When Silas got his wheelchair at two years old, we pushed him up to the table to join us for dinner, since his new wheels were the perfect height for eating. Of course, my son didn’t eat in the same way we did, because he had a feeding tube, the result of his muscles getting weaker. His ability to swallow had deteriorated so much he could not even manage his saliva, let alone a piece of meat.
This was a hard decision, but in the world of the sick, we make hard decisions.
If you had told me ten years ago I would feed a child through a tube in his stomach, I might have gagged.
But motherhood brings resiliency and courage. We are warrior women when we become mothers, and I learned to not only to feed my son through a tube in his stomach, but before this, by sticking a tube up his nose.
Learning to do the unthinkable is part of parenthood. We become brave not for ourselves, but for our children, and we are the better for it.
The dinner table was our gathering place, the one location where we didn’t have to pretend to be anyone else. When God places us in families, he places us with people who will sing our life song with us, whose presence is our comfort.
But after Silas died, his presence was replaced by a gaping hole at the table, his blue wheelchair missing from my right side. We all felt the hole we were falling into, that abyss of grief, the same hole my mother fell into after my father’s death when she realized he wasn’t going to come home for dinner again.
That was 22 years earlier.
My mother stood at the stove as my sister and I sat down for supper. When she turned around to put the last dish on the table, she stopped and looked at father’s empty chair. Something broke open as she realized our new normal: Dad would never sit at this table again. He would not walk in the door, untie his shoes and tell us about his day.
The empty chair where my father sat was a reminder of our loss, the pain of how life is transformed and shattered and we are left with the remnants of something that used to be beautiful.
My sister and I stared at the food, unable to say anything. There was just the awkwardness of silence, then her sobbing, before she went to her bedroom to cry in private. The empty chair reminded us that there’s no way to fix some things.
Our dinner table was a broken place, representing all those moments of family life: conversation, the sharing of food, our emotions from the day spilling across our plates.
It represented the things we cherished most, a gathering of souls, not just physically, but emotionally and mentally. Now that coming together had been severed, like someone had lost an arm.
When my son died, I had the same realization. Our family table had one empty side now. We sat there in gloomy silence until my husband got up, and without saying anything, moved his plate into Silas’ spot.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m going to sit in Silas’ place,” he said, picking up his glass. I stared at him, as he moved his silverware over to Silas’ spot at the table.
That’s when I realized what he was doing: He had moved the empty chair.
The gaping hole was no longer where Silas sat, but was now where Sam’s old seat was. The gap at the table no longer reminded us of what was missing. We didn’t have to die of grief every time we ate supper.
Sometimes in our pain, friends and family learn to fill the gap, change seats, throw us a life raft so we won’t drown. This kind of distraction is a gift in suffering.
God gives us these people, who in small ways, rescue us from ourselves. They see the empty chair and they fill the gap. From that moment on, my husband sat in Silas’ place.
This was our new normal. We learned to fill the gap for each other. We learned to extend grace on hard days.