I see her bright blonde hair and brighter smile as she barrels toward me.
“You’re a bad guy and I’m a good guy!” she declares while launching a giant orange bouncy ball at my torso.
I flop on the trampoline in a deft maneuver, avoiding her attack. Valerie already landed two hits—one more and I’m down until my bad-guy comrade (a.k.a. Husband) can revive me. If our daughters land three hits on each of us and we can’t revive one another, the girls claim victory.
I dodge another of the projectiles, this one hurtled by my eldest, Sylvia. She’s bigger and she’s crafty. As soon as I hop around her vicious weapon, she grabs it and throws again. The purple orb of doom lands squarely on my back.
“NOOOOO!!!” I cry as I collapse to the soft black trampoline mat. My husband is already down as well. We, the bad guys, have been defeated.
“Yayyyy!” the girls cry as they collapse on top of their parents. Giggles. Tickles. The wind whipping wildly at the trampoline net.
Is there joy beyond the loss of joy? Is there light that shines within the dark night of the soul?
I’ve always felt life deeply. My inner world settles naturally into melancholy (I’m a Four on the Enneagram if that helps explain things). This is perhaps why the experience of losing my God for a time and my child for a lifetime affected me until my very cells felt heavy. In a moment as unnatural as my child dying in my arms, a valve released every feeling of pain, despair, and soul-wrenching grief a mother’s heart could produce. And those feelings just kept flowing and flowing and flowing. Even my tears couldn’t keep up.
Rising periodically out of the depths of that pain has produced a welcome reassurance that Christ has been with me every second. In the dark of the pit, it is really, really hard to see Him there. So, I have been slowly learning what it means to let life in again. To rise from the valley more permanently. To let hope shine again. To allow myself some permission to enjoy…joy.
The cold wind drives us back inside. Finally, it’s almost time for the big game to start. We never watch football, and my girls don’t quite understand what the Superbowl is. I tell them it is a rare opportunity to leave the TV on for hours and eat as many snacks as we want. Their faces light up.
“Can I have that big cookie?” Valerie requests, intentionally displaying the jumble of half-grown in teeth she knows I can’t resist. I nod yes.
Sylvia considers her options, then smiles. “Rainbow sherbet?” I give permission.
I, too, pile a plate with my own special snacks: gruyere cheese, gluten-free crackers, and juuuust a little Buffalo chicken dip. And later, to accommodate my new health-conscious diet, almond flour low-sugar brownies await. Don’t judge.
We pick a team to root for and laugh at early commercials like the M&Ms one: “Sorry your name is Karen.” The girls ask football questions about a first down, what referees do, and how quarters work.
They ask when something exciting will happen, and I break the news I discovered many years ago: football is BO-RING. So, Dustin and Sylvia spread out Ticket to Ride on the floor. Valerie and I play Silly Street. We pause to watch commercials, Dustin and I critiquing those which had comedic potential but fell oh so short.
This day. What is it about this day? What is this feeling? Sometimes it’s hard to put a name to it. Sometimes I fear grasping it. What if I let down my guard and embrace it? Will a tragedy pierce my heart again at the moment I am feeling it so fully?
But today, I make a choice. I am going to let it in.
I feel happy.
Some people live their lives in a valley of despair, a similar valley to the one I’ve frequented over the past four years. Some people live high on the clouds of contentment most their days, whether out of natural disposition, luck of a mostly easy life, or need to avoid pain. Reading The Road Back to You a couple years ago, with its excellent descriptions of Enneagram observations of personality from a Christian perspective, helped me release judgment toward myself and others. We’re just different. We perceive life differently. We feel life differently. We are motivated by different inner needs and desires.
But we are not slaves to our natural bent. We can make choices to grow beyond what is natural for us. This is the power of Christ: to be fully ourselves while His presence makes us something new.
I naturally want to stay in the valley. Despair is very romantic. My favorite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, calls despair “carrion comfort.” A carrion bird feeds on dead things. Hopkins seemed, like me, to fight again his nature, to call Christ close in the struggle.
Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
“I can,” is Hopkins defiant reply to Despair. Can SOMETHING. There is always something that can be done besides feasting on despair.
There is jumping on the trampoline. There is snack-eating and Superbowl-watching. There is happiness.
The “big game” stretches on and I am searching for campers on Craigslist. Valerie needs a partner in Barbie fantasy world and begs me to play with her. I hesitate, so Dustin jumps in. Daddy grabs both male Barbie dolls and begins his performance of Ken and Carl (Ken is the teenage son and Firefighter Carl is the dad). Sylvia collects the Barbie dogs and adds their energy to Barbie-land chaos. Valerie masterfully alternates between adult Barbie dolls, youth Chelseas, and crying baby Barbies.
And I keep sittin’ on the sofa just enjoying the show. The Superbowl is far-faded background noise as I watch my family cavort. Dustin is such a great dad. The girls are getting so big but are in that sweet space of still little enough to pretend.
I can’t not love this.
There is a space that hovers between the valley of despair and the clouds of contentment. I don’t ride those high clouds very well or for very long. I feel inauthentic there. But living in the valley constantly does not give me life or honor my Elliot. I need to go there sometimes, and I always will. Until eternity washes over all creation, I will ache. I want my little boy, and that want will always be worthy of tears of mourning and stubborn hope.
But life beckons. Even my connection to Elliot reminds me to life fully, to not let days pass missing out. This middle space is right for me in this season.
This is the space where I am grateful to God for all small joys. I also thank Him for the tears which flow, knowing Christ’s tears flowed too. This is my greatest gratefulness: that He is with me. No delight of life can amplify his presence; no disappointment can diminish it. My feelings and perceptions can shift, but Jesus never can.
This is the space where love lives. It is where I allow myself to rise out of the pit and accept his mercies which are new every morning. It is where I descend from the clouds and let my heart bear some of the weight of the sorrow in the world. Love feels both.
A sweet boy is smiling broadly as he ambles down a staircase. He is my future son, a child in Colombia who is loved by a mommy and daddy he’s never met. They sent us a video recently to show him running and walking. They tell him to run around the table and he proudly does so. He can’t stop smiling. I can’t stop smiling. I show the girls the video. “Awwww!” Valerie cries. “I like him!” Sylvia giggles.
He will be here soon, jumping on the trampoline, playing Barbies, watching football (well, maybe not that one). The joys to come and the sorrows to bear will be many. When we want to ride the high clouds and just soak in some fun as a family of five, Christ will be there. When the grief and trauma of having his world upended assail his little heart, Christ will be there.
Today I am thankful Jesus has helped me emerge from the valley of despair to the in-between space. I weep that Elliot won’t grow up with his little brother from Colombia. What best buddies they could have been. We will soon have a son in our home, but we have TWO sons in our family. And I laugh at Dustin’s goofy voices when he plays Barbies with Val. Sometimes I laugh while the tears of mourning are still in my eyes.
Here I’ll revel in the presence of Christ, here in the space of love. Tomorrow, my feelings may flail. But today I’m in-between, in the space where love is alive. And this feeling that was hard to feel for so long is strange, foreign, and wonderful. Happiness.