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This Is Really, Really Difficult

Don's Journey

Gail died two weeks ago yesterday. In one manner, it feels like an eternity since I’ve held her, and in another way, it feels like this is still just a really bad dream. I spent much of the night last night having bad dreams. I awakened again and again, reached across the bed and rubbed her pillow, even pulling it close to hold as if she would somehow speak to me from this precious place where she laid her head and still fills my senses with her wonderful aroma. This is really, really difficult.

By the time we finished the weekend after Gail’s death, all the difficult decisions that had to be made, the dozens of people that went through our home, and the wonderful memorial service held in her honor, we were all exhausted. I literally felt like a washrag that had been completely rung out. It got worse. Eventually, I felt like the rag had been hung out in the scorching sun and just hung there wrinkled and dry. I had nothing left. I’ve experienced the deaths of my sister, mother and father, grandmother, numerous aunts and uncles, very close friends and mentors, but this is sinking to a whole different level of pain. It sometimes feels like the last few minutes after going down with the Titanic, about to sink under waves one last time.

I remember being in the grocery store shopping, something I really enjoy doing and have done all of it for most of the past two years. (I know it’s weird but it’s somehow therapeutic for me. Gail and I eat mostly fresh foods, so I shop often.) As I chose each item, my mind involuntarily thought of what Gail would want and what she needed. As the days have passed, I’ve realized anew how deeply our lives were interwoven. I have spent many years making no decisions without Gail somewhere in mind. I wanted to please her, I needed her as a buffer to my impetuous nature, I wanted to enjoy most things together, I most often knew exactly what choices she would make in nearly any situation . . . the list goes on. I’ve always felt it a mystery when God states that in marriage, “two become one flesh.” That seems a bit of an overstatement. How is that possible? I don’t know, but I can tell you it is true, if you allow it to be true in your marriage. Gail and I were indeed one flesh. I suppose in God’s eyes, we were always one flesh and I don’t doubt His opinion on the matter; but it took many years, many arguments and struggles, many mundane days of everyday life, and many wonderful adventures, for me to get a glimpse of what He means. I’m so glad for that, but now it really sucks to have that torn away.

Gail and I loved to travel. We loved adventure. We felt that the world is an endless opportunity of beauty and mystery and hope. God did a really good job on this planet, which gives me hope for the “new heaven and earth” we are promised – one that will not be stained by the results of sin. If He did such a good job the first time around, I look forward to what He will do the second time.

I’ve served on a board for many years whose meetings are often held in New York City. It would not be a stretch to call New York our “beloved” city. I know it is hard for many of you to fathom, but New York was one of our favorite destinations, so Gail often accompanied me to these meetings where we usually tacked on a day or two to roam these vibrant streets. We have visited New York several times a year for nearly forty years. My fall board meeting was this week. At first, I felt the need to cancel my attendance. It would just be too difficult and, being preoccupied, I wouldn’t be worth much to the board. But after some reflection, I knew that I should go. I knew what Gail would have wanted me to do. So, I took the three-hour train ride, which we so enjoyed, and settled into a new hotel. The sadness was overwhelming as I sat there alone, looking over the amazing skyline. But, enough of that. “Get off of your butt and hit the streets.” I walked over six miles that day. I ended up at Carmine’s, one of our favorite restaurants in all the world. I didn’t want to sit at a regular table, so I went upstairs to a small bar. Carmine’s is a family style restaurant, which means the portions are all the size of a large meat platter. You cannot order single servings. The bartender made it clear and actually gave me kind of a frown when I ordered lasagna. Carmine’s lasagna would easily serve four people. I felt badly that I would barely touch it, but I was determined to have this meal in honor of the one who had given me so many hours of Italian dining enjoyment on Broadway. She would have frowned that I wasted that much food, but perhaps she would understand. I walked late into the night and slept well – albeit alone. This is really difficult.

For the next three days, I attended meetings, walked many miles, had dinner with one of our “adopted” daughters, saw Steely Dan at the Beacon theater, and found an awesome pair of shoes at Macy’s for half price. I’m trying to figure this thing out. I’m not sure what that looks like yet, but one thing I know, I cannot sit around crying all the time. Some crying is a very good thing right now, but it is not the place to live. Gail would be upset if I wallowed in sorrow all the time.

I’m home again. The mountain of paperwork is daunting and I’m impatient with it. If Gail were here, she would do it and tell me what happened. Dying is messy. It leaves behind a growing malaise of paperwork and decisions. It’s like tearing a scab off of a serious wound and then pouring salt into it.

I’m still finding her items here and there. I’m still trying to help my children figure this out. I’m trying to keep up with at least a minimum amount of work so I’ll not be swamped next week. I’m trying to communicate with friends and family members. I’m feeling guilty because there is no way I can properly thank the myriad of people who have loved us through this entire process. I’m listening to a quiet that screams.

This is really, really difficult.

Thanks for once again listening. Death is indeed our greatest enemy and I relish the day when death itself will be buried for good. I will spit on the grave of death! My wife suffered terribly the last two years. All of her hopes and dreams for the future were insidiously destroyed by cancer and chemotherapy. The last few weeks of her life were nothing short of extremely painful and miserable. Through the entire process, Gail reminded me that I was being asked to let go of “one” person and all that she means to me. But for her, she was asked to forfeit virtually every single thing, big or small, that she loved and enjoyed. One lousy item at a time, like pulling away layers of skin until there is nothing left but raw, red tissue. And then, the tissue dies. I know that description is morbid, but it’s true.

Was her suffering worth it? I’m honestly not sure I agree with God about His allowance of this process for Gail – at least not yet. But I do know there will be a long line of people in heaven who will have a different opinion than mine. In times like these, we decide what we really believe and what purpose we have embraced in life. God watched His Son suffer thirty-three lousy years among an ungrateful, undeserving lot of people, and then watched Him beaten and murdered before His very eyes. Out of that suffering flows eternal life, likely for most of you reading this blog, and, for millions you and I will never know. Was it worth it? I suppose so, but it still sucks.

I really do believe in heaven and eternity with God in a place even better than the one upon which we live. I suppose Gail’s suffering was a tiny, tiny blip on the screen of what she now enjoys. I look forward to walking the streets of the City of God with her one day. I have no doubt it will be even better than walking the streets of New York with the one you love.

Over the next few days/weeks, I am going to chronicle more of my experiences in hopes that perhaps someone enduring a similar experience might know that if pastors have these feelings, it’s probably okay for anyone hurting like this. The person who thinks pastors are not regular people are either deluded or misinformed. I hope something Gail and I have shared over the past two years has been helpful. Thank you for the opportunity.