I Looked Back at Sorrow and Found God’s Kind Surprise

Reflections on God’s goodness in the midst of tragedy

It’s October and I’m thinking of Bill. Not longingly, not with great sorrow — now. Those feelings had their place 31 years ago.

Now I’m looking back in awe — recognizing God’s kindness in the midst of tragedy.

October 1991

“If only I could talk with Bill about this, I would be OK,” I remember telling my mother as we watched the sunset at the beach shortly after Bill’s death.

If only I could have talked with Bill about it all — his sudden departure and the death of our life together and our dreams for the future…

What was I supposed to do now?

Perhaps because Bill and I had dated long-distance through letters and rare phone calls, we had cherished talking face to face. When finally granted the opportunity to spend a lifetime together, we loved each other by talking about everything.

That became a clearer blessing to me because Bill’s death was a possibility — even at age 25.

Because of that, he told me where to bury him.

And he told me he wanted me to marry again if he died.

At that time, doctors were testing him for causes of his misery, throwing us the possible diagnosis “pancreatic cancer” on a Friday afternoon when we had nothing to do but wait all weekend for test results.

We were relieved when the test was negative. But cancer isn’t the only thing that kills.

a happy couple -- sara sits on bill's lap as they wrap their arms around each other and smile at the camera
Bill and I, our first Christmas together.

I later followed Bill’s leading on both agenda items, burying him in a cemetery near me — though his parents wanted him near them.

On one of my first dates with the man who would become my new husband — three years after Bill’s death — Steve took me to the cemetery where his wife was buried a stone’s throw from the plot I had chosen for Bill.

An odd and painful choice for a date, but I married him anyway.

Summer 1987

Bill had hooked me with his creative dates, too. Our first had been a group date to McDonald’s in Wildwood, NJ, where we’d met on a Campus Crusade for Christ summer project.

He’d written the invitation in calligraphy — the menus, too — and insisted I dress in my summer’s finest. We didn’t place our order at the counter. Instead, his roommate appeared in a suit and took and served our orders.

It was the best Quarter Pounder with Cheese I’d ever eaten.

Two scrapbook pages. One has Bill's invitation to Sara for their first date: Just wanted to fill you in on some details for Friday night's get together. Dress up. Skirt or nice pants is fine... formal prom dress OK... satin evening gown is not a good idea. The envelope that enclosed the invitation written in calligraphy was addressed to Sara Sota with I'll get your last name right some day in parentheses. The second page depicts five couples dressed for their formal meal -- at McDonalds!
Scrapbook pages showing our first date. I am the tall blonde in the teal sleeveless sweater. In the picture, top right, Bill and I are the couple on the bottom right. You can also see our smiling faces peeking over the wall. Steve, bottom right, served as our waiter and, later (when Bill did get my last name right ;), as a groomsman in our wedding.

On our second date, we again went with a group to a restaurant, where we regally hung spoons from our noses after finishing our desserts.

By the time we left the summer project to return to our college campuses — he to the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, me to the University of Florida — we were in love.

We parted with a side hug, promises to write, and small gifts — his to me was a Hallmark mug with a turtle making lovey-dovey eyes at a hamburger that looked a lot like a turtle and the words, “You’re one in 80 billion!” on the rim.

I felt the same way about him.

Long-distance love

It was the beginning of promises kept. We shared the too-occasional phone call (because long-distance calls cost a lot of money back then) and wrote a lot of letters. I have two large boxes filled of mine to him and his to me.

His mother had sent his box to me after his death with a note to say she hadn’t read any of them. At the time, I wished she had. She might have understood how much we loved each other.

But I haven’t braved a peek at any of them either.

Bill and I had returned to the Wildwood Summer Project the following summer — and in December of that year, he had asked me to marry him.

Well, he tried to ask me.

He again resorted to a menu he’d composed — for a fancy restaurant overlooking a snow-filled gorge. I’d come to Wisconsin to spend Christmas with his family.

He’d written the menu in German — a language neither of us spoke — and had had the restaurant tuck it inside the real menu on the nicest table in the restaurant with a vase of fresh roses.

I just thought it was a really nice restaurant — not a meal that would change my life forever.

When I quickly made a decision as to what I would eat (something I never do), he suggested, instead, we try something his mom and dad and his brother Grant and his wife had tried — on a different menu I hadn’t noticed before.

Written mostly in German. Which, of course, I couldn’t read.

He read it to me — menu items including all the things we’d shared and could share together — if I would pay the market price: marry him.

Which in German really said, “Will you wash me?” (He told me later.)

But I said yes anyway.

And I did help wash him when he was too sick.

The menu written in a mix of German and English in which Bill listed all the "dishes" I could "purchase" if I simply paid the price -- agree to marry him.
The menu Bill created and enclosed inside the real menu. Although, I should say enclosed in the restaurant’s menu. This one was real — and such a creative, touching joy.

Does God make mistakes?

Bill didn’t have pancreatic cancer. He had a tricky ulcer at the base of his stomach that prevented food from exiting. (Except for the way it entered.)

The surgery that might have fixed it was followed by a series of medical mistakes that led to Bill’s death. (I heard later that the hospital staff called it “a comedy of errors, except it wasn’t funny.”)

I have to trust God makes no mistakes.

A few weeks ago, one of Bill’s childhood friends was searching online for information about his classmate to share at their high school reunion.

He found a blog I’d written about Bill the year he would have turned 50. (That post was It’s Official: His Death Was a Lifetime Ago.) In it, I’d written Bill’s full name in a post for the first time: William Anton Olson, which enabled his friend John to find it.

(Bill and I had planned to name our first son Anton John Olson — to honor Bill and our fathers, both named John. We didn’t have the chance, but Bill’s older brother named his only son, William Anton Olson II. And my nephew wears the name well; he and his uncle made “knowing Christ and making Him known” a lifetime pursuit.)

Bill’s friend John sent me a photo of Bill at his grade-school birthday party — the whole group making silly faces. John told me which one was him — and I worried I might not know a young Bill. But I recognized my first husband instantly — his silliness had grown with him.

(The 4-year-olds in our children’s church class always called him “Silly Bill.”)

A scrapbook page with the title "the many faces of Bill" showing him with serious and silly faces.
A page from my scrapbook showing some of Bill’s silly faces.

If he could see me now

I wonder sometimes if Bill would recognize me if he could see me now. Would he know the places in me left better because he touched my life? Would he see those left broken because he died?

Mostly, would he praise God for the ways He created beauty from that brokenness in me? How God had worked all things for good?

And how Bill’s prophetic words so wisely shared — though unwelcome and preposterous to me then — propelled me forward?

For they did.

When I was healed enough to date and consider marriage, I knew I had Bill’s blessing.

When God orchestrated meeting and then marrying a widower, Steve, and his four children (ages 9, 8, 5, and 3), I knew I had God’s blessing.

(The story of my first date with Steve is captured in A Mere Nineteen Years Ago… The story of why I was crazy enough to date him at all is told in When It All Points to God…)

Lots of work and crazy hard years would follow that second marriage commitment. But God’s blessing in it was so clear.

Of course, I had no idea what would follow those weeks and months of acute longing and loss in October of 1991. I only knew if I could talk it over with Bill, I could get through it, as I had expressed to my mother that painful evening.

And I did.

Because he already had.

And because God was so kind to make sure we had that conversation.

P.S. Bill and I embraced the Apostle Paul’s truth expressed in his letter to the Philippian church: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21, NASB). Bill had gained — and I needed to continue to live for Christ.

7 thoughts on “I Looked Back at Sorrow and Found God’s Kind Surprise

      1. Dear Sara, I’ve missed your presence in my e-mails! So good to hear from you once again. I’ve commented a couple times before on your posts. They are always an encouraging joy to read. Thank you for sharing about your life with Bill so long ago and God’s continued faithfulness through it all. I lost my daughter, Esther about 10 years ago and corresponded with you previously about my book “Grief is Not My Future” and the puzzle of Esther’s Isaac after your blog on God’s leading for you to write a book titled “Isaac”. Then realized Esther’s book was her “Isaac!” BTW how’s that project coming along?

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Very touching life story. How creative to ask you to marry him with a German Menu! So glad you had those serious conversation about death while he was alive.

    Liked by 1 person

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