My Aunt Toni died last month.
When my mom called to tell me, I bawled. I was in shock. I just saw her the week before, could it really be possible? How? I stewed for a few days. I felt. I thought. I remembered. And then I put everything in boxes for later to unpack when I could. Isn't it remarkable how our bodies and minds can preserve themselves from pain? For me, my survival mode kicks in and takes over by packaging up grief and fear and placing it on the top shelf in the back of the closet for a while. Lest I sound callous, I haven't forgotten. You can't forget. You can't run away from your boxes - not without serious damage. But you can close them for a while and sometimes lose them til you're ready to take them down and feel it all again. This is how I've come to understand my response to mourning as an adult.
I also learned that I mourn and cope in a way that is alien to most of my family. You see, I'm a runner. Not like I'm going to go for a jog (I only run if I need to get to Milo before he swallows something he shouldn't). I get out of dodge - I flee. Sometimes physically, sometimes just mentally or emotionally. Ten years ago when tragedy struck, I drove two states away and after that trudged around Europe for a few weeks to keep from drowning in everyone else's misery, including my own. I didn't get it then - I just thought I was a terrible person to not want to suffer with others, but the weight of it crushed me. Only recently after talking to a friend and personality color expert did I learn that is completely normal for a first-color orange. (Hoping to learn more later.) And as a second-color blue, I take on the emotions of those around me to the point of breaking.
I've thought a lot, too, about why we're so offended at death. Why does it surprise us? Why are we up in arms when our bodies fail us? Everyone dies. (With the exception of Jesus Christ who even by secular histories, died, was buried, and then rose from the dead. ROSE FROM THE DEAD. He beat death.) But the rest of us in the meantime still have a 100% mortality rate. We're all going to die - we just don't know when. But it makes us mad and sad and scared. Why? We should expect to die, so why are we either totally unprepared or angry when it does happen?
My thought is that it's offensive simply because...we were meant to live forever. We were meant to live in perfect bodies in a perfect earth with our perfect God. And we would have, but then we sinned - we separated ourselves from God. We thought we could do it better. And from there you know the world as it is now - the result of our own choices. But even though we chose our own way, God still designed to win us back, to make a way - Jesus, the God-Man and the only perfect path back to God. He's the perfect sacrifice/payment/forgiveness we could possibly need and all we have to do is say "Yes, I want what you have to give me. I accept your payment for my great debt. Would you please sign your name over my life?" And while he is writing his name over yours, God is writing yours in the Book of Life. You're paid for. All the good works you were saving up your whole life to show God when you died just went right out the window because they were never going to be good enough in the first place. You can stop trying right now. Isn't that good news?! It's not about you and what you can do - or more importantly here - can't do. It's all about what Jesus already did. Done.
I want everyone in my life to know that when you're at your rock bottom, look up. When you just can't anymore, let God. He's been waiting this whole time for you to turn to Him for help and comfort and peace and love and forgiveness. Are you going to wait for rock bottom? Or will you turn around now?
Existential and theological thoughts aside, writing is incredibly cathartic for me, so I'll share a few of my favorite memories with my Aunt Toni.
My Aunt Toni was a "fun" aunt - she would have us over for sleepovers and dote on us by taking us on road trips or shopping. I'll never forget that she bought me one of my first "new" outfits. Growing up on a farm, we were usually clothed with the hand-me-downs from the neighbor girls at the bottom of the hill - there were three of them - which was fun! They were popular and cute and we were happy to wear what they wore, but the clothes were far from new by the time they got to us. In 3rd grade, Aunt Toni picked me up from the farm and drove me to Omaha for a sleepover at her house. First, she took me to a department store at the mall to pick out my own new clothes. She bought me a floral long sleeved onesie (you know - the one with the snaps in the crotch), knee-length denim skirt, and black boots with little fancy engraved silver buckles and leather sides. I felt like the bees knees. I couldn't get over what a great feeling it was to not only wear something new that no one else had worn before, but to wear exactly what I wanted. I felt like a princess :) After that, we went to Blockbusters (also something we never did growing up) and rented the Jungle Book (I got to pick) and we had a lovely time hanging out and playing and talking.
There were always coins - pennies, dimes, nickels, sometimes quarters - on Aunt Toni and Uncle Scott's stairs. My favorite thing to do there when I was a kid was pick them all up and put them in a special jar with a mustache and cork lid. She had cats - the first that I knew was Maynard - and he didn't like me, but that was okay. She always smelled like smoke when I was a kid, but I liked it because I loved Aunt Toni. Whenever I smell a cigarette - even to this very day - I think of her. They had these Magic Eye posters at their house that I loved to look at and "see." Aunt Toni had an easy laugh I can still conjure up in my head. At family events they arrived with an ever-present cooler and a great many cans...and a great many laughs and stories. Aunt Toni loved to listen to how we were doing and she was the kind of person you could tell anything to because you knew she wasn't judging you - she just loved you. Essentially, Aunt Toni was the perfect mix of kindheartedness and good times.
I wish I could thank her one more time for taking me to The Mall of America when I was probably my most annoying junior high self. And letting me trick her into buying me a few outfits that would make dad want to lock me up for 10 more years. And for eating an entire bag of lollipops on said trip to kick the urge of smoking because I had asthma. That's love.
Last month, I helped host a baby shower for my cousin Adrienne and I didn't know it then, but it was the last time I would get to hug my aunt. I'm so glad I got it, and that I got to tell her I loved her. I wish I could tell her thank you for holding my little boy and telling me she loved his ginger hair. I'll always remember that.
Aunt Toni, thanks for making your nieces and nephews a big part of your life. I miss you an awful lot. Thanksgiving this year is going to be a punch in the gut when I reach for your hand and it's not there, or when my ear wants to hear your laugh.
God, thank you for giving me time with my Aunt Toni and that she made time for me. Wrap up my Uncle Scott so tight with your love that he can't fail to see you there. He's never going to forget her and nothing will ever fill the aching gap in his heart, but would you comfort him and give him peace and show him how to keep living life? Show up in ways he's never seen or hoped for before. My friend Annie said it right - it's even harder to see a loved one go on living after they lost their best friend. Please, God, show us all how to be builders, walking alongside of him in the years to come, simply being present and bearing his pain with him.
You are still a good God - a sovereign God - even if we don't understand everything. In fact, if we could understand you, you wouldn't be a very big God at all.
I love you. Thank you for hearing me. Thank you for making us right with you. Thank you for always wooing us back. Thank you for the great hope you give us.