Five – FIVE?! – years

Gravestone

There’s actually something easier about saying “five years” than saying “five months.” And then, there’s something just unreasonably, ridiculously, stupidly horrible about saying “five years.” Five. Freaking. Years.

I can’t help but think of the beginning of the movie Elizabethtown. The main character has lost his company $972 million and the owner of the company is explaining to him how big that is. “How do I make the number real to you?” He talks about the basketball team and natural watchdog project the company owns that will have to go, and he emphasizes the fact that small countries are run for that amount of money.

That’s how I feel about trying to describe 5 years of being a young widower. How do I make that length of time as a young widower real to you? I’ve been a widower for one thousand eight hundred twenty-six days (as of October 14). You could basically round that to 2000 days at this point. Soon enough (March 15, 2016 to be exact), I will have been widowed for longer than I was married. Most people would have to live to be 120 years old to ever reach that point. I’m 34. I’m not even halfway through my 30s. But it makes me feel like I’m 70. It took me longer to graduate elementary school than it did for me to have a wife die. Both my kids have had more life without a mom than they had with one. I have friends who have grown their families from 0 to 3 kids in that time.

Five.
Years.

And yet, it can still feel easier than five months. At five months, it’s fresh. You wonder daily — instead of occasionally — if you’re going to wake up from the nightmare. You can’t imagine a day or a world that doesn’t involve figuring out how to do life without that other person. At 5 years, you’ve pretty well learned to manage life without. (What a horrible thing to be able to say?)

And that sometimes feels even worse. Effectively, I’m saying that I don’t need Stephanie. And if I don’t need her now, I never really did. It feels like such a horrible thing to say about someone you love so much. And yet, it’s a sentiment Stephanie and I shared towards each other. Our lives were not dependent on each other. We need God; not each other. Stephanie, in the midst of a struggle we were having, said to me, “I don’t need you.” She was right. She had promised to God to be married to me, no matter how hard things got between us. And that’s what she deferred to in the midst of struggles, rather than deferring to any presumed need for me. And that sentiment had the effect of spurring us on to work through that struggle and many others. I’m convinced that it is what made our marriage so wonderful. But, do hear me: I really wanted her in my life for 50 years or more. “Need” is not the same as “want.” If I needed her, that would mean my own sense of self was dependent on her and her existence in my life. That’s what most people would call a needy person. It gave me a great freedom to know that she was not dependent on me for who she was. And I, obviously, was not dependent on her for who I am. Five years proves that pretty well.

Furthermore, I’ve been able to grow so much in the past 5 years because I don’t need her. The man she married was not the same man she widowed. And the man she widowed is not the man I am today. As hard as it is to believe it’s been five years, this is a redemptive story. I thank God for the grace He has shown in my life and the lives of my kids. I’m stronger today than I’ve ever been. And I’m confident that I could survive any blow life can hand me, because I’ve survived this blow and seen that life does, in fact, go on.

Five years can make me cry, smile and laugh all in the same sentence. Five years can make me scream, yell and complain. Five years can make me ponder solemnly and find my pensive side. Five years can make me groan at so much life gone by, and it can make me indignant over the life left behind. Five years can make me realize I can’t imagine who my kids were when she died. I struggle to remember the Brady and Halle whom she knew, instead of the kids before me today.

But…

Five years can show me the life and growth that comes. Five years can prove the strength God has given me, the resilience of my children, and the brilliant sovereignty of God. Five years brings so many new memories, so much new joy, and a life that gets restored. And finally, five years can give me hope for the next five years.

Hindsight is twenty-something

Perhaps you’ve heard of the app called Timehop, which shows what happened in years past in your “Facebook life.” Well, mine is quite jam-packed today. Yesterday, after all, was a red-letter date in my timeline. Five years ago, my late wife Stephanie was in her final days on this earth. It’s surreal to read these things as if they happened yesterday. It almost feels like I’m reading a book written by someone else.

My wife had three seizures in less than 24 hours and is in neurological ICU. Please pray.

I posted this at 6:48am, after one of the worst nights of my life. At this point, I was still waiting to hear anything from the doctors. I remember being mostly unable to sleep and using the hospital computer to write emails to some of my closest friends. This particular post was about the first thing I told “the world.” It felt like days, but just 6 hours later, I posted the following:

She’s not doing well. She hasn’t had seizures in a while, but has brain swelling. They can’t assess the damage without an MRI. She’s not stable enough for that. Praise God that we have a Good Physician, though. He can heal beyond all human understanding. And if He doesn’t, we know He has a great plan in mind for His ways are so much greater than ours. I know not what will happen, but I know God knows what He’s doing no matter what the outcome. You can all help me by knowing that. And Stephanie would say the same – that everyone would know the great love He has for us and for all of you. Praise God from Whom all blessings flow!

I have no recollection of saying all of that about trusting God despite the outcome, but I can’t say I’m surprised. In retrospect, it was more true that I could have realized. That attitude has continued to remain in my spirit. He truly did and does have a great plan in mind. I’ve seen some of that plan come to be, and I’m convinced I will continue to see it more and more as time goes on. And the following was a huge part of seeing God’s hand at work.

I have updated my long-neglected blog to include posts about the recent days for Stephanie, and will be updating as a central location for the latest in her condition. Thank you all for your thoughts and prayers.

I would go on to hear from people all over the world who were not only praying for me, but also being encouraged by me and my story. None of this could have been by my own doing. I could not have crafted a plan that would involve ministering to people’s souls while sitting at the bedside of my dying wife.

A quote from Perelandra, by C.S. Lewis, captures it best. The main character, Dr. Ransom, is expressing his own lack of credibility for accomplishing any task of noteworthiness.

Don’t imagine I’ve been selected…because I’m anyone in particular. One never can see, or not till long afterwards, why any one was selected for any job. And when one does, it is usually some reason that leaves no room for vanity. Certainly, it is never for what the man himself would have regarded as his chief qualifications.

If God has used me in any way to bless other people, it has nothing to do with any of my own qualifications. Without a doubt, I had no hand in the situation and would have much rathered not have my wife die. But, she did. And God managed to bring beauty out of my pain. He was able to bring His redemption into one of the worst situations I could have ever imagined, as He is prone to do.

And, His redemption continues to come crashing down on all the terrible things that happen in this world. I thank Him for that!

This day came

I never wanted this feeling to come. I knew it would happen, but I wanted to believe it wouldn’t. Even though it doesn’t feel wrong, it sure sounds wrong. And even though I know it’s good, I want everyone to tell me it’s bad.

The fact is… I’m okay.

I’m okay that it’s been 3 years since Stephanie died.
I’m okay that I have hated so many moments since then.
I’m okay on this day — an anniversary of the most awful kind.
As I think about the future, I’m okay.
When I think about the past, I’m okay.
I’ve been through the fire, but God didn’t let me burn, and the scars are just a reminder that He heals all wounds.

But there’s a part of me that still wants it to hurt. There’s a part of me that wants to live with an open wound that gets poked and scraped in unbearable ways. It helps me to know that I haven’t forgotten her. It also makes me depend on God constantly. And frankly, it gives me something to complain about. In fact, it makes for a pretty good trump card when others are complaining about their own lives. (I can’t deny the fact that I’ve done it.)

People warned me this day would come. (Or, as they saw it, they were encouraging me that this day would come.) As I said back then, I had a love-hate relationship with time. I loved that it brought me closer to healing, but hated that it took me further from Stephanie. And even then, I could feel the healing brought by every moment that came and went.

I don’t want to be okay. But I’m glad that I am. And I doubt the day will ever come when that makes sense, let alone that I’ll be able to explain it to anyone.

So please forgive me if I’m not sure how to answer when you ask me how I’m doing. I still want to say, “This sucks! I hate it!” and burst into uncontrollable sobs. And there’s a part of my heart that will always feel that way and do exactly that. But don’t be too surprised that I can genuinely say, “I’m doing quite well, actually.” It’s not a lie. It’s just an answer that seems brand new to me.

Children are amazing

Today is Stephanie’s birthday. We have built some traditions in how we celebrate her every year. The kids help decorate a cake for her, we buy a balloon or two to take to the cemetery, and we go out to eat. Brady has been asking over the last few days if we were going to go to “the place where Mommy died.” I can’t believe it has that importance to him already. And last night, before bedtime, the kids both came to me in the hall, hugging me, and saying how they miss Mommy.

I’m told they were both talking about Mommy with Nana during the entire time they were working on the cake. I can just imagine the discussion they were having, remembering all the things she meant to each of them (some real and some made up).

As we were finishing up dinner, Brady asked me if we could tell the waitress that it was his mommy’s birthday. Not wanting him to depend on me to talk to strangers for him, I encouraged him to go ahead and tell her. And his conversation with her will always bring a smile to my face as he so politely told her that it was “our mommy’s birthday.” The waitress was wonderfully involved and asked how we were going to celebrate. (At this point, she has no idea that the birthday girl is no longer alive. I can only imagine what the waitress was thinking as she could clearly see that the celebration was without a recipient.) Brady, however, masterfully kept the grim news to himself until the waitress asked about presents and it was appropriate that he make it clear: “Well, she got sick and died.” Now it made a little more sense to the waitress.

I am just in awe over how Brady handled himself through the whole conversation. He spoke clearly and politely, was engaged in the conversation, and ended it all by wishing her a great day and a great weekend (3 days early, but whatever). At that point, Halle chimed in a wished her “a good day, too.” And the waitress — bless her heart — was very patient and attentive, and told us to let her know that if there was anything she could do.

I thought my night was nearly perfect when Halle had to make it even better. For the first time, she prayed all by herself for bedtime. “Dear God. I hope we have a good sleep. I hope we have a good day tomorrow. I hope Daddy has a good work tomorrow.” And after a pause, as she tried to think of what to say next, “I love you, God! Amen.”

My heart is so full right now. All of this comes on an important date in our lives. For this year, I don’t think I have felt any sadness today. Even if I had, my children would have blown that totally away. But it’s an odd sensation, nonetheless, as I’m so accustomed to it being attached to sadness. I almost don’t know what to do now that it’s not.

But thank God for children and the blessing they are to me. What a great 36th birthday for Stephanie. As a friend so simply and perfectly said it: Happy Birthday, Stephanie!

Stephanie's Birthday

Baked Encouragement

“We baked cookies for co-workers. Everyone enjoyed the cookies and thought it was a great way to honor Stephanie’s memory. I’m so glad we participated and we hope to do it again next year!”

“I think one of the best ways that Stephanie touched my life is that she showed me by example how to ‘love my neighbor’ in a practical way.”

Last year, many people participated in something I called Operation Baked Blessings. As I stated then, it was inspired by the way in which Stephanie showed love to seemingly everyone she encountered. Her favorite place to be in the house was the kitchen, and it was because that was where she was able to create love for people in the form of food.

She would scoff at the thought of selling her treats and goodies. It was a painful thought for her to not simply give it away. And I know that she was as blessed — if not more so blessed — than those people she shared with.

As someone said: “Can we make this an annual thing? It is a good way to remember Stephanie and to bless others at the same time.” The answer? Yes. Yes, we can.

The goal is simple: bake or buy some sort of edible treat and share it with another person. You can share it with co-workers, friends, students, classmates, neighbors or someone you have never met before. Share it with someone simply to make them smile and give them a bright spot in their day. And the dates are relevant: October 1 is the day Stephanie was born; October 13 is the day she died. Also, if you’re so inclined, come to the Facebook event page and tell everyone how it went! It was so great to hear all the stories from last year.

“I baked shortbread cookies and cut them into leaf shapes and decorated them with fall colored sprinkles last night. I thought of Stephanie the whole time because she loved making (and eating) those cookies, especially in the fall.”

“We decided to bake for a woman who we always see walking around our block. I never knew her name, but I know she’s an avid weight watcher member. We made a WW banana pumpkin bread, drew some pictures, and waited anxiously by the front door at her usual walk by time. We gave her our treats, invited her in for a moment from the cold, and told her all about Stephanie. She had tears in her eyes. She said she had lost someone very close to her in the fall time many years ago, and it still hurts. She kept hugging my boys and saying how thankful she was that we took time out and were thoughtful to make her something on her diet plan. The best part of this whole thing is we learned her name: Grace. Grace was something very dear to Stephanie, and when she introduced herself, I got goosebumps all over!”

“I wanted to share this here because I thought it was neat: last week I baked pecan tassies for my students, and this week one my students brought it pumpkin cookies for all of us because he liked that I baked something for everyone. I hope all of our baking and giving last week inspires more people to encourage others with their baking!”

Occasionally

It still happens on occasion. I get a reminder of those multitude of miserable days that are so thankfully fading out of memory. It’s never a day anymore. Maybe a moment. Maybe an hour. Maybe a night at most. But certainly noticeable, no matter how long.

It usually starts with something stupid, and often compounded by something else stupid, and with a big fat topping of “how did I end up here?”

I thank God that it’s never as bad as it used to be. I don’t fill the garbage with wet tissues. I certainly don’t shake with emotion. However, I might still bully a couple of pillows for a while. (They take it in stride.)

Pillows. That reminds me of something I said to my mentor: I have two pillows and only one head. It’s no wonder they take the brunt of my emotions. They’re partly to blame.

It’s so strange to look at pictures and wonder if those were snapshots from within a dream or not. It would certainly make sense, as I struggle to recap those events to myself because that’s the best way to not forget a dream in those moments just after you wake up.

But I’ll never be fully awake while this heart beats. Anymore, I’m convinced that Heaven is the waking moment. And at that point, true reality will finally saturate my soul. I could make the point that this life is probably more nightmare than dream in comparison to Heaven, but that might sound too dramatic and I’d have people sending psychiatrists to check on my mental state. (Don’t worry, I’m quite stable.)

And someone will tell you that I am as sure as — well, you know — not ready to be with someone else because I still think about the mother of my children on occasion. You can say that, as long as you also try to tell parents who have lost a child that they’re not ready to have any more. My heart is bigger now, not smaller. And I’ll never forget how long I’ve dreamed in my heart of being married.

And that’s what these moments remind me of. Make sense?

Spreading joy

One of the greatest things I learned from Stephanie (and continue to learn) is how to love people well. She made an art form out of actively finding ways to make other people feel cared about. And, along with that, joy simply followed her around exploding out into any room she entered.

I am reminded continually of how precious and important other people are and how much better this world is when we love on others, instead of simply looking out for ourselves.

One of Stephanie’s favorite things to do and favorite ways to show love was giving gifts, especially if that gift was something she baked in the kitchen. Many times it was suggested to her that she go into business for herself owning a bakery, but she just couldn’t stomach the thought. She enjoyed giving away what she made far too much to charge for it. The satisfaction of simply making another person smile was enough for her. (Many of my coworkers benefited from how often I came in with goodies. And I was always so excited to be able to email back home with all the “thank yous” and “yums.”)

And this is all something I don’t want to die along with Stephanie. It’s a legacy that I want to continue on. And so, I’m asking anyone who reads this to please buy or bake some dessert that can be given away to someone, especially if they are someone in need of encouragement. It can be someone you know. It can be a complete stranger. But when you give it to them, tell them why. And, if you would, please share your story and/or post a picture on the Facebook Operation Baked Blessings event page. I set up the event to run from October 3 to October 13, because those were the dates Stephanie was in the hospital before dying on the 13th.

I hope that many people are blessed by this and feel loved and cared for and that it brightens their day. It’s exactly what Stephanie would want.

Fall again

Stephanie loved the fall. She got excited about the leaves turning to light the trees on fire. She loved the crisp air, even though she was cold if the temperature dipped below 80. She loved pumpkin anything, especially if it had the word “Starbucks” in it. And there was no greater excuse for her to bake constantly.

But she loved fall for another reason. And it was my favorite reason for the summer to come to an end: her birthday.

She breezed in right at the beginning of October; a fact that she quite enjoyed. She would have turned 35 today. (She barely made it past 33.) I would have racked my brain for months trying to decide what spectacular thing I could do for her celebrating a “5” birthday, worried the entire time that I could have done better, and knowing the entire time that she would absolutely do better when it came my birthday.

But here I am, writing for the world to see. And hoping, that if the world can read this, maybe she can, too. Happy birthday to the most beautiful, most caring, most loving, most compassionate, sweetest, and — [list cut short so as not to break the Internet] — woman I have yet to know. You made the years you were here count so much that it’s hard to imagine you could have poured any more life and joy and love into those around you.

Whenever summer turns to autumn, I can’t help but think of you, Stephanie. Your name is synonymous with autumn in my mind. You made me love the fall more than I ever had. And now I also hate the fall more than I ever have. It’s painfully fitting that you died in your birth month and your favorite season.

I praise God for bringing you into the world on this day 35 years ago. And I thank God and you for who you are. You changed everyone around you for the better. Just like your daughter after you, you radiated joy and you brought it into the room along with you.

I love you. Brady and Halle love you. And we miss you.

It’s fall again. Happy birthday!

Health insurance

I recently received a letter:

“This letter is a reminder that you have elected coverage for your dependent(s) in a Healthcare plan… you are required to furnish proof of dependent eligibility. If you do not furnish acceptable proof…within 30 days, your dependents will be removed from coverage.”

Dependent in question: Stephanie

It’s almost as if even the companies who have her name find it hard to believe she’s dead, too. I would love to respond as sarcastically as possible: send in a picture of the grave stone and just write on it, “Please don’t revoke Stephanie’s health coverage. She really needs it!” or “How’s this for proof of dependency?”

But seriously, I’m so thankful for how God has brought me through it all. If I were in a worse place, this would have been an incredible slap in the face and I’d probably be miserable for days. But, by God’s grace, I can just look at this situation and laugh (almost). At the very least, I can handle it like a sane, respectable adult, boring as that may be.

Unwelcome

It happens so randomly. Out of nowhere. And it always catches me off-guard.

It’s the memory of that night. That last night. Even nearly two years later, it still jumps on my back and knocks me down. I can’t say I’m surprised. I’m sure I’ll be saying the same thing 30 years from now.

That doesn’t mean I’ll ever grow accustomed to it. It’s a hateful, hateful thing.

And I quickly scramble to try to forget it as soon as it invades my thoughts. It’s not really worth my time anymore.