This review I wrote first appeared in the Reveille/Between the Lakes
I’m not sure I qualify as a book reviewer. In truth, I don’t read a lot of books. I mean I read a lot, but I think the last book I actually read cover to cover was Nicholas Nickleby and other Charles Dickens tomes back in college for senior research.
But, not only did I read The Color of Rain by Michael and Gina Spehn, I looked forward to spending time curled up in my chair under the blanket soaking in their story.
I was introduced to the Spehns through the Huckabee television show and became intrigued by their story. In sum, it was how two families found faith, hope and love in the midst of tragedy.
To briefly recap, then Gina Kell lost her husband Matt after a two-plus year battle with leiomyosarcoma on a late Christmas night. He not only left Gina, but two young boys as well. Michael Spehn lost his wife Cathy just two months later. What started as intermittent headaches became more frequent and more painful as the days dawned and in just 16 days she succumbed to a fast-growing mass – glioblastoma multiforme, GMB – in a “very bad part” of her brain. She left Michael, a daughter and two boys.
The meat of the story, of course, is how these two people came to know each other, share their grief and grow into a Brady-esque blended family. It was that hope – that moving on – I zeroed in on when I thought about reading the book.
Matt and Cathy had been high school classmates, but Gina and Michael did not know each other and, until Cathy’s funeral, had never met. However, they both had their respective spouse’s permission to grieve for awhile, then move on. Matt told Gina on that Christmas Eve, “When I’m gone, I want you to find a good Christian man and marry him” and despite protestations from his wife, added, “I just want you to know it’s okay.” Just hours before passing from this existence to the next, Cathy, out of the blue, told Michael, “Call Gina Kell. She has two boys and they will need to learn basketball. You’re a coach, you can help them.” Again despite protestations from Michael, she opened her eyes and squeezed his hand. “Call Gina Kell. She’ll help you, too.”
The skeptics might believe these deathbed conversations were just asides and the blending of the Kell and Spehn families were a culmination of isolated events that just came together. The believers know better. The conversations were part of God’s plan – as painful as it was – to bring these families together and find the hope and love they lost through the faith they had.
Gina summed up the book near the end.
“… Like everything else in life, that which is visible to the world is only part of the story. The lessons of our history, and the promises and permissions for our future, are what impel the unseen current that runs beneath the surface, moving us along through life.
“Everything we had done to arrive at this day [Michael and Gina’s wedding] was motivated by our appreciation for what had been given, and for what had been taken away. We had found the peace that lives in the space between grief and celebration. There was no explaining it, but one thing was certain. Our faith told us that without suffering and loss, we would never come to know such peace.”
I must say the format was a little disconcerting. Michael and Gina took turns writing chapters in the book … more like reflective vignettes on a theme. The problem was they weren’t always on the same theme. They were at different places in their lives, they were at different stages in their struggle, they were at different times in their grieving. So, I understand why they wrote it the way they did, and how valuable it was in providing background and insight into what they were experiencing.
Still, it might have been effective if they talked about common connections, especially after their love started swelling. Things like the first dinner Gina made at Michael’s, their first date and even their wedding preparations were given generally only from Gina’s perspective. It would have been interesting to hear Michael’s take on those topics.
I wouldn’t recommend this book to the newly widowed. In fact, even after three-plus years, its intensity and graphic description of preparing for death, dying and dealing with grief often ripped open scarred-over wounds for me and made them raw again.
But, if you can insulate yourself, the book makes for a fascinating read … one that brings you directly into the world of Gina and Michael Spehn through a prism of their words, your mind and both their and your experiences.
It also gives insight into the numbness, invisibility, pain and vulnerabilities faced after the loss of a spouse. You can feel the quiet in a crowded room and hear the deafening wails in solitude. You can experience the triteness of words spoken when, really, there aren’t words to be said. You are a part of the roller coaster and irrationality of emotions. And you can see the hand of God in every thing … even loss
As Michael tells it, “Love is not simply a gift from God; it is, in fact, the fundamental nature of God. God is love. And, like love, he can’t be ‘figured out.’ He must be experienced. I don’t know anyone who has love all figured out. You can read books about it, sing songs about it, write poetry and dream dreams about it. In the end, you can only really know love through the experience of love itself.
“It’s the same with God. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to figure him out. I’ve read his book and I’ve sung his songs. I’ve recited his Psalms and imagined his heavenly home. In the end, I never really knew him until I experienced him. I experienced him on those trips to Barrington with my dad and diagramming game-winning buzzer beaters as head coach. I’ve seen evidence of him waiting for me at the end of the wedding aisle and at the bedside up on 8-South. The experience of God is a sometimes glorious, sometimes painful one. But it is always right. Abundant with rainstorms and rainbows, wedding bells and funeral hymns, it always leads toward love. Our job is to remain open to the love that is revealed.
“That can be hard to do when you experience loss. The death of a loved one creates profound grief. However, grief is meant to be an emotion, a transient reaction to the tragic circumstance of loss. It can actually be an extremely healthy experience. Grief honors your relationship with those you have lost and allows survivors to give expression to the unspeakable pain they feel.”
Through these pages, the Spehns allow you, the reader, to become part of and enriched by their lives. What more could a writer ask for?
The Spehns began New Day Foundation for Families (www.michaelandgina.com), a 501(c)(3) dedicated to bringing understanding and hope to the families of children who suffer the devastating loss of a parent to cancer. Michael and Gina Spehn also host Your Family Matters on WLQV AM 1500 Detroit, MI, every Saturday morning at 9 a.m. and streamed live at www.FaithTalk1500.com.
The Color of Rain: How Two Families Found Faith, Hope and Love in the Midst of Pain,
Michael and Gina Spehn, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI. 280 pages. ISBN 978-0-310-33197-1 (hard cover) Also available as a Zondervan ebook and audio edition