I'm Feeling 22

Today I turn 22. 21 was a hard year. It didn’t pull any punches. 22 has me walking in with my fists covering my eyes, trying not to make my flinching seem so obvious.

Unlike other birthdays, this one feels especially weighty. I used to cringe when people would ask me on my birthday, “So, how does it feel to be __ years old?” because it always felt exactly the same as being the age I was the day before. Nothing felt changed. This year though, I feel changed, different, older, in some good ways and some bad ways.

21 stands behind me with death and loss and pain and sadness, and this new year stands in front of me with newness and life and heartache and probably more pain because pain is constant, isn’t it? I wish I knew how to walk into the year confidently, but I’m finding myself wanting to curl up into a tiny ball and stay right where I am.

I feel older, yes. I feel more equipped to love others well and to stand in hard places where I wouldn’t have been comfortable standing a year ago. I feel too old to settle for easy answers and trite platitudes as a response to pain, though I am too young still to hear those trite platitudes and automatically respond with grace instead of anger. I feel old enough to know how much is not black-and-white, how much our intentions matter and how many different ways our words can be twisted and misunderstood. I feel weariness in my soul that seems like an older kind of weariness, the kind that starts to settle into a heart as a person experiences more of the world’s pain and more of the comfort that can only come from the Lord.

At the same time, I feel too young to do much of what 22 will require of me. I feel much too young to nurture and care for another human being. I feel much too young to faithfully care for my home and my husband. I feel much too young to respond to questions quickly and gracefully, pointing the person to Christ instead of trying to point them to myself.

I feel too old and too young to be 22, and if we’re being really honest, that angst probably adds another reason why I’m too young, too insecure, too unprepared.

And yet I am known, at 21 and 22, by the God who knows when I sit down and when I rise up, knows when I am feeling too young and too old, knows when I am unprepared and scared, knows when I am too sure of myself and not leaning in closely enough to him.

The Psalmist writes,

“You hem me in, behind and before,

   and lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me…”

This is where I find myself, somehow both unsure and sure at the same time, and hemmed in, behind and before, by a Father who knows and cares for me deeply and who has laid his hand upon me and this year of being 22.

Photo Credit: The incredibly talented  Jenna Richman .

Photo Credit: The incredibly talented Jenna Richman.

A Redemption of Grief

Originally published by Fathom Magazine

I used to call myself a morning person. The feeling of peeling back the covers in the early hours and stepping into a new day thrilled me. 

I’m not sure what I am now, but I’m often awake in the middle of the night—my body either unable or unwilling to sleep through a full night. When I wake, the morning feels harsh, like a bright fluorescent light shining into my eyes. Pain washes over me before my feet have even touched the ground, and grief waits for me in the corner, an unwelcome and intrusive guest who will long overstay his welcome.

When I open my Bible to read, grief stands in front of me. I try to focus on the words, try to take in the passage, but I am distracted. The letters pool on the page.

In my morning fog, I put the water on to boil and look out at the trees in our backyard. A dogwood blooms pink and white amidst the grays and browns of early spring. This specific tree had a number of branches grafted into it so that it flowered the colorful blend every spring. When I see it, I think of my family—a family grafted together with my aunt and uncle’s family. Growing up, my cousins were more like siblings, and their house was as much a home to me as my own. My life grew out of the trunk of both my family and theirs.

In December 2016, my aunt was diagnosed with cancer. Less than a year later, in 2017, we buried her body. It was a few days before Christmas. But the cancer had taken over almost every organ. Grief became a regular visitor in each of our lives. 

My uncle, having just celebrated his twenty-fourth anniversary less than a week before my aunt died, slept in an empty bed for two and a half months. He talked about her, about how he couldn’t sleep, about how much he missed her.

Then, less than three months after my aunt’s death, my mom texted me something about chest pains and come quickly and where is your cousin Emily? When we arrived at the hospital, my uncle was already gone. “A heart attack,” the doctor said, “We did everything we could but weren’t able to save him.”

As the water on the stove boils, these are the memories that flood my mind. I look out at the tree in my yard, its colorful pink and white blossoms defying the lingering winter, and I wonder if my family’s tree will ever stand tall again or if we have been hacked away and left to rot. 

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Solar Powered Life

The last time I drank this tea I was sitting in a wooden rocking chair on the front porch of the home where I grew up. It was 2016. I had just finished my second year of college and summer stretched before me in endless glory. As I took my first sip, sunlight glinted off of my week-old engagement ring and my heart filled with so much joy I thought I might burst. That was the last time I drank this tea, and when I sip it now, those are the sweet memories that make my life now taste bitter by comparison.

The last time I drank this tea, my family was whole and healthy. We spent the summer gathered around the pool sipping sparkling juice and coconut water, splashing around on pool noodles and watching our skin turn dark in the sunshine. Lately, I’ve found myself thinking about those perfect days, wondering if the cancer had already started to form in my aunt’s belly, a covert operative hiding undercover inside her cells.

That summer, I worked with my Uncle Lee, sitting in an office beside him with a laptop and giddy excitement to talk to him about wedding planning and future career moves and the seven habits of highly effective people (naturally.) Now, as I sit in the same office where he worked for seven years, staring at a gray wall that he and my aunt painted together, I find myself subconsciously searching those summer memories for any mention of chest pains or heartburn, any clue of what was to come.

When I was younger I overheard my parents talking about the moments between when a person dies and when that person’s family knows about their death. The moments between the death and the knowing, they decided, were moments of false happiness. Now I think about their hushed conversation, their careful words and broken eye contact, and I feel jaded. If the cancer was there, if it had already started to grow and destroy her body, was the whole summer a false happiness?

It has been seven months since we buried my aunt’s body in the ground, her belly swollen with the cancer that had gained enough strength in less than a year to destroy us all. Shockingly and suddenly my uncle died less than three months later from a heart attack, something none of us imagined or thought possible. We had already experienced so much pain, so much heartbreak, and we were brought low once again. Now, as I sip this tea for the first time since that summer in 2016 when everything was good and right and whole, I taste the bitterness of it.

There’s an old Classic Crime song I listened to that summer, singing along in my car with the windows rolled down and the music turned up loud. She's got a solar powered life / She dies without direct sunlight. Sometimes I think that’s me. The sun is just so hopeful and warm and bright. When spring came this year I thought to myself, “Yes. Everything will be better now.”

If I’m honest, most things have been better. It’s easier to laugh, my chest feels lighter and I can take long walks outside again. We have friends over to sit on our porch and talk, and the daylight stretches long in front of us so that time seems warped into an excuse to sit lazily and talk forever.

Even with the warmth and the longer days, the sunlight and the laughter, life doesn’t feel as easy as it did two years ago. One of the strangest things about grief is the tension that surrounds each moment. When I experience these moments of joy and happiness - sitting on the porch and laughing with friends, eating barbecue with my family, tilting my face toward the sunshine on a warm day - it is difficult to enter into them. Shame is ever ready to remind me of my loss and the moments of joy feel awkward, like empty shells of what they once were. I feel guilty for feeling happy without them, and I feel guilty for not being able to fully experience the happiness in the moment.

Tomorrow, in true summer fashion, my family and I will be leaving for a vacation to Disney World. Disney World is the happiest place on earth, and for us, that has always been true. This trip, though, I think the happiness will be more complex. There will be two people missing and their absence will be tangibly felt like the Florida humidity. We will laugh and ride all the rides and buy Mickey-shaped ice cream and wear mouse ears on our heads, but we will also miss them.  

The presence of conflicting emotions doesn’t mean either is less true. Joy and sorrow, happiness and sadness, pain and elation, these are the complex and oftentimes simultaneous feelings of being human in a broken world. I think I am learning to live in this tension of feeling joy and sorrow together like two notes on a sheet of music, or two flavors mixed together in a familiar cup of tea.