The prophet Isaiah spoke of one who was “acquainted with grief.” Unfortunately, for some grief is less a mere acquaintance and more an unwelcome associate, an unbidden sojourner that can’t be shaken. My sister Tara is one such individual.
Our sibling bond has been galvanized through our shared grief over the disruption of our family. Our father died a little over a year after Tara was married. I’ve written a great deal about how difficult it was for me to lose my father at the age of 10. Although Tara was 22 when Dad died, her loss was no less significant. In many ways, she had more to grieve because she knew our father through more seasons of her life: childhood, adolescence, and on into her young adult years. She had to mourn the loss of her father while she and her husband, Richard, were still newlyweds. These years are usually years of great joy for a young couple. These are times for celebration, not mourning. It’s not supposed to be this way.
Ten days after the birth of her second child, Tara had to bury her mother. As hard as Mom’s loss was for me, Tara grieved her in a way that I never would, never could. I think women need their mothers in a unique way when they become mothers themselves. Tara and my Mom had that special mother / daughter relationship that you often hear about. I saw it for myself: they were best friends. And yet there was Tara, saying goodbye to Mom with a newborn babe wrapped in her arms and a young toddler playing at her feet. Once again, death robbed Tara of a period of great joy in her life. Newborn time is for nurseries, not graveyards. It’s not supposed to be this way.
I could wish that these were Tara’s only “acquaintances” with grief. But life rarely plays out according to our wishes. While I was in college, Tara lost three different children pre-term. I watched as well-wishers said the most insensitive things to my sister: “God must’ve needed this child in heaven.” “At least you still have your sons. You should just be thankful for that.” “Everything happens for a reason.” Only a callow fool whose sheltered existence has never been marked by grief’s “acquaintance” would utter such asinine garbage. I wanted to rail against these people with their pithy Christian-isms; I wanted to tell them how much their words were stinging my sister. “You’re not helping. Just shut up.” But for all the Bible training I’d received, for all the Greek and Hebrew and theology I’d been learning, the only thing I could say was what Tara already knew to be true from her own experience: It’s just not supposed to be this way.
And yet…there is hope.
There is always hope.
The day my father died, my mother came to school to pick me up and tell me the news. When I got home, our whole family was there — grandparents, aunts, uncles. As I made my way to my bedroom, I noticed a hole in the drywall in our hallway. I asked my Mom what had happened. She hemmed and hawed for a bit, finally telling me that Tara was so upset that morning that she’d punched a hole in the wall with her fist. I never said anything about it again, not to my Mom, not to Tara, not to anybody. But something clicked in that moment for me, an innate understanding that told me, “We’re not OK. This hurts. This is supposed to hurt.” And as weird as it sounds, I found some comfort in that. It made sense. The drywall was fixed quickly; the rupture in our lives was irreparable. But I learned an important — even hopeful — lesson from my big sister that day. It’s OK not to be OK.
After Mom died, Tara and Richard, despite having two little ones of their own, asked me to move in with them. I agreed and for the next five years, as I finished high school and then went to college, Tara and Richard’s home was my home. I changed diapers. I washed my own clothes. And more than anything, I had a home again. I know I completely obliterated their grocery budget, but I learned another important lesson from my sister in those years: in spite of our losses, we were still a family.
In 1999, as I was preparing to graduate and get married and move off to full-time ministry work, Tara and Richard welcomed another child into their family, a daughter. After the challenges of the previous years, we were all praying even more fervently for a healthy pregnancy and delivery. That summer, we rejoiced as Tara gave birth to a beautiful, healthy baby girl. Her name: Hope.
Tara, I write this in honor of you. There are so many things I could say, so many things that I know our parents would say to you if they could. Your passion for cooking and hospitality carries forward a long tradition of Bybee and Armstrong women. I have no doubt Mom smiles a little bit each time you use one of her recipes. If she were here, she’d be telling you every day what a great mother you are. And your go-against-the-grain politics and your keen sense of humor keep Dad’s spirit alive in our family, too. He’d be really proud of your boys and Hope would be the apple of his eye. And he’d tell you that you chose a good man in Richard. So many things they’d say to you…so many things that only I can say to you in their absence.
And then there are the things I say for myself. You’ve loved your ornery little brother…loved him uncommonly because he was dealt an uncommon hand. But it’s a hand that we get to play together, and for that, I’m grateful. I can only imagine how lonely it would be if I had to grieve them by myself. Knowing I don’t have to is a comfort to me. And you’ve loved my wife, too…and my children. Thank you for loving this part of me, the most important part of me. That means more than you can ever know.
But here is what’s most important: You’ve had your share of “It’s not supposed to be this way” moments. Fair enough. But in spite of these, you’ve never given up. You’ve never quit. You’ve never stopped believing. In spite of it all, there has been hope. There has always been hope. And it is supposed to be this way.
This is the greatest lesson you’ve ever taught me.
Happy birthday, Tara. You deserve it.