Saturday, November 23, 2013

Portraits of Love


Night falls early in Minnesota's winters. I am fifteen, standing outside with a boy who is two years older than me. He is wearing a denim jacket with a fleece collar, patched blue jeans, and army surplus boots. A navy stocking cap is pulled down over his ears. Snow falls thickly within the circle of a nearby streetlight. It floats down in exaggerated feathery masses, muting sound, suspending time. Showy flakes collect on the boy's lashes and blond curls that hang below his cap. His white teeth flash, his blue eyes twinkle as he kicks snow onto my boot, laughing, teasing. He leans in then, and kisses me full on the lips. He has never kissed a girl before. I have never been kissed. There is an awkward clash of noses, a rush of combined warmth, and it is over. I look down, feeling the heat still on my face and the pounding of my heart. The breath that I've been holding escapes in a cloud of frozen vapor and we laugh again. Surely, this is love!

With the last of my strength, I push. There is the sensation of pressure and tearing, followed by a slippery gush of liquid and heat. I collapse, sweating and shaking, against the pillows behind me as the cries of an indignant newborn fill the small room. I cry, big salty tears of exhaustion and relief. Through a blur I see the swaddled baby they lay in my arms. Eyes wide open, she stares at this bright new world she's entered. Her hair is plastered against the ridges of her scalp, streaked with my blood. She curls her wrinkled fist around my finger and I marvel at her tiny blue fingernails, her perfect lips, and her smooth-as-butter skin. For months I have felt her kicking and turning, waking and hiccuping inside me and now--the familiar stranger and I meet. Hello, Sweetheart--I'm your mommy!" I whisper. Surely, this is love!

The room is eerily quiet except for the sound of her labored breathing. My Gram, best friend of my childhood, confidante of my adolescence, cheerleader of my young adulthood, is dying. I lean my head against the rail of her bed, feel the coolness of metal on my cheek. I trace the familiar veins on the back of her hand with my finger. Her breath comes in rattling inconsistency. I find the air in short supply for my own lungs and wonder how I will ever continue breathing once she stops. My dad stands on the opposite side of the bed holding her other hand. "It's okay, Mom...you can go...we'll be fine," he tells her in a voice thick with grief. And the two of us, her only son and first grandchild, walk her to the gate. We remove the rings from her hands, tuck the sheet tighter around her thin shoulders, and weep. Surely, this is love!

A man hangs naked and bleeding on a crude beam of wood suspended from a post in the ground.  His hands and feet are pierced through with cruel spikes that hold him to a torturous death. Dark clouds roll overhead and it begins to rain. Gasping, straining for a painful breath, he looks down at his tormentors and prays, "Father, forgive them. They don't realize what they are doing." This man, beaten beyond recognition, the same who joined His Father in breathing the stars and planets into space. This, the Ancient of Days, Great I AM, Prince of Peace, Blameless Lamb--he who takes my punishment, bears my shame, forever settling a debt I cannot afford. This is the price God's Son willingly pays to buy me back, to give me an eternal and abundant life. Surely, this is love!

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