I got in my kayak last week and paddled across the water for the first time this summer.
Kayaks, paddle boards, and gear in tow, Jon, the kids, and I head to the water to frolic in the sun. We knew life was fragile, so we lived and made memories.
The time before that was just a few days before we learned that cancer was wreaking havoc in Jon’s head in 2020.
The time before that was in 2019, when I wasn’t quite sure I would feel steady on the water after a terrifying event a few weeks earlier when I got caught in a rip current. My kayak and Jon’s paddle board got pulled out to sea. You may know the story; if you not, you can read it here.
I held onto the upside kayak, grabbing our bag of phones and car keys as we drifted further from land. Jon carefully guided me onto his paddle board, where he sat with our friend’s young daughter. She and I prayed Hail Marys on repeat for the tide to change and for help to come.
Jon fought against the deep waters, trying to flip the kayak back over as he drifted further away from me. Oh, the irony.
“Oh, Mary, Stella Maris, Star of the Sea, do your best to protect me. Please show up for me, Lead us to safety.” runs on repeat in my mind as we waited for the lone rescuer to return for me.
The waters calmed, and waves pushed us back toward land. I was no longer afraid.
Help eventually came thanks to a lone jet skier helping my little friend and me after rescuing Jon.
Then another man in a white boat who reached down to rescue Jon a second time after he got caught and pulled out to sea in the current again. Thankfully he had on a life vest. We all need a life vest and Jesus.
We made all made it to land, but not before time stood still, it felt like an eternity.
Since then, I have found myself less and less fearful of things. Maybe it was when God prepared, taught, and led me to more turbulent seas.
I wrote about that harrowing event in a blog post about Mary, Saints, Clouds and the Sea in 2019.
My nerves were on high alert after flipping off my kayak in the Gulf of Mexico when we got caught in a rip current. But I was adamant about returning to the water immediately; I wanted to be sure I found my sea legs to get close to the water and sit in a kayak again.
I knew if I didn’t get back on that water right away, I would let fear take over. Jon and I encouraged one another that way. We kept each other going while always cheering for one another, especially when we hit rough waters. We’ve been caught in many turbulent waters lately.
We’ve always loved the water and the adventures far too much to let something scary and big keep us from returning to our vessels to relaunch them.
We get to decide how we move forward. With Jon by my side, I could do anything. It’s how we rowed through life.
I cautiously stepped into the kayak as Jon held my hand. Then he paddled alongside me to be sure I was ready to propel through those waters alone. At least there are no sharks in these waters—not the kind we can see, anyway.
So he pushed my kayak out into the water.
Once steady, Jon let go. He once taught me how to fall, here he encouraged me to keep going.
With a powerful stroke, I paddled to the other side of the lake with the sun beating on my back and Jon enthusiastically shouting at me from behind to keep going.
I could do anything with this man beside me – he always had my back, and my hand and I had his.
For a few moments, I stopped to look back. I always look back to see how far I have come.
I inhaled the summer breeze, and thank God I was brave enough to enter the waters again on that day in 2019. It gave me so much clarity about life and fear and suffering. That’s a story for another day.
Little did I know how much I would learn about getting back up and how to keep going, when to keep (or not) paddling through rough waters, when to let the peaceful seas carry you, and when to simply drift where the current takes you.
Life, sorrow, and navigating the waters of grief and loss are immense and uneasy.
At times the current pulls us away from our destination though I need to find out where that destination is. It will take some time to reveal or discover where or in what direction we are going.
But I know the only way I can go is to keep moving forward and paddling the calm and stormy seas.
I refuse to avoid the places that carry some of our best memories. In fact, I run to them and embrace them and all they can offer in mending my grieving heart.
There I will find my courage and strength while allowing my mind and heart to wander sacred territory.
I carefully slid down into my kayak this past week, ready to paddle on the wide-open warm body of water. As fast as the sun sparks on the lake, many memories flash before my eyes.
I closed my eyes and inhaled the summer air slowly, mourning and remembering.
I catch myself doing that—inhaling slowly—a lot lately.
I’m in no rush to get through this season.
“You okay? Are you ready?” My son asks quietly, sensing my pause.
Then I felt my son’s hand on my back as he pushed my boat into the water with a familiar sense of strength, care, and encouragement coming from him.
The patient love and care I receive from these kids of ours brings me to tears in humble gratitude on the daily.
Tears stung my eyes while the searing sun melted the teardrops that dripped down my cheeks.
As the warm breeze hits my face, I propel the vessel across the current, remembering every moment as if it were happening before me.
I squinted as the sun reflected on the water and blinded me.
A familiar silhouette standing on the board floats through the sunbeams before me. His—Jon’s—grin is the brightest light. I recall him racing me and cheering for me, and asking me if I want to jump in the water with him.
A cloud rolled across the sun, and the vast body of water felt open and empty, but the memories lingered long like the thick humid air.
For a moment, I wonder how something so empty can still feel so full, so deep, so life-giving in the face of death.
Then I hear a voice whispering behind me, “Come on, do you want to jump in?”
His voice fades with the sun lost behind the clouds, becoming a distant memory in my heart, mind, and everything surrounding me.
They—the memories—are everywhere. And Jon is nowhere—nowhere to be seen.
“In a little while, the world will no longer see me, but you will see me.”—Jn 14:19
And he is everywhere around me, in me, our kids, and in memory.
The voice gets louder and more frequent, “Mom, do want to jump in…”
“It’s okay, you go in. I’ll hold your board so you can jump in. I am going to take a break and sit here while you jump in and wait for you,” I tell my girls.
I turn and smile at them, grateful to be here remembering, navigating, and paddling the unknown waters of deep suffering of this loss with them.
Then we get back to paddling.
I thought about how life right now is that we just keep going.
CS Lewis said, “The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.” We built a beautiful life filled with love and laughter as we raised amazing kids and made tons of memories with all kinds of adventures.
We have a choice. You do, too.
Sometimes we paddle hard to cross the crisp, clear water.
Sometimes we get caught in an invisible rip current, and fight the turbulent seas.
Sometimes our kayak flips over, and we board it again with apprehension overshadowed by our confidence because we keep our eyes on Christ and do it with complete surrender.
Sometimes are paddling stroke is only strong enough to get so far, but we reach the next destination. Then we allow the peaceful waters to carry us for a bit so we can rest, mourn, and remember. Then we keep moving forward because there is no other way through to the other side of the creek‚ or while moving forward through grief.
It’s been three months too long.
The further we paddle without you, Jon, the farther we feel from you and yet the closer to heaven we become.
So we paddle on.
We paddle on for you, Jon, to keep your memory alive.
Real grief is not healed by time…if time does anything, it deepens our grief. The longer we live, the more fully we become aware of who *he was for us, and the more intimately we experience what *his love meant for us. Real, deep love is, as you know, very unobtrusive, seemingly easy and obvious, and so present that we take it for granted. Therefore, it is only in retrospect – or better, in memory – that we fully realize its power and depth. Yes, indeed, love often makes itself visible in pain.”—Henri Nouwen
A heartfelt note of gratitude from a grieving widow for the loved ones who paddle with me on this journey,
I am grateful...
for those unafraid to face the pain and discomfort of loss and grief and those who are not looking for me to console them, I lost my other half.
for those who show up without advice, without judgment, without solutions to a problem that can’t be fixed.
for those who pray for strength and fortitude rather than spiritually bypass to excuse away the truth and pain of death. Jesus wept for the loss of his loved ones too.
for those who understand, when I don’t get back to them, please do not stop reaching out, I wish I could convey the unexpected ways grief drains you and the simplest things take everything out of you to complete.
for those who simply say I love you, because I am here for you and tell me what you need, is far too much work, most days I don’t know what I need, this happens to those living in a crisis or caregiving mode too.
for those who love and appreciated the love Jon and I shared and the life we built, we brought out the best in one another our kids are a testament to that.
for those who know that our marriage and our children were everything to him/me/us, the sacrament of marriage is a gift and serving Jon in sickness and in health, until death do us part is the liturgy of love.
for those who were truly there for us then and now and for those who keep showing up.
for those who allow me to sit comfortably in silence with zero expectations and forgiveness if I mess this up.
for those who allow me to feel the ebb and flow—the tsunami of pain, the still waters of peace and joy that wash over me.
for those who recognize and accept that I am not the same person I was before brain cancer entered our lives and that I hardly recognize myself since Jon left us.
for those who respect it’s going to take a long time for me to figure out this long walk with grief and who I will become in all of it, part of me died too. But I trust God will make all things new in His time.
for those who know I am going to pour into my kids as if it’s my last job on this earth, they lost their father far too soon, they will always come first next to God and my faith.
for those who Come Close while giving space and for those who offer a soft place to land on this gritty road of loss
And for those who love me as I am learning who I am in this new widow grieving place.