I spent last week celebrating a dear friend’s wedding outside Toronto and my heart is still full of all the feelings that go along with watching someone you love be so happy it radiates off of her, like a glow no makeup can reproduce.
Marianne and I have know each other for less than five years, which I realize isn’t long in the grand scheme of things, but it feels like we’ve been through a lifetime of “capital L” Life together. We met when we were both single and in our twenties and newly moved to the Bay Area. We met for the first time at her birthday party, and bonded over gluten free cupcake recipes. From there we had coffees [tea for her – Canadian to the core] and dinners [we tried every gluten free vegetarian pizza on the Peninsula] and took long walks around downtown Palo Alto and hiked the Stanford Dish together. We had long, deep conversations about love and life, family and faith, and helped each other navigate the bewildering and often bizarre world of dating and relationships. I teased her about creating a spreadsheet of her online dates – scientist to the core, she wanted to track her progress and mine the data for patterns.
As she’s been planning her wedding over the last few months we’ve been joking that wedding planning spreadsheets have replaced dating spreadsheets, and I marvel at the magic that happens when you walk through important, profound life stages with someone. Bearing witness to the journey that brought her to her wedding day is an honor and a gift. Five years isn’t long, but an abundance of learning and growth and formative life experiences have been packed into those five years. As we sat together at the rehearsal dinner and took silly bridal party photos and danced to Taylor Swift, I watched her and Ambrose together and was struck by the undeniable, quiet, profound moments of love between them. – pure, beautiful love. They both looked so happy – radiantly, peacefully happy.
One of the most beautiful moments of the wedding ceremony was when both sets of parents stood at the altar to pray for the couple. Marianne’s parents stood behind her and placed their hands on her shoulders, and Ambrose’s parents did the same for him, and the image of their two families of origin standing behind them [literally] and praying for them as the two of them formed a new family was beautiful and moving.
The whole group gathered together at her family farm the next day, and it was so special to be with them on their first day of married life. To witness the before and the after, of two becoming one, choosing each other to walk hand in hand into the future together, whatever joys and sorrows and challenges and adventures life brings. It was an honor to watch them take the first of many steps on their new journey of life together.
I have four best friends from growing up, affectionately nicknamed “The Guild.” We all grew up together in Saratoga, and different pairs of us have known each other since preschool or elementary or middle school. The five of us bonded in our high school youth group, and that bond has endured across different cities and countries, through graduate school and boyfriends and break-ups and cross-country moves and marriages and babies. Whenever people ask me if I have siblings I say that while technically I’m an only child, I have four “sisters from others misters” – sisters by choice, bonded by a love as strong as blood.
Marissa and I met in middle school, and now she has three precious and spirited and wild and wonderful little girls. Her husband flew me out to Texas for a surprise visit when her when her oldest, Claire, was just a month old. I visited a few summers ago and sat at the dinner table next to Alice, her then-3 year old, as spunky and spirited as they come. Marissa told some wild tales of Alice’s independence and strong will, and when I got back to California I told everyone that while I knew I shouldn’t play favorites, Alice might be it – a strong, independent, future #girlboss if ever there was one.
Last week Marissa texted The Guild to tell us that Alice was having surgery and might have kidney cancer, asking us to pray. I got the text at work and at first I thought I misread it – it was so surreal and outside the ordinary of what’s possible, I must have misunderstood. I read it again, and as more details unfolded over the next several days – Stage 2 cancer, chemo ahead but a good prognosis – I just keep thinking “but we’re not grown up enough for this.” I understand that three of us are married and two of us are moms – I was there at the weddings and the baby showers and the hospital. I know all of that, but this – your child having cancer – this happens to people I don’t know on Facebook and on heart-wrenching stories on Good Morning America. This doesn’t happen to your friend that you had tea parties with and remember with her braces on and singing songs on a bus to Mexico with.
One of my favorite writers, Glennon Doyle Melton, reminds us that crisis means to sift, as in to let all that isn’t essential fall away and keeping only what matters most, and I’m imagining this playing out in Marissa’s life, magnified times a hundred to what it’s doing in mine. I’m imagining the fear and pain and sorrow, yes, and I’m grieving and hurting with her, but I’m also imagining the gift in all of it, strange as it sounds. The gift of being reminded that all of the stuff we start to believe matters pales in comparison to the precious gift of the people we love.
My heart is hurting with Marissa’s, because I love her and when someone you love is in pain you are in pain, but I also know we share the same hope, in a Love bigger even than a mother’s love [as impossible as that seems to believe.] I know we share a belief in a God big enough to sustain and encourage and bring beauty from ashes and light from the darkness, even in the midst of all this. I know that as Marissa and Rob and Alice and Claire and Evelyn walk into this scary and painful and hard new reality together, they are surrounded and bound together and sustained by a Love that does not flinch in the face of pain or grief, but always hopes, always trusts and always perseveres. They are sustained by a Love that never fails.
I’m turning 33 tomorrow, and this birthday feels different. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still looking forward to celebrating with friends and eating #allthecake and thanking God for another year of the precious gift of life, which it absolutely is. But it feels different in that I’m finally learning some lessons about letting go of my expectations of what this new year of life will bring.
The lead up to this birthday has been hard. I’ve wrestled deeply with how different my life looks than I thought it would look at 33. I’m missing my dad, and grieving celebrating a decade of birthdays without him – it feels painfully final in a way I didn’t anticipate it to feel. I’m wishing that so many things were different, and grieving that there’s nothing I can do to change it.
And yet I think a confluence of events is finally, finally, making me accept something that I’ve fought against tooth and nail for my whole life, especially the last decade.
I’m finally accepting that I don’t have control.
You don’t need a PhD in clinical psychology to see the link between standing by helplessly while my dad died of a heart attack and spending ten years believing that if I just tried hard enough, I could stop bad things from happening. I really believed that if I tried hard enough, if I was responsible and organized and on top of life enough, I could control the pain, minimize the damage, prevent the loss.
It makes my hurt heart as I type that – because I know how much I’ve honestly believed that and how painfully misguided it is. I know I’ve made hard things in my life more painful by believing that if I just tried harder I could fix them. I’m grieving how little compassion and grace I’ve had for myself over the past ten years, compared to the inexpressible riches of the compassion and grace God has for me.
I’m finally starting to accept that I can’t make things happen in my life that I wish I could. I can’t stop my friends and family from feeling pain. I can’t control other people’s decisions. I can’t prevent losing the people I love.
And the truth is, I’m exhausted. The “trying harder” all the time is wearing me out, and I need a new way, a different way.
Usually I approach my birthday with sky-high expectations of what the year will bring. “This will be the year that I fill-in-blank” has been my motto. As in, “This will be the year that I find my dream job/meet the love of my life/get my own home.” And before I know it, another year goes by, along with the crushing disappointment when another birthday rolls around, and turns out it wasn’t the year.
To be clear, I’m not letting go of my dreams, but I am letting go of clutching so tightly to the how and why and what and when of my life that my knuckles turn white and I feel like a failure when my best laid plans don’t turn out like I thought they would.
So, this year I’m trying a different way. I’m letting go of control, which is excruciatingly difficult for me, and learning – falteringly, slowly, inch by inch – how to let go. I’m going to let go of my white knuckle grip on my life, and open my hands to receive whatever God has in store for me this year. I’m practicing the spiritual disciple of trust. Because I might not know the details yet of the how and why and what and when of what this thirty third year of life will bring, but I know through experience that God gives good, good gifts. Like joy. And hope. And peace. And love – so much love.
So I’m giving my dreams, my birthday wishes, the deepest desires of my heart back to God, and trusting Him to fill in the details.
Because as much as I love to write, God is a much better Author than I’ll ever be.