Giving Thanks

Our first Thanksgiving without Nate was just as I’d expected. We went through the same preparations as usual, used the same decorations, set up tables and chairs for 24 and served the traditional menu. For me, the hardest part came during the prayer before dinner when my brother-in-law thanked the Lord for Nate. Overall, the day was successful with three generations of people present, a fire in the fireplace all day and cheerful conversation. But for me, the sparkle and joy of the day was missing.

My widow friends warned me about the difficulty of each “first” without Nate and the shift that will take place in my thinking. I’m beginning to understand what they mean. When it came time to eat today, 16 month old Skylar flipped into a meltdown, and it was a blessing to be able to take her upstairs for a time of calm and quiet. We sat on the floor in Louisa’s bedroom and played with her make-up while guests downstairs filled their plates and started to eat. It wouldn’t have bothered me at all not to have eaten Thanksgiving dinner.

When Skylar’s daddy came upstairs to take over, I rejoined the meal, but after a salad and a few bites of broccoli, I was done. It just wasn’t any fun without Nate. He always loved entertaining and started celebrating early on Thanksgiving. “Where are the cashews? Can I open them now?” Today, without him asking how many pounds the turkey was and what time the shrimp would be served, the whole effort seemed to fall flat. My cheerleader was gone.

Nate and turkey, small

Yet it was Thanksgiving. I wanted to be thankful. When I began looking for positives, I found them:

  • Nelson’s friend Angelo, a professional chef, had joined us, bringing two giant sweet potato pies and a chocolate cake as rich as Fanny May candy. He also stepped forward to make creamy mashed potatoes and carved both turkeys with artistic flare.
  • My brother and his family joined us this year when usually they spend Thanksgiving with his wife’s family. This was a special treat.
  • Our next door neighbors offered as much firewood as we wanted, and the boys kept the fire going from morning till midnight.
  • Someone found an old VHS video, and we all chuckled to watch a very animated Nate open birthday gifts on his 45th birthday.
  • The college-age cousins, eight of them, washed all the dishes, quite a feat in a tiny kitchen without a dishwasher.
  • A young family friend who’d joined us for Thanksgivings many years ago returned today, a breath of fresh air.
  • And the three dogs, one from each family, got along swimmingly.
  • Best of all, the Lord was present in our home today, and he was the subject of our thanks.

I was also grateful to fall into bed at 1:45 am in my new fleece ‘jammies with the thought that our first Thanksgiving without Nate was over. It would have been better if he’d been with us, but it was far from disastrous. God had gently given us a peek into our new normal while assuring us, “You will make it, because I’m going with you.”

“This is my command—be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)

Buying a new calendar

Every November I buy a new calendar, and last week I did it again. What will be written on the 2010 calendar by the time we come to next November buying the 2011 calendar? Time marches relentlessly on.

Last week I talked with our children about the two months immediately past, with my current calendar in front of me. My purpose was to use a green marker to highlight everything that happened to Nate from the September 22 discovery of his cancer to his November 7 funeral. While we were living those six weeks, the days were so full we didn’t have time to write everything down.

The kids and I went back to those tumultuous days and recalled details. “That was the day we found out. That was the day he had the big scan. That was the day he fell for the first time. That was the day his friend visited. That was the day we started with Hospice.” On and on we talked while I wrote all over the little squares on my calendar. It felt like we were honoring Nate’s suffering by recording the details of his decline in indelible ink.

green ink on calendar small

One day about half way through the six weeks of cancer, I remember saying to Nate, “You’re not the only one with a death sentence. We’ve all got one. It’s just that we can see yours on the calendar, and for the rest of us, it’s still written in invisible ink.”

Each year when I buy a new calendar, I put the old and new together on a table and flip the pages, recording significant birthdays with an orange pen. “Luke, 38. Emily, 37.” Adding one more year as I write each name on the 2010 calendar is a sharp reminder of our inability to stop time. Nate used to tap the glass on his watch with his index finger and say, “Nobody beats this guy.”

All of us are given 24 new hours every morning except for that one morning (known only to God) when each of us will be given less. For Nate, that morning was November 3. He was given only until 7:35 pm, which was when time ran out for him. Back in September or even October, none of us knew that day or that hour, but now we all know it. Likewise, none of us knows the day or hour when time will run out for us, but it is known God.

Most of Nate’s battle with cancer took place in October. At the beginning of September, when I’d flipped ahead to October to see what was coming, there was no green ink. As a matter of fact, not having a child in school for the first time in 36 years, we were unbound by any rigid schedule and had begun planning our first trip away from our newly emptied nest. The only hindrance was Nate’s painful back, so our trip was going to be close and short, to Greenfield Village near Detroit.

Little did we know our October trips would all be in the other direction, from our tiny little Michigan town to Chicago’s Loop for doctor appointments, medical tests and radiation treatments. We never made it to Greenfield Village. Although our calendar was packed with activity, none of it was planned by us or known ahead of time.

As I look at my new 2010 calendar, its pages clean and white,  I wonder what will be written on its squares. As Mom used to say, “Only God knows, and he won’t tell.” The only way to move from one calendar to the next without being swamped with anxiety is to consciously put every little square under the control of the omniscient God. Since he already knows what will be on the calendar, it’s best to put him  in charge.

“The length of our days is seventy years—or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night. O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” (Psalm 90:10, 4, 14)

Thankful for what was lost

We’ve all heard the old adage, “We don’t appreciate what we have until we’ve lost it.” In losing Nate, it wasn’t quite like that for me.

Back in 1991, Nate and I were “under the gun.” His real estate investment firm which had been doing exceptionally well had gone under, thanks to a governmental law change lawmakers promised they wouldn’t make but did. We had seven children under our roof then. Among them was an extremely strong-willed pre-schooler and a teen in full rebellion with police issues and court room drama.

The other children all needed attention, too, and our dinner table included ages 18, 16, 14, 10, 9, 3 and 1. Money was extremely tight (think stranglehold) and tensions ran high. I wasn’t understanding Nate’s pressures, and he wasn’t understanding mine. It wasn’t that we were fighting. We just tried to avoid each other, a recipe for marriage disaster.

I grew nervous about what might happen in our relationship but not enough to humble myself and reach out. I did wonder if we might be going over the brink, which terrified me. Being a stay-at-home mom with seven dependent children, I knew I had to do something. I decided I’d try to look on the bright side, and since everything around me looked dark, I’d have to look back to a time when things had been better.00000052

I thought about when I’d followed Nate around like a puppy dog and loved every minute with him. I had old journals to prove it, in which I’d written at length about my endless infatuation. So, one middle-of-the-night when I was up feeding the baby, I decided to make a list of every positive quality Nate had. I wrote an upbeat title on top: “Nate My Mate, a Great Date.” I didn’t feel happy as I approached the task, but in my heart I knew I didn’t want my marriage to fall apart, as difficult as it was.

I started with some bare-minimums and thought I’d only be able to think of five or six good things. Once I got started, though, an amazing thing happened. The list grew.

Here it is, now 18 years old:

  • nice teeth
  • blond hair
  • good looking
  • intelligent
  • a good list-maker
  • confident at work
  • remembers to do what he said he would do
  • organized
  • good physical stamina
  • physically coordinated
  • willing to lead
  • willing to study the Bible
  • willing to discuss any topic with me
  • flawless honesty
  • studies each child
  • interested in each child as an individual
  • willing to help with homework
  • knows everything about academic subjects
  • great memory of facts, history and family history, remembers names
  • good decision-making ability
  • not put off by hard office work
  • doesn’t need much sleep
  • desires to be a good husband and father
  • is sensitive to my requests of him, does them first
  • great sex partner
  • doesn’t give up when discouraged
  • sets high goals
  • puts me on a pedestal
  • generous with money, doesn’t spend on self
  • courteous, with good manners
  • interesting conversationalist
  • makes friends easily
  • wants to provide for our family

After I made the list, I felt terrible about my selfish attitude. On paper, Nate was a great catch, and I wanted to get back to those brighter times. It was two more edgy years before we decided to start counseling and an additional eight months before we felt our marriage had been healed of the wounds we’d caused each other.

As we approach our first Thanksgiving without Nate, I could never be thankful for the wretched cancer that took him away, but I can definitely be thankful for the 40 years we had together without the cancer. He and I came to appreciate each other anew 18 years ago, and it started with a middle-of-the-night list. As a result, I’m grateful this Thanksgiving that I’m not saying, “I didn’t appreciate who I had until I lost him.”

“Don’t let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ. Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness.” (Colossians 2:8,7)