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.
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