Last week my husband and I dropped our first child off at college.
That's such a strange line to write. Even as I look at it on my computer screen, it feels like someone else wrote it. Certainly that can't be my reality. Certainly my children aren't yet so grown as to be peeling off our family unit. Certainly I'm not old enough to be at this life stage.
But, this is my reality. My children are reaching maturity, and I am old enough for this.
However, being old enough for something and prepared for something are two different things.
Leading up to my daughter leaving, I was feeling mostly good. I kept telling myself that you can't pre-grieve, so why waste time with sadness before it's necessary? There were times when flashes of melancholy would sweep over my mind, but it didn't stick around long. When people asked, I answered truthfully. I was really excited for my daughter. College was a fun experience for me, and I was excited that she was going to experience the adventure. Besides, she worked hard to get where she is, and I had no intention of robbing her of the opportunity to fully relish in her accomplishments. In addition, we're in a season of life when many of our close friends are walking through major fires, and we are carrying heavy burdens for them. My daughter going to college seemed like a bright spot. Something good and right in the middle of so many other hard circumstances.
And it is good and right.
It's true what they say. "You don't know what you don't know."
In the days leading up to her departure, her room was slowly being packed away and the emptiness of it was starting to take shape. Void was overcoming fullness. On the second to last night she was home, I went into her room to turn off her lights. She's a chronic light-leaver-oner, and it's been a source of struggle between us since she was tall enough to reach the light switches. But that night... that night I realized that this battle between us was about to be over. She wouldn't be home on a regular basis anymore to leave lights on. And then the strangest thing happened. I had one of those movie-like flashback scenes flood my memory (the one that comes to mind is the iconic Father of the Bride scene where Steve Martin is lying in bed on the night before his daughter's wedding and his mind scrolls through all the memories of his daughter from the time she was born). In just a moment it felt like I saw her whole life on fast forward, and it took my breath away. I wasn't prepared for that kind of grief and gratitude. I couldn't do anything but sit on the edge of her bed and weep. Yet, even still, I wasn't sure why I was weeping. Was it sadness? Loss? Mourning? Joy? Thankfulness?
All of that.
So, we packed her up and moved her away. As long as I live, that moment of leaving her at the curb of her first dorm will be etched into my memory as deep as the moment I left her sitting at that mini table in her kindergarten class. On both of those days my heart ached with grief and swelled with pride.
This sounds morose and probably melodramatic, I know, but in this last week I've thought more about heaven than I usually do. Not because I want to shrivel up and die. Far from it! But because events like this illustrate with such force this thought:
There is no unadulterated joy this side of heaven.
I'm not a pessimist. I usually specialize in bright sides and silver linings. In this case, though, this is a principle that bears some consideration.
Aside from the joy found in Jesus, nothing in this life is pure joy. Every pleasure is mingled with a shadow of pain, even if that pain is merely that the pleasure is fleeting. Recess is only 15 minutes (or 20 if the teacher needs the extra time). The romantic comedy ends with an unsatisfactory "They lived happily ever after." The book has a last page; the dessert plate is scraped clean; and there is no endless summer.
We rightly mark birthdays, and graduations, and weddings with big celebrations. Those things are worth commemorating with happy parties and bad dancing to even worse music. But in every felicity, just below the surface of every smile is a tear. All of these things mark beginnings to new seasons, but the price of the new season is the old one. Gaining the next good thing means laying down the last good thing. Launching a child into the adventure of the wide world is awesome!! Trouble is, it cost us our magical little family unit of five.
You make known to me the path of life; in your presence is fullness of joy. At your right hand are pleasures forevermore."
Every tiny sorrow that wiggles its way into joy is a gentle reminder. This isn't our final place. Joy experienced away from the visible presence of Jesus is the amuse-bouche. It whets our appetites for the fullness of joy and the pleasures forevermore which will only be realized when our God dwells with us again. That's why heaven is on my mind...not because I'm looking for a speedy end to this life, but because these shadows of good things have awakened my desires for the real things they represent, and because I'm tired of dropping the good thing in my hand to take hold of the next. I'm longing for the day when emptying doesn't come before filling, when the true definition of fullness is made, well, full.
God speed the day when pleasure is a lasting arrangement between us in that divine eternal present.