(This is a letter I wrote to friends in 1996, in the days prior to the internet when people actually mailed letters to each other.)
My wife Elizabeth died of cancer on February 10, 1996. She is survived by our sons, Andrew Hunter, age 11; Matthew Blair, age 8; and Nathaniel Lee, age 6. I am writing this letter to tell you about our recent experiences and to thank all of you who have helped us, have expressed concern for us, and have prayed for us. My desire is that this letter be for the glory of God and that it honor Elizabeth.
As recently as Labor Day of 1995, we had no clue as to the dramatic changes our family would soon face. On Labor Day we decided to take a family outing to Hanging Lake near Glenwood Springs. I was scheduled to leave on Air Force deployment the following weekend and had a ton of stuff that needed to be done. I had a legitimate excuse on why we shouldn't go, but I’ve used excuses too often in the past. I really wanted us to have a great time together as a family. We had a glorious day. We hiked up a trail up to one of the most beautiful areas of the world. No one passed our family. We hiked to the top of the mountain. We had incredible determination as we took off at a fast and steady pace, never slowed down and played in the mountains throughout the day as a family, appreciating the awesome magnificent of God's handiwork.
On the long drive home we talked about Job—that hard-luck guy from the Bible. Job, a rich guy who was living the good life, faithfully worshipped and praised God. The Devil told God that Job wouldn’t be so faithful if he lost all his good stuff. God knew Job would be faithful, and allowed the Devil to do his nastiest to Job. In spite of losing all his possessions, having his ten children killed, and being covered in painful boils, Job never lost his faith in God. I had just read that story, and realized for the first time that God had never bothered to explain to Job why all this had happened. Elizabeth and I discussed that God doesn’t always tell us his plans for us. (Elizabeth and I often discussed stories from the Bible when we wanted to have a thoughtful and fun conversation.)
The boys usually fall asleep soon after we get in our van. After strenuous excursions but two hours into our four hour drive home Elizabeth also fell asleep. She had not been feeling well lately and scheduled a doctor’s appointment for the following week.
There were lot of urgent messages on our answering machine when we returned home late that evening. Elizabeth’s father had suddenly died that day. Elizabeth and her father had been very close to each other. So our entire family flew to South Carolina the next day.
After the funeral for Elizabeth’s father, I returned to Denver for just a day to unpack and to repack. I am still flying with the Air Force Reserves as a C-130 navigator, and had been scheduled for a two-week deployment with my military unit to Panama. I went with my unit to Panama, and was in the second week of the deployment when I received THE CALL.
Elizabeth had gone in for her previously scheduled medical tests. The doctors didn't like what they saw and ordered more tests. The initial diagnosis was that most dreaded of words—cancer. Immediate surgery was recommended.
The folks in my Air Force reserve unit were absolutely great. They did a lot of coordination in a short period of time. I was scheduled to depart on a mission to Venezuela in a few hours, but a substitute was found to fly in my place. They got me on a flight “Back to the States” and back to my wife.
Elizabeth had renal cell carcinoma, which is a type of kidney cancer. She underwent surgery within a couple of days to remove the cancerous kidney. During the surgery, her lymph nodes were tested, and the cancer was found to have spread to them. The surgeon spent hour after hour in a heroic attempt to remove each of the cancerous nodes that it was humanly possible to remove.
Elizabeth and I now really had our faith tested. Life had been pretty good for us. There were many times when Elizabeth, Hunter, Blair, Lee and I would be hiking or even just together home as a family that it really seemed to me that we were experiencing heaven on earth. Although our lives were busier than we would have preferred, we made sure we took time to be with each other and to enjoy ourselves as family.
In our past few years Elizabeth and I had become, what I’ll call for lack of a better term, hard-core Christians. Many Christians seem to be Christians in name only. Church for many seems to be a social club and a place to spend an hour a week, if convenient. However, if we really believe that the Bible is the revealed word of God, it seems that we would actually read it. Some people read the Bible as a task that isn’t really enjoyed. I’ve heard that drinking prune juice is supposed to be good for me, but I don’t do it. However, both Elizabeth and I found real excitement in our Bible studies and in our prayer lives. Every time we’d read the Bible we’d discover new and dynamic truths we had never before realized. We really looked forward to our couple’s Bible study, and Elizabeth really enjoyed her women’s Bible group. Our week just seemed to be lacking if we were not able to attend these.
For the past year I’ve read Bible stories to our sons each night. These have been thoroughly enjoyable times for us to spend together. The guys really get on me for those nights when I get lazy and don’t read and discuss their stories. I especially remember the night we read the story of when the Syrians were laying siege to the Israeli city of Samaria. The Syrians were trained warriors with iron spears and shields. The Israelites were shepherds with sticks and sheep. Which side would you rather be on in that battle? Well the Syrians heard in their minds a thundering army bearing down on them, and they all ran for their lives, leaving their weapons and their treasures behind. About an hour and a half after I started reading the story to our sons, we were still excitedly discussing it. Elizabeth finally informed us that the guys needed to get a bit of sleep before school the next day. She was right, and I finally made the guys sack out. But we couldn’t wait until the next night to discuss the story further.
In the hospital after the surgery, Elizabeth began a new ministry. Elizabeth loved life, and lived it with enthusiasm. She had three young sons whom she poured her life into. Elizabeth didn’t want to die, but she wasn’t afraid to die. Elizabeth had a deep faith based on the word of God. She knew that Jesus had died on the cross for her, in order to forgive her of her sins and to give her everlasting life. Elizabeth knew that she would be going to an even better place after she died. As other people visited Elizabeth in the hospital to give her strength and comfort, she gave strength and comfort to them.
In late November, Elizabeth and I flew out to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) near Washington, D.C. The NCI is conducting research on kidney cancer, and was looking for patients who were willing to go through an experimental medical program. There are over 100 different types of cancer. The standard treatments for cancer are surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Unfortunately, none of these has ever cured kidney cancer. The NCI has been studying a compound called Interluken, which is a natural body compound. That compound is synthetically manufactured and then injected into a person. This treatment has caused a remission of the cancer in some kidney cancer patients.
After we got to the NCI, the doctors there needed to study her medical records before she entered into the treatment program. However, our local hospital had not sent out all the needed medical records, so Elizabeth and I had to wait until those records could be found and sent to the NCI. I called our hospital and told them how much we were inconvenienced by having to wait for those records. Elizabeth and I therefore had four additional days to wait around. Those turned out to be glorious days. We did a bit of traveling through the D.C. metro area. However, most of the time we merely held each other and talked and prayed. What started out as an inconvenience turned into a blessing.
Elizabeth completed the treatment at the NCI, then we returned home to Colorado in time for Christmas. Christmas time was great. Some of my family drove to our home in Colorado from Iowa, and we all had a great time together. We played football in the park with the kids, ate lots of good food, talked, and laughed. One of the pictures at the end of this letter was taken on Christmas day at our home in Aurora. During that time, we watched our favorite TV show, Touched by an Angel, together one last time as a family. That particular show was a drama about a family that finally comes together in love before one of the parents dies.
Elizabeth returned to D.C. for additional treatment. She was met there by her sister. After the treatment, she and her sister returned to South Carolina to visit their mother. However, Elizabeth became ill while there and was admitted to the local hospital. Her doctor told me the condition was serious and that her remaining time on this earth was very limited. Hunter, Blair, Lee, and I flew to South Carolina to be with my wife and their mother.
One of the most difficult things I have ever had to do was to explain all of this to our sons. Soon after we arrived in South Carolina and I had been able to speak to her doctor at length, I explained to our sons that we would continue to pray that Mom would get well, but that the doctors did not expect her to live very much longer.
We spent our last eight days together as a family. Hunter had several long talks with his mother during this visit. Hunter asked his mother what it felt like knowing that she was about to die. She told Hunter that she liked the life she was living, and that Hunter was a large part of why she so much enjoyed being alive. But she also told Hunter that she wasn’t afraid to die, because she knew she’d be going to heaven. Hunter had many other questions and comments, all of which were discussed in love.
Elizabeth was getting weaker by the day. I didn’t want our sons to have to watch this. I then made the decision to return the boys to Colorado. Before we left, I told the guys that we’d be leaving on Wednesday afternoon, January 31st, and that they probably would not see their mother alive again. Each of our sons spent time alone with Elizabeth and me. There were lots of hugs and lots of love. Then our entire family met together for the last time. We again told each other how much we loved each other, then said goodbye.
During our time together, I asked for Elizabeth’s forgiveness. I have always managed to keep food on the table, had never beaten her, and had always been faithful. However, a good marriage requires so much more. I had tried to be a good husband, but know of so much more that I could and should have done. Elizabeth smiled, and forgave me. It wasn’t until after she died that I realized just how important that forgiveness was to mean to me.
The three boys and I flew back to Aurora. I didn’t really have any direction at that time. I figured the boys needed me. We had left South Carolina on the best of terms. I wasn’t at all enthusiastic about returning to watch my wife slowly die.
Wise men seek Godly counsel. A strong Christian man (my father) helped me to realize that my place was with my wife. I quickly found places for our boys to stay, then returned yet again to South Carolina.
Two days before Elizabeth died, I was awake in my hotel room at 11:45 at night. At that moment, I came the closest I have ever come to hearing the word of God spoken directly to me. I was told to go to Elizabeth. So I went to Elizabeth. At the hospital I asked the nurses to help arrange Elizabeth’s hospital bed so I could lie down next to her. The nurses were very willing to help, and I laid down in the hospital bed next to my wife. What followed was a night of prayer, reflection, and contemplation. There was peace and contentment that I have never known before. That was a night that I will always treasure in my heart.
When Elizabeth passed on, she was attended by her husband, her mother, her brother, her sister, and her pastor.
I now had the task of giving this news to family and friends. Telling my mom and dad was relatively easy. Telling our sons was not.
While Elizabeth was in the hospital and our sons were back in Colorado, I called and talked with them daily. One day, our son Blair asked if Mom was getting better. I told him that she wasn’t, and that the doctor was not expecting her to get better. Blair told me to fire the doctor.
Elizabeth had been non-responsive for the last days of her life. I heard others discuss how they would want their life ended Kevorkian-style if they had been in Elizabeth’s position. Many of these people seemed to believe that there was no purpose to Elizabeth’s last days. However, if she had died earlier, I would have missed that special night we spent together. In fact, there were other issues which were resolved the very morning she died. God’s timing was perfect. Most of the people who saw the situation from another perspective probably thought the timing was wrong. God doesn’t need to explain to all those people why his timing was right. Whether or not others realized it, God’s timing was right, and it was precise.
Elizabeth truly loved the South, and asked to be buried there. However, she hated the racism which exists there. It saddened her greatly that, other than a couple of guys in a police escort, no black individuals had chosen to attend her father’s funeral. The Sunday worship hour in the South has been called the most segregated hour. Think Jesus likes that?
I met a pastor in her home town named Dr. Danny Murphy. I found Dr. Murphy to be one of the most dynamic, caring Christians I have ever met. I attended a Sunday worship service with his congregation and found the service to be one of the most Christ-honoring services I have ever attended. Pastor Murphy also happens to be a black man. I asked Pastor Murphy to help conduct the funeral service for Elizabeth.
Elizabeth’s funeral was beautiful. One of the pastors told me it was one of the best religious services of any kind he had ever participated in. Pastor Murphy brought a singer and piano player who did an absolutely great job. The singer sang “When we all get to Heaven” with great feeling and gusto. After the church service, as the people were leaving the Church, she sang “America the Beautiful”. Elizabeth loves great music, and she must have enjoyed the jubilant music sang at her funeral service.
After the funeral service, Hunter, Blair, Lee, and some other children began to play outside the Church. What else are kids to do? I have had no experience as to how children handle this type of situation. I believe on the best pieces of advice I’ve heard is to spend a lot of time with our sons, and to hold them and hug them a lot—even when they are sad or mad and may not appear to want to be held. That’s good advice for all times, but most especially for the times we shall face ahead.
At the reception after the funeral, I saw Hunter doing something charming. I told him to go show his mom. I suspect there will be many more moments like that.
I expect that the boys will do fine. Elizabeth got them off to a fine start. Her most fervent prayer was that each of the boys grows up to be a strong Christian man. Her next most fervent prayer was that the boys each marry a Godly woman. Not necessarily beautiful, brilliant, or rich (although there’d be no complaints if those other characteristics are also there). But it’s not those other characteristics which make for a successful marriage.
I expect that I’ll do OK. One thing I’ve done is to establish an accountability relationship with a Christian brother. He and I will discuss significant issues that arise in my life. He won’t make my decisions for me, but hopefully he will help keep me from doing anything stupid. I’ve heard that every man needs three special men in his life—a Paul, a Barnabas, and a Timothy. A Paul is an older man who can give guidance, a Barnabas is a contemporary who can kick my rear when that is needed, and a Timothy is a younger man I can mentor. Elizabeth had a gift for doing this naturally, and had several friends with whom she openly shared. It seems that we guys need some type of formal action plan to do this, if we manage to do it at all.
Elizabeth and I used to have long talks about everything and anything. We shared all our thoughts and dreams and became each other’s best friend. I will miss most that sharing.
The boys and I get along very well with each other. I have always found it relatively easy to be a decent father. It was at times more difficult to be a good husband. I know that it is important to be both a good parent and a good husband or wife. However, upon reflection, it would appear to be more important to be a good spouse. Although being a parent is clearly an important task, it is the marriage relationship which is a covenant established by God. If a husband and wife have a solid marriage, their kids should do just fine.
I believe one of the best things a husband and wife can do for their marriage is for the husband to meet with Christian men and for the wife to meet with Christian women. When meeting, we should be brutally open and honest with each other. Our purpose should be to help each other become the men and women God desires us to be. A husband should be able to change when his wife points out an area that “needs improvement.” However, a husband is more likely to change if a fellow Christian man also points out the “needed improvement.”
Several years ago, I was caught in the rut that many of us guys seem to get caught in. I was working very hard and putting in a lot of hours at my job as a lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice, plus I was working hard with the AF Reserve. A Focus on the Family program addressed this issue and said that men often go through their entire lives thinking that sometime in the near future, life will slow down so they can spend more time with their families. Well that day often never comes. Fortunately for me—and for Elizabeth—I attended a Promise Keepers event several years ago. That was a real gut-check for me. I made a number of conscious decisions based on that event. I dropped my participation in some nice but extraneous organizations in order to spend more time with our family. I have a number of regrets in my life, but I’ve never regretted time I’ve spend with Elizabeth, Hunter, Blair, or Lee.
A memorial service was held at Ft Logan military cemetery on February 20th. That ceremony was with full military honors. Elizabeth’s friends from the Colorado Air National Guard did an absolutely first-rate job putting together that ceremony. The military was an important part of Elizabeth’s life. She was a Lieutenant in the Air Force when I met her. We were Captains when we were married. After Elizabeth left the active-duty Air Force, she became an Air Force Individual Mobility Augmentee (IMA) and then joined the Air Force Reserve unit at Peterson AFB. We were known as the Major Van Horns there at Pete.
After the kids came along, it became more difficult for Elizabeth and I to both serve our weekend drills together. Every month there seemed to be some new disaster in trying to take care of our children on the weekend while we both worked. We KNEW we had a problem when we drove past the Econo Lodge outside the Pete one day, and Hunter pointed at the motel and exclaimed, “Look, there’s our other home!” Elizabeth was always pretty flexible, so she joined the Colorado Air National Guard. I became a Lt Colonel in the Air Force Reserve, and Elizabeth became a Lt Colonel in the Guard. The four ways to serve in the US Air Force are on active duty, as an IMA, in the AF Reserve, and in the Air National Guard. Elizabeth is the only person I know who has served in each of those ways.
Elizabeth had been in the Colorado Air National Guard for about eight years and thoroughly enjoyed that job. She generally worked with the Guard for one weekend plus one or two days each month and would then get one long deployment each year. Last year the Colorado Air National Guard was deployed to Australia and many members of the Guard went to Australia for a two week deployment. Elizabeth stayed through both deployments, so she was able to spend an entire month there. She worked hard, played hard, and had a great time.
The boys and I managed to get along reasonably well when Elizabeth went on her excursions. However, it was difficult to run a household without her. Elizabeth often joked that she went on her AF trips to keep me in line. She said I needed to know how hard it would be for me to be a single parent and that I really didn’t want to be one. She never got an argument from me about that.
Many of you have asked how you can help. Let me be so bold as to answer. Our family would enjoy being a guest of yours some day for a meal. Dropping food off at the front door is always nice, but that seems a bit sterile. We would enjoy your companionship and hopefully you will enjoy ours. If you do invite us over, please don’t make a fuss. Don’t cook anything too exotic—the boys probably won’t eat it, and I don’t need to get fat. Don’t feel like you need to thoroughly clean your house before we come over. We realize that most people actually live in their homes. Elizabeth and I always enjoyed those times when we shared our homes with others, and those times when others shared their homes with us.
I know that many of you were praying for Elizabeth. We don’t always know how God will answer prayer. For instance, we don’t want Elizabeth’s prayers concerning the marriage of our sons answered any time soon. For those of you who were praying that Elizabeth would get well, I’d like to say that Elizabeth is now well.
Elizabeth was truly a remarkable woman of many talents. She was a military officer, a mother, a wife, a singer, a piano player, a friend to many, and much more. But I will remember her best as a child of God and a servant to Jesus. Of my many great memories of the time we spent together, none are better than the times she and I or she and I and our sons spent on our knees in prayer. The last words she spoke to me after she said goodbye to our children were “Until we meet again.” I will meet Elizabeth again in Heaven. Our prayer is that we will be able to meet you there also.