Journal entry — November 18, 2003It was the blackest morning of her life. Peggy had recovered just enough from exploratory liver surgery to permit the emotional pain of the findings to overtake the physical pain. Inoperable. Terminal. The implications had been sinking in slowly and by the morning of the seventh day the dreaded reality crashed down on her in an avalanche of grief. Her body convulsed with sobs that would not quit. There was nothing that could comfort, nothing to ease the terrible aching in her soul.
Where had the peace gone? For the past several weeks she had felt so enveloped by the loving presence of God, ever since the discovery that her breast cancer had reoccurred, this time in her liver. The fear she had faced two years earlier when she endured breast surgery and chemotherapy had not returned with this second diagnosis. She had been feeling secure in the hands of a trustworthy God who had fashioned every one of her days. But that calm was now suddenly swept away. Hope had vanished. The agonizing realizations that she would not see her grandchildren grow up, that we would not journey into old age together, that she would be severed from the family and friends she so loved — the grief was almost more than she could bear. She held her bandaged abdomen and rocked back and forth.
She stared out into the back yard, not seeing the shrubs and flowers and trees she had carefully planted and tended. The songs of the birds were silent, the feeder vacant. It had once given her much joy to observe the habits and mannerisms of so many different species, each with its own unique color and call. But the birds had left six weeks ago when their habitat was destroyed to make way for new housing. Even the abundant finches and doves had departed. It made the bleakness of the morning even more sorrowful.
“Where is God?” she cried out in her tears. Once so close and comforting, He now seemed as absent as the birds. I had no answer that could console her. Any words would be meaningless sounds. I could do nothing but hold her hand and weep with her in silence. And then I saw it! The agonizing question had scarcely left her lips when a female cardinal landed on the feeder just outside the window. “Look!” I pointed. And then from our jasmine hedge the brilliant red male appeared. A chickadee flitted onto the feeder roost to share a morning meal of sunflower seeds with the cardinal. “Look!” we both exclaimed in amazement. Two blue jays swooped into the yard, and then a robin, and a pair of thrushes, and a mockingbird. Our mouths dropped open with astonishment as our entire back yard filled with birds — grackles, red winged black birds, sparrows, finches — even a flight of purple martins on their way south. The yard was alive with a congregation of winged friends the likes of which we had never before seen.
“The Gift of the Redbird,” she whispered. The memory of this little book suddenly resurfaced in Peggy’s mind. She had been touched by its poignant message at a retreat years earlier. It was the account of a woman desperately alone in the dark night of the soul and how a redbird appeared at her window during a vicious storm. It was the sign the author had needed, a message that God indeed was with her. For Peggy, the redbird appearing on the feeder at the very moment she was crying out in desperation might have been reassurance enough of God’s presence. But when the whole yard came alive with all the birds she so enjoyed watching and feeding, it was as though all of nature had been summoned to deliver her a personal message from the Creator: “I hear you and I am with you.”
The following day dawned bright and clear. The birds were gone but the presence of the One who had sent them lingered on. And like the rays of sunlight that filled our sunroom, soothing rays of hope flooded back into Peggy’s wounded spirit.
More than three years have passed since I journaled these words, years of cruel chemo treatments, in-between travel adventures, slowing down enough to write two new books as Peggy rested on the couch, her merciful passing, the aching loneliness of a silent house. And then a rush of re-engagement in fresh, life-giving work — cutting-edge community development projects, stimulating teaching opportunities, new mentoring relationships with emerging young urban leaders. And now as I begin this new year, my life is overflowing with new joy — God has favored me with a new Peggy! That’s right. On December 30 Peggy York and I, in a quiet family gathering at my church, exchanged rings and became husband and wife. How blessed can one guy be — two wonderful Peggy’s in one lifetime!
Peggy, like me, lost her lifetime mate and, like me, never believed she would find that kind of love ever again. But it happened! Took us both by surprise. Such a blissful surprise! And now we face our journey together, a lifetime of wonderful memories to savor and hearts full of joy in each other’s company. We have taken up residence together in my house on Walker Ave and Peggy is adapting to urban life. She retired from NCR a few weeks ago so we will be able to work and travel together. We look forward in the coming days to getting around to meet with friends, old and new.
Ah, Life! It is good to be alive, to love, to find nourishment in human relationships. Even though this earthly reality is sometimes laced with loss and sorrow, its richness, its hopes, its possibilities do indeed fill it to the brim with joy. And I eagerly embrace it in its entirety.
May the reminders of God’s presence and care richly bless your life this New Year.