Letting Go of the Life We Had Planned


By Marlys Johnson | Twitter: @iMarlysJohnson

They left a card on our oak dining table wearing an E.M. Forster quote: “We must be willing to let go of the life we had planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” While I spent my first holiday as a widow with family on the east coast, friends had stayed in my home. The place was spotless, there was vegetable soup in the fridge, and homemade pumpkin bread next to the card.

The Forster quote disarranged my thoughts, like a breeze fluttering aspen leaves. The life I had planned was with my husband, Gary. It was going to be filled with time to write, and hosting weekend retreats for cancer survivors and caregivers: nutritional cooking demos, walks in nature, discussions around a fire pit about stress management, and encouraging our guests toward compiling gratitude lists.

When Gary took his final jagged breath, so did our rather large dreams. Or so I thought.

Back when cancer first showed up at our front door, an entire gang of unwanted guests shoved their way in: self-pity, anxiety, frustration, anger, and fear. We knew we wanted to establish purpose, because then the terminal disease and the joblessness and the subsequent financial reversals and my live-in mother sinking into dementia—these hard things wouldn’t be wasted. But we didn’t know how to get started.

After finally evicting the unwanted guests—who still insisted on showing up from time to time—Gary and I took on a few projects that were way out of our league. Like, launching a non-profit, writing for grant funding, and sharing in all regions of the country what we were doing to live well with terminal cancer. We’d never attempted anything like this; Gary was the type who would have paid to not stand in front of audiences. But it brought him great satisfaction as we spoke hope and courage to others walking a similar path.

And so this senseless diagnosis was transformed into new purpose. And we enjoyed several brimming, far-reaching, astonishing years as Gary lived much longer than the experts projected.

And then cancer took a sharp left turn. In those last days, I stroked Gary’s face, and kissed his forehead, and whispered, “Hon, I’ll be OK. You can go home to be with Jesus.” I listened to his labored breathing until there was one final rasping breath, slowly released and followed by devastating silence.

This is the part where I was sure the vision we carried would die right along with my husband. But my children, in town for their dad’s Celebration of Life service, conspired together. They took me to dinner and said, “Mom, we think you should take an early retirement and write a second book. We think you should keep blogging and get back into speaking. And here’s how you can afford to do that,” whereupon they presented three options.

And so I stepped into risk by retiring early from a good job and filling my days with writing, and volunteer work, and people, and travel, and submitting book and magazine proposals, and rewriting.

A new and reimagined purpose.

I love taking old junk and creating something useful from it. One of my favorite pieces is an old door with French-paned windows that was headed to the dump. Gary and I rescued it, and removed the ten small glass panes. We built a bookshelf with the door as front piece, the doorknob still intact. How much more must God love to take our broken, discarded places and produce something new and gorgeous and useful.

God’s call into barren locations isn’t only about us; it’s about His story, and our part in His story, and how He wants us to impact other people for the good through our sorrows and losses.
The way I see it, there are only two options for living well during and after adversity: We can wrap ourselves in our security blankets, prop our feet up on the coffee table, and watch other people live extraordinary lives.

Or we can get off the couch—infused with God’s Holy Spirit and armed with backpack, bear spray, doctorate, passport, teaching certificate, paintbrush, scuba diving gear, camera, grant proposal, hammer, business plan—and set off to learn, explore, and build a better place for others in our corner of the world.

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10, NIV).

We were fashioned on purpose, with purpose. And when our calling—that unique role and life’s work—is ripped from our hearts and hands, God can fashion a new destiny from our brokenness. And we can come to love that repurposeful life just as much as the old life we didn’t want to lose.
Because God is that good.

What large and ridiculously impossible dream is in your heart that only you can do?


About Marlys:

A speaker, award-winning writer and cancer widow, I took an early retirement from the St. Charles Cancer Center in Bend, OR, to write and speak full-time. I am a knitter and sipper of hot tea, and mountain biking, hiking, and snow-shoeing in the nearby Cascade Range fill my spare hours. I have a passion for repurposing old junk into cool new stuff, but an even deeper passion for helping people navigate life’s challenges toward new purpose (www.RenewRepurpose.com).