Yesterday, February 5, was the anniversary of Al’s death, and the Lord made it a special day for us. A few of us brought bag lunches and ate in Al’s old office and shared stories and memories of him. And then in the evening we got together as a family for a special dinner and talked for several hours, reminiscing about Al and about the last week of his life in particular. There were lots and lots of tears, but deep thankfulness as well.
For one thing, we are so thankful for the chances we had to tell Al how much we loved him and to express what he had meant to each of us, to say good-bye and to encourage him when the time came not to look back but to jump up and run into God’s arms. People who lose loved ones suddenly, without warning, don’t experience the gift of having plenty of time to say good-bye. We were blessed.
For another, we are so grateful for the love poured out on us by family and friends. People brought us food, washed our dishes, brought flowers and special CD’s to listen to, sat outside with their cars idling to pray for us, and the list could go on and on and on. One night I was up with Al most of the night, and the next night Alasdair stayed here and split the job with me, but we saw that we couldn’t keep that up. So someone contacted men who would be willing to sit with Al and take care of him for four hour shifts during the nights, and before we knew it they had a whole list of volunteers! As it turned out, Al declined so fast that we only needed one night’s worth of coverage, but it was astonishing and humbling to know that so many busy working men were willing to give up most of a night’s sleep to take care of Al and to let us rest. The only request that Al had expressed, right from the beginning of his cancer diagnosis, was that he hoped he wouldn’t have to spend much time in a hospital. With the support of such friends, he was able to stay right here at home and to die here. That’s a blessing.
Also, Al was very much himself right up to the end. As early as May of 2006, when his first brain tumor was discovered, doctors started asking if we had noticed any personality changes. That thought was scary for both Al and us. It must be so hard when someone you love who has always been kind, patient, considerate, and compassionate becomes mean, irritable, cantankerous and selfish. That’s not the way they want to behave and not the way their family wants to remember them. But in the Lord’s mercy Al was his gracious and friendly self right up until he lost consciousness. Praise God!
We had wonderful times of worship and fellowship around Al’s bed, both before and after he lost consciousness. While there are bits and pieces of those last days that are not pleasant to dwell on, by and large they were days full of precious times that we still savor. It was good to remind each other of them last night.
People often ask how we are doing, so we asked each other that question last night. The short answer is that we continue to sense God’s faithful, tender care for us, shown both directly and through the love and support of people, and because of that we are doing well.
The longer answer is that there are (at least) three states of mind we find ourselves in on a rotating basis:
(1) Sometimes we are just living life, busy with its demands and joys, keeping up with whatever is on our plate at a given moment and purposely enjoying the various blessings the Lord puts in it. That is not avoidance or denial; it is simply trying to walk by faith the path that is put in front of our feet. As the months pass, we find that the percentage of time we spend in this state keeps increasing.
(2) Sometimes we are overcome with grief, fresh and keen, and we miss Al terribly. Some of the things that trigger that grief are predictable—birthdays, Christmas, yesterday, etc.—but some are unexpected. Last week I was driving home from shopping and heard the song “There’s Always Something There to Remind Me.” On any other day I might not have thought twice about it, but that day it hit me as being about Al, and it set me crying. The next song was “I’ll Stand By You,” which so thoroughly described Al that it turned the tears up another notch, and I found that I might as well have been trying to drive home through a waterfall.
(3) And other times it seems as if the curtain is pulled back and we get a glimpse of heaven and the unspeakable joy that Al is getting to experience there, and we are happy for him, even to the point of being a bit envious. I find this happens most often during worship. I have come to think of it as being like flying in an airplane on a cloudy day. Some worship songs have to do with life on this earth, with its challenges, with God’s faithfulness to us during suffering, or with a call to persevere or to serve him with joy, or with the blessings of companionship as we are on the journey together, or whatever else pertaining to the Christian life. Those songs are great, and encouraging, and important, but they are like flying below the clouds. But ahh…other worship songs break through those clouds and lift you right into the heavenly throne room itself. They let you see God in his majesty, reigning in glory, Almighty and Ancient of Days, all-powerful and all-loving. And they let you see Jesus, willingly humbled and slain for us, but raised up in glory and seated at the Father’s right hand, extending his kingdom of love into all the earth as its rightful king. Then I feel the heavenly light on my face and join in with the throng worshipping at his feet with abandon.
Yesterday, in addition to being the anniversary of Al’s going home, was also my first day of spring semester classes (other than the class I’m auditing, which met on Friday but which I missed because Alden was very sick). In one of my classes there was a reason for the professor to reflect on eternal life—both now and in heaven—being understood as knowing God, as Jesus explained in John 17:2-3. He talked about how in heaven what will be so wonderful is precisely seeing, and knowing and worshipping God. I was sitting in the class picturing Al doing just that, beholding God face to face at last, marveling at his majesty, and glory, and love, and holiness, and compassion, and all the other things that make God God. I have pictured that so many times with such joy that as the professor was talking I found my heart leaping and silently shouting, “Yes! Yes! That’s exactly right! Imagine how incredible that will be, and my husband is there already, experiencing those glories!” I wanted to lift my hands in praise right there half way back on the lefthand side of the classroom—but I refrained.
Also, on Sunday, by “coincidence” (if you believe there is such a thing; we know it’s really God’s careful and intentional providence), we sang “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand,” which was such a precious song for us as Al was dying (see the entry from 2.5.07 for the words). Eowyn and Becky were away on a retreat, and ironically they happened to sing it there as well. And by “coincidence” the sermon was on Hebrews 2:10-18 about Jesus becoming one of us and dying and rising to defeat death and break its power over us. That that text happened to be preached on the Sunday before this anniversary of Al’s death and that we sang the song that more than any other reminds us of how we experienced the joyful triumph of the resurrection in the midst of sorrow, was a tender confirmation from the Lord that He is with us in this time, as always. (You can listen to Sunday’s sermon online at www.newlifeglenside.com if you want to. Duane Davis, a current Westminster student, did a great job. In fact, you can catch any of the sermons from the past year, I think, including Alasdair’s from 8.5.07.)
I sense that there is a temporal shift going on in my thinking about heaven. In the past, the “someday” nature of heaven has always had an element of far-distant-future-ness to it. Maybe that is because it is the start of an eternal experience, and eternity by its very nature seems a long way off. Or maybe it just has the same feel to it as waiting for Jesus’ return: I know for certain it will happen, but whether it will be tomorrow or thousands of years from now is unknown, and therefore it feels far off. (No less certain, just chronologically distant.) But what I have been dwelling on and marveling at is that right now, this very minute Al is there enjoying heaven. That is not a new thought–obviously I’ve known that from the very moment Al died–but it has struck me with new force and clarity. For each of us here heaven could be only a breath away. Even if we live another 50 or 100 years, heaven is that close, that soon. In the scope of eternity of course 100 years is not even a blip, but even in the context of this life on earth, that sort of time span suddenly seems wonderfully short, with the joy of heaven right around the corner. (Maybe all this was prompted by my turning 50 recently…) This realization feels like the last stretch of time before a fantastic trip you’ve been anticipating for a long, long time or the last couple months of a long engagement. When you hit the homestretch, the waiting takes on a different character. The trip or wedding seems suddenly real in a way it didn’t before. Somehow heaven has seemed closer not only spatially/conceptually (that certainly has been true since Al died and moved there) but also chronologically. It will be soon, whatever that term may mean for any of us. Just as a year seems to fly by faster and faster the older I get, I suddenly feel that the time lapse until we arrive in heaven is as nothing. Even right now we’re almost there. That is an exciting thought! It also makes Al seem much closer–waiting for us just around the bend.
Anyway, there is more to say—about Christmas, and the birthday party my kids threw for me, etc. But I’m beat and need to get to bed, and I want to post something now, in proximity to the anniversary of Al’s death. So I’ll close and say thank you again to all of you who have loved us so incredibly. We have all been surprised at how many people have remembered this anniversary date and have let us know they are thinking of us and praying for us. We thank you so much!
Blessings to you all—