“In a moment things can change. One look behind and it’s never the same.” These words from the song “All Kinds of People” by Susan Ashton are simple yet profound. I’ve had moments in my life that were truly life-changing; moments that caused me to quote the lyrics from this song; moments like the one seventeen years ago when I was told my husband was no longer alive . . .
It was April 19, 1997. We were having an early spring and the warmer-than-usual weather had my young daughters, Mary, 10, and Jessie, 7, clamoring for new swim suits. Even though I knew we’d likely have another cold snap or two before the warm weather settled in for good, I agreed to take them shopping. My husband, Ray, department head of inside gardening at a local Home Depot store, was scheduled to work from 1pm to 10pm so, after we finished lunch, we headed off to the mall. Several hours later, having acquired the swim suits (and most likely some other new clothes), stopping for dinner and picking up bread and milk, we were on our way back home. Picking up bread and milk may seem like a terribly trivial thing to remember after so many years, but Ray would often stop on his way home from work to pick up any essentials we were lacking. He took good care of his girls – all three of us – so I was looking forward to surprising him with the news he could come straight home that night.
Strong thunderstorms moved into the area as we made our way home. When we arrived we went directly upstairs to watch the “Local on the 8’s” on the Weather Channel to make sure no tornados were headed our way. Our focus on the weather resulted in us bypassing the answering machine which held multiple messages from someone named Chris from Kennestone Hospital. We hadn’t been home five minutes when the phone rang. It was Chris, calling again from the emergency room to tell me Ray had been taken there from work and asking if I had anyone who could bring me to the hospital. I assured her I could drive myself and asked what was wrong. She wouldn’t give me any details, just asked me to get there as soon as possible. It wasn’t until I was half-way there that I realized her asking if someone could bring me probably wasn’t a good sign. I prayed all the way to the hospital, fervently hoping Ray wasn’t dead and attempting to console Mary and Jessie who were trying to be brave, but were terribly concerned about their much-loved father.
When we reached the hospital, Chris, the patient care specialist, met us in the emergency area and led us to a private room. As we walked down the corridor, she calmly asked me questions: Did Ray have a history of heart problems?; Was he on any medications?; Was he under a doctor’s care? Her composure and questions renewed my hope that Ray was, indeed, alive. When we got to the room, she told me the doctor would be in to talk to me. I asked tentatively, “Can’t you at least tell me if he’s alive?” She paused, oh so briefly, before saying, “I’m sorry, honey, he isn’t.” A massive heart attack had felled my life partner a little over two months after his 39th birthday. And with that, my life changed forever. I cried out, “God, no!” and sank to the sofa as Mary and Jessie dissolved into tears of their own, all of us incredulous. Hadn’t we seen our beloved husband and father a few short hours before, alive and well? He just went to work. How could it be he’d never return to us?
Then, just as suddenly, it was as if a giant door slammed shut. I couldn’t take the news in all at once or it would have crushed me. Instead the truth gradually penetrated my soul, drop by drop, over a period of weeks and months as I was able to accept it.
Yet somehow I had to deal with the unwanted reality that had been thrust upon me. There were immediate needs to be tended to: phone calls to family members and our pastor, decisions regarding the visitation and funeral services, picking a final resting place. Details of that week are burned into my memory: being surrounded by family and friends; being upheld by prayers so ardent they were tangible; speaking at Ray’s funeral; saying a final goodbye to him in a little cemetery in North Carolina.
It was a time of great sorrow, yet I felt the love and concern of so many who comforted and helped out in very practical ways. Some provided lodging for out-of-town relatives; others prepared and served lunch after the funeral. Our children’s minister took Mary and Jessie to Wednesday night activities at church so they could have a bit of normalcy amidst the upheaval. Then there was the friend who arrived the day after Ray’s death and quietly asked if I’d contacted a funeral home yet. When I, still in a mild state of shock, replied “No”, he spent the next couple of hours calling funeral homes for me and gathering necessary information.
Through the turmoil, grief, and tears, God was my refuge and strength. He was my ever present help that week and has remained so to this day. I’ve said many times since Ray’s all-too-soon-for-me death, had there been a sign-up sheet at church with the heading “Get to Know God Better by Losing Your Husband”, I never would have put my name on the list, but God, in His providence, saw fit to do so. I can testify to the fact He’s been a defender of this widow and a Father to my fatherless girls, faithfully providing and protecting, all the years we’ve been without our earthly husband and father.
There have been other life-changing moments since, one fairly recent, though none has been as devastating as the one when I learned of Ray’s death. Each time I’ve gone back to the garden for solace. I know I’ll find my loving Father there, for He’s promised to never leave me or forsake me.