Emotional Winter

Nate and I always loved summer best. Our birthdays are both in August, which established summertime as party time when we were children. As kids we also spent hundreds of hours every summer in the water, delighting in time at a beach or pool. Once we had children of our own, there was no better vacation destination than a beach. What else is so much fun for all ages and stages? Summer also let us keep our windows open for weeks at a time and eat dinners outdoors where clean-up was a breeze. The summer season meant road trips, long evening walks and the absence of a school-schedule-dictatorship. Summer was our favorite.

Even so, I’d never dispute the loveliness of spring or majesty of autumn. But here I am in that fourth season, bleak wintertime. A Michigan blizzard is clawing at my windows, and the car is buried in snow. Our driveway needs shoveling again, and incredibly tall trees are bending perilously, giving in to nature’s forceful winds. In addition to all this, my heart and emotions are in a winter of their own.

I’ve always wanted to do whatever I could to keep winter at bay for as long as possible, mostly because it’s the opposite of summer. But every season has it glories. God proved that to me today. Jack needed a walk, so we struck out for the lake, despite the wild weather.

Our first glimpse of the beach was striking, despite tasting sand mixed with flying snow. Waves roared in unison with swaying pines on the bluff, and the dune, with its swirl of sand mixed with snow, looked like a giant bowl of fudge ripple ice cream. Suddenly I forgot all about summer, shouting over the wind’s racket about the splendor of winter. Jack wondered if I was in distress, but the view was so exhilarating, it just spilled out in words. God is right. Every season has its beauty.

That’s true about life, too, and even about death. When Nate died, the process of letting him go was much like an icy winter day. Our emotions were dark and stormy with sadness, and when he died, he became cold and lifeless. Yet the best spring of his existence came immediately on the heels of that wintry cold as he stepped into the warmth of paradise.

Every season has its advantages and disadvantages. Personally, I’ve got one foot in life’s autumn and the other on the edge of winter. How this next season of aging goes is up to God. Only he knows when my eternal spring will begin. I may live so long that looking back at 65 will seem like summertime, but I hope not.

Nate is blessed, because he will never have to experience the negatives of life’s winter season. He died in his autumn. If I have to travel a long time in winter, I want to have eyes that accurately take in the view. Just as today’s wintertime beach amazed me with its beauty, so there will be good things about life’s winter season, too. Although a fresh crop of troubles will most assuredly accompany it, Scripture tells me God is “a very present help in trouble” …. not just present, but very present, so even that can’t be all bad.

I’m thankful for the 64 summers I’ve experienced, as well as the emotional summers of life. I’m also grateful for the other seasons, and that includes barren winters. And, contrary to nature’s winters which don’t produce crops at all, our emotional winters often yield the finest harvests of our lives.

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46:1)
”As long as the earth remains, there will be planting and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night.” (Genesis 8:22)

Sunday Brunch

It was another rough Sunday for us. I guess that’s how it’ll be for a while. Nate had a strong presence with all of us every Sunday, devoting his day to family. After Adult Sunday School and the worship service, we’d always go out for brunch. Nate’s preference was a breakfast restaurant that served omelets, preferably a Denver or his favorite, a salsa omelet with extra salsa on the side. Since family members took turns choosing where to eat, he didn’t always get his omelet but willingly ate (and paid for) ribs at Chile’s, orange chicken at Panda Express or lasagna at The Olive Garden.

More often than not, there were extra kid-pals around the restaurant table every week. His answer when our kids asked was always, “Sure, they can all come.”

During the meal, we’d chat about the morning sermon and sometimes end up in a deep theological discussion. Other times it was sports or school stuff or vacation plans. Talk was never dull as all of us competed for “the floor,” and laughter was the punctuation in every conversation.

Nate’s favorite Sunday brunch/lunch spot was a restaurant in Wheeling we always called “Grannie Annie’s.” Its real name is “The Original Grannie’s,” and I think our name for it came from the former owners thirty years ago. Nate became good friends with the current owner and couldn’t praise the staff enough. “They always keep our coffee cups full,” he’d say. Nate loved coffee, whether high priced or generic, and drank it without reserve. During one brunch at “Grannie’s” I counted. He put away 12 cups even before his omelet arrived. “But they’re such small cups,” he said.

When Nate got his first cell phone, he loved using it to call “Grannie’s” and tell them we were coming. Like many restaurants, they didn’t take reservations, but we were frequent visitors with many eaters, so they did it for Nate. “Hi, George. It’s Nate Nyman. We’re bringing 13 today, and we’ll be there in 15 minutes.” Usually our table was waiting, a gift to a large family that usually has to wait to be seated.

All the waitresses, every one of them efficient and professional, got to know Nate and his generous tipping. “They’re trying to support their families,” he’d say, “and a little extra can’t hurt.”

Today after church it was just Louisa, Birgitta and me. “Can we go to Panera?” they asked.

Even that question brought a pang of sadness as I thought of how far we were from “Grannie Annie’s” now that we’re in Michigan, and also how far from Nate, who hosted us there literally hundreds of times. But the Lord knew we needed a boost today and provided it by way of a meaningful conversation the girls and I had at Panera. We talked about eternal security.

Of course Nate was at the center of the conversation, and today’s punctuation was tears rather than laughter, but it was good to get our thoughts out on the table. The girls, at 19 and 21, are thinking deeply about life and death issues, an important undertaking most of their friends have not had to consider. The process doesn’t come without pain.

The three of us talked about how much we miss Nate. I think one of the reasons Sundays are difficult is because of his strong leadership as brunch/lunch director. To sit in a restaurant without him is like hearing an orchestra play without its conductor. The symphony is familiar but the rhythm is off.

“Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me: for my soul trusts in you: yes, in the shadow of your wings will I make my refuge, until these calamities be overpast.” (Psalm 57:1)

Be of good courage, and he shall strengthen your heart, all ye who hope in the Lord.” (Psalm 31:24)

The Pink Notebook

From the day we learned of Nate’s pancreatic cancer, I’ve kept a small pink book near me. I taped four makeshift tabs to the edges of four pages, dividing the book into sections marked VERSES, GIFTS, EMAILS and CHARITIES. As notes and cards began arriving in our mailbox, I wanted to keep track.

Many of the cards, for example, contained Scripture VERSES. People had chosen a specific card to send, with specific verses, and as our days picked up speed, I wanted to go back and study each passage, anxious to receive whatever message the Lord wanted us to have.

Because of the astounding, loving response of so many people, I found it impossible to keep up. After several pages of writing references next to names, I had to let go of the project for later. I’m quickly approaching “later” and am eagerly looking forward to going through that process in the new year. Although Nate isn’t here to share in the comfort and benefit of this task, I know it will be a blessing anyway.

As for the EMAIL section of the book, my plan was to pluck certain sentences from inbox messages to save, the ones that seemed to pop from the screen with power. Over and over again people would write words of rich wisdom I didn’t want to forget. My desire was to cut and paste these electronic gems, then print them out for taping on the pages in my pink book. After reading emails aloud to Nate each evening while he listened from his prone position on the bed, I asked our younger girls to print them all out, one by one, so I could re-read everything and highlight the good stuff.

When they finished, they handed me 58 pages of email messages. We were only one week into Nate’s illness, and I could see my project was going to remain undone. I still plan to get to it during the cold, quiet days of January and February. It even crossed my mind I could make a day-to-day flip calendar with one or two of these powerful sentences on each small page. The counsel that came to us is priceless, and I want to preserve it for myself and others.

The GIFTS section of the pink book was for recording everything given to us during those difficult days of escalating cancer. I wanted to send thank you notes but knew as the over-full, exhausting days raced past, it wouldn’t get done any time soon. Today I counted the gift items written on these pages, things like flowers, meals, books, CDs, checks, gift cards, stamps, stationary, bath products and creams, fruit baskets, vitamins and cash. Altogether there are 203 things written down. I stand amazed. I’m chipping away at thank you notes, and each one is a joy to write.

The CHARITIES section has the names of people who generously gave to The Orchard, Moody Church and Pacific Garden Mission in Nate’s honor. Again and again I’ve been flabbergasted by the big hearts of so many, giving and giving, again and again.

I’ve now started a fifth section that will not fit into the pink book at all. I’m writing down specific incidents people have shared in writing about Nate, quite a few of them new to the kids and me. Many have taken time to record remembrances of him that I want to pass along to the next generation and the one after that. They need to know what “good stock” they come from, even if they arrive into our family down the road without any chance to meet their grandfather/great grandfather.

Once all the thank yous are sent and verses recorded, my project in 2010 is going to be systematic prayer for each person/family that is written in the pink book, whether they are a signature on a card, the giver of a gift, the author of an email or the sender of any greeting. I figure one day of focused prayer per name/family will yield benefits to pray-er and prayed-for alike, and I’m excited to get started.

For this most precious group of friends, family members and strangers, I will be forever grateful, bonded to them in a special way. They walked through the darkest time of our lives with us, and even when they didn’t know exactly what to do or say, they took a stab at it anyway, unwilling to do nothing. For their love, courage and labor, I am thankful.

“The generous will prosper. Those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed.” (Proverbs 11:25)