On June 5th, my daughter turned 10. At the end of July, we got a new puppy. And this past weekend marked the one year anniversary of my mother-in-law Helen’s death. These three milestones aren’t overtly related to one another, except in that they each remind me of the nature of time – the way it heals and blesses, the pace at which it moves, and its ultimate elusiveness.
We discovered that I was pregnant with Cecilia on the day of my father-in-law’s funeral. We were different people then, kids ourselves in so many ways, and it feels as if several lifetimes haves passed in the ten years since our daughter’s birth. Cecilia came into the world with a full set of opinions and dark blue eyes that could pierce through hypocrisy, lies and niceties to understand the essence of matters. It is not an entirely new phase then that sees her now insisting that she is too old to be treated like a child, bristling at being called “cute” and listening attentively to all adult conversation – laughing at the jokes whether she understands them or not (she mostly understands) and especially participating in eye rolls when someone makes a naïve or misguided comment. And yet, that trite reference to the passing of time as a “blink of an eye” also so very much applies to suddenly having a child in the second decade of her life. I can’t pick up either of my children for cuddles and comforting anymore. And I can’t remember the last time that I did sweep them up into my arms, feeling their precious weight nuzzle into me. I would have liked to have treasured that moment with each of them, and it slipped past without my noticing.
We began to see such maturity in both Cecilia and Gordon this past spring that we put into motion a plan to get a new puppy. Our schnauzer, Cliff Barnes, died the year before. He was a difficult dog, and we loved him in all of his crusty, unwieldy singularity. As he died in our arms, we knew that we would never get another dog. Our hearts felt too battered and bruised by loss and worry to ever willingly sign up for such pain again. Yet in a matter of a few blissful family vacation days a year-and-a-half later, we hatched this mad plan, and all four of us felt nothing but joy at the prospect of expanding our family again.
Now as we are right in the thick of the manic vigilance required in puppy training, as the days sometimes feel long and frustrating (“Who is watching the dog?” and “No nipping!” and “Oh no, he’s peeing!” and “Good boy! You peed!”) I try to locate myself in truths that these past ten years especially have taught. That it is all so fast. The interrupted nights and the extra clean-up duties and the demands such a new creature make on our beings, all of it feels endless at the time, and then suddenly it is gone. This slip of puppy, of bones and softness, that I can easily scoop up in one hand, is growing before my eyes. I want him to be house trained. I want him to sleep longer through the night. I want the chewing and nipping to be over and for us all to cohabitate easily and trustingly. I also want to have learned the grace to not wish away a single moment.
One-year anniversary of loss. For weeks leading up to August 4th, we found ourselves reliving those dark and confusing last days from the previous summer. Each small moment seems seared permanently into my brain, even while there are large parts of those unfolding events that I can give no account for. I still taste the sourness in the back of my throat when the late night phone call from Dan told me that his Mom was in her final hours (the term “passing away” has never before been so accurate a description of death) and the kids and I were on the other side of the country and would not get to say goodbye and could offer no physical comfort to our loved one. I still feel the strong warm hug from my friend Beth who was the first person I had with me when I spoke the awful news out loud. I still hear the detailed conversations with Cecilia and Gordon – filled with both laughter and tears – that took place in the wake of the news as they lovingly took out, mulled over and carefully placed back in the treasure trove of their memories each story, each characteristic, each quirk and each extravagant act of generosity they could claim about their grandmother.
A year later, we are having the same conversations. And we had the same conversations all year, especially when we have to navigate occasions for the first time without the person who was so much a part of them every other year before: birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas, Easter and Mother’s Day. I can see our memories of Helen as if they have become physical objects. We will continue to take them out, to marvel at, feel sad and grateful for, ponder and look over, and then carefully put them away safe and close. We say words about how hard it is to believe that she has been gone for a whole year. And at the same time, the ways in which the darkness and confusion of a year ago has so clearly lifted also signals to us the healing properties of a significant passage of time.
“To everything there is a season,” goes the well-worn wisdom of Scripture, “and a time and a purpose for everything under heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1) These words ring as comforting and true in the liminal times, when we are crossing a threshold from one part of our lives to an obviously different part. When we are in one of the harder seasons of life, it helps to be reminded that it isn’t forever, that another time and purpose is even now on the horizon. When we are in a joyful season, the fragility and impermanence of it all calls for a response of gratitude.
But Jesus himself understood and enacted the deeper promise in these words. On his own last night as he sat at supper with his friends and spoke words of remembrance and blessing over their bread and wine, he knew that in the kingdom, under the umbrella of God’s time, the seasons and the purposes of our lives exist together. That even while we are passing distinctly from one chapter to the next, the darkness and the light are both there. Birth and death, mourning and laughing, blessing and loss co-mingle. When we gather as Christians around Jesus’s story and we speak those words over bread and wine which he spoke to us, he is with us and his story does and once again will shape our story. And, as we treasure his words and his memory as if they too are a physical item to hold in our hands, it is Jesus’ absence that we also feel, the span of time between his story and ours, and how that span of time holds the promise of healing and blessing, of lives that have come and gone but have been gathered into His life and can never be lost. As Reverend John Ames notes in the achingly beautiful book Gilead, “The bread is the bread and the cup is the cup everywhere, in all circumstances, and it is a time with the Lord in Gethsemane that comes for everyone.” It is because Jesus himself has been in some sense lost to us that he can be there for all of us. It is because in the Eucharist (literally “thanksgiving”) that we lift up our gratitude and praise that God can also offer balm to our weeping wounds.
As the famous chapter from Ecclesiastes continues, “God has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.” I am trying to heed the warning my friends are giving me, that if I think that the first ten years of parenthood has gone fast, I haven’t seen anything yet. I give thanks for the surprise of finding our hearts open to this new puppy, even as, for this brief moment, all other commitments and schedules are fitted around a five-pound bit of fluff needing to find his place in our family. I shed tears for the year that we have not had Helen with us, and each of those tears also acknowledges the gift of the years we did have.
One of my favourite hymns contains this verse:
On your loom of time enroll us
‘Till our thread of life is run. (Let the Streams of Living Justice)
For all of the sadness and gratitude that is woven through our lives, the elusive reality is this: time isn’t ours to either treasure or wish away, and this flimsy thread of life can’t be held or held back. It all gets to be part of a larger story that we don’t own at all, with God the Master Weaver gathering each of our purposes and each of our seasons into a complex and colourful tapestry that lays its heavy blessing upon us, even as it slips between our fingers.