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
Tomorrow would be our 24th wedding anniversary. Eric and I really had no business getting married. We had precious little life experience and our bank account only had enough cushion to get us through a 4 day honeymoon. Crazy, by today's standards. I would say we got married on a wing and prayer. We held the same beliefs, enjoyed similar things and made each other laugh. At the time that seemed like reason enough to merge our lives. So we did, with little care for what the future might hold except that we would be together in it.
I was good at being married, but Eric was better at it. He pushed me to be stronger than I ever thought I could be. He made me talk when the silent treatment was my weapon of choice. He looked at me with an adoration that not every wife gets to enjoy. He pushed me and I calmed him. We brought out the best in each other most days and although some of that refining came by fire, some of it was pure enjoyment. Was he perfect? Not even close. Neither was I, so it worked out just fine. We were two flawed souls, trying to do the best with the love story we had always imagined. God was gracious to our time together and he brought us just a couple weeks short of 22 years. Some may think that our marriage was cut short, but those were the exact amount of days that God meant it to be. The exact amount of smiles, laughs, conversations, kisses, fights, tears and growth. A couple months before he died, Eric looked at me and said, "I don't see us growing old together." I quietly agreed and admitted that I had the same feeling. I know it must sound like a terribly sad exchange, but it really wasn't. There was a calmness as we faced the path that we felt we would likely walk. Eric's health really forced us to be grateful for every day. God's preparation of our hearts was then and still is a gift that softens the sadness of separation. On our 20th anniversary I wrote the passage below. It's still true today. "God has been good to our story, he has given us just what we needed in order to become the people that He meant us to be. While we once focused on how many chapters He would write for us, we now take time to cherish each page and are thankful for each one that we get to finish."
So my mom does this thing. She sews together pieces of random fabric and makes something beautiful. Some people would call her a gifted seamstress or a talented quilter, but it's much more.
Within days of Eric's passing, I cleaned out his least sentimental items--t-shirts, underwear and mismatched socks. Pretty easy to toss and I could finally stop feeling guilty about the socks I had lost and the t-shirts that I couldn't keep white. Done, just like that. Jeans are just jeans, they all look the same. They were easy to part with, as well, and the additional drawer space was a nice consolation prize for my efforts.
A few weeks later when I gathered up the strength to work through his closet, I was faced with a couple dozen button down shirts--mostly long-sleeved, some linen, most cotton, all patterned with plaids, stripes and checks. Of course, I loved them all because as head of the procurement department, I had hand-picked each of them with him in mind. Quite honestly, I really miss shopping in the men's department and bringing home a nice crisp shirt for Eric to tell me that he didn't need.
We had a little game that we played. He would ask what he should wear to church or out for the evening. I would grumble that I had to dress him and three children... He would appear in something that he picked out on his own due to my grumbling. I would say, "You're going to wear that?" He would give me that look and respond, "Wouldn't it have saved us both some time if you had just told me what to wear in the first place?" He was right.
So these shirts. I folded and packed them in a plastic bin. I couldn't bear the thought of unloading them at a local thrift store. I didn't necessarily want to see them worn by anyone that I know and it seemed silly to hold onto them in the hope that someday the boys would want to wear them.
Enter my mom. After my grandmother passed away, she made the most amazing quilt out of my grandma's polyester shirts. Every time I look at it, I'm reminded of being with her--which was always good. Just days after my first chemo when Eric taking care of me on my worst days, he walked into the bedroom with that quilt--the grandma blanket, as we called it. I couldn't get warm and nothing in my body felt right. He laid the blanket over me and tucked it all around my sick edges. He said, "I thought maybe you could use a little love and encouragement from your grandma." That is one of my very favorite memories of Eric.
I gave the bin of shirts to my mom, with a printout of a simple quilt pattern called "Crossed Canoes" which just made sense. I know it took her a few months and a couple of tries before she could cut into them and get started on the process of making quilts for each of my kids. She would come visit and take along squares that she was working on to show us the progress. Each new square was sweet reminder of the normal days that had slipped away.
When the quilts were done, there was still plenty of fabric left so she made table runners that will be Christmas gifts for Eric's family--shh, don't tell them. There were also ones that were made for me and the kids.
Last, but certainly not least, my mom told me that she thought she could squeeze out 3 baby blankets. Blankets for me to tuck away and give to the grandbabies who would never get to meet their Grandpa Rynders while on earth. She said that this way they could always be wrapped up in his love and also his legacy.
This fabric story is just a glimpse of the amazing mother that I've been blessed with. Her wisdom, her strength, and her faith make me want to do better each and every day. To give to my kids what she so willingly gives to me. What I love most is that she has no idea how amazing she is. She creates beauty and sweetness in the hard places. She does this in her handiwork, but more importantly she does it in life.
Last week at church we sang one of my favorite hymns, When Peace Like a River. I grew up singing it in the pews of my childhood church, Eric sang it for my uncle's funeral and because Eric also loved it, we sang it at his funeral. The chorus echoes the phrase "It is well with my soul." And as I sang it in the pew of my adulthood, I had to agree that my soul actually feels like it is doing well. While my soul is good, it's the rest of me that struggles. I think of it as layers. My soul being the deepest layer. My foundation. A solid rock to rest upon. On those days when everything else feels like it's falling, that place doesn't tremble. It quietly sees me through each day. This layer knows that God's promises are good and that all of this crazy life makes sense to Him. This is the layer that sheds tears as I sing in church, because I know that He made this good place for me to stand, but this side of heaven it will also include some struggles. My surface layer is good. That's the layer that most of you see as we work side by side, or sit across a meal from one another, I smile, I laugh, I make everyone feel satisfied with how well I'm doing and for the most part it's an honest representation of who I am. I'm functional. This life is feeling normal. I can talk about the kids, about Eric, about my story and I can feel comfortable with letting people in on my life. That top layer is genuine, but right now it's not as deep as I would like it to be. Although I'm good at navigating in a way to keep that surface smooth and pleasant, I also know that the smallest thing can disrupt those peaceful waters. So what about the stuff that lurks between those two layers? That's where the trouble is. That's the part that aches for one more conversation, one more family dinner, one more text message, one more chance to lay my head on his chest and have him tell me that it's going to be okay. This layer also hates being a single parent, hates it for me and hates it for my kids. This layer doubts. It doubts everything from how often I get my car washed to the sincerity of my children's faith life. This middle layer is quite simply weary of this plot line in my story. That layer is sad and tired and even as I write this that layer is saying "get to your point and start folding that laundry basket you've been avoiding this last week." We all navigate these layers of life. We have our public face and we have a soul that our heavenly Father gives us and that the Holy Spirit faithfully attends to. Then we have that difficult in between stuff that shows up when in the middle of the night when sleep escapes us, or when our kids are dancing on our last nerve or when the hymn that we're singing is more about words and less about worship. That layer tells me that the layers on either side are a fraud. That I'm a fraud. That I'm really just this inadequate person sandwiched between a smiling face and a steady soul and that I should spend all my time in this middle layer because that's who I really am. By the grace of God and the faithful prayers of people who know me and even hardly know me, I continue the fight to grow my insides into the person everyone sees on the outside, Along with that but even more importantly, I want all my layers to radiate the God of my foundation. I know this won't just happen on its own, so my plan for these next stormy water months as I face difficult anniversaries, birthdays and holidays is to keep that middle layer in its place. To shrink it back to a less disruptive size. I want to make my surface layer more about true joy and less about just happy. I want that joy to be about God's grace and not about my own strength. I want that solid foundation to steady all the doubting parts that make me weary of trying balance everything on my own. I want that foundation to quiet the noise and self pity of that keep me awake at night and distracted during my days. I want that sure foundation to whisper into every part of me, "Be still." Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.” II Timonthy 2:19 He will be the sure foundation for your times, a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge; the fear of the Lord is the key to this treasure. Isaiah 33:6 He says, “Bestill, andknow that I am God" Psalm 46:10