The car pulled up to the curb just at the prescribed time. We scrambled to move our huge bags down from Grace’s upstairs apartment, but dawdled due to exhaustion from the weekend’s amazing festivities. It had been a magical wedding celebration between two people who were deeply in love. Watching them joyfully make a lifetime commitment to each other was a gift for our entire family who had assembled from as far away as Georgia. Special family gatherings are cherished moments in time which bring everyone together. Meg and Tim’s wedding was one such event that we will always lovingly remember.
“What kind of music would you ladies like for the ride to JFK,” he asked? We politely responded, “Whatever you choose is fine, thanks.” Our driver proceeded to select an 80’s playlist, claiming that it was the best music decade in recent history. We settled back for what we thought would be a quiet ride and slowly closed our eyes. More questions came from the front seat and soon the personable driver and I struck up a lively conversation which spanned topics ranging from modern culture to the importance of daily prayer. Before I knew it we were arriving at JFK airport and I was sorry that our dialogue was coming to a close. Our exchange had left me feeling incredibly inspired by this hard working, self-made man who had climbed out of the depths of poverty to lead a happy and dignified life. “We rise up in life when we love deeply and act with humility but there is no greatness without pain,” he said in response to one of my questions. He then shared the story of his beloved grandmother who had rescued him from growing up in a city riddled with gang violence and drugs. He credited this Godly woman for saving his life. Now he was just trying to pay it forward by living a purposeful, prayerful life each day. I didn’t have the words to articulate what his story had meant to me so I simply gave him a huge hug in front of the chaotic Delta terminal at JFK and told him that I would always remember him. He turned to Grace with a smile and said “Your mom, she is something.” That made me smile.
We arrived in Leuven, Belgium without much difficulty. Reuniting with Emma after 8 weeks apart felt absolutely incredible. We immediately fell in love with the cobblestone streets and historic buildings of this enchanting place which was bursting with college students, books and languages. In this University city, we soon learned that people live healthy lifestyles and bikes are everywhere! It’s almost frowned upon to have a car. I saw college students on bikes, moms with kids on bikes, professors with books on bikes and old ladies with shopping bags on bikes. It was an amazing site! Grace and I had a tough time remembering which lane was the bike lane. Finally, after a few near collisions, Grace said “Red = Dead, don’t step in the red lane Mom, that is only for bikes!” This worked well and we managed to stay in the walking lane for most of the trip. We walked everywhere. With my good sneakers (which embarrassed the girls), back brace, pain patches and light bag – I was all set to enjoy our daily excursions with only a few rest stops built in throughout the day.
Our two main destinations were Ghent and Bruge. In addition to Leuven where Emma is studying, we loved these historic cities. With picturesque main squares, towering bell towers, Gothic cathedrals, historic buildings dating back to the 1100’s and charming local shops selling lace, chocolate and frites we felt as if we had gone back in time to a more civilized period. The atmosphere in these magical places created a perfect environment for carefree, authentic joy and thoughtful conversation.
While abroad, I realized that our lives can get too busy – even when we are struggling in silence – thus we sometimes forget to slow down and really listen to one another. Following the good example of the Belgian’s, we did slow down and make time for long, meaningful conversations and experiences together. We discussed everything from Emma’s current studies in Leuven to the reality of loss when those we love go home to God. It was hard at times, to make yourself vulnerable to other’s sharing, but in the end, it was life-giving because you emerge feeling whole again.
There is no greatness without pain. I thought about our driver’s words all week in Belgium and wondered if our meeting was random or perhaps something more. Those who follow Choose Joy know that I don’t believe in coincidences…I always attribute special encounters to the power of God’s grace working in our daily lives. Reflecting on our actions and attitudes while in Belgium, I do think the girls and I cherished our time together even more, precisely because we have walked the path of suffering love and loss over the past few years. There is no greatness without pain. Losing my beautiful Mom and Peter’s strong Dad has left a hole in our hearts which will never be filled by anyone. Life is permanently different without them and it has been a tough road to navigate for all of us. In addition, my back surgeries and ongoing pain has affected everyone in my family, sometimes in profound ways. It was good for me to really hear my girls and understand this disease from their perspective. I learned so much from their empathetic, thoughtful sharing and will definitely approach my days in a better way now. We learn by listening to each other. I think the Europeans are perhaps a bit better at this than we are – they seem to stop more often to enjoy each other’s company over a cup of coffee or glass of wine. It was good to experience this type of thoughtful civility, if only for a few days. It’s certainly something to strive for in my daily life going forward.
As mentioned, the whole trip was truly memorable, but our day trip to Bruge brought an abundance of unexpected JOY for all of us! The rain didn’t dispel our good mood and we enjoyed everything from a canal ride to the Cathedral with Michelangelo’s stunning Madonna and Child. We also prayed for quite some time in the beautiful Gothic Cathedral which holds a relic of the blood of Christ. Being with my girls in this holy place, praying for all those whom we love, was an experience that I shall never forget.
On our way back to the train station, we were giddy after a long and lovely day. We had to wind our way through narrow, cobblestone streets in order to board the train back to Leuven. At one point in our journey, we all stopped to look up at a towering stone steeple in the distance. The evening lights from the town had shed a heavenly glow on it and for just a moment, we all stared at its beauty in the night sky. Then we noticed a small red door halfway up the tower. We laughed because the door led to nowhere! It was something my sweet Mom would have noticed – and as I was thinking of her I blurted out “Let’s toss all of our anxieties, pains and struggles through the red door. Since there is nowhere for them to go, we must trust that God will scoop them up and take them away.” The girls liked this suggestion so we took a selfie in the rain to remember this solemn moment.
There is no greatness without pain. I have come to understand the meaning of this phrase in a very personal way. Upon reflection, I don’t think that we can truly appreciate the great gifts which God has given us without enduring a few of the storm’s in life. My mom always said that the pain in our lives makes us stronger and draws us closer to God. She was right. As I gazed upon the faces of my beautiful young daughters this past week, I thought so much of my mom’s beautiful face and deep brown eyes. If she were here, she would advise me to cherish these precious moments with my girls and move forward together, in love. Regarding our grief she would probably say “It’s enough now…look forward to each day’s new sunrise where God’s light and love rise up for all to see and feel. Don’t look back anymore.” While it makes me incredibly sad to write this, I know she is right. It’s time to give thanks for the pain of the grief because without it, there would be no experience of authentic love. I think the girls and I were on to something when we envisioned tossing all of our pain through the red door – it is time. I hear my mom say “Don’t be afraid of the pain – it does indeed lead to greatness in life. But don’t hold on to it forever, there will be a time to let it go.”