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It’s been three months. Three slow, surreal months since my mother-in-law, my God-given Naomi, passed from this life and stepped into her eternal reward.  Final bills have been paid.  Most keepsakes have been distributed, and that which can be left until spring has been tucked away until everyone is ready to pick up where we left off.

It’s time now to huddle up and focus on the holidays and each other.

Things will be different this year, of course.  The shopping list will be shorter. There will be gaping holes in our schedule, and laughter of a certain timbre and intensity will be noticeably absent, to name a few.

It will hurt. Deeply.

But I know this: God will be there, carrying us, comforting us, and teaching us things humans only learn by walking paths none of us want to travel.

Here are a few things I’ve learned so far:

God’s grace really is sufficient. 

Anyone who knows me knows that medical things freak me out.  I’m the mom who couldn’t even take her kids to get their immunizations by herself because she would faint, so the idea of walking Brenda through her cancer journey was intimidating at best, a living nightmare at worst. The first time I stepped into the cancer center, my cheeks went prickly cold and my ears began to ring. I’ll never forget telling God there was no way I could do this even for a day, much less for an indeterminable stretch of time. In answer, He granted me an acute awareness of His presence that not only kept me from fainting that day, but enabled me to smile and crack jokes that eased everyone else’s tension.

Six long years later, I helped dress Brenda’s ulcerations, stayed in the room as the hospice nurse bathed her fragile body distorted by the cancer that was eating her up, and assisted her with more private needs. On her last day, I knelt in front of her, her forehead boring into mine as she fought nausea, a bucket between us.  Her tiny arms hanging heavily on my shoulder, I inhaled her feverish exhale and absorbed the vibration of her every moan. As my emotional and physical strength cracked and shattered, God replaced it with His and made me what I needed to be.

Death itself is a non-event.

In the months leading up to her physical death, Todd and I spent a lot of time and energy anticipating Brenda’s final moments.  Wanting those moments to be the very best they could possibly be for her, we shared our hearts early, read Scripture over her, over-communicated details to one another, and juggled schedules to make sure we didn’t miss the difficult, but fruitful struggle we’d built up in our imaginations.  It never happened.

When Brenda’s time came, her soul simply stepped out of her body into eternity like anyone steps from one room into another, the transition imperceptible but for the absence of her labored breath. And that was it. A split second, and she was free. No struggle. No pain. Just peace. When it was over, I actually felt a little silly for dreading it and wondered whether Brenda would have chosen the agony of prolonged resistance if she’d known all along what a non-event her moment of passing would turn out to be on this side.

Fear of anything but God is pointless.

Illness is scary, cancer in particular. There are worse afflictions, I’m sure, but cancer seems to be the beast with whom we are most familiar, the one whose shadow haunts the healthy.  Because we know what it does to people, we dread hearing that word from a doctor’s lips.  When you do, everything that seemed scary before fades into the background, not gone, but diminished in light of the news you just received. Suddenly, getting cancer before it gets you becomes the number one goal.

Except it can’t get you. Sure, cancer can take your strength, your mind, your body, but it can’t get YOU, the soul that lives on after the battle is over, no matter the outcome. This being true, the decision a person makes concerning the Gospel of Jesus Christ is more important than any decision they make concerning treatment options. Thankfully, Brenda put her faith in a crucified and resurrected Jesus, the sinless Son of God, for salvation from the consequences of sin when she was a young teenager. She wasn’t perfect by any stretch and would have been the first to admit that, but she always knew, deep down, that she was a permanently adopted child of Almighty God.

As tyrannical as Brenda’s illness proved to be, devouring her body before our very eyes, the lion Cancer turned kitten in the end, weaker than the hope Brenda had found in Jesus, limited in its reach as she slipped right out of its clutches, and small before the great big God that ultimately delivered His child safely home.

In a few weeks, they’ll lay a headstone on Brenda’s grave that reads, “See you soon!” at the bottom, a promise from us to her. Thanks to what I’ve learned through recent events, that’s a welcome thought now rather than the sort-of scary one it used to be, and I can run into the unmapped in-between, whatever it holds, with confidence and joy.

This holiday season, my thanksgiving will be better informed, and my worship of the King born to set us free will be more genuine and heartfelt. Yes, things will be different this year, but some of those changes will be good.