There’s something about bare, winter trees that captures my attention. At first glance they’re nothing special, merely creation lying dormant. But if you gaze long enough, you might notice beauty in the blank spaces, each taking its own shape, each lovely in its own way. Some days the winter sky behind them is is a flat gray, dreary, sad, and lonely. But sometimes sunlight glimmers through the branches. All of a sudden what was just an empty space reveals a beauty of its own.
Likewise, you can’t see it, but of course something’s going on beneath the surface. Without basic understanding of seasons, one might look at a winter tree and presume, “Dead, dead, dead.” How could life possibly come from something so barren and brown? Yet if you’ve lived even a few years on this earth you know in just a little while new buds will burst from those branches followed by a canopy of fresh green.
Spring does indeed follow winter. Always.
Sometimes winter is unbearably long, arduous and harsh. Buy there’s hope in the blank spaces, beauty even in dormancy. Eventually the sun peeks through and warms those trees. The sky behind the empty spaces turns a striking, brilliant blue, and shifting clouds wander lazily behind.
It was winter when he died, a brutal northern Illinois winter, frigid with layer upon layer of snow. Winter in the midwest had been culture shock to my southern girl soul, but now it was agony. It snowed again the day of Jon’s funeral, and dear men from church stood out in the elements all afternoon helping people find parking, shoveling, keeping the sidewalks salted.
I wore a dress more fitting for warm breezes than zero degrees. Colors. I had to have colors and not black. My flats were a rich royal blue.
Funerals are not for widows. They are for a couple hundred others who knew and loved your husband also, and need to share in grief. I stood at the front of the church for several hours embracing friends, crying with them, letting them feel their sorrow with me. I was surrounded by pictures of Jon, pictures of his family, and pictures of us. There was no casket present, for I could not bear it.
Grace was thick, palpable, tangible. I let them in. They let me in.
Then we sang and worshiped. In that way the funeral was for me. It was a chance to glorify God in suffering. Through sobs, with lifted hands the song “All I have is Christ” washed over me.
“Now, Lord, I would be Yours alone
And live so all might see
The strength to follow Your commands
Could never come from me
Oh Father, use my ransomed life in any way You choose
And let my soul forever be my only boast is you
Hallelujah! All I have is Christ
Hallelujah! Jesus is my life.”
I had never sung the words as broken as I was in that moment, but also never as sincerely. And still 10 years later, I cannot sing them without tears. Sometimes I still have to stop singing and let the words sink deep, a silent prayer accompanied by emotion streaming down my cheeks.
A decade. Ten years. What a definitive milestone this seems to be.
That first winter, trees bore no beauty. Their barren ugliness was a reminder that life would always be winter. No more spring for me, only winter. Without Christmas.
Christ clung to me. He would not let me go. And I clung right back. But it took awhile to believe Spring would actually come again.
After the funeral I escaped downstairs to our bedroom (rather “my bedroom” as I learned to say). Picking up a photo of the two of us, I sunk down on the bed.
“I’m so proud of you Lovee. I’m so proud. You did so well.”
Theologically I’d tell you it probably wasn’t him. Humanly, I’d tell you it absolutely was his voice. One cannot know for sure. Perhaps it was just the way the Holy Spirit met me with specific comfort in the moment. Either way, it need not be debated here.
Ten years. I’m letting my fingers do what they did in the early days—type in whatever direction they want to go, not worrying about “polished” or “cohesive.”
I’ve wondered at times what he might think of my ten years older self. There are certainly more fine lines, more stretch marks, and enough grays that I no longer try to pluck them out. I think it’s my hands that shout “40,” though. However, Jon remains in my mind’s eye, a youthful 30. But he had the best laugh lines by his eyes even then.
More than the physical differences, I wonder what he’d think of the fundamental differences, for it is impossible to walk through the valley of death and not come out forever altered. He might see someone a little more serious. But then again, he always drew out silliness and laughter.
I think perhaps he’d see a more radiant version of myself. I hope. Yet even as I type emotion wells up because I know I still struggle with some of the same old sins. Even now I see parts of me that aren’t so radiant. I’m not as sanctified as I’d like to be.
He might see me fighting for joy in the seeming slog of mundane days. He might see me fail my family and repent, over and over again.
But I hope if Jon could see me now he’d see a woman still following hard after Jesus. A woman who’s faith and compassion have grown exponentially. I hope he sees one who sees others better and sits with them in their grief.
I hope he’d see a woman gripped by the hope of eternity.
Indeed the confident expectation of a renewed earth, of the death of death itself, of all that is broken restored, of real life, of “further up and further in,” of worship face-to-face— of the full consummation of God’s grand plan of redemption— this spurs me on more than any other facet of the gospel.
I hope he’d still see “Father use my ransomed life!” resonating from my soul.
There’s been a lot of life in ten years. So much processing, so much writing. So much growth as new life sprung from a tree burned and charred.
I can tell you now with the hindsight of 10 years that it’s true. Some aspects of grief never fully leave you. While its weight and effect on daily life diminish greatly as Jesus binds up broken bones and heals gaping wounds, in significant moments grief must be taken out and examined again. Remarriage, pregnancies, the births of my children, motherhood— all of it has had to be processed not only through joy, but also through a lens of grief. And sometimes through fear that had to be squashed by truth.
I’ve also wondered what he would think of me as a mom. I long ago left mourning the fictitious children we never had. But I wonder what he’d think of my precious little ones and who I am with them.
I also imagine he and David would be good friends. I see conversations about guitars and books. I see David answering Jon’s bold questions with dry humor, and I envision corresponding awkward grins on Jon’s face. I don’t imagine what life would look like married to Jon now, for the life I have now is inextricably mine. David and these small ones are inextricably mine. And it’s a beautiful now.
Some memories fade, some remain crystal clear. The day I made funeral plans, I specifically wanted a gyro for lunch. And then I barely picked at it. What a funny memory to stay sharp over the years.
Scenes of the night he died also remain.
Jesus likewise remains. Faithful. Triumphant.
In the early days of grief we don’t get the benefit of seeing what lies ahead. We can only hope. When strength fails, when waves are a tsunami, when mounds of kleenexes lay strewn on the floor, when all we see are barren trees, Jesus carries. The Holy Spirit speaks words of truth and comfort.
We weep and we cling. “God you are good. You always do good.”
People come along and speak words we cannot always speak to ourselves. “He’s not done writing the story.”
If I could I’d gather my 30 year old, crushed self into my arms. I might tell her “Just wait! You’ll see! God is going to do magnificent things.”
But I don’t have a Tardis, and I am not a Time Lord. That’s a good thing, I think. Time travel would not be a gift. Because maybe those weren’t the words I needed right away. Maybe I just needed someone to sit beside me and weep. Maybe I needed to live it.
Maybe the valley of death taught me to know Christ in ways I never dreamed.
Without winter, there would be no spring. Without death, there is no resurrection. It’s winter that taught me my desperate need. Sometimes I still forget, but I learned what it is to long for Jesus.
Bare trees still catch my attention. They remind me of the valley, of where I’ve been. And as a crisp blue sky, rays of sunlight, and white stratus clouds burst through the blank spaces, I know Spring will come again. It always does.
Behind the empty spaces is the unchanging God who loves me and gave himself for me.
On that fateful Saturday between the cross and the resurrection, all creation lay silent, waiting, holding its collective breath. Had the powers of hell prevailed? Would Jesus rise again as He said?
The dark of night is greatest just before dawn. Winter often seems worse right before fresh buds appear. But his friends didn’t understand. All hope was lost. The Savior was dead, dead, dead apparently not really the Savior at all.
Or so it seemed. As Sunday crept over the horizon, light eradicated darkness. Life burst forth from barren trees! Colors spread through a world painted gray!
“Up from the grave He arose, with a mighty triumph o’er His foes!”
As the new life of Spring erupts from the death of Winter, so did Jesus rise. So will we rise.
And perhaps one day Jon will greet me with a bear hug and a radiant grin, even more exuberant than on this side of eternity (if that’s possible).
“Come on! I can’t wait for you to see Jesus!” he’ll exclaim.
Me neither. The true Spring begins!