My Love, My Valentine (Part 2)

“Once in a lifetime you meet

someone who changes everything.”

On October 5, 2014, I am nursing our three-week-old daughter, Elissa Rose, in our bed. It is early morning, and I’d woken up to a text that Nathan had sent several hours before that he had finished night shift at work and was heading home early. I’m in a fog of sleepless new-motherhood, but something does not feel right. He should have been home long before now. I rationalize. Maybe he stopped on an errand, got stuck in traffic. (At 8 a.m. on a Sunday?) He’s fine, I assure myself. If something had happened there would be someone at my door.

And the instant the thought crosses my mind, there is a loud knock at the front door.

Continued from last week…

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PART TWO 

I had seen it coming. Whenever Nathan came home late or forgot to call my mind would immediately conjure up visions of him wrecked on the side of the road. I vividly imagined him in a hospital bed, the phone calls I would make to our family…but the images always ended there. Of course he would survive. The alternative was unthinkable. So vivid was my imagination that on one occasion when he got stuck in a meeting and missed a dinner with friends I panicked and called them to help me go look for him. We were on our way to retrace his route to work before he finally called. On our fourth wedding anniversary just three months earlier I had written in my journal: I start crying whenever I imagine something happening to Nate…I know I could never live without him.

That knock on the door stops my heart, but it also feels like déjà vu. I try to convince myself that it’s just a neighbor wanting to borrow something. My body knows better. I’m unsteady as I gather Elissa and stumble to the door. The cloudy glass pane in the door reflects a distorted cop car parked in the street. My heart thumps loudly in my ears.

I hold Elissa tighter as I open the door to a lone cop standing stiffly on the porch. “I’m here for the family of Nathan Farlow,” he says, gruff.

“I’m his wife,” I falter, juggling Elissa.

 He surveys the two of us – bedraggled, sleep-heavy mother and tiny newborn. “No other family? You’re all alone?” I sense his heart sinking. “You’d better sit down…”

“What happened to him?” I force out the words as I totter to the couch. But even before I ask, I know. And I’m terrified that I’ll have to get into that cop car, and go somewhere to identify him, and come face to face with a dead man who is no longer my husband.

The officer shifts uncomfortably in the doorway. I balance on the edge of the couch, grip the arm with white knuckles. “What…happened to him…”

He refuses to make eye contact. “Your husband was involved in a serious auto accident. He didn’t make it.”

Everything in me screams disbelief. “Oh my God…” It is a strangled, pleading sob, begging that this not be true. And yet in my core I know it is. And so begins the awful paradox of denial coupled with the gut acceptance of reality. I feel detached, robotic, as if I’m watching someone else’s life implode. From far away I make out the officer’s intonation: “He didn’t suffer…killed instantly…hit head on by another driver…she reeked of alcohol.” I reel. “He was wearing his seatbelt…did nothing wrong…my condolences.” He’s delivered his message of doom and seems ready to leave. I panic; suddenly I want to grab hold of his uniform and be dragged away with him – far away from this house, this nightmare.

“What am I supposed to do now?” I’m begging, desperate. How can he decimate me and then leave me to pick up the pieces?

He takes another look at us – mother gasping for air, infant mewling for food. “Is there someone you can call? I’m not going to leave you alone like this.”

My mind spins crazily, running through the options – I’m irrational, over-concerned: I can’t call Eric and Katrina; they’re at church. I can’t call family; they’re 1,000 miles away. It’s pointless. There’s nothing anyone can do.

The officer is insistent: he won’t leave until someone is here with me. I finally dial the only name that sticks in my head; my next-door neighbor, Jill. She’s there within minutes; we hold each other and cry, Elissa pressed tightly between us. The officer, relieved of his burden, scrawls a number on a piece of paper. “Here’s the medical examiner’s number – you can call him in about thirty minutes.” And just like that, he’s gone. Another Sunday morning, another unpleasant aspect of the job. He closes the door and my life is in shambles.

The rest of that awful day is a blur of phone calls, each more agonizing than the last as I am forced to plunge the dagger over and over into the hearts of family and friends whose lives are now changed forever. Shock makes me level-headed and meticulous, and by the time I fall into bed, drenching Nathan’s pillow with tears, plans are made and our things are packed to go straight home to Maryland. I am mechanical, following the blueprint I’d subconsciously constructed in the back recesses of my imagination. If anything ever happens to Nathan I cannot stay here. I will go home immediately. There is nothing for me in Texas without him.

Early the next morning we are on our way to the airport, the rain on the window mirroring the endless silent tears streaming down my cheeks. Laura Story’s voice comes soft over the radio, and her words bring anything but comfort.

What if Your blessings come through rain drops
What if Your healing comes through tears
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You're near
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?

Racked with grief and desperate for answers, the words “blessing” and “mercy” are like shards of ice scraped across my shattered heart.

~*~

It has been almost four and a half years since my perfect Nathan was killed. I have floundered in an ocean of grief: terrifying, paralyzing, utterly unfamiliar. For a long time anger and disappointment with God kept me from running to Him for comfort and security. I was adrift in doubt, numb with anger, dead inside without my love. In the first months after losing Nathan, my father-in-law gave me Jerry Sittser’s A Grace Disguised. Though I had trouble reading and internalizing anything helpful, these words stuck with me and have come to define my grieving process: “The quickest way for anyone to reach the sun and the light of day is not to run west, chasing after the setting sun, but to head east, plunging into the darkness until one comes to the sunrise.” For four long years I have plumbed the darkness, owning every devastating aspect of my loss, with the conviction that the path to healing leads straight through the valley – not around it.

The best way I can describe my journey from despair to renewed life and hope is in the following letter I wrote to a hypothetical friend about to embark on the grieving process. If you or someone you know is in the throes of sudden loss, I pray these words will be a ray of hope for the days ahead. You will make it. You are stronger than you ever dreamed. And when all strength fails, there remains One who will lift you in His arms and carry you close to His heart…

Dear friend. There’s not much I can say to prepare you for grief, because it will hit you like a hurricane. Suddenly the impossible happens to you; your worst nightmare comes true and you are left writhing in anguish, in disbelief. Oh God…this cannot be true. How is this happening?? You will alternate between frenzied emotion, gut-wrenching sobs, panic, and numbness. You will feel like the walking dead – existing day by day somehow, but unable to make sense of anything. All your hopes and dreams for the future died with that person who was everything to you. It is all so wrong; no one can say or do anything to make it better, but plenty to make it worse.

You retreat into your shell because there is no safe place for the rawness of your open wounds. After all, you have lost your harbor – your home. “Run to God,” they say, trying to encourage. But He – once so close and intimate – feels the most dangerous of all. How can you trust the One who inflicted this near-fatal wound, who ordained the loss of the one you loved more than life? You will feel a loss of commonality with all those who take refuge in their faith. Your own faith, which you once thought impermeable, has shattered. You avoid other Christians because you can quote all the verses and truths they will paste over your suffering. You don’t need platitudes – you need a way to connect what you once knew to be true with all that has happened to you.

You go underground, and for as long as it takes you chip away at the layers of this loss. Grief, in its truest form, is a reckoning with every memory – every moment in time, every smile, every kiss, every habit and idiosyncrasy of daily life, every shared dream for the future. It is a farewell, an admittance that you alone are left to shoulder these memories, carrying them with you for the rest of your life. 

For a long time – months, maybe years – you teeter on the brink of total despair. You want to give up. You are so very tired of breathing, of waking up yet again to face another faceless day. But you are propelled forward, by the relentless passage of time and the resiliency of the human spirit. And one day you look back, hardly recollecting the past hour, week, month, with a distinct sense that you have been carried. That when you wanted to give up, He has not given up on you. The tenets of your deconstructed faith begin to rearrange themselves into a new belief that now encompasses the worst that can happen.

You slowly, tentatively, poke your head out of the underground. The sun washes over your face. The sounds and smells of spring breathe new life into your reviving soul. You realize with a start that you are beginning to anticipate life again. Day by day you are looking ahead more than behind. You find fresh comfort in walking alongside those who have been plunged without warning into the community of suffering. And you realize, as you lift your head and embark anew on this journey of life, that there is immense purpose in what you have lost and in how you now live. The One who has brought you to the valley has brought you through it, and will lead you on to that glorious eternal reunion.

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My Love, My Valentine (Part 1)

Even if the sun refused to shine

Even if romance ran out of rhyme

You would still have my heart

Until the end of time.

- Jim Brickman – 

Last February, my sweet blogging friend Erin Morris asked me to write a guest feature on her blog. {Erin’s blog is beautiful, inspiring, and always puts a smile on my face - I hope you’ll stop by!} I shared our love story in two parts, and as Valentine’s Day rolls around again, marking 13 years since I met the boy who changed everything, I wanted to share the story for my own readers as well…

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PART ONE

 Every girl dreams of finding her Prince Charming, and I was certainly no exception. My earliest childhood recollections are steeped in hopes and dreams of finding The One. Would it be a chance encounter, a deep soul knowledge the moment our eyes met? Or would we be childhood best friends, drifting softly into an unlikely romance? Would he be handsome, dashing, dangerous, ordinary? A rebel? The boy next door? My imaginings ran wild – evidenced even at five years old when I wrote in my first diary with huge, sprawling letters: “When I grow up, I want to marry *insert name of my first crush* and live on a farm with six dogs, three horses, and four cats.”

As I got older I fell for various boys with increasing intensity. I read dozens of novels and roamed our secluded back yard for hours, spinning elaborate castles in the air filled with children and pets, captained by whoever I was enamored with at the time. Mercifully, none of the boys in question ever knew how hard I fell for them and how devastated I was when they didn’t appear to notice or return my interest. My one-sided love affairs were harmless enough, and as I got ready to graduate high school they were replaced by dreams of an illustrious journalism career. My air castles were traded in for dreams of traveling the world as a daring war correspondent, dodging bombs and air raids and perhaps falling in love with a wounded soldier after I’d pocketed a Pulitzer.

What I hadn’t counted on was that my very own Prince Charming would show up at my front door on Valentine’s Day 2006. I was seventeen and hosting a houseful of fellow students at our weekly youth group meeting, and bounded to open the door when the doorbell rang for the dozenth time. A visiting Baptist preacher from North Carolina stood on the porch with his two tall sons and wide-eyed daughter. I locked eyes with the older son, and my breath caught. Nathan Farlow was dark-haired and Southern, with eyes like the sea, a perpetual tan and the lithe body of an all-American athlete. He wore the widest and whitest smile I’d ever seen, and it seemed to never leave his face – his personal invitation to the whole world to stop a minute and get to know him. We quickly discovered our shared love of country music, and spent most of that spring on the phone for hours – discussing school projects, driving tests, college applications, faith, politics, and our dreams for the future. We were sworn best friends and nothing more, but my visions of a Pulitzer threatened to be replaced by dreams of becoming Mrs. Nathan Farlow one day. With each conversation my conviction deepened that he was everything on my list of future husband qualities, plus so much more I’d never thought to add.

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When Nathan skipped a family wedding to attend my high school graduation, adrenaline pumped thick and hot through my veins. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was about to turn into something real – something I’d waited for my whole life. Late that night, as the last party guests left for home, Nathan and my dad disappeared for a mysterious conversation. Dad gave him permission to express his feelings for me, and Nathan – knowing full well that we were each leaving for four years at our respective colleges – asked me to be his girlfriend. Before we’d ever met we had each pledged not to casually date around, but to save ourselves for a relationship that could potentially lead to marriage. The very commitment to a long-distance courtship felt almost as weighty as an engagement.

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Within mere months of officially dating we were convinced that we could never marry anyone else, and the four years stretching ahead of us seemed an eternity to wait. But like Jacob, so blinded by his love for Rachel that the seven years he worked for her felt like mere days, we would have waited forever for each other. Because we’d committed to physical purity before marriage, we paced our physical intimacy as slowly as we possibly could. We waited one year to hold hands, two years to say I love you, three years – and engagement! – to kiss. Some may have called us prudish, or sexually stifled. Quite the contrary. Our physical boundaries gave us ample time to deepen our friendship, an unshakable foundation for a healthy relationship that did not ebb and flow with mere physical connection and attraction. We were soulmates, best friends, and kindred spirits, and our physical boundaries, though frustrating, were a blessing that kept us from compromising in areas that we would one day regret. Each stage of physical intimacy was indescribably beautiful and fulfilling, because we had waited and, as Solomon urged, “not awakened love before its time.”

Nathan, my prince, my knight in shining armor, married me on June 20, 2010. I walked down the aisle towards that dazzling smile in a flood of relieved tears. All those girlish dreams and imaginings had led me on a pathway straight to him…only him. There could never be anyone else. He was the perfect fulfillment of each and every one of my longings, handcrafted by a loving God just for me, and I for him. We said “I do,” and our kiss was one of almost ethereal bliss. We were finally, at long last, home.

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I do not exaggerate when I say that the following four years of marriage were a taste of heaven on earth. The long years of loving, learning, fighting, and waiting for each other had primed us for a fairytale marriage. It was such an indescribable relief to wake up together, knowing that we would never have to say goodbye again. I kept waiting for the difficulty of marriage to hit. Everyone always cautioned about “when the honeymoon ended.” For me, it never did. Even going to the bank or the gas station was a thrill because it meant I got to be with him. Every day with him was the new best day of my life. I couldn’t imagine it ever getting better. The only thing that marred my perfect happiness was a nagging twinge of foreboding that it was too good. This level of perfection seemed unattainable for the long run. Would something happen somewhere along the way to mess it all up?

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~*~

On October 5, 2014, I am nursing our three-week-old daughter, Elissa Rose, in our bed. It is early morning, and I’d woken up to a text that Nathan had sent several hours before that he had finished night shift at work and was heading home early. I’m in a fog of sleepless new-motherhood, but something does not feel right. He should have been home long before now. I rationalize. Maybe he stopped on an errand, got stuck in traffic. (At 5 a.m. on a Sunday?) He’s fine, I assure myself. If something had happened there would be someone at my door.

And the instant the thought crosses my mind, there is a loud knock at the front door.

To Be Continued

Wasted

If the most precious gift we have is time—

Why would we want to kill it?

-Ben Sasse-

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 I vividly remember getting ready for bed late one night years ago in Houston as Nathan pounded steadily away on his laptop, working on a dashboard he was creating in his “off hours” for Literacy Advance, the nonprofit whose board he had joined as a volunteer earlier that year. Finally, at my urging, he reluctantly powered down the laptop and called it a night.

“Why do people have to sleep?” he groaned as he flopped on the bed beside me. “It’s such a waste of time. We could accomplish so much more in life if we just stayed awake!”

I remember being amazed at his tenacity. After a long day of work I was more than ready to snuggle down in my cozy bed and surrender consciousness to blissful hours of sleep. But to Nathan, coming home from work was just the beginning of a long evening of tasks he was passionate about and couldn’t wait to start.

My conviction that Nathan was truly one of a kind in this regard has only grown in the years since he’s been gone. Our generation is increasingly obsessed with all manner of time-killers, particularly in the electronic form. Netflix binging, games, social media, and communication forms of all kinds steal our time in staggering amounts. A personal example is the book list I made at the beginning of 2018. I excitedly chose 12 books of different genres and posted a photo, vowing to read a book a month and write a book review so I didn’t promptly forget what I’d read. To my utter chagrin I finished a total of three books and only wrote reviews on two. To be fair, I listened to other books on Audible and read many chapter books with Elissa – but I am haunted by the nine books on my list that never even got cracked open last year. What stole the time that I should have devoted to reading and digesting those books?

If I am honest, it was the mindless rut that I fell into every evening after Elissa was in bed. Exhausted from a day of parenting struggles, homeschooling, traveling, home projects, and all manner of other things, I’d reason that I owed it to myself to relax, to chill – i.e. to veg on my phone while the evening slipped away from me. The inevitable result was that I never felt rested and invigorated by that time spent on my phone. Instead I was always shocked to realize what time it was. I felt robbed of those minutes that I’d had such high hopes for; they were stolen from me. They were wasted.

Our phones are addicting, and have been ingeniously engineered to meet our specific habits and preferences in such a tailor-made way that they become indispensable to living. The average American checks their phone every 4 minutes, and if you’re like me, “checking my phone” can quickly turn into chasing a rabbit trail that spirals out of control – clicking this link, reading that article, scrolling those photos – and before I know it 20 minutes have been lost forever.

If I’m going to break the hold that media has on me, I need to be smarter than my smartphone. I need to take a careful look at my electronic habits, anticipate the moments when I’m tired or stressed and most susceptible to distraction, and set myself up for success. This might mean keeping my phone in my bedroom, silencing my notifications so that I’m only alerted to phone calls (this was the original purpose of a phone anyhow, and if the need is urgent people can call!), designating 5-10 minutes each day to catch up on social media (because guaranteed, nothing has happened in a day that deserves more than 5-10 minutes of my time), and keeping books strategically around the house where I can pick them up and read a few pages instead of scrolling through Facebook and Instagram.

As Ben Sasse so insightfully points out in The Vanishing American Adult, time has historically been our most valuable resource, and this generation is obsessed to an unprecedented degree with wasting it. Tellingly, we call the hugely popular pastime of binge drinking "getting wasted” because, not only are you good for nothing when you are blackout drunk, but the hangover the next day is time wasted and never recovered. Drinking isn’t just a waste of time – but of faculties, resources, and good judgment. It can and does result in the waste of lives. My husband – who lived each moment with incredible purpose and insatiable drive – was killed by a young woman almost lethally drunk. Not only did she waste her own life and leave her daughter an orphan, she stole the resources and potential of a new father with a family and unbelievably bright future ahead of him. It is tragic that these losses are commonplace. Our generation is in bondage to wasted lives and the terrible consequences that often result. Losing my husband at 26 has forced me to ask the question: what is more tragic? A short, full life lived to the hilt, or a long, empty life wiled away in meaningless past times?

Given my track record from last year, I’m a bit wary of setting concrete goals for myself this year. Instead, I am dedicated to creating habits that will breed lasting change. I’m sending them out into the cybersphere so that I have no excuse not to live up to them. Firstly, I vow to go to bed on time so that I can get up early in the mornings and write – something that I am deeply passionate about. Second, I vow to beat my smartphone at its own game by relegating it to another room and only engaging when it can be of some use to me. Third, I vow to fill my days with meaningful thought, work, play, and learning so that the downtime doesn’t encroach on my personal goals and development. I vow to be present for my daughter in her formative moments, leaving her a legacy of meaningful relationship – never that she had to compete with a beeping screen for my attention.

What are your goals for this year? Leave a comment below, and let’s be a community that spurs each other on in not wasting our lives.