Lots of firsts
Birthday. Engageversary. Trip. Thanksgiving. Concert. Wedding. Christmas.
Jon had a lot of hilarious nicknames for everyone. One of his many bits was calling everyone by their social media handle and correcting me when I used their given names, to the point that I still have trouble remembering some of his close industry friends’ names (lookin at you, bitterwhiteguy). One of his many nicknames for me was “my little steel-trap bloodhound” because I have a pretty sharp memory and very keen sense of smell. Grief and COVID have done a number on both of these things, but they’ll come back one day. The sights and smells and sounds of life, especially in the holiday season, are constant reminders of Jon. They remind me of the precious marriage we had, and remind me to see the world through his eyes. That perspective gives me glimmers of hope and joy in the midst of my sorrow.
Last year on November 5, Jon had his last dose of chemo that we hoped would put him into remission. The day before Thanksgiving, we had a “No Mo Chemo” party to celebrate the end of the grueling chemo he had endured the seven months prior. People with terminal cancer don’t normally get to ring the bell because they’re rarely ever actually done with chemo. Jon decided to ring the bell anyway because he finished his treatment, and we were all so dang proud of him. Then a bunch of friends surprised him at one of his favorite barbecue restaurants down the street from the hospital. It was a sweet day. By Thanksgiving he was full of energy and back to his pre-cancer self. He was vibrant, living life to the fullest, trying to have as much fun as possible while he was off treatment. He was playing with Jackson like it was his job and hooping almost every single day.
I joined him on his work trip to Vegas in mid-December, and by then, his butt pain had returned. Sitting on the plane, in hard seats at a concert, and in the car looking at Christmas lights all made his butt hurt. By Christmas, we suspected that he wasn’t in remission, and our suspicions were confirmed on December 30. Those few weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas hold some really bittersweet memories. At Thanksgiving I was blissfully unaware that it was likely my last Thanksgiving with him. At Christmas, I remember taking so many mental snapshots because I knew it might be our last. What a painful realization.
Now I am facing my first holiday season and approaching three months without Jon. These past three months have held a lot of firsts and milestones. Every few weeks a new first without him passes: His birthday. Our engagement anniversary. A trip. Thanksgiving. A concert. A wedding. Decorating for Christmas. And soon, Christmas itself. November marks two years of infertility. Jon always talked about having his own basketball team of kids. We didn’t know that Jon’s cancer was active and already affecting his fertility when we were dreaming of Baby Tjarks #2 in November 2020. These milestones, big and small, are all momentous in their own ways.
In May of 2021, Malcolm Gladwell tweeted out an article Jon wrote about facing death. I fangirled and sent screenshots to my family and friends. Across the US, another Gladwell fangirl named Stacy was browsing twitter and read Jon’s article. She was shocked that Gladwell tweeted such an overtly religious article and was intrigued at the similarities in our stories. Her husband Mark had been diagnosed with cancer early in their marriage, but is miraculously still alive today. She reached out, and a cross-country friendship was born.
Stacy and I connected over our shared love of Anne of Green Gables, Kate Bowler, Beth Moore, family, lakes, musicals, naps, and a billion other things. Jon and I talked often about visiting her and Mark in Minnesota, but were never able to make it happen between his treatment schedule and declining health. After he passed away, Stacy offered to fly me out to Minnesota and I gladly accepted. My “if this is a catfish or a creeper” plan was to reach out to Jon’s friend Dane who lives in Minneapolis and hung out with us at Summer League and crash on his couch. Luckily, I did not need to execute on my plan cause it was bestie-at-first-sight with Stacy. She is so kind and poured out the wisdom she’s gleaned from years living with a chronic illness and walking with the Lord. I was barely a month out from losing Jon, and that trip was such a balm to the soul.
My first night in Minneapolis, we went to the Mall of America to ride the rollercoasters. We showed up at 8:12pm and the rides stopped going at 9pm, so we thought we’d maybe get one ride in. Something was busted with their system, so they couldn’t scan tickets and were just letting everyone ride for free. There were only a handful of people in the park, so somehow I convinced Stacy to go on the coaster with the biggest drop. I think maybe it had something to do with me begging her and saying “my husband just died and this will absolutely make me feel better.” So we did it! It was terrifying and fun and I’m so glad we did it.
As we were getting off the ride, we were practically skipping we were so giddy. I was donning my least flattering giddy/proud/goofy smile, and happened to make eye contact with a guy who was at the park. I immediately looked away because I did not want him to think my eye contact indicated any interest, and I was also skittish around single men. (Side note: Was is the wrong word there. I definitely still am skittish. Shoutout to all the guys who are single & ready to mingle and have graciously endured the “you better not fall in love with me” conversation. Or the flip side of the same coin, “if we talk too deeply, I might have feelings for you” conversation. Connecting deeply spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally was the foundation of my relationship with Jon, and it’s hard to disentangle that type of connection with romantic interest in my mind. Yes there are multiple of you, and a few have had the pleasure of having that talk more than once. Thanks for handling it like champs and continuing to treat me like a sister friend.)
Stacy and I went on to ride the Dora the Explorer ferris wheel that’s intended for toddlers and had literally no one in line. As we were about to begin our ride, eye contact man showed up in line and asked if he could join us. We squished in and made small talk and found out his name was Ray. After some more conversation and a log ride that ended up with Ray very drenched and Stacy and I very dry, Ray asked if I was married. I looked him dead in the eye and said “no, but I feel like I still am. My husband died a month ago.” Ray was not deterred and asked for my number. I froze and didn’t know what to do, so I gave it to him. At that point, I had already determined that Ray is not the man for me. But, I appreciated the gesture and a holler from a good looking man. As Jon always said, shooters shoot.
White Rock Lake is one of my happy places, and after home and church, probably the place I’ve spent the most time at. Dallas doesn’t have many nature-y places, so it is a little oasis in our very flat, concrete city. I spent many mornings and every afternoon there rowing when I was growing up. I’ve walked thousands of miles there, talking with friends and praying. It’s where Jon asked me to be his girlfriend. It’s where he attempted to teach me to play chess and took me on many dates. It’s where he would have proposed, except he wanted to keep it a secret and correctly assumed I would know if we started driving that direction. It’s where we’d go when we needed an outing during COVID. It’s where we realized something was seriously wrong with his health because he couldn’t walk more than a few feet without his temp spiking.
Just after we were engaged, Jon started the tradition of going out to the lake on Thanksgiving morning. We’d sit on the dock and talk about what we were thankful for that past year. We’d reflect on what God had done in our lives, and talk about what we wanted to be saying on the dock a year later. We’d set goals, but from a place of thankfulness rather than striving. Each year we’d talk and walk and laugh. Some of our most foundational practices in marriage started with those dock conversations. This year, I wasn’t really sure how to handle it. Should I go, or would it be too painful? As I was trying to decide, a friend asked if I’d like to go walk at White Rock the day before Thanksgiving. She is a newer friend, so she had no idea about our annual tradition or my deep love of the lake.
After she and I went on our walk, I dragged myself to the dock and pulled out my journal. I remembered the past year, and all the suffering we went through together. I wept over not getting to continue the tradition with Jon this year and future years. And I told God all the things I’m thankful for: my family who have loved Jackson and me so well, Bernie who has become my bonus mom and best friend, the rotation of girls that dragged me out of bed and rocked me to sleep when Jon first died, the friends that continue Jon’s habit of bringing me flowers every week, the guys who play with and talk to Jackson like he is their own son, the co-workers who have linked arms to cover me in prayer and carry my workload, the friends across the globe who have interceded for us and opened their homes to us, and the strangers who have given financial gifts to our family to cover all of our expenses and then some. If ever I questioned the generosity of others—in time, giving, or assumptions—I stand corrected. People have been incredibly generous.
If you’ve talked to me about prayer requests, you’ve likely heard me mention something about how we should spend our time. How much at home just the two of us? How much with families so that he can be with his spiritual siblings and dads and I can be with my brothers and sisters in Christ? How much of him with his grandparents and me with my single friends / girlfriends? It’s been something I’ve been praying through since Jon died, and I felt like I was finally able to bring all the pieces together into a clear schedule. Praise God for that.
As I prayed through what I want to be saying on the dock next year, I was reminded of a song I’ve been playing on repeat lately called A Prayer for Grace by Morgan Harper Nichols. The lyrics say:
“If I could make just one request that would mark all the days I have left, I’d rather not be known for treasures and fame or trophies and accolades I know will fade. Instead I would rather be known by the kindness and love that I show, to be know for patience and longsuffering; a giver of life by the words that I speak. So with every breath you give to breathe, I pray it’s your glory that they see. And of all of the words this world could say, may they say I am full of grace.”
No matter what happens with my life or circumstances this next year, I just want to give glory to God. I want to look back and say I was filled with joy and peace. I just want people to know that in the midst of their deepest pain, there is hope and that there is grace for them.
Decorating for Christmas
Jon loved Christmas. Like I mean loooooooveddd Christmas. He loved any excuse to be festive and celebrate, but particularly enjoyed the meaning behind the season. At Christmas he was just so extra. He’d make any excuse to go out and look at Christmas lights or listen to Christmas music. He just loved celebrating Jesus’ birth and thanking God for what he’d done. How inflatable Star Wars characters with Santa hats on them relate to the gospel, I do not know, but Jon loved that type of Christmas decor too.
When I was pregnant with Jackson, my back hurt so badly that I couldn’t hang the Christmas ornaments on the tree. I told Jon the tree was just going to be nakey that year. But he was not about that life. I laid on the couch while Jon hung the ornaments, giving hilarious commentary on each one.
When we were engaged, he stole an ornament off my parents’ tree and put it front and center on ours right before a Christmas party at our house. It features a picture of my 13-year-old self grinning from ear to ear, looking SO proud of my braces. It was his all-time favorite picture of me because obviously I was SO stunning at 13. Mid-party I saw it on the tree, looked over at him, and he burst out laughing. He stole it so many years in a row that my mom ended up just giving him the ornament. I’d find it in our house randomly throughout the year, hanging on a lamp or from the bathroom mirror or on our front door.
After Thanksgiving, I went home and put up all of our Christmas decorations. This year, I hung just two stockings instead of three. I hung the brace-face ornament proudly at eye level on the middle of the tree, but know it’ll just live in the box the rest of the year until Jackson figures out how to prank me. I cried remembering all of our tender memories.
This weekend, I went to a beloved co-worker’s wedding. Between dwelling on Thanksgiving and Christmas, I didn’t spend much time thinking about the wedding itself. I carpooled with a few friends, including my former boss who has walked with me through so much, both personally and professionally, and my co-worker who was widowed at 29 and has helped me SO much along this journey. (Side note: I work at a company of 40ish employees. What are the odds that THREE of us are widows under the age of 35?!)
As the bridesmaids walked down the aisle, one of "our songs” started playing. Cue the waterworks. I was tempted to push all my feelings aside, but like so much in grief, knew that if I didn’t face it in that moment, it’d come back around later. One friend held my hand while the other bear hugged me and we all sobbed together. I couldn’t have picked better friends to sit between.
When we were engaged, I tried to float the idea that we write our own vows. I thought a writer would certainly want to pen his own vows. Jon wasn’t adamant about many things, or particularly traditional, but he was not interested in writing his own vows. He loved the traditional vows, and I was glad to have something ticked off of our to-do list, so that’s what we used. Before he died, we talked a lot about our vows. We joked about how we thought “for richer, for poorer” would be our biggest problem in the early years of marriage, and we wouldn’t face “in sickness, in health” until we were old and wise. In one of our last long conversations, he told me through tear-filled eyes that he was so sorry that I would have to be single again and raise Jackson without him. He knew how long I waited to be married and how deep of a desire marriage and family was for me, and he was heartbroken that those hopes may be deferred. He told me I had been an amazing wife to him. At the end of the conversation, he thanked me for upholding our vows. Every morning when Jon was on hospice, I put my rings on and thought about how it was an honor to be Jon Tjarks’ bride for another day. The evening he died, I remember laying in bed thinking about how we fulfilled our vows. ‘Til death do us part. We did it.
As my friends said their vows, I was filled with such hope for their future, praying that they too will fulfill their vows. There is nothing quite like looking deeply into your best friend’s eyes and pledging your life to them. It’s a beautiful and tender and powerful moment, and a blessing to witness.
I’ve often thought about how proud God is of Jon and how he lived the last two years. While my friends were saying their vows, I felt like God said he was proud of me too. That was really cool.
We got to the reception and I happened to catch the groom’s eye as I was walking past the head table toward the buffet line. The moment the groom saw me, he burst into tears. Then the bride looked over and started tearing up too. They thanked me for coming to their wedding. The fact that they could recognize my sorrow in the midst of their joy and take a moment to focus on me on their big day was just so kind. I know for a fact I was not that empathetic on my wedding day!
To my sweet bride and groom, and to all my co-workers who hugged me and prayed for me and cared for me at that wedding, I love you. Thank you for loving me so well.
For KING & COUNTRY puts on a phenomenal Christmas show each year. They also happen to be my bestie Brooke’s brothers-in-law. Jon and I have gone to a lot of their Dallas shows, and it’s been so cool to see them go from playing the main stage at the state fair to filling up American Airlines Center.
The last time we were at the AAC for a concert was Justin Bieber earlier this year. Jon wasn’t the biggest concert guy, but he was a big fun guy. I LOVE concerts of bands I’m really into, and I love to dance. Jon figured out early in marriage that taking me to a concert of one of my favorite bands would make my whole month, so he was always on the lookout for good shows. Did Jon listen to the Biebs? No. Did he dance the whole show with me and have the time of his life? HECK YES. And he screamed the words of the two songs he knew along with me and every other 15 year old in Dallas.
I was pretty nervous about going back to the AAC because of that last memory and then all the mavs memories too since that’s where they play. But Brookie is my bestie, Jackson loves music so much, and FK&C graciously comped us tickets. So we took Jackson to his very first concert outside the womb. He was MESMERIZED. Something that enamors a toddler for two hours is just freakin incredible. And gosh it was such a good show!
Grief and what (not) to say to a widow
If you’ve read this far and you’re thinking to yourself ‘wow, she’s really got her stuff together’ or ‘gosh, she’s really doing grief so well”, please toss that notion straight out the window. Grief is not something to be “done well” and I am on the hot mess express most days.
I cry at the weirdest things, and I don’t cry when I’d expect to. I didn’t cry at Jon’s funeral, but I cried when I saw my neighbor’s political sign that said “Hugh Jasole Governor 2022” because it was hilarious and I wanted to laugh about it with Jon and couldn’t.
I am late to everything, and I hate it so much. I do and say things that are just not appropriate for the moment. I forget things constantly. I tell my family and co-workers to text or slack me things after they’ve literally just said them to my face because if I don’t write it down and put it in the calendar, I forget it. I am so tender-hearted that I get touchy at the drop of the hat and have to remind myself many times a day to assume the best in people. I am upset by innocuous things and don’t mind things that are downright offensive. I’ve heard some pretty ludicrous things about Jon and about my grief. Some are said to my face, and some are whispered behind my back.
You name it, I’ve heard it. Here’s my current greatest hits of what not to say to a widow:
You’re acting so normal. Do you even miss him?
Yes. I do. Maybe I’m acting “normal” because I can’t trust you with my tears, don’t have any tears left to cry, or don’t know if you’ll respond with empathy. Or maybe I just want to have fun and laugh in this moment. Widows are allowed to laugh too.
I mean he wasn’t that good of a basketball analyst anyway, I don’t understand why everyone is taking it this hard.
Why would you say something like this about someone? If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.
He was kind of a jerk when I knew him, but I’m glad he was nice to you.
Ah, thanks for that. I guess he was really a jerk when he was a young man based on stories he told me, but maybe share that with someone else while my grief is so fresh and see the bullet above.
Why do you want to hang out with single people anyway?
Because sometimes being around married people all the time reminds me of what I’m missing out on. Also, sometimes I just want to go do something fun.
At least you have Jackson to remember Jon by. Some widows don’t have children. At least you got to be married. At least (insert thought here).
As if Jackson isn’t his own person? And as if a child replaces a spouse? Anything that starts with “at least” is better left unsaid. It does not make me feel better.
Can me or my loved one get the cancer he had?
Yes. But the chance of you or a loved one getting ewing’s sarcoma is less likely than the chance of getting struck by lightning. So don’t stress. Also, google can answer this one for you.
Every time I asked him about his cancer, he deflected. Was he emotionally healthy?
He didn’t like to talk about his cancer with you because you weren’t in his inner circle. Or maybe he just needed a break from cancer talk. Our families, lifegroup, and closest friends talked about cancer ad nauseam with Jon. Sometimes he just wanted to shoot the breeze and talk hoops.
All of these thoughts are well-meaning (I hope), but they can just come across as callous or insensitive. If you see me and start to make a judgement, good or bad, just pause. Instead, ask how my day has been or tell me a story that reminds you of Jon. Assume the best in me. If I’m laughing, laugh with me! If I’m crying, hold my hand and cry with me. If I say something weird, just brush it aside and remember my character hasn’t changed and I’m still somewhere inside here. Don’t try to change the subject, cheer me up when I’m down, or bring me down when I’m up. Don’t shy away from talking about him or asking about how I’m doing. I will always love to talk about Jon. He was Jackson’s dad and my husband and I will always be proud of those facts. These things make me feel very cared for.
Faith for things unseen
God is with me. I feel his presence and nearness deeply. He is kind in the big and the small. I can continue to ask my questions while I believe that he is still good, despite Jon’s death or whether he answers my questions this side of heaven. “Give us this day our daily bread” has never been more real in my life than in these past six or so months. He is redeeming what he’s allowed, and will continue to do so. That does not mean that my life will look pretty and everything will all work out in a tidy fashion.
When I read the Hebrews 11 “Hall of Faith” passage, I’m reminded that none of these saints lived easy lives. Noah was ridiculed by his peers for building an ark because they’d never seen rain and he was building a boat and talking about a flood. Abraham wandered around the desert leading stubborn people to their promised land, but didn’t even get to enter because he was not fully obedient. Joseph was sold to slave traders by his brothers because they were so jealous that he was his dad’s favorite, and then he did some time in prison and was forgotten by the people he helped get out of prison. I do not envy these saints, and frankly I don’t love the idea of following in their footsteps.
“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” Hebrews 11:39-40
Not many things in this life are universal, but suffering is one of them. We all suffer. We all die. What a bright, sunny, hopeful thought! So how do I grapple with the suffering I’ve experienced and the suffering that’s yet to come? And how do I reconcile a loving God with this broken world? These saints were promised SO much, and the majority of it was not realized before they went to heaven. I know a lot of the things I’ve been promised will not come until after I breathe my last.
In this life, I’ll face more suffering. I’ll likely bury my grandparents and parents and Bernie and a sibling or two. Jackson will do something that will break my heart one day. I sure hope that Jon’s death is my biggest heartache, but it may not be. It gives me a lot of peace to read about the saints who have gone before in Hebrews 11 because they were dealt some of life’s worst hands and were still full of faith. I often reflect on Jon’s mentality as he passed from this world to heaven. Jon didn’t get to see his dreams realized or achieve the fullness of the things promised to him while he was alive. He didn’t get to raise his son or have his basketball team of children. But oh man, he was at peace with God. He had some rough days for sure, but he did not become jaded or bitter as every freedom was stripped from him. He just made a lot of jokes and made the best of his situation. He told me how much he loved me and wrote to Jackson with even more passion. His suffering gave him perspective. And now he is reveling in the fulfillment of those promises.
I’m pretty convinced that the line between heaven and earth is much thinner than we assume. I think Jon’s able to watch my life and Jackson’s life unfold without feeling any sorrow. He knows that it’ll be just a moment until we join him in heaven, where time is not a construct and every tear will be wiped away. I can just hear him saying “it’ll just be a minute ‘til you’re here baby! It’s worth it! You got this!”
Even when I face the hardest day, the coming redemption of my suffering and the suffering of others gives me so much hope. One day, I’ll run to Jesus and just be in his presence and rest in that fullness of joy. In that moment, I won’t have to worry about my future or Jon’s death or how the heck I am going to get Jackson to nap at school by January 9, or else he’s required to leave at noon because he’s being so loud that none of the other kids are napping. (Yes that is today’s worry, and please pray for us because I need my guy to get his sleep schedule on lock and thrive at school.) This hope of a future where everything is made right doesn’t erase all of my current worries and struggles, but it puts things in their right place. Just a moment yet ‘til I’m in heaven with Jesus. Until then, I’ll keep talking to God, asking my questions and singing his praises.
A quick thanks
After being married to a writer, working with content producers for a living, and spending a good chunk of my work week editing, you’d think I have a good mental grasp on the writing process. But LOL joke’s on me cause writing takes foreevverrr. I’ve been mulling over this post for a while, and I have all these thoughts just bouncing around in my head. I keep sitting down to collect them, and then I’ll get distracted by dumb things that I decide I just have to do. IMMEDIATELY.
I don’t have editors of my own like Jon’s phenomenal editors (shoutout Justin and Matt, love y’all), and this blog is for funsies, so I have no deadlines either. To all of you who have been asking “hey, uh, what about that blog?”, thank you for gently encouraging me to pen my thoughts. Keep asking and hopefully I’ll keep posting semi-regularly.
I made this playlist after Jon died. It’s full of songs that have really spoken to me over the past few months. If you’re going through something hard, I highly recommend giving it a listen. The titular track is derived from Proverbs 27:6, and you should definitely listen to at least that song.
Resilient by John Eldredge
Highly, highly recommend. Like WOAH it’s that good. This book talks about healthily becoming resilient, but in a way that isn’t the normal “but how do I apply this practically” vibe that you get from self-help type books. He talks a lot about recovering from the collective trauma we experienced as a result of the pandemic, and it’s really helpful. PS - John Eldredge was one of Jon’s favorite authors too.
The Hot Young Widows Club by Nora McInerny
If you want a quick read to better understand what’s going on in the mind of widows, or fresh grievers in general, this is super good. The title is a little bit intimidating, because do I really think I belong in that club? But the author hosts a pod called Terrible, Thanks for Asking that I really enjoy and the book was a great read.
The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor
A friend recommended this, and I blew through it. So many principles that Jon practiced in everyday life are in this book. If you’re wondering how to be happier without changing your circumstances, this is a good one. If you supervise anyone at all, I highly recommend this too. Happier employees are more efficient employees.
The Bible by God
I think I’m so funny with this. But for real, Psalm 42 and Matthew 11:28-30 have been my go-tos this past month. If you’re struggling with the bible and how dry the language can be in some translations, try reading it in the Passion or Message. Most people will say to start in John to hear the story of Jesus, but I vote to start in the Psalms or 1 John. They’re just easier reads and have some really good content, imho. PS - If you judge people for reading the aforementioned translations, did you read your bible today? You didn’t, did you?! Shame, shame. Check yourself and don’t be a pharisee.
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.
Matthew 11: 28-30
As if this post isn’t long enough already, here are some pictures of our life lately. Hope you’ve enjoyed my novel!
Yay I’m so glad you’re writing again! I love hearing stories about Jon’s many quirks. And I love the way you carry them with you.
I’m sure I told you this at the time, but I was lucky enough to run into Jon at the gym once during his post-chemo hooping days. He was so full of life— you could tell he was in his element. It’s truly confusing to have had that glimmer of hope, and the emotional whiplash from the cancer coming back so quickly. But I still hold that memory in my heart warmly.
P.S. I honestly can’t believe some of the stuff people have said to you, WOW. Like you aren’t dealing with enough right now. Lmk if you need someone to throw hands or write a strongly-worded letter
Reading Jon's writing was one of the great joys of my basketball-loving life. I selfishly mourned his passing and wondered if I would ever connect with pieces of writing like that again. Evidently, that power runs in the family, because these posts have blown my mind. Your talent for summarizing the joys and sorrows has been a revelation and in reading, I've caught myself stopping to consider my own relationship with the Lord. I can't think of anything in my life to this point that has impacted me in quite the same way. Thank you for sharing.