Ten years ago today, my husband Bob died of cancer. We call it his heaven birthday.
Bob loved to hike in the mountains. When our son, Alexander, turned 10, my sister Lori and I took him on his first big hiking trip. He had spent a couple years reading about national parks and planning where he wanted to begin his mountain climbing adventures. He wanted to be just like his dad, high up in the peaks. Alexander chose age 10 to begin his hiking quest, because in his words, that’s when he would be a good listener and not fall off the mountain. Turning 10 was a big deal.
Alexander chose Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park
for his first mountain hiking adventure.
This week, Alexander (now 13) sent an email to a few family and friends who knew his dad, reminding them his dad was turning 10 in heaven. “Turning 10 is a big deal,” he wrote. Then he invited them to “sign” his birthday card with “a favorite memory, something you especially miss about him, or just say hi.”
Alexander’s email request got passed along and letters started pouring in. High school and college friends, Marine Corps buddies, nephews and nieces, coworkers – people from throughout Bob’s life told favorite stories and gave a glimpse of Bob’s unique personality and the mark he left on their lives.
As we read through the emails, I realized what an amazing gift this is for Alexander, to get to know his dad in this way—through the stories of so many people who knew and loved his dad. I especially enjoy watching Alexander realize how much others can see his dad in his own personality.
This month, I participated in a couple retreats. Each one had an element of reflecting on how a person’s talents, passions, and life experiences come together to form your purpose in life. One of the exercises was to reflect on your life in 7- or 10-year increments, identifying key life-changing moments, transitions, times of challenge and growth. And to think about ways those experiences have shaped your decisions and who you’ve become today.
Obviously, losing my best friend, becoming a widow and single mom was on the list of life-changing moments! In fact, it was the catalyst for almost everything I’ve done—as a writer, business owner, mom, and woman—in the ten years since that moment. As I went through the retreat process, I thought about my life the past 10 years and all the ways Bob’s life and death influenced my choices. For example, I created a CD to help those who are grieving, wrote a story about having faith through life’s changes, gave inspirational talks about ways my 10-year growth spurt affected more than my waistline. So many things came about because of the immense love I shared with Bob before he died, how much I missed him, and how grateful I am for all God has allowed me to do with both the love and the loss.
Even though I believe Bob already knows what’s in my heart, I also believe it’s always nice to get birthday wishes “in the mail” so, Alexander, here’s my note to add to your dad’s card…
I’m not sure what birthdays are like in heaven. I imagine by now you’ve moved to the front of the class (due to both your smarts and your smart ass remarks), taken on special assignments, met with other friends and family who’ve come through the gate (as well as made friends with everyone else on your cloud), and otherwise made all those souls laugh and see the awesomeness of your new view of the world.
Our son is now a teenager. He is smart and loves to tell stories, just like you. He has great dreams to transform this world. I know you are with him. I can see you in his smile, his choices, the way he seizes the day. You’re in his sense of service, love of God, and fearless dancing.
Your family is our family. I love them all dearly. You’re a great-uncle many times over. You would be so proud of how your nieces and nephews have grown up and the influence Uncle Bob continues to have on them as they choose their own paths and raise their own children.
Your friends have checked in and watched over us and become our friends. They still tell your stories—with laughter and heartache. You would love Facebook.
Me? Well, as you know, I spent the first few years keeping busy, finding ways to turn your “heaven birthday” into some sort of positive in our lives. There have been accomplishments and changes and new relationships.
I turned 40. Gained 30 pounds, lost 25, gained 10 more. Finally gave in to reading glasses.
The house was struck by lightning. I was attacked by a swarm of yellowjackets. Replaced the furnace. Painted the kitchen brighter. Said goodbye to both our dads, who joined you in the next place.
I helped grow a company that’s delivered more than 100,000 books to military families. Started a foundation and raised several thousand dollars for cancer research. Published 8 books, released 14 songs. I’m learning to appreciate country music (I know, right?). Even recorded in Nashville.
Traveled to 22 more states and explored new countries. Hiked a few more mountains.
I’m trying to do my best to take our experience and not waste any of it. As a writer, I’ve learned that great stories need the peaks and valleys of life, as well as eyes and hearts open to surprises all along the journey.
I still see you in the mountains, hear you in just the right songs, marvel at our son’s wise old soul and all the ways he keeps your spirit alive just by being himself.
Our awesome marriage encouraged me to find love again. I try to remember to call you my first husband now, because now when I say “my husband” that belongs to Geno. You would like him. I have a feeling you had something to do with our meeting. I’m learning to be a stepmom.
The past ten years without you here have been a remarkable journey. I’m thankful for all you taught me and everything we shared. I’ve missed you, yet you’ve been a part of it all in a different way. And I could never have traveled this journey if you hadn’t left to go climb your next mountain. I hope your journey has been great, too. I look forward to hearing your stories about it someday.
I know that life is all about perspective. You showed me that from the tops of mountains, the trunks of 100-year-old trees, and many shores around the world.
You taught me that life is not just about the milestones, but all the moments in between.
Happy 10th heaven birthday.
Karen’s life experience is intertwined with her roles as a wife, mom, stepmom, writer, publisher, photographer, traveler, and woman of faith. All these elements tend to make their way into her blog posts.
“Writers have to write. It’s something deep inside us that pushes and pushes until we let it out. It’s part of the air we breathe, this need to make sense of the world around us and to somehow find the right words to express and influence the way we each feel and interact and love and live.”—Writing is Risky Business