Twelve years ago, Steve and I did the most ridiculous thing ever and bought a giant fixer-upper of a house. It wouldn’t be crazy for most people to do it, but it was crazy for us because we are decidedly NOT fixer-upper sort of people. I mean, we can paint and do surface stuff, but anything more complicated than that is beyond our ability and happiness. We consistently discovered that he would rather be golfing and I would rather be reading and so most of our non-essential home improvement projects stalled out somewhere between Home Depot and the next good book.
In spite of our reluctance to tackle upgrades, we’ve always loved this house. It has five big bedrooms and an office that I adore and a big lot on a noisy street which I also love (is there any music more beautiful than the sounds of a city waking up?) As our children began to grow and move out, other people’s kids moved in. Family dinners and noisy Movie Nights and birthday parties and baby showers all found homes in our big, un-pinteresty home. It has been the joy of my life to be a place where people gather.
When Steve was diagnosed, my future in this house grew murky. Many reasons exist as to why, but one of the biggest was the feeling that I could never take care of this place on my own. I began to look around at condos and bungalows and quickly realized I didn’t have the emotional fortitude to face that idea just yet. The real estate market in Bend is ca-razy and I have plenty crazy on my plate right now. So I settled into the home that I love and told Jesus I would trust that He had gone before me and would be there when it was time to figure out my next step.
And then, something crazy happened. I took a leave of absence in December and somehow I found a latent fixer-upper gene in my DNA! Turns out, all that time of actually being in my house and in front of Pinterest inspired me to do a few projects. And you know what happens when you do one project? Landslide. Each improvement makes the rest of the house look worse, so the list keeps growing. And soon the projects were moving beyond my skill level, requiring actual…power tools. For so many years, I’ve convinced myself I couldn’t do things like this. I’ve even convinced myself I couldn’t create a home that looked the way I wanted it to look. But I was wrong. It has been a lot of work and a a lot of asking for favors and a lot of watching DIY videos on You Tube, but now I know I can do it. I can figure things out when I need to! I can use a power drill! I can brave the aisles of Home Depot without feeling like they’re going to kick me out! So far we’ve redone our living room, dining room, one bathroom (with another in the works) and laundry room. I love this house more than ever and I also love the things I’m learning. And my point in this blog post (even though it’s taken me 600 words to get here) is: Steve is to blame.
Steve is to blame for this change even though he didn’t help with anything. In spite of the fact that he is unable to lift a finger, he is the primary human force behind every brave thing I do. For thirty years, he’s been second only to the Holy Spirit in helping me tackle the hardest things. It’s not that he says all the right things, it’s that he is the right thing. His belief in me and his unfailingly gracious response to my (million!) failures through the years has made me believe that I really can try anything. I probably can’t succeed at everything, but I sure can try it, and if I make a terrible mess of it and everyone in this world thinks I’m a loser, there is one person who’s convinced I’m not. One man, who wouldn’t want to be with anyone other than me. I mean, it’s astounding to me still. And his love has been my secret weapon for as long as I can remember needing a secret weapon.
Here’s another thing I realized this week: for the past four years, I’ve been working in fast forward – trying to do all the brave things while I have him here with me. This has included things like traveling to Europe, writing books, reaching out in new ways to people who need me, Christmas tree shopping, learning to love running, going away for a night by myself and – yep – becoming a fixer-upper. These things have been possible because Steve is in the background telling me I’m smart enough and strong enough and scrappy enough to do hard things. To keep moving. To live large. It’s amazing to me that a man in a wheelchair can be the driving force for a girl who has all her muscles. But it’s true – for me and for countless others who Steve has encouraged and believed in during his pilgrimage here on earth.
Of all the things in all this world that I treasure and wish I could keep forever, the way Steve has helped me escape the prison of fear is The Most. The biggest. The best gift I’ve ever been given. When I imagine life without it, I have to remind myself to breathe. And all of that gaping breathlessness has to be immediately turned toward gratitude or I will drown in sorrow. So I force my thoughts and words to thank our dear Father that I have Steve now and to thank Him that He will fill the gaps in the future. Already, I have a handful of friends and family who uniquely possess the Gift of Steve. They are encouraging and inspiring and, while they will never take his place, I see God putting them in place as pillars in my life that I can lean on.
If you are blessed to have someone in your life who you know would believe in you no matter what, take a minute today and thank God for that great gift. And maybe take a minute and thank them, too. Sometimes we assume people know how heroic they are, but then we discover that they’re as filled with self-doubt as we are. I think we’re created to need each other to be our best selves in the best possible way. I hope I help someone else fly someday. One thing is certain: I’ve learned from the best.
When I was young, my parents will tell you, I hated road trips. Hated. Them. They did everything in their parental power to make them a cool experience (including, but not limited to, feeding us brown sugar cinnamon Pop Tarts) but their tricks only worked for so long. Which in my case was about ten minutes. That’s when I would start asking “How long?” “How far?” “When will we get there?” “When can we stop?” “Why did we ever leave home in the first place?”
I love home.
I hate long car trips.
This season of our lives is like the longest car trip I’ve ever been on. I mean, really. The longest. Ever. And, as I mentioned in recently, it’s especially difficult to feel like Steve and I are in the same car but will arrive in different destinations.
Each morning, after I help Steve turn over and do the things that need to be done so he can gain a few more hours of sleep, I sit and soak in the quiet of the sunrise. I sometimes read my bible, but my capacity to focus on the amount and quality of sleep I’ve been getting is really limited right now. So, instead I think. And often what I think is: “How much farther?” And the answer is always: I don’t know. No one knows but God. Sometimes I’m able to sink into the security of His sovereignty, but lots of times I fight against it. I whine and wonder and “Do You know how hard this is?” and “There are not enough pop tarts in all the world to make this road trip worth it.” And when my words are exhausted and my emotions grow weary from the wild flailing, I land back at this truth: My Dad knows where we are, where we’re going and when we’ll get there. He knows. And it’s in this truth alone that I am able to rest right now. That’s not an overstatement: this truth alone.
Steve is having a rough week. He is in a lot of pain and we are trying to manage it the best we can. I won’t list all the obstacles we face in effective pain management, but they are many. ALS is not typically a pain-producing disease – but the consequence of having no muscle to cushion bones and joints is first discomfort and stiffness, which has now become full-fledged, level 10 pain. In addition, his breathing continues to weaken and grow more and more laborious. Sometimes I watch him and just wonder how he makes it through each day, but he is strong in ways I never dreamed.
I, on the other hand, have been having a good week. For no apparent reason, I feel secure and solid. I feel held. I am sticking close to this feeling because I don’t know how long it will last. If you’re yelling at your computer screen right now that I should trust that this feeling can last ALL the time, I’m going to yell right back: seasons of sorrow and frustration happen. They’re part of the trip and I don’t think they are, overall, connected to my level of faith. I think they’re mostly connected to my love for my husband, extreme levels of exhaustion and my (in)ability to carry all the things that are in my world. Even when they are connected to my level trust in God, they serve as an invitation for His comfort to meet me there (Matthew 5:4). The good days don’t last forever, but neither do the rough days and this is a great hope to my little heart.
So, I guess, this is where we are. Hard week. Strong week. Faith. Frustration. Sorrow. Security. So many things swirling right now, but God is the God of them all. Of us all.
Thank you for your prayers and love. Thank you for sticking so close to us through the stormy seasons. We love you beyond reason.
It was Valentines Day 1984 when I found a red-enveloped card in my mailbox at Portland Bible College (which I shared with Bob Metcalf and Mami Masaka and Elisa Morelli and all my other M buddies). Steve and I had been flirting with flirting…dancing around the edges of dating, without really taking the plunge into the dangerous, “do you really wanna?” conversation. I had hinted with him that I felt not-quite-ready for a romantic relationship. Maybe I needed more time to grow up, to discover myself, to consider other options instead of racing in to date the boy from Illinois. In my heart was a desire to focus on my last semester of school and a stubborn determination to defy the Bible college Ring By Spring stereotype.
But then, this card. It was sweet and kind and tender. It was not at all cheesy or Hallmarky, but it ended on a fairly dramatic note and it was this: I will wait as long as it takes.
We didn’t go on a date that day or any day for another month. No kiss. No commitments. And yet, that Valentine’s Day changed the course of my life in the most remarkable way.
We got married on February 2 so Valentine’s Day has never been a huge deal for us. We’ve acknowledged it, but have focused more on making it fun for our kids. So, I really thought this year wouldn’t be weird for me. Given the magnitude of everything else in our lives right now, bemoaning not being able to go on a date on Valentine’s Day seems beyond silly, right?
Here I am, up against this milestone of a memory and stuck beneath the weight of present suffering and wishing for all the world that I could relive just one Valentine’s Day. I love that everyone posts pictures of their fun dates and flowers on Facebook (I really do – we should always celebrate love!) but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t sting just a little. Truth-be-told, it’s been a hard week. Sadness has been pushing in around me like a flood and all the sandbagging in the world can’t keep it from seeping in a little.
Maybe next year I’ll have the energy to quiet the sadness and turn up the beauty. Maybe I’ll sink my teeth into doing something for people more sad than I. Perhaps I’ll write a blog post that answers all the questions about how to gracefully navigate the loving-and-losing dance. Next year, I’m pretty sure I’ll have the answers to all of life’s problems (ha!), but this year is this year. My plan is to go for a run and thank God that I can. I have legs that work and a caregiver who takes wonderful care of Steve for a few hours on Saturdays. I will paint a bathroom and read a book and just generally keep…going. Because sometimes that’s what you’ve got. Sometimes, it’s the only plan. And if that’s the plan you’re living on this holiday-of-love, know that you’re not alone.
But as I keep on keeping on, I will be mindful that I am loved and have been for a very long, very beautiful time. And that’s what counts.
Next week Steve and I will celebrate our 30th anniversary. It looks nothing like I thought it would, but I am learning that while expectations feel realer than real in my heart, they contain very little in the way of actual substance when life kicks in. Expectations – especially those that deal with love and romance – are often airbrushed beyond recognition. And maybe that’s good. Many of us would never bite the bullet and say the vows if we could see clearly into the future, and one thing I’m more certain of than I have ever been: God loves marriage. He loves happy marriages that shoot fireworks and fairytales all across the night sky. And He loves hard marriages that dig deep and grow through faithful, stubborn, hanging-on-by-the-skin-of-our-teeth because we just can’t let go while there’s still a heartbeat determination. Please know and know it well: Steve and I have lived both. Sometimes we’ve lived both in the space of one day.
So, I can’t really remember what I thought my 30th anniversary would be like. Those dreamy days are pretty far in the rearview. And it doesn’t matter anyway because we’re here and this is now. This year of our life has not surprised God. He knew our 30th anniversary would be spent in the valley of the shadow of death. He knew our home would be filled with caregivers and hospice professionals and machines and meds that help Steve live as comfortably as he can in this season of the battle. He who lives outside time and space, knew how this moment on the timeline of our marriage would play out and He has already equipped us to face it with faith and not as victims of a cruel disease. (Brief aside: He knew what your marriage would look like right now, too.)
Last week Steve asked me what the traditional gift was for year 30. I can’t remember him ever asking that before, so I immediately googled it and found: pearls. Pearls are the gift for year 30. As silly and commercial as the traditional lists of gifts are, this information has stuck with me because of this one verse:
The kingdom of heaven is like a jeweler on the lookout for the finest pearls. When he found a pearl more beautiful and valuable than any jewel he had ever seen, the jeweler sold all he had and bought that pearl, his pearl of great price. Matthew 14:45
We who take the leap and say the words and promise our lives to another frail human are also like jewelers on the lookout for the finest pearl. We believe that, though it will cost us everything, there is treasure inside that person…there is untold, unseen beauty and it will be worth everything we have to spend our lives finding it. We know somewhere in the deep places that it won’t only be beauty, but we are willing to take the sad with the happy and the hard with the good, believing all the ledgers will balance in the end and we will find ourselves the proud owner of a pearl of great price.
This marriage, this life, these three decades have been the most difficult, exciting, amazing, rewarding, frustrating treasure hunt. Steve and I have both had to sift through a lot of junk in ourselves and each other. We’ve had to fight and love hard. I’m not proud of how we’ve done everything, but I am proud of this: we know the value of the pearl. In spite of how much the past four years have cost, I know that I am the big winner here. The treasure inside of Steve Stern shines more brightly than ever before. His love for me is my hidden portfolio, my offshore bank account, the cash buried under the mattresses. Knowing him has made me richer, stronger, smarter and more secure. Serving him has made me softer, safer and more compassionate. Loving him has made me happy. And these things that have grown inside of me are treasure in themselves. I am better because of the battle and brilliance of marriage to the man of God’s dreams. And I am thankful.
Happy 30th, Steve Stern. I love you madly,
On this, your 15th anniversary of life in our world, I have things to say to you. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t surprise you, since you’ve been with me this long, so I’m going to launch right in.
Thing #1: Your life is not normal. It was very normal for awhile. Maybe even boringly normal. But at year 11, your life took a turn and you have lived every day since inside a fishbowl with sad faces looking in and sad voices asking, “So, how is your dad?” You have handled it brilliantly. Valiantly. Without complaint and nearly without a hitch. You’ve learned to respond to those questions with kindness, and without saying too much. You’ve learned to be in charge of things like mowing the lawn and hauling the garbage and scraping car windshields on frigid days. You’ve learned to use a feeding tube and a suction machine and you’ve faithfully learned to care for the dad who used to care for you (and still does – but in other ways.) This is big and impressive, but it is not normal. And in the midst of all the absolutely-not-normal circumstances, come absurdly normal things like Spanish tests and field trips and the way your mom forgets to give you lunch money for so many days in a row. Sometimes the normal and the abnormal intersect at the strangest points and everything feels incongruent and upside down to me…but not to you. You’ve learned to weather the waves as they roll in, you’ve learned to shift your weight and stay standing through it all. It is a great skill, but it is not normal.
Thing #2: Your life is not small. It is giant. You are an overwhelmingly abundant gift to me, to our family, to your dad. You are important to us in ways I can’t package into words well enough. I don’t know what I would do without you. Your smile is real and ready. Your heart is tender as the day is long. You’ve learned compassion in the crucible of suffering and you will be an enormous gift to a grieving world. Enormous.
Thing #3: You are only just beginning. You live in a home that is currently focused on endings. But you are at the very start of all you will become and experience and dream and create and achieve. The future stretches out wide in front of you, as big as the mountains that surround our city. You will launch and love just that big, because you are just beginning.
Thing #4: This is the big one. The most important one. You are not a victim. Your days have been planned with purpose by the God who loves you more than life. Our pain does not take Him by surprise and our struggles do not sideline His strategy. In fact, if we’ll let Him, I believe He will use the game-changing circumstances of life to work beyond our dreams. The pain in your life has made you strong and sensitive. It has made you one who will fight for justice and for the dream of His kingdom coming to our right-now, right-here world. You are not a victim.
Thing #5: Near to my heart is this last Thing. You are not fatherless. Sometimes throughout our journey, I’ve cried over the things you have not been able to experience with your dad, because I know how badly he’s wanted to be everything you need. Sometimes, I’ve tried to step in and be that or to send in a substitute, but then I realize: you don’t need us to be your substitute dad because you have a real dad who loves you beyond reason. He can’t take you golfing, but he can (and does) spend long hours praying for your destiny and not very many sons can say that. And you also have a Dad – the eternal One who shepherds your heart and directs your steps. You are not alone and will never be. Not ever. Because you are not fatherless.
So, on this big and beautiful day, I celebrate your life – the fifteen years that you’ve packed away and the decades that are to come. May His presence be your reward as you pursue Him with a vengeance.
I love you more than words and bacon,