I sat on the bed, the heat of a November spring pressing in close, barely moved by the fan twirling above me. It wasn’t her bed, but it was her bedroom for the last months of her life. The months I was last here, in Gympe. When I last sat on the end of her bed or in the chair beside her bed, talking with her. Laughing. Crying. Praying. We spent a lot of time praying.
I looked around the room. So familiar and so foreign all at once. So full of meaning and life, and so empty too. Her books peeking out from the closet at the foot of the bed. Her dresser, now full of my travel toiletries, empty of her treasures. Where her chair once stood my suite case lay. I looked down at the duvet, a bright red and whit checkered comforter. She said it was her favorite because it reminded her of summer. And she was always cold.
I could faintly hear the sound of her voice, like fading echoes.
I could still smell her sent, like a whisper of her presence.
I couldn’t breathe in deeply, my breath came in shallow spurts, and tears rolled down my cheeks. The ache inside me radiated so strongly I thought for a few seconds that I might truly be in trouble… need medical help.
It was as if an enormous hand encircled me, calmly applying a relieving pressure around my ribs and head, a reassuring presence literally holding me together… keeping me from bursting. Breath slowly came back into my lungs, reaching the deep places within my chest, every expelled breath carried weighted sorrow, and every replenishing intake brought lightness… relief.
He walked in, a box in his hand, and sat down beside me. This man, old enough to be my father, in many ways is a father to me. A man who understands long-suffering, patience and endurance in ways few will ever need to understand. Who’s presence both comforts and confronts something deep within me. A man who’s rough exterior does a poor job of hiding the tender heart within. A memory flashed through my mind as I caught the sent of his soap…
We sat at the dining table, all four of us, my husband, her and him and myself. My husband cracked a joke at my expense, and I even started laughing – but he stopped my husband short and with a serious, even nearly menacing, expression said, “she is the most perfect thing you will ever have, you don’t joke about her like that.” My husband sat shocked for a moment, and my heart leapt as I realized he was referring to me, taking up my defense. No one had ever spoken up for me like that… ever. It felt unnecessary. Extravagant… I felt cherished. I felt a sense of belonging to someone in a way I’d never felt – I felt chosen, and cherished by virtue of being chosen.
Tears pinched at the edges of my eyes, as this man leaned in a little and opened the box in his hand. “These things are from Annika. We talked about it and she wanted you to have them,” his thick Aussie accent full of emotion. He showed me a ring, a pearl for my youngest daughter that had been her grandma Eva’s. A necklace for my eldest daughter, one she’d worn last time I’d seen her, a present from him. Some trinkets for the boys, and a few other items.
And then a ring for me.
My breath caught in my throat. He explained the value of the ring, an anniversary present to Annika, and I could only nod. He leaned in and hugged me, placing the box in my hands, and whispered, “love you darling,” over my head as he got up to leave.
I held the box for several minutes. I opened up the smaller box holding the ring. Tears distorted it’s shape and the sparkles became little shooting stars. I just let them roll, felt my breath expand and contract, and just let the emotions roll out of me. I couldn’t put it on. Not yet. It was too much of her… to close to her without being able to touch her, hear her voice… see her.
At the funeral I waited for my turn. I was given the honor, as the first adoptive daughter of four, to speak publicly. To publicly say goodbye. I held my piece of paper, a rewritten letter I’d sent her a few weeks before, to tell her exactly what she meant to me, who she was in my life and how deeply she impacted not only me, but my husband, children and even my friends. As I was called up, I said to myself, don’t think, just jump, a line from the movie Divergent.
Don’t think, just jump… don’t think, just jump… don’t think, just jump…
And with a shaky voice emphasized through the mic, with tears blurring the letters on my written note, I opened my mouth and verbalized everything in my heart. Well almost everything… When I was back in the safety of her little room, I pulled out the ring and took it out of it’s box. As tears rolled down my face, again, and sobs closed my throat, I slipped it on.
Some things can’t be put into words, they can only be felt. Carried deep within the well from which all feelings and emotions are drawn, permanently coloring everything that’s ever brought to the surface from that moment on. I guess in this way, without words, those precious things that can’t be verbalized find form in everything else we express.
I slept with it on all night. And suddenly I didn’t want to take it off. I wanted everyone to notice it, but I didn’t want anyone to see it… I felt like I had a slice of her love on my finger. A circle of unconditional, cherished chosen-ness. I wanted everyone to see her love like I felt it. Yet it was so personal, such a vulnerable feeling, I wanted it kept safe. To remain private.
Back in the states I showed it to a friend. She responded with, “I see “covenant” when I look at that ring.”
Of course. Covenant. Her love is a rare thing. A priceless gift that I had carried around for years before I opened it… yet given freely to me just the same. Not conditional to whether I received it or even rejected it. Her love came in the form of availability without expectation. It came in her willingness to call on the best of me, yet receive me in all of my lack and failure. Her love showed up in her patience, and was evident in her lack of demand for any kind of acknowledgement. She was excited and grateful for whatever I gave her… even if it came after months of silence on my end, and without the depth of understanding her gift was worthy of.
What’s even crazier is that she didn’t have to love me like this. She wasn’t around for my childhood, and I don’t carry in me her genetic DNA. She wasn’t there to celebrate my childhood and it wasn’t her that I called mama as I first learned how to talk… but that didn’t stop her. And the beauty of this kind of love is that she chose me. She picked me! Out of all the 18 or 19 year olds on this earth, she looked at me and said, that one, that’s the girl my heart loves and calls my own, through thick and thin, come whatever may, she has my heart and I will always love her. She could have said goodby as I left Australia at the age of 22, and never looked back.
That would have been the safe way to let go, the easiest way to love.
But not her. Not Annika Bisseling. She was in our relationship for what she could give me, never for what she could get from me. Her love wasn’t defined by safety or ease, or by whether it was painful or joyful. She simply lavished her heart on me, unconditionally.
Now as I sit at my kitchen table, snow covering the ground outside, with a January winter cold in full force, I wear her ring. It sparkles and I see hope; through tears, I see love and kindness. I see joy and compassion. I see her eyes glimmering with some adventure cooked up in her imagination, and I see it… always giving, always hoping, always persevering and never give up; I see unconditional love. Covenant.
The kind of love I hope, that one day, I can as freely give as she did.