Ashley Peterson and I first met when she was about four years old – I’m sure she doesn’t remember. We reacquainted 18 months ago, some twenty years later, upon her return from Senegal, Africa. Together we forged new territory at our church, had coffee and cake pops at Nordstrom’s coffee bar, and toiled together on many a Tuesday nights. Several months ago I blogged about her brother, Ian, who had been diagnosed with cancer. Many of you joined me (and countless others) praying that he’d win the battle with the disease, however on Wednesday he went home to be with Jesus. Ashley and her amazing parents (and our good friends) with their kids Emily and Stephen, stood by his side every step of the way.
Tomorrow Ashley is marrying Kellan – celebrating a new life together in memory of her sweet brother. Join with me in praying for a beautiful day in every way. Read her recent blog post and you’ll see why she’s so easy for me to love as a friend and ministry cohort.
It was the first song we ever learned a three part harmony to, and we couldn’t sing it enough because we thought that we were straight-up-awesome. Lest I mislead you to believe that we were particularly spiritual children, I ought to confess that if we’d learned “Apple Bottom Jeans” first, that probably would have been our song of choice. But it happened to be a song about heaven.
I remember the day that I learned how to swing dance. I came home and immediately made Ian and Stephen dance with me in the kitchen for hours—Ian was mesmerized. My brothers loved knowing that they could flip their big sister around-and everybody knows that it’s better to drop your sister head first onto the tile floor instead of a middle school honey that you’re trying to impress. [And let’s be real—Ian was always trying to impress middle school honeys.]
Dancing quickly became one of Ian’s very favorite things to do. We spent many high school afternoons dancing in the kitchen as I would teach him new turns and flips that I’d learned. When he hit college, the student surpassed the teacher as he went on to participate in competitive ballroom dancing. He loved it-in fact, he had excitedly promised to teach my Dad and I how to waltz for my wedding.
Ian never got to teach Dad and I our dance. He’d roll his eyes if he knew that Dad and I watched a YouTube tutorial in the kitchen a couple of days ago, and then promptly decided that we could simply wing it. I wish more than anything that he could have been there to teach us, or that Ian and I could have had the dance he promised me at my wedding. He was so excited for March 2nd.
The past months and weeks have been full of mourning for my family. We mourned the loss of Ian’s health with an abrupt cancer diagnosis. I mourned that night as I rushed to the hospital with the large pizza he’d asked for, barely able to read the words “Cancer Hospital” on the doors through frightened tears. Barely able to believe them. I mourned the nights that I spent wandering the hospital halls with Ian as he got his exercise—the kid who literally would run circles around me on runs together had trouble shuffling along for more than a couple of minutes. [I would do lunges as he walked—telling him that he wasn’t challenging me enough. ] We mourned when we had to settle for a fake Christmas tree at Christmastime because he was too sick to have a real one in the house. We mourned the loss of his curly “white-man-fro” the day that we shaved his hair off in the same kitchen we used to dance in. For the past several weeks, we have mourned-[is there a stronger word?]- as his body deteriorated more than I ever thought possible—and the boy that used to pick me up and do curls with me became the boy that could barely squeeze my hand. I have been overwhelmed by suffocating, numbing grief as I spent too many hours to count sitting by his bed, holding his hand in room 17 of the ICU. “ Ian, I’m here. Ashley’s here. I love you so much. You’re doing a good job, buddy. You look great! We’ve got this. I love you so much. I’m so proud of you.” Over. And over. And over again.
I prayed for him. I sang to him. I read him emails from sweet friends. I played a twenty second clip of his acappella group singing “Lean on Me” to him at least a thousand times—holding my phone up against his ear to make sure that he heard.
You may not have ever known my brother [and oh, I wish you could have!], but he’s never been a “mourning” kind of kid. In fact, I’ve never known someone so full of life-always moving, always singing, always joking and telling Emily’s dog how much he hated him and banging out new songs on the piano and complaining about girls and dancing. He looked like he might burst at any second from pent up energy and joy!
If I could change this, I would. If I could bring my little brother back, I would—I’ve never pictured my wedding day or the rest of my life without him. I still can’t. Poor kid, I don’t know how many times I made him play “wedding” when we were little—it’s certainly a scene he would have been very familiar with. But somehow, in all of His goodness and sovereignty, God chose to take Ian home. I hate it. I don’t want it. I don’t understand it. All I know is that God never changes-even when white blood cells and lungs do. When eyelashes are gone and breath is labored, God is still good. When skin is pale and the only sound you hear is the steady rush of a ventilator in a dark room, God is still good. When hands can no longer be squeezed, when you realize that your kids will never grow up knowing Uncle Ian, when you get home from the hospital and walk into his room just to try and smell him—God is not doing what we want Him to, but God is good even then. He is incapable of being anything else.
I don’t know much. I just know that the first day I got to see Ian in the ICU, I cried over his broken body and begged God to let me switch with him. I fervently meant every word—if you’re a big sister, you understand. You protect. You take the hit. I begged God to let me climb into that ICU bed—stick the vent down my throat instead! He’s too little. I can do it.
I begged, and very distinctly heard Jesus say, “Ashley, I already switched places with Ian.”
While I mourn the fact that my baby brother is gone, I know that God loves him with an intensity that I could never match. I know Ian’s having a BALL right now—there are no tears for him! [And vain thing that he was, I’m sure he’s excited to have his hair back.] And I know with absolute certainty what Ian would say if he could talk to me right now. He’d cock his curly head to the side, raise a sarcastic eyebrow at me, grin, and tell me to go dance like I meant it. Yesterday was the worst day of my whole life—but it was the BEST day of Ian’s. He got to go home.
And so I choose to celebrate. I celebrate every minute of the 21 years and 187 days that I got to be his big sister. I celebrate his life. I celebrate the beautiful truth that Ian knew Jesus, and is in heaven right now—and I get to tackle hug him the second that Jesus takes me home.
Ian loved me, and he loved Kellan. Two days before he was rushed to the ICU, we sat around making a list of all of the things he wanted to do after he’d beaten Bessie. [Something he never questioned would happen.] The very first thing out of his mouth was, “I want to come visit you and Kellan and go see a Broadway show in NY.” The very last time that he smiled was when my Mom told him that Kellan and I had just picked out our wedding bands. March 2nd is not a time for mourning—Ian would HATE that, and that would not be an accurate picture of what March 2nd signifies. God has done something beautiful in bringing Kellan and I together, and Ian was a part of it. He would want us to celebrate. And celebrate, we shall.
If you’re coming to our wedding on Saturday, you may think it’s ill timed. You may feel odd, but as my Dad mentioned to me just last night, we believe that God timed this exactly how he wanted it. We are devastated and overjoyed all at the same time—and what a sweet thing to have so many people that have loved us and prayed for us through this roller coaster ride come together over the next couple of days! You are the people that have walked with Kellan and I through our relationship, and through cancer. You will walk us through the coming months and years-and words cannot describe how grateful we are for you. We’re excited to see you. We’re excited to dance with you!
Baby brother, I miss you so much it hurts. I will every single day for the rest of my life—every single time I sit down at the piano or watch Singing in the Rain or go dancing or do anything at all. I’m so glad that you don’t hurt any more—that you have your curly hair back, and that you get to watch everything happen as Kellan and I promise each other for better or for worse. There is so, so much joy in that—and I know you share it. Dance in heaven while we’re dancing down here—I just can’t wait to dance with you again. I love you forever.
There is a time to mourn and a time to dance. -Ecclesiastes 3:4