Monthly Archives: October 2013

A Halloween Treat

I stifled a giggle as Kevin pulled the red sofa throw over his head and waved his arms, making ghostly noises.

Our little curly-haired Bear lay on her stomach on the floor in the front room, her head buried in a pillow. Kevin’s third “Boo-ooo-ooo!” was her cue: She jumped up, her infectious laughter filling the room as she ran toward him to pull off the blanket. Kevin recited his lines, provided in advance by the nearly-three-year-old slightly-tyrannical director: “It’s okay, Bear! It’s just me, Daddy!” And she came back with, “Oh, it’s IMPOSSIBLE to scare ME, Daddy!”

I watched them both dissolve in peals of laughter. Then repeat the script again. And again.

And that’s how we spent the month of October in 2008, the year Kevin was diagnosed. Cancer was still so new to us, and it DID scare us, and every moment together felt rich and full because we didn’t know how many might be left. So we threw ourselves into life and our daughter. That was the year she really figured out Halloween and we proudly watched as she recited “Five Little Pumpkins” with a voice full of drama and arms waving in exaggerated animation. We went to a corn maze and picked pumpkins and decorated ghost cookies and then…

We found out Kev would have chemo on Halloween.

There was no way he could trick-or-treat with us, dragging around his infusion pump, already nauseated from a full day of chemo at the cancer clinic. But not having Halloween, when the Bear was looking forward to it, well, that wasn’t an option either.

So I worked the phones and lined up friends and family who were willing to open their homes the night before Halloween so Kevin could trick-or-treat with us. I love the photo I snapped of the two of them on the sidewalk in front of our house, walking away from me, her floaty Snow White costume billowing around her, one hand grasping her orange plastic pumpkin and the other hand just as firmly grasping her Daddy’s fingers.

The next evening, after Kevin was settled into his recliner, nausea pills by his side, we flipped on the porch lights, ready to welcome the kids with fistfuls of candy bars. It was a beautiful evening and the Bear and I sat on the front porch – me with an ear toward the screen door, in case Kevin needed something. Bear greeted each kid with a “Happy Halloween!” and gushed appropriately over all the costumes. She asked each child what kind of candy they wanted before she filled their buckets – so concerned that someone would get a candy bar they didn’t like. I laughed so hard at her super hostess skills that Kevin wrestled up from the recliner and leaned weakly at the door to share the delight.

It was magic, but the good kind of magic. Sparkly and fizzy and you could see joy floating in the air, mingling with our girl’s giggles.

And, it’s weird to say, because cancer is mostly full of tricks, but that year was actually a treat. That night we gathered on the porch, passing out happy and bliss with every Butterfinger and Baby Ruth. If Kevin hadn’t had chemo that day, we would’ve spent our evening trick-or-treating. There would’ve been no warm glow beaming from our porch, beckoning others to share in our fun. Our daughter wouldn’t have experienced the delight of giving and we would have one less family tradition. Because every year after that, we’d hustle through our own trick-or-treating to get home in time to turn on the porch light and welcome all the costumed kids who showed up at our door. My favorite Halloween memories are of my Bear and her Daddy, sitting in the yellow glow of the front porch; she danced around, entertaining us with songs in between trick-or-treaters, and Kevin took advantage of her distraction to sneak all the Snickers from the candy bowl.

It struck me this week, as I put the finishing touches on the Bear’s most elaborately-conceived costume yet: This is really happening. The holiday season, touched off by Halloween festivities, is really coming – even if Kevin’s not here. And coldness settled between the cracks of my broken heart, tears filled my eyes and I felt grief weighing down my spirit. I don’t know if I can do it. It feels too hard. How can I laugh and smile and take my daughter trick-or-treating without Kevin here to laugh with me at her merry antics?

Then Bear danced through the room, gleefully exclaiming, “It’s PERFECT, Mama! I LOVE it!” and I knew: That’s how.

Watch her. Let her joy and laughter and whimsy inspire me. Double-check the candy supply, because she wants to be sure we won’t run out. Find candles for our Dora the Explorer jack-o-lantern.

Tell cancer “You scare me, but it’s IMPOSSIBLE to defeat me.”

Cry. It’s going to be sad, but there will also be moments of delight, and it’s okay to laugh with tears on my face.

Pull up a chair on the front porch and flip on the light.

Share our fun. Keep our traditions.

And eat a Snickers bar for Kevster.

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The Answer is Hope

“Mama, what happens when we die?”

Her clear blue eyes stared at me with all the intensity of her four-year-old self.

I tried not to stumble across my words, knowing it was important that I get this right. I had to make it simple, but she had to trust my answer for us to keep this dialogue open.

“Well, Bear, we believe that when we die, we go to heaven and live with Jesus.”

She absorbed my words. I could see the wheels turning in her head.

Her next question came quickly. “Will we all go together? You and me and Daddy?”

A lump grew in my throat because I knew what she was trying to ask, knew what she was trying to work out. She’d heard enough; she’d seen enough. She knew, but she had to ask.

“No, not usually. That’s up to God. Only He knows exactly how many days we get to stay on earth.”

Again, I saw her processing the words in that wonderfully unique brain of hers. From down the hall, we heard Kevin sit up in bed, a little moan escaping him as he shook out a nausea pill from the bottle on the nightstand. The sounds of chemo weekend.

This time, her next question came more slowly.

“Is Daddy going first?”

Her gaze held mine and she saw me pause. I drew a jagged breath, torn by the shards of broken heart piercing me and the control I struggled for.

“Well, Beary, we don’t know. Daddy is very sick, and sometimes people with cancer die. Only God knows. But Daddy’s doing everything he can to stay with us, and God created our family, so I think He’s going to let Daddy stay here on earth with us as long as he can.” It was the only answer I had.

“I hope he gets to stay for a long time,” she said.

“Me, too, Beary.” I hugged her to me.

Over the next three years, her questions continued and got more complex, but my answers stayed simple: Our hope is in God; we only die on earth, we live forever in heaven. The cancer ebbed and flowed and never went away through we wished it and prayed it. Cancer and chemo always clamored in the background of our days, demanding to be heard, but we drowned out their angry cries with joy and love and living and we knew that the whisper of hope resounded more loudly than cancer’s shrieks.

And then she turned seven and her Daddy died and it was time to live the answers to her questions. She sat with me at the funeral, in a lacy blue Easter dress she didn’t want to wear, and as our friend sang, she leaned over and whispered another question.

“Can I say a Bible verse?”

I looked at her, through a fog of grief, at the hope shining up from her Daddy’s blue eyes, and I nodded.

“When Miss Ann is done singing, okay?” I whispered back and her glow dispelled some of the darkness shrouding my heart.

There’s a land that is fairer than day,
And by faith we can see it afar
And the Father waits over the way
To prepare us a dwelling place there

I heard the words of promise and I felt my daughter’s hand warm in mine and I breathed in the hope that whispered through the sadness inside me.

Then I carried my Bear to the podium and I interrupted the preacher and adjusted the microphone so all could hear her clear words ringing that hope through the chapel because she couldn’t hold the promise in any longer: “Revelation 22:13, I am the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End” and in typical Bear fashion, she added, “And everything in between.”

And the people clapped and the angels did, too, and Kevin smiled in heaven. Hope resounded that day because my little girl asked questions and she found God’s promises in between the words of every answer.

Hope.

That day. Every day.

I miss Kevin so much, cry for him every day. I have so many questions.

There is just one answer.

In between everything.

Hope.

And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. Romans 5:5

Batter Up

Kevin liked baseball.

Kevin liked movies.

Kevin liked baseball movies.

On hot summer evenings, if the Yankees weren’t playing on TV, we’d pop in a baseball movie. On cool late autumn nights, when the Yankees weren’t in the Series, we’d still watch the games, but sometimes alternate with a movie. We had our favorites: For the Love of the Game. Fever Pitch. Field of Dreams. A League of Their Own. The Natural. We watched them over and over and laughed at the same parts and cried at the hard parts and I cried more when it all turned out okay in the end. Quotes from the movies were our shorthand, the way we talked to each other.

They also became a way we dealt with cancer.

When we spent a long day at chemo and he’d been poked and poisoned and sent home with more to drip through his body, and tubing was attached to him and hanging from him, he’d give a feeble laugh as I steered him through the house and tucked him into bed. He’d sink into his pillow and as I arranged tubing and blankets, he’d ask me, ”What if my face was all scraped off and I was totally disfigured and had no arms and legs and I was completely paralyzed. Would you still love me?” knowing that I’d come back with, “No. But we could still be friends.” And we’d laugh and the heartache of dealing with cancer would fade for a minute because we couldn’t imagine a time when we wouldn’t love each other. Especially when the cancer made us love each other even more.

And when the chemo racked his body weekend after weekend and he was exhausted from fighting cancer and his mind got stuck in the dark places and he felt like he couldn’t go on, I’d tell him, “You just throw whatever you got, whatever’s left. The boys are all here for you. We’re gonna be awesome for you right now!” And he knew that I was there, that I was going to fight with him and hold him and hug him until the darkness went away.

And when the first chemo stopped working and the cancer came back, and it was hateful and vengeful because it hated us for fighting it, and the oncologist told us about a different protocol, we took a deep breath and said, “A new season. A clean slate. Yep, this smells like the year.” Only it never was the year. As hard as Kevin fought, he could never make the cancer go completely away. But he tried. Oh, did he try.

When he’d regain his appetite after a round of chemo and I’d fix him some deep dish pizza or a French silk pie – anything to get some food into him – he’d take a bite and I’d giggle as he exaggerated his delight with the flavor. “Is this heaven?” he’d grin at me. “No, it’s Iowa,” I’d smirk back. And the house was full of laughter and we could breathe hope and it felt like there really was enough magic in the moonlight to make our dreams of beating cancer come true.

So he fought and he tried and we loved but sometimes the answer to a prayer isn’t “Yes” but it’s “No” and now the World Series is on, but the Yankees aren’t playing, and it’s hard for me this year and it turns out there IS crying in baseball. The memories are swirling around me and I should be pulling out a baseball movie to watch because that’s what we do, because baseball goes on, and life goes on.

But I can’t, because it’s hard to go on without Kevin. I just want him back. So much.

But I also know what he wants. He wants me to keep swinging. He wants me to watch and wait and take a swing at this curveball life’s thrown. He wants me to hit it and curve toward joy and watch happy and delight and hope round the bases and head toward home.

So, okay, Kev. This one’s for you.

Batter up.

(Quotes from For Love of the Game, Fever Pitch, and Field of Dreams)

Scrawls of Beauty

She sighed as she scrubbed the eraser tip against her paper.

“WHY does it have to look neat?” she lamented. “I know EXACTLY what it says!”

Exasperated, but patient, I nodded. “I know YOU can read it just fine, Bear, but that’s such an awesome thought, I want EVERYONE to be able to read it.”

Muttering under her breath, still not convinced of the need to produce legible handwriting, she finished erasing and grasped her pencil, ready to start scrawling again. Her atypical grip, clutching the pencil in her fist, is part of the challenge. Her furiously fast-thinking brain, in imagination overdrive, generating ideas faster than she can possibly write them, factors in as well. And, as she began to write again, with me watching as each word appeared upside-down on the paper across the table, a third component suddenly occurred to me.

Her handwriting looks almost exactly like Kevin’s.

I drew in a breath as it hit me. She heard it and looked up to see me staring at her page.

“What? What is it? It looks neat now, doesn’t it?” she questioned a little impatiently, concerned that I’d ask her to erase again.

“It’s fine, Beary, it’s fine. Can I turn it around for just a sec? I need to see something.” I held my breath, wondering if I’d imagined something upside-down that would disappear when the words were right-side up in front of me.

Using her eraser as a spinning brad, she twirled the paper toward me.

Yep. I hadn’t imagined it. I always tell her she inherited tons of things from her Daddy.

Including his penmanship.

________________________________________________________

In the weeks after Kevin died, I sorted through our home office, sifting through the mountains of paperwork that had suddenly appeared. He’d prepared a file box of information for me, so I sat on the floor with it and scanned the words and numbers and pages he thought I’d need.

He’d prepared most of the stuff on the computer and printed it out, but some pages were handwritten and the words blurred on the paper as my eyes welled up with tears. I traced my finger over his handwritten notes and cried, knowing those were the last bits of his handwriting, the last time random thoughts would form into ideas and his hand would bend those ideas into letters and words and sentences. There won’t be any more black-ink scrawls across the paper, the quickness of his thoughts evident in his hurried print.

His handwriting had always been a joke between us. “History? Law school? Really? Your handwriting clearly indicates you should’ve been a doctor,” I’d tease him.

When he signed official papers, for the house or car or his will, he’d assure the person accepting the paper, who doubtfully eyed the signature line: “That’s really my signature.” Then look to me for my wifely confirmation. I’d nod dutifully…yep, that’s really his signature.

The idea that I’d never see his writing on another card or letter again sent me scrambling through the house that night, frantically trying to track down every bit of his handwriting. Birthday cards, postcards, my sandwich request from the sub shop – no scrap of paper was insignificant. I had to have it all. I had to have all the words he’d ever written. I had to safeguard them. He was here. I know he was. See? He wrote these things. He loves me. He misses me. He can’t wait to come home.

I gathered them, held the pages gently in my hands, and selfishly wished for more. I’m thankful for technology, for the speed with which ideas can be conceived and disseminated, but the historian in me, the widow in me, mourns that bits of our humanness are sacrificed. It’s all too easy to send an email or a text, but what does that leave behind when we’re gone? The words and the thought, of course, but nothing tangible. Nothing that makes a permanent mark. In these days without Kevin, seeing his photo, seeing his handwriting…he’s real, his presence is palpable. We are forever connected through the images, the words – of love, of errands, of information – he left behind.

________________________________________________________

I pulled my attention back to my mini-Kev, patiently sitting in front of me. She’s getting used to my long pauses of silence, my mind collecting memories of Kevin and filing them away.

“What is it?” she asked again.

“Well,” I started, “see how your baby ‘d’ has that little hook? And see the loop on that ‘g’ there?” I pointed to the letters as I spoke.

She nodded.

“That looks almost exactly like your Daddy’s letters, Little Bear. I think you got Daddy’s handwriting.”

She beamed at me, thrilled at another connection to her Daddy Bear, hiding their sameness in her heart, forging another personal connection to the one we miss so much. Those two. She used to tell him, “Daddy, we are just alike. We are not one bit unique.” He loved it.

“So it’s not messy…it’s just like Daddy!” I think she felt a little vindicated.

I let her have the victory. Truthfully, now that I recognize the shades of Kevin in her writing, the occasional slapdash assignment doesn’t bother me. I’ll never get another handwritten love letter or grocery list from him, but when I look over her schoolwork, I can see him living on, unmistakably present in his daughter’s handwriting.

And it’s beautiful.

Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God’s handwriting. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Keep On

He sat heavy on the side of the bed, his face grey and drawn in the weak Monday morning autumn sunlight. His beautiful blue eyes, usually sly and sparkling, dully reflected the toll that forty-six continuous hours of chemo took on his body.

“Babe, just call in sick. No one’s going to think anything about it,” I pleaded with him. After I unhooked his pump on Sunday afternoon, he’d tried to watch football, but ended up mostly sleeping, the nausea meds keeping him comfortable but fatigued. “You’ve had chemo all weekend and if you don’t feel good, you don’t feel good. Can you even drive?”

His only answer was to hold out his hand for help getting up. I slipped my hand into his and when I pulled him up, he pulled me into his arms.

“Baby Doll,” he assured me, “I’ll be okay. I’m just making some phone calls today and I promise I’ll come home if I need to.”

I hugged him, then followed him down the hall to the kitchen. He gathered his thermos of herbal tea and a book, then climbed in the truck and backed out of the garage. I watched him until the closing garage door cut off my view.

I knew why he was going in to work, even though he obviously didn’t feel like it. At work, he was more than a guy with cancer. He had a job – one that he was really good at – and he had a purpose and that helped him keep it all together. Working restored normalcy to his life and he needed it after a summer of surgeries and recuperation. Almost halfway through this first round of chemotherapy, he needed to work to prove to himself that cancer wasn’t winning. He needed to keep on.

So he did.

Day after day, week after week, month after month – for five years, Kevin battled cancer and kept on working. Through three different kinds of chemotherapy, each with more horrific side effects than the last. Through subsequent surgery and an ill-fated attempt at a clinical trial. Through more mornings of nausea and afternoons of exhaustion than could possibly be counted.

He kept on.

It was only after the third kind of chemotherapy – a brand-new FDA-approved drug that we’d hoped for and heard good things about – only after that put him the hospital with severe dehydration and kidney failure, only after our oncologist told us time was getting short, only then did he admit it was time to leave his job.

The outpouring of love and affection and genuine caring from his co-workers, from other departments on his floor and in his building, from dozens of grant programs across the state – it was nothing short of overwhelming. When he came home after his last day of work, he sat in his recliner and I perched beside him and we cried over cards completely inked in with beautiful, kind, compassionate words from people who’d been touched by him.

They all had the same refrain: “Thank you for your work. Thank you for caring about our program. Thank you for being an inspiration. Thank you for keeping on.”

Ten weeks later, he died.

He showed us what courage looks like. Faced with an impossible diagnosis, knowing that his time would be short, he woke up every morning and figured out how to keep on going. Sometimes he got grumpy and angry and discouraged and disappointed and depressed, and the endless chemotherapy ravaged his body, but he always bounced back. He relentlessly sought alternative treatments, trying everything he could to stay here longer with me, with our daughter. He nurtured and guided the programs he believed in – programs that provided reading assistance to elementary students, or therapy for families struggling to break the cycle of child abuse, or training for disaster relief, and so many more across our state. He traveled, he laughed, he kissed me, he cheered on his Cowboys and Yankees, he pulled pranks, he took his Bear to the donut shop and the car wash on Saturday mornings.

He kept on.

He lived.

It’s been six months since he left behind his cancer-ransacked body and went home to God. That seems impossible to me; it feels like he was just here. I remember every second of our last minute together. In the days since then, I’ve struggled to gain my footing in this new life. Some days I feel so numb, some days I cry out with the pain of waking up without him. I miss him every single minute.

I don’t know what the days and months and years ahead will hold for me and our daughter. It seems impossible that we have to be here without the person we love most…my Kevster, her Daddy Bear. I feel like I don’t how to do it.

But I do.

Because he showed me.

He showed me that I can’t stop. I have to keep living and giving and laughing and loving. I have to keep caring and sharing and wondering what adventure might be around the corner. I have to raise our daughter to be just like her Daddy. Walking that cancer road with him showed me that it’s okay to be sad and discouraged and angry, but that can’t be all I feel because life has too many beautiful experiences and God has too much planned for me.

Find joy.

Find hope.

Find peace.

Trust God.

Love people.

Don’t stop.

Keep on.

So I stood at his graveside and watched the sports-themed balloon our daughter picked out for him bob wildly in the blustery October wind, the only bright spot on the overcast autumn day. Tears slid down my face and I whispered, “I love you, babe. This feels impossible, but I’m trying. We both are. We miss you so much. Help me find joy and peace while I wait to see you again. For you…I’ll keep on.”

“The sun comes up, it’s a new day dawning,
It’s time to sing Your song again,
Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me,
Let me be singing when the evening comes…”

(10,000 Reasons, Matt Redman)