Colors of Goodbye: A Memoir of Holding On, Letting Go, and Reclaiming Joy in the Wake of Loss

Colors of Goodbye: A Memoir of Holding On, Letting Go, and Reclaiming Joy in the Wake of Loss

Colors of Goodbye: A Memoir of Holding On, Letting Go, and Reclaiming Joy in the Wake of Loss

Colors of Goodbye: A Memoir of Holding On, Letting Go, and Reclaiming Joy in the Wake of Loss


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What happens after the worst happens?
Before May 31, 2008, September Vaudrey’s life was beautiful. But on that day, with one phone call from the ER, her whole world—everything she knew and believed—was shaken to the core. Katie, her 19-year-old artist daughter, had been in a car accident and would not survive. How does a family live in the wake of devastating tragedy? When darkness colors every moment, is it possible to find light? Can God still be good, even after goodbye?

With the depth of C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed and the poignancy of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Colors of Goodbye offers a moving glimpse into a mother’s heart. Combining literary narrative and raw reflection, September Vaudrey walks through one of life’s worst losses—the death of a child—and slowly becomes open to watching for the unexpected ways God carries her through it. It’s a story of love and tragedy in tandem; a deeply personal memoir from a life forever changed by one empty place. And at its core, Colors of Goodbye calls to the deepest part of our spirits to know that death is not the end . . . and that life can be beautiful still.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496408174
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
Publication date: 04/05/2016
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

September Vaudrey is a writer and content developer at Willow Creek Community Church. Along with her husband, Scott, September leads Life After Loss workshops, helping families learn how to understand, navigate, and heal from trauma. She lives in Hoffman Estates, Illinois.

AudioFile Earphones Award winner Coleen Marlo has earned numerous Publishers Weekly Listen-Up Awards and won an Audie Award for her narration of Snakewoman of Little Egypt by Robert Hellenga.

Read an Excerpt

Colors of Goodbye

A Memoir of Holding on, Letting Go, and Reclaiming Joy in the Wake of Loss

By September Vaudrey

Tyndale House Publishers

Copyright © 2016 September Vaudrey
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4964-0817-4


part one


[ver-'mil- yuhn] / a brilliant, scarlet red

The shocking, retina-searing red forces its way into our eyes. We cannot bear to look — but we cannot look away.

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us. GANDALF, THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING,


I want to leave ripples in the lives I leave behind.



2:50 P.M., SATURDAY, MAY 31, 2008

Katie races down the stairs and into the kitchen, where I am cutting brownies into squares.

"Mom! Where are my keys?" she asks, pulling on her black flats as she scans the room. "It's ten to three! I'm gonna be late!"

Even flustered, our nineteen-year-old daughter looks electric, her brown eyes sparkling with excitement about her first day as a summer waitress at Bandito Barney's, a sports bar fifteen minutes from our home in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Setting the brownie pan aside, I turn and help her scour countertops and tables piled high with desserts for the party we've been hosting since nine this morning — an end-of-year celebration for our church's drama team. Katie's sixteen-year-old brother, Sam, and fourteen-year-old sister, September (Tember for short), are members of the team. My friend Deanna, the team's director, continues to fill platters as I join Katie in her search.

"I can't believe I'm late!" Katie says, rifling through the key basket next to the fridge. "I've just been hanging out here all day long, waiting to go to work, but then at the last minute I got distracted and forgot to leave! Where are my keys?"

Katie rarely screws up like this. She's the creative type, to be sure — she's a painter majoring in studio art with a respectable portfolio already under her belt. But Katie's artsy personality has a heavy dollop of responsibility mixed in, which usually keeps lapses like this at bay. All morning, she helped me direct party details in the kitchen, which has been overflowing with the laughter and bustle of dozens of thespians, young and old.

Cohosting this event with Katie — our middle child, a month home from her freshman year at Azusa Pacific University — has filled me up. Once things quieted after lunch, she retreated to her bedroom to check Facebook and write messages to friends as she waited to leave for work. She lost track of time, and now she's going to be late.

I search through her purse — no keys — and then sling its strap over her shoulder. Katie checks her pants pockets for the keys, and then she rummages again through the key basket, digging deeper this time.

"Aha!" She raises her keys triumphantly from the basket. "Victory! Right where they belong! Okay, I'm off!"

She flashes an impish grin and rushes for the back door, past her dad who has come into the kitchen to see what the commotion is about. As she hurries by, Katie takes his hand, lifts it over her head, and does a quick pirouette.

"Bye, Daddy!" she calls.

"Bye, Bug," Scott replies, using her childhood nickname, Katiebug — Bug, for short. I follow to see her off.

I am struck by how especially terrific Katie looks today. What a beauty, inside and out. She's sporting a crisp, white blouse; jean capris; and a blue plaid men's tie she picked up at a thrift store, knotted loosely around her neck. She has her own hippie-esque sense of fashion and consistently looks adorable, whether in sweats or a skirt. But today, for some reason, I take note. Hair, makeup, the men's necktie — everything works.

"Thanks for all your help with the party, Katie. Have a great first day. You'll be fantastic!"

"Thanks, Mom! Bye!" she says, closing the door behind her. As I walk back toward the kitchen, I hear the door pop open again. "Aagh!" Katie says, her voice sharp, her eyes flashing. "Someone's car is blocking me in!" My daughter's world is either hot or cold — rarely in-between.

"All right already, Katie," I say. "Settle down."

"That's my car," Deanna says, looking out the back door at where Katie's Taurus is parked. "I'll move it!" She grabs her purse and hurries outside.

"Katie, don't take out your frustrations on others," I say. "It's no one's fault but your own that you're running late."

"I'm just so irritated!"

"No excuse for rudeness."


Deanna reenters the kitchen. "All set!" she says, grinning and bowing melodramatically. "Your path is clear!"

"Thanks, Deanna!" Katie says, sunny once again. "Thanks so much!"

I walk my daughter to her car — a '94 gold Ford Taurus she bought from a family friend. She climbs in, starts the engine, backs down the driveway, and pulls onto the street. I wave goodbye, but she is focused on the road ahead and doesn't notice. I stand there watching as she drives away. I wave again in case she looks in her rearview mirror, which she does not. Her Taurus pulls around the bend and out of sight.

It's almost three o'clock. With a fifteen-minute drive to her new job, she will indeed be late. I know she feels bad for losing track of the time — and on her first day, to boot. But they'll forgive her. Katie's genuine joy and playfulness have a way of winning people over, even new bosses who have every right to be angry.

Before I head back inside, I take a pass through the backyard. Deanna and her assistant, Brooke, have gathered everyone in a semicircle for their closing ceremony. They are presenting trophies — not for Best Actor and such, but for important character traits and effort. How rich to have this community of people in my kids' lives. It's been a picture-perfect day.

* * *

Five minutes later, Katie calls from her cell phone.

"Mom! I need to tell my boss I'm going to be late. Can you find Bandito Barney's phone number? It's on my desk."

"Sure, no problem." I run upstairs to her room, find the number, and read it aloud to her.

"Thanks, Mom. You're a lifesaver! I still can't believe I'm going to be late on my very first day!" She moans but then laughs. In her world, making low-cost mistakes is good story fodder — an opportunity to poke fun at herself later, once the crisis is averted.

"Don't speed, baby," I say. "They'll know you'll be late."

"I won't. Love you, Mama!"

"I love you, too."

The party ends, and I spend the next hour saying goodbye to the team. Only a few of Sam and Tember's friends remain.

My husband, Scott — the introvert — has been working from the sanctuary of our bedroom all day, reading, thinking, and avoiding the crowd. Formerly an attending emergency medicine physician in our hometown of Spokane, Washington, he left medicine six years ago to attend seminary. Now he is a pastor at Willow Creek Community Church, a large nondenominational church just outside Chicago. Days off are his chance to savor another good book and see if it sparks any new ideas he can employ at work or in his own life. And today is his kind of day — sunny, blue skies, warm breeze, and three of our kids at home. Sensing the coast is clear, he reappears in the kitchen.

"Need any help?" he asks, pouring himself a Diet Coke over ice.

"Nope, I think we've got it," I say. "But thanks." Book and soda in hand, he heads to our screened back porch, the Bug Room — no connection to Katie's nickname, but named, rather ironically, for being a refuge from Midwest mosquitoes.

* * *

Deanna and Brooke are helping to clean up in the kitchen. Sam is moving chairs, and Tember stands at the kitchen counter, cutting up lemons to make some fresh lemonade as she chats with one of her girlfriends. The phone rings again, and I pick up. "Hello?"

"Mrs. Vaudrey?"


"This is Nancy, the nurse administrator at Kane County Hospital. Your daughter has been brought in to the emergency department, and I need you to come down right away."

Her polite directness catches me off guard. I try to untangle her words. Daughter? Which daughter? I have three. Tember is here at the counter. Our oldest daughter, Bethany, twenty-one, and her brother Matt, twenty-three, are away at college in California. Is she talking about Katie? Kane County Hospital? That's not far. It must be Katie. Yes, Katie.

From my years as the wife of an emergency department physician, I know exactly what it means when an ER nurse calls the family and tells them only "come down right away." It means she has news that should not be shared over the phone. My mouth goes dry. It's against procedure for a nurse to give answers over the phone to the rapid-fire questions now surging into my mind. What happened? Is Katie badly hurt? Is she conscious? Is she ... alive?

I try to collect my thoughts. The bustle in the kitchen ceases, and all eyes turn to me. I glance at the clock — 4:10 p.m. I spoke to Katie on her cell around three. Whatever has happened, it has taken more than an hour to get her to the hospital and notify her family. Not a good sign.

"Mrs. Vaudrey? Will you come?"

"Oh. Yes. Okay, we'll be right down."

"Thank you, Mrs. Vaudrey."

"Wait — Nancy?"


"Was it a car accident?"

She hesitates. "Yes."

"We're on our way." I hang up the phone.

My body goes numb. I become small, and my skin turns cold. My tongue is thick and tingly, as if I'd stood up too fast and might pass out.

At that moment, at some core level, I know.



The autumn sun and azure sky couldn't mask the crisp bite in the air. In the garden, a few late raspberries clung to withering brambles. Out in the pasture, the brittle alfalfa stubble meant shoes were once again a necessity. Barefoot season was over. Autumn had come.

Big sister Bethany, six, and her school friend Mary had spent the afternoon exploring the fields that surround our house. They now wandered toward the large, deserted doghouse next to the garage — the perfect spot for a secret fort.

Little sister Katie played nearby, far enough away to honor her big sister's playtime with a friend but near enough to eavesdrop on their "big girl" conversations. She was wearing — as always — a dress with matching ribbons on her pigtails. Her love of girlish fashion outweighed her certainty that fresh scratches on her unprotected legs would sting in the bathtub later that night.

Scott was reading on the back deck and I was rinsing dishes at the kitchen sink when Bethany's shrill, panicky cries pierced the afternoon calm. I dropped my sponge and bolted toward her screams. Scott was one step ahead of me. By the time we crossed the lawn and rounded the garage, the three girls were racing toward us.

"What's the matter? What happened?" I asked, pulling Bethany close and searching for cuts or bruises.

"Bees! I got attacked by bees!" she said. Angry red welts were already rising on her tear-streaked face and trembling hands. Scott scooped her into his arms, and we hurried to the house where he could inspect her more closely. Beestings in large quantity on a young child were no small matter. Once inside, I pulled the Benadryl from the bathroom cupboard and checked on newborn Tember, swaddled and asleep on the sofa, oblivious.

In the calm of the kitchen — with Mary, Katie, eight-year-old Matt, and little brother Sam looking on — Bethany recounted her ordeal.

"We were playing in the doghouse, and all of a sudden these bees just started attacking me! They went under my shirt and in my hair!" Bethany turned and looked squarely at her little sister. "But Katie killed them all!" she said proudly.

All eyes turned to Katie, her hair ribbons still daintily in place, her dress unmussed. She smiled and looked down.

"Mary just stood there," Bethany said, a hint of betrayal in her voice. Poor Mary grinned awkwardly. "But Katie came running and just started swatting the bees. They were flying everywhere! But she kept swatting my head and my shirt until she killed all the bees!"

Upon inspection, Scott counted half a dozen welts on Bethany, and he pulled seven dead yellow jackets out of her hair — and even more from under her shirt.

But Katie hadn't been stung — not even once.

In the moment of crisis, Bethany had screamed in pain. Mary had frozen. But Katie had charged in, systematically defending her sister by swatting and killing more than a dozen yellow jackets with her bare hands.

Katie was four years old.


4:12 P.M., SATURDAY, MAY 31

I steady myself against the counter by the kitchen phone. I blink, straighten my back, and turn to face the kids. Sam and Tember stare, motionless. Deanna and I lock eyes.

"What's the matter?" Tember asks, setting down a lemon and her knife. Sam and Tember step closer.

I don't want to believe what my gut is telling me. And without more information about Katie's condition, I don't want to overreact and freak out the kids. Perhaps Katie is fine and Nurse Administrator Nancy is an idiot at protocol. So I choose my words carefully.

"Katie's been in a car accident," I say, "and the hospital would like us to come down right away." I pray Deanna will interpret the unspoken meaning behind these words.

She gets it. "You go. I'll take care of things here. Go!"

Sam's face turns white. Tember's eyes catch mine and fill with tears. Afraid my face will betray my attempts at nonchalance, I avert my gaze.

"C'mon, kids," Deanna says. "Let's gather up and pray for Katie." She and Brooke begin circling everyone together.

I walk past them toward the French doors that separate our family room from the Bug Room. Through the glass, I see Scott rocking in his favorite chair, reading, enjoying the beautiful day, at peace. I grasp the cool brass door handle, but pause. We are in two different worlds separated by these doors. I twist the handle, crashing into his world so I can drag him into mine.

Scott looks up, dark eyes blinking and brow furrowed as he reins in his thoughts from his book and turns to me.

"Kane County Hospital just called," I say. "Katie's been brought in. Car accident. They want us to come down right away." Without moving his eyes from mine, Scott sets down his book. I keep my voice steady. Perhaps I am overreacting. I don't want to sway the jury with what I'm about to say next: "The nurse gave me no details. Just 'Come down.'"

The color drains from his face.

For a brief second, we look at each other in silence, aware that with one phone call, our lives may have changed forever. How many times as an ER physician had Scott asked a nurse to make such a phone call to another person's family as he worked to save their loved one? Now he is on the receiving end of such a message. He, too, interprets the nurse's glaring omission of details as an ominous sign. She offered no "She's stable," no "Her injuries are not life threatening" — not even a "She's being taken to surgery." Just "You need to come down right away."

Scott closes his eyes, motionless, and then I see a slight flinch in his jaw.

He understands.

He stands to his feet, steps past me, and pushes through the French doors.

Tember meets him. "Can Sam and I come?" she asks, pleading in her voice.

"No." He heads to our bedroom for his shoes.

Okay, then. I'd be inclined to bring the kids with us and keep everyone together, whatever this afternoon might hold. But a hospital ER is Scott's world. He knows better than I do what we may be facing.

"You guys stay put," I say, trying to sound upbeat as I grab my purse. "We'll call you as soon as we know more."

"We'll take care of everything here," Deanna reassures me.

Scott returns to the kitchen, grabs his keys from the basket, picks up his cell phone, and feels his back pocket for his wallet. Sam and Tember stare, silent.

"Go," says Deanna.

I kiss the top of Tember's silky head and squeeze Sam's arm. Then Scott and I walk out the door. Seconds later, we are en route to the hospital — a thirty-minute drive.

Out of earshot of the kids, I want to hear it straight from Scott. Am I overreacting? Have I misinterpreted Nancy's silence?


Excerpted from Colors of Goodbye by September Vaudrey. Copyright © 2016 September Vaudrey. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

"But One" ix

Foreword xi

Part 1 Vermillion We Cannot Look Away 1

Part 2 Payne's Grey Just Enough Light 47

Part 3 Indigo above the Deep-Blue-Abyss 103

Part 4 Burnt Sienna Setting the Stage 165

Part 5 Cadmium-Green Light A Cacophony of Color 215

Part 6 Cerulean Blue Warm and Gentle Days 243

Epilogue: Hansa Yellow With joy 271

Gallery 282

About the Art 287

Discussion Questions 291

Septembers Selected Resources on Grief and Loss 295

Leave Ripples: Two Ways to Give Life 297

Acknowledgments 299

About the Author 303

Explore Katie's Art Portfolio 304

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