Usually around mid-summer I tend to throttle back. After the initial flurry of summer trips and all the fireworks have spent themselves, I usually take a bit of time to catch my breath. I'm not bragging, but I know from experience that such "breathers" are not for the weak of heart. Moving from 80 miles per hour to idling can be a great shock to the system, especially when we are faced with the unpleasant emotions that have been stowed away as we vacationed in serene places or lost ourselves in visits and celebrations with family and friends. Catching our breath entails a kind of stillness and silence as our lives catch up with us. It's not unusual to feel a little "down" as the process happens; nor is it unusual to be tempted to retreat into more home projects, television, entertaining, or planning what's next.
Sadly, catching my breath has become easier for me of late. I can't help but be taken aback each summer at about this time by the memory of the difficult and tragic loss of my beautiful niece Kristen Nicole. She passed away on July 26, 2006, just shy of her 21st birthday. Her roommates thought she had a bad case of the flu, so they thought it best to give her plenty of space. What she actually had was pancreatitis. As one who suffered from juvenile diabetes, Kristen fell into a diabetic coma. She was found dead the next morning in a mobile home on the outskirts of Monroe, LA.
The call came. The shock has never fully dissipated. I drove home to join in our larger family's mourning. In particular, I went to help my little sister, Cindy, Kristen's mother, and my nephews Ben and John David, Kristen's brothers, begin to face this unspeakable loss and take the first steps of saying good bye. I am struck by the possessive and familiar sense of that last sentence: great losses remind us that we are best known by another and an Other: Cindy is Kristen's mother; Ben and John David are Kristen's brothers; I am Kristen's uncle; we are all God's children. This loss and love can only bear the name of Kristen Nicole.
Cindy asked me to do Kristen's funeral. I did the best I could. Later, at home after the service, Cindy asked me what I thought of the photograph she'd chosen for the bulletin. I told her that I loved it, that it seemed to capture the love and light in Kristen's eyes. (We both knew how Kristen of late had wrestled with the darker aspects of her life.) She said, "Well, you should like it! See how her head is tilted? She was leaning on you when the picture was taken--but we cropped you out!"
I had no words. Just a strange mix of sadness and pride: the sharp jolt of being lopped out coupled with the real satisfaction of "having been there" in this way. But that mixture soon gave way to a keen, cutting sense that whatever mattered most was known most fully in whatever love and light had somehow been mediated to Kristen. It either lived in her heart and eyes or nowhere at all. It was never "mine" to give, only to live. And I did it best in the wings.
The desire to be recognized and remembered is human and good. There's not a thing shameful or immature about it. But how we are most fully known can never be captured in a photo or a byline. Authentic knowing always occurs in how lovingly invested we are in others. It lives in "between" us, "in the and" as I first heard Richard Rohr express it, that medial world of life mystery that cannot be fully owned or credited because it belongs so fully to the God who shares God's very Self with us, and us with each other. Reality for the Christian is a given, a gift, a grace, a space that holds. It gets lived through us, but it only belongs fully to God.
We're being "cropped." Our Gardener God is constantly planting us in others' lives and cultivating something new through what lives in the soil between us. And just as surely, we are being "cropped out," in myriad ways we are constantly reminded that "it's really not about us" so we might begin to let go of our ego-centric ways and ease down into the repose and energy of this relational mystery. Here is the larger life of how God gifts us with one another, for however long that might be. This One in whom Paul says "we live and move and have our being" keeps granting us seasons for saying Hello and for saying Farewell, the time to become possessive, proprietary, familiar, and the time to let go, to move over, even move on, to allow the one before you to unfold like the tender mystery he or she is.
The painting above by Kristen was given to me as a gift. I keep it where I can pass it daily. Kristen was learning to live beneath the surface, seeking to make sense of the pain we all carry, the human tears we tend to hide. She knew a thing or two about being honest, about how the darkness, once accepted, actually generates the living color of our lives. Knew this earlier than most. It came to her. It was larger than her. And for the time being, it lives on for you and me.