I’m not at SunTrust Park tonight.

It’s 8:15 p.m. on Friday, April 14, 2017. For months, I’d been planning on being on my feet at this moment, foam tomahawk in hand, at a brand-new ballpark in Cobb County, Georgia, for the home opener of this season of Atlanta Braves baseball. Instead, I’m sitting in my childhood bedroom in my parents’ house, trying to grade essay proposals. The Braves game is on the radio, but I can barely hear the commentary because the Braves are up 2-0 in the first inning, and the crowd is so loud that Jim Powell’s voice disappears.

I’m frustrated.

I tried on multiple occasions to buy tickets for today’s game, but the Braves sold so many ticket packages early that few people were able to buy single-game tickets when they went on sale to the public. I didn’t want to empty out my savings account to buy tickets from third-party sellers, and when the Braves released individual standing-room-only tickets earlier this week, I didn’t buy one because I know myself well enough to know that I didn’t want to go to the game alone. The new ballpark is exciting, but it isn’t familiar, and between traffic and wondering if I would get lost and not having a place to park and being surrounded by people I don’t know, I wonder if I wouldn’t have been fearful instead of excited.

I should have bought the ticket anyway. I didn’t. And now, like so many other times, I regret not taking a chance.

I’ve got excuses. It’s two weeks before the end of the semester, and the grading has piled up. My parents need to see me. Atlanta traffic is the worst.

There will be other games. There will be more Opening Days. But I think I’ll always regret not trying harder to go to this game.

I’ve been thinking too much about regrets lately, about taking chances (or not) when I can (or should). Two months ago, my father was diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer. He’s gone through two rounds of chemo so far. He hasn’t been too sick, but he’s been tired and weak. We won’t know for a little longer whether the chemo is working. But life has changed for all of us.

Two months ago, life felt like it was ending. It was hard to breathe some days. I set alarms for two hours before I needed to get out of bed because I knew it would take that long to convince myself to actually move. I broke down in front of students, in restaurants with friends, and especially in the middle of the night when nothing could penetrate the grief. I still do, actually.

But I kept counting down to baseball. Spring training games started two weeks after my father’s diagnosis. I occupied myself with arguing about who the Braves would put in their bullpen to start the season and guessing which minor league teams the top prospects would be assigned to and creating a spreadsheet for the players I would draft for my fantasy league.

At this point in my life, I’ve recognized the impermanence of things. Roommates and addresses change, sometimes more often than I would choose. Best friends move across the country or drift away, despite still living in close proximity. My favorite students graduate or transfer, and suddenly, the people who were so important to me for months are just gone.

The people I love the most are gone. Might be gone. Will be gone. Eventually, sooner or later.

No matter how you conjugate it, the loss is the same. Life is hard. Really hard. Even unbearable at times. So when you find something that gives you a real, true sense of fulfillment, you have to hold on.

The reality that I will one day, far sooner than I am ready, even if it is years from now, lose my father has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to face. But it has brought a sense of clarity about, as clichéd as it sounds, what is really important:

God is true and real and loving even when my heart is broken and the grief is overwhelming.

I will never regret spending time with my family instead of grading essays.

The people who matter the most are the ones who will be solid, faithful presences even when they don’t know what to say or how to help.

Baseball is the greatest, weirdest, most exhausting, most romantic sport in the world.

Some days, the stress of life is so much that my prayers are reduced to “Jesus, please just help.” Some days, I cry uncontrollably on the phone with my mom, who is stronger and braver than I can ever hope to be. Some days, I find solace in a good cup of coffee and a stellar defensive play by the Braves’ centerfielder. Some days, nothing seems to matter because the papers still need to be graded, and my father still has cancer, and the Braves’ bullpen loses yet another game.

But God’s mercies are made new every morning. And joy comes in the morning. And new batting order and opponents and games happen EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

That is the best thing about baseball. For eight months out of the year, I have something to follow, something to invest in, something new and exciting and unexpected to hope for. The Braves might have a losing record, but players still hit home runs and make exciting sliding grabs in the outfield and make impossible 4-6-3 double plays look like poetry come to life.

The last thing I wrote about baseball was about hope and the Chicago Cubs, and when I wrote that in November, I had no idea what was coming. But I do now. And in a few weeks, when the semester is over, I’m moving home for the summer, to spend time with my dad, to help out my family as much as I can, to try to find hope and to make the time last as long as it can.

But my dad made me promise that, if I came home for the summer, I would still go to as many baseball games as I can. And that’s a deal I willingly made.

SunTrust Park, I’ll be there as soon as I can.

The Light & the Dark (Revisited)

It’s been a year and three days since I returned from Haiti on one of the greatest experiences of my life, since I saw such beauty and chaos, such light and such dark, existing side-by-side in a country I have come to love dearly. One of the greatest lessons I learned was how distinct the boundaries between good and evil are. It’s tangible in Haiti, in a way that it isn’t tangible in our cozy, comfy, middle-class American lives.

A year later, I’m even more thankful for my experience. It’s not been an easy year.

Five days after I posted that blog about Haiti, I received a terrible phone call. I was in the checkout line at Publix when my dad called. I hurriedly answered and said I would call him back, then walked out to my car. From the way Dad had said “Hello,” I knew this would not be an easy phone call. In my car, in the darkened parking lot, gripping the steering wheel, I listened to my dad tell me that my uncle–his sister’s husband, our neighbor, our loved one–had taken his own life. The gasping, aching hole was immediate, the sobs wrenching. I was, fortunately, on my way to my small group at the time, so minutes later, after I’d composed myself enough to drive, I headed straight there, to my family who comforted me and prayed with me, even while my biological family grieved far away.

The next night, I made the three-hour trip home, moving between numbness and uncertainty to crying and questioning. When I pulled into the driveway late at night, my parents came out to meet me. They had news, updates: my uncle, who had long been an evolutionist, had been attending church with my aunt and cousin. He had accepted Christ just two months before and was scheduled to have been baptized the following Sunday.

I collapsed on the ground in grateful tears. Here, then, was the light in the middle of so much darkness. Here was the sliver of hope. For whatever doctrine exists on suicide and unpardonable sins, we at least had hope when there had been none before. God’s glory was brighter than the darkness.

Just two and a half weeks later, however, the darkness threatened again. Another phone call from Dad, another intuition from the “Hello.” My grandfather–my mom’s dad–had been found dead that day of a massive heart attack or stroke. My only grandfather–my Papa Ting, my funny little old grandfather–was gone forever. The man who’d been proud to have me as his first grandchild, the man who’d financed much of my trip to Haiti, the man whose imperfections often made his family life difficult–was gone.

I made the trip home again, and this time I arrived physically sick–dizzy, nauseated, weak. I felt the effects of the compounded losses to my bones. The next day arrived, filled with trips to flower shops and the funeral home, and finally, the visitation, where I stood in a line for three hours, greeting hundreds of people, each of whom had a different story. I smiled, I laughed, I explained who and where and what I am now. Visitations aren’t for the family to grieve; they’re for celebration. And they’re exhausting.

The next day was Valentine’s Day–cold, rainy, gray–perfectly ironic for a funeral. The tension between grieving for my own loss and supporting my mother and grandmother, for whom the loss spread over decades and generations. And the oddness of smiling for photos because–for the first time in years–the whole family was gathered together, even in such a harsh setting.

The next day was the hardest of all: leaving my family, terrified that yet another loss would happen and I wouldn’t be there. Driving back to teach a class I wasn’t at all prepared for. Driving back to deadlines for my thesis, wondering if I should even bother trying to finish (after all, I’d attended the funerals for two loved ones before finishing chapter one–what else could happen before I finished all five chapters?). I almost emailed my advisor to withdraw and then realized I needed something tangible to lose myself in.

My thesis became my life. I wrote fast; I wrote long; I wrote well. One hundred pages in six and a half weeks. Finishing my thesis, graduating, and another ending also felt like a loss even as other celebrated with me. My purpose was gone alone with so many other losses.

The darkness of those few weeks in January and February–even though they were tinged with so much light–still managed to overcast the rest of my year. I didn’t care about much, and my heart felt aimless and wandering. In the fall, a hectic semester and students who weren’t always appreciative made me question my sanity and my calling. Did I want to teach ungrateful students for the rest of my life? What was I working so hard for? Would any of this ultimately matter?

Then, at Thanksgiving, when I was cherishing the time with family, we learned of another loss: my mom’s pastor, who’d been fighting brain tumors for two years, had finally passed away. At his funeral, I felt the love of so many people for him and I also profoundly missed my grandmother, my uncle, my grandfather.

And New Year’s Day, I awoke to a text from Mom. My cousin Todd, just a few days younger than me, had been wheelchair-bound his whole life after being born with spina bifida. He’d had surgery for an abdominal infection a few weeks before, and his health had been declining. He passed away the morning of New Year’s Day, just 27 years old. I missed his funeral but got a full recap from Mom: a celebration of a life that was worthy, even in the midst of hardship.

Here, in this new year, I’ve found myself reflecting on one of the toughest years of my life. So many losses, so much pain, so much hardship. In my life, in the lives of my family and others I care for, in the world. I’ve sensed the darkness in so much: the global disasters and tragedies, the national government issues, the scandals, the brokenness.

I’ve never felt the darkness so profoundly before. I know this is because of Haiti. You can’t walk through the streets of Jacmel or drive through the streets of Port-au-Prince and not believe that evil is real and present and powerful. And I cannot live knowing that evil is real without understanding that God’s power and might are greater and stronger and more beautiful than anything I can even comprehend. This year of darkness and brokenness has sometimes overwhelmed me; however, the good that’s come out of it is beautiful and wonderful and worth it. For the first time in years, I feel unity within my family–on both sides, my mom’s and my dad’s. The Gambrells have returned to our tradition of celebrating Christmas together, which fell by the wayside when my grandmother, our matriarch, was ill. The loss has brought us together again, and now we celebrate the next generation that will come when my cousin Whitney has her first child in March. On my mom’s side of the family, we were all together on Christmas day, and I heard for the first time in a long time “I love you” pass from sibling to sibling; I hugged cousins I’ve rarely seen in past years, and I feel a bit of hope that my grandfather’s death has brought us all together again. I’ve seen my family take care of one another and love one another, and while I’m sad that it’s taken loss to make this happen, I’m grateful that it’s happening nonetheless.

I have spent much of this year fearful, anxious, and worried about what the future holds and how much my life matters. I’ve seen a lot of the brokenness and wondered if wholeness were possible. I’ve questioned tragedies and grieved loss.

And now it’s a new year, a time of rebirth. And while life is hard and sin inflicts pain and hurt, God is real and true. I have seen darkness and death point toward life and light and love. I have seen unity come out of the pain. God’s love is strongest when it overcomes the pain of our fallen world. I found this truth in Haiti and carried it back home with me. In those few weeks in early January last year, when I wondered why I had to return to America and how I could hold on to what I learned in Haiti, I had no idea what was coming. I certainly didn’t expect the year that I had. But I’m grateful for His timing, for His mercy, and for the way He cares for His children. I’m grateful for a new year in which to see His glory shine and to worship him in new and unexpected ways. And I’m so thankful that His life shines so brightly and overcomes the darkness of this world.

On Grieving

I’m not sure how to begin this entry. It’s one I’ve been thinking about for a week, yet still I sat, staring at the screen, unsure of the words to type. So I opted to start with what’s most natural: the unsure, the unknowing.

In two months, I feel as though I’ve had a crash course in learning how to grieve. I’m amazed at the variety of ways that grief can manifest itself. Just under seven weeks ago, I was on a plane leaving Haiti, experiencing an entirely new kind of grief, that of leaving a foreign place that I had come to love so well. The grief  that accompanies the uncertainty of when I’ll be able to return. The grief that comes with having my heart broken for a place and a people unlike any I’d ever known. Here is a good kind of grief, I think. The grief of love, of loving well. The grief that inspires prayer and action, the grief that transcends into hope.

Then there was the grief of re-entry. The grief of knowing that a mere 9 days changed my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined. The grief of feeling like a piece of a puzzle that didn’t quite fit right anymore, whose edges had morphed a little bit so that the fit wasn’t tight and perfect anymore. The grief of wondering, “What next, Lord?” How could I carry Haiti with me while still working, teaching, writing, doing all the things that didn’t exactly have anything to do with Haiti?

Then came the grief of losing two family members just 17 days apart.

On Wednesday, January 25, I was in the check-out line at Publix when my dad called. I hurriedly answered, said I would call him back in just a second, paid, and walked outside in my car. When I called him back, I knew from the tone of his “Hello” that a tragedy had happened. My Uncle Aussie–Dad’s sister’s husband–had died, suddenly, tragically. A kind of death that can never be rationalized, never be accepted. The kind of death that rips a huge, irreparable hole in the fabric of my family. I was alternately heartbroken and weeping or numb and stoic. The next evening, after work, I made the three-hour drive home to be with my family. When I climbed out of the car, I actually collapsed on the ground from a grief and a sadness that I’ve never experienced before. But my family had come out to greet me, and as we made our way into the house, they shared incredibly news. My uncle, a devout evolutionist who never had any interest in Jesus, had accepted Christ just two months before. He’d joined a church and was scheduled to be baptized in three days. I wept again, this time in praise of a God who can bring light to any darkness, in a God who never gives up on His children. My uncle’s loss was still heavy, and my family had to rally around my now-widowed aunt to support her throughout the funeral and the days after, but the burden was lightened, and God’s glory was revealed.

In the midst of all this grief, I had to find the energy to write the first chapter of my thesis, to teach my students, to live my life. The questions of “How are you?” or “How was your weekend?” that seemed so innocent before suddenly became penetrating questions that I avoided with those I didn’t know well and confessed the truth to those I did. Yet I still didn’t know how to grieve. Back in Greenville, away from my family, the loss didn’t seem so glaring, and I also needed to focus on writing to meet my thesis deadlines. I didn’t think I even had time to grieve.

Then, on Saturday, Feb. 10, my dad called, once more with bad news. I was taking a rare break–sitting on my bed reading a book for fun. I thought it strange that Dad was calling at dinner time because I knew my parents had plans to take my aunt out for dinner. When I answered the phone, I realized that I’m grateful that Dad doesn’t pull any punches. He asked where I was, hoping that I was alone and somewhere private, then said, “Your Papa Ting is dead.”

My mom’s dad. The only grandfather I’ve had. The man who spoiled me as his first grandchild, who made me laugh with his quirky characteristics, who gave me $500 when he found out I was going to Haiti. My Papa Ting.

My grieving for my grandfather is different than for my uncle. Different than when Mama Kat died. These family members each held a different position in my life, each had a different impact on my life, and my grief for their losses has been unique to each circumstance.

When I got home the next morning and sat talking with just my dad, I was weak, dizzy, overwhelmed by the grief. But by that evening, when I joined the rest of my family members, I realized that I don’t grieve in front of people. I’m good at pasting on a smile and answering questions of relatives who haven’t seen me in years. During the visitation, when the funeral home was flooded with people who’d known my grandfather and loved him, I played the role of a charming granddaughter–happy to see people, thankful for the overwhelming response of friends, full of good stories of a childhood with my grandfather. I lost my voice from talking to so many people, but I never shed a tear at the visitation.

The funeral was on Valentine’s Day, just a week ago. A cold, rainy Valentine’s Day. I ruefully admired the irony of such a situation and the recognition that, if I thought I hated Valentine’s Day before, now the day would forever be the anniversary of my grandfather’s funeral.

In the week that’s passed since, I’ve dealt in mostly the same way as my uncle’s death. Throwing myself wholeheartedly into writing my thesis, or preparing to teach my students, or working in the library and the writing center–all the areas of my life that could only be put on hold for so long. Then, Sunday night, our pastor began talking about Lent, about a season of death giving way to life. He used a long sermon illustration about a funeral that was just too much, and I started crying while I sat at the back of the sanctuary. Two of my friends came to sit with me, understanding immediately what my reaction would be. They brought tissues, wrapped arms around me, and sat with me as I began to realize that I don’t know how to grieve–publicly or privately.

I’ve been fighting to ignore my broken heart. I’ve been numb to life around me, to joy and to sadness. I’ve sought escape–quite successfully, I might add–in working, and honestly, with my thesis deadline just three weeks away, that might be exactly what I need to do.

This cannot last, though. I’ve been considering the grieving process. Writing this post is one step because I’m addressing the hurt that’s inside right now. I’m also planning to spend most of my upcoming spring break with my family. Just enjoying them. Taking a drive out to the farmlands where my grandfather’s house is, spending some time on the swing in his backyard, and admiring the land that he spent most of his life working. I think grief will come, a healthy grieving, if I can recognize that the presence he’s had on my life isn’t gone, if I can hold onto the memories, and if I can tell the family that I still have how much I love them.

I can also recognize that a time will come when I can think about these people I’ve lost and not feel numbness or overwhelming sadness. In the fourteen months that have passed since my grandmother died, I’ve begun to heal from the loss. I miss her dearly, but the memories I have of her now are the good ones, not the ones in the last years of her life when she was suffering from Alzheimer’s. The same will happen in time with these losses. I also know that God will use this time of grief for His glory, just as He’s used all the times of intense joy.

In the meantime, life goes on, seeming, for now, slightly faded and tired. A little dimmer than before. I know from experience that it won’t be this way forever. Seasons will change, life will bring new challenges and joys, and (soon, hopefully) I’ll stop looking to the future as if I’m anticipating yet another tragedy. Maybe I’ll stop equating grief with weakness, maybe I’ll be vulnerable in front of other people, maybe I’ll start believing that tears aren’t a character flaw.

And God will bring healing. And joy will come in the morning.

I remember you like yesterday.

Yesterday morning, I found out (via Facebook, no less) that my friend Keri’s father had died earlier that morning. He found out last year that he had leukemia, and the last I’d heard, they thought it was in remission. It came back, and Mr. Lou was on his second round of chemo, but it was already too late, and he died in the hospital.

What makes this situation so difficult is that, on February 13, it will have been 14 years since Keri’s 16-year-old brother Jim died from leukemia. Keri and I were nine years old then and best friends. In the last days of Jim’s illness, she spent a lot of nights at my house while her parents stayed in Charleston with Jim. We never really talked about him much–Keri never really talked about Jim at all, even throughout high school. Jim’s death obviously affected her tremendously, and I can’t imagine what it must be like now to have lost her brother and father to the same disease.

My mom called me just a little while ago, after she got home from the visitation at the funeral home. She called to tell me that Keri and her husband Andrew are expecting their first child in July. For Christmas, they gave Mr. Lou a copy of the ultrasound picture.

It doesn’t seem fair that Keri has to lose her father just months before her baby is due. But at the same time, I can see that this must be God’s divine plan: as tragic as their loss is, Keri and Andrew and Keri’s mom have something miraculous to look forward to now. Something that can help heal their broken hearts. At the same time, they realize that Mr. Lou and Jim must surely be rejoicing in heaven over Keri’s pregnancy.

Because of having to meet with my professor tomorrow, I won’t make it home for the funeral. But I’ll most likely go see Keri on Saturday when I head home. It will definitely be bittersweet. I’m not really sure what I’ll say, but mostly, I’ll just remember that God, in all His infinite love and wisdom, has His hands on us all.