Every year at my elementary school during the fall, we had a spaghetti supper followed by a festival of games. The supper came before the games that were set up in the gymnasium and other classrooms. It was a fundraiser, which really didn’t mean much to us children. I just wanted to buy tickets to do the contests in order to win the trinkets. The colors, booths, and people created an electric, magical celebration.
Life is full of change, we all know. We seek it, look forward to it, plan for it, dread it, and try to prevent it. We need to be able to “deal with” change to live fully in a place of such wonder and loss, love and death, desire and discouragement. For every change, a difference occurs. With the difference comes a loss of what was beforehand, even if the loss is a welcomed relief like a cast being removed. When the cast is removed, we still have to face atrophy, need to work at recovery, and the fact that we needed a cast in the first place. We still wish the bone had not been broken.
That which we can thank God about is still no escape from life’s realities. For every change, an ending; for every ending, a loss; for every loss, a death; for every death, a grief. We have been created to live fully in the midst of change. To do so, we must face our need and our ability to grieve.
Grieving well sets us free to process change, to keep up with life, not recoil from life. Grief lets us come to acceptance, the courage to keep on living and loving in the face of inevitable change. It brings us to hoping again after a loss; risking again after a disappointment; reaching again after a discouragement; attaching again after a death of any kind; and loving again while knowing that pain will follow, all of which will put us in a position, again, of change. Such is life this side of heaven.
“You're on Earth. There's no cure for that,” the author, Samuel Beckett said. Grief is a painful gift, yet gift it is. It lets us live well in a place of pain, even the pain of nightfall after a “perfect day” or childhood itself coming to an inevitable close.
I remember when our youngest son left home for college—a great opportunity to grow, wonderful school, ready to go. Sonya and I could move into our next phase of living in a new world, one we had not lived in together for twenty years. We had good plans, and still wanted to be with each other. The first Monday afternoon after he left for school, I came home from work and called Sonya as I pulled into our driveway. I told her I was headed towards our backyard to sit on some steps that overlook an open field before a tree line a hundred yards away. I remember how dry and brown the grass on the field had turned as summer ended, the sun still hot, the sky bright blue.
Sonya said she would meet me down there, which was great. When she got to the steps and sat down, I looked at her and we smiled. Then, I said, “I miss him so much,” and when I did, we both burst into tears, and leaned on each other, crying, and laughing, and sweating in the heat of a late September afternoon. He had been gone less than 48 hours!
Even amidst such goodness, my heart carried grief, which I had historically been a master at avoiding, denying, and minimizing. Even though I said to Sonya how silly I felt to be crying over something so good, a real truth was that a personal era was ending. It would either be closed, or it would become part of the fabric of our lives, another square in the quilt that makes up a lifetime of living—loss and gratitude, grief and acceptance, remorse and healing. Because of grief permitted, we came to memory. Instead of simply closing a door to avoid the full impact of love, care, attachment, regret, remorse, valuing, and loss, we have the memory of having been alive with all of its realities. We cried about that reality.
My two sons played baseball from the time they could hit a rolled up sock with their hands until they walked off the field of their last games in college. I did not grow up playing baseball, really, beyond backyard games; I did not have a love of the game. I did have love for our sons, though. So when they were presented with the baseball, through Sonya, mainly, then me, they took off. We joined.
We together found a lot of life, love, and pain in it. I still remember when they were much younger, finding piles of rolled up socks on top of the “homerun” cabinets in our den; them celebrating a homerun when a Wiffle ball would stay in the limbs of a cedar tree in our backyard; and playing with them out by the barn where the backstop was an exercise trampoline on its side so the ball would bounce back to me after the pitch.
Years later, I remember hugging our youngest son while he cried and said how much he would miss what had just ended, the last game of his college career, and the last game of his childhood years. I also remember my oldest son’s last game in college. Back surgery ended his dedication to be as good as he could possibly be at baseball; the coach started him in the lineup as an honor to him. He then took him out before the first pitch because he was incapable of playing and would never be able to play again. Through it all, they had loved the game that “doesn’t love you back,” as the saying goes.
They experienced much of life on life’s terms in pouring their hearts into something that mattered to them. Tears, injuries, laughter, bonds of friendship, celebration, heart wounds, hard questions, memories kept and memories they regret, heart break, gratitude so huge it had no words, hard work, sweat, dreams fulfilled and destroyed, arguments, fulfillment, great victories and loss.
They got to play together on a state semi-final team, and said goodbye to each other on the field, as one of them would graduate from high school. I still remember how they hugged goodbye to what had become a short lifetime of being together on a field of green. I can still see them sitting quietly in the dugout after their last game together before the lights on the field were turned off. I will remain forever grateful how their love for each other became a sealed bond through a dedication they gave their hearts to. Our sons are grown and gone now, doing life in their twenties, and Sonya and I doing life in our fifties.
I was rearranging and cleaning our garage last week, deciding what needed be pitched and what might be used again. I found a bunch of bats in a dusty, cobwebbed corner behind wood planks, wood scraps, broom handles, and paint poles. I knew they were there. I pulled out the useless bats, a cracked plastic Wiffle ball bat, wooden bats, aluminum bats, all scarred up, cracked, and dented from lots of use. I held a cracked wooden bat in my hands, looked at the faded white tape wrapped around the handle, brown from dirt and hands gripping it. I recalled all the hours we spent on what we called our “hitting field” down by a wet-weather creek. The echoes of the bat hitting the ball and our voices in the late afternoons, the sweat, the gnats, the sounds of mowers in the distance, the smell of grass, their faces, their efforts, and me getting to be with them.
I couldn’t throw the bat away. I couldn’t throw any of them away. I found an old cloth and wiped the dust and cobwebs off of each bat. It took a while because I was seeing our lives. I missed them, and I missed our years. My heart ached in gratitude, sadness, and regret—the wish to do it again, and to do it all better as a Dad. Such sweet, sad joy to have lived a life so good with them. I wiped my eyes with the old cloth after I cleaned the bats. I put all the bats on a shelf. I had room to keep them.