Read the previous letters:
Mama’s Boy, Vol. 1
Mama’s Boy, Vol. 2
It’s my third year sitting down around this time of year and thinking about all the things I want to tell you. Like how I miss calling you. It’s been seven years since you died, and I still can’t bring myself to delete your phone number from my list of contacts. Every once and a while, I wonder what would happen if I dialed that sequence of numbers. Who would pick up? But then I think I’d just be setting myself up for disappointment, so I don’t.
When I left for college, the three of us (you, me, and dad) decided that I would phone home on Sundays. So I would sit on my little concrete porch off my Jordan Center dorm room at Elon while I was on RA duty, and I’d be sure to call y’all. Dad would pick up one phone. You’d pick up another. And we’d catch up on the week’s events.
I know you missed me. You’d email me every day of the week, never expecting a reply, always hoping for one. You’d tell me how things were at work, how the cat and dogs were doing, what the latest was from church. I miss those e-mails, Mama. I miss you.
The last time I wrote, I had an exciting year lying ahead of me. Namely, that 2014 would be the year Greg and I would marry. And, in early December, we did.
We decided to put this sign in the church Narthex. You never would imagine the confusion some of our guests encountered. Which was, you know, the joke.
You would’ve loved it, Mama. All of it. The night before, the awesome people I get to work with and love every day threw Greg and me the perfect rehearsal dinner. That’s right, the good people of Westfield had a potluck in our honor. It was perfect for a church nerd couple like us.
The next day, with the church decorated for the season, we got married with nearly 150 family, friends, and church members there to support us.
Dad was my best man. He’s in that picture looking as dapper as ever. After the service, we headed to one of our favorite spots in Northeastern Connecticut for a reception that included things like cheese straws and Coke products–the only two items on the menu whose absence was a deal-breaker for us. And there were cupcakes. As you know, I LOVE CUPCAKES.
Do you remember those times you’d make me play my violin at receptions or church talent shows? You’d teach me some ridiculous song like I Walk the Line or Happy Trails, and then you’d accompany me (or stand to the side, silently cheering me on) while I played. You loved it. You reveled in it.
Well, you would’ve loved this touch we added to the reception that was, in truth, a nod to you. Before we left the reception, Greg sat down at the piano, and began to play the first chords of that beloved Country and Western standard, Stand By Your Man. And together, we, along with the whole of the reception, sang a rendition of that song that would’ve made Tammy Wynette herself beam with pride. It was wonderful. All of it.
I’ve learned a lot this year. A lot about being human, about being a husband, about being a pastor. The last months of 2014 were a whirlwind. In three months, Westfield buried four of its own–more than all the funerals from the first nine months combined. They weren’t just any burials. They were hard ones–pillars of the church and children. None of the deaths were completely unexpected. But no matter how you brace yourself for the cold reality of death, it’s impossible to prepare for the entirety of emotions that hit you like a tidal wave each time you stand in that pulpit looking at a room full of mourners searching for a way to say “It’ll be OK,” and not convinced you fully believe it.
When you were dying the week before Halloween seven years ago, I remember asking your pastor, the Rev. Vicki Smith, in the hallway outside of your ICU room, “How do you keep from crying in situations like this?” I wanted to know as a future pastor how it was done. “Oh, you cry,” she said, “but not here. Here there are more important things than crying.” It’s a fine line to walk, it turns out, between reminding people of the hope they have in God and being honest about when things just suck.
A week after Greg and I’s wedding, I watched one of our children pass away in his parent’s arms. I was sitting crosslegged on the floor. They were huddled around him–one in a rocking chair, the other on the edge of the bed. Their dog, a white pit bull named Emily, kept watch from under the bed. She knew something was wrong.
We waited as breaths became more and more sparse. We watched a single candle flicker in the window sill. We listened to Westfield’s bell chime the hour from across the river that meanders through Killingly. We prayed.
And when his breathing stopped, we all, for a moment, stopped breathing, too. I excused myself and went downstairs to give his parents some privacy. I sat on the couch beside a gleaming Christmas tree covered with ornaments their family had made. And I wept–wept for the cold, for the darkness, for the uncertainty and fear and sadness that had moved into that home to stay for the night. For my church, for this family. For broken hearts.
Whenever we baptize someone at Westfield, we sing. It’s a way for the congregation to be involved, for them to offer their assent to the remarkable deed that is happening right in our midst. Over and over through the Baptismal liturgy, we sing, “Do not be afraid, I am with you. I have called you each by name. Come and follow me, I will bring you home. I love you, and you are mine.” We sang it to B. and to his sister, C. as we baptized them, and God claimed them as God’s own. And they were words deep in my heart as we laid them to rest.
At B.’s funeral, I told those who had gathered to accompany one another in this new, unchartered territory the same words I offered at C.’s service:
The truth is that there are lots of questions that we want answered. We want to know why? Why this one whom we loved so much? Why this family? Why this condition? And those are fair questions to ask. And they’re ones I wish I could answer.
And one day, maybe we will find answers, but for now, all I can say is I don’t know. I don’t know why B. or why their family or why this condition.
But there are some things I do know. I know that God doesn’t leave us orphaned. So I am confident B. is in the arms of our Heavenly Parent. I know that God knows what its like to lose a child. So I am convinced God’s heart is broken over the loss of this one, too. I know that God is faithful. So I am certain that God was always with B. and J. and W. and C. and A. and B. and each of us, and always will be.
Later, on Ash Wednesday, I was preparing ashes from Palm Sunday the year before. Each year on Ash Wednesday we mark our foreheads with ashes, and we are reminded that we are mortal. Somehow, this year, I wasn’t convinced we needed much of a reminder. Each year’s ashes are made from the previous Palm Sunday’s palms. Dear B. and C.’s mother brought me their palm crosses to add to our collection.
So out in our little parking lot behind the church (that used to be where the carriage house was, in fact), I got out the aluminum roasting pan I bought earlier that day, and added the dried, crackling palms from 2014. I lit a match and watched the flames begin to leap. And I added their crosses. And I watched the leaping flames.
It was a quiet moment, one filled with reverence. And a little bit of relief. Ritual does that, doesn’t it? It weaves us out of one year and into the next, reminding us that though the circumstances of life change, the God who created life doesn’t. It’s a gift, really. It’s a gift to cling to the stories and rituals and hopes of our faith and to have those stories and rituals and hopes lead us home. The truth is that they’re the same stories and rituals and hopes that give me confidence that our story, the story of our family, isn’t done yet.
In a few weeks, Greg and I are headed to Rome for our honeymoon. Mama, it’s the trip of a lifetime. I bought a pair of red shoes (I like to call my pope shoes) especially for the adventure. Both of us are so excited to head to the place that is a root of our faith–the place the early church came into it’s own. We’re excited to see the art and the architecture and walk along the paths of our faith’s history.
But you know, as formative as Rome was to Christianity as we know it now, it seems to me the real home of my faith is at a little country crossroads in rural Georgia. We laid you to rest underneath the tall, Georgia pines next to place where that little, white church you grew up in used to stand tall–a proud reminder of God’s faithfulness.
I went to see you last Mother’s Day. I looked across the lawn and remembered tables set up between the trees for the homecoming potluck, and the open stained glass windows letting the Southern breeze into the old wooden sanctuary as we sang of the melody deep within our heart–of the sweetest name we knew.
I walked past the great oak, and I stood at the foot of your grave. And I was reminded once again that you aren’t there. In truth, you never were. And so, this year, as I stand in front of my church and remind them once again of God’s love for them (which, for the record, just might be the best job ever), I’ll look out and see you off to the side in a pew, smiling and singing, with those beloveds my church has lost, and I’ll smile–for the grace and joy and light you brought into this world. And for the opportunity I’ve been given to keep sharing it.
Singing of the sweetest name I know (and confident you’re singing along with me),
P.S.-I don’t know if they have YouTube where you are, but in case they do, take a look at this video from the wedding reception. It was a blast!