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.





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.





Finding Joy

10 02 2014

The trim white houses stretch as far as I can see, clones set in a row like soldiers at attention. Each yard is manicured, each drive an exact replica of the others. Mailboxes have no numbers to distinguish one from the rest. Panic overtakes me. Where is he?

I’ve knocked on dozens of doors, but there’s no answer. I’m frantic. Not a soul is in sight—no children playing in the yard, no fathers mowing lawns or trimming hedges, not a single car to be seen on the road. Fear constricts my throat as I try to call his name, but I have no voice. The stillness is eerie. I hurry on, searching for him somewhere on this endless street, searching, searching. Where is he?

I awaken with a start, my heart pounding as my eyes dart around the room. I see the familiar tie-back curtains, the floral throw pillows on the chair. My heart begins to slow, panic recedes, and I tell myself it was just a dream. Slowly, I rise, pull on my robe. It’s Saturday morning. The coffee will be on in the kitchen, the day ours to plan.

But then reality shoves aside my normal, and I’m forced to remember. That comfortable routine is forever gone. My husband isn’t going to be there, and coffee won’t be waiting for me. My normal will never be normal again, at least not in the old way.

He died. That’s the short version of the story. Grief has taken over my days and my nights, all aspects of my life, and it has changed everything. Forever. He’s gone.

I’ve been a Christian for as long as I can remember. My parents endured a cruel war in the Netherlands before they brought our family to America in search of a better life, and their first years here were hard. We had little money, but there was an abundance of faith. I remember my father whistling hymns, my mother singing them, sometimes in Dutch and other times in English. I suppose you could say I inherited my faith. I didn’t question God in those formative years. But it didn’t feel real then the way it does now.

Much later, when life began to happen, the soul searching began in earnest. When my daughter was ten, her best friend, Shelly, died of cancer after a long, painful battle. She spent her last three months in the hospital, basically waiting to die, and it was heart-wrenching to see that brave little girl be so sick. I would scream at God with tears streaming down my face on my way to the hospital and again on the way back. I cried, I yelled, I questioned. I was so angry.

God was silent. And Shelly died. How do you reconcile that with the God who loves us?

I researched the word grief. Book after book gave me the clinical “steps of grief.” If I went through the steps, I decided, then I would be done. But you know what? I never dealt with it. Instead, I allowed my anger and frustration to stuff the grief and then I smugly walked away. All better.

As I look back now I see that God was laying groundwork for me, preparing for this day more than thirty years later. I’m learning to lean in to my grief instead of ignoring it. My husband is gone. I won’t see him again until the day I go to heaven. But God is never going to leave me. It took several months for me to learn this lesson. Initially I was angry, depressed, filled with pure black pain.

There was a glint of hope every now and then, but most of the time I was bleeding grief. Words don’t penetrate that kind of pain, but I found that music can. Slowly, as I heard the words of praise songs I had come to love, the message began to make sense. God loves me. He’s right there beside me, showing the way, holding me up when I can’t walk the path.

I don’t know the why of my husband’s death. But there’s a much bigger picture here than I can see. It’s like that giant tapestry that looks like a tangled mess from below. When you see the right side, the beauty of it is breath-taking. Someday I’ll see the finished tapestry, and I’ll understand. But in the meantime, my job is to trust.

I read somewhere the phrase, “The work of grief.” It’s an appropriate description of a hard event. Yes, grief is hard work, but it can also be something holy. Grief is my way of honoring my husband. It honors the 49 years he was part of my life, it shows evidence of his importance to me.

Make no mistake, it’s messy. It hurts. Sometimes it strangles. Nothing about it is easy. But I’m learning a new meaning to the word joy. It’s not a sense of happiness, or fun. Joy has a much deeper meaning, a gift God gives us if we accept it. Joy is that sense of peace that even on the most painful days, even in “the valley of the shadow of death,” we are not alone.

I’m working through my grief, not just for the loss of my husband, but for the loss of Shelly all those years ago. I don’t expect to get over it. True grief never leaves you. But those sharp edges that cut at you begin to wear down, and gradually the pain dulls and recedes. In its place you begin to feel peace, thankfulness. Grief becomes a companion, always there, but in a good way. And you learn to feel joy.

You see, God knew grief, too. When His son died on the cross, God’s grief was magnified beyond our comprehension. But He did it for love, and who are we to question that?

Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift.





Thoughts on Winter

1 03 2013

Michigan winter

Michigan winter

Once again I waken to a blanket of white outside my window. The winter has been consistent, snow an almost daily occurrence. Some days it floats down in large, fluffy flakes, gently landing on the ground with graceful ease. Other days the wind drives it wilfully sideways, forcing it to fly across the top of the white quilt beneath. The one consistent factor is the cold. You can’t have snow without the cold.

Snow can be beautiful. It can be graceful. It can be brutal. It can be unforgiving. It can be fun. It can be the enemy. It’s all about perspective.

I look out and see beauty. My house is warm, I don’t have anywhere I have to go today, and the view is lovely as I write this post. The flakes dancing in the wind create a winter scene I enjoy without discomfort. I am an observer.

The homeless old man under the highway overpass sees another day of severe cold, another day of wondering how much longer he will need to endure the brutal winter, another day of finding ways to keep the fire going. He does not see the beauty in his cold existence, only the hardship.

The child eager to build a snowman and learn how to make snowballs sees adventure, excitement, a day of play. He doesn’t mind the cold because he is dressed in warm clothes, and when he finally feels the cold he knows there will be a warm house and a cup of hot chocolate waiting for him. He loves the snow.

The senior who sits in her wheelchair at the nursing home sees the snow and remembers days of struggle as she and her young husband worked the farm and kept the wood stove going in the clapboard house. Freezing cold in the morning, she would start the fire and have the kitchen cozy and warm when the children got up. Evenings she would boil water, pour it into quart jars, and wrap them in towels to use as foot warmers for the children in their icy upstairs bedrooms. She smiles remembering the joy of children with red cheeks and frosty breath as they chased each other in the knee-deep snow. She has fond memories of the snow.

Perspective. It’s interesting how differently we each see things, depending on our perspective.