It happens after every Christmas or birthday: Wrapping paper lies in shreds on every surface. New toys (“Exactly the one I wanted!”) are stacked up in a pile to be explored later. But the star of the show is always the humble box previously shrouded by the wrapping paper, the housing of each one of those presents. Without fail in our house, one of the first acts of creativity in the wake of the present-opening frenzy is turning every scrap of cardboard into a piece of transportation, a playhouse for their stuffed animals, or a canvas for my daughters’ latest mural. And all we can say is, “We should’ve bought her a box.”
The scene and sentiment is so familiar that it was the concept behind a commercial this past Christmas season. Every parent knows the frustration of having so painstakingly saved for and carefully chosen a gift only to have that cheap, recycled cardboard steal our kid’s imagination for hours on end.
We should’ve bought her a box.
In our house, those cardboard boxes were recently engineered as extravagant additions to the Lego treehouses that were the actual gift. When the recycling needed to go out a few days later, there was no small uproar from my little architects. Over the years, we have tied ropes to the boxes and turned them into cars, driven of course by whatever horsepower mom or dad could generate in a given moment. And I have laughed until I cried watching little toddlers never grow bored of hiding in boxes and popping out with the springiness and goofy grin of a jack-in-the-box.
We should’ve bought her a box.
A few months ago I couldn’t help but feel that anticipation in my heart as I looked at another box. When would this kid pop her head out and yell, “peek-a-boo,” I wondered. Growing impatient, I waited. I knew she was in there. Why wouldn’t she just come out? Tell us all this was all some big ruse—that she was fine; she was just playing with us all, and, like all children, didn’t know that she carried the joke too far.
But as I stood next to her box, I knew that the truth was that it wasn’t going to happen this day. Years ago I had stood just a few hundred yards away and looked at my own daughter in a box. No amount of hope, longing, faith, pleading was going to work. Her parents—my friends who are filled with faith, love, hope, and tenderness—had bought her that box.
And as I stood there on the precipice of another holiday season, I couldn’t help but think how many times I would think and hear, “We should’ve bought her a box.” It’s a funny sentiment until it’s not. Until you have to actually buy her a box. We had to buy our own little girl a box and now our friends had to do the same. And while little girls like ours continue to hold living space in our souls, there is something strangely disturbing about the finality of having to face a little girl’s casket.
As my friend says, your arms are empty but they feel heavy all at the same time. Your ears hear cries from the other room and you get up in the night only to find the room as empty as it has been for years. The tears seem like they will never end and then when they do, they surprise you in strange places like grocery stores, at stoplights, or in schoolyards. And you can’t help but realize that she would’ve been however many years old right now.
I wonder what those long legs would’ve been doing out there. I wonder if she would be playing with other kids, or dreamily looking up into the clouds like she always seemed to do when she was outside. I wonder what the sass of a three-year-old would’ve translated to as a ten-year-old. I wonder what those thick, coarse curls that always seemed to get stuck in my beard would look and feel like right now.
And then I remember that we bought her a box.
On those dark days, this I call to mind and therefore have hope: we didn’t actually buy the box. We rented it. It’s only borrowed. For how long, I don’t know. But it is a rental for sure.
And I can say that with confidence because there is one who experienced death and borrowed a box, so to speak. One who treated a grave like it was just a place for an extended nap. One who looked death square in the face, jangled the keys, and said, “I’m taking these, and I’m out. You don’t get the last word. Matter of fact, by taking me on, you played yourself.”
He is the one who I believe stood near to us at that gravesite that day and with tears in his own eyes whispered, “Just wait, she’s gonna come out of there. And you’re gonna laugh until you cry, and scoop her out of the box, just like you have with your other kids countless times before.”
But, why can’t that day be today?
His friends also stood around wondering what had happened. This is not what we had planned. This was not how we hoped that things would go. All of our anticipation and joy has turned into a pile of questions and grief. That “box” seemed to have the final word. But the one who went into the grave, like my children with their cardboard boxes, turned a cheap, earthy hole into a place bursting with unimaginable life and creativity.
As it turns out, he has plans to do the same for all of his people. A day is coming, and it is a real day, where the hole that I stood over and the box that we planted are going to burst forth with a brightness and beauty that is unimaginable. Perishable will become imperishable. Dishonor becomes glory. Weakness will be raised in power. Mortal will put on immortality. Tears will be wiped away. And death will be mocked forever as a venom-less, defeated enemy.
So as it turns out, we didn’t buy a box.
We borrowed a box.
Cover image by Paper Textures.
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