Wednesday, February 25, 2009

This Beautiful Mess

I'm starting this blog-- too late, mind you, for as early as I need to get up in the morning-- as I sit and try to wind down from our Ash Wednesday services this evening. Our church is really digging deep into Easter this year. Easter-- or "Resurrection Sunday", as I prefer to call it-- is the most important holiday of our faith. Christmas gets all the attention-- the glitz and glamor. We observe "Advent"-- which in this culture has become something even "bigger" than it was originally intended, starting (culturally speaking) the day after Thanksgiving, and ending sometime after the football games are over. But it is actually Easter, not Christmas, which is the anniversary of our faith. The empty cross and the empty tomb are where it all started. This is when we should be truly celebrating CHRIST.

Anyway, as Ronn (my pastor and confidant and friend) said tonight to open the services, it seems that every year Easter is over before we even knew it was approaching. The true advent and very focal point of our faith seems to be overshadowed by things like Spring Break and Tax Season. Sure, we throw a great party on a "special" Sunday morning in March or April, with the band and the choir and the cheery sermon and the bright colored clothes. Maybe we even have enough committed members in our church to drum up a few dozen attendees-- maybe even a hundred or so-- for our traditional "Good Friday" service a couple evenings prior. But we (especially we "Protestants" in the crowd) tend to simply "observe" or "celebrate" Easter... we don't really experience or honor it... at least, not the way we should.

Well, this year, our little congregation is changing all that. We kicked off our "40 Day Journey to the Cross" this evening with our first ever "Ash Wednesday" services. Before my staunch protestant and jilted Catholic friends in the house start to tune me out... Let me give a brief, "un-churchy" history. Circa 300-400 AD, the early followers of Christ started observing "Lent" (which simply means "Spring") in order to "dig deeper" into the Easter story... to better prepare their hearts for the mourning of the death of Jesus and the proper celebration of Resurrection Sunday. Even in those early days, it would seem, the "routine" of the Easter holiday was already losing its weighty impetus, at least in the human hearts of the early "Believers". So, they decided to put some extra effort into preparing themselves for the celebration of the miracle of this sacred day. It all started with Ash Wednesday, exactly 40 days (a significant number, biblically speaking) prior to Easter Sunday. Mathemeticians in the crowd may dispute this... you'll count 46 days from now until Easter. Well, "Lent", as we know it now, ends on Saturday, "Easter-Eve". And, the early Church, not wanting to dishonor the celebration in worship that is (or should be) Sunday morning (every Sunday is "Resurrection Sunday", after all), didn't count Sundays. That leaves us with 40 days of Lent, until Easter Sunday. Ash Wednesday kicks it all off with what is traditionally a day of "heart-rending" introspection, confession, and self-sacrifice, traditionally marked with a commitment to "fast" or give up something of personal importance, preference, or pleasure for the 40 day observation. The thing you give up is not a means to salvation. It's not something to "gain favor with God". It is something simply to prepare oneself for Easter. It is to be a daily reminder of the sacrifice that Jesus offered. This year, for instance, I'm giving up red meat. Next time that bone-in ribeye catches my eye on the menu or in the freezer, (at least, between now and April 12), just as I start to truly desire that gigantic slab of mouth-watering goodness, regretting my commitment to "abstain"... I will laugh at my own self-centeredness. How foolish!! I can't give up a single piece of animal flesh, when The Almighty gave up HIS OWN flesh, on my behalf!!?? Anyway... that's what Ash Wednesday is about. That's what we celebrated tonight, in 3 very small, intimate, candle-lit installments, at the offices of CrossTown Church in Bolingbrook, IL. I played guitar. Just closed my eyes and worshiped my guts out. Didn't really worry about "leading". It was so good. Ronn spoke and read scriptures. There was a lot of silence. Private, heart-rending prayer of confession. And of course, the crossing of ashes on our foreheads.

Interesting story... The ashes were originally reserved for those "caught" in sin, in the public eye. (ie, an unmarried woman who had become pregnant; a petty thief who had been caught in the act at the market, etc...) It was a way for a "sinner" to publicly confess their guilt, repentance, and the subsequent (or prerequisite, more accurately) grace of God which they required for their forgiveness and atonement. It had become, over the years of history and routine of the early Church, more a sign to be scorned than anything. But somewhere around 600 to 800 AD, a very cool trend caught on. "Righteous" people began going to the priests and asking for the ashes as well. "We need Jesus, too," was the public outcry. "We are sinners just like the thief and the fornicator. Let us publicly bear the mark of our need for grace, as well!" And that is what the ashes depict-- an individual's need for Christ. Their public confession of their own sin, and their reliance upon the grace of God and nothing else, in full view of that sin.

Okay... enough of the Church History lesson. Why this rant, you ask?? It's all about perspective, my friends.

The main reason I haven't posted in the last 2 weeks is that I've had no access to a computer. (GASP!!! The HORROR!!! ) We had to "evacuate" the house last week (yes, all week) so the wood floors on the main floor of the house could be restored and refinished. (Those of you who know the drill can empathize. I had no idea it was this big of deal.) (But MAN, do these floors look NICE now!!!) So TJ and I moved in with Dana and Curt and the boys last week. On Monday morning of said week, my laptop (work computer) croaked. Crashed and burned. Hard drive issues. Lost EVERYTHING since my last archive... which was... I don't know... 18 months ago. (So sue me.) It was under warranty, but the problem was apparently much worse than our friends at Dell could navigate me through over the phone, even with multiple shipments of replacement parts... so I just gave up and took advantage of the liquidation sale at my local Circuit City. (The recession has its upside, I suppose.) (Although, I'd gladly pay full price if it meant my buddy could have his job back.) Anyway, I'm back up and running with a brand spanking new laptop now. I am back at home tonight, (although not without a few more gray hairs than I had 2 weeks ago), with TJ, who is asleep up in his bed.

He just returned this evening from a mini-vacay at Gram's house. I've been here since Friday night, trying to "get my house in order", literally speaking. I had some PHENOMENAL help from my bro's from church getting things cleared off the main floor for the hardwood contractor, and then moved back in. But now I've got stacks of boxes, packed full of things which are awaiting to be dispatched to their new homes. And I've also now got a refrigerator with a busted water line-- no ice or filtered water... again... GASP!!! THE HORROR!!! Apparently, it got cold that week we were at Dana's... The fridge had been moved out to the garage, where we plugged it in to save what little food was in there. That turns out to have been a bad idea. The water filter and water line literally exploded with the expansion of the freezing of the water that remained in the line. That one's gonna cost me...

Anyway, add a few stacks of junk packed into boxes, a dusty house (left-overs from the aforementioned hardwood restoration project), and a VERY frustrating sequence of events surrounding my friendly neighborhood IKEA store-- for the record, I'm never shopping there again... not for furniture, not for fixtures, and DEFINITELY not for ready-to-assemble TV/entertainment wall units, like the one I TRIED to buy last weekend, which I finally gave up on and returned last night-- and you get a VERY frustrated man. It was just starting to settle on me... Or more accurately... it was starting to dominate my thoughts: There was absolutely NO way I'd EVER be "settled back in" to this house. EVER. I mean... when was I going to get "caught up"? It's all I can do to keep from falling asleep with TJ when I put him to bed. In the event that, after a "normal" work day, I CAN drag myself out of his bedroom prior to falling asleep-- sometime around 9pm, usually-- there's laundry and dishes and cleaning and bills to attend to. So, when am I going to get to finding a home for all the stuff in the boxes? If not for the sheer fact that there are certain personal relics and memoirs-- photos of Leslie and TJ, favorite toys of TJ, etc...-- sprinkled throughout the boxes in question, I'd just take the whole bunch of them to Goodwill and bid my good riddance. The thing is, this isn't something I can ask for help with. It's something I've got to do on my own. Only I know the stuff I want to keep and the stuff I want to get rid of. Only I know WHERE I want to put the stuff I want to keep. It just is astonishing to me, actually, looking at all the boxes of STUFF that had piled up on the counter, in the corner of the room, on the coffee table, the kitchen table, in the old entertainment center, and so-on, over the last year and a half, since anyone has really had much time or strength to "manage" such things. And now it's all in boxes. Waiting for me.

Hopefully you start to see where the frustration had been setting in this week... I was neck deep and sinking fast. I just can't do this alone.

And then tonight's services...

One man (God as He was, He was still a man) took on the cross... alone... that I might not have to. Boxes and broken fridges and dust and poorly engineered entertainment centers... Flooded houses and damaged hardwoods and a recession... Who am I kidding??!! What am I anxious about? What is MY struggle? What is MY burden? What am I trying to bear? On my OWN??? On MY schedule??? To MY liking??? Some burden! And daily in my frustration, in my loneliness, in my greed, in my pride, in my insecurity and selfishness... I drive the nails that He invites with open arms. The blood flows daily. He offers it all, in the hopeful event that, on a night such as tonight, a drop might land on me, and awaken my soul to the foolishness with which I have again encapsulated myself. A mark of a cross-- drawn in ashes-- on my forehead... The reminder that, indeed, I can't even unpack a freaking cardboard BOX on my own... How am I going to LOVE another? How am I going to be a DADDY!? An EMPLOYEE? A BOSS? A FRIEND? How am I going to bring ANY good to this world on my OWN? Let alone save my own SOUL!? Heal the sick?! Feed the hungry?! Be a light amidst the darkness?!

Indeed I don't have to do these things alone. (A good thing, because I can't.) Because I am not alone. That blood-- this cross of ashes on my forehead-- is the proof.

Proof, once again, that God is indeed in the business of raising up beauty from ashes... Making sense of chaos... Bringing strength to the weak... Healing to the sick... And blessing us with peace amidst the mess.

Praise God for His grace tonight. I am not alone. I am forgiven. And I am being redeemed.


Friday, February 13, 2009

So... There's this girl...

So I know I stoked some curiosity, back there, with January's final post... you know... concerning the "relationship"... And I've been intentional in not mentioning it since, up until now. I don't want to turn this into a soap opera. And I don't want to give anyone the impression that I'm any less in touch with what "living without Leslie" is, now that there is "another woman", than I was before. That being said, God is good. And to hide this story from view is to try to veil the goodness, grace, and providence of God... not that such a thing can be accomplished... But why keep a good thing from being known, right?

Katie's her name. Katie Umbaugh. Anna, her sister, was one of Leslie's dearest friends on earth, going back to when we lived in Indy. I've shared a bit in the past, on this blog, about this mysterious connection we've had with the Umbaugh family over the years. Another of the Umbaugh sisters, Sarah, went to Heaven a couple years ahead of Leslie, as a result of her own battle with cancer. So Leslie-- having "walked that road" with Anna at the time-- always had a special place in their family's collective heart, even before she herself was first diagnosed with cancer. And the Umbaugh family has always had a special place in our hearts, as well. Anna and her husband, Rob, have been great friends to us, and were wonderful hosts whenever Leslie and I would visit Indy to see family and friends. As Anna anticipated and experienced her first pregnancy, Leslie was experiencing young-motherhood. The two would talk about the future-- getting together on weekends and having the kids play. They were even starting to plant the seeds of an intricate scheme to get Rob and I to buy land together someday, so they could together enjoy having horses with their kids. (A love for horses was a common bond between Anna and Leslie) Those, obviously, were plans and dreams that were not a part of God's plan-- at least, not on this side of Heaven. Anna was giving birth to her first-born at almost exactly the same time Leslie was being wheeled into her first surgery, late in the summer of 2007. Leslie would never so much as get to see TJ and Will (Anna's son) play together.

As much as I'd come to know Anna over the years, I'd had very little opportunity to get to know her sisters. I knew there was a sister named Katie and another named Laura (although, to be completely honest, until last year, I didn't know which was which, names-and-faces), and there was Lydia, their adopted sister. And of course I remembered Sarah (we had her "anniversary" marked on our calendar in the kitchen, to remind Leslie to send Anna a note or give her a call... not that she would have needed reminding). But all I really knew about them was that they were Anna's sisters... I'd hear a story of Lydia getting married... Katie going to Africa... Laura getting married... But they were all just names and stories.

...Until the events of the past few months...

I have remained in close contact with Anna since about the time Leslie got sick enough that she was unable to talk on the phone due to the cancer which had spread to her lungs. Anna was always a wonderful friend and confidant to Leslie, and continued to be so, of course, as her battle took turn after turn for the worse. And Anna has become a wonderful friend and confidant to me, in Leslie's absence. I like to think we've been an encouragement to one another, as we have grown into life without Leslie, in our own ways. Anyway, through the course of our regular conversations, I remember Katie coming up in passing-- Anna would draw comparisons between how Katie and I would express certain thoughts... our hearts for God, and worship of Him, and so-on... But I never thought twice about it. Why would I?

After a couple of very hard months of heavy, paralyzing, depression-laced sorrow and grief, immediately following Leslie's death (see the posts on this blog from August and early September of last year)-- not to mention the months leading up to her death, as that is when the grieving process actually started, in my case-- God began doing an extraordinary work of healing in my life... Picking me up, dusting me off... starting the process of piecing my broken heart-- and life-- back together, according to His divine craftsmanship. (To avoid being redundant, I'll spare the details, here. You can read of this specific page of this "new chapter" in my life, as I recount it in a letter to my mom-in-law, in December's post, "Grieving With Gram".) Anyway... one day, sometime after God's beginning to work this miraculous healing in my heart, I was tinkering with the "analytics" application of this blog. (For those not-so-tech-savvy in the audience... there is a tracking mechanism on most websites that keeps record of general and non-personal data of the users of a website. I can tell how many people, for instance, have read the blog this week; what state they're logging in from; how long they spend on the site, on average; what search engine they found my site through; etc...) Anyway, the analytics were showing some traffic being generated from another blog with which I was unfamiliar-- people were linking over to my site from a blog that I didn't recognize. I entered the URL, and up popped Katie's blog. "AHA!" I thought to myself... "It's Anna's sister!" I read her very touching entry, there, about Leslie's memorial service... and Kate's then-terminally ill grandpa, from where people were linking to my "story"/blog. Deeply moved by what Katie wrote there, I continued reading the following posts... then some subsequent posts...

I eventually just went back to the beginning, started reading... And didn't stop. As it turns out, Katie began blogging a couple years ago, when, following God's calling, she up and moved to Kenya for a 5-month stint with a Christian ministry there called Tanari. My heart was just moved by how this woman cried out to God. How she reflected on losing Sarah, on the topic of worship, on seeking God's will and desiring to know His plan for her life, and so-on. Not to mention, I was just entertained by some of her stories of African adventures. When she returned to the States following her stint, she just continued blogging about what God was doing in her life. Funny how much you can get to know about a person, anonymously, through their blog, eh? :)

Upon my completion of the blog-version of the story of the last two years of this woman's life-- since she WAS, after all, my dear friend's sister-- I thought it appropriate to drop her a quick email and thank her for the encouragement, and to offer her some thoughts that were lingering in my mind and some truth that was on my heart, in response to her recent entries, in hopes she might be encouraged, as well. I honestly expected nothing more, in return, than a polite "thank you"... maybe, "I'm still praying for you and TJ..." or whatever...

Well... Katie was so moved by my words to her, that she wrote back, (but not without first going to sister Anna for "permission"), speaking directly into my own life... which then caused ME to respond... and so it began. We started emailing almost daily... then several times a day. Then, we began talking on the phone. (Our first phone call was the night her beloved grandpa died... She called me to tell me the news. We just prayed and cried together for about an hour. It was a beautifully bittersweet night.) We were just enjoying a new friendship. Enjoying God's blessing of encouragement we were receiving through each other. I was certainly not thinking "relationship". You long-time/ regular readers may (but probably don't) remember my "manna" references from that particular season of this "process"... "Manna" was my metaphor of how God was meeting my daily needs, in Leslie's absence. A call from a college buddy... A blog comment... a random hug from Dana or Mom... Or maybe just a miraculous sating of one desire or another, or a supernatural settling of "peace" on my soul... God was just showing up DAILY in my life to fill the void that Leslie had left, you know. Meanwhile, He was just capitalizing on my dependence on Him, just using me and teaching me so much every day. (And He has continued with this "symbiosis"-like dynamic in my life to this day.) Anyway, into October and November of last year, God began using Katie in some pretty cool ways... as "manna"... in my life. The really crazy thing was... God was using ME as manna in HER life, as well.

Conversation flowed with little or no effort between Katie and me. It's like we "spoke each other's language". We worshiped with the same song, metaphorically speaking. Much like how her sister and Leslie used to get along. At one point, I was explaining this phenomenon to Anna, "confessing" to her how much I was enjoying getting to know her sister. Anna's response was priceless-- "FINALLY! Somebody GETS Katie!" Katie and I began sharing our prayers with each other... our daily studies in scripture... we began challenging and encouraging one another. Yes, as she pointed out early on in our friendship, some of what drew us together was the "male-female" dynamic. But due to the fact that there was no direct physical/ "in-person" interaction between us, (and due to the fact that I was just so obviously "not ready" for a relationship, due to the newness of my "widowerhood"--yes I think I just made up a word), there wasn't the haze of romance or "sexual tension" clouding our minds, or our blocking the view of what God was doing in our lives. Bottom line-- our friendship was God-breathed, and Christ-centered, from the get-go.

As our phone- and email-based relationship began to grow in October and November, and into December, the idea of "what if..." started to form in both of our minds (and of course, due to our transparent honesty with each other, it found its way into our conversations). "What if, sometime down the road, you're still single, and I'm ready to consider 'dating' again...?" God began to reveal a lot through those conversations. We began to get into conversations that were prefaced by a silly little catch phrase... "I'm not sayin'... I'm just sayin'..." Basically... we weren't suggesting that indeed we WOULD find ourselves in a "commited romantic" relationship with each other some day, but, if by chance we DID find ourselves in that situation... You get the idea. We'd talk about what "moving on" looked like to me. We talked about what it would look like to her to be with a "single dad". We talked about TJ a ton. We talked about Leslie. My house. Her job. My in-laws. And so-on. They were difficult conversations, sometimes, but conversations that nonetheless needed to be had, by me, at least, as I considered the prospect of "dating" and eventually "remarrying" someday. And Katie was a "safe place" to begin to consider these things, because of the open-handed nature with which we were approaching (or accepting) the relationship. And at the end of each of these conversations, we'd end with the obligatory, "...but don't wait for me, Kate." "I won't, Ty." But secretly-- though not-so-discretely-- we both hoped... And we both took those hopes to The Throne every night in prayer, individually.

In December, as had been planned for some time, I spent the weekend in Indy, with some old friends there. Due to the fact that I was staying at Rob and Anna's house from Thursday through Sunday (I also had work to do in Indy that week), and the fact that Katie and her sisters had standing plans on Thursday nights at Anna's house, it so happened that Katie's and my paths were going to cross. We decided to take advantage of fate's opportunity (or Providence, perhaps), and made a coffee-date for Friday afternoon... which happened to morph into a full-out dinner date, mid-stream. From the moment I first saw her that weekend, I knew that God had something greater in store for Katie and me. Something came alive in me. A veil was lifted. There were "fireworks"... or whatever. And I watched in amazement, as TJ (who had joined me on the trip to see Anna and Robbie and "Baby Will") and she interacted-- TJ just latched onto her... and hasn't stopped talking about her since, to this day (not something I've provoked, in case you were wondering...). In those moments during my visit that weekend, with her, in the flesh, in the same room as me, I was becoming aware-- as unlikely and shocking as it is to admit, given things such as "timing" and "history" and etc...-- I had in fact begun falling in love with this woman, through the course of all the email reflections, phone prayers together, and "I'm not saying, I'm just saying..." conversations. And here she was, right in front of me.

Brings new meaning to the term, "love at first sight", doesn't it?

I was so surprised by all of this. "God... it's too soon...!" I'd pray. "I mean... really...???" But as I would pray, continually asking Him to "take her away", if it was His will-- to take these feelings away, or even put somebody or something else in her life that distracted her from me, unless this was truly of Him-- I began to realize that it was actually my flesh that was causing me to doubt what He was giving us. "What will people think?" That thought haunted me. And Katie certainly had her apprehensions and fears. This certainly couldn't be the relationship that God had desired for her, on which she was called to "wait"...?! Leslie's HUSBAND!? "What will people think?" She'd ask herself as well. But meanwhile, the more we prayed about it, giving each other up, the more sure we became, in the Spirit, that this was indeed "good".

Over the holidays, we started sharing the idea of this new "secret" relationship with our families, close friends, etc... little by little, as the opportunity would arise. (We had previously opened up to a couple of people in the name of "accountability" and prayer support-- a couple guys for me, some women for her, but were up to then reluctant to disclose the situation fully to family, etc...) And the more we shared our thoughts, fears, and feelings, and the more we told the story-- the more we asked friends for prayer and accountability-- the more confidence God gave us... that it was "okay"-- even more than that... that it was indeed "right" for us to pursue this thing. As I alluded in my prior post, Katie spent the time leading up to the New Year with TJ and me. It was a crazy couple of days-- the flooded house, TJ and her interacting more and just hitting it off and loving on each other, she and I spending New Year's Eve together-- truly an unplanned event until the moment was upon us. But as she drove back home to Indy on January 1, 2009, we were both at peace and in full acceptance of what we now had... we had each other. And it was good.

So, yes... it's "too soon". (but by whose standards?) Yes, we need to be careful not to "rush God's will". (but who am I to drag my feet?) Yes, it's complicated. But it is SO good. I'm learning so much. I'm so happy.

The crazy thing is... it's like I've never been here before. Not a moment goes by when I am not fully aware of the fact that I've "lost" Leslie. But it's not like I thought it would be, as I have now entered into the realm of a new relationship. God has provided... and He's given me a new heart, as it seems... Or rather, maybe he has simply taken the shattered pieces of my heart and reformed them into a new vessel. Whatever the case, everything is new. Yet, Leslie is the very foundation on which it is all being built-- I mean... all I am is the man she made me. It's so weird. So beautiful. So... "God".

And as for Katie... certainly there are hard parts. Hard days with "this". She loved and adored Leslie-- spent so much time in heart-rending prayer for our family and miraculous healing. She looked up to Leslie. And now... THIS... And TJ... Me, with all my "baggage", as they say... Yet, it was Katie herself who offered the touching bit of encouragement, several months ago, as I began to conisder what it was to "move on"... as my heart began to consider "life after Leslie":

I know that whoever God has coming down the road for you Tyson will be an amazing woman of God. I know that she will love you for who you are, including everything about Leslie that is now a part of you. That is the Tyson she will fall in love with. She will know no other. God has extraordinatry things in store for you.

A different spin on the term, "self-fulfilling prophecy", eh?

So there's some "background". Some of the "story". I could go on and on about how God is making Himself known in this... And I probably will, in future posts. There's so much to share... an amazing testimony of God's provision, providence, grace, and the joy He takes in redeeming His children. Anyway... another time. Another post.

Know that we're not deceiving ourselves. Know we're not "forcing" anything. On the contrary, we would be deceiving ourselves to deny what's been given to us. Certainly, we've got some time, now. We have a lot to discover-- God has a lot to bring us through... many things to work out... before... I'm not sayin', I'm just sayin'...

But in the meantime, we're just enjoying being here. Enjoying being happy. Enjoying this crazy story God seems to be writing, right before our very eyes. I'll keep you posted from time to time with updates and insights... like maybe when He finishes the next sentence...

(By the way, if you care to get to know Katie a little... click the picture below to visit her blog...)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Flu Season

So TJ and I are both healthy, so far (please... everybody knock on wood). But people all around me are dropping like flies to various kinds of viruses. (Or is it "viri"?)

Physically, we're feeling strong. Emotionally... Well... it was a rough day. I finally just got TJ down. It's been such a long time since he's cried like he did tonight, after saying prayers, tucking him in, and cuddling for awhile. He just didn't want me to leave. Finally, I gave him my shirt to cuddle with. "See?" I encouraged him as he dried off his tears, "it even SMELLS like Daddy!" He grinned from behind his paci and looked at me and cuddled the shirt tightly. That seems to have done the trick. He's fast asleep now. (Although, before allowing me to leave his room, holding my shirt tightly to his cheek, he did state that he planned on waking up in the middle of the night and climbing into my bed with me. I told him that would be just fine.)

The day started off that way, too... Only... for Daddy, rather than TJ. I had a heart-to-heart with my mom-in-law last night. She had TJ for the weekend (he was LONG overdue a trip to Gram's house), and was bringing him back to me. We got into a tough conversation about... well... "stuff". She was having a rough day, emotionally-- probably being back in the house, giving TJ back to me, etc... Anyway... we made it through, and were both encouraged by the conversation... But this morning, I guess I had a "hang-over", of sorts, from the exchange. My heart was just heavy. It was a beautiful morning... the snow (even the 4 foot drift at the foot of my driveway) is completely melted now, and it got all the way up over 60F today. The sunrise was gorgeous. TJ was cute and cuddly and thoughtful... Just the kind of morning Leslie would have relished. She would have pulled a lawn chair out of the shed, thrown on a sweatshirt, made coffee, and just soaked in the sunrise on the patio, reading her morning bible passage. I caught myself even feeling sorry for her... I wanted her to be able to enjoy the first hint of spring in the air. As much as winter haunted her, a day like this would bring so much joy...

Of course... I know that she's "in better hands now". I know the sunrise in Heaven today was MUCH better than the one in the west suburbs of Chicago. And I know the coffee there is MUCH better than even the bag of whole-bean organic Acacia light roast I picked up at Caribou last week. (cue: visuals of her euphoric smile and radiant face.) But still... these mornings happen, in spite of what I "know". Call it "grieving", I guess.

Tonight at dinner (I was already reeling-- having just discovered I had lost my beloved Blackberry-- fell off my hip on the walk from my parking space to our dinner restaurant), the day was culminated with quite the insight from TJ. We ate early-- at about 5:00. We tried a new restaurant, near Dana's and my rendezvous point, in Downtown Wheaton. There were several other young families in the place. TJ was telling me about his day with the boys. I had just heard of yet ANOTHER family I know being rather sick with some sort of stomach virus... so it took me awhile to catch up with TJ's thought progression...

We had just gone to the bathroom, and we bumped into another daddy and a boy about TJ's age, who was leaving the men's room just as we were entering. When we returned to our table, and as we continued our Q & A about TJ's day, he asked me a question...

"Why are some boys' mommies not sick?" He asked thoughtfully. I asked him to repeat his question... Dana wasn't sick... Was a mommy of a friend of the boys who he'd played with that day battling a flu bug? He repeated the question.

"Some boys' mommies aren't sick. Why?" He repeated.

"Well..." I tried to help him clarify, "Who's mommy is not sick?" He looked across the dining room of the restaurant.

"That boy's mommy isn't sick." He pointed to the boy we'd almost bumped into in the restroom. He was about TJ's age. The boy's daddy seemed to be about my age. His mother was a cute brunette with well-styled hair, and familiar-looking facial features. They had a one-year-old boy in a high-chair as well...

Suddenly, I saw where TJ's mind was...

"Oh, buddy..." I sympathized gently. "You want to know why your mommy was sick, but that boy's is not?"

He nodded and looked back across the room to the family of four.

"TJ..." I thought for a second. "Your mommy was very special. She had a very special disease. Not many mommies have that kind of sickness. God loved her SO much that He wanted to bring her to Heaven before almost ALL of the other mommies. Very very FEW mommies get sick like your mommy did."

He shot me a cautiously hopeful smile.

"You know... Someday... when you have another mommy... Maybe she won't be sick, like most of the other mommies." He smiled at me, so I continued. "Maybe she and I will grow old together, and someday, when you're all grown up, you'll have babies of your own, and they'll call me and your new mommy 'grandma and grandpa'!"

"Noooooo!" He giggled sheepishly.

"YES!" I replied. "TJ, people don't usually get sick like your mommy did. She was very special. But Daddy's not sick, and most mommies aren't sick, either. I'm sorry your mommy got sick the way she did. But she's all better, now, right? And maybe your new Mommy won't be sick, just like that boy's mommy!"

We had some GREAT talks about Jesus on the drive home.

"I love God," he informed me.

"TJ! That makes me SO happy!!! I love God, too!!"

"And if I love God, I can go to Heaven someday, right? You told me that."

I'd forgotten about that conversation... A month or so ago, he'd learned a new word from a cousin... "hate". Well... that's the one word that Daddy "hates". So I jumped all over that one. But in the heat of the argument, TJ (boy, this sounds horrible-- remember, Tyson... he's only 3...) announced that he hated God. It was during a bed-time prayer, and he was not ready to go to bed, so I think he just blurted it out for effect-- to get a reaction from me. Well, he did. I told him it made me very, very sad when he said that. I told him that only people who LOVE God go to heaven... I gave him the 3-year-old version of the "salvation message"-- that Jesus' love for us allows us to love God and be in Heaven with Him someday. And that Mommy loved Jesus with all her heart, and that's why we know she's with God today. I wasn't aware that this particular conversation had left such an impact on his heart, until tonight.

"That's right buddy. Just like Mommy." I answered.

Chalk it up to another "Mommy moment". Call it a "Mommy day", maybe...

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Our Little Man

I'm just all full of all kinds of love for TJ today. Feeling like I just want to talk about him... share this wonderful little blessing of joy with you all... (I'll also share some random pictures that my dad sent me from vacation in Florida over the holidays-- what a GREAT time we had!!)

TJ has truly been the one constant blessing throughout the "storm" of the last year or so. He's been so remarkably "resilient" (the word I keep using... makes me sad, as adjectives such as "resiliant", "brave", and so-on, are not ideal tags I'd prefer attach to 3-year olds... We seem to hope for things more along the lines of "sweet", "cuddly", "happy", "innocent", and so-on). People often ask me how he's doing, with "all of this"... And I just say, "You know... He's so resilient... He's happy, really. But then, he doesn't really have a means of comparison, you know? He doesn't know it's supposed to be any other way..."

Shortly after Leslie died, he turned 3. And shortly after that, I will say, we hit a "phase" of sorts, from which we currently either seem to be enjoying some reprieve... or perhaps (fingers crossed) we are actually turning a corner of developmental progress. (Here's hoping! And daily praying...) Maybe it is just "The Terrible 3's". (The more parents I talk to, the more I realize the "Terrible 2's" are just a myth... it's the "Terrible 3's" that you gotta watch out for.) Anyway... Whether it's the fact that he is now 3, or the fact that Mommy died, (or how all that affected me and everyone else around him), or a combination of all of the above... He did become a bit more "high-maintenance", to say the least. He's always been a rather intense and passionate kid. (Don't know where he gets it...) Temper tantrums have become more frequent... ("melt-downs" I call them. It's a more accurate description.) Sometimes the "time-out" just doesn't work. I can count on one finger the number of times I spanked him before Leslie died. Let's just say things have changed, now... much to the dismay of TJ's cute little bottom. But sometimes, in the heat of one of these melt-downs... spanking doesn't even work. It's in these moments I just go Gandhi on him and do my own little non-violent sit-in. (I refuse to "lock him in his room"-- this, I know, is an effective tactic for some loving parents whose kids have reached that point, and it's a good alternative to letting the melt-down affect your own temper, of course. But due to his newfound fear of abandonment, which has become very evident in several verbally and non-verbally comunicated ways, I just don't think this is a good idea.) So, I take him to his room, put him on his bed, and sit down in front of the closed door. He continues going ballistic, hitting at me, kicking, screaming, clawing, trying to escape. I just cover up, let him go off, occasionally catching his hands before he strikes and turning him away, just saying quietly, "TJ, I love you. You don't have to do this. You have a choice. Get control. I love you..." And it works. Go figure. Eventually, he just falls into my lap in a sweaty, teary, sobby mess, and just buries his nose in my neck. We talk it out, and then we're on with our life. For awhile, this was happening several times a week. And only with me-- not with his other caregivers. I know... something deeply emotional and psychological going on there... I'm aware. But it is what it is, you know? All I can do is love him through it. I will say, the meltdowns are coming MUCH less frequently these days... and lasting not nearly as long when they do happen. I think we're growing through this "stage". This past week, in particular has been SUCH a good one-- he's obedient even when he doesn't want to be (although not always without argument, but I'll take what I can get). He's been very loving, often just breaking out with a spontaneously thoughtful, "I love you, Daddy". And he's been full of laughter and smiles. (This might have something to do with the fact I've been around more these last couple of weeks-- less travel this week... Refer to my aforementioned frustration with not being able to offer him the "family life" I desire for him...)

Now, THAT being said... Let me just say that I did not know it was possible to be so in love with such a little bundle of joy. And I am SO proud of him! (Forgive me while I brag on my first-born...) I'm sure other parents might argue with me... but he just may be the SMARTEST little guy EVER. He doesn't miss a thing-- constantly picking up on things that I completely miss... names, events, mundane details-- and then RECALLING them weeks later. The other day, we were coming in from the garage after church, and I had dropped a velcro band from one of my microphone cables...
"What's this, Daddy?" He asked, as he picked it up off the garage floor.

"It's a velcro strap. I use it to hold my microphone and instrument cables together." We continued into the house.

"Oh..." He gave it a second or two of thought, as he played with the thing in his hand.

"My mom used to have a strap for her medicine poles. 2 straps. One in her room by her bed, and one here, by the couch."

I stopped in my tracks... Yes, in fact, the homecare equipment-- the IV poles-- had very similar little velcro straps that were used to keep all the hoses and tubes tidy and untangled... How did he...??? He interrupted my thought process... "But my mom's were orange, not black."

...Seriously... It's been at least 7 months since any of that stuff has been lying around... Scary.
I could tell you more stories like that, but you get the idea. The kid is just wicked smart. And very verbal... (those of you that know him laugh as you read those words.) (And I kind of laugh, at the thought of Leslie rolling her eyes and gesturing not-so-discretely at me, as I share this with you all.) He is CONSTANTLY talking... or singing... or "free-styling", as I like to say... just making up songs and putting various words and phonetic sounds into rhythm as he plays with his colors or trains or drums or whatever... And he's a coordinated little guy, too... never sitting still. We, as you know, play baseball every night before bedtime in the basement. I'm pitching to him exclusively overhand, now, and throwing the ball faster and faster... And he makes contact about 80% of the time... Swings lefty, by the way... Throws right-handed, but swings from the left-handed side of the plate.

He's such a social little guy. He NEEDS interaction with kids. Miss Liz has learned (again, she watches him at our house 2 days a week) that the day just goes a lot better if she can schedule a play-date or a visit to see her neices (Delaney and Ella, whom TJ adores)-- anything to get TJ into a setting where he can just laugh and play with other kids. He loves going to LifeTime with me and "playing with kids", as he says it, while I work out-- they have a really great child center there. And of course, he LOVES his days with Max, Sam, Will, and Ben, Dana's kids. (Below is a sequence of pictures of him on vacation with Cole, Alec, and Jace, my sister's kids. Yes... it's always that crazy. ALEC! GET DOWN FROM THERE!!! TJ! DON'T THROW THAT...!!!)


I'm just so freaking proud of our little man, you know!? I wish we could share these days with Leslie. It's impossible to stop and just soak him up without stumbling into this reality... I just want to share him with her. To look at her and laugh at his antics. To see her cuddle with him... to watch him hold her neck. (He has a thing for necks... He's had to settle for mine, lately, even though it's "scratchy". But, he tells me, both Miss Liz and Dana have very nice, soft necks.) I want him to know his mommy-- who she was, through his "bigger boy" eyes. We do talk about her almost every day. And we have some very intimate "Mommy moments"... where we both are just missing her so much and all we can do is just sit and quietly remember stories about her, or talk about Heaven, and what she's probably doing right now. Those "Mommy moments" aren't sad. Well, maybe a little sad... But they're just special, you know? As I was saying to a friend the other night... TJ and I will always have those "Mommy moments"... Even when he's all grown up and out of the house... regardless of what God's plan is for us... our family. TJ and I will always have a special exclusive bond that is the essence of the memory of Leslie... who she was... who she made us to be... the life she gave us. She will always be "ours". And we will always be "hers".

He has begun talking, Miss Liz tells me, about when he has a "new mommy", someday. For instance, when he has a new mommy someday, he hopes he can have a baby sister. This general topic did come up several weeks-- maybe months-- ago, when we were having a Mommy moment. He had asked when Mommy would be coming back to see us. I did my best to explain the ideas of "forever" and "eternity", in his own conceptual language, and also assured him that she would be waiting for us when Jesus came to take us to Heaven. I took the opportunity to mention that maybe someday, God would give us a new Mommy for him-- not Leslie. His mommy would always be his mommy, and nobody will ever replace her... but God might give us somebody else someday. And together, we could be a new family. Much to my surprise, he lit up at the suggestion. "But Mommy will still wait for us in Heaven?" I assured him, that yes, she would, and she told me before she went to Heaven that she hoped that someday we could have another Mommy to make us happy, until we go to Heaven ourselves. "And our new Mommy can go to the zoo with us and play with us, here at our house?" He was starting to get excited... ("Thank you, God," I prayed silently as we finished our conversation. "Thank you for protecting and preparing this boy's heart. This is truly miraculous, how you are guiding us through this.")

He's so constantly aware of how I'm doing. If I'm on the phone, listening to a story, or something, and exclaim something like, "Oh NO!!" he's all over that. "What's wrong, Daddy!? Why did you say 'oh no'?" And several times a day-- often after a "teachable moment", a time-out, or etc...-- he asks me, "are you happy, Dad?" He just wants me to be happy. I guess you could say the same thing of me, concerning him. It seems we're just looking out for each other. We've got each other's back. We're buddies, TJ and me. Indeed, what we have-- and even what, or who, we are missing-- will forever be sacred... A bond between men that will never be severed. I love my little man. And he loves me. Praise God for this precious gift!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da...

Life goes on... Or so the Beatles told us. Funny how close encounters with death can teach us to live, isn't it? Funny how enduring hardships make the joyful times so much richer. Life has never been harder than it has been these last 16 months. And still... life has never been fuller. Even more profoundly... I've never known JOY-- true joy-- like I've known these days... in this "new life", with which Leslie has left TJ and me.

Leslie's dear friend from high school, Claire, sent me along this gem, shortly after Leslie died, from a thinker/ writer named Kahlil Gibran:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.

And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.

And how else can it be?

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

Is not the cup that hold your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?

And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?

When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Some of you say, 'Joy is greater than sorrow,' and others say, 'Nay, sorrow is the greater.'

But I say unto you, they are inseparable...

This just resonates so much with what has been jumping off the pages of scripture, lately, as I read verses that never before carried the encouragement and power that they do today (I mean, they always did, but I never received it fully)... About how Paul would say, "consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds..." And how Jesus Himself talked about not truly "finding life" until you "lose your life". He wasn't just speaking of Heaven. He was talking about the fullness of life that can be lived here, on earth, with a full understanding of the frailty of this life, yet the paradoxical power of faith lived in grace... and a proper understanding of the value of the "stuff" this life has to offer. Losing Leslie re-taught me what it is that I really VALUE-- what my FAITH was really about... what LIFE I truly longed to live. And the flood that I walked into after vacation at the end of 2008 was the exclamation point at the end of that proclamation. One of my favorite Christian bands, Caedman's Call, writes this beauty (and to a GREAT tune, at that):
This world has nothing for me,
And this world has everything.
All that I could want,
And nothing that I need.
We just fill our lives with STUFF, you know? Toys, experiences, titles, substances... And we run from burden and pain. We seek the path of least resistance... the "wide gate". (Matthew 7:13-14) It's like we're trying to steal joy from life, without the required effort, or the consequences of pain, or even those of suffering and death-- and it ends up being a hollow and empty joy. You Christians in the audience... this includes us-- we're not without fault... in fact, maybe we're even MORE guilty of it, because we claim to have FAITH, yet go on self-medicating with all this STUFF... stealing joy from life, claiming the promise of Heaven, while avoiding the "cup" and the "cross" we've been called to bear... clinging on to happiness and "control", and calling it "stewardship", or "maturity", or even "wisdom". But what is the wisdom of this world to God? And what is its foolishness? As I've said before-- and indeed, many of my close friends are probably getting sick of hearing it from me-- but this faith... the "Gospel", if you will... is not really about "Heaven"... No... it's all about the CROSS. Many religions have "heaven" or some version of it. Only Christ, though, and those who call themselves “Christians”, can lay claim to the Cross, and all it represents. And the Cross is not just the Cross of Easter Sunday... no... We mustn't forget Good Friday. (But the GREAT stuff is... once we more fully grasp all that Good Friday is... Easter Sunday becomes something greater... it becomes RESURRECTION Sunday!) (Another post for another time, perhaps... Maybe in another couple of months...)

So... That's just a taste of what's been stirring in my heart these days. And that's how I want to preface today's update-- the snapshot of the goings-on in the life of TJ and me. Bottom line: Life is hard. But life is good. And life goes on.

(As an aside-- I'll try to include some pictures here, as many of you have asked for updated TJ pic's. Unfortunately... my nice digital camera/camcorder seems to have come up missing, in the aftermath of "The Flood"... I hope it turns up... but it may have to be written off as a casualty of the crisis. That being said... my BlackBerry, which I always carry with me, DOES have a camera application, so I have some classic and candid "action shots" to share... although they may be of a lower quality than one might desire...)

TJ and I are having quite a lot of fun together, lately. I will say that things at work have been quite busy... There are too many of those days where I wake TJ up before 6am, shuttle him to Dana's before sunrise, and don't return until after sunset. Not every day is like that, mind you... and not 100% of this occasional 12 hour day is spent "working" either-- lunch with a friend, run an errand or two, work-out at LifeTime (there's one by my office, one by Dana's, and one by our house... so it's always convenient to go blow off some steam and exert some physical energy over lunch, or going to-and-from wherever). No, not every day is a dawn-to-dusk marathon for me... And Liz and Dana have been SO wonderful and flexible and loving toward TJ... But still, it's my time with TJ that I cherish most, so these long days can start to wear, you know? Especially when coupled with the typical one-night-a-week of travel associated with my job... and my commitments with the church/ ministry, etc... And I get the idea TJ feels the same way-- he just longs for more time with Daddy. Yes, I have struggled from time to time with the fact that I just can't offer him the "family time” that I want him to have... (that, after all, would require there being a whole “family” that I want him to have)… There just aren't enough hours in the day. Just not enough beating hearts under this roof.
Now, we DO have some good Saturdays together-- lately our favorite pastime is going to Naperville Music or a local Guitar Center to look at the drums (him) and guitars (me), and then hit the Fox Valley Mall nearby. They have a carousel, a Panera, and lots of quarter gumball machines (both pictured on the left.) Even on some weekdays, I am able to pick him up from Dana's, or relieve Liz at our place, at 4pm or so, right after his nap, and that gives us a little time to run around and hang out together a little more. Last night, we went to Lifetime together before dinner-- a real treat for him. Tonight, we'll do some MUCH needed grocery shopping at Trader Joe's on the way home from Dana's. But even tonight, we'll probably stop and eat at Panera or something for dinner. I can count on one hand the number of times I've actually turned on the stove in 2009. Maybe two hands... But we just don't do "quiet family dinners at home" anymore. How could we? We DO have frozen meals in the freezer from thoughtful and generous friends, just waiting for the opportunity to be thawed, cooked, and enjoyed at home... But honestly... we don't even have time to thaw, cook, and clean up the mess. Those of you who know me know that I'm a bit of a food-nazi... I get it from Leslie. So I'm never going to put TJ's nutritional health in jeopardy... It's just that I'm finding that it's easier, quicker, can be just as healthy, and even CHEAPER to eat out, just TJ and me, than try to throw something together at home for the two of us... as long as we're disciplined enough with where we go, what we order, etc... And TJ doesn't seem to mind. He loves our dinner times out together. To be honest, he probably has more of my focused attention when we're eating out than he does on the rare occasion when we're eating at home... When I cook, I always serve his food first, then pray. Then I usually hover around the table and kitchen, cleaning up, opening mail, or whatever, between bites of my own dinner, so that by the time he's finished, I can get him cleaned up and upstairs to his bath...

I will say, though, there is something sacred about our night time routine, which we have been able to maintain amidst all the chaos of this new family life. We're always home for bath time. (well... almost always...) We play in the tub or the shower, get dried off, jammies on, and then head down to the basement. There, the world is our oyster... We play band... (I'm almost getting tired of "Mighty to Save" and "My Redeemer Lives", I hate to admit… but I just can’t turn down his requests!)... he bangs on his drums... we play baseball or football or basketball and it always results in tickle fights. And then we're off to bed to pray and cuddle... and he always asks me to stay longer than I do. The challenge is to get him to sleep before 9. Or 10, sometimes, for that matter. But there's just so much to DO these nights, you know?

Hard? You bet. Good? Better than that! Life is BEAUTIFUL! I'm truly cherishing these days... just wishing there was more time in them. Each day is truly a blessing. Each day, we're figuring "it" out. However we define "it"-- I don't have to define it... you know what I mean. But each day, God is providing. Not just getting us through... but providing JOY-- pouring grace and love into us. More and more laughter is finding its way into our days. We're certainly not without tears. But, as I quoted at the front end of this post...

"And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears."