Monday, January 10, 2022

Strength

We are approaching the one-year mark of Anne-Marie's death. (I hate using the word "anniversary" in the context of tragedy. I think it should be reserved for happy occasions.) As we move through these last few days before the day, I wanted to post some loose thoughts that needed to land here on the blog, but hadn't found their place as of yet.

Anne-Marie had everything she needed all on her own. She had a good family, was artistically talented, got good grades. She didn't need me.

Part of the reason I write these things is because I believe that over these last several years, I've gotten credit for all kinds of things that had so little to do with me. Anne-Marie was strong. She placed herself in positions to be successful in life before I was there to share it with her. (And I hope I'm not misunderstood. I've found that sometimes a subject like this can be communicated in a way that makes the opposite point of what was intended.)

People for years talked about us as "high school sweethearts". Mostly true, but what people either forget or don't know is that we broke up after high school for a good amount of time. Why? Because, going into my 20s, I had stuff I needed to figure out inside myself. It was the ultimate "it's not you, it's me" because it was indeed 100% me.

By the time we were both headed toward college, we were headed back toward each other, but she would have gone to college regardless of whether I'd shown up again. She did well in college and went on to a career as a dental assistant. It was an extremely challenging environment. Anne-Marie had stories of things she went through in those first few years that--as her new husband listening to them at the dinner table--were as much as I could take. I was ready to drive to the office and bust some people up.

I didn't do that because I didn't have to. Anne-Marie could handle her own business and she did. Eventually, things got better and she grew in that position. She became the lead assistant until 2006 when she was diagnosed with cancer.

She beat back cancer and a year later she was back in her position at the dental office. Her whole upper body had been re-built through a couple of surgeries and she was experiencing pain that would never leave her because of it. Work just amplified it.

She loved that job and only left in 2009 because she wanted to care for her two newly-adopted children. How do I know she loved it? Because by 2015, after eight more surgeries and two more reconstructions, she was considering going back to work in a dental office during the hours the kids were in school.

The year 2016 trampled those plans when the doctors told Anne-Marie that her cancer had returned and would remain until it took her life. That was the year they officially qualified her as "disabled", though the government told us the label should have been applied four years earlier. Of course, she wasn't about make that phone call back in 2012. 

Of course, all kinds of treatments and procedures came along with 2016 and Anne-Marie lost some of those artistic skills she had when I first met her. Her singing voice went away with the treatments. Surgeries had taken her ability to play the piano--which she did so beautifully for 30 years--without intense pain. But "disability" isn't near as disabling as it sounds sometimes.

In 2017 we decided to buy a house and along with that, Anne-Marie elected to homeschool our daughter. This was a new benchmark of crazy for her. As hard as it was, it only ended by being ripped from her grasp in early 2018 when her oncologist told her the next surgery was for a tumor in her brain and would require months of recovery.

I think it took those 16-1/2 years of being married for her to really need me to get by on a daily basis. She'd taken cancer to the mat three times and won all three. Up to that point in 2018, she would even tell me how there was only one tumor left (it was a huge one in her lung) that she was just waiting for God to take away and finish the work He'd already started.

For sure, there were times I pushed her to give it one more try, but others I would look at her like she was out of her mind. The last few years of her life was probably a bit more of the latter.

When that consistent strength began to fade in 2018, I knew our lives were changing. I still saw it fairly often, but the vibrancy faded down into a more muted and contemplative tone. I could hear it when she would ask me to pray for her, when she would ask me to keep believing.

I still see it today sometimes in the hearts of her children and I'm reminded that strength like than can never remain isolated as a thing of observation alone. It's transferable. Her strength became theirs. Became ours, really. I count it as the most special gift.




Friday, December 31, 2021

We Are Not Destroyed

The Apostle Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians that we are "troubled on every side...perplexed...persecuted...cast down, but not destroyed."

Who is? We are. Specifically: God's people are. Not the people God forgot about. Not the ones who messed up a little bit. Not the ones God loves less. We are.

Everyone has their 2021 story and ours is a novel mostly of tragedy and crisis. (I made that pretty clear in my last post.) If group therapy taught me anything this year, it's that I'm not alone in my pain and if the Apostle Paul is to be believed, it's something we all go through. Even people God loves.

A year ago on New Year's Day, I wrote about "missing miracles". Those things are still missing.  In fact, the posters I hung on the telephone poles are curled up and faded. The phone calls with false hope have stopped coming in. I'm not sure about all that stuff Paul said, but I've certainly been pretty perplexed in 2021.

But my favorite part of this Scripture is "cast down, but not destroyed," because that really speaks to where we've been this year. Not forgotten, not unloved, but cast down. 2021 was that necessary reminder that down doesn't lose the title fight, tackled doesn't end the football game and behind doesn't disqualify the racer.

We are not destroyed and because we are not destroyed that means we're moving forward.

So come on, 2022. What do you got?



Monday, December 20, 2021

Hope Comes in Size 7: A Story of (the) Last Christmas

By the time we got to December of last year, things looked dark. Nothing that the doctors were trying was working. The terms and timelines being used in the process stopped matching any of the reality we were living. Daily life became more about making sure Anne-Marie could function as comfortably as possible and pushing for more time.

That time was Christmastime. By now, I've discovered that I've mentally blocked out a large portion of what happened in December of 2020, but there is one small story from last Christmas that I'll always tell:

It was the week before Christmas and I was behind on everything. Now I had to find a gift for my wife for what appeared to be the least-promising future we'd ever faced. Or should I? Why? Anne-Marie's life consisted of me pushing her in a wheelchair to the car and then from the car to the clinic. 

Every year, most of us give gifts to children, but not many of us prioritize buying stuff for those 70 and 80-year-olds in our lives, no matter how much we love them. It isn't until you live in a place like we were that you realize every gift given is with a view of a world that is growing. Our world was shrinking.



It was getting hard to leave the house even for a little bit, especially considering the pandemic that was raging at the time. I weighed the risks, decided against a shopping trip and started looking online.

I wanted it to be something that was really nice and I somehow decided that Anne-Marie needed a pair of shoes. She hadn't worn heels for a few years because of her health issues, so I needed a nice pair of flats. I wasn't sure such a thing existed, but a Google search lead me to several top 10 lists which lead me to Nordstrom.com. Nordstrom's shipping window was just quick enough to get me what I needed.

I was excited for Anne-Marie to open her gift.  She tore off the wrapping paper and was surprised to find the pair of beautiful flats. I told her, "They're for when you walk again. I thought you'd need something comfortable for church that still looked nice."

For when you walk again.

In the time since, there's not five words that I've ever uttered that have both haunted and challenged me like those five have. Because Anne-Marie took the shoes out of that box and I helped her try them on.  Then she wrapped them back up in all the shoe stuff they give you and put them back in the box and never touched them again for the remaining 30 days of her life.

She never walked again.

I can tell you truthfully that in whatever alternate reality I was living in that moment that ignored all the outward evidence and impossible odds that I believed what I said. I could see her in those shoes walking into church on a Sunday morning. I could see us celebrating that 20th anniversary. I could see her watching the kids enter their teen years. I could see it through eyes of faith.

You may think that's crazy talk, but I'll say something even crazier. What I saw that day was what I want to see every day. Even after a year where my past, present and future has been completely shattered, I want to learn to live in that place where I look toward the impossible with eyes of expectation.

Below are my much-less inspiring follow-up thoughts. If the post above was enough for you, just leave it at that. It's fine.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Last First Thanksgiving

I'm not moping, I'm thankful. Still, the holidays are just hard because best of all memories happen this time of year and it hurts to think of the old ones with her and the new ones without her. 

I cannot sidestep that particular pain. This, like all other stages of this mess, is another part the people left behind are required to face.  

I went to group counseling for the last time a month ago and at the end of the session they asked what it was that I learned.  I said, "I learned that you either heal and move forward or you move forward without healing, but either way you move forward."  The one way is just far superior to the other.  

(It’s not a concept I came up with. I was just repeating back what other people had taught me in my own simplified form.) 

I kind of hate it because what I really want is for things to never change.  I want it to stay as frozen in 2021 as possible so I can hold on to what was.  Why is that not an option? 

But it’s not and that’s one of life’s great mercies. Time never gets stuck. It’s just us. 

Thank God my kids’ school didn’t stop on January 24th. And that work projects still came in with brand new deadlines that carried me into the spring. Summer came with all the activities and energy that our family loves. And here we are in fall. 

Today is the last first Thanksgiving without her. I can never redo this day, but look at it another way: I never have to redo this day.  If the last 10 months have taught me anything, it’s that the pain will come. And our family's goal has never been to hurt as little as possible, but to heal as well as possible. 

I think we’re getting there and I’m thankful. 

Friday, September 24, 2021

Peg Solitaire and Single Parenting

You guys know the game. You're at a hole-in-the-wall diner before smartphones existed. Breakfast has been ordered (even though it's noon) and you know you have a solid 30 minutes to kill because there's a half dozen orders in front of you that want that same chicken fried steak you asked for.

The cook can only move so fast, so you wait at your table with a glass of ice water, salt and pepper shakers, a sugar holder with white, blue and pink packets and--if you're lucky--a plastic Smucker's caddy that still has some Seedless Blackberry in it. And peg solitaire.

Peg solitaire doesn't have the sophistication of card solitaire games like Spider or FreeCell. No. Peg solitaire is multiple rounds (about 30 minutes worth) of hilarious futility. This is the game where you end up laughing at yourself because you can't seem to quite get what appears to be a simple concept.

Oooh, I know. I'll jump here. Wait. No.

Here, then here, then here and...

OK. Three pegs left.  I almost win!

Steve Fishman (CC by 2.0)

Let's start over with the empty hole at the corner.  

From here to here to here. 

No. No, that's not right. Right here. NO. Seriously?

---

This is what single parenting is like every day. It doesn't seem like such a complicated thing. The end goal is right there in front of me. Somehow I keep running out of moves but I never run out of pegs.

Days happen, the clock spins and somehow stuff just gets past me. Come on. I'm better than that! Let's go again cuz we got this! 

(by 11 PM the next day) REALLY? It's like that!?!

Next day: Nope.

The next day: What?

The day after that: Two pegs to go and I almost win!!!

Yet another day: Is my chicken fried steak here yet?

I'm outnumbered. I'm tired. There's small details and intricacies of life that are no longer even considerations. Every seam is strained with necessity. Options are no longer optional. Out of moves, but the pegs are still in their places and they're laughing at me.

Can I tell you that I enjoy it? For some reason in this short season of life, I'm here playing the near-unwinnable game that was never meant to be a solo endeavor, but God has placed me at this table for a little while. And He's given me something to do. Something seemingly futile, but somehow there's laughter and love and understanding.

I cannot tell you the newly-gained respect I have for the single parents that I know. Especially, considering that so many of them I know are doing it well. In all of these amazing stories, I just think a lot of times the joy gets lost between the order and the steak.

---

A few months ago I was talking with a fellow single parent trying to understand what it is I could do better. During the conversation, I told them how amazing their kids were and how much I admired them as a family. My friend replied with two words:

I've tried.

Same, my friend. Same.

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

20 (I Wanted This)

Today would have been our 20th anniversary.  Why do I feel selfish for saying that I wanted this?

What's strange is that if we went back nine months ago to Christmas Day--a month before I lost her--I would have told you that we would make it to today.  How could I have been so na├»ve?  All the signs were there, but I just knew we could go one more round.  It couldn't be over.  She was too strong and I was too determined to not let that happen.

And we were stuck on 19. No one wants to be stuck on 19.  You don't party because it's your junior year.  They don't throw you a parade when you win the primary election but lose the general.  The date can't end on appetizers.

I wanted this.  If only so she could prove one last time that this spiteful, heartless, family-destroying disease couldn't determine our destiny.  To prove (for maybe egotistical reasons) that we kept that commitment to each other for two decades.  There's more we needed to prove.

And I wanted that one more trip.  That one more stroll down the Riverwalk.  One more memory.  To be able to say "We did it."  We hit that milestone of that number with that zero on the end.  There's more we needed to do.

Maybe we could have renewed our vows.  Or taken that second honeymoon we'd talked about so much.  Made a little photo album of each year with one of those internet services.  It's all so pointless and punishing to think about now.  There's more we needed to share.

19 years, 4 months, 16 days.  

We were close, but not that close and it hurts.

---

Last weekend, I took the kids, some friends and my mom back to Astoria to stay on the Columbia River, practically next door to where Anne-Marie and I stayed a year ago.  The city was full of Labor Day vacationers but to me it was a collection of snapshots of only one person.  Anne-Marie told me that the best memories of her entire life were found on those streets.

I was surprised that I couldn't feel angry or cheated.  What I had was 19 years of happy memories.  All of them happy.  One year less than I wanted, but 19 more than so many are given.  While the whole thing had an essence of wrongness to it, there was a sense of wonder in knowing that this urban scrapbook told the story of a (half?) life well-lived.

Like the fireworks show you wanted to last forever or the novel you couldn't put down.  You were mad when they ended but only because it was all so great.  Could you blame it for being wonderful?  And if it went by too fast, why?  Were you caught up in it?  I hope you were.

I love you forever, Anne-Marie.

Us throwing 20 roses for 20 years into the Columbia River