One month after arriving in Spain I returned to California for my sister’s wedding. It was a long trip for a short visit. I probably spent more time in the air than on the ground. It was a foolish thing to do. But love is a foolish thing and foolish things are evidence that life is a gift. Gifts don’t make sense. We don’t justify them or rationalize them, deserve them or earn them. We accept them. During this trip I learned many things about the gift of this life. Weddings are full of gifts.
When we speak of love at weddings we often talk about finding the one. But you can’t find the one without encountering the many. As I stumbled from one airport to the next I came to appreciate how the act of love, any love worth living for, is not just about one thing or one person or one moment. It’s about the way in which attending to the one opens our hearts to the many, opens our hands to receive a multitude of gifts. Many hands made it possible for me to get to this wedding and many others showed up to participate in it and to bless it. This union (this reunion!) made many loves possible, and I was grateful for them all.
The day after the wedding, I left before dawn to catch an early flight back to Madrid. This too, this leaving, was a gift. I stopped along a particularly dark stretch of Highway 1 and got out of the car. I stood on the shore under a blanket of stars, more than I could count. For ages the stars have helped us navigate over the depths of the sea and oriented us in the dark fields of space and time. To forget the stars is to lose a sense of perspective, of our place in the universe and the immense privilege of it. Standing on that shore, looking up at those stars, I was reminded that we live beneath lions and hunters, beneath a sky full of stories.
I found myself surrounded by myths and legends, animals and gods. There were big bears and small. There was Orion in his fancy three-star belt. There was Jupiter, the god of the sky, dwarfed in the belly of the crab–Cancer. There was Cancer… I thought of many friends and family. I thought of Emmjolee and Mike, I thought of my Grandma Marian and my Grandpa Jay, my Dziadzi. I thought of Lesly, my sister’s new spouse whose remission anniversary came just before the wedding. How many more could I add to this list? Cancer has taken too many and terrified the rest. F**k you, Cancer. You miserable crab.
On my flight to the wedding I had watched The Fault in Our Stars. It was sad. I was tired. I cried uncontrollably. Sometimes you can’t help it. As the movie explains, pain demands to be felt. It’s a good line. But another line caught me. Speaking of death and dying the protagonist says, “It’s not fair.” I wondered about that. Is life fair? Standing next to the deep and dark Pacific under the stars it seemed to me the fairest thing. Departures suck, but life is fair. From the beginning it’s a gift and all that’s given is returned in the end. If nothing else, it’s equal.
I got back in the car and kept driving. I noticed a ship on the horizon sweeping it’s spotlight in my direction. I saw a deer standing on the side of the road. A message arrived on my phone from my community back in Madrid welcoming me home and wishing my sister a hearty congratulations. In my leaving I couldn’t ignore the many gifts and I was consoled by them. On that dark ribbon of highway, with my family fast asleep miles behind me, I was not alone, never alone.
The sun made its way into that sky full of stories, a star like the rest, but so proximate that we know its truth as well as its tale. This star is one about which we don’t need to invent stories. We are held by it and know its warmth. The sun is a generous lover and its light, a gift.
When I landed back in Madrid life carried on. And then it didn’t.
As I pulled through jet-lag during my morning class a message from my cousin popped up on my screen: “Our dad passed away last night. We found him at home a little before midnight. It would be good to hear from you.” My uncle died hours before my plane landed in Spain. This was not the slow suffering of cancer but the strong shock of a massive heart attack. I was breathless. After days of gratitude, this? After stars and deer and ships on the horizon, this?
I felt a sick kind of pain — shock and concern. I worried for my cousins, for my family, especially for my dad–this was his only sibling. I felt confused. But then a strange thing happened. In each of these I still felt grateful. It was as if the flavor of gratitude remained on my palate as the aroma of grief arrived. Having just left the wedding hours before, I still felt in the mood of gratitude. I still trusted that the weekend was real, that the truth of it was undisturbed. More than ever I understood, in the face of death and suffering, that life was worth living. I moved from gratitude into grief and yet, I remained in a state of grace, capable of accepting the gift.
Death really sucks. But life is fair, as fair as it gets. More than fair, it’s generous. Life gives us more than we ever want, more than we ever ask for. As one, we depend upon thousands, we receive the help of many. Many hands. Many friends. Many family. Many moments. Many stars. Too many to see, too many to count, too many to merit. Life is an incredibly generous gift. This doesn’t mean it’s easy; it doesn’t mean it’s clear; it’s often really f**king complicated. And yet, it remains a gift to be accepted. If we can do this, accept life and love, we live happily ever after.
At the wedding itself there was one thing I was asked to do, one gift to offer. My sister asked me to play IZ’s popular medley of Somewhere Over the Rainbow and What a Wonderful World. It strikes me now what an incredible mix this is. The song not only imagines life Over the Rainbow but also notices What a Wonderful World we already have. Although there is longing it’s not merely a dream of a wonderland far far away. It’s not a fantasy. It’s a testimony of gifts received. It’s a song about gratitude and beauty, about hope and love.
In faith we don’t hope for a world unknown, for a land far away. We hope because we’ve known the gifts of life and love. We hope for gifts received and we grieve for gifts returned. We sing because we know what a wonderful world this is and sometimes we cry because we want to share the gift of this life just a little bit more.
Death is difficult — work for the dying and worry for the rest of us. But life is fair, even generous. And love? Love is a foolish thing. And yet, like a wedding, it’s full of gifts.
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The cover image, from Flickr user Kate Ter Haar can be found here.