I’d been lying on the kitchen floor for a while. After driving the kids to school, I faced another day alone in the house and as soon as I closed the door behind me, I literally collapsed to the floor. At some point I tried to gather myself. I needed to get to work but couldn’t quite seem to make it to my feet.
Cathy surrounded me. She was everywhere I looked. Her chair at the dinner table, her coat in the closet, her hair in the brush, her ring, her soap, her pack of gum, her pillow, her magazines, her calendar, and a thousand other meaningless things that were connected to her.
It ravaged my soul; this pain that grabbed me by the throat and shook me like a rag doll. One minute she was here and the next… “Where did you go!?” I screamed to the emptiness. Agony. And it was getting worse each minute. Just when I thought it had passed, it would wash over me again, relentlessly. I wailed and gagged on the hurt, and then it seemed to fold over onto itself, increasing in magnitude. I couldn’t stop it. Like never before in my life, I needed to weep. It became so intense at times that I began to make unrecognizable sounds. Pain-filled, guttural sounds. The sounds of my own private hell. “Where did you go!!!?” I shrieked at the emptiness. Of course, there was no response. Only silence and the cold, hard floor.
The phone rang, and I was startled long enough to stop crying for a moment. The mundane sounds of everyday life had a way of jarring me back to sanity like some grief defibrillator. Caller ID told me it was Pastor Karl Galik. I wanted to let the machine pick it up, but thought twice. I liked him. It wasn’t easy for a pastor to impress a guy from Skeptic Valley, but this Galik fellow had been more than kind to all of us as he presided over Cathy’s funeral. I gathered myself before picking up the phone, but knew that I couldn’t clear all of the tears from my voice. I kept it brief but stayed on long enough for him to invite me to lunch.
Settling into a booth at the local Panera Bread, we sized each other up. I knew why we were there. The pastor had brought his emotional white gloves to see if my psyche needed a little therapeutic dusting. I was there to see if this man of the cloth was for real. After some pleasantries and a few bites of our sandwiches, he got down to it.
“I wanted to check in with you and see how things were going,” he said.
Here we go, I thought. “Things are okay,” I offered, and nothing more.
“Look, I understand if you don’t want to talk to me. We don’t know each other very well, and I’m prying a little here. But I do have some experience in this area, and I want to offer myself in fellowship to you if you could use it.”
“I appreciate that,” I said, still at arm’s length.
He sensed that I needed more credential from him. He offered just the right one.
“You’re from Chicago, right?”
“Yeah, the West Side,” I told him.
“I’m from the South Side,” he said. “Although I still bleed Cubbie blue.”
I was warming a bit. A Chicagoan, and a Cubs fan. Hmm.
“I will ask you one thing. Obviously you can choose to talk to me or not. I really am interested in hearing about your family. If you don’t want to talk, I understand. But if you do, I only ask one thing. Don’t try to sell me any crap.”
I stopped chewing in midbite. He knew that he had made an impression and went in for the kill.
Tell me about Cathy. What was she like?
That got me. People don’t ask that simple question of widowed spouses. They should. Instead they talk about how sad it is that she’s gone. They speak about her illness and her funeral, how shocking it all was. They ask about the kids and the future. Nobody asks me to talk about the love of my life. “Tell me about her,” he said.
That was it. We became friends at that moment.
We spoke for a long time that day, and again a week later. We began to have regular lunches together. His counsel to me was invaluable. We spoke a lot about grief. People grieve differently, he told me, and he wanted to know about mine.
“The pain is unbearable some days,” I confided. I told him about the quiet of the house and the times when I couldn’t stand up. I told him about the sounds that I made yelling at the emptiness. I told him about the tears that seemed to never stop.
“I saw a video once,” I said, “of the waves coming ashore during the tsunami in the Indian Ocean… Out of nowhere, on a clear sunny day, as people all around did normal things, this massive wall of water rushed over the beaches and into the streets and neighborhoods, destroying everything in its path and leaving behind only death and despair.”
He nodded as I spoke.
“That’s what it’s like for me,” I said.
I knew that all of this sounded like an exaggeration. It wasn’t. So I explained further.
“There was a woman who sang in the choir at St. John and she sounded like… well, like a turkey. She didn’t sing so much as she warbled. This used to make Cathy and me laugh hysterically during church. And they kept giving this woman solos!”
Karl knew exactly of whom I was speaking. He laughed heartily.
“When she began to sing,” I told him, “all I had to do was look at Cath and she giggled uncontrollably. It was our running joke.”
I continued, telling him about the first time I heard the turkey woman sing after Cathy died.
“I could feel the tsunami wave coming straight at me. I told the kids I had to go to the bathroom. Instead I went outside and cried for twenty minutes.”
We were quiet for a moment, then I added, “There’s just no stopping it.”
Being able to talk with Karl helped me tremendously. He counseled me with the lightest touch, not trying to browbeat me with Scripture verses or telling me how to live my life. He offered little prescriptive advice, opting to listen more than speak. On a few occasions, however, his carefully chosen words stopped me in my tracks.
“You know, Michael,” he started. “You’re not just grieving for the loss of Cathy. You lost someone else that day. You lost yourself. The man and husband you were when she was alive. I suspect you liked that guy.”
“Yeah,” I said. I was beginning to tear up now.
“Well,” he said, “he’s gone too now.”
This hit me like a thunderclap. Cathy was my context. I missed being “us.” We did things as a couple, we were known as a couple, and we had friends as a couple. But when the couple ceased to exist, so did I. I spent years becoming that guy. But he died with Cathy. I was going to have to get to know me, without her. Although I hated that notion, saying it out loud brought a measure of peace.
Pastor Galik asked me if I had called Gina Kell yet. Cathy’s eyes flashed in my mind as I recalled her telling me that Gina and I would help each other. She was so determined, so sure.
“No,” I said. “That woman’s got enough to deal with.”
Karl wouldn’t let it go. “Cathy and I have something in common. We both knew Matt and Gina, and I wouldn’t tell you to call her if I didn’t think it would be helpful to you both.”
He could see he was getting nowhere, so he tried to swing for the fences.
“Cathy didn’t have many words left the day she told you to call Gina Kell. I don’t think she would have wasted them.”
I agreed to think about it. In the end my dilemma was solved for me when, after our first Sunday back at church since Cathy passed, I received an email from Gina Kell.
To: Michael Spehn
I heard you were at church today… I know how hard it can be to attend church… not because you don’t want to worship or draw near to God, but because people can very unintentionally overwhelm despite good intentions to comfort.
I would like to get together with you soon to talk. I have a few things to give you for the kids… resources and such. You can email me or call… my phone numbers are home 248-XXX-XXXX and cell 248-XXX-XXXX. I am reachable any time. ANY time.
Goodnight. Peace… Gina Kell
I stared at that email for a very long time. First Cath, then Karl, and now the woman herself. I wrote back later that night.
Thanks for the note. I was in church with the kids. It helps, I guess. Sometimes it feels like I’m the one who now has a terminal disease. Take care. Michael Spehn.” Then I added, “PS, Careful about that ‘call me anytime’ stuff. My ‘anytimes’ these days are going well into the wee hours. Would love to talk sometime but you need to give me proper hours to call.
She shot back a few minutes later, “Anytime means anytime. If you think you’re the only one up at three a.m., you’re fooling yourself. Gina.”
I had been instructed, encouraged, and invited to call Gina Kell, but I still couldn’t bring myself to pick up the phone. In the midst of my long days filled with medical bills, school schedules, and out-of-town visitors, making the call would cross my mind, but it just wasn’t a matter of urgency.
I spent days looking through Cathy’s things, her calendar and notebooks and even her purse. I spent an entire evening reading through her old emails on our computer. It was comforting to hear her voice through her sent email. I found an email trail from January between Cathy and Colleen Schomaker, where Cathy proposed inviting Gina and her boys to our house for pizza and fun.
“Pizza and letting the kids run wild in my basement might be a good get together,” she wrote. That was Cathy. She wanted to bring people together and ease the pain of those who suffered. She wanted to fill her house with the sounds of children playing.
After reading through the emails, I realized that what she had said to me in the hospital was not completely out of the blue. I knew that calling Gina Kell was as much for Cathy as for me. I would honor her desires and fulfill her promise of love, life, and laughter. It might bring smiling children together in her house. And it could help me too. Simply doing what she asked me to do might make me feel closer to her. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, and it wasn’t “perfect” to me. But it was right. I picked up the phone.
Gina and I exchanged some small talk and then I asked her and the boys to join us for dinner. She immediately offered to cook, but I had a different plan. I told her of an experience that happened about a week after Cathy passed away.
I had received a phone call from my neighbor Ed, asking if I would be home around four o’clock.
“Sure, what’s up?” I asked.
“Just open your garage door and leave it open the rest of the afternoon,” he told me.
This was strange, but I followed Ed’s instructions. Around 4:30 I heard a commotion in my driveway. Ed and two other neighbors were wheeling a large deep freezer toward my garage.
“This is yours,” he told me, in take-charge mode. He and the others put the freezer against a wall in the garage and plugged it in. “There.”
“Thank you,” I said, thoroughly confused. “What’s it for?”
“I know how you feel about those little red coolers, so everybody pitched in and got this for you. Now you can just keep meals frozen in here until you need them.”
“That’s great… thank you. But I really don’t have that much food to fill it up with.”
“Yeah, I know,” he said. “I’ve seen you cook. Don’t worry. We’ve taken care of it. Just keep your garage door open.”
Over the next two hours, one by one, more than twenty neighbors, some of whom I had never met, filled the freezer with home-cooked meals. Some came to the door with hugs and memories of Cathy. Others simply came and went without a word. The experience was an astonishing and overwhelming display of love and kindness. This was exactly what I needed. I could take care of my kids without having to worry about the next meal.
The thing that made it so ideal was that Ed knew exactly what I needed, and he knew exactly what I didn’t want. Most importantly, he simply did it. He didn’t ask, he didn’t wring hands, he didn’t call me with petty details. He simply took care of it. It was a perfect act of friendship I’ll never forget.
Gina and I agreed to cook something from the freezer for our dinner together.
“Anything but a casserole!” she said with a quick laugh.
She insisted on bringing a salad, and we talked just long enough to set a date and time. I agreed to email her directions to my house. I hung up the phone and just stared at it a while.
I had called Gina Kell.
Excerpted with permission from The Color of Rain by Michael and Gina Spehn, copyright Zondervan, 2012.
The Color of Rain has been adapted into a film and will be premiering on the Hallmark Channel May 31st.
Watch the Movie Trailer for The Color of Rain:
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Community and kindness is so important for each of us in hard times. Have you experienced loss and had kindness shown you in just the right way and time? How have you been helped through life’s storms? We would love to hear from you on our blog!