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
This week I was in my garage deciding the final fate of a couple of boxes of books that my family had set aside for me to look through at such a time as this. They had tucked away a couple of pictures, cards, memorabilia that they thought I might want to keep. Amongst those books was another Valentine's Day card from Eric, no idea what year or how it had first been presented to me. It was one of those word-covered Hallmark cards that takes commitment and time to read through. I opened it up just to see what his scribbly handwriting said at the end of it. When he did give me cards, he always said something sweet, something funny or something that only I would understand. This was one of his sweet ones. I smiled and thought, you probably could have done so much better but you were stuck with me and I laid the card on the keep pile. I went back to sorting through the books and yearbooks, but was stopped by the overwhelming need to pick up the card and read his scribbles once again.
Now the backstory in my head, particularly this last month, is that being a single parent is hard under the best and most ideal circumstances. Anyone who is a parent knows the effort it takes to keep kids headed in the right direction--socially, academically and spiritually. There's been plenty of doubt about Eagle Scout projects, college choices, skirt lengths, video games and the hundred other things that parents have a hand in each day. Eric had high standards for his children and some days I feel like I'm stuck with cashing the check that he wrote. Most days I'm happy for the things he started with the kids--the strong foundations that he put in place regarding morals, religious convictions, the importance of humor, but some days I'd like to give him a piece of my mind about leaving me alone to finish the three biggest projects that he left undone. Lately there has been more of the latter. There are lots of doubts about my consistency, my strictness, my slackness, you name it. I also realize that every parent has these fears even with a very capable co-parent standing by their side. Back to my story.
So I stood in my garage, knee deep in my parental self doubt and I once again read Eric's words, "I couldn't have done any better. ~E" This message of comfort replaced the message of flattery from years past. It was as real and meaningful as if he had been standing there delivering it to me in his booming voice with his arms wrapped around me, my crying face buried in his chest. I stood there, feeling not quite as alone, and cried. Not so much for the words from my kids' missing father, but because of the heavenly father that I Eric and I share who had set me up for this moment. My family had salvaged this paper card from several boxes of books that I had given to them and said just do whatever you want with them. They had tucked it away, and my heavenly father had orchestrated me finding it on a hard day where it felt like everything was caving in. There, alone, in my garage, once again amazed. Perfect timing. Comfort. Encouragement. Renewed strength for the journey
Clearwater Lake is one of my favorite places. We were first invited here several years ago as the result of two little blonde girls and two hovering mommies. Anna-Liv and Bea were seated near one another that first day of kindergarten and their friendship has stuck ever since. Ann and I, being just as outgoing as our girls became quick friends. When the time was right we introduced our husbands and our other children to one another and, as they say, the rest is history. They have graciously welcomed us into their clan, as well as cabins and somewhere along the line we started to feel more like family and less like guests.
For those reasons and so many more Clearwater Lake is rich with memories for the Rynders family. We all had our friends to play with--Sam and Eric creating canoe paddles that were more like works of art and Ann and I solving the world's problems, or occasionally a jigsaw puzzle, over coffee or wine, depending on the time of day. It has always been a place to let our shoulders relax to a more comfortable elevation and for our minds to take a break from lists and unfinished projects at home. We traveled here each summer at least once and looked forward to welcoming in the new year over the holidays. When Eric died I wondered if I would be able to bear to be there without him, but I soon realized that the memories we had made during our years of visits remained warm and comforting even after he was unable to make new ones.
The summer after Eric's death, Sam and Ann offered that I could use the little boathouse (stuga) next to their cabin if I needed a summer retreat for me and the kids. We happily retreated last July 4th to our sweet Swedish stuga. That evening, while most of the group enjoyed the fireworks at a nearby town, the unthinkable happened. Just as I was about to crawl into bed with the girls to watch a movie, the cabin two doors down burst into flames. It was a moment of panic and lack of control that felt all too familiar to the fresh tragedy of calling an ambulance to help my husband only to have the outcome be a total loss. The same was true for the cabin.
I remember the following day watching Ann's brother and family sift through the ashes, hoping to find something that was still intact--a Bible, a journal, a wall hanging, just something that was familiar and unharmed. There was nothing that satisfied the void that this loss had created. The foundation was still there along with the memories that were created within that foundation, but that was all. What they were doing, as they picked through this familiar but forever changed space felt exactly what I had been doing for months. Emotionally, I spent all kinds of energy sifting through our lives and the lives of my kids to find something that felt normal and untouched by Eric's loss. But every time we searched we come up empty-handed and with an ache for what used to be. The foundation was still there, but we knew it would take lots of decisions and hard work to build the walls and create something new that honored what was lost but still moved forward in hope.
Today, a beautiful home stands where an unexplained fire came through and threatened to destroy the memories of a place that had housed a couple generations of Johnson family. What I think they've learned is that memories cannot be watered down by fire hoses or changed by fresh paint. The structure is new, but the old memories of laughter and love that filled the lost cabin still linger.
The kids and I are building, too. Each day we pick up a board, a gallon of paint, a window and we create a home where our current family can live peacefully alongside memories of our original family. Some days the building goes quickly and the result is better than we expected and some days the work is laborious and feels not nearly as good as the original structure. By God's grace and strength we continue the process. I think all of us are building, repairing, figuring out what to do with the pile of rubble in the corner. Your loss might not be death or fire, but it might be a strained marriage, a broken relationship, a disappointing career, a chronic illness, a wayward child, all of which put you in the position of repairing, rebuilding.
Why do it? Why not sit in the debris of our life and throw our hands up in the air--I ask myself that, often. In our family's construction project we've had our eyes opened to the reality that we build for a bigger purpose and that our blueprints are not of this world. What we create in this world will always fall a little short--and that's okay. It was never meant to be perfect.
So we keep building, hoping to honor the memory of our earthly fathers, but more importantly to live within the foundations set by our heavenly father. He was a carpenter and he's building, too.
"In my father's house are many mansions: if it were not so I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you." John 14:2
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.