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.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mothering, Solo

For as long as I can remember, I've dreamed of being a mom. Growing up as the oldest of six kids, plus babysitting, nannying, teaching Sunday school and youth group and working as a children's librarian gave me more than ample practice. I graduated high school with lofty pre-motherhood dreams of being a famous journalist, and felt both flattered and deflated when my senior class voted me "Most Likely to Have Ten Kids" instead of "Best Writer" or "Most Likely to Succeed."

On a humid May evening in 2013 Nathan took me out to a fancy dinner and announced that he was ready to start a family. I'd been itching to have a baby almost from the day we got married, but wanted to wait until he felt the same way and came up with the idea on his own. In less than two months I found out I was pregnant with our first child, and spent our Alaskan cruise fatigued and nauseous but deliriously happy - I would have endured far worse for our precious baby.

I will never forget the day I walked into the pregnancy center, ecstatic to hear our little one's 12-week heartbeat for the first time, and exited in shock. There had been no heartbeat. Nate met me in the parking lot, and we held each other and cried. We buried our sweet Hope in the back garden of a tiny suburban house we'd rented with glowing dreams of parenthood - of pushing a stroller around the nearby lake and witnessing those first toddling footsteps on the tile floors.

In the aftermath of Hope's death, and the uncertainty of whether we'd ever be able to have children, I realized just how badly I wanted to be a mother. After being Nathan's wife, it was the most important vocation on earth to me. Nate and I grieved together, healed together and were overjoyed when in early January I discovered that I was pregnant again - less than three months after the miscarriage. It seemed too good to be true, and I battled intense fear for this little one's life throughout the early days of the pregnancy. One day in particular I was sure I was going to lose the baby. Heavy bleeding and cramping led to an emergency doctor's visit, and while I was wracked with terror Nate prayed and told me he was in faith that God was going to grant us this baby's life.

Our daughter was born in September and we named her Elissa - "promised of God." She is a daily reminder to me of heard and answered prayers even when everything in my life has been torn apart. I don't even want to imagine what life would be like without her; she is a living, breathing, tangible reminder of Nate and will embody his legacy every day of her life.

Today is my first official Mother's Day, and I find myself on this parenting venture alone. Single parenthood is something my wildest dreams could not have conceived of. I see the plethora of parents - mom and dad, together - at church, at the park, at restaurants, at the mall. Dads tossing their little ones high in the air, pushing them in strollers, tickling them till they shriek with giggles. Thankfully I have a multitude of family close by who help out in invaluable ways. Yet I am the one struggling to open the stroller and juggle all our gear and keep Elissa fed and clean and entertained - day in and day out, alone.

There are so many days where I am overwhelmed at the thought of a lifetime raising our sweet Elissa without the talents and gifts of her daddy, the best man I've ever known. My heart breaks at the thought of all she is missing out on in his absence. I worry that I can't be both parents to her, that she will grow up lacking what only he could provide. In these moments of worry and self-doubt, it comforts me to remember how much Nathan believed in me and in what I would have to offer as a mother. On the day he asked me to marry him he wrote me a letter about all the reasons he wanted me as his wife. He said that one of the first things he noticed about me was that I would be a great mom. His complete confidence in me, and the memory of our many conversations about parenting, enable me to keep going when I feel so grossly inadequate. God called me to this journey of single mothering, and He will give me the tools I need. It blows my mind to think that every day of my life has been in preparation for this overwhelming job assignment. Not a day goes by when I don't desperately miss the daddy that Elissa will never know this side of heaven, but I am thankful that her heavenly Father holds both of us in the palm of His hand and will never let us go.

One year ago on a five-mile hike in Big Bend, 24 weeks pregnant with Elissa

Mother's Day 2015, carrying Elissa ALL the way up and down Weverton Cliffs :)

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Life Eternal

This Easter, the day that Christians everywhere celebrated with rejoicing and singing, also marked six months since I became a widow. It is staggering to celebrate a day which marks Christ's resurrection from a grave, and Nathan's descent into one. How has it already been six months since I heard Nate's voice, made his last supper, hugged and kissed him goodbye for the last time?

God has been merciful to me this past week. Instead of the crushing despair that I imagined, I have felt a growing sense of victory. Christ rose from the grave victorious over sin and over eternal death. In His ultimate victory, Nathan has also found victory. He has confronted our biggest enemy, Death, and won. He has prevailed over sin once and for all, and is now living the Great Adventure that will continue for all eternity.

I used to fantasize constantly about Nathan coming back. I half expected him to; it was too incomprehensible that I would never see him again until I join him in heaven. Now, although I long for Nate with everything I am, I'm convinced that, given the choice, he wouldn't even want to come back. Heaven is that wonderful and his perspective has changed so much that I believe it will feel like the blink of an eye to him before we're all together again, never to be apart.

I want to share two things that have filled me with hope over this past week in particular. The first is a rare foretaste that I had of Nate in paradise. In May 2014 we spent a week in Turks & Caicos, and it was the stuff his dreams were made of. He basked in the shimmering turquoise ocean and endless stretches of white beach, completely fulfilled and at peace. He never wanted to leave. Jordan and Christene were with us and sometimes the three of us would go off exploring or shopping. Nate refused to leave the beach. Once we came back and couldn't find him until I spotted a tiny speck floating all alone in the vast blueness. I remember thinking that Nate was as close to heaven as anyone could be in this life.

I am so grateful for these memories because they are a glimpse of what Nate is now experiencing. His dreams have come true, his deepest longings are fulfilled, his goals are attained, his soul is forever satisfied. And yet I know he misses me. I got to Turks & Caicos a couple days after he did, and while he was waiting for me he sent me this picture with the caption: "I'm incomplete without you..."

In my mind's eye Nathan is exploring and rejoicing and delighting in Paradise, tingling with the anticipation of one day sharing it with me and Elissa and all of us who love and long for him more than ever.

The second thing I want to share is Nate's last text to me, sent six months ago today after he was released early from night shift. Before I knew that his soul was already home, I woke up to this message: "Praying for you! I can't wait to see you...going to get home early :)"

I still get chills at these last words from him. Little did he know that within moments he would be HOME, in the fullest sense of the word, earlier than any of us could have imagined. I know without a shadow of a doubt that he is praying for me. I know he can't wait to see me. And I can only imagine that famous smile, the last thing he left me, dazzling with all the radiance of heaven.

Monday, March 2, 2015


I startled awake, inexplicably terrified. God, I said to the strange stillness, help me trust You. It didn't come. Trust as I've known it will never come again. Before, when I hadn't experienced crushing tragedy and life was more or less the way I wanted it, the way I planned it, trusting God somehow equated to nothing really bad happening to me. I would fulfill my part of the bargain, do the right things, say the right prayers. God would then do His part - send His angels to guard me and those I loved in all our ways. We wouldn't even strike our foot against a stone.

Now, in spite of all my right living, the prayers prayed and churches attended and Scriptures endlessly read, the worst has happened. There's no guarantee the worst won't happen again - if anything could be worse than this. I am face to face with the reality of evil and death despite all my trust. I am afraid. I am angry, and I am broken. What will He do to me next? How can He expect me to trust Him now?

The bedrock of my trust has been revealed. It wasn't so much God - His character and His promises - as it was my safety and security which I naturally chalked up to God taking care of me because I did all the right things to make Him happy. I've found that this God, the one I spent my life believing in, doesn't exist. There is no such thing as an obliging Genie in the sky who keeps his end of the deal I've imposed on him through my so-called righteous living. As Elisabeth Elliot said, if God were merely my accomplice in my pursuit of a safe, happy, fulfilling life, He has utterly betrayed me.

But the God who has called me to trust Him - to trust Him even now - is so much more. This world, and everyone in it, is all about Him: His story, His plans, His eternity. Either God is real or He isn't. If He is real, then everything He says about Himself is either true, or it is one lie after another.

I don't want to survive this. I don't want it as a part of my story. But I have been left here, and it is for a purpose. I cannot live one more day on this earth if God isn't here. I can't draw my next breath if He is a liar. So I repeat Steven Curtis Chapman's words to myself, over and over again. Sometimes it is a silent anthem in my head; other times I say it aloud, through clenched teeth:

I know Your heart is good
Your love is strong
Your plans for me are better than my own
And I will trust You.

All I can conclude about God in the aftermath of this devastation is that He is incomprehensible. He calls Himself good and loving, then does what feels like the opposite of good, the opposite of love. To trust Him now will never look the same as it once did. Naivety was obliterated that early morning on the freeway, and in the aftermath there is no such thing as blind faith. God's promises for good and not for evil are still the same as they always were. He has not changed. What has been completely rewritten is my definition of good. "Good" is not the things I wanted, planned and dreamed for myself. Good is God. God, somehow, even when all of my senses scream otherwise, is good. And in that goodness I pray that I will someday, with more surety and conviction than ever, relearn to trust.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Valentine's Day

February 14, 2006. I was seventeen when the smartly dressed, country music-loving, Ivy League-hopeful, tanned Southern boy with eyes like the sea walked in my front door that Valentine's Day. We struck up a conversation, discovered we had most things in common, and though I was in denial for months I fell hard. When we weren't talking in person (at church, youth group, birthday parties and gatherings), on MySpace or instant messaging (these were the pre-Facebook days), we spent countless hours on the phone (he helped me study for my driver's license, played devil's advocate for my debate and senior thesis prep, quizzed me in Spanish, probed my political views and stretched my intellect every which way). I spent long spring afternoons and hot summer nights walking laps around my neighborhood, swatting mosquitoes, laying on the driveway and sitting in the bed of my dad's pickup truck while we discussed every topic we could think of to avoid getting off the phone. The day he told me I was his "best friend in Maryland," I did a happy dance in the middle of the street. Neither of us breathed a word of romantic interest until he'd officially told my dad he "liked" me at a Starbucks late on the sticky June night that I graduated high school. I had no idea how he felt about me that spring, but I was a goner - hook, line and sinker.

Valentine's Day, aside from its usual romantic connotations, was always such a special day for us - commemorating that February night in 2006 at youth group listening to our leader talk about what God-centered romance looks like, me sitting on the floor with my best friend and trying not to think about the handsome newcomer on the couch right behind me. Through our dating and married years Nathan always found a way to make each Valentine's better than the last. Some years we celebrated with our best Texas friends, Eric and Katrina, with much feasting, decorations and serenades from the guys. Other years Nate got all the small group guys involved and they whipped up a romantic feast for us girls. Two years ago I bought 14 small presents and left one out for him to find every day of the "14 Days of Love" leading up to Valentine's Day. Then, when the rain ruined my planned picnic, I lit hundreds of tea lights and we picnicked on the living room floor.

On our last Valentine's Day together Nate surprised me with a stay at the JW Marriott in downtown Houston and a romantic dinner cruise.  After a fancy dinner watching the sunset drift by, he tipped the live guitarist to play "Then" by Brad Paisley. He led me to the dance floor and we danced, all alone in a sea of dining couples, to the lyrics he'd had inscribed on the scrapbook he gave me when he proposed: "We'll look back someday/ On this moment that we're in/ And I'll look at you and say/ And I thought I loved you then." It was one of the sweetest moments of my life and I cried.

If anyone had told 17-year-old me on the night I met Nathan that he could be mine for eight years, and that on our ninth Valentine's Day I would be the one bringing him flowers, laying them on a snowy patch of ground under a makeshift cross and his name on a funeral home picket, I wouldn't have changed a thing. That amorous arrow stabs at my heart this year, and will every February 14 for the rest of my life, but underlying the pain is a lifetime's worth of memories and the sweetest love I'll ever know. I love you, Nate. You are my everything.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Saying Goodbye

This morning I sat in a dental hygienist's chair, cleaning tools in my mouth, tears seeping from under the safety glasses, and I said goodbye to my husband.

In the weeks since Nathan went to heaven I have alternated between acceptance and denial. Sometimes reality is crystal clear: he is gone, and I have to learn to live without him. Other times - most of the time - I come across a picture of him in all his vibrant aliveness and my brain cannot wrap itself around the fact that he is no longer here. Nathan was taken from earth to heaven in a millisecond. I've been assured of that repeatedly. But I wasn't there. I (thankfully) didn't see it happen. I kissed him and waved goodbye as he left for work, and I never saw him again. My Nate, dressed in dark blue pants and a Carolina-blue work shirt with his name embroidered in red, drove away and honked his horn at me in farewell - a final farewell, as it turned out.

As grateful as I am for the ability to "remember him as he was," it makes his absence that much more unreal. My phone rings, and I expect it to be him. I drive down the highway, run errands, nurse Elissa in our bed, and all the time am just waiting to see him pop his head in the doorway or emerge from a crowd or appear around a bend in the road. I've visualized him coming back countless times. I dream that he was gone but now is back again. I know God could say the word and Nate would find himself back on this earth just as suddenly as he left it. And I want that more than I've ever wanted anything in my life. It is so wrong for him not to be here. So wrong to be constantly on the go between two houses, to have our entire life together packed away in boxes, to take our baby girl to the cemetery to visit Daddy when, for other kids, "visiting Daddy" means swinging by the office or cheering from the sidelines of a pickup soccer game.

Until last night, I hadn't made peace with the fact that Nate's time here on earth is finished. I wanted, hoped for, half expected him to come back again. The idea that he is never coming back was, and still is, inconceivable to me. I cannot begin to imagine living years, decades without him, and I don't want to. I hadn't said goodbye. I wasn't willing to relinquish my wishes to God's obviously different and higher purpose. In many ways I was caught between reality and wishful thinking - unable to grieve and heal well because of how hard I willed this not to be true.

Last night, as I unpacked some of our things and tried to squeeze four years of marriage into the bottom level of a townhouse, my eyes fell on one of Nate's Bibles. He had at least four, and this was not one he used very often. I picked it up, not expecting much, and noticed sticky tabs attached to two pages. The Bible fell open to the second tabbed page, and I couldn't breathe. In this barren, barely-used Bible one passage was highlighted several times, in blue and then in green:

"For I am already being poured out as a drink offering,
and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the
good fight. I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteous-
ness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me
on that Day." - 2 Tim. 4:6-8
Tears streamed down my face as I turned to the second tab. Attached to the story of Gideon in Judges was a sticky note in Nathan's handwriting. He had outlined a sermon he preached to our youth group one Sunday last year, and the words at the bottom took my breath away again. Nate had clearly printed these words:
"We have a race to run; Jesus has conquered death; God will be with you."
Over this past week I've been reading Mary Beth Chapman's Choosing to SEE, recounting the loss of their daughter Maria and the daily choices towards faith and hope they've had to make since. As I read the chapter where the family returned home after the accident and found a specific, healing message that Maria seemed to have left them, I prayed for such a message from Nathan. I was desperate to somehow communicate with him, but it feels like a thick dark veil has been drawn between us since his passing.

Last night that veil was lifted, if only for a moment, and it was as if he took my face in his hands, looked me deep in the eyes with that famous, reassuring smile of his, and gave me his message. It was loud, and chillingly clear. He fought his fight. He finished his race. He has received his crown and his reward. It is time to say goodbye, for now...

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Birth of Elissa Rose

Dear Elissa,

Today you turned four months old! Time with you has flown by so fast, and I can hardly remember life without you in it. You are the sunshine of my days and the sweetness of my nights. We've had a lot of milestones over this past month: you love to push up first your front, then your backside and I know you will put them together and crawl before too long. You can sit by yourself as long as you have something to hold on to, and you love holding your own toys to taste and examine. You are such a little lady and always have your hands folded properly. You have strong little legs and can stand without support as long as you have someone to balance you. You are very conversational, especially first thing in the morning and just before bedtime. Even when you don't feel good you are the happiest baby! You love experimenting with new sounds and trying to copy me when I talk and sing to you. Your favorite song is "The Birdies' Ball" and you always break out in a huge smile when I sing it, even if you're sad. You love to look at and talk to pictures of your daddy, and can pick him out of a crowd - you grab pictures of him and kiss his face even if there are others in the picture!


It's hard to believe that you're already one-third of the way through your first year of life, and I can think of no better gift than to share the story of how you entered the world. God was so kind to send you to us a week before your due date. You got to have nearly four priceless weeks with your daddy,
and the first week he took off work and spent almost every minute with you. He came to your doctor's appointment, rocked you and sang to you, changed and dressed you and helped feed you. He called you his "little girl" and his "princess," and when you were too tiny to fit in the clothes we had for you he picked out the cutest little newborn things. He loved to take you on walks around the lake, to church and out to eat, showing you off to everyone. I hope you grow up knowing just how much he treasured you, how fiercely he loved you. He was willing to sit through seven natural birthing classes with me, and was the best coach and support during the 18-hour labor! A week before your daddy went to be with Jesus he helped me write the story of your birth. I've kept it just like we wrote it because it's one of the last pieces I have of him.

**Reader Advisory: This account is somewhat graphic in parts, and not for the faint of heart**

                On Sunday, September 7, I went to church while Nate slept in to get ready for his night shift work which was starting that night. I came home with lots of energy and a long to-do list – we ironed and hung curtains, rearranged wall art, and organized the nursery. Nate left for work around 4 pm and I made a big pot of chicken soup, washed and folded a load of tiny baby clothes and crawled around on the floor taping down our entry rug. There was absolutely no sign of labor except for this mad nesting urge; looking back I’m so thankful I got those things done just in time! I went to bed early but had a hard time falling asleep without Nate. I woke up 2 hours later, shortly before midnight, feeling very strange. I had a tightness in my belly and really had to use the bathroom. I had never had contractions before but knew immediately what the tightening every 5 minutes was. I noticed that I was leaking fluid, so I texted Nate and my mom to let them know I was having contractions and might be in labor. My mom had somehow fallen asleep with her phone and called me right away. I didn’t really think I was in labor since I wasn’t due until the 14th, and I expected the early stage of labor to last a long time with me doing most of the work at home. I told Mom that I was contracting every 5 minutes and leaking fluid, and she said I should call the hospital. The on-call doctor told me to come in, which I wasn’t excited about but called Nate anyway. I couldn’t reach him since he was in meetings, so I texted his co-worker and started getting some things ready for the hospital. Soon the contractions were intense enough that I knew we needed to go, so I called the main console and asked the operator to please get Nate for me. He was really excited and went into Nate’s meeting with a huge grin on his face. Nate was in shock when the operator handed him the phone! His first night of turnaround and suddenly he was racing home in the middle of the night to get me to the hospital. By the time he got home my contractions were 2-3 minutes apart and I had to stop what I was doing and focus on breathing through them. He started worrying that we wouldn’t make it to the hospital in time, so we threw everything in the car and got going. On the drive there my contractions were 2 minutes apart and lasting about a minute; at one point I almost threw up because of how intense they were.

                We got to the hospital about 2:30 and Nate dropped me off and went to park the car. I somehow made it to the 11th floor with my suitcase and checked in while taking lots of breaks through contractions. The nurses got me to an exam room and admitted me when they saw I was already at 4-5 cm. I got excited thinking this wouldn’t take too long since I was already halfway there! I changed into a nightgown and they put in an IV port. Nate had to walk around and distract himself from the needle; he told me later this was the only point during the birth where he almost passed out :) I got in a wheelchair and they took us to a labor and delivery room. I had requested nurses who specialized in natural birth, and my nurse showed me some positions to try. I got on all fours in the bed for awhile, then sat on a birthing ball. She gave me some chicken broth to drink, but I panicked during an especially strong contraction and hopped up from the ball, which made me immediately throw up. I was really scared that I would throw up all through labor, so I focused on my breathing and relaxing as much as possible through each contraction. I walked around the room for awhile and would stop and lean over the counter for each contraction, trying to surrender to the pain and work with it instead of tensing up and resisting what my body was trying to do. Nate was super quiet up to this point and I finally asked him to please talk me through the breathing/relaxing process and encourage me. He was so supportive, just hadn’t known at first if I wanted to be coached or left alone to work :) He helped me get in the tub which helped for a little while but also slowed down labor, so soon I was back to walking laps around the room again. I walked countless circles around that room, which probably amounted to a few miles by the time it was all over! I lost track of time but noticed that the sun had come up and my nurses had changed shifts. The new nurse was optimistic that we would have a baby by lunch time, but when she checked me after 3 hours of active labor I was only at a 6. Three hours later I was barely a 7. There would be lots of really intense contractions, then they would stop almost completely and I’d fall asleep.

Mom had managed to change her flight in the middle of the night without paying any extra; our friend Eric picked her up at the airport and she got to the hospital around noon. I was lying in bed exhausted, hurting and discouraged because I’d been laboring hard since 2:30 am and was still only a 6-7. Mom immediately started comforting me and encouraging me along with Nate, and soon he took a 15-minute power nap since he’d been up all night. Mom read Scripture to me, prayed over me and encouraged me through each contraction. At this point I hadn’t eaten anything since some soup and bread around 3:30 pm the day before, and all I could have was sips of juice and water. I sucked on a few fruit snacks and somehow had enough energy to keep walking endless laps around the room. I remember being really confused because the contractions were awful, but I could still smile and joke between them. I told my doctor a story about a friend who pushed so hard that her baby shot out all at once and the nurses barely caught him by one leg. When she left the contractions got much worse than they had ever been. I stayed on my feet and tried to sink down into each one; I would grab onto Nate and beg God to help me and Nate would breathe with me and remind me to relax through each contraction.

                The nurse eventually checked me again (being checked was the worst because I’d be lying in bed helpless and she would check me with a contraction which was almost unbearable). She said I was a 9 but with a cervical lip – she tried to move it out of the way which was torturous but then said I still wasn’t ready to push quite yet. She recommended that I take Pitocin to make the contractions more effective, but I was adamant about no drugs and said I wanted to try for another half hour. She left and I think at that point I fell asleep – the contractions seemed to stall and I was so worn out and felt like this baby was never coming. The nurse came back half an hour later and was shocked that I’d been napping at a 9! She got the doctor, who strongly advised me to take Pitocin since the baby had been in the birth canal all day and my body wasn’t effectively getting her out. I finally agreed and they started me on a level 2, the lowest possible dose. I continued my laps around the room, pushing the IV cart and leaning on it for support with each contraction.  45 minutes later nothing was happening, so they increased the dose to 4. The contractions really started to get more intense then, but still weren’t as bad as the ones I’d had before the Pitocin, which confused me. I kept asking the nurse what an urge to push would feel like, but she just said I would know when I had to push. As soon as she left the room I felt that urge, just once, and my mom raced out to get the nurse. I sat on the bed ready to be checked again, and suddenly felt intense pressure down there. I knew the baby’s head was right at the opening! Nate had gone to get something to drink and was shocked when he came back and I was ready to push.

                The room suddenly filled with people; a bright light came down from the ceiling and my doctor appeared at the foot of the bed asking me what position I’d like to push in; she recommended lying on my side. Nate and Mom each held one leg and I started pushing for all I was worth. Everyone was so encouraging with every push, but soon I got incredibly tired of hearing that her head was coming out and going back in every time! Pushing was by far the worst part of labor for me; even though I only had to push for about an hour I was completely drained and just prayed that God’s strength would take over because I had none left. The contractions were much more sporadic at this point, but I would try to push 4-5 times with each one. It was the most intense thing I’ve ever done – almost 3 weeks later I still have a burst blood vessel in one eye!

                Finally I gave the hardest push yet and Nate, Mom and the doctor said she was coming out! As she crowned I had the worst “ring of fire” burning sensation and it was all I could do to listen when my doctor said to push slowly to get the rest of her out. It literally felt like I was ripping in half, but a split second later I heard a hearty wail and our wet, wriggling daughter was placed on my stomach for the first time. I’d been prepared for a grey, wrinkled alien-like baby but she was red and alert and absolutely perfect. I couldn’t get a good look at her right away because I had to be stitched up and cleaned and massaged, but Nate stayed right with her and raved about how beautiful she was. She was so awake and ready to meet us; she stared at Nate and held his finger and latched on the minute she was placed on my chest to nurse. She knew exactly what to do! We had been debating on what to name her from the day we found out we were having a girl, but when we met her we knew her name was Elissa Rose – Elissa means “promised of God” and that is exactly what she was, coming so soon after we had lost our first baby, Hope, which means “a confident expectation of good.” Rose is after my sister Christene, who was nicknamed Rose when she was little. Nate and I were both exhausted and running on no sleep and very little food, but we couldn’t stop staring at our sweet Elissa and marveling at how beautiful she was.


Elissa was born at 6:30 pm on Monday, September 8, weighed 7 lbs 1 oz, was 19 ¾ inches long and had an Apgar score of 9. We spent a couple days in the hospital where I worked with lactation consultants and nurses to learn all about caring for a newborn. She passed all her tests with flying colors and I healed remarkably well with no side effects, even though we learned after she was born that she had been “sunny side up” the whole labor and delivery, which no one knew till she came out! I did some research and learned that face-up babies often result in a much longer, often stalled labor and Pitocin is usually needed to stimulate stronger contractions. The c-section rate is much higher, and severe tearing during delivery is normal. I’m so thankful that I was able to have as much of a natural birth as I did, even with this complication. After Elissa was born my first thought was “I never want to do that again,” but since she was a first baby and sunny-side up I have good reason to hope that subsequent births will be easier :) I won’t lie and say that an epidural wasn’t far from my mind the whole labor, knowing that I could just say the word and the pain would go away – but I am so glad that I didn’t give in! Nate and I had rehearsed what to do in the event that I begged for an epidural (he was supposed to pep talk me about how I was in the worst of it and it would all be over soon), but thankfully neither of us even mentioned it the whole 18 ½ hours of active labor.  

In the end I can’t take any credit for the whole labor and delivery experience; my own strength was maxed out long before Elissa made her appearance and I know without a doubt that God carried me through the worst of it. We had Jared’s worship playlist on repeat for most of the labor, which gave me so much peace. Mom and Nate read Scripture to me, prayed for me and encouraged me when I felt like I couldn’t go on. They gave me invaluable physical, emotional and spiritual support; I know I never could have made it on my own. Our families and friends were praying for me and checking in for updates the entire time. My nurse, who was on shift for most of that day’s labor, was so kind and agreed with us many times in prayer. After the delivery she gave me a big hug and kiss and asked where we went to church; God was so kind to give me a fellow believer as support! My doctor stayed late to personally deliver me and was so consistent to check in all day and cheer for me; I’d had to switch doctors later in pregnancy and she was definitely an answer to prayer.
Elissa is now almost 3 weeks old; Mom left on Friday the 26th and the transition has been harder than I thought, but thankfully we’ve gotten the hang of breastfeeding, she is gaining weight well and learning to sleep at night – she’ll usually give me 6-7 hours of good sleep which is amazing! Nate is working night shift for turnaround and only gets to see me and Elissa for a couple hours each day, but she adores her daddy and loves to look deep in his eyes while he talks to her – she also saves her special poop explosions for when he’s changing her diaper :) We are head over heels for our princess and so thankful to God for this amazing gift of a daughter!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Three Months Later: How We're Coping

It has been nine months since I wrote my last post. Nine months ago I was grieving, empty, fighting daily to find joy and hope in a world where our precious first baby no longer existed.
Nine months later, I hold the gift of healing, of answered prayers and silent tears wiped away. When we buried our baby God gave us a name: Hope, a "confident expectation of good." We had no idea what came next in our story, if we would struggle to conceive or never have children or immediately get pregnant again. But we knew that, regardless of circumstantial outcomes, God was GOOD. And just two months after we said goodbye to Hope, I was pregnant with our Elissa - "promised of God." Now she is here, and perfect, and we love her more than we ever thought possible. We couldn't know it at the time, but she is the good that God promised in our time of despair. 
I typed these words on September 30, 2014, five days before my husband was killed by a drunk driver going the wrong way on the interstate. He had been working night shift and got sent home early, around 3 am, to enjoy his day off with me and our newborn baby girl. He didn't suffer, the sheriff told us - one moment he was on the highway and the next he was standing in the presence of God. My world has been shattered. What I've always known to be true about God is no doubt still true, yet it has been unspeakably difficult to connect what I believe to what has happened to me.

When I initially started this blog, I spent weeks thinking of a creative and meaningful title. One day the name "Taste and See," came to me so clearly that I knew it was God-inspired. Psalm 34:8 says, "Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!" I so named my blog and started posting away, with no idea that my belief in and acceptance of God's goodness would soon be tested to the extreme.

I spent much of 2013, a year defined by dashed dreams, relearning what the definition of God's goodness really meant. My last blog post, written over a year ago, describes the fight for hope after our first baby had been laid to rest under a memorial stone in our back garden. Yet in the wake of our baby's death, Nate and I found comfort and genuine joy in just being together. Our favorite saying that year became, "at least we have each other." Now, under this cruel and crippling loss, I can never say that again. I don't have him. He has been taken from me, and I am left to assemble the broken pieces of our life into some crude and horrifying new normality.

I've largely avoided deep and intimate conversations since October 5. I dread questions about how I'm doing. Trying to put a world without Nathan into words feels ludicrous and trite; the most apt phrases are gross understatements. My world is a sea of constantly fluctuating emotions; one minute I feel okay and the next I have no idea how I will keep breathing. Many days I wake up and all I have to look forward to is when it will be time to sleep again. I both dread and anticipate time's passing: in one sense I hate the relentless days and weeks that move Nate further and further into my past, into "what once was." In another sense time flies so quickly and each new day is another step towards that final cliff I long to walk off of into an eternity with him. 

The future takes my breath away in its numb bleakness. Life, which held all I wanted as long as I had my Nate, now seems like a long dark threshold that must be crossed before I can be with him again. Yet in the midst of my sorrow, the unfairness of being left on this earth without the better part of my self, there are things that I know that I know that I know to be true. These truths enable me to make it through the next five minutes, to love my daughter and fight the fears of losing her, too. These truths lift my eyes from the dreary road I'm left to walk alone and offer me hope if I choose to grab hold of it:

- On October 5, the day Nathan was killed, the verse of the day was Psalm 34:8. Taste and see that the Lord is good. God intentionally reminded me of His unchanging character and goodness when my life lay in broken pieces at my feet. God is who He says He is. My personal circumstances do not alter His character and His promises.

- Nathan, at this moment and for every moment of eternity, is being overwhelmed by Love. And God doesn't love him any more now that he's in heaven - that same unconditional, all-satisfying Love is available to me now.

- Nathan is not dead. He is alive in heaven, waiting and interceding for me, and he is completely free. He is uninhibited by sin and human limitations; he is fully himself as he was always meant to be and fulfilling the eternal purpose he was created for.

- God has never promised me answers. He doesn't owe me anything (when Job's life was shattered he reasoned, "shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?"). I will never grasp with my finite human understanding why Nate was only given 26 earthly years. What God has promised me is a peace that will surpass all understanding.

- Nate's early dismissal from night shift did not surprise God. Neither did a drunk driver screaming down the wrong side of the highway in his lane. All his days were divinely ordained, before one of them came to be. And God never turned His back - He was right there, with open arms, welcoming Nate into Paradise.

- Nathan is home. He has everything he ever wanted, and infinitely more. He was created for fellowship and union with God, and when I join him on eternity's shore we will be in the presence of God together, forever.

These truths don't annihilate the pain. Every day is a fight to believe and to trust when I just want to sleep and wake up on the other side. I've had to make decisions regarding my grieving, my perspective, and my relationship with God. On January 2, Nathan's 27th birthday, I chose to press into the Lord when it felt the most unnatural. The circumstances surrounding Nathan's departure from earth were not random; they did not happen by chance. They were allowed by a God who has surgically removed so many things from my life already. On October 5 He cut out my heart. It makes no logical sense for me to run into His arms. But if I push Him away, this loss will destroy and define me. I am doing my best to imagine Nathan's now eternal perspective and adopt it as my own. If he could say one thing to me now it would be, "just wait, this is all so worth it." He would tell me to finish strong, to never give up, that God is so much more wonderful then anyone could ever imagine. Nathan spent his birthday worshipping in the presence of the Lord, so we did too. His family and closest friends and me, united by our pain, laid our souls bare before the Lord and worshipped - like Job, who, when his entire world was torn from him, fell on his face and worshipped.

Elissa Rose both breaks my heart and comforts me. She has so much of Nathan in her, and I can't begin to imagine raising his child without him. She will miss out on so many traits that made him the best man I've ever known. Thank God that He promises to be a Father to the fatherless. And, in her own baby way, I think she knows. Every picture that she's ever seen of Nate she talks to, reaches for and kisses. She will grow up to bedtime stories of her daddy, and his face will be the first thing she sees when she wakes. She has given me purpose in a world now largely devoid of meaning; she is a tangible piece of Nathan's legacy and will grow to do amazing things. Already she is my dream girl - content and happy and full of personality and so beautiful. We are the best of friends and I am so grateful for her. I just hope Nathan can see how much comfort he has left me through her.

Every ounce of my "normal" has been obliterated, yet I am keenly aware of the ocean of prayers that has borne me up with a supernatural buoyancy. I am floundering, but I have not drowned. I am crippled by grief, but not destroyed. This is in no way of credit to me. Navigating a cross-country move, mothering a newborn, dealing with a mountain of financial and practical and legal matters while trying to wrap my head around my new role as a 26-year-old widow is not humanly possible. Elisabeth Elliot said that those whose loss is greatest receive the greatest share of grace, mercy and peace. This has certainly been true in my case, and much of that grace has been in the form of prayers and gifts (of time, money and practical assistance) from countless friends and strangers. God knew that I could not do this alone, and He has rallied the troops to surround and lift me up in ways that I could never have imagined. Friends, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.