I don’t remember a whole lot about my twenty-third birthday. Twenty-three is a “neither here nor there” age so it’s rarely the most memorable of occasions. It sits between coming into full adulthood at 21 and the milestone looming at 30. These are decisive years in any life. They were certainly decisive in my life.
Though I don’t remember a whole lot about the day I turned 23 (all the way back in December of ’99), I do know that Aileen was pregnant and just entering into her third trimester. These were the days when we had learned we were having a boy but hadn’t yet decided what to name him. I remember “John” and “Michael” being in the running—both good family names. I remember Aileen lobbying for “Ethan” for a time. But in the end we got it just right: he would be Nicholas Paul. I would often lie with my head on Aileen’s growing belly to feel Nick stretch and squirm, to begin to bond with the son I had not yet met but already dearly loved. It wasn’t long after that he was born and our joy was complete.
It will be Nick’s twenty-third birthday on Sunday. Or is it more appropriate to say that it “would have been” Nick’s twenty-third birthday on Sunday? I actually don’t know. Either way, it was 23 years ago that the Lord blessed us with our precious baby boy, our firstborn child, our only son.
This will be Nick’s third birthday in heaven, though they probably don’t mark birthdays there, do they? I’m not even convinced that time in heaven passes in months and years, in hours and days, as it does here. Does time outside the context of this world work just the same as time within it? Since the Bible is silent on this I suppose God judges that it doesn’t much matter. What matters is that where God is, Nick is.
And my dad, too. He made the journey just a short time before my son, the first of several blows that followed one after the other in quick succession between 2019 and 2020. And while I’m sorry that my dad is gone, there’s comfort in knowing that he and Nick are together.
And on this subject, a little scene popped into my mind the other day, a little memory of a tearful farewell. For a moment I was transported back to dad’s funeral in the waning days of 2019. Nick was standing at the front of the room sharing some memories of his grandfather. And as he spoke, he wept—he wept with the sheer sorrow of facing the reality of death and the pain of loss. He wept as he said goodbye to one he had loved.
And then another scene appeared in my mind, though this one was imagined rather than remembered. In this scene my father was in heaven, alive and well and just a little younger now than when I last saw him—fewer white hairs on his head, fewer lines on his cheeks, fewer creases on his brow. He was busy at some task or the other when suddenly he stood bolt upright, an expression of surprise, an expression of joy, sweeping over his face. What was it that so shocked and delighted him? My view shifted and now I saw it—Nick had just arrived and was standing before him. I suppose dad must have expected his wife to be next to pass that way or at least one of his children. But no, there before him was his grandson. And he was so pleased to see him, so happy to throw his arms around him, so glad to know that Nick had made it safely home.
In one scene there was sorrow at a parting and in the other there was joy at a reunion. In one scene Nick was weeping as he bid farewell to my dad and in the other dad was rejoicing as he bid welcome to my Nick.
And it strikes me that so much of our response to the death of a saint depends on our perspective. Though from one perspective we see family members weeping as their loved one fades from their view, from the opposite perspective we see other family members rejoicing as their loved one draws near. While some weep with grief that one has passed beyond their sight, others weep with joy that one has safely crossed over. There is no great happiness for some without great sadness for others. For while every death marks a departure it also marks an arrival. That’s just life and death in a world as badly broken as this one and one so gloriously whole as the next.
And so as this birthday approaches and arrives, I wait to see and experience that kind of joy—the joy of taking part in the welcome rather than the farewell, of cheering my loved ones in rather than weeping them out. And as I wait, I am choosing to let some of their joy filter from heaven to earth so I too can feel it, so I too can enjoy it, so I too can let it stir my soul. I choose to take pleasure in their pleasure, for they are in that place where all sorrows have been soothed and all tears have been dried, that place where we all most truly long to be.