Holding Joy and Sorrow in Both Hands

My wedding day was overcast, grey skies and a major chill in the air that caused goosebumps to raise up onto my exposed arms. The lack of sunlight made me look paler still in my white lace gown. Despite the bright orange and red leaves dotting the fading November trees, the first words I thought of when I looked at the sky were “gloomy”. And given the weeks leading up to my wedding, the heavy weather wasn’t really a surprise. 

Photo by Emma Highfill of Rose Wheat Photography

About two weeks before my wedding, I took a phone call from my parents that I knew would bring bad news. My grandmother had been incredibly sick, a decline that started over a year before, which slid her memory and cognition into the cool deep depths of loss. We could see it a long time coming, and perhaps the saddest part is that she could feel and see it coming too. My last good visit with her was the Christmas before — we sat in the nursing home singing Christmas carols together. She sang the harmony while she tapped her fingers out on her legs like she was playing the piano. I smiled with delight to watch her returning to the habit she developed after playing the organ at our church for over 50 years. She took my hand and told me that she knew things weren’t quite right with her brain, showing me a tattered piece of paper she had taken to the doctor scribbled with pencil notes crossed out. The paper was full of reminders and crossed out notes, a jumble of words I could barely read. 

On my 25th birthday, she had written 20.5 on the card because she couldn’t form the numbers in her head and put them to the paper. The dots were no longer connecting, and her light was slowly fading. A painful decline, multiple moves between health care facilities, and the diagnoses of a brain tumor rapidly occurred. It was difficult to watch, and I’m sad to say that sometimes I was tempted to stay away, not wanting to confront the pain of losing a friend I’d held dear my entire life. 

During childhood, I had loved to spend time at her house, examining different treasures hoarded in her basement which held little value to the outside world. My sisters and I played tea party in her dining room, dressing up with beautiful scarves she collected from around the world. She loved to watch us perform and practice hospitality anywhere (the local nursing home was her favorite spot to do this), and it did help each of her grandchildren learn to stand up in front of a crowd. Lilacs bushes bloomed around her house and irises would always pop up in the early spring; she loved to have us trim fresh flowers for the table. Her steady hand on the piano was my constant companion after she pushed me to perform at church, competitions, or meetings. Eventually, I grew to love those times together because knew that even if my voice failed, she’d jump right in behind me, showing her best kept talent of knowing when to lead and when to follow. She taught me to bake an apple pie for our 4-H county fair in her kitchen, sifting sugar between her knotted hands, adding extra because there could never be too much. 

As I grew older, I would take time to visit her during high school and college, sipping iced tea, and enjoying our quiet time together talking about what was on my heart. I remember the first time I talked about Jonathan with her, and she smiled after learning that he liked to read probably more than I did. When they were finally able to meet, she had one very good day. Her memory was sharp and she teased us all mercilessly, joking that she expected Jonathan to be more of an academic type and show up in a top hat. Together we all went up to a cafe together and she sipped Diet Dr. Pepper. After about two hours together, she declared that Jonathan looked just like Anderson Cooper which was certainly a high compliment in her book. Looking back, I’m incredibly thankful that I had the chance to share her with Jonathan that day because he was able to understand what a legacy she left on my family and my life.

My Grandma Jo passed away about a week before our wedding. Our goodbye was painful and beautiful, and I’m so thankful I had the chance to understand she would be finally heading to a place of peace. She managed to speak and I felt connected to her as she held my hand and called me “the most beautiful girl”. Even though the past two years had been incredibly difficult, I felt comforted knowing that the disease that impacted her brain function didn’t take away the memories I will cherish forever. While watching her, I sang “Over the Rainbow” gently while she closed her eyes, a song that was special to both of us not simply because of our Kansas ties but because we had performed it many times together. 

The week of my wedding, I felt sorrow as I sang “Over the Rainbow” at her funeral and experienced joy hearing it right before I walked into the wedding chapel with my husband. Even though she was physically missing from the most important day of my life, I know she was with me spiritually through every step I took. In spite of the grief hanging over my head, I felt my grandmother guiding my heart to happiness. While many think that sorrow and joy can be easily compartmentalized into tidy boxes, I have come to the realization that both emotions can be held in both hands, which makes us human to our core. Our stories are incomplete without the full experience of pain and happiness that life has to offer. Without knowing the depths of sorrow, we surely cannot understand the great joy that makes our hearts soar. 

Lots of joy dancing with my Dad.

Today would have been her 89th birthday. I think it is incredibly fitting that today we celebrate Good Friday in the Christian tradition, in perhaps the most sorrowful time in the modern world. We are isolated from neighbors and community, in our homes alone and able to process the brevity of this moment in history. This is the day that we experience the darkness of the crucifixion of Jesus, and the grief that comes with the loss of him from earth. The pain our savior experienced as he cried to his Father, “My god, my god, why have you abandoned me?” (Matthew 27:46 CSB). When I think of sorrow, I can think of nothing more powerful than Jesus painfully laying down his own life for my own. And yet, we know there are three more days left in the story. Without Good Friday, there is no Easter Sunday. In rolling away the rock before the tomb, it is with great joy that we experience the resurrection of Jesus. The promise of the rainbow is always fulfilled, as Christians are taught so early in the story of Noah from Genesis who spent 40 days and nights in sorrow and darkness. Cling to both sorrow and joy because without one, we cannot understand the other. Good is coming, and there is a rainbow on the horizon. 

My baptism in 1992.