Beauty for Ashes: In Memory of John

The morning after John passed, I was thumbing through my latest issue of Writer’s Digest when I stumbled upon an article written by an author who had been struggling to get her memoir published.  The reason?  Her story ended in death.  Publishers explained that while her journey of adopting and loving a child with a potentially terminal illness was a noble one, they “wanted a book that ended with a healthy, thriving child”.  She feared that an adoption story about a child who dies would never find an audience.

Nevertheless, she persisted.  She wrote about her love for her daughter Ruth; about the struggles she faced and the hurdles she overcame.  She wrote about the neurologist who said Ruth was so damaged from cerebral palsy that adopting her wouldn’t make a difference, and of how she blossomed into a smart, thriving, beautiful girl.  She wrote of the night Ruth died and of bringing her wheelchair back to Uganda to give to another little girl with cerebral palsy.

Immediately, my mind flashed back to the day we all learned that John had been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer – just ten days after returning from his honeymoon with Peggy. Their love story was an unconventional one, formed nearly 50 years after meeting as acquaintances, and a year after he’d lost his wife Madge to ALS.  Of course, it was no surprise to me how effortless it was for Peggy and John to connect.  When you share both the common bond of painful loss, as well as the love for a Savior who redeems, love is free to blossom.  It’s how my husband and I connected and fell in love, after all.  Shared pain and shared healing.  Unfortunately, you cannot have redemption without loss.

When he received his diagnosis, we were all perplexed.  How horribly unfair to receive such a grim declaration after they finally found love after heartache.  But neither of them shook their fists toward heaven in rage (like I, admittedly, have done many times since that day).  They simply embraced that this was part of their story, and they set out to bring glory to God in and through their unfortunate circumstance.  Like the author of the article I mentioned who conquered the most difficult loss any human can bear when she buried a child; they, in turn, conquered the news of his diagnosis and made something beautiful out of something tragic. Beauty for ashes. They “chose to love in the face of suffering and grief and heartache and loss – without considering what such love would cost.  Because no matter how and when life ends, only love is guaranteed to last.”  

Peggy and John, your love story has inspired me to be a better human.  To love people even when it’s hard.  To invest in relationships even when there may not be a return.  To praise God even in the midst of a storm.  The love you had for each other and the love you have for Jesus is the legacy that will last for eternity.  

To my beloved mother-in-law, your strength and perseverance to do what is right and good, in spite of criticism, and to love unconditionally will be the foundation of the crown that awaits you in heaven; and it will be stunning.  I am honored to call you both friend and family.

Lastly, I’d like to read an excerpt from a letter I wrote to John a few weeks ago:

Dearest John,

Before I say anything else, I want to apologize for not saying any of this to you sooner.  If it’s one thing I’ve learned since learning of your illness, it’s that one should never wait to tell someone how fantastic they are and how much they are loved.  And, father-in-law, you most certainly are both.

First and foremost (and most importantly), I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for loving my precious Peg.  She means the world to me and from the day I met her, I’ve longed for her to find someone like you to love…and to love her back.  And then came you.  I remember watching you gush over her that night after Grace’s graduation and how much she blushed at every compliment you gave and each profession of your affection.  And I remember coming home that night and looking Frankie in the eye and saying, “Finally!!!  She finally found someone that loves her the way she deserves to be loved.”

So thank you.  Thank you for loving her so big.  You have left a mark on her heart that will bear fruit for eternity and you’ve left a mark on mine for doing it.

Secondly, I want to thank you for being such a shining example of what it means to truly exemplify the love of Christ, particularly for blended families.  As you know, Frank and I are a blended family and you have painted such an incredible picture of what it means to love someone who does not bear your DNA.  Anyone who has walked this road can tell you that’s it’s not an easy one.  But even before I met you, I knew of you to be an excellent step-father.  As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until Frank got to know you that I even realized that they weren’t your biological kids.  You’ve never called them your step-daughters, and I love that about you.  Getting to know you personally has only cemented what I’d already heard – that you loved and fathered JT and the girls as if you were biologically related.  But I know that anything less has never even crossed your mind.  

Furthermore, since marrying Peg you’ve always called Frankie “son”, an endearment that did not go unnoticed or unappreciated.  My children have all felt as if you’ve been their grandfather all their lives because that is how you’ve loved them.  I am so, so thankful.  And I promise you this – until I take my last breath, I will do you proud in loving my kids – ALL OF MY KIDS – with the same unconditional love that you have shown to yours.  Whether you feel it or not, you have left a legacy as a step-parent that will have an eternal impact. Your influence and example will be felt for generations to come.  Ephesians 1:5 says, “In love, He predestined us to be adopted as His sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.”  The Bible is pretty clear about how we, as humans, have been adopted into the kingdom of God.  Thank you for being such a perfect picture of how God wants us to love His people.  

I’m so grateful that you came into our lives, John…and I want you to know this:

You will be leaving us better than how you found us and it is a direct result of us having you as a part of our family.  

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