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Commonsense Dating, Part One

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?

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.