Thursday, July 23, 2009

Heavenly Anniversary

TJ and I will be spending the weekend with Leslie's mom's extended family in Indiana. The annual "Asch Bash", as it's called. (For those of you who don't know, a freaky part of our family tree... Leslie's mom's maiden name: Aschliman. I know. Crazy. Don't worry. We checked it out when we were dating. It's legit. Completely un-related families. At least on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.) Anyway, I'm not sure how "coincidental" the timing of the annual Bash is this year, but we will all be together on July 26th. Exactly one year after Leslie finally defeated cancer. Exactly one year since those of us left behind lost our Leslie.

The Aschliman's on Leslie's side (well, BOTH sides of Leslie's family, actually), have always been remarkably supportive of us. Since the first time I met them (a typical get-together-- attended by about 60 or 70 cousins, aunts, uncles, and so-on-- consisting of a sausage fry, followed by an afternoon of playing basketball, followed by a family style potluck dinner) I was made to feel like I'd been there forever. From my first Thanksgiving with the Asch's, I felt like I belonged to the family. (We joke it's the Aschliman genes... I fit right in. I was already "one of them".) Through Leslie's sickness, this extended family wrapped their collective arms around us. In the time since, they've been so thoughtful and supportive. They loved Leslie so much, and they miss her dearly. It will be a wonderful and difficult weekend. On so many levels.

As I prepare my heart and mind for the weekend, I'm getting a lot of notes and hugs from people... "praying for you this week..." and so-on. It seems the expectation is that this should be a remarkably difficult week for TJ and me. I guess it would be all too easy to say that this is just a hard, sad week. But in reality, it's just not that simple.

Leslie's Birthday... now that was a nostalgic day, full of memories and all kinds of feelings. (Thank you to all my blog-ees, by the way, for making that day special with all the laughs, memories, and stories.) Mothers Day was difficult. Our wedding anniversary... THAT was BRUTAL. TJ's birthday found me basically catatonic, on my face in my parents' condo in Florida, soaking the carpet with my tears and snot. "HE'S ONLY THREE!!!" I cried out to God. "YOU TOOK HIS MOMMY!!!"

Yes, there were hard moments, this past year. Hard "firsts". Holidays, memories, relics she left behind, which I'd stumble across while trying to get the house in order... and so-on. But to be honest, this "first"-- the anniversary of the last week of her life and subsequent death-- is not by a far cry the hardest for me. The other "firsts" were representative of a life that was lost-- the part of my life that died with Leslie. Remembering her life-- so well-lived. At Christmas, for instance, I remembered our first Christmas together. TJ's first Christmas. The years of memories and traditions that we were building as a family. At her birthday this year, I mourned the loss of the gift that I and the whole world were blessed with on March 18, 1976... All the memories that would no longer be shared with her... At Mother's Day, it was dealing with the fact that she and TJ would never know the bond I thought, in my feebly human mind, that they should have. THOSE were sad days.

But what am I truly "remembering" this week? This time last year... well... To avoid being intimately graphic, I'll just say her family and I were watching Leslie endure the worst suffering I've ever seen with my own eyes. We were in her hospital room 24/7, watching her fight for her last breaths, as she was trying to escape this world and fly to Jesus. We loved on her. We rooted her on. We sang to her. Very special moments, indeed. I will remember them forever. But to be honest, when I look back and remember, this time is more about being thankful that those times are over... thankful that her suffering is done. And yes, thankful that a new life has begun... both for her, and for us.

But the hardest part about this week for me is thinking of the Aschlimans (on her mom's side, that is) and the Buchers... The friends here and in Indy... And those scattered across the globe. The ones who perhaps are reminded more this week of her absence than of her victory. My heart breaks for all of you. I know how deeply Leslie is missed.

I think sometimes people forget that the grieving, for TJ and me, actually began in the months leading up to July. Indeed, Leslie was even able to take part in that "grieving process", to a large degree-- a fact for which I'm strangely thankful. And furthermore... the truth is, most of Leslie's loved ones-- as difficult as it was-- were forced to face the fact that "life goes on", in the days and months that followed July 26, 2008. But for TJ and me, life as we knew it was over. Not a day went by-- not a breath went by-- when her absence wasn't felt in a very physical sense. The house grew a lot emptier those days. Quieter. We didn't merely miss Leslie... A part of our lives died with her. (Although we all know what Jesus did to death!)

No, July 26 will not be remembered by TJ and me as a poignantly tragic day-- a day marking the onset of our worst days. No, the hardest days of my life started in early May of 2008, when the thoracic surgeon uttered the words, "her cancer is on her lungs", followed by the words, "no cure". Or if you want, you can go back to October of 2007 and throw in those days for good measure as well-- the days leading up to her first major surgery, when the battle against cancer commenced. Sure, there were some sweet moments in there (as Ginny transparently reported in the "Leslie's Journey" blog). But to be honest, the biggest thing I'm "mourning" or remembering this week is more of a "celebration"... This week marks the beginning of the end to the hardest days of my life-- the end of watching helplessly as my wife suffered and died. You can see, I hope, how easily that "mourning" can become celebration of her (our) subsequent freedom and eternal healing.

I talked to (Leslie's) Mom about this just yesterday. We were asking each other how we were doing this week.

"Mom-- you remember in the hospital, those last 3 or 4 days... When the reality of what was happening set in... Our 'support' and words of encouragement for Leslie took on a very different tone. We no longer were telling her to 'fight'. We were encouraging her to 'let go'. We were rooting her on to victory in an eternal sense. We breathed a strange sigh of relief when it was finally over. That's kind of where I'm at these days. Just ready for it to be over. Ready to celebrate the victory. Ready to be done with the battle."

My thoughts go back to TJ's "taking the news" in the days that followed July 26, 2008. His eyes LIT UP over his hot dog at the zoo the next day, as I told him that Mommy had finally made it to Heaven, and that she wasn't sick anymore. A couple of days later, as Karen the Homecare nurse came by to pick up the cancer battle gear, TJ beat me to the door to greet her. "Nurse Karen!! Mommy's ALL BETTER!!!" He was utterly overjoyed.

So sure... It has been a hard year, at times. But this week isn't among the toughest. This week isn't about losing a battle to cancer. This week, to me, is about gaining victory. Freedom. LIFE.

I do appreciate your prayers. Truly I do. I am continually humbled by the thoughtfulness of friends and family who just pick up the phone, drop an email, give me a hug when we bump into each other, etc... But if you do think to pray for TJ and me... please remember the friends and family who are struggling this week. So many people who loved Leslie weren't as "fortunate" as TJ and I to have to deal with the void she left on a daily, "with-every-breath" basis. So days and weeks like this are certain to be harder on some than on others. Not everyone has been so blessed as to experience the kind of redemption story TJ and I are experiencing these days.

Please pray for Katie as well. Perhaps not surprisingly, this week has been a very tough one on her. It's complex. The best I can do to give you direction as to how to pray is to direct you to her blog entry on the topic. In time, all things will become more clear. Of this we are certain. But this week has just been hard for "us". We covet your prayers.

So, friends... THAT's "how I'm doing" this week. Ready to celebrate the victory. Done fighting. Done dwelling on the suffering, and ready to get on with experiencing the new life. The "Redemption Story". Proud as ever of Leslie and the warrior and servant she was. Thankful as ever-- as she is-- that she is no longer here fighting, but finally whole... Finally, truly, ALIVE.

With you all this weekend,


Monday, July 13, 2009

The Cloud and the Fire

By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. (Ex. 13:21-22 NIV)

Lately I've been relating an awful lot to the Israelites as they wandered through the desert on their 40 year journey to the Promised Land. It is such a powerful image of a life lived in faith. Open-handed commitment to the Almighty.

It's not always easy. Many of us have had this little conversation with God:

"Where are You taking us, God? You say 'The Promised Land'... but I've gotta admit, sometimes, out here wandering in the desert, we just miss the familiarity of Egypt. I mean... I know there was bondage and no hope for us there... I know you desire more for us... But at least it was familiar. At least we knew where to find water.... where our next meal was coming from..."

And yet, we get up in the morning and we see that cloud, and we follow. And when the desert sun sets, there is the fire in the sky... and we keep following. Our destination is in God's hands. We're just called to put one foot in front of the other and follow.

If we follow in faith, He will provide. Our questions and doubts will be answered. Our needs will be met. But in HIS time, and on HIS terms. Not our own.

My mind goes back to the story when the Israelites had gone 3 full days without water, and once they arrived at an "oasis", of sorts, the water was "bitter". That might have been enough to harden a heart or two, wouldn't you think? But rather than grumbling or turning from God or even taking matters into their own hands, Moses turned to God and asked... "Ummm.... so.... NOW what?!"

"Throw that piece of wood over there into the water. It'll turn sweet." Moses Obeyed. God provided. They drank. They slept. In the morning there was more manna. They ate. They followed the cloud. Maybe not how the Israelites would've drawn it up... but God provided. On HIS terms.

Indeed... His ways are NOT our ways. But His was are perfect.

Katie and I have been praying for months about the details, trying to navigate this wilderness together, en route "The Promised Land". Decisions, decisions, decisions. Where do we call home? What do careers look like in this "new life"? How do we balance our need for a "new start" or a "new life" without abandoning the blessings of provision which have carried us this far? This idea that TJ has carried in his heart for so long-- this hope of a "new mommy"... How does Katie fit into that? What is the "timeline" we're on?

It's just about enough to stress a relationship out, you know? But if we've learned one thing since we first started communicating 9 or 10 months ago, it's to stay "open-handed" with our trust and faith in God. To bring our requests, questions, needs, fears, doubts, and desires to God. And to rest in Him. And in the morning, wake up and follow that cloud. And in the night, there's always that fire. When we bang the staff on the rock, water gushes forth. He provides. We drink.

Praise God for His provision. For His plan. For His promises. For His goodness, which we are so blessed to drink to our hearts' content, as we continue to follow that cloud and that fire.