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.

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Following A Dream

We were sitting outside on a bench of some sort, facing each other, our knees almost touching. He was wearing his blue and white striped shirt and his Iowa Hawkeye black baseball cap. He was hunched over, leaning his arms on his legs with his hands clasped, the classic David pose when he was thinking. His head was down and I couldn’t quite see his face.

“Do you know what we should do?” my voice was excited.

He leaned closer, as if to make sure he wouldn’t miss a word of any wonderful idea his wife had, because even in the dream, I knew he loved me and wanted to hear whatever I had to say. I reached over to circle my arms wide around him, ready to hug him.

And then I was awake, with tears streaming down my face.

6-16-2012: My first dream about my husband since his death.

Yesterday was the last day I would be attending the Cedar Falls Christian Writer’s workshop. At the lunch table I found myself talking about David, and our marriage. “Our marriage was wonderful at the time of his death. It wasn’t always like that, but during his cancer treatment our marriage relationship had improved so much that I couldn’t imagine being any closer to him. Just as an example; three weeks before he died, David and I were at the kitchen table. I was busy writing when David jumped up to refill my coffee cup. That’s the way we had become; taking care of each other. I kept writing but I sensed him looking at me so I looked up and smiled and then went back to my work. When I looked up again, he was still watching me.

‘What? What are you thinking?’ I asked, and he said, ‘I’m thinking how beautiful you are, and how talented. How you can sit there and all these words come out of you. I love you so much.’

“I was in my pajamas, no make-up, messy hair, and he thought I was beautiful?” I told the group of women at the table, and I noticed one of them wiping her eyes. “I thought right then~This is what marriage should be like. I wish everyone could have a marriage like this.” Tears flowed freely down the woman’s face at that pronouncement.

Later in the day, she approached me.

“Can I ask you something, Mary? You talked about your marriage at the table. Do you ever regret that you got that close to your husband? Because it hurt so much then, when you lost him?” Tears were coursing down her cheeks and my heart went out to her, and I knew what she was going to say before she said it. “Because my marriage isn’t that great, and I’m scared if I make it better, if we get closer, I’d be afraid to lose him.”

“I am never sorry for those last five and a half years since his cancer. I treasure those years.”

“You aren’t sorry?”

“Never.  I am so grateful I had that. Some people live their whole life without experiencing love like that.” She nodded her head a little.

“It isn’t like we are headed for divorce or anything,” she confided, “But I’m not happy. I don’t think he even knows there is anything wrong.”

“David didn’t either,” I smiled, and I wanted to hug her, knowing that particular pain of feeling alone in a marriage. “But I’d known our union wasn’t something to celebrate on our 25th wedding anniversary. When David saw what our relationship was like, after cancer, he realized what it could have been all along. I wish I had the answer for you, how to make your marriage like that right now, without cancer, because David and I always wished we hadn’t waited to make our relationship like that.  If I had been the kind of wife I was during and after his cancer, maybe it would have been. I rubbed his feet during cancer.” I saw her face change then, as if she was confused.

“For 27 years of marriage, I’d never touched my husband’s feet.” I went on to explain. “One evening, after a long day of treatments and doctor’s appointments, I knew he was exhausted, mentally and physically, and I wondered what I could possibly do to help. I knelt down in front of him and took off his shoes and socks and began rubbing his feet with alcohol. His body stiffened and he asked, ‘What? Do my feet stink?’ I felt like crying. He couldn’t imagine that I would care enough about him to rub or wash his feet! He relaxed when I told him I just wanted to make him feel better and the look on his face then practically broke my heart. He was so grateful. So… content. What if I’d always treated him as though I cherished him? It was all he needed or wanted; to be loved. And that is what we did for each other after cancer; we truly cherished each other.”

Now I was nearly crying too. I’d had that, and lost it when David died.

I can still see the image of that woman’s face; the raw yearning for the same.

As I related last night’s dream to my 15-year old daughter this morning, I began crying again. “Even in my dream, I didn’t get to hug him,” I lamented, and she hugged me. She was leaving this morning, on a mission trip to West Virginia, a trip her Dad had been so excited about for her.

As I reflect on what I did have with David, the germ of an idea that was planted in me at the Write-to-Publish conference grew a little; if I write our story, the story of a marriage and a journey of faith and love, then maybe, just maybe, I can help other women, like my new friend from yesterday, find true love in their relationship.

Do you know what we should do, David?  Do you know what we should do? We should write a book together; a true story, a journey of faith and love.

A prayer for today;

“Dear Lord, I am praying this morning for my new friend, that she might find fulfillment in her marriage. I ask for help for all the women and men who are feeling alone in their marriage today, that they might find their way back to their partners and experience the fullness of love that you designed the union to be. Thank you, Lord, for the love you allowed me to experience with David.”

faith, love, marriage, prayer

Precious Stones, Precious Husband, Precious Love

The shirts stay, I decided as I cleaned in the bedroom yesterday, going through some of David’s things. I’d already emptied his underwear and sock drawer, dumping most of it into the dumpster, but I hadn’t touched the little things he’d kept hidden underneath or much of anything on top of the dresser except to add some of his cologne on the shirts the girls and I hugged as we fell asleep. I couldn’t resist smelling several of the shirts on the hangers until I found one that still had his smell, and then I buried my face in it.

Abby was having a very difficult day so  I impulsively decided to let her do something she’d always wanted to do while David was alive; look through his coins.  Her head immediately popped up from the pillow where she’d been sobbing when I whispered through the doorway, “Would you like to look at Daddy’s coins?” She practically ran to my bedroom.

I smoothed the bedspread, preparing a place for the little red box, then opened up David’s dresser drawer. This was a ritual all eight of our children knew; one that they had participated in since they were old enough to recognize the intrinsic value of a box full of old coins. The value was not monetary; instead, it came from the look in their Dad’s eyes as he fingered them. And then came the stories; “My grandmother gave me a silver dollar every year for my birthday. I saved them all. Then one day my mother took some of them from my drawer to pay the paper boy. I was so angry! Those were my silver dollars! She didn’t understand why I was so upset. ‘I’ll pay you back,’ she’d said.” Of course, she never had. My children’s eyes would widen with the story; to think a mother would take her child’s precious possession to pay the paper boy! Even the youngest child could relate, could see their Dad as the little boy who treasured his coins and who had been collecting coins ever since in a desperate attempt to hold onto something. It didn’t take my Psychology degree to figure out it was the beloved grandmother my spouse had grieved for, not necessarily the silver dollars. He managed to save a silver dollar or two after his mother’s transgression, but I was not privy to all the stories related to the other coins in the little red box.  It was an infrequent ritual he would bestow only upon his children. “Can we look at your coins, Daddy?” Their requests were frequent, but the box only came out when David was in the mood, and it was alway the same; He would ask whichever child it was to leave the room while he retrieved it. Each child would oblige without question, never revealing that they knew all along where the box was hidden, in his underwear drawer. They would wriggle with pure, unadulterated joy in the hallway, hearing the soft sound of the dresser drawer being pulled open and waiting with breathless anticipation until their father would say, “You can come in now.” 

Abby was appropriately reverent as she pulled out coin after coin, lining them up on the bedspread. I continued cleaning off the dresser as she reflectively rubbed the oldest of the three remaining silver dollars between her fingers. I did not have the answers to her questions; where had her daddy gotten the fifty-cent pieces? Why did he save two dollar bills? There were eight of them, and I will choose one for each child as a Christmas gift this year. When she got to the bottom of the box, I noticed some folded pieces of paper. I sat down on the bed next to her and pulled out a small newspaper clipping; his grandmother’s obituary. I had seen David cry only a few times in our life together; the first was during our dating days when he’d told me about the death of his grandmother. The second piece of paper was the memorial card from her funeral.  “Daddy’s grandma was very special to him,” I told Abby. It was no surprise he’d kept these little reminders of her in his special box.

The third piece of paper was folded several times.  What had he treasured along with the memories of his grandmother?   I had found myself recently bemoaning the lack of left behind notes or secrets of my husband’s soul.  He wasn’t like my mother; leaving behind letters and notebooks filled with her writing.  David wrote so little that I am now frantically searching for a note from him, a list; anything that will give me a glimpse into the secret soul of a man I had loved for over 30 years. I treasure my mother’s unpublished manuscripts, her journals, her notebooks, and even the brown paper bag “idea” book she’d put together.  What did David leave me like that? A scrapbook of greeting cards from our dating days, the letter he wrote to me in our wedding book, perhaps a stray note or two, the list of seeds he was going to order from a garden catalog this spring.  I unfolded the piece of paper very carefully; it was yellowing and crisp with age.

I burst into tears.

My husband truly amazed me; It was the receipt for my wedding ring. I’d had no idea he’d saved it for 30+ years. Had hidden it inside the box of coins, along with pieces of memories of a woman he’d admired and loved more than his own mother.

$155.33.

There are those reading this blog posting that would think that a paltry sum for an engagement ring and wedding band.  I know better.

David adored me. During our dating days he’d placed me high up on a pedestal, and I knew it. What starry-eyed small-town girl could resist the adoration of a man eight years her senior?  He’d asked me to marry him less than one month after we’d begun dating in July of 1978.  I said no. He asked me again a couple of months later. I said no again.  By the time he asked me again in January of 1979, I knew enough about him to know we were compatible in one very important way; we were simple people with a simple need; the need to be loved. After I said yes, he took me to the jewelry store and told me to pick out my engagement ring.  Now, I knew him well enough to know he would have gone into debt to buy me whatever ring I wanted.  He began by pointing out some of the larger diamonds. I am a woman, after all, and aren’t women supposed to desire large, flashy rings? Not this woman, and perhaps that is another reason David loved me.  I chose the smallest diamond displayed in the case, and I was perfectly happy with it. In fact, I was ecstatic. We would not have to begin our marriage in debt and I had a lovely engagement ring.  The dress I chose was from a clearance rack at a store in the mall.  Our simple reception would be catered by my older sisters. If we could have, we would have chosen Neil Diamond’s “Forever in Blue Jeans” to be played at the wedding, but for some reason, that didn’t fly with either the priest or my sister-in-law manning the church organ.

And so, we’d begun our marriage the same way we would conduct the next 32 years; simply, and in love. My starry-eyes and David’s adoration waned slightly in the ensuing years, bogged down with bills and babies as we were.  Some years we struggled mightily with finances. But we continued to enjoy many shared happy memories, including “family fun days” at Chuck E. Cheese, coupon shopping together, book sales, riding bicycles, even digging in dumpsters together on occasion.  We laughed together, through the good times and the bad.  We survived together, and thrived together, and we always loved each other.  It was during his cancer treatment in 2006 we learned to truly cherish each other, and when I think about those years I can truly say they were the best years of my life, for being in love and living that love are two very different things, and my husband and I shared something very special during those five and a half years post-cancer that I now refer to as the “bonus years” with David.

Our love is, and was, a testament of what true love is all about. It isn’t about how much someone spends on a diamond ring or a wedding.  It isn’t about money at all. The man who hid a small box of coins in his drawer, and who taught his children those coins were precious because of the memories and not the monetary value, was a man who, unbeknownst to his wife kept jars of coins behind their bedroom door, for reasons she will never know, but she can surmise from their shared life together. (he was the kind of person who never wasted, always saved, and who just liked the feel of change in his hand)

He was a man who continued to adore his wife, who only saw the young girl that he’d married when, 33 years later he sat across the kitchen table from her. Just in the last month or two, he’d taken to gazing at me admiringly as I worked on an article or read the newspaper. I’d look up from my work to see his earnest gaze. “What?” I’d ask, and he’d reply that I was so beautiful. He’d done that so often in the past few months that I was disconcerted.  How could he think I was beautiful when I hadn’t even applied make-up? Flustered, I’d then laugh off his half-hearted advances. (the children were about to get up, after all)

A man who’d held onto that little slip of paper that represented the trust and love between two very simple people.

He’d loved me, and that was no secret.

“Oh, precious Lord Jesus, in your infinite wisdom you allowed cancer to enter into our life in 2006 so that I could learn to be the wife that David deserved all along; one that adored him and cherished him.  Dear Lord, thank you for giving me a husband who truly loved me. Thank you for our eight children, a legacy that David leaves behind. Please help them deal with the loss of a father who taught them what was truly important in life.  And dear Lord, help guide me on the path you have set out for me.”