“Beauty is deceitful and popularity is vain. But a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised. Give her of the fruit of her own hands, and let her own works praise her in the gates” (Proverbs 31:30-31).
Margaret would be embarrassed to know I used Proverb 31 on her.
But she was in many respects every ounce that strong woman to whom someone is paying tribute. She had to be, considering all the hurdles she cleared, the obstacles she overcame, the setbacks and hardships and difficulties life handed her, all of which she met head-on and surmounted.
I wish you could have known her in her prime.
She could be fierce in her faith and soft in her sweetness, and focused like a laser when she set her mind to do a thing. Only in her later years did the burdens begin to outnumber and overwhelm her. Even then, she was a fighter. Her calendar is filled with appointments I am having to cancel–meetings with therapists, nutritionists, pain management clinic, physical therapy, a psychiatrist, and a few other things. She was not giving up, she was not going down without a fight.
Joe married a fighter. April 13, 1962. A Friday night in Birmingham, Alabama.
She would have to be a fighter. She was tying herself to a young preacher who hardly knew how to be a husband, breadwinner, pastor, or a father, and much less a caretaker, lover, best friend. I would have to learn all of this, and some lessons came harder than others.
My wife would serve notice to pastor search committees up front, although not in a combative way, that she was no assistant pastor. She would not be running the woman’s missionary program, and would take her own time before deciding what ministries to participate in. And she held to her guns. Almost without exception, our churches treasured her.
People would say, “We wanted Margaret in our church, and the only way to get her was to call you as our pastor.”
Friends write to assure me that Margaret is in the arms of Jesus, that she is in Heaven, that she was a strong believer, and we shall see her again.
I know that. I said to one, “I’ve got the eternity thing down pat. I know where she is. The only thing I’m having trouble with is Friday, January 30. How to get through today.”
What was it Tom Hanks said in “Castaway”? “Now I just have to remember to breathe.”
The tears will not stop. How will I ever live without her. I was 22 and she was 19 when we married. We do not recommend marrying that young. We both needed a few years of aging.
I tell our grands, “Most lovers will tell one another ‘I love you.’ But in our case, I would tell Grandma, ‘You love me.’ She’d say, ‘I do?’ and I would say, ‘You certainly do.'” Then later, if she volunteered, “I love you,” I would say, “See? I told you you did.”
Margaret and I were not exactly a matched set. We were opposites in a hundred ways and connected well in maybe twenty.
I will tell you a few things she brought to my life….
1) Reality. Joe is a dreamer and needs a ballast to keep him anchored. Margaret was that.
2) Her family. I loved her dad and mom and her brother and two sisters. They were just exactly like my side of the family in that there was not a dummy in the group, everyone very bright, and each one an original. One difference is that her family yelled at each other when they disagreed, and mine never raised their voices. That took a little getting-used-to when we married. The first yelling from her, I thought she was leaving. But it’s how she learned to disagree.
3) Our family. She gave birth to Neil (he’s my junior) and Marty (he’s John Marshall, but was named Marty by his maternal grandmother when he was two days old), and and is responsible for our daughter Carla Jinoke. In the early 1970s, when the Vietnam war was raging, a hospital in DaNang was working on little children horribly burned by napalm. We began sending money to them. One day Margaret looked up from an article she was reading with tears. “Can’t we do more?” The “more” she had in mind was to adopt a Vietnamese child. Long story, a series of God steps, and in May of 1974, we flew to Kansas City to meet the plane bringing our 5-year-old Korean daughter. Margaret used to say, “Neil and Marty were born in my tummy; Jinoke was born in my heart.” Indeed.
4) Intelligence. I loved for her to read my blogs (okay, I read them aloud to her) to get her input. If something did not sound right, she told me. If an area was weak or overly long, she said so. If a word was misused, I would know that in a heartbeat. She read incessantly and looked up words she did not know..
5) Credibility to my ministry. Some friends in our churches who suspected I was too preacherish, too orthodox, and too righteous for my own good eased off once they met Margaret. They knew she would tell me if I veered to the right or the left. If she doubted something I preached, I would learn it quickly. Her questions helped me keep it real.
6) Love. Margaret was not one much for theory. Love had to be active, to show itself by deeds. She believed strongly in Luke 6:27 that love was in doing good, blessing, praying, and giving.
Once when a young couple in our newlywed Sunday School class moved off to Newfoundland and then encountered several medical problems with their newborn, Margaret flew there, to the northernmost point of North America, and spent two weeks helping the young mother while the dad was off working. No one asked her to do this, and she certainly did not ask my permission. It was the right thing to do and she did it.
I told you she kept her preacher-husband honest. (In fact, she told me in the first months of marriage, “I will not be married to someone who is unemployed. Get a job.” So, even though my schoolteacher job started up that fall and I could draw unemployment for the summer, I went out and found a job.) When I was learning to do our taxes, she didn’t help much–I say with a smile; this was my job–but she let me know, “Do not cut corners. Do not lie or exaggerate. We will tell the truth.”
Every young husband should be told by his wife to be honest, tell the truth always, and that unemployment is not an option.
Some of the more painful parts of our 52+ years of married life include…
–Dancing lessons. Being a city girl of the 1950s, Margaret loved to dance. As the country boy whose other partner in my twosome was a mule, I did not dance and had no desire to learn. I was a preacher and a Baptist one at that. Ballroom dancing is not taught in our seminaries. But on her birthday in 1988, a Thursday, we were driving through the lovely North Carolina countryside and she began to work on me. “They’re having an open house at Fred Astaire tonight. It’s free and you don’t have to do anything but go with me.” I pointed out a barn in the distance. “Margaret, you see that? I would rather stand on top of that barn stark naked than take dancing lessons.” At 7 o’clock that night, we were at Fred Astaire (and I was fully clothed, for the smart alecks among us). A year later, I was a regular Barney Fife on the dance floor. You thought I was going to say Gene Kelly? I took the lessons and learned the steps, but never danced with anyone but her. She loved it, I must say. And was so proud of me. (Durn. There go the tears again.)
–A year of marriage counseling. We would drive 90 miles from Columbus to Meridian twice a month and meet with Dr. Jack Follis in the Lauderdale Baptist Association building. Counseling was painful, heart-wrenching (not to say gut-wrenching), easily one of the hardest things I have ever done. Nothing about it was enjoyable, just so you will know. Sometimes we would ride home silently, wrung out from all the talk and tears. But in the years since, I have recommended to many pastors and spouses they do this. With the right counselor, it can salvage a marriage, rescue a ministry, and even save a life.
–Difficulties with our three children. I so envy pastors who bring godly children through adolescence into adulthood without the potholes we encountered. Our three are doing great these days, and we all adore each other, so I’m going to say no more about this. My longtime buddy Winfield “Windy” Rich used to send a Christmas letter telling how this child is now head of some department at Johns Hopkins Medical Center and that one just installed a computer system for a Fortune 500 company. I would write back, “My three children are out of jail. At the moment.”
My wife was burdened all her life by the cruelest of masters: perfectionism.
If something we did was not perfect, it was awful and she was disgusted with herself. When we tried to have family devotions, when she and I set apart a couple of hours a week for a picnic with “talk and a psalm,” when we did a vacation or renovated a house, she wanted to throw in the towel if everything was not ideal. She found an article in Psychology Today magazine back in the 1970s that called “Perfectionism” a “script for self-defeat,” which it surely is, since no one is perfect nor can they be perfect. That helped. I copied the article and over the years handed out hundreds of them to friends and counselees dealing with the same cruel standards.
The perfectionism, I need to say, was focused only on ourselves. She was fully prepared to show mercy to others who turned in substandard work. But when she went to college, she had to make As. (She graduated with honors, something her husband did not come close to doing.)
My wife was far more intellectual than I. She would read heavy books, loved psychological thrillers in movies or television, and delighted in conversations with professors about deep issues. Meanwhile, I’d be reading my western novel and turning out another cartoon for a Baptist publication. I could discuss these heavy concepts with her for about 5 minutes. After that, my brain grew tired. (smiley-face here) And yes, she tended to interpret that as my not caring for her.
Most husbands know.
My cousin Jacqueline Gordon (later Jackie Cordes Gentry of Jasper, AL) gave our family a great line when she was a child living briefly with our grandparents on the Alabama farm. She grew tired of the heavy adult conversation going on around her all the time and blurted out, “I don’t like this! Let’s talk about good things–like candy and little calves!”
Margaret would say, “Joe does not like to deal with real issues. He wants to talk about candy and little calves.” Often, she was right. In my defense, I would respond that I see so much pain and misery in my work, my spirit needs a break from it occasionally. I need to see a Disney cartoon, to read a western novel, to get with friends for no reason other than to laugh.
Margaret grew up in a household without a lot of laughter. Mine was the opposite. My mother sold jokes to magazines a few times. My dad cut out funny stories to share. My three brothers are all humorists in their own way.
Can I say, I’m thankful for the way my wife died?
Margaret had driven herself that morning to the nail salon 2 miles from our house, and collapsed on the chair after a spell of coughing. They dialed 911 and help came almost immediately.
1) She was not driving when she collapsed. We’ve all heard of drivers passing out and crashing into other vehicles and taking out whole families.
2) She was one block from the police station and a half-mile from the fire department. She was already halfway to the hospital from our house, perhaps 3 miles.
3) We had had an hour at the breakfast table where I’m sitting now. I had made her tea and she was eating a bowl of rice while reading the morning paper. We discussed the lawsuit involving Saints owner Tom Benson and she wanted to hear the blog I was working on. We sat there a full hour. Then she went back to bed for a while. I finished the blog and told her I would be reading my novel on the bed in the back. Around 10:30 she called that she was going to the nail salon–driving herself, which is rare these days, but not a problem–and she would be back. At noon, the hospital called me.
4) I’m grateful she was being proactive about all the health issues she was facing. Two days earlier, I drove her to the rehab for pool therapy and the day before drove her to her hour-long visit with Beverly, her longtime therapist and friend. We ran by Mr. Poorboy on the way home and got takeout.
5) Over Christmas holidays, two of our three Missouri granddaughters came down. Margaret and I drove them across the lake to the English Tea Room at Covington. She had a great time. Then, just after Christmas, our Carolina son arrived with his family for a few days of love and laughter. So, we have much to be thankful for.
I’ve found a little secret that helps me deal with the overwhelming pain of missing my wife. When I start counting the blessings she was to me, the pain recedes. When I start telling the Heavenly Father ways in which she blessed me and giving Him thanks, the pain disappears.
So far, I’m up to blessing number seven thousand thirty five. But the pain keeps hovering around, trying to find a way back into my soul.
I know Margaret is doing just fine. She is seeing her mom and dad and sister, and my parents. She is seeing the Lord Jesus. I cannot begin to imagine.
I’m just crying for me.
I keep reminding myself to breathe.
POST SCRIPT…. (written in the evening of the first day without her)
I spent a couple of hours this afternoon cleaning the bedroom where Margaret had been sleeping. I removed all the medicines, the pamphlets on this condition or that program, the reading materials, the tissues, and a hundred other things. When I picked up the folder reading “Crohn’s & Colitis,” as I tossed it in the trash, I called out, “Goodbye, Crohn’s Disease! Goodbye Colitis! Goodbye knee pain! Goodbye weight problems! Goodbye depression! The former things have passed away! He shall wipe away all tears from their eyes! No more suffering, no more death. He makes all things new! Praise God from whom all blessings flow!”
The Lord and I had an old-fashioned camp meeting right there on the carpet.
You and I live in anticipation of that blessed hope when our Lord shall return and the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. So shall we ever be with the Lord!