The Gift of Unwanted Gifts

I hope I don’t have ­the gift.” College girls at our church would joke this way (or at least half-joke) about the apostle Paul’s description of singleness (1 Corinthians 7:7). I used to find it amusing.

But last year, shortly after my husband and I celebrated our 42nd anniversary, the “gift” was delivered to my door—unexpected, unwanted, and no return address.

Quick and violent, cancer blew into our lives like a tornado and left me standing on the threshold of widowhood, surveying the destruction. I wondered if it was survivable. Elliot and I had been friends since seventh grade, so his loss affected every inch of life, from childhood memories to retirement dreams. It was an amputation of all that “the two shall become one flesh” implies, right down to the nuts and bolts of daily routine. Over the years, for example, we’d fine-tuned our division of labor, based on schedule, knowledge, and how we were wired: cars, trash, taxes, electronics—his; mending, laundry, gardening, shopping—mine. So, now what? How could one person—especially one carrying the additional weight of grief—take on the full load of two? It was daunting, and not just because of the time and energy required; in many cases, I simply didn’t know how.

What’s surprising is, instead of irritation at my slowness to catch on, most people show eagerness to help.

But a year into the rebuilding effort, I must say I’m surprised by all I’ve learned to handle. And along the way, I’ve unearthed some treasures under the rubble—none of which I wanted, but treasures nonetheless. They’re what I call “compensations,” a term birthed during my daughter’s first college break when, out of concern for us, she asked if we found her absence painful. Elliot’s good intentions to comfort her backfired when he said, “Actually, Mom and I have a lot more privacy now”—at which she locked herself in a closet and sobbed. As I reassured her (through the closed door) that she was greatly missed, compensations seemed an apt term for the upside to the downside.

Now, once again, I find myself in a season of compensations. I guess you could categorize some as “conveniences,” in the same way a (happily) married coworker describes bachelorhood as “the simplicity of singleness.” Yes, of course I’d prefer the interdependencies of marriage, but I’m recognizing a certain freedom in impromptu decisions to browse at a store after work or detour for a grandchild “fix.” Then there’s my closet, which is obscenely spacious for one person, plus a formerly tight garage that now feels palatial. And on that first bewildering grocery run for just me, I actually stopped short in the aisle when the realization hit: It’s okay to buy something with cilantro. (Elliot hated cilantro.) Opening the freezer case unleashed a rush of guilt; but then I remembered, Compensation! and reached in for a burrito.

Another category includes all those tasks I’d never done, felt capable of, or wanted to deal with—things Elliot took care of in his easy-going, methodical way. I’ve always been somewhat impatient to finish a project and move on, but I’m discovering the wisdom of “one step at a time.” My panicky reflex of “This won’t ever get fixed or will be exorbitant” is gradually being replaced by “It’ll work out somehow.” I’m liking the slower pace and the way calm feels.

It’s a blessing to have been loved well for 42 years. There are, after all, worse ways for marriage to end than death.

So I make the countless calls my husband would have and resist my inclination to hang up too soon for fear of bothering the salesperson. When necessary, I’m learning to, like Elliot, ask questions six ways till I’m sure I understand. The result? My garage door is replaced; the microwave’s repaired; and the taxes are finished (on sealing the envelope, I actually did a little dance in the post office). And what’s surprising is, instead of irritation at my slowness to catch on, most people show eagerness to help.

Learning to Receive

Speaking of help, that’s something I’d always preferred to give than receive. Suddenly people were offering expertise, time, service, food, prayer … and I had more needs than I realized. But self-sufficiency dies hard. Right after the funeral, my friend Tricia asked when the two of us could use a gift she’d been given: a certificate good for two massages. I instinctively started to decline but then, thankfully, felt prompted to accept. Now, the memory of that evening is as soothing as those hot stones.

And there was more, much more. A friend of Elliot’s insisted on overseeing the medical bills and insurance statements. A coworker solved an electrical issue in my garage. And when I needed help with Christmas presents for the grandkids—quilts made from Poppi’s shirts—Janice, a friend with way too little time to say yes, did anyway. Not only did these stunning gifts add heroes to my story, but transmitting God’s love clearly blessed the givers as well. You can’t get more win-win than that.

A Changing Perspective

When my father died in 1969, I was a teenager consumed with how his loss affected me. And naturally, in the initial months of widowhood, I was again fixated on what I had lost. But recently I’ve noticed a shift in my awareness. Though it’s too late to tell Mom, I’m gaining insight into what she went through, plus appreciation for how she ran the household in Dad’s absence. And instead of dwelling on what’s gone, I’m increasingly mindful that it’s a blessing to have been loved well for 42 years. There are, after all, worse ways for marriage to end than death.

Time really is too valuable to worry about people-pleasing or to let inhibitions derail priorities.

Yes, my perspective is changing, and two phrases I say a lot these days tell me it’s all part of God clipping my attachments to earthly things: “Whatever” (as in “Lord, I don’t understand but trust You even in this”) and “Life’s too short.” Time really is too valuable to worry about people-pleasing or to let inhibitions derail priorities. A loved one’s passing is an opportunity, unlike any other, to share his story. (Who’s going to hush a widow?) For the Christian, that’s a wide-open door to spiritual conversation.

The Supreme Gift

Of all the compensations of singleness, God’s presence surpasses all other presents. Isaiah 54:4-5, which calls Him a husband to the widow, is no longer theoretical, as He keeps showing up in concrete husband-like ways. Last week, for instance, I’d just parked at the office when a tag started chafing the back of my neck. Reaching to tuck it in, I discovered not a tag but a Velcro curler! My first reaction was to burst out laughing; my second, to burst into tears—Elliot would never have let me show up at work that way. Then I realized: Neither did God.

And like a husband, the Lord knows my “love languages” (rainbows, for one, plus a multi-digit number that crops up in crazy ways). He’s a great listener and provider. (Knowing I’d need support, He moved us in 2003 to a street where six adjacent homes now belong to widows.) And things I need materialize at precisely the right time (like the microwave extended warranty I didn’t know we’d purchased, which fell to the floor from a pile of random papers).

And how’s this for irony? The process of writing about the compensations of widowhood has itself become one, as I’ve made yet another realization—that experiencing and knowing God better aren’t compensations at all, but our very purpose.


Photograph by Ryan Hayslip
Related Topics:  Loneliness

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7 Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that.

4 Fear not, for you will not be put to shame; And do not feel humiliated, for you will not be disgraced; But you will forget the shame of your youth, And the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.

5 For your husband is your Maker, Whose name is the LORD of hosts; And your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel, Who is called the God of all the earth.

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