On May 28th, my dear Ruth died. We were betrothed to be married June 23rd, 2018. This is the first I have been able to write about it and am doing so from Tofino where I have come away on a retreat with my fiend Wayman.
I had just landed in Sacramento CA for a meeting when my phone rang and I was told that Ruth was in the hospital and they have identified cancer in her ribs, back, hip, lungs and liver. There was no treatment plan possible and Ruth was being put directly into palliative care. This was just one month and two days before we were to be wed in a beautiful service we planned on Keats Island surrounded by our family and a few close friends.
As God would have it Cam Roxborough, a long-time friend, happened to be right there, at that time, in the same airport and he asked me if everything was okay? With tears I said “No” and told him of Ruth’s diagnosis. We stood praying together by the baggage carousels and that began a new journey for me, but one I was all too familiar with because of walking with my wife Brenda just years earlier.
The blog I wrote just prior to this one is called “Beautiful Story.” Ruth and I used this as a means of announcing our relationship. Inspired by the song of the same title written by Mia Fieldes, it proclaimed how God was in the background of our lives orchestrating every detail and customizing it for our lives.
This seemed so true for Ruth and I for in very different ways we needed each other, and it was perfect. Our love had made us like giddy teenagers yet we were inspired by a maturity in our faith that filled us with dreams of how God was going to use us together for his Kingdom.
Little did I consider, if at all, that now I would have to accept that God had been in the background orchestrating a story that did not end as we had presumed. At one-point Ruth was alone with me in the hospital room and tears were rolling down from her beautiful eyes. She asked me, “What is happening?”
“Dear, your body is shutting down” I shared as tenderly as I could amidst my own tears.
“I know that” she replied, “I just thought that we would have much more time together.”
“Me too, me too” I said with my head resting on the side of her bed.
Irish literature is well known for its disproportionate number of dark tales involving personal struggles and the supernatural. Perhaps because of my background I feel trapped in this presently. We tend to like stories with happy endings – this is not one for me.
Many people around me keep saying that this just isn’t fair! Ruth’s death is not fair!
I get this feeling and it flits by in my thoughts but has not really landed. I wonder, why when our relationship was so perfect would she die before our dreams had really begun? With Ruth dying just three weeks before we were to be wed I feel personally slighted. I feel like a young child who has just been grounded saying “That’s not fair!”
You and I live in a society that is obsessed with ‘fairness’ but the application of fairness is actually quite subjective. The shadow side of ‘fairness’ and that is ‘selfishness’. In Matthew 20:10-12 Jesus shares a story of farmers who felt unfairly treated by the landowner. But Jesus in his narrative later says “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”
In my living room there is a copy of Rembrandt’s painting “The Prodigal”. As I look at it today I feel like I am the older brother standing in judgement over the father who is being entirely unfair in welcoming back the prodigal without as much as a penalty. What is ‘fair’ about that? Nothing. But it is an expression of God’s grace.
Just five days after Ruth’s death I sat around a fire with my sons and Martin Sanders from New York asking questions.
“Why would God allow love to form in me again only to have it separated by death?”
“If God desires that we flourish, where do I find that in this situation?
“If God is kind, where is kindness in this?”
“With all that we know about God, how does one make sense of Ruth’s death?”
God’s knows things that we do not. That is the only place I can land these questions. His sense of what is fair, and what is not fair, is beyond human understanding. While intellectually and in faith I can say this, it is not very satisfying in my grief. It has caused for me a serious reconsideration of what I consider to be fair.
Grace is the only thing that is giving me perspective on all this. As I shared at Ruth’s service, despite the tragedy of this seeming to destroy a beautiful story, we can experience a constant dripping of God’s grace into our lives just like the IV bag was dripping fluids into Ruth in her last days.
If God were ‘fair’ with us then he would not have Jesus die on the cross in payment for our sin. He would not be here walking with me every day helping me get through this and bringing whatever strength I have. He would not have provided me with family and friends who have surrounded me with love and call to check on my well-being or ask hard questions about whether I am feeling suicidal in any way (a question we should be more open to asking those close to us who are hurting).
God’s grace transcends fairness. Grace extends a hand of forgiveness to me every time I mess up and offers his Spirit as a tender comforter to me amidst the stinging heart ache that I suffer.
The pain for me is still severe, but there are some blessings I am beginning to count as I seek beyond my own selfishness. I have a new extended family. Despite not being married, I have become family to Ruth’s children and family and we can walk together through this time of grief.
My own children and grandchildren have gone through much and experienced significant loss in their lives. Yet I see a maturity in them that inspires me. They cling to each other, and to God, and offer themselves to serve others who are experiencing pain and loss.
Even being able to identify some blessings is a part of God’s grace. I recall anew Brenda’s expressed desire for me to continue sharing the gospel of grace after she was to pass, so consider this a little drip of grace for you. I will write more as I process and when I can.
Today I began a new season of mourning. I know the importance of this from our families grief journey over Brenda’s death. We need to mourn for a season. If we don’t mourn it is too easy to stay stuck in anger, pain, numbness and resentment.
There is a black band around my wrist as a marker of this season of mourning. Each time I glance at it I am reminded of my loss.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.