Charlie and Rita. A Love Story.

on an airplaneIt happened again. I got on the plane, anxious to get to my seat and settle in quietly with a good book for the four-hour flight from Charlotte to Phoenix. My eyes focused on the numbers and letters above the seats in anticipation of putting my tote bag in my seat and getting my carry-on in the overhead compartment as quickly as I could.

I hardly noticed the woman sitting in the middle and the man sitting by the window as I took my bottle of water and book out of the tote bag and pushed the bag under the seat in front of me. As I fastened my seat belt, I finally looked at the woman next to me and smiled. Nothing too engaging, just being polite and cordial is my modus-operandi after I’ve had a busy few days speaking. I briefly said hello.

I couldn’t help but look into her eyes as I spoke. They were noticeably red, with dark circles underneath and brimming with tears. Her face reflected an all too familiar pain and sadness marked with grief.

A quick nudge to my heart and emotions and I knew I was going deeper than a simple hello. “Heading back home to Phoenix?”

“No.” She hesitated, then said, “We’re going on to a place near the border for treatment for my husband. He has advanced, stage-four cancer that has spread. He’s had chemo and radiation and there is nothing more that can be done for him. He wants to try another kind of treatment as a last resort.”

“Oh,” I said softly, “I am so sorry.” I reached over and gently touched her left hand. Her right hand held her husband’s hand tightly, as if it were a life-line between them.

holding handsDuring our flight, the only time she let go of his hand was when she lovingly tucked a blanket around him, opened his crackers, poured his apple juice, or helped him up to go to the bathroom. If she didn’t reach for his hand first, he reached for hers. It was a picture of two people devoted to each other.

I guess it was the compassion in my eyes – or maybe it was my touch – but the unspoken words between us at that moment seemed to bring her a little comfort. “I’m Susan, what’s your name?”

“Rita,” she said, “and this is my husband, Charlie.” I leaned forward and looked over at Charlie. He was frail, gaunt, and very pale, but he managed a smile and nodded his head.

As Rita and I talked, I learned they had been married 52 years. She was from Germany and they met when Charlie was in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. They had two children and six grandchildren. They’ve lived in the same house for over 30 years in a small town in Ohio. I asked her if she had a group of friends, a support group, or a church family to come alongside them. “Only our neighbors,” she said. “We used to go to church, but haven’t been in the last four years since Charlie has been so sick.”

I was beginning to see why God had put me in Row 6, Seat C. Rita desperately needed someone who had walked a similar journey and who understood her pain. Someone who didn’t have all the answers, but enough to comfort and encourage her for a time such as this.

It was then that I began to share my own story of Bill and his stage-four cancer, how it spread so quickly, and how he lived only four months after the diagnosis. I went on to tell her we had been married 45 years, had two children, and six grandchildren. Bill had also been in the Air Force during the Vietnam War.

She leaned closer to me, tears rolling down her cheeks, and whispered, “I’m so scared. I don’t know what I’ll do without Charlie. I don’t know if I can make it.” 

My words to Rita poured out of a heart that had once whispered her same words and expressed those same fears. I reached for her hand and shared these things which I knew to be tried and true during my darkest days.

“Take one day at a time. Live each precious day together to the fullest, no matter how hard it is.

Trust God when you don’t understand. Talk to Him, He’s listening. Run to Him, He’s your refuge.

God will give you the strength you need to get through this. He’s right by your side and will never leave you.

God will comfort you beyond what you can imagine.

He will guide and direct you every step of the way when you feel alone and afraid.

You will make it, Rita. If I can survive, so can you.” 

I knew we were going to land soon and I didn’t want to miss the moment to say one last thing. “Can I pray for you and Charlie before we land?”

“Yes, I would like that,” she said.

Although I’ll never see Charlie and Rita again, I think of them and pray for them often. I can still see their hands, aged by years and love, held tightly together.

I smile knowing God had my seat and row waiting for me to sit down and settle in so He could carry out His perfect plan for a four-hour plane ride.

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. Psalm 34:18

Susan Miller

Empty nest, empty heart

empty nestLearning to let go one more time

“It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to
Cry if I want to, cry if I want to.
You would cry too if it happened to you.”
(A popular song from the 60s by Lesley Gore)

You thought you were ready for this, but you never expected it to be so hard, or that you would cry so much.

You fought back the tears as you hugged tightly, secretly never wanting to let go, trying to be strong, even brave at this momentous moment. The words swelled up in your heart. There was so much you wanted to say,

“Don’t forget to call or text me.
Get enough sleep.
Eat healthy.
Don’t stay out too late.
Choose your friends wisely.
Remember to wash your clothes once a week.
And oh, please be careful-it’s a crazy world out there.”

But you didn’t, at least right now you didn’t. You’ve said it all a hundred times before this day.

You simply whispered, “I love you.”

You were trying hard to act like a grown-up mom to this growing-up child, who was growing-up too fast, too soon. The voice in your head said, “Wasn’t it just yesterday that I rocked you to sleep and held your hand as you took your first step? Now you are taking your first step into college.” You hear this growing-up child that you cheered on in life, now trying to cheer you. “I’ll be fine mom…don’t worry….”

All the way home, you cry uncontrollably, mascara running down your face, snot pouring out your nose. This is not the time to hold back. Let it come. You reach for a sleeve, an arm, a Kleenex – anything to stop the dam that broke. You just left behind your baby – your firstborn, your middle child, or your youngest. It doesn’t matter which one, it still hurts. It’s cutting another umbilical cord, it’s letting go of a part of who you are. It’s facing an empty, clean room with the bed made, no shoes or clothes scattered everywhere, and posters still hanging on the wall. Oh, how you yearn to see that room messy just one more time to have glimpses of life there.

In case you are wondering, I was the “YOU” years ago when I experienced the emotional transition and unexpected adjustment of sending off our oldest, and then our youngest, to college. My head knew all the right things – we raised them for a time such as this. We gave them roots in family and in Christ and wings of confidence to soar and become all they could be. We knew it was time for them to become independent and begin to figure out life on their own. We knew one season of life had ended and another season was about to begin. That being said, it was not easy to emotionally let go or to stop crying for weeks as I grieved the loss of their daily presence in our family circle.

I couldn’t seem to get a grip as I struggled with the emptiness that seemed to consume me. I particularly remember one time when I was laying face-down in our hammock, crying so hard my tears went through the hammock and on the patio. It was one of those messy-slobbery-ugly-cries. I missed tripping over the sports shoes that were always taken off at the bottom of our stairs after school. My refrigerator seemed empty. The house was too quiet. I missed the laughter, chatter, and even the music that had a good beat.

The sadness in my empty heart was eventually filled with happiness and peace as I began to see our growing-up children begin to thrive on their own. I had done my part as a mom, now it was time to leave them in God’s hands and ask Him to protect, guide, and equip them in their new journey. I needed to move forward with faith and trust, knowing God would always be with them. You do have to come full circle with all of this and, at some point, realize that it’s not all about you, it’s about them. You are then taking your first step in letting go.

Remember these things:

  • You will always be their mama and they will always need you.
  • You did a good job raising them. Don’t second guess that.
  • Say often to them, “I believe in you. You can do this.”
  • Let them manage their own lives and figure it out.
  • They will make mistakes and they will learn from them. Don’t short-circuit that.
  • Let them know, no matter what happens, you will be there for them.
  • Pray for them every day.

And, be assured they will come home again – with a suitcase full of dirty clothes, ready to eat a home-cooked meal!

I have dedicated him to the Lord; as long as he lives he is dedicated to the Lord.  I Samuel 1:28

From My Heart to Yours,
Susan Miller

A Loss of Presence and Tears of Perseverance

Could it really be – eight years? That seems like so l-o-n-g ago. To me, it seems like only yesterday. Yet, it was eight years ago this month that my husband, Bill, lost his battle with cancer. The loss of his presence still lingers with me and, in a quiet moment, I find myself smiling as I reflect on a few of the things I still miss…

his voice that I long to hear,
his footsteps as he walked in a room,
his soft whistle which was music to my ears,
his smile that made everything right in my crazy world,
and his touch that made my heart skip a beat.

Susan and Bill MillerI miss his insight and wisdom when I needed perspective in a situation.
I miss sharing my day and sharing my heart with him.
I miss how he brought me a cup of coffee every morning.
I miss watching him teach our grandchildren how to flip “papa’s pancakes” on the grill.
I miss walking with him to church every Sunday.
I miss the man who lived out Jesus to me as we grew older together.

The loss of Bill’s presence left a void in my life and heart that took me to my darkest hours on the steps of my soul. It was there that God met me in my early years of grief, soothed me with His word, and filled me with His peace and comfort. I had no idea of the magnitude and depth that God’s love and care could be….and for eight years God has not once forgotten or left me.

Our marriage was not perfect by any means. When you’ve been married 45 years, you have your bumps along the way. Sometimes there were more valleys than mountain tops, more tears than laughter, more hurt than healing. There were years when we were more disconnected than connected, more broken than whole. There were even times when I wanted to give up and walk away – marriage was just too hard.

But I didn’t. He didn’t. We didn’t. Even though Bill worked 24/7 in a demanding job, and I was enmeshed in our two small children, we knew we had to make a choice to commit to our marriage and whatever it took to make it work. We began to focus on God instead of our issues and problems. God’s word became a light on our path. We prayed together, went to church together, joined marriage classes and marriage small groups, and hung out with mentors who modeled a Godly marriage. We learned how to communicate and talk to each other without blaming each other for everything that was wrong in our relationship. Things didn’t change overnight, but over time we began to change. We began to grow deeper roots in Christ and, as our roots entwined with each other, we were strengthened and equipped as one, to weather the storms in our marriage.

My deep loss of Bill’s presence, has been filled with an even deeper gain of the presence of Jesus.  My presence will go with you…Exodus 33:14

And, because of Jesus, I can face another year with peace, contentment, and the cherished memories of our 45 years together.

I want you to claim my life verse that I claimed for my marriage and kept on my favorite picture of us as a reminder of God’s faithfulness:

Now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory. Ephesians 3:20-21

So why am I sharing all this through my tears of perseverance? You…you, might just be the woman reading this that needs hope. You are going to make it through your loss. You can make it in your marriage. You will come out of your pit of despair.

Never give up, never lose hope.  And so, Lord, where do I put my hope? My only hope is in you. Psalm 39:7

From My Heart to Yours,
Susan Miller

The Woman with the Red Purse and How My Life Changed

bad news in the hospitalIt was a visual  picture that will be forever imprinted in my mind. She was an attractive, petite woman in her mid-forties, with shoulder-length black hair, white blouse, and a dark colored pencil-thin skirt. My eyes were drawn to  her large red purse as she walked down the long corridor. It seemed almost too big in proportion to her small size. I guess I needed to focus on something other than my thoughts. As she walked closer, I could tell she was coming towards us, especially since my daughter and I were the only two people sitting in the waiting area.

There wasn’t a smile on her face when she introduced herself. It was obvious the news she was going to tell us was not good. “I’m so sorry”, she said. “There’s nothing we can do. The cancer has spread….”

I wouldn’t let the reality of her words penetrate my mind, not now. I went into a mama’s protection mode as I pushed back my own feelings to be strong for my daughter.  “We’ll get through this, we’ll get through this”, I kept saying.  Even though I didn’t believe my own words, I said them anyway. After all,  this was her daddy the surgeon was talking about. My husband of 45 years, but her daddy that she adored.  What I really wanted to do was run down the long corridor screaming “no, no, no…”

This seemingly empty section of the hospital and surgical waiting room suddenly seemed very cold, and I began to shake as I often do when I am chilled to the bone. I began to feel the chill of the surgeon’s words pierce my heart. “A  rare, aggressive  form of colon cancer that has spread to the liver and beyond….” 

I knew this was something I couldn’t fix with words, a hug, or a kiss. I knew I needed to lean into Jesus–no, fall into Jesus, like I’d never done before.

I felt numb as I pushed away the reality of losing Bill.  I knew the only way I could physically take another step, or emotionally face the time we had left, was by breathing in Jesus and His word with every breath I took. In the days ahead when I felt weak, His strength became my strength. When my sorrow was uncontrollable, His comfort sustained me. When I was overwhelmed, His peace filled me.  He wiped away my nightly  tears of grief with a smile to face each day.  

Jesus still does that today, seven years later.  

Bill lived four agonizing months after his diagnosis on a Good Friday and emergency surgery on an Easter Sunday.  I never left his side. Our love for each other seemed to permeate our hospital wing and hospice.  Bill radiated Jesus with every word he spoke to the doctors and nurses. When anyone asked him what he did, he would always say, “I am a Christ-follower.”  His love and concern for me, and my love and care for him became a testimony of our devotion to each other.

I recently saw the surgeon who carried the red purse and stopped to introduce myself, knowing she couldn’t possibly remember all her patients.  “Oh yes”, she said, “I remember you, your husband, and your two children. You were quite an unforgettable family and your husband was a remarkable man.  He had such peace, even as he faced death.  He always managed to smile, even when he was in pain, and  there was an inner strength in him as his body weakened.”

As I sat in church every Easter for the last seven years, I would vividly remember that Sunday as the beginning of a life change and loss that rocked my world – and our children’s world –  to the core. But, I also remember that it is because of our risen Savior, that I will see my Bill again, face to face, in Heaven.  There will be no disease, no suffering and no pain – only the joy of being reunited together again.

Then, with tears and a smile, I sing deep from within my soul, “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow….”  

From My Heart to Yours,

Susan Miller

“I am not skilled to understand what God has willed, what God has planned. I only know at His right hand is one who is my Savior.”

(Words from an old hymn given to me by a beloved friend on August 9, 2009, the day Bill went home to be with Jesus.)

Yes I can!

Susan MillerIf you’re like me, and have experienced a life-changing loss, the holiday season could look and feel different to you. You might somehow want to escape all the memories, traditions, and decorations. It’s just too hard, and you’re just too numb to face the pain of what will never be the same again.

As many of you already know, my life-changing loss was the death of my beloved husband, Bill. Your loss may be different from mine, but it can still be life-changing. It could be a job loss, the loss of your home and your possessions through a natural disaster, or the loss you experience from having to move away from family, friends, and all that is familiar. Perhaps it’s the loss that comes with divorce, a broken relationship, a deployed spouse, or a debilitating illness. You too, have probably asked yourself, “How am I going to get through the holidays?”

yes I canA friend gave me a little wooden angel that sits on my kitchen counter. She has both arms stretched out, and raised above her head as if to say, “Yes, I can!” Every morning when I walk into my kitchen that little angel is a visual reminder that I want to be a woman who, in the midst of life-changing loss, says, “Yes, I can!”

I can be grateful this holiday season for immeasurable blessings, in spite of my emptiness—and so can you.  

I can focus, not on my loss, but on the undeniable faithfulness of God, regardless of my circumstances – and so can you.  

I can trust Him in all things—and so can you.

I can lift up my hands with praise for a Savior who comforts and soothes me in my loss like none other—and so can you.

This much I know: God will not leave us or forget us in our loneliness, pain, or suffering. His mercies are indeed new every morning.

By claiming these truths, my friends, we can get through the holidays. We can also create new memories, start different traditions, and choose to decorate less.

May you feel God’s presence and peace this holiday season as you focus on the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

From My Heart to Yours,

Susan Miller signature

 

An old bench filled with memories

the old bench

One of the sweet memories I have of my daddy many years ago, was sitting beside him on a hand-made, hand-painted bench in our back yard. He made it out of scraps of wood from his wood pile, and it has remained strong and steady for over 40 years. He built it with the skill of a fine carpenter, although he only referred to himself as a handyman around the house.

The weathered green bench sat in mom and dad’s back yard for many years. Anytime I came home to visit, I would watch from the kitchen window when daddy was raking the back yard, and wait for him to take a bench break, then I’d head for my spot next to him.

We would sit together and talk about anything—from the birds and the squirrels scampering around in our wooded back yard, to the rising cost of living, to how hot the weather was, to stories of the years he served in the military and what the Bible says about how to live life. My daddy was a quiet, gentle, soft-spoken man of few words. The bench seemed to spark magic conversation between us.

When mom and dad went home to be with the Lord many years ago, my brother and I sorted through the keepsakes we wanted. I took the bench. It traveled from Florida to Arizona, and sat on the front porch of three homes, and then finally ended up in the back yard, all the more weathered.

This summer, as I walked by the all-but-forgotten-bench, I stopped, and ran my hands across the rough surface. I sat down thinking that it might not hold me, but it held firm. The memories of sitting on it with my daddy, my husband, Bill, my children, and my grandchildren, flooded my heart and emotions.

stripping the paint

“It is time to restore this bench,” I said to myself. I became excited about stripping and sanding it, filling the holes with wood filler, nailing down any loose wood, re-painting it a different color, and adding a cushion for the finishing touch!

Moved to a special place, the old-but-new bench continues to spark conversation magic. I watch my daughter and my grandchildren find a spot to sit next to me, and then we talk about many things….

Five lessons learned from an old bench:

1. Seize the moment to sit awhile with someone you love.
2. Talk about lots of things—important and not so important.
3. Share stories and recall memories.
4. Listen and remember.
5. Never forget that something old can be a treasure, and sometimes, can be restored to new again.

finished bench

Susan Miller

 

A Roadway in the Wilderness

Isaiah 43:19roadway in the wilderness
Behold, I will do something new,
Now it will spring forth;
Will you not be aware of it?
I will even make a roadway in the wilderness,
Rivers in the desert.

Many of you, like me, have had a “wilderness experience” in your life. It’s when uncontrollable circumstances, or a life-changing crisis rocks your world. When you feel like you are aimlessly trying to find your way through a maze of darkness, and just survive–one step at a time. You feel empty, confused, overwhelmed, and desolate.

I know some of your stories, your struggles, your heartaches, and your pain. Your wilderness experience could be with a physical illness, with emotional anguish, with financial hardship, or with a broken relationship. It could be in your marriage or in being single, in your aloneness, or in coping with a loss.

My wilderness experience began on a Sunday morning when the surgeon gave us the news that Bill had an aggressive and rare form of colon cancer that had spread to his liver–and there was nothing they could do. Then, just four months later on a Sunday morning Bill went home to be with the Lord. That was almost three years ago, and there are still days when I struggle to get through the emotions of my loss. I choose daily to put one foot in front of the other and press on.

God made a roadway to survival in my wilderness. In the midst of my sadness, God made a roadway to finding joy. In the midst of my loss, God made a roadway to finding contentment. In the midst of my longing for Bill, God made a roadway to finding peace.

God will provide a roadway in your wilderness, my sisters! Listen to His voice when you feel confused. Learn His word when you need comfort and reassurance. Lean on him when you don’t have all the answers. Rest in Him when you are weary and worn-out. Trust Him when your circumstances overwhelm you.

It’s not always easy, in fact, it’s downright hard some days. There will be times when you feel like you can’t do anything but breathe. But remember this: When God provides a roadway IN the wilderness—He provides a way OUT of the wilderness. He did it for me, He will do it for you.

It is Jesus who will meet you at your point of need. It is Jesus who will soothe your soul, and comfort your heart. It is Jesus who will give you hope to face tomorrow.

Susan Miller