Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Ryan's Homecoming

I felt the panic rise up in my chest as I awoke from three hours of sleep, groggy at 4 a.m.

"He's going to die today," the Holy Spirit whispered to me.

I have to leave the room, I thought to myself.

I am going to cry.

He can't hear me.

He can't handle it.

...I can't take this...

I got up and slipped silently down the hallway, leading to a restroom.

I let it out.

And it all came out...

...big, ugly tears rolling incessantly down my flushed cheeks and red eyes,

"Call him," the Holy Spirit told me.

"No, I don't want to bother Pastor Lin, now. I won't bother him during his quiet time with You," I argued with God.

"Call him," the Holy Spirit said a second time.

"No, I don't want to bother Pastor Lin, now. I'm going to do today by myself," I argued with God.

"Call him," the Holy Spirit, insisted, a third time.

"No, I don't want to bother Pastor Lin, now. he has so many other people to help at church, other than me. And besides, he has to work at the church today, not be bothered by my problems," I argued with God.

I looked at myself in the mirror.

"I am going to be alone," I thought to myself.

My tears burned my cheeks harder at the thought.

But God said to me, "I will never leave you, nor forsake you."

As God's truth penetrated my soul, something shifted inside of me.

I knew it was true.

I wiped my tears away and stopped crying altogether.

I put a smile on my face and walked out towards Ryan's hospital room.

As I stepped down the hallway, I walked in cadence to the scripture that came to mind, which said:

"Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and lean not on your own understanding.
In all your ways, acknowledge Him,
and He shall direct your paths."
Proverbs 3:5-6

I finished as I entered the door and felt strength enough to face that day because I knew what lie ahead.

I realized that Ryan had to speak to 3 more family members that day, as he had done over the past few days. I knew his time on earth was limited, but his aunts and uncle loved him very much and deserved a sweet goodbye.

I called each of them at half past four, groggy and somewhat unaware of the dire situation Ryan was facing.

Each of their conversations were brief and to the point, punctuated by some Three Stooges humor and sound effects. It was the perfect ending.

I told each of them that "today was the day" if they wanted to spend time with him again.

Two of the three family members felt too sick to come visit, but one aunt, known for her excellent planning skills and foresight, actually jumped in the car 10 minutes after my call and drove down to southern California with almost all the members of her immediate family.

I was inspired by her daring spirit that day!

By the time seven o'clock rolled around, Pastor Lin made his way to my cell phone, and eventually to Ryan's room in person.

It was at this point, I knew I could face whatever Satan threw at me,

Ryan became quite agitated and in much more pain than before. Nurses and doctors were called and the events of the day got really intense in Room 8128.

There was a three hour window where he was on the bed, writhing in agony, softly moaning, wondering and wanting to know what was taking place.

"It's time for heaven," came my response.

Silence greeted me.

Then the discomfort.

We had a discussion about sedation. "It's time," I said.

He told me very clearly for years that he wanted to be clear headed enough to say goodbye to me and didn't want to be knocked out. He fought it the entire time.

But after 3 hours of fighting, he finally relented.

More discussions from the palliative doctor in the hallway and multiple nurse visits later, Ryan finally stopped his active battle and the medicine began to work its magic as he relaxed and stopped speaking.

"You know, Anna, as soon as he is sedated, his brain will finally shut off and he's going to die at that point," Pastor Lin gently suggested to me, in another hallway conversation.

Tears formed in my eyes, and I was prepared as best I could be for what lie ahead.

Pastor Lin and I watched as the writhing ceased, and Ryan wanted to lay back in the bed, seemingly somewhat comfortable and able to focus on the work of transitioning to heaven, rather than struggling against it.

Around 10:53 a.m., Ryan laid his head back, and stopped breathing. We'd been holding hands on the bed table and his arm flopped over, like he won me at arm wrestling, our grasp still intact.

I looked over at Pastor Lin and he shook his shoulders and gave me a look like that was it.

I looked back at Ryan and studied the man I had lived with and loved for so many years.

I miss you already, I thought to myself.

But then he took a gasp.

I gasped too!

Then he sat up and was right in my face! It was a miracle!

He pulled his shoulders forward and that made it feel like he was completely present in the room and in my space, in a way he hadn't been for days.

His eyes, typically a pin point from all the morphine and medications came back into their normal view, his chocolate brown irises melting my heart with their love.

He leaned closely into my personal space and was mere inches from my face.

He looked me in the eyes and said:

"I probably only know 10% of the things you do for me. You're an amazing wife. And I love you."

Those were the last three sentences he spoke on this planet, and they were a delicate and sweet gift, wrapped in a frail package of pain and impending eternity.

Worn ragged from the effort speaking caused him, he immediately collapsed back onto the bed and had a very hard time breathing.

I broke into uncontrollable sobs and tears, and looked over at Pastor Lin who wept his own tears too,

Several times over the next few hours, Ryan would stop breathing for a time and then begin again. I kept telling him not to hang on, and wasn't sure what he was still clinging to life for. I reassured him I would take care of the kids and we would all be okay (his response was "praise God") and yet, he still clung to the threads of his shortened existence.

"You know Pastor Jack will be here after third service, right Anna?" Pastor Lin asked me.

"No, I didn't know that!" I exclaimed. It was the piece of the puzzle I hadn't seen and was just revealed!

I turned to Ryan and started to tell him how much longer it would be before Pastor Jack would come. And that encouragement was all Ryan needed to keep fighting and not stop breathing anymore.

When Pastor Jack arrived with Lisa, I was elated. It felt like the final chapter had started and relief flooded my soul. I watched Pastor Lin slip out softly from the room.

Lisa sat to my right and immediately grabbed Ryan's arm to rub it. Pastor Jack got behind Ryan and started to rub his back.

Then Pastor Jack said, "Let's pray."

The prayers that he prayed over my dying husband visibly relaxed Ryan's countenance.

At their conclusion, I told Ryan he could go.

He grunted fiercely.

I could hear his words in my mind, telling me exactly what he thought of me telling him what to do.

"WOMAN!" I could hear him saying, "I'm going to go when it's time. You don't need to be like that."

I laughed and shared my internal dialogue, and Ryan just stared at me. He had stopped smiling a long time ago, but I knew somewhere in there he still had a sense of humor about me and let him borrow mine.

Pastor Jack asked if I had worship music, and I put on the All Sons and Daughters Live album, one of Ryan's favorites. Normally a quick set up, it took me 10 minutes to put on the CD from his laptop.

Time was racing in the room, but I had no clock to judge it. I just knew it was ticking toward eternity making it's entrance there, in that space.

The nurses had long since stopped coming in because they gave me complete control of the pain medicine and gave him the highest doses he needed in order to be comfortable.

His time had come.

An hour and a half after their arrival, Lisa asked me, "So, Anna, when's the last time you took a shower?"

I blushed, and admitted it'd been days. Ryan wasn't able to handle taking a shower because the steam didn't allow him to breathe. I wanted to be his partner, even in that, and told him, "Hey, let's be stinky together!" So I had refrained from showering, in an effort to be a partner one last time with my dying husband.

Even in the last moments death, I made a feeble attempt at loving him more than I loved myself. I just didn't think about how it would offend other people, but I was more concerned about caring for the man I loved more than myself and anyone else on earth.

I told Lisa my mother-in-law had just sent some clean clothes to me through family members and I was ready.

"Well, get in there, young lady!" she told me. "You'll be a new woman when you come out!"

I felt a "Mommy hug" moment. It's exactly what my own Mom would have said to me, had she been alive. The comfort coursed through my body and I was so grateful that God gave me the gift of Lisa Hibbs, standing in the gap as my Mom that day when I was missing her motherly love on my hardest day.

I chased down Ryan's nurse, MJ, in order to get some soap that I'd forgotten to bring.

"This one everyone loves, so try it first," she said, pointing to the liquid soap in a tiny, hotel sized bottle. "But here's some bar soap in case that doesn't work for you."

I went back into the tiny shower room. Then I was horrified at thinking about my pastor and his wife being on the other side of the door as I disrobed.

"They are your parents now," came the thought. "And when the parents you grew up with were in the next room, you never had a problem with doing everyday tasks."

I immediately relaxed. But then I had another thought. And stuck my head out the door.

"What if he dies while I'm in here?" I asked Lisa.

"Well, don't lock the door, silly," she said. "I'll come in and tell you if anything changes."

I shut the door and climbed into the tiny shower. I rinsed off my body and got to work right away, pouring the liquid soap on a washcloth and scrubbing my body down.

"Hmmm, this isn't really doing much for me," I thought to myself, and decided to break into the bar soap.

The smell of it filled my nostrils and I was instantly transported to childhood. It was Dial soap, the same one my Mom used to give me.

I lathered it up, and started with my left hand, and moved upward.

"Now this is what I'm talking about!" I thought as I finally felt like I was getting clean.

Lisa stuck her head in the door, "Anna, something is changing, you need to get out here," she told me.

I hastened my body cleaning and turned around to rinse off all the soap. Once it completely left my body, I was completely relaxed and let out a deep sigh as I felt my husband leave the earth.

"He's gone," Lisa stuck her head in the door again.

"I know," I told her.

I got out of the shower and dried and dressed quickly.

As I entered the room with Ryan's dead body, in the sitting position over the side of the bed, hands clasped in fervent prayer, I said, "Praise God" after Pastor Jack told me Ryan had passed away.

The silence and stillness of the room was alarming. I felt my heart release for my husband was finally free of the fight from Cancer. I felt peace for his homegoing, and arrival in heaven with Jesus, something he had been looking forward to his whole life. But then I also felt a sadness for myself.

"You were right, Lisa, I came out a new woman," I thought to myself. "I walked into the shower as a married woman and I walked out as a widow."

I never felt abandoned by Ryan's death, and found it so comforting that he chose to wait until I was out of the room and completely comfortable before leaving me to be cared for by other people.

I had the thought, "Ryan didn't leave me, he just had to go." And that difference has helped me tremendously, as I learn to feel at peace with God's decision to take Ryan home with Him.

Pastor Jack made a short video for me on my phone, so that I could share the details of Ryan's last minutes with our kids someday, when they were older and could understand.

"Don't be sad that Ryan died today, on Joy's birthday," he told me, in the video. "Because you now have TWO reasons to celebrate today. The first is the fact that Joy was born, but the second is Ryan's arrival into the presence of the Lord, Ryan's heavenly birthday!"

His comment completely shifted my perspective from sadness to glee. And I knew I would never be sad about the day Ryan died, ever again.

Then he and Lisa hugged me and I returned to spend a few moments with Ryan's body before the nitty gritty details of death, like paperwork and morgues, barged its way into my new life as a single woman.

"It shouldn't be this way. This wasn't our plan..."

This is the train of thought that attempts to derail and destroy me.

But there are healing words that change my lament to praise in God.

"Ryan married the right woman," his friend told me days after Ryan had died. It was confirmation that our relationship was important, and the comment was sweetened by the fact that everyone in Ryan's life, including that friend, had advised him not to marry me before our wedding day.

I was humbled by the confirmation that the Lord had given to me, an affirmation I didn't know that I needed to hear, but that healed a broken part of me from the hurt I'd received by their rejection so many years ago. His comment was appointed as a gift to me, at just the right time and I thanked him for telling me so.

God had appointed Ryan and I in each other's lives, for a season, but now that season had ended when God finished our marriage to each other here on earth on Joy's first birthday. And it was now time for me to learn to accept the end, as Job did when he said, "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord."

I know someone who always complained that "all their hopes and dreams" left when their significant other left their life. And they frequently lamented every conversation with that phrase, even years after the fact.

I don't want to be like that -- a bitter, angry person who remains stuck in the past and focused solely on one love relationship that had to end for one reason or another.

Ryan didn't want that for me, and I don't want it for me, either.

So, I press on towards the goal, to the upward call of Christ.

There's a hope I have, that's burning inside me.

I feel eternity,

now

more than ever.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Storm's Perspective

"How dark is it in here?" Talitha asked, as she closed her eyes and stared through her eyelids in my direction as we waited for lunch to arrive.

"Oh, it's always dark with your eyes closed," I responded.

"But in church today, the speaker told us that we are to be a light to others, and to shine the light of Jesus in other people's lives," I told her.

She smiled as she opened her eyes.

I was glad I made the decision to take the girls out to lunch, despite the fact we had no other adult to have conversation with. I was painfully aware of the others in the restaurant who were eating solo, as well.

After completing our meal, we navigated our way to the fearless minivan, caught in a rainstorm.

"It's a good thing I have my Nah-Nah coat!" Talitha exclaimed as she wrapped her childhood blankie around herself like a sweater with a hoodie.

We drove a few hundred feet in the parking lot to a store, in order to buy Joy some shoes, just as the rain had backed off.

But storm clouds threatened overhead.

As we shopped for Joy's shoes, Talitha didn't ask for toys. It was refreshing to go into a store and exit without whining, crying and disappointment. I'm not typically faced with that scenario because I have such easy kids, but lately, when Talitha and Joy are sick and I'm completely alone to deal with it as a newly single parent, the whining drives me to madness sometimes.

We left with our purchases, and as I glanced up above, the storm was almost upon us.

We heard a loud "BOOM!" as thunder crackled, running through our bodies as though the force of God were directly upon us.

It was a heavy, jarring feeling. One of power. And you just don't mess around when thunder is that close.

We quickly entered our vehicle, safe from the impending rain.

And just as I clipped into my seat belt, the rain began to fall.

It came hard, at first, fast pellets pelting the windows and frame of our midnight blue mode of transportation like someone shooting air soft ammunition at us.

Then, it started to downpour. It was a relentless deluge, one that just kept coming.

"Mom, I think it's time for us to get out of here," Talitha said from the back seat.

I agreed with her.

As I pulled our minivan out of the space, the sheer volume of the rain made it impossible to even hear the radio.

I turned up the volume and drove out of the parking lot, onto the street, and safely waited to enter the freeway from under the protection of an overpass bridge.

"Why is it quiet in here?" Talitha asked.

"Because we're under a bridge," came my reply.

The rain made it impossible to go typical freeway speeds, and I even hydroplaned at one point.

But as we drove further from our church, the rain dissipated, then finally ceased altogether.

"Why did it stop, Mom?" came the little squeaky voice in the backseat, once again.

"Because we aren't in the storm anymore," I responded.

As we drove a little further, my breath caught in my throat.

Mountains rose into view, and their carpeted majesty of velvet green hues were breath-taking,

The sunlight filtered towards them, as though grabbing at their rich hues, with accents of solid, fluffy clouds as their backdrop.

Homes dotted their feet, but the peaks rose in high splendor.

"The cross we pick up, isn't our marriage, our kids, our health, our finances, or anything else," the speaker had said in church. "The cross is the cross," he stated simply.

"And it isn't a one time thing, where we just meet Jesus at the foot of the cross for our salvation, then never return, thinking that is it," he pontificated. "The cross is where we meet Him every day."

The words had moved my heart with such passion that I surprised myself. I always had a difficult time with taking up the cross daily and following Him. What did that mean, anyway? And why had God make it so clear to me that I needed that scripture, years ago?

Our minivan crested up above the din of city life, and from up there I could see the storm we had come through, still pounding on weary city folk, animals, trees and landscape alike.

The curvature of the rain made it seem harmless from up there, close to the clouds, with that perspective. And yet, having just gone through it, I knew that wasn't the case. I knew how much damage it caused. And I knew the silence it left in its wake, the further we went away from it.

And there it was, a picture of my last five years, wrapped in the gift of precipitation.

We were just a typical family, just like anyone else, going through our normal, daily routines until the Cancer storm came out of nowhere, raining on us, God's tears weeping for us like Jesus did at the tomb of Lazarus.

We made it safely through, and there was a break in the weather, giving us time for years, once again, to go about our daily routines, but intentional about what we did with our time, and thoughtful of the storm up above, always looming overhead.

Once we exited the store, our daily lives were changed with one fierce shake of thunder, ripping into our lives a need to seek shelter, and quickly after Ryan's death.

It rained hard until we came to the bridge, a momentary period of time where we felt protected, warm and safe, even though we could see the darkness surrounding us everywhere.

As we traveled for the past five months, the storm of the outcome has pounded us relentlessly, and grief sometimes made my life, just like my vehicle feel completely out of control. But when I got through to the other side, after the conclusion of my grief class, the storm subsided, then eventually stopped.

The beauty I see all around me, catches me by surprise.

A quick text from a friend telling me she wants to get together for a playdate. A dinner invitation by a family who isn't scared of my missing family member. A handwritten note of prayers and supplications on my behalf. A group of godly women telling me how much they dearly love me. Continuing hugs and phone calls of love, not pity or obligation, from ones who were there the entire journey and continue to remain. The ability of others to accept my help for them, instead of the other way around because my storm has now passed, but theirs is just beginning.

"If you keep your eyes on what you think is your cross," the speaker said, "you are really just keeping your eyes on your circumstances."

"But God wants us to keep our eyes on the cross of Christ. That is where change begins."

Oh, Lord God, please change me and mold me into the woman of God you want me to be. Show me the beauty You have given me to see and experience each day. Let the eyes of my heart be open to seeing the daily smiling faces, the surrendered hearts, the prayers for the people I need to pray for. This world is not my home, and this life is not my own. Please use me and guide me and strengthen me for what You have chosen for me, today and every day I have here on earth. And thank You, Lord, for giving me beauty from ashes. In Jesus' name. Amen.