butterflies, death of a spouse, grief, loss of a spouse, love

Something Blue

I stood there, transfixed, while my daughters and grand-daughter went on ahead.

blue buttrerfly display.jpg

I’d specifically chosen Waterloo as a destination for a day-trip for the newspaper. Waterloo, neighbor to the Cedar Falls area where I’d met my husband and we’d attended college.  I knew if I was given the assignment, I could cover the Grout Museum, with plenty of time left to visit the small Sunrise Zoo on the grounds of the Cattle Congress where David and I had taken our older children many times.

She was no longer wrestling with the grief, but could sit down with it as a lasting companion and make it a sharer in her thoughts. – George Eliot

Not only has grief become my constant companion, I occasionally ask it to dance with me. To return to the small zoo and the museum where David and I had spent time together was to dance with grief; to purposely put my arms around the memories of a past I hold dear, even if that promenade might result in tears.

David would have enjoyed this, I thought as we toured the Bluedorn Science Imaginarium. He loved science. He would have loved the historical war displays, I found myself thinking as we toured the Sullivan Brothers Veterans Museum. He loved history. Even now, four and a half years after his death, I consider what David had enjoyed, what he is now missing. What I lack in his absence; a partner to walk with, talk to, hold hands with, share laughter and stolen kisses.

I may have gasped out loud when the girls and I turned a corner in the Museum of History and Science and I caught sight of the butterfly display.

Weeks before David died, he and I had shared a conversation that was unlike our usual bantering. We were in the car, talking about the opportunities that had opened up for me just in those past few months; I’d started teaching workshops and been hired to do a weekly couponing column for a newspaper. I was working on a book that I’d acquired an agent for. My husband was not only thrilled by my recent success; he truly believed there was more in store for me.

“You’re flying! This is your time to soar,” he’d often say, and I’d reply that I couldn’t do it without him; He was the wind beneath my wings.

“Would you be okay if something happened to me?” he asked that day, and I replied with a vehement no. I would not be okay. Our marriage was the best it had ever been. I was looking forward to growing old with David.

I’ll never forget the look of real fear in his eyes at my answer. Where had this come from? David was a five-year cancer survivor. He was 60 years old. We had every reason to believe we had many years together ahead of us. I hated seeing him fearful, so I hastened to reassure him I would be okay. To lighten the mood a bit, I asked him how he would show me he was okay if he did die before me. He never answered, but I told him to make sure it was “something blue” so I’d recognize it came from him.

David died unexpectedly a few weeks later, the day before his March birthday. Seven months later, in mid-October, I signed a contract for that book he’d encouraged me to write, the book that had initially been his idea, and that he believed would become a reality, despite my failure to sell it with two different agents. The day I signed the contract, I ran across the street to tell my son Dan. As he stood smiling on the porch, I noticed the most beautiful blue and black butterfly flying nearby. I stared, open-mouthed. I must have said David’s name out loud, because I remember my son shaking his head at my proclamation that his Dad was showing his approval.

Months later, at the very moment I submitted the completed manuscript for that same book, my wedding ring cracked. I clicked on SEND, heard a distinct “ping,” and felt a sharp pain in my finger. I looked down, and the ring had cracked in half.

I’ve thought about that butterfly many times since then, bemoaning my lack of a photograph. When a gray butterfly with delicate blue markings dropped out of the sleeve of my husband’s old winter coat I’d hung on the line on September 18 of that year, I’d taken a picture, distinctively disappointed that there wasn’t more blue.

butterfly with blue marks

Why hadn’t I thought then to take a picture of the extraordinary blue and black butterfly? I’ve wondered about it many times since. How rare was it, because I hadn’t seen one before, or since.

And there it was; the same kind of butterfly in the display case at the Grout Museum.

blue butterfly.jpg

I took photos while my girls waited for me further down the hall. What majesty in the wings of God’s creatures, what intricate beauty in the design of the display. A man passed by. “Someone likes my butterfly display,” he smiled, and I immediately felt as though I was in the presence of someone holy, for him to have been responsible for such beauty.

“Did you do this? Do you know how rare those blue butterflies are?” I asked.

“I think they’re very rare, but Mark Lane and his daughter collected everything in there. He’d know for sure.”

It was then I noticed the small plaque attached to the case. I snapped a picture, determined to find this Mark Lane and daughter Katie.

butterfly mark lane and daughter katie

Thanks to Facebook, I did find him, and he told me the 8-year-old daughter Katie was now 26. His answer to my question about the rarity of the species:

“That butterfly is called a blue Morpho, more specifically a Morpho Deidamia. They range from Panama to Brazil… That one is from Guyana. The only US butterfly close to that is called a red spotted purple or Limenitis arthemis.

I started crying as I read his answer, but tears of joy as I remembered that October day, and the beautiful butterfly I’d seen with the distinctive black and blue markings. I believed anew that it was a message from the man who had loved me with every fiber of his being, or from the God he now resides with. I realized I had experienced a kind of love that even death couldn’t rob me of. To see such a beautiful butterfly appear on a momentous occasion was awesome enough. But could it be that I’d seen a butterfly that wasn’t even indigenous to the United States? That would be even more remarkable.  I told this man, a stranger who no longer felt like one, my story, and asked him if he thought I could have seen it here in Iowa.

“… There is NO way that Morpho would ever be here… There are no host plants for it they are only found in tropical areas!” Then he added “But there are a LOT of things that can’t be explained!!”

There are a lot of things that can’t be explained, that’s true. I’ve experienced more than my share of remarkable experiences; the blue butterfly, the cracked ring, a Neil Diamond CD appearing in my locked vehicle, a shiny penny in a closed money box where only bills had been a moment before. I’ve made a list and it covers six notebook pages. I don’t know where these kinds of “messages” come from; the person we loved and lost, or God.

But I do know one thing; sometimes a dance with grief ends in joy.

POSTSCRIPT: (from the man responsible for the butterflies in the display, after he read this blog post and saw the butterfly that fell out of my husband’s coat) the dead butterfly in the grass is called a “Mourning Cloak”

David, death of a spouse, grace, grief, love, marriage, wedding

On this day…

I didn’t expect to wake up crying the day after my daughter’s wedding, but then there are many things that come as a surprise in our journey as a mourner, things we are not prepared for, or cannot comprehend until we experience them. I remember those early days of grieving a spouse when I would wonder; is it normal to feel like this? Am I going to be okay? Even a seasoned mourner can be sideswiped by a tide of grief at milestone events such as weddings.

August 13, 2016. More than four years after the death of my husband David, a daughter was to be married. This would not be the first marriage in our family after David’s death; son Daniel got married in the summer of 2014. The mixture of joy and grief was expected then, but perhaps tempered by the fact that the wedding was extremely small; just the couple’s parents and siblings, in the back yard of my brother’s house, officiated by my dear friend Cecil Murphey. I cried then, too, but joy overshadowed the tears. At the time, I lamented the lack of a reception where we could celebrate with others. Now, I believe it might have been too much to bear then, a wedding reception following on the heels of yet another loss; that of our little Jacob, my grandson who passed away from cancer the year before.

dan and lydia wedding

I had a hint this wedding experience would be different than Dan’s wedding. Emily would be the first daughter to get married after David’s death, the first daughter to walk down the aisle without a father by her side. I expected this absence to be keenly felt by my daughters. As a symbol of our female solidarity and in homage to David, we cut hearts out of one of his shirts, using Velcro to attach the heart inside each of our dresses.

shirt hearts
None of my impending sadness as the date approached had anything to do with the marriage. I whole-heartedly approved of Emily’s choice. Hugh was a devout Christian, and he’d asked for my blessing on Thanksgiving. The young couple began a Bible study together shortly after their engagement. I had no qualms about who my daughter was marrying.

Nor was it about the wedding itself. Hugh’s family, having experienced two daughter’s recent weddings, took charge of the majority of the work involved in planning and decorating.

It was always about the missing man, the father who’d loved his sons and adored his daughters. The man who’d fought cancer and won, who’d smiled indulgently at this daughter who’d taken to hugging him repeatedly and daily in those three months before his death. Privately, he’d wondered at her hugging. “Do you think she’s okay?” he’d asked me. “She’s hugging me over and over, and telling me she loves me.”

Emily had wondered the same thing.

“I don’t know why, but I keep feeling like hugging Dad,” she’d confided.

Only after his death would we marvel at the timing of this compulsion.

What had I wanted for Emily, for me, on this wedding day?
I desired, more than anything, to feel the presence of her Dad. I wanted a sign that he was there with us, a message from the heavens. I yearned to see a rainbow in the sky, a blue butterfly landing upon her wedding dress while her brother Dan took photos. I wanted piles of shiny pennies to appear in the pews, white feathers among the rose petals little flower girl Amy dispersed from her basket.

After all, anyone who reads my blog or has read my book, Refined By Fire, knows I’ve experienced this kind of thing before; little messages from Heaven, proof that there is so much more to everlasting life than we here on earth can possibly comprehend; that our loved ones live on, not just in our memories, but with God. So, why wouldn’t I expect more of the same on such a momentous occasion?

The wedding ceremony was beautiful. My heart was full, as I did the one thing I have not been particularly good at since David’s death; I lived in the moment. I reveled in the experience of a daughter getting married. The circle of blessing, when Hugh’s parents and I got up to circle the couple and pray together was especially moving. The reception was lovely. A cozy after-party at the new in-law’s home included a first dance between the couple. Memories captured on camera, and inside my heart.

But throughout the day, I found myself searching for that elusive sign; a message that David was near, that God would gift us with a message that he hadn’t forgotten our loss. I went to bed inexplicably disappointed.

And woke up crying.

It was this morning, as I sat alone and sobbed, that I thought to pray the prayer I should have prayed yesterday with my daughters as we did our make-up, or with Hugh’s mother or grandmother during the wedding party’s hurried lunch.

God, let me see YOU.”

Not David. Not Jacob. Not my mother, who had passed away in 2010, or my father who has been gone since 1986.

God, let me see you. Let me feel YOU.

As I sit alone in the front pew of the church and watch my daughter get married, let me feel you. As I stand alone watching my daughter dance with her new husband and remember dancing with her father, let me feel you. When I catch a glimpse through my camera lens of his parents leaning into each other as they watch the couple, let me not feel such a sharp stab of sadness at what I no longer have, at what I have lost. Let me feel gratitude instead, for what I once had.”

Emily and Hugh wedding dance.jpg

In the moments after I prayed this morning, little snippets of yesterday’s events flitted through my mind’s eye. I reflected on those moments that will remain with me forever;

My daughter’s delicate, slightly shaking hand as she clung to my arm when I walked her up the aisle.

The hugs from Emily and Hugh after I affirmed that I was the one giving away the bride.

The emotional blessing Hugh’s father gave, and my sudden realization that this man would be a father figure in my daughter’s life, would look out for her best interests as if she was his own daughter.

And after the ceremony, when I was so desperately searching for a sign from David, I won’t forget the appearance of his brother walking out the door of the church into the foyer where I stood, and the lurch I immediately felt in my heart. His brother, Keith, who David had loved so dearly. Keith’s wife Margie, who has experienced tremendous loss in her own life. Their hugs were followed closely by hugs from David’s two favorite sisters, Linda and Susan. Members of David’s family always remind me of David, are part of David.

The tears in the eyes of my friend Lois as she hugged me. The look in her husband Ron’s eyes. Ron had been David’s friend. They keenly felt his absence too.

My sister-in-law Cindy hugging me, and her whispered “I know,” because she did know, intimately knows what it is to face these kinds of milestones after a husband’s death.

The presence of my friend Mary, the friend who’d wisely advised me to live in the moment.

And a young boy, my nephew Andrew, who might never have hugged me before yesterday, hugging me and hanging on tight, with a tenderness I couldn’t comprehend at the time. How could he know? How could he possibly know? That hug meant the world to me.

My beautiful daughters and handsome sons. My siblings who came to share in our celebration.

The sister and brother-in-law, who invite me to share grilled hamburgers at their campsite tonight, knowing the day after might be difficult.

Today I see God, how he uses these people to grace me. His signs; the hug, the knowing look, the clasp of the hand from someone who has experienced this same thing, the heart-felt prayer of a father who loves his son and welcomes his new daughter, the love I felt in that room as two young people began a new life together.

In the book I picked up to read today, Love Lives On, by Louis LaGrand, PhD, the author writes about his study of “extraordinary encounters” that the bereaved experience. He mentions dreams, the sense that a deceased one is present, or unexplained happenings, the kind of thing I was searching for yesterday. He writes in his book how messages are received through touch, smell, a third party who is not a primary mourner, or with a variety of “informative symbolic signs.”
“The mourner has not actively sought these responses from the deceased. Furthermore, they are not products of magical thinking, nor do they involve the intercession of a psychic.”
“To the recipient of an Extraordinary Encounter, there is no doubt that it is the loved one or an Intelligent Power who had provided the riveting communication; the signs or visions emerge unbidden from an enormous reservoir of wisdom and insight far beyond our earthbound comprehension.” (page 5)
Intelligent Power. I call that God.

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.