In 2012, the year we finally had to place Maria in her current residential program, she was not able to come spend Christmas with us at home. Instead, on Christmas Day, we took her presents and went to spend the day with her at BARC. She was into basketball in those days and she and I had a running argument: as we shot hoops we bickered endlessly about who was Little Bow-Wow, and who was LeBron. LeBron was playing with the Miami Heat and we were both whooshed by him, each of us wanting to claim his name for herself. It was not the day we would have hoped for and it turned out to be just fine. The weather was the most perfect SoFla weather imaginable on Christmas Day: sunny, mild, a cool, gentle breeze blowing. It was so good to be able to reach out and hug that kid who still had (and has) the capacity to take my breath away in the fullness of her beautiful and miraculous self.
This year, with the distance that separates us and our girl’s continued struggles, we will not get to be together on Christmas Day. I head to Lauderdale for a very quick visit later this week. Her presents are wrapped and ready to go with me. I’ll deliver them to the social worker at BARC who will see to it that Maria gets them on Christmas morning. One of the gifts I will carry is a new electronic picture frame. Sherod has loaded over 150 pictures in chronological order—the story of her life since the day we got custody of her in México in 2001. On Wednesday, the day I get to spend with her, we will have some time to look at the pictures together and tell stories. Even if we don’t, Sherod and I have had the frame up for the past 2 weeks and I have stopped often to look at all those snapshots of her life—and ours.
The pictures remind me that Sherod and I have tried awfully hard, been so determined to do everything we could to give María the best life possible. At one level that is no consolation—life continues to be grim for our girl, with no end in sight. At another, though, I can see moment after precious moment, when, for however briefly, María has known herself loved and I have gotten to experience grace beyond counting mothering her. Sadness? Yes. Regrets? How could I regret love?
I sit writing this on Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of Rejoicing, as Advent wobble and tilts towards Christmas. Tonight, my dad, Sherod, and I had dinner as the flames on a pink and two purple candles of the advent wreath on our dining room table burned steadily. We share more meals with Dad these days and last night, we had also eaten together, though at the kitchen table. There, I had candle light, but also the fun, silly light of a small string of star shaped lights I picked up at Michael’s earlier this month. I’d wrapped it around a vase and filled the vase with greenery.
I’m back at that table now and if I look outside, or into our living room, I see lights as well—the plain white lights on the Christmas tree inside, Sherod’s tomato cage forest outside. Each year, he wraps quantities of colored lights around tomato cages and sets them up out by the edge of the front garden. Some of them hang low from a tree and if there is a breeze, they sway gently against the dark darkness of a country night, all of them together a kind and persistent insistence of joy even in the midst of sadness. Though we don’t use María’s first name, Luz much, each small light, or luz in Spanish, that shines in my home this year is a reminder not just of the “Light that is come into the world,” but of my daughter as well.
I listened to a podcast yesterday that included a story about a person who worked as a counselor with people trying to recover from heroin addiction. The counselor explained that in her experience, as heroin addicts finished getting through the worst of their withdrawal symptoms, they seemed to find great comfort in empty spaces. She wondered if those empty spaces represented the hard truth that addiction brings with it enormous, sometimes catastrophic loss. Could it be, she said, that standing in a room with nothing in it might be a way of acknowledging the grievousness of such loss? I don’t know. But yesterday, it gave me a way to understand why I have so strongly resisted pulling out all our Christmas decorations. The Christmas tree just has lights on it, along with 3 ornaments I was given this year. The advent wreath and a Christmas-y table cloth and placemats are about as much as I can bring myself to have out in acknowledgment of the season. My girl is not here and everything else feels like clutter.
And here’s the thing–the miracle, actually…the emptinesses of this Advent have been startlingly rich. I’ve had time to spend with friends. Time I didn’t spend in the busy-ness demanded by our culture has been time I’ve gotten to do a bit of extra work with my new parish, work that has delighted and amused and been wonderfully meaningful.
And today, after church, I led a vestry meeting that ended with some social time to welcome incoming vestry members and bid farewell to the ones who are rotating off. As we were sitting around the conference table shooting the breeze, I heard someone come up to the door behind me so I turned around to look. One of the women I worked with at my previous church had come to bring me a gift. It’s a gift she and some of my parishioners made for me and it’s hard to describe what it is except to say it is part of one of my most favorite presentations from the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. I could not have been more surprised, nor could I have been more joyfully thankful than I was at that moment—for the gift itself, for generosity of time on the part of the people who helped her make it, and above all, for my friend’s beautiful heart in bringing such a gift, that in its own way is also all about the light.
It is true that empty spaces can offer us the consolation of being real about all that has been lost. And. And it is equally true and life-giving to remember that the emptiness can be filled in the most unexpected ways and most surprising moments. So yes. It is Gaudete Sunday.