My birthday used to be the worst day of the year.
My friend Paigey, who also has a November birthday, suffers from the same sentiment, and aptly put it into words tonight.
She said birthdays are just acute reminders that we’re not yet in heaven. It’s the one day we hope can be perfect, and thus it’s the one day we realize how far short this world falls.
I’ve gotten good at numbing that pain, or warding it off when I feel it approaching, but Paigey showed me a little bit of heaven when we went out to celebrate our birthdays tonight. However, it’s not really in the way you’d expect.
She told me what her parents did that showed how deep their love goes. But it was only the depth of the world’s brokenness that allowed them to reach so deeply into love. It was because the world is broken that I saw glimpses of heaven in it.
There are three things you should know about Paigey: she’s a minimalist — everything she owns fits in a backpack; she profoundly appreciates her friends and family; and Paigey has suffered from severe chronic pain for four years. Her dad has been paying for her to fly all over the nation to have obscure tests and experimental treatments done for the last two years. Just one of her current treatments costs $4,500 each month. She has to fly to Houston, get the antibodies (harvested from the plasma of 40,000 healthy people) injected into her chest (through a ¢50-coin-sized port they surgically placed under her skin), and then fly back to Atlanta after 3 days of that. And she has to do this monthly, indefinitely.
But you know what her dad did? Even after shelling out tens of thousands of hard-earned dollars for her body’s brokenness, he ordered her an iPad for her birthday. When she found out, she told him that paying for her healthcare was enough of a present.
But he said all that is just to help her survive. The iPad is to make her happy.
She told him how deeply incredibly grateful she was and how she felt loved by his ability to surprise her with a gift she would genuinely enjoy. But she went on to say, “Though I still can’t believe you bought me anything at all, may I make a small request?… I normally wouldn’t say anything except that there’s a small chance this would mean I could get something that I actually really need. My phone is nearly four years old and about to die. Is it too late to possibly exchange the iPad for a new iPhone?”
He said, “I’m sorry, Sweetheart. I think we could have, except I already had something engraved on the back of the iPad. It’s already been personalized for you and on its way.” So she very gratefully accepted and is waiting to thoroughly enjoy the iPad, and see what he had engraved for her.
Right after this interaction with her dad, her mom in Texas texted her. She sent a list of experiences she would pay for Paigey to share with a friend for her birthday. They were the perfect gifts — tickets to a concert, the aquarium, etc. Paigey broke down in tears at the thought of how badly her mother wanted this birthday to be beautiful and celebrated. She called to say thanks but her mom quickly recognized that she’d been crying. Through the tears, Paigey confessed, “I do feel loved by you — so loved and celebrated — and the gifts are sweet. But if I’m being honest, birthdays are usually pretty hard for me and I’m not sure gifts will change that.” She went on to say that even in the midst of such love and sweet gifts, she couldn’t seem to shake the ache of longing for what she really wanted: heaven. Her mother, moved with compassion, saw that Paige’s suffering was too great for words, and so instead shared tears.
When I met up with her tonight, her face was swollen and red. Usually when her face is red it’s from her pain or the infusions. But this time when I asked her about it she reassured me, “I had a good cry.”
She told me about how she just felt really known and loved by her mother because she had listened to her daughter so well. She even thanked Paigey for her tears and for being honest about her feelings. They were both finally healthy enough to grieve the circumstances — and how presents and this world would never be enough to satisfy what we feel lacking. That was her mom’s greatest gift. She listened, and wept with Paigey and understood.
And then, when Paigey told her the story about how her dad had done something similarly sacrificial and thoughtful, Paigey’s mom said, “Oh, you need a new phone, Hunny? Let me give that to you!”
Humbled by the offer , Paigey responded, “No, that’s way more expensive than the other things you offered me. Besides, you don’t have that kind of cash and you’ve already gifted me well!”
“I want to give it to you anyway. I’ll find a way.”
The real gift wasn’t the iPad or the iPhone or any of the concerts or museum passes they would have given her. It was the door to heaven that each of her parents opened by showing the depth of their love for her. A love that gives anyway out of its poverty. A love that sits with her in her pain and tenderly listens to her disappointment because it has nothing to prove or earn. A love that inspires a father whose account has already been milked by medical bills to figure out a gift that a minimalist would love, but never buy for herself.
This makes me wonder if heaven isn’t what — or where — we think it is. We would never see the depths of this type of sacrificial love in a place where there’s always enough, where our cisterns are never dry.
And maybe heaven isn’t so far away. Maybe as the knife of earthly pain slices into this world, we see it and doors inside of us crack open to meet it. Heaven pours out of us as we care for each other. Heaven breaks in as pain cracks Earth open. Maybe it is the huge iron nails pounded through a couple hands into a wood cross, which hangs a man ten feet off the ground. Maybe it is those punctures of pain which burst open one breaking heart and spilled the potential for heaven into all of us. To flow out of all of us. Maybe that is what fills up our little hearts so that as they break for each other they spill His love for us, like ointment over others’ derelict wounds.
And from there it just keeps spreading and covering the world until death passes away, and all that’s left is us, our lover, and that love which, it turns out, has been building heaven around us this whole time. We just didnt have the eyes to see it because there was so much pain.
Raw Spoon, 1-28-16