Joining the Party Before You
This is about joy, about celebration and joining the party.
Awhile back I was with a friend in an ICU waiting room a few days into what would become the last two months of his wife’s life. There was a moment when he said to me, in the oncoming dusk and darkness of that room, ”You know the story of the Prodigal Son and how when he returns the Father is throwing an extravagant party? And the Older Brother is standing outside that party resentful and unsure if he can walk through the door into that celebration? Whatever comes of this, I don’t want to be standing outside like that Older Brother. I want to join the celebration.” His words towards joy were about as far from what I expected in that situation, and full of the wisdom that 72 years of living – 47 of that married to the woman now in a coma around the corner – can only find.
That was about 18 months ago, and I revisit those words over and again as I, too, am still learning how to join the celebration. Buechner wrote about that Older Brother: ”He is a caricature of all that is joyless and petty and self-serving about all of us. The joke of it is that of course his father loves him even so, and has always loved him and will always love him, only the elder brother never noticed it because it was never love he was bucking for but only his due. The fatted calf, the best Scotch, the hoedown could all have been his, too, any time he asked for them except that he never thought to ask for them because he was too busy trying cheerlessly and religiously to earn them. “ And those trying to earn what is free to receive, their number is legion.
I know, more than I would like to admit, that I can count myself as one of the cheerless who never thought to ask. The trick of it all is that in never asking for a party, the Older Brother never learned how to enjoy one when it was happening right before him. It is, like most things, something to be learned anew, something that can get lost along the way to adulthood. I keep getting the opportunity to celebrate and embrace the joy before me, and ever so slowly I am letting myself receive it, walk through the metaphorical door into the music and lights and cocktails and dancing. How else am I going to learn to live in the joy if I don’t try it on and wear it around town more?
It might be that time of year when the list of parties on the calendar is more than any can manage, but this isn’t just about social gatherings and awkward conversations in bad sweaters. There is plenty to celebrate, more than enough parties to join in the day at hand. And, don’t forget the context of my friend’s words. They were not spoken with birds singing, and sun shining, and all things going his way. They came in the midst of the most difficult space to hold in a marriage, “in sickness and in death.” I watched over the months, and over the year as he continually stepped into those moments of celebration. He still is.
Years ago, when I was boy I never batted an eye at being joyful, at engaging a celebration – I idled there. Now, I am learning again, and again, how to live in the joy as Life comes to me in the dark places outside and says, “I love you even so, and have always loved you and always will. Come join the party.”
Sufjan Stevens song, “Joy, Joy, Joy” says and plays it true:
You have to join the party sometime.