Just Say It.
“Sometimes wishing is the wings the truth comes true on. Sometimes the truth is what sets us wishing for it.” – Frederick Buechner
We walk to the car, her and I, after a sweaty, raucous night of volleyball under the bright lights of the outdoor sand arena where moths danced frantically in the shafts of light. Once we reach the blacktop after trudging through the sand and our calf muscles sing at the relief of solid ground, we stop to put our shoes back on and then suddenly she breaks and tears pour out of her like I’ve never seen before, a flood of vulnerability that spooks and disarms me at first because of its utter novelty.
“Oh Ashley, I love you,” she says. “I love you too!” I exclaim, perhaps a little too eagerly, awkward and fawn-legged in this new wilderness of sisterly affectionate expression. This is not something we’ve done with each other, perhaps, since childhood, maybe ever. And as I drive home she gushes forth, out of desperation, like a stopper has been loosed. It all spills out, her pain. And I feel helpless and inadequate to stem the flow.
“My life is so messed up,” she wails. “I’m such a wreck!” Her pain is scarily palpable. How did she get here? I wonder. Tears come to my eyes, too, and I blink them away, struggling to drive competently in the glare of so many headlights on the freeway. But I hurt for her. Her words and emotions are fringed with desperation and careening, sotted with the beers she’d downed at the game.
She laments her most recent break-up. “I thought he was the one,” she cries. “I loved him!” But then she’s suddenly indignant, insisting that he hit her and threatened her. I have no idea what to say, what to offer. But she’s on another subject immediately: “I love mom and dad. I really do,” she asserts tearfully. I know you do, I tell her. So do I.
She knew, I think, now. She knew then, what she was doing, where it could lead. Why didn’t she tell me? Did she want to confess, want to tell the truth, about what it was like to be held in the terrible thrall of addiction, to have to hide the needles so carefully? She was prone to keloid scars. What if I had grabbed her hand or her arm to emphasize a word, or just to touch her, and felt the raised lumps like braille? What if I could have changed it? What would I have said if I’d known?
Finally, I tell her, fumblingly, falteringly, in between mediating our fast food order at a drive-thru, what Jesus has done for me, because she tells me she wants to believe but just can’t. There’s no proof, she says. “If I could see it here right in front of me…” she says. God, help me, I beg silently. Where do I even start? How do I speak in a language she’ll understand, a language I would have understood once upon a time when I was traipsing through my own drugged maze of self-destruction, a language not leaded with the blight of Christianese? Jesus. The cross. Words full of meaning beyond meaning yet somehow also cheapened by familiarity, emptied by the multiplicity of meanings imposed on The Meaning.
But I don’t get much of a chance, really. In a moment it’s over and we’re pulling in to our parents’ driveway. As though a flip is switched, she is closed again, unemotional and blank, the effusion abruptly dammed, the façade of sobriety donned expertly. The mystery of her deepens again, and I wonder, was it real? I wonder, who are you? But then our children, buzzing with energy, greet us. The moment has passed, definitively. I placate myself with oil-besotted fries as a self-congratulatory impulse arises in me.
Well, at least I shared a little about Jesus.
But another thought piggybacks in: yeah, but you kinda sucked at it.
And yet another rises up indignantly to greet it: well, I tried my best considering the circumstances!
None of these is God. Finally, in hushed and unrushed tones above the inner din, He speaks: You told her about Me, but you didn’t tell her I love her.
I can count on one hand the number of times I've heard God speak that clearly, at the forefront of my consciousness, like a thunderclap that washes away, for a moment, my internal inner babbling. It stops me cold. There is a pause, a lag before the rationalization kicks in.
Well, I’ll do that next time. At least I opened the channel. Good, right?
He doesn't placate me, just says it again: Tell her I love her.
I’ll do that next time. There will be plenty of time.
Tell her I love her. Tell her I love her. Tell her I love her.
It's like a beating drum now and his hand is heavy, almost unbearable. But still I resist, I justify, I argue.
Why now?! Why is it so important?!
Finally, in the midst of my anxious internal chatter, he makes a way just as she is preparing to leave. The children all run downstairs to grab shoes and my mom follows. We are alone in the kitchen, her and I, just standing there. I blurt it out awkwardly before my hesitancies can mute me.
“Lia, I need you to know that Jesus loves you and he died for you,” I say. “And I love you too.”
She smiles a little, just a hint. But it is all the encouragement I need. I give her a hug. Even though she can’t reciprocate, can’t risk the nakedness that mutuality demands, she receives it, and I wrap myself for one awkward moment around her with her arms at her side. When I withdraw the kids are back and in a flurry, they are gone. Before I can wonder whether it’s safe for her to drive, she’s gone. I see her once more, a chilly day at the pumpkin patch and she’s aloof and distant, a mood that’s not unusual for her. And then she’s gone, gone for good.
Four days after I learn of her death, I sit alone on the back porch, moored in a terrible new reality. I can seem to do little but stare perplexedly at the trembling leaves of the tree above me. The sky is gray and dense and closed, like a leaden dome. I can’t even pray. Words seem like brittle, small things next to the behemoth of shock. What can words do?
But even there, in that empty yawning place where the slow pressing drone of death swallows words whole, his words coruscate color through the gray: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
There. In the midst of desolation, hope. I believe my words were not wasted only because his are never wasted. Maybe she had heard it before, yes, what I told her. She’d sat through the church services like I had, feet swinging beneath the pews in patent leather, she’d padded up the aisle to sit and hear the children’s sermon, watched the old ladies flick their wrists exactingly as their gloved hands made bells sing.
But in that moment, she needed to know that this love is not vague, distant, effete. It is not a transactional Salvation Plan. This love is deep, it is high, it is wide, it is closer than close. This is the love that let nails rend his flesh and that suffers everything, endures everything, even humiliation at the hands of a simpering puppet-king sadist (Herod) and a hypercynical middle-management pawn (Pilate) for whom the status quo is so holy it supercedes human life.
It is love which puts everything on the line if it means we live. And it was not for someone else, someone “good enough”, someone “worthy”, because there is no such person. It was for her, lavished upon her, given freely.
And the thing is: this gift was for me, too. It wasn’t some patronizing act of proselytizing, telling her of this love. He saves, not me. He redeems, not I. “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3). She gave something of herself to me that night in a way that she never had before, in a way that I’m sure scared her, a way utterly at odds with the self-protective instincts that abandonment and many months in an orphanage had imprinted on her mind and heart.
In sharing, we work out our salvation with fear and trembling.
In sharing, we crack ourselves open, break ourselves in the cruciform way of Christ.
In sharing, we choose the narrow, hard way of painful vulnerability and nakedness and grace, the hard narrow way that explodes open into spaciousness, resurrection, life. The Way of Jesus.
We might be awkward and blundering and stuttering. We might totally botch it on our terms. We might beg, like Moses, “please send someone else.” But when we offer the sacrifice of our praise, it is never wasted. He is that good. There are no dead ends in Him, no lifeless spaces.
In him there is sweetness, but not a saccharine, sharp, artificial sweetness – no, it is a sweetness of integrity, whole, rounded, with a multiplicity of delicious notes in its luxuriance. It has dimension and texture and richness, perhaps because it has suffered.
When I give him my bitter, he makes it whole. Bitter is an aftertaste; it lingers long, polluting my heart and my words and my vision. But when I give it to him, still incredulous that even this could possibly be redeemed but willing to cede a grudging mustard seed of trust, he makes something bewilderingly marvelous out of it. He opens my eyes to see how He can make the bitter sweet, how he can infuse it with Himself, the risen Christ. In him, Death loses its sting, loses its bitter. He never disappoints. Bitterness is made honeyed on the tongue that offers the sacrifice of praise. And now I have this moment with my sister, this memory that is a refuge of sweetness amidst the stinging bitter. A treasure.
As part of their grief group, her children, their dad and stepmom and my mom were all asked to write on a piece of paper what they would say to Lia if they could say one more thing to her. I thought about this long and hard, and I know what I would say. It’s more than one thing, but hey… I’m counting it even if I would have to speak it as one long breathless run-on sentence, if rules around this hypothetical scenario are that stringent. But I imagine she can hear, even now.
I would say I love you. You could have told me. I wouldn’t have judged you, and I would have done anything to help you. I forgive you. Please forgive me.