Living With Grief

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My mother once said that her parents raised two families of three children each, because there was a gap between children numbers 3 and 4. If that’s true, then my parents raised three families of one child each. There is a considerable gap between each of us. We each share similar, yet separate memories of Dad. My brother knew Dad as a lost man, and saw him lose his temper without remorse. My sister knew Dad during his busiest season of life, and enjoyed her place as the baby and the only girl for many years. When I entered the world, my brother had moved out before I had any realization that he had even been there. My sister and I were close when I was small, but as time has a way of doing, it turned her into a mature teenager, and only made me an awkward and annoying “tween”. I suppose I knew Dad in his most relaxed season of life. He had been saved a long time and was growing as a Christian. I was his “partner” and he was my only friend. We rode bikes together, shopped at hardware stores – or did any errand- together. In short, we were inseparable, until I said “I do”. Fortunately for me, Dad loved my husband almost as much as I did, so we agreed together to allow Terry into our “club”.

It was a devastating blow when the Lord took Dad home so suddenly in 2004. He still worked hard in the heat, whistled loud, sang silly songs, and had a constant twinkle in his eye.  It didn’t seem possible that he could be gone when my life was just starting, I was only 26. The worse part was that I hadn’t even gotten to say goodbye.

In July, it will be 12 long years since I last heard his voice, or saw his smile. I’m sure you think I should be over it by now; that his death should just be a painful, yet fading, memory. But it isn’t.

Immediately following Dad’s death, I dreamed about him most nights. I’ve never been to a psychologist or counselor (I’m sure I’d be a real study!), but I have always assumed that the dreams were my brain’s way of dealing with the tragedy, of making sense of it, of holding on to something intangible so that I wouldn’t lose it forever. For instance, I dreamed that he told me he was okay. I dreamed that I finally got to say, “Thank you for my life.” and “I love you.”, and “I’m sorry I wasn’t there.” Some of them were so vivid, that if I weren’t firmly grounded in the Word of God, I would have been convinced that the Lord was sending Dad to talk to me. The dreams stopped about a year after his death.

Until a few nights ago.

Lauren has been selected to play the trumpet in a state-wide homeschooling band in April. In my dream, Dad was there in the audience, smiling and enjoying the performance. I was so thrilled he could be there, but when I tried to go talk to him, he was gone.

Unlike the dreams immediately following his death, I awoke from this one feeling happy that I had “seen” him again, and that he seemed pleased. I was reminded that, while I felt frustrated at not being able to speak to him in my dream, I know I’ll catch up with him one day soon. I even felt thankful. Yes, I’m grateful that, even though his smile is absent from our lives, there are little pieces of him still with us, like the gleaming trumpet that Lauren can play just as loudly as he ever did.

It has taken an awfully long time, but I finally feel that I am living with my grief, rather than grieving that I live.

With love,

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Events Surrounding My Father’s Death

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It was a hot July day in Kansas, a hotter one in Arkansas. My dad had been working on a doghouse for our dog, Libby. This would be his last act on Earth. You see, my parents were taking care of Libby for us since we had just moved from a three bedroom, single bathroom home with a fenced yard in Topeka, Kansas, to a duplex in the ghetto of Lawrence, Kansas, which did not allow pets.

On July 28, 2004, while Dad was slaving in the backyard in Arkansas, I was at my home in Kansas caring for my two children. Terry was working at Amarr Garage Door factory. My mother called around 1:00 to tell me that Dad had been taken to the Heart hospital in Little Rock for surgery for an aortic aneurysm. She was talking quickly while eating, something that struck me as odd, knowing how proper her manners are, but at the time, it did not cause alarm. I was twenty-six years old. I was alone that day, except for my four year old daughter and my one year old son, both of whom were napping. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Someone else was silently, powerfully standing by, preparing to lead me gently through the greatest tragedy of my young life. Our dial-up internet was so slow, and searching for things online was so new, that I never considered looking up an aortic aneurysm on the web. I see now that that was the first gift that my Father gave me that day, the gift of ignorance. This gift kept me from panicking. I didn’t think an aneurysm was anything that serious. I knew Dad had a history of heart trouble in his family, but I still was not worried.

I cannot tell you what I did that afternoon. I don’t remember if I called Terry, or if I fretted a lot. I do regret not trying to talk to Dad in the hospital. I suppose the ignorance, and the complete confidence that I would speak to him soon, kept me from having that thought.

Mom called us to say that the surgery was just beginning around 6 PM, and she did not seem worried. Terry and I went to church.

When we got home from church, I got a call from Mom. Dad had made it through the surgery, but things were not good. The doctors could not get Dad’s blood to clot. It was at that moment that I began to feel fear. Tears came in a mighty torrent. I went to our dingy bathroom, closed the door, and bowed at the bathtub begging God to “please let my dad’s blood to clot!” Over and over I said these words.

Somehow, I got to bed. Around 2, or maybe 4 o’clock in the morning, my father-in-law called. Terry answered.  I don’t know Terry Sr.’s exact words to my husband, but when my Terry hung up the phone, he said to me quietly in the dim light of my bedside lamp, “He’s gone.”

For many years I felt guilt over the fact that Dad died right after working so hard out in the heat for my dog. I felt guilt over not being there, not getting to say goodbye, not getting to hold his hand as he stepped from this muddy beach onto that golden shore. In fact, in the months to come, guilt would be a close friend, second only to the oceans of grief that swept over me. 

Back then, I felt responsible for Dad’s death. I didn’t fully grasp the fact that God is sovereign. What does this mean? It means that God is in control. It wasn’t the doctor’s fault that Dad died. He didn’t die because he didn’t get to the hospital on time, or because he’d been out in the heat working on a doghouse. He died because God said that Ron Courtney should come home. Dad left this earth at the precise moment in which God decreed that he should, and not a minute too soon or too late. It was right on time.

Many people want to declare that God is sovereign over some things, usually the things that we say are out of our control. But the truth is, He is sovereign over all things. And if you don’t believe He is sovereign, that’s okay, He is sovereign anyway.

The sovereignty of God has been a comfort to me whenever guilt comes knocking, as it still sometimes does. I don’t have to answer the door and entertain it. I simply call out, “The Lord handles all my guilt. He owns my life.”

God is sovereign over the heartaches that come our way, and He is sovereign over the blessings. We can rejoice in all things because He is in all things.

With love,

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How Lucky I Am!

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My entire Christian school ate lunch at the same time, and while I never ate with her, I could always see her. I knew she was close. If Dad forgot to pack my chips, I could seek her out, and she would share hers. If I lost a tooth at school or skinned my knee at recess, I could find her, go to her, and she would help me. I had some sweet teachers, like Mrs. Parson and Mrs. Smith, who would have helped me. But it wouldn’t have been the same. Melanie was better. And as I filed in to the gymnasium with my class for lunch on that first day back to school, I looked for her at her table. Then I realized how stupid that had been! She was gone. I tried to push back the tears as I sat down and opened my lunch. I swallowed hard. I hoped Dad hadn’t forgotten my chips.

When school dismissed, I made my way outside, to the place where we used to wait for Dad to pick us up. Only this time, there was no we, there was just me. I didn’t like this new aloneness. I wasn’t cut out for it, I had decided.

At supper time, Dad sat at the head of the table, then Melanie, then me, then Mom. We usually enjoyed the talking even more than the eating. It was awkward now. Mom and Dad didn’t want to be sad in front of me, but they couldn’t hide it. I didn’t try to hide my heartache. I hoped they would see how terrible this was and go get her! They didn’t.

I would lie in bed and feel the emptiness on her side of the room. It seemed to be tangible. I cried in the darkness, and even resorted to playing Southern Gospel music softly on a tape player in order to get to sleep. Whenever I used to have trouble sleeping, Melanie would cuddle close to me and whisper a story. It was easy since we had scooted our twin beds right up against each other. We each had our own electric blankets and the controls hanging on her bedpost gave a dim, warm glow in the winter time. After she left, I had more trouble than ever getting to sleep, and all I had was a dumb old tape player!

I suppose I’m remembering all of this because my sister, Melanie, just had to send her son to college. I’ve been grieving for her, across the miles, because I sort of know how it feels. The transition seems to be easier for the people who leave than it is for the ones left behind. Melanie was at college making friends, learning things and seeing Chicago. I was at home staring at her empty chair and hearing the echo of her laughter in my mind. I learned early that change – and loss – is hard.

As I began down memory lane, though, I came across the picture at the top of this page. How true! I have experienced loss and sadness, like a lot of people, but the reason I felt it was because I was so lucky! I was so blessed to have a sister who was my friend. She didn’t argue and bicker with me, she loved me and took care of me. Not many girls can say that about their older sister. Our sweet fellowship is what made – and still makes –  saying goodbye so hard. How lucky I am to have that! How wonderful it is that I have a loving mother whom I miss terribly; and to have had a Dad who was my friend and a real-life Christian hero. It’s hard to be downhearted when I think of how privileged I am to have had, and still have, these people in my life.

I love you, Mom and Melanie, and I love Dad. I’m so lucky to miss you.

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The Indomitable Miss Heather

On April 17, I was surprised to receive a phone call from one of our librarians. Miss Beth, as we call her, has been the assistant to our head children’s librarian, Heather Everett, since we moved here two years ago. She called to say that Miss Heather had resigned because her cancer had returned. She was terminal. The doctors couldn’t say how long she would live, but it didn’t seem as though it could be very much longer. She had moved from our town to Oklahoma City to be with her parents.

I was devastated. I knew Miss Heather had health concerns. She lacked the use of the right side of her body and of her neck. But, she drove a car, had several college degrees, and a cheerful personality. I had assumed her disabilities were from a birth defect. I never imagined it was from an inoperable cancerous tumor on her spine that she had had since childhood.

It was very hard to tell Lauren and Mitchell this terrible news. They had both worked with her as library volunteers over the summers since we came here. In fact, the first thing we did after unpacking was get our new library cards; it’s one of our favorite places to go.

On May 25, Miss Beth was kind enough to text us that Miss Heather had died that day. I was thankful that we were surrounded by our family in North Carolina when we heard this news. It helped lessen the pain. But I still can’t pass by her desk without thinking of her, and missing her.

I’m glad my children had the honor of knowing Miss Heather, and of working with her. I was glad to hear through a mutual friend that Heather genuinely liked my children, and that they had had a good testimony while they were under her supervision. My children never let Miss Heather’s disabilities hinder their friendship with her, and Heather didn’t either.

I learned several things from this event in our lives, some of which I knew, but needed the reminder:

Don’t take friends for granted. I had no idea the day I discussed books and asthma and twelve-year-old boys with Heather at the library that it would be my last conversation with her. I wish I had said something more important, something about the Lord.

Children can be witnesses, too. I was comforted to hear that Mitchell had invited Heather to church and discussed church with her.

There are no excuses. Scott Hamilton said, “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.” I believe that. No matter what challenges we are facing, we can choose to get up, keep going, and keep helping others if we want to. Heather never let her illness stop her from living her life and from being joyful in the process. It took death to stop her from living. So many people are kept from life by far less, myself included.

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Mitchell had this photo of Miss Heather on his camera. It is from last summer, 2014.

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Miss Heather’s parking spot at our library.

It just isn’t the same without her.

With love,

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Startling Grief

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My fabulous mom and dad.

My dad died over ten years ago. It was very sudden; there was no time for a goodbye. The heartache of that loss is with me, in some measure, every day. It sweeps over me when I hear a song he used to like, or see a book he read to me as a child, things like that. It happens all the time. I usually don’t burst out in tears or have difficulty controlling myself. I embrace those memories and thank God for the wonderful Dad that loved me and raised me.

But today, it was different. My mother sent us a CD that she had bought when she visited us in Topeka, Kansas, in May of 2004. She was recently cleaning out drawers and came across it. She mailed to us to see if we wanted it, and so that Mitchell could listen to a particular song, which was a piano solo. As the music began, the tears began, too. I remembered that visit, the last time I ever saw my dad, the last time I felt his embrace, his kiss on my cheek; the last time I saw the glistening of tears in the laugh lines beside his eyes and smelled his cologne. It all came back like an ocean wave, knocking me down. I cried. My kids were all standing there, staring at me with worried expressions. I continued to sob, scrunching up my face in an ugly way. I decided not to try to stop my tears but let them pour. A while later I had a headache and my face was splotchy. I looked like I did ten years ago, right after he died! I was a mess.

But that describes grief. It’s messy, it’s unpredictable, and it’s part of being human. My mother is more private than I am. I worry that I tax her inside because I share too much of what I’m feeling about everything under the sun. She never scolds me or corrects me. She just stands a little taller and gives me a look that says, “I understand you, even though you’re not like me. And I love you just the way you are.”

And with that thought, I have to go shed some more tears. Tears of gratitude to God for giving me the two most wonderful parents that ever walked on the planet.

With love,

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Remembering

It seems like only yesterday that I sat on my dad’s lap on our patio. The sun eased itself  below the horizon in the west and cicadas and tree frogs were timidly beginning their evening serenade. The warm summer breeze gently shook the pines overhead. Something triggered a memory for my dad, I can’t recall what. I had probably been asking him about his childhood. I loved hearing the stories of his often mischievous activities. I had committed a few of those type of acts myself. Dad turned out okay, so I suppose that hearing his stories made me feel better about my own escapades. Dad started to talk about his dad. My granddad died when my dad was only 21 years old.

“If only I hadn’t left the hospital, I could have gotten to say goodbye.” He said, his eyes glistening and tears filling up his laugh lines. “He died fifteen minutes after I left.” He looks down, sniffs, and looks up. He appears normal. He doesn’t burst into tears or sob uncontrollably. But inside, his heart is breaking. He is missing his dad, his friend. As a youngster of only six or seven, I am speechless. I look at my dad and see a successful, Christian man. A  man with a wife who’d move heaven and Earth for him, three children, two cars, and a home with a fireplace. What more could he need or want? 

Somehow, this same conversation weaves itself into my life over and over. Many times, most of which I am seated beside him, having outgrown his lap, he recalls the pain over not saying goodbye. In later years, I say in my childish innocence, “But, now you have ME! God gave you me and Melanie and Kevin. We all love you.” I wrap my arms around his neck in a strong embrace. Dad smiles with misty eyes and just says softly, “Yes, He did.” The conversation shifts onto happier topics, but the sadness lingers in the background. My granddad, the man I never met, but feel as though I knew, left his mark. I loved hearing the stories of his intelligence, his strength, his love for my grandmother and their courtship, and of course, his friendship with his only son. But none of these stories of my Granddad replace impact of his death. “It was the day I grew up.” My dad would say. To this day, I remember my Granddad on the date of his death – September 13. I remember how Granddad used to say that thirteen was his lucky number, he was born on October 13.

As I grew, my dad would often get misty-eyed, but for another reason. I was growing up. His pal. The one who rode bikes with him, went to late-late-breakfasts on Saturdays to McDonald’s, took long walks around the neighborhood, and shared his love of hot fudge milkshakes. He didn’t want me to grow up. He was afraid that I would no longer need him around or want him around. But growing up is just something a kid can’t stop doing. Even if she wants to.

Now, here I sit, early on a Saturday morning, reliving the most painful event of my life with you. I sit here, not with glistening eyes, but with actual tears trailing down both cheeks. I think about the handful I was as a child, and that I didn’t get to say to him, “I’m sorry. You deserved a better daughter.” I wasn’t there when he died, so, history repeats itself as I wonder, “What if I’d been there? I could have told him thank you; thank you for giving me my life. I will honor you. I love you.”

I often find myself outside near sunset on many a summer evening. I hear the cicadas and tree frogs humming their tune, I see the breeze blow gently through the pines and I remember that little girl sitting on her dad’s lap. And I wish I could have said goodbye.

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Just Like My Dad

Seven years ago today, my Dad went home. Not back to Illinois where he was born, or to Conway, Arkansas, where he grew up, but to Heaven, his true home. Recently, while talking to my husband about Dad, I said, “You know, I know someone who has actually seen Jesus’ face!” We both pondered that a moment. That’s much better than knowing someone who knows President Bush or some Hollywood movie star! I don’t hope he’s in Heaven, or think he’s in Heaven, I know it. I know it because I saw Jesus in him every day of my life. I’ve known many Christians who have died, but I didn’t know any of them as well as I knew that man. He lived the Bible. He admitted making mistakes. His prayers were genuine and heartfelt, never faltering or showy. I’ve also met many preachers in my life, and none of them, with all their Bible knowledge, have impressed upon me the truths of God’s Word the way my Dad did. Not one.

I’ve heard folks say that it gets easier as time goes by after the death of a loved one. To some degree, I guess it does. Obviously, my life developed a new rhythm. Some things I’ll never get used to, like never having Christmas at home with my parents, or the big blank side of my birthday card where Dad used to write loving words to me. Things like “I’m so proud of how you serve the Lord. God has given you so many talents, please use them for Him.” (Yes, like all good fathers, he, too, was biased.) It was good to know that I was making my Dad proud that I bore the name “Courtney”. It’s so very nice to know your parents aren’t ashamed of you.

Other things I have gotten used to. I’m used to going home and not seeing him. I don’t even expect it anymore, like I did at first. And I don’t think to myself, I should call Dad about this. like I did in the beginning, just to realize suddenly that I can’t call Dad. I don’t expect him to show up at my church, and I don’t expect to see him at his.

But, sometimes, as I walk home from church on a summer night, the tree frogs croaking in chorus, the soft wind rustling the trees above, the stars gazing down upon me, I miss him. The ache within my soul is hard to describe. Sometimes, as I watch our birds feeding outside, I suddenly think of how he loved birds and I miss him terribly. We recently sang the song “There Is Power in the Blood” on a Sunday night. I remembered how he’d sing the chorus a bit differently than most. The chorus begins, “There is pow’r, pow’r, wondering working pow’r…” But Dad sang “There is pow’r, pow’r, pow’r, pow’r, wonder working power…” He added in two extra “pow’r’s”, back to back, and he sang it with gusto! As I sang it in church last Sunday, I added in the extra pow’r’s, in his memory. And I missed him.

I’m thankful for God’s sustaining grace during the ups and downs of the last 7 years. My life changed forever on this date in 2004. I will never be the same. Yes, God’s grace is sufficient, but grace doesn’t remove the sorrow. It enables you to function in spite of it.

I counted up that Dad’s been in Heaven for 7 years. That’s 84 months, 364 weeks, 2,555 days. I don’t know how many years, months, weeks or days until Christ returns, but I’m watching for it! I’m looking forward to the day when He calls me (or all saints) home. On that day I’ll get to meet my Savior face to face, just like my Dad.

In Memory of Ron E. Courtney

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