Lessons According to Hyacinth

I’ve always loved the BBC comedy show “Keeping Up Appearances.” In the Chicago area, it played at 7:30 pm every Saturday night. My mom also loved this program, especially the hilarious character at the center of every episode, Hyacinth Bucket, “…pronounced ‘Bou-quet’!”

For a year or so before Mom died, Nate graciously volunteered to eat Saturday evening dinners with his newspapers instead of his wife, letting me spend that weekly time with Mom in her apartment. I made dinner for the three of us, then packed up two plates to take to Mom’s, leaving Nate’s with him.

Every week Mom and I eagerly anticipated Saturday’s dinner-date with each other and “our Hyacinth”, laughing together over her misguided efforts to keep up with the Joneses and hopefully surpass them. If there was anything redeeming about that show, it was learning how not to act, but Mom and I had a delightful time watching Hyacinth scheme and dream.

As for Hyacinth’s name sake, a colorful spring bulb-flower, they’ve always been my favorites. Last Saturday Mary stepped into our door carrying a pot full of them, three hyacinths just on the verge of bursting into bloom. This early preview of spring would soon give off a rich perfume strong enough to fill the room. Even with my damaged olfactory nerves, I could smell trace amounts of their powerful scent, a rare treat.

This morning when I came downstairs, all three blooms had opened to-the-max. They were so lush and heavy, their stems were bent sideways. I rushed over and buried my nose in them, enjoying a spring moment in the middle of January, courtesy of my thoughtful sister.

Standing back to admire the hyacinths, I could see they needed more support than their hollow stems were offering. It was a picture of how I felt on many mornings, too, hollow and heavy. Finding an old garden stake in the basement corner, I snapped it in three pieces and gave them the support they needed. Problem solved.

It got me thinking about my situation. What is my garden stake?

I didn’t have to think long. The number one thing shoring me up when I’ve felt limp and low has been prayer, especially prayer that includes the words of Scripture. Praying by using verses of the Bible is my fail-safe way to claim the support and vigor God offers. On a really burdensome day, I can put my name right into the passage as I pray it. God doesn’t mind. After all, his promises are for each of us personally.

Praying through 1 Peter 5:7-9 has encouraged me today: “I’m casting all my worries and concerns on you, Lord, because you promise you’ll care for me. I’m asking you to keep me alert to the evil you tell me is prowling around like a wild animal. The devil wants to spoil my reliance on you as I try to get through this grief. Strengthen me to resist him and stand firm in my faith, knowing many others who trust you through tough times are doing exactly that, all over the world.”

The vivid word pictures of Scripture are helpful. Even today God delivered a fresh visual, the drooping hyacinths, to link me with the practical power in that 1 Peter passage. God was following through on his promise to care for me, reminding me of his provision within each day.

Although television’s Hyacinth demonstrated what not to do, nature’s hyacinth taught me to stay close to the strong stake of scriptural prayer. The results are more satisfying than even the best episode of “Keeping Up Appearances.”

“Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this [grief or pain], that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses… hardships… and calamities, for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:8-10)

A Wavy Day

Recently I met with a friend who I hadn’t seen since before Nate’s cancer. After we shared a hello and a hug, she said, “Well, I sure can see this whole thing has taken a big toll on you.”

I think she meant I looked worn and haggard. That’s certainly how I felt. Ongoing grief is exhausting. Just when you think the worst is over, a new wave of sadness washes over you like an icy dousing without warning. It’s similar to watching a sand castle get swamped when a wave rolls past its natural boundary and overwhelms it.

The interesting thing about waves of grief is that they’re much like waves of water. They rush in, but they also rush out again, usually fairly quickly. I think of the fun of a wavy day at the beach when we were kids and how we bobbed on the surface, using the waves to our advantage, until a big one crashed overhead. Then it was tumble and toss, often with water going up our noses, until we could get our footing again and come up for air.

Waves of grief are much like that. We’re moving through a day successfully when unexpectedly a wave knocks us down and floods us with tears. That happened to me today as I sat at the dining room table writing a few notes. I was answering a letter in which a friend had written, “We want to continue getting together with you,” and all of a sudden I was crying. A picture of the four of us came to mind, engaged in lively conversation, except that it was only three of us, a sad scene I couldn’t bear.

My crying lasted about three minutes. I had to get up to find some Kleenex but shortly after that was back finishing the note. A wave had broken over me but had quickly receded, just like at the beach.

God separated the dry land from the sea at creation, defining the boundaries of the waves, and he separates waves of grief from those who mourn, defining those boundaries as well. In both cases, he lets the waves come, but it’s “this far and no farther” as he controls their power.

An interesting thing has happened to the waves of Lake Michigan this week. With the colder temperatures, water that has splashed up on the snow-covered beach has frozen into lumps of sandy ice. Each wave has added another layer to the lump until mounds of ice have grown too high to see over. Climbing up the slick hills is nearly impossible with regular snow boots. Jack has an advantage with his claws, but even he slips and slides backwards now and then.

The mounds of ice continue to grow in height. Wild waves hit the icy ridge with a crash so powerful it causes water to splash ten feet into the air, landing atop the hill and rapidly freezing, thus adding new height. Unlike summertime waves that roll up and quickly fall back, these waves rise and freeze, one atop another.

Grief is like that, too. If we hold back the tears and don’t allow ourselves to experience the sadness, grief freezes inside of us, building layer upon layer until it becomes a mountain beyond which we can’t see. It’s much better to let it surge up, come out in tears and then recede.

When I break down and have to stop what I’m doing to be sad for a few minutes, I ought to also be glad, knowing God’s healing is in process. He’s keeping a watchful eye on those waves, and when they wash up too far or come too close together, he moves in to force them back. If I let them come flowing out in tears, they’ll never be able to freeze up (and mound up) deep inside.

You [Lord] rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them.” (Psalm 89:9)

“I [declares the Lord] made the sand a boundary for the sea, an everlasting barrier it cannot cross. The waves may roll, but they cannot prevail; they may roar, but they cannot cross it.” (Jeremiah 5:22)


My husband loved to give me jewelry. His dad owned a jewelry store, and he’d worked there in different capacities during summers as a teen and then as a college student. He learned how to polish silver, how to deal with the public and how to make a woman happy: by bringing her something from a jewelry store.

The first piece of jewelry he gave me was a delicate necklace made of silver in a starburst design with diamond chips around the outside and a pearl in the center. He gave it to me at Christmas, the year before we got engaged, sending the message he was serious about our relationship. Over the years I’ve received bracelets, broaches, rings, pendants and earrings, all lovely. But the most creative piece went above and beyond all of those.

When Nate was in law school, he participated in ROTC, entering the U. S. Army as a reservist. The Viet Nam War was raging, and by voluntarily enlisting, he beat the draft and a sure assignment to ‘Nam.

When he went on active duty, he was issued a pair of identical ID tags informally called “dog tags.” They were worn around the neck on a 24” ball-chain at all times. Made of aluminum, they wouldn’t corrode or burn. If a soldier was wounded or killed, one tag was taken to the record-keeping officer, the other left on his body for accurate ID.

Nate never went to Viet Nam, a blessing to us as young marrieds. After he received his honorable discharge, his pair of dog tags went into a dresser drawer.

Around the time of our 25th anniversary, he retrieved one of these tags and took it to a jeweler friend, asking him to dip it in gold as a pendant for me. The dog tags represented our safe passage through a dangerous time in America’s history, and he knew I’d understand the significance.

When I opened the blue velvet jewelry box on our anniversary, I was delighted. Next to the regulation dog tag, now gilded in gold, was a mini-tag, also gold. He’d had it engraved with the Scripture that was inside both our wedding bands: “My beloved is mine, and I am his.” (Song of Solomon 2:16)

On the back it read, 11-29-69, until the end of time.” He’d carved his promise to be my husband until time ran out. Today as I fingered the necklace, his inscription took on new meaning. Time had indeed run out on our marriage, and Nate had kept his promise 100%. My heart was flooded with gratitude and deep respect.

The five lines on every dog tag are a distilled summary of that soldier’s life:

  • Line one, his surname.
  • Line two, his given name and middle initial.
  • Line three, his social security number.
  • Line four, his blood type.
  • Line five, his “brand” of religion.

At the moment of death, these hard, cold facts are the only things that matter: who you are, and where you’re going.

There are several spiritual parallels to military dog tags. God knows each of us by name and invites us to the sure knowledge of where we’ll go immediately after dying. When life has boiled down to its bare minimum, dog tag data is all that counts.

But God doesn’t need ID tags to keep us all straight. He actually offers to carve our names into his hand as a way of showing us how much we mean to him. He doesn’t ask us to carve his name on ourselves once we belong to him but does it the other way around. It’s as if he says, “I’m holding your information. It doesn’t have to be stamped into aluminum to evade corrosion or fire. It doesn’t have to be strung on a ball-chain or hung around your neck. And there doesn’t need to be two copies, because who you are and where you’re going is supernaturally protected from all harm.”

Nate made a promise to me, “until the end of time.” God made a promise to all of us, “until the end of time, and throughout eternity.”

“See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” (Isaiah 49:16a)

“But now, this is what the LORD says— he who created you… ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.’ ” (Isaiah 43:1)