, you make sure this is not a serious statement. You drink wine with her and corral children for her while she deals with the realities of her life — a special needs child about to be kicked out of school; the dynamics of broken, beautiful love; the unfulfilled heart of a mom who gave it all up for the family. You leave her sure of one thing: she know you love her, even in the midst of the dying.
It’s the love of knowing everything is passing. As I sit around the Thanksgiving table this year, the faces will be different than they were in my childhood. I have the blessing of my husband and his family. My parents will manage to shuffle their way to dinner, too. There will be black olives, but no cocktail peanuts. I will look at the faces that have grown older in these twenty years my husband and I have been together, and I will notice the love. My children will never have another Thanksgiving where they are 9 and 12.
I will sit with broken people, and I will thank God for our brokenness. Broken people, I think, are better suited for this life. We are the guts and the hearts of this life. We feel it deep; we carry those oldest friends, that family lineage in our DNA like treasured love notes in our pocket, and see the love despite the dying.
We are the ones who open our arms, fully aware of the nails aimed at our wrists. We’re the snowflakes and the bleeding hearts, the musicians, the artists, the thinkers. I give thanks for our brokenness, and I give thanks for our grief, because it gives us moments rich with the scent of bread baking and cookies, the saltiness of black olives and cocktail nuts, of letting moments linger like licorice on our taste buds. We are the ones who see.
Like Jesus was broken on the cross, we — the fractured — can see the light come in.