On the night of Cam’s funeral, we lit paper lanterns and watched them float across a starry Nashville sky. Some of the lanterns came together and formed the letter C, as if God was saying, “I see you here. I am honoring Cameron with you. You are not alone.”
Sometimes during the day, I see clouds in the shape of the letter C, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s my imagination or if it’s another supernatural gift of love.
For a long time, I thought, perhaps naïvely, that tragedy and suffering were exceptions in life. That painful moments were experienced only by a small, unfortunate slice of the population. Why did I ever believe such a thing? I wanted to make sense of the nonsense. I wanted to find meaning in it. I wanted to rationalize the problem of suffering. I am a preacher and church leader, and I wanted my questions answered so I could write a good sermon on this topic. I wanted to wrap pain up in a pretty little bow.
My sister-in-law, who knows me well, texts me encouraging words every now and then. Usually along the lines of: “You don’t have to have all the answers, Aubrey. It’s OK to just be sad.” But how can I explain this type of sadness to my kids? “Uncle” Cam, who just carried you in his arms, who just showed you the inside of his plane, who just sent you postcards from Rome, is now no longer with us. How can I tell three precious, expectant and innocent faces that we have to learn to live with grief? We have to keep going, to do life. We have to empty the dishwasher and fold the laundry. The only difference is, we are now changed as we do it. We are a differently marked person today than we were the day before.
Since I can’t rationalize or explain away my grief, I decided to commemorate it. I feel this loss in my skin and in my flesh, so the only proper metaphor felt like a tattoo. Lying on the table, listening to the buzzing, I breathe deeply as the needle impresses upon my skin a new wound. It’s not a blinding pain. It’s a steady-like-a-train pain, like a Johnny Cash song. All of it makes sense to me.
After the damage is done, I sheepishly peek in the mirror at the vintage lock, opened, permanently engraved on my back. It’s an homage to Cameron, a symbol of being set free. I’m scared for a moment that I will regret it. What have I just done?
But I don’t. I love it. My tattoo mirrors my grief and love for Cameron perfectly. It tells a story.
Most people never see my tattoo, but each summer when I brave a tank top or a swimsuit, someone discovers it and asks, “You have a tattoo? What is it?” In these moments, I have the great privilege of talking about my cousin, Cameron, who died while snowshoeing and how he was deeply loved by me and my boys. I don’t say everything about suffering and splendor and how somehow God’s presence meets us in our wounds, turning our scars into something meaningful.
“Have you ever felt unloved?” I ask my boys.
My 7 year-old son, who on the outside is bubbly and confident but has a powerful inner emotional life, responds. He allows himself to be vulnerable. He knuckles away tears as he tells us that sometimes the kids at school say they are “unfriending” him. It makes him mad. It hurts his feelings. He feels unloved.
It feels like a holy moment, my son opening up about his pain. So I tread lightly; I don’t want the moment to pass because I became overbearing. So I stay quiet, and in a moment of unexpected brotherly kindness, I hear my other sons speak into his hurt. “Come find us at recess,” they tell him. “We won’t unfriend you.”
I bask in this display of love between my sons and finally add my two cents. “I am so sorry, Honey,” I say. “I wish that wasn’t happening. That would make me sad and mad, too. Sometimes there are bad things in life and they can really hurt us. Sometimes friends are mean, or we get sick or sad things happen.”
“Like your tattoo, Mommy? The one about Cameron?” my oldest asks.
“Exactly like my tattoo. That is a sad thing. But I want you to know this: No matter how hard and sad things get, the thing about God’s love is that it reaches down through the hurt and marks us. It changes us. It transforms us. In the midst of darkness, we can find floating lanterns that form the letter C, tattoos that tell tremendous stories and amazing friends who encourage us when we are hurting – people who won’t ‘unfriend’ us, no matter how sad we get.”
I know it’s above their heads. But I hope one day they will understand that suffering and tragedy are not the exceptions in this life, and if they’re open to them, they’ll find that love is the wondrous surprise which accompanies them. It is pain that initially scars us, but it’s love that permanently leaves a mark
Aubrey Sampson is the author of Overcomer: Breaking Down the Walls of Shame and Rebuilding Your Soul and an upcoming book on lament and hope. Aubrey travels the country teaching at churches. She and her husband, Kevin, and their three boys are church planters in the Chicago area, where Aubrey serves on the teaching and preaching team.
This article currently appears in the fall 2017 issue of The MOPS Magazine. If you didn’t get a copy and would like your own, you can subscribe to get The MOPS Magazine in your mailbox every season. If you subscribe, forward your receipt to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll shoot a copy of the current issue in the mail to you for free … just because we like you.