Sometimes family is people you’re biologically related to and sometimes family is the people who become part of your life and shape and mould you in profound ways, without sharing bloodlines or a last-name or even a common background.
For me, some of the first people who tangibly showed me that family has far less to do with biology or genetics and a whole more lot to do with the love that connects us - across years and distance and through hell and in moments of joy indescribable - were the Kahlers.
Bri became my best friend in middle school and her family quickly took on the affectionate title of my “second-family” in those years and throughout high school where we went to school and played sports and did, well, virtually everything together. Her parents, Dave & Renaye, were/are two of the most authentic, contagiously adventurous, and steady followers of Christ I knew/know and being around their family always felt simultaneously welcoming and epic.
Renaye was, in so many ways, the epitome of hospitality to me. She loved having people over and throwing parties and had a knack for creating spaces and contexts where people felt loved and cared for and even celebrated. I’ll always remember when she pulled me aside at Bri’s graduation party and told me “just because Bri’s done with school (she was a year ahead of me) doesn’t mean we don’t want to see you around here next year.” She was absolutely selfless, wise in an amazingly down-to-earth way, incredibly kind, and had the most endearingly cheesy sense of humour. She taught me in so many ways that life was too short to sweat the small things and that every day was full of goodness to be cherished.
When I asked Bri to write a bit about her mom, she wrote: “She was not only my mom but also my best friend. She taught me so much. I remember every morning her opening her Bible to do a devotional. What a legacy she left us. I remember her jokes. She had four or five she would always tell and usually the punch line or the actual story with the joke was mixed up. She was a wise woman, loving wife, selfless mom and woman after God.”
“She was always game for whatever everyone else wanted to do. She was the most selfless person. As a mom she always put her kids' needs before hers.” A clear example of this is that as it became more and more likely that she was nearing the end of her battle with cancer, she made videos for Jeremy (Bri’s older brother) and Bri for different stages in their lives: kids, graduation, marriage. As Bri says “I can't imagine how difficult that would have been for her. We wanted her there for those stages as much as she wanted to be there for all of them.”
There’s a beautiful and particularly humbling thing about people who become such a key part of your story in particularly significant seasons - and especially in seasons when you knew little of who you were or who you would become. I laugh a bit now about the version of myself that I was in high school, but I can’t look back at that or the grace over how I’ve grown since then and not see the impact of Renaye’s life and the influence of Dave & Renaye’s support and belief in me as an adopted part of the crew of Bri and Jeremy’s friends that they opened their lives and home to during high school.
When I think about Renaye, it always hits me that she lived a life full of joy and whimsy and that the vast majority of that unfolded in ordinary spaces: in the moments so real and deep and beautiful and powerful and joy-filled that you hardly know the significance of them until they’re in the rear-view mirror and all you want is to have them back. The moments when we can feel God’s smile so profoundly ad where the most sacred act of worship we can perform is to just soak it all in and live it up as if we actually understand how incredible this gift of living really is.
She showed me in a thousand ways that so much of the beauty of life unfolds, not necessarily in the “big” moments of achievement or success, but in the seemingly mundane moments of laughter and conversation and good food and spontaneous bike rides and rock climbing adventures with your family and freezing cold camping trips and work-days at their family farm and track meets and soccer games and decorating christmas cookies and dancing around to Christmas carols in November and snowshoeing and going to the lake no matter how cold the water would be.
She and the whole Kahler family gave me the incredible example of what it means to really live - to be joyfully and gloriously alive. And a glimpse of what it means to love the people and moments God blesses us with fully and completely. To eat amazing food, to wear your favourite cute shoes on random days because you can, to be crazy generous and breathtakingly hospitable, to use a purple vacuum because it’s more fun and life is to short to be bored or bogged down by chores when you can make them fun, to bring blankets to the lake so you can go earlier in the year and thus spend more time with your family, and to seek and soak up as many moments with the people you love. Her enthusiasm and joy smile and generosity were so clearly reflective of how deeply she understood Jesus’ love.
We lost Renaye on October 28th - 6 years ago. It’s a bit crazy to think of all that has happened in that space. How much healing and restoration has unfolded since that day. How real the redemption of Jesus has been - and is - in shadow of death. How much we’ve grown and how much we’ve walked through.
This past spring I was able to visit Bri and as we walked around the tiny local lake in that small town where we’d walked and ran and biked hundreds of times before, we talked about how much things have changed since we were the starry-eyed 15-year olds dreaming about who we would become and what life would look like someday. About all the dreams we saw come to pass and all the things that happened so much differently than we expected. Had anyone told us in high school that we’d both lose a parent to cancer before our 22nd birthdays, we never would have believed them. And yet, we walked, tears in our eyes, talking about how much that reality has changed both of us forever.
I remember walking and crying and praying with Bri when my Dad was first diagnosed with cancer. And her celebrating with me when his cancer went into remission. I remember bawling in my university dorm room when she called me to tell me that her Mom now had cancer too. I remember scraping together all of the money I had to spend some time with Renaye and Bri and their family in the weeks before she died and I still think that’s some of the best money I’ve ever spent. I remember crying with Bri the morning of her wedding because her mom wasn’t there and dancing the night away in celebration too. I remember calling her from the hospital when we lost my Dad and both of us bawling together without any words. I remember countless text messages and Skype conversations where we’d be able to say very little beyond “I know” - and we both knew on the deepest level possible that we did know and we would always know without many words to describe it: how much it hurt, how much it felt like it would never not hurt, and also how crazy faithful and more-beautiful than we could describe Jesus was with us in all of it.
But it hit me in a really tangible way as we walked and talked and laughed at old stories and about our new contexts that life does follow death and growth does come out of places of loss and the darkness of mourning does, somehow, turn into to the celebration of new life.
Bri walked with her almost newborn son cradled against her chest and I chased and ran alongside and giggled with her stunning 2-year old daughter. She and Dan’s house was full of art and photos and toys and the kind of real-life-unfolding-in-ordinary spaces that we always dreamed of, seeing Bri as a mum made my eyes swell with pride for the woman she is and how clearly she carries Renaye’s legacy, and my heart just swelled with this indescribable gratitude for the faithfulness and goodness of God.
So - here's to you, incredible Renaye. To all the ways you taught us to embrace all the adventure and joy and people that fill our lives and our homes. To your generous spirit, your laid-back sense of humour, your deep and contagious love for your family (and the people you adopted as your family), & your steady pursuit of Jesus. My life will forever be marked by how well you lived yours. //
Throughout Project Hope, I'll be running a race for each one of my family members that we've lost to cancer - 9 running races in total - and taking part in the Love Does Bike Tour in May 2016: to celebrate how crazy beautiful life is, to honour those that we’ve lost to cancer, to mark that cancer and death and injuries and sickness aren't the end of the story, & to support the incredible work of Restore International in Uganda, India, Nepal, Somalia, and Iraq. To find out more about the project: click here; and/or how you can get involved/support this goal: click here.