"I'm going back there," I thought to myself as I clipped in my seat belt.
"I haven't been back since the day Ryan died."
I drove silently with my thoughts, headed toward the looming snow dusted mountains before my phone rang.
It was Ryan's sister.
I had missed her call, but returned it. We chatted about life and I told her what I felt God had planned for the Evening of Remembrance event at City of Hope.
"I hear joy in your voice," she said, happily. "I'm elated you sound so full of joy. It's been a long time."
I felt the joy in my heart, too, as I drove toward my destination.
I told her it's because I knew I had to go to work.
I was doing God's work tonight.
"I sometimes talk to Ryan's picture, as though it's him," I told my sister-in-law.
She laughed at me, and said, "I love you for that. You know, you're famous for the one way conversation."
I didn't know if I liked that, and I knew instantly I didn't like that I was forced into nothing but one way conversations with Ryan. But this is what I told him, anyway:
"God is going to use your legacy, Ryan, to touch other people's lives. Even if one person gets saved, or heck, many, many people, you'll never even know it."
But then I stopped myself, mid-sentence. I thought about where he was, and what he was currently doing.
"No, that's not true," I told him. "You will immediately know because you'll SEE all those people in heaven after they die and they're going to thank you for your legacy and testimony to God's love poured into you and likewise how much you loved me throughout your life, as well."
"God will still use you, even though you died. Much like millions of people read about Paul's amazing testimony each day, I pray that millions of lives will be changed forever because of your life here on earth Ryan," I said.
As I picked up the 8 x 11 picture frame, I hugged it to my chest to carry it out into the car. I laughed, thinking about how much he would have loved doing that in real life. I would have loved it too.
Ryan's sister and I laughed, and said our goodbyes. When I hung up the phone, I switched back on the stereo, and there it was again, the songs Ryan was listening to the two hours before he passed away.
During the two months after Ryan died, I listened to the album relentlessly. And wept with the same frequency and intensity each time.
But today, something was different.
I felt a peaceful euphoria. I smiled as I listened to the songs which sang truth.
Sadness was replaced with remembrance.
As I pulled up to the gas station adjacent to my favorite coffee shop, I stopped to snap a picture.
The mountains looked like rumpled green quilts, snuggling their hidden, warm and cozy occupants.
They were a picture of how far away I felt from Ryan and how much I wanted to lift up the covers and go snuggle next to him, like old times. But he's too far away to do this now, and I know I just need to wait until I see him again in heaven someday.
As I lined up my cell phone to take the photo, a church steeple cross fell dead center in my photograph.
I smiled as I thought of the central place the cross had in both of our lives, and how apt it was placed in the frame of the picture.
I drove through the drive thru, and the attendant had a radio quality voice.
"I need to tell you why I'm here tonight," I told him. He listened with fervent attention.
I told him about Ryan, and our family. But then I asked him something,
I asked, "So, if you were to walk out of here tonight and get nailed by a car and die, you'd immediately be standing in front of God."
I still had his gaze.
"When you stood before God, would you be happy with the life you've lived so far?"
He looked away from me, and kept his smile, and agreed he would.
I wasn't so convinced by his half-hearted answer.
He said his friends took him to church with them sometimes, and I told him I'd pray for him to go.
As I looked at his name on his name tag, I even told him that my entire religion shared his namesake.
I drove the few blocks to the cancer hospital, and turned in just past the beautiful rose garden. The blooms were prolific, as were the Silk Tree blooms.
Ryan always loved those gorgeous blooms carpeting the City of Hope sidewalks and parking lots.
The memory of his admiration made me smile, big time.
I pulled into the familiar parking lot, the one I'd left just four short months ago, husband-less.
"Lord, I pray for Your guidance and direction for tonight, for each person I will meet. I pray for peace, the peace that surpasses all understanding. But also, help me to grieve tonight as I remember Ryan's memory," I prayed. "Please give me the courage and strength to go in there, alone, and step onto this campus without my husband. You put the right people in my path and give me the right words to say. In Jesus' name, Amen."
I walked onto campus with purpose. Immediate I saw a woman I had visited many times, but she acted like she didn't know who I was.
Losing one eighth of my body weight in a few months has made me look different.
I gathered my belongings after checking in, and when I walked into the event, I wanted to run out of the doors, screaming.
I'd always coveted the swanky gatherings I saw from a distance in the rose garden.
"I want to go to one of those special events," I told Ryan years ago after he was done with his chemo treatment and he met us out on the lawn adjacent to the building I was standing in. "It looks really fancy and I love events like that."
Little had I known that the only event I'd attend on campus in that swanky venue was for the purpose of honoring my dead husband, I would have dreaded, rather than coveted that honor.
I placed his pictures on the table and walked across the room to find seat in the busy, bustling room with hundreds of people milling about, stumbling through the grief of each losing a family member or friend at City of Hope, like I had.
As I went to take a seat, I was perpendicular to a man in mid-stride, not holding back his grief.
"May I pray for you?" I asked, not wanting to intrude or pry.
He agreed and we shared stories of loved ones lost. But I was more concerned about his eternal destination than the ones we'd left behind. He introduced me to his mother, weeping at the loss of her very young daughter. As we embraced and I prayed, I thought of my mother-in-law and her grief, as well.
And there we were, families united because of death's parting.
We took our seats, and that family was gracious enough to let me not sit alone.
But as the event unfolded, the young couple in front of me decided it was an opportune time for gratuitous PDA (public displays of affection).
I came really close to saying something to them about their oblivious distractions because of my heart ache and lonely state. But then I thought I'd be no better than the older gentleman that came running down the aisle at church many, many years ago to chastise Ryan for rubbing my neck and back during the sermon. I was so ashamed in that moment that I didn't know what to say to that man. And Ryan took it as a lesson, to not do that so often in front of other people who may be hurting because their relationship wasn't as strong as or in as good of a place as ours was.
As the speakers poured out words of affirmation to the backdrop of a violin quartet, I unfolded my grief like a gentleman unfolds his handkerchief. My silent, streaming tears ran down the trenches of my cheekbones, betraying my internal war with exterior ammunition.
An onslaught of grief pummeled me as I watched the vast number of names listed on the powerpoint slide, scrolling continuously through while two nurses read the names aloud like a graduation ceremony which no one wanted to be a part of.
"Ryan Waters," the nurse read, and it ripped a hole in my heart the size of Montana,
Up, up, up the screen his name scrolled, until it disappeared from view.
Much like he did four months ago when he died and went to Heaven.
I wanted to chase after it and bring it back down again.
Couldn't it just linger a little longer?
Couldn't Ryan just stay and be with me, another moment more?
I looked over at his picture, his smiling face perched atop his wedding tuxedo, barely able to hide his desire to be done with the pictures and spend time alone with his bride.
I felt the empty seat next to me and immediately missed the feeling of his arm around me. I craved the familiar touch of his draping arm, my hand held tightly, with squeezes at just the right time. That vacant seat, was filled instead with a poor substitute, that of my penguin purse.
I started to look for an exit, even thought I was dead center in the crowd. I scanned for empty seats, to run away from the PDA couple and the fact that I was sitting without Ryan.
But changing seats wouldn't have changed my circumstances, so I decided to stay put. I remained present with my sad feelings, and, as a friend told me to do, "Worked through it."
I prayed silently for what I'd say to people as we munched on the fancy food in the next room, as they dismissed us somberly.
I thanked one of the speakers and hugged Ryan's pain doctor, who were one in the same.
Then I saw his clinical trials' nurse with another widow who hugged me tightly.
"She is young," the woman said to the nurse. We were both widows because of Stomach Cancer. When I told her how long Ryan and I got together post diagnosis, her response floored me.
"It's not fair!" she exclaimed loudly. "I didn't get that much time with my husband."
Instantly I was angry, but instantly I was heart checked.
"Um, how old was he when he passed away," I asked kindly and graciously, as though I hadn't heard what she said earlier.
"68," came the reply.
"Oh that's how old my Mom was when she died," I told her. Then, with grace, I said to her, "So, my husband may have lived longer after his cancer diagnosis, it's true. Yet, he died at age 40 and will never see his kids grow up."
As she continued to complain, I noticed a small crowd gathered around our picture on the display table and several people commenting on it. I excused myself and told the ladies I'd meet them at the food table in a minute because I genuinely couldn't wait to eat dinner.
"Oh, he was so young," they were whispering. When I walked up, they looked at the picture, then looked at me and clung to me.
"How are you doing?" they asked, concerned, grabbing my hand as though we were long lost friends, putting their arms around me. I told them, what I tell most people nowadays:
But then the Holy Spirit took over, and I was revived. I shared about Ryan's life and legacy. Then I asked about their losses, and there were too many to remember. The heartache at hearing their stories of love lost and what Cancer took was almost unbearable. But then I told them I would pray.
We linked arms, that small group of us, all united in Christ. We were part of the family of God. And in that moment, our chain of love linked us together, touched by the Cancer death of many family members, and there was a completeness that I rarely feel in the depths of my sorrow.
One of the speakers really said it right when she told us that there was healing in sharing our stories with one another, and speaking of the people who had gone before us.
Our linked arms and prayers bonded us for eternity.
We all missed our dearly departed loved ones. Yet, they were there in the midst of us, with all the stories we told and memories that were shared.
One of the beautiful flower arrangements were still on the tables as everyone was trickling out of the building to go home. We were allowed to have them, and it was so nice to have those beautiful yellow flowers because they were so cheerful.
As I walked into the chilly night towards my car, I ran into some ladies I'd met earlier in the evening, their bouquet dwarfing mine by 10 times the amount of flowers. I smiled at myself, proud of the lesson contentment had taught me, by way of Ryan.
They decided to take the shuttle and I joined them, in order to help make their presumably last visit to City of Hope a sweet one. I got their names and told them I'd pray for them.
The kind shuttle bus driver was a believer too, and he said he'd pray as well. I told him he had a tough gig and I would pray for him as well. He told me that humor is what helped the people get through it, but I didn't find his jokes very funny. In fact, it was more like Marlin on Finding Nemo, at the beginning of the movie. But it's okay because we're all a work in progress.
I left the shuttle and sat in my car, grateful for the amazing years I had with Ryan. I turned on a song from his dying day, strengthened by its anthem beckoning me to wait for what's next, to hold onto the victory I have in Christ, and that I still have a reason to sing.
I called my pastor and he prayed over me before I drove off the City of Hope cancer hospital, for the last time I'd be there to share about my husband's death.
As I drove under the dark night sky, with the stars twinkling brightly against the dark back drop, I thanked God for all He had done in our lives, through Ryan's Cancer diagnosis and up to his death and beyond.
And I smiled big, all the way home, because I had the assurance that one day I'd see Ryan again, Cancer free in his new body.