Saturday, October 29, 2011

Knowing Who I Am

Since childhood I'd carried a secret that few knew about. I'd kept it a secret because when I'd told my parents, they had laughed. Not only had they laughed, but they'd teased me about it in front of their friends. Looking back, I think maybe I misunderstood their levity, looking at it as ridicule when perhaps it was never meant as such. I only know that once laughed at, I took my secret underground, hiding it in my heart and never telling another soul. Not even Jim.

By the time our kids were in school full time, I felt as though I needed to talk with Jim and bring my long-held secret into the light. I felt like that because I so badly wanted to follow my heart's desire and knowing Jim as I did, I didn't think he'd laugh at me. Even if he did, I told myself, at least my wishes would be out in the open. That's how it came about that on a day when he was off work and the kids were in school that I told him I wanted to talk with him about something important to me. He was more than agreeable. It was his nature.

We sat at the kitchen table, drinking coffee, me talking and Jim listening. "I've always wanted to be a writer," I told him. "Now that the kids are in school all day, I'd like to take some adult education classes and learn how to do it right." Jim reached over and took my hand and with seeming concern, he asked why I'd never told him this before. I detailed my story for him. The laughter. The seeming ridicule. The fact that I'd written stories since grade school and hid them where nobody would find them, simply because I was so sensitive to being teased. By the time I was fourteen, I told him, I'd written a whole book. It was out in the garage, packed inside the box with my other high school trinkets--the whole thing stored up in the rafters where no one would find it.

Always on my side, Jim looked me in the eyes and told me to go for it. "If that's what you want," he said, "then you should pursue it. Take all the classes you want and as long as you're home when the kids get out of school, you'll never hear a complaint out of me." I threw my arms around him and gave him a long kiss. My secret was out. He hadn't laughed. He'd been supportive. I loved him for his caring attitude.

A few days later, out of the blue, Jim asked what I might be needing to pursue the career I wanted so badly. "A typewriter would be nice," I suggested. He told me to start looking for a used one. That made perfect sense. Like all young couples, we lived pay check to pay check and I knew a used typewriter would be all we could afford. I found one in the classifieds a few days later. I sounded perfect.

That night Jim and I went to look at it. The big old Underwood was exactly like the machine I'd had in school and at my parent's home. The keys were fast; the type clear. Jim handed the man $25 cash and carried the heavy metal typewriter to the car and later, into the house where it sat atop the desk. I was thrilled. And while I never knew where Jim had gotten the money, I suspected that he had saved it up over months. He took $20 at the beginning of every month to use as he wished. My best guess was the typewriter money was the accumulated leftovers he'd hoarded because I knew it hadn't come out of the budget.

A few days later, Jim told me that I should concentrate on my goal and not to worry about where the money would come from. "You learn to write," he said. "I'll pay the bills. I'll buy the paper, the typewriter ribbons, pay the postage, whatever you need, I'll take care of it till you're earning enough for the writing to fund itself." I was grateful beyond description. I had his full backing. And not one smirk, not ever.

I collected rejection slips for a year before making my first sale. I'd written a short story and sold it to a church publication for their children's take home magazine. My check came to $15. My next check, many months later, came from a children's publisher who dealt with nature. My short story about the Joshua tree earned me $150. I was dumbfounded. Jim grinned and said, "I knew you could do it. You're able to do pretty much anything you put your mind to."

My husband continued encouraging me to branch out and there came the day I submitted a travel story to a newspaper. They bought it, plus some of the photos I'd submitted. My check was $125 for the package. It wasn't so much the money that intrigued me but the fact that I'd only sold one-time rights and could market the same story again and again. I sold that one piece to ten different newspapers all across the states. I'd found my niche. Travel stories it would be from then on and with only a few exceptions, that is where I stayed.

By the time twenty years had gone by, I was Sandra L. Keith, Travel Writer. By now I'd become well enough known that publishers called me, gave me a subject matter, a deadline, and a decent salary. In the ten more years before I retired myself to spend all my time with Jim, I'd written six books and more magazine and newspaper stories than anyone in their right mind would ever want to read. No one was more proud of me than Jim. And while my parents bragged to all their friends about their "famous" daughter the writer, I laughed at them, telling them outright that if it wasn't for Jim, their so called famous daughter would never have had the nerve to venture into the unknown.

How grateful I was that Jim had always encouraged me to be me. I sometimes felt like I was many different people: Jim's wife, the kid's mother, the Cub Scout den helper, the school reading helper, the PTA cookie maker. I was like every other mom I knew, with a family to care for and obligations in the neighborhood. But I was also Sandra L. Keith, author. To this day I give God the glory for gifting me with an affinity for words. And I still give Jim the credit for pushing me into putting them on paper.

Author's comments:

An awful attitude took over inside me when Jim died. Looking back, I believe it invaded my heart the moment I saw his head fall back and a deathly gray pallor replace his usually robust color. The best way I can think to describe what happened inside me is "Who cares?" Those two words became my motto for the next ten months. 

I refused to care for myself. Who cares if I brush my teeth twice a day? Who cares if my hair is clean and tidy? Who cares if a filling came out of a tooth? Who cares if I pay the bills on time? Who cares if the kitchen is full of dirty dishes? Who cares if the carpet hasn't been vacuumed for a week? Who cares about anything?

That attitude was where I lived and slept. I knew the Lord was beside me, yet I couldn't summon up the wherewithal to take care of the body God had given me or the house I lived in. I had finally agreed with the Lord that I was meant to live. Wasn't it enough that I no longer prayed to die? The few things I did do every day were to bathe, wear clean clothes, and feed my animals. I thought that was sufficient. I didn't eat regularly and when I did, it was usually something I could microwave. I didn't care if the bed got made or if the bare floors were swept or groceries were purchased. I did the laundry only when I ran out of clothes and rather than go food shopping, I ordered online for home delivery.

I began losing weight; my skin erupted into blotches. I looked in the mirror and puzzled over how a 70 year old woman could suddenly pop up with acne. Only when the itching became unbearable did I seek medical help. For the most part I lived in Jim's big recliner, watching the television without really caring what was on. I tried reading, but couldn't follow the story. I tried knitting but ended up in tears because it reminded me of the last two years I'd spent sitting beside Jim during his immobile times.

I have one widow friend who has been alone two years longer than I have. She is still in a whirlpool of not knowing who she is. I try to help her but she isn't interested in changing. At least not yet. How thankful I am that even in my "who cares?" modus operandi I knew who I was. I've always known who I was. I knew I had talents that I would eventually care about bringing to the fore. I knew I was competent. I knew how to run the house. I knew all about my finances. I knew how to re-program the thermostat and the sprinkling system. I knew everything I needed to know to live on my own. Jim had made sure of that. Yet the thing was, I just plain didn't care.

I did not have to search for who I was without Jim, as so many of the books on grieving claim the widow is forced to do following the death of her soul mate. I can't totally explain in words the feelings that took up residence within me, but suffice it to say that I understood I was now a widow. Yet I was still Sandra L. Keith. I began wondering how long I'd been two people: the loving wife and the writer. It puzzled me. It still does. I felt in my heart that circumstances had forced me to give up being Jim's wife. I grieved and am still grieving that I've lost that part of me, for Jim was my life. Even so, little by little, I see my other self emerging. The writer puts my feelings on paper, illustrates the gut-wrenching facts of losing a loving spouse and in doing so, helps the widow in me heal. In many ways, it's nearly symbiotic.

Many of the books I've read concerning widowhood suggest there is nothing wrong with conjuring up your spouse, talking to him regularly, even asking questions concerning things the widow needs to know. I've discovered even some supposedly Christian books talk about writing letters to the loved one while other books now in my library tell the widow to ask the departed for advice or a supernatural visit. I find no scriptural references for such acts. For me, talking to God about everything that touches my life takes precedence over any other avenue.

Last week I was trying to put a new roll of paper in the adding machine and couldn't figure out how it worked. I tried and tried to no avail. In desperation I said, "God I don't know how to do this. Please show me."  It immediately came to my mind that the paper loaded from the back. I looked and sure enough. There it was. I set the paper in the slot and pushed the load button. Done. 

So I ask myself, "Would I have received an answer had I asked Jim how to do it? As I read my bible, I can find no passage that tells me the dead can communicate with those of us on earth. I prefer going to the One who spoke the worlds into existence; Who gave every star a name; Who runs to my aid in time of trouble; Who owns the cattle on a thousand hills; Who promised in Hebrews that He would never leave me nor forsake me. If I'm going to bet on who's listening to me, I'm going to bet on a sure thing. That's a major part of who I am.

"For I know the thoughts that I have toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart." Jeremiah 29: 11-13

Tell Me About Yourself Award

My thanks to Ritty Riter, Rhonda, for this award. I was more than surprised when it showed up in my email box as I'm relatively new to the blogging world and in all, don't have that many followers on any of my blogs. I do follow Ritty's blog and always enjoy the information she so willingly hands out for writers & bloggers. 

Here are the rules for receiving this award:

1.  I must tell seven things about myself.
2.  I must pass the award on to 15 other bloggers.

Seven Things About Me:

1.  I know how to tap dance and twirl a baton. Mom enrolled me in ballet but I hated standing on my toes. My sister loved it and now her toes are so bad she's had to have surgery. She should have listened to me when she was a kid.
2.  I have wanted to be a writer ever since I was a child but my parents laughed at me. It wasn't until I was married that my hubby told me to go for it and he'd pay all the start-up costs.
3.  I can play the clarinet and the piano, sort of. My left hand has forgotten almost everything it ever knew.
4.  I love to make quilts and knit anything and everything. I also like cross-stitch and used to sell my work but not anymore.
5.  I hate to cook but like to bake. Don't know why there is a difference, but there is.
6.  I have two kids and seven grandkids. The first grandchild will be married next month.
7.  I have a dog and four cats. The dog thinks she is a cat. The cats don't agree.

Here are the 15 blogs I'm passing this award to, listed in no special order:

1.  Homesteading On The Internet

2.  Missing Moments

3.  Foxy In The Waiting Room

4.   Faith Filled Food For Moms & Grandmas

5.  Making Our Life Matter

6.  Rise Above Your Limits

7.  Lucky Lady

8.  Pumped On Caffeine

11. At The Picket Fence

12. Confessions Of A Grandma

13. Growing Old With Grace

14. The Southern Lady Cooks

15. Hammock Tracks

More rules: Each person who received this award must write seven things about themselves and then pass the award onto 15 other bloggers. To copy the award logo, right click, click on copy, the go to your new blog post and click paste. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Choosing To Look Forward

We'd been married only a few weeks when Jim looked at me and asked how many kids I wanted. I replied that I didn't want any. I didn't like kids. He let out a groan. "Oh, man," he muttered. "We should have talked about this before we got married." I explained to him that I'd done a lot of babysitting in my early teens and had come to the conclusion that kids were rambunctious, grubby, snotty nosed midgets who didn't mind and got into everything. Jim put his head in his hands and groaned. "But I love kids," he said. "I want a whole bunch of them."

We let the conversation drop. We were so newly married, I figured kids, if I ever changed my mind, were off in the future, so why argue about it now. I look back on that conversation and think how God must have been chuckling, knowing what He had planned for us as a couple. I also have to say, it was a good thing I didn't know it at the time.

We did eventually have children. I've already written that part of the story. That was when I discovered I absolutely loved kids--as long as they were mine. Other people's children were still on my black list. Oh, I was kind to them, smiled at them, even fed some of them who hung out at our house once my own kids started bringing friends home. Other people's kids were tolerated. Those who didn't mind were sent home and not allowed to come back. I still didn't like kids who misbehaved, tended toward sassiness, or constantly begged for cookies or cake or anything else.

By the time our son was in the fifth grade and our daughter in the third, God must have stopped laughing and got down to business because that's when He pulled His biggest surprise. The church we were attending had evening programs for children and the class our daughter was in encompassed 4th through 6th graders. The kids loved the class, but we began hearing stories about how hard it was for Uncle Dick, the main leader, and his helper, Nancy, to retain order with so many children under their tutelage.

One day Jim came to me and said that he believed the Lord was calling us to children's ministry and that we needed to begin by helping out in the children's evening service. I planted my feet. I reminded Jim that I didn't like other people's kids. His only comment was asking me to pray about it. I reluctantly agreed. I sat myself down with the Lord and reminded him that kids were on my black list unless they were my own children. I reminded him that I'd felt like that since my baby sitting days. I confessed that I was sorry about how I felt and asked for forgiveness, but I didn't want to be in children's ministry.

I didn't like what I heard from the Lord. I didn't like it at all. I told Jim what I knew the Lord had said. He smiled, gave me a hug, and told me he knew I'd make the right decision. He knew me better than I knew myself. And while I felt comfortable with  my decision, I still did not want to do as I'd been told. But I did.

I left heel marks for at least a mile down the road. The kind of marks the car leaves when I slam on the brakes but the car keeps moving forward. My body was moving ahead because Jim was pulling me along, but I left my stubborn heel prints all along the way. Kid's Ministry. Surely God only wanted to see if I'd be obedient and then He'd move me into something I would enjoy.

But that isn't what happened. There came the time when Uncle Dick planned a day trip to our local mountains, about an hour out of town. Because Jim had a class 2 license, he became our bus driver--a job he thoroughly enjoyed. The man loved driving trucks and buses. What can I say? What I hadn't known was that our church had a bus ministry that went into the deepest reaches of San Diego--down onto Market Street, a ghetto with a lot of danger about it. Even the police went two to a car when they patrolled the area. And there we were, in a big yellow bus, driving into the heart of Market Street to pick up the kids assembled at one of our church parishioner's home.

There were at least a dozen of them who bounded out of the house when we pulled up. They were unkept, unwashed, and every ethnic possible. They were all smiling, happy to get out of their neighborhood for a day. Sent off my parents who saw nothing more than free baby-sitters. I sat in the center of the bus and scowled. "Oh, God," I murmured, "I can't do this. I don't want to do this. Please release me from this ministry."

The kids climbed aboard the bus, laughing and talking together. One small boy plopped down beside me. A whole bus to sit in and this grubby little kid decided to sit beside me. I said to the Lord, "Well, obviously I have to get through today, so help me be the person you want me to be." The little boy smiled at me and began chatting away like he'd known me all his life. I don't remember what we talked about. What I do remember is that I fell in love with him and by the time we'd arrived at our mountain destination, I thought he was the sweetest kid I'd ever met. Dirt and all.

I distinctly remember the change that came over me that day. It was a change only God could have effected because only the Lord could have worked such a complete and instant turn-around in my stubborn heart. By the time all of us had eaten our lunches, gone swimming in the creek, and gotten back on the bus to head toward home, I was in love with every one of those kids. I was having fun with them. I was laughing with them. I was happy to be with them. A different little boy sat beside me on the way home. It didn't matter. I thought they were all absolutely adorable.

Jim became one of the regular bus drivers. Sunday evenings I'd hop aboard the bus with him and we'd drive the neighborhood, picking up the kids who wanted to go to church but had no way to get there. Then we'd head downtown and onto Market Street. Picking the kids up during daytime wasn't so scary. Taking them home after church, in the dark, into a known crime area, involved lots of praying and trusting God. We'd drive by liquor stores, small grocery markets, everywhere lots of locals, mostly men, congregated and the looks we got from them made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

God kept us safe. All those years Jim drove the bus, and other men in the congregation drove the bus into downtown, never one thing unusual happened. By the time we'd been part of the bus ministry about six months, there came a night when church was over and we'd gotten all the kids herded back onto the bus. It was winter and while it doesn't get freezing in San Diego, the wind was cold, the air moist, and some of the kids had caught colds.

It was that night that that cute little boy I'd sat with during the trip to the mountains, ran up behind Jim, already ensconced in the driver's seat. He threw his little arms around him from the back, snotty nose rubbing itself against Jim's neck and leaving a slimy residue. "I just love you," he said with such exuberance the snot was instantly ignored. He 'd taken a liking to Jim. As had most of the kids. Whatever prompted that outburst of emotion remains a mystery to me. But not to God. It was the crowning touch that put us into Children's Ministry for the next twenty years.

Author's comments:

Sometimes I still chuckle over the way God gave Jim the huge family he'd always wanted. For many years we were surrounded by kids we didn't have to raise, feed, or send off to college. We had all the fun with them and then sent them back to their parents. It was a sort of practice toward the day we would become grandparents. We always referred to our church children as  "our kids" because that was how we felt about them. Our own kids loved having us as part of their class and when other kids asked how they felt about their parents always knowing what they were up to in Sunday night class, their answer was always the same: they liked having us there. They maintain that to this day.

I'm telling you this because all the books on grief that I've read, and there have been many, claim that when the healing has been done, God will move me into a place of ministry. Right now I can't fathom that far into the future, for I know my heart is still rent and bleeding. And while I no longer sit and cry every single day, the tears still come at unexpected moments. Also, there is never a day that I don't get up thinking about Jim and go to bed thinking about him. The books tell me that I'll know I'm well when that no longer happens. If that be true, I will be grieving for years to come, for not thinking about Jim each day seems an impossibility.

Yet I'm the kind of person who likes to see where I'm going. I don't mind if my path is lit only a few feet ahead, as long as I know what's at the end. Since I have no wisdom toward my future that comes from the Lord, I consider those things which I already know how to do and enjoy doing. I wonder if He will move me back into children's ministry. Even with my spine in such a mess I cannot get around without a walker, that would be something I could handle. Plus, I love being with the kids. Their energy level is so high that I can go to church exhausted and come away with an adrenaline rush, simply because I sop up their energy vibes for myself.

I daydream about where I might be headed, knowing full well that I am likely wrong. In my whole walk with the Lord He has never once done what I expected. Why would He begin now? What He has always given me has been over and above what I thought He was going to do. I cannot know His mind. I don't really know why I even try. He says to rest and heal. That is all I should be concentrating on right now. He tells me to continue with my grieving. That just sort of comes naturally. At times, tears still roll down my cheeks; sometimes I lay sobbing on my bed.

That is what happened when I wrote my last blog, "How Do I Go On Alone?"  Whereas I generally take a week or so to construct each blog, that one took close to two weeks, simply because the pain of loss would overcome me as I typed the words and it finally occurred to me that I had to take some days off from working on that post or I'd be back to square one and I didn't wish to go there. Being where I am is hard enough.

There are still times when I see a shadow out of the corner of my eye and immediately think Jim is walking through the house. It takes an instant to realize that can't be true, but it is off-putting to my fragile emotions. Other time I could swear I hear him call my name. In the beginning, I'd get out of my chair to go see what he wanted, only to realize he wasn't there. And yet I'd heard his voice so clearly. I felt dumb, even stupid for not remembering. Then I read that all who have experienced loss go through the same thing. So I was normal after all. Even so, those instances still cause me pain that can beget tears. When that happens, I simply let them flow. I don't know what else to do.

There have been those who tell me how brave I am. What do they see? It can only be God's grace resting on me because on the inside, I am not brave at all. I am grateful that my faith in God has not been hampered. Or that my trust in Him remains solid. I read that some who go through tremendous loss turn away from God and each day I thank Him for holding onto me so tight that the trust remains. He has a long history with me. A history of loving, protecting, and leading me on the right paths. I do not forget that as I travel this dark road I'm on.

I was watching an old movie a few weeks ago. Just a plain, lovely black and white classic that I was thoroughly enjoying. The couple in the movie were at a party and the man asked the lady if she'd like to dance. They were on the floor when the music began. It was a song Jim and I used to dance to years and years ago. I saw the way the man held the woman, the slow dancing, the love that seemed to be between them and I started crying, then sobbing, then when I could watch no longer, I changed the channel. Too much truth for me to handle that day. And too great a loss to acknowledge. I know it is common for those of us who grieve. But common doesn't mean there is no pain involved and on that particular day, the pain of remembering was too intense.

I know I'm not finished. Just when I think I'm making headway, I find that I still have a way to go. Will it be years? A decade? I have no idea. What I do know is that my memories will go with me and I'll not feel guilty about it. I know that I will move into the place God has for me, even if I leave heel marks again because I won't be happy or content if I don't follow to where He leads. Does that make me super-spiritual? Decidedly not. I know my stubbornness, my questioning, and my delay tactics. I know that God knows them too and yet He still loves me.

One of Jim's favorite scripture passages, and one he quoted often, is in Matthew 6. He knew the instructions not to worry by heart and often, when I was in a dither about one thing or another, he would get out his bible and read to me. You can look it up for yourself in John 6:25 till the end of the chapter, which says, "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble." I  take that to mean that today's grief, sadness, sorrow, tears, and feeling so alone are enough for one day. What tomorrow holds is unknown. What my future will be is a mystery. At least to me. The one thing I am sure of is that there will be flowers. God knows I love flowers.

"Delight yourself in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart."
Psalms 37:4

Saturday, October 22, 2011

How Do I Go On Alone?

It was the first year our son had gone off to college in a state an airline flight away. I was sad to my bones. He'd been home for Easter and had already flown back. I'd taken to my bed, crying. Jim tried and tried to get me to perk up but to no avail. I missed my oldest child to the point of depression. But Jim wasn't one to give up.

"Do you want to go for a ride?" he said. I told him "no." He asked if I'd like to drive up the coast to visit my parents. I gave the same answer. "How about going out for lunch?" Same answer. So it went, on and off most of the morning while I lay in bed feeling ever so sorry for myself. "How about driving out to the desert to see the wildflowers in bloom?" I shook my head no. "Come on, Sandy, you love flowers. I know you'll feel better if you get out of bed and get outdoors. You always enjoy yourself when you're out with nature."

He had me there. So I did as he suggested and although I'm not crazy about the long drive to the desert, I always enjoyed being with my husband and I began to feel my mood lift a bit. When we finally reached Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, we didn't even have to stop at the Visitor Center to inquire where the flowers were blooming the best. We just followed the line of cars. We had to park in a quite illegal spot so I could get out to take photos, but I didn't care. I was dumb-struck. I'd lived in California since I was sixteen. I'd been to the springtime desert more than a few times. But I'd never seen it like this.

I felt as though God had put on a spectacle just for me. Flowers everywhere, all kinds, all colors, spreading off into the horizon, over every nob and down every swale. I felt surrounded by beauty. And love. It was nearly too much to take in. Creeks seldom seen had sprung forth, their gentle bubbling over sand and rock teasing the air with a soothing song; gentle breezes cooling the back of my neck and pestering my hair out of place; a silly roadrunner passed by, looking for all the world as if it were trying to make the Olympic track team. Or outrun Wiley Coyote. Comic relief for an intense day.

Jim stood quietly beside me. His arm wrapped tight around my shoulder. His wisdom had worked. He knew me better than I knew myself. He leaned down and kissed my forehead. He always had to lean down. He was six feet tall; I 'm barely over five feet. We always looked like the giant and the midget but we cared not. I put my camera down, noticing I'd already shot a full roll of thirty-six and was sorry I'd not brought more film with me.

"Want to walk up Palm Canyon?" he asked. I considered that a great idea. Wild sheep lived up there and visitors often spotted them hiding out on the rocky ledges. I guess they were on vacation that day. We saw naught but birds and bugs and bees. By the time we returned to the trailhead and walked back to our car, the light was beginning to wane. I stood amidst the flower fields, making small circles as I surveyed the 180 degree majesty of the desert that day.

Nearly everyone was gone now and we had this perfect place to ourselves. "I'm not depressed anymore," I yelled over to Jim. He smiled that ear to ear grin that was only his. "I'm so glad you brought me here," He smiled again. I skipped over to where he stood by the car and gave him a kiss. "Thank you for doing this for me," I said. He nodded. "I knew you'd like it."

"Today is the first time I've really understood why God loves the desert," I said. Jim grinned. "It's beautiful, isn't it?" he said in his usual soft voice. He looked at his watch. "Want to catch a bite before we start home?" he asked. "Yep," I replied. "All this happiness had made me really hungry. Do you think Borrego Springs has a decent place to eat?" He smiled and gave me a big hug. "Guess we'll find out," he said.

They did and we ate. Jim drove home. Inside, my heart was singing. I still missed my first-born. But I had gained insight today into something I'd not previously understood about the Lord. I thought about it on the long drive back to San Diego. The mountains are beautiful any time of year. So is the Pacific Ocean. But only the desert, with just the right amount of rain at just the right time, puts on a spectacle by God's decree. It doesn't happen every year. Sometimes it doesn't happen at all. In my heart, I considered this year  a Command Performance created just for me. How fortunate were those who had gotten in on my ticket.

Author's Comments:

From the very beginning, Jim always had my back. When our first baby died shortly after birth, he laid his head on my hospital bed and wept to the point I wondered if he'd be able to stop. We spent a long time crying together and consoling one another, and then he picked himself up, made all the funeral arrangements, chose a lovely pink dress that had been a shower gift and delivered it to the mortuary. By himself he chose a tiny white casket and a burial spot in a beautifully kept cemetery and then made the arrangements for a family-only graveside service.

All without me. For whatever reason, the hospital refused to discharge me. Something about my being too unstable emotionally. As upset as I was with them for keeping me, they did allow Jim to come every evening  and sleep in the bed next to me. It was empty, they said. But if they needed it, Jim would have to leave. He stayed with me the whole seven days, never once leaving my side except to go to work and always coming to visit during his lunch hour. As upset as I was with the hospital, I have to say that they tried to make amends. There was never any charge for Jim to stay with me and sleep in the empty bed. I have always been grateful for that.  

The album
with my son's
baby photos
seems to be mis-
placed at the
When it came time for the next child to be born, I was having such a difficult delivery the doctor pulled Jim aside and asked him to choose who he wanted them to save. They weren't sure we would both make it. Jim was requested to sign a document stating his choice. He chose me. He told me later he figured we could have other children, but he didn't want to lose me. I'm sure that's the choice every man would make in that situation. Yet through our many years together, it would sometimes come to mind that Jim's love for me was so great he had chosen me over the child he wanted so badly. I also have to say that never were two people so spoiled with love as our son and me. And never had I seen Jim happier than with that little boy in his arms.

For some reason I
never understood, our
daughter hated having
her picture taken and
fought the whole
experience. Just look at
that face and you'll know
the truth of my
The third time around, the delivery was not as hard as I was expecting, though to say it was a piece of cake would be a lie. Unknown to me at the time, the doctor had pulled Jim aside after our daughter was born and told him that I must not have any more children. I wasn't built to have kids, he said, and it was only a matter of time before I wouldn't pull through. After I was back in my room following the delivery, Jim once again sat by my bed, telling me what the doctor had said. With tears in his eyes, this man who wanted a boat load of kids, took my hand and said, "Sandy, I promise you with all my heart that I will never ask you to have any more kids. I don't want to lose you." It was a promise he kept for all the rest of our lifetime together.

I say again: He always had my back. Whether I was depressed or sick or maligned or simply angry with another person. He was always there for me. Not once that I can remember did he ever try to get me to see the other person's side. Or to tell me that I was making too much out of so little. Does that mean he was the perfect husband? I don't think there is any perfect husband. Or wife either. Yet Jim was slow to speak and seldom lost his temper. Unlike me, the chatter-box who said everything that was on my mind and lost my temper at the drop of a hat. But that's another story.

I so vividly recall the morning I was making breakfast and our son, now a tall teenager, was in the kitchen, giving me a bad time about something or another. To both of our surprise, Jim popped around the corner, grabbed our son by the back of his shirt collar, lifting him partially off the floor and said, "Who do you think you're talking to? That is your mother and I don't ever want to hear you speak to her like that again. Do you understand me? Now you apologize." I think both my son and I stood there with wide eyes. Our son because he'd been caught and me because it was so unlike Jim to lose his temper. To this day my son, now into his fifties, has never again been disrespectful toward me. I think Jim put the fear of God into him that day.

It is in remembering those stories and more that there came the day when I once again set myself in Jim's big recliner, bible on my lap, tissues at the ready, and called upon the Lord for help. Jim had always been my protector, always shielding me from everything he could. Who now would take care of me? I asked. I admitted that I had been spoiled by love and while I am a capable person who has no trouble making decisions, I had always known that Jim was behind me, that I could count on him, and now that I was bereft, what would I do? I no longer have a husband, I cried. I no longer feel the security of his physical presence.

How do I go on alone? I sobbed. My kids are grown and have their own lives. My grandkids are mostly adults, with jobs and their own futures to tend to. I don't know how to be alone, I moaned. I sat in Jim's chair for a long time, pouring my heart out to the Lord, crying, sobbing, and asking for the help I knew I needed if I were to have any sort of life from then on. I told Him I felt as though I'd been dumped into an arid desert devoid of anything beautiful, an ugly, wasteless expanse inhabited only by things that slinked or stung or crawled or bit. 

I remained in that chair a long time. By then the tears were dried up and no more to cry. One thing I really did learn during this widow experience is that I really can stop crying. There are only so many tears and after a while, they cease. At least for a time. I felt drained to the marrow of my bones. It was then, when the sobbing was finished and my energy exhausted that it came into my mind to look up what God had to say about widows. I'd not done that before and had no idea what scripture said. 

I learned a lot in the next few days. I've been a Christ follower for most of my adult life and have always known He was there for me. Yet I also knew that the Lord gave us people with skin on to be our helpmates, our protectors, and our cloak of covering. I'd always known that to be one of God's children was precious in His sight. Yet what I found out is that to be a widow calls forth protection from the Lord that goes over and above anything I would have expected.

I discovered 129 scriptures concerning widows. I learned the God would now act as my husband, not only caring for my needs but measuring others by how they treated me. Nearly every scripture had "widows and orphans" listed as one, and it occurred to me that those are the people whose voice is ignored, for they are mostly invisible to the world at large.

God has promised the believing widow that He will defend her in every way. Psalms 68:5 says "A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, Is God in His holy habitation." Deuteronomy 10:18 says "He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow..." In Exodus 22:22 it says "You shall not afflict any widow or fatherless child. If you afflict them in any way and they cry out to Me, I will surely hear their cry and my wrath will become hot..." Psalm 146:9 says "The Lord watches over the strangers. He relieves the fatherless and widow." Jeremiah 49:11 states "Leave your fatherless children. I will preserve them alive; and let your widows trust in Me."

God's instructions to the church, as well as the world we must live in are clear. Isaiah 1:17 says "Learn to do good, seek justice, rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow." James 1:27 says, "Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble...In 1 Timothy 5:3,5 it says, "Honor widows who are really widows...Now she who is really a widow and left alone trusts in God and continues her supplications and prayers night and day."

I have long been aware of God's listening ear, his arms of comfort, and the fact that He runs to my defense. I've witnessed those attributes throughout my walk with the Lord. What I realized now was that without a husband to protect me, care for me, and defend me against all odds, God holds me closer to His heart, taking care of those things that had so long been Jim's scriptural duty to me as his wife.

Although I felt no different after my study of widows, I told the Lord that I was willing to learn. I've trusted Him most of my adult life and could honestly say that He had never let me down. Having God act as my husband was a new thought, yet I knew He always kept His promises, for Jim and I had always found him faithful. I prayed that God would bring me out of that awful desert I felt trapped in. That I might begin to laugh again. That I might have some semblance of joy in my life.

There are two scriptures that I've long loved. Both seemed so appropriate to this time of my life that I got my bible so I could read them again. Isaiah 35:1 says "...and the desert shall rejoice and blossom like a rose. It shall bloom abundantly and rejoice; even with joy and singing." And Isaiah 43:18, my particular favorite, says "Do not remember the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold I will do a new thing, now it shall spring forth; shall you not know it? I will even make a road in the wilderness and rivers in the desert."

Only God could have known that years and years later, I would need the remembrance of that day Jim and I saw the desert in full bloom. Truthfully, I'd forgotten about it until the images stored in my mind began emerging and it was then I knew for certainty that someday my life will bloom again. I will keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter how long it takes, to come out of this valley of grief and into a place of indescribable beauty. Knowing Jim as I did, I am certain that is what he would want for me. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Grief Of Letting Go

Jim sent me a dozen
roses and I made
him three of his
favorite desserts.
Now that's love!
The year Jim and I celebrated our fiftieth wedding anniversary, we got married again. There were no friends and family as witnesses. Neither were there flowers or gifts or a fancy cake or the traditional vows. Since Jim and I had eloped the first time around with no one in attendance but the pastor and pianist at the small chapel, we figured we could handle getting married a second time all by ourselves.

I still had my original rings and while the gold had worn through, I'd had them repaired and welded together rather than buy a new setting--which had been Jim's suggestion. Jim's slim gold band had long ago cracked and since I'd paid so little for it I replaced it with a much wider gold band I knew he would like. He wore it for many years, though as the Parkinson's progressed, we noticed that it was getting looser and looser. And while we had every intent of having it sized, we waited too long and one night before his shower, he discovered it was missing.

Both he and the nurse claimed it had to have fallen off during their afternoon walk through the neighborhood. On the bare chance that we'd find it, both the nurse and I retraced the steps, but there was no shiny gold band to be found. So I purchased a new one and tucked it away for our second wedding, giggling at how surprised Jim would be when I placed a new ring on his finger.

Michelle was with us eight
years. She was Jim's
partner in crime, always
ready to take him anywhere
he wanted. The two of them
got into all sorts of
mischief. But that's
another story.
Unknown to me, Jim had a surprise up his sleeve too. One day he and the nurse decided to go shopping and while I thought they'd gone to Sears, where Jim loved scouting out the tool department, they'd actually headed to Jim's favorite jewelry store. I would never have known anything about it if the credit card company hadn't called. There was an unusual and very large charge on our card, they said. We need to make sure it's yours.

I inquired as to the merchant and the amount and nearly dropped the phone. How dear of Jim, all the while fighting against a progressive and incurable disease, to give thought to an anniversary gift for me. I never let him know that I'd received that phone call. I made sure I never mentioned a diamond anniversary ring either. I didn't want him to be suspicious that I'd been snooping around in his den. What I did do was stand in front of the mirror and practice looking stunned, amazed, over-joyed, and dumb founded. Oh yes, I might have danced a bit too. Maybe a little jig here and there.

We toasted one another
with sparkling apple
cider, promised to love
one another forever, and
exchanged rings. Happy
Anniversary to us.
Jim and I celebrated our fiftieth by ourselves. Little did either of us know it would be our last celebration. By the following year, Jim was having more bad days than good ones and spent more time than ever in a wheelchair. We wished one another a happy anniversary, but there was no party, no special dinner, no special anything except that we continued to remind one another how much each of us loved the other one. When our following anniversary rolled around, we gave each other a hug and a kiss. Jim was pretty much wheelchair bound by then, and while his body was growing less and less cooperative, his spirit remained steady. A week before our fifty-third anniversary came around, Jim was gone.

Author's comments:

Sometimes, when I look back, there are things that come to mind when I wonder if Jim had some kind of inkling of how much longer he'd be here. In writing this particular blog, I remembered that when Jim presented me with that lovely anniversary ring that I'd gushed and gushed over, he said that he "figured he might as well go out with a bang." When I questioned what he meant by that, he said it was the last present he'd be buying me so he figured it should be the best he could think of.

I didn't take his comment to heart. He was doing well, he was otherwise healthy, he could get around pretty good with his walker. This disease moved slow. We had lots of years left. That is what I honestly believed. Yet Jim was right. It was the last gift he ever gave me. In the years that followed, I was busy running the house as well as instructing the nurse with medication schedules, healthy menus, bathing instructions, current doctor orders, and the insistence that Jim get outside each day for at least an hour--even if he had to be pushed in his wheelchair. Days melted into months and years and within too short a time, our life together on this earth was over.

During my first weeks of grief, a long-time friend and neighbor brought me a small book, telling me I might find it helpful. It was called, "Grieving The Loss Of Someone You Love" and I found it not only helpful, but full of wisdom. It was by reading that little book that I discovered everything I was feeling was normal, I wasn't crazy, and that shock was a protective blanket the Lord wrapped around us during those first horrible months for without it, none would survive the pain. 

I read and re-read and read again. But there was this one page that I absolutely detested. It made me mad every time I came to it. The title was "Letting Go" and after the first reading, I made sure I never read that particular page again. I had no intention of letting go. I didn't wish to let go and stubborn that I am, I hardened my heart and determined that if all other widows in the world eventually let go, I would be the one who would not.

I woke up with Jim, drank coffee with Jim, watched television with Jim and went to bed with Jim. I carried him close to my heart every minute of every day. By the time ten months had passed, I'd dealt with all that anger that, to this date, has never returned. Yet I still felt burdened, heavy, struggling to live. I took my emotions to the Lord, asking for wisdom. I didn't like what I heard.

"It's time to let go," is what floated through my mind. I planted my feet. I asked for wisdom again and yet again. "It's time to let go, it's hurting you." I crossed my arms in front of my chest and took my stance. I asked the Lord how remembering Jim could possibly be hurting me. I had loved him for most of my life. All I received in return was a soft and gentle whisper: "It's time to let go."

As I had before, I took to Jim's big recliner, bible in my lap and a box of tissues close by. I sobbed as I told the Lord I absolutely could not let go. All my memories would be lost, all my feelings for Jim would disappear, letting go felt dangerous and I just couldn't do it. I'd already lost him physically. I couldn't lose him emotionally too. I could not go on if I lost all memory and feeling of the one I had loved for so long.

It was in that big recliner that realization began to come. I saw that I'd carried Jim in clutched hands. Though he was physically gone, I had held onto his memory as though it would vanish into thin air should I open my fingers. The Lord showed me how burdened I was when he wished me to be free. Free to grieve for as long as I needed. Free to heal. Free to learn to go on by myself. Free to be the person the Lord wished me to be. Free to move into whatever ministry the Lord had for my future.

I opened my hands, spread my fingers, and let Jim go. I knew now that I could hold all of my memories as sacred. Each vignette stored on some digital memory stick inside my brain. I could remember Jim's unusual sense of humor and laugh; I could see that lazy smile of his and grin back; I could remember his love and wrap myself in the safety of it. I let go and received it all back. The Lord wasn't asking me to forget my husband. He wanted me to be free of all that hindered me from running the race so as to win.

Letting go was extremely difficult for me. Even so, I did what the Lord requested and since that day, I can feel myself healing. Do I still grieve? Of course I do. The last eighteen months feel more like eighteen weeks. And while I take two steps forward, there are days when I take one step back. I know that is normal too. So I press on. My realization is that there is still much grieving to be done and healing to come. The times between ambushes grows longer, though it can be triggered by finding Jim's passport photo or a note in his precise pre-Parkinson's handwriting, or coming across a note I had saved from the Christmas he gave me the biggest bouquet of red roses I'd ever seen. On the attached card Jim had written, "To the love of my life, the lady with the beautiful face."

Now I'm crying.

Jim, his brother, and one of his sisters. It was the last time the three of them were together. In little more than a year, Jim had graduated to heaven.

It is so easy to think we have some ultimate claim on those we love, rather than that we have been privileged to share one another's lives for a time--they with us, and we with them."

Martha Whitmore Hickman

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Mourning And Memories

Jim and I never had a
real honeymoon. We
visited his aunt in
Pittsburgh and his sister
in Virginia. I didn't
care. At least we
were together.
Jim and I had been married less than a month when he came home from work one day, handed me his paycheck, and told me to pay the bills. It was the wife's job, he said. I stood there with my mouth open and what was surely a puzzled look on my face. I was barely seventeen, had never  paid a bill in my life, didn't know how to write a check or even open a bank account. Guess I'd led a very sheltered life.

"I don't know how to pay bills," I said. "It's your check, you should do it." Jim gave me that slow grin of his and suggested I ask his mom for help. Seems the whole four years Jim had been in the navy, he'd sent his paycheck home and his mom had paid what few bills he'd had and banked the rest. I figured by now he must have quite a nest egg built up. Not so, he informed me. His parents had his permission to use leftover money if they needed it and it seems they'd needed it.

Jim's sister, his brother, and him at the
end of the line, all had to work to help pay
the family bills. Jim delivered newspapers
until he was seventeen and joined the navy.
That shouldn't have surprised me. Jim, his brother and his sister had all had to work to help support the family ever since they were kids. And while the Keith family was cast of gold, their income consisted mostly of dimes and nickles.  Or so I was told. Jim always insisted that delivering papers taught him responsibility. I guess he was right. One of his  greatest attributes, besides his dry sense of humor, was the way he stepped up to responsibility without ever once dragging his feet or looking back.

During all our years as man and wife, things around our house went pretty much as they do in most houses. I continued to pay the bills in addition to all the rest of "wife" stuff and Jim took care of everything else, plus a few of the things I never seemed to get to. Like cleaning off the top of the refrigerator. I couldn't see it; he could. My rule was, if you can see it and it bothers you, then you should scrub it. So he did. Sometimes being short pays off.

As the Parkinson's disease set in and then progressed, many of the things that had always been Jim's responsibility became mine. Not because he was no longer willing to do them but because it became too dangerous. When he was on a ladder trying to get the Christmas tree out of the garage rafters and his legs gave way, resulting in a nasty fall--which resulted in little more than a sore body--ladders became off limits. When he still insisted he could mow the lawn, then fell with the power mower going full blast, lawn work was scrubbed from his list of duties.

I knew how difficult it was
for Jim to hand over his
keys. He loved driving
and he loved what he
referred to as his
"dream truck."
Little by little, I assumed responsibility for those things Jim had always taken care of. When it was possible, I hired others to do the gardening and mowing and gutter cleaning. Then came the day when Jim handed me his truck keys. When I looked puzzled, he told me he no longer trusted his ability to drive as he had twice pulled in front of vehicles he thought were further away than they were. Even as he gave me his keys, he apologized. "I know how much you hate driving, Sandy, and I hate to do this to you, but if I continue, I'm afraid I could cause an accident and if you were with me and you were hurt or killed, I'd never be able to live with myself. It's just better to quit now."

By the time the Parkinson's disease had progressed to the point that I needed nurses to help with his care, nearly fifteen years had passed and while I've compressed time for the purpose of telling my story, I can look back and see that the Lord was preparing me to be alone. I just didn't recognize it. I've talked with widows who had no idea of how to handle finances or how the health insurance worked or how to keep track of vehicle maintenance or how to fill up the gas tank or even how the home security lights or automatic sprinklers worked. I'd learned all those things because I'd had to.

In the end, I was grateful. I'm still grateful. It has been hard enough to deal with losing half of my heart without the frustration of trying to figure out all the financial things, the life insurance, and all the other stuff that rears its head, demanding to be dealt with in a timely manner. In the last year of his life, Jim made arrangements for me to sign every financial document so I would have access not only to his IRA, but every other asset he had always personally overseen.

Jim had already been
diagnosed with
Parkinson's when this
photo was taken. His
neurologist was able to
keep him working six
more years before Jim
had to go off on
Sometimes I find myself wondering if Jim suspected his time was growing short. I know I had no inkling. Neither did his many doctors. Nor anyone else who spent any time with him. Yet by the time he moved to heaven, I was fully prepared to take care of the dozens of jobs Jim had always assumed responsibility for. And although I knew how to handle paperwork, I flunked at losing the man I had loved for so long and so hard and so thoroughly.

It's been more than eighteen months since his passing and while I can now speak of him without tearing up every time, there are ambushes that come at me unbidden and at any time of day or night. A  song, a sound, a smell. Some memory of Jim that floods my heart, filling up my entire being. It is then that the tears flow and I just let them.

Author's comments:

While all of these blogs about my journey into widowhood have been difficult to write, this one has been particularly painful, though I'm not sure why. I wept while I wrote it; I'm weeping now. I've put off writing my author's notes for almost a week, waiting for my emotions to settle back into some form of stability, but that isn't happening. 

Every widow I know and have spent time with tells me the same things I'm feeling myself: their husband was one of a kind, the dearest man God ever created, an affectionate lover, a spouse both gentle and strong, a person given more to smiling than frowning, a hero in a white hat. And most important, the love of their life, who loved them back equally or even more.

For me, the anger that built into volcanic proportions and finally blew was not directed at God for taking Jim, but for leaving me behind. That became the root of the anger that followed. Had that intense anger not resided within me, I likely would never have taken offense at those well-meaning friends who spoke without thinking as to how their words would hurt me. I pray that they may learn how to comfort the bereaved, for if there is nothing else I've learned, I've learned how to do just that. And had that anger not coupled with my original anger, I likely would have shrugged off my long-time friends email as her opinion but not necessarily truth.

But that isn't what I did. And so it festered. Until that night I threw myself across my bed and sobbed out to God to deliver me from so much anger and bitterness. I could not carry it any longer; I didn't want it to be part of me anymore. Grieving my loss was all I could handle and if I were ever to heal, the anger had to go and the peace of God needed to flow into me. I wanted more than anything to stand clean before the Lord that He and I might get on with my journey into accepting widowhood.

Because I believe that God already knows everything, it's always been my nature to be honest with Him. The morning after sobbing myself to sleep, I got up to my usual routine of coffee and more coffee and maybe some toast. When I felt my brain was sufficiently awake to think straight, I took my bible and a notebook, sat down in Jim's recliner, and asked the Lord to meet me there. I had some things I needed to discuss and some people I needed to forgive. I turned to 1 John 1:9 and read "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."

I'd been forgiven before, maybe a zillion times. I trusted the Lord to forgive me yet again. One by one, the people who's words had stung came to mind and although I'd forgiven them time and again, this time I forgave and consciously let the hurt go. As each face came to mind, I did the same thing. I felt like I was making progress, yet I knew something big still sat on my heart. I asked the Lord to show me what was left to do. As I sat in that chair that was way too big for me, I heard the softest whisper in my spirit and the words sounded like "Now forgive me."

Knowledge filled me and while I sobbed almost uncontrollably, I heard it again. "Now forgive me."  I knew exactly what God was asking. Yet I had questions. "Why did you make me watch him die so unexpectedly? And why does that gut-wrenching video loop my mind stored play over and over again?" It came to me that denial is the first step of grief, yet I had bypassed that step because of the reality I'd witnessed. I had not denied Jim's death. I knew with horrid certainty that he was gone. I asked the Lord to be gracious to me and remove the video loop from memory. What I heard in my heart was that the video would remain as a part of my memory, but the pain of it would diminish. And from that time on, the loop stopped playing and when it came to mind, the agony of it was gone, replaced by a sort of sadness that I could bear.

I'd been sitting in Jim's chair most of the morning, going step by step as the Lord directed. Yet I still heard those same words in my spirit. "Now forgive me." I thought about what that meant, knowing it was God who was in the forgiving business, not me. It was then I saw myself, alone for the first time in my life, trained by circumstances to go on alone, but dragging my heels all the way. "God, I don't want to be here," I said. "You know I want to be with you, I want to be where Jim is. I'm not afraid to die. You know that about me."

"Forgive me for leaving you behind," was what kept floating through my mind. "I have work for you to do." Stubborn that I am, I tried one last time, pleading with God to take me home. Yet I knew that wasn't going to happen. At least not anytime soon. I opened my bible to no special place, laid my hands on God's word, and forgave Him for making me stay on earth without the other half of my being. And even as I cried, I physically felt anger leave me and peace fill my heart. That peace has remained and I've been grateful, for the widow's path is strewn with many difficult situations and in order to heal to the point where I would again be useful to the Lord, I needed to continue walking through that dark valley until I came out into the sunlight. I wondered how long it would take.

"For I know the plans I have for you says the Lord, plans for peace and not evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and you will find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart." Jeremiah 29:10-13