Saturday, April 10, 2021

Popcorn

The popcorn sound of my iPhone’s text alert goes off, reminding me that I don’t even like popcorn.

“How are you?” the message reads.

“Medium bad,” I respond, resorting to the dark-humored joke my family and I share right now. It’s accurate, though. And it’s easier than trying to sum up, one itsy bitsy letter at a time on a miniscule keyboard, how my life has imploded and I will never be the same. It’s also shorter.

I guess that’s hard to absorb. Well, it’s a blog. I’m not trying to win a Pulitzer Prize here or anything. I’m just trying to get this written so I can fall asleep before the sun comes up.

Yesterday was a good day. Today is very different. That’s the way things roll right now. Every day when I wake up I don’t know how many waves of grief I’ll have to surf before I lose my balance and nearly drown. Maybe the waters will be calm. Maybe not. It’s just one day after another, knowing at any moment I could get knocked down again by a memory, a longing, or that now familiar ache in my gut that I have to try to breathe through until it passes.

I read another grief-stricken writer’s blog last night. She said one aspect of this pain is realizing that my loved one has moved on. That’s what it is—Rob moved on. He moved on without me. Without even asking me to come along. While mourning with the broken hearts around me, I'm forced to handle the unfamiliar details and grievous closures. And face the unknown future, without him. He just moved on. It confuses me, standing here, where I've been set aside. Stranded.

We had unfinished business. He died in the middle of our life and I didn’t get to hold him again, kiss his lips, tell him my saved-up news, share my fears with him, tell him I was sorry for the stresses that made me grumpy. He didn’t get to tell me those things either. Traumatic death leaves unfinished business behind in its wake that adds to the shock and grief.

That’s uncomfortable, too, isn’t it? Same here.

My constant companion now is the throbbing awareness that I’ll never see Rob in this life again or hear him talk to me in any way other than the handful of audio files I’ve managed to save. I feel like my heart has been ripped out of me. My happy husband. So delighted by his family. He so enjoyed living. He so put up with me. God, I miss him. I can’t possibly cry this grief away or sleep it off, ignore it or shut it down. Every day, every second that goes by, pushes me another mile away from the last time we lived a normal life together. It’s as though I’ve been set out to sea on an iceberg, floating farther and farther away from the mainland of life with him, never ever to return. This is cruel and unusual punishment for loving someone with my whole heart and soul.

I still have to do the ordinary things, no matter how I feel. Like shopping. But every venture into a grocery store is a risk. Every aisle holds memories of meals I’ll never make for him again. Foods he loved. The smell of his coffee in the morning while he enjoyed watching golf or football on tv. I’m baptizing the aisles inside every Basha’s in the East Valley with my tears.

This morning was hard. A lot of crying. A lot of missing Rob. A lot of scaring the birds in the garden with the sound of me blowing my nose. I went to McD and got breakfast, brought it home and watched a sitcom and got tired of tv. I went to the piano to try to play something. To express my emotions. Get ‘em out there and find a little relief. There was only a hymnal on the piano’s rack.

It’s hard to find a good angry song to play in a hymnal.

I flipped through to find something that might work anyway, landed on Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus, and began to play. Angrily. Agitato forte, I believe it’s called, times ten. Pounding out an enraged version of the song felt good inside but hurt my hands as I thrashed the keys, slamming dischordant notes down like a two-year-old beating up the keyboard. Caught up in my heart’s furious expression, the sound that came from my baby grand was nothing like the writer intended. I completely destroyed the song which happily, sweetly admonished if I'd “turn my eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face, the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”

What idiot wrote that? I wondered, knowing that Jesus wept and still weeps with us. Someone who never watched their beloved husband die, I was betting. I ended with a crushing smash on the keys and stood up. “And that’s how I feel about that,” I said calmly. 

I think I might be a psychopath.

Since I forgot and left the front door open, I wondered what the neighbors thought as they listened in on my cacophony of grief. Maybe they decided it was some new kind of punky metallic pseudo-rock. “Far out,” the aging hippies down the street may have said. “Lord, have mercy,” I pictured the legalists whispering as they prayed for my piano to implode lest the devil get the glory. “She may need medication,” the worried gossip probably muttered as she bolted her door shut.

The truth is I took out some of my confusing, illogical anger on innocent ivories and made my fingers hurt.

We grieve alone. That’s the truth. People can sit with us, cry with us, hold us in their arms, but no one else can feel what I feel in this horrendous loss. No one else is me, no one else was Rob’s beloved, no one loved Rob the way I did as his wife and partner, no one else knows what this injury feels like to me. I have to grieve alone. You will have to grieve alone, too, when loss happens to you. There’s no way around grief. You can only go through it. As my son told me tonight, it’s so real and so raw that the only way through it is to honor that pain. And as horrible as this feels right now, this is the time to deal with it rather than stuffing it and having it come out later in some other way.

And now what I’m reading—which, by the way, is not encouraging—is that I will never get over it. I will never get over Rob’s death. I will never get over losing our life together. I will, instead, carve out a way to co-exist with the grief and loss and missing him, perhaps as an amputee learns how to function with one less arm, though I don’t know for sure. I’ve never been in that position. I’m just guessing the same way people try to imagine what they “can’t imagine” when it comes to what I’m going through right now.

So, yesterday’s blog had a happier ending. Today, the only thing I can say about the day is I survived. I walked through fire again.

Well, it was bound to happen. Every time you throw some dried corn in a pan of hot oil, the moisture inside gets agitated and blows the husk off. That distorts the uniformly shaped kernels into something resembling mutilated styrofoam, and the next thing you know it all gets drowned in butter and consumed absentmindedly during a horror flick.

Popped corn. That's what I feel like right now.

I’ve never liked popcorn.










The original photo seen above can be viewed by following the link below to the artist's page, Ann Larie Valentine. Popcorn! | Ann Larie Valentine | Flickr


Friday, April 9, 2021

In The Garden

I took a walk in the garden this morning. Maybe it was more like I took a stand. Or a lean. Okay, I was propped up outside the garden this morning.

My arms resting on the gate, I gazed through blurry eyes at the peaceful setting Katy and her friend created last month. Katy always says the garden is where she finds peace. Right now, all the beauty growing there is bringing her comfort and healing.

I’m invited to drop in anytime I feel like it. The raised beds are painted with patches of color. Orange mums, bright yellow California poppies, deep purple petunias, glossy green leaves of basil, while twin lettuce plants, left from the fall, threaten to go to seed at any moment. It's a soothing canvas of life.

There were two chairs against a wall on my left, cloaked in shade, inviting me to come sit, but I preferred standing—propping—where I could put my head in my hands and weep. It’s an odd way to water Katy’s garden, especially since I was standing ten feet away but, right now, I’m watering everything in my path like that—my shirt, my laptop, my daughter’s shoulder.

“I don’t know how to do this,” I cried at the garden gate today. “Please help me, God. I miss him so much.” And then, in the hope that it’s true Rob can hear me, I added, “I love you, Rob.”

But there was no reply. The only sound came from the happy animals in Katy’s pasture. I envy them. Life is simple when you’re a pig. Or a sheep. Or duck or chicken. Eat, sleep, act ridiculous and selfish, repeat as needed. No sorrow. No pity parties. No shame. Just be who you are. There’s a lot to be said for you doing you.

I don’t know who I am anymore.

My journey with God for the last thirty years has been the discovery of who He says I am. Identity is everything. It’s different from performance or talent or career. God gives it to us—we don’t earn it. Rob grasped that better than anyone I’ve ever known. He lived it out because it was who he really was. He helped me understand it, too. That’s the reason our Tahoe has OVRCMR personalized on its plate--"Overcomer" in license plate shorthand. Being an overcomer is part of the identity God gives His kids. I drive that word around with me to remind me of the truth.

But this morning, standing at that garden gate, I felt like a poser. My head was down. My courage missing in action. I loved being Rob's wife. That's who I've been for forty-four years. We've been a team. Never one without the other. "RobAndEula." It rolled off the tongue. Or "RobAndI." Now it's just me. Stranded by circumstances I didn't sign up for. Forced to deal with destruction without my teammate at my side. 

Some overcomer I am, I thought. I should rip that license plate right off the truck. All this time, telling people that Jesus is enough when the going gets tough, and look at me now. I’m a mess. It’s seven weeks today since Rob left us and I still can’t believe he’s gone most of the time. Shouldn’t I be getting a grip by now? Crying less. Accepting more? I’ve never felt grief at this magnitude before—I don’t know how it’s supposed to work. Or help.

My eyes swept across the garden while I wiped snot from my nose and soaked up the tears with the back of my hand. Pausing to look at the two empty chairs against the barn, something above them caught my attention. Another license plate, this one nailed to the wall instead of screwed onto a bumper. While I chose the plate for our Tahoe, Rob wanted this one on his Dodge Dakota. HOLDFST, it read. I gave it to Katy when I sold his truck and this is where she decided to hang it.

Facing her garden where her soul goes to be restored.

Rob loved that phrase and the history of it. According to Clan MacLeod, late one night the clan’s third chief was confronted by a wild bull which was notorious for terrorizing the locals. He jumped on its back, struggling with it and nearly losing the fight, when a bunch of his own clansmen heard the commotion and crowded around the strange wrestling match. “Hold fast, MacLeod!” they yelled. “Hold fast!” He did and, in the end, he killed the ornery bull with his dirk. The shout of his own people became the motto of Clan MacLeod and of my McLeod, Roby.

Hold fast. When you’re losing your grip. Hold fast. When hope is fading. Hold fast. When the odds are against you. Hold fast. We’re here, cheering you on. You can do this. Hold fast.

I don’t know how to do this, I keep crying to God. I don’t know how to start over at sixty-two. I don’t know how to be happy again. I don’t know how to forget the painful parts of Rob’s last days or the shock that he wasn’t going to make it after all. I don’t understand. There’s no road map for this terrible journey. I don’t know how I’ll get through his memorial this summer or our anniversary in the fall or the Christmas season after that.

Or the rest of my life, without him.

Hold fast, the sign insisted. A simple answer to faith in conflict. I stopped crying and switched my focus to the garden where my daughter had appeared, kneeling, plucking small weeds from the damp soil. “You okay, Mama?” she asked, glancing up at my tear-stained face.

I told her about feeling like a broken record and how I thought I should pull the OVRCMR plate off the Tahoe and throw it out. “Every day I’m struggling,” I said. “I miss your dad so much. I miss talking with him. I miss his voice. I don’t know when it will ever get better.” She went back to her weeding, listening while I told her about the two license plates. Then she looked up again.

“I think Dad’s still talking to you,” she said quietly. “He’s telling you to hold fast, Overcomer.”

It sounded just like something her father would say. She’s so much like her dad, it amazes me. The way she listens, summarizes, reminds me of truth. Her brother does the same thing as I talk with him at night. My family. All cut from the same McLeod cloth. All cheering me on, even while their own hearts are hurting. And healing.

Hold fast, Overcomer. You’re still an overcomer whether you feel like it or not. You didn’t earn that identity—it was given to you. Or, in the words of a mentor Rob and I both admired who first taught us about our identity in Christ, Believe that it’s so, even when it’s not so, so that it can be so.

In other words, Hold Fast. Hang on. You’re gonna get through this. We're all rooting for you. Just Hold Fast.

Rob is still talking to me.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Waiting For Me

Lying in bed every morning, trying to talk myself into getting up and showering. It’s not that hard. Throw back the comfy cover, spin around, swing your legs over the edge. The only thing standing between me and a cascade of warm, soothing water is the flash flood of tears heading my way before my feet can hit the ground. And it always comes. It never disappoints.

How long will I grieve? It lasts as long as it lasts, one book says.

I have a friend who, after losing her husband, spent a year feeling numb. And then she started to cry. Everyone grieves differently, I’m told. Yesterday I read that grieving is necessary in order to heal, but it’s a painful route to healing, if you ask me. I can see why some people avoid it like the plague—the two have a lot in common, grief and the plague.

I’m sorry if this is hard to read, all this thinking out loud on your dime. I’d really rather be writing funny stories about my crazy adventures with Rob and our family, but most of those came to a screaming halt two months ago. And the tears . . . they’re always there waiting, just below the surface, in case fatigue or a photo or a sweet memory give them opportunity. Something as simple as re-reading a kind note or trying to find my white Tahoe—which may have been lost today outside Target in a sea of parked cars in ninety degree temps—can make me crumble faster than a bag of Doritos. Rob used to pick me up at the entrance. Park me in the shade. Open my door for me. Hand me the keys so I could turn on the air conditioning while he loaded all my purchases in the back.

There I go again—dripping tears on my laptop.

Katy and Dan have loaned me their master bedroom for the last two and a half months, ever since I got out of the hospital. It’s time to give it back, so now I’m moving into a large guest space they created last fall when they thought Rob and I would be visiting regularly from Heber. It’s really pretty, has lots of room and privacy, and today we brought some of my furniture out of storage to help make it feel more familiar. That’s another thing I read—the familiarity of having my things around me can help with healing

Rob and I used to love watching the movie, The Quiet Man, with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara every St. Patrick’s Day. We missed it this year. . . Moving on. After Wayne’s character relocates to Ireland, he marries an Irish woman, but his culture shock threatens the marriage of the newlyweds. O’Hara’s character is controlled by a hateful older brother who won’t let her have the furniture left to her by their mother. Sobbing, she tries to explain the sense of security her belongings give her, finally making it as simple as possible for her confused new husband: “I want my things about me!”

Okay, that was a lot of explanation for a really short quote. But I used to make fun of that scene. Now I understand. When we rolled up the door to one of my storage units this afternoon to search for a chair and bookshelf and some lamps, the mere sight of my husband’s dresser in the entrance made me break down right there in the middle of Public Storage. It’s a beautiful piece of furniture and it’s the only piece of our bedroom set I kept. Because it makes me think of him.

There’s comfort in having my things, our things, about me. It’s a bittersweet kind of comfort because it’s all I have left of Roby that’s tangible. We’ll grab his dresser another time, but when we brought the other items here and set them in place, a little bit of peace came along for the ride.

Katy put a small dresser in the room for me with a tv set attached to the wall above. There’s a bit of a tangle of electric cords below it that will be hidden in the wall eventually, but for now she propped up a canvas with a pretty scene she painted on it to cover the wires. In her picture, puffy white clouds float against a serene, blue sky, the  remnants of a summer storm. It’s very realistic. All the depth and dimension she added with a clever use of grays makes it look practically 3D. I thought it needed a little something more, though, since I’ll be seeing it everyday when I watch tv in my new room.

“I’m going to cut out a tiny little picture of Rob and paste him up there in the clouds,” I announced. She gave me the look her dad used to give me. I’m still going to do it. It makes me laugh and I think it makes Katy laugh, too. On the inside—the same way her dad used to laugh at my jokes. I do laugh still. It’s a relief when I do.

Still, there are tears every morning. A shower to wash them away. Slow, steady progress making the necessary changes needed to go forward from here. Always, the grief is there, like an unwelcome visitor. Sometimes amusement chases it into the shadows. Maybe the day will come when grief will stay there instead of sneaking back out once the laughter dies down. I don’t know. I’ve never been here before. Katy and I always tell people the same thing when we describe how we’re trying to cope:

“We don’t know what we’re doing.” 

We’re just winging it. Doing the best we can. Trying to find our way back to normal. Knowing it will never be the same again. We're missing Rob. Hanging on. Laughing when we can, crying when we can't. I'm catching on to how this works. Every single morning. While I throw back the covers, spin around, and swing my feet over the edge of the bed, I know the flash flood of tears will cover me again. They always do. They never disappoint.

Grief waits for me there, just outside the shadows. For as long as it lasts.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Hold Fast

There was so much I wanted to tell you, Baby. When you woke up. How much I missed you. How I recovered. The way Katy and Dan sacrificed to get me off that mountain and down to their house once the hospital let me go, and how your brave daughter took care of me until my strength returned. I’m strong again, honey. I’m doing everything I did before, all these weeks since I told you goodbye in ICU and came off that mountain while you fought to survive. I made it, Babe.

But I never got to talk to you again. Not until the day we were finally allowed back in your room to tell you goodbye. There was too much to try to say that day while we choked up with tears and tried to be as courageous as you and let you go. When it was over, I put your wedding ring on my own hand, and I’ve been wearing it ever since.

Remember how you told me while you were stationed in Germany that you wanted a turquoise wedding band? And how I got a new diamond set for our twenty-fifth anniversary (“I want some bling now,” I told you.) But you wanted to keep wearing the ring I had special-made for you because it told the story of perseverance in hard times and devotion in good with its chipped stones and sparkling silver edges.

I put my bling away the day we let you go. Your turquoise band took its place on my ring finger. I need a reminder that I can persevere. That I can walk this painful path with courage and survive. It comforts me to see it there on my left hand—looking at it reminds me of how it looked when you wore it. Sometimes it even makes me feel like you’re still close by. There’s a triangular stone missing—the empty spot spins around to the front a lot—but I don’t mind. You loved this ring and wore it all the time. You were bound to lose a piece of it eventually. Every time I see that empty place it reminds me you’re the one who lost that stone and I’m the one who lost you. I don't think I’ll ever get it repaired.

I’ve lost so much. It’s so hard to grasp how much in such a short span of time that I can’t even comprehend it all right now. Of course, it bubbles up to the surface and flows down the sides of my face, so I can’t ignore it completely. Grief has a mind of its own.

When I think of that last day, sitting beside you in the hospital, I just did what I had to do. I wept there, but I knew that, as always, the majority of my tears would fall later when the shock gave way to whatever my new reality looked like. Every day since I kissed your forehead for the last time and told you I love you is heartache. I’m bleeding inside, missing you, longing for you. We didn’t know until the morning prior that you were going to die. I never knew what helpless felt like until that moment. The memory of you trying to say that you love me strangles me with grief. You were ripped away from me while I stood by in disbelief, unable to prevent it from happening. Stolen from me while I watched, powerless, unable to do anything to stop it. I’m still numb. This evening when I told our kids good night, I came to the bedroom, longing to tell you about my day. Desperate for a hug. I was sobbing before I crossed the threshold knowing you weren’t waiting for me.

How many ways can I think of to explain how this feels? Half of me is gone. Overnight. There was no closure, not when the conversation was one-sided. I don’t know what happened. There are no answers. And when I ask God to speak up, there’s only silence. Maybe you can see me from the other side. Hear my cries. One author I’m reading even says you and all the other saints are praying for us. For me. I hope so. It’s the silence on this end that is deafening. It makes me feel like my questions fall lifeless to the floor at my feet.

I wasn’t going to write tonight. It makes me cry and I can’t breathe and then I can’t go to sleep and I need sleep. It’s hard to go to bed without you. But there’s something in me that demands I work this out here, especially since I can’t talk to you about it anymore. You always made me laugh at my fears. You let my mascara melt on your shoulder while you held me in your arms. You brushed the hair out of my eyes and kissed the tears away and told me everything was going to be all right. But I can’t hear your voice anymore. It’s the worst kind of starvation. I’m trying to be brave, Baby, I really am. There’s nothing I can do to change the fact that you’re gone for the rest of my life here. But it hurts so much.

So here I am. Wearing your ring. Bearing your name. Holding fast to our daughter and son and their families. Forced to go on without you when I don’t want to. Wishing I could talk with you and writing unread letters to you instead.

Maybe you already know all of this, watching from the heavenly stadium where you sit with your dad and brothers and my Grandpa and all the others in that cloud of witnesses the Bible talks about. and pray for our endurance here, for our hope to stay strong, and that we’ll each ‘hold fast’. I’ll do my best, Baby. With my eyes closed, and these half-breaths, and the grief strangling my soul, I’ll try to remember how much you want me to hang on..

I just wish that I was still holding fast onto you.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Dragonslayer


It happened again. 

Where do I start? Waking up this morning to face another day of pain, I rolled in tight to my pillow and wept. “I can’t do this, God,” I cried. “Please help me.” I’m tired of trying to get through this loss while I stay angry at God. I need Him. Desperately. I had to let go of the questions. I know God is good, so there must be something I don’t understand about the situation. Acceptance seemed my only out.

“I accept it,” I sobbed. “I accept your will.”

It’s not comforting when well-meaning people offer the “it was God’s will” explanation after the most important person in your world just died. Please don’t say that to a wounded heart like mine—when we’re ready, we’ll figure it out on our own. It’s just that I was crying and couldn’t breathe, so the fewer words the better. People keep reminding me it’s only been six weeks since Rob left us and that I’m early into this grief process.

Believe me, that’s not good news.

I got going and went to lunch with a friend. Accomplished a few tasks. Had time with family. And then the twilight snuck in—a time of day that has always been hard for me. My spirits crashed late in the day and I found myself crying again. In the truck. By myself.

Rob always hated it when I did that. Too bad. If he was here, I wouldn’t have been crying.

Grief is complicated. It feels like all the negative emotions I’ve ever experienced thrown together into one messy pile, and I have to sort it all out before I can get on with my life. Did I mention how bad I am at jigsaw puzzles?

Ignoring my feelings, I picked up some supper and headed back to the house. But that song, “Fires,” was running through my mind, demanding my attention, insisting that I listen. I reached over to drown it out with the radio and it was also playing on the airwaves—just like a couple of days ago. There must be something in that song God wants me to know, because every time I’m at the end of endurance and beg Him to show up, that song starts playing.

You’ve walked me through fires, pulled me from flames, if You’re in this with me I won’t be afraid.

“I am afraid,” I cried out, clutching the steering wheel with one hand and wiping my eyes with the other.

When the smoke billows higher, oh and higher, 

and it feels like I can barely breathe . . .

“I can’t breathe,” I wept. “I can’t breathe!” I kept telling Him how I felt, while the song finished playing all around me in the cab of my truck.

I’ll walk through these fires ‘cause You’re walking with me.

“It doesn’t feel like you’re walking with me. How does that help anyway?” I wanted to know.

I parked in the driveway, beat up by the experience, and brought my supper inside the house. Then I sat down to watch “Last Man Standing” on tv while I ate chicken strips and a lemon bar. The story line revolved around the death of someone’s mother. Great. Her son felt guilty for putting her in the hospital when she begged him not to. When she died there, he blamed himself for her death.

I stopped eating my lemon bar. I couldn’t see it very well anyway.

Tim Allen’s character, friend of the guilt-ridden man, told him the truth. “You did the very best you could for your mom. You gave her the finest care you could think of. It’s not your fault she died. You have no control over life and death. The reason is hurts so much is because you loved her so much.”

It was as if he was talking to me.

I’ve struggled with that same guilt ever since we lost Rob. Besides all the “what if’s” and “if only’s” after we both got sick, when emergency measures were needed to save Rob’s life, his doctors called me because I held his medical power of attorney. He was unconscious and I had to make life and death decisions for him about possibilities he and I had never discussed ahead of time. It’s a terrible place to stand, that gap. And when it was over, none of the life saving techniques they tried saved his life.

Somehow, all of that translated into, “This was my fault.” It’s a self-imposed prison of guilt. And it’s not true. I’m not the One in control.

I miss Rob so much, at times my stomach knots up and I hold my breath until the grief spasm passes. My life has changed permanently. Nothing right now feels familiar, and the future is blurry. I’m living less than one day at a time, only pulling it off one breath at a time. This healing is going to take a long, long time and I’ve barely begun walking through this fire.

It reminds me of a night-time training demo put on for the families of rookies when Rob and I were newlyweds, and he was in Fire School in Florida. At the training facility, there was a long, shallow, concrete pit of water. While the audience watched, captivated, the training captains added diesel fuel to the rectangular pit and set it on fire. The flames blew up twenty feet or more into the dark sky, illuminating the grassy area all around it with dragon-like breath. Even from where we all stood together a safe distance away, we could feel the heat generated by the watery inferno.

Rob’s team took their positions on the hose line, Rob in the middle, and as they turned the pressure up, the nozzle was adjusted into a fog pattern aimed at the determined flame burning paradoxically on the water’s surface. Rob had not told me what was about to happen. I wished he had.

As steam from the fire hose competed with the thirsty flames for domination, the men worked as one to push the fire off the surface of the shallow concrete pool. Then, as I looked on in disbelief, all of them stepped into the pit of fire-breathing water, the fog pattern of their super-charged nozzle combatting the threatening flames. That and their training were the only weapons they held as they battled their way through the blaze to the other side of the firepit.

Step by step, while their families watched on the sidelines, the men walked slowly through the wet flames, pushing the fire back as they moved in sync with one another. The point of the exercise was to simulate what they would need to do in the case of a fuel leak. Walking through the fire, their mission would be to reach the source of the rupture and shut it down. It was the only way the fire could be extinguished.

But I didn’t know that. All I could see were monstrous flames. A moment earlier they’d been  pushed ahead by the team of men. But now, in a surprising move, those same flames suddenly wrapped back around the sides of the burning pit. A gasp went up from the crowd as the three men disappeared into the jaws of the dragon. From where we stood, we couldn’t see the crew at all. The only thing visible was a two-story tower of orange and red flames raging against the dark night.

My eyes grew huge, scanning the enormous, vivid firebreather for signs of human life, or more mist, anything to relieve the fear building in my heart. One hand at my throat, I stood on tiptoes, trying to see if Rob’s superiors were panicking. Or calling for backup. Grabbing more hoses to rescue the endangered men. But there was nothing. Just the roar of flames. And silence from the captains.

And then—a slow cheer. From the far end of the crowd, applause began to build as the heroes inside the fire emerged, safe and sound, on the other side of the flaming pit. Mission accomplished, unsinged and unharmed, I watched as each of them stepped out of the water. A few minutes later, the fire, having lapped up all the vapors, slowly died down and disappeared. All that remained was the acrid aroma of burnt diesel fuel.

The entire time, the crew held that line together and were kept safe behind the water curtain they’d created. Standing still would have been deadly, so they kept moving forward in unison. Their progress was slow and gut wrenching for all of us who watched, but when they emerged on the other side, the sound of our relief echoed in the night.

I never went to watch another training exercise. The heart can only stand so much.

I know it’s hard to read these blog posts. They’re hard to write. Sometimes I can’t see through my tears as I put my feelings down like this. I need to do it, though. Because the flames are tall and the smoke is thick and I won’t be able to breathe if I don’t find a way to extinguish my grief.

You’re on the sidelines, watching in agony while I slowly move forward, rookie that I am at this kind of battle. Rob told me later he was scared to death during that exercise. And that every time he went into a burning building throughout his career, he was afraid. He knew what could happen. He knew it had happened to other men. He went in anyway. He had no choice.

I have no choice now, either. I wish my Captain would shut down the flames. Make this nightmare go away. Give me a trapdoor. Anything to get me out of the way of this fire-breathing dragon. But instead, He has given me Himself. I’ve been scared that He is not enough. I’m not proud of that—I’m just being honest again.

He’s the lead man on this fire line. He walks before me, the One Who loves me deeply. He has promised I will not be burned even though I am terrified, surrounded by this tragedy’s flames, barely able to hear His voice in the roar of the inferno, blinded by its choking smoke.

I will come out on the other side. Someday. Healed and whole. Just like Rob is right now.

Fires don’t last forever.

Love does.


Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Voices In The Night

 

I’ve had a lot of trouble praying lately. I may have mentioned that I’ve been calling Him The God I’m Not Talking To. Kind of self-explanatory. Maybe it sounds like I’m a petty child who didn’t get what she wanted for Christmas. Maybe it seems blasphemous and disrespectful, or even ungrateful after all He’s done for me. It could be that it seems logical. I have just felt so betrayed, to be perfectly honest, that it seemed pointless to ask Him for anything else.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. Several of us are struggling with the same feelings. But asking “why?” hasn’t resulted in any Heavenly explanations. Reminds me of a scene in the movie, Mary Poppins, when the children’s father demands to know why she does the things she does. She clenches her lips together, clicks her black heels into a first position ballet stance, and replies firmly, “I never explain anything.”

Oh, people have asked me to pray when needs come up, and I don’t want to disappoint them, so I do what I can. Last week, someone told me about a weather worry headed their way and texted me about it. I sighed deeply, promised to “pray”, and launched this Heavenward:

“So, God, my friend wants me to tell you she’s worried about the weather and wants you to do something about it. Amen.”

It was the best I could do. I figured He reads text messages anyway and knew the details before she finished writing. And, to His credit, no terrible weather appeared in her neck of the woods. I wasn’t sure why He cared more about weather than He did about healing Rob, but I let that go. I didn’t question Him about it because . . . I haven’t been talking to Him.

Not exactly. I told my son that, while I haven’t been praying, I have been lobbing comments at God. It’s not very friendly, what I’ve been saying to Him. My volume has been too high more than once. My language isn’t flattering even though it’s been honest. 

“Mom,” Lee said, “prayer is talking to God.” True. But it hasn’t sounded very spiritual around here lately. And because of that, I assumed God was not only offended, He had decided not to talk to me, either. Because I haven’t been able to hear Him say anything. And I used to. Often. It only added to my feelings of betrayal. Now I felt abandoned, too. I understood, though. I wouldn’t have wanted to talk to me, either—not after the way I’d been treating Him for the last five weeks, four days, and twelve hours. Since Rob died.

Until I began to hear voices in the night.

The first time it happened was right after Rob passed and I was trying desperately to remember the name of a song he’d told me years earlier that he wanted played at his funeral—a subject I wasn’t interested in discussing at the time. I didn’t know who sang it, the name of it, or even what genre it was. I kind of remembered the gist of its meaning and that it made me cry when he played it for me, but that was it. We were stuck. So, I may have mentioned to The God I’m Not Speaking To that I was sure He knew the name of it and would He please help me find it. For Rob.

A few days later, sometime in the dark of night, I was awakened by a voice that said only, “When it’s all been said and done.” That was it. It startled me out of a deep sleep, but it wasn’t a dream. There were no weird colors or strange animals or odd settings. It was just a man’s voice and that’s all he said. I wrote it down and went back to sleep.

The next day I told Katy and Dan about it, thinking, if I was lucky, it might be a line from the song. Google revealed it was the title, and when Katy found it on Spotify and played it, one stanza in I began to cry. “That’s the song,” I told her.

The voice in the night got every word of the title perfect.

Last week, the nighttime communication happened again, this time after I’d gone to bed crying that I needed to hear God. I missed His voice. “Talk to me but don’t talk to me since I’m not talking to you,” must have been what that sounded like to Him. I was awaked by a man’s voice again, asking an odd question.

“Why is it called Christ – mas?” he asked. But he didn’t wait around for an answer. I didn’t have one anyway, so that worked out. It did make me curious, though, so I looked up the word “mas.” It turns out mas means “sending—that which sends us towards God,” and at the same time it dismisses the enmities which were once between us and God.

There’s been a lot of enmity on my end lately toward God. But that night I began to reach a point where I needed Him again, and since then the need has only gotten stronger. I think that’s because my grief has gotten deeper and harder and I’ve reached a point of exhaustion where I know I can’t get through this trauma without God’s love in my face, in my mind, in my consciousness. I knew He’d never left me, and it’s impossible to leave Him, but it was as though I’d been walking around all day long with my fingers in my ears refusing to listen.

At night, though—well, that’s a different reality.

There have been other interventions that can only be explained as me being sent toward God. Two mornings later a woman’s voice woke me up. “Hey,” she said. I gotta admit, that one still has me scratching my head, but she did get my attention, whoever she was. I got up and got going. You can ignore that one if you want to. But a couple of days later something else happened that spoke louder than any of the three voices.

I was in my truck, headed to a drive-thru when, out of the blue, I decided to try to make our radio work. I accidently unsynced my phone from the Tahoe’s Bluetooth weeks ago and can’t pick up Spotify or podcasts or phone calls. And our replacement radio from a couple of years ago was installed and explained to me by a kid so young he didn’t have any facial hair yet, so I have no idea how to operate the crazy thing. Still, I started pushing presets, looking for a country western station since I’ve decided to reinvent myself, go back to my roots, and become a Dixie Chick.

Suddenly, the song, “Fires,” began to play, right at the beginning. “The truck must have synced after all and picked up my phone’s playlist,” I muttered, tears beginning to fill my eyes. The song has been so significant to my daughter and me since Rob got sick, especially since he was a firefighter.

I know this is getting long now, but hang in here with me. These lyrics. I had to slow down in the drive-thru so I could soak in every note and word.

I remember how You told me
I can trust You completely
So why am I doubting
When You proved that You'd fight for me

You've walked me through fires
Pulled me from flames
If You're in this with me
I won't be afraid
When the smoke billows higher, oh and higher
And it feels like I can barely breathe
I'll walk through thesе fires
'Cause You're walking with mе

The song ended and the DJ’s began talking to each other. It wasn’t my Spotify playlist. It was the dysfunctional radio, and the one song that has encapsulated our entire nightmare while pouring peace  into my soul began playing from the very beginning on a random radio station I accidently connected with.

I don’t know why Rob died. I don’t understand. But God keeps holding me and, when I can’t hear Him because the pain screams so loudly inside me, He puts my name on the hearts of others and they pray for me. For us. I need Him. Even more than I need Rob. I need that kind of love that doesn’t give up on wounded hearts who don’t understand. Perhaps can’t understand.

I just want you to know, if you’re one of the people who has been haunted by my name and can’t stop yourself from praying for me in this, the worst thing I’ve ever gone through, you are a hero to me.

Thank you. From the bottom of my shattered heart.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Outsmarted

I get so tired every night. My counselor reminds me often that grieving is exhausting—physically, emotionally, and mentally. At the end of every day I feel as if I’ve run another emotional 5K. The waves of sorrow have begun to shift, but that doesn’t mean they’ve lessened. The rhythm is just becoming less predictable. Yesterday, for example, I shed a few tears when I woke up, but nature called and I needed to move, and soon I was up and facing the day. For a little while there, I thought I’d pulled a fast one and Grief couldn’t find my heart to attack it.

But Grief is a lot more devious than I thought.

It found me later in the afternoon while I was sitting in the investment guy’s office, changing accounts and beneficiaries. I nodded in agreement as the man doublechecked Lee’s birthday and then that familiar knot rose up in my throat and I almost lost my composure. Ever since our son arrived on our fifth anniversary, the 25th of September has been a shared day of celebrations. This year, we’ll be back to one again.

It’s things like that that hit me broadside and send me spinning. I never see them coming.

Driving is another favorite of that schemer, Grief. There I am, sailing down the road, enjoying the bright sunshine and cursing other drivers, when a memory of you surfaces. My stomach goes into a death roll, my eyes flood with tears, and keeping a firm grip on the steering wheel is all that keeps me from blindly sliding into another lane—or worse.

Today when that happened—grief, not an accident—I thought about the time you called me while I was panicking over a house we were buying. You got worried and told me to pull over until I stopped crying. I probably kept driving, cuz that’s what I do, but I did chuckle a little at the memory, figuring that where you’re watching me from your front row seat in Heaven, I’m probably giving you a heart attack. Only now you can’t say anything to me about it.

Maybe I outsmarted Grief with that one.

It’s so unexpected, the way a memory morphs into physical pain. I was helping my friend, Sue, make a few pans of Lemon Bars while we talked about sticking to recipes vs. winging it when we cook. I made a remark I’ve made for the last forty years, about how you always said I’m a good cook because I follow recipes, and suddenly my stomach knotted up and I couldn’t see or breathe or stop the tears. It was always a connection to you and us when I said it before. Now it’s a painful reminder that I’ll never cook for you again.

Friends don’t mind when you melt down on their watch—they’re here for me now, more than ever, and help me get through it. But it’s freaking embarrassing when it happens when I’m on the phone with an Amazon Customer Service rep who clearly hasn’t been schooled on how to deal with grief-stricken women. “Please don’t cry,” a lady said to me in broken English a few weeks ago, while I tried to hack into your account to look for fraudulent charges. I felt sorry for her, so I hung up. I also thought I should stop trying to hack into your accounts.

Don’t even get me started on that ridiculous password book you left behind. I told you that thing would drive me to drink.

I’m getting better at telling people on the phone that my husband passed away without dissolving into tears. Doing it in person is a different story, though. There are a lot of bite marks on the inside of my lip and fingernail grooves in the palms of my hands from trying to keep it together until I can get out of sight of whoever I’m talking to. Grief doesn’t care where I am when it lobs another reminder in my direction that you’re not coming back. It just wants to be sure it hits its mark. Unfortunately, it’s far more experienced at this game than I am.

It’s winning this unwelcome competition about three million to one, last count.

Yesterday afternoon while I sat out on Katy’s front porch in a rocking chair, hiding in the shade and enjoying a reluctant breeze, somebody on a skateboard sailed up the road in front of her house, waving at me and yelling, “I have your mail! I have your mail!” It seemed odd for a postman to act that excited about his job and I squinted in the sun to see whether maybe I’d won the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. I didn’t. A neighbor boy skidded up the driveway and handed over a fat envelope, addressed to me, opened by mistake. I thanked him and sat back down to read whatever was left inside.

It was from the Hospice Center whose staff member stepped into your hospital room on your last day. I almost fell apart right there in full view of the skateboarder and all the neighbors. Why does Grief keep hunting me down like this? Twisting my heart into a limp rag while it wrings out all my tears?  I looked at the sympathy card signed by two dozen people I’ve never met, read over the notice that I’m invited to join a grief support group in the mountain town of Lakeside via Zoom, and then a little booklet fell out into my lap, entitled appropriately, “Grief.”

Boy, that miserable emotion is really a narcissist.

I threw it all on my bed and forgot about it until later when I finally flipped through the little booklet with its “reminders for healing.” Somebody’s been tattle tale-ing about my pain. It spoke to almost every point of sorrow that has kept me drowning in guilt or trauma or expectations.

·         Remember that you are still alive. Your place is here, on this earth, with those who remain and love you.
·         Know that their pain has passed, except for how it lives in your memory. You are the one in pain now. It is best to lovingly care for your wounds.
·         Denying sadness denies healing. By letting your heart break, you let your heart heal.
·         You may feel guilt, yet you did the best you could have possibly done. Few of us know exactly what to do in the face of the pain and death of a loved one.
·         You may never resolve all the issues surrounding their death.
·         You may be disoriented, depressed, and forgetful. These things are normal with grief and will pass.
·         You will forget they are gone and then remember again, and your heart will break one more time.
·         This is a time of intense and mixed emotions. At times you may be surprised by what you feel.
·         Grieving takes just as long as it takes . . . this is a process. It may never truly end, but it will always change.
·         Some moments you may feel intensely alive. Remember that life springs from death.

And the one that sold Grief out completely:

·         The remedies for grief are time, courage and love—all applied with tenderness.

There’s a remedy for Grief. Its days are numbered, even more than mine. All that courage that people keep telling me I have, all the love our friends and family keep pouring out, multiplied by the second worst enemy in all this loss, time—that’s how Grief gets outsmarted in the end. I’ve been told that Someday—remember, Baby? our word of hope during that first separation we endured while you were overseas?—Someday, all the memories of our life together will stop hurting and will instead become a sweet balm to my wounded soul.

I’m not there yet. I’m sobbing while I write this. But I’m hoping against hope that it’s true. Healing will come. Grief will fade. And I will discover how to go on without you in my world.

Take that, Grief.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Superpower

I got a flat tire today. I was almost back to town when the dashboard lit up, telling me to check the tire pressure. I’m not much of a mechanic, but I was pretty sure “12” on the left front tire wasn’t a good thing at fifty miles an hour. I slowed down, made it to the Target parking lot in Queen Creek, and pulled into a large empty section just as the pressure fell to “5.” It was the warmest day this year, I was wearing a black t-shirt, I needed a bathroom, and I was stranded. The tire looked like it had expired. I wanted to join it.

Just another typical day without you.

I had AAA, but they take forever to arrive anywhere. Fortunately, our son-in-law with the heart of gold came to my rescue. It was a dirty, hot, tiring job, but he had the screw-pierced tire in the Tahoe’s back end and the original spare tire bolted onto my truck in record time. I limped the Tahoe over to Discount Tire, got two new tires ordered, and drove home.

No biggie. I’ve done this before. It wasn’t my first rodeo.

I’ve got a lot of experience at handling minor catastrophes without you, Babe. Your work schedule and my bad luck seemed to always coincide with each other. Like the time I was driving home after dark from church with the two littles and the muffler fell off our Toyota Cressida. Dragging it out of the road, I waited—pre-cellphone era—for some Good, Trustworthy, Samaritan to stop and render aid. Somebody did and soon I made it home with the kiddos to put them to bed and curse used cars and Fire Department shift work.

Any time the kids got hurt, with the exception of one kid’s broken arm, you were always at work and I was always driving our suburbanite ambulance to the doctor’s office. When the vehicles needed tire rotations and oil changes, I’m the one (until you retired) who drove them to the sacred male strongholds known as Discount Tire and Walmart’s Auto Zone where they’d try to talk me, the wife, into new air filters and expensive oil and new windshield wiper blades, and I wished with all my heart you would handle the guy things so I wouldn’t be taken advantage of.

Looks like I’m back to wishing that again.

You often told me I can handle stuff like this. “You’re completely capable,” you said, flinging the compliment at me like a dead fish.

“Yep,” I agreed. “I’m nothing if not capable. It’s my Superpower.”

I know you always had complete confidence in me, except when it came to my sense of direction. And I’m sure when you left this world to enjoy the one we all will be much happier living in someday that you knew I’d rise to the occasion, put on my big girl pants, and carry on. Like the good little McLeod that I am.

But I don’t want to. I don’t want to do any of the things I have to do now without you. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter one iota what I want anymore.

I wanted to call you today and have you come rescue me from the heat and the misshapen tire. Put your arms around me and tell me it was okay and you’d take care of it. I wanted you to meet with the investment guy whose office I’d just left where I had to close out the IRA’s owned by you and open a new one in my name, because I’m your beneficiary and I have no choice but to benefish. I didn’t want to deposit the check I got for selling your truck last weekend, either, but it had to be done. What I wanted was for you to drive up in that truck like you did for five years, grin at me, shake your head, and save the day. But we don’t own that quadcab anymore. I sold it along with your Gator stickers on the back window and the Fire Department logo and the bent tailgate that you created when you backed into a tree on a hunting trip. Because there’s only one of me now and I don’t need two trucks.

I keep having to make decisions about my life without you that I used to make with you and every time I have to do it . . . you die all over again. I couldn’t even watch when the happy new truck owners—soon-to-be newlyweds—drove off in the Dodge Dakota you loved. I just stayed in the house and . . . you know.

I’m sure I’ll be fine. Someday. Everyone says so. I’m braver than I think and all that. And I’m experienced at doing the guy stuff even if I hate it. All those years you spent working, I was the one with the time to take cars to shops, call insurance companies, handle bank statements, and take the dog to the groomer. I can do it. I have no choice.

I’ll just dust off my experience, put it back to work, and pick up where I left off. It’s no biggie.

After all, I’m nothing if not capable. It’s my Superpower.