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In the movie, Collateral Beauty, we meet Howard Inlet (Will Smith) on top of the world. He if full of life, passion, and the oblivious certainty that life lies ahead down a golden path strewn with all things bright and beautiful. In the very next scene we see him three years later, drowning in misery after the death of his 6-year-old daughter. He is trapped in the grief and is on the verge of losing everything. No one who is grieving the loss of someone they love can watch this movie without being touched. Howard meets Madeline (Naomie Harris) at a support group meeting. Madeline has also lost her daughter. She tells Howard about a brief encounter she had with a stranger as she sat in the hallway outside her daughter’s room. She was waiting for the staff to prepare her daughter for the removal of life support. Madeline’s husband was in the parking lot comforting her mother, who had fallen apart. The stranger asked Madeline who she was losing. She told the woman she was losing her daughter. The woman told Madeline, “Don’t forget to look for the collateral beauty.” Despite Madeline’s assurance that she could now see the collateral beauty, Howard wasn’t having it.
I realized as I watched that movie, that Butch and I had an opportunity to see some of that collateral beauty even before his death in 2016. He could have died in 2007 or 2008. He was dead on the sidewalk in Davis in 2010. Had he not been so close to emergency services, that would have been it. I was granted the miracle of borrowed time, three times. After each incident, anytime he apologized for anything at all, I would say, “It doesn’t matter. Just don’t die.” Somehow, everything fell into perspective relative to his being gone from my life. Without idealizing things, I can truthfully say that our level of connection was deeper and more tangible after 2010 than at any point in the past.
Butch had consistently become a better and better husband every day we were married. After 2010, he kicked it up to a new level. He made every birthday, anniversary, Valentine’s day and Mother’s day memorable. He looked for opportunities to develop his relationship with our sons any way he could. He was visibly committed to building friendships with his sisters and being a great son to his mother. He seemed to savor his friendship with his bicycle buddy much more mindfully. He spent more time with my family, going out of his way to be the cool uncle. Only in retrospect can I see how intentional all of that was. He was already looking for the collateral beauty. He was living on borrowed time a purposefully as he could.
Shadowlands is a movie about the death of C.S. Lewis’s wife. He spent most of his life in his head as a scholar and theologian. He credits his wife with teaching him to live out of his heart. There is a scene where they are picnicking in a meadow when it begins to rain and they make a run for a cow shed. She was in remission at that point but there was no guarantee of how much time she had left. In the middle of their laughter and joy, he breaks down. He tells her that he doesn’t think he can take it—letting himself love her and their life with such passion when it could all end at any moment. She tells him, “Don’t you see that the pain now is part of the joy later?” She, too, seemed to be pointing into the future and promising him that there would be collateral beauty. The final scene of the movie shows him sending her son, who he is now raising on his own after her death, off to school. They appear to have a very close and loving connection. As he watches the boy ride away, his voice is heard saying, “In this world, we can choose suffering or safety. When my mother died when I was a boy, I chose safety. Today, I choose suffering.” Like Madeline, C.S. Lewis was experiencing the collateral beauty foretold by his wife by staying in his heart rather than running away.
Becoming us without them takes a huge leap of faith. It can feel like we are clinging desperately to the pain as if it is a rope, dangling over a cliff, with them at the other end. Everything in us tells us that clinging to the pain like won’t do any good. They are not actually at the other end of the rope. Nothing, including clutching that rope, will bring them back. It’s exhausting and futile. But what will really happen if we let go? Will they and everything they were to us disappear into the abyss? And who will we be without that rope in our hands? What if there is no version of us without them that is worth bothering to find? Our companions on the journey of grief give us the courage and faith to release them from our grip. They promise us that when we let go, our love ones soar rather than crashing. The dark veil of hopelessness is torn and the light breaks through. The love they poured into us slowly fills the empty spaces that were festering with pain and sadness. We finally see that what feels like a life without them is really a life overflowing with them. We can begin to live intentionally, savoring each moment, treasuring each relationship, living each day as the gift it really is, filled with the most amazing collateral beauty.
And in the meantime, as we fight our way out of the darkness, God sends us angels who gently tell us, “Don’t forget to look for the collateral beauty.”