The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things — the beauty, the memory of our own past — are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols…For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
— C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
Dad and I are separated by 1,024 miles. For many years, the distance wasn’t really significant. We stayed in touch with mail, email, or telephone calls, and traveled to see each other at least twice a year. In 2017, I moved my parents into a lovely retirement complex by the prettiest lake in town, with the bonus of having several of their lifelong friends just down the hall from them. They gathered at wine and cheese parties, music programs, and games with the rest of the residents.
Within two months of moving in, Mom got sick. Within seven months, she died.
Dad’s life (and in some sense mine) began to fragment. His wife of 60 years was suddenly gone. Lifelong friends peeled away. The rhythm of Dad’s day, from reading the afternoon paper while watching the nightly news to prepping the coffee pot before bedtime, slowly became bits and pieces of disconnected and jagged time. Because of his own rapidly declining abilities to care for himself, I had to move him two more times in one year, eventually settling him into skilled care.
Each night, around 6:00 p.m. for me in Virginia and 5:00 p.m. for Dad in Minnesota, we’ve created a comfortable routine. His supper is finished, and his tray has been taken away. Now tucked into bed, remote in one hand and phone in the other, he waits for my call. As we talk, I help him weave his life back into a tapestry of the familiar — little pieces of past joys.
“Hey, kid, what’s up?”
“Oh, just checking in again. Did you finish supper?”
“What did you have? Anything good?”
“Ummmmmmm, huh. Well, I can’t really remember. I guess it wasn’t all that impressive!”
And we have a good giggle together. Even with his steady memory loss, he has retained his sass.
With each long-distance conversation, I enter into Dad’s story, going along wherever he leads. What remains of his remembered life is like a shaken picture-puzzle box full of disconnected pieces. His past overlaps his present, so I help him put together his thoughts in a storytelling fashion. In an oddly sweet way, I’m reminded of conversations that I used to have with my kids when they were little: stories half-real and half-embellished.
Honestly, facts do not matter, only the memories and his laughter at our improvised stories while we snap together a new picture with borrowed pieces from the past.
Isolation has given me the immeasurable gift of no distractions, and in these moments, I have just Dad. He recently called me to ask about his own father, who is long gone to his heavenly home.
“Hey, is Dad with you?” he asked. He has handed me his ‘puzzle piece’.
“Nope, he’s not here. Was he supposed to be here?” I add a piece to his.
“No, I can’t find him. I want to call him but I don’t have his number.”
“Where does he live, Dad?”
“Well, out north of town! In those new apartments by me.” Another piece.
I add to the fragmented memory. “I didn’t know he moved out there. I thought he lived on Twin Lakes where we used to hunt together.”
“Nah, he sold that farm and moved to town after my mom died.” Our story moves to memories of duck blinds and arrowhead hunting.
“Remember arrowhead hunting in the muddy fields in the spring? I say. Our boots would cake up with mud and weigh about 20 pounds each!”
We are building a picture together.
“Yup,” he answers.“Well, what do you wear now?” I tell him that I bought some new boots that I can just wash off. He snaps in the last piece. “When you come here, we’ll have to go look for arrowheads again.”
I don’t force reality into my dad’s narrative; I enter into it. By assembling a new story, we return to sweet fullness together. My phone time with Dad is a lesson — a microcosm of how to relate to the aching world. It is so easy to roll through the day with the cursory greetings and to-do lists, completely missing the opportunity to step into a deeper experience that we weave together.
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33 (ESV)
This year has been fragmenting to us all, with nothing really solid to grab onto and little that we can depend on. We feel a longing for normalcy, but were we content when we had it? Our time leading up to quarantine was becoming increasingly layered in busy-ness. Structured chaos crept in and crowded out the deeply important aspects of quietness, beauty, and connection — trading meaning for the menial. Global crisis has fractured what we have so glibly taken for granted: attending to deeper relationships with our families, friends, and most importantly, with our creator.
But hasn’t humanity been fractured for decades? C.S. Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain that “pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” I am not going to presume any understanding about what God is up to. However, I wonder if there was any better way for the Creator of the universe to capture the attention of his creation than by shutting the world down? I remain confident that He is always and still at work.
Our story, as brief as it is, is written by the Author of the greatest story ever told. We each have an essential purpose in and are created according to His plan — and that may be something entirely different than what we expect. Proverbs 19:21 (ESV) tells us that “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.”
Dad is at the doorframe of stepping out of this fragmented world that Lewis says is filled with “the good images of what we really desire,” and into wholeness, where he will see his family and old friends — everyone who was ever a part of his life picture as well as the country that he was always meant to know. What a glorious day that will be! Then we comprehend Psalm 16:11 and will say to God,
“You make known to me the path of life; in your presence, there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore!”
For now, while we live in a state of fragmentation, we can choose to take each piece of our lives and hold them tight, contemplating our picture from outside of the box where we can bring fullness together as best we can until we experience completion in Heaven. Then our story here, splintered as it is but still full of its own beauty, will become a fully dimensional and complete tale. At that moment, we will be like Jewel the Unicorn in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle who “stamped his right forehoof on the ground and neighed, and then cried:
‘I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we love the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this…Come further up, come further in!’”
The featured image of the lake side at sunset is courtesy of Julie Jablonski and is used with her permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.
Annie Nardone is a flannel-clad, cowboy boot-shod adventurer who seldom travels with a map! Her passion is the reintegration of the arts and humanities with theology and Christian imagination. Annie holds a Masters Degree in Cultural Apologetics from HBU, is a founding member of The Society for Women of Letters, and is Managing Editor of The Cultivating Reader for Cultivating magazine. She also writes for Literary Life, and An Unexpected Journal. Annie resides in Florida with her Middle Earth-Narnia-Hogwarts-loving family, & her wild assemblage of cats.