“Not Gray … Hoary.”

I stand before the linen closet in the bathroom, a trash can beside me. I’m told that it’s helpful to tackle one space at a time, so I’ve decided to go through Rob’s toiletries. There’s not much really. The elastics from his despised Invisalign treatment. Trash. The half-used Chapstick. Trash. The dental floss. Might as well use that. The cheap Axe body spray he bought on a work trip when TSA confiscated his Old Spice. Keep. It doesn’t smell like him, but he’s been gone six months now so maybe I can imagine it does. I’m glad I’ve started with the bathroom. There’s a sort of pragmatism to this room. A bathroom is an all-business space. “I need to consult my broker,” he’d say when he needed to duck out to use the loo.

I clean the top shelf, rearrange the towels to hide the emptiness, and move to the shelf below. My hand hovers over an old Money magazine when my teenage daughter walks in. “That has Dad’s whiskers in it!” she exclaims. We sit together, me on the toilet and her beside me, flipping the pages, searching for hair like two pirates looking for buried treasure. Sure enough, scraps of his beard lie sandwiched in the centerfold where he used to open the magazine to shave over. White, brown and gray hairs. Small bits really. Hardly anything worth keeping. And yet.

When I met Rob at age 23, he’d already begun to gray. He always liked his premature silver threads. He thought they made him look wise. Always the literati, he’d say, “Not gray … hoary.” Over our almost 20 years together, his hair grew grayer. His beard became white. During paternity leave for our last child, Rob began growing it in earnest. Our youngest only ever knew a bearded father.

I loved Rob’s beard best in the summer, when the sun had tanned his skin a deep brown. I used to hold his face, the wrinkles of his smile spreading out from his eyes, and tell him how much I loved him. Six months later, I close my eyes and remember his face. I remember the feeling of his beard beneath my hands, and my eyes fill with tears. God, I miss him. Even my hands miss him.

My daughter and I decide to keep the magazine. We’ve found a little treasure of memory inside. Carefully, we close the magazine so as not to lose a single precious whisker. I place it back on the shelf, the hair clippers and beard trimmer resting on top. I toss the random Q-tips into the trash, straighten things up and step back. Time to clock out. I’ve finished my work for today.

Surrounded by His Love

When we moved to Seattle in 2011, all of my longings for mountains were fulfilled. I’d grown up hiking in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, and after more than a decade living in the flat Midwest, I was hungry for elevation.

Even when our family wasn’t up in the mountains, I enjoyed their steady presence. As I sat homeschooling with my kids in the upstairs bedroom, I’d position my chair by the window so I could look out on the Cascade range. Every time we drove down the hill out of our neighborhood, I’d scan the horizon for the Olympic mountains. “The mountain is out!” I’d holler to the kids in the backseat when Mount Rainier peeked through the clouds. It never got old. What a joy to be surrounded by mountains! I used to recite, “As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people.” The mountains reminded me daily of God’s presence with me.

The encircling presence of mountains in the Pacific Northwest creates a unique, nurturing ecosystem unlike any other in the United States. Caught between two ranges, Seattle gets lots of rain, yes. But what some call gloom others recognize as a marvelous greenhouse environment. Skagit Valley blossoms each spring with hundreds of acres of tulips, a harvest made possible by the sheltering mountains that create a mild environment and long growing season. The Puyallup Valley erupts with blackberries, marionberries, and raspberries, delicate fruits that thrive in the volcanic soil laid eons ago by Mount Rainier and her fiery sisters. Out on the Olympic peninsula, the mountains shelter one of the largest temperate rainforests in North America, overflowing with ferns and moss and a fascinating array of animals. Encircling mountains create a good home.

The day Rob died, I took my children to Mount Rainier National Park to do some hiking of our own. It was our last vacation day before heading back east, and I wanted my last fix of Washington mountain beauty. Though we didn’t know it at the time, my son took this picture in the park within moments of Rob’s death.

As we drove out of the park, we passed Rob’s trailhead and considered stopping to leave a congratulatory note on his windshield. We kept going when we saw an ambulance in the parking lot that, unbeknownst to us, had been called for him. We stopped at the bathroom at the ranger station (where a ranger had just been dispatched to his accident), took a picture by the entrance sign, and headed on our way. We had no idea the mountains had just taken his life.

You might think that my love for mountains has become complicated now. They’re not all beauty and nurture. They also can be deadly. The mountains possess a mighty power. The same peaks that shadow fertile fields can also deliver death. They have taken from me what I loved most in this life.

Nevertheless, the Psalmist tells me that the hills are where my help comes from. In them, God’s goodness, power, provision, and deliverance are made manifest. As I lift my eyes to the strong and steady mountains, God reminds me that His love for me endures forever. Like those sheltering ranges, He nourishes me in His embrace. These truths remain unchanged even in the face of deep pain.

Today, on the eve of the six month mark of Rob’s death, I choose to plant my feet firmly on the mountain soil of God’s goodness. The mountains will always remind me of Rob, of his well-lived life and his tragic death. They will also bear this testimony: God is good to me.

The Son Will Rise

I’ll never forget the Easter we stumbled into a church in Capitol Hill in Seattle. We jammed our family into a pew and heaved a sigh. Our hearts were carrying so much that was heavy. Family complexities. Health concerns. Life questions. We needed some hope.

We sat, exhausted. Then, a single cellist broke the silence, playing this familiar melody. I glanced across the kids to Rob. Our eyes met, and he grabbed my hand. He felt it too. I closed my eyes, tears running down my cheeks. The piano joined in, the guitar and violin too, and the music swelled.

The sun will rise.
The sun will rise.
Won’t you dry all your tears.
Lay your burden down.

The Brilliance, “The Sun Will Rise”

This coming Sunday will mark six months since Rob died. Six months of carrying the heaviest burden I have ever been asked to bear. Some days, the weight feels lighter, and I can look to the horizon with hope. Other days, my shoulders are so bent with grief that I feel I can barely stand.

While other month marks have borne sorrow with them, this six month mark carries a unique sadness. Half a year is a long time to grieve. Grief has changed the kids; it has changed me. Each month that passes inscribes this reality more deeply on our hearts: Rob isn’t coming back. We are called to carry on without him, even as we carry him with us in our hearts.

My body senses the month marks approaching before I even notice them consciously. Everything starts to feels harder. When I remember why life feels heavier than usual, I am learning to cling evermore closely to Jesus — to release my burden, recall His truth, and take up His lighter yoke.

The writer of Lamentations writes, “This I call to mind and therefore I have hope.” Sometimes hope is just a whisper. But as this Sunday approaches, I choose to sing with the defiant hope I felt in those early days after Rob died. In the face of that last enemy, death, I call to mind these truths and claim them as my own:

He’ll bind up the brokenhearted …
He’ll set captives free from darkness …
He’ll breathe hope into the hopeless …
He’ll give beauty for our ashes …
He’ll restore the oil of gladness …

Ellie Holcomb, “He Will”

Grave, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?

When the pain is deepest, our hope must be fiercest. When the burden feels heaviest, His promises remain steady and true. I choose to believe the sun will rise. The Son will rise. Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus.

What’s Normal in Grief

What is normal in grief? Our culture has lots of advice, little of it helpful. Any mother who’s endured a miscarriage knows the difficult messages a grieving younger person hears. “You’re still young enough to have another one.” “At some point, you need to move on.” The pressures I feel as a young widow aren’t that different.

As I approach the six month anniversary of Rob’s death, I am aware that my posture of active remembrance runs counterculture. Thankfully, my husband wrote a little book about dying, and I know our culture needs some major help on this topic. I feel free to grieve deeply and on my own timetable.

It’s normal in grief to get rid of your loved one’s belongings. It’s also normal to hold onto them, sometimes for a very long time. So far, I haven’t been ready to cancel Rob’s phone line and let this piece of him go. Rob’s phone was shattered in his accident. It miraculously still functioned, but I needed to get information off it and was afraid of cutting my fingers on the broken glass screen. His phone wasn’t paid off when he died, so I submitted a claim to his insurance to get it replaced.

When the replacement phone arrived, it hurt more than I anticipated to remove the SIM card from his broken one, put it into the new phone, and bundle his broken phone up to send back. I audibly said “goodbye” to the box as I dropped it off at the UPS store, and I cried on the way home. It was a sad farewell.

Even though it’s shattered — maybe because it’s shattered — that phone meant so much to me. We’re sometimes embarrassed to admit how intimately we are tied to our technology, but it’s true. That phone slid into his pocket each morning, warmed to his body temperature in his hand. It was the receptacle of his thoughts and memories and dreams. (How many hiking apps does a man need?!) And it was on him when he died. The kids were apprehensive about me sending it back; they got it instinctually. Giving up Rob’s shattered phone was giving up another piece of him.

Rob’s SIM card is safely installed into the replacement phone now — “Dad’s phone” — though he’ll never hold it in his hand. If you call his number, you’ll still hear his voicemail. (I love that.) We keep the phone in the cabinet for emergencies. The kids especially love that the games Rob downloaded for them are all still on there. The replacement phone is “just like Dad’s used to be!”

As I set up the new phone, I kept his password the same. However, the fingerprint ID is mine now instead of his. It feels practical, if a little inauthentic. But this mishmash of past and present and future is our “new normal” now. Everything can be normal in grief. Even setting up a new phone for a man who will never use it.

Elinore and Me

In 1909, Elinore Pruitt headed west with her three year old daughter. Her husband had died in a railroad accident, and Elinore wanted to start a new life for herself. Under the Homestead Act, she secured a section of land in Wyoming near a fork of the Green River, and she began to prove her claim. Elinore didn’t have experience homesteading; she had previously earned her keep doing laundry and housekeeping for a wealthy woman, Mrs. Coney, in Denver. But Elinore was determined. She wasn’t afraid to work hard and find her own way, even as she mourned the loss of her husband.

Life on the frontier was filled with excitement, challenge, loneliness and sadness. Elinore built her own home, learned to ranch, and welcomed and befriended nearby settlers. She endured harsh weather, fended off thieves, and attended more funerals. Certainly, her life in Denver as domestic help would have seemed the easier choice, especially with a small daughter to raise. But Elinore had a different vision. She wrote in a letter to her former employer, “Those who try know that strength and knowledge come with doing.”

I read Elinore’s story, Letters of a Woman Homesteader, two years before Rob died. We’d just spent extended time camping in Wyoming and northern Utah, and I’d fallen in love with the contours of the land. I could envision the terrain as I read Elinore’s letters. The scrub bushes and dry soil. The coyotes and mountain lions and hawks. The hot sun and the storms that rose quickly and raced violently across the land. I loved its beauty even in the harshness. Like Elinore, I craved the feeling of a spacious sky above.

Though we are separated by 100 years, my grief journey isn’t all that different from Elinore’s. Like Elinore, I work hard each day to coax life into our family’s parched landscape, to cultivate the soil of a new life without Rob. I endure the windstorms of sorrow, the deep quiet of isolation and loneliness, the steep learning curve as I take on responsibilities I have never had to shoulder. 

I hope too that I possess a measure of Elinore’s pluck and faith as well. As she reflected on her life on the frontier, Elinore wrote, “any woman who can stand her own company, can see the beauty of the sunset, loves growing things, and is willing to put in as much time at careful labor as she does over the washtub, will certainly succeed; will have independence, plenty to eat all the time, and a home of her own in the end.” 

Elinore’s story is a guiding light in my grief journey. I find I want the same things she wanted in the face of loss. To see beauty, to grow, to find fruitful labor.  To discover independence and interdependence. To build a home of my own.

A Place That I’ll Call Home

In 2016, Rob and I hit a tipping point. We’d been married almost 15 years, and the pace of our life felt like it was getting too fast. Work responsibilities were increasing, our children were growing, and activities and commitments were eliminating margin from our life. Nevertheless, we’d always been committed to a simple lifestyle. One day we looked at each other and wondered aloud, “How did this get so out of hand?” Our calendar dictated our time, and we saw the years with our children at home quickly slipping away.

We were drawn to communal living and the tiny house movement, but we also felt a restlessness. We’d driven across the country a couple of times, and we felt an itch to drive again. When the Seattle RV Show opened that winter, we bought tickets and went. Maybe travel was the way we could streamline our life and take it back.

In 2017, after saving for a year, we bought our camper — a used 24 foot 2014 Forest River Wolf Pup — from Craigslist. I demoed the interior, and Rob built an extra bed to retrofit the space to sleep six. We packed our things, left our house in the care of neighbors and set off. We traveled more than 11,000 miles that spring and summer, 72 days on the road. Rob telecommuted, the kids and I homeschooled, and we sated our wanderlust in the desert, mountains and plains of the American West.

Not long after arriving home, we realized we’d created an even bigger problem. We’d been bitten by the travel bug; now we always wanted to roam! We ran the numbers and considered living as a full-time RV family. But for a variety of reasons, we decided to stay put. Still, we committed to spending each summer on the road, logging as many miles, visiting as many national parks, and enveloping ourselves in as much wilderness as we could.

Even while working and schooling, long-term camper traveling offered our family incredibly focused time together. Rob taught the boys to hitch and unhitch the camper and truck (“the rig”) alone. The girls he taught to empty the tanks and hook up utilities. Our children could tell you how to safely camp in bear country, leave no trace, and find your way around every KOA camp store from coast to coast.

Camping also allowed us to pursue simplicity in the way we’d always wanted. Each child had a single duffle bag of clothes — a single sweatshirt, two pairs of shorts and four t-shirts. Six plates, six forks, six spoons, four knives completed our dining ware. And the physical work of setting up and tearing down camp allowed us to release the mental cares of the day in profitable labor. Each day had so much elemental work of its own that we didn’t think much beyond the moment. No more calendar planning or long-range projections. Just one mile after another, one day at a time. Best of all, we were together. Every night, we’d gather on our bed for stories and to mark the map hanging on the wall with our day’s mileage.

We were just 26 days into our 2019 road trip when Rob died. Our itinerary had us to depart the next morning for two nights at our favorite desert watering hole before heading on to Glacier National Park. But after the funeral services a month later, I returned east with the kids, driving the rig the last 1,000 miles by myself for the first time.

Avid campers know that January is the most important month of the year. It’s the month most national parks open for campground reservations. The most popular ones — Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon — sell out within minutes. Though the summer feels far away, campers always begin planning in January.

This January I’ve decided not to plan my summer travels as usual. Like that first road trip, grief has clarified my values and given me fresh perspective on long-range planning. For now, I’m letting the present be the present and the future be unknown. I don’t know where the road will take us this summer, but I have no doubt that anywhere we are together “is a place that I’ll call home.”

Play Ball

Baseball is hands down one of my favorite ways to enjoy a Saturday. Rob and I grew up on the bleachers of Comiskey Park and Fenway, and it thrilled both of us when our boys chose baseball as their sport. Rob worked hard to be at as many practices and games as he could, just like his dad had done for him. He coached or assisted; and when his commuter train was delayed, he’d hop off a stop early and walk to the field in his dress clothes to make it in time for practice.

This past Saturday we spent the morning at the batting cages. Watching my boys hit, I remembered their last game back in the spring. It was my older son’s last season of Little League, and he and his brother had been drafted to the same team. Rob was their assistant coach, and the three of them spent many hours together at the field and the cages.

When they lined up for the national anthem at the championship game in late June, I snapped this picture through the fence. I knew it was my oldest’s last Little League game. I never could have imagined it would be Rob’s too. He died less than a month later.

When we arrived home from Rob’s funeral services, we learned that our hometown league had organized a fall ball season to provide community support for our boys as they grieved. The league generously cared for us in so many ways over the fall months. Of the many who have supported us since Rob’s death, I am especially grateful today for our Little League communities on both coasts. Their love for us expressed in such practical ways has made a lasting difference in my boys’ lives.

“Mystic Sweet Communion”

Rob and I grew up in church traditions that loved hymn singing, and we gravitated toward churches like that as a married couple. On Sunday mornings now, when I’m missing Rob’s arm around me in the pew, the hymns remind me that he’s near.

“Yet she on earth hath union

with the God the Three in One,

and mystic sweet communion

with those whose rest is won”

“The Church’s One Foundation”

The contemporary church doesn’t talk much about the communion of saints — that mysterious and beautiful connection across the ages that we possess as the Body of Christ. Hebrews 12 tells us that those who’ve died in Christ cheer us on like spectators along a marathon route. Though absent from us, these dear ones continue to participate with us as the Body of Christ.

This is all a theological nicety until you have lost someone you love. Monday through Saturday I am reminded of all the ways Rob is gone from my life. There is no end to the places we experience his absence. But on Sundays, when I sing the hymns, I am reminded of how very present and connected Rob still is with me and with the Body of Christ.

Rob’s not the angel on my shoulder or that ray of sunshine that breaks through the clouds on an overcast day. I don’t believe he sends me signs. But I do believe, if the ears of my heart are tuned, I can hear his voice, joined with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Hans, Rosemary, Marty, Brett, and others we have loved and lost. Together though apart, we continue to worship as one Body. Death does not end our communion; it only changes it for a time. The hymns remind me that this separation won’t be forever. Alleluia. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

“’Mid toil and tribulation,

and tumult of her war,

she waits the consummation

of peace forevermore;

till with the vision glorious

her longing eyes are blest,

and the great church victorious

shall be the church at rest.”

“The Church’s One Foundation”

Time to Start Growing

When we met, I wore my hair like 90s Winona Ryder. A pixie cut, dyed dark. My high school math teacher had told me years before that “men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses,” and his adage had proven true for short hairstyles as well. I hadn’t dated at all in high school and only sporadically in college. But Rob liked my short hair. He said it was like me — spunky.

We dated for five months before he asked me to marry him. With a ring on my finger and a stack of wedding magazines in my lap, I began to long for longer tresses. None of the brides in the glossies wore their hair short on their wedding day. Elaborate updo hairstyles were the standard. I had enough to spike a mohawk maybe, but not nearly enough to satisfy the desires of a hairstylist with a handful of bobby pins and a can of hairspray. We’d planned our wedding for eight months hence, so I didn’t have much time. Time to start growing.

I cut my hair a few weeks before we got married. It was hot, July. I wanted some relief. I didn’t get the fancy bridal updo, but I got Rob. That was more than enough. Hair was just hair after all.

Throughout our 17 years of marriage, my hair changed with my emerging sense of self. Secure in his love, I grew my hair out. Past the awkward in-between “growing out” stage, to a full head of long brown waves. I happily experimented — dyed it, chopped it off, grew it out, straightened it. Each time, Rob would say, “You look great!” 

I birthed our four children who held my hair tight as they nursed, weaving its strands between their little fingers as they sighed and suckled. I even let Rob cut it a few times, me sitting before the bathroom mirror in his old undershirt while he wielded the scissors to fix some professional stylist’s snafu. Not many women trust their stylists with their hair, their husbands even less. But Rob was always more than enough for me.

When I could see age 40 on the horizon, I decided I wanted to grow my hair long again. I had committed to embracing my gray hairs whenever they arrived, and I wanted long hair again before I felt the pressure of an ageist culture to cave and wear it short. Rob may have fallen in love with my spunky cut, but he loved my long hair. Even if I wore it in a messy bun most of the time. I treated myself to balayage, just to stay hip. He called it my “rockstar hair.” My hair was like our future — long, full, healthy and full of shine.

I cut my hair the day before he died. It was hot, July. I wanted some relief. I would never have cut it if I’d known that day would be his last. My stylist straightened it, complimenting me on how well my highlights had lasted. I texted Rob a picture. “Cute!” he replied. I smiled; his opinion was the only one that had ever really mattered to me. I was excited about my new style.

But when I looked in the mirror the next day, after they had told me he had died, I no longer recognized myself. The person I used to be — his wife, his confidant, his lover, his companion, his editor, his co-adventurer — she was gone. Death had taken her away from me, like the stylist who’d cut and swept away my curly tresses the day before. Even my hair said, “You’re not the same anymore.”

In the six months since Rob died, I’ve started growing out my hair again. I don’t feel spunky anymore, so short hair just won’t work right now. Maybe I’m longing to go back to those years he loved me so well. Maybe it’s just time for a change. I don’t know. Even when my hair is long again, Rob’s death has secured this truth: I will never be the same again. No hairstyle can change that reality. I’m a different person now. And it’s time to start growing.

Tilting Toward the Sun

The kids and I traveled to the far northern edge of New Hampshire’s White Mountains for the Christmas holiday, a trip that coincided with the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. On a day that was -1 degrees Fahrenheit, the coming of the solstice brought little comfort. We may enjoy more daylight from this point on; but here in New England, the coldest part of winter is still to come. While the solstice may have astronomical significance, to us it’s just another cold day in a long, cold winter.

Unlike Washington, our old home state, New Hampshire’s mountains are covered with a majority of deciduous trees. In winter, the once lush slopes look bald. Groups of scrawny, hardy evergreens faithfully present their colors on an otherwise gray and white canvas. Rock faces now exposed by leafless trees look sharp and grim.

The landscape of our life looks so different too from how it did almost six months ago. In some places, we’ve gone from flourishing to just hanging on. In others, we are developing rock-solid resilience we never imagined we could. In all things, we are learning that the only way through grief is waiting.

Whether or not we feel the lengthening of days, we are beginning again to tilt toward the sun. I pray that the warm light of Christ’s presence will illumine our darkness this winter. That as the days grow lighter and warmer I will sense the dawning of His good kingdom that is to come.