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Commentary: Learning Lessons of Love and Strength

By Amy Ludwig VanDerwater

Buffalo, NY – My friend Julie and I used to always talk on the phone and say, "You know? We're so lucky. Aren't we lucky? Great husbands. Great kids. We've got it made."

Two Easters ago, her husband died from brain cancer. Thirty-nine, a father of three, Danny was a grinning computer-expert, a music-loving, easy-laughing Irish guy. Burn a cd? He'd do it for you. Want to throw back a beer? Just call. Need help moving a piano? He was your man. Until that April. Two years ago, his family of five became a family of five in spirit, but a family of four in the house. And day-by-day, week-by-week, I have watched my friend become the person I would hope to be in the face of grief. Her husband is gone; and as if she is doing it for him too, Julie looks each day in the face and lives it for all she can.

On another winter day, we're having coffee at Borders, Julie and I. We're talking about daily mom things, as usual. She's gone back to college, deepening her interest and skills in occupational therapy, and she's developed new student friends and colleagues. At the same time, Julie continues to room-mother for her children's school parties and looks younger than she is in dangly earrings and stylish boots. She lives. Yes, she's angry when she can't tell Danny a piece of juicy gossip, sad on the children's birthdays because he should be there, making elaborate cakes as he always did. But my friend lives and lives heartily, carving pumpkins and putting up a Christmas tree for the first, second time alone. Julie makes pies for the elementary school's visiting author luncheon. She mows the lawn. She has made St. Patrick's Day a day for us all to get together, to drink to her husband, together remembering him. Julie often ends conversations with "Love ya," something Danny said to us all when he was sick. And at the same time, she is grateful.

Just now I've said something about my own husband Mark, and immediately she speaks. "We're so lucky, "she says. "We both married men who would stand up for us. We both married such good men." Julie lifts a forkful of lemon pound cake to her mouth. I am quiet. All I can think about is the senseless argument I've had with my own husband the previous evening. All I can think is that Danny is gone. That today, in his absence, she is still grateful for his life.

In these past two years, Julie has taught me lessons of love and strength. Once frequently annoyed at rolled up sleeves in the laundry or children's sneakers in the middle of the room, I try to laugh. Once quick to judgment of another's decisions and relationships, I try to realize how little I know of others' lives. Once often in a hurry, I try to slow down. To listen. To be grateful for right now. You never know.

Our cups of creamy coffee are almost gone, but Julie and I are still talking away about children, work, and parents. Suddenly, she looks up, straight into my eyes, and says, "You know. I wouldn't do it any differently. I would do things the same way." I know what this means. It means that Julie still would have married Danny, even knowing that he would leave her decades too early and with three young children. That even in sickness and death, she would still have chosen him to be her man. I don't know what to say. "I hope I am like you," sounds silly, though that's what I am thinking.

Standing in the parking lot before we leave, Julie says, "Wait a minute. I need to go get something. She comes back cradling a black Carhartt coat, Danny's coat, one she knows "is perfect" for my husband and his farm chores. We stand there in the parking lot of Borders, and Julie reaches in the pocket. She pulls out an open pack of Orbit gum, one crumpled tissue, and her husband's black leather gloves. "I should have cleaned this out," she says, gently placing each of these items back into the pockets, "but I want Mark to have the gloves."

Mark now wears that bittersweet coat when feeding our sheep and plowing the driveway. It is a gift that will keep him warm in body and soul for years. But greater than this is the gift my friend has given to me and to so many. From her, let us learn to remember gratitude, for today and for the yesterdays we hold dear.

Listener-Commentator Amy Ludwig VanDerwater is a writing teacher who lives in Holland.

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