One gray February day, around midday, my sister climbed out onto the roof of the 11-story Chase Bank downtown and jumped.
About an hour later, I made another kind of jump, though mine was metaphorical. I committed—with no forethought, hesitation, or discussion with anyone—to staying with my now-orphaned niece until she finished high school in June. I called my husband in Wisconsin to share with him what had happened and my decision, and I informed my school district that I would not be returning to the classroom until the following September.
I can’t really say why I was so sure that this was the absolutely right thing to do, or why I never had a single regret or misgiving about it. I don’t know why I lost exactly no sleep about what my employer would say, or my husband for that matter. I just knew. It was as simple as any decision I have ever made.
Over the next few months, I often felt mildly guilty for all the props I got for sticking around like that. Everywhere I went, people would say things like “Your niece is so lucky to have you!” and “You are doing such a wonderful thing!” and “You are so generous to give up your own life to be here!”
It was true that the work on the estate mostly sort of sucked for me. It wasn’t fun, and I wasn’t very good at it, and it went on and on and on. But despite the multitude of less-than-delightful tasks that faced me day after day, an unexpected feeling kept creeping in around the edges: a feeling that seemed so wildly inappropriate that I didn’t confess it to anyone for a long time; a feeling that confused me, but gradually, erratically, I came to recognize as a dominant state for me: joy.
Joy? How could this be? I had just lost my dear and only sister, with whom I had enjoyed most of a lifetime of shared interests, shared values, and mutual admiration. Here I was in the trenches with a hurting teenager and a to-do list a mile long, far from my family and friends and a job I loved . . . and yet, there it was: joy.
For a while, I misunderstood it as being about the (truly wonderful!) people I met in my new home. For a while, I thought that somehow I must be living the wrong life in Wisconsin, that my happiness was due to the life I found in this new city. (I was very relieved to find on a brief visit home in April that in actual fact, I had an amazing husband and a very precious circle of friends to return to!) So . . . what was the source of the joy?
What I understand now is that the joy was the joy of surrender, of obedience to the Spirit, and to the acceptance of grace that this surrender allows. I understand now that the hard inner core of self-doubt, of unworthiness, of not-good-enough-ness that has dominated my emotional and spiritual life since I can remember, was just vaporized by the simple act of obedience to what I was called to do.
There was one day in particular where clarity came. I had just triumphed over a particularly high-stakes problem with the Social Security Administration, which was on the verge of denying my niece’s claim. The only way I could think of to properly celebrate my relief was to crank up George Frideric Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” full blast and sing along. I did this with gusto, and when it got to the final “And He shall reign forever and ever,” I just came completely unglued. I cried and cried and cried. As I cried, I was writing a letter to some close family and friends:
It seems so painfully ironic that [my sister’s] final act of non-self-acceptance should have provided the opportunity for me to grow beyond my own, and yet it has. I feel remade in a deep way. I feel more whole, more healed, more deeply happy than I think I have ever felt.
What a strange and wonderful mystery. Every day feels like a miraculous opportunity handed to me to grow deeper into self-acceptance, simply by doing what needs doing that day; simply by showing up and attending to the moment. The ultimate freedom and joy through nothing more than simple obedience. Why was this never accessible to me before?
So now I’m crying at the loss of [my sister], and the gulf between how she felt and how I feel, and that her tragedy turned, ultimately, into my gain. I am simultaneously overwhelmed with the magnitude of what I lost in her, and the magnitude of what she lost or never had, and the hugeness of what I have somehow found. Is it even possible to cry harder than I am now for sorrow and joy at the same time?
I’m not sure my heart can hold any more than it is holding right now.
Is it very strange for you that I share this unexpected moment with you? I can’t NOT share it—it’s too big to hold alone. I hope you don’t mind being on the receiving end, and that you don’t think I’m losing my marbles, because I’m not. I think that I have just had the deepest experience of grace of my entire life—a grace so huge that it can encompass all of [my sister’s] pain and mine and yours, and also all the joy there is.
For He shall reign forever and ever. Yup, that’s about the size of it.
To think that the juxtaposition of my sister’s suicide, an inept bureaucracy, a hurting teenager and Handel would somehow conspire, would somehow become the enzyme that would make me able to experience this, is just crazyfunnyridiculous.
But as they say: before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water;, after enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water. I will soon join a neighbor for lunch (she invited me to celebrate the Social Security success), and then I will attend to some paperwork; shop for groceries and go to a Common House meal where I’ll be on clean-up crew; and [my niece] and I will have a rambly, comfortable conversation that likely covers everything from shoe styles to AP exams to the Trump nomination to brands of ravioli…and it will all be good. Ordinary, quotidian, and utterly grace-filled.
The memory of the joy lingers; I think of it often, and it feels like one of the greatest gifts I have ever been given.
Over the next few months, as I travel back and forth across the country multiple times and try to put the various pieces of my life back together, the feelings of grace and joy recede. I go through some of the hardest times since my sister died—I feel ambushed by grief multiple times. I realize that my time away wasn’t, alas, a permanent healing of my sense of unworthiness, only a vacation from it. Rats! But this is still empowering in a way. It reminds me of Kenneth Boulding’s first law: Anything that exists is possible!
I have experienced the joy and grace and the release from feelings of unworthiness that are the gifts of obedience to the Spirit. Now I know what I can and should feel like! The memory of the joy lingers; I think of it often, and it feels like one of the greatest gifts I have ever been given. My morning spiritual practice—vigorously renewed these days—is filled with explorations of surrender, of obedience, and of the things that get in the way. Many days I access joy again; many days I become aware of a new place I could practice obedience. When I do, I find that grace is usually close behind. And of course, sometimes I’m not obedient at all, and I get a kick in the butt instead. But overall, I feel a robust sense of purpose and of progress, and I feel the proximity of a sometimes smiling, sometimes exasperated Spirit egging me on. And I understand for the first time the words, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:30). So it was! And sometimes still is! And will be again.