And Then I Blinked

13 02 2018

I’m not the same person I was five years ago. There are the obvious reasons, such as the fact that I am five years older, and my energy level has changed. But those things are not the real reasons. Five years ago I was one-half of a couple. Five years ago all the major decisions were made by two people. Five years ago we were both working; my husband full time and me part time. Five years ago we went on vacations and planned new ones to places we wanted to see. Five years ago I was grudgingly picking up socks and underwear and towels and papers and dishes…

And then.

It was a phone call. And a whole string of what-ifs. Followed by a thousand why, why, why, whys. It was a thundering of blood pumping in my ears, my heart beating so fast I thought I might pass out. It was my body shaking so hard I couldn’t imagine driving myself anywhere. And it was the end of normal as I knew it.

March 17, 2013. St. Patrick’s Day. Beautiful, sunny, deceptively peaceful and perfect. You can’t imagine such a thing happening to you on a day like this. But it did. Life as I had lived it for almost forty-seven years came to a halt.

It was entirely the fault of the widow-maker, that type of heart attack that kills quickly and surely. My husband was healthy, in great shape, training for his third marathon, eating well and doing everything right. Then I blinked, and he was gone.

Reality is like a sharp knife. It cuts your past from your future with an accuracy that stuns. Like magic, what was is gone and what is to be is hidden behind a curtain of grief, the sorrow weighing you down so that you find it impossible to stand. And then in that weak moment come the henchmen; anger, denial, depression.

Wow. So where was my faith in all of this, you ask? Great question. And I’m not sure I have a clear-cut answer. Looking back over these five years since I became a widow (a word I hate with all my heart), I’ve searched for the threads that lead back to that day. Five years ago I was indescribably angry. I spent day after day ranting at the God who took away my husband. Betrayed, let down, disappointed, heartbroken, so alone, discouraged, weary, and feeling deserted, I was certain God had left me. I couldn’t find Him or feel Him anywhere. What kind of God leaves you like that? Consequently, I lost the faith I’d had in Him my whole life, or so I thought.

But here’s the thing. Anger is black, opaque, un-see-through-able. And necessary. God stood beside me, watching, loving, and protecting all the while I was ranting at Him. As the anger diminished, His presence gradually became obvious. He’d never left my side as I thought He had. In fact, He had spent much of that time carrying me as He allowed the anger. And although my faith took a real beating in those weeks, it was always there. The result of my loss was to learn that no matter what happens in your life, no matter how bad it gets, if you believe in the same God I do, He will stay with you always. ALWAYS. Especially in the hard times. Even when you can’t understand the why of it all.

The best way to explain it is to refer to an old story describing our lives as a tapestry we see only from the back side. There is a dark and ugly mass of strings in varied colors, some cut and woven back in and others continuing on. It’s messy, with knots and jumbled threads. None of it makes sense. It isn’t until we see the finished workmanship on the right side of the tapestry that we realize what a magnificent masterpiece it is.

This is what I take from that; I’m still seeing the underside of the tapestry, and for the past five years I’ve been trying to follow the threads that run consistently through the it. The thread of faith can be hard to find because it’s hidden for a time under other threads, but it always reappears at some point. It always reappears. Imagine someday seeing the right side and saying, Oh, look what the Master Weaver did with my life!

I am not the person I was five years ago. I’m older, yes. But that’s not the point. I have learned so much about trust in God, a God who loves me more than I can fathom; I have learned about my own faith, a faith which has grown and blossomed and become the center of my life. I have learned about dependence, a complete surrender to the God who planned out every second of my life before I was even born, and who knows exactly what will happen every second of the life I have left. I have learned how strong I am. I have learned how hardships and difficult circumstances molded me. I have learned how much I still have to learn.

That thread of faith that seemed to disappear right after my husband’s death? It was there all along, and now I’m learning to embrace it, holding it close and letting go of all the doubts and fears, and yes, the anger, that I used to allow free reign.

Because I don’t have the ability to see what’s ahead for me. But I know Who does.


My America. Yours Too?

28 09 2017

Let me start by saying that this is not a political post–I won’t be taking sides. I respect the opinions of other people. We live in a free country where equality is celebrated. But as I think back over the weeks and months, I am filled with great sadness. There have been moments when I’ve been proud of America, moments such as Hurricane Harvey, when so many offered help to the Texans affected by bringing in food, resources, volunteering physical labor for clearing and rebuilding. Moments such as Hurricane Irma, when we offered our neighbors in Florida the assistance they needed to find safety, get clean water, and begin the monumental task of reconstruction. Now we are faced with yet another hurricane which has totally devastated our territory of Puerto Rico, whose people are also American citizens. They need the help of their neighbors more than ever before, and I hope we will stand the test and be there for them in every possible way, because there is such great need there.

But there is much going on in our world that makes me sad. We are quick to judge without checking facts. We accept what we read on facebook and twitter without checking facts. We superimpose motives to the actions of people without finding out the story behind the action—without checking facts. We rush to conclusions without an open heart to hear what the facts are. We trust the word of certain people just because they said it, without checking facts. Yes, two people can look at the same situation and have two differing opinions. Everyone comes from unique backgrounds and has their own take. But we have to start from the point of truth before forming an opinion. And many times a person’s opinion comes from their personal experiences, often painful ones. Shouldn’t we be respecting their pain? Shouldn’t we be trying to understand rather than condemn? Shouldn’t we be actively listening with our hearts?

My sadness comes from all the unrest, the disunity, the bickering over unimportant things. I believe we were created to be kind, to do unto others as we would wish it would be done to us, to think of others before ourselves, to help each other, affirm each other, love (unconditionally) each other, forgive each other (because goodness knows we need all kinds of forgiveness ourselves) and be tolerant and understanding of each other. And to give grace by being willing to allow those differing opinions. Because no one knows what it is to walk in my shoes. No one knows what it is to walk in yours. Pure, sincere empathy should be what we all strive for without rush to judgement or the impulse we have of “you’re wrong and I’m right.” God will take care of the judging.

Why can’t we be blind to color? Why can’t we embrace our differences? Why can’t we respect each other instead of condemning and belittling and mocking those not like us or with a different opinion than ours? Why can’t we value each other? Why can’t we listen with open minds? We have a rich mix of ethnicities, backgrounds, ideas, viewpoints, creativities, and opportunities in this country. We can all contribute to the greatness possible in America. “God so loved the WORLD that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him shall have everlasting life.” John 3:16.

I don’t see any exclusions there. Do you?

…And A Little Child Will Lead Them

31 08 2017

My heart has been heavy these past months. I’ve seen increased tension, animosity, hatred, impatience and intolerance. Because of the divisiveness, my once-unified country has begun to crack. This is the country my parents, my brother and I fled to after Nazi Germany decimated the Netherlands, followed by the threat of Communism. This is the ‘melting pot’ where all races and ethnicities came together to form a free and welcoming land, a place for all to find opportunity and a better life. This is the place where religion could be pursued without persecution. This is the country where opinions could be freely expressed without fear of retaliation.

What happened?

I recently flew to Washington to visit family. On this flight there were people of many nationalities, and because I chose Southwest, the seating was open. I was one of the earlier boarders and took an aisle seat. As the other passengers filed in, a white gentleman across from me offered the seat beside him to a young black woman. They conversed off and on throughout the flight. Just ahead of me across the aisle sat a little blond girl no older than 2 ½. Occasionally she would turn and smile at me, her dimples flashing, and her plump little leg sticking out the side of her seat. Across from her was a black mother with two children, one an older boy, the other a baby of about a year. The baby was fascinated by the little girl, and reached out a hand to her. Grinning broadly, the girl touched his fingers and giggled as the baby chuckled and toddled toward her. They interacted for several minutes, alternately initiating the contact. People around them were smiling as they watched the children, each child blind to the color of the other.

The stewardesses on the flight treated each child equally, cooing and talking to the little boy, and chatting with the girl. As I observed this throughout the four-hour flight, I felt for that short time as if all was right with the world. This is how it should be. This is the country my family came to for a fresh start. This is the colorblindness Jesus preached—all equal and equally worthy. It gave me new hope.

Now I’m back to reality. The news is full of the hatred between races, the degradation one group thrusts on another, each refusing to take into account (or accept as valid) or even listen to the viewpoint of the other. It hurts my heart. I hope it hurts yours.

There is a saying: A journey begins with a single step. Let’s make that single step. One by one we can spread the gospel of love. One caring act at a time, we can turn the tide. That little girl didn’t see the color of the baby across the aisle. She saw a smile, a child like her on a long flight, a kinship beyond race.

Texas is showing us all what it is to be unified. In the midst of the flooding and devastation brought on by Hurricane Harvey, everyone is helping in whatever way they can. A kind word, a helping hand, a place to stay, food and water to share, encouragement that this too will pass, tears shared because of the myriad of losses the people are feeling already. Offers of help started pouring in as soon as the hurricane hit landfall. Volunteers are lining up to go to the hard-hit areas and help with cleanup. Donations are being offered (water, food, medical supplies, money) given even by those who have little themselves. People are caring, they are praying, they are giving, they are helping, they are loving. There is no regard of color, race, religion. 

This beauty in the face of tragedy, this is my country.  

An Invaluable Legacy

8 08 2017

There is a tremendous emphasis these days on income. How much money you have and what you do with it has become a benchmark of success. As if money could be the precursor to happiness. As if your bank account equates your level of contentment. As if those with little money ought to be miserable.

I don’t deny that lack of money can make life difficult, especially for a family with children whose very existence require a decent income to sustain them. But more to the point, the richest people in the world don’t necessarily have a corner on the happiness market. Yes, those whose income is either non-existent or very low have a much harder life than the middle-income range, but here’s the thing. The most giving and kind-hearted people are often those who have the least.

These bold statements come from personal experience.  As a child, my parents were poor. Were it not for the twelve cows my dad milked for income and which provided milk and butter for us, the meager six acres of asparagus he grew, and my mother’s skillful negotiations for ‘sale’ prices on cases of dented canned sauerkraut and other vegetables, we might likely have starved. Potatoes mashed alternately with apples, kale, sauerkraut and spinach became an every-meal staple for us. Never did either my mom or dad talk about our poverty. Never once did I hear either of them complain, argue, or in any way indicate our lack of income. I wore my cousins’ hand-me-downs, as did my brother. We were always clean, always loved, and always expected to be respectful and well-behaved. Dad made a game of going to a Saturday sale, waiting until the very end when the auctioneer would pile various things into boxes and sell them for a quarter. Often those boxes yielded treasures, things Dad could fix up and use, or fix up and sell at the next auction. He took childlike delight in the money he earned in the process.

I remember vividly the generosity my parents practiced. There was always room for one more at the dinner table, and they shared as though they had more than enough. Often Dad went to the bank to borrow against the next year’s crop because the frost or drought took this year’s. His first priority the next year was to honor his commitment to pay back what he borrowed, even if that meant we got no profit.

And here’s what I learned from all that. I learned that being honorable is a great virtue. I learned that kindness can save a person from despair. I learned that generosity is possible, even when there is next to nothing to share. I learned that we are all equal on this earth if you measure equality in terms of integrity and strength of character. I learned that loving your fellow man is an active verb, something you show in a visible way. And I learned that hope is the one word we all need to hold on to. My parents did that. Their hope and their strong faith carried us all those years ago. What a legacy.

What I’ve Gained

28 07 2017

I’ve lost my husband. Each day that reality hits me equally hard. Sometimes there is a deep sadness that refuses to give way regardless of what I do. Sometimes the smothering heaviness of loneliness wraps itself around me, barely allowing me to breathe. But other times a larger picture pushes the sadness and loneliness aside and tells me this:

I have gained so much.

I’ve gained strength to face each day. I’ve gained the ability to see the tiniest of details all around me, those pinpoints of incredible beauty waiting for me to notice, like the hummingbird resting on the petal of an Asian lily, or the perfectly shaped leaf being shifted by the breeze. The huge waves coming in to shore not by their own will but by the will of the wind. The cloud formation that is a bird, then a kite, then a sailboat.

I’ve gained independence. Though I have no sense of direction, I’ve found my way around my state, amazed myself by navigating other places like Chicago and Milwaukee. Faced with the decision of either figuring it out or staying home, I’ve chosen to figure it out. I’ve learned to eat out alone, go to movies alone, or on a drive to enjoy nature, alone.

I’ve gained a lifetime of memories, those snapshots of family times, travels overseas, and simple Saturday mornings over coffee. Drawing on those, squeezing as much joy as possible from each precious moment, I’ve realized that I can still make memories in the future. They won’t look the same. They won’t be the memories I was hoping for five years ago. But they are there, waiting for me to recognize and take advantage of them.

I’ve gained a different kind of joy. It’s so much deeper and more permanent than the joy I had before, maybe because the heaviness of melancholy has filtered in, giving it a richness it lacked before. If nothing else, death is an unrelenting educator.  

I’ve gained the certainty that my friends are always going to surround me. What a gift! Their loyalty, camaraderie, love and thoughtfulness have daily blessed me. I am humbled by their devotion. They accept me as I am, regardless of circumstances.

I’ve gained the knowledge that petty differences are just that—petty. They are not important, and not worth wasting time and energy debating.  As individuals we have our own ideas and views of life, but at the base of it all is our love for each other. Every single person on this earth is going to say and do things that will hurt others, but those things do not define them or how they feel about the significant people in their lives.

I’ve gained a different kind of faith, one that encourages me to lean more heavily on God and accept more fully the future He has planned for me. Don’t get me wrong, I still rally against the way things are. As I sit alone in the evenings I desperately miss the companionship of my husband. I don’t relish my singleness. But acceptance is part of life. Misery is not an option. There are legions of us out there, each dealing with loss in our own unique way, taking the journey one step at a time with the faith that it will be okay. Because that’s the best decision we can make.

Walking the Path of Grief

25 04 2016

This past Sunday my church did a service on lament at which I was asked to speak on the topic of loneliness. One of the characteristics of lament is the necessity for honesty; telling it like it is. I did that.  I’ve had some requests to print the text of my talk on this blog, so here it is.

I often think of my father, a widower for twenty years. He bore the burden of his loss  quietly, rarely talking about it, and when he did, he simply said: “It’s lonely without Mom.” I thought I knew what that meant. But the depth of meaning in those few words didn’t fully impact me until loss happened to me.

When Mel died, everything about my life changed. I wasn’t prepared for his death, nor did I have any idea how impossibly challenging it would be to walk the path of grief.

Weariness became my new normal over the weeks and months as I discovered the true meaning of loneliness. My house was so very silent all the time–meals eaten alone, evenings spent alone, weekends without the companionship of my husband. I felt his absence everywhere.

And that loneliness brought me to an unexpected emotion—anger. I was surprised by the depth and force of it. Mel was a good man with much still to contribute to the world. He had great plans for volunteering in our retirement. But he never got that chance, and I was angry. I railed at God, I stormed through the house yelling, crying, shaking my fist at Him. Really, God? Why him? If You truly love me, why did You allow this? I demanded answers.

What I got was silence. God had gone, deserted me, left me to deal with all the baggage that accompanies grief. The sadness, despair, loneliness, helplessness, bitterness, anger.

And the doubt. I couldn’t feel God anywhere.

This thing called faith can be elusive. It’s hard to find in the deepest, most painful days of our lives. How can it even exist in a world where death takes children, spouses, friends and parents way before their time?

For a long while after Mel’s death I had doubts about my faith. I needed that wonderful man as my life partner—didn’t God know that?

As Christians, we believe God knows best….until things don’t go as we’ve planned. Then we have the audacity to think we can control our lives, that God needs us to direct Him. Maybe I felt that way. As if I know better than God. As if I have any say in what happens next. The hardest thing I’ve had to do is let go of all that—all the control—and trust God knows best.

That’s really tough when all you feel is gut-wrenching pain. So yes, I questioned my faith. But gradually through the days and weeks, I realized it was still there.

Because what do we have if we don’t have our faith? I admit mine was tested, but in the process it deepened as I felt the comforting arms of God around me in the middle of many sleepless nights, or in the solitude of a winter snowstorm.

And in those lonely days, God hadn’t gone away, hadn’t deserted me. Instead, He’d given me space in which to work my way through the messiness, all the while quietly walking alongside me. He allowed the process of grief to take its course, gradually lifting the initial blessing of shock so that I could do the important work of grieving.

I still have those moments when I feel as if I’m going through the grief process all over again. Some of my joy is gone, some of life’s wonders are diminished, and there is heaviness in my heart. I miss Mel. I mourn the days ahead without him, the 50th anniversary he won’t be here to celebrate with me this August. As my dad said, at the end of the day it’s lonely.

Chris Tomlin’s song God of Angel Armies says I know who goes before me; I know who stands behind. The God of angel armies is always by my side. The one who reigns forever, He is a friend of mine. The God of angel armies is always by my side.

I awoke with that song going through my head on March 17th, 2013, and I continued to hear it as the day wore on. That afternoon, God took Mel home. In His divine providence, He gave me the words of that song to carry me–then and in the weeks to follow. To remind me I’m not alone. And that has truly been evidence of His amazing grace.This

Blank Page

1 01 2016

I’m not doing resolutions this year. They set me up for failure every time. Promising myself that I’ll work out regularly, eat healthier foods, develop a better house-cleaning routine, be a better friend-mother-grandmother, be more organized and vowing to write a little every day isn’t working for me.

The thing is, I shouldn’t have to make a resolution in order to do those things. They should happen because I want to do them. The doing should be a part of me that is automatic, a natural response to all the blessings I am showered with every day–because I am grateful.

Today is page one of a 366 page book. Without those resolutions I am free to be and do what I was made for, to write an exciting story that starts on page one and continues daily. None of that grinding I-should-have-I-have-to-I-failed-to-I’ve-already-ruined-the-resolutions guilt.  I want to use my energy to look back on each day and think of the worthwhile moments that set that day apart.

Instead of a resolution, I’m starting the year with a question that has a new answer with each turn of the page. How can I make this day stand out? What can I do to make this a better world for just one person?  Call it random acts of kindness, paying it forward, doing what’s right—it doesn’t matter. It’s all about remembering to look outward.

January 1, 2016, page 1. God has gifted me with amazing friends. I have a wonderful, loving family. I am in good health and able to do whatever I want. I am blessed with reasonable security. I woke up this morning alive.

Great start, right? I don’t need resolutions. I just need to live the gratitude and stop thinking about what’s in it for me. So maybe in place of a list of resolutions, I’ll make a list of ways I can show gratitude, ways I can be a blessing, ways I can leave a legacy of giving back.

Happy New Year! God bless you all.