Love. Gratefully, it came early in my life and stayed long, honing its definition and penetrating its reality deeper with every chapter that went by. My earliest memory is of my Dad’s arms around me as he gushed, “I love you so much I could eat you up!” A confusing concept of love, for sure.
I don’t know how long it took to figure that one out, but from then on, love– in its varied forms– walked with me throughout the entire course of my life’s story. The love of parents, siblings, family –even my puppy– were clear, easy to understand and embrace. The love of friends proved trickier. The love of God, much more majestic and– regardless of how I tried to understand it– incomprehensible. Love of certain foods, special homes, favorite books, a great baseball game, whatever… love was there.
When the intense fires of romantic love invaded all the corners of my heart, I would have guessed that this would’ve become the climax of my story, the height of my concept– the pinnacle to which all other experiences of love would point. Looking back, clearly it wasn’t.
Don’t get me wrong! Marrying my prince was a wonderful thing! Dan and I bought a house, and together we had three amazing children that I loved with an intensity I never knew was even possible. We settled into what I would have thought was our ‘happily ever after,’ yet in no time at all, inevitable outside forces of life began to play tricks with my emotions. Ups and downs in job security, financial ebbs and flows, and the stresses of health issues kept me on a confused roller-coaster of wondering if I really knew what love was after all. There were times when “love” came easily, yet other times when I felt emotionally dry, questioning my own ability to love or be loved.
Within the mix, there were happy years and lots of really good memories, for sure. Yet when the biggest wave hit –the most wrenching adversity– ironically, that was where I found my defining moment, when I knew what love really was.
That particular chapter was already a bad one. I was reeling from a harsh reality after two of our kids had been involved in a tragic car accident that took the life of our daughter’s beautiful best friend at the tender age of 16. Our 15 year old daughter herself had been seriously hurt with a broken clavicle, broken ribs, collapsed lung, and badly broken pelvis, enduring long months of treatment in traction, a wheelchair, crutches, and therapy to learn to walk again.
Though she was recovering, the impact of it all had swept me into a year long struggle with depression, confused over how a loving God could have let this happen when I thought I had lived rightly. I don’t remember any of the words that Dan said to me during that year– but I’ll never forget his look of compassion as he held me tight. He was there. Together, we were surviving.
After a year, I was certainly not at the end of the chapter, but there were glimmers of hope that life could still be good– when a knock on my door woke me in an early morning hour. My husband Dan and our second son Justin had left home much earlier in darkness, to drive the long distance for a job they’d scheduled. This knock was not a good sign. Trembling, I opened the door to find our friend Duane–a policeman– with his wife Wendy, sober with a tearful, pained expression. Silent for a moment, I instinctively asked him, “Are they alive?”
“Yes, they’re alive. But Dan’s hurt really bad. When you’re dressed, I’ll take you to the hospital.”
Numb, I rode an hour and a half to where my husband had been air-lifted. It was surreal– here I was, back at the same hospital, in the same trauma unit where I had agonized just a year before.
Dan’s injuries were predominantly in his face, and he looked horrific. Five front teeth were knocked out, his jaw was broken, and all the bones of his face, from his eye sockets down, were literally shattered in the impact. As we learned, the fast-melting spring run-off had washed away the soil around a large tree and sent it crashing into the highway, right in front of the van he was driving. The severe impact shoved the floor of the van upward, so that the steering wheel rested only inches from the ceiling, smashing Dan’s face in as it did. Justin, thankfully, was shaken, but miraculously not injured.
By the time I arrived at the ER, Dan’s face had swollen grotesquely, and with all the bruising and blood, he looked hideous. There were just no words to say. As gently as possible, I kissed the only uninjured spot I could find, the size of a quarter on his forehead… and we began the journey.
After two surgeries and a total of 8 1/2 hours to painstakingly piece fragments of bone back together, held in place with titanium plates that are still there, his jaw was wired shut for eleven weeks, the first of which was spent in the ICU heavily sedated with a thick breathing tube down his throat. They couldn’t remove it for fear that the severe swelling would completely shut his airway.
I could not believe the unfathomable extent of swelling in his head. Bruising was horrific, his jaw was wired shut and all his front teeth were missing. I remember thinking that if his own parents came to the hospital looking for him, they would never be able to find him.
On one of these very long, difficult days, I sat by his side, even as he was unresponsive and heavily drugged, just softly holding his hand, quietly whispering to him the words of the hymn, “…when darkness seems to hide His face, I rest in His unchanging grace; In every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the vale… His yoke, His covenant, His blood support me in the whelming flood; When all around, my soul gives way, He then is all my hope and stay…” and suddenly the most intense flood of overwhelming love for him washed over me until I knew more than ever before that this was still the one I willingly wanted to spend the rest of my life with. It was so crazy. Physically, he was hideous. Even beyond that, he was totally and completely powerless to do anything to earn my love. He had always “been there” for me, and I knew that now and always, I wanted to “be there” for him. It was love, period. And it was deeper than anything I could ever have imagined.
Such intense love made no sense. Yet it was overwhelming to be captured by the liberating, amazing reality that I knew what love really was– that it was infinitely deeper than anything I had ever imagined. Love goes far beyond what’s superficial. In that moment, I knew that having gone through the highest highs and the lowest lows together, we’d made it. Love had penetrated its way– painfully, sometimes– into the very core of who I was until it literally did not matter what was on the outside. It was as though I couldn’t even see what was external, blinded by the glow of what was at the center. Emotions vaccillate and tough times come, I knew– but I also knew absolutely that they can never destroy love.
Dan eventually recovered, but that experience has never left me. It defined what love really is, it brightened my world, and it has touched all of my other relationships. These days, I’m amazed at the love I share with grandchildren– incomprehensible, wholly undeserved, unmerited love that seems to blind them to my aging skin and stiffening joints. They love me because I am there for them, not because of what I look like or what I do to earn their love. They love me. Period.
I am likewise enthralled by God’s incomprehensible, wholly undeserved, unmerited, deep and enduring love. I do not need to “perform” in order to earn His love any more than He Himself needs to “perform” for me in order to validate His love for me– it’s already done. Having declared His love once for all by His suffering, there is nothing more He must do to prove it– He’s with me, every minute of every day. I love Him because He is. Period. For me, whether life’s current chapter is a good one or a bad one, His love sustains me in it, and I will not question it.
Now, more than a dozen years later, my love for Dan is stronger and deeper than ever before.
Life’s had some great chapters. It’s also had some really tough ones. But I know that even those really tough ones are just bad chapters in a very, very good book. It was in those bad chapters that I learned what love really is– and life is infinitely richer because of it.
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