I was only a kindergartner the first time I thought about what heaven looked like.
I remember the moment as clearly as if it had happened this morning. I sat at the end of the sidewalk in front of the house on my grandparents' farm. The warm afternoon sun danced on the leaves of the sycamore trees over head. A small, steady flow of water whorled down the lane, creating a miniature stream that zigged and zagged around the twigs and rocks and uneven land that blocked its path.
Occassionally, I would dip my hand in the current. Despite my best efforts to dam it up, the water continued to flow. For some reason, the struggle to stop it amused me, and in that amusement, I started thinking about happiness.
Nothing made me happier than spending time at Grandpa and Grandma's house. Not only was there an unending supply chocolate stars and Juicy Fruit gum, there was a sense of love and peace and security that only grandparents can offer.
And there were cousins. Lots of them.
You see, I've always thought of myself as somewhat of an afterthought. I'm the baby of my immediate family, more than six years younger than my next oldest sister. I didn't form a strong bond with my siblngs until much later in life.
But, like I said, I had cousins. Lots of them.
And there are two in particular that I think of as sisters: Jill and Amy.
Whenever we were together -- especially at Grandpa and Grandma's house -- I felt comfortable, like I belonged. We laughed a lot. We played hard. We would disappear for hours at a time on the vast, beautiful farmland near the Yellow Banks of the Elkhorn River.
I remembered thinking then: This is my idea of heaven. This is what it's like. And I remembered being excited for the time when that heaven was all I knew. Every day. Forever and ever. Amen.
Because it was awesome.
Time marched on, as unstoppable as that stream of water flowing down the lane.
Jill, Amy and I were married in consecutive years. They both married their high school sweethearts, big, lovable teddybears who could brighten anyone's day with a simple expression.
We were all in each other's weddings. (Well, we all would have been in each other's weddings if yours truly's due date with baby No. 1 would have been anything other than the same week as Amy's wedding.)
For that reason, Amy was one of the first people I told when I found out I was pregnant. She also was one of the first people I called when my Molly was born. I figured I'd make up for messing up her wedding party plans by giving birth to my first child on Amy's birthday. (Actually, I didn't plan it that way. It just happened.)
But she managed to one-up me with birthday sharing when her children were born: Her oldest was born on my nephew's birthday in September, her second child was born on my other nephew's birthday in October.
(She didn't plan them that way. They just happened.) When she announced her third baby was due in early March, I jokingly asked if she was going to make my third nephew share a birthday with one of her kids, too. After all, his birthday was March 24.
She just laughed and said no. And she was right: Lawson, the baby of her family, was born in late February 2007.
We disconnected for a bit after that, our regular contact faded in the craze of everyday life with children.
We'd keep up on Facebook, but time always seemed to get away from us. At annual family reunions, we both lamented how ridiculous it was that we lived a mere 20 miles away from each other, but we only found time to engage in real conversations when something big drew us together.
Our children loved playing together on the farm, and it was comforting for me to know that my kids had found the same appreciation I felt for the closeness of a big, extended family. After all, cousins - no matter how far removed - are just siblings who haven't lived with you long enough to be annoyed by your quirks. At the end of each reunion, I would promise myself that I'd not let time slip away like that again.
"Life's too short to not spend time with the people who played such a big role in the person you eventually became," I would say.
But I'd forget. Time would slip away again, and before I knew it, another year would come and go.
We were gearing up for another reunion last weekend when we got the call.
The only words I remember hearing were "Accident," "Tragedy," and "Lawson." I tried to speak, but all I could do was sob.
Since then, I've been trying to wrap my mind around it. But I cannot imagine the pain of enduring such a loss.
I can't imagine what it must be like for Amy and her family, to have the very definitions of life and love and laughter as you know it change in a split second.
Just the thought rocks me to the core of my being.
I haven't slept much in the past few days. In the darkness and silence, I've prayed many times for God to give Amy and her family comfort and strength to endure this nightmare. But in mid-prayer, my mind keeps skipping back to last summer's family reunion, when Lawson and Blake, his best buddy (and cousin, might I add) kept turning the hose on in the outdoor volleyball court. They were making rivers in the sand.
At 3 o'clock this morning, it occurred to me that maybe those memories were God's response.
I think it might be His way of saying, "This was Lawson's idea of heaven, too. And he's ok."
It may not be much comfort right now, but I hope it brings peace in the long run.
Love to you, Amy, Lawrence, Ashley & Buddy. May God guide you through this dark valley in ways that only He could.