Boats were out early on the big water. Bleary-eyed fisherman casting hopeful lines into the silver depths of the Columbia.
“That’s where my Swede would be,” my girlfriend said as I made a right-hand turn onto the bridge connecting Oregon to Washington. She blew a kiss at the shimmering silence that hangs between what was once and what is now.
“I had a perfect life,” she said. “I was so spoiled. If you had told me I would be spending the rest of my life alone, I would never have believed you.”
Great grief isn’t made to fit inside our bodies. That’s why our hearts break, Ann Voskamp writes in her book, The Broken Way.
Later, I drove my girlfriend past the house Swede had been building when he developed what he considered to be a bad bout of “heartburn.”
We pulled into the drive, she and I, and admired the bright yellow mums and orange pumpkins displayed on the porch that was supposed to be hers. Had been hers, at least on the bill of sale. There’s a wooden playset where the shed used to be. Not just any old shed, mind you, but a hand-crafted one, with doors that looked liked they belonged on a fancy barn. Swede was a craftsman. Wood and nails were his tools. Swede could literally build whatever he dreamed.
In this house, the one she never lived in, Swede constructed the dreams of his tomorrows. This was to be the home of their retirement years. The shop out back is every bit as big as the house. This would be the place where Swede would keep his fishing boat, and his work trailer filled with shiny steel tools, every builder’s envy. Swede was proud of that shop. His gift to himself.
There was a place in the house to display all the treasures her father had collected over the years through his travels as vp at Pan-Am. A one-level house with extra-wide doors, so as they aged they could remain self-sufficient. He was working on the master bedroom and bath when his nagging heartburn was diagnosed as esophageal cancer, and my girlfriend and the husband of her yesterdays learned they would not be growing old together.
We all held our collective breath in stunned silence.
Six months, maybe a year, the doctors in Portland said, and we were happy. Who would think six months life-expectancy would be reason enough to exhale?
Five weeks later, that big strong craftsman grasped the hands of his children, his wife, and let go of his one last breath.
It’s been two years and no time at all since the season of Swede’s passing. Four years since Mama’s. Fifty since Daddy’s. It’ll be no time at all before someone’s counting back the years on ours.
Remember, Ann Voskamp writes, Jesus died crying. Jesus died of a broken heart. There is absolutely no tidy pattern to who gets pain and who gets peace. The brokenness of this world is all encompassing and encompasses all of us.
Let us sit in boats upon silent waters and pray for peace, shall we?
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of BURDY (Mercer University Press).