I am inserting a note here at the top of this entry after having finished writing it, and I have to warn you that it turned into a very lengthy tome! I’m sorry about that. I guess it’s a hazard of only writing once a year.
Also, it’s possible that this blog may migrate to another site. If it does, I will put the new address on this site and leave it up for a good long time.
But here we are at the five year mark since Al’s death. That doesn’t seem possible. I am almost as old now as he was when he died (Feb 25th I will have outlived him, Lord willing), which seems very odd. You don’t usually think of age as being something in which you can overtake someone; it isn’t supposed to work that way.
Let me fill you in on the kids first.
Alasdair and Lauren still live in New Hampshire and are pioneering a Christian counseling center in Vermont, which seems to be slowly but steadily growing and appears to be succeeding in its mission to be a blessing to lots of churches in a broad area around the Upper Valley. (See http://www.ccef.org/authors/alasdair-groves or http://www.ccef.org/newengland) The biggest news of the year for them and for us was the birth of their second daughter, Adara Kathryn, on October 4. Such joy! Her name comes from a fantasy series that Alasdair has loved for years; Adara is Lauren’s favorite character in the series. Kathryn is after my mother, though spelled differently. Lauren, who is a trooper, delivered Adara safe and sound without fanfare, and the family has been in that getting-used-to-life-without-much-sleep phase (again) ever since, and doing it with good humor and grace. Emily, now 2 ½, has moved from saying that “the problem is that baby!” to calling Adara her friend. That’s good progress in sibling relations. Adara is growing like a weed, and Emily continues to be delightfully and hilariously verbal. If you want some good laughs, check out their blog at http://babyeclaire.blogspot.com/. One of my favorite entries is Thursday, Aug 11, 2011. Happy reading! Needless to say we are all thrilled to have another precious little girl in the family.
Becky was a Fellow at the Trinity Forum Academy last year, finishing up in May. She stayed on through the summer to work for the Academy, and then, after helping me move Alden to college, she moved to NH to help Alasdair and Lauren out before and after Adara was born. She loved being what she dubbed “a stay-at-home Aunt.” Now she has moved to Boston and has been working at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and training for EMT work. I’m not sure at what point in the training she gets to start riding in the ambulance, but she’s finding the training interesting. She recently wrote on a blog (http://bgrovesfellowship.wordpress.com/) that it is “a class where, I might add, phrases such as, ‘If the patient is decapitated, trans-sected, or incinerated, you do not have the responsibility to begin resuscitation,’ is casually mentioned like it’s no big deal…” She did a couple of stand-up comedy routines last year that had us rolling.
Eowyn is a junior at the College of Wooster in Ohio, although this semester she is studying abroad in France. She’s taking courses at the university in Nantes and teaching English once a week in local schools (grades 10, 6 and 2). Last weekend she told me about her first day in the classroom, and all I can say is that it’s a good thing she (a) speaks French well, (b) is quick-witted, and (c) doesn’t mind being on the spot in front of a crowd! She has a very serious boyfriend, Ben, who may well be joining our family at some point in the near or distant future… It was great to get to know him better when he stayed with me for about a month this fall while he had an internship in Philly.
Alden graduated from high school last June and worked as a lifeguard during the summer. After a long college search, aided by our friend Barry Raebeck (yourcollege.com), Alden chose to go to Wofford College in South Carolina, probably majoring in English and education. He’s got a wonderful roommate. The two of them are very different in many ways, but they both love Jesus, they enjoy each other, and they have been a good support to each other. I’m so thankful for that! Alden seems to be making a good adjustment to college life and to living in the South. He’s been playing ultimate Frisbee, enjoying the fact that you can do that all winter in SC, and he’s been loving the good opportunities for Christian fellowship on and off campus.
Last Sunday, on the anniversary of Al’s death, some friends asked me, as they so kindly do, how I am doing and how the last year has been. My best effort at a one-line summary was that “God has been faithful.” That is solidly, ringingly true, and it is emblazoned on my mind and heart as the overarching truth of this past year. But as I tried to flesh that out in detail and color, there was not a clear theme or an easy and obvious way to communicate how he had been faithful. It was more of a pervasive sense of the overall experience. Perhaps that is one reason (in addition to just not being able to come up with the time) that I have had trouble starting this post.
But this morning a thought occurred to me that may prove helpful. Sometimes in my Hebrew class I tell the students a story in two different ways in order to illustrate a point from the text we are translating. I think I will do that in telling the story of the last year. So here is the past year in a bad news/good news version—or rather, two versions. The first will be a glum look at the year, without much reference to God or his goodness, which, when you extract all of God’s goodness from it, may sound like whining. The second will be a look at the year as it was full of God’s glory and faithfulness.
2011, Take One, the bad news:
This has been a year filled with numerous very hard things in the lives of people I love—friends and family—and one substantial mishap in my own life.
January began with a neighbor whom I knew from the elementary school bus stop—I’ll call her Molly—whose life had reached such levels of chaos and need that she reached out for help, and on a snowy day of extreme need, the Lord had our paths cross. We have gotten to be friends, and as the year has unfolded it seems that the challenges in her life have continued to multiply, with things from the past mushrooming into problems in the present in a way that sometimes leaves people homeless. She and her four children continue to hang on by their teeth, living on her disability payments and on child support that mostly doesn’t come.
On June 28, the day before I was to start teaching the first of two intensive summer terms, I fell down the stairs at work and destroyed my ankle. Snapped a couple of the bones, dislocated it 90 degrees, did all kinds of soft tissue damage from my mid-calf to my toes, tore ligaments, damaged nerves, etc. so that it looked like something out of a horror film. I’ll see if I can attach a picture. I had to wait a week for the swelling to go down before they could do surgery, and during that week, in the process of trying to move myself around the house, I severely aggravated a shoulder injury from five years ago so that I couldn’t use crutches any more. I remember lying on my back in bed for 5 hours that Sunday morning, barely able to get to the bathroom and back, wondering how I was going to function and if I might have to go live in a rehab facility. Crutches were out of the question, even a walker was going to be too much on my shoulder, and it’s hard to move or steer a wheelchair with only one working arm and one working foot. Try it. You can go in circles, but that’s not very helpful.
After the surgery (three plates, 14 screws), I was literally confined to the house for weeks because I couldn’t navigate the front steps, and I was out of work for a month and half, missing all of Hebrew 1 and half of Hebrew 2 during the summer. When I finally went back to work, I couldn’t put weight on my left leg yet, and I had to prop my leg up on the desk as I lectured. Getting anywhere was grueling work. To leave the house I would use my walker to get to the front door, with my work back hung on one handle of it, go out the door, take the work bag off the handle, fold up the walker, tie a long ribbon to it so that I could lower it to the bottom of the five steps, place the work bag two steps down, use the railing and one crutch to slowly ease myself down one step at a time, then leave the crutch at the bottom of the steps, unfold the walker, haul the work bag down from the second step and hang it on the handle again, hobble to the car, take the bag off the walker, fold the walker and put it in the back seat along with my work bag, hop on my right foot to the driver’s seat, get in the car, take off my orthopedic boot, drive to work, park, put the boot back on, get out and hop to the back seat to get out the walker and bag, unfold the walker and hang the bag on it, use it to hobble to the wheelchair, hang the bag on the back of the wheelchair, and then wheel to the classroom. It took forever! (Though it did burn a lot of calories…)
In late July, I was supposed to get to have Emily here for a day or two while Alasdair and Lauren met her parents for a special event in Washington, D.C., and I was sooo looking forward to that! Needless to say, it didn’t happen quite as planned, since I could hardly move myself from room to room, much less care for a two year old.
The journey of my ankle has been an interesting one. It was twelve weeks before it was fully weight-bearing. I went to physical therapy two or three times a week between mid-August and last week, and I had to do stretching and strengthening exercises three times a day, which I must now continue indefinitely. That’s a lot of time. There have been moments that I’ve been pretty discouraged. I can remember sitting in the PT office watching other patients do various exercises and thinking, “There is no way in the world that I will ever be able to do that.” And even when I began to be able to walk, it hurt an awful lot. It still does a lot of the time.
There was no way I could drive Alden to college at the end of August, but Becky, who was between jobs, drove us both down and drove me back (12 hours each way). When she left a day or two after that, I began life in the “empty nest.” I remember a time during the summer of 2006, just before Al’s unexpected brain surgery, when both Eowyn and Alden were away for a few days, and we had a foretaste of what the empty nest years might be like. Or rather, what they might have been like, since we knew that Al would not be here for them. People talk about the empty nest being a time of adjustment at first and then a time when a husband and wife can get reacquainted and enjoy life as just the two of them again after all the years of raising children. During those few days of the “empty nest preview” in ‘’06, I anticipated that when the empty nest did eventually arrive, it would be very sad and would be a different kind of adjustment than we originally expected, since I would be doing it without Al and without the chance to go back to living life as “just the two of us.” Now the empty nest is here.
Ordinarily I seldom fly anywhere, but I flew to Wofford’s parents’ weekend in September, to Colorado for my nephew’s wedding in October, and to the Society of Biblical Literature in San Francisco in November. The travel was wearying with my bum ankle and crutches, and each trip probably set back my healing a bit, but the visits were worth it. Because I had agreed a year earlier (probably foolishly) to facilitate a seminar course that met seven Friday nights during this past fall, I was not able to visit my new granddaughter when she was born.
In the present economy, people I know have been laid off and had trouble finding other jobs. Lauren heard recently that the company she used to work for laid off something like half of their employees! Westminster and other non-profits have felt the financial pinch, and before Christmas we heard that there would be pay cuts and staff positions eliminated. I fully expected that mine would be one of the latter, and started thinking about what I might do next, if I should move, what I would need to do to the house to get it ready to sell, etc. It was a sobering process.
Throughout the last twelve months there have been hard, sad, or disappointing things in the lives of family and friends (which are not my stories to share, so I won’t) that have left me feeling very heavy-hearted. It’s at those moments that I have missed Al most keenly. How I would have loved to talk to him about them, to get his wisdom, to cry in his arms. But he has not been here, so I have sat in the dark and held them in my heart and prayed. And then gotten up and kept on going with the heaviness. In that sense, it has sometimes been a wearying year.
You might ask, “So, that is what it looks like for God to be faithful?!”
No. THIS is what it looks like for God to be faithful…
2011, Take Two, the good news:
Taking each thing in turn, I’ll start with my neighbor Molly. Not only have we gotten to be friends, which is a nice thing in and of itself, but she is doing much better. Her circumstances remain incredibly challenging, and I keep discovering new levels of chaos and trouble in her past and present, but she is learning to handle things differently, and she feels so much more anchored and at peace in the midst of the storms. She’s been coming to church and Women’s Bible Study, she’s been soaking up the Bible like a sponge and running to it for help, comfort and wisdom whenever things get overwhelming (she read the whole Bible between May and December!), and on our retreat last spring she said it was like a light switch went on and she knew God as she never had before. She knows he is with her in the midst of the mess, and that makes ALL the difference. When she is distraught and goes to her room to regroup, her kids quietly open the door a crack and slide her Bible through it for her, because they have seen that that’s where she’ll find help. The deacons from our church have been a huge help to Molly, not just with money but with counsel and solidarity, and it has been such a blessing to me to work alongside them on a team to try to help her. It undoes the feeling I mentioned earlier of being alone with the weight of people’s sorrows. The privilege of knowing her and of walking with her has been very good.
Last June we had an extended visit from Harmen and Inge Talstra from the Netherlands, which was lovely, and they were here for Alden’s graduation and party, among other things.
My ankle injury was pretty spectacular, but the damage could have been so much worse. If I’d fallen headlong to the stone floor, I would certainly be dead. Or if I had landed as I did—sitting up on the edge of a lower stair—but without my poor ankle intervening between my spine and the hard step, I could easily have been paralyzed. Doug Green rode to the hospital with me in the ambulance and stayed with me in the emergency room, and Rosemarie Green took care of me afterward and coordinated the many wonderful, kind friends who made meals and helped care for me in the following weeks. Alden was a trooper, looking after me all summer, and we enjoyed good times hanging out and watching movies together. What a gift. In the Lord’s providence, our furnace had died in Nov 2010, and when we replaced it we put in central air conditioning for the first time ever. Little did I know how much I was going to need it this past summer when I was stuck in the house unable to do anything but sit and swelter! On that awful day of despair when I thought I might have to move to a rehab facility, a friend who is a physical therapist came to the house, orchestrated moving a bed downstairs for me, and taught me how to maneuver a wheelchair with just one hand and one foot. Later, when I graduated to a walker, she came over and taught me how to get up and down the front steps. When we were suddenly without a Hebrew teacher one day before the term started, my present and former Teaching Assistants stepped up to the plate and team taught the first semester and did a great job. I was so proud of them, I could have burst! Then a colleague graciously stepped in and taught the first half of Hebrew 2 until I was able to get back to work. And during all those weeks of recovery, I was able to do two computer projects that I’ve wanted to do for ages, and I finally got some rest!
On the days in July that I was scheduled to have Emily by myself, Eowyn and Ben were here, as well as Alden, and we did still get to have her, since the three of them were able to do all the physical work. Emily had been thoroughly briefed about “Granny’s owie” and kept asking me with great concern, “Are you okay, Granny?” During that period, she was having trouble going to sleep at nap time and bed time, so what ended up happening was this: She and I would lie down together on my little bed in the back room until she fell asleep. At nap time we would stay that way, and at night, once she was soundly asleep, Alden would carry her up to her bed upstairs, and then Eowyn would sleep in that same room and take care of her during the night. Let me tell you, there is nothing in the world so sweet as snuggling with your granddaughter while she falls asleep! And then it was touching to see Alden tenderly and competently pick her up and transfer her upstairs while we all hovered and directed him (unnecessarily). Eowyn was a trooper taking the night shift with a two year old who would wake up and want her mommy and daddy. It was a great couple of days.
I’m so grateful that Becky was able and willing to drive Alden to college, because I would never have made it. I tried sharing the driving on that trip and managed to last just one hour.
In the end, my ankle injury actually eased the transition to the empty nest. By the end of August when Alden left, I was still living on the first floor and sleeping on a bed in the back room off the kitchen, with my clothes hung here and there and things generally discombobulated. Therefore, when he left, his absence was one more wrinkle in the general state of abnormality. If everything else in life had been status quo, I think I would have had a harder time with him suddenly being gone and with rattling around the house all by myself. Plus, I was so busy with my job during those first weeks that I hardly had time to think. I didn’t move back upstairs until mid-October, when Eowyn’s boyfriend Ben came to live with me for about a month while he had an internship in Philly, so the house was no longer empty anyway. I see the Lord’s tender care in using my ankle injury to make the empty nest transition gentler than it might have been. (Plus, I have discovered at least two upsides to living alone. I can come and go as I please, staying late at work if I want to, without inconveniencing anyone else, and I never, ever cook, which is fantastic!)
And how about this little detail? Southwest just started flying to the airport near Wofford in early 2011, which means that when I traveled with my barely functional ankle, I could check my bags for free and not have to lug them around with me. So nice! It was wonderful to see family at my nephew’s wedding, and when I went to San Francisco, I went two days early and visited Al’s brother and sister-in-law, whom I never get to see. (And I also got to have dinner with Alasdair’s college roommate and his wife.)
Although physical therapy required a lot of time, it was such a blessing! The office I went to (Northwest Physical Therapy in Wyndmoor) is fantastic. I would recommend them to anyone who needs PT. My therapist was more help than I can even describe—coaching me, pushing me, encouraging me, advising me about when to push through the pain and when to back off of a certain exercise for a couple of days. I’m a little embarrassed to say that last Wednesday on my way back to work after my last PT appointment, I cried. It may sound silly, but all the folks there have sort of become family, and I’m going to miss them. To my amazement, I can now do the exercises that I watched other patients doing and thought I would never be able to do. My ankle is often uncomfortable, sometimes outright painful, but it’s so much better than it was and still has about four months to improve before time to improve runs out. It seems that at the times when I was most discouraged by how slow the progress seemed to be or by how much it still hurt, I would run into an unusual number of people whom I hadn’t seen in a while who would be amazed at the progress I had made. At first I wanted to complain and to make sure they knew that it might look on the outside as if I had come a long way, but that inside my skin it still hurt a lot. But after a while I realized that the Lord was bringing those people along at just that time to encourage me. I needed to look back and be reminded of how far I had come, and he was going out of his way to nudge me to remember that. Of course he had to give me eyes that could recognize his hand in that. He’s so tender.
People have been very kind to help me. After Alden went away to school, one of my former students came over every Monday during the fall and mowed the lawn and trimmed the hedge! The place has never looked so well-kept, that’s for sure. Another example of the Lord’s gentle care.
I did get to see Adara at 10 days and at 5 weeks old, by which time I was able to drive the seven hours to NH. AND, all the family was here for Christmas. Glorious! Some came early and some stayed late, but everybody overlapped for that weekend, and it was soooo nice to all be together. Even Ben was here, and then he and Eowyn went to his parents’ house in Cleveland.
In the end, I do still have my job, for which I am enormously thankful. But I am also thankful to have ridden that rollercoaster of uncertainty and of facing the possibility of being laid off. It forced me to think outside the box about what I might do next. I love, love, love my job, but I have always held it lightly, knowing that the economy is bad and that therefore it could evaporate at any moment. I think that helped when I thought that it was about to end. Surprisingly, I never felt fearful or panicked. I knew the Lord would provide for us one way or another. Chances of my finding another dream job seemed unlikely, but I figured that even if ended up cleaning office buildings at night, like a friend of mine, that would leave my mind free to think, pray, plan things I might like to write, etc. And even if I ended up with a truly dismal job, there is fruit that can come from that too. One of our pastors had a job like that for ten years, and what that experience worked into his character and his relationship with the Lord has served to bless the rest of us ever since. I had to weigh questions like, “If I could find another dream job but it was somewhere else that was farther away from my children and grandchildren, should I take it?” Or, “If I’m going to look for just any old job, should I move near my granddaughters and look there?” Or, “I’ve often thought that I might like to teach English as a second language. Should I try that out on a volunteer basis to see if I really do like it and then get certified to do that?” (Actually, that last idea is still worth thinking about even though I do have my job, because I could see starting an ESL program through our church for non-English speakers in our town.) But what was neat as I considered options, was that I knew the Lord would be in it, that he would take care of us, and that in a weird sort of way, the next chapter might even be exciting. I am extremely thankful to still have my job, but I am also thankful that I had to work through the possibility of losing it. It was a healthy and fruitful process.
And finally, the hard and heavy things in the lives of people I love. It’s true that I have missed Al pretty terribly during those times and that I’ve felt the burden of handling them alone. But that has forced me to go to the Lord as I would have to Al, and the Lord has been there. He walked with me on the days when my heart was heavy, and he has encouraged me that he is a God who redeems people and situations. I’ve seen him do it. We live in a broken world, and we are broken people, each of us in various ways, but he is in the business of healing, restoring, and bringing health, hope and life to people and light into darkness. Just two weeks ago I felt concerned and discouraged about a situation, so I turned off all the lights and sat in a rocking chair in the dark living room and just prayed. As I did, I had such a sense of the Lord’s mighty, glorious majesty. He is able. He is alive, and present, and he can do all things. Often I have had a sense of the Lord’s presence with ME, of him coming alongside me in whatever situation I was dealing with. But this was different. This was a sense of my being present with HIM, in his throne room. He is there in majesty, power and awe, the Creator of the universe, mighty to rule and mighty to save. Somehow, remembering that THAT is the God who is my Father and who loves and cares for me and for the people I love, put everything into perspective. In situations where there is nothing I can do to help, I can pray, and that is an awesome thing to be able to do. It is actually probably the most helpful thing. And it reminded me that I am absolutely not alone at all. Since that night I have sometimes sat in the dark and put on a CD of worship music and just worshiped in the Lord’s presence, and then prayed. I have to say, I’m ready to conclude that undistracted time in the throne room may be the best antidote for what ails any of us.
I still miss Al. We all do. It’s not every day or all the time, but we still feel his absence. Things are bittersweet, and the sweeter they are, the more bitter it is that Al is not here for them. Like the birth of Adara, or Alden graduating from high school. The Society of Biblical Literature holds an annual meeting that Al always went to. Always. So when I was there for the first time this year, it felt very much as if I were walking around in his world. At Christmastime I went to a party at the home of some students, and at one point we sang carols, including some of the less-often-sung ones. There must have been 50 of us crammed into two small rooms and up the stairs, all singing with gusto; it was great. But suddenly I heard the carols in a way that I hadn’t before. When we sang “O Come All Ye Faithful” and sang “Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation, sing all ye citizens of heav’n above…” it suddenly struck me that Al is already one of those citizens, singing in exultation as he beholds God face to face. Or in “Once in Royal David’s City” it says, “And our eyes at last shall see him, through his own redeeming love, for that child so dear and gentle is our Lord in heav’n above, and he leads his children on to the place where he is gone.” Al is there. Or in “As with Gladness Men of Old” it says, “In the heav’nly country bright need they no created light; thou its light, its joy, its crown, thou its sun which goes not down; there forever may we sing alleluias to our King.” Amen! Ahhh, it’s so good to picture Al there, in the eternal light of God’s presence, singing alleluias to our King.
Thank you for walking this road with us. I went back recently and read many of the comments that have been left here over the years, and I cannot tell you how deeply, deeply touched and blessed I was again by your love and support. It has been one of the very tangible ways that the Lord has shown his love to us, and it means more than words can say.
May he bless you richly, and may you enjoy the refreshment and re-orientation of time before his throne.