Steve died five years ago today.
I decided to take some time this morning to reflect and pray. So I headed out to what I thought was a dog park, with the hopes that there wouldn’t be many people there on a dreary crisp morning.
As luck would have it, the place that Google told me was a dog park was in fact an Audubon Center situated by a woods with a creek running through it and an old cemetery adjacent to the walking paths.
I love how God knows what I need and often provides it, unasked. It was utterly solitary and the perfect place to reflect on a man who loved to watch and feed birds and felt no more at peace than by a creek in the woods.
It gave me a chance to remember. To remember what was good about Steve without denying the broken parts that resulted in our divorce and ultimately led him to death far too soon.
It is too easy to just hold on to either the good or the bad — to turn the dead into saints or else to allow the disappointment of broken promises and broken dreams to color all that was connected with them. Neither is fair to those who were once living, breathing people, filled with both the breath of the Spirit and the complications of living in our fallen, imperfect state.
Steve hadn’t always lived well, but he died well. Clean, sober and chemical-free. Neither of us loved perfectly, but in the perfect love of God, we both found healing and grace through the power of forgiveness.
As with all divorces, we each had our own stories, our own hurts and sins that each of us committed that the other needed to forgive. Over the years, we had more to forgive. Even in the process of dying, we each had to forgive each other again and again because at the core of any real, honest relationship is the ability to forgive. We can hold on to anger and resentment, or we can move through it, let go and move forward.
In the end, our relationship was defined by forgiveness. The last evening I spent by Steve’s bedside, I spoke to him about my regrets and once again offered my forgiveness to him, and I held his hand as I prayed with him. He had not spoken for three days or been at all responsive, but a tear formed by his eye that I wiped away. I told him I was going to leave at 8, if he wanted me there when he died. He took his last breath at 7:59.
By moving past so much brokenness, we were able to heal so many shared memories and give our sons a gift. After seven years of divorce, their dad died holding their mom’s hand. I hope that legacy of grace transformed the way they view the world to accept and forgive others who fail them in their life, even as we failed them as parents by divorcing.
I know that Steve’s and my final gift to our children was reflecting the power of forgiveness and how the beauty of forgiveness and reconciliation can be what defines you, not all the shattered pieces in between.
Our lives together at their best were filled with serendipity, as I said in our vows the day we were married, which led us to “together when neither of us was looking for what we found in each other.” Sort of like finding a peaceful woods when you are looking for a dog park.
When I reflect back, it is that serendipity I like to hold onto — knowing that for all of the pain and the heartache, the two sons we created, arising like phoenixes out of the ashes of our union, were the most serendipitous acts of all. A reminder of God’s power to find grace even in the midst of tumult, of continuing hope even in the face of death.
Today, as I wandered through that park, tears streaming down my face at what was and what could have been, I felt both sorrow and peace. Sorrow that so much in Steve’s life was never fully realized and that he wasn’t there to see our sons grow up and become the fine men they are and peace in knowing that in the end, he found the courage and the strength to let go and let God take him to a place of eternal peace.
Henri Nouwen wrote in a devotional I read the days after Steve died:
“Forgiving does not mean forgetting. When we forgive a person, the memory of the wound might stay with us for a long time, even throughout our lives. Sometimes we carry the memory in our bodies as a visible sign. But forgiveness changes the way we remember. It converts the curse into a blessing. When we forgive our parents for their divorce, our children for their lack of attention, our friends for their unfaithfulness in crisis, our doctors for their ill advice, we no longer have to experience ourselves as the victims of events we had no control over.
“Forgiveness allows us to claim our own power and not let these events destroy us; it enables them to become events that deepen the wisdom of our hearts. Forgiveness indeed heals memories.”
Five years later, I read this again and am grateful for its truth, God’s power and the gift I received as Steve was dying. Because forgiveness truly does change the way we remember.