This time of year always stirs up my emotions. As the summer draws to an end and Labor Day weekend approaches, my mind wanders back to that summer of 2004, the summer when Sheri was dying. I saw her several times then, as much as her energy would allow. In the earlier months I would bring food for her and we would play games or work on crafts to pass the time. As the summer drew to the end, the visits were short and she wasn’t able to do much more than lay on the couch.
Time softens the pain of losing a loved one in some ways. I have gotten used to not seeing her regularly. I don’t expect to see her name pop up on my email or see her neat, cursive writing on a card in my mailbox. But each year at this time, when I reflect on her life and her death, the wound reopens and feels as raw and fresh as it did that first day when I knew I wouldn’t see her again on this side of eternity. There are always torrents of tears as that longing surges up–the longing to see her, hold her, touch her, talk to her and share life with her once again.
Last night I was looking through a box of memories–photos of Sheri, emails and letters she wrote, her book of poetry. I found a few pages I had written the month after she died. I wrote:
I remember when Sheri had a bad lung infection, a blocked bowel, and the tobramycin in her system got to toxic levels. She lost part of her hearing. She lost kidney function and had to go on dialysis for a while. She was in Ann Arbor, away from home for weeks. I remember I drove her and Mom to the hospital. She had a towel and a bucket with her in case she threw up. That was the weakest I’d ever seen her. She turned and gave me a look of total love and compassion before she stepped out of the car. It was the same look she gave me the second to last time I saw her alive. I hope I never forget that look. So much was wrapped up in it. She felt so much compassion for me, watching her go through her pain and how much it hurt me to see her like that, and compassion for the fear I felt in wondering if I’d ever go through similar things, and the love she had for me and how much she wanted to protect me from all the pain she’d been through. All that was in her gaze.
I remember that moment clear as day. I can still see her with her towel and bucket and more importantly, I can see that look of love. In the midst of one of the most trying and painful times in her life, she was reaching out to me with her eyes–extending comfort, love, and understanding. She was not so overcome by her own struggle to miss the grief of her little sister who was sad and more than a little bit scared.
That look of love brought me comfort then and it brings me comfort now. I remember Sheri’s strength, her courage, her poise, her compassion, and especially the feeling of her love. She fought for life and brought so much joy, laughter and grace into our lives. She refused to be defeated by pain. Her life may have been short by today’s standards, but she used her life for good and for God’s glory. And now in heaven, she’s experiencing only joy and peace–no need for tobra or towels or buckets or tears. Her example gives me courage and strength.
I see Sheri’s gaze only in my memory now, but I know God looks on me with those same eyes of love. His love is an everlasting, steadfast love. His mercies never come to an end. The sadness is there. The fear is there. But God is also there. And someday, we’ll be together again. When God’s purposes for my life are complete, I’ll join Sheri in heaven. It’s fun to imagine what we might do. Run a marathon just because we can? Have French fries without the side order of pancreatic enzymes? Have a fit of laughter that doesn’t end with coughing? Those things are just silly fantasies and chances are, none of that will matter. But I’m pretty certain, when I see Sheri, I’ll get to see that look of love again.
Sheri Leigh VanBruggen, September 26, 1968 – September 4, 2004