Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Of Cemeteries, Selfies and Restored Barns


On the occasion of my daughter’s wedding in June 2020, I visited my husband’s grave. A strange place to take a selfie, perhaps – but that’s what I did.

After placing my mother-of-the-bride sunflowers on Roger’s stone, I took a selfie.

I wanted to preserve the moment, to mark yet another grief-point of Roger’s gaping impossible absence: the wedding where he – not I – should have walked her down the aisle.

The photo is my profile picture on Facebook.

The response has been more than I’d expected, a generous cluster of comments such as “you look great” and “you look fresh as springtime”.

I’d taken the photo to literally make sure I was still in my physical body, the day had been so surreal without him there. I was shadow inside a circle of Nothingness; sorrow inside layers of regret.

It had been the best day and the worst day. 

My carefully applied makeup had been cried into hot rivulets of smeared mascara. A layer of sunburn tinged my skin. My hair, all done up for the wedding, was now mashed down by my favorite sun visor.

I felt a million miles away from Beautiful.

In that moment I was bereft, lonely, a little bit mad. No, a lot mad.

Angry because another Big Life Event had come and gone. Without him.

Without us.

Since that warm June day in a cemetery in Chandlers Valley, Pennsylvania, there have been more Life Events: our second daughter married.

A sweet baby girl arrived, christening me a grandma for the very first time.

I’ve retired.

Moved to a new place. Again.

Published a new book. Working on another.

Life Events. Big Days.

Often I wonder what it might have looked like, to grow old with this man. To grow into a season of “older love” with my husband. We’d experienced the roller coaster of new love, the solemn and joyful entry into a marriage covenant; the happy chaos of parenting; the chasing down of careers, of dreams, possibilities and future hopes. We’d been na├»ve, thinking we would also welcome a mellower time of Seasoned Love, of holding hands in the Silence of Knowing.

But we didn’t.

He didn’t. He had to leave because his heart could no longer keep pace with his intensity, his constant quest to fix things and put in hay and build relationships and try-try-try to mend situations that were clearly beyond mending.

I saw it. I saw it and I wanted him to slow down, to have a seat, to find contentment, to be still. JUST BE STILL.

And then his heart stopped.

And ours kept beating.

Myself and our daughters, we kept moving forward because that’s what the surviving do: they step into the tender lands of a place they do not know, a place without him.

Without his laughter, his dad jokes, his made-up silly songs. His love of bonfires in the back, down by the barn. His good humor toward the girls’ horses, which he often referred to as “hay burners”.

Of course he was always fixing things. He shored up the barn, the barn that everybody said should be razed. Start all over, they cautioned. Build something new.

But not him. No, not Roger. He gazed out our living room window at that barn, studying the way it sagged to the one side. The graying of worn wood from weather and wind and a ‘hundred winters.

Then one day he began. He had help from family, but mostly he took it on as a personal mission. Openly marveling at the dove-tailed wood in that old barn, Roger made it sturdy again. He honored the craftsmanship that had gone before. The barn rallied and stood strong. Impervious to the winds, like Roger himself.

That barn? That old barn is a metaphor for the life he and I shared. The landmark was once a New Beginning on top of a windswept hill. A cathedral of Possibility.

That old barn was made sturdy by times of abundance and in lean times, too. It grew long in the tooth but proved immeasurable in endurance. That structure held laughter in its walls, harbored tools, welcomed children, kept all God’s creatures safe and dry.

Held secrets.

That old barn.

Our abbreviated lives.

It’s beautiful still, that sanctuary of wood and clay and dirt, still sheltering livestock, still smelling of hay and tractors, of oats and manure.

I drive up there sometimes, just to be sure it’s still there. And it is. It’s always there – like the memory of our life together. I can count on that, at least.

So back to the photo. A quick snapshot of myself, standing in front of his gravestone.

Maybe there is a wisp of beauty, after all – a spark of durability; an elegance that rises from unfathomable loss.

This is not vanity, this notion of seeing myself beautiful. This is grit and moxie and a gutsy refusal to lose hope.

A striking kind of loveliness. Harvested from suffering. I’ve seen this in the eyes of other widows, this odd, reflective beauty. The pain is there, but so is the hope – that relentless belief that as long as you cherish the memories, that person lives on inside your own heart.

For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die.
    A time to plant and a time to harvest.
 A time to kill and a time to heal.

    A time to tear down and a time to build up.
 A time to cry and a time to laugh.

    A time to grieve and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones.
    A time to embrace and a time to turn away.
 A time to search and a time to quit searching.

    A time to keep and a time to throw away.
A time to tear and a time to mend.
    A time to be quiet and a time to speak.
 A time to love and a time to hate.

    A time for war and a time for peace.

 What do people really get for all their hard work?  I have seen the burden God has placed on us all.  Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-11 New Living Translation

The book, “Older Love” by Warren Hanson, is a lovely collection of thoughts and illustrations celebrating the mellowed love of old age.

The photo of the old barn is a Google image – although it strongly resembles our hilltop barn before it was fixed up.