HeartStories 4

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart) …
e. e. cummings

Thanks to Sarah Thebarge, author of The Invisible Girls, for encouraging me to ask this question: “What stories do I carry with me in my heart today?”

Here’s one I’ve thought about often.

What Everyone Knows and No One Wants to Talk About

In the quiet of my car, the only place no one else could hear me, I said the two-word phrase aloud for the first time. For years it had circulated in my mind, occasionally causing whirlwinds or inviting dervishes. The sound was an unlearned language in my ears. 

Death teacher. 

Would my death teacher be a total stranger I just happened to glimpse in the starkness of a hospital room? Or a beloved pet, released from life by a merciful injection? Or my mother, her body finally letting go of all the tension as she quietly slipped into the waiting arms of Jesus?

There was no need to wonder. I had already met him, had known him since I was 14 years old. He taught me so much about life. Why was I surprised that he was also appointed to teach me about death?

We are not given the privilege of choosing our death teachers. The coming experience draws us close to each other before we even need to be close. And that closeness is inescapable, like the pull of gravity on fragments of fireworks. In that field we are never far apart, and we must remain there until the lesson is complete. 

It is 1969. I am 14 and eternal ― and so are all my friends. Especially the boy with the wavy hair and the curls on his forehead, sitting three seats in front of me in speech class. Gene. 

Gene and Laura, high school speech class, 1969

Gene and Laura, high school speech class, 1969

All the girls have crushes on him, so I try to keep mine hidden. But it keeps leaking out in movie screen smiles and adoring remarks, until he finally notices and asks me out. 

My first date. Probably an uneventful evening for him, but the beginning of romance’s epic in my life.

Obviously, he is in a hurry to go many places. I do not even know there are other places outside our rural town of 9,000. Our paths diverge.

But that unnamed bond ― more than friendship, less than marriage ― keeps drawing us to each other. Not in a romantic way or even an exciting way. Just in a warmth by the fire way. Ours becomes a relationship that survives miles and years, challenging faith and igniting thought and sparking dreams.

It is 1995. All barriers fall away, and a new version of our old relationship is born. Hugs, kisses, and communal prayers bring new, yet familiar, closeness because it is Gene and Laura who are sharing these delights.

Gene and Laura, wedding day, February 1995

Gene and Laura, wedding day, February 1995

Crossing that line of friendship opens a world of teenagers, minivan, ministry, Oklahoma plains in a deluge of love and acceptance. Without hesitation, I enter this world because Gene says he wants me with him. He can see me by his side. That is my courage and all I need to know. 

In a few months, Gene's illness begins to shave the corners of our perfect landscape. At first I only stumble on the rubble, kick it aside and keep going. Then a large chunk of the future falls in front of me. Instead of going over or around it, I push it with all the strength I have. It doesn’t move. Instead, the chunks keep falling. The pile grows larger and larger. 

That’s when I learn the most difficult lesson: I can never kick or push that rubble out of the way again.

So I begin to kick and push myself. The larger the pile of rubble grows, the harder I kick and push. At last this enormous chunk fills every space in our home, our van, our church, our world. I can no longer see Gene, but I know he is there because he has been there since I was 14.

I divide my days by trying to find a tunnel somewhere through the rubble, trying to reach around or over the pile, praying it will disappear or at least grow smaller. When everything fails, I kick and push myself. I love who we wanted to be together, not who we are becoming.

One morning I notice the chunk pile is growing even larger, so large that I must now carry pieces of the rubble with me because there is no other place for it to expand. The weight makes every part of me sag, especially my smile. Giving up is not an option because Gene refuses to give up.

Days pass in a blur of medical treatments, doctors’ desperate comments, and the constant shifting landscape. Thought is no longer possible. Love becomes service. Clocks with shouting numbers and creeping second hands measure time.

It is 2002. Afternoon of a November day. Brittle oak leaves litter the front porch, reminders of the strength we once had. We want to move forward, but every path is blocked. So we stand there, waiting. 

I offer help. He looks at me, then falls backward into the leaves. His body doesn’t make a sound as he meets the concrete. I have never seen a person cross from movement into complete stillness. 

He takes all meaning with him. 

My body rushes to do the right things, but my mind knows he is gone. The person who has been the priority of so many of my days instantly disintegrates and disappears.

This is the lesson I’ve always expected and secretly dreaded. I am the only witness to the passing of the person I love most in the world. Without discussion or preparation or even good-bye, he is gone. I don’t want this to be about me, but it is. I’m still here, and he is gone. 

Death is one place where others go and do not even send postcards. When we try to look into its rooms, we see only what our minds want to see. We may have often acted in partnership, but death is a solo act. I learned that lesson from my death teacher.

In the grace of death, the landscape levels and vision is clear, if only for a few moments. Then the world steps in, and the process of redefinition begins.

Our death teachers pass a key to us. We must clutch it until it is our turn to confront the lock.

Laura Warfel is a widow, writer, and follower of Jesus Christ. Her greatest joy is to bring others along with her on her faith journey. In 2015, because of the encouragement of the Launch Out Conference and Jon Acuff, she launched More Than A Widow on Facebook and Twitter. Today she blogs, tweets, and posts to help widows (and those who know them) find encouragement, hope, and resources for the journey. Her goal is to help all widows live beyond the label and live as more than a widow.
Copyright © 2017 by Laura Warfel