Christian Book Reviews, Author Interviews, Excerpts

Tender Grace

  • Jackina Stark Author
  • 2009 26 Feb
Tender Grace

Editor’s Note:
The following is an excerpt from
Tender Grace by Jackina Stark (Bethany House).

Chapter One

July 10

He died the way he'd always wanted to. As anyone would want to, I'd think—sitting in his recliner with something wonderful to read. The bad part, of course, was the juxtaposition of the numbers. He had hoped to leave the confines of the earth at age 85, not 58.

I had hoped for the same thing, hadn't thought yet to worry that he might not. His annual physical had been encouraging, as usual. No hint of heart trouble, or any other kind of trouble. He took a half tablet of Zocor and a baby aspirin only as a sensible precaution. We'd had colonoscopies on the same morning two months before he died, and we'd left the hospital congratulating ourselves on colons fit beyond our expectations.

This evening I decided to see if I could formulate words. Except for thank-you notes, labels for Christmas presents wrapped by mall elves, and birthday cards for Mom, the kids, and grandkids, I haven't written anything since I kissed him good-night and told him to come to bed soon.

I've been sitting here in front of this new document for what seems like an hour watching the cursor of my laptop blink on and off, rhythmic as a heartbeat. The cursor seems more alive than I. Don't they say the first year is supposed to be the hardest? I'm three months into year two. Like a daffodil, the nub of it breaking through the soil in the flower beds each spring, I should be awakening.

I'm so disgusted with myself that I am not.

And I'm afraid. Afraid that this is who I am now. I read many years ago that when someone dies, there is a sense in which the loved ones die too. The optimistic twist on it was that rebirth occurs and the new person, affected by the suffering, may become better than the old. The rub lies in the auxiliary verb may. How I wish the "new me" were better than the old, a tribute to everything we had and were.

I assumed when the time came, that's how it would be.

I was wrong.

The truth is I know of no one who has coped worse with losing a mate than I have.

There is the small consolation that most people think I'm fine.

My children know I'm not, but they are kind and understanding and patient. But even they don't know that I feel as dead to this world as their father is. You don't tell your children that. They have suffered enough.

July 11

I record Oprah, Law and Order, American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, Heroes, What Not to Wear, Divine Design, The Closer, and an eclectic selection of movies, lots of movies. Next season I might add Ugly Betty to my schedule, despite its unfortunate title. Several people have recommended it.

No matter what my son says, I do not and will not record American Chopper. Is this refusal a sign of life?

My DVR holds one hundred hours of programming. I panic if the allotted time for recording reaches fifty.

Mark and Molly, caring children that they are, have encouraged me to continue substitute teaching. It's true—I did enjoy it the two years after I packed up my classroom and retired, but I have not been able to find enough interest and energy, even courage, to enter a classroom since Tom died. This strikes me as odd since I taught for thirty years, and a classroom was as much my natural habitat as water is to fish. But that was then.

Tom and I retired early, even though we still enjoyed our jobs, so that we could "run around"—that's what our friends called it. We only dabbled in running around, however. We didn't buy a travel trailer and slap a "We're spending our children's inheritance" sticker on it, but we spent a lot of time with the grandkids, and we saw a lot of the country. A cruise to Alaska was on our calendar for last July. It was our last Christmas present to each other and made us look forward even more to the new year.

We missed viewing the inner passage of Alaska by three months.

Fortunately we had insured the trip. Mother wasn't feeling well when we booked it.

July 12

I prepared for retirement by getting serious about exercise. I am not disciplined, though Molly, great defender of her mother, says I didn't get a master's degree while caring for a two-year-old and expecting another baby without discipline. Nor, she continues, did I teach for thirty years without a significant amount of discipline. I call these examples anomalies. The rule is this: little discipline.

The treadmill upstairs in the bonus room is one of my proof texts. I have exercised off and on all my life. I gain ten pounds, start dragging around, begin thinking about cutting calories and walking three miles a day, mull it over a few months, finally commit myself to it, and then lose the ten pounds and gain a level of energy that will suffice.

I always think I'll keep at it the rest of my life. Then with no warning, I quit. Eventually I gain ten pounds and the cycle begins again. When I turned fifty-two and retirement was only four months away, I told myself exercise was no longer just a good idea; it was a necessity if we were to have quality of life in what Jane Fonda calls Act Three.

The last time I was on the treadmill was the morning before Tom died, having barely finished Act Two.

July 17

Somehow I managed.

The whole crew came for a weekend visit: Mark and Katy with Kelsie and Austin; Molly and Brad with Jada and Hank—our beloveds. Could there be sweeter children and grandchildren? I remember how happy, no, thrilled, Tom and I were that the kids settled only an hour or so away. Branson is a little closer than Joplin, but both kids have made us feel they live just on the other side of Springfield.

We built this house on the golf course eleven years ago. I'm glad we didn't wait until we retired to do it. I had thought we might spend forty years together here. If gratitude were still a blip on my screen, I'd have to say ten years beats two.

Tom enjoyed golfing immensely, but he especially loved playing with Mark and Brad. He did not live long enough for the boys to beat him, though there was whooping and hollering the day Mark tied him. Friday evening the men took the golf cart out for the first time without Tom.

The little girls, age six now, slept with me. The little boys cried because they couldn't, but they finally settled down when Molly let them both sleep on a pallet in her room. Molly and Mark sense my weariness. Their visits have been short since Tom died, usually only overnight. So far I've been able to feign being a decent nana for twenty-four hours.

The girls will start first grade next month; I remember marveling with Tom that soon they'd be in kindergarten. How was it possible that our grandchildren were old enough for that? Nothing prepared us for the joy of our children's children. Though we adored our son and daughter and have enjoyed kids by occupation, this bliss caught us by surprise.

The "babies," as we call them, have finally quit looking for Papa when they come.

I cannot believe what they have lost. I cannot believe I'll ever be enough.

July 18

Molly and Katy had breakfast ready before the girls and I made it into the kitchen. Tom, an early riser, had been the breakfast maker when the kids came home. I got out maybe three words of apology before Molly stopped me. My new routine doesn't include breakfast, but I managed to eat part of a waffle and a piece of bacon. Sitting across from me at the round breakfast table, Molly said the flowers at the front of the house and in the beds around the patio looked gorgeous. She and Brad had come the first of May to help me put out the annuals. This was something Tom and I always did together. Molly knew I wouldn't get it done by myself.

What she doesn't know is that annuals have ceased to thrill me.

July 19

Writing the date is the answer to my blinking cursor. I can write a paragraph or two once the date gets me started. I caught sight of the last line of yesterday's entry and can't believe I said that annuals have ceased to thrill me. It seems sacrilegious and probably is. But, if I'm honest (and what a drag that is), I'd have to say many good things have ceased to thrill me.

I've quit reading, even best sellers, even Pulitzers, even the newspaper (I canceled it), even my Bible. I'm surprised I read even the last line of Tuesday's entry.

I also quit listening to music. I have chosen silence for over a year now. Molly begs for "tunes" when we're together. It's rare that I relent.

This lack of appreciation for things I once loved is beginning to define me. More mornings than I can count, I say to myself before I open my eyes, "I don't want to do this." In the days shortly following Tom's death that made sense, but what does it mean now? I asked myself that yesterday. What is "this" exactly? What does that mean?

I don't know.

That I'm in trouble?

One of the best qualities of the former me was thankfulness. In fact, on my fiftieth birthday I awoke with a doxology on my lips, aware of so many good gifts I'd received from God in fifty years, including two new grandbabies. I've even given thanks for my penchant for giving thanks. As I was trying to sleep last night, needing Tom to be curled up behind me, his left arm slung across me, nightly comfort, I realized to my horror that I couldn't remember the last time I was thankful. Really thankful. Not an intellectual gratitude, which has remained, but an emotional and spiritual gratitude that wells up from a trusting, peaceful heart. I thought of a line from an old hymn: "Awake, my soul, and sing."

I miss Tom.

I also miss me.

Chapter Two

July 20

Our youth minister called this morning and asked if I'd teach the fourth grade for VBS next week. He asked last February, said the kids always asked for me, but I declined. "Maybe next year," I said. Fortunately finding people to help at our church isn't too difficult, and Karen Norton agreed to teach the fourth graders. Unfortunately, Grant explained, she had emergency surgery last night, leaving them "in a fix." I said I was sorry but I just couldn't do it on such short notice. I felt bad. Two summers ago they could have counted on me. I told Grant to call everyone he knew and call me back if there was literally no one else. He said there were others on his list, for me not to worry. If he calls back, I just won't answer.

It has crossed my mind that caller ID and the DVR make my life tolerable.

It was only eight when Grant called, and I was not ready to face the day. Hard as I tried, though, I couldn't go back to sleep. Finally I got out of bed, poured a Diet Coke, and sat on the back porch staring at the trees. The trees used to nourish me, but these days I merely stare at or through them.

Out of my stupor came Tom's voice, calling me to look at his tomato plants. The vines had grown above the six-foot wire contraptions he had made to encircle and protect them, and though the tomatoes were still green, they were as big around as his hand. I got out of the glider and actually walked down the steps and across to the side yard, where railroad ties outline the rectangle of his garden, empty but for soil dry and compressed after waiting so long to be cultivated.

July 21

Mom called today. She wanted to tell me "the girls" had spotted a pod of dolphins this morning. Since my dad died, she, along with five other widows in their seventies, has spent every July and August vacationing in a beach-front house in Gulf Shores. Most of them haven't missed a year in the last eight.

I asked her if she was having fun.

"We're having a blast," she said.

Then she had to go; it was her turn to deal.

July 25

Rita talked me into lunch today. She has made the transition from couple friend to solo friend. I'm sure it took some effort. The first Sunday I returned to church after Tom died, Rita dragged John to the other side of the auditorium so they could sit by me, and there they have sat every Sunday since. More often than not, when church is over, she tries to arrange something for the following week: lunch, a movie, shopping. "You'd do it for me," Rita said when I told her she does too much. It is such a relief that she never gets offended when I say, "Not this week, do you mind?" Most of my friends haven't been so tenacious. I don't blame them.

She came into the restaurant carrying a purse the size of carry-on luggage and two sacks requiring handles. When she reached our table, she looked at her sacks and laughed at herself. She had picked them up with her purse when she got out of the car. She situated them in the corner behind our table and said she and John are going on a cruise. She called it "your cruise," since Tom and I had gone on a Mediterranean cruise for our twenty-fifth anniversary.

Rita is dear to me for many reasons. That she isn't afraid to mention Tom is among them. It's one reason I sometimes accept her invitations. She and John are leaving the second week of September and will be gone almost four weeks. They're taking a land tour of Italy after the cruise. I told her Tom enjoyed that cruise but said he'd never again spend more than two weeks away from home.

Oh, but he's been gone much longer than two weeks.

And he didn't take me with him.

Four or five years ago I read about a couple in their eighties who died together in their bed, the result of a gas leak. My own grandparents died only three months apart. I have thought of these couples often ... and envied them.

July 26

If people knew what was really going on in my life, they'd probably say I'm depressed and should get help. And I'll admit I do have some classic symptoms of depression. Still, though it takes me forever and gives me little pleasure, every day I take a shower, wash my hair, and put on makeup. I put on my makeup even if I plan to watch ten straight hours of recorded programming. If someone comes to the door, I might pretend I'm not home, but not because I don't look decent. I've been surprised to discover that all these years I've looked as good as possible for myself, not Tom, though he appreciated it. What that means, I don't know. But when I no longer care about my appearance, I'll turn myself in, and if I don't, Mark and Molly will most certainly intervene.

Music and reading are the only two things I've given up entirely. I still go to church, at least the morning worship service, I still talk with the kids and Mom, and I still invite them to come see me (but please make it brief). I still do things with Rita now and then, I play handheld games Tom used to take on planes, I keep a deck of cards nearby for solitaire, and I watch hours of television. I sometimes watch fluff stuff, but HGTV, Animal Planet, the History Channel, the Learning Channel, and the National Geographic Channel keep me enormously informed. I'm not brain dead, but I'm sure my heart is precariously close to a kind of death, because anything I do is such a chore. My life is one long sigh. That seems a crime against God's goodness to me.

That knowledge, I'm sorry to say, doesn't change anything.

July 28

I didn't pick up the phone today—not even when Molly called. I figured she'd leave a message if it were an emergency. I just didn't have the energy to sound fine. I'll call her this evening. I'll ask her what Jada and Hank have been up to and reciprocate with details about the Alaska pipeline, fresh off the History Channel.

She's lost her dad; she must not lose her mother.

July 29

I've been reading my entries. In doing so, I've realized that I have given up something besides reading and listening to music. Not quite as completely, but as significantly. I've given up speaking.

Of course I say what is necessary. And with those closest to me, I try to interact, but I've become adept at asking open-ended questions. Such questions keep others talking, and the questioner comes off as a good conversationalist. When open-ended questions need a rest, Animal Planet (et al.) comes to the rescue. There you have it: Someone who was once borderline gregarious has no desire to speak. None. I haven't even carried on an interior monologue. I've been close to comatose within.

Is that why I opened my laptop the evening of July tenth?

To speak?

July 30

I sat beside Rita in church today and felt like crying when a girl sang a song I hadn't heard in some time, since long before Tom died. The refrain is all I remember, all I heard after the first few lines: "Jesus will still be there." Not that I don't know that. "I am with you always" runs through my mind most days, even as I sigh. But as she sang I saw the image of massive hands extending from strong arms reaching over a cliff and grasping my forearms. I remained suspended in midair throughout the song, but I didn't fall.

I wouldn't have thought myself capable of such an optimistic image.

July 31

An idea came to me in the middle of the night.

Even when I was sane I tended to roll my eyes at ideas conceived under such circumstances, so I'll probably deem this one stupid too when I ponder it in the light of day.

The kids called to check on me. Today would have been our thirty-second anniversary.

A Tennyson line comes to me: "O death in life, the days that are no more."

August 1

Twenty-four hours later, the idea seems feasible. The wildness of this late-night thought trumps the desperation of my days.

I'm leaving here.

Tender Grace  
Copyright © 2009 by Jackina Stark 
Published by Bethany House Publishing, a division of Baker Publishing Group
PO Box 6287 Grand Rapids MI 49516-6287

Used by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher, except as provided for by USA copyright law.