Who Am I… Two Years Out
March 30, 2014
“I have a confession to make. I still cry about your Dad. Every single morning.” The stunned silence of my daughters filled the room and alarm crossed each of their faces. In just a few days it would be two years since David died and Rachel, Emily and Katie and I were reminiscing about the particular horror of those days that followed his death.
I’d meant my comment as a good thing; that I wasn’t forgetting their Dad. I hastened to explain “Not a lot. Sometimes just a sob. When everyone else is asleep and I’m all alone downstairs, sometimes I just sit and cry for a few minutes. Other times it’s just a sob or two that escapes. Then it’s over, and I go about my day.”
Three pairs of widened eyes stared at me in apparent horror.
“I don’t think I wanted to know that,” one of my daughters finally commented, and the other two nodded.
Why hadn’t it occurred to me that my daughters might like to think their mother was completely and gloriously happy? Maybe because it had been obvious from our conversation that they weren’t “getting over” the loss of their Dad anytime soon, and I’d wanted to reassure them that was a perfectly normal response?
What is life like two years after the loss of David? A better question might be what am I like?
Who are you? I’d wondered just days before when I’d asked a stranger if I could hug her. She’d stopped at my library to ask if I was the one who’d written a book on cancer. When I told her that I was, she began telling me about her husband. As soon as she said the word “cancer” my breath caught in my throat. I recognized the waver in her voice and the tears glinting in her eyes. This was a woman in emotional turmoil.
“The doctors have told him to put his affairs in order,” she continued, and I glanced down at the tote bag near my feet as my heart lurched with her words. Suddenly I understood the compulsion to add one of my books to the tote that morning, despite the fact that I’d already added it to our library shelf. It was checked out, but I hadn’t planned on adding another. I had learned to listen to those “small, quiet urgings” of the heart.
“You don’t happen to have one of your books with you?” she asked, and I pulled it out and handed it to her.
“You can have it.” This was the third copy I’d given away in a week. It was occurring to me that perhaps this was going to be a book I would be giving away more than selling. There are a lot of hurting people in the world, a lot of cancer patients and caregivers. I immediately nudged away any lingering worries about how exactly I would pay for those books I was giving away. People above material, I reminded myself. It was then I asked the woman if I could give her a hug.
“I was going to ask you for one,” she sheepishly admitted as I came around the desk and put my arms around her. A single sob escaped her as I tightened the embrace. Just two years ago, I’m not sure I would have known to hug her. Before my husband’s cancer in 2006, the possibility wouldn’t even have crossed my mind. I rarely hugged anyone back then, outside of my own family, and even then the hugs sometimes felt forced and awkward.
After she left, I sat at my desk and cried a little, considering the very real possibility that this woman in her 40’s would likely need my upcoming grief book by the end of the year.
My daughter Elizabeth snorted with apparent bemusement when I related the encounter to her on the phone that evening. “You hugged her? A complete stranger? Who are you?”
Exactly. Who am I? Who is this woman who lived most of the first fifty years of her life not trusting others, particularly females because they had been her biggest tormentors in elementary school? How did the woman with only a hand full of friends outside of her siblings become the kind of person who would reach out to hug a stranger, and then shed tears of empathy for her?
I think of my mother, who on bus trips would come home with names and addresses of strangers she had befriended, and my husband, who during and after his cancer treatment would casually fling his arm around someone’s shoulder or tell them that he loved them. Loved them! I remember feeling envious of the ease in which he said those words. A mutual friend of ours in line at his wake told me how much it had meant to her that the last time she’d seen him he’d thrown his arms around her and blurted out that he loved her. Loved her, as if she didn’t hear those words often enough. I’d been standing next to him that day, and I remember clearly my thoughts: the initial surprise at his words, then the immediate understanding (she was sweet, caring, and seemed very alone in the world), followed by a swift and sharp envy.
“That is so nice you hugged her and told her you loved her,” I’d told him in the car on the way home. “I wish I could be more like you in that way.”
And now I am. I am saddened that it took the loss of a special man for me to become more like the best in him.
“I love you. I am so glad you are feeling better,” I’d said on the phone to my assistant librarian a couple of weeks ago, after she’d been gravely ill for several days. I meant it. I love Ann. I no longer care if it is socially acceptable to express that emotion. I’d heard fear in Ann’s husband’s voice when he called to tell me how ill she was, and I certainly know how quickly someone can be taken from us, when unsaid words can haunt us. As uncomfortable as my words might have made Ann feel, I do not regret them. At the same time, I am surprised that my normally reticent self has become so effusive. Losing David and Jacob has truly refined me. The woman I have become is a much nicer, kinder, empathetic one than the woman I once was. It occurs to me that I am now who God meant me to be all along.
During those initial dark days after the loss of David I felt as though I was stumbling around in darkness. How do I do this? How will I go on? How can I stand this pain? I didn’t yet know how to search for answers to those questions in the Bible so I grasped onto the words of others who had gone down this path before me: C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, H. Norman Wright, Joan Didion. I read a dozen books related to grief in those first weeks, jotting down passages and pertinent words in my journal.
And I prayed. One answer to prayer came in the form of a writing assignment for an upcoming Grief Bible. If I were to write devotions to be included in that Bible, then I would have to learn how to study the Bible for answers. Notes like these poured from my pen:
Those words were the seeds planted: words that sprouted and blossomed in my soul. I can see that now. Looking back on the last two years I clearly see the instances when God reached out through others to touch my life, to help me through loss:
The immediate “surrounding of the guard,” in the form of sisters who were at my side within minutes of my returning home from the hospital where David was pronounced dead.
My friend Mary Humston, who somehow knew exactly what to do and what to say to help me through.
Women at the breakfast table during a writer’s conference, women, who when they discovered it was my first wedding anniversary without my husband, immediately clutched each other’s hands and surrounded me with prayer. A simple paper sign posted on a tree on the path back to my room, a sign that was not there just an hour before: “If a tree does not suffer great winds and storms, its bark will not grow thick and strong. The tree, thin, naked, and weak, will fall over and die. Storms will bring strength, majesty and growth. God brings storms to build us. When he builds us, we will go forward.”
A young woman who knew our family, not knowing exactly why, but feeling led to, writes out Bible verses on notebook paper and drops them in the mail. “I felt called out to write some verses down for you,” she had written, and the verses were exactly what I had prayed for, had actually requested from someone else, but never received. “I need Bible verses that will comfort me. Can you help me find them?” I’d asked. Within days the Holy Spirit prompted this young woman, a young woman who two years later is to become my daughter-in-law, to jot down verses that would help me.
This is how God has worked in the last two years, through others who have followed those inexplicable urgings of the heart and reached out to me. It is how God is now working in me.
Bring another copy of your book to work, I heard, and not two hours later a hurting woman who is caring for a husband with cancer walked into my library and asked for it.