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The Fight to Flourish: Engaging in the Struggle to Cultivate the Life You Were Born to Live
by A. J. Gregory
Learn More | Meet A. J. Gregory | Meet Jennie Lusko
The Best, the Worst, and the In Between
Fighting forward often doesn’t feel like it—forward, that is. It feels more like survival. Barely getting by. Dripping in sweat, muscles aching, legs failing, but still standing, at least long enough so that your opponent doesn’t take you down with a one-two punch before the bell rings.
Doesn’t sound much like flourishing.
Hard times have a way of knocking us off our feet, but they also have a way of reminding us of what is most important. Before the worst day of my life, I loved God and I trusted Him. I knew that heaven was real and near, and I knew God had a purpose for me. But in the year Lenya died, God had been teaching me so much, not only about Him but about myself. In fact, I remember so clearly feeling like I was learning more in that year than I had in my whole life. It was a season of growth. I had four daughters, six years old and under. I was being stretched and strengthened in my heart, in my family, in our church. I had no idea that God had even more for me as 2012 drew to a close, no idea that I would feel His presence more than ever, even in darkness.
Reliving Lenya’s life and last days on earth in order to share this story with you has been one of the hardest things I have ever done. Flipping through journal entries splashed with tears; replaying scenes of our daughter dancing, reciting Bible verses, and playing with her sisters; remembering what she looked like when her body had surrendered its last breath—these things gutted me. But they also gave me the chance to connect some dots. Some of the most random moments in this story have been the most important. They’re reminders that God is in control behind the scenes, reminders that He was, is, and will always be with me.
Words of Life
It was Thursday morning, six days before Christmas 2012. Fresh coffee brewed as eggs sizzled in the frying pan. Daisy looked at a book as if she were reading, although she was only two and she couldn’t read (or could she?). Clover giggled in her high chair, observing everything like a tiny queen on her throne. As Alivia dressed for the day, I heard a cadence of footsteps coming down the stairs that could only be Lenya’s. Her feet landed a bit harder and louder than the others. It was morning as usual in the Lusko household.
I scrambled eggs as Lenya settled at the table, her thick, messy hair tumbling over her head as she scribbled a birthday note for a friend’s party in a few hours. I looked at her outfit and smiled. She wore one of Alivia’s sparkly shirts paired with denim bell-bottoms a size too big for her with her favorite skirt over them, and hand-me-down boots from a friend. Around her neck hung one of my necklaces adorned with plastic beads in the shape of birds. It was a wild outfit—Lenya style to the max.
The week was full of dinners, meetings, staff events, and birthday parties. I was exhausted, and I reminded myself that although things might be crazy now, Friday Family Day was coming. And it was going to be the best.
Friday is Levi’s and my day off. We unplug from everything to spend time as a family with as few distractions as possible. We had plans to swish and stumble our way around a rink with ice skates strapped to our feet. Levi would take Lenya to shop for presents for her sisters, and afterward we would all dress up and enjoy a fancy dinner out.
But first we had to make it through Thursday. After the kids finished their eggs and oatmeal and I plucked an unknown object off Clover’s face and wiped up a sticky substance on the counter, we scrambled out the door to the eventful day ahead.
“Wait!” Lenya shouted, almost falling forward as she stopped in the doorway. “I have to write a Christmas card to Aunt Aimee!” Another delay, but I knew how important this was for her. I gave her the time to write the note, and we left it on the table to mail later. Lenya was thoughtful like that. In her five-year-old mind and tender heart, she knew the power of words, that they could bring a smile to someone’s face, brighten a dull mood, or turn tears into laughter.
I love words. I don’t have a widely extensive vocabulary myself, and I usually stumble to find the words I’m looking for in conversation, but I am fascinated by them, what they mean, and where they originate from. God loves words so much that He filled a book with them. Not only that, but He gave us the Word of all words, as it says in John 1:1–5:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
Jesus is the Word, and He changes everything. God’s words in the Bible can transform our hearts and our lives. In the same way, the words people speak over us can give us the strength we need in the fight.
A little over a week earlier, Levi and I had strolled through the congested sidewalks of New York City. With my arm linked through his, we drank in the holiday window displays on Fifth Avenue and shopped for a few extra Christmas gifts for the girls. I even bought a pair of dusty-rose corduroys for myself. They weren’t something I would normally wear, but I tend to shop impulsively like that.
We had talked about seeing a Broadway play that night, but instead we found ourselves at a midweek worship gathering hosted by our friends. The church met in an old theater with a large stage and ornate ceiling and walls. It was dark, yet inviting. I felt the beat and the bass in the music deep in my chest.
The room filled with expectation and anticipation as a pastor I didn’t know started encouraging specific people in the room. I don’t know about you, but I had never experienced anything like this growing up. I had heard of churches where the pastor takes a moment to listen to what God might be speaking to specific people in a packed room. I imagined it could get a little awkward; people are sitting there, not knowing if they should stick around or use a restroom break as an excuse to run away. But there was nothing awkward about what happened to me.
As the pastor spoke inspiring and challenging words to different people in the room, I rummaged around my giant mom bag. My fingers frantically pushed aside my hand sanitizer, allergy medicine, a diaper, in search of tissues for the woman next to me, who was moved to tears. Why on earth did I bring this thing with me when my kids aren’t even here?
As I placed my purse back on the floor underneath my seat, I heard the pastor call my name.
I froze. Wait. Did he just say my name? He must certainly mean Levi, not me. Or maybe he means another, more significant Jennie. Probably a Jennie who spells her name with a y at the end. My heart began to beat wildly. What is he going to tell me? Is he going to call me out on something in front of everyone?
“Jen—Jennie,” he began, his voice powerful and comforting at the same time.
“It is not an accident you are here, Jennie . . . You didn’t know you were going to be here. I don’t think that was the big plan. I don’t know; maybe it was. Jennie, you are going to walk away with a new impartation tonight. God has placed something into your heart. I don’t know you from a bar of soap, but you have a new authority about you . . . God is going to challenge you to take a risk in Him, to trust Him, to believe that He is with you. He’s going to back you, Jennie. His heart is toward you. His face is toward you. His hand is toward you. You mustn’t ever forget that. You are blessed, Jennie, not cursed. God’s hand is on you. You are here in the purpose and plan of God.”
This was so out of the ordinary. I didn’t really know what to do with his message. Tears filled my eyes and fell freely down my face.
What happened in that theater that evening was a holy moment. I may have not understood it fully, but something beautiful unfolded when that man’s words hit my heart. It’s always amazing to be reminded that we are not alone, that God is with us, and that He loves us. I thought about these things as we made our way back home the next day.
The following week, thrust into the chaos of preparing for Christmas and scuttling through a calendar full to the brim with nonstop events and growing lists, I wrote about my experience in my journal:
This has been such a busy season. Nonstop. Like literally. But I’m not freaking out and it’s only by God’s grace. I’ve had to speak in front of people three times in three days, and tonight Levi and I are doing a capture together for the recap of what we learned this year. And it’s really not easy for me—I get so nervous, but I’ve been really taking God at His word when He told me to be bold and to speak confidently because God is my backing. He only is my strength. And I’ve been experiencing this. It’s been a week today since Pastor Robert spoke that over me, and I’ve had more opportunities in these last four days than in a long time. . . . I truly believe that this year has been a huge year for me. I fully believe that I have grown more in 2012 than in my whole life combined!
Life is good!
When the Best Turns into the Worst
On Thursday afternoon, I dropped the kids off at my mom’s for the evening so Levi and I could have an at-home date night (a practice I highly recommend). I could wrap the kids’ presents without them peeking or grabbing my scissors or chewing on the gift tags, and my mom would get to spend time with her grandkids. Win-win. After enjoying my specialty—spaghetti with meat sauce—and quality make-out time with my husband, I buried myself in gifts and tape and ribbons and paper, while Levi watched Home Alone. As I finished putting the creative touch on the last gift, I remember soaking in the moment, grateful for time spent together before the start of our wildly wonderful Family Day.
On the drive to my mom’s to pick up the kids, Levi sighed loudly, exhaling away the past few days. “I just feel so relaxed.”
I nodded, rubbing his forearm draped over my thigh. I felt the same. Friday was here—well, almost, but basically here. Heat blasted from the vents. Outside, stars sprinkled the midnight Montana sky over a landscape of glistening snow. White. Pure. Bright. Light in the darkness.
And then, though we’d barely pulled into my mom’s driveway, silence traded spaces with panic. My younger brother, David, ran out the front door, and as I met him at the edge of the walkway, he blurted, “Jennie, Lenya really wants you!” His breath was ragged. “She’s not taking her asthma treatment!”
My heart plunged to the pit of my stomach. Sprinting into the kitchen, I found Lenya sitting on the table. My mom was holding her. Lenya looked at me, her face blank and drained of color.
I grabbed the nebulizer from my mom, held Lenya with one arm, and tried to get her to take her treatment. Instead, she passed out. Even today, the image of her lying limp on the kitchen counter tears me apart.
At that moment, Levi came in the house and immediately jumped into action. His hands clamped down rhythmically on Lenya’s tiny chest, but there was no response. Time began to churn in slow motion, but in a blur. I remember crying desperate prayers toward heaven and telling Lenya that I loved her and that it was going to be okay. Because it was, right?
Lights and sirens filled the driveway as paramedics rushed in and rushed our little girl back out on a stretcher. Levi rode with her. My brother drove me in my car on the icy road a few minutes behind the ambulance.
As Levi and I waited in a small room at the hospital, crying and praying, a doctor appeared.
I wanted to believe the best, I wanted to hope for the miracle, but in my gut, I knew Lenya was gone. She had stopped breathing so long ago.
“I am so sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Lusko. Lenya is nonresponsive. There is nothing more we can do.”
It was as if I couldn’t really hear the words coming from his mouth. I knew what he was saying, but I can only remember things happening in slow motion as he began to speak. His words, slowly connecting to my mind, were words of death. It was actually true: our five-year-old was gone.
We followed him to a room where Lenya lay. And here is where heaven truly met earth, where the tension between light and darkness collided in a way I had never before experienced. It felt as though someone had come up behind us and pushed us into a pit with only one way in and no way out. And at the same time, as I stepped toward our daughter’s body, I couldn’t help but feel that even in my darkest night I was overwhelmed by the love of the Light of the world.
It is unnatural to look at your child when her soul has left this earth. That second, my heart began a slow and steady break that would, over time, morph into a permanent dull ache. Lenya’s eyes were open. Her face was cool to my touch, her features beautiful and delicate. Levi took one of her hands, and I held the other on the opposite side of the stretcher.
“God, You give and take away. Blessed be Your name. You gave us Lenya. We don’t understand, but we give her back to You.” Levi’s words were words of surrender and praise spoken with our daughter lying lifeless before us. Words wrapped in a peace beyond what the human mind can comprehend. We felt God with us as tears streamed from our eyes and Levi reached down to close hers.
While my worst day was unfolding one terrible scene at a time, I realized an awful yet beautiful tension. Our worst day was actually Lenya’s best day. Her death, while horrible to us, led her straight to her Savior. The Bible says that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). She wasn’t with us, but she was with Jesus. Lenya was in heaven, more alive now than she had ever been.
How Am I Supposed to Leave the Hospital?
In that room, my protective mama heart swarmed with questions. We had worked so hard to take care of Lenya, to make sure she was healthy and loved. Suddenly she had been snatched away from us into heaven, a place that seems so big, crowded, and overwhelming—a place so far away from our arms. I wondered who was taking care of her. Was she wandering around all by herself? Was anyone assigned to watch her? Was she lost?My mind spun in every direction. I’ll never forget looking down and noticing my pants, the pink corduroy ones I bought in New York City. As my gaze rested on the stunning face of our daughter, the words spoken to me eight days earlier echoed softly: You are blessed, not cursed. You are in the plan and purpose of God. His hand is on you. His face is toward you. God has your back.
I knew these were scriptural truths. But I also knew that Lenya was dead and wouldn’t be coming back. It’s hard to reconcile the two, but deep down in my heart, I knew I didn’t have to understand God in order to trust Him.
Trusting God came instinctively in that moment, but there were other fights I would still have to show up for—the first one being, how was I supposed to leave the hospital?
I honestly don’t know how long we were there. I know Alivia came in at one point bringing Lenya’s purse with her, and we had to tell her that her sister was in heaven. But eventually, I found myself in the front seat of our car. I don’t remember how I got there, though I do remember suggesting to Levi that we invite everyone at the ER that night to church.
How did I move forward? Step by dreaded step, walking toward a new reality that I despised. Weeping. Reminding myself that the body of my daughter I left in that unnaturally bright and cold hospital room wasn’t all she was. Yes, her body was there, but her soul—who she really was—was with her Savior in heaven. She was perfectly pure in His presence.
I had to make the intentional decision to walk out the front door. And I had to choose to trust God in the middle of the pain. I knew I couldn’t face a single thing without Him as my guide, as my lamp lighting the road before me. I couldn’t do anything in my own strength.
I wish I could tell you I’ve arrived and that I have a five-step program for how to leave the hospital, so to speak. I haven’t, and I don’t. I fight every day. It’s a fight to love. A fight to grow. But I want to fight to flourish. Like the seed surrounded by darkness and dirt, we need these very elements to grow. It’s what we need to become stronger.
In January 2013, sixteen days after Lenya went to heaven, I bought a new journal, an extra-large, plain black notebook. Unmarked, unlined pages begged to absorb new thoughts, new memories, new insight. I titled it A New Chapter. A Terrible One. A Beautiful One.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16–18)
As I look ahead to this year, I have so many emotions/thoughts/feelings/fears. I hate the thought of approaching this year without Lenya. I love the thought that she is in His presence in fullness of joy. I hate the thought of the possibility of forgetting memories with her / of her. I love that I got five wonderful years with her. I hate those demonic thoughts of regret and how I should’ve been a better mommy to her. I love that talk of heaven was always on our lips—that we talked about Jesus + His Word + prayed always. I love that we had a full five years with her. I hate that she’s not here anymore. I love Lenya. I hate that our lives are forever changed. I love that we have three beautiful daughters to teach and to train and to love. I hate this aching in my soul. At the same time, I love it because I’ve never experienced God like this before ? His grace ? His love ? His peace. I’m floored. This light affliction is for a moment. This year I cling to Jesus. I cling to His word. I stand on His promises. I choose to do right. I choose to worship and obey.
When we’re shoved into a storm, it can be easy to flounder. What growth is even possible when we’re doing everything we can just to keep our heads above water? But it is possible to see God’s goodness in the struggle, His love over the valley of death, His grace through the pain. I hold tight to the hope of heaven, yet I also grieve. I hurt. I love. I cry. I remember. I feel stuck. I move forward. It’s in this tension that we can grow, if we keep trusting God and believing He is with us and has more for us.
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