catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 24 :: 2007.12.28 — 2008.01.11


A shifting image

Every December, my mom’s side of the family—four generations—gathers for a Christmas party, complete with potluck dishes, a gift exchange, and chocolate letters for everyone. Responsibility for planning the gathering falls each year to another set of aunts and uncles.

The year I was nine, our Christmas plans received a blow. My parents and I were in a serious accident, leaving my mother in the hospital. My grandfather’s health took a dive, and less than two weeks later, he breathed his last on another floor of the same hospital. My aunts and uncles came and gathered around his bed. My mom was still in a wheelchair and hospital gown. We had the funeral a few days later, and I remember feeling a bit overwhelmed by the volume of people I saw, many of whom I was meeting for the first time.

It was not one of our better Christmases, but we were together. As time passed, normality trickled back. My mom came home; church members stopped bringing casseroles; my grandfather’s canary started singing again. We got used to the way the family felt without him, and as cousins married, babies were born, and everyone grew a little older, we adjusted to a new picture of our family.

This December, ten years later to the month, history repeated itself in a terrible way. My cousin died suddenly, and our family gathering was once again moved from a place of life to a place of death, from a family room to a funeral home. I saw the familiar crowd of aunts, uncles, and cousins, and a handful of the normally rambunctious children, now terribly somber. I also saw distant family members, second and third cousins I probably hadn’t seen since my grandfather’s funeral. My cousin’s husband commented, “I never realized she had such a large family.”

We did indeed come together, needing to affirm our togetherness in such a difficult time. We shook hands and offered embraces and told stories from the past—joyful and living stories. These family stories and laughter were interspersed and interrupted, though, by painful questioning. My cousin was only 29, and left behind two small sons. She was in the prime of her life, and mourners couldn’t seem to help saying, “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be,” or, “It’s not meant to happen this way,” and they were right.

At the funeral service, my pastor talked about Jacob wrestling with God. He told of how Jacob refused to surrender, and overcame in the end, blessed by God. Still, he ended up with a limp. We can’t compare the blessedness of life after tragedy with the blessedness of life before, because these tragedies fundamentally change us.

My family feels a little different now. Things don’t fit quite right. A little spark is gone, a little joy and fun and laughter. When we gather next Christmas, there will be an odd dark hole, another missing presence. We’ll have to readjust our family image again, and this time, it’s going to be quite hard. My family is far from perfect, and too often I focus more on what irritates me than on what I love. Still, I’m glad we can wrestle together, can ask the difficult questions and proclaim brokenness in a safe place. I do love my family, for better or for worse.

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