There is a bridal portrait, 8 ½x11 in a crackled frame that sits atop my husband’s dresser in our bedroom. In it, I am twenty years old, blonde hair, shock white smile, blue eyes glistening at the hope of the future. My veil spills out all around me and though I am covered in a dress made of up seemingly endless layers, I appear to somehow be weightless, floating on the clouds of what is to come, of joy and contentment and love. I look at that picture, sometimes alone, sometimes with my three-year-old standing by my side, exclaiming, “Mommy! You looked like a princess!” I think about how few days have felt princess-like since then, about how many components of our life do not reflect the fairy tale that our wedding seemed to promise.
There are days now, nearly 8 years down the road, a few moves and two children and health issues and so many unexpected twists later, that I long to be restored to that twenty-year-old self. She had known hardship, but she had not yet known that moment in the doctor’s office when the news is grim, when the air seems to disappear from the atmosphere and nothing will ever be the same. She had known exhaustion, but she had not known the feeling of near collapse at 3am, when the baby will not sleep and the night will not end. She had known deep sadness, but she had not known the crushing weight of depression, of feeling as though life was a labyrinth, as though the Minotaur at the center of the maze was anxious to devour her.
My twenty-year-old self did not think our life would be perfect, not at all. She knew that suffering was a part of life, that to walk with Jesus is to have troubles in this world yet to take heart. But some truths rest upon the surface of our hearts until life drives them deeper, and these past eight years have contained many a moment of hammer to nail, truths driven into my heart whether I wanted them or not.
I look at that portrait and I want to be her again, some days. I want to live in her castle. She represents certain freedoms I no longer have, certain choices, and certain naivety that no longer exist. To be her again, however, would not be restoration. It would be regression.
It’s so easy for me to believe that to go back to that place in time would be blissful, would seem fresh and like things had been made right again. But the ache in my soul is not an invitation to turn back to a place no longer open to me; it is an invitation to the deeper waters before me. While the possibility, even the experience, of pain may be multiplied, there is greater intimacy here, and even, dare I say, increased joy.
Without the creeping in of clinical depression, I would not know the profound freedom of confessing my need for help. Without countless trips to doctor’s appointments for our son with special needs, I would not know the bonds of friendship created by women who give up their days to come with us, who comfort me while I comfort my baby. Without hours gone by in the hospital lobby, I would not know the deep compassion stirred in my soul for families who do not have the resources and support that we do, who do not have meal calendars and gas in the tank and friends who bring wine and cheese and chocolate and sit on the couch when there is nothing left to do, nothing left to say.
I still long for the castle. There’s an undercurrent beneath the ache, one that reminds that I am a foreigner here, that the castle is where I will at last know true home. But could it be that my glimpses of that castle to come become clearer, become dearer, as I wade into these deeper more turbulent waters? Could it be that as I smile at my 20-year-old self, carry her innocence and tenderness in me, as I absorb the truths that life drives deep into my heart, hammer to nail, that I find myself living more fully in the present? The past and future held within me, with all of their hopes and promises, they strengthen me; they compel me to engage right where I am, right where all of this pain is, right where the Spirit and the people of God are opening their arms to me.
The hammer drives the nail of truths more deeply into my heart, and the circumstances of life press me further into intimacy with the Father, with His people. I know greater pain, but I know greater perseverance too. I know greater loss, but I know greater love. The castle will open its doors to me in due time, but until it does, I’ll walk the muddy road, past cherished, future promised, present, in all of its wild, wounding, wonderful glory.