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