Friday, August 29, 2008

...'tis grace...

"'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far.
And grace will lead me home."

I have a tattoo. Sorry Grandma(s). I got it in college... spring break my senior year. I "earned the money" for it via a bet/ dare that took either a lot of guts or a lot of stupidity, or maybe a lot of both. (I'll let curiosity and imagination fill in the rest of the details.) I figured the perfect thing to do with the fifty bucks I "won" by achieving such a task was to do something equally as stupid and gutsy. So I got a tattoo. It didn't take long for me to decide what it was that I wanted to put on my back, just above my left shoulder blade. Nothing big. Nothing cliche' like barbed wire or anything like that... It wasn't supposed to make me look tough... I wanted to simply "forever mark my skin"... with something that had made me who I was, and forever would be the "mark" of my life.

charis Or, more accurately, "xapis". (it's the best my keyboard can do-- don't know the HTML code for the Greek alphabet. Sorry.)

Pronounced "CARE-iss". Or sometimes "kah-REES", depending on who you ask.

It's the Greek word for "grace". Defined: Actually... I can't define it in a sentence. Read Phillip Yancey's "What's So Amazing About Grace?" That's the best definition I can give you. It's the single concept that defines my faith, my world-view, my relationships, my God, my life. Grace is the difference that Jesus brought to the world-- the part of God that had up to then been virtually unknown to the masses-- and unfortunately, the part of God that still much of the world is not exactly "tuned in" to. Grace is forgiveness. Grace is unconditional love. Grace is turning the other cheak, when the world tells you to strike back. Grace is not only seeing, but EMBRACING the "other" point of view. Grace is the blood of a "whole" and sinless man dripping from a brutal cross, shed for the cleansing and redemption of broken and sinful men. It's the only thing that made sense to mark for "forever" on my back. Grace is worship in the middle of the Thunderstorm-- oh the depths of that metaphor, going back to the 8/23 memorial service!!

Grace has brought me through so much. I learned the concept during my adolescence. It was during that time of my life that I came to realize the depths of my own flaws, and the greater depths of God's love for me in spite of me. It's how I learned to deal with those whose life goal it seemed to me was to make my life as miserable as possible. It's in grace that I have accepted and given thanks for my many blessings. My "easy" life, up to a year ago. Grace has indeed brought me "safe thus far". And, even in reflection of my last entry-- the thoughts and feelings of which still burden my heart and mind-- it's grace that will lead me home. His grace is sufficient for my every need. He will provide relief when it's relief that I need. He will provide an opportunity to cry out and mourn, when that's what my soul needs, in order to feel connected to Leslie, and to experience my love that remains for her.

It is grace that will bring hundreds of people together tomorrow-- many of whom Leslie never even met-- to celebrate my wife's life and blessing she was and continues to be to this world and Heaven alike. Grace will be what I experience when I again feel filled up and energized by the kind words, hugs, and mere presence of that community-- Christ's body. Grace will unfold the road before me as I drive back home afterward, seemingly closer still to my best friend, my love, my Leslie.

Can't wait to be there, in the very tangible presence of God's grace tomorrow...

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

To fill the void, or to be poured out?

I found myself trying to pray, as I took Jack on his abbreviated walk (always within sight of the house) after TJ fell asleep tonight. The void seems overwhelming tonight. I miss her so much. And I just didn't know what to pray.

I asked if He would give her a giant hug and tell her how much I miss her. But no... I don't want her to grieve, as if grieving were even possible in Heaven. So maybe... just tell her I can't wait to be with her. I'm ready, God. Take me now. Let me be with her again. Let me be free of this burden. But no... TJ needs me here. But surely God would provide if He were to reunite us "prematurely"...?? No... stop the crazy thoughts. TJ needs me, and I wouldn't trade these few short years for anything. I just want to cherish every moment...

Okay, maybe, God... just give me some relief... fill the void. Lift the burden that just seems unbearable.

But no... The void-- or maybe this "burden"-- is all that remains. It's the only real, present connection with Leslie that remains for my heart to feel. She is no longer here. Her love and being are now greater than the version of her which once possessed me. She is now whole. Certainly not grieving my loss. Surely, in mere moments to her, I'll be there with her for Eternity. So, maybe, in the meantime, I don't really want this feeling to go away... Ever... I don't want my heart to EVER let go of her... to ever be soothed of the pain that remains with me, in wake that her beauty has left behind. It's all that's left of the blessing of the marriage and union that we had. It's all that remains of the life we lived.

God, all I ever wanted to do was to love her. With YOUR love. With all the love You planted in the depths of my being. The love you purposed in me at my very conception. I know I fell short of the perfection she is now experiencing... but really... What are you DOING, taking her from me??? Were you not honored? Were you not glorified in our marriage?

Certainly, He is glorified even more tonight. He has His Leslie there before him, in perfect completion. More beautiful than ever. Heaven is blessed tonight, indeed.

So... what with me? What with the half of my soul that remains here in mortality? Do I ask to be "healed"? To be allowed to "move on"? To "go on living", with this void filled? Freed of this burden? Or do I simply embrace it? "This is the path I've chosen for you." "This is your cross. Bear it." Is that how this goes?

I honestly don't know tonight which I would prefer:

Do I pray for the void to be filled? Peace to be granted? For my heart to be healed? To be allowed to eventually "move on"?

Or would I rather stay here... with half of my soul? Somehow more intimately connected with her memory in the loneliness and void I'm left with these nights? Left crying out to God, longing for my Leslie? My heart broken, poured out, empty.

I honestly don't know...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


So basically my life revolves around a person whose greatest accomplishment in life is graduating to big-boy pants, and whose favorite TV show is The Wiggles. But he loves the Cubbies and "playing band", so I guess it could be worse.

Life is beautiful, indeed.

I'm becoming acutely aware of how the changes in our life are affecting TJ. His behavior, his moods, his quirks. His remarkable resilience, now that I've grown "used to it", had been overshadowing some of the more subtle evidences of how his little heart misses his mommy.

He needs his paci more. He is SO lovey-- kissing and hugging and me and pressing his nose into my neck at every opportunity. (Not that I mind.) Bed-time is more of a challenge than ever. He's such an intense little guy that settling him down has always been quite the task, but lately, even more so. He needs a night light, now, after I turn out the lights. And he needs the door to be "cracked" (where we used to shut it all the way). I need to "tuck him in" about 3-4 times each night, on the average, before he finally falls asleep. He cries (if he's awake) when I leave for work or "meetings" (church, friends, whatever). That never happened before. He ALWAYS needs to know where I'm at-- where I'm going... and "why?". Even when I'm just leaving the room, he asks, "...but you're not leaving me??" It seems to help and calm him when I remind him-- several times a day-- "Daddy will ALWAYS come back home to you, TJ." But still, it's quite a messy job, leaving him with Miss Liz or even Dana.

I surprised Leslie and bought her dream "Soccer Mom"-mobile for her 30th birthday-- a silver Toyota 4Runner. Complete with the sunroof and CD changer... and room for another car seat, if/when the need would arise. We paid it off earlier this year. And lately, it's just been taking up space in the garage. It'd been 4 months since it'd been driven. Needed to be jump-started, it'd been sitting there for so long. We'd made arrangements that my parents would stop through on the way back to Ohio from the 1st memorial service "downstate" to pick up the car and drive it back to Ohio, where the family friend who sold it to us could find a new home for it. TJ freaked out when he realized what was going on.

"Where are they TAKING Mommy's car?!"

"Mimi and Papa are going to take it back to Ohio where we bought it, so somebody else can drive it. Mommy doesn't need it anymore, now that she's in Heaven," I answered.

"Yes she DOES!!! She'll need it when she comes back to SEE us!!!" My eyes welled up with tears as I heard this response.

I had to make a split-second judgment. How do I handle this? In a stunning blur of clarity, I answered...

"TJ... Maybe God is giving Mommy a BRAND NEW car in Heaven! And it is BIGGER and SHINIER and FASTER than this one! We can give this one to somebody else who needs it HERE!"

He listened intently, then thought about it... then asked, "Does her car in heaven have a very loud and very big HORN???"

"YES!!!" I asnwered, thrilled that this seemed to be working. "And when we go to heaven with Mommy someday, she will let you BEEP the big horn on her big, shiney car!!"

TJ smiled and wiped dry his tears.

You see, what we know of Heaven-- even the most religiously astute and biblically trained among us-- is only seen through a broken and foggy mirror. God reveals to us what we need to know about such things, (Heaven, the "end times", whatever...), in order for us to keep our faith in confidence, comfort, and humility. That's how it should be for us as parents, as well, revealing such things to our children. What TJ needs to know about Heaven-- in his 3-year-old mind-- is that Mommy is "all better". And all the joys and pleasures she had on Earth (playing band with him, driving her 4Runner around town with him in the back seat, etc...) are NOTHING compared to the joy she is experiencing now, united with her Creator and Savior. So it is perfectly honest and healthy to tell the boy-- struggling with the fact that we're getting rid of Mommy's car-- that this car is NOTHING compared to the car that God gave Mommy when she arrived in Heaven. And that she is getting his GREAT BIG DRUMSET ready, complete with MANY GIANT CYMBOLS, so that he can worship God with her when he joins her in Heaven someday. And so-on.

Today, I got my hair cut. The simple task of getting a haircut will forever be an emotional experience for me. My hair was Leslie's domain, since she was a hair stylist by trade, and... well... she was my wife. I almost feel like I'm cheating on her, somehow, letting another woman's fingers, comb, and shears run through my hair. (half-joking) It didn't take long for "my story" to be revealed. (Apparently, first time clients are often asked about their history of providers of cosmotological services. My history is short: My wife was the only hair stylist my adult head has known... and then the story unfolds-- like a ton of bricks-- onto the poor girl who asked the question.) Anyway, this particular stylist at LifeTime Fitness (my salon of choice on this particular day, due primarily to the convenience factor-- she did a good job... be back in 6 weeks...) was very sincere in her compassion and sensitivity, but her curiosity was killing her...

"So... if you don't mind me asking... How's the little guy been through all of this?" A perfectly reasonable question for a mother of 2 herself. And something about her demeanor and presentation of the question made it easy to open up to her and share a little.

"Kids that young are remarkably resilient," I said. "They have no life experience with which to compare their situation. They don't know it 'should be' any different than it is."

"I guess you're right," she said thoughtfully, as she took a few extra minutes to rinse the shampoo from my hair. "That's got to be draining on YOU, though...?"

"Actually," I thought about it a few seconds, "he keeps me going. He energizes me. Doesn't give me a chance to feel sorry for myself. Keeps me putting one foot in front of the other."

Tonight we had peanuts while we watched the Cubbies game. I made him chocolate milk (a newly discovered special treat) to wash down the peanuts before playing a few innings-- complete with tackling and tickling-- before bed-time. (Little man can HIT the BALL, by the way!) I tucked him in 3 1/2 times, after our initial prayer and story time. He's asleep now. Tomorrow we wake up and do it again.

Life is beautiful, indeed.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Beautiful Weekend

We completed the first leg of the 3-part "memorial" relay on Saturday. What a beautiful time. Leslie was loved so perfectly by so many, and God was honored and worshiped. Leslie would have been so pleased. (And probably a little embarrassed.) :)

There was a heck of a thunderstorm that rolled through right as the formal service was beginning. It was kind of freaky- in an almost comical way. It was a beautiful morning. Sun shining. A little muggy, maybe, and then... right during the opening prayer for the ceremony...


Thunder. 10 minutes later, torrential downpour. It made for quite the adventure, as the ceremony was in one of those tents-- the really fancy kind with windows and glass doors, typically seen being used at country clubs as additional seasonal banquet facilities. Nice, but not 100% waterproof. Some of the lightening strikes were so close the static popped the amps and speakers. But the attendees, participants, and $30,000 sound system I borrowed from my church for the occasion were spared. (PHEW!)

I shared a few words before I led the music/ worship time. There were a few convincing cracks of thunder, just as I was talking about the presence and power of God. I just looked out the window and at the audience and laughed.

"Anybody out there doubt He's present and mighty?" (or something along those lines...)

But then I really got a chuckle as the thought entered my mind...

"Or actually... maybe that was Leslie." Everybody really laughed at that one. Something about the spunk and perfect timing of that thunder that made the thought pretty believable.

And then, just before we closed the service... as we were finishing "Amazing Grace", to be followed by a rendition of TJ's and Leslie's favorite song to sing together ("Mighty to Save"), the rain stopped and the sun came out. Beautiful. Simply beautiful.

The reception was amazing. So many hugs from strangers, friends, family, and people I've not seen since our wedding. So many stories about Leslie that I'd never heard... some others re-told from the another perspective, bringing new life to stories she'd told me over the years. The time flew by. I'd expected to be absolutely drained by the end... but the whole experience was actually energizing for my spirit. I left for the drive back home completely in love with my wife... feeling closer to her than I have since she left me on July 26. In that place-- that ceremony, that gathering of friends-- Leslie lived. She was there. Her life was shared and celebrated. And I felt her smile and laugh filling my soul, just as it used to.

Praise God for the gift of life, and for love that He allows to endure even death.

Can't wait for the next two weekends!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Joy Comes In the Mourning

As hard as the nights are, I've been encouraged by and thankful for how well I feel in the mornings this week. I'm basically in constant state of prayer from the minute my alarm goes off until I'm sitting at my desk (or making that first phone call from behind the windshield, or whatever). The shower feels better than it ever has. The coffee tasted brighter. The sunrise is more brilliant. The singing in the car on the morning commute is stronger... It's actually pretty easy to leave the house, knowing TJ is well cared for, and also knowing that there's so much to do in the day. Just so different than the mornings have been through the last year.

And then, next thing I know, I'm driving home in the afternoon. These first few days have really flown by. I'm basically sufficiently "caught up" with work stuff. And for the first time in months I'm able to actually "do my job" with the clarity of mind and focus that I desire. And it's great to get caught up with people I haven't seen in a while. I've explained to a few different people who ask how work is going this week, "Work's going great! It's kind of been my own sort of 'reverse anaesthesia'." That is, when I'm busy doing the work thing-- planning, working on projects, discussing, strategizing, helping, learning, doing ordinary "business stuff"-- my mind has something positive to focus on. I don't ever fully ESCAPE the truth of what has happened to our family, but the thud in my heart and the ache in the pit of my stomach just aren't as noticeable, during the work day. It's like, emotionally, I've been anaesthetized for the day. And I don't really wake up until I'm driving home. And "waking up" isn't a bad thing. It's good to feel what I'm feeling. It keeps me being the Daddy I need to be. And mourning is healthy and necessary(they tell me). And mourning keeps me feeling close to Leslie. It's just nice to have an escape from the intensity of the emotion involved with all of it during the work day.

Another thing I'm learning: "joy" and "mourning" are not mutually exclusive terms. I still laugh. I still smile. I still feel good. I still watch the Cubs and talk about my usual things of interest-- many of which have no profound or eternal meaning or purpose. I was explaining to my Dad that it's not like we've got an "emotion tank" somewhere in our gut-- where we only have the capacity to hold a certain volume of total emotion. Although this is the greatest amount of sadness and burden I've ever bore, the good feelings just keep happening too. They aren't squeezed out by the feelings of grief or mourning. That's the difference between sadness and depression, I guess. I'm so very sad. I miss her. I STILL can't imagine doing life without her. But I still feel joy. And hope. And peace. And even many little moments of happiness throughout the day. I can still sing at the top of my lungs one of our theme songs we used to sing on our way to the hospital for treatments... "We've both got a lot to be thankful for!" (another Glen Phillips gem). In fact... it's those moments of "feeling well"-- the flashes of happiness-- that allow me to cry in the sad moments. If you're an athlete, you know you can't perform at your optimum level unless you have proper rest. (It's like that in any job, I guess, including being a parent.) Well, mourning's like that, too, for me. I just can't mourn well-- reflect, weep, miss her, cry out to God, experience the depths of the pain of my loss-- unless I "rest" with some laughter, some light conversation, a ball game, some fun every once in a while. I'm so thankful for the laughter. The really special moments have been laughing at a memory of Leslie. Laughing at something funny she said. Something stupid she did. Simply laughing at how she used to laugh. Smiling at the memories of her quirks. In those moments, (and basically this entire week), I've realize a whole new level of understanding of this mind-bender of a quote from Jesus:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kindgom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted."

Monday, August 18, 2008

One day down...

Back in the saddle this morning. So much catch-up to do. The day was over before I knew it started... and then...

(cue: refer to "The Nights are the Hardest")

TJ was so wonderful tonight after things settled down around here. Monday is his day to be at home with his Aunt Dana and her 4 boys, who generously will make it their routine to make the half-hour early Monday commute from Wheaton so he can start each week in his own house while I kick off the work week in my office in Schaumburg. He's trying to make sense of this new routine, I think-- pretty "punchy", over-stimulated, rather abrasive... not "himself". Yes, he's only just 3. But I know my boy, and he's wrestling. Perhaps it's a little of psychological projection, (I'm wrestling, therefore I perceive him as wrestling as well), but not entirely. He misses his mommy. And he doesn't know how to behave in the midst of it.

But after things quieted down (around dinner time after Dana and the boys went home), and he had me and only me to himself, he graduated back into his usual thoughtful, inspiring, lovey little self. He was CONSTANTLY giving me kisses and smiling at me. We cooked a GREAT dinner together, thanks to the fresh chicken, potatoes, and asparagus that Dana left for us. (And a little help with some wild mushrooms and prosciutto I dug up at Trader Joe's on my shopping/re-stocking excursion on the way home from work.) We had so much fun, and he cleared his plate, except for a few bites of chicken I "helped" him finish. Then a bath that-- to his delight-- I ran WAY too deep (mommy would've scolded me). He didn't put up a fight as I dried him off and put on his jammies. He knew it was off to the basement for peanuts and baseball.

The Cubbies had the night off, so we rooted in futility for the Brewers to lose, in hopes they would drop another half-game back on our boys. No dice. BUT... TJ hit about a dozen home runs (complete with slides into 2nd, 3rd, AND home plate) in our side-game as we watched. Then we played a little band as I picked up the guitar for the first time in over a month. (The fingers are still tingling a little.) I think I sufficiently wore him out, because he didn't put up a fight even once as I took him up to his bed, gave him his paci (a habit I hope he grows out of so I don't have to "break" him of it), and read him a book as I rocked him in our chair. In the middle of our prayer after the book, he spontaneously began asking a lot of questions about mommy. Not totally spontaneously, I guess. He happened to notice a sweatshirt of hers that has probably been hanging in that same spot in the guest room-- just within view of the rocking chair-- for about 3 months now. He asked why it was there.

"Because Mommy doesn't need it in Heaven."


"Because it's never cold in Heaven." I of course had anticipated this question/response from him. "The sun is always shining, and Mommy is never cold. So she left that sweatshirt right there, because she doesn't need it."

"But how did she GET to Heaven?" He asked. He always asks his question as if it's the OBVIOUS question to ask... like the 800 pound gorilla in the room... yet they are always so beautifully spontaneous.

"God carried her in His arms. Like Daddy carries you up the stairs at bedtime. And He was giving her kisses on her cheek and whispering 'I love you'." I nuzzled him and whispered in his ear as I do when I carry him to bed. "And she is SMILING very big right now, watching us rock. And her ouchies are all better now!"

That was apparently a good enough answer for him, because he grinned behind his paci and just stared at the sweatshirt through his door in the other room. While I wiped the tears off my cheek.

He's asleep now. And night sets in...

Tonight I'm more pissed than sad. Pissed that "life goes on". Pissed at the stack of bills that awaited me as I walked down the stairs following that beautiful little exchange. Pissed at the insurance company and the hospital for BOTH informing me that a portion of some bill from 3 months ago is now delinquent because they can't figure out whose fault it is that one of Leslie's hospital stays wasn't pre-certified.

Spouses of deceased policy holders or dependents should be exempt from such bull*&^@!#. Oh... and we should be exempt from paying bills that were mailed and came due in the month that we were in the hospital and then retreating for "bereavement" or whatever. Oh... and we should be exempt from the flu. And bad weather. And telemarketers. And door-to-door salesman. (Guarantee that dude wishes he never asked TJ where his Mommy was.) (I almost feel sorry for him.)

Of course... then the tugging of the Spirit, and I eventually feel guilty and repent of my bitterness and lack of grace. What good does that do anyone? What good does that do me in my situation? I don't want to take it out on anyone, really. I just want a little escape. I really just want to go walk the dog and look at the moon and have a beer... but isn't it neglect or something, to leave the house unlocked and unattended-- if even for 10 or 15 minutes-- while your 3-year-old sleeps alone in his room? You know, he's fully capable of getting out of his crib by himself... and getting himself down the stairs... and opening the storm door... Yeah, maybe I'll just let the dog out back tonight.

Listen to me. This is "Day 1"-- in about 27 Kajillion (God help me)-- of "the rest of our life". And I need an escape. I just got back from a freaking 3-week vacation. And I need escape. The flesh is weak...

Props to you single parents out there who've been managing this way for years, and have years to go before you're visiting the grand kids and taking trips to Vegas with your other single-parent friends... (is that how it's supposed to go?) How do you do it?

I know, I know... God provides. In our weakness...

I seriously need to figure out a way to get the dishes done, the bills paid, the mind focused, and my body ready to sleep by the time I get him to bed. These nights alone just may take their toll after awhile.

Or maybe it's just a bad night.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Getting back to living

Only a day or two of vacation left, and I've wasted this one trying to kick a flu bug. TJ had it a couple days ago, and now I'm fighting it off. Fever and stuff. I guess I'd rather be sick in Florida than be sick anywhere else. In a way, it's a blessing, because TJ's well taken care of with all the cousins and grandparents around-- but it does make me wonder... When we get back into "life as usual", what happens when I get sick? What happens when TJ gets sick? Lying in bed with a fever this morning, I just wanted so badly for her to come sit on the edge of my bed and put her cool hand on my forehead. She'd always used to say, "when you get sick, you get SICK!" It made me feel better. She was such a good care-giver.

So today, I've spent a lot of time thinking about going home on Sunday and getting back into a normal life routine. Going back to work. Raising TJ, and his childcare accommodations. Everything's set up and planned and we're ready to roll... it just seems so surreal, though, now that it's upon us. It's such an extraordinarily lonely feeling, thinking about going back to our house. Our bedroom. Our kitchen. With no Leslie there.

This vacation has been so perfect. The ocean, the family, the sunshine, the rest. So much "healing" has taken place, and I'm so thankful that we got to do this. And tomorrow night, we pack up and get ready to go back home. We get back to living-- whatever "home" and "living" are, without Leslie to share it with. Hold on tight... could be quite a ride...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Labradors and Hard Drives

I cried myself to sleep again last night. Quietly. I didn't want to wake TJ, who's sharing a room with me, with all the family down here with us now. (That's something I'm hoping TJ doesn't get too used to by the time we go home this weekend.) (I'm hoping it's not someting I'm too used to, for that matter.)

What did it this time was a flood of beautiful "healthy" memories. Things we did when she was stronger, and were never the same after she got sick. Playing cards before bed. Just lying there talking. Good-night kisses. Walking around the block or on this beach that is just outside my window. Just being quiet with her. (It took her forever to teach me to just be quiet with her.) I'm never going to hold her hand again... play with the diamond ring on her finger... See her smile... Hold her in my arms and dance with her (we'd tear it up at weddings, but our best dancing happened in the kitchen when I'd come home from work, before dinner-- no music, just an even younger TJ watching us and smiling)...

I'm realizing that the last months truly took their toll on some of those memories. My "hard drive" capacity in my mind has too much memory dedicated to keeping all that "data" from those last months-- image files associated with sickness, suffering, hospitals, and what-not. I guess it makes it easier in the present, in some ways-- the "she's not suffering anymore," thoughts are always in the front of my mind. I'm constantly at peace with her eternal comfort. Glad for her... But everything I do every day is touched by her, if not consumed by her-- with these most recent images of her in the front of my mind. What should TJ have for lunch? How do I "steer" him into the right behavior, out of the improper behavior? Even, what do I eat? How do I talk to people? How do I pray? How do I live my life minute-by-minute?

As I mentioned before, we're living now pretty much like we did the past several months before her battle ended. So as usual, when I stop to think, "what would Leslie want me to do about _________?", I tend to think of her upstairs in our room, hooked to an oxygen tank, listening, thinking, just unable to yell downstairs. Having her there always helped me make the right decision around the house. (I guess you could say she had me sufficiently trained.) (She used to say that if I was an animal I'd be a Labrador Retriever-- loyal and trainable, with the illusion of being intelligent.) (She was only half-joking.) And when I was really stumped, I'd just run up the stairs and ask her a quick question. Only difference is now, she's a little further "upstairs", and I just kind of "pray" the question instead of running up stairs in those instances-- not that we can pray to loved ones past, necessarily... but I'm sure there's some sort of eternal "hook-up" or "switch-board", via the Holy Spirit, or the Archangels, or something.

So these are the images and memories of her (the not-so-good days... the last days) that fill my mind as I go about doing the day. It's what is familiar-- how I've already started to adjust to living without her being around. I don't often cry, anymore, when I think of her those last few days-- moments-- breaths. Her victory is WON! And I am truly still rejoicing. But now, with some adequate time to begin "processing" -- (I hate that word, but I guess it fits the "memory" and "hard-drive" analogy)-- the sweeter memories of the life we had are beginning to churn and bubble to the top. And God, it was such a good life. The dancing, the laughter, the kisses, the silence, the walks, and so-on. All I can keep praying is, "Thank you". And when it really gets ugly-- as it did last night-- just keep whispering between helpless whimpers, "I miss you, Baby..."

Friday, August 8, 2008

Going Into Battle Alone

I've often wondered and commented at the amazing support we've received over the past year-- from family, friends, complete strangers. The most astonishing support-- what surprised me the most, which we did not expect to carry us as strongly as it has-- is that of the Church... Not just our little congregation, but The Body of believers. This greater Community.

Indeed, there've been moments where we've physically felt the prayers of "brothers and sisters" going before God, interceding on our behalf. It's a strange feeling-- when the cold of emptiness and hopelessness suddenly, and for no other apparent reason, melts and warms into hope and strength. I know that there is NO WAY Leslie could have fought with the "Will and Peace" that she had to the end-- and no way I'd be here as I am today-- if not for the prayers and support of our "family"-- this beautiful (though often broken) community.

And I could write chapters on all the gestures, gifts, meals, notes, "good deeds", etc... that got us through so many tough times during the battle.

Simply put, this has been a battle that one person or even one core family is not able or otherwise supposed to fight alone. It takes an army to defeat the enemy.

And the battle wages on, in these new chapters... Herein lies my humbling struggle.

I have a very dear friend whose own journey in many ways puts my own to shame, in terms of the depth and span of suffering a single human being is able to endure over time, and still look to God and give Him glory. So when he has a word of encouragement or a "pearl of wisdom" for me, I'm all ears, with an open heart and open mind. He pulled me aside, last October, and had a very important conversation with me. Leslie's tumor had just been diagnosed as cancer, and we were preparing ourselves "for battle", as we say. This friend and is wife (and their own 3-year-old) took us out to dinner. He pulled me aside and-- not being extremely experienced with "the gift of prophecy"-- very carefully and compassionately (and confidently) unloaded this nugget onto me:

He had this dream-- this vision, maybe... that seemed to be recurring. In it, I was standing at the top of a hill, armed and ready for battle. All the gear-- the shield, the sword. Something out of Braveheart, or something like that. I was just staring down into the hoards of the enemy armies that awaited me at the bottom of the hill. I prayed for strength. My nostrils flared, my heart rate and adrenaline got pumping... and with a scream I rushed down the hill, flashing my sword, to do my battle with the enemy.

If only I'd waited just a few more minutes... Coming up the back side of the hill behind me was God's army-- of which my friend who was sharing this was a member. They were coming to my aid... to be led by me, support me in my battle. They got to the top of the hill where I had been standing just in time to see the ugliness and brutality of my demise. A slaughter. Sure, I did more than my share of damage-- I'd like to proudly suggest I had the strength and ferocity of 10 men. 100 men. But the enemy's numbers were in the thousands. It was truly no match. A slaughter. And the army that was sent to be my support could only stand back at the top of the hill and watch. I didn't let them share in the battle with me. And the damage it did was not only my own, but also theirs-- having to watch me be overcome by the enemy.

This was poignant, at the time. And certainly, the imagery and my friend's words echoed through my mind DAILY, throughout the months that have brought us to now. God knows me, and knows I'm just thick-headed and strong-willed enough, (indeed, both Leslie and I had that in common, going into this), that I needed some extra encouragement to simply ALLOW those around me to LOVE me. To support us. To help. It is with this image in my head that, every time someone makes a generous offer or gesture, I humbly accept. First, it is good for the heart of the giver... But also, I've learned, I DO need it.

And as I started to mention earlier... I'm going to need the support even more in these coming chapters... and it will be even more of a struggle to learn to accept it.

When a family is fighting cancer, everyone knows it can't go on forever. You live day-to-day life kind of in "crisis mode". You're doing what you need to do in order to survive the day. It's easier accepting help, sympathy, support, and prayers of others when there is the mutual understanding that the need is not indefinite. There IS a foreseeable end to the fight in the near future-- as scary as it is. However, in these months and years that lie before TJ and me, I will need to learn to allow this beautiful Community "IN" to my LIFE... not just my crisis. I simply cannot be the father I want to be, the employee I want to be, the manager I want to be, the contributing member to church and society, the child of God, yada-yada-yada... I can't do these things without Leslie. I can't do these things without help. I so want to. But my ego (praise God) has been beaten down to size over the year, and now I recognize that I need the support of the "Hands" of God (His Body, His Church, His Community) to just get me and TJ through day-to-day. Maybe that means I need to let someone else mow my lawn when I'm away. (NO! NOT MY LAWN!!) (--sorry, that's been one of my "outlets" and "projects" since we moved into our new house, exactly 1 month before Leslie was first diagnosed). Maybe I need to keep accepting a meal from a friend when it's offered. Maybe I have to let somebody other than Leslie or me "parent" TJ. Maybe I kindly accept the spiritual and emotional support and comfort of a friend, when my masculinity (or Western understanding thereof) urges me to make a joke and pretend everything's alright.

Leslie won her battle. But as I mentioned... this is a "war" of many battles. And I'm realizing that mine is just beginning. And as much as I hate to admit it, as much as our culture preaches individuality and doing it "my own way"... I can't do it alone. That's what this blog is about, really. Sharing it. Not just "venting", but allowing this community to participate.

(Have I thanked you all for your shields, swords, and strength lately? Hmmm... well... I will.)

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Nights are the Hardest

It's a beautiful morning here in sunny Florida. The ocean's a brilliant blue, and the surf is gently curling onto the beach. Safer conditions for swimming. Safer conditions for reflecting on a reality that's haunted me for the past 250 hours. (but who's counting?)

The nights are the hardest.

In our former and all-too-short life together as a family, typically I was up and out of the house before Leslie and TJ got up. Leslie wasn't much of a morning person, and it was all she could do to get herself out of bed-- before she was sick, even-- just to have a cup of coffee and read her bible a little before the rest of her day was consumed caring for, looking after, and keeping up with a very active little boy... and a dog... and a house... and so-on... Evenings and nights were typically Mommy's time off, and I took over. Let her do the things she still had/ wanted to do from the day... tidying up around the house, checking her email, watching a little TV, catching up with a friend on the phone. TJ and I would have so much fun, just being silly, doing our night-time routine... Bath time, basement time (I'd turn on a local seasonal sporting event on the TV, and he and I would play that sport while I half-watched the TV. Regardless of the sporting season, the time usually led to some good wrestling and tickling matches.)... Then story, prayer, and bed-time. Often, Leslie would step in to relieve me-- take over for prayer and rocking, or whatever... but mostly, the evenings were "Daddy time" for TJ. It's probably not much different for most families with "stay-at-home Mom's". (God bless you ladies!!)

Fast forward back to "these days"... Not a whole lot different for TJ, really. Even when considering his life prior to the last few months of Leslie's failing health. But, for me, it's been devastating. I'm realizing how much of what I said and did during those precious hours every night-- the silliness, the games we'd play, what I'd do to wring another joyful giggle from his belly-- I was actually doing for HER. She was always listening-- through the baby monitor that was wired into the kitchen and basement, or just lying there in bed, or doing email on the computer nearby... So much of the fun TJ and I had together was really about making Mommy smile. The first week without her was so hard... especially from the hours of about 7pm until whenever it was that mercy was granted me in the form of sleep. Mornings aren't as bad as I'd expected-- there's so much to do. That energetic little boy to entertain. Breakfast to make. Etc... But these nights...

I've always known how much I needed her around. Not just to raise TJ, "keep the house", etc... But even more so, just for her to be there... the calm and order she brought to my life, and the sense she made of the thoughts that spin around my brain as I reflect on the events of a day... of a life... But I didn't realize just how MUCH I needed her until...

...these nights.

The sadness-- no, sadness isn't the right word. The aching... maybe... the NAUSEA, perhaps, starts setting in about the time TJ gets out of the bathtub and I start putting on his P-J's. It's kind of like the clickity-clank of the lift underneath a roller coaster going up-up-up... my mind uneasily settles into the inevitable fate of the car I'm sitting in as my destination grows closer with every passing second. A lot like that, actually, but that drop (or crash, rather) is not nearly as fun. Not fun at all. Several nights, I've just kept the little guy up a little later, and just go to bed when he does (quite early for me), just so I don't have to experience the "crash" after he's asleep.

It's not normally a teary sadness-- those nights I decide to stay up to endure the "crash", for my own mental health, and to allow my heart to experience this rather than avoid it. No, it's a dry, lonely sadness... this achey nausea in the space somewhere above or beyond my stomach. Crying just seems to distract me, usually. Don't get me wrong... when I'm able, the floodgates open and I don't believe in kleenexes, (farmer's blows and long sleeves-- men, you know what I'm talking about), so it can get really, really messy. But for the most part, I just sit there and stare, dry-eyed. At the stars, at the ceiling fan, the wall maybe...

A couple nights ago, after TJ went to sleep, I sat on the balcony of the condo with a cigar and sip of my favorite adult beverage. I figured I was long overdue, so I let my mind go and let my heart follow wherever it wandered. The crescent moon set in the west earlier that evening, so the view over the Atlantic was so dark that night, which was only accentuated by the humid haze that was setting in over the water. The stars were barely visible, but as my eyes adjusted to the night, I began to notice more and more of them. It was a calm night, and the surf was soft. But due to the moonless haze, the ocean seemed to disappear beyond the breakers. In fact, there was no horizon that was visible. The ocean faded into the sky seamlessly... as if I could swim all the way up to the stars if I just took the elevator down to the beach right then and there. I was tempted. TJ sleeping in the back room kept me where I was. So I just sat there and looked at the stars and listened to the waves.

There is something calming knowing that the same God who hung the stars in their place and gave them a name long before our forefathers of "science" did, is the same God who knows every molecule of water and salt in every wave as it meets the shore... and He's the same God who was right there beside me, helping the soothing salt and water of my tears grow and roll down my neck. Yet, so lonely to think... where IS she right now? Where is Heaven? Further than the stars? I know in the eternal sense of things she's not very far... but for me, where I sit... "...beyond our galaxy..."??? Really? But those stars are so far away! "I miss you, Baby," is all I could say. "You should be here right now. Sitting here with me. Listening to the waves." She loved those kinds of nights. She'd even put up with some occasional cigar smoke-- just wouldn't kiss me afterword. But I didn't mind so much. It was just so right-- so perfect-- to share those nights with her. I know she's still "here" in some sense. But we all know it's just not nearly the same thing. That's why we cry at funerals.

I'd do anything for a few more of those kiss-less nights, just to have her sitting there with me on that balcony, imagining together about swimming beyond the breakers until we reached the stars...

...the nights are the hardest.

Monday, August 4, 2008

My 3-year-old pace car

So I kind of expected to be basically paralyzed with grief for... I don't know... the next 7 years or so. It took me 7 years to learn to love her the way I do, so I figured it'd take that long to learn to live without her. Somehow it seemed the earth would stop turning, and the world would stop needing anything from me. You know... like a bereavement leave, or something.

But on Sunday, July 27, I woke up and got out of bed. That's what people do. I took a shower. Shaved (I was long overdue... started a new shadow of stubble that had never known her face, and never would.) And I went to pick up TJ from Aunt Dana's house, where he had spent the previous week in innocent and gleeful oblivion. Poor kid has no idea what a big week that was for him.

We went to the Zoo. It was as if nothing had changed-- at least to him, and in regards to our interaction. He was all into the animals and sights and sounds, as he always is. I was fighting tears of emotion-- not sadness-- as around every corner lay waiting another beautiful memory. The Brookfield Zoo has been a favorite place of ours since we moved up here. It was a perfect day at the zoo-- 80 degrees and not a cloud in the sky. Leslie just loved that kind of day, with a quiet glow about her. The memories as they flashed through my mind were so precious-- and there wasn't a single one where Leslie was being pushed in a wheelchair or needing her oxygen tank. She was young, strong, beautiful, and laughing. (And getting out the Purell after leaving the ape exhibit.)

TJ didn't even ask. I don't know why he would have, in retrospect. Mommy not coming along with us on our little outings was nothing out of the ordinary over the past several months. To be sure, in his little not-yet-3-year-old world, nothing really changed for him, day-to-day. It had been quite some time since she was really able to do the "mommy" things that mommies are supposed to do. TJ (I hate to say it, because it just seems so unfair to Leslie) had already adjusted to life without his mommy. The only thing that changes for him is that now he can't go upstairs and kiss her goodnight before I put him to bed. But to be honest... to him, Mommy being in Heaven isn't really much different from Mommy being in the upstairs bedroom hooked up to IV's and an oxygen tank. (I don't need to say it... but for his Daddy, it's not as simple-- ah... another time, another blog...) Anyway, this whole "adjustment" of TJ's has been an ironic answer to prayer, really... God has already built that beautiful hedge of protection around his little heart.

Anyway, I felt compelled to ease the news onto him over lunch at one of the outdoor Zoo restaurants over his "shark-dog" and juice box.

"Hey TJ, I need to tell you something." He looked up at me-- ketchup on his face, big brown eyes. I almost broke down crying right then and there. But I held it together. "Last night was a very special night. Last night, Mommy went to Heaven and she's with God now!"

"And JESUS?!" He asked. We'd prepared for this moment.

"Yup!" I laughed, still fighting tears. "And do you know what she's doing?"

"Is she getting my drum ready?" he asked, in reference to the stories Leslie and I used to tell him about heaven, as she grew sicker.

"YES! And someday we will all play BAND and worship God together! You, me, and Mommy!"

"Is she getting a cymbal too?" He was starting to get very excited.

"A GREAT BIG cymbal. LOTS of them!"

His response was a glowing, dimply gasp of surprise/ excitement. He held his smile and looked at me for a while, and then re-focused on his shark-dog and juice box. And that was that.

From time to time, he asks when Mommy will come back. (He knows the answer, but it's an exercise that he needs to go through, I'm learning.) And at night we pray and thank God for Mommy, and tell Him to give her big hugs and kisses from us. There are times when he is quite "needy", asking simply for his paci and to cuddle with me. I know it is in those times that he is deeply missing her. But he doesn't say anything about her. Perhaps he doesn't even recognize it's the mommy-shaped void in his heart that is making him feel like that. Whatever the case... not only have I been shocked and thankful for how that little guy has been getting along this past week-plus-- he is actually the glue that's holding the pieces together for his daddy so far, as well. Not only has God answered Leslie's and my most gut-wrenching prayer of the last several weeks (to be with TJ, protect him, keep him "happy", and so-on), but God is indeed using TJ to be an ongoing answer to prayer in my own life, and in the lives of our families. (Something about " like a child..." comes to mind.)

Karen the homecare nurse came over Tuesday to pick up some infusion pumps and equipment that were no longer needed at 432 Butterfly Rd. I grabbed Jack (the Lab who is way too excited to hear the doorbell ring) and was pushing him into the basement when TJ answered the door.

"Why hello, TJ! How are YOU?" Karen always loved Leslie and TJ so well when she came over.

"NURSE KAREN!!" TJ answered, dancing a giddy gig. "Mommy's ALL BETTER!" He threw his hands up in the air and his face was lit up with the most amazing smile I've ever seen in my life. Karen just looked at me, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.

"Yes she is, TJ. Yes she is." Was all she could answer.

Like I said. A daily answer to prayer.

I took him to a "Tubbies" (Cubbies) game, compliments of "Mimi's Friend Ginny" for an early birthday celebration. The game was actually at "Wrigley North" (Miller Park in Milwaukee-- a little baseball humor there). The Tubbies were playing the Bwoowers. We got there so early the gates had not opened yet, but the TGIFridays on the Left Field Terrace was opened, so we went there to watch batting practice and get some snacks for a bit. TJ was just in awe of the hugeness of the place. He's been to Wrigley already, (already in love with the place), but Miller Park is just so different. He was enthralled with the big yellow slide in left field that Bernie Brewer goes down when the Brewers hit a home-run. And he'd never been that close to the field grass and "baseball dirt" (warning track) before. (His favorite part about baseball is the dirt.) His eyes were just like saucers for the whole hour. Just before we got up to leave, I saw a ball jump off a Brewers bat from the batting cage at home plate, up into the hazy glare of the late-july Milwaukee sky. It looked like it might be coming our way...

*THUD* ... clank-clank.

It hit the wall of the restaurant, directly behind where we were sitting. There was a mad scramble among the lookers-on-- half out of fear, trying to get out of the way, and half looking to find the ball, to be the lucky fan to take home a souvenir. I joined the fray. Just before I got up from the dining table where we were sitting, I looked down. The ball had settled right there between my feet. Right under my table. I hadn't even felt it land. I grabbed it and handed it to TJ. He was just amazed.

"TJ! A REAL BASEBALL! Just like the Cubbies play with!"

"Is it MINE?" he asked in wonder.


"I can take it HOME with me?" He might as well have asked me to pinch him to see if he was dreaming.

"Yes! It's YOURS!"

"It's HARD!" He said. He's used to playing with kid-safe spongy baseballs in the basement.

After the exitement settled a little, the "why-game" started up. "Why did that Bwoower man hit the hard ball to me?" he asked.

"Well, I think that God made it land there... " I mused.

"Why?" he kept up his part of the game.

"Maybe it was kind of like a special gift from Mommy," I continued. "I think that Mommy wanted to be here with us, so she just asked God to make that ball land right between my feet, so you could take it home. She knew that would make you happy." I truly believed that was the right answer, not just a fairy tale to sell to a 2-year-old.

He thought about it and then answered, "Or maybe that Bwoower man just saw me and hit it up to me."

I laughed so hard. "Maybe it's a little bit of both of those things, buddy."

We had a great time. The Cubbies won. We ate peanuts and ice cream and I even shared my Mountain Dew with him. (I know, I know... so sue me!) On the way home late that night, his tummy started hurting. I told him that it was probably from the pop that we drank.

"Pop can be very yummy, but you drank quite a bit of it, TJ. Too much pop can give you a tummy ache. That's why we don't have it very often. We only have it on very special days like Cubbies games."

"Maybe next time I will only have one or two or three sips," he said, after thinking about it a bit. Smart kid, that one is. A little later, his tummy was still hurting, and I was trying to distract him, reaching back and holding his hand and trying to soothe him as I drove.

"Maybe we won't tell mommy that I had pop," he concluded. I could just feel her glare coming down through the night into the sunroof of my TrailBlazer. "What were you THINKING?" I could hear her say...

We made it home. He felt better in the morning. And we headed to Ohio to be with Mimi and Papa (my mom and dad) for a few days. We'd been trying to make it over there for the past few months. But hospitals, doctor visits, and overall health kept us from getting there. We even missed the family vacation at the parents' place in Florida this year. That was crushing for all three of us. We'd been looking for a small window of opportunity to make the road trip down (flying was impossible, due to the state of Leslie's skull and sinuses after all her surgeries). That opportunity never materialized...

Until now. TJ and I flew down together yesterday (thanks for the tickets and the free rent, Mimi and Papa!). The trip was very tiring, but now we're having a blast. It's so good just to be alone with him. He has been so sweet, so encouraging to me, and full of love and laughter.

Like I said... an answer to prayer. Every day a blessing.

He's sleeping now-- one of his afternoon nap-a-thons-- which gives me some time to think. To breathe. To settle in and dig into this next chapter. I'm learning that God didn't intend for me to tackle all this at once. A man can only feel so much pain in a single sitting. There are only so many tears that can be shed before dehydration starts setting in. And He's given me this wonderful little pace car, (TJ), to keep me from burning out before I reach the finish line.