As many of you know, my husband died almost two months ago.  We had been married for 49 years.  It had been almost a decade since his first stroke.  I knew each time I left the house that when I came home, he could be gone.  Every time I passed his bedroom, I checked to be sure that he was still with me. Yet, like most couples who live with this reality, our lives together grew closer and sweeter, rather than separate and bitter.

Three weeks after his death, we had Camp Agape, which is our annual spiritual retreat with our Special Gathering members.  I cannot tell you much this spiritual retreat coupled with exhaustive work and relaxing fun healed me.  Special Gathering members are the most loving, caring people in the world. 

This past month has been a sober time of remembering and throwing away.  I’ve thrown away and distributed Frank’s clothes and possessions.  Additionally, I’ve sorted through my life to discard the things which have held me back from totally giving myself to Christ.  This process brought more healing for me.

I am also deeply grateful for the love that has been shown to me and my family.  The flowers, donations to Special Gathering, cards, food and gifts have been treasures that we will remember all of our lives.  Your many acts of kindness have made me realize how much simple expressions of love can bring healing to those who grieve.  I will never again underestimate the importance of a card or a phone call. 

I want to thank all who have prayed and help to support me during these months.  Thank you.

You cannot imagine how much my family and I appreciate the many cards and memories that you have shared with us, regarding my husband and their father. We especially appreciate the love shown to us from the special needs community.  Thank you so much.

Rob Kerby, Senior Editor at BeliefNet, a faith-centered Internet site with 20 million subscribers, wrote a lovely tribute to my husband, Frank Howard.    To view it, click on his name.

We went to the beach early so the children could play a bit before the final launch of the space shuttle Endeavour.  It was Monday morning.  The launch was scheduled for 9:23AM. 

On Tuesday the week before, Frank, my husband of 49 years had died.  Because of his commitment to Christ, we knew he was running through heaven.  The week had been a blur of tears and laughter.  Family and friends came by the house to drop off food or cards. They all lingered for a moment making sure that I was all right.  Bitter-sweet times washed through our home like a reoccurring flood of healing balm.

Our children, three grandchildren and I had spent much of Saturday sorting and dividing things that the grandchildren wanted to have as a remembrance of their Grandpa.  He and I had often talked about what each child would want to have.

My husband was a NASA scientist who worked for 45 years on the space program.  A good friend of Frank’s had called to accept our invitation to speak at his memorial service.  His colleague said, “Frank was a true engineer. He always came with concrete numbers and mathematical proof for his conclusions.  There was no guessing or using his instinct when designing systems that related to the space program.”   Therefore, this final launch of the Endeavour held more significance for our family than for some of the people dotting the beach.

It was a perfect day and the bird lifted from its perch, ascending into the blue sky without a hitch.  The rest of the children and grandchildren had to return to their work.  But my daughter, her husband, their two children and I walked the two block to the ocean to view the spectacle.  And we were not disappointed.  My daughter had wrapped her arms around both of her children as we walked and said, “This is an important moment in history.  But it is even more important for our family because Granddaddy devoted most of his career designing and working on piping that fuels the shuttle.”

As we watched the silent speck rise effortlessly into space, my eight-year-old granddaughter said in a loud voice, “Goodbye, Grandpa.”  Then she repeated it again and again as tears traced my cheeks.  I quietly wept for the loss of the man and engineer that I love. 

God is so good to his children and He knows what is best for us far better than we know ourselves.  For me, there was no greater tribute to my husband than that lovely voice speaking tender words as the vehicle disappeared, “Goodbye, Grandpa.”

Because so many of our Special Gathering members were not able to attend my husband’s memorial service on Friday afternoon, we had a short memorial time at Special Gathering on Saturday and then Sunday.  My husband, Frank, taught a Bible class for about ten years at our Melbourne Special Gathering.  His students loved him.  Therefore, on Sunday, our Melbourne members were asked to comment about Frank, sharing a favorite memory.

Our members spoke about the times they remembered the most.  I was a bit surprised.  Several of the members talked about the class he taught.  However, almost all of our members said, “I went to his house to eat.”  His last meal, in fact, was shared with five of our Special Gathering members.  Their van driver lives in Vero but she needed to do some catch-up paper work in Melbourne; and I invited the members to come and eat with us.

After that meal, Frank took a large downturn; and he was not able to eat any longer.

Over the years, I’ve studied the importance in the scriptures regarding the meal.  I touched on this over the years in this blog.  The Bible indicates that there is a bonding that happens at meal time and with the breaking of bread that does not seem to happen at any other time.

The meal plays a significant part in each milestone of developing our Christian faith.  Only mentioning a few, Abraham shared a meal with the Angel of the Lord before receiving the God’s promise to be made a great nation.  The passover was a Seder meal.  The last supper was an important time of communion for Jesus and his disciples.  Even after his resurrection we know of two meals that Jesus shared with his followers.  The last meal was breakfast on the beach and Jesus prepared this meal himself.

I am more and more convinced that to develop a working and compatible relationship with our members and their families, the meal will help.  Several years ago, our executive director, Richard Stimson, decided that we should invite our members to come to our homes and have a meal with them and their families.  We invited each family and spent time with them.  Though it has been years, our parents still bring up how much they appreciated coming to our home.

Of course, inviting people to our homes is not the only way we can create that bond.  Sharing meals is a great benefit of day trips and outings with our members.  Our four-day spiritual retreat Memorial Day weekend andother  camp times create the same mealtime bonding .

God in his infinite wisdom has made the meal a time of pleasure and bonding that melts heart together in a unique way.  Connections are made that last a lifetime.

Spring in Central Florida means many delights; but one of the best is fresh strawberries.  When our children were young and early spring arrived, we would pack up a small lunch and some water.  Then we’d pile into a car with some friends and we’d all head for the strawberry fields.  In the morning, while the dew was still on the berries, the children and I would pick enough strawberries to eat and freeze.

For anyone who has worked in the fields, you know that the exquisitely satisfying part of harvesting berries is sampling the luscious sweetness while bending over the fruit laden plants.  You don’t ever take home the largest, reddest and plumpest strawberries.  Those are eaten in the fields.

Last month, my daughter, Carol,  was speaking at a conference in Tampa.  She arranged to visit with us for a few days because she wanted to visit with her ailing father.  As she and I were traveling from Tampa to the East Coast, we passed a strawberry farm.  The harvesters’ large straw hats were the only part of their heads that was visible as they bend over the plants hurriedly picking the ripened fruit.

We spied the farm’s roadside stand. Quickly wheeling the van into the parking lot, we stopped to purchase a crate of berries.  When berries have slept in the fields the night before, you don’t get one or two quarts.  Twelve quarts are the minimum.

Giggling, like two children who’d uncover a chest of gold nuggets, we climbed back into the vehicle, munching our treasure all the way home.  The juice ran down our fingers and onto our wrist.  We laughed, trying to lap up every escaping drop.

That road trip was the beginning of what has become a sorrowful but surprisingly joyful adventure for our family.  The day before, I had learned that my husband’s diagnosis was “adult failure to thrive.”  In short, his body had moved from terminally ill into the dying process.  All of the family has come now to say good-bye to their father and grandfather.

He has suffered from dementia for about 15 years.  We became accustomed to his forgetful ways.  Yet, during these precious, holy days, he has slowly slipped closer to eternity.  This morning when I went into his room, I knew that he didn’t recognize me.  Because his aide was there, I didn’t ask him questions.  I left the house at 7am for my work and I didn’t return until 7pm.

After his caregiver had left, I tiptoed into his room and kissed him hello.  Again, the vacant, yet, confused and slightly frightened look stared at me.  I smiled and asked in a chipper voice, “You don’t know who I am, do you?”

The fear melted and he shook his head, “No.”

“I’m your wife of almost 50 years and you really should remember me,”  I said, laughing.

With his eyes closed, he returned my laughter with his own.

I continued to tease him, “I have pictures to prove that we are married.  We have three wonderful children and four amazing grandchildren.  Guess you don’t remember them either.”

He opened his eyes grinning with pleasure but he shook his head, ‘No.”

“You are an engineer, who worked for NASA.  You designed much of the piping for the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen systems.  You had five inventions.  You helped put the men on the moon and no one can take that away from you.  In short, you are a pretty amazing man.”  He smiled.

“Do you remember Jesus?”  I probed deeper.

Again, he smiled, but with a broader grin. “Oh, yes, I do,” he whispered to me.

“That’s the only person you need to remember,”  I said, taking his hand in mine.  He smiled, traveling back into his semi-conscious state.  When I went into his room about an hour later, he was still smiling.

On the afternoon we bought the strawberries before the fruit could go bad, I prepared several quarts of the berries to freeze.  They sit in my freezer at the top of the fruit section.  Each time I open the freezer they sit waiting for me, still red and inviting.

I’ll eat those berries while they are still frozen in a few days or a week or month from now.  I’ll taste the ripe goodness locked in by the cold.  I won’t eat them in one session but one berry each night.  I’ll make them last as long as I can and I’ll remember this lovely time.  But I’m waiting–waiting until this adventure is over and my husband has gone home to be with the Jesus he still remembers.

I was asked to write a eulogy for a dear and close friend who died last week.  I wanted to share with you a portion of it.  She worked for years as a full-time volunteer in the school system with all children.  She did stage productions, taking great joy to never exclude children with disabilities.  To her, all children had a special need for an abundance of love.

While we don’t ever admit it, there is something wonderful about death, that final passage of life. Because people–the survivror–are forced to stop. We stop to remember. We brace our hoe under their armpit and take off their hats. Slowly, we wipe our brows and listen and embrace the rambling noise of memories. And for a brief moment in time, we allow ourselves to rejoice in the past. We are lost something in the 70’s, our sense of tradition. But tradition is more than a processional or which side of the lectern the piano should be placed. Tradition is embodied in the story–the story of our faith. Even more, Christian tradition is embodied in the story of the Faithful.

Jesus said at the last supper, “Do this to remember me.” Memory is an essential part of the Judeo-Christian heritage. The Passover is a ritual of remembering. The Jewish people were taught to remember God’s miraculous salvation interruptions that occur in our everyday lives. But somehow we refuse to allow time to remember. Our lives are wrapped tightly in the present and future. Even our older generations, don’t take the time to remember…or we don’t take the time to listen.

But death abruptly unwraps the cocoons of our present and our future and we come to a screeching halt as the noise of the past slaps us in the face. The only thing John’s family, friends and I have left are our memories of him.

At times there are important worship events such as weddings and funerals that involve or effect your members.   You–as the leader of your ministry within the mentally challenged community–may not be asked to participate in the occasion.  Another pastor from across town who barely knows the member could be charged with the task of officiating at the worship service.  

Yes, this has happened repeatedly to the pastoral staff at Special Gathering.  This oversight strikes us, bringing us back to the reality of  how we, as ministers, may be perceived within the church world.  This slight never seems to lose its sting.

First, let me say most parents and churches value our place in the lives of our members.  Yet, when tragedy, such as a death occurs, the minister within the special needs community may be the last person to be considered to conduct or even participate at the funeral.  After a funeral service  for one of our extremely faithful members, one agency person explained to me, “The family delegated to us the responsibility of arranging the funeral.  We didn’t know what we were doing.  There was only one pastor we knew.  He had been on our agency staff about 10 years ago.  He knew Charles and that seemed to be a natural connection,” she shrugged, frowned and walked away.  No one from Special Gathering had been asked to participate.  The people who participated were members of a church where he had never attended.  Other than the pastor, the participants were people he had never met.

Understand, after the funeral and once the oversight was realized, there were no apologies given. A  few people said, “Oh, well,” as an explanation. 

So we weren’t asked, what will be our response?

  1. Our commitment and our loyalty THE COMMUNITY we serve will not change.  Our ministry is within the mentally challenged community.
  2. I cry when I need to.  However, when I cry I try to let it be with people who aren’t grieving or by myself. 
  3. Getting angry is not a sin.   But long-lasting anger leads to bitterness which is a sin. 
  4. As quickly as possible, get over the hurt and don’t let resentment begin to reside in your spirit.
  5. Make home visits to your members who were friends of the person who died.  Short “I love you” visits are always welcomed and appreciated. 
  6. If people aren’t home, leave a note.  These short expressions of love will be cherished.  I know, I’ve received a few of them.
  7. If possible, visit the family and allow them to vent and express their grief.
  8. Remember to include the professional community in our grief visits.  They are also hurting.

In short, God hasn’t called us to a ministry that is wonderfully complicated.  The rewards are many.  The slights are many.  However, the rewards do massively outweigh the slights.  We can rejoice in the calling of God in our lives.  He is a good God.