Monday, September 14, 2009

The Cobblestones of Heaven

When Andrew passed away, the reality of him in heaven was so palpable to me that it was like I was following him in my mind's eye around heaven every day. Reading his letters nightly, it was like he was simply my husband who was in another country, but leading me nonetheless, shepherding me through his absence.

Though I probably cried daily the first few months, it really wasn't that bad. When I wasn't having a good, quick cry, I was often fine. As summer began to approach, however, this began to change.

At the end of May, I wrote in my journal, "Gracie asked me to sing 'the church song' tonight as I laid alone with her on mine and Andrew's old bed in the red room." Gracie had been sleeping alone on our old bed every night, and I had only come in there to pray with her and sing to her.

"I sang I Will Glory in My Redeemer, and for a moment, as my mind began to wonder into the lyrics themselves, into other thoughts outside of the room, it was as if thoughts of Andrew began to float away from my head. Then, the usual panic, the 'No, how can I not keep him sealed in my head? He might float away into heaven, and become a distant memory, hard to be plucked out of heaven and into my head as the daily hubby, my Andrew.'

"I continued to sing to Gracie, my thoughts returning to the room and all those times I had sung this song in it. He always wanted me to sing to him, the only tangible thing to soothe and comfort Andrew in his lonely muteness and suffering."

I thought of how worshipping God through song had gotten us through so much of our trial together and how particularly he had craved it in the hospital for his previous surgeries or at his worst times. And so we had sung to him the last three days on his deathbed in the hospital day and night, my sister and I, or just me, or me and his family, or with David, our worship pastor, and his guitar, and Bob, my brother-in-law/pastor/professional singer. It was as if the molecules in his room were full with worship, a bubble around all of us undulating with sound. When Andrew's hospital room was awash with worship, the other patients, who could walk, all gathered at Andrew's door.

We sang to him, knowing the morphine could not reach his heart, singing, knowing he had always longed for the music like David's harp to Saul's demons.

"As I lay next to Gracie, I had trouble with the humming part of I Will Glory then, sobbing for Andrew and those sweet moments of singing to him in that very bed, loving him, and trying to comfort him."

Soon after that entry, as thoughts of Andrew faded just a bit like it had for that one moment in our old room, I forgot to wear my wedding ring for a whole day for the first time in 5.5 years. Literally the first time. In 5.5 years.

Then, it was as if I lost him in heaven.

This is when the pain began to truly start. I realized that I was not a wife learning how to live without her husband while he was away in another country. I, in fact, was no longer, a wife.

As June and July and August wore on, the misery grew more and more unbearable. Dinner time was the worst. Before, dinner had always been the climax of the day. After missing Andrew all day long, in our split-level in Washington when we would hear the garage door open for Andrew's car driving in, the kids and I would rush to the top of the stairs. Each night, I would hold Gracie, who was still a baby, on my hip, while AJ clung to my other hip. Andrew would ascend the stairs and we would exclaim, "Welcome home, Papa!" Looking tired after a long commute, he'd look up at us, and his face would light up. Soon after, we'd sit to a candle lit dinner and leisurely catch up on each other's days while the kids, still unable to talk, sat quietly nibbling on their food.

Now, however, there was still the expectation of the climactic dinner of the day, yet Andrew never came home. With each dinner, playing music that made me think of him, as we sat the three of us at our dining room table, alone, quiet, the misery grew worse and worse. It was the supreme anti-climax of the day, of the month, of the summer.

I wrote on Aug. 6th in my journal, "I had been following after him through the gold cobblestones of heaven, got distracted, and lost him. Since returning to my own country, it's like each layer of my skin is falling off, and with the loss of each layer, my body feels more and more raw, sensitive, and excruciating until it feels like there will be nothing left but a giant hole where my heart used to be. But perhaps after the de-skinning, maybe the skin will grow back new and fresh.

"Today I put my rings back on having forgotten too much to wear them all summer, hoping that maybe my absent rings were the source of my unbearable pain. Maybe if I just put them back on, the misery might relent just a little.

"With them on my finger, I was surprised how shiny my engagement ring was. Caught off guard by its beauty. Yet, in a way, it felt as if it didn't belong to me. Not that I don't belong to Andrew anymore, but more, surprisingly, like he doesn't belong to me anymore." The ring, which used to be a symbol to me of Andrew's ardent devotion and love and commitment, now was empty, only a symbol of how he no longer belonged to me.

The misery was so profound and had lasted so long, those months of summer, I found myself growing more and more cynical, not sure I even believed in the concept of "happiness." I couldn't imagine ever not being miserable, because I couldn't remember what it felt like to be happy. I wasn't sure if I had ever been happy my whole entire life. I thought, "Does happiness really exist? Other people look happy. Maybe I'm just not capable of happiness."

Then the Lord had a little surprise for me, a ray of hope. Aug. 10th: "Last night watched some videos from my camera that Andrew took while he was carving a pumpkin with the kids and I was preparing lunch, shortly before we had left for two months in California. I hadn't really been paying attention when he had laid the small, digital camera flat on the counter and recorded it, so I hadn't expected to find those videos of the mundane in our lives. Seeing those videos, I realize even though I looked old, stressed, and worn out, it was still a happy time of life together. God had graciously given me hope and kept us unaware just how near his death was. As a result, I was able to enjoy that time of him, with him.

"We looked happy in our fourness. I've forgotten what it was like to be happy and find it hard to imagine me ever having been happy. But in those videos, I sense a sweetness amidst the suffering, just being the four of us. And there was an intense security for the kids in the love and affection of their father, which I enjoyed too. It was like Andrew and I were the bread holding the sandwich of our family together, the children looking so warm and comfy in our abundant love. Now, it is like I'm a lone piece of bread hanging off a ceiling and the children are miraculously sticking to their mom-bread by the invisible God-husband. But we feel confused, lonely, dobutful, bewildered, yet held up nonetheless."

Aug. 8th:
"How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?
How long shall I take counsel in my soul,
Having sorrow in my heart all the day...?
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
Enlighten my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death...
But I have trusted in Your lovingkindness;
My heart shall rejoice in Your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
Because He has dealt bountifully with me.
Psalm 13

"Help me to believe Your promises, Oh Lord. I confess to You not trusting You, calling You a liar in my heart. Not believing You will rescue this time or heal my broken heart. Thank You for showing me those videos, reminding me that I am capable of happiness. I have been in such dark places. Places of despair."

Long Beach Island

My sister-in-law said I should come with the kids to New Jersey mid-August when they came from California and rented a house on Long Beach Island for a week. She and my brother offered to fly the kids and me out there. I had been avoiding New Jersey, fearful that the memories there might destroy me once and for all. At first, I thought maybe I would only stay the week at Long Beach Island and take off for Minnesota right from there, avoiding any places that might contain memories with Andrew. But I could really use the help with the kids and had no other plans, so I decided to stay a few more weeks in New Jersey after Long Beach Island until September.

I wrote on August 25th:

"Whenever I've found myself in a jam the past six months since Andrew died, I've often thought, 'This time the Lord is not going to come through (even though He always has in the past). I'll be left on my own to rot.' But every time, the Lord comes through. He is re-building my faith. Last week at Long Beach Island was the most restful, refreshing, pressureless vacation I've had since my honeymoon. It was a dream. Perhaps a lot of what was making me so hopeless before was a combination of overwhelming, relentless lonliness, and the ensuing exhaustion from relentlessly battling lonliness amidst the everyday demands of a life as a grieving widow and single mom."

On Long Beach Island, we had stayed at a beach house on the water with my brother and his family, my sister and three of her kids, and my parents. It felt so safe and secure and cozy to go to sleep and wake up each day in a house surrounded, smooshed in by my family. I had not been in New Jersey since Christmas of '07, just before Andrew's second cancer diagnosis and our lives fell apart. I had forgotten how good it felt to be home in New Jersey. Most of our relatives lived a half hour away and they also came and filled the house with themselves and lots of Filipino food. The kids had six of their cousins to play with every day, plus my own cousins' kids too when they came.

My journal continues: "While I was in Long Beach Island, I thought of the rest and fun, which up until that point I couldn't even remember the definition of 'fun,' as being like Tylenol - numbs the pain. But I realized, Tylenol is not necessarily a bad thing simply because it only deals with the symptoms and has no ability to heal. What it does do, though, is provide enough rest from the pain to provide enough relief to the body so that it is freed up to rest and heal itself. Maybe all I did need was some rest, a break in the pain, Tylenol, provided by God, to heal up a bit."

Remember in an old entry I had said that I had always wanted to be stolen away on a vacation if Andrew died? I had wanted that because I had read on Anne's ( blog that her brother had taken her and her kids to his beach house as soon as her husband died of cancer, May of '08. The pictures looked so restful and so perfect, her kids actually smiling, despite what had just happened, with their hair blowing on the beach as they ran towards the water. I had thought for some reason they had gone to Long Island, rather than Long Beach Island, so I hadn't realized that the very specifics of my dream had come true until I got to meet her and talk about it a few days later. I, too, had been stolen away by my brother to Long Beach Island.

After Long Beach Island, I was able to spend a few days in Manhattan with the kids and my close cousin, Kathy, at her apartment near Wall Street.

I wrote in my journal August 25th while in Manhattan, "During my private worship today, whispered, 'Lord, I give you my broken heart.' Immediately what interrupted my thought was one of the songs from our wedding:

"Lord, I give You my heart
I give You my soul
I live for You alone.
Every breath that I take,
every moment I'm awake,
Lord have Your way in me.

"Said, 'Lord, even though it is You that has hurt me,' and I began weeping, 'I still believe that happiness can only be found in You and living for You, because You are the only Way, the only Truth, and the only Life.

"Lord, please make me live only for You every day for the rest of my life."

Fellow(shipping) Bloggers

Afterwards, about 10 days into our trip, I drove down to Andrew's parents house in Princeton Junction. As soon as I arrived, I dropped the kids off and left for a dinner. I had set up to meet with two fellow New Jersey Christian bloggers. Mutual friends or acquaintances had sent us each other's blogs when all of our spouses were still alive. We had all lost our spouses within six months of each other and had been following each others blogs. I felt like I knew them already and really wanted to meet them in person and switch notes, since I had never met anyone else who had lost their young spouses to cancer after a brief marriage. Anne (mentioned above) is a single mom of three and Rupert (, lost his wife, Esther, July of 2008. Meeting the two of them was another extraordinary part of my time in New Jersey.

We must have been at the Thai restaurant nearly an hour, while the waitress had dropped by already 4 or 5 times before we could stop talking and look at the menu. In the end, Anne said she was tired of making endless decisions, and I said, "Me too!" as the single leaders of our homes. So we left it up to Rupert to order all the food. Then, fulfilling our gender stereotypes, Anne and I continued to talk endlessly while Rupert ate most of the food. Afterwards, we got to get my favorite, which I was hoping to find during my time in New Jersey, bubble tea. There are two things that make me happy every time, no matter how things are falling apart - ballet and bubble tea.

Our conversations were such an example of how true it is that "No temptation has seized you except what is common to man" (1 Cor. 10:13). Having been through such similar circumstances, being our spouse's caregiver 24/7, loving them, and losing them, we all experienced the same struggles and thoughts. When they spoke, it was as if they were quoting my own thoughts, even if I had not opened my mouth.

Lovers' Lane

Princeton Junction at Andrew's boyhood house was hard. And visiting Princeton, the next town, was like a knife in my chest, as Andrew and I had spent so many sweet moments there during our engagement and when AJ was a baby. The quaint college town with all its colonial exteriors looked the same as always, and I had to keep reminding myself that it was, indeed, 2009, and that if I turned my head, no, Andrew would not be sitting beside me.

If you've ever been to Nassau St. across the street from Princeton University, you may have seen a bronze statue of a man reading a bronze book sitting next to a real tree. AJ and Gracie threw themselves upon it and, clasping its neck, screamed, "Papa!" AJ asked me to read to him what the book the man was reading said. I read the first line: "All our dreams have been dashed to pieces."

And Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, I visited Julie and Sarah for a couple of days. We had been a threesome at our childhood ballet school. They both happened to move to the same part of Pennsylvania.

Since April, I have been able to take ballet again regularly for the first time since college. For my 1.5 hours in a ballet studio, I hurl myself fiercely into that activity and nothing exists outside of that room.

Sarah, too, recently started dancing again. We went to her ballet school and she and I got to take ballet - en pointe - for the first time together in probably 15 years (the last time was probably when we were 14).

I was ecstatic.

In the end

My 23 days in New Jersey was a dream.

I had been apprehensive about visiting New Jersey, but in the end, the Lord knew that that was exactly what I had needed. His Word continues to show itself to be faithful and true, "The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit" (Psalm 34:18). Our trip was so refreshing body and soul.

I love the LORD, because He has heard
My voice and my supplications.
Because He has inclined His ear to me,
Therefore I will call upon Him as long as I live.

- Psalm 116:1-2

September 11th

We returned to Minnesota, Sept. 5th, in time for AJ and Gracie's preschool to start the following week.

For what would have been Andrew's 28th birthday, we threw a very last minute dinner party on Sept. 11th. The kids and I worked all day to prepare. My sister asked AJ if he felt sad that day, and he said, "No, I feel happy. Everyone's happy in our house. We made cake."

Despite sending out an email invitation the afternoon of Sept. 10th, nearly 30 people showed up that Friday night. I made a bunch of dishes Andrew liked and the strawberry shortcake (Betty Crocker, "super moist," white cake with homemade whipped cream) he had every year of his life from the time he was in his mother's house through our marriage, except for the last year, when he was not capable of eating through his mouth. It was the first time making dinner for guests since Andrew had been diagnosed the second time March of '08. I was definitely in over my head, but I think that's what I needed. I find that whenever I do a hobby nowadays, I always throw myself in desperately, an outlet to turn all my hurt into something positive.

The next day we passed by the cemetary to vist Andrew's grave. It had been really hard to visit it prior to the arrival of his headstone in August, because all I could do was stand over the raised soil over his grave and think, "This is something I never imagined myself doing." To think of his bones beneath the ground, that I could never hold his hand again, or put my head on his chest, because it was disintegrating beneath the ground all felt so senseless to me.

But, now, seeing his name, "ANDREW W. MARK," inscribed on the headstone was like the next closest thing to seeing Andrew himself. I ran to it, as if running to him.

His mom and I had chosen black granite, because black always was the color he chose for things. We kept it simple, straight-forward, in Andrew's efficient style. It said, "Beloved," on one line, because that is what we called each other. On the next, it said, "Husband, Father, and Son." But the following was for me and others, an abbreviation of one of the phrases early Christians inscribed in their catacombs:

"In Christ, Andrew is not dead but lives with God."