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Like many others who have lost a loved one to premature death, Jim faced the difficult challenge of going on with his life. As folded socks, toothbrushes, and shampoo became near-sacred objects, Jim wondered why God had not prevented Peg's death. In this collection of poignant essays, Jim not only ...
Like many others who have lost a loved one to premature death, Jim faced the difficult challenge of going on with his life. As folded socks, toothbrushes, and shampoo became near-sacred objects, Jim wondered why God had not prevented Peg's death. In this collection of poignant essays, Jim not only shares the thoughts and feelings that express his sorrow as he walked through the journey of grief, but also provides insight and sensitivity into the workings of God and how He provides assurance and courage, even in the face of great tragedy. Written in two parts-aftermath and individuation-Jim details the beginning of his solitary life, how he muddled through the holidays and other firsts, and how he learned to establish his individuality, separate and distinct from whom he had become with his wife.
For anyone traveling through the darkness after the shadow of death, Letting Go of Forever touches the soul, inspires a broken heart, and encourages the belief that better days will come.
Today has been my first day alone. The last of my family has gone home and I am now facing the grim reality of life on my own, without Peg. I expected this to be difficult, but I had not reckoned with God. Why God does what He does, I cannot comprehend. He did not choose to spare Peg's life and cure her cancer or even send it into remission for some years. Yet He sent someone to ring my doorbell just as my lunch finished heating in the microwave.
I answered the door and found a man standing there with a book in his hand-one of those people whose religion compels them to interrupt lunches and other important things while they pedal their publications and their faith, I assumed. He introduced himself and said he had learned from his pastor that I had just lost my wife. He had come to bring me a copy of a book I might find helpful, C. S. Lewis's, A Grief Observed. It had been helpful to him since his wife's death at age 53 just a month ago. My whole demeanor changed in an instant.
I was going to begin reading that very same book as soon as I finished my lunch. I had found my copy the night before among my collection of books-to-read-someday. It came to mind shortly after Peg's death and I was sure it was my reading assignment as soon as I would be on my own. But when I went to look for it, I couldn't find it where I thought it was among my unread collection in the parsonage. So I searched for it in my library at the church office. But it was not there either. Perhaps I had disposed of it the last time I thinned out my over-growing prospects. I remember looking at it several times and thinking, why would I want to read about someone else's misery? Now I knew.
Knowing that it was now a must-read book, I went to a Christian bookstore hoping to find a copy, and since their last one had been sold earlier that day, I ordered one. But after I got home that evening, further thought sent me back to the bookshelves, and there it was. On closer scrutiny, I found it in a color and size I had not pictured in my mind's eye on the earlier search.
My visitor was now bringing me the copy the bookstore had sold earlier that day, to him. I declined to accept it suggesting that someone else might benefit from it since I now had one in hand and another on the way. But I invited him in and we talked for awhile about the illnesses our wives had suffered and what our experiences of grief had been like thus far. We parted, both a little encouraged, with names and phone numbers leaving me with the hope that we might talk again.
But the widower with the book wasn't the only one God had lined up for the day. About noon a phone call from my son, Mike, had been the first contact from the outside in my now empty world. I talked longer than necessary about the arrangements we were making to schedule an appointment for the following day to consider a gravestone and about things that could easily have waited until we were together. Mike thoughtfully let me ramble filling some of the void of the day.
In the late afternoon another phone caller was a parishioner-friend, who asked could he stop by and drop off some videotapes of Peg's funeral service. When he arrived, he could have handed them to me at the door, but he accepted my invitation into the family room. Our conversation struck a rhythm between events surrounding Peg's death, my future, and events in his own life and family. It was therapeutic to delve into the hard things I was facing, then periodically withdrawing into the reality of on-going life.
A few moments ago my sister, Nancy, called to let me know she and mom had arrived safely after traveling the nearly 500 miles home. And now my first day at home alone without Peg is nearing an end. I didn't accomplish much-just a few household chores and a little reading. It had a few difficult moments, but not as many as I imagined there could be. God has ministered to me through the people who came and called as well as in the reading of the book, which I did begin. There will be days that are more difficult, I suppose, even if someone comes or calls. But the Lord has launched me into this new existence with some assurance. I just can't say I'm pleased He didn't prevent it in the first place.
* * *
Grief is so unpredictable. Wednesday proved it. For the first time since her burial, I went to Peg's grave. I had driven the 60 miles from the tri-city area where I continue to live, to meet with my son, Mike, his wife Becky, and their local funeral director to select a gravestone. With that completed, the three of us went the additional dozen miles to the little rural township cemetery we have all chosen for family burial, which is near one of the first churches I served and the family farm where Becky grew up.
I had imagined it would be difficult emotionally to visit Peg's grave for the first time. But it wasn't-at least not in the way I had expected. There was, of course, the fresh sand mounded over the grave mixed with stones of assorted sizes. I could visualize the wooden casket below the ground in the vault and her body, as I last saw it, inside. But any surge of horror was immediately overruled by the realization that the real person she had become was no longer there and the fact of her physical burial stirred more dull resignation in me than anything.
What disturbed me most were the remains of the flowers cast upon the center of the gravesite, probably by the cemetery workers as they finished their task. The flowers were now withered and disheveled and seemed like a comment on the final sum of the meaning of Peg's life and my regard for her. I was extremely disappointed that I had not thought to bring something fresh and vital to put in their place-something that would make a statement that there was still beauty, life, and love above ground and above earth. Becky was coming to the city the next day, and she offered to pick out something appropriate for the season and see that it was put in place when she returned. Though I was very thankful for Becky's intentions, I left the cemetery feeling more than anything vaguely depressed and disappointed with myself.
As we left the cemetery, I was thinking the most difficult part of the day was behind me, but it was still to come. We returned to their home where I would stay for supper. After visiting for awhile, we gathered at the table. Everyone sat in their usual places where we always sat when Peg and I came for a meal, except a friend of our grandson's was also coming for supper and he was to be seated where Peg usually sat. But when time came for the meal, we learned he had already eaten, and so he went home to do some chores until we were finished. His clean dishes were picked up and put away. Alone on my side of the table, Peg's absence was conspicuous to me. Besides that, for me to be at our son's home without her was something very rare. She never missed a chance to be with them and would have envied my being with the grandchildren without her.
The meal and the visit were good but the ride home was lonesome. Not only was the passenger seat empty, but so would the house be when I arrived at home. Previously those rides home meant more than an hour of time to talk over our visit, appreciate our family, and enjoy our companionship. I missed her desperately as I drove alone through the farmland that had become so familiar to both of us. The tape of Christian music I listened to ministered to me but the reason I needed to be ministered to was all too real. I hadn't expected the difficult things of the day to come from where they did.
* * *
"She's gone!!!" I find myself saying that out loud every now and then. "She's gone!!! I can't believe she's gone!" During Peg's illness things kept going wrong. She was diagnosed with lymphoma, but before she could begin chemotherapy, she needed to be treated for bone cancer. She received fourteen radiation treatments over a large area of her spine and pelvis. She seemed to be coming along OK, considering all she had been through with three previous hospitalizations, one for a severe reaction to a pain medication, and the other two for unmanageable and escalating back pain. After the radiation, she was beginning to keep her food down without the help of medication. But then she got so very tired and felt extremely crummy. After a phone call to her radiologist, she went for blood tests and we found her hemoglobin was down to 6.2 when it should have been at least 10. She received two units of blood.
Then her stomach began bothering her more. She couldn't lie on her left side and it was getting uncomfortable to be on her back as well. She began to feel generally worse and she never did find the recovery everyone predicted the new blood would give. She was admitted to the hospital and tests revealed she had fluid on the lungs. She was put on oxygen to ease her breathing, and after removal of nearly two liters from one lung, she was totally exhausted.
Then her kidneys shut down and her doctors tried treating that with medication to get them restarted. But there were signs that there was fluid in her abdomen area as well. When the subject of other procedures was broached, she said adamantly, with somewhat slurred speech because she was getting so weak, "No more! Every time I have something done, something else goes wrong." And she was right. She had reached her limit. She'd never have been able to stand more invasive procedures. If the medication didn't work, she'd had enough. It didn't and within two days, she died.
Twice during the whole ordeal she said to me, "I just want to go home." One night she said it while she was laying on the bed we had set up for her in the family room so she didn't have to go upstairs, which eventually she was unable to do anyway. She was in obvious distress, struggling to find a comfortable position. Her tired soulful eyes got a far away look in them that scared the wits out of me, as she said to me, "I just want to go home." I never saw that look again after that and I sometimes wonder if some part of her didn't begin leaving that night.
We talked. She was worried about me-if I would be OK. Of course I wouldn't without her! But I couldn't tell her that. With tears that betrayed my feelings I struggled to tell her I loved her and if she needed to go, it was OK. We hugged and cried. That was the hardest thing I ever said because I knew if I said it I had to mean it. With my mind I knew I needed to say those words and let her go but I'm still trying to say them with my heart.
So I'll try to say them again! It's OK. Peg, it's OK that your body, which hardly ever slowed you down-even with occasional aches and pains-it's OK that it no longer has you sidelined just trying to survive and to keep from suffering with the illness and side effects of the treatments and medicines. It's OK that your legs that once took you scurrying about the house and the church doing all that you managed to do, that pedaled your mountain bike over miles of back roads and old railroad beds-it's OK that they are no longer so weak that they could no longer support you to get you off your bed in order to conduct your bodily functions. It's OK that your hands that once played beautiful organ solos for worship, contemporary keyboard in the Praise Band, and made the keyboard of the office computer chatter at speeds no one else could come close to-it's OK that they are no longer cold and pale and unable to carry even a few ice chips to your mouth to soothe its dryness. It's OK! You needed to go home, and it's OK!
But she's gone! She's gone!!! The Lord has been reminding me to say, when that realization strikes me unawares which it can at any moment, not just that "She's gone," but that "She's gone home!" She's gone to be with her Lord and He has saved her, not from her disease, but out of her disease.
At Peg's funeral, my district superintendent, Rev. Tom Robinson, talked about things that cancer cannot do like destroying love, hope, and faith, that it couldn't harm all the memories present at that moment. And he assured us it couldn't stop resurrection.
So Peg is not just gone, she's gone on to the new life our Lord has promised. And I'm trying to say, not just "She's gone!" but "She's gone home!!!" I pray that saying that will somehow lessen the pain of her absence and give me a sense of her presence where one day I shall be present too, by the grace and mercy of God!
* * *
After his wife died, C. S. Lewis said everything had this vague sense of wrongness about it as though something was amiss. Even when he wasn't thinking about her, there was this sense that things were not right. I agree. Peg has left a hole in virtually everything, even the things that we did not do together.
Late yesterday afternoon I cut the grass in the front of the house. I could sense something wasn't right even while I was absorbed in the mowing. Often I would cut the lawn before supper and so I would be conscious of needing to finish in time to be ready to eat when Peg would have the meal on the table. But yesterday there was no meal being readied while I cut the lawn-there was no one preparing it. That's what was amiss.
After worship this morning, church friends invited me to join them for lunch in a local restaurant. The topics of discussion around the table were various and I was grateful for the companionship. Though no one mentioned Peg until later in the mealtime, it just didn't seem right to be there and I'm sure it's because I was without her.
This afternoon I went for a bike ride. I used to do that by myself, a half-hour ride, just for exercise. That's what I did today, and though I've often done it before, it just wasn't right somehow. Of course, we often biked together on Sunday afternoons and some summer evenings just for the joy of it, using our headset communicators to talk to each other as we rode. Maybe that had something to do with things not seeming right on today's exercise run.
I suppose, in part, all this is because she had become a factor in every action, every decision, every nuance of life, even though I sometimes didn't give her conscious consideration. How my life effected hers needed to be taken into account. After all, we had become one as God said we should. "But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh," (Mark 10:6-8 NRSV). In fact, it wasn't so much our becoming one by our own doing as God's making us one because we were married. When God said "the two shall become one flesh" He wasn't giving an instruction so much as pronouncing an outcome of living together in daily interaction and intimacy.
It seems to me extremely unfair to put two people together in a relationship that will bond them together at the deepest levels of their being, and to then tear them apart leaving the survivor stricken and in despair. God warns us not to do such things. "Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate," (Mark 10:9 NRSV). Evidently God intends to reserve that prerogative for Himself, however unfair it may seem.
If it is intended to teach us about intimacy, it works. Of course, God desires intimacy with us too, intimacy that will never end through Christ, which is expressed in the language of marital intimacy in the New Testament-the Church is called the bride of Christ and Jesus is described as the bridegroom coming for His bride. Then perhaps there is some redeeming quality to this separation if God's intent is to impress upon us what real intimacy is. But it seems like a painful lesson on the human level that most people don't really get anyway.
This much I do know. A husband or wife cannot be god for the other-only God through Jesus Christ can meet the ultimate needs of our souls. I have been reminded of that through this experience. There is so much stress on marriage these days because couples expect a partner to fulfill their every need and no husband or wife can do that. Perhaps I had become more reliant on Peg than I realize with my sense of well-being dependent upon her. But if I did not hurt when she hurt, suffer when she suffered, or die in some sense when she died, where is the oneness? It does seem unfair to put us into such deep intimacy that operates at levels we hardly grasp until we are wrenched apart simply to make us aware of our own lack of self-sufficiency or the other's insufficiency for us.
Excerpted from Letting Go of Forever by Jim Rule Copyright © 2009 by Jim Rule. Excerpted by permission.
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