Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Grief isn't for sissies...

One of the last photos of Gary and I as a couple.

 "Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything."
C.S. Lewis- A Grief Observed

This week I am in San Antonio with some dear friends. It has been a nice visit as we catch up and enjoy our friendship. My trip here was a gift from them. It has been a good place to allow my banged up and bandaged heart to rest. I haven’t had to wrestle with grief every moment of the day, but I’m not fooling myself. The Hubs is here. The last time I made this trip, we were together. Our visit consisted of lots of laughter and lots of relaxed conversation that only couples with ‘like marriages’ can have. Our foursome is now a threesome and Gary’s absence couldn’t be more glaring than if I had two missing front teeth. Nonetheless, my friends have embraced me and welcomed me in and have given me a place to mourn openly when the need arises.
I know not all of our friends will be able to do that. C.S. Lewis had an idea about that. After his wife died he wrote, “Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers. To some I’m worse than an embarrassment. I am a death’s head. Whenever I meet a happily married pair I can feel them both thinking, ‘One or other of us must some day be as he is now.””
I feel like I’m a walking, talking reminder to couples of what’s to come. I’m the Grim Reaper riding a pink bike. Gary and I used to talk about how everything changed once the cancer attacked the liver. Our lives were put on a time line. Our time together became like that little blue blinking dot on a GPS telling us where we were in our journey, at the same time telling us how close we were to journey’s end. We’re all on this journey. What made us different was that our end had a destination pin stuck in it. Now, me standing alone may be too much for some. I’m sure I’m not a pretty sight with my right arm missing, my heart half gouged out and my tendency to bump into walls and stare blankly into space. Grief isn’t pretty. And, I’m here to tell you that it isn’t for sissies.
I’m one of the blessed ones. Most of my friends are still with me. They haven’t missed a step. I may be ugly to look at right now, but they still embrace me like one does a homely puppy with only a face a mother could love. They wouldn’t think of booting me off the porch. But I know not all have been given what I have. I’ve heard horror stories of friends abandoning friends once a death occurs. Some have just walked out of lives that once they thought they couldn’t live without simply because it got too hard. What I want to encourage and admonish is don’t be one of those. If you have a friend who has recently lost someone don’t abandon them. Don’t think that two weeks, or two months or even two years will get the job done. Their life has been changed forever. And if you love them, so has yours. Clasp hands. Bow heads. Nobody gets through the valley alone.
Grief takes time. Grief morphs a life into something unrecognizable. Don’t let it scare you. It’s God at work.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

October 23

Mr. & Mrs. Gary Cleveland- 10.23.71

Today was our 42nd wedding anniversary. The Hubs missed it by two weeks. Bless his heart he tried though. Early on he had promised me that he’d make it, that we’d be together on this day. Cancer had other ideas. When it finally looked like only a miracle from God would allow him to keep that promise, I let him off the hook and gave him permission to go, to quit fighting, that whether he was with me physically or not didn’t matter. He’d be with me no matter what. A couple of days later he took me up on it. Physically, his body could no longer fight the disease that ravished his liver and just about everything else. But I meant what I said. He would be with me and he was… all day.
This morning, I woke after a good night’s sleep. The minute I opened my eyes, he was there, all over our bedroom. His closet still holds most of his clothes. The dresser drawers are full of his socks and t-shirts. As I walked into our bathroom—from the tile underfoot to the mirror over the sink, it was all him. I remember the weekend we laid that tile together. We finished the last piece at about one in the morning and we were both covered in grout.
In the kitchen the island he built stood center-stage and the copper sink he installed stood ready for my lone cereal bowl. I sipped my hot tea out on the screened-in porch he added several years ago. Everywhere I looked, stood or sat had his thumbprint. He couldn’t have been more present had he been sitting in his recliner.
When you loved as we did, death doesn’t get the last word. The man I lived with for the last forty-two years was remarkable. He made me laugh; he made me feel beautiful, intelligent, and worthy. He made me believe I could do anything I set my mind to. He showed me how to be strong. And today I was all of those things because Gary Cleveland loved me.
Everyone deserves to be loved like that. Everyone should love like that—never holding back, full out, out-loud, heart thumping, tingling love. If you were to die tomorrow would your husband or wife know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you thought that they were the best thing to ever happen to you? If in doubt, do something about that today, this very minute.
Thank you, dear Hubs for the best life imaginable. Forty-two years simply wasn’t enough, but oh, how grateful I am I had them. I loved you then. I love you now. I’ll love you forever. It was a good day.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs… It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails… And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”        ~ I Corinthians 13

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Great Privilege

The Hubs on VisionTrek doing what he did best.
Grieving takes a lot of energy. It’s like running a marathon that doesn’t have a finish line. I know it will get better, but right now there is no end in sight. And why should there be? It hasn’t been quite two weeks since Gary was welcomed Home. Everything is still raw, tender, right under the skin and near the heart. He’s everywhere and nowhere all at the same time. Tears creep up on me. The loss feels like someone has put a plastic bag over my head as I gasp and scratch to breath. But enough. There are no shortcuts through grief. You just have to lean into it and brace yourself.
I found myself having out-of-body conversations today. First, with our financial planner. I’ve gone to these meetings with Gary many times as a tag-a-long, half listening, wishing I was somewhere else. I have talents and skills, but numbers are lost on me. Give me words, lyrical, punchy, or even hard to spell and I can do something with them. But numbers? They make me want to heave. But bless my financial planner’s heart; she was so patient, so kind. She comforted me and assured me she’d get me through this. Thank you, sweet Hubs, for placing my hand in hers.
Next, I was off to the banks with death certificates in hand. Never, never, never did it ever cross my mind that I would someday be sitting in a tiny little windowless office watching a bank officer tear up as I handed her this little piece of paper authenticating my husband’s death. She looked about twelve-years-old and the only loss I fear she’s ever experienced was her goldfish. I was her once. I found myself patting her on the back and telling her it was going to be okay.
These are odd days. Once this week I had to pull off to the side of the road to cry. As I was banging on the steering wheel and looking for some Kleenex my cell phone rang. It was a friend from North Carolina. He told me the Spirit had nudged him to call me at that precise moment. I wept into the phone. So did he. Bless him. Then he reminded me that Gary had been given a great privilege when he was summoned into God’s Presence and that we shouldn’t wish him back. I’ve been pondering that thought for a couple of days now. A ‘privilege’ he said. I like that.
Gary is with the creator of the Grand Canyon and the mastermind of thunder and lightening. I love to imagine him sitting with the Apostle John under a heavenly olive tree and listening to Peter rave about forgiveness. I see Gary walking on a path of golden leaves with the great Paul who finally reveals exactly what that thorn in the flesh was. And then there’s the reunion with Grandma Gail, and his parents, and our child who was born too soon and our grandson we never got to meet and… the list goes on. And then, if I want to get real excited, I think of my Hubs sitting around a campfire with Jesus. In the background is the sound of a wild rushing creek and they are laughing about something silly and wonderful. And behind them the cross is lying on the ground broken and splintered and in the distance the tomb is covered in moss and is empty and the Redeemer of the World and the Soul Collector of the Universe and my Hubs are thinking up lyrics to old songs. Gary is singing tenor.
Yes, grief smothers me. But, there is a brief respite in remembering the Great Privilege and the honor bestowed on someone so loved and so deserving. 
Grieving takes a lot of energy. However, in the odd moment I try to remember…

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Over There...

The Hubs at his best.
LuLu waits for me in the garage. I haven’t had the heart to take her out for a ride. Gary fixed her flat tire a few weeks ago but then his health started deteriorating rather quickly. LuLu is just one of the many things around the house here that remind me of what I’ve lost, what my children have lost, what our friends have lost. Gary is gone from this earth but oh, his presence is strong. The fact that I can still feel him in a room brings great comfort, however, it also summons an arrow straight through the heart at times. Last night I finally got around to putting some clean clothes away that had been sitting in the clothesbasket since last weekend… Gary’s clothes. The shirt he wore just last week. His socks. The arrow that sliced through me during that little exercise was on fire and lined with razor blades.
Gary died one week ago today (Wednesday). I feel like I’ve aged one hundred years since I last touched his hand. I know I must live in this place of shadows for a while yet, but for how long I wonder? I go from numb to throbbing in a blink. How cruel is death that it leaves the rest of us here like scattered debris? In this world death is the bully who thumps his chest and struts and dares anyone to defy him.
Good thing I’m not from this world. Better yet, neither was Gary. Here, death is the ugly victor. But Over There, where my Hubs now stands, death was nothing but a doorknob. I’m not saying this to try and ease my sorrow. No words are magical enough to do that.  I say this because it’s true. On the Other Shore is Home. While I lament the loss of my husband and wish this sorrow upon no one, for brief moments in between the tears, I see something. It’s only a momentary flash of something beautiful and breathe-taking. A place that is light and full and good. Mind you, it’s only a flash and then it’s gone, covered up by falling pieces of a broken heart. But I know it’s there, just over there. And I know Gary is there, doing only our Lord knows what. Truly.
Someday I’ll be able to sustain the image longer. It won’t be any time soon, but it will come. It will come. It will… I believe this. Truly.

“And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each one of the gates was a single pearl.  And the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.  I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb.” ~ Revelation 21: 21-23

Monday, October 14, 2013

Day One...

Gary speaking at recent celebration.


I write this on Monday, the day after my family and I scattered the ashes of our beloved father, grandfather and husband. I suppose you could say this is Day One. It’s the first Monday after the death of Gary and I’m lost, numb and tired—oh, so tired. For five days, my grown children and I have existed in this Neverland of life after a death and let me tell you, it’s a relentless place. We have been sleepwalking through a world we never wanted to discover. A world of funeral decisions and obituaries. A bizarre world where you have to make a choice about urns and morticians—a place of sympathy cards and sad faces.
The Memorial has taken place and now I assume I’m to start my new life… the after-life of what was my life. But, how does one do that? How do you start again when you feel you have been drained of all blood, bone and skin? How do you make yourself put one foot in front of the other when you can’t even feel your feet? My entire body feels like a foreign country to me.  I have to re-learn how to breathe and walk and talk. I have to remind myself to sit down. I find myself walking into rooms in my own house and not knowing where I am. How long will I linger in this awful, awkward emotional land? How do you begin again when you want nothing more than to stop breathing and follow your Loved One to where he has gone off to?
“Holy Father, I long… I so long to sleep and then wake to find that the last five days were just a dream. I long to intertwine my fingers with his. I long to hear his voice. I long… I long for my memories to not have sharp edges.”
What I must keep before me is that I am not alone. I have never been alone. Holy arms hold me up. My God weeps with me all the while embracing my dearest who is no longer here. I don’t understand how that can be, but I believe it with my whole heart.
Day One. It’s just about over. I’ll never have to experience it again. But, Day Two is coming …
“Holy God, take my hand…”


Wednesday, October 9, 2013


The Hubs, my Love...


At 8 a.m. this morning, God came near and took the Hubs, Gary Marlin Cleveland, Home. He was loved and he loved.


Gary's memorial will be on Saturday, October 12 at 11 a.m. at Oakhaven Church, 2175 Weitzel Avenue, Oshkosh, WI.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

I get it...

The Hubs with a few of those he loves.
I finally understand. I get it. For the first time since I began my faith journey back when I was eleven years old, I finally understand God’s pain and God’s incredible pride. Those three days of watching His son stagger toward the cross were God’s most excruciating and most beautiful experience as a Father. When Jesus tied the apron around his waist and knelt on the floor, God must have held his breath. As the Son placed the feet of each follower on His lap and begun to cleanse away the filth, His Father must have stood in awe as He witnessed Jesus’ capacity to love.
In the garden, the pride turned to sorrow as Jesus wept and begged for mercy. God’s heart must have torn down the middle as He stood silently with His hands dangling at His side listening to the cries, yet knowing what needed to be done. With each slash of the leather cord and with each wound, God must have wrangled with His own heart and judgment. As the nails broke flesh and the spear pierced the Son’s side, surely God collapsed on holy dust and tore at His clothes. When Jesus uttered his last words, did His father wail and fall across His Son’s broken and ravished body? Surely.
I finally get it. I finally understand the cost.
As I watch my darling husband face death with such dignity, I am filled with that same pride. Even now, he still thinks of others. On Sunday our beloved church family gathered in every nook and cranny of our home and sang hymns of praise and longing. Gary was supposed to stay in bed and just listen. But no, he insisted I take him into the living room to be with his family.
The other night as I climbed into our bed and turned out the light, he whispered in his now raspy voice, “Do you know how to start the snow blower? Did I show you?” Just as Jesus prepared the Apostles for his death, Gary has lovingly tried to prepare me for his. From billing paying, to car maintenance, to snow blowing. Even now, in these last days, he turns his eyes towards me.
On Sunday, our little family gathered around our bed and shared communion and songs. I watched Gary gaze with now cloudy eyes upon each son and daughter-in-law and told them how proud he was of all of them. He has loved us all so well.
I write this at four in the morning as I listen to my darling’s slowing breaths. Oh, how I want to stop this. Oh, how I want to call out and shake my fist and rip at my clothing as the sorrow tries to strangle every bit of life out of me. But…
I get it now. I understand the sorrow of God as He watched His son die knowing it had to be. Life would follow death if He stayed the course. He knew! But the knowing did not ease the pain of the watching.
I know that with my darling’s last breath True Life will follow. Our Father promised it. His own pain and sorrow ordained it. Gary’s death will hold no chains.
I get it. And, as I lie at Jesus’ scarred feet on this quiet morning… I give thanks.


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Cancer is a fool...

Papa & Isamae


My worst fear has been realized. I am losing my husband. The chemo has failed. The experimental drug has failed. Good nutrition has been ineffective. There is nothing else left to try. The cancer has won. Or so it thinks.
I find myself in a bizarre place like a room with a slanted floor filled with uncomfortable furniture, ugly paintings and bad lighting. Try as I may I cannot find my way out. The windows are boarded up and everything about this room makes me queasy. I want to go home.
In his book, A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis journals about this strange room, this horrible place of waiting. As he worked through the grief of losing his wife to cancer, he writes how he “just hung about waiting for something to happen. It doesn’t seem worth starting anything. I can’t settle down. I yawn, I fidget, I smoke too much.”
Well, I don’t smoke but I do find myself eating too much. Emotional eating. Mindlessly eating. I find myself folding clothes, getting distracted and then starting to unload the dishwasher, getting distracted again and going to lie down on the couch. Dishwasher door left open. Clothesbasket left half full. Waiting. Wandering. Bumping into walls and uncomfortable furniture.
You know that awkwardness when you’re at the airport seeing a loved one off? You embrace, chat, and shift from foot to foot. You had hoped they’d stay, but you know, in the end, they must go? That’s where I am, this awful interlude to what comes next.  
My darling Hubs has only a few weeks at best. We’re done at Mayo. Hospice has been called in. As I watch him vanish bit-by-bit right before my eyes, I want to beg him to stay. But I love him too much to ask. He’s tired. He’s fought the fight valiantly. Oh, how he wanted to stay. How he fought for months and months to be here, to be with me and our family. But now, his body is just too weak and the cancer too mean. It is time. He wants to go home.
Cancer thinks its won. Cancer thinks its ravished and destroyed. Cancer thinks we are afraid. Cancer is a fool.
It has not won. Its greediness has been turned against itself. Its presence and invasion has unwittingly summoned the Great I Am. Our Great God penetrates this horrible waiting room. His Glory fills it with soothing light. His Arms bring comfort as He reprimands the disease with the same Mighty Voice that so long ago commanded the storm to be still.
Angels have begun to rehearse their song. And in the quiet of the night, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that my sweet husband has begun to hear his name being gently whispered from Holy Lips.
No, cancer has not won.