“I’m going home, back to New Hampshire. I’m so determined; I’m so determined.” As a sojourner in CA for eight years, I maintained a certain soundtrack to my life. I listened to songs that reminded me of and made me reflect on home. One of my most-often-played and most-often-listened-to songs was “New Hampshire” by Matt Pond PA—an eerily beautiful song about regret and nostalgia.1 When some people on the West Coast had the audacity to tell me I would never go back, this one line became my prayer, my manifesto, my stubborn anthem that I sang along to. The line resonated with my heart and reinforced my deepest desire. Returning home was my burning passion and most cherished dream.
Call it what you want—a conviction, an obstinacy, a calling—I had this feeling deep down in my bones. NH was home and I felt out of place and unlike my true self living anywhere else. I love the unique culture of New England, the immense beauty, the distinct seasons, and the rocky coast. Generations of my family are here. My sweetest memories are here. My anticipated three years in CA were prolonged into eight. Even with the providential, beneficial, and beautiful reasons we remained, each passing year cut deep into my heart. I had a deep, unsettled discontentedness being away from home, away from my mom and dad.
As I anticipated my homecoming, the climax of the song would bring me to tears—”I’m going home, back to New Hampshire. I’m so determined; I’m so determined, to lay in lakes, and see my sisters, I will hit my brother and hold my mother.” Since moving back home, I’ve done all of these, except one. Just seven months before I finally returned home, my idyllic dreams of my homecoming were crushed and the terrifying substance of nightmares became reality. My mom was suddenly and tragically taken from us. “What I fear comes upon me, what I dread befalls me. I am not at ease, nor am I quiet, and I am not at rest, but turmoil comes.”2 My dream had been haunted by my deepest fears. One of the blessings I looked forward to most in NH was more time with my mom. She was the most loving and intentional mother and grandmother. My children adored her and we all looked forward to many years with her close by.
“There things that we’ve done that we cannot undo,” Matt Pond continues. With the benefit of hindsight, I struggle with guilt and regret. Last year my family vacationed in AZ and FL instead of NH, and I weep for the time that could have been spent with Mom. But this is life. We don’t know what tomorrow holds. We don’t have exhaustive knowledge of the future. We can’t anticipate every tragedy and it’s not sustainable to live in fear of every worst-case scenario. The song concludes with this profound insight, “What you had in your hand was worth more than the gold that I let go to grab.” This line perfectly expresses my guilt and regret. I recognize it’s not true or literal. I understand it would have been equally as tragic and difficult regardless of the time and circumstances. But this nagging sense of guilt is a real part of my lament. Part of me wishes I was only out West for three years. Another part of me wishes I had never gone at all. Then I would have had more time with my mom. And one more day with her feels more valuable than everything else I’ve gained. Yet she would remind me as she so faithfully did in those days of continual disappointment away from home—that God is sovereign, that he knows best, that he is kind. She taught me to rest in those truths.
Now that I’m home, I see her everywhere. I moved to the city next to the town I grew up in. It’s a blessing and a curse. Literally everywhere I drive invokes vivid memories of Mom. The familiar places from my childhood—the backroads, the downtowns, the the strip malls, the grocery stores, the store fronts, the old doctors offices—make me feel like a child again in the family van. And I miss her. I miss her smile. I miss her laugh. I miss her voice. I miss our conversations. I miss her texts and calls, her updates, her encouraging words. NH falls short of my expectations because she’s not here. The ever-present and palpable nature of her absence has tainted my dream. The heartbreak is absolutely tormenting at times. The crushing weight of grief and disappointment is constant. “It tastes so bittersweet I can’t believe it.”3 During these past five months as I drive around town, more often than not, there’s a lump in my throat and tears welling up in my eyes. I still can’t believe she’s not here. My tears are mixed with the joy of remembering ordinary moments with her, the pain of missing one of my dearest friends, the faith that clings to the fact that she is fully satisfied in God’s presence, and the hope that longs to see her again. Regarding death, Bonhoeffer writes, “The more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy.”4
In CA, I deeply missed the distinct NH seasons. Fall has always been my favorite. I beheld the foliage this year for the first time in eight years. The vibrant colors and brilliant shades were truly overwhelming. As I’ve watched the trees become so beautiful and then fade away, I couldn’t help but think of Mom’s life. She was a beautiful and precious gift to all who knew her. She was a servant, a disciple-maker, a selfless soul. So many lives were impacted, touched, and cared for by her—her husband, her parents, all eight of her children, all of their spouses, all eighteen of her grandchildren, all of her friends and acquaintances. She was in her prime. She was young and beautiful and full of life—more vibrant than anyone I knew. And our relationship had blossomed in a remarkable way over the past eight years. She truly burned out bright. She fought the good fight. She kept the faith. She ran with zeal to the very end and finished well. And there is a blessing in the fixed seasons. “Spring without permission rages on again.”5 During this long and barren winter of grief, I know there is hope on the horizon. “We will sing a new song ‘Cause death is dead and gone like the winter.”6
Such is life—”a broken heart, broken dreams, and bleeding parts.”7 We are forced to live in this tension where what matters most to us can be taken away in a moment and what terrifies us most will eventually come to be. “The days of darkness will be many.”8 But with God, we have been given faith to see his kindness in our broken dreams and hope to see beyond the immediate pain of our nightmares. Our most precious dreams can be haunted by grief and disappointment; and our worst nightmares can be hallowed by the hope of eternal life. Death is the direction we are all headed and is the end we will all meet. Our idyllic dreams will be tainted by nightmares, but—in Christ—our nightmares will be sanctified by better, more enchanting dreams in eternity. Our most coveted earthly desires are only mere shadows of the wonderful things to come. God is good and kind, in this life and in the next. During the depths of my despair, I have this strange hope in the depth of my soul: in God’s presence Mom is whole; and that when I come alive, I will see her again. Hope illuminates the darkness. This season of grief is temporary, but our eternal hope will not disappoint.
"Swiftly passes by the summer, Autumn hastens, sear and brown;
And this cold, unwelcome comer Flings the withered foliage down.
Thus with man—his life as fleeting— Swiftly pass his moments all;
Till the bitter death-blast meeting, Like the seared leaf he must fall.
But a world there is eternal— Where, emerging from the sod,
Saints shall bloom, forever vernal, In the paradise of God!"9
- Matt Pond PA, “New Hampshire,” from Emblems, Altitude Records, 2004.
- Job 3:25-26
- Mat Kearney, “Shasta,” from Just Kids, Republic Records, 2015.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Works, vol. 8, Letters and Papers from Prison, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), letter no. 89, page 238.
- John Mark McMillan, “Juggernaut,” from Peopled with Dreams, Lionhawk Records, 2020.
- Chris Renzema, “Springtime,” from Let the Ground Rest, Centricity Music, 2020.
- Switchfoot, “Burn Out Bright,” from Oh! Gravity., Columbia Records, 2006.
- Ecclesiastes 11:8
- John Newton Brown, “The Fall of the Leaf,” from Emily and Other Poems, Oct. 1821.
Peter, as I read through your thoughts it brought back memories of your birth mom. All the things you shared about Kathy we’re also qualities that existed in Peggy. I counted a blessing to have had both of them as people in my life. The sadness never really leaves, there’s an emptiness in my heart for them. Thank you for crafting the words to express your grief, you’re thankfulness, and your joy to be back in New Hampshire! I continue to pray for you and your family as you negotiate your way back to culture in New Hampshire and also as you share the love of Christ through your new adventure as a pastor of a local church. Love you always