David, death, death of a spouse, faith, grief, loss of a spouse, love, marriage, widows, writing

The Wind Beneath My Wings

There hasn’t been a July 4th since that rivals the memories I have of the holiday in 2009. What an amazing husband I was blessed with. He encouraged me that morning to begin the book that I had talked about for two years, a book about the hobby that had been a part of my life, our family’s life, for 30 years.

“The hardest part is getting started,” he said. It turned out he was right.

I sat down at the table in my pajamas, in front of a white legal pad and my favorite black pen. I began writing, and couldn’t stop. I wrote like a mad woman. The outline came easily, as did much of the first chapter, and pieces of the next.

David stood nearby, refilling my coffee cup, taking care of the children, making lunch. What it must have been for him to see the woman he loved completely immersed in two of her passions; writing and couponing. When I later began conducting coupon workshops in 2011 and writing a couponing column for a newspaper in 2012, David would tell me that it was my “time to fly, to soar,” and how much he loved seeing me that way. I’d replied that I couldn’t do it without him.

Later in the day of that particular July 4th, David gently interrupted me to ask if we were going to go to my mother’s house for the celebration we always shared with her. I looked up at the clock and was horrified to see that more than eight hours had passed since I’d sat down to write. We made it to my mother’s, but when my daughter Katie complained of a stomach ache, I was secretly glad to bring her home. I continued working on the book while she lay on the couch watching television.

The bones of the book were constructed that day, but for some reason, I set the manuscript aside for several months. Then on March 10, 2010, David heard on Good Morning America that the New York Times had a cover story calling couponing the next extreme sport.

“Where is that book you started on couponing?” he asked that morning. “You need to finish it.”

I pulled the rough draft out of my file cabinet, and read sections aloud. My dear husband alternately smiled, laughed, and made helpful comments as I got excited about my book project all over again. That morning I worked on the questionnaire I would use for interviewing other couponers throughout the United States. When my mother was diagnosed with cancer that summer, I lost some enthusiasm for the project, though I continued working on it. Like my husband, my mother encouraged my writing. After Mom’s death in November, I inherited some of her notebooks. I read them and the Memory Book in which she entreated her children to utilize their God-given talents. It was with those words echoing in my head I would pick up my pen with a renewed determination. Much of the rest of the book was written in my mother’s empty house that winter. David would hand me a travel mug of hot tea and shoo me out the door to “go write.” Once again, he took over childcare and cooking while I spent hours alone in the house of an extremely talented woman who was my creative muse.

By early March 2012, David had shared in my struggle to find representation for the book I’d completed, observing two failed agent relationships and rejections from large publishers.

“Don’t worry. It will sell,” he’d encourage. “I believe in you. I believe in this book.”

Then he’d ask about the other manuscript I’d completed, the one about caring for him during his cancer. That book, relegated to a filing cabinet, detailed a caregiving journey that resulted in a revitalized marriage relationship, a relationship that allowed me to continue writing and left us with no doubt that we were truly loved by the other.

“It’s not really about cancer. It’s a love story,” he’d muse. “It will help people’s marriages.”

David didn’t live to see either book published. I signed a book contract for Coupon Crazy: The Science, the Savings, and the Stories Behind America’s Extreme Obsession seven months after his death in 2012, and the book was released the next year. I will never forget that July day, standing in front of a Barnes & Noble storefront with my book filling the front window. My daughters were jumping up and down with excitement. Me? I stared at the display, completely numb. My daughter Rachel took one look at my face and asked “What’s wrong? Why aren’t you happy?”

barnes and noble

I could barely choke out the words past the huge lump forming in the throat. “Dad’s not here.”

Chemo-Therapist: How Cancer Cured a Marriage was released in April 2014. Those first two books wouldn’t exist without my husband’s encouragement. Refined By Fire: A Journey of Grief and Grace, released in October 2014, wouldn’t exist if it were not for the loss of him. I’m fully convinced that the fourth book contract, for the co-written Mary & Me: A Lasting Link Through Ink, was a gift from God so that I could observe my co-writer, Mary Jedlicka Humston, and vicariously enjoy all the firsts and perks that come with a book release, and the incredible excitement I have been unable to actually experience myself.

“I couldn’t do it without you,” I’d informed the man who’d become the wind beneath my wings after his cancer experience in 2006.  In the end, I would have to.

I continue to write, now as a reporter for a newspaper, and essays and pieces I must work on without the benefit of the writing marathon sessions my husband had gifted me with. I also do workshops; mostly classes for aspiring writers. Except for newspaper coverage of meetings and events, every single piece of writing I undertake, each workshop, and all the public speaking engagements I do are in honor of the man who believed in me. I  am surprised as anyone to learn, not only has my love for David continued despite his absence in my life, somehow it has managed to grow.

 

“But my grief is a clean grief. I loved my husband for forty years. That love has not and does not end, and that is good … Hugh will always be part of me, go with me wherever I go, and that is good because, despite our faults and flaws and failures, what we gave each other was good.”
Madeleine L’Engle, in Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage, page 230.

grief, writing

The Neccesity of Writing

This afternoon, while looking for a power point I need for a June presentation, I discovered this piece I wrote four years ago. Of course, I couldn’t know at the time that my grandson was not going to survive his cancer. What struck me in reading this four years later, is how the need to write still holds true for me today, and that to maintain my sanity I must find ways to work my writing around my job with the newspaper:

4-2012: In A Circle of Quiet, one of Madeleine L’Engle’s “Crosswick Journal” books, the author reveals a period of angst in her writing life.

circle of quiet

The decade of her 30′s had been a dry spell for selling her work so she was actually looking forward to her 40th birthday, certain that a new decade would bring about writing success. It plagued her that she’d spent a great deal of time writing without pulling her own weight financially. She was working at her desk on her 40th birthday when her husband informed her she’d received yet another rejection in the mailbox. She took that as a sign that she should stop the foolishness of writing and become a good New England housewife who could make cherry pie. She covered the typewriter in a grand gesture of renunciation.

Then she paced around the room, sobbing and weeping, totally and utterly miserable. She stopped her wailing long enough to realize that all the while she’d been crying, her subconscious mind was busy devising a way to work her failure into a novel. She uncovered the typewriter and recorded that epiphany in her journal. She realized then that even if she never had another book published, she must write.

So it is with me. Somewhere in the midst of raising eight children and homeschooling, I began writing as a creative outlet and before long my sanity depended upon it. I, too, must write.

Standing in line at a wake a few months ago, I turned to make small talk with the woman behind me, wondering out loud how she knew the deceased. I watched in fascinated horror as her eyes filled with tears and her face crumpled. My writer’s eye dispassionately observed her behavior. Even as I patted her arm, murmuring something comforting, I was wondering how I could describe that complete folding into oneself as a person succumbs to powerful grief.

“Thank you,” the woman sniffed as I handed her a tissue. “That’s very kind of you.” I smiled wanly, hating myself. My thoughts were not of kindness. We writers are not very nice people; we take the pain and anguish, despair and despondency, of ourselves and others, and work it in our minds like a loose tooth, until we put pen to paper and describe it in excruciating detail.

I am not proud of the fact that within twenty-four hours of my husband David’s cancer diagnosis in 2006, I was pondering how I would go about writing about it. How else, but through writing, could I bear the possibility of losing my life’s partner? My husband did not begrudge me those moments I spent hunched over a legal pad as he lay in a hospital bed for 11 days, recovering from surgery. He appreciated having me next to his bedside and would fall asleep holding one of my hands, while I wrote with the other. I continued writing as I kept him company during his Wednesday chemotherapy sessions. Eighteen months later, I had a manuscript chronicling our shared journey through cancer and the revitalization of our marriage.

chemo-therapist

I wrote my way through my mother’s lung cancer diagnosis four years later, and four months after that, the devastating diagnosis of my five-year-old grandson. How else to endure the triple whammy of cancer without writing about it? My husband and grandson survived their cancer. My mother did not. I spent many hours alone in her empty house that winter, grieving and writing.

On a Sunday in March of 2012, I found myself sitting at my husband’s hospital bedside once again, this time as he recovered from a heart attack. Our grandson was in another hospital 80 miles away, fighting an infection from the round of chemotherapy he’d just endured for a recurrence of his cancer. As I frantically scribbled on a legal pad, my husband leaned over the side of the railing of the bed and groggily commented, “I don’t know how you do that.” Ashamed, I stopped writing mid-sentence.

“I’m sorry, I was working on my column that’s due tomorrow. I can work on it later in the waiting room while you take a nap.” I shoved the pad into the tote bag I carry with me everywhere.

“No, don’t stop. I meant that I don’t know how you can write like that; filling pages with words so effortlessly. You have such talent.”

“It’s what I do. I write,” I replied, as my eyes filled with tears at his understanding. My husband had become my biggest supporter in my writing endeavors. It spoke volumes of my non-writing spouse’s character that he could even begin to understand the pull of the pen. He’d drop me off at my workshops and meetings and go to a restaurant for coffee while I talked shop with other writers. When I was hired to do a weekly newspaper column he drove me to their photo studio for pictures and waited for two hours in a waiting room, reading newspapers. In the car on the way there, we’d chuckled at the incongruity of a small-town girl like me having a photo shoot. David roared with laughter when I told him how the photographer had playfully called out “Work it, girl,” to help me relax. He beamed with pride when I obtained several speaking engagements as a result of that column. He often remarked that I was flying and it was my time to soar.

“Just don’t fly away from me,” he’d add. Horrified that he would even consider that prospect, I took his hand in mine, reminding him he was the reason I could do all these things. I repeatedly told him he was the “wind beneath my wings.”

Less than two weeks after that hospital encounter, I was the one crumpling under the weight of my own grief. My beloved husband of almost 33 years had died in his sleep. His obituary was the most difficult piece of writing I’d ever attempted; summing up the life of a gentle, humble man in just a few paragraphs.

My heart felt so heavy, I wondered if I could ever write again, but I knew I had to try. But where to begin? Give thanks in all things, I remembered from 1 Thessalonians 5:18 “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” On the morning of David’s wake, I picked up my pen and scrawled stilted sentences in a journal, thanking God for the bonus five and a half years I’d cherished with my husband since his cancer. I thanked God that David had obviously not been in any pain in death, since he’d looked like he was sleeping when I found him. I could write little more than prayers that first day.

I wrote in the journal again the next day, this time several pages bemoaning the loss of my partner, but also jotting down notes about recent developments in our life; David had begun watching Joyce Meyer on the television the past few months and picking up all her inspirational books to read. I’d made a dozen new Christian friends at the two Christian writer’s conferences I’d attended in the previous year, friends who could now lift me in prayer and be an emotional support for me. A friend from my distant past had reconnected with me while her husband was dying of lung cancer in 2010. He’d died shortly before my mother died of the same disease. A few months later, her mother died. Now, I’d also lost my husband. Our entire family had just begun listening to an inspirational radio station. My 15-year-old daughter had joined a Christian youth group just that year.

I kept writing, with the dawning realization that I had a God who truly had cared about me and my family’s needs. Just the week before his death, David had pointed out how quickly God had opened so many doors for my burgeoning career, and we’d marveled at that blessing. David had spent more and more time across from me at the breakfast table, just gazing at me, so much so that I’d become embarrassed at the attention. “You’re so beautiful,” he’d comment, and I’d blush furiously. How could he say that when I hadn’t even applied make-up? Our 15-year-old daughter had taken to hugging him four or five times a day, so often that he’d privately asked me if there was something going on with her. Just three weeks before his death, David’s previous workplace life insurance policy had been reinstated!

A day later I began the arduous task of completing thank-you notes. For two days I wrote letters of gratitude. Blog postings soon followed. I’m writing! I’m writing! My spirit lifted with joy upon the completion of my first essay after David’s death. Before I knew it, I was getting up before the children every morning, desperate to stem the tide of grief with words.

“Does it help you to write?” A blog reader asked, and I realized I couldn’t even fathom navigating the labyrinth of grief without a pen and paper.

It’s what I do. I write.

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Finding God in the Shadows

From Chemo-Therapist: How Cancer Cured a Marriage, Familius, April 2014:

“On the way home David leaned back in the passenger seat, glancing over at me as I drove. “Why would God allow a little boy to have cancer?” he asked quietly, and I just shook my head in response.

“If I could go, and Jacob could stay, I’d go in a minute.”

“I know you would,” I whispered hoarsely as I patted his leg. The ramifications of his declaration were too painful to ponder. David would die for that little boy he loved, I had no doubt, just as he would give his life for me or for any one of his children. That was the kind of person he was. I reached over to hold his hand and we rode in silence the rest of the way home.”

Sometime during that night, David’s heart stopped, and I thought mine had broken in two. I’d lost my best friend, the man who had become the wind beneath my wings.

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David didn’t live to see me sign a book contract for the book that had been his idea in the first place, Coupon Crazy, a book he encouraged me to write. He had to have been pulling some strings up there for Chemo-Therapist to also become an upcoming reality.

It was a bittersweet moment to approach a Barnes & Noble bookstore yesterday and spot this in their window:

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I wondered at the overwhelming sadness I felt as I wandered the aisles of the store that now displayed my book. The heaviness of grief still descends upon me at unexpected times, and in unexpected places. David did not live to see this.

He also did not live to hear the terminal diagnosis bestowed upon his beloved grandson, and for that I am grateful. Because now we are losing eight-year-old Jacob. Jacob is dying.

Each morning I wake up wondering if this will be the day we say good-bye. Some nights I can’t sleep and I drive past my daughter’s house at 3:00 am, looking to see if the lights are on and she needs me. I help where I can; baking the occasional loaf of banana bread, cleaning now and then, and taking the other grandchildren away for an afternoon so Jacob can sleep in peace. But there is so little I can do in the face of this. I cannot take the pain away from my daughter Elizabeth and the son-of-my-heart, Ben. I cannot help Jacob through this lone journey. With pain, with trouble breathing, it is his mother he asks for.

I rise early every morning and spend a good hour searching for answers to the hard questions. Questions like “Why would God allow a little child to suffer?” and “How can we bear to live a life without him?”  I pray. I read devotionals. I cry. I sit in silence and listen, and then I pray some more. Some mornings, I fall to my knees, only to return to them by nightfall. I am reminded of last July, when for a few weeks God took away my writing so that I would learn to be still, learn to hear HIM. I search for God in all of it.

I think about the little boy who has been a gift to us; his quiet demeanor, his giving spirit. I contemplate what he has brought into the world by his very being, despite his short time on earth. How his little body has fought this cancer for more than two and a half years. I think about the tremendous strength in those thin limbs that now tremble with weariness, that tiny heart that has stretched so many other hearts. One day a posting on his Facebook page reached 16,000 viewers. 16,000 people saw that posting, and nearly as many people were praying for him. 16,000 hearts were touched by a small child! Most of us will be lucky to touch that many people in our lifetime. Yes, I see God in all of this.

And I am writing. And writing. My work-in-progress is a chronicle of grief; Refined By Fire. By working my way back through that first year of widowhood, I can clearly see how God walked with me down the path of loss. My prayer today is that my daughter and her family feels HIM too.

“I have refined you but not in the way silver is refined. Rather, I have refined you in the furnace of suffering.”  Isaiah 48:10