empty nest

Posted on October 10th, 2008 by Abby.
Categories: Meditations on Scripture, Our Journey, Our Journey (chronological).

Exactly one month after James died, John’s 33-year-old best man, Xiao Li, joined him in heaven. The fact that they are together is a considerable comfort for us as well as Nathan, Xiao’s six-year-old son. I heard him repeat the fact to several people during the week I spent in Houston with the Li family.

It was therapeutic to serve them by cleaning, babysitting Anna (2 yrs), and sorting Xiao’s things. I miss serving James in the intense, exhausting fashion he required, and for a while helping the Lis filled that vacuum. John also came to Houston for a weekend and got to do a Home Depot project with Nathan.

Although her loss is very different from ours, it was good to grieve alongside Michelle. We would talk about James and Xiao after the kids went to bed. The Lis seem to be coping very well, if you were wondering. She says the evenings are the hardest–no Xiao to come home from work, play with the kids, re-energize the end of her day, and talk with her in the quiet night.

Every day I feel the pulls, forward and back. I still cry every day for James, just missing him. I try not to cry for a long time, though. And then I go through periods of a few hours at a time without thinking about him at all, and I remember him with a start. John used to keep thinking he heard him crying in another room. Once I dreamed he was alive and in my arms again (in the dream I accepted this very quickly). Sometimes other people tell me they dream about James and Dora, too.

A big pull forward is the fact that I got a teaching job a couple weeks ago. I will be finishing the year for a teacher going on maternity leave at Lyman HS, teaching 5 classes of English IV (seniors) and 1 class of English II Honors (pre-AP sophomores). I have never taught standard-level senior English before (I usually teach English III and AP), but I think I will enjoy the challenge of a new curriculum. I taught honors sophomores for a year a while ago. I don’t start teaching until around Thanksgiving, which is nice, so I have some time to plan. Lyman is about 20 minutes away, and James’s cemetery is on the route, so I can stop and visit if I want to.

About three weeks after James died, a friend treated me to a whirlwind trip to the New York Met (the art museum). We flew there and back in one day. We attended several different talks and tours, but I noticed myself being drawn to artists’ representations of children. I noted that Rubens’ family portrait showed his wife holding his son on a leash, and the guide responded that the boy was also wearing a “bumper” helmet to guard his head against falls. It sounded like a good product for modern toddlers.

There was also an ancient Hellenistic bronze statue of Cupid fallen asleep on a ledge that reminded me of James.

The very popular Madonna and Child theme seemed much more interesting to me than it ever was before. Every artist re-shaped Mary and Jesus’ features to reflect his own people’s, making it easier for his viewer to identify with the Holy Family. Italian Mary looked very different from Dutch Mary. Here is a nice French Mary (by Boucher) with a John the Baptist who looks a little like James:

In one medieval portrait, baby Jesus brushes aside Mary’s head covering to gently touch her face; in another, He appears to be yanking her head covering (or hair) and kicking her. I guess it was tough for those proto-Renaissance artists to know where exactly to draw the line between “adding movement” and “keeping it holy.”

I, too, now identify with Mary as a parent who was in way over her head and also who eventually lost her son, at least temporarily. I keep reminding myself that even if James were living, a sword would still “pierce my own soul too” in terms of suffering over his ongoing pain, disappointments, or struggles (Luke 2:35).

It’s strange, watching life start to close back up over the hole someone has left. Our house now looks like it did in the years before James was born, except with pictures of him everywhere. We decided it would be best for the grandmothers to help me take apart the nursery soon after he died. If we ever have another child, we will re-decorate it for him or her.

We set aside some things to keep or give away that were so closely identified with James that we didn’t want to use them with another baby. I made a memory box with a little blanket from the NICU, his 100-day star, his favorite stuffed monkey that goes “boing,” our favorite onesie, his tiny “sweetbabyjames.info” Walk for the Cure team shirt, a pump belt, a hearing aid visor, lots of photos, and his heart-shaped medication box which now contains a string of gold beads, his therapy brush, Mister Lion, and of course, his first buddy, Mister Bee.

I donated his non-pump diabetes supplies to a three-year-old boy named Caleb who was diagnosed with Wolfram syndrome (please join his mom in praying that the docs are wrong). I sent his pump and supplies to Ipump.org, a charity run by a Christian mother of special needs and diabetic kids. She assured me that James’s pump would be given to another diabetic child. The feeding supplies were divided up amongst the good folks in the SpecialChildExchange yahoo group. My friend Susan’s daughters enjoyed getting some sparkly necklaces “from James.”

Some friends have asked us whether it is difficult for us to see other children now. Sometimes it is, but that is really something left over from our sadness about James’s limitations and disabilities. Usually we see children and think, we have children too, and they are very happy and healthy and love the Lord (and if you think your honors student has skills, well, ours can fly!). It is much much easier to be around children now than it was when we were infertile. We have had a child, just not for a long time, and we enjoyed him so much.

I read recently that the Hebrew word meaning to love, desire, delight is first used in the Bible when God tells Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and…sacrifice him” (Gen. 22:2). Isaac was a child of promise, a dear hope which God rekindled after human wisdom had despaired, and Abraham and Sarah probably centered their lives on the boy (I bet he was a little spoiled). Abraham was obedient to the unthinkable, in faith following God despite the wild protests of his own heart. God was teaching Abraham (again) to submit his emotions and his human understanding to the (sometimes mysterious) plans of a good, faithful, loving God. In the end, God spared Isaac, and Abraham responded with worship, summing up his lesson as “The Lord Will Provide.” The outcome of this story points Abraham and us to God’s good, loving, yet terrifying plan to sacrifice His only Son, in whom He delights, on our behalf so that we could be united with God, and those who delight in Him, forever.

I have to keep reminding myself that God understands our grief for the one we delighted in, and that, in His good plan, James’s life has a very happy result, not a sad one, like it seems to sometimes from my emotions or limited understanding.

Here is a video we rediscovered after James died, showing John delighting in his only son, whom he loved.



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