Four days after my oldest son left for college, our family got together for a meal. By this time, we had all shed our tears. I wasn’t sure what kind of sadness would still linger. Personally, I felt I had done my mourning and was adjusted to the fact that the next stage of JP’s growth needed to happen in college. He was where he needed to be.
But apparently, my 12 year old daughter did not feel this way. I found this out through an unexpected turn of events.
It was Sunday night. We had just gathered for our family meal, a weekly ritual of ours. These are usually homecooked affairs but tonight we ate out. We had come from different places so my wife and I were in different cars, as was 16 year old Alexander. This was our first Sunday meal without JP. We were sitting on an outdoor patio. Halfway through dinner, a light rain started to fall, but we were seated beneath an awning; it kept us dry. The family discussion was a bit subdued, but I didn’t think much of it at the time.
The time to go home had arrived. Everyone got up from the table. I took the trays into the restaurant to their designated place. The others went to their cars. I assumed both girls would go with Katie for some girl bonding. But when I got to my car there was Maddie seated in the passenger seat.
“Oh, you decided to come with me?” I said. “How nice.”
“Yeah,” she said quietly. I didn’t initially notice the subdued nature of her response. We drove off, making small chat about I can’t remember what. When we got off the highway and pulled up to a stop light, I looked over at her. She seemed sad.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
The question hit home, like a boxer’s punch to the chin. Maddie dropped her head, hiding her eyes from me. She does this when she is really sad.
I knew what it was. How could I not have suspected?
“Are you missing John Paul?” I asked.
She began to cry lightly. The light turned green and I nudged the car forward.
“I understand, sweetie. It’s hard. I know you were so close with him. Let’s try to call him.”
I opened my cell, selected favorites and hit JP’s name. The phone rang on the car’s speaker. Maddie looked up at the screen on my dashboard; it read “JP Tew.” For a moment there was hope in the air.
It rang. 4 times. No answer. Then it went to voicemail. I explained in the message to JP that Maddie was having a hard time. That we missed him. That we’d like to talk to him at some point. She said “Hi,” meekly, with a broken voice, and I hung up.
It was still raining. It felt sad outside and sad inside for Maddie. How could I reach her?
We drove up the hill, from the highway, toward our house. It was about 8:20. As we ascended, I noticed, in my rearview mirror, a sliver of orange in the western sky. The cloud cover in the west was clearing up and peeling eastward. You could see the sun low on the western horizon, turning that part of the sky orange. Around us, in some spots, the setting sun was lighting up falling raindrops. It was, in a way, magnificent. It was, for me and Maddie, full of significance.
“Maddie, look,” I said. “Sunlight! Sun and rain! Can you see?”
Maddie and I have this thing. We think anytime you can see sunlight and rain present at the same time that there is a kind of blessing there. That it’s wonderful. That it’s kind of like God’s smile.
But on this night, sun and rain took on a new meaning. It was like a mirror of Maddie’s own soul. It seemed like a kind of language from heaven that was saying: yes, you are sad. Yes, there is sadness in the air. But my grace is near, not far. My sunlight is close to the rain; right alongside it. And so my grace is close to your tears. My daughter, grace and tears can co-exist in the hearts of my children.
I sensed this was a word for Maddie. I tried to translate it as we drove up the road. Tried to put it in terms she could understand. I turned into the parking lot of a nearby Church, from which we could get a better view of the western horizon. She saw and she listened as I tried to weave a story out of the presence of sun and rain at the same time. But she was still sad.
We headed home. Rain wet the slick streets while the western sky grew golder. I found a street that faced east / west. I turned down it, traveling west. Above us grey rain clouds still spit and dropped little amulets of rain. Beyond us, toward the west, was a sky slivered, above the horizon, with a golden glow. A glow like the embers of fire. That glow reflected off the thin film of water in the street, as the morning sun paints, in a shimmer of golden light, the surface of a lake. It was something extraordinary. No one was behind us, so I slowed the car to a crawl. I turned to God in prayer for my sad little daughter. I wish I could remember what I said. There was some kind of grace given to me then, as I gave voice to what I knew was her sorrow and fear. But I combined it with what I knew as her father, bundling all that up into a plea unto a gracious, mighty God. A God who knew her sorrow. Who loved her loving heart.
I said something like:
Father in heaven, we bring to you our sadness, this rain in our souls. This loss, this greyness in our skies. This experience of the unimaginable. Come and help us to see the presence of the Holy Spirit that is also here, right alongside the rain, even lighting it up with your presence. We entrust to you our dear JP; we entrust to you his journey to become a man. We know that one day he will become a man we will be so proud of. Help us to find the sunshine knowing this, even as we experience sadness and loss.
It was a moment frozen in time. The radiance of fiery light dancing off the wet, westerly, neighborhood street. The grey sky looming above. The spits of water dropping on the windshield. The light of the vespery sun falling like embered air, all warm and gold and full of grace in the here and now. And I praying in the grace given to me as a father, missing my one son, but proud and hopeful about his journey; praying alongside my daughter who lacked the horizon I had, who could only feel loss.
We rounded the bend. I put on one of Maddie’s favorite songs. “It’s Quiet Uptown,” from the Hamilton musical. The song where Eliza Hamilton sings through the sorrow she feels over the loss of her son, tragically killed in a duel. I had once used this song as a touchstone to help Maddie deal with a time of grief she went through. In the song, Eliza speaks of learning to live with the unimaginable – that’s her phrase for a deep sorrow that defies words; a sorrow that strikes the soul unaware, plunging it into unknown depths of loss. As Eliza sang these words, the message hit. Maddie dropped her head again and just wept. Wept. Sobbed. Her little sister’s soul so missed her brother and could not see a horizon when he might return. I pulled over. I put my hand on her thigh; I passed it across her forehead and hair. I pondered what to do. How does a father console such grief? I have not read any books on this.
I got an idea. I let her cry a little more. Then I put my hand in hers, and said:
“Would it help to play a game of marbles?”
Marbles was our favorite family board game. I felt confident I could get Maddie’s siblings to play with us.
“OK,” she said meekly.
That’s all I needed to hear. I drove us home. Explained to Alexander and Ellie that Maddie was feeling very sad. Would they play with us? They each agreed and stopped what they were doing. I popped two buckets of popcorn, set up the game, shuffled the cards and soon a full game was underway. This game is largely aided by the luck of the cards drawn and it just so happened that Maddie drew some amazing cards. She led the game and got all her marbles off the table first. This was the cause of no small amount of joy. But sweeter still was the way both Alexander and Ellie played the whole game with a rare kind of motherly grace toward her. Sensitive to her sadness, happy for her happiness, gentle, supportive. There wasn’t a single cross word or hint of sibling rivalry that entire game. Just the joy of being together. A community of siblings learning to draw a little closer after the departure of their older brother. It was like a sacrament of togetherness. Between kernels of popcorn, the laying down of cards and the advancing of marbles across the board, a smile returned to Maddie’s face. And stayed there. Love in the concrete brought solace to the hole in her heart.
And now, as I step back and consider this moment, I see Maddie’s heart has grown larger because of her love for her brother. It has grown wiser, more human, more durable because of her experience of sorrow and loss. I see Alexander and Ellie have ascended to a new moment of sibling love. Seeing Maddie as wounded, coming to her side, picking her up, cheering her up. JP has stepped out into a wider world, to face the new challenges of growth. But his siblings are growing right along with him. And I am grateful.