Today would have been my sister’s 53rd birthday.
In some ways, it seems like just yesterday that she died not long after she turned 31. And yet, as the years exact their toll on the memories I long to retain—memories of my big sister who died too soon—I realize how much time has passed since that day in June when Sarah died.
Sometimes I’m amazed at how many days, or weeks, or months can pass without a memory of her. Other days, however, I hear myself telling story after story about their “Aunt Sarah” to my own children who were born too late to know her. (No, they were born on time; she died too soon.)
No matter how much time it’s been since my last remembrance, though, this day always stops me. On this day, her birthday, I always remember.
I’ve always thought it made sense that her birthday—most years at least—falls during the season of Lent, a season when the ashes remind us of the frailty and uncertainty of human life.
The nature of my stopping on this day varies from year to year. Some years, I simply remember her with joy. Other years, I reflect on how old she would be and what she would be doing if she were still alive.
Still other years, like this one, I am haunted by what I can never undo or redo or mend. Of all the things death takes, I miss the future the most.
While I could make sense of a broken past—and that I couldn’t change what had been done—I always had that hope that we would make things right when we got older, when enough time had passed for the words to soften and our hearts to open more fully to each other. Her death stole that future from me, which is why her memory usually brings that type of joy that shows up cloaked in pain.
I think that’s why I found myself choking back tears while leading a funeral for a friend last week. It sneaked up on my in the unison prayer of confession, when we were saying together:
God of the living and the dead,
we are burdened by the things we have done,
and by the things we have not done.
We remember broken promises and missed opportunities;
the gifts taken for granted,
the love we have not shown or returned.
Forgive us, comfort us, and heal us.
Lift our guilt from us, that we may walk in freedom and grace.
Through Jesus Christ. Amen.
As I remember Sarah today, I remember so many things that I did or didn’t do that I would give anything to re-wind. I remember promises never realized, opportunities missed, gifts taken for granted. Perhaps most of all, I remember the bitterness that crept into my heart as a result of some hurt—real or imagined—that I simply didn’t, or couldn’t, release.
Thinking about her today, I’ve come to see that holding onto those things steals the future from us just as much as her death did. And I need to let them go.
Thanks be to God for my sister’s life. Even more, thanks be to God for the future now possible despite death having done its worst.
John has been the pastor of Massanutten Presbyterian Church in Penn Laird, VA since November, 2003. He finds great joy in being a husband, father, and pastor.