What I miss about you

Sweetheart,

I still don’t know if you’re someplace/sometime where/when you can read this, but I need to tell you these things, because I’m still not always comfortable talking to God about them and He’s pretty much just as silent as the grave, too. Of course, I expect that.

Angela BrentonIt’s been more than four years and I still miss you like I lost you yesterday.

And I just want to tell you (again) some of the things I miss about you when I miss you the most because I need to get them off my heart and off my mind so I can move on a little bit more.

Not so I can forget them; just the opposite. But so I can let them go.

So here they go. These are some of the things I miss most:

Those eyes.

The smile between us when words weren’t necessary.

Your funny, halting laugh. I used to do anything, say anything I could think of that might be remotely humorous just to hear it.

The way you planned and organized vacation trips for our little family, with all the things you knew we’d want to see and do, and you were always right.

Your version of the Eureka Memento sandwich from Victorian Sampler, and their chilled strawberry soup. Chicken spaghetti. Summer salad with walnuts and raspberry vinaigrette. Apple-stuffed acorn squash to bring in autumn. Your famous sugar cookies at Christmas that we all decorated together.

Hearing you sing alto at church next to me.

The way you got the kids to church on time without me those years when I was working first and second service and sometimes teaching class between.

Being with your side-of-the-family at holidays.

You spot-checking me before we went out together to make sure I looked okay. And me checking you out, too. Oh, my.

Your willingness to proofread my stuff; letting me pre-read yours before publication, and especially partnering with you to write.

The way you made it easier for introverted me to feel part of any group in any social situation.

Your unique perspective.

Your feminine feminism.

Your insatiable intellect.

Your compassion for others.

Your political acumen.

Hearing you (and your sweet mom) whoopin’ and hollerin’ for the Dallas Cowboys every time they played, from the last time they were champs on to every losing season after.

Date nights.

Watching a movie video at home with you tucked under my arm and a big bowl of popcorn on our laps.

Traveling. Driving. Your relief driving. You even made flying and airports and security less stressful for me.

Keeping me calm when I wasn’t. Soothing my overactive anxiety.

When you used to read stories with the kids when they were young.

The first name bet. I still can’t believe you called Harding and talked someone into telling you that the “W.” stands for “William.” But that steak dinner at Coy’s was great; you earned it; and it’s a wonderful memory as one of our first dates. So I miss all those times we went out to dinner together, because they were all as precious as the first.

House-shopping with you all those times we moved.

The days with you.

The nights with you.

The moments with you.

Hearing you say – to me, our kids and others you cherished – “I love you so much.”

I guess if you can read this, you already know that was the wording on Laura’s first tattoo, in your handwriting, from a card you’d signed, inked on her forearm, when she was still seventeen and too young for a tat in North Carolina, so we drove all the way to Kentucky ….

And you know I’m here in Eureka Springs now, and there’s still a whole lot of empty in my life where you used to be.

But I’m trying to move on a little bit more, a little bit closer to where I need to be that a place alone can’t be. Not even Eureka.

I’m not there yet. Not by a long shot.

But this is a few steps in the right direction:

Letting go of some of the things I miss about you.

Advertisements

The No-Win Scenario

What do you do when there is everything to lose and nothing you can do about it? When there are no alternatives that will affect the outcome in your favor, and you will lose, and you will lose it all, and the ones you love will lose it all — including the loss of the one you love most?

You do nothing.

And you do it with the ones you love.

You do nothing with the one you are about to lose.

You suffer with them, though you cannot fully share in that suffering, because some of that suffering is physical, and some of it is because the relationships are different and all of it together is too visceral to bear.

You remain with them because it is your only alternative as the one they love most.

Angela BrentonCancer was the no-win scenario for Angi four years ago. Her family and friends, all who loved her and knew of her condition, did what they could to gather close; to suffer with; and finally to say goodbye.

Her cancer was the no-win scenario for us as well.

But losing her was not the tragedy it could have been, if she hadn’t packed so much life into the years she lived — especially those last ten years, when she had been given a glimpse ahead. That cancer scare, I believe, gave her what she needed to live out the rest of her life on her own terms.

At her memorial services in Little Rock and later at WCU in Cullowhee, I said that Angi wanted more than anything else to be as much like Jesus of Nazareth as she could possibly be.

This year, as I remember her, it occurs to me that she was given the rare opportunity to imitate Him in a rather unique way.

As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. ~ Luke 9:51

Not everyone has a sense for what the future holds for them. Not everyone gets a heads-up that the scenario ahead is of the no-win variety.

And not everyone who does would walk right into it anyway, just as if the lack of alternatives was simply the way things are.

The other thing that occurs to me is that — even knowing the stories of people who have had that glimpse — it’s not like we don’t all know what’s coming.

We may not like to face or acknowledge it or dwell on it long, but the same no-win scenario is ahead for each of us. The details will be different, for sure – the whens, hows, how longs, how much and the whys – but the outcome will always be the same.

Yet we all have alternatives now.

We can pack in as much life during our time remaining as we can.

We can surround ourselves with those we love and who love us.

We can walk right into the future knowing it is certain and that only the details are not.

There’s a good chance that I will never stop learning from my beloved Angi.

But right now, this is the lesson that is the most real and precious of all.

 

Next to last

I watched “What Dreams My Come” just now because I needed to.

It was especially difficult to watch this visually dazzling movie about soulmates, loss, depression, death, suicide, the afterlife and love because it stars the late and truly great Robin Williams.

But it is the next-to-last movie on my list of movies I have had to wait to watch since losing Angi three years ago.

Only “Shadowlands” remains.

Still not ready to watch that one.

I read somewhere long ago – I think when trying to lead a Single Again Class for divorced and widowed people in Abilene – an author who recommended a year of healthy grief for every five years you got to spend with the one you’ve loved and lost.

That seems about right to me.

Next year, “Shadowlands.”

Easter – and Maybe My Shortest Message Ever

My little church family and I gathered at our old parsonage in Sylva this gloomy, grey Easter morning. We prayed. We sang. We dined together at the Lord’s table and remembered Him. Then John led us in “It Is Well With My Soul.”

It was time for me to speak. I gathered myself as best I could. And I said (to the best of my recollection):

“As many of you know, it was many, many months after Angi passed away before I could sing ‘It Is Well With My Soul’ again. Many of you prayed with me for the miracle that would save her life. And God’s answer was ‘no.’

“And that’s as good a segue into my message this morning as I know. We’ll be going out-of-sequence in our study of prayer in scripture” — last Sunday we left off with the prayers of prophets — “to talk about Jesus’ last prayers and what happens when God says ‘no.'”

Then we read Matthew 26:36-46. I asked: “What happens when God doesn’t answer prayer the way we would like?”

Suzanne and Brenda suggested that perhaps it’s because He has a better plan in mind.

Then I asked: “What would have happened if God had not said ‘no’ to His Son’s prayers?”

The answers cascaded: “We wouldn’t be celebrating Good Friday or Easter” … “We wouldn’t have celebrated the Lord’s Supper this morning” … “We wouldn’t even be here.”

So I paused a moment, and tried to phrase my next question carefully. “Forgive me; I have a colossal headache this morning and I’m not at my best. Let me ask this: Could God have saved us and still said ‘yes’ to Jesus’ prayers … ‘Yes, this cup can pass from You’?”

There was general assent the He could, indeed. “He can do anything He wants to,” Suzanne volunteered.

“I can’t argue with that,” I replied, “… and I believe it’s true. But if He had, what would have happened to Isaiah 53? And so many of the other prophecies about Jesus?”

There was a moment of silence. John, sitting an empty seat away, touched me on the shoulder. “Key point,” he said.

“It is, isn’t it?” I said. “I’ve thought about this for a number of years. And I’ve had to come to the conclusion that the only acceptable reason for God to have said ‘no’ to the pleas of His own Son for His life would have to be that there was no other way. God put put Himself in this box of prophecy, knowing the impact that this final blood sacrifice would have on hearts for centuries yet to come. Two thousand years down the road, this Story still gets us … right … here.”

And I felt my fist pounding against my chest.

And I felt my composure slipping away as I spoke.

“Nothing touches us like the Story of God’s Son giving Himself up. Nothing else could do. If it had only been a story of a man dying cruelly, it would have been only one of thousands of cruel deaths. But it was God’s Son. If God’s Son had only died cruelly — evil would have been shown for what it is, all right — but it would have been no kind of Story that tells us of God’s power; that proves only God … can … give … life … back.”

By this time I was nearly undone. I needed a tissue, but I had none. So my face got wet.

The_Garden_Tomb_2008“And that is why I have to believe that when God says ‘no,’ even when it hurts; even when you lose someone dearest to you, that God does indeed have a better idea; a better plan.

“This Story tells me that I can fall on my face and pour out my heart and trust God and say, ‘Your will be done,’ and that He will make the most painful of times turn out for a best that we can’t even imagine,” I finished.

“And it will be well with our souls.”

On Her Own Terms

This will be a very, very long post.

On June 30 of last year, I found a secret diary that my late wife Angi kept 13-1/2 years ago (2002) when she was seeking diagnosis and treatment for a difficult, painful and widespread skin condition. She feared it was cancer. Though I knew of her condition, I never knew of her fear.

The diary revealed that one doctor’s diagnosis was that the condition might be melanoma, and of a rare type that often proves fatal. Another doctor disagreed. I didn’t know this, either.

Angela BrentonShe took light treatments for many years, and the condition improved but never really resolved. We would pray about it together, but she didn’t share the contradictory diagnoses.

All this while our children were 9 and 6 years old, and her career was really taking off.

In the diary, she poured out her heart: her fears, concerns, love for friends and family.

This is what she wrote:

7/15/02

Today marks the fifth week of living with the possibility I may have a rare form of skin cancer — cutaneous t-cell lymphoma. On June 13 I went to my dermatologist, giving one last shot that someone could give me a cream or lotion that could rid me of the unsightly red blotches that had increasingly appeared on my legs over the past 4 years. I thought my worst problem was appearing in public in shorts or a swimsuit. I came away wondering if I will live to raise my children, Matthew, 9, and Laura, 6.

My doctor and I decided that we would wait for the biopsies until I returned from the vacation that started three days after my appointment. He told me not to alarm myself by reading all the stuff on the internet. It’s sobering when you consider yourself a youngish healthy 49-year old to have a disease with a limited life expectancy. If they catch it early, the prognosis is good — 32 years. But stage 2 drops to 12 years — barely enough to see Laura through high school. And if you’re at stage 3 or 4 the numbers drop to 2 or 3 years — scary stuff. It’s amazing how the new knowledge plays with your mind. Only yesterday I felt young and invincible. Now with this new knowledge, I touch a lymph node in my neck. Swelling in lymph nodes is a sign of stage 2 or 3. Is it slightly enlarged? Is that recurring abdominal pain a sign of something? Are there lymph nodes in the abdomen?

Yet with all the uncertainty for five weeks now, I’m amazed how God has responded to my prayers by bringing me a tremendous peace. I don’t know what lies ahead for me, but I’m confident that God will be beside me, and that he will resolve the situation for the best. He can heal me if he chooses to, no matter what stage the disease. There may be some reason I can’t understand now — perhaps knowing they have a shorter time with me will give my children more openness to my influence, or maybe it was never God’s plan for me to take them all the way to adulthood. Maybe that is someone else’s role.

What I fear the most is not the pain of chemotherapy, radiation or bone marrow transplants — all possibilities if the condition is advanced. I fear leaving my family. I love them so much. They are the best part of my life. I fear for Laura. She’s already lost her birthmother through adoption and at some subconscious level that affects her so deeply. Can she recover if she loses another mother? Her little emotional identity is so fragile now. She follows me like my shadow. I am her security, however flawed I am at times. She’s my heart. How can I leave her?

Then there’s Matthew. I’m so proud of the person he’s growing to be. I never thought I could love anyone the way I love him — have from the first moment I saw him when he was 4 weeks old. He is everything I’ve ever wanted.

And Keith — my soul mate & love. We took too long to find one another but have had such a joyous 12 years together. Keith is so strong & so good. I know he would do better than most as a single parent. But he would feel incomplete without me as I would without him. Could he make it without my income? I’ve checked on taking out  additional life insurance, but if I get a negative diagnosis it may be too late.

All these imaginations haunt me during the darker hours. Most of the time, however, I’m just leaning on God’s strong arms. He’s prepared me to trust him through so many times in my life when I was helpless — from my divorce to infertility to adoption. God has led me to the point where I know I can just put my life in his hands & lay all my burdens at the cross. After all, Jesus knew the agony of anticipation & uncertainty, praying at Gethsemane for the cup to pass, yet submitting himself to God’s will. I’m trying to do the same.

There have been so many life lessons I’ve drawn over the past weeks of waiting. One is that going in one day from feeling healthy to a painful realization that health may only be an illusion is so much the same reaction as truly confronting our own sinful nature as we stand before the cross. One day we can feel complacent as good-self-sufficient people but confronted with the image of the cross we must acknowledge the disease of our sin and our utter dependence on God.

I think I’ll fast & pray tomorrow. It’s about time to get the biopsy results back. I need the special peace & reliance on God that I feel when fasting to receive the news — whatever it turns out to be.

Funny, I’m having knee surgery day after tomorrow. I would have been dreading the pain & effort of recovery. It seems like a minor interruption now.

__________

7/20/02

Well, it’s several days later and I’m still waiting. I had knee surgery Wednesday and the Lord has blessed me with a good recovery. Still no word from the biopsy. I called last Tuesday, but the advanced tests required for t-cell lymphoma just take longer. There was a time when I would have gone nuts waiting six weeks for such news. I know the peace I’ve experienced has to come from God. Only this morning when preparing to teach 1st grade class, I was led to Matt 6 and the passage on worry. It was a comforting reminder. I cannot control if I have lymphoma or what stage it may be. I can only wait, pray & trust.

I had another startling discovery this week when I found a small lump on my left shin. Could it be a tumor connected with lymphoma? There are so many questions & so few answers right now.

While I wait for the results from my biopsy my doctor has prescribed UVA light therapy. I stand in a big metal light box 3 times a week. It is a recommended treatment for an inflammatory skin condition whether I have lymphoma or not. The first few treatments burned me badly — funny how you have to get worse to get better at times. My skin looked so much worse after the first few treatments it was hard not to become discouraged. Reminds me of our spiritual walk & how we must often be forced to confront how bad our sin is before we seek the healing power of Christ’s blood.

It’s frustrating to me now that my dermatologist in Abilene recommended light treatments 3 years ago. He didn’t say anything about the potential seriousness of the condition & wanted me to come in every day. It didn’t seem as important as the work I’d have to miss. How I wish I had followed through then.

After 3 weeks, I can see the light treatments are helping. I just hope they can help enough.

There’s so much I’m unsure of now. But the important things I know. Christ has won the final battle over death & Satan. God is strong enough to give me & my family the courage to face whatever is ahead. He will never leave me. He can use this challenge for his glory. That is enough.

___________

7-28-02

The results of the biopsy finally came last Thursday. I was sitting in interviews in Benton on the Saline County water study. It was Dr. B——– and the results were positive for CTCL — cutaneous t-cell lymphoma. I had wondered how I would react if the news was bad. I just felt mainly relief to finally have an answer, to finally have a some direction, something to do. I dread what lies ahead, but it feels good to be out of limbo. Dr. B——– suggested I might contact drs. in Houston at M.D. Anderson or drs. at Yale in Connecticut. This is such a rare condition that it’s hard to find drs. with expertise. We decided that I would first see the head of dermatology at UAMS, the local academic medical center & go from there. I was fortunate to get an appt. w/ Dr. T– H— on Monday. We’ll have discussions on follow-up & treatments after that.

God continues to be faithful. I feel hopeful & strong. I am so grateful that somehow I had the urge to see another dermatologist. It was also really providential that I ended up seeing the doctor I did. I was scheduled to see another dr. that specialized in skin allergies, but he wasn’t on my insurance list. I almost didn’t see Dr. B——– — more insurance issues, but he decided to make an exception for me. Going to someone who made me aware of the CTCL possibility may have saved my life.

It is a sobering time, and I know there are hard times ahead. I still feel fortunate. One young man at church is battling terminal cancer. My best friend C—- lost a baby to a chromosomal abnormality. I’m sure either would have chosen to be in my shoes instead. My friend C—- is a physician & has been so encouraging to me. Of course Keith is a rock — so loving, so dependable & so unflappable. I am blessed to have him by my side. God is good.

______________

7/30

Yesterday I met with the head of dermatology at UAMS, the state medical school complex to get a second opinion. It was frustrating that none of my medical records or the slides of my biopsies had been sent to him. In many ways he was in the dark, yet on a brief physical exam and my account of the biopsy results, he indicates a real doubt about the diagnosis of CTCL. He is also cautiously critical of my doctor’s decision to do UVA therapy. It means that we can do no further diagnosis because my skin has been treated. He is going to get the biopsy slides, do an independent analysis & let me know what he thinks late next week. My emotions are on a roller coaster again. On one hand, it would be a great relief to learn I do not have a potentially fatal disease. On the other hand, I would be back to uncertainty about my condition. The doctor was encouraging in his assessment that if I have CTCL, it would be extremely early & no aggressive treatment would be indicated. Overall I came away impressed by the knowledge & currency of information of this doctor.

I will make a shift to using him as my dermatologist or “the quarterback directing the game plan,” as he phrased it.

I got really annoyed today reading a column in the newspaper. One of the columnists is getting married this fall & was agonizing ad nauseam because the post office had discontinued the love stamp, leaving her without an appropriate choice to send her wedding invitations. I had the strongest urge to write her & say, “I’ve been wondering for most of the summer whether I’ll live to raise my children. You need to stop wasting time & energy on things so utterly unimportant. Focus on the joy of your wedding and on building your relationship with your future husband.”

I wonder how often God wants to send the same message to me about my anxieties & how I’ve ordered my priorities. If nothing else, I hope this experience produces in me a permanent shift in valuing what matters & treasuring each moment with those I love.

I wonder about how I’ll look back at this summer. Will I be thinking, “That was the summer I thought I was dying” or will I look back at it as the turning point when my perception of myself turned from strength & invincibility to frailty?

I had a moment in Indiana this summer that was so poignant. Keith, the kids and I had gone to Nashville, IN with Keith’s sister and brother-in-law. They decided to ride a “train” that gave a brief tour of the tourist town. I opted out both because I wanted to avoid the sun & I could spend a few moments in artist shops without kids. I stood waving on the sidewalk as the train started off with Keith & the kids accompanied by Aunt Linda and Uncle Dick. A part of me wondered whether I were seeing the future — Keith alone with the kids, supported by his sweet family. It was all I could do to hold back the tears.

Maybe the book hasn’t closed yet. I’m continuing to hope & to trust God.
_____________

8/5

I stayed with Mom most of last week as she had a procedure to remove basal cell carcinoma from her nose. It was of special concern because she had the same procedure three years ago in Dallas. If this was a recurrence of her previous cancer this was very bad news. Mom told me about her diagnosis just as we were returning from vacation. At the time it felt like the straw that broke the camel’s back. I just didn’t know how much more stress & uncertainty I could stand. In a way hearing about her condition was worse than worrying about my own health. Mom is 84, and I know I won’t have her too many more years. But I love her so much & she has been such a source of strength & inspiration to me, it’s hard to think about. We’ve both really been dreading her surgery for the past month.

Again, God was so good. He gave us both the strength to get through it & the results were good. There were only a few cancer cells — in a spot different from her previous surgery. Because it was such a small spot, the plastic surgeons was able to do a skin graft rather than the more extensive reconstructive surgery we were told to expect. She came through the surgery great & has suffered little pain as she recovers.

It’s amazing how my spirit has lightened this week. I feel like I’m emerging from a long, dark tunnel. There has been so much to dread & fear. As I’m passing each marker, God has shown mercy & has provided strength & courage to meet each challenge. Each challenge has confirmed that as I trust my Father, I have nothing to fear. God will not remove all challenges, but he will give me strength sufficient for each day.

The diary ends there.

To address the obvious question: I do not know if she sought, or received, a final diagnosis on the skin condition from Anderson or Yale or anywhere else. All I know is what you’ve read. I doubt that she did; I certainly wasn’t aware of any travel.

If I were her, I’m not sure I would have asked for one. Without knowing how limited your future is, you are free to live your life as you wish. You don’t have to tell your spouse because you don’t know. You don’t have to face the temptation to lie. You don’t have to endure the looks of pity and the awkward silences from others. You can live, knowing that — just like everyone else — someday you will die, because only God can cheat death, and He only does so on the rarest of occasions. The cost of not knowing is that you live the life of Schroedinger’s cat. You’re alive but you aren’t. But at least in not knowing, you can have a kind of peace.

That’s just the way I feel. I think that’s the way she felt. And I think I know her heart.

Angi continued to take UVA light treatments for many more years. Sometimes the skin condition would flare up a little; most of the time it seemed no more than a slight discoloration.

And so she lived — really lived — for another ten years, until a few months after moving to North Carolina to serve as provost for Western Carolina University, when another kind of cancer reared up within her cells, stage IV pancreatic cancer, which usually snuffs out life using a very short fuse. I suppose it’s possible that the second cancer could have metastasized from the first, but that process usually moves faster than 10 years as I understand it. I’m no doctor.

She passed from this life on May 8, 2013 — our daughter Laura’s 17th birthday.

Today would have been Angi’s birthday. But she still had a few things to share with us and tell us, a gift left behind for us.

This brief diary is something that our children and I can cherish so that we can know how much she loved us.

It also has answered a big big question I’ve had these two-plus years since Angi passed away: How did she face the threat of stage IV pancreatic cancer with such utter calm, grace, and resolve? How did she keep working, decide on the degree of treatment aggression, manage to have so many things prepared ahead of time in case she passed away?

Because she had already faced death and decided on the terms of engagement a decade before.

She left us this final gift, discovered among the work papers and documents that I waited a couple of years longer to examine and sort: her thoughts, her feelings, her decisions about how to face the worst and be stronger in faith even when physical, intellectual and emotional strength can fail.

I am still learning so much from her.

____________

Read Angi’sDiary in her own handwriting.

What Would Have Been

Today is the day.

Today would have been the 25th wedding anniversary for Angi and me.

We only made it to 22 before she went on to her next life a few short months later.

Angela BrentonI had plans for today, or at least a day somewhere in the neighborhood of today. I started thinking about our 25th when we first moved to North Carolina. I had plans to commemorate the day we became engaged — and remember our 20th on Napa Valley’s wine train. I had hoped we could enjoy a luncheon excursion on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. This tour would have been nice, to Dillsboro where we used to live.

Of course, it won’t happen now. It’s a what-would-have-been.

Life is full of what-would-have-beens. Things we hope for; things we plan; things that ought to happen, but never do.

Maybe there’s a continuum in eternity for all the would-have-beens to actually take place.

Maybe that’s where they belong.

Because life is also full of what-we-shareds and what-we-achieveds and what-we-were-givens, and those are real. You can look back on them and treasure them and celebrate them, and no one and nothing but fading memory can take them away from you, ever.

So today is the day for all of those.

Today is the day for what’s real.

For memory that persists. For plans that did happen. For dreams that did come true. For what we have and what we’ve had.

Today is that day.

Dear Angi,

The problem, of course, is that I still miss you every day like I just lost you the day before.

And I know I should move on, but I don’t know where or how or why.

Whenever I moved before, since I met you, it was to follow you wherever you wanted and needed to go, and to cheer you on from the sidelines, and to be there for you and our wonderful kids.

But now you’re gone and they are grown and I have to start over somehow.

“Re-invent yourself.” That’s what you used to say. “You’ll just re-invent yourself.” And as long as I had you by my side, I always could and did.

There’s no “just” to doing that now, though.

When we moved to Missouri or Texas or Arkansas or North Carolina, I’d always consider how fun it would be to try to persuade you about us retiring to Eureka Springs and visiting Ireland again, with some extended side trips to England and Wales, and riding on trains all over this continent.

You know, to celebrate the day we became engaged. Like we did on our twentieth anniversary on the wine train. Like we did any time we rode any train, with or without the kids.

Now it would not be the same, not without you.

I can’t even talk to you about any of the things we used to talk about, or any of the things I would tell you now. I don’t know if you can see this, read this, know this … if you just don’t exist for a while, and then will again later … if you’re still part of time, or outside of time, or totally transcendent of time.

I have no clue how the eternity thing works.

All I know for sure about it is that you’re not gone. But you’re also not here.

And that nothing, no time, no place, no one can take your place ever.

I don’t know how to feel about any of this.

For the most part, I just don’t.

I don’t feel.

And for now, that has to be all right.