My Sun Sets to Rise Again
Two years and four months ago I stretched out across my bed. Matt walked in with a manilla folder and said he wanted to go over some things before his heart surgery. Etched all over it were dates, names of doctors, and notes he had taken during conversations. At the top:
He went through each page with me and explained what to do if something happened to him and he couldn’t take care of it. It bothered me we were doing this. He was only 34. There was no reason except for blatant pessimism for us to go over this with such detail. As the kids shuffled around us, playing with their toys and jabbing their fingers on the piano next to our bed, I teased him that if he were taking this that seriously he should give me the password to his computer. Seven years prior I was using his computer and it crashed…deleting all of his files. I swore I didn’t have anything to do with that happening except it being pure chance I had been the last one to touch it, but alas, I was never quite trusted again.
He hesitated at my request for the password.
I laughed in delight.
But then he gave me the password.
Laying on my side with my head resting on my hand I looked at the papers. A wave of realization swarmed above me and crashed down. I looked up at him.
“You’ve never planned your life past 35, have you?”
“No, I haven’t.”
Tears created a blurry film over my eyes. My heart dropped and a hollow feeling took over the back of my throat. How could I just realize this? After eleven years of loving him, of hearing him talk about needing this surgery in his mid thirties, and living with a man that savored life but was haunted by time?
This mentality he had about life is one of the main things I loved about him. When he was nine months old he had heart surgery that saved his life. It left a large scar that said to him, “Do not forget you are mortal.” When he was nineteen he was in a horrendous car accident that took the life of his friend. Prior to that accident he spent a good amount of his teen years wondering what the point of his life was.
Though the accident brought tragedy, from it he went through his own spiritual rebirth. A song he wrote called “Some Kind of Accident” explains:
And your life wasn’t for nothing.
And you lay covered in blood.
Consequences of actions you created yourself
A story to tell, a story to tell
God smacked me,
Me in the head,
Got my attention
Oh with the dead
Find my purpose
And I’m so thankful.
Now I understand.
I can move forward and now I have
A new direction and a newfound hope
Sometimes tragedy even, can change you, help to cope
A great testimony that I hardly give
There was a purpose, a story to tell
Testimony again, testimony again.
I thought he was preparing for death based on a probability that was not likely at all. Technology is amazing, doctors are healers, bodies are miraculous, and God can accomplish anything. I was his Pollyanna, believing all would be well. That’s what he loved about me. So while I punish myself for not seeing the truth, I also realize that what I was, is what he needed.
For a normal, young couple I do not believe it is ordinary for you and your spouse to have recurrent conversations about “when they die.” He mentioned it so much in jest, in earnest, in sorrow, but mostly as fact that I began to tune it out. Like a funny quirk that one of Doris Day’s movie husbands would have. If I didn’t treat it that way it would crawl under my skin and make me mad. As if he were saying to me I didn’t love him.
But I can tell you that as much as Matt’s death shocked me, I was prepared.
He planned for the possibility there might not be a tomorrow.
We bought a house we could afford on a single income, just in case.
He wrote journal entries that fill up drawers.
He archived songs and poetry he wrote.
He took so many pictures only a computer could count how many there are.
He created tangible evidence that he was here.
He spent every moment making connections with people and telling them about his love for Jesus.
He told me everything he wanted.
I knew on his death certificate for occupation it would read Musician.
I knew he wanted a casket and for his life to be celebrated.
I knew what instruments he wanted to give to each of our three children.
I knew that he wanted me to fall in love and marry again.
I knew that death could not stop him from his desire for me to be happy.
I knew that he would take care of me, whether he inhabited a body or not.
Two weeks before the heart surgery he became very ill. I forced him into the car and to the hospital. Each time the doctors came in our room the news became worse. And we didn’t talk about it. He knew what was happening. I refused to confront that possibility.
Four days after being admitted he died while a room of medical professionals tried to revive him. They continued while I screamed and cried, my body flung over his legs telling him not to leave me. When I finally realized he could never live in this broken body, I told him I loved him and it was okay to go into the light, but to please always be with us.
As I laid my head down in defeat, they called his time of death.
They asked if I wanted to spend time with him. I became angry.
Steely, infuriated, and defeated, I replied in a voice with so much weight:
He is not there anymore.
* * *
The months after he passed it felt like a constant emotional circle.
I would be strong, a survivor, a single mom rocking the shit out of what was left of my life. There was always a deep, never-ending sadness, but I could handle that. But the moments I couldn’t process or I tried to push aside became a rock and those rocks stacked up higher and higher. In the beginning one rock on top of the other was just too much. Then I could get three, five, ten, fifteen…but the rocks still fell. Sometimes it was a song. Some nights it was while I did the dishes looking at the clock thinking, “He should be coming home from work now.” One day it was while I walked from the car to my front door and I fell to the cement walkway and sobbed into the warm, rough sidewalk.
To even try to summarize my grief to you feels like trying to tell you about ten lifetimes in one sentence.
Even if I had the words, I could never describe what I endured.
Loss is double sided—because it is a great unifier—the emotions of loss are universal, but each one is individual and different so it is also isolating. I do not know what it is to lose a mother, a child, or friend, so I could never and will never compare my loss to yours.
None is more, none is less—they are different.
Each wholly earth shattering.
Each fragmenting your heart.
In it you stand alone.
After four months I decided to take advantage of the free grief therapy sessions my insurance was giving me. I walked away from my third session pissed off because all I had done was tell him my story, give him website advice, and taught him how to use social media to connect with his grandkids. What angered me the most is I thought if I went to therapy I WOULD STOP FEELING SAD.
I was wrong.
Sadness and grief is the price you pay for pure love. For the most part we leave this world at different times so it’s going to happen if you let yourself really, truly love. The pain was horrific. It was embedded in me, it was part of me. This deep sadness is an underlying note that constantly hummed deep in my stomach. My biggest fear was that this pain would never go away. I called my friend one night unable to even talk because my sobs took my breath away. I told her I didn’t know how to feel sad. I didn’t understand this emotion and it didn’t feel right in my body. I wanted it GONE and there was no way to get rid of it.
When you are in those moments people tell you it will get better in time and you do not believe them.
But I will tell you, I hope I give you some kind of relief to tell you that YES, it will get better.
That deep chord of sadness will buzz and hum so strong for months, but over time it becomes fainter until you've grown so used to it you can’t hear it anymore. You learn to live with it and keep moving.
And then I discovered the magic ingredient to healing:
When death brutally grips its hands on life there is a darkness, a fog, a weight that washes over you. But it makes you realize the true value of life, love, and simple joy. My soul was awoken. I could see with eyes that were mine, but they could now see new dimensions. I could see so much beauty it left me in awe. My grief let me feel the deepest of dark emotion, but its gift was that now I could feel the highest point of joy. I could see magic in the once mundane.
I wasn’t a radically new person with a drastic personality change. The core of me was the same and always will be. I was now an expansion of myself. I had been awoken.
This clarity enlightened me and expanded my understanding for the questions of “why did this happen?” I could see the ripple effect of Matt’s death on everyone. In life he made an impact, but in death, oh, I could see even more. We all changed. We all saw with new eyes or at least we were awakened to some part of our self that we were blind to before. We all had a choice at that point to let grief heal us and change us or stay the same.
Most of us woke up and there was no going to back to being asleep.
Grief was my new companion that would not leave until I had learned all that I needed to.
As I surrendered to its lessons, seeds of happiness were planted. I could not see their stem or leaves, but I knew one day I would see them again.
I continually imagined me standing on train tracks, my feet fastened to the ground, waiting for a train to hit me. But it wasn’t a train really, it was a gush, a blast, a force. It was a rainbow of sparkling light that contained happiness. One day it would hit me whether I was ready or not and there would be no turning back.
I prepared for that moment, I looked forward to it.
As the humming of constant sadness faded I began to feel that I yearned to experience more joy. I knew that all my husband had ever wanted for me and our children was to be happy. I found myself finding new ways to bring light to my life. I spent more time with friends and building relationships than I ever had before. I was braver in my decisions and opinions. I became liberated when I realized the worst that could happen is death.
Because even in that, that is not forever.
When life is done, what is left? Love.
Love, love, love.
I wanted to fill my life up with it. I didn’t want to lay on sidewalks crying anymore. I didn’t want to be frozen in time, frozen in an emotion that erodes your spirit.
I wanted to be resilient, ever-growing, and alive.
I wanted to love.
And so, I gave myself permission to date.
It was a winding psychological path to get to that point. I argued with myself because at first I said no, I will never even think about being with anyone else. When people said to me, “You are so young. You will meet someone again,” I was repulsed and wanted to yell at them. Matthew Chan was the love of my life, no one could ever take his place. It also felt to me like they were saying my love for him wasn’t strong, that death could end it. I KNEW that love does NOT die; love does NOT end. Our love story is one with no ending.
While I knew this and still feel that love does not end, I knew that God put me here on Earth to love. I had learned by Matt's example that you have to take the time we are given and fill it up so that at the end when we meet our maker we can say, "I used my whole heart."
I knew that if I were to date I would have to be open to the possibility of anything. I did not want anyone like Matt—what we had could never be recreated. What was, is sacred to me. I wanted something new, but I was resolute in the idea it had to be magic.
Magic should never, ever be compromised.
With a desire for change and overflowing hope, I sat down and wrote out what I wanted in a man. I had to be clear with myself as well. I did not ever want to get swept up in emotion and forget what was important to me.
“Please, this, or something better, God,” I said aloud.
I began to date. I decided each person I spent time with would be an adventure and my goal was to learn something new about myself—what I liked or didn’t. To remind me that every step forward was indeed a major accomplishment, I wrote on a sticky note:
Your task is not to seek for love,
With that, I learned my barriers. On one occasion I learned I was afraid to watch someone walk out the door for fear they might never return. Another I learned that you cannot make magic from dust.
The effort I had put in thus far was very little compared to friends that have dated for years before they found the love of their life, but this was an awful lot of soul-work for a heart that had one year prior had been broken in half.
But then one day, tired and exhausted, I went on what I was ready to call my last date before I took a long break,— I met Adam.
* * *
The day I met Adam I had only spoken with him once on the phone. Seeing that we lived so far from one another he found a place that was equal distance for us— a restaurant on the Long Beach pier. We sat next to the patio railing overlooking the ocean while lights twinkled and music softly played.
He was tall, handsome, kind, intelligent, thoughtful, and funny. Sitting across from him at a table for two I should have been more nervous. His intelligence by far surpassed mine, he was little bit older, and had seen the world—and yet, I was so comfortable and at ease with him.
He made me feel like I could just be my authentic self.
After a year of being The Widow, I wasn’t.
I was just me.
I eventually delivered him the dreaded information, because it felt like lying if I didn’t. As much as I did not want this to be who I was, it was a big puzzle piece. Trying to have even a casual interaction without mentioning this detail can make conversations really awkward. I was just really, really hoping he didn’t become fascinated in it like a previous date had. As sweet as that man was he couldn’t stop asking questions and it made it really uncomfortable for me--as if it were a test to see how okay I was talking nonchalantly about the most horrifying experience in my life. But Adam took in the information, said he was sorry, and then he didn’t dwell on it. When it came into the conversation there was room for it, but it was not the focus.
He was focused on me.
Adam impressed me with his thoughtfulness—he was always considering of the wellbeing and feelings of others, particularly me.
When we had talked on the phone prior to our date we had joked about how I would be more than happy just to go to a buffet. Somehow Jello and Cool Whip tastes the best when they are sitting next to salad and cottage cheese. After dinner a dessert showed up that I had not ordered—Jello. We laughed and I was astonished to find that he had called earlier that day to request they make it for our evening. It made me laugh to think of the poor person who had to run to the store to buy it and make it for this fancy restaurant that would never, EVER present this on their menu!
The little things kept adding up. The whole became greater than the parts. He walked me to my car and did the most romantic thing:
He didn’t kiss me.
Yes, be shocked. The most romantic thing he did was not kiss me.
These other dates I had been on, the men always leaned over for a kiss and it left me in the most awkward position possible because not once did I want to. Here was a man that I clearly liked. We had spent hours talking and laughing and now here we were holding hands walking to the parking lot, but he knew from my body language that I was not ready for that. He had thought of me before him.
He told me to follow him out, and as I took my turn to pay for my parking, the man told me that it had already been paid for by the gentleman ahead of me.
Each of the dates following contained even more of these sweet actions. He took me next to a fancy hamburger restaurant because I told him those were my favorite things to eat. Next he planned a whirlwind of a date—he met me at Dana Point (and had already paid for my parking pass) with the most elegant and complete picnic I have ever seen. As he pulled out each item I laughed, because I had never had anyone pack such an extensive setup or meal for the beach. We watched the sun set, the stars twinkled a show, and the moon beamed on us. We walked over to the hotel lobby near us which just happened to be having a small art show with sketches and paintings from Renoir and Picasso. We drank a drink on the patio of their bar. We talked, and talked, and talked. And I couldn’t get enough of him.
We talked every night and made dates every week. I began to fall in love with him. I felt so guilty in the beginning. Here I was doing something that scared me with the faith love would come if I believed it would—but this soon? This strong?
I’ve always believed that there are many soulmates in our lives. They are in your family, the people you fall in love with, and your friends that feel like sisters. I knew it was possible for me to meet another, but I never imagined I would love another man so completely. I came to realize that Matt was my soulmate and we were perfect for where we were in life. But now I was different. His death had changed me, whether I liked it or not.
Every time I looked at this man I was so moved by the beauty of his soul and how grateful I felt to be loved by him that I would repeat silently to God, "Thank you for Adam, thank you for Adam."
I once wrote about how I felt as if in my marriage we had been creating a crystal bowl, but in Matt's death it had shattered. I wanted to learn how to pick up the pieces without cutting myself, how to hang them in the sun and let rainbows fall all around me, and to learn to dance with the beauty of the past while creating a new future. It seemed like a wish that might never come true.
But it did.
It was hard: I bled and I have scars. But I hung those crystals up. And I danced.
And then God sent me a gift; he sent me Adam.
And then Adam took my hand and twirled with me in my room of rainbows.
He embraced our past for all that it was, because that is what made today. We may have come by way of sorrow, but that path brought miracles and finding each other was one of them.
I believe our past may have been fated, preordained by God for a greater purpose that I cannot understand in this lifetime. Accepting the mystery of what happened and moving forward is what faith required of me and has more rewards than I could have ever imagined. I have learned my heart can grow, that there always is room for love. There are no limits.
Today I am happy. I am so content. Each day is brimming with things to be grateful for.
With Adam our home is full of love; it is multiplying.
He loves me and I love him.
He loves our children as his own.
He loves their father, because in this beautiful puzzle the present could not be without the past.
There is so much love.
I learned I never had to do this by myself. My family, friends, and strangers let me fall into their arms. I believe we each contain a spark of God; in you I saw Him. You gave me love when my heart was broken, you held me while I wept, and you listened while I poured my words out to your ears. You told me it was okay to be happy, that it made you happy to see me love again. Thank you.
This morning after I dropped the kids off at school I parked the car and headed inside. I abruptly stopped when I spotted two yellow birds happily singing and sitting at the top of my tree. Beneath them was a hummingbird sipping sugary juice from our feeder. It flew up and around those two yellow birds and then dashed over my head. Tears fell from my eyes. Hummingbirds in this house symbolize Matt's love.
I knew that God would take care of me, but I had no idea how beautiful my life could be after.
I never could have imagined this. This is so much better than anything I could have hoped for.
Last year Adam and I found heaven on Earth on the foothills of a Swiss mountain.
As darkness settles in each night we say goodnight prayers with our children.
We eat every dinner by candlelight, because he's a romantic.
He plans adventures for the four of us that require planes and trips up mountain roads.
He makes me stop working and leads me by my hand so I can catch the sunset with him just in time.
We laugh, we share, and we plan.
We give thanks for the past,
savor the present,
and we are open to the future.
Because no matter what, it's going to be beautiful.
My fairytale isn't over.
Especially with this new bundle of magic on its way.
8/24/2017 12:14:14 am
You are such a beautiful person, inside and out. I couldn't be more happy for you. God has always been there for you, when their was only sadness, and now through your newfound joy! Congratulations to you and your family, on your new baby,
8/24/2017 01:04:02 am
My Love. What a beautiful story! I have always wanted only the best for you. I'm so happy for you, Adam, the children, and your new little one. God bless all of you! I read this before going to bed and have the biggest smile on my face. XOXO
8/24/2017 03:29:41 am
I am so happy that Adam has found his love, and his love is you. Welcome to our family ! <3
8/24/2017 06:02:11 am
He has turned your mourning into dancing and given you joy and life once again. I am over the moon happy for you and the new life and adventure that has come. Congratulations to you and Adam and the kids 💜
8/24/2017 06:26:37 am
Heatherlee, this so beautiful! You need to publish a book to help all those who are starting over again. So happy for your new life.
8/24/2017 06:48:17 am
This all had me in tears. Your courage your strenght. Your love.. I am so happy for your future. Congratulations..
8/24/2017 07:18:54 am
I was touched through reading this, thanks for sharing and congratulations for the next step in your journey
8/24/2017 07:24:16 am
Thank you so much for sharing. Your beautiful writing connected me in more ways than I can express. Thank you for loving me. I'm so happy to hear this and it gives me hope. Much love to you and more blessings for your new baby.
8/24/2017 07:48:08 am
This is so beautiful. You have such a gift for writing. I have never loved like this. You have found it twice. That says a lot about you. I hope I don't have to go through your experiences to learn how to love so deeply. I better get to meet you someday!
8/24/2017 08:08:36 am
I am having trouble writing because it is difficult to see the keys through my happy tears for you my sweet friend. I remember on one of our winery trips you shared that you MIGHT consider dating again and I remember how happy I was for you and your children because your delightful spirit deserves to be shared. I am so very happy to hear that you are once again in a happy family and I am excited beyond belief to meet the new bundle of joy you are bringing into this world for us. Continue to live in magic and joy and love💕
8/24/2017 08:39:26 am
This is the most beautiful thing I have ever heard. I have chills and tears coming down my face. I don't know you personally, but I know with out a doubt you are a wonderful, beautiful person. And Matt was too. Clearly Adam is as well. I'm so incredibly happy for you and your family. ❤️
8/24/2017 09:33:34 am
There are those special people on this earth that have a bright glow to them always. You have always been one of these special people. You live life with such deep commitment for joy, and even in times of sorrow you light isn't diminished. I'm happy that you have found someone so dear and your joy can glow even brighter. You will always hold a dear place in my heart even if we never meet again.
8/24/2017 09:37:16 am
Oh Heatherlee, what joy!!! Every time I pulled myself together and dabbed my eyes to keep reading this post, tears would fall yet again at your beautiful words! There is not a doubt in my mind that Matt would be absolutely elated knowing that you are happy and being fully loved...he would want nothing less for you and the kids! I am so very, very excited for you and so thankful to God for using you as His vessel to speak words of wisdom, love and joy into our hearts. Love you Heatherlee!
8/24/2017 10:16:53 am
Heatherlee, this is the most beautiful story. You have such a beautiful heart. I am so happy that you have found your happiness and never gave up on love or your faith. Your ability to see the beauty in the little things in this world is incredible. I love reading about your fairytale and thank you for sharing. Miss you friend.
8/24/2017 11:40:43 am
I am so unbelievably ecstatic for you!! My favorite quote is that you can only truly appreciate something that you have earned, and that definitely applies here. Congratulations lovely lady.
8/24/2017 12:58:35 pm
That is the most beautiful story I ever heard. It made me cry. But I am so sorry for your loss but I'm so happy with the new love in your life and the new little one on the way. This is one of those stories that maybe you can publish I'm sure if you sent it to chicken soup for the lovers soul they would put it in their book who publish your own book. It is such an amazing story I'm so happy for you. You have touched me to much with that story. with all my Love Aileen Jimenez
8/24/2017 01:34:25 pm
Oh, God bless you Heatherlee! This is so beautifully scripted! I wish you and your family all the joy in the world, with hummingbirds watching over you!
8/24/2017 03:14:22 pm
My beautiful friend ! My heart is so full of joy for you. You have always been inspiring to since 2nd grade. You continue with such a beautiful person you are inside and out. You deserve nothing but the best. I know many people will be forever changed by reading your testimony. Many blessings to you Ana your family.
8/24/2017 07:27:04 pm
I am so very happy for you and Adam! Loved the romance and love he has brought into your life and your children! Everyone deserves to be happy and to recognize this blessing as you do! You are a wonderful Mom and will continue to be amazing in your lifetime! I love you Heatherlee. We will meet again someday 😍
8/25/2017 07:13:50 pm
Heatherlee, though we have never met, I have one of your paintings,
9/7/2017 08:44:35 pm
Heather Lee your words and story make my heart feel so many emotions and open my eyes to so much of the beauty and love that we experience in life that many of us take for granted. I am so excited and happy for you as you look forward to welcoming your new bundle of joy. You have such an amazing talent in your words and art and a beautiful zest for life and life love.❤️❤️❤️
10/19/2017 09:14:11 pm
So beautifully written! Thank you :)
12/7/2018 06:55:27 pm
I loved reading about your past few years. I just happened to see one of your works of art on your Etsy and clicked all the links and landed at this blog! Thank you for sharing the sadness and beauty!
Linda L Hoenigsberg
9/3/2022 03:19:22 am
I see how you've touched so many with this post and you certainly touched me. I have lost family members and knew my sorrow would never end...but it did. Sometimes I have a fear of losing my husband (heart problems) but your own story gave me courage to face that if it comes. Thank you for sharing!
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I am a watercolor artist located in Southern California.