Month: February 2016

The Final Goodbye: Coming to terms with my husband’s death and how it wasn’t my fault

shutterstock_158598032

“She began to understand quite clearly that truth cannot be understood from books alone or by any written words, but only by personal growth and development in understanding and that things written even in the Book of Books can be astonishingly misunderstood while one still lives on the low levels of spiritual experience and on the wrong side of the grave on the mountains.”

-Hannah Hurnard, “Hinds feet on High Places”


 

My husband has been dead two years now, and I still cringe when I hear the comment, “Well, at least you knew he was sick, at least you had time to say ‘Goodbye,’” which is an unfair assumption, because I didn’t. I didn’t have time to say ‘Goodbye’ because we weren’t encouraged to allow space for the reality of what saying ‘Goodbye’ would really mean. We were surrounded by a doctrine that if illness was talked about, we were in some way holding back the blessing of healing. We were surrounded by phrases like, “Just believe in healing…” “Just minister to it (the cancer)…just lay hands…” “Don’t ever say the ‘C’ word…” “Claim healing and it will be yours!” “Just believe…”…and we did, all of the above, over and over and over. Call it the “Name-it-Claim-it theology” or “The Prosperity Gospel theology” or “just-plain-crazy theology,” but whatever it was it was under the giant umbrella of hope, and it was hope that helped my husband get through the first five years of his cancer diagnosis in his early 20s and it helped us make it through the four years of our marriage. (After all, he did live with a disease for ten years that statistically should have killed him in six months.) It helped us cling to hope, it helped us find faith, it gave us fuel to fight…until…it didn’t. When the foundation of all we were taught to say was crumbling around us, and no matter how much we “claimed” healing, it seemed the opposite was happening. All of a sudden I was faced with the reality of death and the burden of giant questions that emerged when the box we had put God in was ripped wide open. I had to ask the questions: Is there more to hope than this? Is there more to the idea of time than what we think we know? I had to swallow that even in the midst of hope, the gift of our time here on Earth is finite, no matter how long or short. It’s not something we earn by how well we pray or believe, the time that’s given is already there, already waiting for us.

Let me preface by saying, I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with the hope and expectancy for healing—people have conquered incredible feats with hope– but it’s not hope if it leaves someone feeling guilty or ashamed or forsaken when life doesn’t play out the way we wanted it to. Through the last two weeks of my husband’s life I was told that his healing wasn’t happening because I wasn’t peaceful enough about the situation. I was told that I shouldn’t tell anyone my husband was in hospice, that I should take down the online updates about our family because it wasn’t anyone else’s business, and that the words ‘cancer’ and ‘hospice’ made people give up hope and think negatively. I was told to tell people that my husband was “doing just fine” in his last days. All of this confusing theology swirling in my ears and around in my head resulted in an incredible burden shackled to my feet. I was tormented by “What ifs”: If I had said ‘Goodbye’ then, would that mean his death would be my fault? If I prayed for his suffering to end, did that mean I was giving up on him? Did that mean I was a failure at praying for my husband? Did it mean he just didn’t believe enough—that I didn’t believe enough? I know better now, and I know God a whole lot better now too, but when the opportunity was still there, because we wanted to cling to hope so badly, there was no final ‘Goodbye,’ no special moments that gave any ”closure”—the kind people expect in a long illness, you know, “The Fault in Our Stars” kind of thing. There was certainly no using the ‘D’(death) word. No one, not even the hospice workers, explained what ‘5 Wishes’ was or what the dying process looked like, so I couldn’t even brace for it—which may sound naïve to people, and they would be correct. I was a naïve 28-year-old way in over my head and my husband was a 34-year-old doing everything he could to stay on this earth for his wife and his newborn daughter and two-year-old twins, and if that meant not acknowledging it, then that meant not acknowledging it—and I don’t fault him for that.

But it’s usually in our finest moments or in our suffering that we want more time, or we want to turn back the clock or we want to freeze it, and when death happens, something deep within keeps looking at that clock as if we could do something to change it. The day my husband died, I was asked by someone if I wanted to request for him to be raised from the dead. I had heard from people after his death, “We didn’t come to see him because we thought there was more time…that he’d pull through…”


 

…life happens quickly and slowly at the same time. Sometimes we have the privilege to determine its pace for a while and sometimes we don’t…


 

A friend recently sent me an article published at Christianitytoday.com called “On dying and reckoning with the Prosperity Gospel,” in which Morgan Lee interviewed church historian, Kate Bowler about her own battle with cancer and her perspective of the Prosperity Gospel in the midst of illness. I was brought to tears reading it because she was able to explain beautifully what I was struggling with on an incredibly painful, profound and personal level:

Prosperity gospel is a reflection of American avoidance of our finitude. Their denial of the inevitability of death taught me something about American confidence. Americans want to be in control. Self-determination is a theological good. It’s really hard when it comes to the fragility of the end. In almost all circumstances, I can understand why someone would go to a prosperity church. It has so many obvious appeals pragmatically, theologically, and emotionally. But when it comes to sickness, it offers so few resources to its folks. The saddest stories that I heard in my research were when it was obvious that people would lose to whatever sickness they were facing. But the church was not able to surround them with comfort and tell them that they weren’t to blame or that there were questions and uncertainties beyond our knowledge. They couldn’t tell them that God was present in the suffering of his people, not just in the triumph of them.

I have no PhD in theology and I’m no expert on what hope really means or why some people are healed while others are not. One might think that I should be jaded by hope or Christianity, or even God, but I can’t be, even though I’ve tried…I can’t not believe in hope, all I do is hope. Hope was, and still is an essential part of my daily journey. I can’t imagine what life would have been like without hope from the day I met my husband, until his last breath. I can’t fathom what my life would be like now without the hope that I embrace with each new morning. Where would my children be if I could not show them hope? I never did, and never will, give up hope, for hope is essential for our time here on Earth—along with faith and love. (1 Corinthians 13:13). I used to be so bitter about all the things that were said or not said, done or not done, because it felt like time was stolen from me, but I can’t be anymore because I see everything was said and done because we all wanted my husband to stay here for a little longer, just a little more time. I can accept now that life happens quickly and slowly at the same time. Sometimes we have the privilege to determine its pace for a while and sometimes we don’t. I can now see hope as something not used to manipulate a situation to the way we think it should go or to convince God to give me more time because I believed enough, but as the driving force that brings us through whatever this life brings us. God’s clothed us with the comfort of hope that our souls so desperately need. Hope is something greater than the current circumstance. Hope is something yet to be seen. It’s the force of Hope drives one to push through the darkness into the light. Hope is a surety that surpasses physical time.

But I do imagine sometimes…what if I got to say all the things I needed to say and he got to say all the things he needed to say, and the children and I got our special photographs with him in the hospice at the end? What if we got “The Fault in Our Stars” ending? The bottom line is our time is finite here on earth, so even if all the prayers for healing worked the way we wanted, and he lived to a ripe old age, if we had a choice, we’d always opt for more time. It’s human nature, I believe, to be time hoarders, because deep down we are not satisfied with the finality of this fragile lifetime. Deep down, in everyone, I believe there is an ache for eternity. We still face living in the paradox of grieving when people leave this world, we want to go back in time, wanting to change it, wanting to freeze it forever and never let go, desperately wanting more time and also wanting to move forward. God knows this. This is why we have memories in the first place, something locked deep inside that somehow, in some way, time is frozen, just for a split second. It can be a blessing or a curse depending on the memory. The smatterings of the past pave the present we walk in, but only the knowledge that one day that clock will be broken for good (Revelation 21:4, 1 Corinthians 15:55-57,) can help me walk into the future while I’m still here on Earth.


 

Hope is something greater than the current circumstance. Hope is something yet to be seen. It’s the force of Hope drives one to push through the darkness into the light. Hope is a surety that surpasses physical time.


 

As I slowly and painstakingly go through my husband’s things, I fantasize that maybe I’ll run across a letter, one final letter addressed to me saying all the things he wanted to say. But I know that letter doesn’t exist. I take my fantasies of the “Final Goodbye” and drive that energy into the tangible memories he did leave me with, like this one:

The song we swayed to for our first dance as a married couple at our wedding was Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle.” I was naïve then to the profound statement that song would have in our marriage, but I don’t think my husband was, and I think that’s why he picked that song. Perhaps, in a way, he picked that song as his “Goodbye” to me.

Now, I recognize the “final Goodbye,” was only an intro to an “eternal ‘Hello.” I wait, patiently and impatiently, knowing it will come…in due time.

 

If I could save time in a bottle
The first thing that I’d like to do
Is to save every day till eternity passes away
Just to spend them with you

If I could make days last forever
If words could make wishes come true
I’d save every day like a treasure and then
Again, I would spend them with you

But there never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do, once you find them
I’ve looked around enough to know
That you’re the one I want to go through time with

If I had a box just for wishes
And dreams that had never come true
The box would be empty, except for the memory of how
They were answered by you

But there never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do, once you find them
I’ve looked around enough to know
That you’re the one I want to go through time with

-Jim Croce, “Time in a bottle”

When our feet hit the ground

Courtesy of Adam Houseman Photography

They say that you can’t help falling in love with someone, like we really don’t have a choice, which may be true. But the real love story happens after the falling, when our feet hit the ground and we are presented with the choice to stay or run after realizing the love story contains our messes, our brokenness, our faults and mistakes, our desires and passions, our pain and deepest regrets, our darkest secrets and greatest triumphs. If you asked me if I would change my choice after hitting the ground with my husband Phil, I would always tell you, “No.” I would always choose to stay. Always. This is our love story:

The diner smelled of bacon and coffee and stale cigarette smoke still clinging to the walls from former days. Phil and I were directed to a booth by the hostess. Phil sat across from me. We ordered coffees. I was nervous and was folding and refolding the paper napkin. It was hard to look at him, so I just focused on the napkin-folding. He told me what I already knew he was there to say.

We had been dating for a little over nine months. I had badgered him for months to get a follow-up check-up after his surgery—the removal of one of his lungs which was riddled with cancerous tumors a year or so prior to our meeting each other. That day, the diner day, he finally went for a check-up.

“The cancer came back…” he said. His face showed no emotion, but his voice was heavy with disappointment and apprehension. He told me later he wasn’t so nervous about the cancer part, but that maybe I’d leave him like the other women he’d dated in the past. Although I already knew it from the way he sounded on the phone as he asked me to meet him at the diner, but finally hearing it from him, my heart sunk deep into my chest. My heart broke, experiencing the first of many fractures and breaks to follow. I was ill-prepared for this information and tears welled in my eyes and poured down my cheeks.

“There’s nothing the doctors recommend,” he explained methodically, as if he had rehearsed it on the way to the diner. “But the growths (he refused to ever use the word ‘tumors’) are so small and slow growing, it’s good. It’s OK. I’ll probably just have it the rest of my life, it’ll probably just be there. I don’t have any symptoms at all, so I don’t want to do chemo again. I can’t go through that again…”

He didn’t have to say it for us both to know that with only one lung, this disease was Stage IV. I was quiet, afraid to look at him, because if I did I was scared I’d plunge into a weeping puddle. But I gathered my thoughts and I looked straight into his eyes and said, “Well then, I guess we better get married.” Honestly I didn’t even think about what I was saying. I was half joking, trying to keep spirits light. It just came out. It wasn’t really in my plans, to get married so quickly, after all I was graduating college in a month and I had just started a job as a reporter at a newspaper—my dream job. It wasn’t in the plan to get married…to a man with cancer at that. It wasn’t my plan, it wasn’t Phil’s plan, but it was God’s.

Phil took me to Glenwood Springs a day after Christmas and proposed. When we got back from that weekend away, I immediately started planning an outdoor, August wedding. I really surprised Phil when I switched to bride-mode, talking about colors, flowers, and bookings (believe me, that’s unusual for my personality!) From the beginning of our relationship, there was always some kind of an unspoken urgency, and so when he asked me to meet him at the mall a couple weeks later, he proposed again. “I really, really want to marry you…but sooner than August. I can’t wait that long.” So, my mom and I planned a beautiful wedding in five weeks. We were married February 28, 2009. He died November 20, 2013.

My choosing to marry Phil was recently questioned in a conversation. The question went a little something like this: “You chose to marry someone, knowing he had a terminal illness, and not only that, but took a risk in having children, not one ­but three with him, now, I’m not sure if they were accidents or not… You have to take responsibility for some of the struggles you are now facing. You took on that risk…”At the time I was asked, I was caught off guard and didn’t really say anything. I have actually heard so many strange and oftentimes insensitive things over these past two years, nothing really shocks me anymore. I used to hold onto the hurtful things people have said to me, but now I’m glad they are said because they force me to search for my own truth in the error of their comments and questions. This is the truth that I have settled on, when two people hit the ground after falling in love…

Our four year marriage was jammed pack with events of a lifetime, three babies in two years, trying to run a successful business and a terminal cancer diagnosis stalking us along the way. Our marriage was raw, fast-paced and painfully beautiful. Maybe our love story was never meant to be a fairy tale with a ‘Happily ever after.’ Maybe our love story resides in the truth that when you love someone so completely that it resonates with your entire identity, it’s sickening and excruciating to realize how much it would hurt if they were not in your life anymore and even if you had just a little time with them, it was better than no time at all. Maybe our love story resonates more with those of the star-crossed lovers in literature. ‘Star-crossed,’ an astronomical reference specifically in the works of William Shakespeare. The characters’ relationships are doomed from the start, because, in literature, their paths were predetermined by the stars. These lovers work throughout their whole relationship, to do everything in his or her power to control the outcome…to be together. In the end all those attempts to stay together fail because their paths have already been predetermined, already set. The star-crossed are those who fall quickly and powerfully in love, not knowing much about the other, but knowing that something bigger than themselves is in the works. Those who fight for one another despite all earthly odds stacked against them. And when things aren’t looking so good for them, they push further into one another until they collide in brokenness and chaos and heartbreak.

Maybe therein lies the romance—we, any one of us here on this earth, choose to love and unite with another human being who is as broken as we are. We choose to weave our lives together with one another, always knowing in the back of our minds that we can lose that person and the strings holding us together can be frayed and untied. That’s the love story. Choosing to stay regardless.

Contrary to Shakespeare’s lovers, Phil and I were not victims to a vengeful and merciless universe; there were no constellations of burning balls of fire out to get us simply out of an act of randomness and alignment. No, the battle wasn’t in the universe to keep Phil and me together, the battle lies in a broken, fallen world and ultimately, the war in his chest was a tiny cell, multiplying into a silent giant. Despite whatever giants were looming, Phil and I had something far greater than those star-crossed lovers, who only had each other; we had God. And so we lived our daily lives, our marriage together, choosing to lean into God rather than the power that cancer can have over one’s life.

So, was the choice to marry Phil terrifying at times? Hell yes. Our marriage was nowhere near perfect. We were newlyweds and new parents. We had tense times, we argued and disagreed, we hurt each other with words, we made choices that set us a part at times, but there’s one thing we didn’t do; we didn’t give up on each other, we stayed, we fought for each other against all odds. Choosing to stay regardless of the brokenness also created a million little reflections incredibly beautiful, peaceful, loving, passionate and profound moments that shine brighter than our darkest days. Has the choice to have children with him with a high chance he may not be in their lives (by the way, we were told that he wouldn’t be able to father children because of all the chemo he had been through, so by no means were our three children “accidents”), left me with the burden of guilt at times? Absolutely, but they are the most beautiful part of this story. Have I lectured myself through all the struggles have been through since he died, saying to myself, “Nicole, you chose this. You signed up for this…”? It is a script I am all too familiar with. But do I consider marrying Phil as a huge giant risk with too many red flags I shouldn’t have ignored, a risk that would far outweigh the benefits? Absolutely not. I’ll never consider my choice as a risk. I don’t consider my choice as some valiant act of bravery either, instead we were just two broken people who fell in love and lived a lifetime together, and even though it only consisted of four years, it was our one and only lifetime. This is my truth. This is my love story.

We keep this love in this photograph. We made these memories for ourselves. Where our eyes are never closing. Our hearts were never broken. Times forever frozen still…And if you hurt me. That’s OK, baby, only words bleed. Inside these pages you just hold me. And I won’t ever let you go…When I’m away. I will remember how you kissed me under the lamppost back on 6th street. Hearing you whisper through the phone, “Wait for me to come home..”

-Ed Sheeran, “Photograph”

Courtesy of AHP Photos

*Courtesy of Adam Houseman Photography

 

The higher reality: How getting out of debt WAS our life insurance

shutterstock_48509560

A stark moment of reality hit me when I finished tallying up numbers for taxes this year. Staring at the numbers, or the lack thereof, made my stomach sink. Voices of doubt filled my head as I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t so bad; but in a culture of excess that tells you that you and your three children fall below poverty level, it’s hard not to feel panicked. And I did. But through my tears, there was a still small voice that hushed the loud, jarring screams and taunts that I am failing and will never make it. I know that is an absolute lie because, in that moment, I was reminded of all the times we shouldn’t have made it even this far in the past six years, but we did, and I can’t take an ounce of credit for any of it. In the blurry vision of my tears I felt prompted to open my Bible, and what verse did I open it to?:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?…

-Matthew 6:26-27 (ESV)

There it was, in bright red, the words of J.C. himself and here I was crying about a number. A number that took up occupancy in my mind so much that it was all I could think about or talk about, it brought fear and doubt into my mind so fast I lost sight of the truth and my experience of that truth over and over throughout this journey. I may not have a lot as far as income goes right now, that’s my reality, but Matthew 6:26-27 is my higher reality. This isn’t religion or flowery words that make people feel guilty for worrying, this is personal and real and I was so humbled at that moment I read that verse, I just had to share with you. To share with you my weaknesses (talking about money is a little scary) if that means it’s giving glory to the one who deserves it (2 Corinthians 12:9.) So this is where the Bible gets real with me, this is where its words make me a little uncomfortable in the midst of chaos and crisis. Is it possible—REALLY possible to feel perfectly blessed and content when it seems so much is going wrong? It is, I can’t not believe it, because I’m living it. The only catch is that I can choose to recognize it, embrace it and live it, or I can drown myself in self-pity and ignore all the goodness that surrounds me. So I choose to acknowledge my reality, while also acknowledging a higher reality. It’s not easy, I feel like I’ve been dragged along this journey kicking and screaming in impatience and fear, panic and urgency, but I’m tired of fighting. I’m tired of allowing my reality to define me. I’m ready to stop the struggle and be held in the higher reality in my life. Here is how I got here, moment of surrender and peace.

My Reality:

I was widowed at age 28 and am a mother of three children under five. My late husband was the sole provider for our household and the sole proprietor of a small seasonal business (which means no company life insurance, no 401K, and very little paid into Social Security after only 10 years of running a seasonal, six-months-out-of-the-year business.) He was in his early 20s when he was diagnosed with cancer and the disease remained active from that point forward, so private life insurance was off the table. When he died, I finally had to move in with my parents for hands-on help with the children, as well as shelter and basic needs, but was faced with the behemoth task of trying to figure out how in the world to run a business (which ended up going under anyway), how to raise three little kids, and find and pay for childcare for the desperate alone-time I needed. Time to not only figure out what I was going to do next, but to seek trauma counseling and honestly, to just check-out and gather all the little pieces of my thoughts. The first few months after I moved into my parents’ home for help exploded into one crisis after another; my mother had emergency surgery and was out of commission for almost three months, I was so ill from exhaustion I ended up in the hospital and my newborn was in the hospital three times each accompanied with an ambulance ride, the last of which landed her in the hospital for a month and a half with respiratory syncytial  virus, or RSV. I was one weary mommy who needed some taking care of herself, but instead needed to take care of so many others whose needs were more urgent. I had to make the incredibly difficult decision to send my two-year-old twin boys to Florida with their Godparents during the month the baby was in the hospital. In between consistent hospital visits, I was left with the task of filing death certificates and fighting the billing companies as medical bills from my husband’s care poured in. I’ve been battling for almost two years now with Social Security because they’re withholding my survivor’s benefits for six years due to a processing error. I can’t afford to work since I can’t afford full-time childcare which means no steady income to buy a home of our own and a little extra to save. In my reality, getting out of this situation looks a little dismal and damn near impossible in the present moment. When I find myself wallowing in my reality, I fix my eyes on the higher reality. It’s there. It’s always been there and now I can see it.

The Higher Reality:

Three years ago a friend was talking about the book The Total Money Makeover” by Dave Ramsey*. A friend gave me the book and showed it to my husband and we were fired up. Our reality then was that we were more than $50,000 in debt–car loans, credit cards and student loans– with infant twins, a small business and a looming cancer diagnosis. Looking back now, we were blessed with the opportunity to stay in a home owned by family and without that blessing, the rest of this probably wouldn’t have been possible. From the time we started implementing the Total Money Makeover’s “Baby Steps,” we had paid off most of the debt by the time my husband was moved from palliative care to in-home hospice care. It was an absolute miracle that through all of his chemotherapy, he would get up every day and climb ladders to earn money to throw more at the debt and provide at least something for his family, “Better to feel miserable working than feel miserable lying in bed,” he had said. When he was bedridden and could no longer do the work himself, he found subcontractors and still scheduled work from his bed. In fact, his phone log shows his last business call was the day before he died. To fill in the gap from the lack of income that resulted from his sickness and my being pregnant with our third child, total strangers came to our door with food, help with household chores, financial gifts and grocery gift cards and clothing for my children. There was never a day that went by that there wasn’t food in the fridge, clothes on our backs and a warm, safe roof over our head. We didn’t do anything to deserve it, we didn’t even really know how to ask for help, but the help showed up anyway. The last week of his life, my husband devoted his hours to selling his work truck which paid off our last debt. On the day he died, we were debt-free. By the grace of God, the community held fundraisers for our family. The money from the fundraisers, with careful budgeting and hours of listening to Dave Ramsey’s show, has carried me through for the past two years. If we weren’t debt-free, all the fundraising money would have been eaten up by paying off debt, and I would probably be bankrupt. So now, all because of a book that bases its premise on simple Biblical and practical financial tips ignited a spark in us a few years ago to pay off our debt, a family of four can live on $1500 a month; no credit cards, no borrowing, and coming up with other ways to make or save money by selling stuff, thrifting, cutting unnecessary expenses, cooking at home, etc. Also knowing God always comes through whether it’s generously offered help from other people or humbling myself enough to ask for and seek help (which is really hard!)

I’m not living the American Dream in context of ‘more is better’, but the higher reality has taught me sacrifice, living below my means, giving up a lot of things that media tells us we can’t live without. But in all honesty, the higher reality has provided more than just basic necessities and material things, it provided me with the gift of time. Because we got out of debt, by the grace of God, I don’t need to work three jobs to make ends meet, I have been given the time to work on my heart and the grief I couldn’t address for far too long. Time to spend with my two little boys who need the presence of their mommy after their daddy, in their minds, just vanished one day. Time to see all my baby’s firsts and now she’s two and I haven’t missed a moment.

I know my story isn’t everyone’s. I know how hard people are working just to survive—good, honest, hardworking people. I know all too well that money, especially a life insurance policy, can make practical things a little easier in times of tragedy and crisis, and, yes, most days I wish my husband did have a policy, but the truth is that getting out of debt took the place of that life insurance; starting that process years prior was the answer to a future prayer we didn’t even know we’d need to pray.

I didn’t do anything to deserve this higher reality. It was a gift, and really an absolute miracle we’ve made it as far as we have on so little if I go by society’s standards of wealth. A precious gift I keep in my pocket on the days it feels like nothing is going right and the struggle just seems too hard. A steady gift that when opened and observed, time and time again, helps me to look up instead of down. And every time I look up I see how incredibly rich my family is.

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

-Matthew 6:21

 

 

 

* Just A Mom has not been paid to endorse or advertise the Dave Ramsey brand or products.