Perseverance

We’ve had a rough winter here in metro Atlanta. Ten inches of snow in December, another 2-inch “dusting” in January plus a week-long string of high temperatures in the 30’s and lows in the teens and 20’s. We also awoke to single-digit wind chill readings on multiple occasions. Brrr!! I realize some of you may be perusing this from places where you experience long winters accompanied by plenty of snow and frigid temps every year. Thirty-seven degrees would feel like a welcome heat wave. But, after 25 years, this Delaware-transplant has more than acclimated to milder winters and is ready for the beginning of another Southern Spring!

IMG_0420After several days of near-average weather, a cold front blew in late yesterday, resulting in another brisker-than-usual day today. Nonetheless the sky was that brilliant blue that beckons me outside so I bundled up and went for a stroll through my neighborhood, praising God for the warm sun and glorious cerulean canopy. When I returned home, I just had to walk the property. Even though we’ve had an extra-cold couple of months, I wanted to see what signs of life I might be ableIMG_5078 to find. I wasn’t disappointed. My witch hazel is in full bloom, buds are ready to open any day on a number of Lenten roses and foliage of early daffodils has poked up through the soil.

These sightings brought a smile to my face, but what I found when I carefully moved the leaves back from the locations of some spring ephemerals elicited squeals of delight. Yes, if anyone had been close IMG_5133enough, they would have overheard several exclamations of, “Oh, yay! Thanks, Lord!!”, as I discovered the tiniest evidence of returning trilliums and trout lilies, their miniscule leaves barely protruding above the soil. I gently replaced their leafy blanket, buoyed by the anticipation of seeing them in all their glory in a few weeks.

And I was reminded of another late-winter day nearly 20 years ago when my heart was anything but light. I’d ventured out to start clearing the leaves from the planting beds, a task my husband would normally have performed. But, as I was gradually coming to accept, that and so many of his previous responsibilities shifted to me after a heart attack felled him suddenly a mere two months after his 39th birthday the year before. Grief and reality intermingled and permeated my soul. Nonetheless, just like today, when I moved the leaves, I saw tiny perennials popping up – plants that Ray had acquired and cared for. Seeing them gave me hope. If those tiny plants could survive the cold, dark winter, maybe I would survive mine as well.[1]

I’ve benefitted from many hours of garden therapy since, as God has used numerous aspects of his remarkable creation to encourage, teach and minister to me. Spending time with Him in my yard is indeed one of my most cherished pastimes.

Furthermore, plants’ perseverance through less-than-favorable circumstances is, for me, one of their most endearing characteristics, reminding me of my mom’s oft-uttered admonition, “We can’t give up! We have to hold onto our faith.” The Apostle James goes a step further when he instructs us to consider it pure joy whenever we face trials of many kinds, because we know that the testing of our faith produces perseverance.[2]   I don’t know about you, but I rarely ever (ok, make that never) pray to be tested and I still say I wouldn’t have volunteered to be widowed at age 38. Nonetheless, I am certain I know God – his love, his faithfulness, his character – more intimately because He sovereignly incorporated that event into my story.

James says we must let perseverance finish its work so that we may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. And Paul assures us we’re not striving alone as He who began a good work in us will see it through to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.[3] Each of us has our own unique set of difficulties, our own winters to endure, but He who watches over the birds of the air and the flowers of the field cares infinitely more for his children.[4]

The garden may appear lifeless these days, but the plants are merely awaiting their time to burst forth, reminding us of our resurrected Savior and his promise to return to set all things right and to dwell among his people forever.[5]

Oh, Lord, how we look forward to your promised return.[6] Please help us to be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, and faithful in prayer as we await the glorious day of your coming.[7]

[1] I wrote my first blog post about this experience. Please see “Consider it pure joy” in Archives, July 2014.

[2] James 1:2-3

[3] Philippians 1:6

[4] Matthew 6:25-34

[5] Revelation 21:1-5

[6] John 14:1-3

[7] Romans 12:12

A most glorious beginning

As chronicled in an earlier post , death has visited my family often in October. (See “The gift of remembrance” in Archives, October 2014)  Three of my four grandparents, a beloved aunt, a cherished uncle – all six passed away during the tenth month of different years.

This fall finds us bereaved once again, as son-in-law Justin’s grandfather completed his earthly sojourn two weeks ago. His memorial service was a celebration of a life well-lived, a race faithfully run, a servant safely Home.[1] As Justin and his brother and cousin shared memories of their grandfather, it was clear he made a lasting, positive impact on their lives.

Though their memories won’t be as clear or numerous, “Papa” touched the lives of the next generation as well. Since his great-grandfather’s passing, Joshua has comforted himself and others with truth: “He’s not sick anymore. He’s in heaven!”; “In heaven, guess what? You can’t die again! Papa is there waiting for us!”; and, possibly my favorite, “Papa doesn’t have to pray anymore. He can just walk right up and talk to Jesus!”

 

 

 

IMG_4547Oh the beauty and simplicity of child-like faith, the kind of faith Jesus commended[2], the kind we’re told to pass on to our offspring.[3] It’s apparent Papa followed that mandate, modeling a godly walk for his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Indeed, it is the greatest legacy any of us can bestow, the greatest joy to know our children are walking in the truth.[4]

Nonetheless, we grieve our loss when a loved one is called Home. Though we’re assured the separation is temporary, their departure leaves a silence, an empty spot, that only their voice, their presence can fill. Someone asked me recently if I would wish Ray back. I hesitated. I know the spiritually-correct answer. How could I be so selfish as to ask him to return from Paradise?[5] Yet, I think back over all we’ve experienced and endured without him over the past 20 years and, in my frail humanity, I wish, oh-so-much, that he’d been here – to watch his daughters grow into amazing young women, to play with his grandchildren, to tend our garden with me.

The One who records our tears on his scroll[6] understands. Moments before He called Lazarus from the tomb, even knowing his Father would hear his plea to raise his friend, Jesus wept.[7] Being full of compassion, He shared the sisters’ sorrow and He shares ours.

But unlike our human friends who come alongside us with sincere condolences and ministrations in our times of need, Jesus can also meet our deepest need, the need to be reconciled to God. Our Savior took our sins upon himself and paid our penalty so we may joyfully proclaim[8], “Death is not the end, beloved. For the believer it is the most glorious beginning!”[9]

As you might imagine, whenever I attend a funeral or memorial service, I think back to Ray’s services. My ability to hold my emotions in check varies. I did reasonably well last week until the final song, “Twelfth of Never”, requested by Justin’s grandmother. While strains of the Johnny Mathis classic filled the church, tears trickled, then streamed from my eyes as I was reminded love never dies.[10]

 

IMG_1102

During Ray’s graveside service, one of the pastors told Mary and Jessie their lives would be blessed by having had a godly father even though he was with them for a relatively short time. I’m thankful Ray loved us so well that we continue to feel his love, thankful for his saving faith that guarantees we’ll see him again.[11]

I recently read a thought-provoking statement: “We are all under sentence of death; we are all terminal cases.”[12] Sometimes death comes quickly, unexpectedly, as with Ray’s passing. At other times it’s preceded by a long, arduous illness. IMG_1539Regardless of its manner, it is a certainty.[13] The author went on to say, “For the believer, the time of death becomes far less daunting a factor when seen in the light of eternity. Although death remains a formidable opponent, it is, from another perspective, the portal through which we pass to consummated life. We pass through death, and death dies. And the more a Christian lives in the consciousness of God’s presence here, the easier it is to anticipate the unqualified delight that will be experienced in God’s presence there.”[14] A most glorious beginning indeed!

Papa

Lord, we are like a mist.[15] Please teach us to number our days aright[16], knowing You wrote them all in your book before even one came to be.[17] Help us to fix our eyes on things above[18], to store up an imperishable treasure.[19] And may we leave a legacy of love and faith like the steadfast witnesses who have gone before us.[20]

[1] 2 Timothy 4:7-8

[2] Jesus welcoming the children is recounted in three of the four gospels: Matthew 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17.

[3] Deuteronomy 6:6-7; Deuteronomy 11:18-19.

[4] 3 John 3-5

[5] Psalm 16:11; 2 Corinthians 5:1-6

[6] Psalm 56:8

[7] John 11:1-43

[8] Isaiah 53:4-6

[9] Rev. Todd Allen made this statement during Ray’s funeral service, April 24, 1997. I’ve thought of it many times since.

[10] 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

[11] John 3:16; John 11:25-27

[12] D.A. Carson, “Be Still, My Soul, Embracing God’s Purpose & Provision in Suffering”, Wheaton, IL; Nancy Guthrie/Crossway, 2010; p 117.

[13] Romans 5:12

[14] D.A. Carson, Ibid

[15] James 4:13-15

[16] Psalm 90:12

[17] Psalm 139:16

[18] 2 Corinthians 4:17-18

[19] Matthew 6:19-21

[20] Hebrews 11; Hebrews 12:1-3

‘Tis so sweet

Probably not the heading you’d expect for a reflection on two decades of widowhood . . . at least not until you complete the title of the cherished hymn, ’Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus and recall its first verse: “’Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus, Just to take Him at His word, Just to rest upon His promise, Just to know ‘Thus saith the Lord.’” [1] As I’ve contemplated writing this memorial post, the refrain of that anthem has come to my mind repeatedly: “Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him! How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er! Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus! O for grace to trust Him more!”[2]

This time 20 years ago I was in a daze, a protective state of shock. On some level I recognized the need to make decisions regarding my 39-year old husband’s services – visitation, funeral, burial. So many decisions brought about by his sudden death the night before. But more than anything I just felt numb. My thoughts churned. “How could he have gone to work and not come home? Surely he’ll drive up any minute now, won’t he?” My mind and emotions grappled with the surreal situation I found myself in.

It was a Sunday and my house was full as friends came and went all day. Many heard the news at church, where we would normally have spent our morning had the unthinkable not occurred. Visitors came bearing food and encouraged me to eat, but I had no appetite. All I wanted was to be with Ray, to somehow help him, to know he was ok. When I finally got to see him on Tuesday afternoon, the knot in my stomach began to relax. I know that sounds contradictory, but in viewing his lifeless body I knew he was beyond any help I could offer. Furthermore, I was comforted to know his spirit was with the Lord. He was much more than ok. He was Home.[3]

Decisions were made, relatives and out-of-town friends made arrangements to attend the services – visitation Wednesday evening, funeral Thursday morning, burial in North Carolina on Friday afternoon. I can recall the events of that week in vivid detail. The people who gathered around us; prayers so abundant and fervent I could feel them; numerous gestures of support. I remember and am thankful.055

The flurry of activity and visitors eventually subsided and my daughters, ages 10 and 7, and I were left to contend with reality. I don’t recollect how many nights passed before one or more of us didn’t cry ourselves to sleep, how long it was before my subconscious stopped expecting Ray to come home from work, or when a “new normal” finally took hold. The raw pain of loss eventually diminished, but the longing to talk to Ray, to have my wise and loving partner by my side remains to this day.

So much has happened since that warm week in April, the daily ins and outs of life plus birthdays, graduations, weddings and the arrival of grandchildren. These momentous occasions were bittersweet without Ray to share them, but there has been much joy nonetheless.

Because God has never forsaken us![4]

From the second we heard the devastating news in a tiny room at Kennestone hospital to this very moment, God has been a faithful defender of this widow and a Father to her fatherless girls.[5] As I’ve thought about what to write on this 20th anniversary, each hardship that came to mind was met with a “but God”. A few examples: He made it possible for my parents to move to Georgia to help me raise Mary and Jessie, provided friends who’ve faithfully prayed for us and offered other assistance as needed, and he allowed me to be gainfully employed all the years my daughters were dependent upon me and my income. In addition there are the over-and-above gifts, like getting to go back to school to study horticulture.

I’ve often said if there’d been a signup sheet entitled “Get to know God better by losing your Husband”, I wouldn’t have put my name on it. Yet God sovereignly saw fit to add the roles of widow and single parent to my resumé. I have no doubt I’ve come to know him far better than if I’d had my earthly husband and provider to depend on. And so I can say as Louisa M.R. Stead did in the last stanza of her hymn, “I’m so glad I learned to trust Him, Precious Jesus, Savior, Friend, And I know that He is with me, Will be with me to the end.”

God owes me nothing, including explanations. Although I don’t remember ever being angry with God, I have wondered on more than one occasion why he took Ray so young. I’d reason it made no sense because he was a kind, caring spouse, parent, friend. But God sending his perfect Son to die in my place doesn’t make sense either.[6] Moreover, it is ample proof of his infinite and unconditional love. Yet He constantly pours out reminders, blessings both big and small.

Although my girls and I bear the scars of losing a beloved father and husband all-too-soon (at least from a human perspective), the Lord has comforted us that we might comfort others.[7] He has bestowed upon us the oil of joy instead of mourning and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.[8] Some who’ve witnessed our journey comment on our strength. May they recognize that apart from the Lord we would have none.[9] We are a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor[10]. Truly all praise, glory and honor belong to him alone.

 

[1] Louisa M.R. Stead, lyrics; William J. Kirkpatrick, music, 1882

[2] Ibid

[3] 2 Corinthians 5:1-9

[4] Deuteronomy 31:6

[5] Psalm 68:5

[6] 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

[7] 2 Corinthians 1:3-4

[8] Isaiah 61:3a

[9] See, for example Psalm 46:1-3, Psalm 73:25-26 and Isaiah 40:28-31

[10] Isaiah 61:3b

A different kind of grief

“19 years on the 19th”. That phrase has been echoing in my mind for the past several weeks as yet another anniversary of my husband’s sudden death approached. Shortly after lunch 19 years ago today I told Ray goodbye for the last time . . .

In 1997 the 19th fell on a Saturday. It was a beautiful, warm day, much like today. Life was proceeding normally – Ray left for his job at The Home Depot, I and my young daughters (ages 10 and 7 at the time) went shopping for summer attire. Mary, Jessie and I returned home around 7pm. We weren’t in the house 10 minutes when the phone rang. Chris, a patient care specialist from Kennestone Hospital was calling to tell me Ray had been brought to the emergency room from work and I needed to get there as soon as possible. No other details. It wasn’t until we were in a private room at the hospital that I got the devastating, life-changing news.

After a few questions about Ray’s health, Chris said a doctor would be in to talk to me. I pleaded, “Can’t you at least tell me if he’s alive?” For a moment she just looked at me. I asked more urgently, “Is he alive?” And then came the awful reply, “No, honey, he isn’t.” That scene, her words and the gasp of disbelief that simultaneously escaped me and my little girls will be forever etched in my mind.

But oh how God has comforted, upheld and sustained us across all the years since that fateful night. Over and over again He’s proved himself as a protector of this widow and a Father to my fatherless girls. [1]

Our pastor recently began a sermon series on Philippians. The past two weeks he’s reminded us that Biblically-based joy is not dependent on circumstances. It’s grounded in the assurances of God regarding the past, present and future found in His Word. Our faith won’t exempt us from hardship. Believers will face trials and troubles of various kinds. Jesus told us as much, but He didn’t stop there. He encouraged us to take heart because He’s overcome the world. [2]

We know the end of the story. Even now He’s preparing a place for us.[3] So we grieve, but not as those who have no hope. [4] There will be times when we’re hurt and disappointed, times when we may cry out, “Why, Lord?”, but we won’t be alone for He’s promised to never leave us.[5] In our humanity we’ll experience a full range of emotions associated with the events of our lives – Jesus, fully man, wept over Lazarus’ death even though being fully God, He knew He’d raise him – yet the Truth will allow us to not be controlled by our feelings.

Soon after hearing Chris’s answer, it was as if a giant door slammed shut in my mind. Looking back, I realize I couldn’t have taken in the enormity of it all at one time without crumbling. Instead, the Lord provided a protective, albeit primarily subconscious, bubble of denial and disbelief. It allowed the reality of Ray’s death to drip into my soul bit by bit over weeks and months as I was ready to accept it. In the days immediately after, I was in a state of shock, yet the Lord enabled me to make difficult decisions regarding the visitation, service and Ray’s final resting place. Most amazing, He gave me the strength to speak for a few minutes at the end of his funeral. I’ll close this post with the sentiments I expressed when concluding my remarks that day.

None of us knows when the last goodbye will be said. Keep current in your relationships. Tell your family you love them. Thank your friends. Hug people who are dear to you. Let them know you care. And let us leave today rejoicing because we know Ray is in the presence of God. I believe he’s planting flowers right now and I look forward to joining him in God’s garden one day.

055

 

[1] Psalm 68:5

[2] John 16:33

[3] John 14:2-3

[4] 1 Thessalonians 4:13

[5] Deuteronomy 31:6, 8

A time to heal

Watching my hand heal from carpal tunnel surgery has been a fascinating experience, a daily reminder of the truth of Psalm 139:14: we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

When I left the hospital my hand was swathed in an impressive bandage that made my appendage look like a soft white club. 8-20-2015, A BIG hand!Judging by the size of the dressing you would have thought I’d had my hand replaced! Three days later, my daughter Jessie carefully unwrapped the massive bandage as my mom watched, none of us quite sure what to expect when my hand was finally revealed. I, not liking the sight of blood or incisions especially when they’re on me, averted my gaze. Mom’s, “Oh, that’s not bad at all”, was quickly followed by Jessie’s, “It looks a bit gruesome though.” The latter comment kept me from looking . . . for days! Instead, Mom faithfully changed the small-by-comparison Band-Aide® each night, offering more encouraging commentary which was enough to assure me progress was being made.

When my daughter Mary first saw my hand without the post-surgery dressing she remarked, “I bet it feels good to have your hand unwrapped.” 8-23-2015, Unwrapped 1 It was certainly more comfortable, but without the enormous bandage I felt quite vulnerable and became very protective of my hand. In her self-titled role of “Nurse Jane”, Mom not only checked my incision nightly, but admonished me multiple times a day not to overdo it or hurt my hand. I assured her (repeatedly) that I’d be very careful since I’d be the one to suffer if I hurt myself. Indeed, I was so focused on recovering well, I followed the surgeon’s instructions to the letter and did my best to protect my incision, which I looked at frequently AFTER the stitches were removed. I even forsook working in my beloved garden for a whole month!

Bit by bit, my strength and range of motion improved as I tried to do a little more each day and let my hand tell me when I was asking it to do too much. One morning, several weeks after surgery, my hand felt almost normal. “Yes! I’m well!” . . . Nope! The next day, and for several days afterwards, I experienced cramping and occasional shooting pain in my hand. Healing had progressed to a deeper level. A week or so after that first almost-normal day, I experienced another day with little to no surgery-related discomfort. I expect there will be more good days and less pain as the recovery process continues to completion and am confident the final outcome will be positive.

The pain of loss can be every bit as sharp and piercing as any surgeon’s scalpel. Though the wounds are invisible, it’s just as important and appropriate to take care of ourselves when we’re hurting emotionally. Resting, receiving encouragement and assistance from supportive people, and protecting ourselves from further harm are critical components of healing, whether the injuries are physical or emotional.

And don’t underestimate the value of time . . .

Grieving is a process as individual as physical healing and every bit as back and forth. There are days when a new normal starts to feel comfortable, followed by a return to hours marked by profound sadness upon realizing all over again that things won’t ever be the way they were. Two steps forward, one back. Three steps forward, two back. But gradually, in time, healing takes place because the One who made us, fearfully and wonderfully, is the same One who never lets us go. He has compassion on us, remembering we’re dust and knowing what it’s like to experience the sorrows of this life because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

So let us be gentle and patient with ourselves and with each other, following the example of He who took up our pain and bore our sorrows that we might be healed.

 

Family matters

Week before last, a friend from church and I made similar journeys. She and her husband drove to Texas with their two small sons while my daughters and I flew to South Dakota. We were traveling to be with our extended families – she to say goodbye to a much-loved grandmother; me to help lay to rest a cherished brother-in-law. Back in our home state of Georgia last Tuesday, we hugged and tearfully shared details of our bittersweet treks. We affirmed to each other the assurance our loved ones are safely Home and agreed the tears we shed weren’t for them, but for ourselves, the ones temporarily left behind.

And then my friend said something that resonated with me just as deeply: “When I’m with my family, I remember who I really am.” Yes! The world uses myriad criteria to judge us, each with an implied worth – income, education, appearance, occupation, and so many more. But in my family I’m valued simply because I’m one of them. I belong. Not that we don’t encourage each other to do our best and celebrate our successes, but they aren’t the cost of entry. And our calamities, even when self-induced, aren’t reason for dismissal. I’m thankful for the unconditional love I’ve experienced in my family of origin. I’m equally blessed to have married into a family whose members are there for each other. They accepted me into their fold when Ray first introduced me to them over 30 years ago and have welcomed me ever since.

As I listened to the prayers that punctuated many of our gatherings while we were in South Dakota, I was reminded of the heritage of faith undergirding my daughters and grandchildren. There are generations of faithful believers on both sides of our family, many now part of the great cloud of witnesses. Because of the boundless love the Father has lavished upon us in sending his Son, we’re part of his forever family – chosen, unconditionally accepted, destined for another Home. No matter how the world chooses to judge us, when we’re in the presence of our Father, we remember who we really are.

Fixing our eyes

A while back, a friend asked if I’d ever heard the adage, “Heaven may be my home, but I’m not homesick yet.” No, somehow I made it through over half a century of living without hearing that one, in spite of being a believer for the vast majority of those years. Since becoming acquainted with it, however, I’ve had a number of occasions which have brought it to mind, but with a twist: “Heaven is my Home and I’m so very Homesick” . . . like the news I received a few days ago.

I was feeling a bit sorry for myself, stuck inside on such a lovely day when I would rather have been outside playing in the dirt. But, not wanting to risk injury or infection to my recently-operated-on hand, I opened a bunch of windows and enjoyed the breeze. A phone call from one of my sisters-in-law broke the afternoon silence. Even before I answered, I knew it was unlikely she’d call me in the middle of a weekday just to say hello. Sure enough, the tidings weren’t good. My youngest brother-in-law had died the day before, felled by a heart attack at a much-too-early age as were his father and brother (my husband) before him.

I’m all too familiar with phone calls that bring such life-changing news. The report that another loved one has suddenly been called Home puts everything else into perspective. The disappointment I was feeling about not being able to go outside was quickly eclipsed by the more pressing reality I’d been made aware of. I’m convinced no matter how many such life-altering phone calls I receive, they’ll never get easier. My tears are quickly followed by numbness and denial – Not again, Lord! How can this be happening? – Yet death is one of life’s certainties. And those of us left behind grieve, but not as those who have no hope.

God has great compassion on us, remembering we’re dust. He reminds us through the Apostle Paul that our present troubles, which are described as light and momentary, are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. He encourages us to fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, while what is unseen is eternal. Similarly, Jesus tells us to store up our treasure in heaven, not on earth. Commenting on Jesus’ directive in light of loss, Elisabeth Elliot states,

“The loss of someone we love, whether by death or otherwise, brings us to the brink of the abyss of mystery. If we wrestle, as most of us are forced to do, with the question of God in the matter, we are bound to ask why He found it necessary to withdraw such a good gift. Cover "The Path of Loneliness"We will not get the whole answer, but certainly one answer is the necessity of being reminded that wherever our treasure is there will our hearts be also. If we have put all our eggs in the basket of earthly life and earthly affections we haven’t much left when the basket falls. Christians, being citizens of Another Country, subjects of a Heavenly King, are supposed to set their affections there rather than here – a lesson few learn without mortal anguish.”[i]

Later this week we’ll gather in a tiny South Dakota town to remember Phil, a quiet, gentle man. He never married but cherished his family and endeavored to attend most all of the weddings of his numerous nieces and nephews. As we stand in the windswept cemetery just outside of town, I’ll strive to fix my eyes on the unseen. For then I’ll see two brothers, eternally reunited and I’ll rejoice in the assurance that our treasured family circle will one day be completely restored in a Home where there will be no more tears or death or pain.

Phil Kuipers. a kind and gentle man 1-9-1961 to 8-26-2015

Phil Kuipers, 1-9-1961 to 8-26-2015

[i] Elisabeth Elliot, “The Path of Loneliness”, (Grand Rapids, Revell, 2001) pg. 59

In remembrance

“Death leaves a heartache no one can heal. Love leaves a memory no one can steal.” (Unknown)

Eighteen years ago today my beloved husband was laid to rest in a tiny cemetery in North Carolina. The part of my heart that belonged to Ray went into the grave with him that sunny, late-April afternoon. Several weeks later I placed a call to “Focus on the Family” to request materials on dealing with grief. In the midst of my conversation with the kind person who answered I said, “I feel like part of me is missing.” I’ll never forget her reply, both compassionate and oh-so-insightful: “During the time you were married you and your husband became one. Part of you is missing.”

Months passed and I was having yet another day where I was struggling with the pain of losing someone so dear. Sensing my sadness, the woman I was meeting with inquired about how I was coping. When I confessed how difficult some days were she introduced me to a concept I’ve held onto ever since. She suggested I envision a beautiful piece of furniture, a chest with many drawers, each containing memories and their associated emotions. She went on with the analogy saying, “When memories of your husband’s death arise at a time when you feel your aren’t able to deal with them, imagine tucking them into one of the drawers, closing it gently and re-opening it when you’re ready to do so.” I’ll admit there have been times when a drawer has sprung open and caught me off guard. Times when a memory has overwhelmed me and I’ve struggled to shut the drawer. But more often the mental image has served me well.

The week before and the week after the anniversary of Ray’s death I’m quite intentional about opening the drawer. I think about how we spent our last few days, oblivious to the fact our time together was winding down. I remember the day of his passing with such clarity it could have happened recently, not so long ago. And I recollect the days following, when I had to make decisions I never expected, much less wanted to make at such an early age. My reminiscences are deliberate and purposeful, a way to honor Ray as well as remind myself of lessons learned and affirmed by losing him – The importance of numbering our days aright and keeping current in our relationships with those we hold dear.  The need to keep things in perspective, saving emotional distress for things that can’t be “fixed”, no matter how much money or time you invest. (And its corollary: things can be replaced, people can’t be.)  The ability of prayer to strengthen and support when raised up by myriad family members and friends on one’s behalf – just to cite a few.

I’ve kept a journal for ages. On the night I returned home from the hospital, dazed and in a mild state of shock, I penned these words: “This is the worst day of my life up to this point – Ray, my dear, dear husband and friend died tonight. Even as I write it I don’t believe it. It will probably take time for the numbness to wear off, but when it does, Lord, please enfold Mary, Jessie and me in your love. I don’t understand this and I can’t even begin to imagine what my life will be like without him.” I was right. I couldn’t imagine what life would be like and to this day I don’t understand. But God heard my cry that night . . . and many nights since. He’s been so faithful to me and my family, loving and sustaining us all the years we’ve been without Ray.

Which brings me to another point regarding the imaginary chest: it contains numerous drawers. Although some hold remembrances that evoke sadness, there are many more containing memories associated with great joy. I open those on a regular basis, reliving and savoring the moments, praising God for His goodness and grace. And each year when April 19th comes around, I remind myself I’m another year closer to once again seeing the man I was blessed to call my husband. The reunion is guaranteed because of the broken body and spilled blood of the One who instructed his followers to remember . . . Him, his sacrifice, his promises. And so we wait in hope and assurance.

The gift of remembrance

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’” Revelation 21:3-4

Each year when October comes around, Mom and I reflect on the fact that three of my four grandparents died during the last week of the month, in different years – 1965, 1966 and 1974 to be exact. Many years have passed, but I know my mom, now in her early 80’s, still misses her parents. Likewise, there are days when I long to talk to Ray, though it’s been 17 years since I last held his hand and shared the details of my day with him. And then I have several friends who are in the early stages of grief, having lost their much-loved spouses within the past few months. I assure them it will get better, that the pain won’t always be so raw, but I also tell them they won’t ever “get over” the loss. There will always be a tender spot, a place only the beloved can fill. Yet, would we want it any other way?

And so, to all those who are missing someone dear, no matter how long the separation has been, I offer up this quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It eloquently describes how precious the memories are that link us to our departed loved ones until the day when we’re finally reunited:

“Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love . . . it is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; God doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, God keeps it empty and so helps us keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain . . . the dearer and richer the memories, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude changes the pangs of memory into tranquil joy. The beauties of the past are borne, not as a thorn in the flesh, but as a precious gift in themselves.”

055

In a moment

“In a moment things can change. One look behind and it’s never the same.” These words from the song “All Kinds of People” by Susan Ashton are simple yet profound. I’ve had moments in my life that were truly life-changing; moments that caused me to quote the lyrics from this song; moments like the one seventeen years ago when I was told my husband was no longer alive . . .

It was April 19, 1997. We were having an early spring and the warmer-than-usual weather had my young daughters, Mary, 10, and Jessie, 7, clamoring for new swim suits. Even though I knew we’d  likely  have another cold snap or two before the warm weather settled in for good, I agreed to take them shopping. My husband, Ray, department head of inside gardening at a local Home Depot store, was scheduled to work from 1pm to 10pm so, after we finished lunch, we headed off to the mall. Several hours later, having acquired the swim suits (and most likely some other new clothes), stopping for dinner and picking up bread and milk, we were on our way back home. Picking up bread and milk may seem like a terribly trivial thing to remember after so many years, but Ray would often stop on his way home from work to pick up any essentials we were lacking. He took good care of his girls – all three of us – so I was looking forward to surprising him with the news he could come straight home that night.

Strong thunderstorms moved into the area as we made our way home.  When we arrived we went directly upstairs to watch the “Local on the 8’s” on the Weather Channel to make sure no tornados were headed our way. Our focus on the weather resulted in us bypassing the answering machine which held multiple messages from someone named Chris from Kennestone Hospital. We hadn’t been home five minutes when the phone rang. It was Chris, calling again from the emergency room to tell me Ray had been taken there from work and asking if I had anyone who could bring me to the hospital. I assured her I could drive myself and asked what was wrong. She wouldn’t give me any details, just asked me to get there as soon as possible.  It wasn’t until I was half-way there that I realized her asking if someone could bring me probably wasn’t a good sign. I prayed all the way to the hospital, fervently hoping Ray wasn’t dead and attempting to console Mary and Jessie who were trying to be brave, but were terribly concerned about their much-loved father.

When we reached the hospital, Chris, the patient care specialist, met us in the emergency area and led us to a private room. As we walked down the corridor, she calmly asked me questions: Did Ray have a history of heart problems?; Was he on any medications?; Was he under a doctor’s care? Her composure and questions renewed my hope that Ray was, indeed, alive. When we got to the room, she told me the doctor would be in to talk to me. I asked tentatively, “Can’t you at least tell me if he’s alive?” She paused, oh so briefly, before saying, “I’m sorry, honey, he isn’t.” A massive heart attack had felled my life partner a little over two months after his 39th birthday. And with that, my life changed forever. I cried out, “God, no!” and sank to the sofa as Mary and Jessie dissolved into tears of their own, all of us incredulous. Hadn’t we seen our beloved husband and father a few short hours before, alive and well? He just went to work. How could it be he’d never return to us?

Then, just as suddenly, it was as if a giant door slammed shut. I couldn’t take the news in all at once or it would have crushed me. Instead the truth gradually penetrated my soul, drop by drop, over a period of weeks and months as I was able to accept it.

Yet somehow I had to deal with the unwanted reality that had been thrust upon me. There were immediate needs to be tended to: phone calls to family members and our pastor, decisions regarding the visitation and funeral services, picking a final resting place. Details of that week are burned into my memory: being surrounded by family and friends; being upheld by prayers so ardent they were tangible; speaking at Ray’s funeral; saying a final goodbye to him in a little cemetery in North Carolina.

It was a time of great sorrow, yet I felt the love and concern of so many who comforted and helped out in very practical ways. Some provided lodging for out-of-town relatives; others prepared and served lunch after the funeral. Our children’s minister took Mary and Jessie to Wednesday night activities at church so they could have a bit of normalcy amidst the upheaval. Then there was the friend who arrived the day after Ray’s death and quietly asked if I’d contacted a funeral home yet. When I, still in a mild state of shock, replied “No”, he spent the next couple of hours calling funeral homes for me and gathering necessary information.

Through the turmoil, grief, and tears, God was my refuge and strength.  He was my ever present help that week and has remained so to this day. I’ve said many times since Ray’s all-too-soon-for-me death,  had there been a sign-up sheet at church with the heading “Get to Know God Better by Losing Your Husband”, I never would have put my name on the list, but God, in His providence, saw fit to do so. I can testify to the fact He’s been a defender of this widow and a Father to my fatherless girls, faithfully providing and protecting, all the years we’ve been without our earthly husband and father.

There have been other life-changing moments since, one fairly recent, though none has been as devastating as the one when I learned of Ray’s death.  Each time I’ve gone back to the garden for solace. I know I’ll find my loving Father there, for He’s promised to never leave me or forsake me.