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.

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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.





Legacy

16 07 2014

IMG_4544

My father was born in 1915, the youngest of seven, to farm-laborer parents. He was the only child who had farming in his blood and after completing sixth grade, he became a full-time worker in the fields alongside his father.
As he grew older he knew he wanted to farm, but buying land in the Netherlands was impossible. He decided his best avenue would be to learn a trade and save up to move elsewhere, though the place he would go wasn’t yet clear.

After taking night classes and completing his required training, Dad became a barber, first as an apprentice and later owning his own shop. When he and my mother married in 1943, he began in earnest saving every penny he could, a difficult task since war had begun the year before.

The thing about Dad was, he had the most optimistic view of life of anyone I’ve met. Pair that up with sheer determination, add an adventuresome spirit and a fearless attitude, and you have Dad. So he packed up his little family of four and set off for America in 1947. And he worked hard.

Fast forward to the 1950’s and Dad owned a small, seven acre farm in Washington where he raised asparagus and tomatoes and milked a handful of cows. He moved us from farm to farm until he purchased a forty acre parcel growing concord grapes, with a contract to sell each crop to Welch’s for juice and grape jelly.

Dad became a successful man who farmed well and worked hard, but most importantly who loved his family and his God without reservation. A man of principle and faith, devotion and loyalty. A truly good man. The world was blessed to have him for 92 years.

And I miss him.





Thar She Blows!

17 02 2014
Mount St. Helens

Mount St. Helens

Beauty from Ashes

My parents lived about one hundred miles east of Mount St. Helens in the state of Washington. As they were coming out of a worship service one Sunday morning in 1980, the sky was turning a strange, deep shade of gray. There was little wind, which would have signaled a sandstorm, and as the sky gradually darkened and the wall of gray advanced, the parishioners were frightened and began to speculate in hushed tones. What could it mean? Was it the end of the world?

Mom told me about the eerie silence that hung in the air as sunlight disappeared and it became dark as night. Panic stricken and not knowing what they should do, people huddled together. Mom described it as a very bizarre experience.

Later, my parents learned that Mount St. Helens, a dormant volcano, had erupted that morning. A strong earthquake registering 5.1 on the Richter Scale caused pressure to build inside the mountain. That in turn released a plume of steam, and within seconds the cloud turned black as ash shot into the sky. Rock and ice trapped in the mountain exploded, and soon hot gas, ash, chunks of ice and huge pieces of rock were catapulted upward. It was determined that the blast was 500 times greater than the 20 kiloton bomb that fell on Hiroshima.

The darkness the parishioners experienced was caused by a fine, thick blanket of ash that crawled across the state like a curtain, slowly shutting out the light. Even though the volcano was a hundred miles away, the volcanic residue changed day into night. Amazing.

A few years later, my husband and I and our three children took a road trip on one of our visits to my parents’ home. We saw the devastation the volcano had caused—millions of fir trees, many 200 year old, mowed down like so many bowling pins, and the lake below filled with pines sheared and shoved down the mountainside into the water by the force of the blast. And gray. Everything was gray. Once, this had been a lush, green range of pine trees teeming with wildlife. Trees of every size had populated the slope, making it look like a green carpet rising up to meet the sky. Beds of wildflowers, spread like quilts in the sunny patches between copses of trees, had splashed color randomly across the forest. Now, there was no life of any kind. Only ash. Gray, lifeless ash.

volcanic-ash

Fast forward a decade. My next visit to the area revealed something amazing. Yes, there was still gray. But now there were small pine trees pushing through the ash, some vegetation and flowers beginning to grow. The mountainside was regenerating, starting anew, covering itself with a fresh, young shade of green that indicated new life. Beauty out of ashes.

This week I ran across an old newspaper I had saved from May 19, 1980, the day after the volcano erupted. As I remembered that week, the phone conversations with my parents, and the impact the ash had on the farm area where they lived, I realized that my current situation is similar. My life has undergone an enormous change these past months since my husband’s death. The ash of sorrow has darkened my days and covered me with a deep sense of hopelessness. It seems as though it will never go away, never be bright and good again.

Still, every now and then there comes a spark of hope, a hint of joy, a ray of light. It’s a new life for me as I face the future, but who’s to say it won’t be good? The cover of ash is being replaced by a fresh crop of optimism. No, it will never be the same. My children and I are facing a future without our anchor, but we are gradually emerging from the cloud of ash and are beginning to see potential ahead. God is revealing to us a new future with new hopes and dreams. It’s been there all along, really. He knew that, knows it now, but is giving us evidence of it one day at a time, as we are able to understand, accept. All we have to do is believe and trust.

Beauty out of ashes. New life in spite of death.

It’s nothing short of a miracle.





It’s a New Year, Charlie Brown

30 12 2013

IMG_0369“In the book of life the answers aren’t in the back.” Wise words, Charlie Brown, though if the answers were there and were good ones, I might be more inclined to welcome in the New Year. Honestly, for a while I didn’t know if I should look forward to 2014 or dread it.

For anyone who doesn’t know me well, I am an optimist by nature. It’s a good trait, one which has gotten me through a lot of the difficult years of my life. The reality is, a lot of life is hard, painful, impossible. But I prefer to temper those parts with the view that there is always, always something good to come out of the struggles. My parents were a great example of people who lived by that mantra. Life didn’t treat them kindly those first few years after WWII as they moved to a new country and worked hard to make ends meet. But I grew up with singing in the house, an ever present faith in God, and a feeling of security and well-being that never wavered. They never let my brother and me know how poor we were.

My natural optimism tells me to look forward, never forgetting, always learning. So I’ll not listen to Charlie Brown’s dire prediction: “I’m afraid to be happy, because whenever I get too happy something bad always happens.”
You’re wrong, Charlie Brown. I’m not listening to you. Forward is the only way to go, the choice is in the direction we take, either the hopeful path or the dismal one.

I choose hope. I choose optimism. I choose to be happy. I choose to embrace this coming year and all the good things it will hold. I am so very richly blessed by my children, grandchildren, extended family and loving friends. And most of all by God. After all, He’s the one in charge, and I know He has only my good in mind.

Bring on 2014. And shape up, Charlie Brown. You need a good dose of happy.





Thoughts on a Morning Breeze

8 08 2013

Maple leaves

Maple leaves


As I sit on my deck, a single maple leaf quivers and shifts on the newly sealed floor, the drop of rain from last night’s shower shimmering as it glides off the edge. I watch, mesmerized, as the leaf lifts, floats for a second, and settles back into a new spot. It no longer has life, and yet it moves from place to place, carried by the early morning breeze.

It’s an amazing thing, that little bit of motion caused by something invisible. I look up into the tree and I see movement everywhere–every leaf, branch and seed pod is gently swaying because of the light wind. Raindrops roll off and fall on my arm. Shadows dance with the sun, making an ever-changing, abstract pattern on the deck.

Life is like that. Ever changing, never the same, unpredictable. That’s what makes it so beautiful, all those little surprises unveiled each day if only we stop and allow ourselves to see them. Sure, it can also be a harsh reality when the unexpected is painful and debilitating. I learned that lesson when my husband died unexpectedly in March. At those times it is impossible to see beyond right now, but out of that pain comes something salvageable and precious.

Once again that recurring theme of perspective comes to mind. I’m not an advocate of pain. Pain is, well, painful. But I was born with my father’s optimistic temperament, and I choose to believe that out of my pain there will come something beautiful. Maybe it will be in the form of a new friendship borne out of that pain. Maybe it will be a stronger relationship with and appreciation for my children and my friends. Maybe it will be a renewed faith and dependency on my God, the author of that breeze. Maybe it will be all of those things, and maybe it will take a long time to discover. But I believe it will come.

A small gust of wind picks up the leaf and blows it away. As I watch it swirl and dip and disappear, I feel a spark of something unexpected pass through me. Joy. There is so much to be thankful for. And joy doesn’t preclude pain, a lesson I learned a long time ago. It’s a state of mind. I look forward to the day I can see the other side of my grief, but in the meantime that sense of joy remains. Life does go on, it does still have unexpected beauty in it, and it does change every day.

I recently added a line to my email signature. It says: Spend each day as if it is your last.
I tend to barrel through my days, trying to pack in the items on my to-do list. I’m beginning to realize that it’s a coping mechanism, that maybe I need to slow down in order to appreciate those small things. If today is my last day, may it be filled with little sparks of joy.