Life has this determined way of dragging us forward, kicking and screaming. Every time I feel like I can take in a breath of fresh peace, something interrupts it more quickly than it came. Like a brand new punch to the gut.
Just two days ago, my husband & I stood over the lowering casket of the fourth person in the L’Esperance family to die in 11 months. Eric’s cousin was only 26 when he passed away tragically and unexpectedly. I nervously avoided his eyes after I hung up the phone with his hysterical mother, who just lost a nephew for the second time in a year. I held him in my arms as he collapsed in tears, when I told him the dark-haired boy who has the same eyebrows as him was gone. He was gone. Those are the only words my mother-in-law could muster, and I’ll never forget hearing them. “He’s gone.” Those words were all I heard. And I never want to say them to Eric again.
In a situation so completely devoid of answers or closure, we discovered a strange and profound peace as we took a flower from the top of the wood. And it wasn’t that kind of peace that comes with a cliche. No, this didn’t happen for a reason. Everything probably wasn’t going to be okay, especially not right now. It doesn’t help that God has another “angel in heaven.” And it doesn’t bring back your cousin, son, brother, and friend to know that he’s now “at peace with the Lord.”
These are just the things people say. But the things people say don’t bring the peace that passes all understanding. The things people say are trying to grasp for understanding, and no matter how hard we try to grapple with death, I don’t really think we can fully get it. But then there’s God. One of my favorite things about God, and one of the reasons I keep coming back to Him, is this physical, life-changing manifestation of His peace. As our brains, and the people around us, keep chatting-chatting-chatting, coming up with reasons, justifying, excusing… God is ever so quiet. His love physically surrounds us as holy water falls from our eyes. When we shake our heads and say, “I don’t understand,” He so rarely says, “Let me explain,” but instead holds us and whispers, “I know.” God’s peace doesn’t always make us feel better. Often, it allows the walls to come crumbling down, and lets us feel deeper. It doesn’t always help and I find it so rarely explains a single thing. God’s peace is quiet and tender. It is only and always Love.
I had such a strong sense of that love and peace surrounding my husband and our family this weekend. If you have a large, spiritual family (but let me assure you, there’s no way it’s as large or as spiritual as the L’Esperances), you know the true meaning of communion. God lives in and moves through the hearts of every cousin, every aunt and uncle, every little child running for a basketball. He feeds you with more food than you can handle, as He asks you again through your mom’s voice, “DID YOU GET ENOUGH TO EAT!?” There is laughter, and there is peace that passes this attempt at understanding exactly how we got here, and our why-oh-why-oh-why-oh-why’s are hushed hiccups in our hearts, as we experience the joy of the people who look and feel and talk like us.
I didn’t grow up with a huge family. Fortunately, that means we attend fewer funerals for my side. Unfortunately, though, I think I missed out on a lot. At Steve’s funeral, his sister Laura delivered the eulogy. Like most perfect eulogies, hers made us all sob and crack up in the same shortened breath. Laura remembered well, as did my sniffling husband next to me, all of the skateboarding, dress-up, and sleepovers they shared as kids. Sometimes, there were so many people in the swimming pool, it lost half its water. Sometimes, they had to put kids in sleeping bags in the kitchen and the hallways. Sometimes, they fit 14 people into a camper, sleeping the little ones vertically like sardines.
Mary-Ann and Paul L’Esperance, Eric’s grandparents, had 15 children. Devout French Catholics. This meant he and his 3 siblings grew up with 28 aunts & uncles, and 55 cousins. Now many of his first cousins have their own kids, so the L’Esperance family is easily pushing (or has passed?) 100 members these days. I think if anyone stopped and tried to count, they’d be overwhelmed. There are at least 3 pregnant women at every event, 5 brand new blue-eyed babies, a few people engaged or newly married, and a few that are over-the-moon proud to be new aunts, uncles, or grandparents. I’ve never in my entire life known love to multiply… and multiply… and multiply some more… the way it does in my new life with them.
When we found out Steve died, we went straight to his parents’ house. We drove so nervously through the town Eric and all of his aunts & uncles grew up in, thinking we’d be alone with his grieving aunt & uncle and really have no idea what to say. Next time I’m afraid of being alone in that family, I need to remember to talk my only-child self off the ledge, and say, “Are you kidding? You couldn’t be alone if you tried. Not even if you wanted to be.” We arrived at the house next to the church, the same house Eric spent many summer nights, and heard sobbing from the street. Aunts, uncles, cousins, friends. Weeping. Laughing. Talking. Apologizing. Explaining. Listening. Praying. Communing.
If you are doubtful about God, or His love for you, you should spend a day with the L’Esperance family. You may find, for the first time in your life, that love and peace can somehow abound in tragedy and misunderstanding. You may find that in all of your questions, you are not met with answers, but you are given a place to rest. You may just find that God won’t explain Himself with justifications and cliches, but He feeds you and gives you a place to call Home. You may find yourself baptized, or married, into a Family. And you may understand that in a whole new way, like I have.
I pray we’d all discover God’s heart in the same way my new family has introduced me to it. I’m learning through them that God is not always easy. Life will not stop punching us in the gut, but somehow, we can come and experience that peace that we just can’t explain. As we’re crumpled up on the floor with all of our questions and grief, love can come surround us in the form of 100 hugs from people with your husband’s eyebrows.