It was a late summer day; one of those days where the heat and humidity seem to hang in the air like a heavy blanket. I’d had two small sweaty children clinging to me for hours on end and was looking forward to a refreshing break. To say the previous few months had been challenging would be an understatement. I was still adjusting to the balance of adding a second child to our family and so many days felt like simply treading in hopes that I could keep my head above water. Then, only weeks earlier, we’d lost my mother-in-law, an unprocessed grief that weighed heavily on my chest as I attempted to breathe through the daily tasks that needed to be accomplished.
This warm summer evening held the promise of a brief respite. When my husband came home from work, I planned to bike to our local park and enjoy some outdoor yoga. Leaving crying children behind with a pang of guilt I felt a soft whisper saying – you deserve this break, take it, enjoy it.
In the park, under heavy clouds that threatened to drench us, I stretched, relaxed, breathed. As the class was wrapping up and we laid facing the glorious sky above in our final resting pose, I felt a single cool raindrop splash onto my hot forehead. Then another and another. The sky opened, releasing the most beautiful delicate shower. Perfectly refreshing in that moment, bringing much needed relief and healing. A gift from the heavens.
It was a dark night on the cusp of the seasonal transition between summer and fall. Our children were both sleeping, a miracle in itself, and my husband and I sat on the back deck enjoying the cool evening air. I’d say we gazed at the stars, but the night sky around Chicago twinkles more with light pollution and commercial air traffic than celestial bodies.
We were discussing life. More specifically, the hardships of life without my husband’s mother, our children’s grandmother, the incomparable Yia-Yia.
Just then we saw the clearest of all shooting stars race across the night sky, igniting the darkness. A signal; a gift from above.
It was a crisp fall day. The air was cold and fresh and pure. I had brought the girls out for a walk in nature, one of our favorite pastimes. A chance to collectively breathe.
The chill of the atmosphere made every sight and sound and sensation seem just a bit more poignant. It was impossible not to notice the simple joys of colorful leaves falling slowly from barren treetops and the crunch of dried leaves underfoot. A cool breeze danced across our cheeks and tickled our noses. I relished pointing out each indicator of the changing season to my older daughter, showing her, or perhaps myself, how life evolves and renews even through difficult transitions.
Just then we heard the distinctive honking of geese overhead. Looking up we saw a perfect “V” formation of geese flying. Swirling above, seemingly effortlessly. “They’re heading south for the winter,” I told my daughter who gazed at them, eyes wide with wonder. A reminder that on wings of hope, supporting one another, we can weather this difficult season together. A gift from heaven.
It was the morning of Christmas Eve, a day of excitement and expectation. After peeling ourselves out from the warm covers of our bed, we saw a beautiful sight outside the window. “Snow!” our older daughter excitedly exclaimed.
Snowflakes drifted peacefully from the sky, quickly blanketing the dull grey ground in a majestic layer of white. We were going to have a white Christmas, I realized with glee.
Though our hearts were still heavy with loss, the beautiful renewal that fresh snow brings made the celebration of Christmas seem a bit lighter, a bit more hopeful. The world was new and beautiful. As I glimpsed the delight on my daughter’s face when we ventured out to enjoy the first real snowfall of the season, catching sight of delicate flakes resting upon her dark eyelashes, I couldn’t help but look up and give thanks. Gifts falling upon us from heaven above.
This year was our first without my husband’s mother, my second mother, my children’s beloved grandmother. The hole in our hearts left by Yia-Yia is ever-present, but perhaps even more poignant around holidays, birthdays, and everyday celebrations. You see, Yia-Yia was a woman of great gifts. She enjoyed few things more, I believe, than pouring out her love onto others far and wide. Whether it was the intangible – her unconditional love and acceptance, attention, and affection; the delectable – her amazing and never to be matched cooking; or the physical – the carefully selected goods that would be just what you wanted even if you didn’t know you needed it; Yia Yia’s gifts were always filled with more thought and compassion than I could ever comprehend.
But this year there were no over-sized over-stuffed stockings for the grandkids to joyfully tear through. There were no boxes to unwrap, brimming with hand-picked items that I would never allow myself as indulgences, but Yia-Yia insisted I more than deserved. There were no happy gift cards arriving in the mailbox wrapped with the kindest words of wisdom. There were no meals filled with steak and crab cakes and salmon and more butter and love than you’d ever think could be contained in one beautiful dish. And there certainly wasn’t the same laughter and chatter and hugs.
Yet, I refuse to believe that Yia-Yia is not still with us, not still showering us in new and wonderful ways with her love and gifts. When you’ve lived such an incredible life and cultivated such an amazing soul, it’s impossible that such greatness can simply cease to exist. Maybe those we love, who no longer walk the Earth with us, are able to send us reminders that they are ok, and we will be too. Maybe God can send us gifts, hand-picked by those who know and love us from above, to show us they are still there, if only in a different form.
I’m not always a believer in signs, but over the past year, the above moments of joy and clarity that have cut through the grief and hardship have felt like more than coincidences. They felt like intentional gifts.
Among the million decisions that had to be made following my mother-in-law’s passing, my husband’s sister chose the heart-wrenchingly beautiful poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye titled “Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep” to be printed on prayer cards for her service. I remember reading the poem in haste at the time, thinking it was lovely. I stashed a couple of extra prayer cards away in my luggage and promptly forgot about them, until six months later when we were back visiting my sister-in-law for the holidays. When the tiny card fell out of my backpack, I stared in wonder as I read the forgotten words:
Do not stand at my grave and weep I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.
It’s everyday. It’s the smiles that alight my children’s faces. It’s their deep, soulful, and infinitely beautiful eyes. It’s their dark hair blowing in the breeze and tanned skin shining in the sunlight, reminiscent of the Grecian goddess from whom they come. It’s the bodies and souls of these little girls who I would not be blessed to love were it not for Yia-Yia. These are the things that will never be forgotten. These are the things that do not die. These are Yia-Yia’s everlasting gifts. Infinite gifts from above.