Sing for the joy that's found in setting up the pins and knocking them down

Monday, March 16, 2015

Pain and Purpose

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

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Making Peace with Death

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  to 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.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Things you stumble upon...

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.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

And Sometimes God Gives You Ham

When I was diagnosed with cancer, several friends--work friends, school friends, church friends--rushed in and organized meals to be brought into our home on the weeks following each treatment.  I was brought lots and lots of wonderful meals that fed me and my forever hungry children.  I really love to cook so relinquishing this duty was not easy for me.  Often times, even more lovely than the food that filled our stomachs, was the sweetness of the individuals delivering the meal.  Some of them were dear friends who would give me a hug, offer up some love and wish me well until the next time our paths crossed.  Some of them were nearly complete strangers who I had only every passed in a hallway at the kids' school events.  They knew about me from afar, but decided they wanted to do something to help.  They would express their sympathy about Eric, ask about me, about the kids, about how all of this was working.  I was grateful for the meal, but I was more grateful and impressed by their willingness to step their foot into our somewhat messy life.  These people were gifts to our lives during those long winter months.

I want you to know that we were delivered some really wonderful meals and please read this post to the end before you think of me as some kind of foodie snob or that I am one bit ungrateful for anything, gourmet or not, that was brought to our front door.  If you were one of the many people that might have brought ham, then you're clearly wondering if this was your night.  Go ahead and wonder. The story is not so much about ham, but about hope.  

It was a frightfully cold night and my taste buds were reeling from my latest dose of chemo.  The meal that was lovingly dropped off that night was ham.  Fantastic. Something salty is always the best option for me to be able to taste at least part of it.  I had kept all the dishes covered to hold the heat in while I quickly set the table after coming through the door from work.  After we had gathered, offered up a quick prayer to bless the food, I started to uncover the ham.  The kids asked what we were having and I said, "Ham!" as I uncovered the first dish.  What I uncovered was like no ham they had seen before. It was a processed pink color and the "string" indentations across the top were not fooling anyone.  They both leaned forward and stared, "That's not ham," one of them said.  "Yes, it is," I said.  "It's just not like ham that you're used to."  "Is it even cooked?" they asked, doubtful that I had any idea what I was talking about.  "Of's warm," I said as I touched it to confirm my theory.  I shaved a couple of slices off the one end and laid it on their plates.  They gave me a look.  I gave them a look back.  "It's just fine.  Just eat it.  I'm not making something else for you.  Someone made this just for us and we will eat it."  

You have to understand that these were some dark, very dark days after Eric's death.  We went through the motions that we could remember from life before and we prayed that each day would be a little easier than the one we were leaving.  I knew my kids were missing their normal and I was equally frustrated that I couldn't be in the kitchen preparing their favorite meals and serving those meals to a table filled with my people.  There was emptiness and sadness everywhere we looked.  One of those kind of days where a bad ham can send you right over the edge.  

We sat in silence, chewing our ham.  I think one of the kids asked if they could warm something up from the fridge and I probably said fine.  Out of the blue, Bea said, "I want to know what it feels like to punch that ham.  Mom, can I punch the ham?"

I sat for a minute and thought about the question--was it okay for my daughter to punch our dinner?  My first thought was "would Eric let her punch the ham?"  I worried that my chemo-clouded brain was probably not qualified to make this decision.  I asked her to repeat her question, certainly I had misunderstood.  She said more forcefully, "I want to punch the ham."  Knowing resistance was futile, I said, "Sure, punch the ham."

She walked around the table, looked squarely at the mostly uneaten ham and wound up for a solid punch.  The ham made the same noise that a well-toned stomach makes when you slug it--not that I've done that often in my life.  Henry and I exchanged looks and smirked.  He followed his smirk with "I want to punch it, too."  I shrugged my shoulders and nodded in approval.  He landed a blow that was slightly louder than that of his sister.  We all laughed.  Now everyone was looking at me and I just smiled and nodded and got in line to blow off some steam at this unassuming piece of pork.  Yes, I, too, slugged the ham.  By this time we were laughing harder than we had laughed in weeks.  Weeks where we wondered if we would ever really laugh again.  

Needless to say the ham got slugged repeatedly and might have even gotten juggled...  Once our laughter subsided and we had wiped away all the happy tears that had taken the place of so many sad ones, we gathered around the table and thanked God for this most amazing meal and for the wonderful hands that had brought it to us.  Although this ham wouldn't win any culinary awards, it was, by far, the most memorable meal that graced our table.  God knew that we needed something more than nourishment on that cold winter night.  We needed a way to remember the joy and laughter that had previously been so taken for granted around out table--and he needed a ham to make that happen.  We needed to break through the sadness and once again experience the freedom to throw our heads back and laugh.  It was a turning point for our somber family and as I look back I am filled with gratitude.

Moral of the story:  Sometimes God Gives You Ham


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Eric, do you know?

Do you know that in 2 short days you will be gone from us for a year?
Do you know that the combination of snow falling and the scream of an ambulance makes my eyes fill with tears, every time?
Do you know that Henry went into your closet (which will always and forever be called your closet even when it fills up with my clothes) and pulled out the leather jacket that I gave you as a wedding gift and has been wearing it ever since?
Do you know that Beatrice sleeps in your ratty Eddie Bauer sweater that I've been trying to get rid of for years?
Do you know that just last week Simon told me that he didn't cry for the months after you died, but lately it makes his eyes fill with tears when he thinks about you?
Do you know that the Scout leaders at 409 wear a patch with a Dutch oven that says "Eric"?
Do you know that I can't change the voice message on your cell phone even though it's been Simon's phone for the last year?
Do you know that some nights I spray your cologne on my pillow hoping that you will be in my dreams?
Do you know that I'm done with my treatments, my surgery, my cancer stuff and that I'm alright?
Do you know that we joke about putting a big nativity scene in the front yard now that you're gone?  (Don't worry, we won't)
Do you know that each and every time I see a mini van like yours I check to see if it's you?  So far, no luck.
Do you know that just the other day Simon held up his thumb and finger showing me the space of a couple of inches and said, "This is about the amount of time we have to be alive on earth" and then pointing outside to the horizon he said, "and the time we get to be in heaven just goes on and on. Mom, we're going to be with Dad in no time and then we'll be together forever."
Do you know that the weekend is the hardest because that's when we spent the most time together and every time I sit in church I think about what it felt like to have you slip your arm around me?
Do you know that I still sleep only on my side of the bed?
Do you miss me?
Do you know that Henry and I didn't want them to take you away with the shirt you were wearing that day (because it was the same shirt you were wearing the day he was born) so we wrestled you out of it and laughed about how much I hated that shirt and how perfectly ironic it was that you would die in it?
Do you even care about any of this?
Do you wish we were with you?
Do you know that we buried you right by your Grandpa Buys, just yards away from corn and alfalfa fields?
Do you now know the answers to all the questions you had here on earth?
Do you spend time with my dad?
Do you ever see Cassie? Arie? Luke? Grandma Rynders?
Do you know how inadequate I feel some days as a single parent?
Do you know how amazingly strong and resilient our children are?
Do you know that we still laugh?
Do you know that we still cry?

There you have it.  I spend a lot of time wondering about what Eric thinks about right now--what he knows right now.  I know that many of my fellow Christians feel that once we are in the presence of God that the things of this world grow dim--unimportant, so to speak.  I'm absolutely certain that that's true and I wouldn't want to imagine Eric fretting around about what's going on down below.  But it's also hard for me to wrap my head around his separation from us.  Is the veil between us sheer and airy or a thick heavy tapestry.  I think anyone who has lost someone has to wonder about the connection between the here and now and the there and ever after. So we're left to wonder about these things, I don't imagine that Eric's God-created mind has been erased of the relationships and history that he held so dear during his time on this earth.

So how do I imagine him?  That's a good question.  During those moments in church when we're belting out one of our favorite songs or hymns and I can feel my eyes fill with tears, those are the moments that I think "This must be what it's like up there".  Some days I almost raise my hand in praise.  I said almost because the Dutch in me just can't quite do it yet.  When we're singing those songs, those favorites, I imagine him singing right beside me, drowning me out with his big, bold voice.  In that moment he feels very close.  Heaven feels very close.  I like that.  It comforts my weary heart.

So I'll wonder about him today, this week, for years to come, until I join him in heaven to worship next to him once again.  Right now I have all these questions, but I'm pretty sure at that moment all the questions will fall away and the only question and answer that matters will be the one that got us to that glorious place.

This is probably Eric's favorite question and answer--not probably, it is definitely his favorite.  It is Heidelberg Catechism question and answer number 1.  He committed it to memory and recited it to us often.  We read it on a very cold December day as we laid him to rest.  I think if he could talk to me today he would tell me that it was the only answer that really mattered.

What is your only comfort in life and death?

That I am not my own, 
but belong with body and soul,
both in life and in death, 
to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. 
He has fully paid for all my sins
with his precious blood, 
and has set me free from all the power of the devil. 
He also preserves me in such a way 
that without the will of my heavenly Father
not a hair can fall from my head; 
indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. 
Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me
of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready
from now on to live for him. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Letter to Dawn of one year ago...

Dear Dawn,

Today will be a pivotal day in your life.  You will get a phone call from an oncology nurse that will change a lot of things around you and inside of you, but it won't change who you are.  You know deep down inside that you can get through hard things--you have always known that.  Today and in days to come that will be put to the test. Always remember that you're stronger than you think you are.

Over the next year you will find yourself surrounded by the most remarkable support system.  You won't be able to escape it.  It will be as overwhelming as the news you received today about your cancer.   This amazing group will be made up of your husband, your children, your families, your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers, your fellow church members and even complete strangers.  They will encourage you with hugs, phone calls, gifts,  text messages, emails, cards, food and prayers that will keep you going through the most difficult days.  Let that group of people help you even when it's hard to accept it.  Some days the help might be something that's equally important for them to do as it is for you to receive.  Don't be too proud to take the help that's lovingly offered to you. 

Rest assured, you will be tended to by the most amazing doctors.  They will be more than doctors, they will become your friends, your team members.  You will cry in their offices and laugh at their jokes.  They will look you in the eyes and tell you that they can help you and they will mean it.  They will ask you where your strength comes from.  Don't ever, ever miss an opportunity to tell them where your strength and comfort comes from.  

You're going to pound your fists on your steering wheel and cry hot, angry tears when you hear this difficult news.  Get it out.  Tell God how angry you are and how it doesn't seem fair to your little family.  He can handle it.  He created every cell in your broken body and he's catching every tear in his very capable hands. In the next year you will learn to love and rely upon him more than you ever dreamed possible.  He will be there in the cold, dark nights and he will greet you each morning with a fresh day.  He will bring you emails, cards and conversations at the exact moment that you need them.  He will make your witness strong and will give you so many opportunities to encourage people even as you struggle.  

Here's the truth, chemo will suck.  I mean really, really suck.  Night 4 will be the worst.  On those Monday nights you will cry yourself to sleep.  You will feel awful physically and emotionally.  The darkness will be heavy.  Let that be your day to sink into the sadness.  Let it go dark for a while because I promise you the sun will rise again the next morning.  Trust me. 

You will come to love those people who work with you at the oncology clinic.  They will totally be able to sense that you're not a big fan of being part of their club and they will kindly serve you and tend to you in spite of your stand-offish ways.  After a year, they will greet you by name and you will ask them about their kids.  Take a minute to talk to the chatty lady next to you who's got the battle scars of a tough cancer road.  Let her encourage you.  In a year, you'll be the one telling someone that they're in good hands and they'll be just fine.

And don't be too hard on yourself.  This year you will be tempted to handle your cancer and your obstacles better than anyone else ever has.  You're going to be crabby and short with your kids.  Your house is going to get messy and the laundry will pile up.  Go to bed early when you need it.  Just for the record there is no special prize for being the best at handling tough days.  The gift is getting through them and getting a new one each morning.

You know how your brother once told you that he liked to climb mountains because he wanted to see how hard he could push himself.  It's going to be that kind of year.  This year will force you to dig deep and figure out where your strength comes from.  You will learn to love, love, love the verse, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."  You will feel weak, but you will also feel God's power.  Your roots will be growing deep even when your leaves are scattered on the cold ground.  

Last but not least.  You will laugh.  Read that again because you're not going to believe it today, but you will laugh often.  You will feel joy, real joy.  Soak in those times and use them to get you through the days where laughter doesn't come as easily.  Remember when the kids were little and everyone was crabby and Eric would say at the dinner table, "I don't think we've had a good laugh today yet" and we would force ourselves to laugh until it kicked in and we were all really laughing.  Do that.  A lot.

So in closing, hang in there.  When you're sad be really sad and when you're happy don't apologize for it.  

And not to spoil the ending, but everything's going to be alright.  



PS.  You're going to love your new boobs and cute bras are definitely in your future.  

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

I Can't Wish Him Back

For a couple of reasons, today I ended up logging into my Caring Bridge account.  There I found the long list of sites I have followed over the years.   It's a rough list.  As I look down the line there are very few who haven't passed on or are on a health road that is far from easy.  Out of nowhere, I decided that I wanted to read the last updates around Eric's surgery which took place well over two years ago.  I don't know that I could have read these six months ago or even six days ago, but today I needed to remember my thoughts and feelings at that season of my life.

Sometimes you have to look backwards to really see how far you've come.  The voice of those entries was really trying to be brave, to put a happy face on the heaviness that was happening within her own four walls.  I could feel the fear of the unknown and the relentless waves of disappointment.  Those were difficult days and my heart breaks for the struggles that Eric endured as he recovered from that last surgery.  I would sleep out on the couch while he tried to find maybe one hour of comfort in the recliner.  I would hear him get up in the night and pray that I wouldn't hear him hit the floor if he passed out.  There was physical pain and there was emotional uncertainty.  I have nothing but respect for the courage he showed in dealing with it all.  Those were incredibly tiring and tedious times in our life.

What would life be like if I were still adding journal entries to his story?  What if there were more entries around a surgery in December or a trip down to Mayo in the spring?  Selfishly, I want him back at my dinner table, behind the wheel driving my kids to their activities and looking at me from his pillow as I prattle on about my day.  That's what I want and when I imagine it, he's healthy and strong. When I look back at those journal entries I know that we were saved pain and suffering.  We were saved a decline in Eric's health that would have no doubt been difficult.  What I'm saying is that God's divine timing is perfect, even when it's perfectly painful,

As I read each entry on his site, I had to admit these words to myself, I wouldn't want him back.  I wouldn't want him to wake up short of breath one more time, I wouldn't want him to have to make one more trip to the ER, to have to pause one more time, winded, at the top of a staircase.  I love him enough not to want that for him even though I can feel his immense love for us in the way he bravely battled the broken heart God gave him. I am glad he fought, but I'm grateful that he can now rest.

I found two different updates that I wanted to share from the journal entries.

From May 2, 2102  "A bruised reed He will not break."  To be very honest, we've felt more bruised in the last several weeks than we ever have in our lives and this promise is one that we cling to.  We are thankful that God never gives us more than we can handle and that he surrounds us with people to hold us up when we go through periods of trial.  This is all part of our story and we thank you for the roles which you play in it.

What I've learned in the past year is that God almost always gives us more than we can handle. That's how he designs it so that we absolutely have to lean into his strong arms for comfort, for guidance and for strength.  He doesn't expect us to go it alone.  He provides his strength through his promises, his hope and through a thousand different people who come alongside you, give you encouraging words or simply warm your day with a smile as you pass in the hallway.  

From March 7, 2012  Part of me thinks that I should write some really mushy stuff but in truth if you like that kind of stuff you probably get 4 emails forwarded to you each week full of that.  I do appreciate your prayers for my health and especially for Dawn and the kids.  They are real troopers and I am very proud of how they manage all of this.  
Thanks again. Eric

The second paragraph is one that was written by Eric on the eve of his last big surgery.  I think it shows his always present sense of humor and his gratitude for the overwhelming support for our family.  I also think it's what he would still say to all of you who have loved us so well over this last year. 

I had completely forgotten about the little note he asked me to post on March 7, 2012.  Maybe I was supposed to forget about it so that I could rediscover it today when I needed to hear his love, his humor and his encouragement to his family.  I'd be lying to you if I said that I don't spend considerable time wondering what Eric would think of how we're doing today.  Now I think I know.