To gain amidst loss

David has been having a lot of dreams lately– vivid dreams of his mother, from which he wakes up with tear spots on his pillow.

That’s unusual for him. This guy passes out like a baby every night, not just in bed, but on the couch, in the car, on the plane, during dinner parties (embarrassingly), in the movie theaters, literally anywhere when his brain slowly shuts off and floats into the zzzzzs. If he dreams, he doesn’t even remember that he did.

But he remembers the emotions in these dreams of his mother, even if he does not remember the specifics. All of these dreams are colorful, nostalgic, and sweet. In all of them, his mother is happy, and he is happy. He wakes up happy, sad, heavy, and at peace all at once.

“I can’t even begin to explain the different conflicting emotions I’ve been feeling,” he said to me last night during our walk after dinner. “It’s just constant, waves and waves.”

I reached for his hand. “Can you try describing them?” I asked.

“I get sad, then happy, then angry,” David said. “I’m sad my mom isn’t here. I’m happy because we’re having a baby. Then I’m angry that my kid won’t grow up knowing my mom. My mom really, really wanted to be involved in her grandchildren’s life. And I always thought if we ever had kids, I wanted that for her. It just sucks.”

“Growing up with the love of grandparents is such a blessing,” I said, quietly mourning a new loss. As a missionary’s kid who visited South Korea during winter break maybe once every three years, I never grew up knowing and receiving my grandparents’ love and doting. Each time I visited them in their little apartments in Jeonju, it was like meeting strangers again. I did not know or understand them, and they did not know nor understand me. I felt awkward in their house, like a guest rather than a granddaughter, and sometimes I felt like an intruder, shuffling about their presence, hoping to make myself less burdensome and visible. When my grandparents on both sides died, I was sad, but I was more sad that my parents were so sad. I didn’t feel the sharp pang of grief, because there really was no genuine loss. My grandparents’ footprints on my life were light, grainy, easily washed away like sand under ocean waves.

So I loved watching David’s parents cheer for their grandson at all his baseball games, bake cakes with their granddaughter, celebrate their birthdays with the indulgence that only grandparents can give. And I loved watching my own parents go ga-ga over my two nieces, loved watching them replay, over and over with goofy grins, video clips of their granddaughters playing and potty-training and singing. I’ve never seen them look so silly. That was a novel delight for me. It’s a joy not just for the grandparents, but also for the parents, to gift their parents a fresh shower of joy and delight through their own seed.

Bearing this child in my belly has been bittersweet– more bitter for David, of course, who still hasn’t recovered from his shock that a truck had hit and killed his mother just six months ago. When we found out the due date of the baby (June 5), we did some quick calculations, and found out that this baby was conceived right before the week David’s mother died. I remember when we realized that, we just stared at each other in amazement and awe. And like David, I felt all those conflicting emotions– joy, gratefulness, and comfort, but also sadness, regret, and an ache for what was not to be.

I don’t believe God had to “take away” David’s mother in order to give us a baby. It was never an exchange of a life for a life. Death is never, was never, part of God’s plan for His world. Death is and will always be painful, unnatural, and sour-smelling, tov (“good and whole” in Hebrew) gone rancid and fractured. But I do believe the timing isn’t coincidental. I believe God is a redemptive God. He redeems evil for good, judgment for grace, suffering for comfort, loss for gain. And in His wisdom and omniscience and compassion, He allowed the timing to match just right so that even in and through the pain and loss, we can enjoy the comfort and joy of life. This is our God: He redeems.

That night, as we walked in pondering silence, each turning our own thoughts before God, I asked David why he thinks he’s been having all these vivid dreams of his mother now.

He thought about it for a few seconds. “I think God is trying to tell me that my mom is OK. That she’s happy. That she’s with Him.”

The tears that flow during those dreams are sad, but also in its own way a release, a relief. David didn’t really have a closure with his mother. He woke up one Saturday morning planning to call his mother after lunchtime, and at 10 am received that fateful phone call from his father bawling and bawling and unable to speak. I will never forget hearing David screaming in the bathroom, “WHAT? WHAT?!” And he dashed over to me, and mouthed, with wide, frightened eyes, “My mom died!” I bolted upright. I could hear the loud, animal-like sobs of David’s father from David’s phone. It felt like a dream. Nothing felt real.

The next several months didn’t feel real. David’s mother was pronounced dead while we were mid-air on our way to Bismarck. He didn’t go see her body in the hospital, couldn’t bear to, so I went in his stead, and seeing her lifeless in the hospital bed, with bloated eyelids and sinking lips, kept artificially alive through tubes for her organs, I was glad David wasn’t there to absorb this last image of his mother. But that also meant he never got to say a proper goodbye.

From the moment we got that call, David was swept into a whirlwind of tears: He was crying throughout the flight, crying when his brother came to pick us up at the airport, crying when his father met us at the door of a suddenly barren house, crying all night in his sleep while we listened to his father wail like a broken dog in the other room. And the next few weeks, he continued being swept into a torrent of events: funerals, memorials, family visits, friend visits, dealing with Covid, supporting me through a job resignation, watching his father fall apart, crawling back into a hectic work schedule, first holidays without his mother, and now, a surprise baby.

So here we are. Still processing the fact that we are going to be parents, while David is still processing a grief too raw and tender to touch. And his mother visits him in dreams, to let him know she’s with God, that she’s OK, that she’s happy, that she wants his heart to have that closure of a peace beyond understanding.

A life passed away, a new life forming. It’s interesting how much life there is in death. With one death, so many lives gathered together in memorial of that passed life, so many lives shaken and tossed, and at least in David’s case, so much reflection and appreciation and desire for life. And standing in the middle of the dust that’s still barely settling from one of the greatest tragedies in his life, he now touches my belly, and feels a new life kicking, squirming, hiccupping, preparing to enter into this world of dust and earthquakes and tornadoes from which we cannot shield this child.

Oh, the paradox. What sweet, bitter paradox. But knowing our God, I think the sweetness will overpower the bitterness.