God and I had a hard talk today. Driving home on Highway 43, I railed and prayed and wept for my dear friends and their newly arisen hardships. What a cross is cancer.
I alternated between asking for mercy and a miracle, and voicing demands to know why and how.
Then came a truth that got me through oh so many dark days in the last few years. It cut across my thoughts in a clear voice.
“The Lord God stands in your future.”
My mind quieted and I repeated that truth to myself.
It is not why and how that can bring peace. It is only the truth that God stands in my future; that He stands in my friends’ futures. The Holy Spirit led my thoughts from there.
God stands in all of it – in every period of our lives. Each stretch of the road is a piece of the journey that can lead to Him. To Heaven and our fullness of life for eternity. Only He sees from beginning to end, and where this present piece fits into the whole.
Because of who He is, we can trust Him with the whole thing. Past, present, future can be entrusted to His hands. He, in turn, entrusts a piece back to us. He holds that piece with us. That piece is now. It is the most present part of the present stage of our lives. It is today.
“I give you today. I ask you to bear it, yes, but it only. I give you the joys and sorrows, the tasks and fruits of today. And just as I have not yet given you the time of tomorrow, I have not given you the work of tomorrow. Those worries, wants, and crosses are still in my hands. I stand in your future, a beacon and a fortress. I hold your future. I hold it lovingly in the palm of my hand. There is a refuge there in my hands, even now.”
The Lord God stands in my future. I declare it. I claim it for them and for myself.
“Thou holdest my lot.” (Psalm 16:5b)
“The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” (Psalm 18:2)
“In Him my heart trusts.” (Psalm 28:7b)
Please pray for the Tim and Erin Viau family as they undertake this battle with Tim’s glioblastoma.
“I want to be with God and receive God and have him in my heart every day all day.”
Annie’s 1st Eucharist is approaching and this was her note written at the end of yesterday’s retreat day for the 2nd graders preparing for the sacrament. Today when we came home from Mass, she and Tim were playing. In the middle of a Lego battle, Tim paused and looked at her.
“I’m so excited for you to receive Communion.”
Oh, the beauty of a child’s faith. That eagerness to encounter Jesus. These two little people have no idea how often they help renew my joy.
“Cause you know just what we need before we say a word.”
I drove to Sheboygan today loudly singing songs in between talking to the Holy Spirit. I swear I could feel my sister praying for me from heaven. One of her favorites started playing, “Good, Good Father” by Chris Tomlin, and when these lyrics reached my ears, they looped round my mind a few times while the song continued on unheard. He already knows, I thought. He is in control.
It was a moment of surrender, which isn’t the easiest for any of us, I’d say, especially in the traumatic times.
Whether we believe in God as I do or the universe or nature or any other power above us, we all have a pull inside us to surrender. To give up an impossible attempt at being in control. We chase the relief of letting go. The peace of that surrender calls to us– peace that is oh so hard to make our own.
For a moment there, that peace rushed in and filled cracks and wounds and voids. Filled them whole. And even as that tide of healing slipped back out, it left all those places coated in the sweet holy water of real peace. And there was just a little more strength in me. A little more calm. A little more faith.
I am nearer to who I am trying to be, and even nearer to who I already am underneath the layers of alteration. I am nearer now than yesterday and last week and last month and last decade. That is all I’ll seek each day. That’s some of the daily bread I ask of my Father.
Some days it’s hard to feel any progress. Some days have me skidding downhill. Then some days the light down the path grows clearly brighter and bigger, and I know deep down that I’m moving toward it.
A week ago, I snuggled my 5 1/2 year old daughter as she cried through question after question about Heaven and her Auntie Cheryl. When I’d hugged her goodnight several minutes earlier, Annie became teary eyed and said she wished she could see Cheryl. I squeezed her and told her it was okay to be sad and at the same time we could remember the things that made us happy while we were with Cheryl. Her smiles and laughter and hugs. She nodded and kissed me goodnight. Then as I reached her doorway, Annie blurted, “But Mom, all those hugs and smiles and laughs are done!” and broke down in tears.
So we hugged each other some more and both our tears wet her pillow. Eventually the tears mostly ceased and she began with her questions.
How will we find Cheryl when we get there?
Are you sure she’ll remember us?
What does Heaven look like?
And several more.
I did my best and waited until much later to let my sobs out. I tried to share her sadness while also sharing wisdom. But, oh, how far from wise I always feel now.
The next morning, after she was dressed for school, she came to my desk where I’d started my workday.
“Mommy, when you and Daddy go to Heaven, I’ll want to go too, but I won’t get to yet.”
A few more tears. More hugs. How do I explain? How do I accept it all myself? I don’t know, but for her sake and mine, I’m trying.
The next day, these photos were in my Facebook memories. I marveled at the time that passed. How could that Christmas be nine years ago? How could Cheryl be gone almost 5 months now? As I considered these numbers, I thought next of eternity. Nine years – a blip on the spectrum of time. 5 months – next to nothing. Someday… someday that’s what it will feel like too. Until then, it simply feels like too much.
I spent all of yesterday, New Year’s Eve, trying to concoct a meaningful way to spend the final day of 2020. My inability to land on anything had me avoiding most possible activities and instead hiding with my nose in a book for as much of the day as possible. Now, that’s a pretty darn good way to spend a day, but that isn’t what I truly wanted for myself in the final 24 hours of the year we’d endured.
I wanted to conquer an unfinished home project. I wanted to exercise. I wanted to write more of a new story. I wanted… to not feel frozen by the fear that the coming year will look no different from (or worse than) the one ending.
That’s really how I spent yesterday: frozen. My thoughts ran a ponderous path about resolutions and expectations for 2021 and I discovered I was afraid. I am afraid. I’m afraid to make any resolutions that will set me up for further disappointment in myself. I’m afraid to name particular goals only to see the year pass without reaching them. I’m afraid to pin any hope on the expectation that 2021 will be better.
The truth is, I’ve never been gung-ho about resolutions and yearly goals for drastic changes. So I’ve tried to tell myself this doesn’t matter. As the past year has felt different than others in so many ways, though, so does this marking of the new year. There’s a longing for change, for better, that is pressing in on me.
Now, here we are. New Year’s Day. I woke up still feeling afraid to link any goal to the timeline of this year. The certainty of disappointment is a leech, draining my typical optimism and difficult to remove once it’s latched on.
The reason I ended up here, typing up a blog post about plans for the new year while still afraid to make any plans for the new year, is the intuition that I am not alone. 2020 brought me grief and loneliness, undesired changes and scrapped plans. It stole the balance I’d previously (imperfectly) achieved. I feel like I’ve been stumbling through week after week, instead of walking upright with at least a partial view of the path before me. I’m not alone in that, right?
This is the point in the inspirational blog post when I should point out that “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7) and that God’s “grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). That’s how it might have read if I was writing it on other New Year’s mornings. I’d have wrapped it up there, built up by the words of scripture and moving forward with my hope firmly anchored in Him.
It’s ok if you’re not there, if the moving forward in hope part isn’t ready to happen yet. Maybe that’s what I really came here to say. Wherever you are right now, you can work with it. God can work with it. The calendar doesn’t have any say in God’s timeline. I’m grateful for that this New Year’s morning.
When the fears fall silent and I listen closely enough, I can hear the desires of my heart. Though I am afraid to admit them, there are some very particular goals I long to fulfill this year. There are specific changes called for in my life.
I will listen to those desires of my heart more than the fear lodging there. That’s the only resolution to share. Pursuing their voice over lesser noises might be the key to every way in which I can make 2021 better than 2020.
I will write today. I’ve been telling myself this all day. I will write. Whether merely some thoughts extracted from brain to page, or a post to share, or a little story – it doesn’t matter. I only care if I write.
There are parts of me that feel incapable of engaging with the world. They are inclined to hibernate while my efforts and attention are needed where the wounds need healing. I understand the nature of that need well enough to give those parts of me some grace. I’m complacent over the bowing out to backstage for now. Except with this. Writing can’t go.
Today marks two weeks since my sister died.
It took me ten minutes of staring at the space around me before I could write that sentence. I’m not sure how, but it makes it more real than before I wrote it down there. It doesn’t need to feel any more real.
Knowing it’s coming, barring a genuine hand-of-God miracle, did not leave me prepared for the loss. The expectancy only took away the element of surprise, not any of the pain. It felt… feels… far worse than I’d even told myself it would.
*The message from my brother, minutes afterward, letting me know she’d passed.
*Crying into the phone while my husband drove home, then crying in his arms.
*Telling my children and holding them through tears. Watching them watch me in concern.
*The surreal phone calls, emails, and texts about funeral details.
*The changes in my prayers, from begging for Cheryl’s healing to requesting strength and comfort for the rest of us.
*That first hug from a sibling two days later.
*Gathering with my sisters to arrange photo displays. Looking into Cheryl’s face through the years and milestones of the past.
*Writing a eulogy and sobbing through a different part each time I practiced aloud.
*The visitation, with its combined acceptance and avoidance of whichever moment will be the last of looking upon my sister face to face.
*The funeral, which managed an almost equal balance of sadness and beauty.
*The burial, which shook me and stripped away any lingering surreality.
Each was a brick to solidify the reality of Cheryl being gone.
On Tuesday the 18th, Cheryl told her doctor and her husband that she was finished with treatment. She signed the papers for hospice care in her home.
On Wednesday, my family visited her. We sat beside her bed, hugged her, held her hand, and conversed as much as we could. Sentences formed slowly as her eyes drifted shut between words, but we talked. I wish I could package up that visit in a vacuum to preserve without any faded or forgotten bits.
On Friday the 21st, with family gathered around her bed, she released her last breath and went to Jesus.
Tuesday evening, after receiving the update that she’d begun hospice care, I went for a run through my town. The sunset that evening was beautiful. Soft, pink sky with orange-streaked wisps of clouds. I remember feeling so angry about it. I was angry that, with all the awfulness of that day, the world dared to be beautiful. I was angry with myself for still noticing that beauty. It did not seem right. It took until near the end of my run, when I stopped beside the river in town to reconsider things. I leaned against a tree, cried, and realized how right it was after all.
Cheryl never stopped seeing God’s hand in this world. She saw reasons for joy and gratitude. His love, generosity, and care remained true and detectable to her. Even in the lowest times, when she felt distance between her and God, the awareness of his presence in this world did not leave her.
Right now, I’m most aware of pain. I see it in people’s faces. I wince at casual harshness from one to another. I wonder what this or that person is keeping to themselves behind an unaffected expression and ordinary words. I read between the lines of guarded social media posts. Then there are the unguarded ones, exposing their wounds and admitting their pain, and I’m reduced to tears once again.
For several months now, I’ve had a terribly hard time singing along to any songs. It doesn’t seem to matter what the song may be. There is something about the enlivening that comes from singing aloud. It cracks through my precarious grip every single time. A week before Cheryl died, I heard one I hadn’t heard before: MercyMe’s “Even If.”
God, when you choose to leave mountains unmovable, oh give me the strength to be able to sing, ‘It is well with my soul.’
MercyMe, “Even If”
This song has stayed with me through these days. I plan to sing along sometime soon.
Up the road from my childhood home are Parabola Trees. That isn’t their proper name, of course. My siblings and I dubbed them as such when I was in junior high or younger. They used to be quite ordinary, common trees, on the edge of an ordinary front yard along an ordinary country road.
Then it was noticed that the trees were growing beneath the power lines. In fact, the leaves at the top of the trees might have touched the lines if they stood on their tip toes. Something had to be done. Instead of trimming the whole top of each tree though, the powers-that-be decided to cut out the branches most directly beneath the power lines. The result was a deep and vacant U in the center of the tree. An upturned tunnel. Thus the name, Parabola Trees. It proved a lasting solution, as that empty space has never filled back up with new growth.
It feels a bit like my sister’s cancer is sawing into our family like they did to those trees. Core branches being cut out. The threat of creating an empty space that cannot regrow.
A daughter, a sister, an aunt, a grandmother. A friend. A giver. Core branches.
It also feels as if our prayers for a miracle are like begging the city workers to stop sawing and then petitioning them to move the power line rather than trim the tree. It’s a petition that’s difficult to expect to succeed, rendered even more unlikely if the workers were already as far along as the cancer in the cutting.
We petition anyway. We ask, and we believe in our cause. Reaching out to everyone we know, we encourage them to take up the same petition. We are certain there is power in the numbers dedicated to the cause. We keep asking, and we keep believing because, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8).
We know that if He chooses, He can move the power line and leave the tree intact.
It’s Cheryl’s 54th birthday today. I enjoyed some time with her and others in my family for the first time in months. Celebrating with her today, praising God that she reached this birthday, leaves me longing for certainty that she will reach the next one and the next and more.
I’ll wrap up these thoughts by sharing what I wrote in Cheryl’s card today, repeating to myself again that we do believe.
Happy birthday, Cheryl. You are a warrior in the truest sense, fighting relentlessly with faith in your battle and hope in the success of it. We love you and we believe in what the Lord can do.