I'm kinda glad Christmas is behind us. As much as I've always enjoyed the holidays with my family, this year, I dreaded it.
We couldn't put up Ben's stocking. It seemed awkward to hang something that no one would be opening. But we did hang up all of his ornaments. All of the handmade handprints, pictures and crafts that Ben had made during his first four Christmases. I'm not saying it was easy. But we did it anyway.
Initially, I thought about not putting up a Christmas tree. People would understand. Our pain was just so fresh. Even the thought of enjoying the twinkling nights in the evening after the kids went to bed, reminiscing God's goodness to us during that past year, was just too painful. But Andy and I both knew that we had to. For Jack, for Megan. We needed our kids to know that we celebrate Christmas because of Who was born, not who died. Our tree was extremely ordinary. I didn't put as much effort into fanning the branches and making sure the ornaments were evenly distributed. But it was up. And that felt like a big accomplishment.
In anticipation of the holidays, I tried to stay honest with the Lord about where I was, how I was feeling. I wish grief followed a linear path, one where you were always moving forward, upward, in a positive direction. But anyone that has lost a loved one knows that's just not true. Our grief journey has resembled a rollercoaster more than anything. In one moment, we are full of faith and gratitude in knowing where Ben is and that he does not yearn for us. Grateful that there is no concept of time in heaven and when we do join our son, it will be as if mere moments have passed since we saw him last. But in the next moment, we see an old picture, see Megan unknowingly mimic Ben's goofy face, or see Jack thoughtfully looking through a picture album with him and his twin in it. And we just lose it. We feel angry at times. Hurt. Betrayed. We shake our fists at God as we send up choice words, and our hearts ache as we search for answers. Why? Why, Lord? Why did You allow this to happen? We pity ourselves, our loss, shed lots of tears. And then we move on. Because as hurtful as it feels, that is simply a place we visit. We cannot live there. We visit temporarily and then we have to come back home.
As I finished wrapping the last of the presents, I was honest with God. This holiday was going to be tough without Ben. Thanksgiving was tough, but I knew this one was going to be harder. Christmas with the added frustration of reflecting on the year and everything that happened. With my mixed bag of emotions, I had no idea how my grief would hit me at different times. I needed something from God. A sign. Something tangible. Something to know - beyond a shadow of a doubt - that God was with me. That He cared about me. Even in the midst of Him controlling the universe and making night turn into day. I needed to know. And so I told Him. But I also promised that I'd keep my eyes open. That I'd be searching for whatever He decided to give. And that I would be happy knowing that He cared enough to follow through.
And do you know what? He did.
I'm used to seeing bright red cardinals in our backyard and hearing their beautiful short chirps. Even the two blue jays who always seem to come in pairs. And I feel so comforted by their presence. Especially on tough days. But for Christmas, God got creative.
On Christmas Eve, we were celebrating with my family at my parent's house. It was unseasonably warm and so Jack went outside to play with his cousins before we had dinner. After a few minutes, they all ran into the house, saying, "Jack is in the newspaper! Jack is in the newspaper!" Huh? What newspaper? Perhaps they stumbled across one of the papers that my mom had saved with Ben's picture. They must have seen one of those. I couldn't even imagine what they were talking about.
Sure enough, the boys carried the tattered-looking copy of The Buffalo News into the house. The edges were torn, the page was ripped and it was very dirty. It almost looked as if it had survived a fire. This was obviously not a paper that had been set aside. You couldn't even see the whole article. But in the sliver you could see, was Jack's picture. On a screen. Giving the 'eulogy' at Ben's funeral.
"Where did you find this?" we asked the boys. My mom kept a file folder with any articles about Ben. None of us even remembered seeing this in the newspaper. As we gazed across my parent's lawn and near the place where the boys said they found it, we saw nothing but clean grass. No debris. No other newspapers.
Wow. That was my sign. Thank you, Lord. Even on Christmas. In a completely unexpected landscape, I had my sign. God was there. And Ben was with Him too.
As we were driving to another family gathering after finding the newspaper, Jack asked me from the backseat, "Mom? Do you remember how I was in that newspaper we found at Nana and Papa's house? The one at Ben's funeral?" I had absolutely no idea what was going through his head. Was he going to comment about Ben's death? The funeral? Talk about how much he missed his best friend? Tell us how sad it makes him feel to be the only boy? My mind went a million miles an hour in just a few short seconds, trying to anticipate what my inquisitive firstborn was going to say next. "Um, does that mean I'm like... famous?"
Ummm, yes. Yes, Jack. You are.
People ask a lot how Jack is doing. How he's coping with his loss. Anyone that spends time with Jack would never know that he lost his brother just a few months ago. He's confident... perhaps a little too confident. He asks questions. He remembers. He says exactly what he's thinking. He giggles. He talks with his hands when he's teaching us a new fact about an animal. He hides when he sees Andy's car pull in the driveway so he can jump out and tackle him when he gets close enough. He's learning to read and write. He loves figuring out how things work. He wanted a magician book for Christmas because he thought that magic was real. He fights with Megan (who, surprisingly enough, provokes him about 75% of the time,) but protects and loves Kate like crazy because "she's just the best sister ever." I sometimes feel like he's an eight-year-old living in a five-year-old's body.
Watching "Wild Kratts" with his littlest "not so little" sister
Just in case you've ever wondered what the 97th percentile looked like (Onesie was made by Inspired Buffalo)
Andy and I talk about how losing Ben when we did might have been the "best worst-case scenario." They were young. They were playmates, but not confidants. We feel like it would be a very different animal if this happened when they were teenagers. Jack misses Ben how a little boy would miss a best friend who moved far away. He misses not having him to play with. Trust me, we miss him for that reason, too. Jack has had to relearn - or really learn for the first time - how to play by himself. My whole focus during the boys' first few years of life was teaching them how to work together. Resolve conflicts. Getting them to stop biting each other when they were upset and before they had words. Mothers of twins, can I get an AMEN?! How to share their toys, take turns. Andy wrestled with them to teach them to work together toward a common goal and how to play fair. But Jack is making great strides. It's a process. And he's getting a little better every day. He'll always be a twin. His birth certificate is proof of his identity.
He talks about Ben as if he's still here. Not out of a desire to ignore the truth, but it's as if he truly feels his existence, living alongside him. All of the artwork that comes home from school has six members of our family listed, even the one that had the title of "People living in my house." Six. Including Ben. I won't mention the time he drew only five, leaving out his sister Megan. I have really high hopes of the two of them getting along someday. Really.
Trying to get the two of them close enough to be in the same picture can be a challenge... because of the two-and-a-half year old. Megan idolizes Jack, which basically means he can't do very much without a little shadow. Poor Jack.
But Jack's logic about Ben's presence is truly beautiful. "God is with me wherever I go. Ben is with God. Therefore, Ben is with me wherever I go."
In the past few weeks, it seems that Jack is truly on fire for the Lord. The faith that that five-year-old has is just amazing. And so it his love for God. "Mom." he'll say, as if it was its own sentence. "Guess who's the strongest person on earth? God. And Mom. Guess who could do anything He wanted? Like even make our house disappear? God." He'll often tell me and Andy how much he loves us, how even before he was born, he wanted a mom and dad named Andy and Mindy and "God gave me exactly what I wanted!" That little boy definitely has his daddy's charm. Those of you who know Andy personally are nodding your heads right now. "But do you know the only person I love more than you and Dad? GOD!"
That boy's definitely got his priorities straight.
Another milestone I wasn't looking forward to: a Christmas family photo. A family of six: five people, minus one, plus one. But we did it.
Last week, we were talking about some of the things we know about heaven when he said, "Mom. When Jesus died, He went to heaven. That's His home. Isn't that so cool? Heaven is His home! I have like a million questions I want to ask Him. I wonder what kinds of stuff He can do, like what kinds of tricks and stuff. That's the first thing I'm going to ask Him. Jesus is just so awesome."
I'm grateful for the pictures we keep around our house. We have so many beautiful memories. I'm grateful that I was home to capture so many regular moments with my boys together. With all of us, just enjoying life. Such a wonderful comfort those will continue to be in years to come.
Andy and I have been trying to not just live out the gospel in front of our children, but memorize verses from the gospel with them, too. Having those words of truth in my head have sustained me through some of the darkest moments in my life and I'm truly grateful for the effort my parents made in providing that. In an effort to support our healthy brainwashing (hehe,) I bought a Christian children's CD my friend recommended. It's called "Hide 'Em in Your Heart," a collection of verses set to music by Steve Green. I have one volume in my kitchen CD player and the other in my van. We just love it! Every time a new song comes on, Jack says, "THIS is my favorite. No, THIS is my favorite!" And I can't even tell you how good it makes me feel to hear my two-year-old singing scriptures when she's playing with her dolls, singing them to sleep. These are the truths that they will carry with them forever.
Megan loves her dolly. The more homely they look, they better. I try and encourage her to leave the house with a cuter doll, one with hair. "No! 'Dat's NOT my baby!" At least we found a way to keep clothes on her favorite doll sometimes - matching outfits!
Anyway, one day we were driving to karate and Jack asked me to start the song again. The song highlighted Proverbs 18:24: There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. In typical five-year-old fashion, Jack thought it was downright hilarious that they joked about using the word "stinks" rather than "sticks." But that continued into a wonderful conversation about our Lord. Jack was close with Ben. But God is a friend who sticks even closer than brother... even a twin brother! A friend Who's promised never to leave us, never to forsake us. And not only is He wherever we go, but He is perfect. And good. And He can be trusted. I've always loved the truth behind that verse, but it holds a meaning even more special now.
There's no greater legacy I can leave for my kids than to know I did my part to communicate God's truth to them. His love. His faithfulness. Even though I try my very best, I will fail them. I will make mistakes. Someday - I don't know when - my body will give out and I will join my God in heaven. I'm only human. But God. God is a friend that sticks closer than a brother. And He will never us. I need my kids to know that truth, beyond a shadow of a doubt. I can't give them anything more valuable.
I'd hate to admit that I'm sorta dreading what's ahead, wishing away pieces of my life away. Seemed like I was always doing that in college, working to get beyond that next exam, that next paper, that next semester. But I'm really dreading these next few months. The continuation of the season of firsts, but this time, it's commemorating the time he was sick. The date when Ben got his first headache is just days away. When our whole world crumbled and it all started downhill. I'm dreading it. The dates of his brain surgery, days of chemo, radiation, coming home, all leading up to the first time we won't celebrate both boys' birthdays... and then Ben's Heaven Day. I'm dreading it. I get a stomachache just thinking about it.
But just as we've dared to continue living over these past few months, just as we've dared to hope for tomorrow, we will continue on. With one foot in front of the other. One step at a time. Because as hard as it's been for us to lose Ben - a brother, a son, a grandson, a nephew, cousin, friend - I don't want my kids to lose a mom, too. I don't want Andy to lose his wife.
God still has a plan for us here on earth. And so until that day when He calls us home, until that day when we are reunited with Benjamin, until that day where all of our questions are answered... we will enjoy the blessings He has left for us on earth.
'Cause even on our worst days, we can still say: God has been very good to us. Much much more than we deserve.