Three years, 36 months, 1096 days. That’s how old my oldest pieces of clothing are. That’s how old my bed linens, pillow, and shoes are. That’s how old my still-working iPod Touch is. How do I know this? Three years ago, at around 3am September 14, I was woken by a call from my room-mate that our house was burning down.
I didn’t sleep the rest of the night. After I made the appropriate calls to the insurance agency, I eagerly waited,praying and not knowing what to expect, until 5am – when I knew my Mom would be awake to tell her the news. Then I waited until 7am until my grandmother woke up and my then-boyfriend, now husband, who was also visiting relatives in Michigan, woke up. (I was in Michigan at the time, staying with my grandmother and due to fly home later that day.) I didn’t know what to expect when I got back to North Carolina, and I could have never imagined the outpouring of support that came from my community as a result of the fire.
Finally three years later I am able to step back and process the event. I’ve done a pretty good job of ignoring the fire and upheaval of my life that followed, but the fact is that so much has changed in the last 36 months, and it’s only in the past 6 months that I’ve felt that I have my life back under me again.
It’s strange having all of my possessions date to a specific date. In the days and weeks following the fire I was on auto-pilot. There were things that needed to be done, so I got them done. Staying busy kept me focused. But there have been a lot of things that have changed over the past three years: My house was destroyed and I had to build a new one, I suffered for two years with an un-diagnosed serious illness, my Grandmother, whose house I was staying at, lost her battle with cancer, I got married, I changed labs and thesis projects. I can say overwhelmingly that my life is both different and better than it was three years ago.
But while I was in the midst of everything I couldn’t see it getting better.
It was tough, it was at times frustrating, heart-wrenching, and depressing. There was a lot of uncertainty in my life. First, my entire identity, in the context of my possessions, was ripped away from me. I had built a certain identity and security net around myself. I knew who I was, and where I had been, and my possessions were a symbol of who I was and where I’d been. It might sound strange hearing this, but when I lost everything, I realized just how important my “stuff” was to me. It was a part of me and a part of my memories. The security I had being in familiar surroundings was no longer there. And, I didn’t have any security in the future. I was confronted with the fact that in an instance a silly mistake radically changed my life and bad things happen.
As I rebuilt my life, I began to rebuild my identity. Then, my health was taken away from me. Suddenly I became incapable of working, sometimes even incapable of moving around. I prided myself on being strong, and I wasn’t strong any more. I didn’t know what was happening to my body, I only knew that it didn’t work very well anymore. I could no longer depend on myself. I was forced to depend on other people, I was forced to admit that I couldn’t handle things anymore. I was too weak. And, no one knew why I was sick. I had to live within the uncertainty of illness, trusting, hoping, and praying.
In the midst of illness, I got married. (Getting married was a *good* thing). No I no longer had to care only about myself, but about another person as well. Being married requires a continuous sacrifice of your self and your own needs to those of the other. Instead of being Jo Anna, I was now part of this new creation named “Jo Anna and Chris.” Again my identity was challenged. My selfishness and my holding onto the things of this world was challenged (and is still being challenged every day.) Life is no longer about what I do and about what I want, but about what we do and how we can live.
Then 9 months ago I was faced with the fact that what I had worked on and dreamed about, one more thing I built my identity around, being a scientist, might be coming to an end. I prided myself on my aptitude to be a scientist, I believed I had the potential to be a great scientist. Suddenly, I would no longer be a grad student or scientist. I would no longer be included in that group of people, where most of my friends were, and where I aspired to be. By the grace of God, I was able to return to grad school, but for two months, I had to make other plans, I had to once again re-form my identity and face something being taken away.
It seems like at every challenge I faced in the last three years I was confronted with one more thing that was keeping me away from a closer relationship with God. I was faced with one more thing that wasn’t my true self, but was a construct I built around my ego. Those constructs were wrenched away from me. Everything I built my identity around was taken away, one thing at a time. I got angry, it wasn’t fair, life sucked. This is not what life is supposed to be about. I felt that I had been dealt an un-fair hand.
But now looking back, life is so much sweeter.
Finally, I can start to mourn the loss of those constructs. But this is a glad-mourning. A mourning that recognizes the light within the dark. My life is a journey towards God. And, even though I don’t understand the route I’m taking, and sometimes it feels like I don’t even have a flashlight to light my way through the darkness, it’s a journey that I don’t want to forsake. Glory to God!
Today is the Feast of the Exultation of the Cross. We venerate the instrument of our salvation: the tool by which Christ conquered death. Three years ago I didn’t know what my cross would look like. But like the feast, where we joyfully and mournfully celebrate the tool of our salvation, I want to joyfully and mournfully celebrate the tool of my salvation, my cross, whatever it is now and in the future.
I mourn that there has to be such a cross. I mourn that my sinfulness separates me from God and that there has to be a journey and battle to Him. I also joyfully take on this task, celebrating the loving God who calls all towards Him. I celebrate the defeat of death.
Desiring to see beforehand the holy scepter of the Cross
borne aloft in the midst of the earth,
let us purify our souls in advance,
and being illumined with light,
let us render our thoughts radiant,
and, shining with divine power let us hymn Christ
Who imparteth His holiness through the precious Tree
unto those who cry out with faith
and fervently hymn Him.