Our church has started a 6 week series of member stories and testimonials. Bart asked if I would be willing to share our story on Easter morning. It was a privilege to be able to share how God has grown and sustained us over these past 4 years.
My name is Dawn Rynders and I’ve been a City Life member for a little over 7 years. I’m the mom to Henry off in college, Beatrice who is a junior in hs and Simon who is a freshman. Some of you know our story because you walked through it with us but others of you are new enough to City Life that you maybe know very little about our family. This is our story of hope and today is a pretty perfect day to share that with all of you.
In Oct of 2013, during Breast cancer awareness month, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My children found it a little amusing that I managed to get breast cancer during breast cancer awareness month. I did not find it terrible amusing. My breast cancer was your pretty normal, run of the mill, trying to kill you variety. I quickly was surrounded by a team of rock star oncologists and surgeons and a plan was put in place to get me back to healthy after a year of different forms of not so nice treatments and surgeries.
It was strange to be the sick one in our household. Eric, my husband of nearly 22 years had a genetic heart condition that lived mostly quietly within our family and the attention we had to pay to it was very routine. He lived life hopefully every day--he hoped that his medication would work, he hoped that this or that procedure might help, and he hoped that he would have many more days with us. Eric passed away six weeks after my diagnosis. All his hopes on this earth were replaced with the hope of heaven that he had always held firmly to.
It was a dark and cold winter and to say that I needed something to hope in would be a dramatic understatement. I had a cancer battle that couldn’t be postponed and three kids who still wanted to be fed, still made dirty clothes and still needed someone to help them understand their grief and help guide them into their new life.
I was surrounded by all the support, meals and prayers that a person could ever hope for. But it’s hard to remember those things every morning when you have to lift your head from the pillow once again. The life ahead of me felt like a very long and dark tunnel. Because I had been raised in a beautiful and solid Christian home, my faith went into autopilot and I continued to put one foot in front of the other, both physically and spiritually. The hope I clung to in those days was the hope of Heaven--hope with and capital H where I could once again see my earthly husband and heavenly savior. This was the light at the end of my tunnel.
As I made my way daily through this dark tunnel, focusing on the heavenly light on the other end, I was surrounded by lovely people and the very evident power of prayer. But with each day I became more and more aware of how much life on earth was between me and that Heavenly hope.
You never feel more keenly aware of being alive than when you experience death. Eric was gone, but for some reason, I was not. I was alive. My kids were alive. And something needed to matter between where I stood and where I was ultimately heading. So I stopped and asked myself why are you here, in this tunnel and what might you be missing on your journey?
It was tempting to look back and long for what was our family, it’s was also tempting to look too far forward and miss the lessons and love and work that were right at my fingertips. I’m a visual person and I had to, in a sense, light a candle in that dark tunnel and appreciate the lessons and blessings that were to be found in every day, in every moment and in every step on this path I had been given. God opened my eyes to the hope and beauty that was in the sunrise each day, to the blessing of my children’s laughter, to a smile from a long lost friend across the sanctuary. He wasn’t just at the end of the tunnel cheering me on, he was right beside me, holding me up all along. He helped me to not only see hope as an exit plan but to also see it as a framework to look through and appreciate each day that I will be given. This kind of hope is a gift and it isn’t just reserved for cancer and death--it there for each of us as we face each day in each tunnel we have been given.
I’m going to leave with you some words of an old favorite hymn that have come to mind often in these last 4 years:
My hope is built on nothing less Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
So today on this holiday of hope, we gratefully say Christ has risen!, He has risen indeed!
I miss his ability to make everyone feel they were important and that he had unhurried time for them.
I miss the smell of the skin on his shoulder as I curled up behind him on a sleepy Saturday morning.
I miss him asking if my car needs its oil changed.
I miss seeing his face when I walk through the door after a long day at work.
I miss him singing or talking in the shower.
I miss how he was always teaching the kids something--always.
I miss his advice.
I miss hearing about something he wished he had invented.
I miss his prayers at the dinner table.
I miss his very long voice mail messages.
I miss finding his daily lists.
I miss his patient homework help.
I miss his spaghetti dinners.
I miss his ebelskiver breakfasts.
I miss the curiosity that filled his days.
I miss him saying, "It's going to be alright."
I miss his confidence in feeling that anything was possible.
I miss his sense of humor.
I miss all the questions he always asked the kids.
I miss debating any and all topics on road trips.
I miss his bravery.
I miss WWII shows.
I miss his steady faith.
I miss his encouragement and belief in me.
I miss his conviction to do something significant in this world.
I miss being a partner. I miss being his partner.
It's tiring work to miss someone deeply, knowing that the ache is not going to be satisfied by a phone call, a holiday visit or the reunion when someone walks through your door. You have to learn to live with the missing. As we pass by year 4 we're getting better at that. Or at least we're trying. I tell people often, he is worth missing.
In this Advent season, we find comfort in the reunion that we're promised. An infant king born into this broken and sad world who will wipe away every tear and give us the hope of a time when all things will be made right. When all this missing will come to an end. When we are reunited with those we love and the God who gave us that ability to love...and miss. Until then, we'll hang on to His promises of that reunion. II Corinthians 4:16-18
16Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.
17For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.
18So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
You've been around too much this week and I need to work through why and how you are still in our home.
You showed up at our front door as Eric left through the back. You were a stranger. We knew of you, but had never been formally introduced. You stumbled in with baggage and all kinds of messiness. Your movements, your ways were unfamiliar. You were ruthless with your neediness. You didn't let up those first days, but pressed against all our unsteadiness. You were always there, taking up space with your uncomfortable presence. You filled our rooms and our hearts. When I had sleepless nights you paced my creaky floors and each morning you were there sitting at the edge of my bed.
I hated that you had to come live at my house. I hated worse that you now lived with my children. I wanted to protect them from the hurt-filled baggage that you unloaded on us. But all my motherly love did not keep you away from them. I couldn't keep you out of their hearts or their heads. They felt different from their friends because of you. You made them quiet and withdrawn some days. You made them laugh less often. You made them smile less genuinely. You stole so much of the innocence they had known. Innocence that I had known.
I thought you would leave after a while. Those who meant well said that you'd leave eventually--5 years, maybe 10. I'm not buying it. I think you're here to stay. I think that our home is now your home.
I started this letter thinking that if I was just direct with you, then you would do the right thing and go away or at the very least stay quietly in your room. But here's the truth--although I hate, hate, hate to admit it.
Because of you, I'm stronger and more driven than I ever was without you. When you became a part of my household, I think I became my best self. I'd like to think that I would have had the strength to get there on my own, but I know I would have always pushed that off to another griefless day. I would have continued to settle for mediocre results in a slightly above average existence. Don't get me wrong, life was good before you showed up--I mean, aside from the cancer thing. I thought I had it all figured out, but I have never felt more keenly aware of my aliveness than when death moved you into my household.
Your presence in our home allows me every shape and volume of emotion. I have literally been driving down the road, having a little monologue about how well I'm handling this loss life and by the time I reach my garage I'm in tears because, because I don't even know why. You are unpredictable and unplanned most days. You make it okay to laugh through tears and cry through dinner. You've made my children sensitive. They read my eyes, my actions, the tone in my voice. When they ask "Are you okay?" they mean it. We have become realists. We realize that hard things always happen to good people. We have accepted the reality that you showed up one day, unexpected and uninvited and yet we have found pride in the in the life that we live, in spite of your joining our family.
You've been part of our household long enough that I'm not quite sure how it would feel if you were simply gone one morning. My fear is that we would feel a hole from that as well, or a guilt that we didn't give you the attention you needed and you might never come back and we'd stop feeling the way we do when you're around. You came to remind us of the loss of a part of us. You made it okay for us to talk freely about him, to laugh and cry at all the stories, to be more broken with each other. You were our common ground when our world collapsed.
I know you don't just live at my house. I see your things scattered in other people's houses and corners, as well. Some are okay with me seeing your mess, others do their best to distract from your obvious presence. You maybe showed up at their home for reasons other than death--depression, addiction, infidelity, infertility or just the simple resignation that life hasn't turned out the way someone expected. Sometimes you come in and slam the door behind you. Sometimes you creep in unexpectedly because the loss you represent isn't as obvious as mine was. I'm certainly not the only person I know who has to deal with you.
In trying to figure out how to make peace with you, I went to my Bible for a list of directions or maybe a cancellation policy. God has plenty to say about you. I could make comment on his words, but He doesn't really need my help.
Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. ~Lamentations 3:32
But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted; you consider their grief and take it in hand. The victims commit themselves to you; you are the helper of the fatherless. ~Psalm 10:14
Even in laughter the heart may ache ~Proverbs 14:13
Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. ~John 16:20
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. ~Matthew 5:4
So there you have it, Grief. All these things are true. And because they are true, I can look you squarely in the eyes each morning and say, "Let's do this". You get to live in our midst, but you don't get to rule this home. The God who loves and protects me, allowed you to join us, but He is still the master of this house. Out of your chaos, He continues to grow us into the people that He has created us to be. His plan will always be bigger than your pain and problems.
My house remodeling took exactly 7.5 weeks from demo to completion. Three years ago on December 4 my life got remodeled as Eric breathed his last. No one showed up at my door with plans or contracts for approval. It just happened.
When friends walk into my newly remodeled space the first thing they usually say is "It looks entirely different. It's like you moved into a new house." And they're right. I feel it every morning when I leave the comfort of my familiar bedroom. You go into construction projects wondering what the plans in your mind will look like when they become plans you can touch and walk through. What it will fee like when they become your reality. In all honesty, I was ready and eager for the change.
I used to think in my head about what it would look like to be a widow. I could lay out the scenarios and plans in my head. It's a thing you do, or at least a thing I did, when you live with someone who has a heart in less than perfect condition. I thought about what our space would feel like without Eric in it. I was right about some things, I was wrong about most. It was like planning for remodeling. Some things turned out the way I expected them to and some things couldn't be imagined until we were actually forced to be there.
As sad as another death anniversary is, this is a place that I longed to be. When it had been one month, 6 months, 1 year or even 2, I longingly looked ahead. I wanted to be here. I wanted to be further down the grief road. I wanted the sting to be less. The ache is never really any less, but the acceptance of it continues to grow. For a long time it was an unwelcome guest that we hoped would pack up and leave. Now we've added on a bedroom for it and stock the fridge with its favorite foods. We've set a place at the table. It's just how it works. Those of you who have made space in your own homes are nodding in agreement.
For the most part we are good. Really quite good. Yesterday I cried in church as I sang words that echoed my heart. I do that lots of Sundays. The kids and I planned a day surrounded by friends and activity. My sweet sister, kept me in good company all weekend as we looked onto the day. I received lots of sweet messages and emails. Many prayers were said for me, for my kids and for our families and dear friends who received sad news three years ago. We are not alone in this walk. We are blessed with an amazing support system. Where we are all at emotionally, as we cross this mile-marker, has so much to do with that support. God is good and so very much of his goodness comes to us by way of the people who fill your lives.
Our loss that day was greater than anything we've ever experienced. But we continually find comfort in the fact that Eric's gain that day was greater than anything we could even imagine.
Some quick updates on life--consider this our Christmas letter. About a month ago we wrapped up a major remodel of our living room and kitchen. It's something that Eric and I dreamed about for years. We had always loved entertaining in our home and now it got a little easier. Henry has headed off to college and is doing wonderfully. He's a rock star--literally and figuratively. Check him out on itunes and Spotify (The Aircraft EP). Beatrice is a sophomore at Eagle Ridge Academy and is my onsite therapist. She is wise beyond her years. Simon makes us laugh and that is good medicine for all. He's in 8th grade also at Eagle Ridge. My children keep me going, keep me laughing and remind me that the hard work of moving on and finding joy in every day is worth the effort. I've recently changed jobs and am working for a much smaller company, but still as an executive assistant--I love it. As for cancer, I see my oncologist every 6 months and take a pill every day to keep things in check. I feel great and am grateful to have that behind me. We are looking forward to all being together for the holidays in our new space.
After Eric died, my living room was where people gathered. They filled the couch, sat on the hearth, pulled out the piano bench. Some of them had texted "I'm on my way" and some just showed up after they heard the news. A handful had been at the receiving end of a living room of people when loss happened at their home. They had sad and unwanted experience in the area of grief. They offered wise and tender counsel as I navigated the shock of our reality. I had been in their living rooms and now they were in mine. Others lacked experience at this grief game, but loved our family enough to sit with us as we stepped into our new normal. In those moments, with our living room filled to capacity, we started our feeble attempts to move on. To continue this thing of living. Recently I sat on the couch of one of my dearest friends. She wasn't in my living room that first night. She found out about Eric's passing through a mutual friend who forwarded the email that was sent out at my work. Today, I can't imagine that she wouldn't have been one of the first people I had texted or even called when the unthinkable happened. She became part of my living room as she delivered junk food breakfasts to my chemo sessions and helped me enjoy fabulous dinners when my taste buds recovered. She lovingly encourages and boldly challenges me to continue the task of living. Another friend was a new an acquaintance at that time--a mom of one of Henry's friends. She lovingly taught 15-year-old boys how to be a living room for their friend who really didn't want to even acknowledge his need for a living room those first days or the days to come. They learned how to show up. They learned that showing up and acting normal goes a long way in the healing process. That friend, along with other moms, filled my son's living room and put words of comfort into their boys' ears so that they had something to say when words were hard. She came into my living room through an unexpected door and continues to show up in loving and creative ways that bring warmth to my heart and a smile to my face. There are people who I thought would be part of my living room, but they never showed up. When I'm weary of needing a living room, I think about those people and wonder what kept them away. Occasionally I find myself even looking past all the people who sit around me only to think about the ones who didn't join us on the couch. What I've found is that bitterness and pity are easy emotions to latch onto but they erase so much gratitude. The reality is that God's goodness and creative provision are so much bigger than my expectations. For every person that by my plans should have been in my living room, he has given me new, unexpected and lovingly supportive people instead. He has filled my room and heart to overflowing time and time again. I trust that he knows who should be there. Without the love and encouragement from my living room of people, who obediently answered a nudge to put themselves in that position, my life would look very different. These people, time and time again, set me back on the path of living. They encourage me to live deliberately. To live hopefully. To simply live more. Who fills your living room? Whose living room are you part of? Whose living room should you be part of? People need living rooms for a multitude of reasons which all boil down to the brokenness of this world. I think we're often hesitant to knock on the door and invite ourselves in to that hard place. We know it will take our precious time. It will take emotional energy. It will take wisdom and prayers. It will be messy and inconvenient. And for all our desire to encourage, we might even get asked to leave occasionally. Always leave room in your life to be in someone's living room. Living is not always easy and showing up at the door of someone's living room might make all the difference in the world.
Every weekday morning at my house, Henry counts down departure time for school. Let's go! Ten minutes! Five minutes til we leave! Simon, get your socks on and head down to the car! Although he comes off as a drill sergeant, I'm grateful to not be the only one in the house that's trying to herd kids in a certain direction under some kind of deadline. Slowly, but surely, they tumble into the car with backpacks and lunches and off they go.
Lately, when the mornings are mild, I make my way to my front steps as the kids drive off. I wave. And I pray. Keep them safe, Lord. Everything I love is driving away from me. Away from my protection. Away from my input and guidance. Away from my feeble attempts to keep them from harm. I watch from the steps until they've safely pulled onto the highway. They blend into the morning traffic and they're gone.
On mornings when I'm busy getting myself ready or have to be at the office early, they sneak away without my watchful eye. My insides worry that I didn't say my safety prayer to get them through their commute to school. It seemed easier when I pray over them as they slept in my arms or as I peeled them off my leg and transferred them to their teacher. Now it's a hurried plea as they throw their car into drive and turn on the radio. It's completely cliche, but we've moved through those transitions at lightning speed.
We are just on the brink of another transition. In just months and minutes, one of these babies won't be snuggling in the safety of our home or coming home after a day at school or be the daily driver of my precious cargo. In a blink Henry will be off to his next adventure.
Our days right now are filled with lots of lasts. Hear me when I say that I am completely grateful for the knowledge and savoring of these lasts--his last prom, last research paper, last juggling show, last day he drives away as a high school senior. These lasts are easier than the lasts that happened while we were living without a thought that there wouldn't be another.
I get asked often how I feel about Henry leaving next fall. I'll be honest, I also ask myself that all the time. How will I feel when he's gone? In some quiet ways, I feel like he's partway gone already and that's okay. This is a process and there's no need to have it happen all at once. Ultimately, it's my job to make him not need me. I'm not afraid to say goodbye as he drives away. I've survived a goodbye that meant no more phone calls, no more text messages or no more coming through the front door and announcing that he's home. Yes, Henry will leave us, but his leaving is the end of a chapter, not the end of the book.
So now I'm the one counting down the departure. I stand by the door and yell--three months, two months and lots more orders that probably go in one ear and out the other. In my heart, I know he'll be fine. He'll stumble. He'll make mistakes that he shares with me and ones that he doesn't. When he succeeds he'll be able to claim it as his own. He'll appreciate all of us more after he's gone, but it will take time before he admits it. I'll continue my feeble attempts to keep him safe from afar and he'll continue to humor me in my attempts.
I've looked at this blog for several days now, trying to come up with a nice way to wrap it all up, find a nice moral to leave you with. But this isn't that kind of post. This story continues and will hold lots more lessons for me and Henry in the months and years to come and I'll likely share those with you, as well. Soon enough, I'll be standing by the door counting down the months and days for Bea. The stretching and learning has just begun for each of us. Instead, I'll leave you with the song that has been the background music in my head while I've pounded away at my computer the last couple of days. There's a good deal of wisdom in the words about letting go. Enjoy.
"You'll Find Your Way" by Andrew Peterson When I look at you, boy I can see the road that lies ahead I can see the love and the sorrow
Bright fields of joy Dark nights awake in a stormy bed I want to go with you, but I can’t follow
So keep to the old roads Keep to the old roads And you’ll find your way
Your first kiss, your first crush The first time you know you’re not enough The first time there’s no one there to hold you
The first time you pack it all up And drive alone across America Please remember the words that I told you
Keep to the old roads Keep to the old roads And you’ll find your way You’ll find your way
If love is what you’re looking for The old roads lead to an open door And you’ll find your way You’ll find your way Back home
And I know you'll be scared when you take up that cross And I know it'll hurt, 'cause I know what it costs And I love you so much and it's so hard to watch But you're gonna grow up and you're gonna get lost Just go back, go back
Go back, go back to the ancient paths Lash your heart to the ancient mast And hold on, boy, whatever you do To the hope that's taken hold of you And you'll find your way You'll find your way If love is what you’re looking for The old roads lead to an open door And you’ll find your way You’ll find your way Back home
A dear friend of mine said goodbye to her mother a couple of weeks ago. From the other side of the country we exchanged a few supportive emails. "Thought of you often in these days that are hard and holy." Her words were short, but so true: hard and holy days.
After Eric died, he still felt so very close. It was like we were two people living on either side of a curtain that divided our realities--one side hard and the other holy. I slept by the curtain, I woke up by the curtain. As I began to work my way back into life, I always kept my grief curtain in sight. On day four after each chemo, I would make my sick self comfortable right up next to that curtain and would let the dark heaviness cover me like a familiar blanket. Some days my time at the curtain was planned and other times I was thrown there unexpectedly by a song, a smell, something said.
In those days when grief was so heavy I thought that if I could press my hand up against my imaginary curtain, it would be met with the pressure of his warm and loving hand from the other side. Standing in this grief, gave me security that he wasn't completely gone from my life, from our family's life. On the flip side, I felt like my faithfulness at the grief curtain showed him that he wasn't forgotten. That his loss mattered to us. That he was worthy of us taking the time to be in this hard and holy place.
I found comfort at the curtain. It was where I could take a break from the noise of life and I could more easily remember his voice, his laughter, the sound of him coming through the front door. I could remember his solid confident words about how I would beat my cancer. At the curtain, the noise of the world quieted enough for me to imagine him saying, "You've got this, Dawn. The hard times will pale in comparison to the holy that is to come"
The seasons changed and although I hated to leave the last winter that Eric had experienced with us, the business of life crept in and the curtain of grief quieted and my time there lessened. It became the backdrop of our lives instead of the focus.
The truth is, he doesn't feel as close as he used to. It no longer feels like he's right there waiting for me to press my hand into the curtain that divides us. I have to work harder for the memory of his words, his laugh, his presence--and that's mostly okay. If the intense grief of those first days and months continued it would rob me of the life that I am meant to live. The life he would want me to live. The life that God has prepared for me to live.
I don't foresee that the curtain will ever completely leave, nor do I want it to. It will quietly hang as a divider between the now and the not yet. A reminder of everything on the other side--every one on the other side. Some day that curtain will raise and it will be time for me to say goodbye to this world and the hard and happy things it has held. Until then I will rest in the hope of Him who holds the curtain and comforts those who find themselves in that hard and holy place.
And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that