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Some Assembly Required

I didn’t know that opening that box containing pieces for a new kitchen island would open a box of memories and make me smile and laugh out loud. I didn’t realize, until it was all over, that the slow, tedious, hand-blistering, detailed work of putting those pieces together to create a beautiful, functional structure was the perfect metaphor for the journey through grief I’ve traveled these past two years.

I thought I was just finally getting an island for the kitchen.

The box was too heavy by far for me to carry into the house by myself, so I cut it open in the garage and started carrying the pieces into the kitchen, one by one. Slowly, a pile grew in front of the refrigerator, the white planks tipping precariously once when a curious Katje tried to navigate their height. I kept carrying and the pile kept growing until, at last, I brought in the last piece and stood for a moment, surveying the mess in front of me.

In all the time I’d admired this kitchen island on the website, and saved my pennies to purchase it, I’d secretly hoped that “Some Assembly Required” really meant just installing the shelves behind already-attached cabinet doors. Not so much. “Some Assembly Required” was actually a bit misleading, I thought, once more taking in the piles of pieces littering my kitchen floor. “Total Assembly Required” would be more accurate.

“Mama, are you sure you can do this?” My daughter came into the kitchen and looked around doubtfully. “It won’t fall down on me while I’m eating, will it?”

I stuck my tongue out at her. “Beary, do the drawers in your dresser slide in and out? Is your armoire still standing?”

When she answered yes, I said, “Well, I put those together – and I was eight months pregnant with you when I did it! – so I think I can manage this little island. Now scram while I get all this stuff sorted out!”

She giggled and ran off to play with the cats, and I got busy. I unearthed the directions, and started laying out the pieces in order.

It was time.

For the last two years, my daughter and I have eaten most of our meals on trays in front of the television. After Kevin died, I couldn’t stand sitting at our kitchen table, trying to get food past the grief in my throat, looking across at his empty seat, knowing he’d never smile at me again over a slice of deep dish pizza, or sigh with satisfaction after filling himself with roast beef and gravy. I moved the table and chairs into the basement and convinced my daughter that having our meals as a picnic in the front room would be so much fun. She happily agreed – partly because of the novelty, I’m sure, and probably partly so she could eat a meal without watching tears stream down my face.

Sometimes the way is lonely
And steep and filled with pain
So if your sky is dark and pours the rain…then
Cry to Jesus
Cry to Jesus
Cry to Jesus and live!

I looked at the directions, pulled the first two pieces toward me, and reached for the screwdriver. And I smiled, remembering all the times I’d put furniture together with Kevin and he always handed me the wrong screwdriver. He was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, but taking a pile of random parts and assembling them into a bookcase or a television stand or a rocking chair just wasn’t his thing. We had a running joke, whenever I got underway with a project. Like our daughter, Kev would look doubtfully at all the pieces and say, “Sure you can do this, Baby Doll?”

I always replied, “Kev, I come from a long line of people who just get in there and figure out how to do it.” And he’d come back with, “Well, I come from a long line of people who HIRE people to get in there and figure out how to do it.”

We’d laugh, then he’d pull up a chair and read the directions out loud and hand me the wrong parts until finally I announced the project was finished. We put together an elliptical exercise machine, a desk and hutch for his office, and all of the Bear’s nursery furniture like that. Just the two of us, apprehensive about all the pieces and hardware, but game for an adventure, for a good laugh, for just spending time together. He was just so much fun to be around. I miss that.

I thought I might be sad putting the kitchen island together by myself. I thought the memories would overwhelm me and tears would stain the directions and I’d end up on the floor, just another broken piece among all the other parts scattered about. But it wasn’t like that. I felt happy and content and full of wonderful memories and even when I accidentally put a section together upside down and had to take it all apart, I didn’t get frustrated. I felt peace, I felt assurance.

I felt Kevin.

O, and when the love spills over
And music fills the night
And when you can’t contain your joy inside…then
Dance for Jesus
Dance for Jesus
Dance for Jesus and live

Sometimes I catch myself writing the date and I wonder how it can possibly be almost two years ago that Kevin died. Time is so weird and relative and fluid; it feels like it was just yesterday, it feels like it’s been a lifetime. And I still stumble through the hours and days and weeks and months, feeling broken, feeling unhinged, feeling like I will never be able to fit together all the bits and pieces of my shattered heart. My life couldn’t be more disassembled than that kitchen island scattered across the floor.

The kitchen island is complete now. It looks lovely and solid and functions perfectly.

And my life? My journey with grief? Well, that will never be completely finished; I know that. I love Kevin and I will miss him every day for the rest of my life. But through the grief, through the tears and the excruciating pain of loss, through the cries to God and the whispers of joy, through the laughter of my girl and the silence of the lonely nights – through it all, I’ve been picking my way through and sorting things out, putting the pieces of my life together, fastening them with moments of peace and bits of happiness.

It’s starting to come together.

Lyrics from “The Untitled Hymn (Come to Jesus)”, sung by Chris Rice.

The Unremarkable Room

The room was unremarkable, really. Square-ish, small, with scuffed wooden floors and an outdated fireplace. But he could see the possibilities of that room and imagine it and in his mind it was the home library he’d always wanted.

“Hey, Baby Doll, we can line that wall with bookshelves and put a couple of leather chairs facing the fireplace. It’ll be great!” Kevin’s voice echoed in the mostly empty room.

His eyes shone as the space transformed in his mind. The scuffed floor disappeared as I entered his imagination. “And a cozy rug under our feet. Maybe a couple of lamps by the chairs for reading light. Oooh, and a low table in between our chairs for a cup of tea.”

“Quite right, old girl,” he clipped out in an appallingly bad British accent, then reached out to squeeze a hug around my waist. At my feet, our six-month-old baby Bear woke up in her pumpkin seat. Her Kevin-blue eyes blinked slowly as she twisted her head up toward our voices, then a giggle bubbled out.

“I think Beary likes this house, too,” laughed Kevin. “This is it. This is the one. Let’s do it.”

A few weeks later, with papers signed and new keys in hand, we moved into the house with the unremarkable room. The cozy rug went down in front of the fireplace and beautiful oak bookcases lined the long wall. We filled them with books, books, and more books – all the history we loved and read voraciously, arranged in a loose chronological fashion. No overstuffed leather reading chairs yet, but a floor lamp and an old lounge chair from Kevin’s bachelor days offered a place to sit, at least. A few toys scattered across the floor and a baby girl rolling in the sun lighting the room from double windows on the south wall completed the picture. No echoes in the room now, just happy baby babbling.

We surveyed the scene from the kitchen entry. “The books look nice, Baby Doll!” His voice rumbled by my ear. “Yeah,” I replied, “The shelves turned out so nice. And we’ll get the chairs eventually; it doesn’t have to be finished all at once.”

The years went by and the room never was finished – at least, not the way we’d first imagined. More toys found their way into the cozy space. A Christmas tree went up by the fireplace and Santa brought a play kitchen which fit perfectly, tucked into a corner of the room. An art easel and sturdy plastic Step 1 play table claimed the space on the rug in front of the fireplace. A bin of stuffed animals lounged in the warm window and a wooden train track nestled in the valley between the bin and the beautiful bookshelves. We laughed about how a tiny girl had taken over our hearts…and turned our dream library into a playroom.

A couple more years passed and we thought of the day when our girl would head to school and the playroom could finally turn to the library we still imagined from time to time. But plans changed again and the playroom turned into a classroom as Little Bear and I explored preschool fun together, then moved to full-time homeschool. When his declining health forced Kevin to leave work, he took on a new job as history teacher to our girl. Their matching blue eyes shone with pride as Beary recounted the morning’s lesson to me, with Kevin nodding when she glanced at him for confirmation about a fact.

I cleared the room out over the weekend. A hailstorm damaged our roof last spring, and it had started to leak by the fireplace in the classroom. New shingles and flashing fixed the problem outside, but some of the classroom ceiling had to be removed and replaced. A two-day project, I was told, but everything had to be taken out of the room before work could begin. Art carts and storage cabinets and bookshelves lined the hallway, while the classroom table found center stage in the kitchen. I took down all the maps and posters and the mostly empty room once more echoed with my footsteps. It felt like déjà vu.

The cats sniffed around, curious at the emptiness, and my girl danced around, delighting in the echo-ey reverberations that bounced off the walls. I stood in the middle of the room, on the still-scuffed wooden floors.

“Can you see it, Baby Doll?”

I heard his voice echoing from my heart.

I felt a tear slip down my cheek. Yeah, Kev. I can see it.

And I could, because I knew he didn’t mean the once-dreamed about library. We had a single dream for that room, but God gave us so much more, because our dream was so small and His plan is huge and perfect and He knew that a room filled with books couldn’t fill my life with the memories I’d need after Kevin died. I could see a laughing baby crawling across the cozy rug. I saw tea parties with Kevin’s crown perched precariously atop his head as he balanced himself on a toddler-sized chair. I saw our girl, completely splattered with paint, laughing gloriously as she swiped her hands across the easel and created “art” for Daddy’s office. I saw a manger and a reindeer and a Christmas tree with a little girl laying underneath, mesmerized by the twinkling white lights. I saw books and pencils and three-ring binders and our Bear at her study table, her little brain soaking up all the knowledge we poured over her. I saw all the love that filled this room every day and spilled over into the house, as the library gave way to a playroom and classroom.

That unremarkable room filled our life with extraordinary happiness and the memories of it all still echo in my heart. There is still so much aching and loneliness in my heart, but sitting there on the floor in that room echoing with Kevin’s voice and my daughter’s laughter, I felt a little less empty, a little more able to keep on going without him. We never got the library, but we got the life God allowed us to live – and, as Kevin predicted when we first saw the room…

It was great.

Aiming for Contentment

The arrow released smoothly from her bow and sped to the target. THWACK! It made a satisfying sound as the sharpened point buried into the red ring, just barely missing the yellow center. A small, satisfied smile crept across her face as, in a practiced move, her hand reached for the next arrow. She anchored her feet, raised the bow, checked her draw and let the arrow fly. THWACK! This one hit the outer yellow ring.

“That’s a nine, Mama!” She tossed the words happily over her shoulder as she pulled another arrow from the quiver stand at her feet.




Three more arrows confidently, carefully released. Three more points buried in red and yellow rings. My girl was definitely improving. With an ease that belied the weight of the blue Genesis bow in her small hands, she carefully hung it on the rack and waited for the instructor to blow three tweets of her whistle: “Go Get Arrows.”

When the lesson was over, we loaded into the Durango and headed home.

“I hit almost all red and yellow today, Mama,” she confided proudly. “Only some of them were in the blue. Do you think I’m getting better?”

I smiled into the rearview mirror at her bright face in the backseat. “I sure do, baby girl. I think you’re getting awesome! You’re like a little Robin Hood!” She giggled, then said, “Music, please,” and settled in for the ride home.

It’s true. She’s getting better at this sport that we just stumbled upon five months ago. We’d finished reading about the adventures of Robin Hood and his band of merry men and an idea had sprouted in her mind: she wanted to learn how to shoot arrows, too. I had just joined a local homeschool group and, as luck would have it, two days later came an email inviting kids to join a class for homeschoolers at a local archery range. We went, and she was instantly hooked.

At first, she missed the target some, and hit the outer black and blue rings a lot. A LOT. She got frustrated but she never gave up. When the instructor tweeted the whistle once – “Shoot” – she eyed the target warily, determinedly, and shot. Again and again and again. Her shoulder ached and her fingers hurt sometimes. But perseverance paid off, and with each lesson, she got better and better. She learned to slow down, check her stance, then take a breath and release. The arrows took flight gracefully. Soon she was hitting more blue and red rings, then more red and yellow rings. We purchased her own target and bow, marked off ten and twelve and fifteen yards, and spent our summer evenings shooting in the front yard.

I like watching her shoot. I like seeing her straighten her posture, and stand tall and proud. Her quiet confidence in nocking the arrow. Her absolute joy when the arrow’s flight is true and she hits the yellow rings. She’s taken this sport that she knew nothing about and made it her own.

It hit me the other day, as I sat and watched the arrows fly, that if finding some peace and contentment are the goals in this new life without Kevin, I’m starting to — at least occasionally — hit more red and yellow rings. I think back to that morning fifteen months ago, the first morning I woke up without him. My memory of that week is so hazy. I know my younger sister drove me around as I made funeral arrangements. I selected songs, wrote his obituary, accepted dishes of food at my front door. But I don’t really remember any of it. Just bits and pieces, a few moments of clarity. The next few weeks weren’t any better, as I struggled to figure out what to do next. I’d stumbled into a life I knew nothing about. And it scared me. I didn’t know anything about being a widow, being a single mother. I know I must’ve missed the target a lot. A LOT. I know it wasn’t easy for my daughter to see me grieving. She’d seen me strong, seen me taking care of Daddy, seen me work with doctors and teachers. She’d never seen me crumbled and broken and devastated. Aimless.

So for her, I had to get it together. I had to aim for something more than tears and sadness.

It’s hard. There is not a single day that goes by that I don’t want Kevin with me. But I try to find some joy in each day, some piece of life that makes me content.

“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation…” (Philippians 4:12)

I haven’t exactly learned that secret yet, but I’m working on it; I’m aiming for it. I can’t give up – my girl needs me too much. I eye this new life warily, but some bit of my daughter’s determination steels me to keep going. My heart aches and the grief is raw, so very raw. Some mornings I wake up and my pillow is soaked with tears because I dreamed of Kevin. Those are the days that my contentment-seeking arrows go awry, and all I can see are the black rings of grief. But some mornings I wake up and I hear a giggle as blankets are tugged away from me. And a cat purrs warm against my feet as he stretches a paw out to bat away the sunlight streaming through an open window. Those days – those are the days that I’ve learned to slow down, to check that I’m standing solidly in God’s love. Those are the days that I take a breath and then…release. I let some of the sadness float away. I let the love that builds up inside me spill over and drench my girl. I see the moments come and they’re filled with hope and beauty and life and I breathe it all in, gratefully. Gracefully.

I hit almost all red and yellow today, Kev,” I whisper softly. “Only some of them were in the blue. Do you think I’m getting better?”


Not “Doing Better”…Just Doing the Best I Can

I wasn’t sure how to take the words offered in our casual conversation.

“You’re doing a lot better than she did.”

The man compared my widowhood to that of his mother’s, many years ago. A different time, a different place, a different woman.

It was awkward; I didn’t know how to respond. Although it’s something I’ve thought a lot about lately, the truth is, I’m probably not doing any better than she did, or any better than any other woman struggling with being alone in a life she never wanted. I might appear okay, in small doses, in brief visits, but I still wake up every morning and stare at a photo of Kevin on my nightstand and wonder if I’ll ever wake up from this horribly bad dream. I feel stuck, in between my life with him that I loved and the life that I’ll have to live without him, the one I’m not sure about. I’m managing our household, carrying on with life and raising our Little Bear, but it’s not easy. I have good days and bad days, and at this point, there are more good days between the really bad days. But I still miss him every single day; that hasn’t changed.

I’ve been thinking about my grief journey because it occurred to me this week that I started this blog a year ago. Kevin had only been gone three months at the time and I started writing because I needed to talk about him. I was full of words and sadness and I struggled living in a world where Kevin wasn’t beside me talking and joking and keeping an eye out for Godfather references. I struggled with my grief, and with the enormity of realizing I had to keep going on without him, because we had a beautiful little girl who needed me. She didn’t quite understand why I was so sad, why living was so hard for me. She’s a wonderfully sensitive, wise-beyond-her-years little girl, but she’s young and it’s hard for her to understand how her Daddy’s death will always be part of our lives now. So I wrote, mostly for therapy, because I couldn’t keep it in, I couldn’t keep stuffing it down, and I couldn’t dump it on a kid. I wrote because I wanted a place for her to read about our journey. I wanted to tell her all the stories about her Daddy, to keep him alive in our hearts. She needed me to show her — I needed to show myself — that even at its hardest, saddest, most desperate times, life curves toward joy. Always.

Grief is hard. Still. Especially on days when it seems like Kevin has been forgotten, when it seems like I’m the only one who misses him, when it seems like the world doesn’t remember he existed. I have to dig extra hard to find any bit of joy on those days. But it’s always there – especially when I find my mini-Kev, hug her close and watch a smile spread across her face, eyes lit up with the same sly blue sparkle I saw in her Daddy.

Am I doing better?

I don’t know. I guess. Grief isn’t a series of boxes that I tick off until I’m finished, and the experience is over. Grief is more complicated than that. It’s one step forward and ten steps back a lot of days. It’s never over. It’s always with me, sometimes as quiet as the silent tear that traces my face and sometimes so crashingly loud I have to hide my face in a pillow and scream at the waves of sadness that threaten to drown me. Sometimes grief is laughing and crying at the same time because my girl is doing something so Kevin-ish that I’m a crazy mix of happy at the life we’re still living, but so sad that he’s not here to share it with us.

I am doing the best I can.

I’m doing it with each person who stops by this blog and reads just a bit and maybe leaves with a new thought about grief and life. I’m doing it with friends who keep coming by to visit and draw me out into this beautiful world. I’m doing it with God, who is keeping me afloat with His love and promises. And I’m doing it with my girl. Like me, she has lots of good days and some bad days, but I am always right there with her; I know I’m doing that part better, at least. We’re doing this together. I am by her side, with her no matter what. We are keeping on together, the best we can.

This is a song that was featured in Disney’s “Bears” that opened in April for Earth Day. I made my Little Bear sit through the credits so I could hear the words. It’s become a song I find myself humming on hard days:
No one said this would ever be easy, my love
But I will be by your side when the impossible rises up
We will travel this life well worn
No matter the cost, no matter how long
We will leave our footprints behind
And carry on

The Best Life

I heard the distress in her voice as I jumped from the office chair and quickly walked to her room. I opened the door to find her sitting up in bed, silhouetted in the darkened room by the nightlight behind her. She was crying.

“Kitty Keyboard, Mama,” she sobbed.

I pulled her close and rocked her back and forth.

Kitty Keyboard was the name of a toy keyboard we’d had since Beary was about four, around the time she became really interested in music. I got it at Target and it was a green and purple cat face; the keys were the teeth of its very happy grin. Kitty Keyboard filled our house with a lot of music. A LOT. Among the features were the ability to change the sound to banjo or bells or organ, and it had some pre-recorded songs included, as well as a microphone so Little Bear could sing along to her favorite tunes. I picked out Itsy-Bitsy Spider on Kitty Keyboard, and the theme song to Dora the Explorer. My girl would watch closely while I picked out a tune, then she’d take the keyboard and play it back perfectly. She soon began picking out tunes on her own, and creating her own songs. Kitty Keyboard gave us a lot of musical fun.

As my girl got older, she accumulated more musical instruments, and began taking piano lessons, but she still loved to hang out with Kitty Keyboard and make music in her playroom.

But then one day, Beary brought me Kitty Keyboard. “Mama,” she said, “I think Kitty Keyboard needs new batteries.” So I dug around and finally found four AA batteries, opened up Kitty Keyboard, placed the batteries, and handed it back to my daughter.

But it didn’t work.

Kitty Keyboard still didn’t play music.

I took the batteries out, got a pack of all-new batteries, just in case the ones I’d pilfered from the DVD remote weren’t stellar, but Kitty Keyboard still didn’t play.

Panic flashed in my girl’s eyes. “Mama! Why won’t she play? Fix it, Mama, you’ve got to fix it!”

But I couldn’t.

She held Kitty Keyboard up for a final photo, then we lovingly removed a cute kitten face button and cut the microphone loose to keep as mementos. We put her in the bin to be picked up on trash day, and my girl seemed mostly okay with the way things were unfolding.

Until tonight.

She heard me haul the trash bin and the recycle bin out to the curb. The loss of Kitty Keyboard became a lot more real at that moment. But it wasn’t until she was in the cool darkness of her room, alone with her thoughts, that reality sank in. Kitty Keyboard was really going away.

So she called out to me.

I sat on her bed, stroking her hair back from tear-stained cheeks. I’m so tired of explaining loss to my girl, to myself. I’m so tired of things changing. I want Kevin to be healthy and here. I want toys to keep working. I want things that are perfect to stay that way.

But I can’t always get what I want.

“Baby,” I soothed, “remember we talked about how Kitty Keyboard had to go? We can’t keep broken toys, no matter how much we loved them. You’ve still got the kitty face button and the microphone” – I reached over to her dresser and got the items for her – “and we have that beautiful picture of you holding her. She has to go, sweetie, but you get to keep these things and a special place in your memory, right? Some things we keep and some things we have to let go of.”

She nodded, starting to find her calm. Then, matter-of-factly, “I guess she’s starting her third life, Mama. The first life was in the store, the second life was with me, and we don’t know what the third life is.”

“No, we don’t,” I agreed, “but I’m glad she got to be with us for her second life.”

“I think that was her best life, ‘cause it was with me,” she stated with eight-year-old confidence.

She squeezed my neck. I kissed her nose, then tucked her in again.

Wow, God, I thought. That’s hitting really close to home.

Because I’ve been so guilty of this. Of thinking, Kevin would be with me if he could. And we live in a world where books and movies offer up the same romantic notion over and over: the beloved deceased tries to come back, or tries to communicate with the one left living. I know – I just KNOW – I tell myself, that if there were any way possible, Kevin would come back to me.

I like to think the best part of his life was with me.

But that’s not true.

He’s living the best part of his life now, forever, with God.

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)


I sat in church a few Sundays ago and the choir sang a song I’d never heard, called Unto the Lamb. And when the soloist came to these words, tears streamed down my face.

And all of the angels cry Holy
All the saints cry Holy
All creation cries Holy
Holy is the Lamb

Because Kevin is there, in heaven, a saint healed before God, crying “Holy” – and I am here, on earth, shattered before God, trying so hard to cry “Holy”. At that moment, I was so lonely and so sad, but I felt as close to Kevin as I’ve felt since he died. I felt we were worshipping Him together, like we’d done so many times before. God’s plan was never for our life on earth, as good as it was, to be the best part. The best part of our life will be in heaven, with Him forever. This world is broken, full of hurting people. Kevin was one of those people. But he made it. He made it through cancer and chemo and the agony of knowing he was leaving us behind. I’m so glad, so honored, that I got to be part of his life here. We were good together, and it was a very good life. I miss having him close, sharing everything. I miss seeing the love on his face for our little girl. I miss him and what we had together, loving each other in this broken world. None of that is gone. He’s still close, forever in my heart. He still loves our Little Bear, and is in her more and more every day.

But now he’s made it to a place prepared for him, where there is no more night, no more pain, no more tears. He made it to his next life – and, as hard as it is for me to say, it’s a good one. And someday, when my work for God here on earth is done, it will be my eternal life, too.

It’s the best one.