I remember having this specific thought, almost word for word, ten years ago this month: This is a sucky situation, and the only way out is worse. In September of 2009 Dana’s cancer took a hard turn, landing us in the hospital for a month. We came home to hospice in October which is when I began embracing the reality of the situation we were in. In late November I started reading to Dana a chapter-ish a day of the book of Revelation, one of Dana’s top 10 favorite books of the Bible (or in reality, one of her top 66). We were both buoyed by the book’s message of hope. But as we approached the end of the book I had a haunting thought: What’s going to happen when we reach the end of this book? That last verse has a pretty final sounding “Amen.” On December 22, 2009 Dana was a little more alert than she had been. We had had some Christmas carolers from Centerville Christian Fellowship (some of the dearest folks in the world) singing to us from the front yard while standing in the snow. Dana laughed at hearing Pastor Wes singing way off pitch. Later that evening, given her more engaged state, I decided to read two chapters out of Revelation, chapters 21 and 22, which included talk of Jesus wiping away our tears. This struck me in that we (we being me, Mama Sue, and many wonderful caregivers) had wiped away many of Dana’s tears in the recent months, partly from emotion, and partly from spontaneous tearing from medications. Those two chapters took us to the end of the book. The next morning, on December 23 at 9:10 am, the task of wiping Dana’s tears was officially taken over by Jesus.
At that moment of passing, I didn’t know how I was going to get to the next moment. But I did. And then I didn’t know how I’d get to the next moment, but I did. And soon those moments began to pile on top of each other. I eventually made it through the first day, then the first night, then the first week, then the first month, then the first year. And now, here we are, 10 years later.
There is only one answer for making it to this point: God. His presence. His grace.
I’d like to mark the 10-year anniversary by doing something similar to what the psalmist Asaph of Psalm 73 did. After writing of his tumultuous journey with life and faith, he wrote: But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds. I need to tell of a few of God’s deeds.
In these 10 years, I have, in order of appearance: dug through the mud of grief, met Jessica, married Jessica, travelled with Jessica, had Reade, had open-heart valve repair surgery (both in the same week, Reade and heart valve surgery), had Rachel. Then, Jessica was diagnosed with breast cancer, beat the breast cancer holistically, beat the breast cancer again with surgery, lost Jessica’s cousin by a rarer cancer, lost Jessica’s grandfather by 94 years of a great life, and most recently, lost Jessica’s (and my) dear friend Kristin by an aggressive colon cancer.
There is an irony to this active decade. During my first year of widowhood I articulated the thought that I am okay with simply gutting it out for the next 30 years, 30 years being my remaining actuarial life span; I’m okay with watching other people experience love, enjoy Christmas, and revel in other good things. I had experienced those things and was content with simply being an observer. I had great family love, both my own family and Dana’s family. While this mindset seemed brave at the time, in retrospect it was likely a process mechanism to protect myself. Thankfully, God had other plans. And miraculously, He prepared me for those plans.
In fact, over these past 10 years I think one of the biggest miracles God has performed, or greatest "deed" to use the words of the psalmist, is helping me not live protectively, at least not knowingly. I think our default inclination after loss is to protect our heart to minimize risk. It is no small accomplishment to say that today as a husband, as a dad, as a friend, I am all in.
I have full appreciation for the mercy God has shown me through His consistent reminders of His presence, what we in this journey have called God Stamps---weirdly coincidental sightings of rainbows and deer and other confluences like heart clouds that can only be explained by divine direction, comforting moments letting us know that “God’s stamp is all over this journey, ” a direct quote from Mama Sue during Dana’s hospice portion of the journey. For me, however, it took awhile to warm up to the idea of God’s presence being a comfort. In my most honest moments while in the epicenter of grief I’d find myself saying “God, your presence is great, but I’d rather have Dana’s.” But His presence is real, and it’s the biggest money-back guarantee we have from God: He is with us. In fact, it’s expressed in one of His Son’s most famous nicknames, Immanuel (which means, God with us).
A true gift of these God Stamps over these past 10 years has been experiencing the thinness of the veil between here and There. A big booster in this gift was the “conversation” I had with Dana when I wondered how she would comfort me in my pain (If you’d like to take a look at that, see post here). I’ve tried to live in the reality of this thin veil. This has kept me in proper perspective as we continue to navigate loss. In fact, in the eight years that Jessica and I have been married both of our families and some dear friends have experienced crushing loss. And in these losses, God continues to mercifully remind all of us of His presence with God stamps, adding to our stamp collection of rainbows, deer, ladybugs (see our dear friends Chuck and Sue Bost) and a heart cloud. It’s abundantly evident that these past 10 years are not about me and recovery, but about God and His presence.
In the most recent loss of our friend Kristin, a good friend of Jessica’s from graduate school at USC, we’ve added sunflowers to the God stamp collection. The sunflower was Kristin’s life symbol, and at her memorial service the church was filled with sunflowers. All of us close to her since her passing have been experiencing curious sunflower moments. For me it was in October when bike riding on a trail a few days after Kristin’s passing. I was thinking about her and her service (I was to be involved) when I passed a trail walker wearing an In and Out Burger t-shirt…in Ohio! I then thought “It would be nice to see a sunflower right now.” Within a minute, I passed a garden I’ve passed dozens of times this summer on my rides, and there, as big and bold as ever, a huge sunflower…in late fall…in Ohio!
This past December 23, the actual 10-year date of Dana’s passing, I took a random incoming call at Atrium Medical Center, where I’ve been working since March as a patient representative (long story for another post). The caller was a Middletown Journal writer asking for a patient’s condition. The caller was Rick McCrabb who was the Middletown Journal reporter who wrote about the rainbow story that happened when Dana and I began the battle of her recurrent breast cancer in 2006. In the 10 months I’ve worked in the hospital position and in the dozens of incoming calls I field every day, I had never taken a call from a reporter for a patient condition update. I shared the connection with Rick and he was as wowed as I was. Unbeknownst to me, throughout that day, Jessica had experienced several sunflower moments, similar to the one I experienced on the bike path in October. We later concluded that Kristin and Dana must have met for coffee and were letting us know.
On Christmas Day, while we were driving to Preble County for some family Christmas time, Jessica was texting Kristin’s husband Bob to check in with him and share about her sunflower sightings on December 23. She looked up from her phone to gather a thought and her eyes landed on a big ol’ metal sunflower in the middle of a yard. Yes, it was yard art, but we’ll take it! Later that day at my sister Beck’s house we were sharing about these sunflower sightings, and the call from the Middletown Journal rainbow writer. My niece Maggie, an artist who has been posting a sketch a day for the past year as a personal challenge and who has been oblivious to our journey with the sunflower, asked if we happened to have seen her Christmas Day post that day. We hadn’t. She showed it to us. It was a sunflower, potted in loose dirt in a red Radio Flyer wagon, She explained that sunflowers have represented light and hope to her. She shared how she equivocated on sketching and posting an item that is not traditionally associated with Christmas but something compelled her regarding its appropriateness for Christmas Day. It was a God Stamp moment. Jessica then posted that story, sharing Maggie’s sketch and her sunflower sightings. Within a few hours, Kristin’s brother Bryan who lives in Germany, posted the photo you see below of our “sunflower” in a red Radio Flyer wagon.
You can’t make this stuff up! I love it when God shows off and I hope this encourages you as much as it has me. I am witness to the fact that His presence is real. I am testimony to the fact that His presence brings hope. I am evidence of the fact that this hope brings lifesaving refuge and miraculous redemption. Those are just a few of the great deeds of God that have become the monikers of this past 10 years: His necessary refuge, His merciful presence, His palpable hope, His exhilarating redemption.
Thank you for your prayers, your support, and so much else.