On the eve of my 39th birthday a couple nights ago, I stepped out of my patio door to let my dog outside. The sight of Orion hanging in the sky caught my breath. I’m proud to be a very amateur astronomer. A couple names of Orion’s stars, Rigel & Betelgeuse, flashed in the forefront of my mind as my eyes hovered on the constellation. I recognized those stars as friends and greeted them as they swung around the wide sky to herald approaching winter.
One of my favorite friends and I recently talked theology, one of our favorite topics. Old earth verses new earth creation bounced between us, and we both settled for a large dose of “we just don’t know” (the ability to admit what you don’t know is a great side-effect of getting older, kids!), and a smaller dose of old earth creation making more sense to us. We talked about the grandeur of God manifesting in all those eons of creating, worlds and moons and dinosaurs and seas and starfish and US as his grandest accomplishment. And then I said, “And the stars! The thought that they are millions of light years from us, it means their light has been traveling that long just to get to us!”
As Orion’s stars glittered at me two nights ago, I stared at Rigel and inhaled. Maybe God made the light of that one star just to reach me on the eve of my birthday. Maybe he had me in mind with those light-beams.
Then the thought struck me that the star may no longer be shining. It may have died out a thousand years ago, but because light is so slow in the vast expanse of the universe, it’s just now getting to me. What a thought. Even though the star may have died, its light still reaches me.
Most of us not-so-young adults agree that birthdays lose their pizazz as you get older, and parent birthdays are pretty much back burner compared to kiddo shindigs. That’s the way it should be. But even a lame-o birthday like my 39th is kind of supposed to be a celebration. And celebrations of any kind in the wake of child loss are convoluted.
I think I feel the preciousness of life and laughter of love more keenly than I could’ve hoped to in my 20’s or early 30’s. It’s like seeing that star hang in the sky: gazing on beauty and stepping out of time for a moment to really, truly appreciate it. I felt this as we celebrated my oldest daughter’s 7th birthday this weekend. She was so snappy and cute all weekend, bouncing around in glee about everything related to her birthday. She enjoyed every minute of it, and I enjoyed it with her.
And my son’s absence is a sort of counterpart to the increased appreciation of beautiful moments. His absence is a reminder that to every joy there is also a sorrow, even if it’s not sorrow for my own life. I miss him, God knows I miss him every second of every day. But it’s not just him. I miss what life should be for so many of our fellow human beings who suffer daily. I don’t think I should ever feel guilty for having a beautiful life and family. Nor do I think I should suppress solidarity with the suffering, in the tiny way a person with a charmed life like mine can understand it.
That star gave me a reminder. It may have lived its life; it may have burned its way through millions of years of fuel and now sits cold and dark in space. But its light still reaches me. Christ is not visible to me today (seriously, though, how I wish he was), but the only thing I know about my faith anymore is his Light. His Light is hard to explain but impossible to deny. Christian songs and Bible studies and church services have lost their luster, but Jesus is still…well, He’s Light. He’s much more radiant than all the devices I thought I needed to scaffold my way up to Him. Those devices may become lustrous again one day, but I am thankful I realize I don’t need them for Jesus to be near. His Light already reaches me, wherever and however I am.
My little boy and my sweet miscarried babies have been buried for too, too long now. How can I handle the fact that their little bodies are in little graves? I can’t. But, like Jesus, their light never leaves me. I can no more deny their presence and beauty than I could deny the stars.
I made the hard choice to change my Facebook profile picture today. For two and a half years I have left the same picture of me holding beautiful Elliot hours after he died. Today I changed it to a picture of my husband and me on our recent trip to Ireland. That was really hard to do. Changing it is a statement to myself that just because life continues to move forward, Elliot’s light does not stop shining in my life. I like the picture of Dustin and me; I like the memory it holds and the lines around our eyes that show the years we’ve laughed and cried together.
I can change a picture and that small fact will not upend any love for my little boy. I think it’s been hard to change it because I don’t want new people who meet me and become Facebook friends to be unaware that I have a son. Yet people will be unaware or sometimes unloving or insensitive. But that doesn’t change my boy’s life and light, does it? Nothing can stop him from shining, Facebook profile picture or not. But it didn’t make it easy.
So I’m 39 now. I keep getting good-natured jibes, “Last year of your 30’s!” And I don’t mind; I’m only 39! But 39 is that much closer to the number my life will reach when it reaches its end. I think it’s funny our culture values youth more than age, when it’s age that really develops the layers of depth which give perspective in life. I think I really enjoy getting older; it’s the aging I’m not so keen on.
Time keeps passing and things keep changing. The beauty Jesus has infused in Creation persists beyond what I understand in this life, and each passing year helps me release certainty to sit in the joy of mystery. Starlight reminds me His Light pervades every darkness. If Jesus would create a star millions of years ago just to wish me a happy 39th birthday, how else is he shining his light in a dark world? It’s not too much to assume sometimes His Light shines through me, and through you. And His Light is seen in the love and memory of those who’ve passed before us, who may have “died” like a thousand stars in the sky.
But even death doesn’t keep their light from shining.