I yanked the iPhone from my ear and stared at the screen. A long pause ensued before the chat resumed.
“He’s coming when?” I asked.
My middle daughter answered matter-of-factly. “The Friday before Thanksgiving.”
“How long does he want to stay?”
“Something like ten days.”
“But your brother will be on a camping trip and at school half that time. And you’ll be away at college until Tuesday. That leaves just Dad and me.”
“He said that’s okay.”
My words vanished. This was all so unexpected, absolutely crazy, completely weird. I couldn’t imagine spending that much time with a college sophomore from Germany whom I hardly knew.
Then again, I had extended the spontaneous invitation. My offer had been one hundred twelve percent sincere. But when he laughed and instantly replied with, “Thanks, but I could never accept that,” I figured this year’s Thanksgiving would be my family’s new normal—laced with the same silence of my oldest daughter’s absence I’d endured for the past eight holiday seasons without her here.
“Lukas might be miserable the first five days,” I finally told Christa, “but tell him he’s welcome to come.”
Christa said she’d give him the message then ended the call. I hustled to the pantry, withdrew a yardstick, and measured the five-brick-high fireplace hearth. If I hoisted my short five-foot-two stature up on it, I would match Lukas’s six-foot-six height.
I did. From that perspective, the entire room changed.
* * *
The doorbell rang an hour earlier than I’d anticipated which, for someone who always runs late, spelled disaster. I hadn’t finished prepping supper, I didn’t have myself together, my house wasn’t exactly clean. But when Lukas beamed a huge smile through my front door’s glass panes—that I can barely see out of standing on my tiptoes—I decided to let him in.
Alone at home, I expected the initial greeting to be painstakingly awkward. It should have been. Except Lukas doesn’t know a stranger, so he immediately launched into story-telling mode, dramatically sharing his latest collegiate adventures in his distinct German accent with delightfully loud vocal chords. Before my stomach started to hurt from laughing hard and my neck began to ache from looking up at this gentle giant, I offered to show Lukas around my small home.
We started in the front room where we stood. The wood shelf above the piano held three large, framed photos—the last professional pictures a JCPenney photographer took of all three of my kids—of Christa, Josh, and their older sister. Lukas had befriended Christa. He’d met Josh, her younger brother. The puzzled look on his face indicated he knew nothing about Jenna.
Of course, I thought. It’s a tough subject to bring up. Christa hasn’t told him.
“That’s Jenna,” I said, as I pointed to the photo. “Christa had an older sister.”
Hoping that might be enough for the moment, I turned down the short hallway. Lukas followed. I showed him Josh’s room, which he’d be using. Then Christa’s room, with its Dr. Who and Star Wars paraphernalia, bobble-head collection, and Marvel posters. A few minutes later we crossed the hall to the room that was mine and my husband’s. And my heart started racing.
On three of the walls, my friend Sam had mounted a two-tiered layer of six-foot shelves to display a series of 5×7 photos—one for each year from birth to present—of each of my children. Christa’s went from birth to age nineteen, Josh’s from birth to age sixteen, Jenna’s from birth to age fourteen. Lukas stared. I would have to explain.
“Jenna died when she was fourteen,” I said. “That’s why the photos end there. I’m sorry Christa didn’t tell you.”
Lukas nodded then turned away from the framed headshots to look at me.
“I hope you don’t mind me asking,” he said, “but how did she die?”
I paused, trying to decide how much to say. “We didn’t see it coming. She ended her own life. So, suicide.”
The happy chatter between us stopped. Lukas nodded his head. Tears pooled in his eyes.
“I was bullied in Germany,” he said, “so I might understand. But I’m so sorry.” Then Lukas bent down and hugged my shoulder—a sign that I hoped meant he wasn’t afraid to stay in my home, do life with my family, and embrace our difficult story.
That sign proved true.
Despite declaring he should be studying for exams, throughout the days that followed Lukas drew my husband—whom he’d never previously met—and me into delightful conversation. He told jokes and stories. He shared about life growing up in Austria and Germany. He rode with me to surprise Christa when I picked her up from Anderson University—and uttered no complaint when she greeted him with a fifty-pound box to carry.
Lukas worshipped God with Komron and me at Citylights. He helped me prepare food in the kitchen and joined in our Thanksgiving celebration. He played Settlers of Catan with the family and countless hours of Wii Lego Star Wars with Josh. He even achieved something Christa has never been able to do—convince Josh to spend a few hours dancing at Upstate Swing (because, as Lukas says, “it only takes twenty seconds of courage to ask a girl to dance with you”). Josh arrived home smiling and, since that fateful day, has gone back to swing dance every Tuesday he’s been free.
Also, Lukas offered to cook my family a delicious homemade schnitzel and German potato salad meal, which included shopping at Lidl while FaceTiming his mom in Germany for instructions about which ingredients to purchase. (It was a brave act, given the fact he’d only practiced his culinary skills in the kitchen—making a lasagna following a YouTube tutorial—one time before that!)
There was more. For example, the three teens road tripped to Carowinds. Our mutt, Max, adored his tall friend. And, when I specifically asked, Lukas kindly informed me he could easily see the half-inch of dust on the top of my refrigerator. But the biggest thing is this: for the duration of his stay, Lukas filled my home with an abundance of loud laughter. He discussed deep topics and delighted us with lighthearted stories. His presence changed the atmosphere. He felt like part of the family.
On Sunday one of Lukas’s Coastal Carolina University friends arrived to start the three-hour drive back to South Carolina’s Myrtle Beach campus. I said goodbye, and expected to return to the sadness of the holiday season, with the vivid memories that accompany the trauma surrounding the second day of January. Except . . . I didn’t. Lukas had filled my home with joy, and, inside me, something had shifted. For the first time since Christmas 2012, I was able to decorate the tree and fireplace. I placed wreathes outside. I listened to some Christmas music while I baked a batch of sugar cookies. And, at long last, I had the capacity to celebrate Emmanuel—our God with us.
Since my daughter’s death, I’ve struggled to not isolate. To let friends and family into my story, my hurt, and my home. To reply to emails and answer the phone. To simply say yes to friends who extend and accept invitations.
The yes isn’t easy. But almost every time I give it, I’m glad I did. Because something special takes place. Connection happens that changes my perspective.
And, best of all, it only takes twenty seconds of courage.
You can listen to Beth’s story on the podcast at An Unfinished Life: Losing a Daughter to Suicide with Beth Saadati