Sunday, July 10, 2016

Letter to God - Today would have been my anniversary

Dear God –

Twenty three years ago today, July 10, 1993, I stood at Your altar at Trinity Lutheran Church in Watertown, Minnesota, holding the hand of my fiancée, Shannon Reuss.  Before You I pledged to be faithful to her until death parted us.  I gave her a ring as a symbol of my love and faithfulness.  She became my wife.  You witnessed and blessed the whole thing.

Every year Shannon and I celebrated our anniversary.  Sometimes we’d go out for dinner.  Other times we went on small trips.  To celebrate our 20th anniversary we ‘pulled out all the stops’ and went to Mayo Clinic so she could have chemo (this is what happens when cancer is in your life).  Some saints from my congregation heard about it and decorated the room on the chemo ward for us (I’ll never forget that day!).  Last year we celebrated our anniversary with her getting prepped for radiation (did we know how to party or what??).  For twenty-two years July 10th would come and I would say to Shannon, “This is my anniversary.”   Not this year.  The ovarian cancer finally got the best of Shannon last October.  Now she celebrates something even greater before Your throne.

Last night I was with my new fiancée, Danielle (that’s a happy story for another written prayer).  I commented, “Tomorrow would have been my anniversary.”  Would have been.  If Shannon lived…then it would be our anniversary.  In this case, the ‘if’ did not happen.  Shannon does not live, so it is not our anniversary.

“Would have been.”  It sounded odd coming from my lips.  Odd, yet harshly true.  Life has changed, I can’t control that.  I can control my language.  On July 10th I will always say, “This would have been my anniversary.”  It will be  day to reflect and remember a past relationship that I deeply loved and appreciated. 

God, the change in language feels significant to me.

Recently I attended a church campout with Danielle.  In the midst of a conversation I found these words coming out of my mouth, “My wife Shannon and I used to…”    I could sense a flicker of confusion on the listener’s face.  He didn’t know me well.  I doubt he knew about Shannon, her ovarian cancer, or her death.  He did know that Danielle and I are engaged and that next June ‘my wife’ will be Danielle, not Shannon.  I quickly explained the background so he knew what I was talking about.

It made me wonder how to refer to Shannon.  For twenty two years the  title ‘wife’ went with Shannon.  I don’t want that to ever change.    What descriptor do I put in front of it to help people understand (without having to share the whole story)?  “My wife” makes it sound like she’s in the next room.  “My ex-wife” sounds like we were divorced.  “My first wife” can be taken in many directions.  God, I’ve settled on “My late wife” to describe Shannon.  It seems to fit well.  It acknowledges the relationship which meant so much to me, but it also makes clear that new realities have come.


As life changes, words change.  “Today would have been my anniversary.”  “My late wife Shannon.”  These small changes reflect the new reality that I live with.  Shannon has been gone for nearly nine months.  God, these words give me a way to hold to the past while living in the new life that You provide.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Letter to God (and Shannon): Mother's Day Pride

Dear God –
I have a letter for You to pass on.  I include it below.  Shannon is with you now, not me, so I can’t just talk to her.  It’s Mother’s Day, and I want her to be aware of how well her son is doing.  I know full well this isn’t how it works (it’s wrong on so many theological levels), but something in me wants to get this letter off my chest.
Thanks!
Pete

Dear Shannon –

I wanted to let you know…Ben is doing great!

In February I got to take Ben to the Cities for his All-State Band Weekend.  We missed the summer concert because you were sick (and I was busy), but I made it to this one.  His Concert Band sounded amazing.  Ben sat there on the stage in Orchestra Hall and played with so much enthusiasm.  Shannon, you would have been proud.

Last weekend I took Ben to Toronto for a Magic the Gathering Grand Prix.  You know how much he loves that game and how much time he puts into perfecting his strategy.  I piled him and Ryan into the car and hit the road so they could be in a tournament with 1700 other people.  As you can imagine, he loved it.  The plan was to let them play on Saturday and hit the road for home (it was a 14 hour drive!) right away on Sunday morning.  Shannon, we didn’t get to leave until 2 PM on Sunday because Ben played so well!  Only the best players played on Sunday, and Ben ended in the top 15%!  You would have been proud.

Yesterday was Ben’s senior prom, and (unlike last year) he actually went!  We got him a tux and he looked SO dapper.  Had you been here you would have taken a zillion pictures.  Shannon, he looked a whole lot like me at that age.  You would have been so proud. 

In three weeks Ben graduates from Dover-Eyota High School.  The end is in sight.  On Tuesday he takes his last Calculus exam and will go to college this fall with not one, not two, but THREE levels of calculus under his belt.  Ben’s graduation robe is hanging in my closet, a daily reminder that my time with him is short.  Shannon, he’s almost made it.  You would be so proud.

In three short months Ben will be off to college.  All the hard work you did in raising this boy is paying off.  He’s a brilliant, talented kid who succeeds at whatever he puts his mind to.    Other parents constantly remind me of how much they trust him…how much caring and compassion he shows…how helpful he is to their kids.  Shannon, you quit your nursing career to stay him with Ben and raise him well.  You did good work.  It breaks my heart that you don’t get to see him grown, living with your legacy.  It doesn’t seem fair.

Happy Mother’s Day!  I know you loved this boy with your whole heart.  He’s doing great.  You’d be proud.

Your loving, widowed husband,

Pete

Monday, April 18, 2016

Letter To God - Shannon's Birthday & Six Months Without Her

Dear God,

Six years ago we pulled out all the stops to celebrate Shannon’s 40th birthday, with karaoke, catered food, and nearly every friend and family member joining in.  While a 40th doesn’t usually require a party of that magnitude, this one did.  At that point Shannon had endured two surgeries and over six years of chemo to keep her ovarian cancer at bay.  Many people get anxious around birthday time, especially major ones like a 40th.   Shannon had the opposite perspective, excitedly proclaiming “Another birthday and I’m still alive!” 

God, this morning I woke to April 18th.  Shannon’s birthday.  Another birthday.  God, she’s not alive.  Exactly six months ago Shannon took a breath for the last time.  Six months ago I fully entrusted her to you, to live in Your presence.  Six months.  Sometimes it seems like yesterday.  Sometimes it seems like a lifetime ago.

God, today’s events served as a symbol of my journey of grief. 

Today I went to Chester Woods, the place where Shannon and I went on countless walks over the past years.  Chester Woods, the place where I went for a walk mere hours after her death.  I parked in our usual parking lot and took familiar paths through the woods.  A year ago Shannon and I walked those trails and watched life come back to nature around us.  Shannon would pull out her camera to capture the newly emerging leaves and flowers, recording the beauty all around us to share on her Facebook page.  Today I went to Chester Woods to remember.  It felt like the right thing to do.

But God, today at Chester Woods was very different.  I walked the trail with Danielle, not Shannon.  When we came to a fork we turned right instead of left.  Before long we found ourselves deep in the woods on trails I didn’t know existed.  We found new places, walked a much faster pace, shared very different conversations.  Yet the paths looped back and finished on familiar territory. 

I have a little 9 foot dinghy that I brought home from the cabin somewhere around 2011 with a plan of taking it to Chester Lake.  Now, nearly five years later, I went boating at Chester Woods.  God, I went to Chester Woods today and new experiences blended with the old ones.

That’s my life these days.  I live surrounded by memories of Shannon.  I’m in the house that she loved and decorated.  Her photos hang on the wall, our wedding rings lie on my dresser, her ashes rest in the living room.  I will never forget the woman I loved so much for so many years.  Today I wore an old Relay For Life T-shirt with ‘Caregiver’ on the back.  It felt like the right thing to do.

God, despite all those reminders, I live in a new world.  In the past six months I’ve done many new things, I’ve reconnected with old relationships, I’ve built new relationships.   I no longer serve as a caregiver to someone with cancer.  My days look vastly different than they have over the past decade.

God, I’m trying to find a healthy balance between the past and the present.  At Chester Woods today I took the opportunity to tell Danielle about meeting Shannon, our early years of dating, our engagement, our marriage.  I recalled our camping trips to the mountains of Idaho, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and the southern end of Illinois.  I told about the countless letters she would send to encourage her friends.  In the midst of those conversations Danielle and I talked about many other things that pertain to life in the here and now.  God, today I remembered the past while being with someone new in the present. 

Tonight Ben and I went out for dinner at Shannon’s favorite Greek restaurant.  We shared memories of ‘mom.’  We looked ahead to a future without Shannon in it.  We need both.  It felt good.


Shannon’s birthday today.  Six months of life without her.  God, I find myself in a healthy place.  On the one hand I’m not ignoring Shannon or the huge impact she had on my life.  On the other hand I’m not trapped in the past and unable to move into the future that You have for me.  It’s an interesting journey.  Thank You for showing me life in the midst of death.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Letter to God - Faithful Until Death Parts Us

It’s been a couple months since I posted anything.  There’s a good reason for that!  My life has changed in many surprising ways in those months, but I didn’t feel comfortable sharing it openly.  Now I do.  I wrote this blog post a while back.  Right now I am a very happy man.

Dear God,

On July 10, 1993 I stood in the front of Trinity Lutheran Church in Watertown, MN, holding the hand of the woman I loved, and I proclaimed these vows before You: 


I take you, Shannon,
to be my wife from this day forward,
to join with you and share all that is to come,
and I promise to be faithful to you
until death parts us.

For 22 years Shannon and I shared ‘all that was to come.’  We shared in financially scraping by in those early years as we lived in tiny apartments and paid seminary tuition.  We shared in camping trips and long romantic walks.  We shared in raising Ben to be the wonderful young man he has become.  We shared in starting a business.  We shared in Mayo appointments and life with chemotherapy.  We shared in life and love and faith and laughter.  As in every relationship we had our moments where we drove each other crazy, but we shared in that as well.  We shared in honesty, openness, and concern. 

And in the midst of sharing life with Shannon, I held to my promise to be faithful.  She remained the love of my life for 22 years.  I remained faithful through cancer surgeries and chemotherapy.  I remained faithful even as a counselor said, “Pete, many people in your position would have an affair.”  (the last time I ever met THAT counselor!).  Over the years I took on more and more responsibility as her health began to fail.  For months I slept on the floor in our bedroom because being in the bed kept her from sleeping (and being in the guest room was too far away).  I cooked.  I cleaned.  I provided.  I loved.  I remained faithful.  I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

God, on July 10, 1993 I took Shannon to be my wife.  I joined with her.  We shared.  I remained faithful. 

On October 18, 2015 death parted us.  The vows which held such meaning for 22 years passed away with her.  I no longer have Shannon to share life with.  There is no relationship to which to be faithful.  It’s a new day.

Deep down Shannon knew full well that she would not live to an old age.  For years she would say to me, “Your next wife will…”  One afternoon, in the midst of her hospice journey, she took me aside and said, “Pete, don’t pine away for me.  I know that you will meet someone new and get married.  I want that for you.  I want you to be happy in life.”

‘And I promise to be faithful to you until death parts us.’ 

Last month I went skiing for the first time in over a decade.  It just so happened that I spent the day with a single woman.  Ben seemed to raise his eyebrows when he heard that only the two of us had gone, so when I came home I explained, “This was just two people who happen to be single who like to ski.  No big deal.”  His response nearly bowled me over.  “Dad, I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell you this, but it’s OK if it was more than just two friends skiing.  I want you to feel free to meet someone you want to be with.  Mom’s not here anymore.  If today was a date, that’s no big deal.”

‘And I promise to be faithful to you until death parts us.’ 

And so, in the past weeks, I have found a wonderful woman that I very much enjoy being with.  I’ve known Danielle for a while as a volunteer worship leader at the new church I joined.  One conversation led to another, and here we are.  When I look at a calendar my first thought is, “Pete, this is nuts.  Your wife died in October.  You’re interested in someone already?  What are you doing?”  The calendar says one thing, but my heart says something very different.  I feel comfortable in spending time with her.  I enjoy talking to her.  I look forward to seeing her come online after a day of work so I can chat with her.  We share interests, humor, sports, and good beer. God, it feels like ages ago that Shannon died.  I sense that it’s time to move on in life.  I asked my counselor if this might be just a rebound relationship.  After thinking about it for a while he said, “Pete, people ‘on the rebound’ are not self-aware.  They don’t deal with their grief and just blindly attach to someone else.  You are extremely self-aware.  I wouldn’t worry about it.”

‘And I promise to be faithful to you until death parts us.’ 

I’ve known for a long time that the day would come when I’d be a widower.  For a while I assumed I’d jump right into a relationship, that I’d be afraid to be alone. Over time I grew confident that I’d be just fine living on my own.  I didn’t need someone to ‘complete me.’  That’s what has been so odd in all this.  I didn’t go looking for a relationship, but it sure seems like I have found one.

‘And I promise to be faithful to you until death parts us.’ 

Now, in the midst of this amazing new relationship, I’m trying to figure out how to explain it to people.  How do you tell folks (especially Shannon’s friends and family) that someone new has come into my life?  How can people understand that I’m not doing this to avoid my grief?  In fact, I’ve put all sorts of thought and prayer into this!  What if people feel that I am not being faithful to Shannon’s memory?  It feels icky to try to ‘hide’ the fact that I’m in a relationship from others, but not everyone finds themselves in the same place on the journey of grief.  For their sake do I keep things under wraps, or do I just be open and honest about life and let the chips fall where they may?  God, I’m pretty confused on this.   

‘And I promise to be faithful to you until death parts us.’ 

I held that promise with my whole being for 22 years.  I did exactly what I promised You I would do.  That promise has now come to an end.  Shannon herself sent me out to find joy in life.  I seem to be finding it.  I feel like a pretty lucky guy.

God, I’m not publishing this blog post…yet.  We’re not yet ready to share news of a budding relationship with the world.  Help me to find the right time and place to be open with people in a way that will not be hurtful for them.  Continue to guide us as together we discern what this relationship means for the future.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Letter to God - Years of Grief

Dear God,
Recently I’ve felt like I’ve been doing it wrong.  I thought grief should be overwhelming, crushing, hard to handle.  I thought I would have sleepless nights of tears and thoughts of Shannon creeping in at all hours of the day.  I assumed that just hearing her name or holding a thought of her would send me into new waves of grief.

That hasn’t been the case.  God, I’ve felt guilty for it.  Other people who are grieving seem to have such a hard time.  What’s my deal?  Am I just in a state of complete denial?  Am I so afraid of the pain of grief that I refuse to deal with it?  God, I’m having a lot of fun in life.  Somehow that has seemed a bit wrong.

God, these questions prompted me to go back to the counselor that I have seen for quite a few years.  He’s served as a sounding board, helping me to process Shannon’s illness.  As I explained my ‘lack of grief’ to him, wondering why I didn’t feel lousy, he said something I will never forget.

“Pete, you’ve been grieving for a long time, long before Shannon even went on hospice.  Bit by bit you grieved the loss of the relationship you and Shannon had.  The moment she died wasn’t the moment grief started for you.”

So simple…yet so profound.  God, thank you for putting those words in his mouth. They were what I needed to hear.  In assuming that grief started at death I totally failed to see how long I’ve been on this journey.

This morning I dusted off Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief (a blast from the past in my psychology major days).  In them I can see my own history.

Denial: This one popped up many times in the 11 years Shannon had cancer.  In the midst of chemo
we’d talk about retirement.  While on the one hand we realized that we couldn’t focus on cancer 24/7, we had many times when we didn’t want to admit that the cancer might someday win.  We pretended everything was fine.

Anger: God, you’ve taken the brunt of this one!  In moments of frustration I’ve resonated with the lament Psalms, the ones where people lash out at You.   The ‘Why me??’ question did come up from time to time.  While for the most part I accepted the course that cancer took, I surely didn’t avoid anger!!

Bargaining:  I’m not so sure on this one.  There aren’t many bargains which will make cancer go away.  If I could have made a bargain…I would have!

Depression:  Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!  This is what drove me to the counselor years ago.  Little things would get to me and send me into a spiral.  I had days when I knew I was a useless failure.  Very fringe thoughts of ending it all came to mind (and thankfully were quickly rejected).  The feelings of depression came and went, but when they came life really stunk.  They came much more often than I wanted (though I hid it well)!

Acceptance: God, I had moments in this stage well before Shannon even went on hospice.  I could see her body failing.  I knew her chemo options had become limited.  She just couldn’t go on like that forever, so I started preparing for her to die.  That hurt.  Shannon couldn’t bring herself to talk about it much, feeling that admitting that the cancer might take her life might possibly weaken her resolve to fight it.  For me sometimes the acceptance cycled back to depression.  The beauty of hospice was that Shannon and I could come to acceptance together.

God, I needed this.  While I keep hearing, “Everyone grieves differently,’ it didn’t stop me from feeling like I failed in grief.  Through my counselor you have opened a new door for me: a door of hope.  I’ve been grieving for a very long time.  Perhaps the joy I feel in life isn’t a result of denial.  Perhaps it comes because I have intentionally processed my feelings, I’ve sought counseling, I’ve been made sure that Shannon is not forgotten in my life.  Perhaps my ‘sudden’ return to feeling great isn’t so sudden after all.  I’ve walked the path of grief for twelve years, not four months.


God, thank you for the clarity.  

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Letter to God - A Light Shines

Dear God,

On Monday You surprised me.  For the first time in a long time it felt like the light of the sun shone into my soul. At that moment I realized how dark and overcast life had become.

God, I’m just now recognizing the challenges of living with a spouse with cancer. Overall Shannon and I did well, living our lives and not allowing cancer to define things.  We had spent time together, went on walks together, talked together, had fun together.  I felt like life was just fine (and in many ways it was), but cancer cast a shadow over my whole being.  We spent so much time obsessing about pain, bowel function, and exhaustion. Mayo Clinic consumed countless hours with treatments, tests, and doctor appointments dominating the schedule.  We feared for what might come next, that the treatments might not work.  At home I spent so much time alone, cooking and cleaning while Shannon rested. I had little time to get out and do fun things with friends (even though Shannon constantly badgered me to do it).  We enjoyed life as best we could but we struggled to find much joy in the midst of all that.

Then came the utter darkness of hospice and death.  There’s no other way to describe it.   I intellectually knew that You walked with me through that valley but I sure didn’t feel it.

God, you surprised me with how quickly a new day dawned in my life.  I expected the darkness to overwhelm me for a long time (months or years), but before long I found myself getting together with friends and doing things I enjoyed.  I got to travel, to plan, to relax and have free time. Life moved to a new normal and things seemed just fine.  It’s only now, after experiencing the bright sunshine of Monday, that I realize how overcast life remained.  Emotions remained blunted.  Little things frustrated me.  I lacked my usual passion for life.

On Monday You provided me a glimpse of Your sunshine. An overwhelming love for my son Ben, an excitement for the work that I do for the Synod, a sense of love and support that I have from those around me, it all flooded over me. In that moment I felt truly alive for the first time in a very, very long time. It led me, strangely, to bust out an epic air guitar solo in the midst of supper (much to Ben’s chagrin). I’d forgotten what it felt like to live in joy.  I became giddy with excitement for life.


God, You have walked with me, not only through the valley of the shadow of death, but also through the gloom and dreariness that surrounded that valley. I know that cloudy days lay ahead.  I will not get to bask in the glow of Your light at all times, but thank You for allowing me that moment.  It brought me great hope!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

An Open Letter to Death

Dear Death,

We’ve had a lot of time together over the years.  I met you for the first time that I can remember in 1979 when you took my mom, Edee Reuss.  Because of you I never had a chance to get to know her. 

I’ve been with you at the funerals for all but one of my grandparents.   In fact, you took my Grandpa Dodd in WWII France before my mom was even born.

As a pastor I’ve faced you many times.  One of the first times was one of the hardest as you claimed Licahan Kennell, only 8 years old, in a grain bin accident.

Last fall we met again as my wife Shannon breathed her last here in our home.  I can vividly picture her gasping for breath, the death rattle shaking her body.  I will never forget holding her still body for the last time.

Death, I have every reason to be bitter.  I have every reason to rage against you, against the injustice of losing a mother and a wife at such young ages.  I have every reason to want to check out of life and be miserable. 

But let’s face the facts, death.  You’ve wreaked your share of havoc in my life, but you have not won.  You will never win.  Ever.  You have been utterly and completely conquered by Jesus.  I know those words may seem trite and rote, something that I heard from a Sunday School teacher once upon a time.  For me they are the foundation of my existence.  My faith has always centered around God’s victory over you.  Always.  It started when you took my mom.  I heard words of hope in a God who conquered death.  I grabbed onto those words and have never let them go.  God’s Scriptures abound in stories of God’s victory over death. I could sit here and type chapter and verse over and over again, but you know them as well as I do.  Just go to the book of Revelation and read about the God who has taken you behind the woodshed once and for all.  God wins every time.  You do not.  I have boldly proclaimed those words at funeral after funeral. 

Recently I’ve found tears as I sing in worship.  When the words turn to themes of eternal life and the saints giving God praise I’ve struggled to keep singing as I imagine Shannon with those saints.  It hurts me in deep ways.  Throughout my life these words have sustained my faith in powerful ways.  Death, I’m not about to let you rip them away from me!  I’m not going to avoid those songs or those words.  I’m going to revel in them even as tears flow.   I’ll let others sing them for me if I must.  God has won.  You have lost.

Death, I have a life to live and I’m not going to let you define it for me.  The almighty God and I will walk through this life together.  The day will come when you will come and take me.  I know that, but even then you will not hold me.  The God who sustained me as you took my mother and wife is the same God who claims me as God’s own, now and forever.

Death, you have not won.  You bring pain, but you will never win.  Never!

A claimed son of the living God,

Pete