Why I’m naming my tears this Christmas, thirty years after my dad’s death

It’s hard to believe that Dec. 18, 2017, marked the 30th anniversary of my dad’s death.

I woke up early that day and made the drive from my home in Woodstock, Va., to Monticello Memorial Park near Charlottesville. It’s a stunning cemetery that rests in the shadows of Thomas Jefferson’s similarly stunning home.

There I sat, the sun rising and marching across a dry field of graves. I tap-tap-tapped these words onto my iPhone as tears filled my eyes like an unattended kitchen sink.

They spilled over, but I didn’t care. Not this time.

There’s so much work to do, no doubt, but thank heaven I’m not still the boy who heard that last “goodbye.”

Yes, at this special spot, cheeks tingling in the crisp Christmastime air, I celebrated the 30th anniversary of a painful loss. But this year, there’s something different about these tears.

Pondering the three decades since the Dec. 18 that changed me and my family, I finally resurrected a bit of truth: While all tears look the same, they fall with different names.

These December tears aren’t just about grief. Sure, a few might be named and dedicated to missing the man who shaped me in many ways. But those tears were outnumbered this year.

I had tears of satisfaction at all I’ve learned since his passing. Rather than stop the journey, I’ve looked for opportunities to grow and improve, to polish away rough edges. There’s so much work to do, no doubt, but thank heaven I’m not still the boy who heard that last “goodbye.”

I cried tears of gratitude at how the years have taught me to better appreciate and honor the goodness of my mother. She’d be the first to say she’s not perfect, but I’d be the first to say she sure is trying.

I felt tears of loyalty, too. My siblings have been so fiercely loyal to me and to one another since that dark December night. I might not be alive today without them.

There were also tears of deep love for my own family. How blessed am I that, for nearly 25 years, my wife has caught and shared tears of every kind? She’s so lovely, so loyal, such a friend. She’ll be first in line to embrace Dad when the time comes, and to swap stories of wild antics.

Other tears were named joy for my children — because that’s what they bring me. They make mistakes, they’ve made me gray, but they sure know how to love. My oldest will be married on Dec. 23 in the Lord’s house, and while his name won’t appear on a reception guestbook, I know my dad and many others on all branches of our family tree will be paying close attention.

But the tears that led the way this year ought to be named for the one we all worship. My Savior has been so good to me. He’s taught me, forgiven me, then forgiven me again. He’s given me scripture, prophets and apostles, talents and gifts, a gospel and a road map home.

Because of his birth, his ministry, his blood, his death, his Resurrection and his Restoration, I will one day cry another kind of tear when my father bursts the bands of death and rises again, along with every single one of us.

An hour after I arrived at the cemetery, the sun set the frost back to bed, and I had a decision to make.

I could pray, cry a few more tears and remember a few more years. Or I could say goodbye, walk back to my car and remind myself he’s not really there anyway.

And if he were? He’d say with a wise wink, “I love you. Now get back to work. You’ve got a book to write.”

Merry Christmas.