Last week, we watched what has become a winter tradition for us: The Snowman, Dianne Jackson’s beautifully rendered adaptation of the Raymond Briggs picture book. I remember the movie from my own childhood–I first saw it in school, and I loved it immediately. I am among the least musical people I know, but the score remained in my head so completely that in hearing it again as an adult I felt, for a moment, what it was like to be seven, watching a filmstrip with my chin on my desk and a gum eraser in my hand. There is nothing flashy about the animation or the story, but it’s captivating anyway (as demonstrated by the complete, and completely uncharacteristic, stillness of my sons as they watched).
The next part of this story contains some spoilers, so if those will detract from your Snowman experience, watch this first. Then, in 26 minutes, continue reading. We’ll wait.
This hopefully isn’t a great shock, but The Snowman is a movie about an ephemeral relationship. The friendship between the boy and the snowman is deeply special; indeed, we sense that it has been profoundly transformative for both. (Certainly this is so for the boy, but could the snowman have existed without a boy who believed enough to create him?) But the relationship is also very short; it consists of a single, magical night, after which the snowman melts as the boy is sleeping. In the final scene the boy, looking grief-stricken, falls to his knees where the snowman last stood, and reaches to place his own scarf on the ground by the snowman’s. Cue credits.
I think I had forgotten the ending of the movie, and clearly my children didn’t remember it either. My two-year-old’s face contorted with rage; as is his custom, he then looked for objects to throw. My five year old, on the other hand, began to cry, and then to sob uncontrollably. When he could speak, it was to shout, “He’s gone! The boy loved him, and he’s GONE FOREVER!” This was followed by, “Why couldn’t he save himself? He could fly–why wasn’t he smart enough to fly to Antarctica?”
We talked about this a bit, and I wondered aloud if the snowman chose not to leave because he was exactly where he was supposed to be–in the yard where the boy had made him, keeping watch until the morning. Perhaps he stayed because he belonged to the boy, and nowhere else? Ren responded angrily, “Then he shouldn’t have made him! This shouldn’t have happened!” Valid points, both. And that is where we left the conversation. But it is not where I left my thoughts, as I dried my own eyes (disclaimer: I have been known to become teary, in my adult life, during Disney movies, commercials for Johnson & Johnson products and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and while reading Because of Winn-Dixie aloud to my third-graders) and continued with the day.
The movie, and the resulting discussion, were particularly poignant for me last week–and still are, actually. Ren’s questions touch on some things I have been wondering about, and even wrestling with, myself. As much as I’d like to think I’m doing this in a mature, adult way, there is wisdom in the honest questions of a five-year-old. Further, as I try to come to terms with truths I’d prefer not to acknowledge, it is true that I sometimes talk to God like a kindergartner having a tantrum. What, I demand, is the value of having something special in our lives, only to lose it? How should we be in the face of impending loss? (And really, don’t all of our relationships occur in that context? How easily we forget it, though–and so the stakes feel different when we are truly aware that grief is looming.)
This is something I’m thinking about in the context of two examples–one personal, one congregational/denominational. I will talk about the personal one today, and save the congregational discussion for its own post. [In advance, a small warning: like The Snowman, this first story involves an ending, this time of a life, that is not what any of us would have preferred.]
Today would have been the 37th birthday of a friend I knew for a very short time. I met Jamie in September, 2010, as she artfully balanced parenting a lively and adorable four-year-old, doing articulate and enthusiastic outreach through a blog that touched hundreds and possibly thousands of followers, and completing intensive treatments for metastatic breast cancer. Jamie died on March 29, 2011. She died as she lived–surrounded by a close network of family and friends, connecting with the people and things that were important to her. She had a smile that could light up a stadium paired with a personality that made you feel like you were the only one in the room. Though at times her frustration and weariness were clear, Jamie embraced the calling that she felt to tell her story and used it to connect with and better the lives of others. (to read more about this, in Jamie’s own words, go to her website, LovingPink.com, and scroll down for the link to her blog.)
There has never been a moment–truly–from my fear and worry when Jamie first shared her story with me (I got to know her at a time when I had a suspicious lump of my own, and had been referred for biopsy) to my increased fear and worry as her medical journey took a turn for the worse, to the take-your-breath-away sadness I felt at learning of her death, that I have not been glad to have known her. The example Jamie set of making each day count and connecting with the important things while letting the others go has influenced my thinking and my parenting. The example her close friends and family set in dealing with her advancing illness has changed my thoughts about how we handle death.
There is another truth, though: from the time that I met her, I kept Jamie at arm’s length. I was grateful to know her–and terrified of the day when I wouldn’t. From the beginning, and with as much foreknowledge as any of us can have, this was a time-limited relationship–one destined to be much, much shorter than I would have liked. And I dealt with the terrible weight of this knowledge by keeping my heart away, to the extent that I could.
I interacted with Jamie virtually rather than actually. When I did see her in person, I kept it short. I am embarrassed and saddened to say that there were times when I’m not sure I even looked her in the eye. We had children of a similar age at the same school, and in the fear and sadness and guilt that I felt at the reality of what was happening to Jamie and her family, it was easier to look at the wall, or the ground, or the fish tank. I turned my eyes away rather than suffer the pain of truly seeing her beautiful face, rather than taking the risk of truly connecting.
I know that Jamie saw this. Amazingly–mercifully–I also know that she forgave it. Once, as I stammered through introductions at the school picnic shortly after learning that my own lump was a benign cyst, she put her hand on my arm, and said, simply, “It’s ok . . . it’s ok.” In the expansiveness of her generosity of spirit, she allowed me a modicum of dignity even as I failed to grant the same to her.
This relationship changed me for the better even as I failed to be fully human within it. I regret that failing. I regret it for Jamie . . . and I regret it for myself. I guarded my heart, and I missed out on some of the treasures of the present moment . . . for what? To avoid pain?
If we are to truly live, pain is inevitable. Suffering was always going to be part of this situation; I could have done nothing to change this truth. And I know–I knew it profoundly from the moment that I met her–that I would never choose not to have known Jamie. So the question is, what is left . . . now . . . after . . . (and isn’t the problem with the ending of a relationship that there is so very much “after” to be dealt with)?
As best I can work out, my task now is to continue to learn from Jamie’s example, and to wish that I had been willing to know her more fully, whatever that might have brought. May I honor her memory by doing the hard work–the work of truly connecting–to turn that wish into reality each day.
Which brings us back to the Snowman, and to the part of this that connects to congregational life. Stay tuned.