“A time to seek, and a time to lose.” (Ecclesiastes 3:6)
My mother’s mother, Grandma Ruby, was born on January 12, 1909, in a little house with a crooked brick chimney in the-middle-of-nowhere, North Dakota. She was the middle daughter of five. And in her unpublished memoir, My Burden Bearer, she records just a few images from her early childhood. Her mother rocking her, singing the “Beautiful Isle of Somewhere,” setting the table daily with a white cloth so her girls would grow up to be ladies.
Then in chapter two, way too early, she writes about her first trauma. Her first big Loss. She was six.
Sister number five had just been born when Grandma Ruby’s mother became ill. Grandma was shipped off to stay with some friends. Her sisters were sent elsewhere.
“Once they took me home to see my mother,” she writes. “She was so still lying there with her pillow tucked back with her hands so her face could be more free. Then I had to go back to that place. It was so lonely. And I never saw my mother again. She died.”
A man came and told little Grandma Ruby that her mother was gone, but she could not understand. “When I’d go to the town of Bisby,” she writes, “I would look at every woman on the street to see if it was my mother. Such a terrible hurt to think my mother would go away. I believe the scar of that has stayed with me all of my life.”
When Grandma Ruby was ten, her father remarried. Stepmom was a stern woman who didn’t particularly like the girls. At the same time, the family moved to Clear Lake in Glen, Minnesota. There they had a comfortable house and my great grandpa built a big red barn that still stands. During high school, though, Grandma and her sisters were sent to live in a rented room in the nearby town of Aikin.
Grandma was naïve and hungry for the attention of anyone who would oblige. So from October to December during her senior year, she dated a man ten years older. They became intimate. Then the man left town.
Grandma didn’t understand what was happening to her until many weeks later when she explained her symptoms to her sister Esther, who said, “You are going to have a baby.” Esther went with Grandma to tell their folks. Stepmom made a face and left the room. Their dad shook his head and said with disgust, “I told her to stay away from men.” The father of the baby would not answer her letters. Grandma called the hurt and the shame “indescribable.”
On the day that Uncle Everett was born, Grandma labored all day on her own in an upstairs room. Finally, late in the afternoon her father got an old neighbor lady to help her have the baby. This woman was worried about her and the baby and asked Grandma’s dad to get the doctor, but he refused. Grandma believed he was making her suffer for her sins.
When she was twenty-six, Grandma Ruby married Grandpa Harold, a man several years older than her from her church. They moved with Everett into a one-room cottage that Grandpa Harold had built. They had nothing. They lived off of their own garden, the bit of money that Grandpa could earn building roads, and the sale of a few navy beans. But—even with the frost covering the inside of the walls and the old stove propped up on bricks—she writes, “This was a good life. I, at last, felt secure and so very happy.”
Just a few months later, she found out she was pregnant again. She thought she was due in mid-March. But on February 9, her water broke while the family was eating breakfast. The snow was two feet deep, so Grandpa Harold sent a neighbor to find a telephone and call the Doctor and ask him to meet them at Grandma’s folks’ house.
At nine o’clock that evening my mom came into the world at 2 pounds 13 ounces, and shortly thereafter her twin brother arrived at 4 pounds 6. The babies had to be fed with an eye dropper. They had no eyebrows, no fingernails, no hair, and no eyelashes. Stepmom put them in a cardboard box lined with fruit jars full of hot water.
Grandma Ruby did the best she could, caring for two babies and one little boy in their one-room cottage. Tending her garden. Washing clothes on the washboard. Waiting each long day for Grandpa Harold to come home. But the babies were struggling. They were not doing things that other babies did. So that fall they visited a doctor in Isle, Minnesota. The doctor called the babies “spastic.”
My mom gradually did progress. Sitting at nine months. Crawling at eighteen. And finally walking at age two and a half. Her twin Lawrence, though, couldn’t even hold up his head. He never sat. Never used his hands. Never walked. Never talked. Grandma does write, though, about his bright mind. “When a player piano was played and someone would press down the keys at the same time, he would yell. He knew it wasn’t right.”
When the twins were two and a half, Grandma had a fourth baby, Uncle Doug—“a plump little guy who did everything early.” His health was a blessing, but Grandma was feeling the strain.
“Our little twin boy was failing,” she writes. “It was so hard for him to eat. He couldn’t move his bowels without help, and a lump rose on his forehead. It was very hard for me to take care of him, and I cried a lot and started running a temperature. I had no help, so I had to stay at it…I used to hold him or kneel by his bed and pray that Jesus would take him to be with Him so he could be well and run around like other little children. He seemed to understand. He would squirm with delight.”
The February when the twins turned five, a friend’s sister who was a welfare worker in Minneapolis came to visit. She convinced Grandma to put Lawrence’s name on a list to be admitted to a new hospital in Rochester for little helpless children. It was a terrible decision to make, but the nurse reasoned with Grandma that the rest of her family was suffering because of the care that Lawrence required.
That November, the welfare worker contacted the family to say that there was finally a bed for Lawrence. Stepmom told Grandma, “I hope this isn’t something you will regret.”
The day they took Lawrence to Rochester.
Lawrence was very quiet during the long drive to Rochester. They arrived at the hospital late in the afternoon. An older women in white whisked Lawrence out of Grandma’s arms and disappeared with him down the hall. A welfare worker directed Grandma and Grandpa to a small café and came to find them a while later. Grandma asked to see Lawrence, of course. But the worker didn’t think that was a good idea.
Grandma Ruby and Grandpa Harold stayed that night in St. Louis Park with Grandma’s sister. And Grandma wept all night long. The next day they returned home and stopped at the post office in Aikin. There was a telegram from the hospital, saying that little Lawrence had died in the night.
According to Grandma Ruby, the shock was so great she doesn’t know how she even stayed on her feet. She wrote to the hospital to see what had happened. And the only answer she received was this: “Often times it’s the shock of taking them out of the home.” Grandma never forgave herself.
Two years after Lawrence died, the family moved to Minneapolis where Grandpa Harold found work. Grandma wanted another baby. And shortly after the move, she had her fifth, Uncle Jon, but he was also very ill. Jaundiced. Weak. The life fluttering out of him. He needed a blood transfusion. But it came too late. He was brain damaged. Cerebral palsied. Epileptic. Deaf…
And her story goes on. There was more trouble. More loss. More than I can possibly comprehend. But this is enough for now. More than enough to support the claim that Grandma Ruby was well-acquainted with grief.
It is painful for me to imagine Grandma Ruby’s life and her loss. Painful, but also helpful. Helpful, and hopefully healing. An important part of resolving our own Mother Loss is “taking off the mask of our mom” (Cori)—understanding how our mother was mothered. And to this end, I imagine Grandma Ruby as a young mom with all her children in a one-room cottage—overjoyed and overwhelmed, stubbornly determined and bitterly disappointed, sometimes strong and often oh-so-sad.
I am sad for her. In fact, I weep as I write. For her. And for my mother—the little girl who called her “Mom.” Because when Grandma Ruby lost, my mom lost as well. When Grandma Ruby lost her little boy, my mom lost her twin. When Grandma Ruby lost her husband, my mom lost her dad. And perhaps most significantly, when Grandma Ruby lost her hope, my mom lost a part of her mom.
I have experienced my own share of loss. So have you.
As far as loved ones go, Grandpa Harold would have been my first. He died when I was one year old. And while I was too young to understand, the grief of my mom and my grandma certainly left a mark.
I lost my cousin Marcus when I was five—to leukemia. He was five too. When Mrs. Erikson, my kindergarten teacher, asked for prayer requests and the other kids mentioned pets and toys, I raised my hand and said, “Pray that my cousin Marcus doesn’t die.” But Marcus died.
I lost my Grandpa Eddie when I was seven. Mom picked my brother Ken and me up from school that afternoon and told us the horrible news. It was sudden. A heart attack. Everyone caught off guard. Mom dropped us off at a friend’s house for the evening, left us at Grandma Ruby’s house during the funeral, did everything she could to shelter us from the grief—but also deprived us of an early lesson on loss.
I lost my Grandma Eve when I was eleven. I was keeping my first diary that year—a yellow volume with Snoopy on the cover. I wrote faithfully, with purple pen, every day beginning on January 1. About school and friends. Basketball games and auditions for Cinderella. Then on March 10, I wrote about calling Grandma Eve to see if we could go to her house for waffles. For the first time ever, Grandma Eve said, “No.” She was sick. On March 11, I wrote that Grandma Eve was in the hospital having lots of tests. On March 21, I wrote that Grandma Eve had died. And on March 22, I wrote that I was mad. Mad at Grandma for dying and mad at God for taking her. And then the journal abruptly stops. Blank pages the rest of the book through.
But my story goes on. Plenty of loss left to share. Though I think this is enough for now. More than enough. The point is made.
We are, all of us, well-acquainted with grief.
We have all experienced loss. It is a central and necessary part of life. Loss of people, yes. But also loss of love. Relationships. Objects. Dreams. Loss of security. Freedom. Innocence. And trust. Loss of expectations. Loss of health. Loss of time. The loss of our younger selves. According to Judith Viorst (Necessary Losses), “We lose by leaving and being left. We lose by changing and letting go and moving on.”
Viorst also says that “Central to understanding our lives is understanding how we deal with loss. The people we are and the lives that we lead are determined, for better and worse, by our loss experiences.”
It is often through loss that we learn what it really means to live. And it is perhaps those early losses that shape us most. Those early losses pave the way for the rest.
My precious kids have already experienced their share of loss—loss of the deepest sort. Twice over. Both separated from their birthmom at birth. Then both separated again from their caregivers—their only understanding of a mom—at eight months to come to us. Time will tell how this loss will shape them. But every now and again we already catch a glimpse.
Just last night we picked up Daryl from his drama class and drove home. The whole family was in the car: Daddy, Mummy, Daryl, Amelia, and even Grandma Viv. Daryl happily ate his Chick-fil-a and told us about his game of Wax Museum. Then “Only the Lonely” by Diana Krall came on Peter’s iPod. Daryl fell silent for a bit. Then he begged, “Please turn off this song. It makes me sad.” I turned around to see his lips pursed and his eyes big and brimming.
“Why does it make you sad, Daryl? What are you thinking about?” Peter asked.
And he answered, “I’m thinking about something that disappears and I won’t ever get it back.”
Jesus understands loss. He was well-acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3). The story of Lazarus (John 11) gives us a glimpse of this.
It actually opens with multiple declarations of love. Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, send a message to Jesus. “The one whom you Love is sick.” And in case we didn’t get it, two verses later John explains again that Jesus Loves them all—Lazarus and Mary and Martha too.
But though he loves, Jesus does not go. Not yet. And why? He says, For the glory of God. That they might believe.
When Jesus finally does go, Lazarus has been dead for four days. Mary and Martha are mourning. And Jesus, too, weeps.
Then he says, “Remove the stone.”
Martha protests. “By this time he will stink.”
And Jesus looks her in the eye, and says, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” Then he prays and shouts into the tomb, “Lazarus, come out!”
Perhaps this is how we face our loss and teach our children to do so as well. Perhaps we look Jesus in the eye. And believe. And wait for the glory of God.
We don’t always get the Lazarus ending. But we always, always get the love. A love that comes to us. A love that weeps with us. And a love that shouts into our darkest parts and calls forth life.
I would love to hear from you! Please share…
What have you lost? And as a result, what have you learned?