“Then the LORD said to him, ‘This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.’”
As TJ’s second birthday without him is fast approaching, I’ve been reminiscing lately about how we spent his first birthday without him. Last year in July, we went on our first ever family vacation which included nana and papa, daughters, sons-in-law, granddaughters, and grandsons. When all of us are together, we number 21 in total.
We found a very large house in Salt Lake City, Utah to accommodate us. It was nestled into the side of a mountain and had five bedrooms, one of which was a bunk bed room for all of the little gremlins; a media room with a big screen for watching movies; and a giant game room which was any child’s–or husband’s–dream.
We chose the beautiful Salt Lake City for our vacation destination last year because it was a good halfway point with our daughter Whitney who lives in Washington state. I had never been to Salt Lake City before and was taken aback by the beauty of it. The city is located at the base of the Wasatch Mountains on the east with the Great Salt Lake across the valley to the west. I enjoyed my morning walks along the edge of the mountain looking out across the city below to the view of the Great Salt Lake in the distance. It was breathtaking.
Our fourth day there was TJ’s birthday. After shedding a few tears in the morning and doing crafts and baking cookies with the grand kids all afternoon, the plan that evening was to release sky lanterns in memory of TJ. I had been imagining this event in my mind for months. I pictured releasing them by a lake with beautiful mountain scenery surrounding it. All of us would be standing together with our smiling faces turned upward and maybe some tears streaming down our cheeks as the sky lanterns all floated away together. The kids would be cheering with joy on their faces as they watched the lanterns light up the sky. Everybody would be happy and thinking about TJ, and I imagined TJ looking down from heaven with a big, peaceful smile on his face.
But that is totally not what happened.
Early in the day, my husband drove around the city scouting out the landscape looking for the perfect place to release the lanterns. That evening as our caravan of cars arrived at the location he had chosen, I gave him a thumbs up and complimented his choice. It was a beautiful location. It was a flat, park-like setting with a pond of water nearby with vegetation growing around it, and mountains were standing tall in the distance. It looked perfect…..but looks can be deceiving.
It wasn’t until we got out of our cars that we began to realize the water close by was stagnant and the mosquitoes were insane–like nothing we had ever experienced before. Almost immediately we were attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes. As we were flailing our arms to defend ourselves, most of the younger kids began wailing at the top of their lungs and frantically scratching their arms and legs. We hurriedly scattered and turned our attention toward the children. In the background, while we were running, I could hear our son-in-law Matt yelling, “Why was this place chosen?!”
After tending to the screaming children, still undeterred and doing our best to ignore the bites, we proceeded with TJ’s birthday celebration. We started lighting the lanterns, but almost immediately we began experiencing more problems. The lanterns weren’t easy to light and were catching on fire. Pockets of fire were scattered around the park. Our son-in-law Ben, concerned about the police being called, was running around like a mad man putting the fires out with small drinking bottles of water. The lanterns that didn’t catch on fire wouldn’t rise. Our daughters were running after their lanterns that were hovering at eye level blowing and flapping their arms wildly in an attempt to get them to fly. After the last lantern was lit and burst into flames, we counted them up, and only 3 of the 26 lanterns actually flew. The rest were burning in a heap on the ground. We then cleaned up the mess, put all the fires out, hurriedly escaped to our cars, comforted the bawling children, and drove away as fast as we could, scratching our bites all the way home.
My deceased son’s first birthday celebration without him was an utter disaster.
To onlookers, this couldn’t have looked like a family who was honoring their son who had recently passed away. This looked like pandemonium and irresponsibility for lighting lanterns in the hot, dry climate of Salt Lake City. Coming from the green, rolling hills of humid Iowa where releasing sky lanterns is legal, it never occurred to any of us until the fires began that lighting lanterns in a hot, dry climate wasn’t a real smart idea…..or even legal.
In my younger years, I would have been devastated that my son’s first birthday celebration after his death was a complete catastrophe, but now in my older years, I’ve learned a few things. I’ve learned that sometimes when things don’t go as planned, it still can be beautiful. The morning after our disastrous evening, we sure enjoyed sitting around recounting the night and laughing hysterically at our foolishness. In the wake of the devastating tragedy of losing TJ that cut each one of us to the core, it was a much needed family bonding moment. We came to the conclusion that if TJ could have seen it, he would be laughing as well at his crazy family. In fact, he would have enjoyed seeing our mosquito-infested, tumultuous evening way more than the tear-filled, sappy celebration I had envisioned in my mind.
What about you? Have you had times when things didn’t turn out as you had envisioned? Have some of your dreams ended in disaster and you just weren’t sure how to pick up the broken pieces and carry on?
During my Bible study time the day prior to the birthday celebration, I read about Moses. Moses led God’s people out of slavery in Egypt. Numbers 20 says that in the first month after leaving Egypt, the community arrived at the Desert of Zin. There was no water for the community, and the people began to quarrel with Moses. Moses and Aaron then went to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and fell face down, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them. The Lord told Moses to take the rod and speak to the rock and water would pour out. But Moses instead struck the rock twice with the rod and then spoke harshly to the community. Despite Moses’s disobedience and because the people needed water, the Lord still provided abundantly for the people and water gushed out of the rock, and the community and their livestock drank, but the Lord told Moses that because he didn’t trust Him enough, he would not bring the community into the land the Lord would give them.
Because of God’s Holiness, His correction of Moses was hard…and deserved. Moses was a leader and leaders are judged by a higher standard. All of his life, even since he was an infant, Moses was being prepared to deliver God’s people from Egypt and bring them into the Promised Land. I wonder as Moses grew, when he heard the miraculous story about how Pharaoh’s daughter plucked him out of the Nile River while the other Hebrew babies were murdered, if he knew his life had been saved for a special purpose? I wonder as Moses played and ran through the palaces of Egypt as a child, if he could feel God’s calling on his life and knew that there was something God had planned for him to do? I wonder while Moses was in Midian, if he came to realize that he was there so God could continue to mature him before He sent him out before Pharaoh? I wonder how many times while bringing the people out of Egypt Moses had dreamed of the day when he and the whole community would set foot on the soil of the Promised Land? But now because of his own disobedience, Moses would not lead the people into the Promised Land and another person would finish the job. How unbelievably disappointed Moses must have felt.
After leaving Egypt, because of disobedience, the community wandered in the desert for 40 years, and then the time finally came to enter the Promised Land. The baton had been passed from Moses to Joshua, and Joshua would lead the community into the Promised Land. In the 34th chapter of Deuteronomy, the Lord took Moses high up on a mountain and showed him the whole land that He had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Then Moses died and the Lord buried him. A tender, loving, gracious Father allowed Moses to see the Promised Land with his own two eyes and then privately buried His faithful servant Himself in an unmarked grave.
Maybe God said no to your prayers and hopes and dreams, and life hasn’t turned out for you like you had planned. Moses’s hopes and dreams didn’t turn out like he had planned either…..but here’s the beautiful part about Moses’s story. A short time after Moses was forbidden from entering the Promised Land, God took him home to an eternal life with Him forever. The loss of not being able to enter the Promised Land was only momentary, temporary, and for those of us who are in Christ, the same is true for us. God will also take us home to an eternal life with Him forever as well, and these disappointments and losses that we experienced here on this earth will become a faded memory.
This year for TJ’s 23rd birthday celebration, we are headed out on our second annual family vacation, but this time to Breckenridge, Colorado. We are minus two daughters and their families due to scheduling conflicts and distance. We are foregoing the sky lanterns this year–surprise, surprise–and are in the process of brainstorming a new way to memorialize TJ’s birthday. You will hear all about it in an upcoming blog post in a few weeks.