Thursday, October 5, 2017

Three Years Without You

My dearest love...

Three years ago today you departed this world for one infinitely better. Three years. It sounds and feels like an eternity. So much life has happened in these years without you, and with every fiber of my being I resent the relentless passage of time that tugs our life together further and further into the past. You gave me a lifetime of love in eight short years, and that's exactly what our story feels like - another lifetime. I look at my life now, at our sweet daughter who had only just entered the world when you left it, and wonder if you would even recognize me now. The transition from wife to single mother was almost seamless. With everything in me I long to make you proud, to honor your extraordinary life and carry on the work that you were only just beginning. Everything I do is for you, and always the nagging it enough? Are you proud of me? Would you be happy with the life I am forced to choose for your girls?

You always encouraged me to write. You told me to stop spending so much time cooking and cleaning, and to write a blog instead. You were always the first one to read and "like" every single one of my posts. In the schizophrenia of shock and grief after losing you, I couldn't imagine ever publishing a single world into the cybersphere again - posting a thought that I might vehemently deny within days, or hours. But I had to write, because it was all I could think to do to honor you. I want the whole world to know you, Nate - to catch a glimpse of the best man I've ever known, and if the only way to do that is through my writing than I will never, ever stop trying to capture you in words.

I blogged regularly at first, letting my raw feelings spill over into virtual journal entries. The empathy and comments from strangers were cathartic somehow, reminding me that we were not alone - not forgotten. I witnessed your story capture those who never got to meet you in life. But somewhere along the way, I ran out of words. I let my blog go untouched for over 14 months. I knew that with every click on a new post, my readers would be hoping for some kind of assurance that the girls you had left behind were finding peace, moving forward, entering some kind of resolution. Public grieving after Year Two, well into Year Three, started to feel belabored, exhausted - and yet, I couldn't think of anything to say that didn't revolve around you, my love, and the hole you left in our lives. My grief became more and more private. No one else could possibly understand the void carved into my very soul at the absence of my husband, my soulmate, my best friend, my provider, my listening ear and strong shoulder and steady giver of the advice I needed so desperately.

And so, I simply fell silent. I became absorbed in the all-consuming task of parenting a newly minted two-year-old without going insane, started new friendships and deepened lifelong ones, resumed daily life with my family, made new traditions with your family, rented a big old farmhouse in the country - how you would adore this house! - and read hard books that forced me to grapple with issues of faith and my relationship with God. In the hubbub of the last year, it has been hard to silence the constant clamor - to find the solitude necessary in the present to relive the ever-receding past. The highlight of these past 14 months has been two pilgrimages to my personal Mecca: Prince Edward Island.

When I was 7 months pregnant with Elissa and you asked where I would go if I could go anywhere in the world, I interrupted you as the words "Prince Edward Island!" bubbled over in a gut reaction of ecstasy. Images of sun-kissed red cliffs rising above sapphire seas, rimmed by fields of rippling grass dotted with lighthouses and lupins had inspired my dreams since I was five years old and my mom first showed me the film Anne of Green Gables. And of course you, still courting me after four years of marriage and determined to make all my dreams come true, immediately planned a surprise trip and presented me with our "Adventure for Kindred Spirits" itinerary the day before we left! You whisked my heavily pregnant self through the Northeast and around the entire Island in just four days, leaving us both dizzy and in love with this secluded corner of paradise.

It was everything I'd ever dreamed of, and so much more. Last summer, when I thought I would crack under the strain of solo parenting and attempting to turn life right-side up again, I could think of only one reprieve - going back to the blue and white inn nestled at the back of Memory Lane, next to the famed Green Gables. I wrote to the inn owners and was immediately welcomed by a veritable flock of kindred spirits. It was the perfect balm for my shattered heart, and I spent June, July and August of 2016 on an island of grief, surrounded by a sea of tears that enveloped me the moment I ventured into the solitude that unlocked all the suppressed pain of the last two years. I felt you here with me, Nate, in a way that I never had before. You were with me along the stretches of lonely beach, biking on red dirt roads, washing dishes in our tiny cottage, wading through the fields of waving grass.

I buried myself in the journals I'd kept during our relationship, reliving a love story that was so riveting I couldn't put it down - though of course I knew the beautiful-turned-horrific end. Then, at the cries of our waking daughter, I surfaced to the brutal slap in the face of reality. Every day the shock, the disbelief, the gut-wrenching pain of your absence that literally left me writhing. I didn't know how to live, Nate. The numbness of that first year was a mercy compared to the agony of coming face-to-face with you gone, because how could I survive it? And yet, I was grateful for every tear, every sob wrenched from deep inside me - because, my love, you deserve all the tears in the world. I would cry an ocean of them for you; I would drown in their salt just to find you again.

If I could sum up last summer in a sentence it's this: longing for life to be over so our family could be together again. Your absence colored everything; the beauty surrounding me was tinged with the awful reality that I must explore our paradise alone. I could scarcely breathe through the suffocating loneliness.

This year, I spent the month of September back in Prince Edward Island. I purposefully got off social media so I could clear my head and immerse myself in the beauty of this present moment. And Nate - to tell you this feels much like a confession - I have realized just how far I've come in a year. I had to plumb the depths of my grief and despair, wring every ounce of anguish out of my severed soul before I could begin the slow crawl to the surface. To breathe, and live again. The revelations are slow in coming, and they take my breath away with all the force of a gut punch. One day, watching Elissa in her bath, I realize: I feel happy more days than I feel sad. Squealing down a steep hill on our bike, the wind whipping our faces, I realize: I'm excited about my future with my girl. It's going to be beautiful, albeit broken. It's going to be good. I'm trying to shake the guilt of finding joy and hope in a world without you, because Nate, I know that's what you want for us more than anything. A lifetime of grieving you feels appropriate, but frankly, you would hate me for it.

If you could tell me one thing on this day, the third anniversary of your death, it would be to LIVE. To make my mark in the world. To give Elissa the love and adventures and zest for life that she would have had with two parents. And Nate, more than anyone else I've ever encountered it was you who taught me how to live full, live well, live extraordinary. It was you who raced through life at breakneck speed, seeing and doing everything, and yet skidded to a halt at the perfect moment to just be. To inhale a beautiful sunset, letting the last rays of yet another unforgettable day wash over you. To stare at a rumbling ocean for hours, thinking deep thoughts that no one but God was privy to. To gather me up in your arms - baby belly and all - with no other intent than to drink in my nearness. You have taught me and shown me about life, and for the rest of mine I will strive to apply your lessons and teach them to our daughter.

At the end of our whirlwind babymoon three years ago you stood on the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia, breathless with excitement as we watched the sun set and I shivered beside you. Tonight Elissa and I will climb back to the top of Cadillac. We will watch the sun go down and imagine what it would be like to stand on that mountain with you, nestled on either side of the man who is the center of our world, warmed by the fever of your intoxication with life and its beauty. We adore you, Nate. Passionately, relentlessly, forever. You will always be our knight, our muse, the one who has gone before us to exemplify a life beautifully lived.

Cadillac Mountain, July 2014

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Most Generous Man in the World

I wrote a little story for my dad's birthday, and wanted to share it here so everyone can know how amazingly generous he is. Happy Birthday Dad, I love you!

Once upon a time there was a man with a wife and six children. They lived in a little house and were very happy. One day, the man decided to sell the little house and move to a big, beautiful house up the road. His children played games in the huge yard, slept in spacious bedrooms, and explored the comfortable neighborhood. They were even happier than they had been in the little house. The man worked very hard in the big house. He kept the lawn cut, the trees trimmed, and the pool sparkling. He threw massive parties for his children and their friends. Everyone loved the big house. Everyone loved the man's parties. 

But the man didn't stop there. He wanted his children to see the world, and so he would pile them into a big gray van that he had bought, brand new, and take them on spontaneous trips. They traveled up the coast to Canada. They traveled down the coast to Florida. The man bought his children things and memories. But that wasn't the most important thing. He gave them the gift of relationships, that couldn't be bought with money. He liked to have his children sit up front with him and talk. He spent time with each of the six children, listening to them, learning about their hopes and dreams. And when the man spoke to his children, it was with wisdom and understanding. He taught his children about God. He showed them how to love God and each other. The man raised six children who became best friends. 

When it was time for the man's oldest child, a daughter, to go to school, the man let her choose where she wanted to go. He took her to visit the school, and when she was accepted, he sat down and wrote a check for the first semester, and for each of the semesters after that. Sometimes the man ran into hard times financially. Often his children never even knew. He did everything he could to give them the best life possible. After the oldest daughter graduated from her expensive school, she planned an expensive wedding. And the man worked harder than ever before. He worked long, long hours all of the months before the wedding so that he could walk his daughter down the aisle in the setting of her dreams. 

Three years passed, and the man gave his second daughter a wedding just as exquisite as the first. He sent his third daughter to an expensive school. And he worked harder than ever to make it all possible, to make his children's dreams come true. At last, it seemed, life began to slow down for the man. The full nest began to empty as, one by one, his children set out to make their own way in the world. Then, terrible tragedy struck. The oldest daughter found herself alone in the world with her newborn baby girl. And the man once again made a home for her. He moved to the basement of his own house and gave his bedroom to his daughter. He found furniture and pretty things to make her smile. He bought her crepes and coffee and listened to her when she was confused. He loved her baby girl like his own. 

Every year brings the man closer to retirement age. Every year, the man works harder than ever. He brings his mother into his home. He drives to North Carolina, Kentucky, Alabama, and Canada to visit his children. The man does not stop working. He does not stop praying. He does not stop loving. He does not stop giving. He is the most generous man in the whole world. 

Sunday, June 26, 2016


When Nathan and I lived in Houston the local Christian radio station (KSBJaaay!) provided constant background music in both of our cars. One new song by Big Daddy Weave, "Overwhelmed," was played more often than usual. I vividly remember making the trek downtown for a prenatal doctor's appointment right before Elissa was born, as "Overwhelmed" played for what seemed like the tenth time that day. The words brought me to tears as I visualized the glorious relief I would feel once our daughter had entered the world. In my imagination, the thrill of beholding her face to face after the agony of giving birth would feel very akin to dying and entering heaven. I knew that what happened in that delivery room would be a holy moment, that heaven would touch earth and I'd be compelled to worship.

"I delight myself in You, in the glory of Your presence
I'm overwhelmed, I'm overwhelmed by You..."

Elissa's birth was every bit as painful, glorious, and miraculous as I'd anticipated. Three weeks later, in a single instant that obliterated our euphoric new family life, Nathan was hit and killed by a drunk driver. I immediately went home to Maryland to be with our families, but a few weeks later found myself back in Texas for his memorial service. As I once again drove those familiar highways with KSBJ playing in the background, my grief seemed punctuated by the same refrain, over and over again: "I'm overwhelmed, I'm overwhelmed by You..." It seemed like every time I started the rental car "Overwhelmed" was playing on the radio. I knew it was no coincidence. In the midst of overwhelming feelings of pain, betrayal, and anger towards God for allowing this to happen, the lyrics nonetheless became my anthem:

"God I run into Your arms, unashamed because of mercy
I'm overwhelmed, I'm overwhelmed by You." 

My once-solid faith that I'd clung to for 26 years was in tatters, wrecked by the one thing I was sure would never happen: losing the one person I couldn't live without. Yet as I visualized Nate at home and free in the arms of his Creator I knew that the words of this song were an apt description of what he was experiencing, even as we who were left behind struggled to keep breathing, to make it through another day. I found a measure of comfort in my own devastation knowing that he was in the place he was made for, fulfilling his eternal destiny.

Fast-forward twenty months later. Elissa and I are spending the summer in Prince Edward Island, at an idyllic inn on Memory Lane (I kid you not). Nathan brought me to this same inn exactly two years ago as a surprise last hoorah before we became parents, both of us clueless as to what would befall us just months later. This place was meant to be a part of our story, and before I even realized the connotation of the road name I brought along a bag stuffed with the journals I'd kept during our years together. I've spent the last month poring over hundreds of handwritten pages, documenting the ups and downs from our days of first meeting and falling in love, to fights, passionate trysts, joy, laughter, heartache, and everything in between. And I've only made it to 2008!

I never imagined how painful a trip into the past could be. Though we had the best marriage possible this side of heaven, I've felt acute pangs of grief and guilt over so many things I should have done differently in our relationship. Ways I could have loved him, served him, cared for him...missed opportunities because I was too absorbed in my own selfishness.

Our early years of dating were particularly rocky. We grew up together in many ways, hours apart at different schools with very different pursuits, and though we longed to be together it was agonizingly unclear at times whether our paths were ultimately meant to converge or separate. Woven between the stories of conflict and confusion are my journaled prayers for Nate, reminding myself over and over again that he belonged to God and that God would fulfill His purposes for him, regardless of how our future together played out.

Today it hits me, reading once again the many ways that I'd failed Nate in spite of my best efforts, that he is now overwhelmed by a Love like he never imagined. Nathan struggled his whole life to believe that he mattered to others, that people really cared about him. It hurts more than I can express to admit that, even knowing this, there were so many times that I didn't do enough to convey my love for him. I love him more wholly and passionately than anyone can ever know, yet all the love in my heart fell woefully short of what he needed and deserved.

As I am devastated once again that I couldn't be a more perfect wife, I find my grief turning to thanksgiving. Impulsively I start to praise God for dazzling Nathan with all the love he was created to eternally behold. I thank Him for holding Nate in the palm of His hand, guarding him from countless unknown disasters until the moment that he was destined to enter heaven. In January of 2008 I wrote in my journal: God, please give me Your heart for Nate and use me to show him how special and wonderful he is and how much You love him...

It is overwhelming to me that God gave me this priceless treasure of a man for eight years, that I got to love him with everything I have and thus be a part of showing him God's love on earth. Yet the story was never meant to end with us. Tim Keller describes how Jesus embraced the cross, "knowing that no matter how dreadful, on the other side would lie the joy of being with us. We are his reward." This. This is overwhelming Love. And until I can hold Nate again I will rejoice that he is safe in the arms of his Father.

Nathan and I at Green Gables on July 4, 2014

Elissa and I on Memory Lane, June 2016

Sunday, February 14, 2016

A Letter to My Husband

"Many waters cannot quench love, 
neither can floods drown it."
- Song of Songs 8:7

Ten years ago today I met my best friend and hero - the greatest man I've ever known. Nate, knowing, loving, and losing you has forever changed and shaped me. There are countless ways you've impacted me for good, but today I want to thank you for showing me the love of Jesus. It has been a long, bitter, tear-filled journey to relearn and accept His love for me. I will be perfectly honest: when God took you home I was furious that He would let me taste that kind of love and then take it away. His promises to care for the orphan and widow incited rage, not comfort. I didn't want a stand-in husband and father; I wanted YOU. One day I begged God for just one more conversation with you to tide me over until we were together again. In that moment God spoke to me so clearly. He said, "If Nathan could give you one thing right now he wouldn't give you himself. He'd give you Jesus."
"Lord," I responded, "help me to want that. Let Jesus be enough." 

Days later I had the most vivid dream of my life. In my dream I was with Jesus, and He loved me so much. He wanted me - me! - to be His bride. I will never forget the way His love made  me feel: complete, and whole, and infinitely valuable. Nothing I could do added to or detracted from His love; it was as boundless and constant as the sea. I woke from my dream and realized that if I just had that love I would never need anything ever again. And Nate, what struck me the most about Jesus was that He loved me like you did. And what I am most thankful for about our years together is that with you I had a taste of Christ's passionate love for His bride. Thank you, thank you from the bottom of my heart for showering love upon me in the best and the worst of times. For never giving a harsh word or a cold shoulder. For bearing, believing, and hoping always. 

Today, a day that we should be celebrating ten years together, my arms physically ache to hold you. And yet I have hope, because stronger and more real than the grave is Life Everlasting. We did long-distance for years in college, and we're doing it now. Every day I feel your love and support as I run my race. I can't wait to make it to the finish line. I can't wait to hug you again, but I know that when we're finally reunited you will take my hand and lead me to Jesus. In life and in death, He is all we will ever need, and He will never let us go. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Reflecting on 2015

"I'm more than you dreamed, more than you understand
Your days and your times were destined for our dance
I catch all your tears, burn your name on My heart
Be still and trust My plan, I'm more than you think I am." 
- Danny Gokey

I mentioned in my last post that I've experienced the full range of human emotions in 2015, our first year without Nathan. There were big chunks of time when I didn't post, too crippled by grief and doubt to fully stand behind whatever words I could muster. But I was writing all along, and looking back over my journaling in 2015 I see themes and shifts that have helped me better understand my journey through loss.

2015 was a year of firsts without Nate: first New Year, his birthday, Valentine's Day, Easter, Mother's Day, Father's Day, anniversary (we would have been married five years in June '15), my birthday, Elissa's first birthday, and the first anniversary of the accident. The once-special days seemed to come in waves, pushing me back down into a sea of pain and broken dreams as soon as I started coming up for air. I am thankful now that I chose to embrace the holidays for all the joy and pain that they represented. I didn't even attempt to suck it up and march blindly forward. I spent Valentine's Day blinded by tears, surrounded by piles of love letters from Nate. On our anniversary I was in Houston, tracing our steps back to all the places where we'd lived, gone on dates, and eaten our favorite foods. On my birthday I took Elissa back to Strong Mansion, our wedding venue. October 5 found us in Destin, FL, one of Nathan's favorite beaches, with the people he loved most. Looking back I see a trend on these poignant days. I would begin the day overwhelmed by grief, barely able to breathe. The path through our memories seemed unbearable, but necessary. There was nothing else I could or wanted to do. And by the end of the day I was actually able to smile, and laugh, and be so thankful for my years with Nate and find genuine joy in the life I now live with my baby girl. That is a priceless gift, and I don't think I would have come to that place had I not chosen to throw myself headlong into the most painful aspects of my loss.

Valentine's Day 2015 - overwhelmed by all the love!

As Thanksgiving and Christmas '15 rolled around I noticed a marked difference from the previous year, when we were all still stunned by Nate's absence. In 2014 I wanted nothing to do with these holidays; I tried my hardest to avoid them. On Thanksgiving I spent the day driving to North Carolina, timing it so that I would miss all the feasting. On Christmas I locked myself away for most of the day and refused to give or receive gifts. It was the only way I could make it through what used to be my favorite holidays, but this year, with a busy toddler in tow, I baked traditional Thanksgiving dishes and ate and wrapped presents during Christmas movie marathons and even felt a spark of the old anticipation on Christmas morning. Seeing things through Elissa's eyes makes these days new again. Holidays will never be what they were with Nate, who literally made me giddy with joy more times than I can count. I had the best years of my life with him, but there is so much life still to live with Elissa. Every day I thank God for the hope and fresh perspective that she gives me.

Thanksgiving 2015

I read about a couple who lost their six children in a fiery car crash, and years later they attributed their faith in God to the way they'd seen Him carry them through each day since. That is exactly the way I feel fifteen months after Nate's accident. My faith has run the full gamut of questions, rage, and doubt, but the one constant thing is that Jesus has never let us go. Several months ago I journaled these words:

I've wanted to write inspiring posts about trust and faith but I barely know what those words mean anymore. My worldview has been upended; my beliefs are in tatters. It scares me to publicize my fear, anger and doubts. What happened to the steady Christian girl with unshakable faith?

The unthinkable happened. Try as I might I cannot roll over and play dead with God. I cannot blindly accept everything that happened as being "part of a plan" or "for a reason." Nate's accident is senseless and meaningless and so wrong. It should NEVER have happened. As long as I live there will never be any answers to explain it away. 

Was my former faith really so shallow that a catastrophic loss can destroy it? I've come to believe that God doesn't expect me to shut my mouth and play this hideous hand I've been dealt without an epic internal battle. I believe He's invited me to have it out with Him. He's big enough to handle my rage, my hurt, my doubts and my tears. He already knows all about it anyway, so it's both senseless and futile to try to bottle everything up inside. 

I don't want anyone to think for a minute that I'm stronger or braver than I really am. My faith is one long string of question marks and expletives, and I am relearning how to live in a world where nothing is guaranteed and the most beautiful things can suddenly become the most horrific. I once thought I knew God. Nothing could have prepared me for this side of Him. 

My former faith has been torn down and rebuilt on a foundation that includes the worst loss imaginable. Yes, God allowed it. And somehow, even now, He is still good. He is still God. And every day I am learning a little more about what that means. 

I believe that people suffering the aftermath of a catastrophic loss are given little glimpses of their loved one as an encouragement to pull through to the finish line. Around Elissa's birthday I had a vivid picture of Nathan that changed my perspective so much. Many well-meaning people had said things about Nate being "in a better place" and "at peace," and I took this to mean that he was so happy with Jesus that he wasn't even missing the ones he left behind.

While I do believe that heaven is infinitely better than earth, and that given the choice Nate would probably not want to come back, I firmly believe that he knows this is not the way things are meant to be. God has promised to redeem all evil for great good, but sickness and drunk drivers and serial killers and death were never part of His original plan. Death is horrific, nauseating, the antithesis of creation. All the perspective in the world doesn't make it okay. Jesus wept at Lazarus' tomb. He knew that He was about to raise him from the dead, but that didn't take the pain away. Nathan sees how all this will turn out, yet I believe he still grieves the untimely severance of our souls. We are separated by time and space, and the eternity in our hearts heaves against the separation.

Somehow the image I saw of Nathan cheering me on through tears at the life I am left to walk alone has filled me with hope and the will to press on. The end of Hebrews 11 talks about martyrs "of whom the world was not worthy" dying in faith before receiving what was promised. The very next verse, Hebrews 12:1, admonishes us to run our race with endurance, "since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses." To me, the image of a cloud of witnesses means that Nathan is still involved in my life on earth. Like Jesus, he sees what I am going through and he intercedes for me. Randy Alcorn suggests that there is a "present heaven" where saints go before the final creation of the New Earth: the longed-for paradise where there will be no more tears or sadness, because all will finally be well. In the present heaven, as depicted in Revelation, Christians who have died still watch the drama being played out on earth and pray for those they have left behind. It brings me comfort to imagine Nathan watching the way I raise Elissa, praying for us because he will always be part of our family.

I can't pretend that I've been through the dark valley of anger and doubt and made it through to the other side. I don't ever want to stay quiet until I've resolved things about God and the way the world works that will honestly probably never fully resolve, but I do want to end affirming what I still know to be true: that God loves us. He has a plan for us that isn't exempt from horrific pain, but that is guaranteed to use the worst circumstances for good. As it turns out, God's "good" is usually the opposite of what seems good to me. But He is the One in control, who sees the end from the beginning, and while this life was never promised to bring us happiness or ultimate satisfaction, awaiting His children is an eternity filled to overflowing with all the things our hearts most deeply long for.

My Sunshine.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Finish the Fight

"That's one hell of an amen,
Fighting the good fight
Till the good Lord calls you home"
- Brantley Gilbert

2015 is drawing to a close, the end of our first year without Nathan. I haven't posted in a long time because there is so much baggage to sort through while learning to live all over again in a world I never could have imagined. I am relearning God, and relationships, and my self as a mother but no longer a wife. I am constantly up and down the emotional spectrum, sometimes all in the same hour. I have learned that time does not heal, that some wounds will throb and protest until they are permanently erased in heaven. I have raged and sobbed and wanted to die and gone numb. I have been shocked by pangs of love and joy that I was sure I'd never feel again. I have experienced firsthand the resilience of the human spirit. The man I love more than life is no longer here, but somehow each day I find the will to get out of bed, to make the most of another day, to give our daughter the life she would have had with both of us, to press through to the finish line and make him proud.

This past October 5, the one year anniversary of Nathan's passage to heaven, marked a tangible shift for me. I had made it through that excruciating year of firsts: first Christmas, first new year, first birthday without him; and lasts: last time we kissed, went on a trip, ate dinner, watched an episode of Parks and Rec together. I spent October 5 in Destin, FL, one of Nathan's favorite beaches, with his family and closest friends. As I sat alone by the ocean and reflected on the last year I felt a tide turn within me. For the first time I had the words and the will to tell our story. A week later I stood in front of an Alabama youth group, tears flowing freely throughout the room as perfect strangers were introduced to the most extraordinary man I've ever known. 

For an hour I talked about our love story, Nathan's character and drive, and things I've learned from him. After fifteen months of reflecting on the way Nathan lived his life, I can honestly say that he is my hero. I aspire to be just like him, and if I can live the rest of my days with half as much purpose and vision as he did in his 26 years I will count myself a success. 

I shared earlier this year about how Nathan's coworker gave his parents a card at his memorial service. Inside was a photo of Nathan, wearing a shirt that none of us had ever seen. The message on the shirt has gotten me through each day since losing him: a challenge to Finish the Fight. 

Finishing the fight is exactly how Nathan lived each day. I want to share with you all what I shared with the Alabama youth group, a FIGHT acronym which aptly describes how Nathan lived each day. My prayer is that it will challenge and inspire each of you as it has inspired me to live on mission in 2016. 

The first word is FAITH: complete trust and confidence in God. When Nathan was in high school his 19-year-old cousin, Elizabeth, was in a horrific car accident while traveling to a worship conference. She died after 60 days in the intensive care burn unit. Years ago while we were dating Nate wrote me this email about the impact that Elizabeth’s death had on him:

“I was kind of a Christian when everything happened, but it did not make sense to could God let this happen? Why? There are plenty of teenagers who didn't have near as promising a future as Elizabeth; why didn't God choose one of them instead? Honestly, I haven't been able to even come close to answering that question. The more I asked it, the further away from God I got. I have finally come to accept the fact that I'll never know on earth why He did it, but I have FAITH that God loves His children enough to do what is best for them.”

Nathan was a man of amazing intellect, but he didn’t let things that didn’t make sense to him give him an excuse to not believe in God. His life verse was Proverbs 3:5, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” In 2013 Nathan and I lost our first child, Hope, and at the time it was the hardest thing I had ever gone through. Nathan’s faith had already been tested and strengthened through losing Elizabeth, and he was able to point me back to God’s promises and faithfulness in the midst of our heartbreak. He didn’t let his circumstances change what he knew to be true about God; his faith was his anchor through the storms of life.

The second word is INTEGRITY: moral uprightness. Nathan set very high standards for himself, and invited others to join him in doing the same. In college he started a challenge group with a few close friends, where they set weekly goals for themselves and held each other accountable. The challenge group continued with new friends and coworkers and even with me after we moved to Houston. An excerpt from his personal mission statement reads: 

“I strive to honor God with every action. I have a quiet time at least five times a week, and I give 10% of what I make to advancing God’s kingdom. My personal desires and actions are subject to God’s commands and calling for my life. 
I live my life as if someone is watching every action that I make. My actions follow my professed ideals and beliefs. My integrity is not be compromised for any reason (i.e. pleasure, advancement (corporately or monetarily), etc.). I am sexually pure in thought and action.
After God, my family is my number one priority. Their well-being and happiness supersedes my career and personal advancement. 
My close friendships are God centered, and with all of my friends, I demonstrate the love of Christ. I share humbly my thoughts and struggles with my close friends and invite their insight into my life. 
I inspire the people around me to perform to their highest potential, and I lead by example. 
I continually challenge myself to grow in every aspect of my life. I read one book a week, and I research areas that I am not knowledgeable in order to have an informed opinion. In every action that I perform I am proactive and give my best effort. I improve instead of complain. My mission in life is to fulfill God’s purpose.”

            It is incredible that at the end of Nathan’s life on earth those closest to him can look back and say that he truly lived out the high standards he set for himself each and every day. As I’ve thought back over our years together I honestly cannot remember a single time that Nathan complained or spoke negatively about someone. He was the same at home with his guard down as he was in public, genuine to the core.

            The third word is GIFTS. Nathan means Gift of God. Not only was Nathan an amazing gift to me, his family and his friends, but he was extraordinarily gifted. He had the brain of an engineer, the vision of a CEO, the athletic prowess of a starting quarterback, the humor of a stand-up comedian, the looks of an Abercrombie model, and to top it all off he was everyone’s best friend. To give you an idea of the effect Nathan had on people, at his memorial services four different men – a high school student, a successful engineer, a Marine fighter pilot, and a Ph.D. scientist – all stood up and called Nathan the best friend they’d ever had.

Youth, peers, and senior executives alike aspired to be like Nathan. He made the most of his God-given gifts, but he never acted superior about them. In fact, one thing that everyone admired the most about Nate was how good he was at calling out the gifts in those around him. One friend said that Nate “made everyone a better version of themselves.” At times he identified and awakened gifts in others that they didn’t even know they had. Nate was the ultimate leader because he so valued each individual’s unique gifts. He brought teamwork and unity to every situation by bringing out the best in those around him instead of trying to dominate and be the best.

The fourth word is HONOR: great respect. Nathan honored God, and he honored others. This was exemplified particularly in our four-year dating relationship. There were so many times when I got tired of fighting and was ready to “throw in the purity towel,” figuratively speaking. I shudder to think where we would have ended up if it weren’t for Nate’s steadfast leadership in honoring God and each other. Even after we were married Nathan made me feel like a princess every day. I can’t remember a single time that he criticized me or made me feel insecure about myself. I am far from perfect, but Nate brought so much grace into our home and always treated me with the highest esteem.

At first glance Nathan looked like he had it all. But his gifts and character came at great personal cost. As a young boy he was legally blind in one eye, and had severe problems with his other eye. He wore an eye patch for years, as well as braces and headgear. He was repeatedly mocked by others and had to learn that it is what’s on the inside of a person that matters. 1 Samuel 16:7 says, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Nathan had the same mentality. Instead of looking down on others who didn’t measure up in an area he focused on the good he saw in everyone, and he helped me to do the same.

The last word is TIME. Nathan had enough vision and personal goals to fill three lifetimes, and he made every minute count. Part of Nate’s challenge group was a weekly “Roles and Goals” worksheet that he would fill out to make sure he fulfilled each of his priorities in his roles as a Christian, husband, worker, family member, and friend. A typical day for Nate went something like this:
-          Wake up at 5 am
-          Spend time with God
-          Work all day
-          Call friends and family on the way home from work
-          Exercise
-          Eat dinner and spend quality time with me
-          Work a few more hours on nonprofit and grad school projects

Looking at all Nate accomplished in a short period of time, some might think he was a workaholic. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Nate valued hard work, and he maximized every minute of work time, but he also valued fun and relaxation. Often he was the one dragging me out of the kitchen and forcing me to stop working and goof off with him. He loved games – especially Guesstures and charades – and he was always finding the latest Fail Videos on YouTube. He played basketball every chance he got, and our Friday night ritual consisted of pizza, shaved ice, and Steve Martin or Jim Carrey movie marathons. Nate loved to laugh more than anything, and the number one thing that everyone remembers most about him is his legendary smile.

Nathan taught me that there is a time for everything: for work and for play, for learning and relationships and rest. He did everything with such excellence and purpose that many people have commented that he lived a full 80-year life in just 26 years. We will never understand why Nate was only given 26 earthly years, and why God called him home when it seemed like his life had only just begun. But in God’s perfect timing Nathan’s work here on earth was done. He has won his eternal reward; he has heard the words “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

At the beginning of my talk l asked the kids what one thing they wanted most in the world. If you had asked me this question eight years or five or one year ago I would have said Nathan. He is the best thing that ever happened to me, and now he has gone on ahead of me to heaven. What do I have left here on earth?

I have a fight to finish. I’m still here because my work on earth isn’t done. If I accomplish one thing in my life I want it to be fighting like Nathan taught me. I want to thrive, not just survive. I want to be so heavenly-minded that I am of great earthly good. I know that God is fighting for me and Elissa, and that Nathan is in the cloud of witnesses cheering us on. We are not alone. I am committed to fight every day for the rest of my life to honor God and make Nathan proud, and to win the prize of eternity. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Numbered Days

"You gave me a forever within the
numbered days, and I'm grateful."
- John Green

It was a balmy June evening, five years ago today. Great fans blew air-light dresses into puffs and plumes as a roomful of girls nibbled strawberries, put the finishing touches on our makeup and dabbed at the perspiration on our foreheads. I slipped into yards of ivory chiffon, fastened chandelier earrings, shed tears over the last letter from my fiancĂ©-about-to-turn-husband. My breath caught as I peeped out an upstairs window and glimpsed him in his tux, taking pictures with his best guys. He was handsome, more than ever, and at long last about to be mine. Then came my bouquet, and hurried clicks of bridal portraits in the late-day sun, and train-gathering and the descent down creaky old stairs and out onto the expectant lawn. My favorite music played; my sisters and best friends sailed one by one down the aisle while Nathan's smile got bigger and bigger. My hand nestled in the crook of Dad's arm. My heart swelled with pent-up fulfillment so close I could taste it. The moment hung heavy with complete, thrilling silence...then the words, our words:

"So close to reaching, that famous happy end
Almost believing, this is not pretend
And now you're beside me, and look how far we've come
So far, we close"

The melody soared, we rounded the corner, and suddenly the moment I had imagined countless times was overwhelmingly real. I was spellbound by the love in Nathan's gaze, at long last taking those final steps to close the distance before our lifelong union. The moment that felt at once like an eternity and a fraction of a second ended with the strains of the song I'd planned to surprise him, and - let's be honest - to jerk some tears out of those eyes brimming with love and joy. He took my hands in his, barely able to contain his excitement, and to my dismay I was the one who utterly dissolved into tears of sheer relief. This was it - the moment we'd awaited for four long years.

The subsequent hymn and pastor's message gave me time to collect myself. Nate wiped my tears and squeezed my hands and gazed at me so adoringly I had no idea how I'd make it through the whole ceremony. We'd written our vows to each other in a tiny leather notebook, and while I read mine he held my wrist and bit his lip with the most beautiful look of love and pride. I will never forget his eyes that day. His vows to me were simple, eloquent, and lived out every day of our marriage:
I, Nathan, take you, Jen, to be my lawfully wedded wife;
to love you unconditionally, to protect and provide for
you. I promise to be a strong spiritual leader and strive
to fulfill your dreams and desires. I will be your husband,
your best friend, your brother in Christ, and your
kindred spirit, always pointing you to Christ who has
mercifully sustained us thus far and will sustain us in the
future. By God's grace, I will love you as Christ loves the
Church. I will honor and cherish you, for better or for
worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, in
joy and in sorrow, in failure and in triumph. Now, in the
presence of our families and close friends, I give you my
life, all that I am and possess, from this moment forward
until God by death shall separate us.

When the pastor, at long last, pronounced us husband and wife, Nate kissed me for an unholy length of time and we booked it back down the aisle, accompanied by whistles and cheers. While the bridal party and guests milled around us we laughed and cried and held each other as tight as we could, lost in the exhilaration of finally - finally! - belonging to one another. I personally was miffed that there was still an entire reception to attend to. We'd gotten the most important part taken care of, and I was more than ready to get the heck out of there and start living the married dream.

That said, our reception was a party like none other. We barely got to eat a bite because of all the clinking glasses and ringing bells and kissing, and then there were dances to be danced and toasts to be given. I danced with my dad, he danced with his mom and then he spun me out on the floor to a rather overt song on the first country CD he ever gave me, all those years ago:

"I want to be the wind that fills your sails
And be the hand that lifts your veil
Be the moon that moves your tide
The sun coming up in your eyes
Be the wheels that never rust
And be the spark that lights you up
All that you've been dreaming of and more,
So much more,
I want to be your everything"

Our wedding was magical in every sense of the word. Every year on our anniversary we'd snuggle in bed and talk about our favorite memories from June 20, 2010. Five years later, I remember it like it was yesterday. The setting, music, food, laughter, dancing and fellowship were all better than I could have imagined. But what I will cherish until the day I die is the way Nate loved and rejoiced over me - exuberantly, unabashedly. His whole heart was in his eyes that day, for all our friends and family to witness. None of the "calm and collected groom" act going on - he was all in, for better or for worse, forever.

Our photographer, Kristen, perfectly captured my favorite moment of the evening:

"As a photographer who has been a part of hundreds of weddings I often get asked the question 'Do you have a favorite wedding?'  I always reply the same way: 'Favorite wedding what? Favorite wedding venue? Favorite couple? Favorite all-around wedding? Favorite wedding to photograph? Favorite wedding moment? [Etc.]'  Depending on what they respond with, I usually get to tell them a few top winners in the various 'wedding categories.'  And my favorite moment of any wedding, and the answer I always give to that question, happened at your wedding.

"During the reception when you both stood up to thank your friends and family, Nate was talking on the microphone and said 'Jen and I...' and while he did, he glanced over to you. I'll never forget how he completely stopped speaking and stared straight into your eyes. You two were so lost with each other, far away from us all. A few seconds later he laughed and said 'I'm so in love with you.'  It was the most sincere distraction I'd ever seen. I remember wanting to have 'that.'  I know there are many happy couples who really are compatible and good together. But you two had more. And I will always remember being able to stand witness to what you had. It was rare, and lives on. You had more in your eight years together than groups of people have in their lifetimes...your love was glowing, moved me, and will never die."

On June 20, 2010, Nathan and I vowed to love one another until God, by death, separated us. We knew our days together were numbered...but we expected them to run into the tens of thousands. Never could we have imagined that God would see fit to separate us less than five years after we embarked on the great adventure we'd spent our lives dreaming of. Four years and four months after Nate and I met, we were married. Four years and four months after we pledged our lives to one another, he went on ahead to wait for me on eternity's shore.

Nate, those eight years and eight months were the best days of my life.  Knowing now how our story on earth ends I would still choose you, over and over again, for eternity. You are so infinitely worth every painful memory, every tear I now shed alone. You gave me a forever in our numbered days. For the rest of my life I will love and long for you.