Cancer. The word no one wants to hear. I was in the vehicle with my husband when the doctor gave me the news. My first thought was “Poor Nick,” because his previous wife had died from cancer. Fear hit sometime the next day, after a night of tossing and turning. I reminded myself that fear is not from God and asked my husband to pray with me.
Much of this past year has been about prayer as I reveled in my first year of marriage with Nick, and for good reason. It was prayer that initially connected us. We began each of our dates with prayer and have continued to pray together daily. I credit that practice, along with our daily Bible study, for a marriage relationship that is unlike anything we could have hoped for or imagined at this point in our life.
I began praying in all things, big and little. approximately ten years ago, involving prayer and discernment in what books I read, movies I watch and even what journals I use. I get a little thrill choosing a new journal from the huge stack I store in a cupboard; little journals, big ones, wire bound, hardcover, paperback, colorful decorated pages or quotes interspersed throughout. Always lined, sometimes with a ribbon marker to keep my place.
Which journal do I pick? I asked on September 1st. It would be journal #14 since I began utilizing expressive writing as a healing tool in 2012. I caressed each cover lightly, flipping through pages, before landing on the colorful hardbound journal with Proverbs 31:25 She is clothed with strength and dignity on the front cover. Nick and I had just begun a Bible study of Proverbs a few days before. We were learning about wisdom and listening as it applies to marriage. What better journal to begin my second year of striving to be a Proverbs 31 wife to Nick?
I don’t journal every day. I’d only gotten a few pages in when I was diagnosed with cancer on September 13th. Writing out a prayer the next morning, I took great comfort in the bible verse at the bottom of the page.
I read the intro to the journal for the first time a couple of days later, in awe of how fitting it was for the situation.
Let His presence cast out any weakness and guide you through every circumstance and decision you face. Be strong in the Lord, and may His unfailing love guide your heart into a fearless future. I turned to the back cover and noted the quote by one of my favorite authors, Holly Gerth. God’s love is what we need to carry on and will carry us when our strength feels small. Ah, yes, this spoke to my heart too.
I’ve journaled nearly every day since the diagnosis, as I waited to see an oncology doctor, facing a surgery that will determine the stage of the cancer. God already answered two appeals I dared to convey; instead of the 5-12 days I was warned I could expect before hearing from the oncologist, the call came in just three days, when I was informed the consultation would be September 30th. September 30th, a day we would be in Iowa City anyway for an appointment my husband had made with a rheumatologist two and a half months ago. My oncology appointment in the same town scheduled for the exact same day, and with enough time between appointments? What are the odds? I will tell you; not likely.
God went before me. God knew in July when Nick’s appointment was scheduled that I would be diagnosed with cancer and need to see an oncologist. He orchestrated events so that the timing of our appointments would coincide. While I thought I was choosing a journal to help me be the best wife I could be for Nick (with strength and dignity), God knew better. Months before I would need it, God drew my attention to the colorful journal on the shelf of a thrift store. Yes, God goes to Goodwill with me. Because I ask for his guidance even in the little things, of all the journals I had to choose from in my cupboard, he knew which one I would need for this journey with cancer. He knew which bible study Nick and I would need right now. And if God cares about those little things; the timing of appointments, the right journal or bible study, I have no doubt God cares about me in this big thing, this cancer. God is in this too. He will use it for good. He may have work to do in me, in Nick, or in our marriage. I will face this cancer with strength and dignity. I will be strong in the Lord.
I’d noticed the young girl’s sad demeanor even before I settled into the chair. For a split second, I was irritated, not wanting anything to mar the joy I felt at finding love after nine and a half years of loneliness. I’d asked for a more experienced student at the beauty college. Why did I have to be assigned to one who evidently had some personal issues to deal with when all I wanted was to look good for my wedding?
She’d done well faking through small talk until that moment when her voice lowered with intensity after I announced I was getting married and began telling her about the whirlwind romance, our certainty in our love and the quick engagement that would result in marriage a month and a half after our first meeting.
“Can love really happen like that?” she repeated before adding “Because I thought I was in love for two years and he just broke up with me. It turns out he wasn’t who I thought he was.”
I paused, silently uttering a prayer that God would give me the words she needed to hear.
“Yes, it can happen like that, if God is in it from the beginning. We pray together before each of our dates.”
She was silent as she worked the color through my hair. I wondered if I’d said the wrong thing, bringing up prayer and faith.
“He never prayed with me,” she finally said, so softly it was as if she was talking to herself. Our eyes met in the mirror. “I asked him to, but he wouldn’t,” she continued. “He wouldn’t go to church with me, either. I used to sing in the church choir, loved singing worship songs.”
Loved, as if there were no more worship songs in her life. We both fell silent until she continued.
“I wrote a prayer to my future husband once. I even wrote out a list of what I wanted in the perfect man. I thought I’d found him. But he wasn’t who he pretended to be.”
What were the odds that I’d end up in the chair of a young woman who had done what I had done? I was convinced. I wasn’t there for the haircut and color. I was there for her.
I told her about God asking me to pray for my future husband in the summer of 2018 because the man God had in mind for me was going through something rough. How I’d followed that prompting, transcribing a prayer in my journal so private, I’d covered it up.
I told her how I’d wonder in the ensuing three years if I’d imagined the prompting as I waited for the man God had promised me. That I’d also made a list of all the qualities I wanted in a man. I told her how Nick’s wife died in the spring of 2018. “That summer was one of the hardest times in his life,” I said, choking back tears. Her eyes widened. “He has every quality I asked for: the kind eyes, the broad shoulders, the desire for holding hands and hugging, all the way down to the neatly trimmed goatee beard he’d begun sporting shortly before I met him.”
I went silent as she worked intently on my hair. What else could I say to this wounded girl? I closed my eyes, praying.
“Will you do me a favor?” I opened my eyes and saw her nod in the mirror. “Next time you begin a relationship, will you ask him to pray with you?”
Tears sprung to her eyes as she nodded again.
“And this time, if he says no, run the other way?”
“Do you think I can have a love story like yours?” her voice was husky with longing and unshed tears.
“I know you can. And I want to hear about your love story when it happens.”
“I think God put you in my chair today,” my young friend said.
“I think so too.”
We hugged before I left.
I immediately called Nick when I got into my car.
“How did your hair turn out?” he asked.
“I don’t know, because I don’t think I was there for my hair,” I began crying as I related the encounter. My cries turned into sobs, and I could barely speak past the lump forming in my throat.
“Just think; this is what our life is going to be like together, as long as we put God at the forefront. Random encounters that are not random at all, as we grow in faith together. God brought us together and God can use us together in so many ways.”
I’ve been journaling for over nine years, ever since the death of my husband David in March 2012. Each journal is chosen carefully, with meaningful covers. I have previously written about my process of choosing journals HERE.
Because journaling was my way of working my way through things, I panicked when I realized I’d run out of journals at the beginning of the pandemic. I definitely needed to write my way through the gamut of emotions I was experiencing. Realizing the absurdity of my panic, (I did have reams of paper inside the house, after all), I called the local bookstore and had them walk through the store, describing various journals available. Though I wasn’t thrilled with the “Alice in Wonderland” themed one the saleswoman mentioned, I was intrigued when she told me it was a “novel” journal, with words pulled from the text as lines. I ordered it. When I pulled up to the curb and put my window down, the salesperson, gloved and masked, approached. We both laughed when she threw the bag through the open window. When I got home and opened up the journal, it seemed the perfect choice for that period of time. I filled it in three months.
I’ve filled several journals since. But at the end of May, with in-person programming beginning at my workplace once again, and a sense of normalcy returning, I picked up another “novel journal,” this one with words of H.G. Wells sporting both pages and cover. Wait for the common sense of the morning, the words on the cover say.
On June 4, I copied these words from Henri Nouwen’s book on spiritual discernment into this journal: “When we are rooted in prayer and solitude and form part of a community of faith, certain signs are given to us in daily life as we struggle for answers to spiritual questions. The books we read, the nature we enjoy, the people we meet, and the events we experience contain within themselves signs of God’s presence and guidance day by day. When certain poems or scripture verses speak to us in a special way, when nature sings and creation reveals its glory, when particular people seem to be placed in our path, when a critical or current event seems full of meaning, its time to pay attention to the divine purpose to which they point. Discernment is a way to read the signs and recognize divine messages.”
On June 26, I wrote in my new journal: “I’ve been thinking about Vicki Jolene’s advice to me regarding finding love again. She asked if I’d prayed to David yet, to help guide me to the man he would choose for me. I know God asked me twice in the summer of 2018 to ‘pray for the man that would be my husband’ because he was going through something tough at the time, and I’d obeyed, though I’d felt foolish. I’d written down those prayers and covered them up in my journal, embarrassed. At the time, I believed he was promising me a husband, but so many years have gone by, I just wonder if I’d misheard him. But pray to David? Pray to a dead spouse? Is that even Biblical? I know that David told me he’d want me to marry again because he knew how much I loved hugging and holding hands and he’d want me to have that again, but to pray to him to help me find it?
Vicki Jolene, trained as a Methodist minister, was well aware of my struggle with loneliness these past years, my prayers to God to protect my heart and his clear answers whenever my romantic self imagined something might be happening. God had consistently done just as I’d asked, protecting my heart by making it crystal clear when a certain man I might be entertaining romantic notions about was not for me.
Yet my heart ached with loneliness, especially at night as I cried out to God, asking why other widows I knew had found love, but not me. Why I was still alone. What was so unlovable about me? Yet even as I prayed, whined, and lamented, I knew, without a doubt, God was working in me, changing me, that I was becoming all he wanted me to be.
I seriously considered Vicki Jolene’s advice, finally deciding it would do no harm. So I “prayed to David,” through Jesus Christ, if he could help guide me to the man he would choose for me, could he please do so. I don’t know how Heaven works. Maybe our loved ones do watch over us. Maybe they can help us.
Just days later, I connected with a man on Catholic Match. I’d decided to give the website one last try because my son had recently met a nice girl online. Their experience made me brave. I was about ready to delete my account after a couple of what I call “creeper encounters,” men who either sounded too good to be true (because they weren’t) or those who were downright scary. So I was appropriately wary when Nick messaged me. He gave me enough information I could do an online search and figure out he was telling the truth. He was visiting his sister in AZ at the time and she’d encouraged him to join the site where she’d met her husband. Nick and I messaged back and forth several times before he asked if we could meet in person when he got back to WI. I chose a public space. We’d meet after I got off work on a Thursday at Panera Bread.
While doing a devotional Thursday morning, I was thinking about my date that afternoon when I clearly heard I was NOT to meet him at Panera Bread. I was confused. Why not? And if not Panera Bread, where?
AT YOUR HOUSE. Now, if you are a new Christian, or have not yet developed a relationship with Jesus, this kind of directive could easily be ignored. But because I have been living in the Word and I can discern God’s voice, I should have known better than to disobey.
But it made no sense to me. Why would God be asking a single woman to invite a strange man to her house? I decided I had misheard the directive.
INVITE HIM TO YOUR HOME. At work, the message got stronger and stronger. I was jumpy with the ridiculousness of it. Invite a strange man to my home? That’s insane. It’s the exact opposite of the advice I would give to my daughters or any other woman. I tried calling my oldest daughter so she could talk me out of it. She didn’t answer the phone. The message became urgent. INVITE HIM TO YOUR HOME. I couldn’t take it anymore. Okay, okay! I threw up my hands in despair. I will obey.
I messaged this stranger, telling him exactly what had transpired, including the spiritual directive, and how I didn’t understand it. I waited. An hour passed, and no message from him. He would be leaving soon to get to Dubuque in time. Oh, no, I scared him. He must have thought I was a total weirdo. I sent a quick message “We could meet at Village Inn if you’d prefer.” He replied “No, it’s fine. I’ll plug your address into the GPS and be there at 4:30.” I ordered Panera Bread to be delivered to my home. All the way home, I was praying, “God, I don’t understand. Why would you ask me to invite a stranger to my home? This doesn’t make sense.”
The food was on my steps when I arrived home so I put it in the fridge. Nick arrived shortly after. When I saw him walking up the stairs, it was the first time I realized he had the neatly-trimmed goatee, broad shoulders and kind eyes I’d added to a list for my “ideal man” I also kept in my journal after someone had advised I tell God exactly what I wanted in a man.
“Did you think I was crazy, inviting you to my home against all common sense?” I greeted him as I let him in the door.
“No, it told me something about your faith that you would follow God’s lead like that,” he said before adding, “But it was crazy and you shouldn’t have done it, and your children would kill you if they knew what you had done!”
We sat down and began talking. And talking. We talked with ease about everything. And nothing. We couldn’t stop talking, and it seemed as if we’d known each other for years. Our talking was interrupted suddenly by a noise outside. I looked out the window and my oldest son Dan was there, fixing my stair railing I’d asked him to repair weeks before.
“My oldest son is here,” I told Nick, and then realization dawned on me. “Do you think that is why I was supposed to invite you here? So you could meet my oldest son, or him meet you?”
Because, suddenly, that made perfect sense. Dan has taken care of me since his Dad died. He has worried about me, fixed things around the house, has known of my loneliness. We share a special relationship in which we can sometimes feel each other’s pain.
“Dan! I didn’t know you were coming,” I step to the door and call out. “My friend Nick is here.”
“On the phone?” he says. “I’m just here to fix your railing.”
“No, my friend is in the house,” I stepped aside as Nick comes to the door. They exchange pleasantries and Nick and I went back inside, to return to talking. We discuss faith, the Bible, our spouse’s deaths, our children. We talk with an ease I’ve never before experienced, realizing we intimately share the loss of a spouse who will forever be a part of our lives. He asks about the Bible verse on my wall, Jeremiah 29:11, and I explain how it has been my life verse since David’s death. Remembering my summer 2018 journal entries and the prayers for a man I did not yet know, I get a tiny shiver down my back when he mentions that his wife died in April 2018 and the next few months he experienced the hardest time he’d ever had in his life.
At some point, I realize I have forgotten to feed him and my son is still outside, working. Dan finishes up his work and talks to us for awhile as we eat our salads on the couch. Only later do I realize I hadn’t heard a word Dan said because I only had eyes for this amazing man sitting next to me.
Hours have passed when Nick stands up to leave and I give him a hug. I’m not sure which of us asked for the second hug, but by the time Nick got to the door, we both wanted the third hug and I said yes to a second date that Sunday.
Neither of us got much sleep that night, tossing and turning. In the early morning Friday hours, we texted each other, wondering at what had just happened. Commonsense tells us that people don’t feel like that about each other after one meeting. Commonsense tells us we must be imagining things. We both forget to eat that day. Sunday suddenly seems so far away. As we talk on the phone that evening, marveling, wondering, confused, we come to the same conclusion. Before our date on Sunday, we must pray together. We need to ask God into this relationship.
By Saturday morning, we are miserable. We haven’t gotten much sleep. We miss each other even though that makes no sense. We’ve met only once.
We have no idea what God is going to ask of me that afternoon, a request that once again, makes no sense at all, a directive that makes me feel foolish and uncertain.
How do I tell a grown man that I am to read a book out loud to him?