Friday, January 2, 2015

New Beginnings

A new year means new beginnings. I was not sure if I was going to keep writing after getting through 2014, but I know in my heart that God is not done working through my willingness to write. That being said, it is time for a change of web-scenery. My new website is: thisconstanthope.com All of the old blogs are linked, so you can still see them on the new site. I hope you will come visit as I share my heart with you this year! 

You can also like the page on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/This-Constant-Hope/804500606282575?pnref=story

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Still and always

On December 5, 2013, I sat on the floor of my living room next to the couch with my computer in my lap. Aaron was lying on the couch, barely responsive. I knew that we did not have much time. I also knew that once Aaron did pass away, people would be looking to hear from me, and I did not want the first thing I said or posted to be trivial. So that afternoon, I sat next to my dying husband and wrote the majority of my final Caringbridge blog. We eventually went to the hospital that night, and Aaron left this world the following morning (a morning I wrote about in June). Before leaving for Enterprise the evening of the 6th, I revised and published what I thought at the time would be my last blog. I initially planned on just re-posting that blog here, as much of it is still how I feel. But I've chosen instead to post it with a little commentary of how my perspective of that day has changed (or not) in the last year. 

December 6, 2013 (Caringbridge.com):

This will be my last blog entry. A farewell.

Aaron always said that we were brought together by God, that our relationship was rooted in something greater than human love. It was easy to look at our paths and see God's guiding hand, leading us to one another. That's why Aaron was sure only 4 months into our relationship, when he picked out my ring (which he gave me about three months later on the greatest day). And that's why there was no hesitation back in July that I would marry him, just four days after his diagnosis. At that point, I knew that God had seen this battle in Aaron's future and that He had led me to Aaron to help him.

Of course, I thought God led me to Aaron to help win the battle against cancer. I looked to those characteristics that make me a litigator--drive, determination, strength, organization, etc. I thought those were the traits that were most important--those would help me help Aaron. But back in Sept/Oct, when I was fasting, I prayed each day for the fruits of the Holy Spirit to be evident in my life. As it turns out, even though a part of me thought God had not heard my prayers since healing for Aaron was prayer #1, God was answering other prayers. It was not my type-A traits that God wanted for Aaron, but traits that could only come from Him: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. In the last few weeks, these are the parts of who I am that have been more important.

I had a realization during our most recent stay at MD Anderson, a realization I tried to pass off and ignore. Aaron was really stressed out while we were there--mostly due to fear. One night, when it was just the two of us in the room, I was sitting next to him, holding his hand and trying to calm him down. It hit me at that point that perhaps my role in this was not to help Aaron beat cancer; instead, maybe it was to stand by him until the end, until he went to be with Jesus. I tried to push that thought out of my head, but in my heart I felt that Aaron needed me to be his angel here on earth, to guide him and care for him until God was ready to call him home. For the next couple of weeks I still prayed and begged God to heal him on this side of Glory (knowing one command could rid Aaron of this disease), but I also knew that I needed to focus on just being there for Aaron during this time.

All of this being said, it has not made any part of the last few weeks any easier. Aaron was supposed to be my future; we had even discussed baby names and homes and pets. All I can see in my future now is a shattered heart, an empty home, and a lot of loss. There's a selfish part of me that is almost angry with God for even leading us to each other. God answered a prayer when he brought me to Aaron and showed me a human love that I did not know was possible for me. And then, just like that, God let that love pass from my life. So now, here I am, left with a gigantic hole in my heart. There is no road-map for this, no easy answer. I'm a 27 year old widow, and there's no way to make that not a reality.

However, looking back, even knowing how it would end, I would not change a thing. Aaron and I had a romance that people search for. He grounded me and I did my best to make him happy. He filled me with joy and completed my life. And I am so happy that God loved him enough to bring us together so that Aaron could experience so much life before leaving his body behind. In the last year and few months, he got to fall in love, visit new places, travel in an airplane, get engaged, and get married. He reluctantly adopted a cat (my cat) that he grew to love. He saw Star Wars, went to a Ranger game, and took pictures of several different skylines. He lived and loved like only Aaron could.

Aaron went home to be with the Lord today. I held his hand until his breath seemed to stop. Then I kissed him on the forehead and said "I love you." He took a couple more breaths and then was still. I know he heard me and I'm so happy those were the last words he heard.

We fought hard, and he tried his best to live. But, for a reason I may never understand, God decided this was his time. Thank you all so much for your prayers, thoughts, and kind words during the last few months. I really thought this situation provided a wonderful opportunity for God to move in a big way. It would have been such a testimony to God's healing power to bring Aaron out of this. For a while I was convinced God would answer our prayers with a yes. I felt in my heart that God was going to give us the future I prayed for every day. Obviously, I was wrong.

I don't really know where to go from here. But I am thankful to all of you for your support. Aaron and I truly have the greatest family, friends, coworkers, even acquaintances and strangers in our lives. The outpouring of love has not ceased to blow my mind. I love you all, and Aaron did too.

Amazingly enough, even a year later, I think this blog still says what I would want people to know about Aaron and his last day with me. Of course, my age is different; on the one year mark of his passing, I will turn 28. But there is more that has changed. At the time I wrote this, I really could not see past the immense black hole in front of me, the utter emptiness of my life that was created when Aaron died. In the last year, some feelings have remained and some have changed. I am no longer angry with God. I consider myself the most blessed individual to have gotten to be loved by Aaron, even if just for a short time. And I am incredibly grateful that God chose me to give Aaron the love he always wanted, to be there for him when he needed that love the most.

I still do not have a full understanding of why Aaron's destiny was not to be healed.  But I have come to see how our journey has touched more people than healing probably would have. It's a different kind of ministry; the stories of people receiving miraculous healing can be found all over the internet. But stories of individuals--20 somethings--learning about God, love and faith through the most ultimate heartbreak: those stories are not as common and have the power to tug on the hearts of people in every stage of life. I get that now. 

The last year has helped me to accept that my life is not over--my life, my story, my journey did not end on December 6, 2013. I still miss Aaron fiercely. I miss the love we had, the companionship, the laughter. I miss his smile, the way it felt to be wrapped in his arms, and the joy he brought into my life. And I don't think that will ever fully go away. But that's okay. Perhaps I will not always miss him as much as I do today. But he will be a part of my life forever. 

I still do not know where my future may take me. I may never understand why I was chosen to endure such heartbreak, why my ministry had to come from such devastating loss. But I know that God has been there this last year, listening when I cried, understanding when I was angry, and supporting me when I could not understand my life. And Aaron has been in every sunrise, every laugh, and every tear. He has left more of a legacy than I think he ever imagined possible. 

If Aaron was here, there are a many things I would want to tell him about us, our life, and the aftermath of his death. But the most important thing I would tell him is that I love him. Still and always. No matter who God may send into my life or how my life will progress, I loved Aaron while he was mine and I will love him forever. I am who I am because God loved me enough to send Aaron into my life. And for that, I am forever grateful.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Trust and joy: a process revisited


This time a year ago I experienced what would be the darkest month of my life. We arrived in Houston on November 12 for a follow up appointment at MD Anderson. That 2-3 day trip would end up lasting closer to two weeks, as Aaron’s back pain was so great that we stayed in Houston for a round of palliative radiation. During this time, Aaron’s liver also began to fail. I secretly asked Aaron’s nurses for his labs each day to monitor his numbers, particularly his bilirubin. I did not tell Aaron when his bilirubin hit double digits because he was anxious enough without that discouraging information. This was a hard few weeks for him—he was understandably scared: scared of living and scared of leaving those he loved. And I could not fix those feelings of fear for him. He would calm down if I was next to him, holding his hand. But I physically could not be next to him all the time. I tried to reassure him and focus my energy on just loving him and being his light in this dark time. But it took everything in me to do that—I drained myself.

I have previously written about the week or so we had back at home between November 25 and December 6, so I will not re-count those stories (“Three little words,” "Let me go," “Starting over,” and “The point of it all”). But suffice it to say, I used every ounce of energy I had in my body and spirit to care for my amazing husband until the end.  By December 9, the day we buried him, I was empty.

We talked in my Life group last week about spiritual warfare, and there is no doubt that my greatest spiritual battle began on November 12 last year. My spirit was utterly weakened and dry by the end of 2013. While we were at MDA last November, I had a friend tell me that it was obvious that my strength came from the joy of the Lord. But after I lost Aaron, I did not know how I would ever experience joy again. I did not know what joy would or could even look like for me.

As a person who is generally "glass half full," feeling joyless was very difficult. I knew I could not go on with an absence of joy, so I started assessing what having joy is all about, and in February, I wrote about it ("Trust and Joy: A Process"). At that point, I had come to realize that the only way to experience the joy of the Lord was to trust him. But how could I trust a God who let me feel so much pain?

This year has been a spiritual battle for me, a re-learning of what it means to trust in our Heavenly Father. I have come to see that trust does not always mean loving God’s plan for your life. Trust is sticking with God’s plan even when you hate it. There is a measure of joy that fills your soul and spirit when you truly put your life into the hands of our Savior who loves us. It is something I cannot explain. There is just something that stirs in your spirit when you decide to have faith in the plan that God has for you. God did not promise us a life free from trouble; in fact, He promised the opposite: "In this world you will have tribulation. But be of good cheer; I have overcome the world." (John 16:33).

This is faith: believing in something we cannot see and being "of good cheer" during tribulation. In the midst of trial, it is almost impossible to see beyond the pain. And it is easy to think that joy will never come again. But we simply have to believe. We have to believe that God has overcome the world and that God does work all things together for good. And we have to believe without knowing all the answers. You see, there will always be a part of me that cannot understand why Aaron had to hurt, why he had to leave me. But I trust anyway. And I have sensed a renewing of the joy I once had. This is why we must believe: for even when I cannot see my future, I can feel that God is with me, leading me. He is filling my life with hope: a confident expectation.

Do I still have doubts? Sure. Do I still experience fear of the future? Sure. After so much heartbreak, my trust is not perfect. But it is growing. God is showing me who I am, and I do believe he has good things for me: he has plans for hope and a future. It will not be the future I prayed for a year ago, but it will be good and joyous. That, I trust.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Loss again

This was Aaron’s favorite picture of us. He said he loved it because it just looked like the way we were: relaxed and happy. And those words really did describe our relationship, which made being with Aaron very easy.

I haven’t written very much in the last several weeks. And quite frankly, that’s because I do not have much new to say. I have written about how I have grown this year, what I have learned, and how I have approached and moved through grief. But for now I’m still in the place of letting go- moving forward-that I've already written about. I suppose that stage of grief is the most lasting, and I do not really know when it will end. 

However, I have also begun having feelings of emptiness these past few weeks, and it took me some time to figure out why. I think not writing has something to do with it—writing is therapeutic for me, but I’m in a place that does not lend itself to sharing. This place is really one of just figuring out how best to get through the next five and a half weeks. This feeling of emptiness is not unfamiliar: it’s loss. As time approaches December 6, I feel the loss again. No, it’s not as pronounced or constant as earlier this year. But as I approach both of our birthdays and the holidays, I would give almost anything just to be able to give Aaron a hug. There's so much I'd like to share with him. That's what I’ve been thinking about this month, and that’s why I haven’t written. What is there to say except that I miss him? I know in my heart that December 7 will bring new feelings of hope and life, but I’ve got to get there first. And with God's grace (and some good people), I know I will.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The point of it all

On Sunday, November 24, the doctor making rounds at MDA asked us when we were planning on going home. I told her that our flights were booked for Tuesday, and she suggested that we get home as soon as possible so that we could be with our friends and family. This suggestion confirmed what I already felt in my spirit, so I called Southwest Airlines and got our flights moved to Monday. 

On Wednesday, we went to see Dr. Ashraf; we had been at MDA for almost two weeks for radiation, but even though it had been a while since he had seen Aaron, he had been in touch with Aaron’s doctor at MDA and knew Aaron’s labs. Our plan for that doctor's appointment was for Aaron to get some fluids and to see about having excess fluid drained from his abdomen (the ascites was malignant which caused it to continue to build up, even though MDA had also drained the fluid several days prior). They put Aaron in a little separate chemo room and that’s where Dr. Ashraf saw him. Although Dr. Ashraf was his ever compassionate self, Aaron and I could both see what his eyes were telling us. When he motioned for me to come talk to him alone, I was not surprised (Dr. Ashraf had done that a couple of times with me when he needed me to know something he did not necessarily want to say in front of Aaron), and I also knew what he was going to say. 

We walked back to an empty patient room, and I sat in a chair I had spent many doctor’s appointments sitting in. Dr. Ashraf looked at me with sympathy and compassion and said, “He’s dying.” I took a breath and responded, “I know. And so does he.” During the previous few days, Aaron had described that he could feel his body dying, so he certainly knew. Dr. Ashraf told me I was brave before sending me back to my husband.

When I got back into the room, I sat in a chair next to Aaron. Then he looked at me and said, “I didn’t think it would come to this. I really thought God was going to heal me.” A few weeks before, this comment would have prompted me to encourage him not to give up, to keep believing for healing. But I knew on this day that my eyes would belie those words. So instead, I was simply honest and said, “I know; I did, too. I was sure of it.” And I had been. I had felt sure in both my heart and my spirit that God was going to give us the miracle of a future. I had felt peace about our situation, had been confident in Jeremiah 29:11.

In my spirit I had to believe... because otherwise, what was the point? What was the point of Aaron and me falling in love? What was the point of my fasting and prayer? What was the point of our friends laying hands on us and holding a prayer meeting at church while we were at MDA? What was the point of showing us such happiness if it was all meant to pass away so quickly?

These questions came because of an inability to see what God sees. I still do not have answers to all of the questions that accompanied Aaron's death, but I can see more now than I could 10 months ago. And I suppose that is really what my personal journey for this year has meant: trying to figure out the point of my heartbreak, trying to figure out the purpose of our journey. 

That's why I have jumped at opportunities this year, traveling to Phoenix, Dallas, Charleston, New York, Nashville, Denver, and DC later this month. That's why I took the plunge and bought a house. It's why I started a Life group this fall and started serving at church on Sundays. It's why I write, in the hopes that maybe our journey can impact someone in his or her season of life in a lasting way. I want my life to be a reflection of the person Aaron was and the person I have become because of him. If we weren't meant to receive the testimony we hoped for, I want my life without him to be a testimony of love, peace, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and resilience.

I had no idea when I promised Aaron last year that I would be okay that I would keep that promise by living so much. So what was the point? I'm still not completely sure, but I am thankful that Aaron's life gives me strength to continue living in order to find out. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Choose to live

Once you get through the initial shock of loss, grief becomes a series of choices. Some choices are difficult but necessary: choosing to let yourself feel sad, choosing to mourn. Some choices involve battling with your own mind: choosing to focus on good memories, choosing not to let negative thoughts consume you. Some choices are inspiring: choosing to celebrate the person's life through stories and laughter. But perhaps the most important choice is choosing to live: not simply choosing to be alive but choosing to live.

Today I am thankful for life. I am thankful for Aaron's life and the living I found because of him. I am thankful for covenant friendships with people Aaron brought into my life. And I am thankful for the spiritual growth I have experienced as I've learned to re-value living. While life may be something we cannot control, we can always choose to live!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Memory cloud

In late December, I opened a note on my phone and wrote out all the things I did not want to forget. Many of those things I have written about, though I also have a list called "Just for me," which is comprised of little memories and inside jokes that I remember only for myself. 

I have had a fear this year of forgetting; that is one reason I have included so many personal details and stories in my blogs: to help me remember. Actually, I suppose the fear of forgetting started after Aaron got sick. In the last few months of his life, I used to stare at his eyes (as much as possible without freaking him out), just so I would not forget how brown they were or how full of depth and love they were. I did not want there to come a day where I could not remember his eyes or how he looked at me.

I have spent much of this last year replaying and re-living the life Aaron and I shared. I have written about the way he made me feel, the love we had, the memories we formed. But I have begun to notice that the further I get from these memories, without Aaron here to anchor them, the more dreamlike they become. Maybe that is partly a side effect of attempting to let go--in order to move past the hurt and longing these memories can cause, I have begun to remember things through a filter. It's my Aaron filter. It's the way I feel when I think about him--still sad but also content. It's a little like in the movies when a character reminisces and a cloud forms above her head and the memory has a soft, dreamlike quality. 

In many ways, that's how my Aaron-memories are. For example, I remember Miami, but that week is in soft-lit bubble that only comes down to reality when I really focus on the trip. I remember our every days, our nothings; but then again, I remember them distantly unless I feel compelled to pull those memories down to me.

But even while our life together floats in a memory cloud, there are still times when a memory pierces through the filter and feels real and not dreamlike at all. That happened this weekend, when I was reminded of something Aaron and I started doing during his first hospital stay. One day during that first week at Brookwood, he reached out toward me from the bed, but he only reached with his index finger. I returned the gesture, touching my finger to his. It was nothing and yet it was everything. And it became a habit for us. That one little touch said everything we needed to say when it was just the two of us in the room. When the room was full of people, that touch anchored us to each other. It was a gesture of solidarity, unity, love, and committment. Of course, we never talked about it that way, but that is because we did not have to. It was just ours. And even though I have focused on so many memories this year, I had forgotten about that until Saturday. Suddenly that moment was not in my memory cloud; it was in my heart. 

When memories truly enter the heart, that's when it becomes more difficult to be in a "letting go" stage of grief. When the memories are ethereal--always there and always a part of you but not weighty--then looking forward seems easier. But when a memory leaves that dreamlike place and wraps up your heart, you're taken to an emotional place where the memory truly lives. In some ways that feels dangerous, like I am not moving forward if that still happens. But, oh, I would not have it any other way. 

Aaron is not here to anchor my memories anymore, but when a memory affects my heart, I feel anchored. In that moment, I am not trying to move on, not trying to be anything. I'm just being. In that moment, I'm a girl who lost a boy and is trying to figure out this life without him. So maybe, at least for me, it is important to have those moments of feeling. I told Aaron once that he grounded me. Maybe he still does.