Death and Loss in John Irving (and my marriage)

 john irving

In John Irving‘s pivotal novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, a young boy’s single mother dies tragically. One of his teachers, who has taken a fatherly interest in him, gently helps him cope with words like these –

When someone you love dies, and you’re not expecting it, you don’t lose her all at once; you lose her in pieces over a long time—the way the mail stops coming, and her scent fades from the pillows and even from the clothes in her closet and drawers. Gradually, you accumulate the parts of her that are gone. Just when the day comes—when there’s a particular missing part that overwhelms you with the feeling that she’s gone, forever—there comes another day, and another specifically missing part.

This season of Christmas many of you are facing losses like this young boy, due to the death of loved ones.  So many little reminders add up to make the pain seemingly unbearable.

– The cards that come addressed to you alone.

– The awkward pause when you don’t know who will say the blessing.

– The terrible silence that follows the exuberant noise after everyone goes home.

My loss this year is not due to the death of a loved one.  Instead, it’s the death of love itself.  This year, after over 20 years of marriage, my wife and I decided to permanently separate.  It wasn’t a decision we came to lightly.  We have been in and out of counselling for most of our married life.  It is a decision that comes at a great cost – we have four children at home.

This will be the third Christmas I won’t be home with my family, but this year will definitely be different.  I will spend time with my parents and step-parents, my sister and her husband, my grandmother, aunts and uncles and cousins.  I will enjoy being with them.  I’ll eat too much, share some gifts, and maybe even laugh a little.

Then I’ll come home to my apartment and call my children.  It will be good to hear their voices and we’ll talk about the day, but the distance between us will be palpable.  It will taste like regret and sorrow and mostly, awful sadness.

But I’ll make it through.  I’ll remind myself of God’s care and concern for me in the prayer of the Psalmist –

“Record my misery; list my tears on your scroll — are they not in your record?” (Psalm 56:8) –  knowing that God is by my side will keep me going through the day and into the evening.

At night, I’ll be able to go to bed, bringing to my mind Psalm 4:8 – “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, LORD, make me dwell in safety.

The next day, I’ll get out of bed and start the day, as the Psalmist said,  “In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.” (Psalm 5:3)

As Irving points out, new days will bring new reminders of missing parts – but One thing won’t be missing – ever.

(Bible quotes from the New International Version found at Biblegateway)

(for more on longing and loss, see “Christmas in Prison – John Prine

(photo from ALA – The American Library Association, some rights reserved)

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