“Can you see the stars from outside?”
“No. Not with the lights on.”
“I can’t see the stars from in here, either.” Beth pressed her face against the cold window pane.
“No, but after we turn off the lights, we can look again.”
“It’s funny that, when we turn on our own lights, we can’t see God’s lights any more. We have to shut off if we want to see God.”
“Yeah, sort of like that.”
Beth drew her face away from the window and looked at her sister. “Does the house look pretty when you look at it from outside?”
Clarisa met Beth’s eyes. “Yes, it does. Do you want me to take a picture, so you can see?”
Beth giggled. “Yes! I’ll wave to you through the window.”
Clarisa got up, grabbed her phone, and started out the bedroom. “Don’t forget to put on your coat and galoshes,” Beth called after her. “It’s still wet from the snow melting. It must be mushy.”
Beth continued looking out the window until she caught sight of Clarisa. Oh, she’d rushed right out, no coat or boots at all, all the way to the neighbor’s across the street. Beth waved as she watched Clarisa raise the phone and then dash back into the house. She heard her kick off her shoes before she stomped up the stairs.
“Did your shoes get soaked?”
“Only a little.” Clarissa’s face was red from the cold and the run. Her eyes sparkled. She held the phone out to Beth. “What do you think?”
Beth studied the photo. “You should send this to Uncle Larry. He’d love to see us all lit up like that. He might be mad that we put them up without him, though.”
“I’ll tell him that Grandpa helped. He’ll be okay with that.” Clarisa tapped for a few minutes on the phone, then tossed it back onto her desk. “There. I bet they don’t get any Christmas lights in Afghanistan. I bet he smiles and shows all his buddies.”
She looked at Beth. “You okay? You want me to help you back to bed?”
“Yeah, I’d better.” Beth held her arms out.
Clarisa looked again at Beth as she tucked her in. “Is this going to be a hospital night? Should I go get Mom?”
“In a minute.” She was silent, looking down at her bedding, twisting her fingers in the blanket. “I don’t want to go back to the hospital any more.”
Clarisa was silent then, for so long that Beth finally looked up at her. Their eyes met, and Clarisa searched her little sister.
“I don’t know if I can go first in this talk, Beth. Or even, if I should be here. It should be Mom.”
“Can it please be you first, Lissy? If you can’t, I guess that’s okay. But, I hope you will.”
Clarisa gently caressed Beth’s face, her fingers on her bald head, her thumb brushing where her eyebrow used to be. Tears welled up, and she had to swallow before answering, “Okay. Go ahead.”
Beth pulled her prayer journal from under her pillow. Clarisa looked at it. It was so little-girl, so pink flowers and polka dots. The writing in it was so childish, but the words were – well, the words were as from her little sister. Written so plainly that anyone could understand, but written so plainly that Clarisa knew she would need to read it for the rest of her life. Beth made no secret about her journal entries, often sharing. But, no one in the family looked without it being offered first.
Beth opened and flipped through some pages. “I’ve been writing about it. But I think it’s really time now to talk about it.”
They both heard their mother climbing the stairs. She entered the room, still looking at her phone. “Well, it looks like Grandma and Grandpa won’t be back until Friday,” she said. “They e-mailed and said they’re looping around north, to see friends before they head back home. Maybe we can have them over for Sunday dinner.”
She looked up at her girls, and came over to sit on the other side of the bed. “What’s up?” she asked gently. Her hand smoothed the blanket over Beth’s belly.
Beth and Clarisa looked at each other.
“Mom,” Beth began. “You know how you and Dad always talked to us about being ready? Ready for bed. Ready for dinner. Ready for school. Ready for next year. Ready for marriage, and ready for life, even. Even after Dad died, you still make sure to help us get ready. For whatever.”
Mom reached to the dresser and pulled the framed photo to the bed. She looked into her husband’s blue eyes. “I wasn’t ready for him to go.”
Clarisa reached over and took her mom’s hand. “We couldn’t be. No one could be. No one was.”
Mom looked again at Beth. “What are you telling me?”
Beth marked the rise of panic in the back of Mom’s eyes. “I want you to be ready, Mom,” she said, simply.
“Ready for what, exactly?” Mom was struggling to keep control of her tone.
“I want you to be ready, Mom.” Beth repeated.
Mom stood up abruptly. “I have to get out of here for a couple of minutes. Can you wait that long? I can be back really soon.” She looked at Beth, and Beth nodded. She darted from the room, and the girls heard her bedroom door close.
“Mom’s on her knees,” Clarisa said. Beth nodded. “I’m going to, too. Do you want some help? Or do you need to stay there?”
“I need to stay here.”
Clarisa was on her knees, holding Beth’s hand. “Lord, I lift up Mom right now. I know she’s calling out to You. Cradle her, Lord. You know what she needs, and I pray you fill her. Help us right now, Lord! We are not ready. Please make us ready. Please help us get through the pain.” She looked at Beth. “Please help us all get ready.”
Beth, eyes closed, murmured, “We put ourselves in Your hands, Father. Thank You. Thank You.”
They remained so for a few more minutes. Mom came back in.
“Are you … ready?” she asked Beth.
Beth nodded. “Except for you. I think God especially wanted to bless you. He knows you weren’t ready for Dad.”
Mom sat back down on the bed and took Beth’s other hand. “Honey, when you first got sick, I told God in no uncertain terms that He couldn’t have you, too. He took too much away from me already.”
Clarisa added, “I know Job said, ‘The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’“ She paused. “It’s not that easy, even to say it, much less have it in my heart.” She looked at Mom, then at Beth, then wiped her eyes. “But, I bless the Lord.” She sobbed. “I can’t even think about you not being here, and I pray I won’t be the one shaking my fist at God when you’re gone. But, He has me in his grip.” She leaned close to Beth’s face. “Just so you know, God’s got me.”
Mom hugged her over the bed. She smoothed Clarisa’s hair, wiped her tears, then wiped her own. She folded her hands together, and paused a moment.
“Beth, I don’t know what ready means for you, and I don’t know what it means for God. We’ve had a lot of middle-of-the-night emergency room runs. The doctors say you’re maintaining. But, we never know. What do you want me to do if you need the emergency room? Is this something I need to be ready for tonight, or tomorrow, or next week, or next month?”
“Well, Mom, you know how tight God is with that future kind of stuff.” Beth smiled, then softened her eyes. “Soon, Mom.”
She looked at her daughters. “Honey, I didn’t think, while you’re still little girls, that I’d have to prepare you for death, as well as for life.”
Clarisa was quick to come to her mother’s defense. “You have, Mom! Look how you’ve trained us both up in God’s Word – I mean, not just in reading, but in everything that He teaches – in everything that you teach us.”
“Lissy, show Mom that picture, will you?”
Clarisa handed it over, and clicked to the picture of the house lights. Mom looked at it, then turned her eyes to Beth.
“Uncle Larry might not be here, after. Lissy, you show him that picture again. Tell him that’s me, up in the window, waving. You can’t see me waving, because it’s dark with our lights on. It’s like after I die. You won’t be able to see me, but there I’ll be, and that wave and that smile are for you. That’s what you’ll see, as soon as you all get to heaven, because I’ll be so glad to see you.”
Mom looked, questioning. Clarisa reached for the phone. “We just took it, like five minutes ago, so Beth could see what the house looked like.” She pointed to their bedroom. “She was waving out the window.”
“The lights are beautiful, Mom. You and Grandpa did a great job with them this year. But look how dark it is everywhere but the lights. I was telling Lissy that, with the lights on, we can’t see the stars. When we make our own lights, we can’t see God’s lights. Sometimes, God has to make the decision for us to turn our lights off so we can see Him.”
“God turns off our lights so we can see Him,” Mom repeated. She hugged her girls again. “You two are my brightest lights, no matter where God lets you shine.”
* * *
Later, after the girls were in bed, and the Christmas lights and house lights had all been shut off, Mom stood in the darkened house by the window and gazed up into the sparkling sky. She fixed her eyes upon the stars and prayed. “Dear Lord, please leave me enough light to see my way.”