For those of you with kids off to college, or just moving away, or for anyone saying goodbyes of one form or another, the following is a journal entry I wrote the day after we put Hannah on a plane for New Zealand when she moved there for a year back in 2011. I’ve shared it with a few people who said it was ‘publishable’. I just hope it will be helpful in some way.
February 15, 2011
Life without Hannah begins. (Cue the tears.) Yesterday, yes Valentine’s Day, we drove the daughter we love to JFK and at 10:41am, American Flight 19 took off and bore her west out of our sight into the future God her Father has for her. (And in a huge 8-terminal airport, God positioned us right where we needed to be to watch her taxi out and up, sort of a small token of grace that we somehow needed.) And as I write, V-Australia Flight 2 is 3,374 miles out from Sydney, 6 hours and 1 minute from landing according to Flightaware.com.
Grief is the funniest thing (an odd phrase, as I re-read it.) It comes, like nausea, in waves of intensity so overwhelming that it would likely kill you in minutes if it did not subside. We were on the road by 5:30am and I did a good job keeping the sorrow locked up for a few hours (though I could hear it pacing back and forth in the room adjacent to my heart, testing the doors and windows.) The drive in to NYC was smooth, and we parked the car at Avistar, were shuttled to terminal 8, and Hannah was checked in by 8:15, with two hours to spare. So we had time to find something to eat.
It was while we were walking back from breakfast that the door gave way, and out poured the tears with nothing to hold them back. Because this was it. You comfort yourself days earlier when the grief of goodbye comes on you by telling yourself, “Well, at least we have the shopping to do together; at least we have dinner tonight; at least there’s the movie; at least we have one more night of sleep,” but then you begin running out of activities to share, and then suddenly, there are no more ‘at leasts’ to buffer you. There’s only that doorway in front of you through which they step and are then gone. So I walked ahead a little bit, but Jan caught my moist eyes from the side, and she began sobbing at once, and then Hannah drew near and broke down, and we walked the last hundred yards to security, arm in arm, a big, soggy huddle of miserable (but happy) flesh.
For there is the conundrum of it all. Though the grief is running wild, ransacking your heart, like Thing One and Thing Two, there is a higher power over your soul that stands ready to reassert itself. A higher power of reason which goes by several names – Faith, Hope and Love – and these three tell you that joy is on the other end of this if you let go.
While Jan and I know we were given a beautiful gift to have had Hannah home with us for more than a year and a half after her college graduation, we also know that this cannot and must not continue, for her good or ours. The ‘leaving’ of Mother and Father’ is a necessary passage of life, so that we can ‘cleave’ to new relationships and experiences. And each time we have let go of Hannah, she has grown and we have been enriched.
Those years at Messiah College, for example. Jan and I loved sharing them with her. The cross-country drives, the walks around campus, chicken cordon bleu in the dining hall, eating Thai for the first time, the 50s music at Brusters Ice Cream, parents’ weekends, even the stupid soccer. If we hadn’t let her go we would have missed all that.
I rewind the tape further back to how Jan’s ‘leaving’ led her to Iowa, and our ‘leaving’ for England led us to those wonderful experiences and friends and a new career and calling. The child leaving, the parent letting go – this leads to happiness in the end. All this we knew as we clung to each other in one final prayer, sitting on a vacant check-in weight scale, before we stood, and Hannah took her bags and walked alone through security, and disappeared around the bend to gate 4. (5 hours, 5 minutes left; 2,876 miles to go.)
Grief evokes other peculiar feelings within me. I found myself in the last couple of weeks running around like a madman trying to finish transferring all our family video tapes to DVDs. And I felt like I had to finish assembling our new entertainment center. I saw a Denon stereo receiver on sale at Best Buy, and snagged it, and took a day to set it up.
There was a certain frantic-ness to my buying and building and cleaning up – and I didn’t know why, till I think God’s Spirit showed me. The reason for it of course was Hannah, and me wanting her to have the chance of enjoying these little experiences before she left. Just as when one we love is coming to visit, we order our homes to roll out the red carpet for them, so here, one we loved was leaving, and I wished to give her the same thing. When that little epiphany dawned on me, boy did a tropical storm of tears come then.
Closely associated with these sensations has been another deeper desire that has awakened within me. How to describe it? It’s a desire to get my own life moving forward, to not get stuck but redouble my efforts to pursue my writing, take my ministry to a new level, buy at last that electric guitar and really learn the piano. Jan is feeling it as well: A rekindled passion to focus on her therapeutic riding connections and make good on her dreams. Now what is this?
It has to be in some fashion a reflex to grief. Is it a negative reaction to the experience of grief – these feelings are so awful that we instinctively bounce in the other direction to keep from getting stuck in depression? Is it merely a coping response? Or is it more a positive reaction to grief – a looking ahead to the next time I see my daughter, and I want to be in a better place in my life, as if to prove to myself that all of this pain is worthwhile? In which case this feeling is a profound sort of grace. I guess the proof will be in the pudding.
Of course, this grief is tempered by the trust we have that we will all be together again. Not to mention this amazing technology we have at our fingertips that really softens the blow. I think of when we went to England, which was before email and instant messaging and Pennytalk, when phone calls were pricey and precious. Then further back in time, when my great-aunt Elfie left her brother Clarence in the days of the Depression, and moved from the Midwest to California, and further back still when getting to California meant a stage-coach ride and a goodbye that was for all intents and purposes permanent, and further back to when God called Abraham to leave his home and family.
I think with each uptick of the duration and nature of the separation, the grief takes on different levels of intensity. What Jan and I are feeling now is so strong because it truly is the end of a season we will never experience again. We thought that was it when Hannah went to college in 2005 (and I’ll never forget Jan and me suddenly crying at the breakfast table at the Hampton Inn in Hazleton, the morning after we dropped Hannah off at Messiah. Those poor people around us – they thought it was the eggs.) But then we were given a second life of sorts after college, never expecting her to be back in this way.
But now, now, this is the end of a season. When she comes back again, if she comes back again, it can only be as a leaping off point. And so this sorrow is deeper, and more raw than ever before. I knew it was coming, but walking into the house yesterday and feeling its emptiness just sink into my bones like the chill of a rainy day in early March was just pure, undiluted sadness.
With a grief this intense and jagged, let it be said now – and I’m looking up at you now God, looking right into your eyes – I cannot comprehend the grief that must be felt by someone who has actually lost a child for good. And yes, there is a hope which the assurance of heaven brings, but…I cannot imagine such a hope would do much good for the longest of time. Grief is hollowness in its core. It is emptiness, the feeling of falling with nothing to catch you. To have such a hollowness inside, coupled with the knowledge that the one you are missing will never in this lifetime fill that emptiness again, I cannot even bring myself to imagine that.
There was an article I read last night about Liam Neeson who is still recovering from the unexpected death of his wife in a freak skiing accident a couple years ago. He said of the grief, “It hits you in the middle of the night. I’m out walking. I’m feeling quite content. And it’s like suddenly boom. A bomb goes off in your chest.”
Thank goodness, this is not that.
And God continues to give assurances to my heart that everything will be alright. Even this morning, I opened, or was opened to, John 12:24-25 where Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Which is what I was thinking about yesterday, how all the goodbyes I have embraced in my life have eventually come round to yielding greater blessings. It still is a sort of death, hence the grief. But it’s a death that gives birth to life, and greater life than existed before. When we cling to the single seed, afraid to lose it, afraid to give it away, we suppress all the potential that exists within that seed.
Already it has begun. This morning I pulled up the Wellington newspaper on the web and surveyed articles for fifteen minutes. I read of Orca whales making noises off the coast of Kapiti Island, startling the residents, but doing so to bring stingrays to the surface. (Never knew whales did that. And never heard about Kapiti Island before.) Apparently Wellington has a considerable jaywalking problem. (Look right, look left, Scooby. Don’t forget. Look right, look left.) And they’re working on an economic union with Australia. And a well-loved café in Courtenay Place has shut down, to the dismay of the locals.
Yesterday at church, a young man came up to me after our service, where there were many tears and prayers lifted up for Hannah, who said to me, “You know, if I had told my parents that I was going to go away to another country, they would have said, ‘Don’t let the door hit you as you leave’.” He said it I think in admiration for what he saw of our love for Hannah, but also envy and longing.
All I could say was, “Well, you do everything in your power then to break the cycle, and be sure that you give to your children the blessing and security and love which you didn’t have.” But he is just one of countless others. And surely part of the healing of my grief will come as I parcel out some fatherly affection for those whom I am shepherding now.
But Lord, I just need you to shepherd Janis and me for a little while, because it’s going to take some time to get used to this new place where we find ourselves. Well, it’s 10:11. Three hours, 27 minutes. 1,965 miles to go. I love you, my daughter. I am so proud of you. And I will miss you terribly. And though another cloud-burst of tears is falling as I finish here for now, I am happy for you and for us and for the future. Talk to you soon. Love, your Dad.