Two Weeks Ago

Today marks two weeks without Nate. He is all I think about, and I still let my mind meditate in detail on the moments of his last days. This seems odd, seeing as 14 days have passed, but trauma makes its mark, and I can’t think apart from it.

“Should I stop blogging about your father?” I asked several of our grown kids. “Will people get tired of hearing about his fight with cancer and his death?”

They all responded that losing my husband two weeks ago doesn’t constitute a reason to move on. I was thankful for their answer. It’s therapeutic for me to talk, write and think about Nate.

Today I was thinking back two Tuesdays ago to a few minutes after Nate died. All of us were at a loss as to what to do next. Life had increased in intensity from the day of his cancer diagnosis until his death, which was somewhat like the conclusion of a fast-paced drama. How do you follow that? And how do you avoid falling off an emotional cliff when it’s all over?

We had decided that night we’d do what Nate would want us to do and eat the Chinese carry-out food we’d just put on our plates the moment before he chose to move into eternity. Just before we began eating, each of us feeling subdued and strange, we needed a quick boost.

Earlier in the afternoon while Nate slept, I’d opened the day’s mail. In it was a letter to Nate written by a four-decades-long friend of ours, Lynn. As we sat with our dinner plates on our laps in the living room as we’d done when Nate was in his lazy-boy there, I decided to read from the letter:

“Nate, you are a fine example of running the good race, keeping a steady pace even when the ‘walls’ of life hit you hard. In keeping with this theme, we got an idea for the Chicago Marathon this month (Oct.). Tim, our son-in-law, a hematologist, ran for a leukemia/lymphoma research organization. He also ran for YOU as a symbolic gesture of support for the good race you have run, Nate. We sponsored Tim by donating cash we collected from creative ways to save. We hope you will accept this gift with all our love behind it. There were thousands who read the little banner on his back and prayed for you that day. And we are still cheering you on!”

Lynn enclosed a photo of her son-in-law’s running shirt with Nate’s name on it, and we passed it around the room. Also enclosed was a check for $328, an incredibly important gift because of what it represented. Just at the time when the head of our family passed away, another family was saying how important his life had been to them. The letter was also sprinkled with happy memories of Nate, along with a description of their high regard for him.

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On first glance, it seems like the letter had arrived too late. After all, it was addressed to Nate, and he died an hour after it arrived into our home. He was unable to open it or read it.

In hindsight, however, I believe the letter had a much loftier purpose by surfacing when it did. Exactly at the time Nate finished running his earthly race, we read from a letter describing that very image in reference to him. It was as if God put an exclamation point behind Nate’s life. After all, the race verses were his favorite in all of the Bible.

In addition to that, Lynn’s letter gave us the boost we needed at the lowest moment our family has ever experienced. I don’t doubt that God carefully orchestrated the whole thing. Just after Nate “disappeared” and we were struggling to focus on the truth of the unseen rather than the gaunt, cancer-ravaged reality we were looking at, Lynn’s letter provided visible evidence of a race well run. Her words highlighted Nate’s specific race and made us grateful he had crossed God’s finish line.

“We look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:18)

“Let us run with patience the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1b)

Back to the Cemetery

I’ve helped plan three funerals… so far… and at each one I’ve been surprised at how fast that day unfolds. Once the service begins, there is no time to talk to friends or even family. As the service ends, guests file past the casket, are ushered outdoors and are gone. Family members gather briefly for a last look, the casket is closed, and everyone fans out to the cars.

Once at the cemetery, protocol separates family members from others. At Nate’s graveside, we were able to focus briefly on the pastor’s words, but then the casket was quickly lowered from view and the event was over. There wasn’t time to think, much less process what had just occurred. On that day, November 7th, as I sat in the center chair facing Nate’s casket, I knew I’d want to return to the cemetery soon, to collect my thoughts.

Today was the day.

After driving Hans, Katy and baby Nicholas from Michigan to O’Hare Airport in Chicago to begin their journey back to England, I drove across the city to Rose Hill Cemetery. Despite the curvy lanes between grave yard sections, finding Nate’s burial site was easy. Our family has come to this spot every Memorial Day for decades, sharing memories about the six people already buried in the family plot: my mom and dad, my grandfather and grandmother, my great uncle, and dad’s baby brother. After the cemetery visit, we always share a picnic and a baseball game.

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Although most people shy away from trips to the cemetery, our family counts them among our most important traditions. Since toddlerhood, our kids have been taught that death is part of life and is not to be feared. I have a picture of Dad standing with his hand on the grave marker as he told us, “My father told me, as we buried my mother, that one day we would also bury him there. And we did. I can say the same about me. One day you’ll bury me here, too.” A few years later, we did.

Mom used to say, as she helped our pre-schoolers plant flowers around the big headstone, “Every day, we’re all one step closer to the grave, and I can’t wait, because that’ll mean I’ll be with Jesus.”

The day we buried Mom, her 15 grandkids cried hard, but they’d been prepped for that moment by Grandma herself. They were told ahead of time about her departure and all knew she had happily taken up residence in heaven. They’d heard it from her own mouth.

But what about Nate? Today, as I stood at the foot of his grave in a chilly wind, I couldn’t help having another moment of this-can’t-possibly-be-real. At my feet was a section of fresh sod four feet wide and nine feet long. Three urns of funeral flowers were lying on their sides next to the sod. Was it possible my husband was buried beneath my feet, lying there in his new grey suit? Hadn’t I just told him how good he looked in it, the first time he wore it to work? Hadn’t he been to court wearing it the day we learned of his cancer? How could he now be dead and buried in it?

I thought back to Memorial Day of this year when our family gathered again at that exact spot, 24 of us. In one of the pictures taken that day, Nate is sharing a memory while standing exactly over the spot where his body would soon be buried. Although none of us were thinking about the possibility of a 2009 death for him or anybody else as we stood at the cemetery that day, God had specific funeral plans for my husband, five months later. We can’t explain the Lord’s timing, and Nate’s burial was an agonizing family milestone, but to a certain extent, we’d been prepared. As we drove in behind the hearse that carried his casket, it was not creepy or scary. All of us were arriving at a familiar place of warm family memories. Besides, we knew the whole truth.

Cemeteries are all about death, and death is appalling. But one of the reasons we got through Nate’s burial fairly well was because of the years of stories about our relatives whose bodies are beneath the cemetery grass on which we’ve stood each Memorial Day. As we’ve remembered them each year, we’ve been sure their souls were not dead but were experiencing “joy unspeakable” (1 Peter 1:8) in heaven. Our rich Christian heritage has covered the horror of death with the scriptural promise of eternal life.

Today, as I shivered from the cold and the emotion of the moment, I got back into the car and started the engine to get some heat. A CD came to life playing my favorite hymn, “To God Be the Glory”:

“Great things He has taught us. Great things He has done,

And great our rejoicing through Jesus the Son,

But purer and higher and greater will be

Our wonder, our transport, when Jesus we see.”

The whole truth of Nate’s presence in the cemetery is that he isn’t really under that sod. His body-shell is there, inside his grey suit. But the real him has taken up residence elsewhere. The ugly reality of death has been gobbled up by victory through Jesus and his all-inclusive death on the cross.

“Just as there are natural bodies, there are also spiritual bodies. cemetery sod smallWhen our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:44, 54-55, 57)

Weekly Cards

Some fathers are gifted to relate well to babies and young children. Others do better with school aged youngsters. Nate was his best with college kids and the years beyond. He grew into an adult relationship with each one of our kids effortlessly as they passed from late teens into twenty-somethings and older.

Every Sunday afternoon, Nate’s main activity was to write to each one of his children who lived away from home, whether that was in college, at camp, on a mission trip or adult kids living on their own. His “letters” were written on simple index cards, sometimes 3 x 5, sometimes 4 x 6, in his often illegible penmanship. Sometimes he wrote in bullet points, and the kids joked about how much information he could pack onto one card. All of them saved these cards.

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When he wrote to the kids, he often summarized our week at home but other times would challenge them at a deeper level or commiserate with their current problems. Sometimes he quoted a verse or two, and many times he’d make a point of telling them how much he loved them.

When Nate learned he had terminal cancer, one of the things he wanted to do before he died was write out one last card for each of the kids. His goal was to meet with them individually to give them the card and also give them each an opportunity to clear the air, in case there were any issues they wanted to discuss with him. He was ready for anything, including possible criticisms, and wanted to apologize if any of them had something bothering them from the past. He told me he wanted to express fatherly love for each one and then would deliver his last card.

His pancreatic cancer was, as one of my friends put it, a “damnable cancer.” It raced through his body like a million bolts of lightning, missing nothing in its assault. And the sad truth was, Nate ran out of time to do everything he wanted. Once he’d told me about his goal to meet with each of the seven kids and have a card ready for them, I encouraged him to do one card each day after we spent time talking about that particular son or daughter.

He had only six weeks total, although we didn’t know that then, and a couple of weeks slipped by as we were consumed with radiation, separate doctor appointments and endless tests. But not one day went by when he didn’t say, “I hope I can work on the cards today.” By the third week, he was worn out, and we could both see he might run out of time if he didn’t get it done soon. It was becoming difficult to write, and when he was exhausted, it was hard to concentrate.

At that point, he asked if he could dictate the cards to me while I typed on the computer. We tried to complete one each day in this way, climbing in the car and leaving the commotion at home if necessary, in order to get them done.

We did finish them, but by that time, Nate’s health had deteriorated so rapidly, we both feared the one-on-one meetings might not happen. There were many one-on-one conversations in bits and pieces, but the planned meetings to deliver the cards did not take place.

Tonight after dinner I passed out the completed cards. The author has been gone for 12 days. As I watched the kids quietly read them, I started to cry, wishing Nate had not died. We’d had an animated family day, and I just couldn’t believe he hadn’t been a part of it.

Reading Nate’s last pointed communication to them, some of the kids began to cry, too. It was a powerful few moments as the fire crackled and nobody spoke. I’ll probably never know the variety of emotions that rushed through each of their minds, but in a way, the most important part of the evening was that Nate was indeed very much present, through his words. As always, the cards were encouraging, complimenting, challenging and loving.

But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13-13)