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)

The Perks of Prayer

prayer sun catcher bigger

Back in the early sixties, I remember seeing a giant billboard on the side of the road that said, “Prayer Changes Things!”

Most of the country was attending church in those days and had a general belief in the value of prayer. Today things are different, but the power of prayer still stands. I believe it with my whole heart.

Looking back on the last two months, I can tell God has been listening to the cries of his people by the list of umpteen answered prayers we’ve seen. Unable to close myself away to pray privately for my regular prayer time because of wanting to be at Nate’s side, I agonized over how everything that needed to be covered in prayer would get covered. But one day, stressing about this, I sensed the Lord letting me know, “I’ve got other people standing in the gap for you during these weeks. They’re doing all the praying for you. Your place is with Nate.”

I can’t explain my relief. And my gratitude to all of those praying people abounds. I can’t count the number who said, “We are praying for your family daily.” To pray for something every single day is a commitment of massive proportions, and we felt the power of it.

Here are just a few items prayed for by others that were answered with God’s enthusiastic “OK!”

  • Our old house in Illinois sold after four and a half years of trying, just in time to move and get settled into the Michigan cottage before Nate’s cancer hit us. We unpacked the last box a few days before his diagnosis.
  • All seven of our children, two in-law kids and two grandkids ended up under our Michigan roof within a few days of Nate’s cancer diagnosis on Sept. 22. (See Oct. 4 blog.)
  • Nate’s cancer was excruciatingly fast, but had it been many months, certainly our children could not have remained at home, together, with us. Would they have been on hand during the critical days leading up to Nate’s passing? Most likely not.
  • Our family had not expected to be all together even once during 2009 because of being located from England to Florida to California to Tennessee to Illinois, yet we were in the same place at the same time for over five weeks.
  • All 13 of us were together to say our goodbyes to Nate, listening to each other’s messages of loving farewell and praying together over him. After a busy day of running and doing, when the moment came, we were all right there.
  • All of us were in good health throughout Nate’s illness, even the babies. Had someone been down with a cold or the flu, that one would have been excluded, as a safeguard to Nate.
  • The two pregnancies of our daughter and daughter-in-law were timed by God to be early enough for them to remain with us for over five weeks. Had either of them been a little farther along, the couples might not have been able to travel from England and Florida to stay with us.
  • At the moment of Nate’s death, I was able to hold his hand and talk to him, just as I’d hoped.
  • Nate died at home. After three falls and many near-misses, he could easily have broken a hip or his weakened pelvis and landed in the hospital. Had that happened, we would not have been with him nearly as much, and probably never once in the hospital room all together.
  • On the days of the wake and funeral, the weather was spectacular, exceptional for early November in Chicago, two gorgeous days of sunshine and 72 degrees. Participating in a graveside service would have been much sadder in a cold rain.
  • Both sets of in-law parents were able to join us, traveling from Florida and England to do so.
  • Responses after the funeral have shown us that God did bring exactly those he wanted to be there.
  • God sustained me to the end, including the last three nights in a chair at Nate’s bedside, despite short sleep virtually every night. Although I looked bad, I felt as though I’d had a good night, even on only 4-5 hours of sleep every night for weeks.

Susan's angel, small

Each one of these things was a specific prayer request other people had prayed for us, and each was answered far past our expectations. I am thankful beyond measure for praying friends, and a remarkable phenomenon was the kindness of total strangers praying for our family. Many emailed me or left blog comments telling how their small group, Bible study or prayer meetings were praying for us, people I’d never met but who were willing to approach God’s throne on our behalf. I marvel at such willingness to serve the Lord and us in this way. One day when we’ve all gone to heaven, I hope to meet and chat with each one. We’ll smile at each other and nod saying, “Prayer changed things!”

“Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand.” (Philippians 4:6-7)