Tender Words in the Wilderness

That night, after going home from the hospital, I tried to sleep but I had been swallowed by a nightmare that wouldn’t let go. It was there in my sleep. And when I awoke, it was still there. I climbed into bed with my sister (we had all decided to stay in my parent’s house that night). “I just don’t want to be alone,” I whispered as I climbed under the covers and turned to face the wall. She laid a hand on my back and I could feel in her touch that she was praying for me.

I was in and out of sleep for the rest of the night, screaming inside my own head a desperate, angry prayer, “bring him back, Lord, bring him back, bring him back. You can do it. You’ve done it before.” 

He wouldn’t do that for you, the darkness taunted.

Every time I’d find a minute of sleep, my body would shake with a jolt of adrenaline and I’d be trembling and awake again. It was like my body was rejecting this reality and trying to rid my system of the nightmare. I suppose whatever torture my body was going through in waves that night were just the effects of shock, but to me, it seemed my physical system believed it could cleanse me of this darkness that was trying to devour me. 

The next morning, I sat in the living room with my family, their forlorn faces staring at me, no one knew what to say or what to do. The weight in their eyes was because they loved me so much, I knew that, and yet I didn’t know any better than any one of them what to say or what to do. 

Kelly texted me sometime that morning and told me I could come over if I wanted. Robby and JoEllen had spent the night at David and Kelly’s apartment and Kelly said, “It’s good to be together right now.” So I went, grateful that they still wanted me around. 

Kelly made me a cup of tea and got me a blanket as I sat in their recliner. Everyone else was wrapped in blankets and sitting on couches. Here we could talk freely. We were all experiencing the same thing in different ways. We all had our stories of what the night before was like for us, the moment we first found out that Ethan was dead. 

I never cried in front of people before that morning, not in all my adult years. I had never cried in front of friends, not with Ethan, not with anyone. Back in college I had gone through an entire year of counseling without ever crying in front of my counselor. But here I was, with these four friends and I was crying with every word I spoke, with every word they spoke. We were all crying together and the tears were right, I had finally found them. 

With tears waterfalling down my face, I told them, “I finally knew, this last month, that this is what I wanted. All of this, with all of you. I wanted to build my life with you guys,” I nodded to Kelly and Jo’s pregnant bellies, “I was so looking forward to raising our kids together.” At this my tears broke into sobs, finally beginning to comprehend the magnitude of all I had lost. 

“You still can,” Kelly said and the words, though they stung, were so overwhelmingly gracious. She was extending to me a friendship that would outlast the grief, a friendship that was strong enough to move with me into whatever the future held and my gratitude had me sobbing all over again. 

We talked for awhile about how one of the first responders on the scene was a friend Ethan had known since childhood. For that, more tears flowed fresh. There was a friend there with Ethan. I was so grateful. He hadn’t been alone. 

David asked me that morning if I was sorry that he had ever introduced me to Ethan. He felt responsible, like he had, at least in part, brought this great pain upon me. 

“No,” I told him, so sure of my answer. “I will never regret knowing and loving Ethan. He was the best thing that ever happened to me.” 

I have thought since how easy it would have been to be angry, not at David, but at God. For as much as David liked to take credit for getting us together, Ethan always insisted that the whole thing was designed by God, set up in His perfect timing. And then Ethan would lean in and whisper to me, “but we’ll just let David go on thinking he’s the mastermind.”

Yes, I was tempted to be angry at God, like the Israelites at the Red Sea with the Egyptian army charging from behind, crying out that it would have been better if God had left them as slaves in Egypt then bring them out here in the desert to die. But God made a way out for them and I was trusting that He had a plan in all this too.

The sharing of experiences from the night before continued, and for a moment, all the voices faded into the background and I heard the LORD whisper to me, “this next year is going to be such a sweet time for us.” And without bitterness, I believed Him.

I say “without bitterness,” because if a person had told me (as many later would) that God gives us hardships to draw us closer to himself, I would have (and, often times, did) angrily refute this position by exposing how abusive and manipulative that would be in a human relationship—you do not promise one thing and then take it away to get someone to love you. That kind of logic reminded me of stories I had heard of abusive parents who pretend to drop their kid so that the kid will cling to them in terror or pretend to leave them so that the kid will scream and cry for them in their absence. Parents who pull those kind of tricks are sick in their insecure ways to try to gain affection. That is not real love, that is a false imitation built on love’s opposite–fear.

If Ethan had been right and the answer to all my problems was that love really does cast out all fear, I knew my God had a plan much bigger than securing my devotion to Him through this hardship. He already had my devotion. There had to be a different purpose to this decided course of action. He wasn’t an abusive, insecure, deceitful Father. He was empowering me, showing me truth, setting me free, loving me, loving Ethan—I just wasn’t sure how. I didn’t know what He was doing, but there was an invitation into something intimate and richly beautiful in His words.

That morning, I needed someone to take me in strong, loving arms and reassure me that we would get through this. I needed someone to love me like Ethan would have loved me. And that was exactly the kind of love I found in God’s words. So I accepted them with all my heart, believing His heart to be good. Ethan was not there to offer me his strength to lean on, but God had not left me alone. He was going to walk me thought this and it was going to be such a sweet time. Knowing this was hope enough to get me through that day.

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