Now please understand – I’m not a person who looks for signs.
I lean on the One who tells me to trust in Him, not in the ways of this earth. And so I’m not searching around for material things, wondering if they hold some cosmic meaning for me.
But every once in awhile, life seems to line up in way that speaks to me of comfort and peace beyond my understanding, and the only correct response can be, “Thank you. Thank you for this moment of grace.”
Today would have been my paternal grandparents’ 76th wedding anniversary.
If you’ve been a reader of my blog for some time, you’ll remember that my family celebrated their 75th anniversary with them last year (in 2017). My grandparents were in good health and in great, great spirits. However, they both passed into eternal life within weeks of the magnificent event, and the rest of us are left to contemplate how blessed we were to have this amazing couple with us for as long as we did.
All grieving families go through a mourning process that includes shock and sadness. It’s been an up and down year for each of us, but overall, it has brought us closer together. And joy has been a part of these long months, too, as we welcomed our family’s newest member – my sister’s first child, my beautiful nephew.
My heart held fast to these memories as I clasped Grandma’s gold cross around my neck for the first time this morning. My aunt just gave it to me on Saturday during our first visit together since some sad days last February.
As I held onto the necklace I was thinking about God’s words, “And behold, I am with you always,” (Matthew 28:20).
I stepped over to the mirror to take a look and just then a cardinal appeared to my right in the bush outside my window.
The brightest, fattest, reddest, cardinal.
It has been said these birds are the spirit sign of a loved one you’ve lost.
And so I wondered…
I was transfixed, rooted to the spot, as it sat there swaying on the branch, its wings, head, and breast glinting in the sunlight.
It stayed long enough for me to hear my mind compete: “I will not move until it does.”
And then…finally…it cocked its head and took flight.
I firmly believe there is an unseen reality and One God who is with us always.
He lives to show us He loves us. He lives to show us His love.
I always knew there was a range of emotions to encounter in grief, but I didn’t count on humor being one of them.
We were sitting down to dinner on the day my grandfather died. On my own, I had already told the children the news one-by-one, something that needed to be done because my husband was in another state at a colleague’s mother’s funeral and our kids’ age spread meant they wouldn’t be able to process the info in the same way. We had all been together in Seattle just a week before to celebrate my grandparents’ 75th wedding anniversary. Telling the kids that their 94-year old great-grandfather – who had seemed the picture of health – had suddenly entered heaven came as a shock to them, to say the least. Kids are never prepared. But then again, are any of us?
Everyone was happy that it was ‘breakfast for dinner’ – pancakes, eggs, fruit and OJ, but about 5 minutes into the meal my 7-year old son asked, “Where’s the pork roll?” – a Philadelphia favorite and weekend staple in our house.
I let out a frustrated sigh that I wasn’t aware I’d been holding in.
“I forgot it, alright? Bestefar died today and I forgot the pork roll. We’ll be fine without it.”
Then I promptly burst into tears.
My 11-year old daughter dropped her fork and in a shaky voice said, “Oh, Mom! Are you ok?”
Banging his fist on the table – young man of the house – my teenage son declared, “Clearly, she is NOT ok!!”
Turning to me, he said – a little too loudly, “MOM! If you need to go lie down, or…or…or take a break…or something…you just do that, OK?”
Then, to my left, a sweet little 7-year old’s voice said, “Mom?”
In a state of disbelief, I turned to my youngest son.
“Yes?” I said.
“Are you thinking dark thoughts?”
It was all I could do not to burst into fits of laughter.
Maturity in three stages spread out before me. The 7-year old had forgotten the day’s events. The 11-year old could only feel empathy. And the 14-year old was desperately trying to control the situation.
It was a foreshadowing of my own grieving process – the one I would go through in the weeks ahead.
Grandpa passed in January and Grandma passed in March, and every day I’m in one of these three stages: denial, empathy and sadness, or trying to regain a footing. My grandparents meant more to me than most people may realize. Despite the geographical distance between us, they were a firm foundation in my life; I counted on them for stability and strength in ways that only now are becoming apparent to me.
And I’ve been rather silent on this blog as I try to process that realization, focusing instead on just getting through the days. But this morning I realized yet again that what they were to me is what I have been called to be to others. The mantle is passed in this way from generation to generation. And if I spend my life trying to emulate theirs, I will have succeeded in giving my children the precious gifts my grandparents gave to me. These three things abide: faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)
It was the boxes that set me off. Four arrived from Washington state, lovingly packed by my dad and my aunt and filled to the brim with treasured items from my grandparents’ apartment. Both of them passed recently after 75 years of marriage – Grandpa on January 28, and Grandma on March 2. The boxes’ arrival conveyed a finality that words never could.
It had been a tough day already. I’d had to delete the reminder that kept popping up on my phone.
“Call Grandma and Grandpa” hurt me every time I saw it.
That task was a perpetual one. Call every week or two, just to check in. Make a little statement of love to span the distance between my hometown of Annapolis, and theirs – Seattle.
Life around here is probably like yours. Activities to get to, people to care for. My kids were the reason for that reminder. Time spent on homework, sports, music lessons, meals, and sweatpants and socks gone M.I.A. gets frittered away so easily, and my mind unravels bit by bit. I need a ‘ping’ now and then to keep me on track – to help me stay the course for ‘to-dos’ of eternal value.
And besides, I looked forward to our conversations, especially the ones between just Grandma and me.
“Tell me about the children,” Grandma always began, and I’d fill her in on the latest. I know she asked because she wanted to hear, but I also know that she asked because she knew that my kids hold my heart, and talking about them brings me joy. Grandma was savvy; she could see what was important and what wasn’t.
But yesterday, there was no need for the phone reminder anymore. The void in my heart caused by their absence is reminder enough.
How can a void be filled?
You can try to stuff it with meaningless stuff, but that’s not what we learn in Scripture.
“In the beginning…the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss…Then God said, ‘Let there be light,'” (Genesis 1:1-2).
You know the rest of the story.
Voids can only be filled by one thing: the power of the Creator doing what He does best – create.
My faith has been carrying me steadily, but riding the emotions is an important part of grief.
I’m thinking about this when my husband comes home from work to find me crying.
Fear has gripped me. What if something happens to the few recordings I have of their voices? What if I can’t tell their story? The bigger fear is this: What if I forget….the way they spoke to me, the feel of their hugs, the sound of their laughter….And oh my gosh, we laughed so much because they embraced life fully and radiated happiness.
It’s what they wished for me – for all of us – even as Grandma whispered in each of my children’s ears the very last time she hugged them. “Have a happy life,”she said to them, one by one.
How can I create anything of meaning and joy when fear and sadness press in?
Look again at the picture in this post. See my daughter playing piano in the background? She’s using her God-given gifts to compose a piece that tumbles like thunder and shakes the floors of our home. She presses into it, telling me that it’s helping her prepare to play a similar song called “Seascape,” that conjures up waves rolling on a sandy shore.
There’s a lesson in this moment.
To cover an abyss we must plod through darkness, leaning into the Source of all power to do the art of creating life in the now. We trust in faith that we will be given what we need, and that promised joy will indeed come.
So play the song, write the book, take the trip, make the call, and see and speak and push through the pain to make something new out of a formless phase.
“I remember this,” I said to Grandma, “I always liked it.”
I sat on the floor of my grandparents’ dining room, knowing it was likely the last time I’d ever be in their home. It was February 2016, and the property had been sold to a home builder who valued the land more than the house itself. My grandparents had gracefully accepted their transition to a retirement home, but were still returning to the house to clean out more than 6 decades worth of accumulated possessions. Grandma sat on a chair while I pulled items out of the hutch and packed them into boxes.
“It’s a bluebird of happiness,” she said wistfully. “Take it.”
The glass bluebird had been in my grandparents’ kitchen window for as long as I could remember, but was now hidden among other trinkets, ready for a move. I made a mental note to ask Grandma later about its significance, but I never did. After she passed, I took it down from a shelf in my home and examined it more closely.
“Leo Ward 1983,” reads the etching on the bottom, and a quick Google search reveals that many of these bluebirds were created in the 1980s. They sell on Ebay for about $10.
But monetary value holds no value at all when it comes to memories.
Even on rainy Seattle days, my grandparents’ kitchen was always bright, sunny, and smelling of fresh fruit. A few potted plants on the windowsills surrounded the table and chairs in the cozy corner, where two large windows met and overlooked the fenced-in backyard.
We sat down to a set table for every meal. Placemats and cloth napkins, even at breakfast. Milk for cereal in its own pitcher. Everything that would be needed was before us in the center. No one would eat alone or hopping up and down to retrieve items.
And what’s the significance?
I felt honored in my grandparents’ home. Not because of what I’d been doing in my life, but because there was literally a space carved out just for me, three times a day, where my presence was anticipated and cherished.
In modern life, we are so consumed with what we accomplish in a given day. I run from one activity to the next, feeling pushed to make my choices count. But meals together can slow this all down to allow us moments of sanctifying grace.
When I look at the bluebird, I am taken back to the table, where I remember being accepted, encouraged, affirmed, strengthened, and deeply loved.
The bluebird of happiness tells me that – even now – there is always time to hear the heart, and that connection to and gratitude for one another is what truly brings us joy.
I think of her most often when I’m doing the everyday tasks. So that’s all the time.
Combing a child’s hair.
Setting a table.
Sweeping the floor.
Piano music is playing on the radio and I’m doing this last thing – crushing ground beef against the side of a pot to ensure that it browns evenly – when I start to cry.
Grief is like that. It sneaks up on you at the strangest moments.
I turn the stove down and wander into the family room, letting the meat rest until I can slow the sobs.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Something she can’t do anymore.
I cry harder.
I have faith. I trust that all is well.
But sadness is…It just is.
How many days did my grandma move in a trance around her home mourning the people she’d loved and lost?
“Oh, stakkars liten” I hear her say, as she called me when I was a child. It’s Norwegian for “poor little one.”
We carry these precious pieces with us – the knowledge that we were loved, even as love was shown in the words chosen to comfort us in our everyday distress.
And this is just a small part of what I want to write about.
Some of you are aware, and others are just hearing, that I want to undertake a new challenge. I’d like to write a book for my kids about how love and grace have shown up throughout generations of their family, as it has in all our families, if we look closely enough.
I don’t know how long this will take. It could be quite a long process. But I will document it here on my blog and share how it goes with you, while offering what I hope will be useful observations so that if anyone else should like to undertake a similar adventure they can learn from my experience.
If you haven’t done so already, I invite you to sign up to receive updates by email. Look for the green box in the sidebar above. Thanks for joining me.
It seemed like a dream as I pressed the receiver to my ear and heard my dad’s voice.
“Grandma is no longer with us. She’s with Grandpa now.”
She passed late Thursday night. Her decline had been swift. Just 11 days earlier I was in Seattle for my grandfather’s memorial service and she had seemed frail but steady.
But when you lost your spouse of 75 years just weeks ago, and you’ve held out for one final trip down memory lane in the company of family and friends, perhaps you just decide once and for all that enough is enough.
At a certain point, the body won’t hold a soul that wants to go where a body simply can’t.
She was one half of the most beautiful couple I have ever known.
I said on their 70th wedding anniversary that it was my right to put them on a pedestal, and I still believe that it is. Their relationship exuded a quality I seldom see – a quality they would never have thought described them, but then, most people who have this deny it out of sheer humility.
That quality is holiness.
Too often, holiness is associated with religiosity, and this, my grandparents were emphatically, not.
Holiness is something so much more sublime. Divine. An intention of the heart.
As I wrote on their 75th wedding anniversary, which we celebrated together in January:
It has been said that the purpose of marriage is not to make us happy, but instead, to make us HOLY.
I’ve been considering this statement for the last several years. And even if a person does not submit to the idea that our universe – and all that lies within it – is here for a divine purpose, namely, so that we can learn how to live like the Creator – a force of Love with a capital “L” that gives so freely He even wants to live through each one of us….Yes, even if someone does not agree with this heartfelt belief of mine, there is value in considering holiness as a purpose for marriage. And here’s why.
The process of becoming holy is the refinement of a person. It is a gradual sloughing off of all that is flawed in order to move toward perfection in goodness and righteousness – like placing rocks in a crucible and burning away impurities to reveal hidden gold or silver.
When I think about the ideal marriage, this is exactly what happens for the 2 individuals involved.
When it works well, marriage does several things to us and for us. It brings us joy. It brings us love. It brings us companionship for life’s adventures.
Most importantly though, it helps us to understand the long-term benefits of practicing a myriad of virtues such as acceptance, compassion, consideration, flexibility, generosity, humility, kindness, and forgiveness….
A good spouse encourages us, and calls us back toward the best version of ourselves. Over the long haul, there is benefit to both people in choosing:
patience over edginess,
service over self-centeredness,
understanding over egoism,
honesty over deceit,
and unity over division.
Was the path my grandparents took an easy one? Almost certainly not. I’m sure they faced tests and struggles that the rest of our family never knew about. But they passed through those fires and came out stronger and purer because of them.
My grandparents taught me by example what the path of holiness looks like. In their quiet way, they kept faith in God and lived as servants to one another. This, more than any other, is their enduring legacy to me.
Yes, they have left me beautiful memories, family I love deeply, and a few precious mementos, but it’s the love and honor they gave each other that I value the most.
Perhaps that’s why I can’t think of one without the other, and why Grandma couldn’t stay with us any longer than she did.
“Come live with me, and be my love, And we will some new pleasures prove Of golden sands, and crystal brooks, With silken lines, and silver hooks.” ― John Donne
I lost my grandpa this week. The pain is new and deep, and I know that I will miss him for the rest of my life.
Memories comfort me, yes, but so does something else. The knowledge that I told him on so many, many occasions that I loved him. I did not let key opportunities slip by.
Just a week before my grandpa passed, my family and I had gathered in his retirement home in Seattle, WA, to celebrate his and my grandma’s 75th wedding anniversary. They were married in January 1942, just a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when Grandpa realized he’d be entering the Army Air Corps and knew he couldn’t go without his love. Allen and Hazel were high school sweethearts who truly grew up into adulthood together. As Grandpa said just a few days ago, “We met in May 1939, and I knew she was the one for me.”
Over the years, our family gathered from across the U.S. to celebrate 4 of their major milestone anniversaries: 60, 65, 70, and 75. At the 60th, I hardly said a word about the love and pride I was feeling. But something changed by the 65th, and today I suddenly realized why.
It was January 2007. I was midway through the 8-month process of learning and discernment that is required of people who wish to enter the Catholic Church – smack dab in the middle of the longest stretch of time I had ever spent considering God’s Word and thinking about His role in my life. And since we often can see with clarity in hindsight those things which seem muddled in the moment, now I know that God was working in my heart and gently coaxing me on to joy in the pursuit of His purposes.
Not everyone is comfortable expressing love in words, and the truth is, it wasn’t always that way for me. On the flight out to the West Coast in 2007, I wrote a letter to my grandparents that I planned to read at the anniversary dinner. I was full of adrenaline as my pen shot across the pages, charged with emotion as I lay down memory after memory, puffed with happiness at the thought that I would be able to share them with Grandma and Grandpa. And when the time came to read, I was shaking all over. It wasn’t seamless, but I got through it, word by word, my voice faltering and cracking.
My family praised me, but what meant the most was the knowledge that my words were a gift my grandparents truly treasured. Grandma called me over with a gentle wave, held my hands in both of hers and said, “Gretchen, dear, have you ever thought about being a writer?” She knew I wrote nonfiction educational materials, but she was talking about something more. She was urging me forward. “Yes, Grandma. It’s actually what I think I want to do.” “You should do it.” She nodded slightly to indicate her seriousness and squeezed my hands. “You should do it.”
I had reservations and told her so – that I didn’t think I had any worthy material, had no idea what to write about. She listened lovingly and nodded understandingly, but my grandma encourages regardless of fear. She is a quiet repose of strength and confidence.
I would go on to write another letter for their 70th, and deliver it with less anxiety than I had on the 65th. And when last weekend came, I was filled with calm and a deep conviction that I was doing the right thing, regardless of whether the thoughts I expressed were the same thoughts as those of others in the room. It turns out I was right – Grandpa was just a couple days from meeting his Creator, and this was my last chance to pour out my heart to him.
How can we know when we’re on the right path? How we can know we are saying or doing what we should? For me, there are a few indicators:
1) I ask who I’m serving. Who am I doing this for? If my actions are born of love, a desire to be in community and relationship with others, and above all, if I’m aiming to please God with all my mind, heart, soul, and strength, I’m probably headed in the right direction.
2) I consider the voices I’m hearing. Encouragement and gentleness come from Love (with a capital “L”). He does not chastise or tell me I’m an unworthy, useless, untalented wanna-be. If negative voices are dominating my thoughts, I must call them out to fight with the blinding light of Truth. God is Love. He is Light. There is no hate and no darkness in Him. And He alone can give me the strength and confidence I need to move forward, if I surrender to His good will and love for me.
3) I remember in faith that I am not an accident. The desires of my heart to do good work in my life were planted there by the One who loves me more than I can comprehend, and wants me to enjoy life to the fullest. My desires are part His divine plan.
In His Word, God tells us how to live joyfully, and He promises us that we are all given gifts. Don’t we believe that He’ll help us to use those gifts? Don’t we know without having seen that Love is real, and therefore we can step out with our talents, trusting in that Love to see us through? We move in faith, believing that He has blessings in store for us if we work with Him, if we don’t give in to the lies that plague us.
“Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” – Hebrews 3:15