Category Archives: death

A Mapmaker and a Grace Giver (a tribute to Bill Olsen)

Grace’s words surprised me that night. I wasn’t expecting them. What I was expecting … well, I’m not quite sure. I’d never been down this road before. Just an hour earlier, I was eating orange sherbet while sitting on a couch next to my mother-in-law, Rosalie, when the call came telling us what I was expecting to hear—that my father-in-law, Bill, had stepped peacefully from this side of the eternal veil to the other.

As quickly as we could find our shoes (as well as our pulse), we made the five-minute walk from Rosalie’s new apartment to the nursing facility where Bill had been residing. This living arrangement had been a dream of theirs, selling their home on Tinkerbell Rd. and moving to Carolina Meadows—a retirement community that would afford them a peaceful and pleasant pasture to write their final chapter together.

The dream had a few revisions along the way. Two years earlier, Bill’s cancer (as well as a fractured hip, diminished mobility, and several late-night trips to the emergency room) interrupted their plans. Despite the multiple roadblocks along the way, both Bill and Rosalie eventually arrived at their new address. And while they would no longer share a bathroom or eat sherbet beside one another on those light-green, chenille couches that had cradled their marriage of nearly fifty-three years, they could at least spy each other’s bedroom windows across the verdant lawn that now separated them—a chasm that could not be crossed quickly enough in those late hours on Wednesday, June 14th.

Soberly and tenderly, Rosalie and I entered Bill’s room as well as the sacred moment. I have often said that the ground we stand upon is never more hallowed than in those moments that exist between the now and the next. Just two hours earlier, we’d been sitting in this same room with Bill, singing hymns, praying prayers, and speaking words of release to him while he peacefully slept. That was the now. This moment, well this was the next, and the difference between the two was stunningly apparent to us both.

“He is not here, Rosalie. He’s gone home.”

While Rosalie cradled her grief as well as Bill’s fragile frame, I quietly removed the wedding band from his ring finger and slipped it onto the chain around Rosalie’s neck. I stood in the shadows, watching a bride say good-bye to her husband. I was profoundly moved to a place of deeper understanding, a deeper connection to all things eternal. Indeed, what God hath wrought together, no man had been able to put asunder (Mark 10:9).

And that gift … being witness to such love … would have been enough to salve the grief that began to fill our hearts. But God gave us another gift that night, the gift of Grace—the nurse’s aide assigned to Bill in his final hours and in the many weeks preceding his departure. We met her in the hallway while making our way back to Rosalie’s apartment. She told us a story about a recent encounter she’d had with Bill:

“Mr. Bill was trying to help me find a shortcut through Chapel Hill. He drew me a map.

[*For those of you who knew Bill, this doesn’t come as a surprise as Bill was always drawing maps and knew the Chapel Hill area better than most, as he’d been selling real estate in the surrounding community for more than fifty years.]

He told me that should I ever travel down that particular route and found myself thirsty, that I should stop by Tinkerbell Road … that a glass of water would be waiting for me.”

And these, friends, were the words that surprised me that night, shook me and sweetly startled me at my core. I’m not quite sure the reason behind Grace relaying this particular story about Bill, but as soon as she released it to us for safe-keeping, I knew that no finer epitaph could ever be carved in stone to best memorialize the life and witness of Bill Olsen, Jr.—a man who lived on Tinkerbell Road, always ready with a cup of water for anyone whose thirst led them to his door.

Bill was always looking for the best route in and around his town … in and around this life … while watering his town and this life with a generous cup of goodness. He was a mapmaker and a grace giver.

A mapmaker and a grace giver. God has replayed this message over and over again in my mind these past six days since Bill’s departure. More significantly, God has etched these words onto my heart eternally.

Indeed, Bill is not here with us in body any longer. He has gone home. But God, because of his great mercy and love for all humanity, granted Bill the holy privilege of drawing us a map so that we, too, may find our way home. Additionally, whenever a thirsty soul came knocking, Bill was faithful to fill our cups with a ladle of water from the well of God’s amazing grace, more than enough to fuel us for the journey that lies ahead.

A mapmaker and a grace giver. Bill’s life was a life well-lived. He lived simply and quietly. He loved purely and certainly.

He left a map and he left a ladle.

A mapmaker and a grace giver. The trail has clearly been blazed. The mission has clearly been defined. May we endeavor (with God’s help) to follow the map, to fill the cups of the thirsty, and to live ever so rightly, vigilantly and attentively, all of our remaining days on this earth. Amen. So be it.

Peace for the journey, friends.

In the Olive Press with Jesus {part seven: Doing Grief}

In the Olive Press with Jesus {part seven: Doing Grief}

It’s been two months since she died… their mom, my friend (you can read about it here). This past week, my husband and I made the six-hour round trip to their home to share with them in their sorrow. To do grief. To remember her and to allow that remembrance to touch us deeply where it hurts.

Doing grief. It wasn’t easy; grief never is. I don’t suppose I’ve ever really witnessed this kind of sorrow… in many ways unfamiliar territory for me. Funeral grief—the kind of grief that packs in and around the initial parting of a loved one—has been my common experience. Grief that comes two months later? Well, that kind of grief is easier to pack away for those of us who sit on the outside of its unwrapping. We aren’t privy to this kind of gut-wrenching grief unless we are the direct recipients of its painful prod. But just because we don’t feel the sorrow, see the sorrow, hold the sorrow as profoundly as those who’ve lost someone close, doesn’t mean that sorrow no longer exists.

They feel it. They see it. They hold it. They grieve deeply behind hidden doors, behind expectations, behind forced smiles, trying desperately to fit into a world that’s moving on, despite the fact that grief isn’t in any hurry to leave. And that, friends, is an added burden to a grieving soul. Grief cannot live outside the boundaries of human existence. Grief cannot separate itself from common conversation and daily deliberations. When grief moves into a heart, grief stays. Certainly, over time, grief changes, but I’m not convinced it ever really leaves. What I am convinced of is the need to allow grief room enough, time enough, and respect enough to breathe—to work itself into and out of our hearts as it comes.

We must acknowledge it, whether a deeply felt, personal grief or the deep grief of a friend. We mustn’t clutter it, stuff it, or bury it. We simply and profoundly need to let it breathe and then to do the seemingly impossible—breathe alongside it. Not underestimate or overestimate what it is, but to let what “is”… just be.

This is our grieving season, friends … a lengthy round trip to Calvary and back where we come alongside God’s grief to feel it, see it, and hold it. Just for awhile. Just long enough for it to breathe strong remembrance into our souls. We weren’t there at the funeral some 2000 years ago; we’ve only heard stories about it. But here we are today, walking into that story, standing heart-to-heart with the One who wrote that story, and receiving its painful truth as our portion. His grief belongs to us; it is now part of our stories forever forward.

There’s no room for cluttering, stuffing, and burying the truth of Christ’s cross… not for those of us who call ourselves by his name. Easter pilgrims are those who willingly carry the suffering cross for self and for others, knowing it will hurt… greater still, knowing it will consecrate our hearts for a deeper identification with Jesus. The cross is what he came to do; in doing so, he and the world around him, “did grief” … continues to do grief. Why should we do any less?

Do better for Jesus this week; do better for those you love. Come alongside them to breathe with them. In doing so, you give them Easter’s breath … Easter’s best. As always…

Peace for the Journey,
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winter comes…

I pulled my jacket tighter around me while out for a walk this afternoon.

It’s cold outside. Last week, it was seventy degrees. Today? Somewhere in the upper 40’s. Not too bad if the wind wasn’t blowing, but it was. I thought I was adequately prepared, but I wasn’t. And so, I pulled my jacket tighter around me, dug my hands a little deeper into my pockets, and cursed the winter for catching me by surprise.

As it goes with the weather, so it goes with my heart.

It’s cold inside. The wind is blowing, and I am not adequately prepared for winter’s arrival.

Death has reared its ugly witness… again, claiming the earthly tenure of my precious friend, Juliana. She had a heart transplant three weeks ago. On Tuesday, she had a massive stroke. On Wednesday, she died, and none of us were prepared for her departure.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. She was supposed to live long enough to raise her five-year-old twin sons and to grow old with her beloved, Patrick. Instead she went home to Jesus, and she took a part of our hearts with her. We are the ones in mourning, not her. We are the ones left behind to hold and to manage an eternal ache that shouts, “This should not be; not yet.”

To love is a great thing. To grieve, a direct reflection of that love. I just wish that love didn’t have to hurt so much. I just wish that I could take the pain away for all of us. I just wish that God would peel back the heavens long enough for us to see Juliana there, dancing with her infant daughter, knowing that one day soon, their steps will be ours. Their joy, ours. Their peace, ours. Their forever, ours.

But God keeps a few secrets… keeps the heavens hidden because he knows that should we catch a glimpse of glory, we would no longer need our lives here. We’d only want to be there, with Him. With her. With all the other saints gathered together around the throne. A peek into glory wouldn’t be enough to satisfy the soul cravings within.

To see that and then to stay here? Well, I don’t think we’d ever recover.

And so, we live with the mystery. We pull our jackets tighter around us and do our best to block our hearts from the howling wind. We curse the winter for catching us by surprise. And we think about home. It’s warmth. It’s shelter. It’s protection. About how long it will take us to get there. About how many more deliberate steps of faith will be required of us before we see the welcome mat and the faces of loved ones who are glad to see that we’ve made it home safely.

Yes, it’s cold today. Winter has paid us a visit. I can’t see Spring. I can only imagine it. It won’t be long in coming, but for now, right now, I pull my jacket tighter around me and keep walking forward. I cast my eyes to the horizon, searching for any signs of home. And I look down at my bracelet, and I read those two words that I’ve promised to remember for 2012.

Movement wins.

And I keep moving, even on a winter day.

May God keep us all focused forward and forever tethered to our forever. And may he grant each one of us enough hope, comfort, certainty, and peace for the journey ahead.

~elaine

when a friend crosses to Canaan ahead of you…

Judith made it home to Jesus on Thanksgiving Day. I’ve been living with her absence since then. Four days is hardly enough time to displace my grief. I don’t have a place to put my grief, not really. I can’t send a casserole to the West Coast… can’t stop by the family living room to offer my condolences. I wouldn’t even recognize her family members if I saw one of them on the street. I’ve never met any of them face-to-face. Not even her—my Judith friend. Our lives didn’t connect the regular way. Our lives connected here … in this place, this space that I have reserved for the public sharing of thoughts. A domain named “Peace for the Journey.” A home for my words and the birthplace of some rich, kindred friendships.

Judith was one of the first of you, extending our relationship beyond customary comments to include nearly four years’ worth of phone conversations, e-mails, snail mails, all kinds of communication that move a friendship past common courtesy. In doing so, I’ve experienced one of the truest, most honest and encouraging relationships of my lifetime. Judith has been my mentor, my cancer sister, my sounding board, my “middle-of-the-night” friend who listened to me and understood me when others couldn’t. She was the second person I called after receiving my diagnosis and almost always the first person I called when I was hunkered down in the middle of my pain. These last years with Judith have strengthened my heart and my faith in a way that furthers the cause of Jesus Christ.

Judith sometimes worried about her doing enough for the kingdom. She wanted to be used by God but often didn’t recognize the weightiness of her witness to others. Who I am today, in part, is a direct reflection of the time that Judith Guerino invested in me. She was never too busy, too sick, too tired, or too perfect to take me on. She was just willing, and that willingness, friends, is an extraordinary gift to receive. I recognized its worthiness early on in our friendship, and I cherished each moment that I was able to share with my beloved friend. One of those moments came six weeks prior to Thanksgiving.

While out for an afternoon walk, I felt strongly that I should try and call Judith. She’d been in and out of the hospital, not able to take calls most days, so I was uncertain about her availability to speak with me. One of our great concerns for each other (especially during our sick days) was not to wear one another out with conversation. We made a deal. If we couldn’t talk (for whatever reason), we wouldn’t answer the phone, and we wouldn’t be mad about it … we’d just understand.

Six weeks ago was not one of those moments. Instead, six weeks ago hosted a God-ordained moment for both of us.

“Judith, if this needs to be our good-bye, then let’s do it right. Let’s say everything we need to say, and let’s do so with great clarity. This could be our hand-holding, bedside release.”

And so it was. Our final conversation. We talked for over an hour … laughed, cried, prayed, and tenderly released one another to the roads in front of us. We knew where hers was heading, and while it seemed that my road was taking a detour or two that would eventually catch up with hers, I couldn’t escape the fact that no matter the path in front of both of us, we would stay connected because of our kinship in Jesus Christ.

“Wherever I go, Judith, from this point forward, you’ll be with me. I’ll keep your story as a part of my own. I’ll wear this mantle you have given me and place it on the shoulders of other cancer patients who need the love and encouragement of a friend like you. I will do so in honor of you. I’ll carry it for both of us.”

It’s not easy to speak words like these … not easy to articulate the inevitabilities of our up-and-coming departures, but when it happens, it’s a sacred gift to those who are standing at the portal of heaven and to those who are left behind to wonder, to imagine, to believe and to grieve. Judith may have crossed the Jordan River into Canaan ahead of me, but she didn’t do so without me. She carried my story with her and, in return, she left her story with me. This is the unity we share as believers in Jesus Christ—the eternal thread that links us together and that pulls our heartstrings forward in faith.

We don’t enter into the presence of Jesus Christ without the present witness of others. Those we love and those who have loved us, well, I believe they’re part of the cargo that we’ll carry with us into our forevers. When our crossing-over day comes and we arrive on the shores of Canaan, not only will we step forward into the arms of our Father, but also the testimony of a great many heart-investors will step with us. It’s just how it works, friends, this investing of love. Eternal love rooted in Christ’s love plants seeds, and all eternal seeds harvest hugely for the kingdom.

It matters what we do here, how we love here. How we give and share God here. And while we aren’t privy to the arrival of others when they finally meet our Father face-to-face, wouldn’t it be wonderful to know that a part of us arrives there with them as a lasting witness to our willingness to love on the front side of heaven?

Yes, Judith went home to Jesus on Thanksgiving Day. Part of me did as well, friends, and I cannot tell you the joy this brings to my sadness—knowing that as she steps in glory, so do I. A little bit of my faith, a little bit of my heart is already dancing in heaven, alongside my kindred friend. Oh that I… that we would take each step, live each day, love this way with eternity in mind!

Our stories belong to one another, and I can’t think of a finer group of people I’d rather carry with me into Canaan when my crossing-over day arrives. Until then, let’s keep planting God’s eternal seed into the hearts of those we love, and let us celebrate the thread that binds us all together as one–Jesus Christ.

Let’s do it right … say everything we need to say and do so with God’s great clarity while today is still today. It’s the best we can do. I love you each one.

Peace for the journey,

~elaine
PS: To read the guest post that Judith wrote for me last summer, click on this link.

Summer

{for Summer… who made it home to Canaan today}

It occurs to me this evening that earthquakes come in all shapes and sizes. And while the world’s eyes have been focused on Haiti’s earthquake over the past week, my eyes have been fixed on the one occurring beneath the surface of my own little piece of ground… the place I call home… the woman I call friend.

The ground beneath her has been shaking for the past four months, but her faith? Well, not easily shaken. And while leukemia has not been kind to her, her Father’s strength has been exceedingly kind. She has weathered her quake with all the dignity and grace of heaven. Some would say the cancer got the best of her, but I would say differently. Today, cancer had no say in the matter, because today the quake beneath her feet ceased in its shaking as she made her grand entrance to the throne of her Savior’s feet where she will worship him forever.

For those of us left behind, especially for her precious sons and adoring husband, the ground still shakes. The collective grief of our small community is palpable and strong. We’ve made this walk before. I’ve made this walk before—three times in the last two years. Cancer and its havoc is an all too familiar struggling in our neck of the world. For whatever reason, and God only knows (believe me when I tell you that I’ve asked him), our county claims some of the highest cancer statistics for our state. Everyone in our community has been touched by the disease at some point along the way.

Still and yet, familiarity doesn’t make the journey any easier. Each situation exceeds statistical data. Each road of suffering is unique and personally labeled with a name, a family, a life lived, a grief felt. There’s nothing neat and tidy about cancer. Nothing we can quickly and perfectly pack away even as we lower another casket into the ground.

Death and its corresponding mystery shake the earth beneath our feet. It reminds us all (whether we’re willing to own it or not) about the temporal nature of our flesh. About the eternal nature of our spirits. And that kind of reminder, friends, is sometimes a hard reckoning with which to engage. Why? Because of the searing pain that interjects its witness into the mix. Because of the questions that coincide with the grief. Because of the empty chair at the dinner table reserved for the one who has preceded us in death. And when all of that (the reckoning, the pain, the questions, the grief, and the empty chair) collide, the earth beneath our feet moves in witness to the internal wrestling of our souls. I don’t imagine there’s a Richter scale big enough to gauge that kind of rumbling.

As it should be. The burying of a loved one cannot be quantified and measured by human standards, only painfully felt at the deepest, rawest level of the human condition. We’ll try to quantify it; try to put some manageable parameters around it so as to better control the pain. Perhaps, this is needful… a necessary component to the grief process that enables us a measure of comfort during these days of unedited grief. My own heart stands as a witness to that this night.

Writing my heart helps me. Words enable me to put parameters around my feelings. To reign in my thoughts and the emotions which are spinning at full speed. Words, and all the pondering that goes into penning them, help me to re-focus my heart around the one truth that exceeds the pain of the moment. And that truth, friends, doesn’t in any way resemble a grave. That truth is a King and a kingdom and a beautiful, entirely whole, thirty-nine-year-old woman running through heaven’s meadows, partaking in the rightful promise that belongs to her as an heir of the Most High God.

Cancer did not get the final word. God did, and all of hell shuddered at the sound of his voice.

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

May the God of all comfort, the God of everlasting peace, the God who collects our tears in a bottle and holds them close to his heart, the God who promises life beyond the casket, the God who numbered our days long before one of them came into being, the God who is well-familiar with all of our griefs and sufferings, the God who conquered death and the grave…

be the God who peels back the layers of heaven tonight to give us a glimpse of forever and to remind us, each one, that this is not our home.

He is.

And he is coming soon.

And his is a kingdom not easily shaken.

I love you “T” family. And I love the woman you so willing and graciously shared with this world. Her witness lives on in you. Winter’s bite will soon be over. Summer is just around the bend.

peace for the journey,

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