Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Reflection of Your Life's Kindness and Beauty

May your leave-taking be gracious,
Enabling you to hold dignity
Through awkwardness and illness.

May you see the reflection
Of your life's kindness and beauty

In all the tears that fall for you.

-from "For the Dying" by John O'Donohue in To Bless the Space Between Us

Last night, I attended a farewell party for a dear former colleague. For a few hours, I was surrounded by friends I hadn't seen in months and was overwhelmed with hugs and well wishes. I was swept up in waves of gratitude as teenagers gushed about new friends and schools, immediately taking me into their confidence once again. I beamed as beautiful old women held my face in their hands and told me how much they missed seeing my smile every week. For a short while, my soul found a safe spot to settle.

As the shindig was wrapping up, I got a text: Pray. This may be it.

And then I knew. All day, my heart had been heavy. I had woken up with John O'Donohue's poetic blessing "For the Dying" on my mind. My Aunt April, who had privately dealt with cancer since the winter, was moments from death. I told the last few lingering friends, all pastors. We stood together in a rag-tag circle, sharing in the gift of communal grief. None of them had met April, but they knew I adored her, and that was enough. I told stories of her passion, her goodness, her grace. We hugged and parted ways as they spoke words of love over my family.

As soon as I started driving away, I got the call. My dad didn't have to say anything. I told him how sorry I was. His love for his baby sister had always been so complete, so whole. I told him I would come over later.

Then I called my buddy Charlie. We already had plans to hang for a bit. I didn't realize I was crying so hard until he told me to pull over, that he would come and get me. That one thoughtful gesture - authentic and brotherly - eased the tension in my chest. I told him I could drive, and I'd see him soon.

Before I pulled in to Charlie's, I saw him and our best friend Thomas waiting for me by the curb. They were illuminated by street lights and shop windows. They looked to me like angelic sentinels - all at once divine and completely human. I wasn't two steps from my car before I was wrapped in a bear hug, embraced by strong arms and the true love of soul friends.

Upstairs, Charlie's wife met me with a hug just as powerful. For months, Susan had shed tears over a woman she would never know. A mother only nine years younger than April, she held such immense empathy. Understanding better than most, she realized how unfair it all was - leaving this earth with a grieving husband and young children behind.

We sat together up on the roof. They let me talk and cry. They made me laugh and poured me a drink. My friends gave me strength for the journey ahead. I left them, feeling fortified.

My dad was playing clips of "The Pride of West Virginia" - WVU's marching band - as I walked into my parents' home. April, a devoted alumnus, loved the Mountaineers. My mama regaled us with stories of college-aged April having too much fun at football games. Earlier in the evening, together with my brother and his daughter, they lit a candle for April. We spoke of the sensitivity of my eight-year-old niece. We cried for April's darling husband Tom. We mourned for my cousins, Olivia and Cameron. The depth of their pain must feel bottomless.

In the wee hours of the morning, I drove home. Then I dreamt of April, sitting in the wingback chair at my grandparents' house. For a brief moment, I was transported to a world that no longer exists.

The last time I saw April was a few weeks ago. Her husband and kids were home. We laughed at old photos and reminisced about days gone by. We prayed for a miracle.

Tonight, my dad said that a world without April is inconceivable. He's right. I cannot fathom an existence where I won't ever again feel her embrace or marvel at her wit or revel in her perfect laugh.

When I was a baby, April would spend part of her summer with my parents. I was ten when April had her first child. I started spending summers with April, Tom, and Olivia. Cameron joined the fun five years later. I spent every summer with them until my late teens.

Watching April, I learned how to be an aunt, a sister, a friend. Her love for her family and friends knew no limit. Her home was always a haven for the weary. Her light empowered all of us, even during the darkest of times.

This weekend, I'll go to Virginia and say goodbye to the woman I was sure would outlast us all. My cousins and I will somehow manage to laugh through our tears. I'll hug my sweet uncle and tell him that there has never been a more sparkling example of a devoted husband. Our far-flung family will gather once again for a funeral as we cling to the ties that bind. We'll offer prayers of thanksgiving, grateful that for a while, we were loved by a woman of grace and valor.
April, delighting in her family, at Cameron's last high school play.