Friday, February 07, 2014

Five Years

This is a big anniversary—5 years since Andrew went home to be with the Lord. This means I have been widowed for as many years as I was married to Andrew. Normally, this time of year, a heavy fog smothers me.

My friend, who was a young widow, told me that it took her five years to feel normal again. I was fearful that this would not happen for me. But it turns out, for the first time, I am okay on February 7th.

I made sure to be home in America at least a week in advance of the anniversary. It's important to me to slow down and remember him on this day. But maybe it helped that I wasn’t in the country during the weeks leading up to now. Or maybe it’s because last year the month preceding the 4th anniversary was horrible. Maybe all that sadness got out of my system then.

Sometimes, I’ve heard families talk about a beloved father who passed away years ago. They do not pretend he never existed or that he didn’t raise and nurture them. They speak lovingly and wistfully. When you lose your husband, it’s similar. My love for Andrew didn’t die when he died. I will always love Andrew and I will always miss him. And just because pain may come with his memory, I will never pretend he didn’t exist or that I didn’t live that portion of my life with him. That would not honor his memory. And I’m sure you wouldn’t want your loved ones to pretend you didn’t exist either when you die.

I may not talk about him as often, because remembering the loss of him may always be painful. I may not live my life in reference to Andrew anymore. But when I do smile at the good memories and talk about them, I will never apologize for it. My time with Andrew was the most alive years of my life, and I will never apologize for them. Rather, I celebrate that God gave us that time.

Also, my children are the fruit of those years, and I am grateful. They need to know they had a godly father who loved Jesus and loved them.

When Andrew Mark was 20 years old, he turned from a life of rebellion and living for himself and fell in love with Jesus. No one could deny his overnight transformation. Something unheard of and only miraculous. Many of you witnessed this and could confirm it.

So conscious of God's forgiveness and mercy to him, he exercised the same to me and our children everyday. His life became a picture of the gospel--its power to forgive, save, and to transform.

Five years ago today, Andrew went to be with the One he loved more than anyone, more than me, more than our kids, more than this beautiful planet made by his Maker.

I loved Andrew and I always will. Always miss you, love.

Watch videos of him and check out this video of his life:




Thursday, February 07, 2013

Four Years

Thought I would re-share this video on the anniversary of Andrew's home-going:


Music by Ingrid Michaelson, Sort of

And this was the message preached the day after Andrew died, Sunday, called "Reflections on the Suffering and Death of a 27 Year-Old Man." Over 100,000 people came through here and listened to that message. Yes, 100,000 people. Curious yet? Or if you've already heard it, it'll benefit your soul to refresh your memory. Click here 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! 

AJ, Gracie, and I have had an eventful year. After living in Minnesota for 5 years, we sold our house and moved to New Jersey. Now, we live 9 minutes from one set of grandparents and an hour from the other set. Minnesota was a wonderful place filled with wonderful people, but also the place where we experienced the hardest time of our lives. This new start has been just what we needed.

AJ is in 2nd grade and will turn 8 years old this January.


Gracie Olivia (she’s decided to go by her middle name of “Olivia” in school) is in 1st grade. 
The schools in our town of West Windsor/Princeton Junction (the town has two names. It’s weird like that in an old state like New Jersey) bus the kids to different schools throughout the town. We did not do this on purpose, but rather than the school down the street from us, the town happens to bus both the children to Dutch Neck Elementary, the same school that their father, Andrew, went to as a child.
It's been 14 years since I left North Jersey, where I was born and raised, for UCLA. After all these years, New Jersey no longer felt like home. Plus, we live an hour from old friends and my numerous relatives. But as time has passed, I’ve experienced how wonderful it is that they are a car-ride away, rather than a yearly plane ride. We do miss Minnesota’s snowy wonderland, but not the biting cold! Saying goodbye to those we love in Minnesota was hard, but AJ and Gracie say that they are so glad that we can see their grandparents all the time now. After these years of being a single mother, this makes my heart so relieved and happy. We are also making new friends here, causing it to feel more and more like home—a new home, not one of my old childhood nostalgia or yesteryear, but a new home. Please keep in touch. And if you are in the area, we would love to see you.

With much love,

- Grace, AJ, and Gracie Olivia Mark

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Change

I've made a decision. And in the past few weeks everything has come together very quickly for this decision to be fulfilled.

The children and I are moving to New Jersey.

I do cry a lot about leaving Minnesota, which felt truly like home to me. But I am convinced that, regardless of my emotions, returning home to New Jersey is the best place for my children right now. I know their eternity is at stake and they need more than one stretched-thin mama to pour a heart full of love into them. Andrew's family adore AJ and Gracie and have that additional love to give that my kids so desperately long for and need. Also, I can see that though Andrew's parents and siblings no longer have Andrew, they do have my children as an outlet for their love and commitment to Andrew.

This has been a very difficult and emotional decision for me, as there are many of you there that I love and am terribly sad to leave. I feel, too, I am saying goodbye to Andrew, at least in the way that my home is a picture of the life I thought we would have together, but cannot.

A few weeks ago, the children and I went to the apartment building I had chosen that is less than ten minutes from Andrew's parents. As I sat with the lease before me, suddenly, my brain slowed. I held the pen in my hand and stared at the line where I was to sign, but I couldn't remember the question I was about to ask the customer service woman who was helping me. I heard my breath as I inhaled and exhaled. And then images flashed before me. I saw Dr. Yueh when we met with him in his clinic. It was January 2009, after we returned from our two months of alternative treatment in California and a giant hole had opened on Andrew's neck. And Dr. Yueh said, "We have now reached the end stage of your disease."

I looked down at the lease. My throat was closing. I saw the blackness behind my eyelids with each blink. "I think I might pass out," I said. The customer service woman ran and got me some water. I closed my eyes. It is so clear that this is what is best for the kids, I thought. It was time for me--and healthy for me--to start with a clean slate in a setting that does not continually remind me of loss, suffering, and utter disappointment. I signed the lease.

My house is all staged to sell. During my phone conversation with my real estate agent Sunday, I took a walk.

"I'm going to list your house on the market tomorrow," she said.

The air outside was hot and still.

"This has got to be hard for you, Grace," she said. "Of course you might feel panic, because you thought you were going to raise your kids in this house and live with Andrew in it for always." And suddenly, she had put words to feelings. An image flashed through my mind of children playing in our yard, the sun glinting off their soft hair. For always. Words Andrew and I said to each other years ago during engagement whispered: "I can't live without you." My chest burned. I held my breath so that she didn't hear me holding back tears.

That night, I put the kids to bed and fell asleep. Shortly after, I awoke, not breathing, my chest tight. "Lord," I called in the dark, gasping for air. "I don't want to die yet! I'm not ready to die yet! Please don't let me die!" And then I wondered why I thought I was dying when I was now breathing. I realized I had been dreaming about the last few minutes of Andrew's life, when his family and I surrounded his hospital bed and the last minutes in which he gasped for breaths.

How strange, I thought, I don't think I ever dreamed about his death until now.

I didn't know how to tell one of the most special friends I have ever had, my neighbor Melissa, that we were moving. She is like the female version of Andrew to me--stable, rational, loving, encouraging, and so much fun. We always laughed together, she always got my humor, and she always worked to imagine  herself in my position so she could understand what I was going through. Even recently, she said when her husband goes away for a few days, she always tries to imagine what it is like for me.

When Andrew first died, she'd call me every day to check on me and take the route that was past my house when she was driving, just to make sure no one had broken in or anything was awry. She hardly knew me, but she said she begged God to show her how she could serve me. She said God had given her such a heart for me. After the kids' nap, when the hollowness could have eaten me, knowing that Andrew wasn't coming home for dinner, in desperation, I'd risk slumping onto her doorstep with the kids. It was a busy time before dinner, but she would invite us in.

Weeks after Andrew's death, when the house was empty again and both Andrew's and my parents had returned to New Jersey, Melissa drove by and invited us to make snowmen. I was frozen, still unable to grasp what had happened to our family, and she was holding my hand and showing me what a normal mom--not a caregiver with a dying husband any longer--does with her children.

I always admired how capable she was, how her emotions did not overwhelm her during the day, so that she could stay on task; but how she didn't compromise caring for others for her task-list. She was rationale, but never cold, rather one of the most relational, loving people.

She tried so hard to love me and be a compassionate listener when I was most in pain, when at times I was almost in despair. It would have been so easy for her to get frustrated with me or to give up on me. I kept expecting for her to tell me to buck up, but instead, she exercised love and gentleness through it all. It couldn't have been easy for her. Other times, when I was confused or overwhelmed about anything and couldn't think through my emotions, she spoke loving words of reason and truth to me.

I saw her do it with her other friends too. When a friend was going through difficult times, she would tell me how she thinks what her friend needs most of all is for Melissa to love her through it and pray for her.

When I finally told her that we were moving, she said, "I had all these dreams of homeschooling with you down the street together next year."

"I know," I said. "I'm trying not to think about it though." I blinked the image out of my mind and tried to imagine positive images to look forward to in New Jersey.

"I guess some dreams have to die," she chuckled.

I snickered. "Yeah, some dreams just have to die. I should put that up as a sign in my house. That probably would have helped me."

We laughed.

I remind myself that just because I'm going to miss a lot of people and cry about all the things I love in Minnesota, it doesn't mean God isn't calling me to move back to New Jersey. Being sad to say goodbye is a natural part of moving and a good thing. Being sad means you've been blessed by special people, blessed to live in a wonderful place. And so, I have to hold onto what is clear thinking--and that is that my children need their grandparents and those that adore them in New Jersey.

Love you all.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Toads, Grasshoppers, and Fireflies

I like for my kids to spend as much time outside as possible. Aside from how stimulating it is and how good it is for them developmentally and creatively, the sun and fresh air is the healthiest thing. I also love how much they learn from their explorations. During the school year, AJ in particular spends hours outside exploring with our next-door-neighbor, Adrien, finding various subjects to study.

This past year, the Lord often had AJ's discoveries parallel what we were studying in homeschooling. For instance, one week we got a bunch of books out on frogs and toads. And then the Lord sent a tree frog to sit on our window and croak at us two days in a row. The kids were climbing over each other to watch it on our window. Below, AJ found a really large toad in the backyard:


There's Gracie in the background eagerly watching over her brother's shoulder.

Another week, the Lord sent two different turtles to lay their eggs before the children - one in our backyard and one in our front yard. We found the one in our front yard just as I was going out to pick up Gracie from her morning kindergarten bus stop. We were mesmerized by how deep the turtle wiggled its legs into the dirt as it dug a hole. And then how the turtle replaced the dirt and grass on top of the hole, so that you couldn't even tell that the grass had been messed with. This makes sense in terms of camouflaging the hole from predators. 




For a few weeks, AJ was obsessed with studying and watching ants. So we got a couple of books on them and anywhere we were, even if we were inside a building, AJ would notice an ant and tell me what he read about ants in his library books. And as he would hold my hand as we walked to the backyard together, he would say, "Mom, have you ever noticed how the dirt around ant hills are different than regular dirt?" And he explained how the anthill bricks you see outside an anthill is dirt mixed with ants' saliva (I think?). Anyway, I love to listen to AJ explain to me all these amazing things about the world around us, even if I don't retain the infomation as well as he does =P

This week, AJ found a grasshopper. While I was in my room changing, apparently, he ascertained a water bottle, inserted the grasshopper, and I found him outside with a fork, poking holes into the foil he had covered the top of the bottle with so the bug could breath. Since we were planning a library trip for that day anyway, he then begged me to immediately take him so he could find some books to tell him what he needed to feed the grasshopper. (Don't worry. We did release the grasshopper by the end of the day.)


And in July in New Jersey, one must always catch fireflies! We caught the male ones flying around and Gracie found a couple female ones in the grass. And the fireflies lit up for each other, as we watched them before bed.



Friday, July 13, 2012

The Portrait

The other day, I was playing the Moonlight Sonata (mostly because there aren't many pieces of music I still remember) on the piano at Andrew's parents' house, where we are spending the summer. The Moonlight Sonata's notes always unfold a story to me of a man who lost his love and the agony he endures after her departure. As I played, I looked up at the family portrait hanging above the piano. It was a blown up picture of Andrew's parents with Boaz (their dog), Jon (Andrew's brother), Jen and Mike (his sister and her husband), and Andrew and our family as we sat before a glowing white background--blankness behind us.

The portrait was taken at the beginning of January 2007, days before we would fly back to Washington state, where we were living at the time, and Andrew would receive his tongue cancer diagnosis. It was days before our reality would be exploded by pain.

As I played the piano, I stared up at Gracie, sitting on grandma's lap. Gracie was nine months old at the time, in shoe-less white stockings and a dress with a black, velvet bodice and red satin skirt. Her feathery hair had only grown as long as a boy's but a little pink clip accessorized it. What a loud voice she had at the time! I would get frustrated when she'd scream, so persistent, but Andrew would say, "Maybe she'll be a singer one day." She was Andrew's girl. "She's so sweet," Andrew said. And he would hold her, nuzzle her, and she would always surprise him with a peck on his lips. She reserved those pecks on the lips for Andrew alone.

Andrew sat beside his mother. AJ, nearly two years old, stood between Andrew's legs, while Andrew held AJ's little wrist. Andrew smiled, his chin up, his mouth partially open, so characteristic of him, the flash of the camera hitting his arm, casting a glow behind him. Andrew was the only one with that glow, as if the glow would soon overtake him and he would be the only one leaving the picture.

And then I looked below the Mark family portrait at the pictures crowding the top of the upright piano. Framed pictures of AJ and Gracie as babies when our lives were sweet and typical, pictures of them as preschoolers in the frozen months after Andrew's funeral. And beside them were pictures of their little cousin, Ethan, Andrew's sister's son, who is now the same age as AJ was around the time of the family portrait. Ethan's parents call him, "little man," the same nickname we used to call AJ when he was a baby. And Andrew's sister, who looks like like she could be Andrew raised from the dead, only with long hair, smiles with her husband at Ethan like he must be the most amazing, cutest baby on the planet, just as we looked at AJ, and just as most parents look at their babies. The Moonlight Sonata ended with its dark, lonely tones. In moments like those, I see a picture of what we lost--the four of us; a whole family, warm in love with each other.

Most of the time, I find my inner chatter whispering: "Buck up. Don't think about it. It's not that bad (...or is it worse than you'll admit?)" But in moments like those, in inconvenient moments like weddings, where that atmosphere of love and excitement saturate the air, it all rushes at me--all the hope and excitement I had felt only to end in utter disappointment. The Lord uses those times to show me what's really in my heart. And that "Buck up. Don't think about it. It can't be that bad," isn't rejoicing evermore. In fact, it's not Christian at all. But it is very American. And it is very self-reliant. After all, we are a nation that built itself from self-reliant immigrants. People who left behind their parents and cousins and grandparents in the old country to escape harsh governments and trampled economies to provide a better life for their children. America attracts people with incredible determination, who are willing to work for what they want. That is the culture a democracy like America propagates. And we take that self-reliance and apply it to our Christianity.

But in self-reliance, if we aren't honest about what we're really thinking or feeling and what's really going on in our hearts, we can't drop it all at the foot of the cross. We won't cry out to Jesus for rescue from our hopeless situations, if we convince ourselves we aren't hopeless, but can handle it all ourselves. Christianity is not an excuse for ignorance or telling ourselves just to shut up and stop using our brains.

Most of you aren't young widowed, single moms. But in reality, you are in a "hopeless" situation like me. The Lord says, "Be holy for I am holy." And He says, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and with all your strength." And He says, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Well, have you done that perfectly today? No, none of us can even approach infinite perfection. "No one does good. Not even one." That's why we need the cross. Because only Jesus has done that perfectly. So I'm not the only one who has to lay out my hopeless--as far as it depends on ourselves--situations at the cross. We all do.

I'm still struggling. Please pray for me to hang onto what is true. To trust in the Lord with all my heart and lean not on my own understanding.

And that the Lord would continue to meet my children as He promises that He is a Father to the fatherless and a Husband to the Husbandless.

The Questions

Since looking at our 2007 family portrait the other day, questions have been bubbling in my heart--Are you really going to continue to believe this Christianity, no matter what happens to you? No matter how long you hate that your kids don't have a dad? No matter if even more difficulties occur?

And, Do you really believe in hell? Do you really believe that people who reject Christ will experience worse than what you've experienced without even the hope of death to end it?

But then what immediately came to mind was, I could have said 5 years ago that I didn't believe someone would be widowed, while she had two small children that adored their dad--in fact, I think I didn't believe God would allow that to happen to us--but that didn't stop it from happening. Being in denial, doesn't make something untrue. Just because we Americans love our air conditioners, fresh towels, and instant comfort to cushion us from the harshness of outside, doesn't mean that in many areas of the world there aren't orphans kneeling on the dirt eating grass before they starve to death. Just because we choose to be in denial of pain doesn't make pain un-real. Reality does not depend on us to believe in it.

We Americans, so self-absorbed in our comfort, may be afraid to ask difficult questions, may be afraid of reality, but God made reality, He's not afraid of it. He can handle our hard questions. He's the only One who can answer them. And stuffing them down doesn't mean they're not there. Those questions, though unspoken, will still flavor all the choices we make. So why not bring them to the Lord to purify and grow us in our faith?

This morning, during my private worship, I had to confess to the Lord that I felt angry and bitter. The only way for those feelings to change is for us to repent of them, so that the Lord might cleanse, purify, and change our hearts.

I often think of a couple at my old college Bible study, the Clarks, who when pipes were bursting in their home and everything was going wrong one week, they made a list entitled, "Things to Consider All Joy." And underneath they wrote down all the things that were going wrong. I also often think of how the Bible says "Give thanks in everything." So sometimes, when I'm struggling, I will make two lists. Here is mine today:

Things to Consider All Joy/"Everything" to Give Thanks in
- that my kids don't have a dad to love on them and teach them all kinds of things (...This might sound silly but when AJ uses the men's restroom, I worry because I can never go in there and teach him how to use a urinal).

Things to Be Thankful for
- that my kids do have a godly grandfather and uncles that adore them, who do play ball with them, though they're dad cannot
- the gift that Andrew's family is to me
- for the safety that I feel when I'm with them
- for my children. I adore them. They are so wonderful.
- though my feelings may say otherwise, the truth that He promises never to leave nor forsake me
- that Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Family

Though Andrew is gone, I am very close to his family.They still include me in everything and treat me as their own. His family has stepped in as much as they can. Unfortunately, we live very far away from them in Minnesota, while they live in New Jersey.

Andrew's parents always visit us every year for Gracie's birthday. They would come for AJ's birthday in January, but we are usually visiting them in New Jersey or my parents and I are visiting my brothers in California around his birthday. In past years, sometimes my mother-in-law (I still call Andrew's family my "in-laws," as I'm not sure how else to refer to them, at least in a succinct manner. I mean, I wouldn't call them my husband-who-died's-family...I don't even think that's proper English.) would even come to our house and help for a couple weeks in the summer. But now that Lydia lives with us and can watch my house, we have been spending summers with Andrew's family in New Jersey.

All of the young widows I know, or know of, throughout the country (only a handful) returned to their parents when their husbands died. It is so incredibly difficult being a single mom, while both my parents and Andrew's parents live in New Jersey.

As I've mentioned before, I stayed in Minnesota, because Andrew told me before he died not to sell our house. At this point, it's been 3.5 years since Andrew died. Andrew and I usually moved every two years. So, I think if he were here, for all I know, we might have already moved, perhaps not outside of Minnesota, but moved nonetheless. So I think we'd be free to move to New Jersey if we chose to. It's just complicated now that we've built friendships, routines, and a life in Minnesota after sticking it out these past few years. We have neighbors my kids climb trees and look for bugs everyday with, our lake that we love to walk around, and a sense of community. I love Minnesota and how it's a great place for my kids to grow up. In fact, our town of Eden Prairie was voted by Money Magazine as the #1 place in America to live in 2010 - due to affordability, proximity to a city, community-life, etc. Minnesota feels like home.

They're such amazing children. And they should feel that by being surrounded by tons of love, not just by one stretched-thin mother. The kids' uncles and grandfather teach them about what it is to be a man, play catch with them, and treat them with love and affection. I have always longed desperately for that type of love to be a regular part of my children's lives. I long to be not the only person that loves them sacrificially and with all my heart. It unburdens my heart when I see how eager they are to hang out with my kids and that they love them nearly as much as I do.

My children's best interest is what's most important to me. Please pray for wisdom for me.


Above, Andrew's brother, Jon, is alternating between playing catch and baseball with the kids.




AJ has turned away from the game to take a picture of the sunset. 








Andew's sister, Jen, stopped by with her baby, Ethan



Running from cousin Ethan

Thursday, May 03, 2012

We Started Homeschooling! Wait, Seriously?

This past January, I started homeschooling AJ. Since I only have one child in my class, it only takes a fraction of the time that first grade would normally take. So, while Gracie is in morning kindergarten at Prairie View Elementary from 9 to noon, AJ and I do school.

AJ and I are loving our mornings together. It is such a blessing. I feel as if the Lord has given us back our lives.

Homeschooling has definitely slowed down the revision process of my book, but I still progress with the book slowly but surely. I have to trust the Lord with His timing, and am convinced that if I maintain His priorities for my life, I can trust Him to take care of the timing of whatever He calls me to.

Some people imagine as a single mom that homeschooling will add an impossible amount of work on my plate. I was nervous about that myself, but I have found it to be quite the opposite. When you have your children in school full-time, you still have the same responsibility of training your children as those who homeschool, you simply have less time to train them and at a time of day when both you and your children have already spent the bulk of your energy.

I should stop to say I'm not one who thinks everyone has to homeschool. I am extremely grateful for the schools my children have attended. I believe the schools my children attended last year saved my life and was a wonderful blessing to us. Additionally, it's not my business to criticize people's school choices. After all, there is a very good reason why Jesus commands, "Do not judge lest you too be judged." There may be caveats to that passage in regards to being a discerning person and encouraging others in ways they need to honor the Lord, but I think people love to come up with far more caveats to that verse than they ever adhere to that command at all. I think the profuse caveats are often an excuse for arrogance and self-righteousness. It's amazing that in our arrogance, we can simultaneously disobey that very command while telling others everything they are doing wrong.  So you won't be hearing in this post about me telling everyone to homeschool. Most of the people I know are dying to themselves every single day as they seek to honor the Lord in their parenting, regardless of what type of schooling they have chosen. As an older woman at my church has wisely said in an attempt to explain why one should live their lives before the face of God, regardless of what others think of them: "I have invested my whole life into my life. So, who is another person to walk in, see only a snapshot of my life that I've invested my whole life into and think she has anything to say." And so this post has nothing to do with others' schooling choices. It is simply an update about what I've chosen to do this year in the unique situation of being a young widow and single mom.

Back to homeschooling. As a single mother the past few years, I have learned my limitations and how to manage them. I am on all the time. Their dad doesn't come home at 5pm. Not ever. So there is no tag-team parenting. There is no parenting together. There is no consulting one another about how we should handle a certain parenting issue. No phone calls to him. No emails. No texts. It's just me. And it's always just me, at least humanly speaking. I may get sitters, but I'm still the only parent. I'm still the only one who has to stand before God for them. And I'm still the only one who loves them to the degree a parent loves a child. And since 4pm has always been my lowest energy time of the day, when AJ was returning home from school at 4pm, I had nothing left to give him. And so in my particular situation, I find it more restful to have parented and trained children, who feel that they have had enough of their mother's time and energy and thus feel loved. For me personally, I didn't feel I could do a sufficient job of parenting AJ after 4pm by myself. It may sound like having my son in school 7 hours a day would be a break, but it was not restful for me to be away from my son the whole day, only to feel incredibly frustrated that he was not happy and not getting the energy and parenting he needed from me.

At the same time, don't worry, I do get breaks. I still have Lydia, the college student who lives with us. She babysits 10 hours a week. And if I need more, I have another babysitter that I hire.

Our family has obviously been through a lot. And now that I have been doing better this year, I began to desire to homeschool. This is the first time since AJ was 15 months old that he gets me to himself this much. This is the first time since Gracie was 9 months old (she's 6 years old now) that my parenting has not been incredibly distracted by cancer or grief. So I am incredibly grateful that I get to be a mama - a real mama, who is so much more mentally present for my kids than I have been in a long time. I am so grateful that my children seem relatively happy and content. That's not to say that I don't still encounter grief or sadness or difficulty or frustration to distract me from them. I live with the consequences of my children's fatherlessness every single day. I experience the consequences anew of our loss every single day. But I am more emotionally here, more mentally present, than I have been in as long as I can remember.

While AJ had a wonderful school experience in half-day kindergarten last year, being at school 7 hours/day this year was just too much for the both of us. Now that AJ feels he has what he needs from me, he is so much more happy and content than he was this past fall. And he is flourishing! I praise the Lord for His Spirit's leading and His faithfulness to our family. I think His leading in this way and how he has caused this decision in our lives to bear much fruit intellectually, relationally, and many other ways, is another example of how He has been a father to the fatherless and a Husband to the husbandless.

I get to be a mama again. A present mama. The kind of mama I had longed to be, but had always been distracted from due to the horrors and turmoil of the past several years. And for that reason, I feel as if the Lord has given us back our lives.

Never Met Anyone Homeschooled?

For some of you, homeschooling may sound completely alien. But when we lived in Washington state for 3.5 years, all of my friends homeschooled. And so from early on in my pregnancy with AJ, the desire to homeschool was already being planted and began to seem very normal.

I love homeschooling for a few reasons. One is that I've always had a passion for my children's education and instilling in them a love of learning from their first breath. And so homeschooling is really what I've been doing since their birth. This is just the first grade version now.

But I also love homeschooling because I love books. Books have always been a refuge for me. Going to a book store and being surrounded by books is refreshing to me like sitting beside the ocean.

And so we use Carol Joy Seid's curriculum, which is made up of reading real literature to teach not only reading, but science, history etc. Teaching AJ from real literature, stimulates and refreshes me, rather than wears me out. It makes me so excited!

For math, Carol Joy Seid's curriculum recommends Math-U-See, which uses manipulatives to teach math concepts. Definitely a different way than I learned math as a child, but I think it is so much more effective. It also comes with DVDs that we can watch, if I prefer to use those rather than the teacher's manual.

I have to say, homeschooling has been one of my most favorite things in my life. It is up there with writing and dancing. My children are my passion. Learning and books are my passion. Teaching my children about the Lord is my passion. And homeschooling combines them all.

I'm not sure what we'll do next year yet. I get nervous that homeschooling two children will be a world of difference from homeschooling one child. It may not be simultaneously exhilarating and restful like it is right now. In which case, I have to evaluate whether such demands may exceed the limitations the Lord has given me as a human being, so that I can be a sane mama for my kids. But right now, both children are telling me they want to be homeschooled next year. We'll see how the Lord continues to lead. Please pray for wisdom for me as I seek to parent my children.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Three Years Since He Left

Feb. 7, 2012 marked the 3 year anniversary of Andrew's death. I bet many of you, like me, can hardly believe so much time has passed.

Grief is a funny thing. It is unpredictable and whenever you think it's been gone so long, maybe it'll forget to return, it shows up. Then, instead of a few minutes, it stays several weeks. And just when you've come to expect this unwanted guest is never leaving, you wake up one morning, and it has taken off in the middle of the night. The air is clear again and the suffocating fog it brought with it has lifted. You look out the window and you say, "Oh! that's what the sun looks like. I almost forgot."

Now that I am feeling better after a difficult month (the weeks before and after the anniversary of Andrew's death), I'm finally posting the blog I wrote about it last month:

People ask me if the holidays are difficult for me. The holidays aren't particularly difficult. But,

- weddings (for some reason I still go to all of them, though inevitably they remind me of my hopeful day and how all those hopes were dashed to pieces)
- the weeks surrounding Andrew's birthday/September 11th
- my birthday/Mother's day,
- and Andrew's death day

are the difficult parts of the year for me.

The weeks leading up to the anniversary of Andrew's death were difficult and emotional for me. My Pastor Warren said that I should expect it to still be difficult for me, because anniversaries like this tug on the scar tissue. He said he always compares emotional injuries to physical injuries. So if I had been in a severe car accident three years ago and had suffered a spinal injury, I might still be in a wheelchair, still making my recovery.

Most of the time, nowadays, I know 3 years has passed. I know all the events that have passed throughout these 3 years and all that we've made it through. I know how much I've changed in the last three years.

The distance that three years has provided means all the memories I blocked out, that I couldn't face remembering the first few years, I am now able to remember. Because I've processed a lot of my grief and memories, I am now able to access the beautiful memories - I am able to be honest with myself about the profundity of my loss. I no longer have to minimize it to myself in order to cope. Strangely, the more time and distance that has passed between now and Andrew's death, the sharper the pain is when it does come. The sharper the realization is of the profundity of my loss.

And so sometimes, a beautiful memory of Andrew will fly at me all of a sudden, and my heart longs to be near him desperately, more than it ever could the first year of his death. In that moment, suddenly, I remember what it's like to be in love - though I had blocked out that remembrance the first year. Being in love almost does feel like magic - the way you feel like you belong together. A connection that goes beyond a list of things that you like about each other. It's just like you're two puzzle pieces that are made for each other. And in that moment, I remember that "I can't live without you," is not just a sentimental line from a movie. And in those moments, suddenly, three years have disappeared. I feel the knife stabbing my heart relentlessly and I cry out, "God, I can't do this! I'll never survive this!"

And then, it will come to mind, "Wait a second, Grace. You have survived this. He didn't die two weeks ago. It's been three years. You and you're children are still alive. And you are all moving on with your lives. The kids are doing well and so are you. You made it through the worst part. Obviously, you can manage as a single mother. You have survived this. Just keep doing what you're doing. Keep going."

Now that I am here at the 3 year marker, it is interesting to see the differences between where I am now and where I spent the first 2 years after Andrew's death.

In retrospect, that first 2 years, I lived every single day with pain. I felt like I daily was managing my pain. I had to "manage" my pain, because if I didn't control it and didn't pace myself, the pain was too excruciating to confront all at once. This was my way of coping. Honestly, I have only sobbed about three times since Andrew died. Yes, I did cry every single day the first year, but not uncontrollably. More like a faucet. Not a fire hose. Whatever didn't come out in tears, stayed in all my muscles. So then, I returned to my old love of dance and found some dance classes, in order to deal with the grief that was stuck in my muscles. I had heard physical activity was an important aspect of dealing with grief. In fact, until I finished the first draft of my manuscript in August, if you pressed on my shoulders, it would have literally felt like putting your finger on a hard rock.

My muscles did not release until I had laid down the burden of my memories and my story into the first draft of my book and looked the beautiful memories of our love story in the face. My muscles did not relax until I had reached the point in my grief process where I could look those memories in the face and finally grapple with them.

The way I dealt with my grief, I suppose it would be like if you were giving birth, would you want to have contractions over a few hours or over 15 minutes? Many of you might say the latter. But as someone who had a normal birth with my first-born, AJ, and an unexpected 15-minute labor with Gracie, it is a terrifying thing to make all that progress in labor in only 2 major contractions. The two contractions feel like you're a bomb exploding over the course of a few minutes and you expect you are going to be splattered all over the wall in the explosion. So in my grief process, I didn't explode in a short period of time like a bomb. I had to leak the nuclear waste (my sadness) over time, so I could maintain my sanity and keep my hands moving and making sandwiches for my children at lunch time. It would have been too unbearably painful to sob uncontrollably on a normal basis. My chest would have exploded and my children would have starved.

I always imagined that I could last as a single mom on my own for 1.5 years. Then, I figured God would just have to provide some unexpected means of grace once my strength ran out. Just as my strength ran out, AJ came out of his grief. And the Lord provided Lydia, a college student from our church, to move in with us. The kids were happy - no longer grieving, which I wanted them to get through before I could check out - I had help, and I finally checked out for a year.

I am a testimony that God's grace is sufficient. I saw a movie this summer where this woman has a nervous breakdown. I had to turn it off half-way through, because her behavior in the days leading up to her breakdown reminded me too much of myself. It caused me to realize that before the Lord provided Grace Lindeman last fall and then Lydia (as I talked about in my entry, "I Grace Have Risen from the Dead"), I was probably 2 inches away from a nervous breakdown. I had no experience with such things, so I didn't know what a nervous breakdown looked like until I saw that movie. Between trying to manage the pain, not accepting I was a single mother and so still living like my husband was just on a business trip but just hadn't returned yet, I had worn myself out. Having help move in was an acceptance that Andrew was never returning. Having help move in was a realization that I had to change my life and I couldn't keep living like I only had to hold down the fort until my husband returned any day now. So I am incredibly grateful that The Lord certainly did provide the grace I needed and faithfully protected me from going over the edge into a nervous breakdown.

Every year, on the anniversary of Andrew's death, I have someone take my kids for the weekend. I did this the first anniversary, because I suddenly found that there was no way I could "manage" my pain at the anniversary. I did it again the second year because since my Fall 2010 meltdown, I thought things were only getting worse, so I feared the 2 year anniversary would be even more unmanageable than the 1 year anniversary. But when I had the 2 year anniversary weekend by myself, I was able to realize the progress I had made since the 1 year anniversary. The Lord used that anniversary to show me that hitting rock bottom in the fall had been my getting worse before I got better. And I was getting better. At the 2 year anniversary, the Lord showed me He had freed me. I felt resurrected. And that was the turning point. And thus began my upward recovery.

So last winter, spring, and summer, I continued to recover. I put both the kids into school 25 hours/week. I had Lydia's help two nights a week and one Friday-Saturday a month. And I hired a babysitter an additional night of the week. I did have every morning with my kids at least for an hour or two, read the Bible to them, and did chores with them. They enjoyed our morning routine, as usual, and found security in that, as usual. They also still had time with me whenever they were home and there was no sitter. While physically I was still present, and went through the motions when the kids were around, for the most part, I completely checked out. And then, over the summer, finishing the first draft of my book was a significant part of that recovery.

And so, this fall, I returned to my body, so that it was no longer a moving shell, but actually contained Grace in it.

"Moving on" with my life has been such a difficult thing to do, because I didn't really know what it meant to live without my life entirely in reference to Andrew. We still lived in the same house we had lived in with him. I was still surrounded by all the furniture I had chosen and/or put together with him. Everything reminded me of him. But Andrew had said to stay in our house, rather than move, after he died. Nothing changed in my life, except that he was gone. "Nothing" changed in my life, except that everything changed in my life. I had no idea what "moving on" looked like. I may have thought it was going back to how life was before Andrew. But before Andrew I was in college and had no children. This Grace is a totally different Grace than the one whose face turned red as she spoke to Andrew for the first time in that large auditorium at Rolfe 1200 after Bible study in the Fall of 2001 (His first memory of me was "red." I said that makes sense, because I was wearing a burgundy shirt and my face probably was bright red). That Grace was in the past.

I can't reference the pre-grief/pre-cancer-trial-Grace in order to recognize that Grace has returned to her body. I was 26 when cancer first descended upon our household, January of 2007. I'm 31 now. Too much has happened since then. The Grace I am today is a completely different Grace even than the one that stood over Andrew's casket as he was lowered into the ground. That Grace entered the casket with him. So what would the post-Andrew me be?

My personality is still the same. I still find all the same things funny, come off as shy when in a new situation, but am always dancing around while talking incessantly when I'm comfortable. My personality is still me, but the person that I am is not the same.

I used to say that I was the right leg and Andrew was the left leg of the relationship. We were such extreme people, we wondered how we ever survived before we met each other. We thought we couldn't survive without each other. Andrew had said in one of his letters, "Any time you don't know what to do in a situation, just think 'what would Andrew do?'" I did that a lot the first year. And now after 3 years of having to survive without my other half, I would say I am a full person. But it is because of Andrew. Really, I am Grace/(Andrew). He is a part of me and always will be. I learned so much from him. He was the practical one, anchoring me, as I always had my head in the clouds. He was the steady one, while I was the roller coaster (which he got a kick out of). I focused on the details to the point of myopia and slow-motionness, while he loved the bigger picture and was super-efficient - he taught me to run from the car to the supermarket, instead of walking like a snail (hey, I was preoccupied with figuring out how to turn the walk into a story. The sun glinting through the trees made the leaves look like dangling coins. The beauty was distracting) as one time-saving tip. He taught me when I got to the dwindling hours of the afternoon, to consolidate the last few things on the to-do list to somehow get them all done at once, instead of leaving them to the next day(s) to finish. Like, instead of running errands at 3 different stores 15 minutes away when you only had 30 minutes left, just do the next best thing and pay $2 extra to get everything all at Walgreen's on the corner (He said, "Time is money").

But more than all those practicalities, Andrew embodied the gospel more than anyone I have ever met. I think many of you who knew him would agree with me. He grasped better than anyone what a wicked sinner he was and how gracious God was to save someone like him. We all are wicked sinners; he just grasped it better. Most of us don't want to admit just how bad we are, how we judge others, but don't see we do the same things. Even if we are moral on the outside, we won't admit to ourselves how capable we are of wickedness, the stuff that's in our hearts, even if we successfully don't show it on the outside. That humility is what gave Andrew the ability to love me so constantly, so persistently, in spite of my continual sinfulness.

I would not have been able to survive as a single mom had he not taught me and demonstrated the multitude of those things first. It was the 5 year apprenticeship I had with Andrew that prepared me to live without him. He gave me my left leg.

The Lord's Faithfulness at The 3 Year Anniversary

Just after Andrew and I left our UCLA fellowship group to move to Washington state, we heard a new woman had joined the fellowship group's staff. When a friend visited us in Washington and told us about this new woman, I heard she was a young widow in her late-twenties. I remember as a newlywed trying for one second to imagine what that would be like. And after that one second, I shook the idea out of my mind and said, "How horrifically unimaginable" - meaning it was too painful for me even to think for one second about it. So I didn't.

After Andrew's death, as I visited friends in Los Angeles, I heard after 8 years this young widow - I'll call her "C" - had re-married. It turned out when she got re-married, C had moved to Minnesota shortly after Andrew and I had moved here (Fall of '07). I lived 35 minutes away from C, but I never met her.

Finally, last spring, I emailed C. I wanted to learn from someone who had been a long-term young widow and survived. Though she had never had children with her first husband, I thought she might still be a resource. I feared she might not want to meet, since I might trigger too many hurtful memories for her. But instead, even though she was sleep-deprived, having just given birth to a second baby a couple weeks earlier, she was eager to meet right away. Since then, we've continued to get together.

During our times together, I loved that rather than fearing memories of her old hurts, she had a heart for young widows. I loved that I could ask her all kinds of questions that I had always wondered. I loved how honest and open she was. I loved that I could tell her anything and rather than be surprised or judge me, she completely understood. I loved how when she spoke Biblical truths about God's faithfulness to me, she wasn't preaching to me. She wasn't being glib. She was testifying to what she had experienced first-hand. I loved how when she spoke those truths to me, it was in a non-condemning, non-judgmental tone. It was a gentleness that could only be the fruit of having experienced profound hurt over a long period of time.

When C came to visit me a few weeks ago when I was struggling, I didn't know what I was feeling. At least if you know you're sad, you can just have a good cry and feel better. But often, I don't know what I'm feeling. And so I just feel like my insides are about to burst. Like each of my cells are a bomb. I'm unable to cry, because I'm still not convinced it's because I'm sad. Since very early on after Andrew's death, I've always been hard on myself - "You're not still sad about this are you?" I'd tell myself. But then if I'm able to talk about it with someone who has already lost a spouse, then they can validate my feelings and then I don't feel crazy.

C said to me, "People often don't realize that sometimes you still feel like you've been torn in half."

And I felt like, "You mean it's normal to feel that way sometimes still?" By her expressing my feelings in a sadder way than I thought I was allowed to feel - and that was if I admitted to myself that I was even sad - took off the pressure for still feeling that way. I felt relieved.

And she said, "And that on those 'torn-in-half' days, you feel like you are walking through wet cement."

"Yes! That's exactly it!" I said. The craziness I was feeling began to subside.

The first two years after Andrew died, basic tasks were difficult. Andrew said in his letters to put one foot in front of the other. Putting one foot in front of the other, one day at a time, was like crossing an Indiana Jones rickety bridge over a vast chasm. I couldn't look down. I couldn't think about what was lost. I just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I couldn't panic. I couldn't give up and fall off the bridge. I had to stay alive for the sake of the kids.

But now that I have crossed the bridge, putting one foot in front of the other is simple. Walking is a basic task. Walking across a rickety bridge over a vast chasm is not. Rather, it is the greatest challenge of your life. When you are crossing a rickety bridge that is so long you can't see the end of it and is so long, you've forgotten that real ground exists, basic tasks like getting out of bed, making breakfast for my kids, eating a meal myself - what huge tasks they were! (Food was difficult in particular, because Andrew had not been able to eat the last 11 months of his life - and if anyone loved eating, it was Andrew. Not to mention Andrew and I got to know each other over apartment dinners with all our friends. I associated loss and stress with food).

Yet day after day the Lord helped me to accomplish my tasks. But how there was no room left in my brain for other things! And how incredibly exhausting it was. While neighbors were planting gardens and having friends over for dinner, those tasks seemed like monumental impossibilities to adding to the one-foot-in-front-of the other task of now-it's-time to-make-lunch. I remembered how Andrew and I always used to have people over for dinner, not only when we were married, but before we were together. And I wondered how I ever had done such monumental impossibilities.

Wondering such things, while not realizing I was not doing regular walking but one-foot-in-front-of-the-other-rickety-bridging, I added guilt to the weight of crossing the bridge.

And, on top of grief making basic tasks difficult, it was so hard being a single mom, particularly of little children who had just gotten out of diapers. Pastor Warren told me that he is always telling everyone that being a single mom is the hardest job in all the world.

When C arrived at my house, my cell phone rang. While I was distracted, Lydia told her which coffee shops were nearby. Normally, I never remember Dunn Brothers Coffee. While I used to like Dunn Brothers, I stopped going when Andrew died. It was down the street from the cemetery. And while I occasionally found comfort visiting Andrew's grave, I also associated the cemetery with death and sadness. And so, due to its proximity, I now associated Dunn Brothers with death and sadness. When I went to coffee with friends, I wanted to relax, not be haunted by the idea of the cemetery down the street. When I got off the phone, C said Dunn Brothers was her favorite. So we went. And as I drove, I mentioned that Andrew's grave was down the street.

She said, "Maybe if we finish coffee early, we could visit Andrew's grave?"

Nobody, other than family, had ever asked me that before. It had never occurred to me that that would be something I would even want. But when she said it, it sounded like it might just hit the spot. So I said, "Okay."

At his grave, having her to stand beside me, and just understand, I found myself beginning to feel better.

On the actual weekend before the anniversary of Andrew's death, the one in which I always send my kids to someone else's house, I usually like to be alone. I don't want the anniversary to pass me by unacknowledged without having to take the time to remember Andrew. Ignoring my grief doesn't make it go away. If anything, it makes it linger. And it makes it attack me at inopportune times. At least if I take the time to deal with it, I can have some say in the timing. I don't want the anniversary to pass me by, while I find myself distracted talking about pancakes or something with friends. But it kept coming to mind that this year, I should not be alone. I found myself only wanting to be with people who knew West Los Angeles, where Andrew and I had fallen in love.

And so C came to see me again. In spite of having two small children and living 35 minutes away, C came to see me a lot during those difficult weeks. She understood what a difficult time I was having.

The second person I wanted to spend time with the anniversary weekend was someone who had just moved to Minnesota - I'll call her "J." J was a freshman at our fellowship group when I was a senior at UCLA, so I did not know her very well back then. But since I was the only person she knew in Minnesota when she moved here in the Fall and her husband's job kept him away most of the time, we got together regularly.

Her husband - I'll call him "K" - had just gotten a job with the Timberwolves. So on the weekend of the anniversary, after spending the afternoon together, J took me to a game. Afterwards, I finally met J's husband (he had been so busy with work, I had never met him before). They invited me out to eat with them after the game.

As we sat at the restaurant, when I mentioned in passing that it was the anniversary of Andrew's death, J's husband mentioned that his mom died of cancer. J had told me this a few months before, but I had forgotten. J was very close to K's mom, even before they were married, so both J and K grieved the death of K's mother. Realizing his mom had died of cancer and at such a vulnerably young age for him (college), I sensed that it was safe to talk about Andrew, rather than needing to hold in all that I was thinking. I could be myself and uninhibited, and they would not cut me off to judge or correct me.

J and K had been married for three years. Andrew and I had been married for three years before his first cancer diagnosis. I found things J and K said kept reminding me of stories of Andrew before cancer, and I found myself sharing those stories with them, as well as stories about grief and loss. It was obvious that talking about such things did not scare them, nor stories about the good 'ole days with Andrew. As I told them all about Andrew, most of the stories made me laugh and smile - something that I could not do in earlier years of grief.

At the end of our conversation J said, "God answered my prayer from earlier today." She said, "I prayed that memories of Andrew, rather than make you feel sad, would cause you to smile." And those memories did make me smile.

How Am I in General?

At three years, I do feel a lot better. In fact, there are many times where I will say this is the happiest I've ever been in my life. I feel God has freed me so much from so many things. I'm grateful for all the ways the Lord has stretched and grown me through profound pain and all the accompanying challenges. I'm grateful that I can testify firsthand that God is and has been a Husband to the husband-less. I love the closeness with which the Lord walks with me. Honestly, I wouldn't change what I've been through for anything, because the fruit of it is worth it.

So I've experienced profound pain. Even if I had experienced all of human suffering in all of history put together all in one (and obviously I haven't), compared to the glory of God, it's depth is just a pin prick.

Life is short. Before we know it, we'll blink, and people will be at our funerals. Ask any 70 year old. They'll tell you they were 25 years old a second ago. In light of eternity, whether you die at 27 or 99, there's not much difference. The only thing that matters is God's glory. And in some people's lives, God gets more glory when that person dies young. David Brainerd was 27 when he died. I am eternally grateful that Jesus died at 33. So, in light of that, well, this pain, now that I'm out on the other side of it, I am able to say it was worth it. I'm grateful.

I will probably always miss Andrew. And I will probably continue to write about missing him and the accompanying trials. At times, I still live with weeks-long periods of pain, such as these recent ones. During such weeks, I just know that pain is a regular part of my life and I co-exist with it, as I go about my day and my responsibilities, even if it does make basic things, like cleaning up after dinner or (not so basic things) like wrestling my manuscript into revision - like walking through wet cement. I get less done and what I do get done, I get done slower, but I get done the important things that God both calls me to and gives me the grace to do.

During the first year of my grief process, at times the periods between pain was a few seconds. Sometimes, they stretched to a few minutes or a few hours, then a few days. Now, more and more time stretches between the episodes of pain. This year, there are several weeks between periods of pain. Even months between periods of deep pain, though there is always more mild intermittent pain and missing of Andrew. The fact that the time between pain is longer than the weeks of pain, means that pain is no longer the dominating emotion of my life.

I wrestle with these simultaneous feelings - gratitude and relief that the Lord has rescued me in numerous ways from myself through my trials, while at the same time I still experience profound hurt. How does one feel grateful for pain (due to the fruit it has produced), while at the same time still cry over the pain? How does one feel one wouldn't change the past because of its fruit, while at the same time it is still so painful that all I have to offer my children is me and not me-and-Andrew. While there are times I miss him so much it could kill me?

I wrestle back and forth between these two profound feelings. Gratefulness for the fruit of the pain. And longing for the past before the pain. Both legitimate. Both valid. Both real.

My Pastor Warren says that Psalm 139 says, "I am fearfully and wonderfully made." He says he takes that to mean how incredibly and wonderfully complex the human being is. He said human beings are capable of feeling completely opposite feelings at the same time. Knowing that has helped me, as it takes so much of the pressure off. It means I don't have to wrestle between those opposing feelings. I can simply embrace them.

I am excited for whatever the Lord has in store for me and my children in this next year. I am excited to see what God will have done at the 4 year anniversary. Andrew wrote in his letters, "Smile at the future. The best is yet to come." I smile a lot now. I love my life. I love my kids. And for the first time in years, because I'm finally happy and secure, I am excited for whatever unknown future the Lord has in store.

Monday, January 09, 2012

The Pursuit of Publication

"A Writer?"

I've wanted to be a writer for most of my life.

When my 2nd grade teacher entered something I had written into a regional writing contest, I won. So when a friend of my parents asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I admitted for the first time, "A writer!"

He laughed at me. Like I had said something as unlikely and as impractical as declaring I wanted to be a movie star. After that, I forgot such dreams, though I continued to worship at the altar of Madeleine L'Engle, reading every one of her numerous novels I could get my hands on. On top of that, my three siblings were 15 to 7 years older than me. Their libraries became my feeding ground. In fourth grade, I read J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and proceeded to read about a book a night. Over the years, the fact that I filled journal after journal with my own scribbles meant little to me, just as I took for granted the wallpaper in the background or the armchair in the corner.

When I was 17, I had the opportunity to work privately with a successful novelist, the writer-in-residence at my high school. During our weekly meetings, he would encourage me: "Perhaps this is what you should do with your life - write professionally." Just as I thought nothing of the books I consumed or notebooks I filled, I ignored what he said. He might as well have been speaking another language. I thought authors had to have two initials for a first name, or at least have a sophisticated British accent like his and that every other sentence an author spoke would unconsciously be sprinkled with metaphors to the sun setting or the moon rising. I did not think writing had anything to do with a mere mortal and a name like "Grace Uriarte."

Nonetheless, all his words - though they were riddles to me - continued to echo through my mind. "A writer has nothing to do with whether or not you choose to make the door red or blue," (imagine in an eloquent, British accent), "it has to do with the processes of the mind." I had no idea what he was talking about. How were my processes any different than any one else's? Still, all his words from my apprenticeship with him pursued me. Over the years, I found myself watching each person, trying to understand their "processes," trying to understand what a "processes" was, and what made me different than them - why had he decided that I was "a writer?" I began to see some differences - for one, the very fact that I was watching them. I realized he had been trying to tell me that a writer is born an observer, a watcher of people, settings, details, culture - that's what provides the content, the words that overflow onto paper.

My fiction teacher had said his mind was like a double-screen. One on which he saw what was happening before him, and the other on which he saw all of that translated into scenes for a novel. I realized a double-screen was happening for me as well. One on which I saw what was before my eyes and the other on which I translated it into the different parts of the narrative. Only, it wasn't fiction. Real people seemed like the most intriguing characters. I found literary things happened every day. It was just a matter of highlighting the significant, editing out the insignificant that would distract from the true meaning of the event, and knowing where it landed on the timeline of the narrative, whether it was foreshadowing, the story's complication, or the climax. Sometimes, even the real-life setting and the weather seemed to conveniently reflect the event's meaning. If something terribly sad was happening, it was raining outside, and the storm would escalate according to the sorrow. I didn't need to change the setting or weather for the sake of the story. It really happened that way in real life.

Finally, Christmas break my sophomore year in college, when I was 19, I read a novel by Elizabeth Prentiss, author of the 19th century hymn "More Love to Thee." The book was called Stepping Heavenward, a fictional journal of a young woman. As a teenager, she is self-absorbed, shallow, and you are not convinced she is a Christian. Many readers at this point stop reading, as she is kind of annoying. Yet as her entries progress through the years, you see God continuing to grow her more and more into His image. The godly people she describes that are in her life, such as her mother and pastor, disciple you through their example and their letters she copies into her journal. Wow! I thought. One can glorify God through fiction! I could not put the book down until I finished it, barely sleeping those three days. That book changed my life. And after that, when another one of my fiction teacher's lines echoed through my mind, I cried out, "All right already! I'll be a writer!" And then, all of a sudden, his words stopped echoing.

In college, call it idealistic, but rather than a stepping stone to a high-paying job, I saw my education as an end in itself. I loved learning. I saw my education as a gift from God. A limited period in my life when not only was it allowed to be my top priority, but my parents expected it to be my top priority. More than that, my calling at the time was to be a student. And if I wanted to glorify God, I needed to work at it with all my heart. I fell in love with my history and political theory classes. Exhilarated by seeing God's sovereign hand as He wrote His Story of the world. My old fiction teacher had always said that one did not have to major in English in order to be a writer. So I majored in history and minored in political theory.

After I graduated from UCLA, I was accepted into a graduate writing program at the University of Southern California (USC), but I deferred a year. During that year, so much changed - most of all, I began dating Andrew. And so when I finally did start the writing program, two weeks into my first semester at USC, Andrew asked me to marry him. At the end of my first semester in graduate school, Andrew completed his last semester at UCLA, we got married, and Motorola moved us to Washington.

How Will I Ever Write Again?

We spent the first three months of our marriage travelling and living out of a suitcase - I loved it! And instead of writing, Andrew's ear became my notebook. Then, two weeks after we settled into Washington, I found out I was pregnant. I was so sick during that pregnancy, I could barely walk down the hall. For the first time in my life, I could not write a thing in my notebooks. For the first time in my life, I had writer's block. I wondered at that time what the Lord had in store with writing. Andrew and I hoped to have many children. Yet, even if the writer's block ever ended, how would I write if I was constantly sick with pregnancy and caring for children?

During that pregnancy, I volunteered at an art gallery in town. One day, I was assigned to watch the desk with a local artist. As we sat, she showed me beautiful black and white childhood photographs of the six children she had just finished raising. She told me she was a Christian and told me about her 21 year old son that had died in a car accident the year before. I don't remember the details of what she said, but I remembered how she smiled through tears and the peace that emanated from her when she spoke of him. She told me that while she homeschooled and raised her children, she did not have the time to work on her art, but that how important children were to Jesus. So she trusted Him and prioritized her children above her career.

She said maybe once a year, when she could not take not doing art anymore, she might work through the middle of the night and complete a painting then. Then she said, "But you know what? At the end of 20 years, I had 20 paintings. And my friend who left her family to do art, never completed anything, because her circumstances were never 'ideal' enough to do her art. And now that my children are grown, I can paint all day long. As much as I want to."

As I observed her art in the gallery and displayed at various local businesses and homes, I saw how she had used many of those beautiful photographs she had taken of her children growing up and enjoying each other as the inspiration for much of her art. Though she painted timeless pictures of children in 19th century settings and clothing, she had copied her children's faces and expressions from their photographs as she painted.

I was too sick to volunteer many more times at the art gallery. And that was the only time I ever saw that woman. I don't remember her name, and I probably would not even recognize her if I saw her again. But, as my children were born, and I was exhausted with two little ones in diapers and no minutes to write for months at a time, I thought often of how that woman trusted the Lord throughout those many years of raising her children. I thought of how her one painting a year accumulated into 20 paintings. And some months, I did write 45 minutes a day three times a week. And when Andrew did radiation 30 minutes a day his first time through cancer, while I sat in the waiting room, I wrote fiction during those 30 minute periods. I believe the Lord used those little moments as one of the means to sustain me at that time.

During my marriage to Andrew, I never completed the novel I began my first and only semester in graduate school. Even while we were dating, Andrew would often talk to me about my writing. And I would always say, "Well, what if it's not the Lord's will that I ever publish a book?" I knew at the back of my mind, though, that unless I committed to finishing and publishing a book, I never would. All the writing books that caught my eye at the library or book stores that I skimmed always said the difference between someone published and someone not published is merely persistence. Throughout the years, I always read how various classics had been rejected by 45 or 60 or 90 publishers before they were ever published. And that is why I always responded with doubt when Andrew talked to me about publishing. I knew that even if I accumulated pages while raising my children, I could not commit to pursuing literary agents or publishing companies, especially not through countless rejections. I knew that committing to the goal of completing a book and publishing it meant committing to rejection with never the promise of publication. When I see actors on TV who played bit roles for 20 years and only now have a regular paying job as an actor, I wonder how they knew to persevere.

My high school fiction teacher, as well as all those books on writing, told me that self-doubt is a reality of a writer's life. A writer cannot help but write, and thus cannot help but persist through the self-doubt. Even though I often doubted I would ever get around to finishing writing a book, Andrew kept insisting I one day would have to publish. After he died, I read throughout his journals again of this insistence. And a few months after that, I discovered a letter in our file cabinet that I've shared on this blog before, where he mentioned one last time to "publish our book." When he wrote that letter, "our book" wasn't written yet. "Our book" was up to me to define. But those words that he wrote - typed in black on that crisp, white paper - give me the resolve to one day publish. He's not here for me to say, "What if I can't?" That black type stands immovable on that white paper. I cannot argue with it. And so, I simply say, "I must."

The Process of Writing "Our Book"

This summer, the children and I spent in New Jersey. We stayed with Andrew's parents, because his mom does not work outside the home and she could help me with the kids. Because of that, for the first time in my life, I wrote full-time. I was desperate to write and finish "our book," knowing it would be the only opportunity I would have this much help with the kids. I was desperate to take all my memories out of my purse and put them into a book, so that it could rest on a shelf. So that I wouldn't have to carry all those memories everywhere, weighing heavily on my shoulder, but could still access them anytime I wanted. I felt I needed to do this in order to be freed from the burden of my past, to move on with my life, and to give myself more fully to my children.

So this summer, I wrote up to seven days a week, 10-12 hours most days. I had never written an entire book before. If I wasn't actually writing, then I was trying to learn, trying to figure out how one even crafts a book in the first place. Some days I was trying to learn, Where does one go when one hits a brick wall? I read an extremely helpful book, Your Book Starts Here, by Mary Carol Moore. I read other memoirs and novels, looking for examples of how they handled certain techniques.

I didn't care about the number of words - except that it was tight enough to be less than 250 pages. Obviously I can write endless words (as evidenced by the seven years of verbosity on this blog), but crafting a narrative, making all the big picture decisions was a whole new level. It was irrelevant if I hit 250 pages, but had not created the experience that I envisioned. Regardless of how many pages I did or didn't write, I only cared that I accomplished a particular journey.

This book was completely new. It was not the blog. It was our love story and the untold details of our cancer trial.

There were many times I wanted to give up. But committing to writing a book is like committing to marriage. Some days aren't good, but a marriage won't work without full commitment. What if I'm wasting my time? What if I never finish the book? Yet the Lord continued to lead me through it. He continued to allow me to persevere. And by my deadline, after seven weeks of summer full-time writing, I finished the first draft!

With the first draft out of my mind and onto paper, when I awoke the next morning, I felt as if I had emerged from a fog, even though I had been in this fog for so many years - ever since the endless days of losing Andrew little by little during the endless months and years of cancer - that I didn't even know I had been in a fog until I emerged from it. My memories no longer weighed on my shoulders. They were crafted into a narrative on paper.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Mirth of Christmas

Great post by R.W. Glenn (my brother-in-law/pastor):

Christmas is supposed to be a time of mirth.

And this needs to be said for two reasons:

First, our non-Christian friends think we're the most mirthless people on earth. We're so serious and worried about breaking the rules and coloring within the lines that there's little room for mirth. By our demeanor, we've take the "Merry" out of "Merry Christmas."

Second, Christians themselves have a hard time embracing the merriness of Christmas. We feel guilty and like we have to apologize for it, as if the fun of Christmas gets in the way of the meaning of Christmas. But the reality is that Christmas without fun is what distorts the meaning of Christmas.

Did you know that the heavenly father feels compelled to celebrate? But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found (Luke 15:32).

Is this how you see God - as a father compelled to celebrate? This verse from Jesus' Parable of the Prodigal Son demonstrates that our father has a Christmas feeling about us. He's a father full of mirth toward his children.

But the irony is you only get to experience it when you see what a sinner you are - when you see your sin for what it is and return to your heavenly father.

Jesus helps us to see ourselves by depicting three kinds of sinners in this parable:

1. The younger brother before he leaves his father: "Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me." And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and...squandered his estate with loose living (Luke 15:12-13).

This is the sinner that's most familiar: the kind who breaks all the rules in defiance of his father.

2. The older brother: For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends (Luke 15:29-30).

This depicts our struggle with sin in a way that isn't so familiar: keeping all the rules to get leverage over God. It's the sin of obedience - of obeying God not because you love God, but because you want God to give you whatever goodies you value more than him and think he owes you.

3. The younger brother before he returns to his father: But when he came to his senses, he said, "I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men' (Luke 15:17-19).

Amazing! The younger brother has come to his senses, realizes where his rule-breaking has led him, and no longer wants to live this way, but instead of running back to his father as his son, he resolves to live as his father's slave! In essence, he's saying, "I'll make up for what I've done. I'll do more and be better and try harder." The problem here is that the younger brother is not yet convinced that his father is full of mercy and mirth. He still has a wrong view of his father. He feels the need to earn a place at the father's table...which is the opposite of the truth.

For even as the younger brother returns, his father shamelessly runs to embrace him and to cut off his son in the middle of his speech about being the father's slave rather than his father's son: But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son." But the father said to his slaves, "Give this boy some work to do! He can come home, but only as one of you!" Is that what his father says? Absolutely not! He says to his slaves, "Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found." And they began to celebrate (Luke 15:20-24).

So knowing you're a sinner is essential to your repentance, but it's not enough. You also need to know the mirth of your heavenly father - that he's not at all reluctant to receive you as a son, but is eager to do it! He feels compelled to celebrate your return, even your many, many returns.

What will convince you that this really is your heavenly father's disposition toward you? Look to the son who's conspicuously missing from the parable - the one who is telling it! It's only when you see that the heavenly father gave his only son for older and younger brothers like you that you'll be convinced that he loves you. God's lavish grace revealed at the cross proves that he is the father of mirth.

So this Christmas, I plead with you to repent and return to the father of mirth. Then celebrate. Enjoy every minute of your Christmas as an echo of the true party that your heavenly father is throwing in heaven every time you repent.

- http://www.solidfoodmedia.com/blog/the_mirth_of_christmas

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Do You Need Someone to Give You Your Worth?

I suppose since I’m single again, I'm friends with a lot of single women. Sometimes they have always been single, sometimes they are like me, single again. But one thing I have learned through all my trials and talking to people throughout them is that the human experience is just that - human. Universal. Both men and women long to be loved, as well as respected. The funny thing is, is that treating someone with respect is loving. And treating someone with love, is respectful.

I think as women and men we long for those things in their particular expression - whether respect or love. The Lord made women particularly long to be loved, and He graciously commands husbands to meet that need. The Lord made men in their natures particularly long to be respected, and He graciously wants that need to be met, as well, by commanding women to respect their husbands.

A friend told me recently that she read somewhere that the more in love a widow(er) was in their marriage, the more they long to be remarried. Once you've tasted what it's like to be treasured, you long to be treasured again.

The last time I was single, I had never tasted of what it is like to be gospel-treasured. So I didn't know what I was missing. It's like if you have never tasted bubble tea before. You don't need bubble tea, because you don't know what you are missing. But once we introduced bubble tea to our friends, they would drive 45 minutes on a regular basis just to get some bubble tea (that's right. Most of you have never tried bubble tea. You need to – get the “black pearl milk tea” - But you can't go back afterwards. It's worth it though). See, I've gotten distracted by bubble tea. The point is this, a single woman said to me once, "You've already been married. You've already had children. So if you don't again, at least you've already accomplished it once in your life." And I say, it's just the opposite. Once you've tasted and seen, you realize all the more sharply what you are missing. So single ladies, I get where you are at. In fact, I get what it is to long to be loved more than I ever did the last time I was single.

One morning recently, I was feeling overwhelmed and didn't want to face some parenting struggles I was having. I felt so angry that Andrew wasn’t there with me. But I didn’t understand why I felt angry. I thought, "Even if Andrew was here, he would not be in our house all day. I would still be dealing with these parenting issues without his help. So what is it that I wish I could have from him?” Then my Bible reading schedule was about Elijah being taken up to heaven. I thought, "How did Elisha feel when Elijah left him? It doesn't say anything about that. I would feel like, 'No, I'm not ready. It's not been enough time. It would never be enough time.'" And then I burst into tears. Those were the thoughts I had when Andrew left me for heaven – “No, I'm not ready. It's not been enough time. It would never be enough time.” The Holy Spirit used His Word to hit upon what had been upsetting me.

I simply missed Andrew.

I thought, "It's not Andrew's help with the kids I long for. It’s not anything he could do for me. I didn’t want anything from him. It's that I didn't think I could face parenting without his love. His love was my Premium fuel. I could do all things through Andrew whose love gave me strength."

Love gives amazing strength and brings out the best in us, the dormant beauties that neither you nor anyone ever dreamed were there and were never cultivated by anyone else. But the language I heard in my head "through Andrew I could do all things..." exposed to me how I was exalting the love of a man to idolatrous proportions. I realized the lies I was believing. Andrew could never satisfy me in that way. And any time I looked to him to take the place of Christ in my life, I only ended up terribly frustrated and disappointed. Because Christ is jealous for His rightful place in our lives, and He will only thwart our efforts to look to anything less than Him for our satisfaction.

How does the gospel answer the question of longing to be treasured when it seems there was only one person in the world that had such a grasp of the gospel that he could love even me? What do I do when that person is no longer present in this world to love me?

Someone in my small group recently said he found that the worse his wife might act (yes, she was sitting right there. And was fine with him sharing this), the more love the Lord gave him for her. I laughed when I heard him say that, because I knew exactly what he meant. That was how Andrew loved me. The more Andrew knew me, the more he understood my sinfulness, the more he loved me. That was the gospel! I think this type of love - gospel love - feels so much richer than human love. Because the more your spouse loves you - even in the midst of your sin - the more you feel your unworthiness of his love. When you sin, rather than return it with shouting in anger at you - he returns it with affection and gentleness. It's shocking and can only be supernatural. And as a result, it can only be a picture of Jesus. After all, it is His kindness that leads us to repentance.

This type of supernatural, gospel love is so rich. Once you've tasted of it, how can you live without it? And yet, that is what Jesus does for us. He knows everything about us. All the dark things that we don't want anybody to know. All the dark things about us that even we ourselves don't want to face or admit to ourselves. He loves us not because we are worthy or attractive in ourselves. He loves us, even though we so often shake our fists in His face, saying (though perhaps not out loud, but in our grumbling or bad attitudes or taking our anger out on others), "No, God, that's not how I envisioned my life. No God, that's not my will. And Your will doesn't look good to me." He loves us in defiance of our daily sin. He loves us in our neediness for Him. In fact, the more we need Him, the greater His grace.

As I was thinking these thoughts, I wasn’t sure they were enough to cause me to face the day. A moment later, my friend called. And though it was thoughts of Andrew that had spurred these contemplations, and her situation was different, I found myself having to rehearse to her the very truths the Holy Spirit had just comforted me with (just as 2Cor. 1:4 says He will do).

She expressed her fears about opening up to someone interested in her, because what if he rejected her once he knew her? And I said, "You will just have to rest in the gospel. That's what we all need to do. It is a battle to rest in the gospel. That is what I am trying to do this morning." I said, "Jesus loves and accepts you, because He's loving. Because His love is so vast, His love overflows out of Himself onto you. He loves you, because He made you and He loves the work of His own hands. He loves You because you bear His image, and He loves His own image. He loves you so much that He shed His own blood for you. The God-Man shed His blood for you! Blood worth more than gold - infinitely. No one else could come close to loving you like that. No one else has anything worth that much to make such a sacrifice for you."

Jesus loves me infinitely more than any human ever could. Than Andrew ever could love me.

Now, I don't want any of you to misunderstand me. I'm not saying anything here about having self-esteem. In ourselves, we are worth nothing. But in Jesus, Jesus is our worthiness.

I said, "He rejoices over you like a groom shouts with exultation over his bride." What more do we need? Jesus is enough. And all our worth is in Him. We do not need a man to tell us we are worthy or to give us worth. Jesus is worthy in our place.

I said to my friend, "So it doesn't matter whether a man values you or not, because Jesus does. You are loved and accepted in Him. And when He looks at you, He no longer sees all your filth and unworthiness. He sees the perfection of His Son. He sees you as if you always obeyed Him perfectly."

My friend asked, “How do you know that?”

I said, “Because it says it in His Word.”

Yes, this woman was a Christian. So why did she ask that, when she knows the Bible? Well, if we're honest, don’t we question what God says repeatedly in the Bible all the time? Don’t we say, “Jesus loves me? I don’t feel like You do. I don’t believe You. Because if You loved me, I would get my way. And my way looks wise to me.” Or, "All I want is what everyone else gets," or "All I want is to be normal." Or, "What I want is a totally legitimate and not sinful desire, so why aren't you giving it to me?" So maybe, we’re actually not all that different from my friend. Maybe my friend was just honest.

When I got off the phone with my friend, I found I was ready to face the day. The Holy Spirit had ministered to my heart that morning. He showed me through reading about Elijah - of all things - I wasn’t really angry, just sad. He let me have a good cry. And then He let my friend call me, because He knew that rehearsing those truths would help me to believe this child-like, yet difficult truth - Jesus loves me.

So, actually, do you need a Man to give you Your worth? Yes, we all do. But thank God that we don't have to achieve our worth, because Jesus already has - Jesus gives us His Worth. So we can rest. We don't need our worth from anyone but Him. As my pastor often says, "Who cares what the serfs think, when we're already loved by the King?"

Christian, let us battle to believe, let us battle to rest in the truth that Jesus loves us. Let us continually confess and repent of our unbelief and pray, "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!" Let us pray, "Lord, help me to taste and see that Your love is better than life.

The LORD your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.

- Zephaniah 3:17