Shall I compare thee to a summers day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May
And Summer’s lease hath all too short a date. - Shakespeare
Rough winds. In the month of May.
When I was 19 my brother who was 21 at the time, died of heart failure. May, 1980.
A decade later I got a substitute brother, a brother-in-law. Great guy. In May of 2007 he was diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer. He lived four more years.
During those four years, my dad, diagnosed with terminal Cancer. May 2008. A year later my mother, terminal Cancer. In the month of May.
And now finally, my sweet Susie.
It was May 1st when we got the news of how bad this could possibly be. Naturally, her first thoughts turned to her girls. “They need me,” she said. “Yes, sweetie, they do. More than they know.”
Then she thought of her mother. Susan adored her mother. There was a lot to adore. “This is going to kill her,” she said. “Yep.” One of the reasons she was so distraught over her girls was because she couldn’t imagine living most of her adult life without having mom around. To receive advice from. Support. Or just to hear her voice. She couldn’t imagine that. And she hated that for her girls. I hate it for them.
Then she thought of her sisters. What a special relationship. Of all the years I knew Susan, I think she talked with one or both of her sisters at least once every other day. Talked. Not texted.
Nancy came down with only a few days left. When she got to Susan’s bed, she sat on the edge and reached out to hug her little sister. Susan was very weak. But she managed to reach up and wrap her arms around her big sister’s neck. It was so precious. I’ll never forget that moment.
Then she thought of the rest of her family.
Finally, she looked at me. Mr. “Johnny Come Lately.” The first thing she said to me on that day, she knew about my rough winds, was: “Oh, Honey! I don’t want you to go through another one of those.”
That was my sweet Susie.
On a day that most people would consider one of the worst days possible. A day when Cancer enters the room. Up close and personal. My sweet Susie was thinking of others. She was thinking of me.
Six and a half years later on another difficult day, Susan was falling fast, and she thought of me again. I was taking her back from the bathroom to the bed for almost the final time. I had my arm around her. And in what became our last conversation she looked up at me and said, “I’m sorry.”
“Sweetie, what do you have to be sorry for?”
“That I didn’t write you a letter to tell you how much I love you and how much you mean to me,” she said.
“Oh Susan, you wrote that letter every day. I read that letter every day.”
She was the most beautiful, most unselfish, sweetest human being I’ve ever known. And she was my wife. God’s gift to me.
It was May 23rd, 2012. Thirty two years and a day after my brother’s death. Two weeks after Susan’s surgery. And two weeks before our marriage. I needed to clear my head so I took off for a while. Driving my truck to a spot just over the Wake – Granville county line, I parked in a large field off the beaten path. I had visited this secluded spot in Granville county before and today seemed like a good time to revisit and reflect.
One apparent problem, though. On May 23, 2012 Northern Wake county was the unhappy recipient of a strong wind and hail storm. But having been “off the grid” for a few weeks, both literally and figuratively, I was oblivious to mundane matters like the weather. So, ignorantly, I headed out to clear my head on an increasingly unclear day.
I don’t know if you’ve ever sat in front of a fast moving wind and hail storm but it is captivating. (Before the rain and hail arrive!)
The darkening sky raced toward me as I sat there in reflection mode. My truck was turned perfectly to watch the approaching weather. And it was mesmerizing. I can’t explain in weather-ese what I was seeing but it looked like someone had grabbed a giant paintbrush and stroked charcoal gray semi-circles across the sky. Row after row after row. Like Roman Legions. Marching across a battlefield.
The rain had not arrived yet. But the 20 mile per hour wind had. Bringing the gray legionnaires above. The wild fescue swayed to and fro. Wave like across the meadow. Trees danced in the distance on grassy hills crowned with oak and beech. I sat watching. Awed by it all. Taking it in.
Then, about 100 yards in front of me, slightly downhill, a flash of light appeared just above the grass line. And it was rising. A few moments higher, against the dancing leaves as backdrop, I made out what it was. It was one of those metallic looking helium balloons you see at the check out line in the grocery store, the ones with long ribbons attached, that you or I would ignore but any four year old would not.
And there it was. Flashing brilliant and heading straight for me. A grieving husband to be. Out here in the middle of a hilly pasture. On a dusty road. As the gray sky angered to black. A hurt with a long history surged up inside me. And that’s when I knew. This inexplicable “ball of light” rising in front of me, I could hardly think it, was my darling bud. My sweet Susie. Shaken loose by the May storm.
I knew. And I began to weep like a four year old in a grocery store parking lot who had just lost his grasp. “No, no.” I cried. “Stay. Don’t leave me.”
Helplessly I watched as she made her way toward me.
Gaining speed. Climbing higher. 50 yards out. 25. More brilliant than ever against the maddening sky.
Soon she would be right above me. So I lowered the window. And quickly stretched through. Fearful of losing sight. The air was cooler now. I felt the winds of time against my face. And breathed desperately the smells of this all too short season. As I watched my sweetie pass by.
Turning to keep her in view I saw the reason for her brilliance. Her captivating presence. The striking vividness of this entire scene. Behind me but in front of her, bright and beckoning. Clear. Blue. Sky.
She was headed for blue sky. My darling bud. As fast as she could go. Higher and higher. And now, well out in front of the storm.
I began to weep again. But this time…as a man.
“Yes.” (Was I saying it?)
“Yes” (I could hardly believe I was saying it.)
“You go girl.
Frozen in the moment, I watched until she was shielded from my sight.
Still no rain or hail yet. The hail never did reach me. I saw drifts of hail on the side of the road as I made my way back home, but thankfully my truck escaped a beating. I didn’t.
But before leaving the scene of battle, one more thing. A significant thing. In mentioning this one more thing, I’m asking you to trust that I wouldn’t trade on the death of my wife to make up a fantastical story for the purpose of eliciting sympathy or impressing you with my spiritual connectedness. Or to leave the equally false impression that I’m especially favored by God. Something so baldly untruthful would dishonor her memory. I couldn’t do that. Plus, I know, God is watching. As I relate to you the following scene, a scene straight out of a Spielberg movie.
Still hanging out the driver side window I felt a warming presence above me. So I looked up. A small hole in the darkness had opened. The merciless marauders were gone. The dark sky had an altogether different aspect now. The rigid war like brush strokes had smoothed. What I was witnessing now was more like the pupil of an eye slowly dilating. Letting in a widening circle of light for the viewer and projecting a widening circle of warmth and illumination on the broken object below. Beyond that opening. Clear. Blue. Sky. In all directions the entire, I repeat, the entire visible sky was dark gray except for this one incomprehensibly beautiful blue hole directly above me. Directed at me. Warming me up. Taking me in. It opened. Like the aperture of a camera in slow motion. Gauged the needed illumination and captured an unforgettable moment in time. Then it closed. The encounter lasted about one minute. But the experience was longer. Much longer. For time had shifted, slowed, expanded. It was as if Barber’s 8 minute “Agnus Dei” had been compressed into a single minute without altering the composer’s intent one dramatic phrase, one exquisite line. A time stretching, heart lifting, mind blowing, world shaping, space altering minute. On wind swept cloudy days, if I take the time, and am sufficiently attentive, time folds back in on itself, and I see it still. A stationary bright blue eye hole in a dark moving sky.
Rational explanation? I’m going with the God Hypothesis. I’m hanging my hat on a memory peg given by a Master Communicator. A character-forming Anchoring Presence. A Loving Lord. Who gathers up the faithful. And comforts the broken-hearted.
The data supports it. Sure. I know. It’s unrepeatable, unfalsifiable. And therefore unverifiable. But I’m a living and, hopefully for you, a trustworthy witness that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our scientific methodology.
This is the first and most dramatic in the sequence of three signs I’ve shared with you in the last month. Signs that give witness to a compassionate God, the Source of our everlasting Hope, Who looked down one stormy May Day and said: “I see you. I am near. Protecting you and Susan. Now, wherever you go, see me.”
I rushed home to tell Susan the whole breathtaking, uplifting story. Balloon Day, we tagged it. From time to time in remembrance of that day we would break into the old Irving Berlin song:
“Blue skies, smiling at me.
Nothing but blue skies do I see.”
And mostly laugh. But sometimes cry. I would kiss her on the cheek or neck and whisper into her ear, “God’s gonna take care of us, honey, I know it.” “Me too,” she would echo. “Me too.”
Blessed with the eyes of Faith we could sing these words.
“Never saw the sun shining so bright.
Never saw things going so right.
Noticing the days hurrying by.
When you're in love, my how they fly.
Blue days, all of them gone.
Nothing but blue skies from now on.”
In singing this happy tune, ironically set in a minor key, we were not whistling past graveyards, or through deadly storms. We were not denying their reality, just their staying power.
Balloon Day, May 23rd, 2012 became a sustaining story for the months and years to come. Food for our journey. A sign of God’s good keeping. God’s watchful presence. For those who leave. And those who stay.
May the Faithful departed,
Through the Mercy of God,
Rest In Peace,
And rise in Glory.
My Sweet Susie
Gone for a Season
In the Year of Our Lord, 2018
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I recently signed up to participate in the Gail Parkins Memorial Ovarian Cancer Walk & 5K Run. Also, I created a Team called:
Susan’s Soldiers (This is War!)
Contribute if you can to this worthy cause.