Every good story has a lesson, and any good lesson is really a gift. I often need to re-learn this lesson, and I can't always find the gift in it, but I can say that this is the story of how I received grace and learned how it is possible to carry that gift everywhere we go. I learned this from my late-husband, who is perhaps the most important person I'll ever know. His name was Ryan. He was 26 when he died.
There is a photograph of the two of us in our essence. We were photographed sitting on my sister's porch. My head is down, my nose nearly touching a notepad on which I was writing directions. Ryan is sitting with an open newspaper on his lap, one hand in the air, a grin on his face, clearly recounting his witty revision of the day's current events. The photograph was taken one year before we married, and two years before he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
Ryan and I were different from one another in a way that worked. He was a born politician. I was a born organizer. He got energy from other people. I got comfort from knowing I could handle any situation. He could talk cats out of trees. I could wrangle them.
He was the sort of person that if I left him alone in a grocery store for five minutes, I would find him deep in conversation with a total stranger. In that short time, he would have learned their occupation, children's names and hobbies. Almost invariably, these people would throw themselves at me to shake hands, exclaiming, "You must be Ryan's wife. He's told me so much about you and how you've saved his life twice." I have no idea how he was able to exchange so much information so quickly.
His ability to meet people and see the best in them was something to admire, as was his sense of humor, and his faith that everything would turn out just fine. This last could be annoying as well, because it made him happy-go-lucky in the most impractical of ways. Even though he could quote any book he'd ever read and tell you what page he was quoting from, he couldn't cook. He could estimate percentages accurately in his head, but couldn't balance a checkbook. He could make best friends in two minutes, but couldn't keep a steady job. He could give a three minute impromptu speech and stop on the second, but he couldn't replace a door knob.
I worked, paid the bills, fixed our plumbing, and changed the oil in the car; while Ryan finished college -- later attended law school — kept our social calendar full, and in general kept us happy. When I was too uptight or he was too carefree, the offending party would offer up "You married it" as a means of both defense and apology.
It was not quite a year after we married that Ryan had a grand mal seizure. After a CAT scan revealed a brain tumor, he spent his spring break having brain surgery and cracking jokes about growing a second brain. He spent his summer break cursing the loss of his hair to radiation and flirting with the female chemotherapy patients at the oncology clinic.
Life went on. I got a better job. We moved. He graduated college. He started law school. His neurologist gave him a clean bill of health, though he muddled along with occasional seizures.
During his second year of law school his seizures were increasingly a problem. Finally, one night a visit to the emergency room with a splitting headache resulted in the discovery that he had another brain tumor. The subsequent surgery gave us the news that it had returned in the most aggressive form, which kills 90% of patients within six months of diagnosis. Ryan was as good humored and optimistic about it as usual, but countless doctors, two more surgeries, one experimental treatment and four months later he couldn't see out of one eye nor walk in a straight line.
In the midst of all of this Ryan's step-father decided that we needed to buy a house, so he went and picked one that we could afford. It was barely a cottage -- in the middle of renovation when I first saw it -- but it was a very big deal to Ryan to own his home. The entire scheme was insane. I was out of my mind anyway, so I signed wherever I was told to sign until one day we had a mortgage and a house.
It was during the week that we closed on the house that Ryan took a turn for the worse. His balance was so poor that even a short walk across the apartment was becoming difficult. He didn't really want to get out of bed, because of a painful sensitivity to light. Neither of us could sleep at night, because his constant headache had him up and down all night long.
That week, some friends from church had volunteered to help me paint our new house, but I wasn't able to join them—the doctor wanted Ryan back in the hospital.
On Sunday, we were told that he might have a couple of weeks to live. My sister started making the arrangements for us to set up a hospice at the house, while my mother started coordinating with some ladies at my church to pack the apartment. Our lawyer drew up his will and do not resuscitate. I don't remember much about that week, except a few dramatic moments and a couple of Ryan's last jokes.
We set our moving date for the following Saturday so we could have hospice set up by the subsequent Monday. On Thursday, night they told us that Ryan had a few hours left. The tumor was crushing his brain and would soon be shutting down his respiratory function.
Of course, the doctor was wrong and Ryan lived another day. Though he never opened his eyes, he managed a few silent jokes. The father of his best friend, spent that last night telling hilarious stories about Ryan and his friends' high-jinks, while Ryan's breathing became more labored and his lungs filled with fluid.
I sat by his side telling him that everything would be fine. That I would be fine and that I knew he was going where he would be so full of joy and love and happiness. More importantly I believed this so fully that I finally knew how peaceful it is to feel the transcendence of grace.
Finally, about 1:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, he gasped a few times for air that wouldn't come, and then he died. It was simultaneously the most terrible and most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
In the morning, I was like a zombie. My mother had me dress, and eat, and call our church, and took me to my apartment where everyone was supposed to gather for the move. It was 9:30 a.m. when I walked into an empty apartment. It was empty except for people. There were family, friends, and other friends of friends whom I had never seen before in my life. I hadn't packed so much as a shoebox myself, and everything had already been taken to the new house. They had all, together, done it for me.
Just like I knew that Ryan would be fine, I knew that I would be fine, because love and peace aren't just in heaven, they are in every one of us. They were in the people who packed and painted. They were in the people who entertained Ryan in the hospital. They were in the people who reminded me to eat. They were in the people who had moved us. They were in the people who had arranged for hospice. I knew that just as I had needed Ryan to tell me a joke when I was down; I had needed those people, and they had wanted to be there for me.
We can find small graces in every act of kindness, every day. Ryan had the ability to look into the eyes of any stranger and find that spark that made them special -- that little something that made them a valuable part of the world. Somehow when he died, he gave that gift to me and taught me how much I needed others.
Submitted by Anonymous