I go through Eric's things in waves. I'll tackle a drawer, a closet, a couple of boxes and then when my emotional energy has run dry, I set it all aside for a while. Over the months it has become less painful. There are fewer tears. I seem to be more productive. My hands are loosening their grip on his things, because they're just things.
This past weekend I pulled out several boxes of paperwork that needed attention. The carbon dating set the contents from the late 80s to the early 90s. There were scripts from plays, music from choirs, college syllabusses by the dozens (and for those of you who are going all Latin grammar on me, syllabusses is just as acceptable as syllabi and it sounds better in my sentence). Among this box of treasures was a notebook that clearly had served as part journal, part notes for the classes that Eric was taking around 1989--stats, some theology course, and poetry. He was also in the middle of playing Harold Hill in The Music Man so there were lots of notes about rehearsals, fellow actors and tired vocal chords. I've seen this journal a dozen times and I had read enough of it to know that there was some mention of me as I was entering the plot line of his life.
I decided a couple of nights ago to read the notebook from cover to cover, just to be sure that I hadn't missed anything important--a nugget here or there that I could pass on to the kids or tuck away for a later day. What I found was the poem below, scribbled in Eric's unmistakable handwriting. There were lines scratched out and others squeezed in, but it was there, in its entirety--two stanzas, twenty lines. I'll admit I googled several of the lines because Eric loved poetry about death and I wondered if he had just copied it from somewhere. Nothing popped up so I think it's safe to believe that it's an E. Rynders original.
I've secretly wished that I would find some epic letter that Eric wrote for me to find after he was gone. A letter that would serve as a guide for how to finish out my life without him by my side. I also hoped to find some great testimony of his faith in the God who created him. I think I may have found them both.
My heart it pains, and I may die
I did not whimper, so do not cry.
Although my heart could not keep pace
with all the daily trouble race,
It sought quite hard to do His will
and is rewarded, for now tis still.
Now I know that I have won
for every race to me is done.
It does not matter any more
for I have settled every score.
So mourn me not, don't shed a tear
for I no longer linger near.
But mourn yourselves for you must go
into the curtain of your last show.
I paid my time, my battle's through
and now I lie and wait for you.
You may not have the courage now
to stand and take your final bow.
But when it's time for you to stand
don't worry, He will take your hand.
Today marks eighteen months since that normal December day when everything that we had come to know as normal left our house. Eighteen months of mornings that I've woken up and for a split second had to relive everything so that I understood once again why his side of the bed is still tidy and tucked in. Eighteen months of singlehandedly making decisions that should be made by two. Eighteen months of seeing his words, convictions and humor lived out in his children. Eighteen months of receiving support and love from the most unexpected places. Eighteen months of adjustment to using I and me instead of us and we. Eighteen months of being more aware of what it means to be alive than I had ever previously experienced. Eighteen months of reconciling that the hand of God that comforts is also the hand that takes away. Eighteen months of loosening the death grip that I had on the need to have this all make sense. Eighteen months of resigning to and then leaning into, even embracing the truth that God is God and I am not. Eighteen months of seeing miracles and joy unexpectedly rise up from the rubble of cancer and death. Eighteen months of mercies that are new every morning, just like He promised.
I don't spend much time thinking about the stages of grief. I just googled them to even see what they were and the list which was provided sounded familiar to the emotions that cycle through my head on almost an hourly basis. Overall, I've never been much of a fan of someone telling me how I will feel on a given topic at a given time. Grief has made me feel even more strongly about that.
A couple of days after Eric died, Bea came to me and said "They say I should be angry. I'm not angry. Do I need to be angry?" I told her there weren't any rules to how she should feel. I certainly knew that my head wasn't holding to any. For the record, I'm not angry either--weary and frustrated some days, but not angry.
The stage where I'm stuck lately is just sad. Going forward I'm going to refer to a lot of "they"s in this blog and when I say "they" I don't mean the experts or those who study these topics around grief and loss. I mean a sweet and select cabinet of people close to me who have lost spouses and/or children. I rely upon them tremendously on my journey through this maze that follows the loss of someone.
I can recall conversations with almost all of them that ended with a shrug of the shoulders, a sigh and this comment, "I'm just tired of being the person that's sad." That's where I am lately. Because you don't see me collapsed on the floor in a pile of tears, most people are pleased to see that I'm doing pretty well--and for the most part, I am.
I'm going to steal a section from a well read blog of a newer widow than me because she says it better than me and why reinvent the wheel. (myhusbandstumor.com)
People know I’m grieving, they just don’t know what it looks like. Or how long it takes. Or that it’s an actual, time-consuming act that can’t be compartmentalized and scheduled for convenient times like, perhaps from 6-8 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings. If it could have been, I’d have done it, because at my heart I am just an overachiever looking for a gold star. I fear sometimes that by being positive and not collapsing into a pile on the floor, I’m making it look easier than it is. And that doesn’t do any favors to the world, because it isn’t easy. Survivable? Absolutely. Okay? Sometimes! Doable? Yes. Easy? No. Not easy. There is no quiet.
And to all of that I say, Amen!
Recently, a new member of my grief cabinet told me that it's a constant reel playing in her head. I wanted to hug her for saying that because I could finally visualize what was going on in my own head. A looping video that plays constantly those moments and days around the loss.
This is what it's like. I'm blow drying my hair and I'm thinking about walking down the aisle with my kids at his funeral. I'm choosing what spaghetti sauce to buy and in my head I can hear the ambulance sirens screaming while I told him it was all going to be okay. I'm setting up meetings at work and he's short of breath and frantically asking me to pray for him. I'm loading the dishwasher and I'm thinking about wrapping my arms around Henry on the couch as some kind-faced ambulance attendant told us Eric was gone. All those sad, but meaningful moments that are stuck on repeat in my head. Do I want them to stop--no, because it would mean that I would lose those last pieces of him. Do I want them to quiet down and be less of a distraction--yes, absolutely. I assume that over time the volume and clarity of all those scenes will soften and then become less and less. But never be completely gone.
Some days I lay on my bed and try to think back to what was in my head before Eric died. What did I even think about? How did it feel? What made me happy? What made me sad? It's almost impossible to imagine what that was like. I can't remember the before because of the enormity of the after. And that's the rub. To want to purge my mind of that sad movie that keeps playing is to get rid of parts of him from my memory. I don't want that. But to look away from the real world and keep my eyes glued to the video that runs in my head puts me in a sad place and probably dangersous place that isolates me from the good that remains in my real life--and there is so much good.
So I'm working on figuring out how to make this sadness a part of the good and even beautiful landscape of my life. There is a part of me that will always be sad for the loss that I've experienced. But, I don't have to let that sadness and loss ruin the joy and abundance that's still all around me. They can live beside one another in the same way that a harsh winter makes spring just that much sweeter. Can I do that? I don't know. It sure sounds good, but it will take work. I also have to remind myself--over and over--that I'm sad because of this amazing person that I lost. He is worth being sad about. That life we had together is worth the sadness I carry today. I would gratefully do it all over again even knowing exactly how it would come to an end.
I recently attended an oh so sweet retreat. This is the second time that I was invited to attend. Last year the weekend fell just days before my last chemo treatment and three months and a handful of days after Eric's passing. I was in a raw place--inside and out. At the time I thought that I had accepted the reality of Eric's death, but in hind-sight I was still in the midst of thinking that any minute he would walk through the door and I would have had the starring role in some strange new reality show. It sounds ridiculous, but it was the type of thing that bounced around in my head during those first months after he left us. Let's blame it on the chemo and just flat-out denial. The first night at the retreat everyone was given the opportunity to introduce themselves. I came knowing 2 out of a little over 30 women in the room. I turned to my friend and said, "Should I drop one bomb or two?" I took a deep breath and played both of my ugly cards. There was love and there were tears in those faces around the room as I told my story of both cancer and loss. I took a chance on that group of women and opened up about my hardest stuff. It was a moment where God gave me the courage I needed to live out loud in the midst of this amazing group. I'm glad I did.
This year felt very different. The new faces were not as new and time had begun to heal many of the open wounds that I had been busy bandaging last year. Most of the women there already knew my story and I knew theirs. Then the sweetest thing happened. These faces who were strangers to me last year as I entered that old stone house came up to me this year--many of them--and told me that they had been praying for me this last year. That they thought of me and my kids often. It mattered. Please hear me when I say, it mattered. All of those prayers, said while doing dishes, running errands, kissing foreheads and packing lunches--they made a difference to my little family. I felt humbled and so very grateful knowing that these women had quietly helped me carry my difficulties over the past 12 months. Last year this was a place to hide out and hurt, but this year it was a time to be refreshed and challenged for the next season.
A lesson that I've learned during my chapters on cancer and loss is that when you're weary of your story you get to a point where you're scared to be open--about your pain, your mistakes, your weaknesses. It's exhausting to be vulnerable and it's not always met with open arms. We think the world expects us to be strong, to be survivors, to hide weakness and hurt. But where does that get you? Usually in a very lonely place where it's all up to you to make it better--and let's be honest, who has enough energy to do that most days.
What I saw at my sweet retreatland was a group of women willing to get in the trenches alongside one another. I saw empathy, not pity. I saw women strategizing with one another about the best way to peacefully walk through their days while tending to their heavy burdens that they've been asked to carry. I saw true concern and promised prayer. Maybe it's my age or possibly the circles I run in , but I think I can safely say that everyone carries a burden--maybe even more than one. If you don't, then jump up and down, high five someone sitting near you and thank the Lord for that blessing and then go and use your extra bandwidth to come along someone who needs your support. Really. Use your good for someone else's good.
So there we were, a marketplace of women exchanging pieces of their hard things with one another. That bartering made the burden lighter, offered new perspective and most importantly gave hope. It was an amazing thing. I walked away wanting desperately to integrate these practices into my non-retreat life. How can I stay open to my kids' hard things, to my co-worker's challenges, or to things that bring my friends to their knees? How can I keep the busy of my life from getting in the way of really listening to and caring for my fellow sojourners in this world? You need to absolutely know that something miraculous happens when you take the time to get comfortable with someone's difficult thing--you show them the love of our heavenly father and in turn you are given strength for the moment and blessing for the journey.
Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. ~Galations 6:2
I've had this situation a couple of times recently--mostly at church during a brief 3 minute meet and greet that's sandwiched right between announcements and the beginning of the service. Enough time has passed and our church has grown enough that I'm often seated near young couples or college students who are relatively new and don't know me or my family.
We both extend our hands and offer up our first names. I try to find something that will help me remember that name for future reference and then I turn to introduce my three kids who are all turned in different directions doing the exact same thing that I'm doing--some with new faces and some with old friends. Then comes my dilemma. I know as this sweet twenty something couple looks over my family they're likely thinking one of two things: her husband doesn't come to church or she's divorced. Most people don't jump to the conclusion that the missing husband is actually dead.
So what do I do with that? I would like to be able to casually close our conversation with "And their dad, my husband, passed away last year. He was a great guy." I'd like to do that but I usually don't. I don't because as soon as the words "passed away" pass over my lips, the smile that's on their faces passes away also. They immediately come back with some kind of uncomfortably shocked response and I reassure them that it's okay and proceed to tell them we're doing fine, etc. until the music for the next song cues up and we politely return to our pew. I know in my heart that I've brought a little black cloud over their time at church and now I'll forever be the lady with the kids whose husband died a while ago. The thing is that I'm okay being that lady, I clearly am that lady.
My friends who have lost children find themselves in this situation all the time. "How many children do you have?" A safe enough question, right? Not for those parents who have already said goodbye to one of their own. So do they politely say they have three or do they tell you about the three here and the one there and then ruin your day just a little? Please know that it is only by the grace of God that they do not blurt out that one of their sweet babies died one day and a part of their heart died with them..oh, and have a nice day.
The thing is that we want to be honest, we really do. By not mentioning that missing child or spouse or parent we feel like we are hiding this monumental thing that happened in our life and therefore feel like we're hiding this person that we loved with all our heart. We feel like a bit of a fraud because this thing that we're not telling you feels so obvious to us that certainly you can read it all over our faces. Every fiber of us is saying, do you see how broken we are, how incomplete our family is, how devastated? But we don't say that because we're pretty sure that you don't have the stomach for it. If we're honest, we hardly have the stomach for it, but we don't have any choice.
What do we do with death, people? It's destructive and despicable, but it's also common and completely expected. There has to be some kind of middle ground. For those of us walking in grief, we've had to make peace with this hardest reality. We can't escape it. It's like a lens that has been put over our eyes that we will forever look through during our time on this earth. And we want you to know that we've become okay with it and sometimes it helps us a little to talk about. We need to talk about it without you getting that look on your face--you know, the one where conjure up a smile and try to make us happy, to make our hurt go away. You can't do that, no one this side of heaven can do that. But you can offer up two sincere words, "I'm sorry." And that's good enough. We're sorry, too, but every day we're figuring out to live fully in the face of death. We are going to be okay. We are already okay.
"He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, no crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away." Rev. 21:4.
I'll be honest, I've had just a couple of people ask me if I ever thought that Eric was trying to send me messages from where he is right now. I can say that after 22 years of him hardly ever not talking to me, if there was a way for him to talk to me from the other side he would have certainly utilized it. Enough said.
But just because I don't ever hear his voice, doesn't mean that his words aren't all around me. I find his words in my head, coming out of my kids' mouths, on notes and on lists, lots and lots of lists. This weekend I stumbled upon his words in the form of a past Valentine's card. For those of you who want to know about our Valentine's Day traditions--or lack thereof--please refer to my post about Mother's Day and drop in Valentine's Day--but maybe not quite as bad. What I stumbled upon was a lovely Hallmark card that didn't have any tell-tale signs of frantically being purchased at Cub Foods. The card's sentiment was simple. "I love sharing forever with you. Happy Valentine's Day."
On a side note, we used to laugh because Eric claimed that nearly all Valentine's Day cards started with "You know that I never tell you enough how I feel...." and clearly that didn't apply to him. It was one of his reasons for mostly boycotting the holiday.
As I read what he had written on the bottom, it sounded so familiar. "What is one year when compared to forever? I would go through it all again just to be by your side. I love you." It sounded familiar because those words are nearly the exact words I tell myself when I stand still in the scurrying of my day to look at his picture on my living room wall. It's how I comfort myself when sleep escapes me on these cold winter nights. It's the encouragement that I cling to when I look out at the years ahead of me. What is one year compared to forever and yes, a thousand times, yes, I would go through it all again to be by his side. I thought these were my words of comfort and hope, but there they were in his scribbly handwriting, loving me so sweetly from years ago.
Just so you don't get the idea that every Valentine's Day was wine, roses and love notes, I also discovered another Valentine's card that was likely purchased the day after the holiday because some wife probably pitched a fit that there wasn't a card for her on Hallmark's favorite day. If you're Eric Rynders, you will find a creative way to make your wife smile even when you miss her holiday.