I will never forget the moment I realized I was my niece’s hero.
It was a Sunday morning in church, and my 4-year-old niece was copying absolutely everything I did. If I scratched my nose, she did too. If I crossed my legs, hers would soon cross too. I even tested her loyalty a few times by purposefully folding my hands a certain way or fidgeting around. She managed to pass all of my tests.
A woman in our congregation had undergone a double knee replacement. A walker aided her as she hobbled around. After church, I encouraged my niece to go over and hug the woman, something she normally enjoyed. But the intimidation of the woman’s pain along with the walker was just too overwhelming for her, and she refused.
I left her sitting on the pew, and walked over to hug the woman. Moments after walking away, I caught the most precious sight of all—my niece giving the woman a hug, then looking at me and smiling.
We can all remember that time in our life when we idolized an older brother, sister, friend, or other family member. For me, that person was my older cousin. Six years older than me, beautiful, incredibly spiritual, athletic, funny, and as close to a big sister figure as possible, I was convinced she hung the moon. Times spent with her were of my most cherished memories in life. I wanted to be just like her in every way.
And then it all changed.
I remember, like it was yesterday, the feeling that overtook me when I received, for the first time, a cold welcome after months of not seeing her. It only took me seconds to realize that something was not right; she was not the same person I had grown up idolizing and copycatting. She was distant, she was cold, she was the exact opposite of what I anticipated upon my arrival.
The next five years were extremely difficult for me. Not only was she nonexistent in my family’s lives for these years, but I slowly gathered the cause of her disappearance—she had left us to dive head first into a worldly lifestyle. My heart was broken. My spirit was crushed. A deep bitterness and anger festered inside of me for so long. A huge hole grew in my heart each family gathering that took place without her. The weight of sadness on my shoulders grew almost to an unbearable weight when my mother asked where she was and hers responded, “I don’t know.”
I gave up on praying for her, while locking away all of our memories deep inside of me, refusing to let them surface. I doubted God, His plan, and the point of having role models.
And then it all changed.
I remember, like it was yesterday, the feeling that overtook me when I arrived at our annual family reunion, and saw her sitting in the dining hall after five years of no contact with her. Emotions ran wild through me. Bouts of anger, sadness, forgiveness, joy, love, confusion and hate all crashed together like waves inside of my heart.
But forgiveness, joy, and love won the battle as we stayed awake until 4 am the next two nights swinging together under a tree. We talked about and laughed at our favorite childhood memories like no time had passed at all. I went to bed each of those nights feeling skeptical though. Was she just back in my life like that? Could I really just trust her, forgive her, and move on?
Two years have passed now and I am blessed, happy, and proud to say she is happily married, faithfully attending church, growing spiritually every week, and quickly becoming the highlight of my family gatherings once again. Days before writing this article, we planned our week long Christmas visit. I am surprise visiting her in 2 weekends and I know that I will receive a tackle and hours of laughing, and catching up just like old times.
Chances are, someone reading this hasn’t experienced my happy ending to your missing loved one who has left you for the world. As you stand with those waves of emotions crashing inside of you, I ask that you allow my story to bring you hope. And that you let these words of God reign in your heart:
“But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:8-10).