It’s been over a month now since the hospital called saying simply, “Sir, you need to come to the emergency room. Now.” Nothing more.
The lady said it twice. I got the message.
We had had no warning that my wife Margaret’s death was imminent. We had welcomed family in over the Christmas holidays and Margaret had been doing pool therapy at the rehab hospital. She wanted to be more independent and was driving herself from time to time. Twice recently she had said, “It’s time for you to buy another car and give me this one.”
“This one” was the Honda CR-V which, because it’s built a little higher off the ground than the Camrys we’ve driven for years, was easier for her to maneuver. A year or more ago, we had given our other car to our local granddaughters. Margaret was putting 5 miles a month, at most, on it and Abby and Erin needed transportation. When we began looking for cars, Margaret picked out this Honda with the understanding it was her car. I smile at that. “Her car.” To date, at 2 years 4 months old, the odometer shows over 72,000 miles, almost all put there by her preacher husband going hither and yon in the Lord’s work. Still, she knew it was hers.
Life changes abruptly. Your “other half”–boy, is that ever right!–is suddenly taken from you. From the moment she coughed a couple of times and collapsed in the nail salon, then was whisked to the hospital a couple of miles away, until all life-support apparatus was removed and she took her last breath, was six days. The death certificate lists January 29, 2015 as “the” day.
One I will never ever forget, I’ll tell you that. If that is not the worst day of my life, then the previous Friday–January 23–when this happened, was.
“So, how are you feeling?” Or, “How are you doing?”
People actually ask me that. Good friends. Family members. People I love dearly and who I know treasure me. They ask the hardest question in the world to answer.
My usual response is “I’m going to make it” or something similarly dumb. In truth, that’s about all they want to know at the moment, whether I’m holding up.
What I think is, “I don’t have a clue how I’m doing or what I’m feeling.” If you can imagine a river being fed by fourteen different streams, some freshwater or saltwater, and some muddy and polluted, that would be my feelings. Such a mixture, such a torrent. So hard to pull up a glassful and say, “That’s it right there. That’s how I’m feeling.”
I will admit my eyes have not been dry since January 23. I walked through the neighborhood two hours ago (trying to get back to my exercise routine) letting the tears flow but without anyone knowing I was crying. Give that a try sometime; it’s pretty much impossible.
Half of what I am feeling is just sadness she is gone.
I miss her at this breakfast table in the mornings. I miss doing things for her. I miss shopping for things she could eat. I miss her telling me something she had just read (she was a devoted reader of a wide variety of material; I was so much richer for her reading.).
In the hospital, I stood by her bed holding her hand and touching her face and thought, “She’s still warm. I am so going to miss touching her.” It felt like I wanted to get in all the touching I could before she left.
No one’s hand ever felt like hers. We would be driving and I’d reach over to hold her hand. It was warm and soft and sweet. It felt like medicine to my soul. From beginning to the end–help me here, Father–I have loved the touch of her hand.
When I was nine and had hip surgery in that coal miners’ hospital in Beckley, West Virginia, as I came out from under the anesthesia, my eyes refused to open. With that little child’s voice still ringing in my ears, I can hear myself saying, “Mama.” And my wonderful mother said, “I’m here.”
“Hold my hand.”
And there it was for me, the sweetest softest touch, the touch of the woman I loved dearest on earth. And a decade later, God led me to the one person with the same touch, the one to whom I would stay married for over two-thirds of my life.
I weep because I miss her so much. I miss bouncing ideas off her. “What if we did this?” “What would you think of…?” I miss her walking into a room where I’m at the laptop and as she passes, she rakes her soft hand across my back or through my thinning hair. That was better than any present she could ever have given or any words she could have spoken.
I miss her voice on the phone. You would never have thought you were speaking to a woman in her senior years. Her voice was warm and full and filled with kindness and humor. The nearest voice to hers is her sister Susan, whom I may call just for that reason.
That’s most of my pain. I just miss this woman. My better half, my “good thing,” my help-mate. The best friend ever. The one who kept me real.
A small part of my pain is uncertainty; what am I going to do now?
It’s not that she made our decisions. We made them together. If our son (the one who lives near us) is transferred to Mississippi, as his company has said, and they move there, what will we do? We discussed this on numerous occasions. There would be no one to hold us here any longer. This accounted for thousands of locals moving away following Hurricane Katrina in 2005; once the children were scattered, the parents no longer needed to live on the hurricane coast.
People who have invited me to speak in their churches are now saying, “Since you don’t have to rush back home, could you stay longer?” One called this week to say, “Since you are going to be in our state for that other event, could you come a week early and do a weekend thing for us?” It would involve being gone two full weeks. I have to make these decisions by myself now.
Yes, I can pray and seek God’s leadership. You knew that already I would do that. He will lead me. And knowing my friends and family, there will be no shortage of advice on “You need to do this,” “You need to come here,” and “No, Joe–don’t do that.” I hope they will keep it coming. I’m depending on it.
No doubt some of my pain stems from regrets.
It would be silly to say I have no regrets about our years together. I have plenty, and if you tell me you have none from your long marriage, you will understand if I think you are lying through your teeth. (smiley-face here, please).
I’ve sometimes counseled couples that “anyone married for three years has grounds for divorce.” In a court of law, you could produce enough slights and neglects, putdowns and unkind words, harshness and thoughtlessness, to convince a judge you two were incompatible and mismatched and should never have married in the first place. But you’re just normal; that’s all.
I will not be listing my regrets here. Some are so personal they give me great pain. Others are the usual things such as wishing I’d not been so thoughtless in our earlier years, regretting not telling her how privileged I felt to be her husband more, or saying how beautiful I thought she was only one time out of ten that the thought occurred to me.
Readers must not conclude from this or our other postings that I’m saying Margaret was perfect. I’m under no illusions. She was as human as I. She told me one reason she married me at the tender age of 19 was to get out of the unhappy household. (She was the oldest of four children; it was a small crowded house; and some years later her parents would divorce. I loved her family–and still do–but understand how she felt.)
I regret we didn’t ever get that trip to Mount Rushmore she wanted. She went there on a mission one summer with a group from First Baptist Jackson MS and always wanted to take me there. We would have gone for our 50th anniversary in 2012 but by then her medical problems made long trips impossible. We settled for bringing in the family for a weekend celebration, which was wonderful in every way, of course, and there are no regrets concerning that.
I admit to a tiny excitement over what the future holds.
Missionary friends in Italy have already said, “You could come visit with us now.” Friends in the D.C. area have said the same. Two families in Arizona said, “We have a house at the edge of the desert you would love. It’s yours for a few days or a week or more.”
Maybe I could return to the Holy Land. Our one trip was 31 years ago, and since then I’ve learned a lot more about Scripture. Another visit would be wonderful. Or to England again. Our one trip there was 33 years ago, and there are places unknown to me then which are huge on my agenda now.
I have no plans for any of this. But the point is–I’m talking to myself here now–there is nothing really keeping me from doing these and a hundred other things. I’m so grateful the Lord has blessed me with good health and sufficient retirement income to do whatever He wills.
A small smidgen of my pain may be a fear of the future.
I know, I know.
I know about faith and I preach strong messages on faith. (Take my word for that! ) But faith can be difficult. She will not be there to help me, to advise me, to pray for me.
Margaret would often assure me “I prayed for you this morning as you were preaching.” (She had not accompanied me to a preaching assignment in many years because of her various ailments and the difficulty of travel, of sitting in church for long periods, and then waiting for long periods before and after church while Joe sketched people, doing his thing.)
I’m well aware that my 75th birthday comes up in a month. But to me–honestly–it’s just a date on a calendar. We’re not big on birthdays around here. Both my parents lived to be almost 96, and I ask the Lord to strengthen me for many years of service to Him. I’d settle for another two decades. Smiley-face, please.
What does the future hold? Whatever will I do without Margaret? God knows, and He’s not telling.
I will walk by faith. Keep breathing. Try to live on my knees. To do good, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with my God.
So, I give thanks that “this momentary light affliction is working for us an exceeding weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
The best is yet to come. The hard part is getting through today.
How’m I doing? I’m going to make it.