You know what is often forgotten, when we talk about family? It is the unspoken moments, the feel, the sense of individual members of the same people, the same tribe, the same tradition, wrapping around one another, entwined, like threads that have been woven into a larger whole, the indescribable moments that we find lodged deep in our hearts like scattered, glowing jewels firmly embedded in our unremarkable layers of plain gray bedrock.
The sense memories always strike me first. For example: it is the bustle of gathering for a church service, the rustle of jackets and programs and purses, the hush as the service starts, it is the whisper of voices kept low, of commentary passed back and forth along with all the new babies, handed down the long wooden pews to aunts and uncles and cousins to coo at and entertain and rock in gentle sways; it is the way the music of the organ swells and echoes, and voices rise and fall in song, the same words to the same hymn as it has ever been, amplified a thousandfold by the way we recognize the tone and inflection of the people singing; it is the impatient wait for the speaker you know, the son giving a sermon who was once chubby and awkward, grown now tall and confident, and when did that happen, anyway, last you looked he was still muddy and scraped and slightly rough at the edges; it is the daughter singing her adoration in sure tones that started years before in off-key warbles and progressed year by year into magnificent melody, or the sister seated on the organ bench with hands and feet that you remember clumsy and small, now lithe and graceful and sure as they dance across keys and pedals, as the music floats and flickers and fades; it is the layered scents, the smell of perfume and hairspray, floral notes floating over the sweet scent of candy smuggled into small and sticky hands, a peace offering, a bribe, a hush now; it is the soft and powdery feel of ancient wrinkled skin as grandparents gather at the back of the service, with canes thrust haphazardly into aisles, and wheelchairs propped nearby, with hearing aids turned up too far, until everyone sitting nearby can hear the high pitched whine; it is the shaking of hands after the service—a good handshake is like a fairy tale after all, not too hot or too cold, but just right—most are either too sweaty or too dry, too tight or too loose, but all are a welcome and a benediction, which is somehow, just right; it is gathering for a meal, with salads and casseroles and cookies spread over every surface, because if we do nothing else, at least we eat well; it is arguments over whose recipe is the best for which dish and plates being passed around and conversation overlapping and children running through the room weaving through legs and tables and chairs while a dozen different sets of parents turn and call out, slow down, and be careful, and go outside while the adults talk and gossip and argue and chat; it is long days and short years and infrequent meetings and immediate comfort and knowing that no matter how many times you leave there is always a place to come home to; and that’s how it should be, I think. Always changing, and yet somehow still the same.
We get caught up in the big picture and forget, often, the astounding miracle that is family. The beauty of watching children grow older, even as we lament our own age. We do not remember to mark the comings and goings of years that pass as we sit together, as we tell stories, as we eat, as we gather, as we hold hands and laugh and sometimes cry. We forget the power found in opposition. The sweetness of a smile after sorrow. The comfort of returning after too long away.
We forget joy.
There is a word in scripture, scattered through the Psalms; a word that is repeated 75 times. Selah. No one knows exactly what this word means, but they know it must be important, anything repeated that many times is important, the way parents speak to their children, finding a thousand different ways to say the same thing, don’t do that, and make sure you think about this, and have you remembered, and so we guess, because who can resist a mystery, really; we theorize, we deduce, we assume, and some think it means to exalt or to lift up, and some think it means to prepare, and others think it means to listen. Some think it means to stop. That one might be my favorite. I am intrigued by the idea that we need to hesitate. To take a break.
I have been thinking about this a lot. Worrying, really. About uncertainty and preparation and family and listening. My youngest son is leaving for two years—to travel, to work, to serve, to do things he is passionate about. To me, it feels a lot like going, with no coming to balance it out. Two years is a long time to wait. A long time to pause. A long time to miss hugs and smiles and inside jokes.
To be apart.
But there is this word. Selah. Which might mean peace, and might mean listen, and might mean stop, and might mean forever, and could mean family or worship or time spent together, and this uncertainty of meaning comforts me, as my son spreads clothes and shoes and socks across the family room floor where once there were legos and building blocks and tiny toy cars, as he goes through checklists of what he might need, and what he should take, and what he can’t bear to leave behind, as we pack his suitcase and duffel and backpack. As I watch him leave.
It might be sadness. It might be joy. It might be growth and change and progress. We find comfort in the uncertainty. After all, it is only a pause.
A moment apart. A breath.
And then we go on.