When you lose someone, you go through a lot of metaphors. Our vocabulary falters in the face of death.
Today is the two-year anniversary of the death of my husband, Jake. It took me about a year to come up with something that felt like it made sense of what I was feeling.
In the weeks after Jake died, letters and cards flooded in from friends and strangers alike. With each card’s arrival, I’d edge open the envelope in a stunned sort of sadness. I sat over the rough-hewn, wooden dining room table we’d picked out together just months before he died, cross-legged and pregnant, poring over sometimes dozens of notes a day.
And with every envelope, I’d have a glimmer of hope, that somehow, someway, this one would have an answer inside. I knew at the time it was irrational, but I couldn’t stop. The hope was too tantalizing. Maybe this was the one—this card would explain everything! This letter would give me the reason our lives had been so utterly shattered in an instant. But the fact is those words, no matter how well-meaning and wise, couldn’t tell me that. Even Scripture could only reassure, not really explain in the way humans want but can’t have.
The reasons for Jake’s death are not apparent. Luckily, the reasons for continuing to live are. But I searched for a way to say what I was feeling.
I love the idea of the divine spark. It crosses a lot of cultures and religions, the idea that you carry a bit of the Creator inside you, that it animates your life.
Jake’s life always brings to mind a spark and then some. Jake’s soul, to me, was a bonfire. He was here and he was in your face and he was warm and bright. He roared with enthusiasm at the beginning, even the hope of something new, sometimes a little too much. His glow was infectious, throwing sparks into the night air, silhouetted against a dark sky before they landed on everyone in his vicinity. He mellowed to embers as the night wore on, usually over a glass of bourbon or a beer.
I lived seven years of my life looking into a bonfire. I warmed my hands and found comfort in its flame. There were times when I damn near burnt myself or got a giant waft of smoke at exactly the wrong time. Because that’s life. And that’s fire. It’s not all s’mores and sweetness.
Everyone who’s loved someone knows that light and warmth. Everyone who’s lost someone knows the feeling when it goes dark and cold one day.
When that happens at any time, it’s jarring. When it happens without warning, even more.
The light went out. This fire I’d stood next to for seven years just went out, like a flood light on a switch. Boom. Imagine staring into a fire, and then suddenly turning 180 degrees to survey the woods behind you. I couldn’t see. I was standing in what otherwise was my life, and I knew all the other parts of it were there, but I couldn’t understand its contours anymore. I was standing in my own life, blinded, blinking away those disorienting shimmery green spots.
Life goes on, they say. And even in the immediate aftermath I knew that, just as I knew the rest of my life still existed around me even if I couldn’t take it in. But in that moment, when my perspective changed so completely, I couldn’t see a way forward. The fire is gone, life said. Move forward. It wasn’t that I hadn’t charted a course or found my way, but that I had trouble conceiving that a way forward existed in those first days.
But things changed. The truth was my eyes needed to adjust. And it took time. I groped for landmarks and eventually stumbled, with so much help from God and friends and family, onto a path.
Sometimes the world feels colder. And sometimes the cold scares me, in that deep part of me that will always think it’s deeply wrong he died when he did.
The fire is more remote than it used to be. My distance from it feels disconcerting even as it relieves the pain. I remember someone saying to me, right after he died, that they’d like to fast-forward to a time five years later when it didn’t hurt so much to remember him, and we could talk about him with smiles and laughter. I remember feeling panicky at the thought. I thought the intensity of the pain was all I had left of the fire. It was my tether to a time when he still existed on this Earth. And I knew every moment of every day, I was moving inexorably further from that time, and there was a part of me that hated it.
And then sometimes to this day, without warning, like a hot ember in my hand, I’ll catch a memory, and it will sear just like that first day. But then I remember this means he is not so far away, and we’re not so far from him, and it makes me smile. That’s a strange thing about grief: relief from it can sometimes be painful and pain can bring relief.
But most days, we live on the edge of the fire, and it doesn’t feel cold or searing. The scent of the fire is in our hair and on our old sweatshirts, familiar, comforting, and persistent. The sparks are in my children’s eyes, and their own little fires grow brighter every day.
Right after Jake died, I looked up some studies about children and memory, and found that our oldest daughter was cognitively just old enough to form memories of him that she could perhaps hold onto until adulthood. And I also learned that little girls are sometimes more prone than boys to forming those memories early, because they’re more verbal sooner. And I learned little girls with highly verbal mothers are the most likely to form those memories early.
So, she’s got that going for her. She has several memories of her father that she has dug up on her own. Some of them she told me about, in that way only moms can understand, when she was just barely speaking.
I’m a steward of his spark. Their father passed it onto her and her sister, and I keep it alive by talking about him and talking to God about him with my kids every day. My oldest daughter and I are stewards of his life together, telling her little sister about the father she never met. All of us who knew him and loved him are keepers of this fire. It’s there, and it lives on, and it is something we can breathe life into every day. Again and again.
It’s been two years. My oldest daughter has lived half her life without him, but she told me about another memory just weeks ago.
“Mama, you know Dada show me this beautiful bird feeder?” she asked, pointing to a blue, blown-glass hummingbird feeder in a tree in the back yard. It is the same color as her eyes, which are identical to her father’s.
“Really?” I asked astonished, remembering him carrying her around the yard doing just that. We’d never talked about it.
“Yeah, it was a long time ago.”
But not so far away.