Wednesday, December 18, 2013

How did I get so lucky?

Papa & Paisly- Christmas 2012

What I love about my life today: The forty-two Christmases that Gary Cleveland and I spent together. He loved Christmas, but he hated, I mean hated shopping and wrapping. He was very content to be surprised on Christmas morning along with everyone else, even with the gifts he supposedly “picked out”. However, the gifts he made himself were special. He loved tinkering in his workshop and coming up with the perfect gift. From doll wardrobes, to work benches, to woodcarvings, to weathervanes, little did we know how precious those gifts would become. And then there is the Christmas music. The man loved it all from traditional, to country, to hip-hop, to disco, to singing dogs and frogs. We’re even the proud owners of a Green Bay Packer Christmas CD— vintage 1985 or so.
And of course, Christmas 2012 was my favorite. I think we knew that it was probably our last together. Neither of us said it out loud, but we knew the cancer was gaining ground. So we made it special. We invited my whole family to pack it in a car and bring it North. Of course how do you sleep 20 people in a three-bedroom house? So, all summer long Gary worked on what we called the Bird’s Nest, the little room over his workshop. He insulated it, put in a new window and electric heat. He even decorated it himself—traditional rummage sale/man cave. Gary spent hours on this project and loved every minute of it. A couple of days before Christmas our family started rolling in. Great-grandparents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, cousins and grandchildren, plus eighteen inches of snow. What could be more perfect? The Hubs and I slept in Bird’s Nest and gave our bed to my parents. We were wall-to-wall people, stepping over puppies and children and wrapped gifts. Our kitchen was always full and the coffee pot never empty, at least not for long. It was glorious!
Christmas Tree- 2012
My favorite moment? Taking Gary’s hand each evening and tromping through the snow to our little nest. Gary had strung Christmas lights up there (they are still there) and when we climbed the stairs and entered the room, it was like every fun event we’d ever experienced together— camping, vacations, homemaking, parenting, building, growing and loving bottlenecked into that one toasty little space. Cozied up under a pile of blankets with the winter wind howling and icy crystals creating one-of-a-kind art on the windowpanes, I remember sleeping next to this bear of a man and thinking: how did I get so lucky?
Dear ones, enjoy your Christmas. Hug and hang on tight to everyone you love. Make magic happen this season. Nothing is too small to dote over and make a memory with. The Christmas tree, the stockings hung with care, the tasty treats, the hot chocolate, the sparkle of lights, the tiny hands, the rosy cheeks, the grandparents, the newborns, the wrapping paper and the quiet candle-lit moments. Embrace. Give thanks. Allow this season to take your breath away— for it will be these exact memories that will one day give light to all dark passageways and will gently escort you slowly back to what’s what: How did I get so lucky?
May our Lord shine upon you and give you peace. May His Son bring you hope and healing all the year through. May your days be filled with thanksgiving and breath-taking joy. And, may you never waste another moment.
Merry Christmas. Thank you for your faithfulness, encouragement and for walking with me on this journey. LuLu’s Chronicles will return in January 2014.

Monday, December 16, 2013

He was here...

Papa Gary & Cian

Recently a friend was consoling me over of the loss of my husband. She said many wise things but there is this one thing she said that hit a nerve. I’m at the stage of mourning where I’m sensing that just saying Gary’s name makes others uncomfortable. They are not trying to be mean or thoughtless. In fact, I’m sure they are simply trying to be sensitive to my needs. But my friend advised, “Talk about Gary.” She went on to say that talking about him would make his absence more bearable.
I do want to talk about the Hubs, but whom do I talk to about him? And does talking about him truly make those around me uncomfortable or am I imagining it? At Thanksgiving, one night the kids and I were sitting around the table and began telling stories about their dad, just little things, sweet tidbits that made us tear up and laugh. It was like a cage door was unlocked. It felt wonderful.
Gary was here. He made such an impact. He was loved. He loved. He was funny. He was charming. He was compassionate and passionate. He was generous and wise. There are so many stories. I find myself wanting to tell someone about the very first poem he ever wrote me, or about the day he walked right into my speech class in college and sat down behind me. It wasn’t his class. He just wanted to see me. Then there was the time when our first son was born and he was so frightened and overwhelmed at the responsibility of being a dad that he took off on a long aimless drive for several hours. I was getting worried about him. But he came home excited and with tears in his eyes at the possibilities ahead of us with this child and the others to follow. Oh, and sometimes when the kids were finally asleep, he’d sneak out and buy us both a turtle sundae like at nine o’clock at night. It was our secret. On the soccer field his nickname was Rambo Rev. It was deserved. On family vacations he loved to drive all night with the radio blaring. The Eagles and Chicago were his favorite bands. He was a preacher and had the heart of a servant. When he’d get calls in the middle of the night he’d answer the phone like he’d been up waiting for their call. I was his first real girlfriend. I was also his last real girlfriend.
Not being able to talk about the one you lost to those who knew him is like someone putting duct tape over your mouth… and your heart. My friend was right. I need to talk about Gary to anyone who will let me. I need the healing that will bring. I need the validation that he mattered, he was here, that others miss him too. I understand it may be awkward and hard. However, I’ve never shied away from hard.
If you have any Gary stories tucked away, I’d love to hear them. If you’ve lost someone you love, I’d also love to hear about him or her. What did they do that made you laugh? What was their favorite food? Did they have a nickname? Did they give you one?
Say their name out loud. Remember. Allow the memories to do what God intended.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Good People...

What I love about my life today: Good people. I am surrounded by good people. Even though I am seven hundred miles or so away from home right now, people I hardly know have shown me compassion. You see Gary battled cancer for three years. The minute the word got out that he was sick people fell to their knees and began praying for him—people we knew and tons of people we didn’t know. In church bulletins all around the country Gary’s name was placed on prayer lists. One time we were in a restaurant and a teenager we didn’t know came up to us and told Gary she had been praying for him. Some how she had heard about his battle and was so happy to put a face to the prayer.
This past Wednesday night I went to church with my mom and found myself being hugged by people I barely knew. Gary’s name had periodically appeared in their church bulletin for the past three years. Many had tears in their eyes. Some embraced me while others gently took my hand and patted it. One whispered in my ear some thoughtful, loving words. She had lost her husband over ten years ago. I was now a member of the 
-->sorority —a sister widow.
 To be honest, I dreaded walking through the doors. No one wants to be pitied. Sad looks and people fumbling over their words makes me feel like I should apologize for my sorrow and for putting them on the spot. At times I feel like the Elephant Man, remember that story? It was a great movie as I recall. A terribly deformed man hid in dark corners and back alleys with a ratty hood over his head because he was so hideous looking. I have a hole in my chest where my heart once was, that can’t be pretty.
However, everyone who has tried to comfort me from home and afar have gently removed the hood touched my wound and has not looked away. I wish this for everyone whose life map has been torn in two. Good people. Church folk.
I am encouraging anyone out there in the blog-o-sphere who has lost their way to run not walk toward a family of Believers. They are different. They are Spirit-led. They think nothing of putting others before themselves. Their arms are outstretched, their dinner tables always have room for one more, and as they say in the south, they can be counted on when you drop your basket.
Good people. How could this hurting, tattered world survive without them? How would I survive without them? How would I survive without them? I couldn’t. I can’t. God is good.

Monday, December 9, 2013



Papa could multi-task as well.
I’ve always been a muti-tasker. It’s a skill that served me well in the workplace. From juggling three or four grant deadlines, to putting the finishing touches on a fund raising event as I prepared for a focus group or whatever. Juggling and organizing was the name of the game. Now, this skill is needed more than ever as I navigate my way through the grief process.
Just because I’m grieving doesn’t mean the world around me stops and waits for me to catch up. Other people’s lives go on and they still need and expect certain things from me. That is as it should be. In fact, being pulled out of my grief to focus on someone or something else is one of the tools of grief navigation. However, nobody said it would be easy.
As I write this I am with my mom for the holidays. My dad is in the hospital and we will be putting him into a nursing home in the coming weeks. Emotionally, I’m on the edge. I don’t feel all here, yet I must be. My mother needs me. My family needs me. I must be present, thoughtful and able to function in the best interest of those also in need—all the while still grieving the loss of my husband of a mere two months ago. Oh, not to mention it’s Christmas time which comes with its own emotional demands.
What I want to do is curl up into a ball with the covers over my head until spring. I want to lay low until the chill is gone, the snow melted and everyone is happy and well. But that’s fairy-tale stuff and my life is anything but a fairy tale right now. My life is gritty, painful and exhausting.
In the midst of all this emotional upheaval, why do I still feel hope fluttering in my chest, flickering like a tiny light just waiting for its cue? Why do I know that someday in the distant future, I will begin to feel normal again, sure it will be a new normal, but it will certainly be welcomed. After so much sorrow, how is it that I am able to feel the slightest little sprout of a new dream?
I have only one answer. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God says it will be so. I’m beginning to understand more and more how He works. How powerfully He loves. How little I’ve known about His nature until now. He sustains, not necessarily protects. He gives strength, not certain victory. He brings peace in the storm, but the storm may still come. In between sunrise and sunset He never leaves us. In the dark of the night, He comes closer still. While comforting, He also prepares us for battle. Talk about multi-tasking.
These are strange days for me with more strange days ahead I’m sure. As I grieve I find I must also serve. “I lift my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” Psalms 121:1

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Grief and Gratitude...

I didn’t think the holidays would affect me. I mean I already miss him, how could I miss him anymore than I already do? I was wrong. Holidays are the proverbial lion in sheep’s clothing for anyone who’s experiencing them for the first time after the death of a loved one. They are snide, vicious reminders of what you’ve lost. One minute you’re glazing the ham, then, wham! You’re bawling in the bathroom with a towel over your mouth. Traditions you’ve built together for years are now riddled with emotional land mines. Papa always made the dressing on Wednesday night with a grandchild or two helping him crumble the cornbread. This year, the handpicked, corny Christmas song mix he’d play as we decorated the tree the night after Thanksgiving, was at times like fingernails on a chalkboard. His recliner sat empty a lot. Last year four or more grandchildren at a time sat there at any given moment on Papa’s lap watching a movie on his iPad or iPhone. The huge, jagged hole of loss followed us all around like an invisible fanged menace.
However, it wasn’t all painful. As I watched the kids and grandkids chase each other around our beautiful three acres I was filled with gratitude. The Hubs had worked hard to provide this family with such lovely surroundings. From the stone fireplace to the one hundred trees he planted, all were gifts to us, his family, to enjoy for such a time as this. I found great comfort and peace as I spotted Gary everywhere. He was at the sink washing dishes, stoking the fire, wearing a Santa hat, carving the turkey, and dipping his finger into the freshly made whipping cream. The family he helped create and nurture filled every nook and cranny transforming this house into the home we always prayed for. Our two new girls, Nellie Rose born last Thanksgiving, and Katie Bobatie, who married into our family in September, had already given Gary great joy before he left us. Daughters-in-law, Sarah and Erin, had owned a piece of Gary’s heart for some time now. The seven other grandchildren were Papa’s delight and I saw him in all of them. Then there were our three boys, who have grown into Godly men, husbands and fathers. They have their dad’s sense of humor, many of his gestures, and above all else, his character.
No, the Hubs isn’t far off when we all gather. From Wednesday to Sunday our Thanksgiving and the beginnings of Christmas came and went. Tears were shed but, thankfully, laughter could still be heard in this house. The sweet remembrances of my husband, our dad, our Papa kept us leaning into the winds of grief and gratitude. With thanksgiving we celebrated what we once had and what we will have in the days and years ahead.
An empty chair at the table breaks anyone’s heart, but the loss should not over shadow the love so freely and richly given for so many years.
We’re about eight weeks into our grief now. No, it isn’t any easier. In some ways it’s worse. Yet, with the grace and faithfulness of our God, this family will continue to love, hug and lean….