Are We Having Fun Yet?

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The year is measured in seasons. Creation wakes up in spring, matures during summer, bears fruit in autumn, and sleeps the winter away. For a teacher like me, autumn is the season of preparation, getting to know new students, and falling in love with teaching all over again. Autumn is a season of joy. No one told me November was the month of the dead.

I had just retired from Dordt College, and my wife and I had begun our retirement years. These were the years we had long been anticipating. Gloria, my life partner of more than 40 years, and I had plans to fulfill. We had a long list of places to see and things to do. This was to be our season of joyful exploration: spending time with family, filling carefree days with play and adventure, walking paths not traveled on a snowy evening. We were going to have fun!

I was building a woodworking shop that summer. I had laid the foundation as soon as the frost was out of the ground and was framing the walls when Gloria was diagnosed with signet cell carcinoma, an aggressive appendix cancer. Our plans to fill our retirement years with fun were destroyed. After she went through surgery in mid-May, we spent the rest of the summer living one day at a time as Gloria was released from the hospital and readmitted several times. The cancer seemed so unfair because it was robbing us of expected enjoyable years together.

Soon after her first major surgery to remove as much of the cancer as possible, we understood that Gloria did not have long to live. In early July our family met to hear our decisions for her final days on earth. Gloria was at peace with dying, but she wanted to die at home. After months in hospital rooms, I finally took her home on Sept. 25, our 43rd wedding anniversary, and I cared for her until the end.

While I was Gloria’s caregiver, I was also building my workshop. One day in mid-October I came in from working on the shop to check on Gloria. She had been watching me work from her hospital bed in the living room. She must have been thinking of my future without her, and she said to me, “You’re going to have so much fun when I’m gone!”

Her words broke me. Without her with me, I was anticipating the opposite of fun. I came to her bedside and hugged her while I sobbed. She asked me what was wrong, and I said, “I don’t want to have fun without you.” She died Nov. 4, and I felt as though my life had ended, too. Grief weighed me down that entire month. Grief might not be fatal, but it feels as if it should be.

On Dec. 3, one month after Gloria passed on to eternal life, I almost followed her. During November, I had continued building my workshop. I was working on the second floor on a cold wintry day. I remember my boot slipping off the first rung of a stepladder I had set up on the second floor, and my foot came down on a small block of wood, causing me to lose my balance. I stumbled backwards toward the open stairwell and fell about 12 feet to the concrete floor below.

The fall knocked me unconscious for a short time. When I woke up, I was in serious pain. I took my cellphone from my pocket to call my son Josh, who was staying in my house, but because I had hit my head so hard, I could not figure out how to use it. I thought, “Well, I can either lie here and die, or I can try to get to the house.” I know I didn’t walk in a straight line, but I got to the house and called for Josh to take me to the emergency room. He drove me to the hospital, where the last thing I remember is getting into a wheelchair. I was airlifted to Avera Hospital in Sioux Falls for surgery, but I remember nothing about it.

The most serious of my injuries was head trauma. They did surgery that evening to remove a large blood clot that was putting pressure on my brain. My other injuries were a broken shoulder, three broken ribs, breaks in several lumbar vertebrae, and four chipped or broken teeth. I remained in a coma for several days. I remember waking up for just a moment to notice my daughter-in-law and granddaughter sitting by my bedside. I was dying of thirst but amazed I was still alive; hardly able to breathe because of my cracked ribs but so glad to be breathing; in almost unbearable pain but so thankful for God’s blessing of life. We visited for a moment, and I went back to sleep.

Later that day I woke up again. I saw my daughter-in-law still sitting by my bedside and thought, “Just a month ago my kids lost their mom, and now they almost lost their dad. What did I almost do to them?” I said to myself, “I have so much to live for!” I was still feeling the loss of Gloria, but I was no longer overwhelmed with grief. I was still sad I had lost my life partner, but I no longer felt despondent and hopeless. I was grateful for the gift of life.

It took me a while to recover to the point where I was able to remain alert for any significant length of time. Although I was weak and in a lot of pain, I was joyful that I was still in the land of the living. Through much of the month of November, the month of the dead, I had been feeling sorry for myself. In fact, it would have been easy for me to give up on life myself.

I’m not suggesting I shouldn’t have been feeling sorry for myself. I understand that’s a normal part of the grieving process. But when I regained full consciousness and realized I was still alive and was expected to make a full recovery, I was overwhelmed with thankfulness that my life had been spared. It was as though God had given me back a chunk of time I didn’t deserve so I could enjoy living, enjoy interacting with those I love, and enjoy God’s goodness.

I was still grieving the loss of Gloria, of course. I expect I will be grieving her loss for the rest of my life. But my accident helped me focus on what I still had. Although my injuries were serious, I was thankful that, given time, they would heal. God used the accident that almost took my life to renew and energize my life instead.

Now, almost five years later, I understand what Gloria was saying when she told me I would have so much fun after she was gone. I believe she was giving me permission, even encouragement, to have fun—to see the places and do the things we had been planning to see and do together.

I believe every new day we are given is a new beginning, a day the Lord has made to see new places and do enjoyable things.

Each day begins a new season of discovery, offers learning adventures and playful times, provides opportunities to discover unexpected treasures, and gives meaningful moments interacting with family.

Each day offers chances to walk paths not traveled. Let’s have fun!

About the Author

Dennis Vander Plaats is a retired professor of education at Dordt University who lives in Sioux Center, Iowa, and attends Covenant Christian Reformed Church. He has six sons, 13 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren

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