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A Grateful, Broken Heart

Updated: Mar 7, 2023

Every morning, before my family and the sun are up, I journal for as long as I can. Writing is a way I make sense of my life, of the rivers of grief, delight, wonder, and awe, that flow through me and every single person I know. Writing allows me to sit at the banks of these rivers and pay attention to what is happening, to the white water that is raging, or the stream that is meandering through the meadow, or the water that has been pooled up because of a dam or some obstruction.

For the past few months, Rob Eller-Isaacs has been showing up in my writing. For those who don’t know Rob, he was a dad, a husband, a grandpa, a minister, a mentor, a mover and shaker, a singer, a dreamer, and a friend to many.

He died in late July, just a year after his retirement. I find myself reaching for words to hold the grief and anger I feel at his death. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It still doesn’t feel real.

But it is.

His life was recently celebrated at services at Unitarian Universalist churches in Portland, Oregon (where he and his wife, Janne, had retired), and Saint Paul, Minnesota (where they served for over two decades). 

Rob’s not just showing up in my journal, either. When I’m out running, I hear his voice reading a Marge Piercy poem or his big laugh filling a room. I smell him and the cologne he always wore, as he leaned in close to kiss my cheek and hug me, whenever our paths would cross.

There are countless ways that my life, and so many lives, has been touched by his life. I served at Unity Church-Unitarian as an Intern Minister in 2006, and stayed on staff for two years after that. I was fortunate to have Rob and Janne as my supervisors. They were always available to share advice and insights, to give their attention to a problem or a vexing situation. They played key roles at my installation/ordination.

The picture isn’t great, but this so captures the heart and essence of Rob and Janne (the looks, the expression, the body language, the way they could command a space with love and presence.)

But the piece of learning I keep returning to now, the bright gem I hold close to my heart, the words that were just the words I need to hear, happened much more recently.

As my family and I were approaching a long planned sabbatical, set to begin in January of 2020, I reached out to Rob with a question that was troubling me. “My heart is telling me to use this sabbatical time to deepen my spiritual practice, to notice where love is moving in my life, and calling me, and to really be present with my family.” He nodded. “And I’m struggling, because sabbatical is often a time of research and scholarship, of book writing, and production. And our Unitarian Universalist tradition values intellectual rigor and output; should I work on a book, so I have something to show for my sabbatical?” Rob didn’t take long to respond. “Focus on your family,” he said. “Focus on time with Juliana and the boys. That practice will make everything else stronger – your ministry, your life, your parenting, your marriage.” He paused. “You’ll have time to write a book later.”

My heart breaks writing these lines because I know Rob had dreams of writing a book and of having more time with his family and grandchildren in his retirement. At the same time, gratitude floods through the cracks in my heart because Rob’s response freed me from the internal “shoulds” and pressures that I had been carrying into this sabbatical time. Even as his words released me from the self-imposed expectations I held, I took his words as a charge, as a directive, and I lived into them as fully as I could, relishing the sabbatical time with Juliana and our boys, and noticing the other parts of my life that began to emerge when I put ministry to the side. 

Rob’s words were a gift and a blessing, just what I need three years ago. Now, it feels like “later” in my life. This year, I intend to write (on this blog, certainty, but beyond this blog, as well.) As I struggle to come to terms with Rob’s death, and that river of grief moving through me, I can feel the shape of a book-like-thing moving in my spirit, waiting to be born into the world. 

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