Friday, December 31, 2010

Souvlaki for the Soul

Written on December 30, 2010; the one-year mark of Dana’s celebration and graveside services.

I’ve thought a lot about how losing Dane has completely rocked my world. And then today my world literally rocked, as in a 3.8 magnitude quake in middle Indiana that rattled the glass in my china cabinet —some 150 miles away.

It was one year ago today that we returned Dane’s jar of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7) to the earth. The significance is not lost on me that the day I’m remembering the return to earth is the day the earth gives a rare shake in this part of the world. Analogies and metaphors abound.

But what has made this day stand out more than a rare quake is this: This evening I was having supper at Brown’s Run Country Club when several of the workers called my attention to outside the window where there was a family of deer. What a moment. And when I returned to my plate, a paint commercial on the TV was talking about rainbows. A double God stamp moment on this day of commemoration.

If you’re a newbie to this blog, the links below will help bring you up to speed on why deer and rainbow would pull me from a warm plate of grilled Grouper. You also might want to search “deer” or “rainbow” in the search feature of this blog.

Deer blog post

These God “stamps” have served to remind me that God is near. He is with me. He is with all of us. Of course, in my most honest moments I’ve thought: that’s great, but I’d rather have Dane with me and near me. But she’s not. And here’s the thing. God doesn’t have to give me these gracious reminders. He’s told me over and over in His Word that He’s with me. But He still gives these reminders. And here’s part of what that means to me: We all would love to have some kind of physical link to eternal life, something tangible that takes all the questioning and guess work out of the deal. That of course, would take all the faith out of the deal. And as Scripture tells us, it’s impossible to please God without faith. So faith will always be a part of the path to eternal life. But these stamps from God are about as close as you can get without seeing heaven itself.

This effectively equips me with a perspective of hope. Because if God is near, then He is real. And if God is real, heaven is real. And if heaven is real, I can endure. And I cannot wait!

We had a beautiful, wonderful gathering of folks for a come-go luncheon on December 23. Lots of friends, family, writing and musician friends, and one of our hospice nurses, Lori. We were all nurtured by our mutual love for Dane, by remembering, and by consuming mass quantities of Maria’s wonderful Greek food (for those Greek foodies scoring at home, the menu was pastichio, spanikopita, souvlaki, potatoes, tzatziki sauce; desserts of karoubethes, galaktoboureko and some other wonderful bonus cake--I have no idea what it was). I can’t think of a better way to navigate a hard day. I’ll let you Google the names as a Greek food exercise. Karoubethes are pictured at the top of this post—a simple Greek dessert that was one of Dane’s faves. (And in full disclosure: I borrowed the title of this blog from where I copied that picture. The phrase captures the essence of our commemoration.)

During the morning hour of Dane’s passing I let my heart and my head go wherever they wanted to go. I read out of Dane’s Bible some of the chapters in Revelation we had read those last days. I flipped through some psalms. Most of that hour felt heavy and painful. But I felt distinctly tied into our eternal hope. The veil felt thin.

When the clock on my cable box clicked to the “official” time I simply stared at the clock for that entire minute. And when the clock ticked to the next minute I heard my mind say, “Okay, on to year two.”

And then I commemorated with friends. And ate Greek.

Opa Dane!

Love and Happy New Year to all,

P.S. I will figure out how to get to you all a pdf of the Revelation 21 sheet we distributed at the lunch. It records the special moments Dana and I shared in making the last book of the Bible a part of Dana’s last days on earth.

P.P.S. Many have shared some things they're doing as part of the Dana challenge...and I have a couple more items to add. More soon!

2 Corinthians 4:7--
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Marking a Year

First a Moment…
Then a Minute.
Next an Hour…
Which becomes a Day.
And then a Week…
Which becomes a Month.

And now,

A Year.

In those first moments of losing Dana, it seemed that I would never be removed from that scene. I felt like time stopped, that this was now my existence forever—in a somewhat frenzied mental state, not being able to see beyond the end of Dana’s bed. And too, there was a sacredness, a holiness—a spiritual residue left from Dana slipping from here to There that I didn’t want to walk away from. I think I had the sense to know that as soon as I stepped away from her bed that the grieving would start and the loss would flood in. Which, of course, it did. So here we are, a day away from marking the 365th day (Dec. 23) from when Dana went Home for her first Christmas (or in the words of her “Unkie” Jon, took up “a better offer” on where to spend Christmas). This blog post is a little different than the others; not so much writing, but requesting. I certainly have thoughts to process and share (and hope to do that over the next few days), but as I’ve approached this one-year mark, I’m finding myself wanting to be about things that honor and remember Dana. I’m seeing this past year as a year of “getting by,” doing whatever it takes to get through a week, or a day, or even an hour. I’m wanting (hoping?) year two to lean toward honoring and remembering, which may encourage the emotion of “cherishing” to come alongside the emotion of “hurting.” Of course, in the grief world, increments of time are ambiguous segments. While some cultures seem to have emotions keyed into timeframes (a time to mourn and then you’re done) ours doesn’t. Or at least not my culture.

So, I have two requests. One is in the form of gathering information, the other is in the form of a challenge. First the information.

Occasionally someone will share with me something Dana told them or advice she gave and they’re relieved that I appreciate hearing it. I guess it’s easy to think it might break my heart (and it might, but that’s okay). Here’s the thing: I WANT that kind of information; I crave it. A few months ago I retrieved over a year’s worth of instant messaging between Dana and me. That is a gift. And I’m thinking there is more out there from Dana. So, here we go:

Stuff Dana said (or did, or laughed at, or reacted to, or taught, or Tweeted, or anything in general):

Maybe you have some of her Facebook posts, or Tweets, or e-mails. Maybe you can remember a conversation, either in detail or in general. Maybe she helped you with a decision (she was the queen of “cut to the chase”). I would LOVE to have this.

How to share “stuff Dana said”:
Feel free to e-mail me at, or post as a comment to this blog or on the CarePage. Feel free to let me know if you want the details to be private (and in that case send it via e-mail), but I would love to compile this information and pass it along in some fashion.

The Dana Challenge:

(I think she would hate that title, but it’s all I got right now)

Perhaps you’d like to do something in honor of Dana this year. Dane’s family of “Mama, buzzins, unkies and Pammies” and I have started a list (keyword: “started”) below. Nominations are not closed, so feel free to add to this list. Meanwhile, you may want to take one of these suggestions and run with it or do a few of them.

1. Take a ski lesson. Or if you’re a skier, ski a mountain in Dana’s honor. Or pay for someone’s ski lesson.
2. Take a knitting lesson. Or if you’re a knitter, knit something that celebrates life.
3. Scrapbook a trip or an event.
4. Take a bike ride through crunchy leaves in the fall.
5. Try a food you’ve never had.
6. Fill out a bracket for the NCAA March Madness tournament using nothing but mascots as your criteria—think logic (a boilermaker would smash a buckeye), philosophy (devils always lose) or food chain (cats beat birds; actually, cats beat anything). For tiebreakers (i.e., two cats facing off), go with your favorite team colors or the mascot that is less cartoony.
7. Organize a junk basket or drawer in your life (“God is a God of order, not chaos”).
8. Memorize Rev. 21:1-4 (or any other bite-sized chunk of Scripture). Ramp it up a notch by joining a Precept Bible study or taking a one-day Precept training seminar.
9. Find a harp teacher and randomly offer to pay for a lesson or two for a student in need. Or hire a harpist for an event you hold or attend and tell others about the amazing woman who inspired you to do so. If you find yourself at a symphony, listen for the harp, which is always a challenge, especially when brass is involved.
10. Help a friend on chemo.
11. “Do a puz with your cuz for no other reason just be cuz.”
12. Memorize “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (or at least your favorite segment) and have it ready to go in your head for next year.
13. Get with a friend and can a batch of old-fashioned lime pickles. And give Barry a jar :-) .
14. Make shrimp salad at your favorite beach and share it with your favorite people and a good book.
15. Read a book about heaven (one of Dane’s faves: Intra Muros, now titled “Within Heaven’s Gates”)
16. Give to an organization (e.g., a church, a ministry, a health-care foundation).
17. Call up your favorite friend or your “Unkie” or most anyone, and listen and care.
18. Get excited about most anything and talk and laugh really loud.
19. Be brave. Don’t let any crisis define you; let the delicious moments define you.
20. Love.

Disclaimer: Sorry, but I can’t accept responsibility for any injuries (physical or emotional) that might result in trying any of these activities or exercises. I would, of course, love to hear a review of anything anyone tries.

I love you all tremendously. Your thoughts, prayers, comments, prayers, notes, prayers and prayers are the biggest reasons why I’m able to say that Year One was a year of “getting by” and not a year of “caving in.”

More soon,

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Thanksgiving Momentum

The photo above was taken and produced by my good friend Owen Brock. Entitled “Harvest,” it’s the final in a series of photos he took of a vineyard at the Abbey of Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky. This is a photo series Dana and I both loved (and have long loved Owen’s work (and Owen!): you may want to check out his work at The clusters of grapes seem to capture what the Pilgrims’ thanksgivings were all about (and the Israelites’, the forerunner to the Pilgrims’ thanksgivings).

I’ve been thinking about that first Pilgrim Thanksgiving. There had to have been more than one Pilgrim who was thinking by that time, “This is NOT what I signed up for.” They knew it would be hard, but I’m thinking it still caught a few of them by surprise. And so I wonder how many willed themselves to be thankful? I understand that over half of the Pilgrims did not survive the first winter. So there’s a strong likelihood that there was a 40-something Pilgrim guy who had lost the love of his life…thankfulness through gritted teeth.

I’m finding myself in the same boat (pun sort of intended, as in Mayflower).

This post began as an exercise in resolve, WILLING myself to be thankful…it’s been that time of year, and it just seems that thankfulness is a good discipline. It’s a fulfilling state of mind and heart and I thought I might use that as some therapeutic momentum. So, I started, pretty much through self-coercion. In my current state of self-pity it took a moment for something to come to mind. But something did. And as I expressed thanks in my mind, another item popped into my mind. Then another. And before too long, there was actually a line of items waiting to be acknowledged and thanked. As my list grew, something rather wonderful happened…I began to experience actual (not coerced) thanksgiving and real gratitude. My prayer, and if you’d like something specific to pray for you can add this to the list, is that these seeds of thankfulness would take deep, deep root.

So, without putting much thought to this, and therefore at the risk of missing something big, below is what comes quickly to mind of things I’m thankful for.

Eternal perspective and God stamps:
I’ve found that the best proven therapy so far is simply thinking of Dane in her full splendor. It pulls me out of the deep cries. The thought of her experiencing all the things we’ve studied in Scripture or imagined in our hearts is actually pretty exhilarating. And God has graciously poked through the thin veil between here and There with rainbows and deer and so much more (the God stamps that have defined this journey). These are merciful reminders that there is so much more than what we see here.

In a strange way, tears give the same satisfaction as a good sneeze.

The ability to hike, bike, golf and ski:
These activities give me the opportunity to experience the best this world has to offer---mountains, fall colors, good friends---and give me a chance to let my mind take a break from its whirlwind of thinking. Of course, golf also brings the worst this world has to offer, as in frustration, so that activity might be a wash.

“Me too” friends:
I have been blessed with more than my fair share of friends, new and familiar, who have experienced loss—fellow journey-ers. I’ve learned there’s not a more encouraging phrase than simply, “me too!” after you’ve expressed a particular sorrow or pain.

Dane’s family:
I love Dane’s family. And we are all walking together in the loss of our precious daughter, niece, sister, buzzin/cousin and wife.

Outside of Dane’s family, the person who has experienced the loss of Dane on near-equal footing with me is Dane’s friend Pam. When we talk on the phone, we simply cry. Good cries and sad cries. I am thankful for that shared sorrow. In a strange way, it helps.

The love and the “flipped switch”:
And Pam is the one who offered the encouraging words to Dana that “flipped the switch” of Dana falling in love with me…finally!! (More on that wonderful story at some point.) And I’m finding that the thought of the “flipped switch” is my first handle in being grateful for my and Dana’s love. Up till now, to reflect on and remember our relationship has been nearly as painful as it was on day one of losing her. And this, I think, is where the rubber meets the road from the standpoint of grief. When I can begin to be thankful for the things Dana and I shared, to be grateful for the beauty, then I can draw strength from our relationship and begin to heal. We’ve long said we had one of the top five loves of all time. And yet that love almost didn’t happen. But it did, thanks to the “flipped switch.” And to mix in an old cliché, I would rather have had that love and lost it than not have had it at all. And that realization, that tired cliché, is something I can build on and I feel I’ve laid some foundation.

My family:
I’ve long thought that I’ve been blessed with a model family, and I’m right. My parents, my sister, my brother-in-law, my nieces and nephew, and my 99-year old grandma are all an incredible help. Of course, I’ve been thinking I’ll be able to wrap up all this grief in about 30 years, when I’m pushing 80. Grandma’s longevity tells me otherwise. And then there is the bevy of cousins, aunts, uncles—many of whom have paved this road of loss for me—lifting and encouraging me. Cousin Carl and I were able to meet for special suppers nearly every week for a stretch when he was transitioning from Columbus to Cincinnati. What a gift.

Even though I’ve realized I am now a living Garfield comic strip (a guy with a cat), this house would be a different deal without Pud. And I must say, I think he knows that. Within a minute or two of my sitting down he is on top of me. He’s always been a cat who wanted to be where Dane and I were (and yes, we’re the only people in the world he is that way toward) but he’s certainly ramped up the affection.

Your comments and encouragement:
I have received over 1,000 comments through CarePages and the blog over these months. I am overwhelmed. Several months ago our CarePages page received a sticker/reward saying “Community over 500” meaning over 500 unique visitors have stopped in. Unfortunately the CarePages set up doesn’t allow me to respond to commenters personally (although that might be good) but every word is read, embraced and taken to heart (and probably cried over).

The church bells:
I’m listening to them right now. For those with whom I’ve shared Dana’s story “Kill the Deer” or those who attended the celebration service, you know what I mean (and here’s the post). Their pealing immediately brings to mind Dana’s bravery, resolve and trust in God. Every time I hear those bells I say to myself, “I can do this.”

My Tuesday Group:
For several years now, including many years prior to recurrence, Dana and I have met with a special collection of friends every Tuesday night for laughing, eating, enjoying Scripture, challenging each other, encouraging each other, hugging each other. Honestly, I questioned whether I could continue in this group without Dane; and thankfully, I haven’t missed a beat. This group is my portal into perspective, my reality check. And they display an incredible graciousness as I turn nearly every point into an analogy/metaphor/parallel about loss…more specifically, my loss.

My “Verizon Network”:
At Dane’s celebration service I declared all in attendance, and all not in attendance, to be my Verizon network of support (you’ve seen those commercials). You all have certainly lived up to the name. I am blessed beyond measure for such a supportive, empathetic cadre of friends and family.

The era we live in:
This might sound weird, but it’s a good time to grieve. It’s one thing to have a Verizon network (see above), it’s another thing to be connected to that network. My computer is a lifeline. And to be sitting at a table with friends/family and be able to Google on a smart phone a book title (or anything else) I can’t recall? Priceless.

I’ve coined a phrase for a certain level of grief: “afghan moments.” Dane had worked off-and-ne for many months on what’s known as the “Great American Afghan,” an afghan of 1-foot squares, each square a different pattern or scene. She was knitting it specifically for me; her knitter friends finished it for her while we were in home hospice mode and presented it to us (I blogged about this here if you’d like to take a peak). So the “afghan moments” are those times when Dana’s absence is so prevalent, almost numbing. I pull the afghan off the rack, head to the big comfy chair, lay under the afghan and feel comforted. I have several other of her items around the house…to look at each stitch and to know she put those stitches in place is a unique pacifier.

I leave you with Owen’s vineyard series. The photos are entitled simply:
Open up the Earth
Promise of More

Thank you!

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Season of Cunchy Leaves

The bike paths these past few weeks have been what we’d call “Dane’s bike paths,” as in covered with crunchy leaves. Of course, the recent cool days and crunchy paths have whisked my mind and heart back to exactly a year ago, when I would take little breaks in the day from hospice care to take a bike ride and hit the driving range. For whatever reason, my mind has been drawn to a specific memory from that season: It was during the pedaling and between golf balls last fall that I found my heart swirling with questions. One question in particular that haunted me then as I faced the prospect of losing Dane was simply this: Where will I find comfort?

This was more than a random question in that I could see some road blocks developing between me and my main source for comfort, God.

To be honest, you can’t help but feel some distance from God in a journey like Dana’s and mine. It seemed that every opportunity we had for some God intervention, He didn’t come through (obviously based on our definition of “come through”). And to be blatantly honest, this feeling of distance will stop a prayer life dead in its tracks. So how will I find comfort in prayer?

But perhaps the scariest question: How will I find comfort in Scripture?

Of the myriad deep connections that Dana and I shared, Scripture was one of the deepest. One of our favorite types of conversation was simply sharing epiphanies, the “Oh Wow!” moments, that came to us as we experienced God’s Word, even finding the common ground between theologically contradictory camps (Armenian vs. Calvinist, for one). And if this doesn’t sound like a particularly fun time, remember, Dana and I could make ANYTHING fun and funny! So my honest, gut-wrenching thought was: Will Scripture comfort me? Will the hurt be too deep to even be able to open a Bible?

And, to top it off, here I am leading a ministry (InWord) dedicated to advancing one of God’s most powerful tools on this earth—His written Word, while I am experiencing pain from one of the world’s deepest losses—losing Dana. Here’s what has really scared me: What if I find the promises to be empty? What if I conclude that things God said just don’t comfort me? What if Scripture doesn’t come through?

I can honestly say, so far, so good. Surprisingly so. But it’s been a nice surprise as to how God has used Scripture to help me out.

I’m finding that it’s not only the promises that comfort me (i.e., God is ever-present), but also the real-life examples that Scripture gives me such as the lives of Ezekiel (see Ezekiel 24:18; this one blew me away) and John the Baptist and the gut-candid writings in the Psalms. These examples show how God-followers navigated the pain and loss of this broken world. I’ll admit it’s easy for promises in Scripture to be so familiar that they lose their punch. But the life stories. They pack a different punch. Especially the life of John the Baptist.

As my Tuesday Bible study group was finishing up our study of the book Plan B, we looked at the life of John the Baptist. What a great example of someone who might have wondered if God was on his side. In fact, if heaven has cars, you’ll know you’re behind John the Baptist if you see a bumper sticker that says “Life sucks…then you’re beheaded.” The man led an austere, spiritually disciplined life, spent his remaining months in prison, and then, well, was beheaded.

But the scene that has touched me profoundly is when John was in prison and sent a desperate, heartfelt question to Jesus: “Are you the One?” I feel like John was saying, “I’m going through crap here and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get any better. But if you’re the One, I can do this. I can endure. It’s worth it.” Jesus simply told the messengers, “Tell John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”

‘Nuff said. Jesus gave John a list of God stamps.

I’m not seeing lame people walk or blind people see. But I continue to see deer and rainbows at strangely timed instances—long-ago declared stamps of God’s presence in this journey. I am being gently assured that, like John, Jesus is the One. It’s worth it.

In fact…

A few days ago I decided to take a walk and listen to some music that has ministered to Dana and me over the years. I’ve sorta shied away from this genre of music because it’s just too heavy. So I trekked out with my Nano and my playlist of “faith” music, a good mix of new and nostalgic: Casting Crowns, David Crowder, Matt Redman, Rich Mullins, Twyla Paris, and…First Call. For those who were at Dana’s celebration service, you got to hear First Call artist Bonnie Keen, one of Dana’s (and my) favorite friends, sing one of our favorite First Call songs, “Let the Healing Begin.” Musician extraordinaire and dear friend Lynn Hodges filled in and the two were backed up by a choir of beloved Nashville friends. An incredible celebration moment. (BTW, it’s a driving, powerful song. You should get it from iTunes.) So naturally, when that song began to play in my ears on my walk I commenced to cry-walk; boo-hoo walk in fact. And then, as if on cue…no, ON cue, on DIVINE cue actually, two deer popped out of the woods and just stared at me. While I’m listening to a song that ministered to both Dana and me and then to me as part of Dana’s celebration, God delivered a stamp of His presence. It's noteworthy that this was the first time I had decided to walk with meaningful music, and it was the first time I saw deer on this particular walk-path since Dane's passing.

Jesus might as well have popped out of the woods Himself and said, in the same manner as sending His message back to John the Baptist, “Barry, I’m the One. The lame walk; the blind see; the deaf hear; the grieving are comforted…I am near the broken-hearted; and all of this has a mind-blowing pay-off in the end. It’s all very real. Hang in there Bear.”

I’m encouraged by the parallels between my journey and the journeys taken by those brave, faithful people in Scripture. So as I ride the trails the Dana way, swerving to HIT the crunchy leaves, and as I miss her in new ways every day, I can say with thanksgiving that God’s Word is just what God said it is: it’s enduring, it’s faithful, it’s comforting.

Regarding comfort in my prayer life, I’m still working on that.

I am so aware of everyone’s prayer and support. Thank you!


P.S. Pud says Hey!

P.P.S. One of my recent strangely timed deer and rainbow instances: our friend Marcie sent me a two-page ad for the Honda Odyssey with a deer AND a rainbow in the ad. Nicely done. I guess I know my next vehicle. Or at least my vehicle for heaven, when I’m following John T. Baptist around.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Movie and Mountain Moments

For whatever reason, I’ve begun to think a lot about resolve lately.

I’m picturing those movie moments: when Maverick threw Goose’s dog tags out to sea in Top Gun, when Rose let go of Jack while floating on the driftwood and called for the lifeboat to “come back” in Titanic, when Carl lightened the load so his house could float over the mountain range in the animated film Up. These moments represented a turning point of some sort when loss turned into strength and motivation.

Of course Hollywood has to make all of this happen at one point in the movie. In real life, I think it happens as a thousand points that stack up.

I’m embarrassed by some things I haven’t finished or done (still working on a headstone; still working on thank you notes) and grateful for (and surprised by) some things I have done (kept indoor plants from the funeral days looking good; commandeered Dane’s iPod Nano, which was a sacred lifeboat in chemo days; now using the full bed, especially since Pud has joined me for the fall season).

There will be a point when I will draw strength from memories and my and Dana’s relationship. I’ve already had the strangest sensations of processing things the way Dana would: asking the pointed questions of friends, seeing the bottom line on things quicker than usual (Dane was the queen of cutting to the chase). There really is a process of absorption that occurs, and that’s a nice surprise.

While I’m a long way from the “movie moment,” I guess it’s a good sign that I’m at least thinking about resolve. Of course as I say that, I think that this past Monday, for whatever reason, was a record-setting day of missing Dane. And I guess that’s what this whole journey is about: recovering from loss while navigating the huge hole in your life.

On my recent trip to Montana (Glacier National Park), I set out to make it a trip of resolve…to begin the process of drawing strength from this experience, trying to build channels that help emotions flow from valleys of heartache to vistas of resolve. Mountain hiking seemed to be a good place to do that. But here’s what I learned. You can’t force this. Maybe I was just too distracted by the physical valleys and vistas before my eyes to worry about the valleys and vistas in my heart. If so, that’s fine. Snow-covered peaks and mountain streams have their own restorative power. So I didn’t have that legal pad session I was looking for when bullet points of resolve were flowing as fast as I could write. But I did have this happen.

My last hike of the trip was actually an after-thought. I was on my way out of the park, but noticed the clouds were breaking (it had been raining). I saw a trailhead for a trail I had had my eye on all week, so I pulled off and hiked. About 30 minutes into the trail I noticed something: silence. The other trails that week either had fellow hikers or rustling leaves from the wind. I was now on a desolate, moss-covered, fern-covered, old-growth forest trail. There was absolutely no breeze. All was still. And so I decided to stop and have about a 5-minute silent retreat.

In those few moments I realized something rather monumental: my mind is noisy. It’s busy. It moves from one thing to the next. I long ago diagnosed myself with ADD/ADHD (I became an ADD authority as a youth pastor). The grief process has taken the ADD to nuclear levels. Maybe it’s the mind’s default defense mechanism, which can be good. But in those moments of silence I heard the mental noise that I’ve been tuned into every minute of every day for the past many months. So while the noise might be protective, it’s also been keeping me from hearing, from processing, and probably worst of all, from praying.

And so, I made a commitment—a point of resolve if you will—that I will work to clear my mind of busy, noisy thinking, and try to make room for God to get a word in, at least edgewise.

That micro silent retreat was a nice gift. I’m not throwing dog tags into the sea, but I’m grateful for the slightest point of resolve, even if it’s just clearing the smallest space in a cluttered mind. Thankfully, God works with small things; a mustard seed comes to mind. And one thing I have definitely learned so far: if I’m to get to any point of resolve or strength, it will have to come from whatever God speaks into my heart and mind.

Speaking of being “tuned in,” I’ve been listening a lot lately to country music. Those folks know pain. Dana and I had connected on and with country music in our dating days (Travis Tritt was the gateway), and so I find some comfort in that music. And there are some GREAT songs out right now! Maybe this has contributed to my noisy mind. But as a funny twist, I leave you with the photo below, a picture of the radio station call name for the country station I listened to in Montana.

Thank you for your prayers, thoughts, and support.

(And the picture at the top was taken moments after my micro silent-retreat hike--Lake MacDonald at the Apgar Village, Glacier National Park.)

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Plans B, and imitating a tree

Yes, I took the moon picture, on a trip to Montana this past July. It was shot from my perch at the fire tower through a hunter’s spotter scope, using a camera with a broken viewfinder (another entry in the long list of “nothing is easy”). I was guessing on the camera aim. The trees in the foreground are on top of a ridge of mountains about 5-10 miles away. Now imagine watching the moon set in about 60 seconds with this view. I was watching trees overtake craters in one of the most graphic real-time experiences with the rotation of the earth I’ve ever had. Other than the fact that it was taken in Montana, this picture has nothing to do with the subject of this post. Simply, it’s one of the coolest things I’ve seen.

When I was packing for this Montana trip I grabbed two books, one that I was reading as part of the recovery journey, (Plan B: What To Do When God Doesn’t Show Up the Way You Thought He Would by Pete Wilson, a really good book; more on that down the road) and the other by one of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott. I was reading Wilson’s Plan B on my flight to Montana and at about the half-way point in the book, and probably somewhere over North Dakota, Wilson quoted Anne Lamott from one of her books. Curious to see if that was the book I brought, I shuffled through my carry-on bag to find that it wasn’t the same book. But the book I did bring startled me. It was also hauntingly, coincidentally, maybe divinely, entitled Plan B (with the subtitle, Further Thoughts on Faith.). So here I was heading to Montana for some grief recovery and restoration, and I have two unrelated books entitled “Plan B.” God, You are funny.

And then, on my flight into Missoula I was sitting beside a retired gentleman whose wife was seated across the aisle. About 20 minutes before landing she handed him a stack of papers. I wasn’t trying to be the voyeur seat mate (although I think we all have that tendency deep down inside, at least I hope we do and it’s not just me) but I noticed the words “Glacier National Park” at the top of the top page. Those words always jump out at me like my own birth date. Dana and I had loved Glacier. We hiked there about four years ago when my family (mom, dad, Beck, Rick, KatieMaggieandMiles) celebrated my folks’ 50th wedding anniversary in that park. It was on that trip that Dana and I decided we needed more of Glacier in our lives. We were diagnosed with her recurrence that next month. We did, thankfully, get to return to Glacier last year for a wonderful, special trip. In fact, the header photo for this blog is from a hike on that trip.

So I asked my seat mate if they were heading to Glacier. He said, “Yes, we’re going there for 10 days. We’ve never been.” Through moist eyes I assured him he will love it. Then I turned to my window to let the tears flow. And that’s when it struck me: Here I was lugging two books entitled Plan B, and this gentleman was living my Plan A. I had one of the strongest tinges yet of unfairness come over me.

It’s possible that God was simply softening the ground for a couple things He wanted to show me while I was in Montana. The previous blog post “Lesson Learned along the Trail...and Journey” contained one of those things. Here was another.

I was able to take some wonderful, beautiful hikes through the Bitterroot Mountains. Around my third day of hiking, and probably my fourth hike, I realized that every trail wound through areas that had experienced some kind of fire. Some fires were long ago (15 years or more). Some were recent (one of my favorites, the Kootenai Creek Trail, had a huge fire even since we had hiked it within the past five years). And all were widespread.

It wasn’t long then before I was making the connection between these trails and my philosophy on this journey: I will run toward the fire [see post: Running Toward the Fire]. I began to feel that I was now doing this philosophy literally as I passed charred and fallen trees.

As devastating as these fires were, there are beautiful phenomena that happen after fire has swept through a forest. One of the trail heads had a permanent info board that explained the ecological miracles that take place, enabling a forest to regenerate. In fact, people hiking these trails today are seeing things they would not have been able to see without the fire. God built in many regenerative tripwires that are triggered only through fire.

The analogy speaks for itself. Yes, I would rather not have experienced the raging fire and still be on my Plan A. But I’m not. And so, as I navigate the Plan B that has been dealt to me, I will look for, anticipate, and embrace any tripwire I can find: eternal perspective, God-given strength, God stamps—experiences and lessons I would not have experienced without this painful journey. Admittedly, that’s easier said than done. But at least it’s now in writing. For me, that’s a start.

On one of the hikes I noticed a huge cedar tree that was very charred yet appeared strong and healthy. I simply told myself, “I want to be like that tree.”

By the way, I am writing this post on the eve of my second trip to Montana this year. This time, back to Glacier National Park. Let the looking, anticipating and embracing begin. I think.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Lesson Learned along the Trail...and Journey

Over these past months I’ve been experiencing first-hand what can only be described as the many faces of grief, each face being a different factor you have to deal with. To give a few examples, there is:

-the loss factor
-the longing factor
-the raw miss of Dane factor
-the “crap factor” of things you have to do (i.e., headstone)
-the fear factor of the future

I’ve likened these faces to a horse race: every day, sometimes every hour, these faces are racing each other, each striving to be the dominant feeling. In the first few weeks of losing Dane I felt like these faces were flashing across my mind like a strobe light. As time has gone on, each face settles in for awhile, a couple days, or a week, before another takes the lead. Right now the dominant face of grief seems to be this: the feeling of being torn from Dane, with all our “millipede” connections dangling like fresh wounds. It manifests itself in the sense that, as many couples feel, I was one with Dane; we became a blended entity and now I am so very not one. And it’s not a simple loneliness (I really haven’t been racked with loneliness), but a heightened awareness of simply not being with Dane. I’m the one, of the two of us, who is still here. She is on the Other Side and I am very much not. And it’s not simply a spouse lamenting the loss of a spouse; it’s Bear lamenting the loss of Dane. As I’ve mentioned, we had declared our love to be a top five love of all time. So now, what does the surviving half of that love do?

This made me ponder a question that Dana seemed to answer for me when I was on a recent trip to one of our favorite places in the world: the ranch of Burnt Fork Ministries, a wonderful place lovingly stewarded by our friends Randy and Kay. Here was the question: What would Dane feel/think if she was aware of the heartache that I was experiencing? What might she say to me?

I went to Montana with three distinct purposes: to see some great friends, to hike some beautiful trails, and to explore the night sky (my newfound hobby that is helping me connect with something that’s been around a lot longer than my and Dana’s love). What better place to explore the night sky than in a state nicknamed “Big Sky Country”? And it lived up to its billing. In fact, you might say I got to hike the day and the night: walking scenic trails through canyons and along mountain streams by day, learning constellations as I hopped from one formation to the other through and around the Milky Way by night.

Many merciful and gracious things happened to me and came to me on this Montana trip. I’m planning to post it in small bits. Here’s the first small bit:

On one particular night, a night that seemed emotionally heavier than the other nights, I stared at “our star” in the Big Dipper and posed the question I’d been pondering: What would Dane feel/think if she was aware of the heartache that I was experiencing? What would she say to me?

I was surprised by what entered my mind and my heart: I pictured Dana in her splendor thinking about that question. In fact, her current surroundings of splendor have everything to do with the response. I’m going to write as I heard the response, in Dana’s words:

“Bear, about your heartache and your pain: I’ve seen where this all leads and it
really doesn’t matter how much you hurt. I’ve seen how and where you will end
up. It doesn’t matter how hard things are for you now. It will be worth the
pain. Bear, of all the crap I endured to try to beat that crazy cancer, it was
worth that pain. It’s actually not even on a comparable scale. It doesn’t matter
how much worse things get for you on Earth; it doesn’t matter how much deeper
the heartache gets; it doesn’t matter if you get a bad disease yourself. In
fact, just to stress the point: I won’t even waste time trying to comfort you.
All I can say is, it really doesn’t matter! I can’t wait until you see how worth
it it all is!!! I SEE it. I SEE the forever! It’s real! Bear, it’s worth the
pain. It was worth all my pain/suffering. It doesn’t matter how hard it gets. It
WILL be worth it.”
I don’t quite have words yet to describe how this answer has comforted me. I can truly say, it has settled me down. When a face of grief tries to own me, I can look it in the eye and say, “It doesn’t matter how bad this gets; it will be worth it.” Maybe it’s just that our final reward is so much more certain to me now.

And this past Tuesday with my Bible study gang, we ran into this Scripture passage, James 1:12:12:
Anyone who meets a testing challenge head-on and manages to stick it out is
mighty fortunate. For such persons loyally in love with God, the reward is life
and more life. (The Message version)

And I’m reminded of 2 Corinthians 4:16-18:

So we're not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks
like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new
life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. These hard times are small
potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for
us. There's far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here
today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can't see now will last forever. (The
Message version)

You gotta love a version that uses the phrase “small potatoes”!

And as if to put an exclamation point on my “conversation” with Dana, on my last day of hiking I had this experience:

One of our favorite hikes near the ranch in Montana is the Bear Creek Overlook. (I know, “Bear”; but it’s not just because of the name.) I squeezed this trail in as a second hike on the last day of my visit. The overlook is one of the most breathtaking mountain scenes I’ve experienced, and I’ve experienced more than my fair share of mountain scenes. The picture at the top of this post does not do it justice. I spent an hour at the overlook. Then on my way back down the trail, I passed two guys going up the trail on their way to the overlook. They asked how much farther they had to go (a common hiker practice; we all want recon and perspective). I told them about 30-45 minutes. They took a few steps up the trail and then one of them asked back, “Is it worth it?”

I know. It was God-stamp timing.

Without yet making the cosmic connection between their question and my question, I loved being able to say, with almost a giddy certainty, “definitely!” I had personally weighed the effort (the switch-back trail) against the payoff (the magnificent overlook) and could confidently declare that it was worth it. I KNEW they would enjoy it.

It wasn’t until I got near the bottom of the trail that I realized the connection between that conversation and the “conversation” I had with Dane. I had given those two hikers the answer that Dana had been giving me about my journey. Dana would say to me with absolute, giddy certainty that the journey is worth it! She’s seen the trail and she’s now seen the payoff.

It’s definitely worth it.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Sushi, Fellowship and Sunflowers

I’m discovering that there is a second tier of loss in journeys like mine—things you lose as a result of the primary loss. I want to tell you about a wonderful church I said good-bye to this past Sunday.

First, the back story. I’ve been serving part-time as the lead pastor of Centerville Christian Fellowship (Centerville, Ohio) along with a full-time assistant Wes Duff. Wes is a good friend who was part of Dana’s and my college-age ministry many years ago. He and I have seamlessly morphed into mutually discipling each other over the past few years. Our ministry partnership with Centerville has been happening since January of 2008, covering most of the time that Dana and I had been battling her recurrence. Wes recently accepted a position at Salem Church of God in Dayton. While this obviously changed the dynamics of the situation, I had every intention to continue on with CCF. But as the mental mud has thickened, and has shown every sign of getting thicker, I made the difficult decision to step down as pastor. It just seems best for the church in the long run.

CCF is a special place with special people. After it was planted just over 15 years ago I became the “go to” fill in guy when their pastor was away. At the time I could teach Sunday school at my church in Middletown and high-tail it to the church in Centerville (but not without a little nervousness on the part of the sound guy). We enjoyed a special "fill in go to guy" relationship. Then I became their “go to” interim for two stints, the second morphing into the pastoral situation with Wes. Dana and I have loved these folks and I have certainly received more than I gave. During the hospital and hospice months this past fall they formed a literal food brigade. Believe it or not, the one component I was most nervous about duplicating from hospital to home was food---it was nice to simply call food service (you get to order your own meals at Atrium; very nice touch) and everything you need showed up on the tray. But between the church’s diligent food prep/delivery and Mama Sue’s food prep presentation, food was the least of my worries and actually became a positive force in the experience…for nearly three months! That’s long-term meal supply!

About the second week into the hospital stay I came home one night for some supplies and as I pulled into the driveway my headlights beamed over the nemesis of my yard: wild violets. I had a whole fall strategy to eradicate these things. But now, looking at them was another ripping reminder that life was turned upside down and the violets were just another of many tasks I won’t get to. Next scene: 15-ish folks from the church descending like commandos on my neighborhood-sized front yard and pulling every last violet. What a gift. For the remainder of the fall whenever my headlights scanned the front yard, I saw nothing but love. And along those lines, the church descended with the same force on my backyard to rake leaves throughout the fall.

And there’s more. They visited us in the hospital. They relayed rainbow reminders. They walked prayer laps (in the rain!) around the hospital. They sang Christmas carols to us on December 22, the last earthly music Dane would hear in that she was hearing angels the next morning (she laughed at Wes singing the words of one carol to the tune of another---sorry Wes, I had to out you).

They reminded me of the sunflower. And they served sushi.

First, the sunflower. There’s a sunflower patch I would pass on my route to the church. One week a couple years ago the flowers were in their brilliance. I noticed many people had pulled over to snap some pictures and I decided to get in on the action. We were in the middle of a series on fellowship (and launching a new small-group effort). In the series we looked at four things with which we have fellowship: the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and each other. A recurring point in the series was that when these four elements overlap (picture four interlocking circles), a sweet spot of fellowship is created that is irresistible. As I watched people come and go to take pictures of this beautiful sunflower field, I was struck with a gripping analogy: this is what “sweet spot” fellowship looks like. It’s naturally attractive and irresistible. As I developed that point for a sermon I decided to see if I could find further information about the sunflower that might shed more light on comparing irresistible fellowship to beautiful sunflowers. After about two webpage clicks I was struck by the arrangement in the middle of a sunflower, where I saw the logo we had created for the series. The picture sequence below tells it all.

The first weekend Dana and I were in the hospital Jeff and Steve from the church’s leadership board (aptly named, Servant Board) stopped by…with a vase of sunflowers.

Now the sushi. When I shared in Dana’s celebration service I read one of her writings…the one that started all the deer God stamps. At one point in the writing Dana shared her frustration on how the church (in general, not CCF) so easily slides into the same ol’, same ol’ and exhorted the church to do better. As an example, rather than the same predictable missions banquet, why not have a missions salsa dance and serve sushi! Well, at the dinner following the celebration service, we had sushi. Our youth leaders Amy and Matt bought it between the service and the dinner. It’s a church that serves sushi…and I hope it will always be.

This wonderful group of people prayed for us, held us, fed us, ministered to us, cried with us. No matter how despairing and dark I felt in those hard days last fall and winter, I always felt supported and connected. They were patient and generous in giving me leave time to be a caregiver.

Stepping down from this position is another loss in this journey. For now, though, I am confident that God is with me and He is with the CCF congregation. I leave you with the Scripture prayer that we read together as we closed out our service this past Sunday; and it's a prayer I'll be praying every Sunday morning for a long time on behalf of a special group of people meeting at that time in Centerville, Ohio. (This passage was also the benediction that closed out my and Dane's wedding ceremony; for those who were there, you'll hear Don Finto's voice as you read. It ministers to me in SO many ways.)

Ephesians 3:16-21 (TNIV)
16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord's people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Speaking of Stars...and Rainbows...and Deer...and a Wonderful Lake

I didn’t plan to go such a long stretch since the last post. In fact, I had an “addendum” I intended to add within a day or two of the last post and….well….here I am, several weeks later. I’ve hit a different stretch in the journey. Everything (whether grief related or not) has been difficult. The mental mud has been thicker.

And the God stamp reminders have been scarce. God has seemed far.

Until last week.

But back to scarce. In fact, I even had an “opposite God stamp” day, as in: 1) I was standing in a parking lot looking for a rainbow (conditions were right) and, with eyes looking skyward, I stepped into an ankle-deep puddle; 2) As I drove out of that parking lot with a wet foot I saw a deer, dead on the side of the road, freshly hit. Eyes still open. I felt like I was in the middle of a cosmic joke.

Not only were the God stamps scarce, I was now in a God-stamp deficit.

And then last week happened.

Over the Fourth of July I had a chance to take a 3-day vacation on Torch Lake near Traverse City, Michigan. I joined a “family vacation in progress” with the Burns family of Bruce, Amy, their daughter Kelsey and her two friends Mary and Bridgette (and Willie and Coal, the dogs). Amy, Kelsey and friends left after my first day. My and Bruce’s good friends Bob and Scott then joined Bruce and me. Now, before you picture too irreverent of a “guy” trip, you need to know that one of our quests for the week was the making of “Bananas Foster.” A local Cajun restaurant teased us with “we’re out of a lot of things tonight but we do have Bananas Foster”…until it came time for us to order Bananas Foster. They were out. Quest on. And it was good.

I came to realize that this trip also represented a new phase in the journey: going to a place that Dana and I had never experienced, but a place I knew she’d love and that we would have enjoyed experiencing together. This sense started trickling in when I saw the Caribbean-esque water (yes, turquoise, on a lake, in Michigan) and the fishing (Dane was the fisherperson of the family). But the sense flooded over me when I saw Coal the dog (black lab-ish) leap off the edge of the dock for his toy, dive to the shallow lake bottom to get it (knowing not to breathe in), leaving his butt and tail in the air like a duck. Dane would have howled at that sight---we’ve always loved that famous duck move, but then to see it on one of our favorite animals, or any animal besides a duck? Priceless. I laughed a laughter that seamlessly morphed into a little cry. That’s when I became painfully aware of the new phase in the journey.

I had been hoping to do some stargazing on this trip (northern Michigan has a great night sky view) and yes, have a moment with Dane at “our” star (see previous post.) The first two nights were cloudy and by the last night stargazing seemed out of the picture. After I went to bed and got a bit dozy it suddenly hit me that it had been a clear evening, and was probably a clear night. I threw on some clothes, grabbed my flashlight, and headed across the street to the dock where Coal had displayed his skills.

I laid down on the dock, looked up at the sky, and said hello to our star in the Big Dipper. And within the 20-ish minutes I was out there, I saw two shooting stars. That, was a nice touch, and for me, seemed to lock in my moment with Dane at “our star.” It was also the beginning of the God-stamp barrage.

The next day was my last day at the lake, and our third day of golf. As we drove around a corner to the t-box on about hole 15, I looked over to a nearby hillside and saw two fawns. Bruce had already seen them and debated about whether to point them out. (Would this be joyous or sad? Would it destroy Barry’s golf game or enhance it?) My cart partner Bob and I then pointed them out to Bruce and Scott, to which Bruce said semi-jokingly “no crying”…to which I said, “too late.” We all had a nice Dana moment. And then I proceeded to self-destruct on the course. Oh well.

When I got home that night I received an e-mail from my folks that while on their way home from Hueston Woods (a nice state park near them) that day they decided to stop by the cemetery (I trust that I can say “stop by the cemetery” and you know exactly what I mean---proper/possessive nouns make it too heavy). As they drove through the cemetery gateway they saw…two deer, romping around the cemetery, and obviously visiting.

And it continues.

The next day, Thursday, we had “conditions are right” for a rainbow. I’ve been shut out lately in seeing rainbows…just stepping in puddles while looking for them. This evening I was getting drenched while looking. First front yard. Then backyard. Then back to front yard. I felt like a dog in the back of a moving pickup truck going from side to side. And I felt I was on another empty rainbow chase. And then, there it was, rather faint, but there. And “there” in the same position as the first rainbow that got all these God stamps started. I snapped some pictures and then plopped down on our porch swing and cried.

Then yesterday I received an e-mail from my cousins Jim and Stacey who live in Hawaii. They had just seen a rainbow, snapped a picture, and sent it.

I’ve been humbled by friends and family telling me how they think of Dana and me and God when they see a rainbow, or deer, or the dim star in the big dipper.

And now to the “addendum” I’ve been wanting to add since the last post. Two things.

First: I wanted to share with you the tribute that the Atrium Medical Center Foundation included in the program booklet the night of the gala (see previous post). It’s beautiful. You’ll see it below. And I might suggest that if you’re looking for a health cause to donate to, I’d suggest this wonderful foundation.

Second: Speaking of stars, shortly after Dana passed away, my good friends Bonnie and Eric came by the house with a gift. They had named a star with the International Star Registry in memory of Dane. The name of the star? The Deer. It’s in the Virgo constellation (both my and Dana’s birth constellation). Its telescopic coordinates, for any star enthusiasts out there, are: RA14h40m27.63s D-5[degrees]37’25.50”

Maybe you noticed how this barrage of God-stamp reminders came in twos? Two shooting stars. Two fawns. Two deer. Two rainbows. And then to top it off, when I mowed my lawn this afternoon, I saw my second pile of deer dung. I’m not sure what to make of that. Maybe I’ll have that figured out by the next post.

In any event: Rainbows. Deer. Stars. And a star named The Deer.

God seems near.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Wishing Upon A Star

I’ve had a running theme develop these past couple weeks and I’m way overdue for a post. The theme is, strangely, stars.

Ever since breast cancer Round 1 (10 years ago), I’ve had this private thought: In the event that something were to happen to Dane (or me, for that matter) it would be kinda cool for us to pick out a star where we could meet. While a specific star (North Star, a star in a constellation, etc.) is fixed and findable on this side of the universe, it seems, even though it’s the great unknown, it would be easy for the one on the other side to figure out how to get to it. And then we could have a moment with each other, each of us on our respective sides of the star.

When breast cancer Round 2 hit in August 2006, this idea picked up some urgency in my heart, but there was really no good time to suggest it. It would be too spooky. And then when things took the bad turn in the fall of 2009, I simply jettisoned the idea. But then one day in October, for whatever reason, our conversation turned to the stars. So I seized the opening. In Dane's bed-ridden state we couldn’t go out and actually pick a star, so I decided to suggest a star—something simple, but not too cliché like the North Star. I figured the Big Dipper would give us something to work with. So, we had this conversation (I’m using our nicknames; this comes into play later).

Bear: “If anything happens to one of us we should meet at a star in the Big Dipper.”
Dane: “That’s a good idea.”
Bear: “Maybe the star at the end of the handle?”
Dane: “Don’t care.”

The “don’t care” response was probably two-fold: 1) “I’m tired of answering questions”; and 2) anything in the Big Dipper is probably fine.

So, we had a plan.

In February, a few weeks after Dana passed away (I’m still not used to those last three words btw), I was in Florida for a grief recovery trip. One clear night I decided to take a walk on the beach to have the first moment with Dane and the Big Dipper. I had yet to look at it since December 23. It was a beautiful night. The first task however, was to determine at which star Dana would want to meet since we left that rather open-ended. So I gazed into those ever-familiar points of that ladle in the sky just to see if something would emerge. And something emerged. The image at the top of this blog is not a picture I took, but an enhanced image of the Big Dipper. If you know Dana in the slightest, you might be able to tell where my eyes and heart landed. I’ve never noticed (or registered with any significance) that one of the stars is dimmer than the others. Dane would ALWAYS pull for, root for, and pick, the runt of the litter. The underdog. That faintest star connecting the handle to the bowl would have to be our star.

Fast forward to just a week ago. I decided to investigate the stars in the Big Dipper, knowing they probably had names, and wondering if I might find something else cool…maybe even along the lines of a God stamp. The feint star that had emerged for me is named Megrez. So I Googled Megrez (pronounced MEE-grez). I’m going to paste in below what I found:

The faintest star of the Big Dipper, Megrez is in the Dipper's middle, linking the handle to the bowl, and in the bigger picture linking Ursa Major's tail to the Bear's hindquarters. The name appropriately refers not to the Dipper, but to the Bear…


Of course! I’m thinking we picked the right place to meet. And another God stamp for my collection.

Last month I attended the gala for Atrium Medical Center’s (the Middletown area’s hospital) foundation. Dana had worked a lot with and for the foundation—writing much of their newsletter and fund raising material over the last few years. And, she had helped plan this particular gala (it’s held only every three years, so it’s been in planning for a long time) and she had actually suggested the theme: Wish Upon a Star. I! The foundation invited me as their guest. This was a definite “run toward the fire” event. I enjoyed dinner with the foundation folks whom Dana loved and loved working with; and they loved Dana and loved working with her; I talked with our oncologist Albert Malcolm whom I hadn’t seen since Dane’s passing. He was glad to see me and expressed how much losing Dana affected him, his staff, and this community. I saw many other healthcare professionals who had been along our journey, not only as pros, but as friends. And I saw many longtime friends.

But I wasn’t prepared for this.

As I perused the items in the event’s silent auction I suddenly saw a sign: “In memory of Dana Shafer.” And there for auction was a basket of knitting, knitting books, and a copy of “Mud Pie Annie,” a children’s book Dana co-wrote with her mother. It was a step-back, take-the-glasses-off and boo-hoo-in-public moment. I didn’t even know the person who had put this together, but I met her before the evening was over. Jane and Dana had worked on the foundation together, but also had become friends through knitting. I was, quite simply, overwhelmed.

At one point in the hospital president’s address during the gala’s program, Doug McNeil said, “and our dreams come true when we wish upon a star.” At that line the entire room became a fantasia of stars reflecting everywhere that then set the atmosphere for the rest of the evening. The room was full of ooos and ahhhs. I wondered if that was Dana’s idea and I had a warm contentment that it was. As I left the banquet hall, the foundation’s director, Mike Stautberg, caught me and said, “I don’t think I told you, that starlight thing we did was Dana’s idea, too.”

I know my girl.

I will look to the stars. I will wish upon them. And I will meet Dane at the underdog Big Dipper star in The Bear.

I leave you with an image of the Big Dipper and The Great Bear (Ursa Major).

Friday, May 14, 2010

Biketour Recap...finally!

I am SOOO overdue with this post! I feel like I created a cliffhanger from the last post, setting up the adventurous New York City Biketour, and then … nothing!

In short, it was an incredible experience, and one that we’re all planning to do again. Things went off without a hitch: no bike equipment failure, no subway glitches with the bikes in getting to the start line, and no bodily injury!

Aaron (Cara’s husband), Phillip (Kirby’s boyfriend) and I awoke at 4:30 a.m. on Sunday to get our gear together and ride the subway from Brooklyn (we all stayed in Kirby’s apartment) into Manhattan. We exited the subway at City Hall Station, rode our bikes south about a mile (with Manhattan traffic, but at 6:00 a.m. on Sunday, it was light, and very fun) to near Battery Park, then followed signs north (riding past Ground Zero) to the start line, which for us was the intersection of Church and Chambers. We then waited for about an hour, and we were off.

When I am looking out over my Cannondale handle bars I'm usually seeing Ohio's Miami River, the Little Miami Bike Trail, and corn rows—straight corn rows in fact. This is all great scenery, but it’s not NYC. There is something surreal about seeing these same Cannondale handle bars in front of Radio City Music Hall, the Empire State Building, Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, the UN Building---and all without traffic. We also rode within a block of Times Square. The failed bomb attempt was the night before. It did not faze us 32,000 bike riders.

I certainly had some heavy, teary moments. It was an event Dane and I had talked about doing together, so it was impossible to avoid thinking about how much fun we would have had on this ride---scenery to observe, things to make fun of (gobs of bike helmet decorations), things to say “wow” to. There would have been lots of “helmet hugs,” which is either one of us saying to the other “give me some helmet” and then giving each other a gentle helmet bump.

Phillip rode Dane’s bike. At the end of the trip he commented “Dana was definitely with me,” noting how he has no idea how he was able to finish the 42-mile ride (and the uphill Verrazano Bridge at the end, the bridge that’s the start of the NYC Marathon, and the longest suspension bridge in the U.S., yes, even longer than the Golden Gate Bridge) without help since he had had no chance to do any training.

I had a great time with the buzzins (“beloved cousins”), Cara and Kirby. Lots of reminiscing. Lots of “Dane would have loved this” comments. On Saturday, we were joined by cousin-in-law Monica, the wife of Dane’s cousin Web who had passed away suddenly near last Memorial Day weekend. Monica lives nearby in New Jersey. It was great to see her, and to commiserate with each other on common pain. While we were all having a joyous dinner (carbing up for the ride the next day), we couldn’t help but think that Web and Dana were having some cousin party time of their own, and thinking “Monica, Barry and the Buzzins’ think they’re having fun now? Just wait! They have no idea!!”

I leave you with a few more pix from the event. You can see more by clicking the Shutterfly link on this blog page.

Riding toward the fire,

Friday, April 30, 2010

The Journey Takes a Tour

A tour through the five boroughs of New York City, in fact. Tomorrow I leave for the Big Apple with “buzzin” (beloved cousin) Cara and her husband Aaron. We’ll meet up with “other buzzin” Kirby (Cara’s sister) and her boyfriend Philip. Aaron, Philip and I will do the ride, with about 30,000 other bicycle riders---a 42 mile jaunt through all five boroughs (for you non-New-Yorkers, that’d be Manhattan, The Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island). So we’ll be riding through the canyons of Manhattan skyscrapers, the greenery of Central Park, and the neighborhoods and bridges of the other famous boroughs.

This is an official “run to the fire” event in several ways. Dana and I have loved New York City. We have loved our “buzzins.” And we have loved to bike. When we were first married some friends gave us some old bikes. They were 10-speeds, but old. We decided to see if we actually enjoyed biking before we decided to purchase new bikes. Before long, we were true biking enthusiasts. So our first, and perhaps only, high-end purchase as a couple was two Cannondale hybrid bikes (part road, part trail bikes; bikes that came to be affectionately known as “the ‘dales”) ….and they were 21-speed bikes! Soon biking was our outlet: the country roads of Preble County, the flat trails of converted rail lines (Ohio is sorta famous for those, and we have several in our area), the beaches near Seaside, Forida, and sometimes our neighborhood streets in the spring and fall.

Our rides became a staple of our relationship. We would talk. We would laugh. We would process. We would dream. We talked theology. We talked about Pud.

They also accentuated our differences. I liked to see how straight I could ride, thus promoting efficiency. Dane liked to swerve and curve, promoting asymmetry. I liked to avoid trail detritus. Dane loved to crunch, seeking twigs, leaves, etc., to snap under her tires. At times of silence, while we rode past nicely quaffed farm fields, Dane would be thinking about “the love” and I’d be wondering how they got those corn rows so straight. I liked wide open, sun drenched trails. Dane liked riding through the cool tunnels of overhanging trees. We both came to love and embrace each other’s riding philosophy, which was a great picture of our relationship.

Over the last couple of years our rides became a rebellion against all we were facing. “Take THAT chemo” we’d say, as we clicked off a 35-mile ride between Waynesville and Yellow Springs.

And so this Sunday I will be riding on my Cannondale. Aaron or Philip will be riding Dane’s. We’ll be riding in a tour that Dana and I had our eyes on doing together. We’ll be riding in a city Dana and I both loved. I can’t wait to spend time with Cara and Kirby and Aaron and Philip. We’ll remember our sweet Dane. We will laugh. We will cry. I will seek out some twigs to crunch, and will certainly be thinking about “the love.”

I will run to the fire. Or in this case, ride.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Lilac Day

Today was lilac day.

I’ve been watching them bud in our backyard. And I’ve been wondering: when will I try to smell a lilac? Lilacs have had a special place with Dane and me, and it’s been a deeply embedded fearful question through our entire cancer journey: What will I do if I ever have to smell a lilac without Dane?

First some back story. For me, I was first introduced to lilacs when my childhood pastor, Bro. Haney, gave my folks a lilac bush many, many years ago. As I think about it, not only did Bro. Haney introduce our family to the art of being a lifelong learner of faith (or at least me, the rest of the family may have already been there), he also introduced us (or at least me) to fine woodworking, bird watching, and lilacs. When he gave us the bush, which was years after he had moved on from our church, he said it would take a few years to bloom. Which it did…most of my high school and college years I think. And then it bloomed. And bloomed. And it introduced me to the compelling fragrance of lilac.

For Dana, her lilac roots go back to her elementary school days near Chicago. On a particular day in the spring the school would have “Lilac Day” and all the students would bring lilac branches and blooms from the bushes in their yards (or acquired surreptitiously from public parks). The entire school would smell of lilac—-for days! Those innocent days of elementary school and a fragrance filled school ingratiated Dana to the compelling fragrance of lilac.

And shortly after we were married and settled into Middletown, we found lilac. We were married in March, and by April we found a park (Sunset, for you Middletown friends) that was lined with lilac bushes. We would drive to the park several times a spring to “take a hit” of lilac. And then 10 years ago we moved to a neighborhood within walking distance of that very park. But bonus upon bonus, our house had MANY lilac bushes, which were unbeknownst to us, having bought the house in the leaf-barren days of late fall! Of course, every spring we still made our trek (by foot, by bike, by van) to Sunset park for the “official” sniff of spring. And this included the spring Dane was first diagnosed with breast cancer 10 yeas ago…the spring we moved to within walking distance of the park, in fact.

And so, every spring of our married life we’ve made some sort of pilgrimage to the park. Since breast cancer round one, it was also our one time to declare something along the lines of: “Alive another year to smell the lilacs.” Even when we weren’t in the middle of a breast cancer battle, we knew we faced uncertainty. We didn’t talk about it much. But when we smelled the lilacs, we let ourselves go there.

And so today, I stopped and took my “official” sniff. It wasn’t planned. It was spontaneous. I had already taken some practice sniffs with the bushes in our yard. I had driven past the park on an errand run and noticed the flowers were about three-fourths bloomed. On my return trip I simply said, “What the heck.” I stopped the van and sniffed.

I’ve learned how to cry-drive, cry-ski, cry-golf (sort of), and cry-talk. But you really can’t cry-sniff. You sort of drown when you combine those activities. So I pretty much took a sniff, and just cried. It was a good cry. And a very sad cry.

Had we actually had an opportunity to process life and death the way Dane and Bear processed everything else, I would have asked “What should I do when I smell a lilac?” I had actually been thinking about that question for a long time. But I can see now it wouldn’t have mattered what Dane might have suggested.

There’s no good teaching point or God stamp moment on this story. It simply stands at face value. I will say, it was good to smell the lilac.

Love to all,

P.S. I just noticed a new comment on the blog asking how my Sunday morning talk went at the golf event; the comment made me realize I did leave that one hanging. I think things went pretty well. I feel that, despite myself, I said what I was supposed to say (and despite being distracted by my little travel clock I had put on the podium, forgetting the clock was 10 minutes fast!) and received a good portion of gracious encouragement from the folks who were part of the service. In fact, just today I received a note from Dan, the NCCAA director, thanking me for my words and sharing that God was still moving through the words and experience. As an FYI, Dan noted that he saw two deer in the woods off his deck a couple days earlier, saying that he will never look at deer the same since that talk. Also, his wife Kelly sent me a pix from the event showing over 50 pelicans in “gratitude” formation. I love those two people.

I’m up for letting God use this journey however He’d like to use it, if at all. The golf event was a gracious cocoon to help me get to that point.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

God Stamps Continue

In my last post I talked briefly about the golf event I attended over my and Dana’s anniversary weekend. I wanted to add a little more info and share YET ANOTHER God stamp that occurred that weekend. It wasn’t all just cosmically bad golf.

The organization hosting the event was the National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA), a great group that provides national affiliations, tournaments and missions trips for small Christian colleges across the country. This event, which I’ve attended three other times over the years, is a fund raiser for the organization. They bring in PGA pro golfers to play with us amateurs. It’s a great group of folks who I have come to love and appreciate over the years. The director Dan and his wife Kelly are walking forces of encouragement. In fact, I had cleared my InWord speaking slate for the spring/summer, but this event bubbled up in recent months and seemed a good thing to do.

My task at the event was to share the message during the Sunday morning worship service. Of course the only subject material that seemed appropriate to share was to talk out of my and Dana’s journey and to relate the wonderful God stamps that He mercifully graced us with along the way.

That seemed like a doable task.

But the Saturday evening prior to my sharing on Sunday, I was hit with the enormity of what I was planning to share. I had stepped out on our fourth floor balcony to collect my thoughts, which went something like this: Other than the Carepages and this blog, I had yet to share publicly (in “speaking form”) about this journey. I realized there on the balcony that, not only had I not spoken about this journey, I had NEVER spoken about something so personal, something so deep. I also realized that I was sharing my take on some very obvious movements from God—the God stamps (the rainbow and the deer). I was overwhelmed with the thought that I was not up for this task. I even felt a wisp of loneliness, I think because I realized that if anything is to be shared from this journey, I am the one who is to share it. Without Dane. It’s OUR journey, but now….

After actually saying out loud the words “I am not up for this task,” I turned and looked at the fountain below—a fountain I had actually “cursed” a bit because its fountain noise kept us from hearing the God-made ocean noise just a few hundred feet away.

And that’s when I something special in the spray of the fountain. You can see it in the picture at the top of this blog. I grabbed my friend Dave’s camera and snapped this picture, using the last remaining space on his memory card.

It gave me some resolve. And I might add, or you might recall, that the Saturday this happened was our anniversary day. Nice touch, God.

If you’re new to this blog and not sure why a rainbow in a fountain would be so significant, you may want to scroll through the blog archives to February and check out the post “Where is God?”

As you can tell, He is SO with us.

Love to all,

Friday, March 26, 2010

Golf, Grief, and God Stamps

In case you were wondering, golf and grief do not mix (see previous post for why this would be a question). I was wondering if the golf trip over my and Dana’s anniversary (March 20) would be a distraction or if the golf would cosmically stink. Unfortunately, it was the latter. My golf partners and friends David, Ethan and Scott were more than patient and gracious. The phrase of the trip: “We’re just helping you survive this weekend.” Which they did.

With the support of these great friends as well as the encouragement of the folks hosting the event, I also received a couple more gracious stamps from God—assurance that He is with all of us in this journey. On Saturday morning, THE anniversary day, I took a walk on the beach (yes, we were golfing along the ocean). I didn’t know what kind of walk it would be. I thought it might be reflective, or hopeful, or maybe restorative. I didn’t expect it to be doubled-over wail crying. The distance between the anniversary of our wedding day and the way things are now is simply an unbearable gap. So, I sort of scuffled along the beach.

At some point I simply said, “Okay Bear, get ahold of yourself.” This led me to walk a stretch trying to simply be thankful. That worked for awhile, but it would go something like this: “Thank you God for 30 years of friendship and 17 incredible years of marriage…17 great years…17 years…only 17…why only 17!!!” And then I would have to regroup. Finally, and knowing it was time to get ready for golf, I found myself declaring this statement of resolve: “I will live this day in gratitude.” I stretched out my arms, I turned toward the sea, and then I saw 4 pelicans skimming the water toward me in the exact same arm stretch. If you’ve ever seen pelicans do this, you know what I mean. Thank you God.

As I walked back toward the beach access steps, I thought, “It sure would be nice to see a deer right now, or a rainbow.” The deer of course is out of the question on the beach and it was a “severe clear” morning. No chance for a rainbow. Then my mind recalled a note I received from my friend Lisa this past January. Her husband Jerry passed away suddenly this past August after a battle with a virus. They were in Florida to leave on a cruise with Lisa’s family. Her note was in response to my writings on rainbows and deer God-stamps. She commented on how God uses “tangibles” to assure us of His presence. For her it was dolphins and “angel formations” in the clouds. She and Jerry loved to watch for dolphins on their beach vacations. And while she cared for him in Florida, she would take walks on the beach and dolphins (along with angel cloud formations) would make “unusual” appearances at just the right time.

As soon as Lisa’s dolphin God-stamp entered my mind I thought, “Now seeing a dolphin right now would sure be…” I turned to the sea…and there they were. First I saw one. Then I asked God for a confirmation to be sure I wasn’t making it up. Then I saw another, and another. All three were making perfect, smooth “wheelhouse” movements in the waves. I laughed. I actually laughed. And then I clapped and said to no one around, “Nicely done.”

When you think about it, dolphins are the deer of the beach.

And then, later that day (anniversary day, remember) as we were playing golf, on or around hole 12, I heard bells. At first I thought they might simply be bells from a community carillon and I dismissed them (so that I could try to salvage a golf round and not be a basket case). Then I noticed they were playing “The Old Rugged Cross.” These were definitely church bells. On the golf course. Beside the ocean. I finished the hole, pretty much in tears. I basket-cased my way through the next par 3and then dedicated the drive on the next hole to Dane. It was perfect. It was pretty much my only good drive of that day, and maybe the best of the weekend for me.

(For an explanation on the significance of deer and church bells, you may want to view this post:

Stay tuned for more to come from this past weekend.

And by the way, Dana's mascot picking strategy would have picked the Northern Iowa PANTHERS upset over the Number 1 Kansas cartoon-like JAYHAWKS. However, she probably would have picked the UNLV Runnin' REBELS to beat the PANTHERS in Round 1 (rebels always win…But UNLV isn't a southern rebel, it’s a wannabe rebel from Nevada. So she may have gone with the predatory cat on that one).

Love to all,

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Brackets and Anniversaries

I’m just going to say it. My and Dana’s wedding anniversary is this Saturday, March 20. (Thus, the purple tulips above.) Of all the dates, of all the firsts, of all the obstacles to overcome, this one is looming to be the hardest. And I think it will be the hardest from now until the day I get to join Dane in heaven. March 20 represents so much. It was the most perfect (if anything can be “most perfect”) wedding day that anyone could ever enjoy. It was the culmination (and launching) of an incredible love story (more on that in subsequent posts).

And it was in the middle of March Madness.

But back to March 20. That date rings more true than my own birthday. I developed a warm affinity to that date because it was the day I got to bring into my life the only person I ever really wanted to spend the rest of my life with. There was hardly a day in our marriage that I didn’t think “I can’t believe I got to marry Dana.” Because of all my years of “unrequited love,” Dana jokingly occasionally commented that she hoped I never experienced “buyer’s remorse.” Not a chance. That comment was always followed up with the observation that we have one of the top five loves of all time.

I’m actually going to be in Palm Coast, FL, on March 20…playing in (and speaking at) a golf fund raising event for the National Christian College Athletic Association, a great group of folks. And I’m heading down there with some good friends: Scott, David and David’s son Ethan. So the golf (which is near the beach) will either be a good distraction, or I will cosmically stink at playing.

Back to March Madness.

While I’m not a bracket maniac (though I am a casual enthusiast), I did casually mention on Day 5 of our honeymoon (in Charleston, SC, perfect honeymoon spot) the idea of having some basketball on in the background one evening (this would have been Thursday). As you might expect, this wasn’t entirely understood, and I didn’t press it. Through the years we joked about the parallel between our wedding date and “the brackets” (as Dane referred to the tournament). Dana was never a sports person, but over the past few years began to embrace “the brackets.” In fact, three years ago she and I were our own “group” on the CBS bracket web site. The next year we expanded to include a few family members. I can’t tell you how much fun we had in filling out brackets, especially when rank and records were NOT the primary criteria, but rather mascots and colors. So, as a tribute to Dane, and a nod the “the brackets” we’ll all be seeing for the next few weeks, I give you Dana’s NCAA bracket selection criteria:

1. Anything with a rebel mascot (as in the South's Gonna Rise Again) was always a win;
2. Warrior-types beat just about anybody, except of course, rebels.
3. Devils/demons were always losers;
4. After a rebel, any kind of cat was a win;
5. Real-like animals trumped cartoon-like animals (like the Kansas Jayhawk).
6. Birds are usually losers unless it is a bird of prey;
7. The food chain was often employed for animal mascot match ups
8. If a mascot was indeterminate (a Zag??), it usually didn't stand a chance.
9. In case of a draw regarding criteria, it might come down to some sensible reasoning between mascots: A Badger will eat a Buckeye (to my chagrin); or even school colors (her preference).

I will appreciate your thoughts and prayers for this March 20 (and wouldn’t you know, it’s a Saturday). Meanwhile, God continues to be close to the brokenhearted. Psalm 34 rings true.

More soon, and love to all,