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When I was going through a particularly hard time a few years ago, a friend encouraged me with a story from Corrie ten Boom’s book, The Hiding Place. As a child, Corrie was having a difficult time dealing with the fact that her father would die one day. She and her father had this dialogue:
I burst into tears, “I need you!” I sobbed. “You can’t die! You can’t!”
“Corrie,” he began gently. “When you and I go to Amsterdam, when do I give you your ticket?”
“Why, just before we get on the train.”
“Exactly. And our wise Father in heaven knows when we’re going to need things, too. Don’t run out ahead of him, Corrie. When the time comes that some of us will have to die, you will look into your heart and find the strength you need—just in time.”
My friend said that God gives us tickets of grace to get through any given situation and that he would give me my ticket when I needed it. I loved this idea, but I didn’t think he had given me my ticket. I cried out to God one night, “Where is my ticket? You didn’t give me my ticket!” I thought my ticket would be an angel that would touch me and give me strength, a miraculous healing or a vision.
Soon after, I had a dream that a friend gave me a sweater that I loved. The next day when I was pondering the dream, I felt that God was saying the sweater was the ticket of grace I was looking for.
Life is too hard to take straight, to take alone, without the oil of friendship, without the intoxication of grace offered to one another through shared laughter and tears. Without music or walks in the woods. Without silliness and stories. I couldn't take life straight; I would die under the weight of grief.Hetty White
I do not mean to diminish the hardships of life to say that a lovely cardigan can fix them. I mean to say that we underestimate cardigans. And gifts from friends. And flowers. And a nice card. And the perfect song. And a smile and a deep hug. I think when we receive them for what they are, we find ourselves surrounded by tickets of grace from God that enable us to ride the train of suffering and despair through this beautiful, crazy life.
In the film Song to Song, one of Terrence Malick’s characters says, “I can’t take life straight.” I think he meant he needed to be under the influence to deal with life.
I can’t take life straight, either. Life is too hard to take straight, to take alone, without the oil of friendship, without the intoxication of grace offered to one another through shared laughter and tears. Without music or walks in the woods. Without silliness and stories. I couldn’t take life straight; I would die under the weight of grief. The train is too hard of a ride.
I once had the privilege and sobering opportunity to be with a friend when he died. I traveled by Megabus from Nashville, Tennessee to Brainerd, Minnesota to be with him in the last minutes of his life. After it happened, I was exhausted and if I’m honest, a bit traumatized. I called my mom from the room I was staying in that night. How was I supposed to sleep? Could I keep living after seeing what I had seen? After seeing how God had allowed a brutal sickness to ravage my friend’s body until almost nothing was left? I wasn’t sure what life looked like for me after this. Would I ever be happy again? Could I ever laugh again? And the most frightening thought of all: what if something like this happened to my family? To my brother or sister or mom or dad? That thought, I couldn’t deal with. It was too big, too horrific. “I can’t handle that,” I thought. “I wouldn’t be able to handle that.”
As I talked with my mom on the phone that night, she encouraged me to remember all the things that had happened on my journey to see my friend. She didn’t know what that meant, but she sensed that God was wanting to remind me.
The trip had been a hard one: it was freezing winter and I didn’t have a smart phone and I was trying to catch bus after bus, be at the right stop, and avoid unsafe parts of downtown cities at three in the morning, all while facing the fact that my journey ended in the death of a friend. But all along the way, people had helped me.
There was an older woman in Memphis who waited with me for the bus. She was headed to a memorial service for a dear friend who had died at her house on Thanksgiving morning. I didn’t tell her where I was going. I didn’t have the strength to speak of it yet, but I found camaraderie in her.
There was a girl on the bus to Minneapolis with short hair and a spunky attitude that helped me figure out where to get off the bus and find a coffee shop open at five in the morning. I was able to fall asleep on the table and charge my cell phone in a warm space while I waited for the next bus instead of standing around in seventeen degree weather in the dark hours of the morning.
Then there was my guitar. I would not go without my guitar—I wanted to sing for my friend who had so loved music. Every Megabus let me put the guitar down below with the suitcases, even though they weren’t supposed to. And even more miraculously, it survived! In a soft case, no less. It still has thin white scars running up and down its body from that frozen trip where it cracked but did not break. Perhaps I still have some scars, too.
When I got to my friend’s house, his father picked me up from the bus station. The sadness in his eyes was all I could see. I sat in the living room next to the bed where my friend lay, who looked like a shell of himself. His eyes darted back and forth, but finally fixed on me. I saw him. There he was: my friend, Doug. I got out my guitar. I sang for him and he died while I played. His sister said, “He waited for you. I told him you were coming.”
I like to think that I helped him go—I opened the door for him. I gave him his ticket right before he needed it, and with the sound of music enveloping him, he boarded the train.
Seven years later, the horrible thing that I couldn’t imagine has happened: my mother has cancer. My worst fear. The thought I couldn’t think is now my reality. My own mother. Since October, this season has been riddled with questions, tests, doctor appointments and above all, waiting. Waiting for bad news, waiting for good news, waiting for answers to questions that can’t always be answered.
But somehow, we get through it. Over and over again, the Lord shows up in unexpected ways. Over and over, we are given tickets to get through the next hurdle, the next thing.
I have a friend at church whose mom also has lung cancer and all along the way she has encouraged me, texted me, “How did the test go? What’s the news? How are you doing?”
Another friend sent me a necklace with a lantern on it and a note that had the quote from when Galadriel gives the light of Eärendil’s star to Frodo: “May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.” I reach for it often these days and hold onto it.
Months after he died, I had a dream about Doug. It was simple: he was well and whole, he looked the way he did when I first met him. And he gave me a big, long hug. And that was it. Call me a mystic, but I think that was really him giving me back something I gave him: comfort, relief, grace.