Tag Archives: faith

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)

Everlasting.

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.

Easter, or The Cat in the Window

I didn’t know if I’d take the photo or not. I didn’t know if I wanted a family Easter picture that Kevin wasn’t in. To see the empty space…

My girl woke up before the crack of dawn – the allure of a mega Easter egg and a basket of goodies too much to keep her in bed until a reasonable hour. I shuffled behind her in the dark as she raced from clue to clue, accumulating her Easter surprises. We ate a candy breakfast and dressed for church and I consciously reached for a pink sweater to coordinate with her new dress and jacket.

I hadn’t decided yet, but just in case…

We sang together, standing alone in the packed pew. Her clear, high voice rang out, joy on her face and Hallelujah on her lips.

“Where, o death, is now thy sting?”

The words hurt and the tears stung my eyes. Easter followed a little too closely on the heels of a hard week. I’m not ready yet to taunt death. I haven’t had enough time, though all I’ve for the last year, it seems, is time. Time to miss him. Time to cry out for him to come back. Too much time.

We prayed and greeted and my mind wandered as we sat and the choir sang an unfamiliar song. But suddenly, a phrase penetrated my thoughts. And I turned the words over in my mind, then scrambled for a paper and pen to write them down because I remembered that after dying comes life. How else could these lyrics, these words, be true?

“What other heart would let itself be broken every time ‘til He healed mine?”

I stared at the words. The threads of love stretching from that empty tomb wove in and out and began to stitch back together some of the gashes in my heart. Life is still in every beat.

Sunday School. Family dinner. Egg hunt with the cousins. Crack open the gaily colored plastic shells and candy spilled over the folds of her pink striped dress.

Happiness shone on my girl’s face because she understands it. Life goes on. We have the promise of heaven, and life goes on. Joy and hope and laughter and goodness and God caring for us and candy and celebration – it’s all still there, if I can just hang tight to that promise.

I’m not there. Not yet. Not all the way. It’s not easy to keep going. The year has been so hard, and I miss him so much. Life feels empty.

But I looked at her face, so open and smiling and her Kevin-blue eyes shine at me, partly because she’s hopped up on sugar and partly because she’s so full of delight that she glows.

I decided to do it.

“Hey, Beary! How about one family photo?”

I grabbed the tripod and went through the familiar motions of positioning it in the front garden. She sat patiently on the bench, waiting for me to set the timer and dash in beside her. We counted down – an Easter routine so familiar I didn’t have to remind her. Three. Two. One. Smile. If it doesn’t quite reach my eyes this year, that’s okay. Just hold to the promise.

I slid the camera card into my laptop to see the photo. An ache spread across my heart because Kevin’s supposed to be in this photo. And he’s not.

But then I saw it. In the background behind my girl’s sunny grin.

The cat.

Strategically positioned, posing for the family photo, with the grace and haughtiness only a cat can pull off.

He totally photobombed us.

I laughed out loud.

Well played, Kev! Good one. Your cat made me smile today, and I didn’t think I would. Thank you, my love, for that bit of heavenly humor, for reminding me that you’re always, always here. Your death still stings. It’s a part of life I’ll never get used to. But a song and a photobombing cat reminded me: Death doesn’t win…love does. I can laugh and I can cry and it’s okay to live with a broken heart. I love you, Kevster. Happy Easter.

A Time to Keep

I smiled when I glanced out the door of the guest bedroom. She’d dragged a rocking chair and footstool out to the small landing and positioned herself at the top of the stairs, right outside the door. With book in hand, she determined that we’d be together, even though I was waist-deep in storage tubs, sorting through all the clothes she’d ever worn. It was a project I’d been putting off for years and at 12:15 that wintry Sunday afternoon, I decided it was the day to get it done.

I’d settled into a rhythm, shaking out each item, checking the tag for size, sorting into piles to donate, filling a bag for stuff too stained or worn out to wear but perfect for recycling. Shake, check, sort. Shake, check, sort. Pop a new lid, start again. Shake, check, sort.

Until I got to the tub with the green lid. Sizes 2T to 3T.

2008.

My hand faltered as I stretched it toward the brilliantly vivid piles of soft cottons and cozy fleece. Long sleeves, tank tops, sweatpants, capris, sweaters, dresses – a year’s worth of clothing for all seasons. Including the season we’d reluctantly found ourselves in: a season of cancer and chemotherapy.

I pulled the sweater on top to me. The lime green and cherry red Christmas stripes – so bright and cheery. Wrapped around her tiny toddler frame, it brightened our Christmas card photo that year. She sat tucked snugly on a stepstool between me and Kevin, his hair thinning from six months of chemo, eyes weary with the sparkle gone, my smile a bit forced, as if determined to be joyful. No matter what.

I set it down, and reached out again. Autumn leaves and vibrant orange and hot pink stripes decorated my girl and I heard her giggling as she danced in the dry crackling leaves. I raked outside our bedroom window, one ear on the melody she sing-songed into the air in delight, the other straining to hear if he needed me to open a pill bottle or bring him a drink of water. Chemo weekend, and we soaked up the weakening sun while the poison dripped through his body.

Tank tops in every hue of the rainbow, and turquoise capri pants with a swinging tunic billowing as she raced around the backyard, popsicle dripping in the heat and her beloved, battered Duckie bouncing along for the ride. Kevin pulled into the garage, drained from the workday and the torment of being unable to cool off with an iced drink; the chemo made his body painfully sensitive to the cold temperatures. But he summoned the strength to push her on the swingset in the lingering twilight, and she squealed as she flew haphazardly into the muggy air.

There was not a single thread in that tub that didn’t stir a memory. That first hard year is etched in the hidden niches of my mind, though at the time, I remember only the dazed feeling of trying to stumble through each hour after being blindsided by cancer. It all happened so fast, and we never caught up, though we raced to doctor appointments and surgeries and chemotherapy, and we pored over all the new words and phrases and drug instructions, and searched natural cures in our spare time. And the minutes ticked by and the calendar pages tore away; time was slipping through our hands.

My sorting rhythm slowed. Stopped. I sat, tested myself, and felt strong enough to let the memories out to wander for a bit. Some days it’s easier to shut down, but we were snug in the doorway of the bedroom as the winter outside howled and spit flakes and icy bits. It felt safe.

She looked up and saw me sitting still.

She marked her page with one finger and, taking in the disarray around me, asked: “Are you all done, Mama?”

I laughed.

“No, baby bear, I am absolutely not done. I’m just thinking about all the stories sewn up in the clothes in this tub.” I teased her, “Back when you were a teeny, tiny toddler, and you didn’t ask for your allowance…just more popsicles!”

She tried to roll her eyes, but her eight-year-old self couldn’t quite pull it off, and as I stretched my hand from the fabrics pooled around me to tickle the bottom of her foot, an impish grin — her Daddy’s grin –spread across her face.

A small part of me wanted to pack the clothes back up and store them away again, reluctant to let the cotton fibers stretch too far away from me, and snap the threads of my memories.

But to what end?

There’s no going back in life, only forward. And the clothes served their purpose. Their bright colors and vivid patterns couldn’t hope to match the vivacious spirit of the little girl they clothed that year. Her giggles bubbled up inside and spilled out and we caught them in our hands, outstretched to grasp any bit of hope floating that year. She perched on Kevin’s lap, and patted the infusion bag of “Daddy’s medicine” gently, chattering to Dora the Explorer on television, and her energy soaked into him and pushed the fatigue aside, if only for a few minutes.

It was never the clothes.

It was always her.

Full of life, she pushed her Daddy to fight for his.

Our teensy fairy sprite didn’t fully understand how much her life changed that year. She didn’t know that words like “colon cancer” and “tumor” and “Stage 4” threatened to shred the fabric of her happy childhood. She knew Mama, she knew Daddy, and she knew joy. And with every word and dance and giggle and twirl that year, she brought it. She brought joy and she brought life. And she sewed them together tightly and cloaked us with love.

She made us grateful for every minute we had together.

It’s almost six years later now, and she knows all about those hateful words. She knows what happens sometimes when those words come into a life. I wish she didn’t, but she does.

But she still knows the other words – the important words.

HOPE. LOVE. JOY. FAMILY.

She still dances with delight and giggles with glee, and sings with sweet notes that echo to heaven and her Daddy smiles down on her.

She’s still working her special brand of magic.

Full of life, she pushes me to keep living mine.

It was never the clothes.

It was always her.

“It is God who heals”

I didn’t see his leap onto the kitchen table, but I heard the hollow thunk when the plastic cup tipped over, and the drip-drip-drip of my soda plinking to the floor.

“Really, Kev? You sent a cat that always wants to drink my Mountain Dew?” I spoke to the empty room, but I know he heard me.

I sighed. Chased the cat out of the kitchen. Debated whether to pop open another can and guard it more carefully this time.

And smiled.

Because only my husband would send us a furry, yellow, soda-drinking angel cat. Knowing we’d need to laugh and smile again. Knowing that grief couldn’t be all we felt every day – there had to be joy and hope and laughter and living, too.

There had to be a cat.

The cat showed up last spring, on Mother’s Day, actually. It was such a hard day; I didn’t feel like celebrating and we’d just got back from our first weekend away without Kevin – to the baseball game. I needed it all to be over because everything about that weekend made me miss Kevin so much. I was in the house talking with my sister when her daughter burst in through the back door.

“Aunt Christy? I’m supposed to tell you Beary found a little cat outside!”

It took a second for the words to sink in, then I jumped up and followed my niece back outside. There sat my daughter, with a gorgeous half-grown yellow cat sitting beside her. Little Bear was crooning in his ear, running her fingers through his fur. He sat there, patiently letting her squeal and squeeze. My breath caught for an instant because the cat looked exactly like the one I had when Kevin and I married – my beautiful Louisa May. Kev always joked that he knew better than to ask me to choose between him or my cat, but because of his allergies, she’d been relegated to the basement, a poor reward for her years at my side, but I didn’t have any other choice. I kept her comfortable and cared-for, but it wasn’t the same as the days when I was single and she was my purring confidante. She died of old age in 2008, and just a few months later, Kevin was diagnosed with cancer. Though dander allergies became the least of our problems, it didn’t make sense to add a new pet to the household when we were trying to figure out how to live with cancer.

But our little toddler Bear grew older and eventually, like all kids do, started clamoring for a pet. Specifically a cat, but that was out of the question. She took it in stride and we compromised on a hamster. Kevin wasn’t sure it would work, but he was willing to try for his little Bear. She’d been a trooper, getting dragged to doctor visits and hanging out during chemo weekends, absorbing all the disruption and uncertainty that living with cancer can bring. Fortunately, the little rodent didn’t bother him and we all got very attached to our furry friend.

But inside? Well, my girl and I both still secretly longed for a cat.

And now…

“Mama! Look! Daddy sent me a cat!!”

At the sound of my footsteps on the patio, the cat looked up and met my eyes. I reached out to pet him and he started purring. Loud rumbles of happiness rolled through him and he stretched and pushed his head into the palm of my hand, seeking out a scratch. I felt a bubble of something inside at his movement…joy?

And that was it. He was ours.

We named him Rafael – mostly for the wonderfully kind and entertaining Australian student we’d met at the Yankees game. But then I found out that, in Hebrew, the name means “It is God who heals” and I became convinced that my girl was right. The timing, the name? It was no coincidence: Daddy sent this cat.

He blended so seamlessly into our lives, twining around our legs while we studied, curling up on our laps while we watched TV, the three of us piled into Kevin’s recliner. Beary shouted with laughter when she “taught him a trick, Mama!” and I watched, shaking with silent merriment as she showed me how he followed her around when she had a treat bag in her hand.

“Daddy sent a boy cat, so we’re still two girls and one boy in the house, Mama,” she informed me one morning. And that made sense to me.

“Daddy sent Raffie so I could hold him for comfort, Mama,” she whispered to me another day. And that made sense, too.

Rafael definitely appointed himself as her protector. Sometimes, I found him at night, snuggled up at the end of her bed, instantly alert to any movement that might disturb her. And when grief sharpened my voice and my girl’s tender feelings fell hurt, he looked at me with reproachful topaz eyes and padded silently to her room, letting her tears soak his soft, golden coat. Much later, when she moved on, but I stayed trapped in guilt and shame, he leapt into my lap and purred and I imagined he said, “She’s forgiven you and I’ve forgiven you. Stop being so hard on yourself.” And we sat there in the dark, the two of us, and I felt a bubble of something inside…hope?

It is God who heals.

That’s an awesome promise. And He didn’t just promise it once, but over and over.

Weeping may remain for a night, but joy comes in the morning. (Psalm 30:5)

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18)

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (Matthew 5:4)

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you…Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (John 14:27)

It is God who heals.

He knows my heart is shattered and He’s gathered up each shard and is gently putting it back together. He hears my sobs of loneliness, of missing Kevin with every breath I take, and He’s collected all my tears. He sits with me in the closet and stands with me at the grave.

It is God who heals.

I grab a dishtowel, wet it at the sink, and wipe up the sticky sweet soda from the floor. It might seem odd, but it makes perfect sense to me that part of God’s healing plan for me and the Bear is a deliciously soft, purr-happy cat with a taste for Mountain Dew.

And I know that last part was Kevin’s idea.

Just to see me smile.

Her Prayer

Dear God. Please help Mama not to miss Daddy so much…”

She handed me the prayer letter after Sunday School. Carefully formed letters tilted downhill across the pale blue page. I read it, hugged her to me, and shut my eyes tightly against the tears threatening to spill.

I bowed my head.

In humbleness, for the innocent request of my beautiful little girl.

In defeat, for my failure to shield the depth of my grief from her.

I’m trying so hard to keep it together. But nine months hasn’t changed anything. I miss him. And she sees that. I make daily schedules and carefully fill in the calendar squares with appointments. But just keeping on doesn’t always work and my heart is barely held together with tattered bandages of frayed hope and desperate prayers. I swallow the grief every day and I take out the trash and wave to the neighbor and the pain overflows and pushes against the cracks of my broken heart and it can’t take the building pressure and it’s too much.

Behind the closed bedroom door, deep in the closet, with his shoes on my left and his shirts hanging to my right, I scream and a pillow muffles the anguish of living without Kevin. I scream and I scream until my throat is raw and the ragged sobs are rough and hoarse and my cries unintelligible. And when the last empty cry echoes in the room, I crawl out of the closet and to our bed and fit myself into the hollow he left, desperate to feel him near me again. I close my tear-tired eyes and he’s there and the spicy scent of him surrounds me. He whispers, “Are you okay?” and I nod yes, then no, then choke out “I don’t know” and he pulls me close, comforting and sad, “Oh, Baby Doll.” His shirt is wet with my tears and they soak into his heart, but they’re not enchanted tears so he can’t come back to me. I miss him so much.

I wake up. In the early light of the new morning, she’s there, watching me, her Kevin-blue eyes gauging me. She sees the sadness, but she keeps looking for the living-ness. I feel lost, sometimes, but she needs me to really be here. To be with her. To love her and notice her and help her feel less lonely in our half-world.

I smile.

I reach out and tap her nose with my finger.

“You know what, Little Bear? I love you.”

She flings skinny arms around my neck and her laughter bubbles up and floats above us, higher and higher until it pops and sprays of joy and hope splash over us. She’s so beautiful. I am blessed.

After Kevin died, she worried that God doesn’t always answer prayers. But I told her He does. Every single one of them. The answer is not always yes. But He answers all of them: the ones that are screamed at Him, the ones that are whispered, and the wordless ones He hears only in the rhythm of a barely beating heart.

God answers prayers, I told her firmly.

So when the papers were passed out that morning, she didn’t need time to think. She grasped the pencil and grabbed God’s promise and in the middle of a noisy, crowded Sunday School class, she carefully scrawled out a few simple words and asked Him to comfort me.

Dear God. Please help Mama not to miss Daddy so much…”

I smooth the page and read her words over and over and I add my own words.

Help me to grieve, God, and help me to heal. Help me to be the mother she needs, one of love and gentle words, the mother who points to You in the middle of this broken life. Use her words to bandage my heart and seal Your peace inside. And when the joy feels too far away, help my beautiful little girl lead me to it, one step at a time.