Category Archives: Ian

The Cancer Playlist.

photo (10)Home is so good for my heart. There are familiar faces—so many faces that I dearly miss in Albany. There are long coffees with best friends and hours spent laughing over nothing. There are runs with my brother, back-to-school shopping with my sister, breakfasts with my Dad, morning coffees with my Mom. A myriad of things for which I am deeply and profoundly grateful.

And then, there is Ian’s room. The shoes that he wore on their closet-door hanger, the striped scarf he tossed around his neck as the weather chilled, the brown hat that sat atop his curly hair. I find the brightly patterned superman blanket that followed him from hospital room to hospital room, pictures that he drew, playbills from shows that he performed in, the cologne that he wore every day after I urged him not to underestimate the power of smell. I find notes that he scribbled—meaningless scraps that I scour and carefully catalog as though religious organization might somehow bring him back. But nowhere do I find my little brother.

My Mom asks me what I would like to keep to remember him by, before she goes through his room. And suddenly I can’t breathe because there is nothing Ian enough to ease the sting.

I see Ian everywhere. I see him standing beside the grand piano where we used to sing, bounding down the stairs towards the kitchen, laughing in the red chair. On most days, I still expect him to burst through the front door and laughingly wake us all up.

Trying to understand, several days ago a sweet friend asked me if I simply felt an ache all the time since Ian died. No. It’s like there’s a weight that’s crushing down on me every second. I imagine that one day this will evolve into an ache, and that will be an improvement. 

Ian was diagnosed with cancer on October 3rd. Shortly thereafter, I compiled a list of songs that I entitled “The Cancer Playlist”, and gave everyone in my family a copy. At the time, I imagined that these would be the songs that would remind us of truth as we fought and beat cancer. I had no idea that in fact, they would be the songs we would play on repeat in the ICU, as Ian slipped away and all of us forgot how to breathe.The thing about grief, with all of its wrestlings and longings, is that sometimes the little energy that you have left must be directed towards the exhausting work of reminding yourself to breathe in and out all day long. Hope feels like nothing more than a morphine induced hallucination on the days when you barely remember how to get out of bed in the morning.  Grief is many things, but she is always a teacher—and one of her primary lessons is that a shattered heart can always break just a little bit more.

It is on those days, the days when opening a Bible or speaking to God feels like a veritable Mt. Everest of the soul, that I need truth the most. And that is where the gift of music has proven to be invaluable. Those days are less frequent now, but I still have them. I could not always stomach a Psalm in the ICU, but I could push play and allow the Lord to remind me through music that He is good simply because He is God, and not because He writes happily ever after endings to my stories. Music reminds me that I can get out of bed when it feels impossible, because there is new grace every single morning. Believing truth in the midst of grief is a fierce battle—and music helps me to combat the lies my heart wants to believe.

I know a number of you reading are in the midst of your own battle. In hopes that music might help you fight, too, here are some highlights from my Cancer Playlist—and a few of the lines that I cling to.

It Is Well With My Soul: Chris Rice

Christ has regarded my helpless estate, and has shed his own blood for my soul.

Give Me Faith: Elevation Worship

Give me faith to trust what you say. That you’re good, and your love is great. I’m broken inside-I give you my life. I may be weak, but your spirit’s strong in me. My flesh may fail, but my God you never will.

The Search Is Over: Hank Murphy. [Hank is a good friend of mine—he wrote this song for his own brother. His music and his life point me to Jesus.]

The search is over, you are the answer. You are everything that satisfies, Jesus Christ.

No Sacrifice: Jason Upton [Ian and I used to sing this song together.]

To you, I give my life-not just the parts I want to. To you, I sacrifice these dreams that I hold on to. Your thoughts are higher than mine, your words are deeper than mine, your love is stronger than mine—this is no sacrifice, here’s my life.

Open Hands: Matt Papa [Matt is a friend of mine, and another musician that you need to check out!]

Free at last, I surrender all I am with open hands.

You are God Alone [Not a God]: Philips, Craig & Dean

Unchangable, unshakable, unstoppable, that’s what you are.

UnravelingShelly Moore [Shelly is a dear friend who got to spend some time with Ian while he was sick. While she’s never formally discipled me, the Lord has used her music to teach my heart to treasure Him and believe truth about Him. You need to check her out!]

I’ve heard You say ,wait for a better day. There is purpose even in the midst of this, and just as sure as the sun will rise, tomorrow I’ll get you through the night

Without Words: Shelly Moore

Hallelujah, you are worthy.

Jesus, I Come: Shelly Moore [This song became so meaningful to me that Kellan and I asked a dear friend to sing it at our wedding.]

Out of my bondage, sorrow and night, Jesus I come, Jesus I come. Into thy freedom, gladness and light, Jesus I come to thee.

And finally, I would add this one:

I discovered this in the ICU waiting room, and it played on repeat.

May these songs help you fix your eyes on, and adore the God who is incapable of being anything but good to you.

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Filed under Family, God's faithfulness, Grief, Home, Ian, Uncategorized

Not Alone.

photo (8)Ian’s birthday came and went.

It had to, of course, like all days do, but the night before I had my doubts. There was just something crushing about twenty two candles that Ian would never get to blow out—something that I hadn’t expected. The grief of missing my little brother loomed large, and stole my breath away. Twenty one years. I only got twenty one years. I’d known that it would be hard, but Thursday night found me curled up in our guest room with tears streaming down my face, dreading a first birthday without my little brother. Dreading it, and feeling very much alone.

I was angry. I was angry that Ian would never blow out those candles. I was angry that he was gone. I was angry that July 12th will forever be a painful day for my family instead of the celebration that it once was. That in twenty two more years, I would be blowing out forty four candles for a brother that had been gone longer than I’d gotten to keep him. Those are the moments when words like fair dance across your exhausted mind, and ideas like hope seem so distant that you can no longer make them out.

I gave myself the gift of permission that night—I told myself that anything I did on Ian’s birthday was fine. I could get out of bed, or not. I could continue the maddening job search and be productive, or not. I could pick up my phone, or not. There was no “wrong” that day—and it was a gift I’d highly recommend that you encourage broken people towards on their hardest days. I finally fell asleep with a quiet dread enveloping the room.

The morning of July 12th dawned, and felt strangely like my birthday. I slowly, hesitatingly opened my eyes, and immediately noticed my phone lighting up with the first of what would prove to be many “I remember Ian today” text messages. It was the sweetest gift that I could have received—texts, emails, phone calls [that I didn’t pick up, but nevertheless was deeply grateful for], and facebook posts all reminding me that I am not alone. That Ian is remembered, and that on the impossible days so am I. There were many things that I felt that day, but “alone” was not one of them. It was the only thing that people could have done, and it was the perfect thing.

Kellan surprised me by coming home early from work, which all by itself said LOVE. [Work is just busy these days, and sneaking away does not come easily or cheaply.] I was in the kitchen mixing a chocolate torte with THREE CUPS of chocolate chips in it [permission, friends. I’m not sorry.], when the love of my whole life walked through the door holding a caramel latte. I knew today would be hard—I just want to be with you. He pulled me onto the couch and held me for a while, before announcing that I was to throw on a dress because he was taking me out.

Well. That’s probably a better idea than sitting here being sad.

We went to a beautiful restaurant [the first real winner that we’ve found in Albany!] and ate crab cakes on an outdoor patio with twinkle lights happily strewn about, and wandered the city on a walk before he left for half an hour to go play basketball. It was then, alone in my apartment, that I lit twenty two candles, and shakily sang the same song I’ve sung every year since that first July 12th that I visited my new baby brother in the hospital. It’s something that I’ll do every year until I die—something that I picture Kellan and I doing together with our kids one day, but this first fragile year, I needed to do it alone. I miss you every day, Ian. See? I made you this cake. I remembered. I love you, baby brother.

To those of you that refused to let me hurt alone on July 12th: I am indescribably grateful. Thank you for remembering.

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Happy Birthday, Ian!

IMG_1672I remember the day Ian was born. [His actual birthday, if you will.] After nine months of excitedly listening to my Mama’s belly with my toy stethoscope, and impatiently wondering when new baby would get here already, Stephen and I were taken to the hospital to meet our newly-minted little brother.

We arrived, and Ian “gave” each of us a Winnie the Pooh stuffed animal. I was instantly enamored, because this kid came with accessories. My love can be bought, apparently for $9.99 at the Disney store.

Of the four Peterson kids, two might be described as angelic, and the other two might be described as Ian and I. We were so startlingly similar that it was laughable. From his dry sense of humor and wit [two qualities in a person that I rank above compassion and integrity], to his overly-enthused love for theatre and music. When he was a kid, he attended every single play, musical, and choir concert that I performed in [and let’s get one thing straight right now: we called them legion for they were many], and when we got home he would inevitably ask me to “teach him”. Ash. That thing you did with your voice? How’d you do that? How’d that song go again? Show me the dance. And so we would crowd around the baby grand, or dance wildly across the kitchen floor as my eager understudy learned.

Ian and I loved singing together the most. It was perfectly normal to find us spending hours sitting at the piano, rotating who played and singing every song that popped into our heads. I miss that.

I miss Ian every single day. I miss him especially today, as a ten thousand memories dance across my mind and I long for heaven. I remember Ian sitting on my parent’s back porch blowing out candles a year ago today, before everything changed. Just as vividly, I remember a three year old sitting in his highchair with blue frosting smeared over every inch of his face.

A friend told me yesterday that she planned to wish Ian a happy birthday, because he was still alive and celebrating it, just with better music and better cake. Yes. Today, I am not sad for Ian. I am unspeakably sad for the people who love him and miss him daily. Minute-ly. [To his friends going karaokeing tonight in his honor: thank you.] And today, I have nothing profound to say. Nothing to make it better, nothing to ease the sting. I’m just a sister that misses her little brother. I’m a sister that spent last night looking at every single picture of her brother tagged on facebook and watching every recorded song that he sang. I’m a sister that will bake a very chocolate cake with 22 candles, and blow them out alone in my apartment. I’m a sister that will bake a cake every year on July 12th, because this missing my little brother will never, never get easier. And I am a sister that will choose not to remember him as the cancer kid with his face plastered on luminaries and jumbotrons. I do not remember Ian as the kid who died—I remember him as the kid who lived. Who, thanks to Jesus, still lives.

A lot of you never got to meet my brother, and you’ve never heard him sing. He wrote this. :)

Happy birthday, baby brother. I love you so much!

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Filed under Holidays other than Christmas, Ian

Hollandaise for President!

photo (7)Y’all. I had the BEST day.

My sweet friend Allyson came to visit! Allyson is from North Carolina. She believes in sweet tea, temperate winters and big hair, and attends my church back home which is how we met. She’s currently dating a man that lives in Pennsylvania [read: another part of the arctic north to which I have been exiled] and in the midst of visiting him, decided that she [WE] needed some girl time.

These men of ours are dreams-come-true, but let’s be real: you can’t take them to get a pedicure. I laughed out loud when Allyson mentioned that when Scott asked her what our plans were, she looked at him like he was a blithering idiot she’d just caught rummaging through the recyclables. “UM, we’re going to TALK.”

And that is why girls need girls.

Three hours and one, “The South is about to rise again!” text later, there were TWO fiery brunettes in New York disdainfully complaining about “these rude Yankee drivers!”

I adore Allyson, because she wholeheartedly loves Jesus and is trashy enough to day drink with me all at the same time, and thus 2:30 in the afternoon found us sitting on my couch with rum and coconut water, elatedly chattering away like we were in some sort of competition. I swear we didn’t take a breath for the first three hours! There was something about it that was like coming up for air. God created us for community, and I am going on month four of slowly, slowly beginning to build a new one here in Albany. There’s not a price tag in the world that you can stick on friends like that, and I’m not kidding when I say that I would return every single beautiful wedding gift that Kellan and I were given if I could just have an Allyson next door. Sitting on my couch with someone that GETS ME was a relaxing, calming elixir that I wanted to bottle and store forever.

We cooked while Frank Sinatra crooned in the background. We talked very seriously about how those shoes are an investment. We rented a chick flick and laughed so hysterically that Kellan became mildly concerned. We glanced at our yoga mats and ate THIS instead, passionately declaring HOLLANDAISE FOR PRESIDENT between each blissful, rather unladylike bite. We took our lives into our hands and went to get the cheapest pedicure in town [is anyone else scarred after watching Oprah’s deadliest pedicures? Anybody?], and allowed Asian men with thinly veiled anger issues to beat us within an inch of our sanity as we died laughing at the sheer absurdity of it all. [I kid you not, while my coral toes were drying, mine gave me a back massage that can only be described as some sort of medieval torture device.]

Allyson was a sweet reminder to me that Jesus gives us exactly what we need, exactly when we need it. Not a second early, or a second late. I think that’s part of why He told us not to worry about tomorrow—because we don’t yet have what we need for tomorrow. We won’t until we wake up. It’s a promise that I’m clinging to today, because tomorrow is July 12th.

And Ian would have been turning 22.

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On Choosing Truth.

DSC_0113

Ian in the red chair.

I am driving three hours to the airport this morning.

Three hours with the windows rolled down and the soothing sounds of James Taylor calling me home to North Carolina.

It’s hardly a road trip, but something in this endless stretch of highway makes me remember. I remember Ian in the red chair on Monday—the last time I saw him before the ICU. Before tubes and sunken cheeks, fluttering eyes and soft, swollen hand squeezes. On that Monday night, there was a big grin and animated talk of the road trip he would make to come see me in Albany. He would come alone, because he wanted to hit the open road unencumbered. Cancer had rendered him house and hospital bound for months, and Ian wanted OUT into the germ-ridden world we’d tried so desperately to protect him from since his diagnosis. We would see a Broadway show, and make a Greek recipe he’d seen on the Food Network during one of his chemo sessions.

I remember week two in the ICU. That dark room where we lived and died by the blue and red numbers flickering and sinking on the black screen by his bed. Hearts sank with them. Pleading, Breathe, Ian. You can do it, buddy! We’ve got this. I’m right here, Ashley’s right here. And still, the dreaded numbers sank.

Sitting beside him in room 17, we’d been tossed a tenuous lifeline of hope that day. I grabbed ahold of it with both hands as I held Ian’s, and with tentative excitement I began to talk about his impending trip to see me. Constraints of the English language make it impossible to describe the sheer relief and joy that flooded my exhausted heart—it was as though I’d spent my whole life holding my breath, and at long last had been granted permission to exhale and breathe in hope. For a few precious hours, I began to believe that Ian would walk out of room 17. There would be a road trip after all, and one day we would incredulously marvel that cancer had once disrupted our lives.

I drive today, and think about how Ian never will again. Last week as Kellan and I prayed together before we fell asleep, he asked God to help my sister in law do well on the LSAT she was taking the next day. Tears burned at the back of my eyes as I thought about all of the prayers I would never pray for Ian. Never again would I get to ask God to help him ace a test, or land a job or please make him dump that girl.

And I thought about the God that heard every tearful plea during those last three weeks in the ICU. Lord, you breathed life into him when you made him–let him breathe now. Heal his lungs. Wake him up, Jesus. Please, let it be me instead. Simple things for the God who created the Universe. Everything to me.

God saw. God heard. God said no.

God said no to a road trip and a thousand secret dreams that atrophied and died with my little brother. I could not understand why a good Father would withhold so much good from me. Why a good Father would stand by and watch as Ian breathed out one last time, and I breathed in an impossible ache that would never, never go away.

God preempted the question my weary heart asked with every painful beat in the book of Matthew. In Matthew 7:9-11, Jesus asks the crowd gathered around Him,

“Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask Him!”

How much more. As I am violently tossed about in an ocean of unknowns, I cling to what is true. When hearts throb heavy and grief slips out of dazed, exhausted eyes, there is nothing else I can do. Truth is that God is a good Father who is incapable of giving his children anything but good gifts. Even when fish masquerade as snakes, and the searing sting of sin rips through bone and marrow. Truth is that God loved Ian so much that He crushed His precious Son so that Ian might be His. Truth is that Jesus went to the cross willingly, for the joy set before Him. Truth is that that joy was my little brother. It was all of us! In the face of that irrational, relentless, sacrificial love, my paltry offerings are laughable in comparison. I do not get to accuse God, as though I love Ian more. His love for Ian was forever settled at the cross.

As I drive, I do not understand why God said no. I simply fall back on what I know to be true. And I think sometimes, that’s all we can do.

How will you choose truth today?

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Waiting for my Wooden Leg.

photo (5)In the wake of Ian’s death, I was flooded by a precious barrage of cards and books about grief that friends with their own grief stories thought might be helpful. I have faithfully read every one, and undoubtedly the book that I return to the most is my now dog-eared copy of CS Lewis’ A Grief Observed. My friend Karen sent it to me—Karen’s Mom died of cancer a couple of years ago, and I thought of all people, Karen would know what I should read.  I was right. That short little yellow book was the very first piece of mail that I received in New York when I got back from the impossible cocktail of my honeymoon and Ian’s funeral, and I think I love it because it feels safe. CS Lewis was a godly man who walked faithfully with Jesus. He was also a man that stood helplessly by and watched his precious wife wither and die of cancer. A Grief Observed chronicles his raw, heart-searing, lip-trembling emotion as he stares up, red eyed and exhausted, at a God who no longer feels safe or good to him. It is his story. It is many of our stories.

I pulled it out again last night, because it has been one of those weekends. One of those weekends where you walk into Friday congratulating yourself for doing a little bit better—and then abruptly, like an early-morning mist that you can never be quite sure was there at all, it disappears. Over dinner, someone casually asks whether or not you have a big family. That’s a question you’d never considered, never rehearsed, never steeled your heart against. It catches you so unexpectedly off guard that shards of your broken heart leap into your throat and you awkwardly, tearfully, stammeringly attempt to decide on the spot whether your family is still “big”. You fight the good fight not to weep in front of strangers as your brave façade crumbles, and once again you remember that your world is broken.

CS Lewis talks about this in his book. He says:

“Getting over it so soon? But the words are ambiguous. To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg off is quite another. After that operation either the wounded stump heals or the man dies. If it heals, the fierce, continuous pain will stop. Presently he’ll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has ‘got over it.’ But he will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, and perhaps pretty bad ones; and he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. Bathing, dressing, sitting down and getting up again, even lying in bed, will all be different. His whole way of life will be changed. All sorts of pleasures and activities that he once took for granted will have to be simply written off. Duties too. At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again.”

And so, to my one-legged friends—the vast ranks of us stumbling  with crutches or learning to ‘stump about’ on awkward prosthetics—you are not alone. And on those exhausted days that you cannot stump about one more solitary step, cling to this:

Isaiah 46:4b I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.

He has promised to carry you.

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That Sucks, and I’m Sorry It Happened to You.

DSC_0120This past weekend, it finally happened.

I’d been dreading it since the moment I walked out of Ian’s ICU room for the very last time. I remember walking into the pristine, whitewashed hallway with sunshine pouring through oversized windows, and thinking that it should have been raining. I’ve always clung tightly to the irrational belief that the weather ought to mirror how I feel inside, and it seemed unjust, somehow, that the sun could shine on that day while my heart shattered into a thousand irretrievable pieces. My brother Stephen just held my sister Emily and I as tears streamed down our faces, and I thought about how for the first time in years, he was the only brother. The weight of two sisters was on his shoulders alone, and I wished we still had Ian to share it. The three of us stood alone, right outside the room where our brother’s body lay on a hospital bed. Three where four belonged, and the silent scream of raw emptiness enveloped us.

For the first time since I was five years old, I only had one living brother. Since that day Ian died, I have quietly dreaded the moment that someone would ask me how many siblings I had, unsure as to how I would answer. Maybe it seems like a simple thing to you, but when faced with the reality that every answer might beg further questions which might beg a story about my little brother dying of cancer…well, I wasn’t certain that I could tell that story over and over again for the rest of my life. Not without breaking over and over again—and I find that most strangers don’t want my mascara stains on their shoulders. And what to say? I have two brothers and one sister. I HAD two brothers. Do I still have Ian?  I have a brother and a sister and another brother in heaven. No, that’s too Precious Moments and Ian would hate it. I have another brother but he’s gone now. Too vague? It makes it sound like he up and joined the circus. I have a brother and a sister. Incomplete.

Nothing felt quite right. I’d rolled it over and over again in my mind like monotonous waves endlessly crashing on the same little stretch of sand, and still nothing. Finally, last Friday night at Ashley’s bachelorette party, the moment I’d been anxiously awaiting arrived with no pomp or circumstance at all. One of her sweet friends looked at me over a plate of pita and hummus, and asked if I had any siblings.

My heart was eerily calm, and without thinking at all I smiled and answered simply: Yes. I have two brothers and a sister. I’m the oldest of four.

That was the end of it, and that’s the way it will forever be. When pressed, I will briefly tell the story as unfortunate listeners awkwardly stumble through some sort of response.

Can we talk about the response for just a moment? I think so often, we don’t know what to say when confronted with pain. Any kind of pain, really—it makes us uncomfortable, and so startled, we jump. We jump to fix it, jump to change it, jump to change the subject.

May I humbly offer a suggestion? It’s deceptively simple, really. When someone is breaking in front of you,  sit still and listen compassionately—with your whole heart. And then look your friend squarely in the eyes, and repeat after me:

That SUCKS. And I’m sorry that it happened to you.

That’s it. When broken humanity is confronted with the searing shards of sin, the very last thing that we need is another tired platitude. Even the most well intended clichés hollowly mock real pain. When the knife of divorce violently tears through a family, when miscarriage steals every birthday and little girl tea party and Christmas morning a Mom and Dad will never get to have, when loneliness looms large and cancer takes curly hair and coffee dates and hand squeezes, what we cannot offer is a solution to what has been broken. We cannot make it better. [Please do not tell me that Ian is better off in heaven because while I’m sure it’s great, I would prefer that he were sitting in my living room right now. How’s that for selfish?] What we can and should offer is a God that has walked every inch of broken humanity, and weeps with us in the midst of our pain. A God who hates it more than we do—so much, in fact, that  he climbed up on a cross and was broken in our place so that we would only ever have to experience the shadow of pain. [And oh, the shadow stings! Praise Him for saving us from the real thing.] We can offer a God who is redeeming every broken thing, and will one day restore the world to what He intended. And until that day, we can offer fierce, unafraid love. A love that says I can’t make it better, but I will sit right here with you and hurt too.

That sucks. And I’m sorry that it happened to you.

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