Reflections on the notes written to Roberta during her 20 days of Cancer - Patty Kaiser
Delivered during Roberta's Memorial Service, November 6, 2010. (audio)
As a research analyst, it’s my job to do this type of thing, to sift through information and to identify key similarities or points of disagreement about various topics. But, I’m sure it’s a surprise to no one here that it does not requires a professional eye to discern the unwavering consistency of the impression that Roberta has made on people over the years. It will also be no surprise to find that most of the common themes that come through in these messages readily lend themselves to references to God’s Word.
As is the case for many people here, Roberta Herr was one of the first people I got to know at Valley Presbyterian Church. When we decided it was time to really become involved in the life of the church, we approached Norm and he immediately scooped us in and told us, “There’s a church luncheon today - come and sit with my family and we’ll talk.” Before we went up to lunch, Norm told us, “My wife, Roberta, is profoundly deaf, but she’s an excellent lip reader. As long as you’re facing her when you speak, she’ll be able to understand you.” And so she always did, in all types of conversations, even with multiple speakers.
Beyond her skills as a lip reader, I think the real key to Roberta’s ability to understand the people around her was that she really cared about what they said to her. When you spoke with Roberta, you knew she was paying attention to you – not just because she was watching intently - but because her responses were thoughtful and insightful. When we talked to her, she asked questions, expressed concerns, made suggestions. She let us know that we were important to her. Some friends write:
You always brought a great sense of love and kindness into every conversation and a deep caring for others and their walk with the Lord.
The words that stand out most in our minds, that we hear Roberta say over and over are, ‘How can I pray for you?’
The following memory – the only one, by the way, that even hints of Roberta’s hearing impairment - shows how she even went out of her way to put her particular conversational skills to good use for a friend:
Almost 20 years ago…my husband…was in Kaiser for five months on a ventilator. At this time, Roberta was expecting John. Each time she came to Kaiser for a doctor’s appointment, she would come up to my husband’s room. He always enjoyed her visits very much. He was unable to speak because of the ventilator. Roberta’s ability to read lips was such a blessing. This allowed him to carry on an actual conversation without having to write everything out. Her visits always lifted his spirits.
In going through these messages and my own memories, I realized one of the sweet ironies of knowing Roberta is that she was one of the best listeners I ever knew.
However - I can attest to the fact that even Roberta had her limits with regard to what she was willing to listen to. Once, on our way to an afternoon hiking trip with some other women from church, I was driving and Roberta was in the front seat with me. I had become so accustomed to making sure I was facing her when I spoke, I naturally turned to face her – while I was driving. She said, “You don’t have to face me when you’re driving. In fact, if you keep doing it, I’m getting out of the car!”
One of the often-repeated themes on the website is one of thankfulness for the site itself. As soon as we heard about the seriousness of Roberta’s condition, this highly-informational, beautifully-formatted blog seemed to spring into being. Norm knew that we were hurting along with the family, that we wanted to know what was happening, how we might help, how we might pray – and he faithfully provided answers to questions, information about their children, photos, updates – he allowed us to share in their experience, he even encouraged us - and people expressed their gratitude.
I just wanted you to know that this website speaks volumes about Roberta's courage and faith in her last days in this fallen world. Everyone here that I've shared your story with has been encouraged to trust the Lord whatever their circumstance. I will be forever grateful for Roberta's example and for your telling us about it on this site.
Thank you so much for the website and the updates. It is such a difficult and sad time, but each post lets me know how to pray and support you and your family.
The site not only provided us with information, but also allowed us an opportunity to tell Roberta and her family what she meant to us during a time when few could visit in person.
As I started to note clusters of recurring words in people’s memories of Roberta, it didn’t take long for Galatians chapter 5 to come to mind, with its description of the fruit of the Spirit – verses 22 and 23 tell us But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. These words are used over and over again as people share their memories of Roberta.
From the first moment I met you, you have always shown such warmth, kindness and genuine love to all of those around you. I appreciate, even now, your commitment to serve and lift up everyone around you.
I was so, so happy to see you at the reunion and so pleased to learn of your wonderful life…I felt such a peace and gentleness from you and wanted to keep talking with you.
Roberta was one of the most beautiful, faithful, gentle, patient Christian women I have ever known.
Other words that many people use to describe Roberta are sweet, smiling and beautiful. Often, friends refer to these features all at the same time, calling to mind that her real beauty was like the description given in 1st Peter chapter 3, verses 3 and 4; Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.
May you know that your sweet spirit, beautiful smile and amazing faith has touched so many people.
You may not remember me from Pali, but I remember you....beautiful red hair and always smiling.
You were and continue to be one of the most beautiful and compassionate people I've had the pleasure to meet. Please know that there are others out here like me who knew you so long ago and have never forgotten the bright spirit that you are.
I've always appreciated your graceful and warm hospitality and your beautiful and gentle smile that always welcomed me whenever I came by.
But friends do not just remember someone who was sweet and gentle – adventurous and strong are also words that they use to describe Roberta. Friends from elementary school call her “mischievous” and recall the fun they used to have together. People refer to how much they always look forward to reading the Herr family newsletter to catch up on all of their adventures. Not long ago, Roberta told me about a solo alpine hike that she took while the family was camping in Europe. And it wasn’t just fun and outdoor adventure that appealed to her - in one of our recent conversations she told me about her efforts to prepare some rental properties for occupation, how much work it had required – and how very much she had enjoyed it, and that she was looking forward to taking on similar challenges.
Although sweet and kind, you are also equal parts, strong and determined. To say that you are quiet and soft spoken may aptly describe you, but to those who really know you, we see an outgoing and adventurous soul. And when at times, you might feel self conscious, you have always chosen to be courageous.
Through Norm’s updates these past weeks, we got to see that Roberta’s strong and courageous spirit served her and her family well during this, their most challenging journey.
She was able to teach her children both how to live and how to die in God's presence.
I am so saddened to hear of your diagnosis, and yet inspired, as I see so many here have been, by your grace, courage, and faith—it all sounds so like you.
People who have known Roberta carry with them a strong sense that she has touched their lives – she was no passer-by, offering a wave and a hurried hello/goodbye – she stopped, she reached out and she touched us. I looked up the definition of “touch” on dictionary.com – the entry says that to touch is “to put the hand or finger, etc., on or in contact with.” And when I read that I smiled – Roberta’s touch was all about that “etc.” – she touched people with love, prayer, counsel, hospitality – in so many ways. We knew we were welcome in her home, she loved to cook for people. She helped take care of people who were sick. She kept in touch with friends from elementary school, high school and college – who had valued her as a childhood playmate and appreciated her as an adult.
You are a very precious individual to me and I am more appreciative than ever that you reached out to me to rekindle our friendship from our college days together…You have touched my life in ways I don't even have words for.
I greatly appreciated the way you reached out to me/my family after my stroke, in addition to offering your valuable professional advice regarding therapy and rehabilitation.
All the times you opened your home for us to have Bible studies, all the treats prepared afterwards and the wonderful time of fellowship - these are the true treasured moments in our lives. You have made a difference in our lives.
From the first moment I met you and from then on every time I saw you, you embraced me with open arms and an open heart. You made me feel welcome and that I had an instant new friend in you. You blessed me so much in those moments...I was just a visitor at church, only coming every couple of months when I came to visit my sister and her family. I want to say thank you.
As Roberta touched people’s lives, many saw her as setting an example to be followed, saw her as a role model. Roberta was a leader, not because she set herself up as an authority, but because people wanted to follow where they saw her going. She shared a lot with young wives and mothers, offering insights into how to adjust to the changes in their lives and relationships as they matured. With her contemporaries, she shared laughter and support for the challenges that she knew we were all facing as we were forced to realize that we were the “mature and responsible” ladies of the church as well as the mothers of children who were becoming adults and moving on with their lives. She encouraged others to live as committed servants of God by doing so herself.
One time, when your children were young, I remember you shared your heart's concern that your children learn to respond to the needs around them. You said that by helping others, they would learn that others would help them in their time of need, that God put us here, not by accident, for each other. Well, you led by example, and look at your children now!
I will always remember the time that you shared the qualities of being a leader, never claiming to be one...but you so are! You live out the Scripture, and share the vision of, and anticipation for, the things promised for Eternity
You have a way of sharing your heart that is full of life and wisdom and Scripture that exudes the aroma of Christ, makes me want to be with you and encourages me to buck up and keep going.
We are so thankful for your example of what a Godly wife, mother, and friend should be.
Anyone that met Roberta and spoke to her long enough for the words to come out of her mouth, knew that she had a husband named Norm, a daughter, two sons and in recent years, a son-in-law. And in the messages posted on the blog, a sense of the importance of family blossoms like a garden around Roberta’s name. And it’s not just about her own family – her “extended family” included not only the household she grew up in, but those of us at Valley Pres, numerous international students who had stayed with her and Norm over the years, and I’m sure, a whole lot of people I don’t know about.
Roberta had a real heart for the struggles of young mothers as they raised their own families, and was always available for advice and encouragement. But it wasn’t just the mothers that drew her attention - Roberta always showed a particularly loving interest in the young children around her, maintaining that interest as they grew to adulthood. She was an active helper in the church nursery and took time to get to know the young ones in our congregation. I’ll always remember one Christmas when my daughter was still small - we had joined others from church at the Herr’s home for a holiday get-together. The next morning in church, Roberta came to me and said, “Katie moved all of the pieces of my nativity scene around.” Before I could even start to apologize, she said with a smile, “I left everything just where she put it. It’s been a long time since my kids were interested in playing with my nativity scene.” She was really pleased that a child had been a participant in the Christmas story using her small decorations. Comments about Roberta’s love for other people’s kids come from grateful parents and from the kids themselves – now grown, some raising their own families.
I specifically remember how she would seek out my children, and engage them in conversation.
You are like a second mother to my daughter. She spent quite a lot of time with you growing up.
I remember coming to your home and being welcomed so warmly. I watched as you made even the tiniest guests feel at home by offering them books and toys that you just happened to have on hand.
You have truly been a mother to me from the time I was a young tyke, running around VPC with John. Thank you for looking out for me, for treating me as a son. I love you so very much.
You have greatly impacted my life as far back as I can remember and you continue to be a blessing to both me and my family even now. Your meek and humble spirit has impacted our family in ways you could never know.
Thank you so much for the amazing Godly influence you've been in my life and in the lives of so many other people.
We all know that Roberta loved her own children and was proud of them, but more than that – at all times, her sheer delight in them was evident – even if she was mentioning something that had bothered her (which wasn’t often), she knew that mistakes and trying times provided opportunities for growth and maturity. As Christiana, Stephen and John grew to adulthood, the pride and delight were still evident, but it was joined by an acknowledgement of them as fellow laborers for the Lord. The messages posted for Roberta reflect the Godly legacy she has left in her children.
I know that Roberta leaves a lasting legacy of the gospel because I know how God shines in Christiana's life.
You have a beautiful family. My mom had shared so much about them with me. I remember Stephen sitting with us at a wedding reception and sharing his plans. What a wonderful young man.
I am a friend of your son John at UCSB. I heard about the news and I just wanted to say that all of us in Reformed University Fellowship are praying for you.
You and I have never met. But I took classes with Dr. Herr and worked with your three children. What a tremendous blessing it is to have the Herr children on the same team! You have devoted your life to Jesus and built up the hearts of your three children in a way that brings glory and honor to Him!
Norm is mentioned in these messages primarily as the “man behind the blog”, but not necessarily in many other places. I think the main reason he is not always specifically mentioned is that his place alongside Roberta’s name is assumed. We know if Roberta gets the message, then Norm gets it, and vice versa – they come as a package deal. And even though, in one of her funny, candid comments, Roberta once told me that as a young girl, she was not necessarily keen on having a boyfriend named Norman, I’m sure that I am not alone in having a difficult time saying, or even thinking, one of their names without the other. Norm and Roberta have taught us much about what Christian marriage can and should be.
You and I have never met although I feel as if I know you. I am one of Dr. Herr's current students and I want you to know that he has talked about you with great love and respect in nearly every class and workshop that I have been in of his throughout 2010. I just want to say thank you to you and Dr. Herr for allowing me the opportunity to have learned so much from both of you about life, learning, faith, family and love,
Those who posted messages for Roberta and her family communicate clearly that they are stunned, deeply saddened, heartbroken, but at this point in her Christian walk, Roberta once again led us by example. We knew from Norm’s updates that Roberta was not afraid, was not angry, but was trusting and praising God as she had always done. And the messages on the website, likewise, do not show fear or anger, nor do they offer vain hopes and empty encouragements. Rather, they overflow with thanksgiving for Roberta and her family, praise for God and humble acknowledgement of His sovereignty.
Our hearts ache, and yet, we know how unshakable is your trust in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We are reminded of Isaiah's words to God's people, "You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you."
We cry for you and praise God at the same time for the ways that He is so real, in the ways that only you and He know, and in the ways that He allows for us to see.
I know you are trusting in God for your future and you are leading us all by your example in paths of righteousness as we read about your journey and are inspired to live lives of faith for the sake of the Kingdom.
God is bigger than all this. He has a sovereign plan in place that we don't yet understand. The only thing we can do now is rest in that fact and know that He is good.
While everyone was thankful for the website as a place where they could read updates and post their messages of love and encouragement, what they really wanted was a chance to see Roberta, to spend just a bit more time with her, but for most, this was not possible. My husband and I were among the few who were able to see her when we took dinner to the family, and our own memories of Roberta will forever be colored by the specialness of that time with her. We had a chance to witness firsthand how God has been working in that household, among the entire family and we were blessed by it.
I wrote down my memories of that time, partly to preserve it for myself and my husband, but also to share with the Herr family and with you. I’d like to read a portion of it, beginning at the point where Norm tells us we can spend a few minutes with Roberta, so you can see what we saw – that Roberta in a time of intense trial and suffering was the same Roberta you described in your messages.
Norm looks into the other room and tells us that he thinks Roberta is ready to see us. He has spoken so much about her pain, her efforts to breathe, the rapid swelling of her internal organs, that I put a smile on my face and brace myself as I enter the room, assuming my friend might look drastically different from when I last saw her just a few weeks ago. She does look different, and I am completely unprepared for the transformation. She is beautiful.
I always considered Roberta an attractive person, but her beauty tonight has a shimmery quality. She looks youthful and fresh. Her smile is warm and welcoming and nearly constant throughout our visit. Her eyes are opened wide and shining. Her eyes…her eyes are almost impossible to describe – not because there are no words, but because there are too many needed to adequately communicate what I see in them, what they say to me. They tell me she is glad to see me, that she loves me, that she is well cared for, that she is enjoying this time with her family. They are the animated eyes of a woman who is excited about the future, a woman who has plans.
She greets us, and with graceful movements takes our hands and lifts her face to our kisses. Her first words to us are, “Dan, Norm is really going to need you, soon.” She smiles as she says this; her tone is loving, but serious. This is no polite request; it is a commission. Dan has a job to do.
With this first order of business out of the way, she thanks me for bringing dinner for the family and says the boys look forward to the meals people have been bringing and are always interested to find out what’s for dinner. I confirm that this was one of the first things Stephen asked, and tell her that I knew I was free to be creative and make something interesting for them because she has them trained to eat a wide variety of dishes from different cultures. She nods and agrees that this is true.
I had stressed for days about what we might talk about, tried to put myself in the situation, to think about what I might want to discuss with friends who came to visit me for the last time. I eventually gave it up and just trusted that I would know what to say when the time came. And this is the case – because as any good hostess will do with guests in her home, Roberta guides the conversation.
I tell her I’ve been praying for her mother. She thanks me, and immediately adds, “And my sister,” showing where Roberta’s own concerns lie, even as we are all concerned for her. As we talk, she gestures to her abdomen and says that she has so much swelling it makes it difficult for her to cry. She says this almost as though she needs to apologize for a lack of emotion. But from where I stand, that part of her is covered by a blanket – I barely notice it. I am too focused on how lightly and fluidly her hand moves. I notice how well the purple of her nightshirt suits her and I tell her so. She lights up and tells me Christiana found it for her and bought similar nightshirts in different colors, that it is soft and comfortable because it reaches down to her knees. She says this with the same satisfaction and pleasure that any woman has when telling a friend about a particularly good clothing purchase.
She asks if we brought Katie, and I say no. She nods and says this is good, “I’m not ready for kids to see me. I want them to remember me the way I was.” Meanwhile, I’m thinking I will gladly hold this image of her in my mind always. I’m happy just to stand here and look at her, to have her look at me, and to hold her hand. I know that she is on oxygen – the tubes are wrapped around my feet as I stand beside the bed – but as I think of her face, I have no recollection of tubes anywhere. I see only her smile, the tilt of her head and her eyes.
My thought is, the only time I’ve seen her look this lovely is in her wedding photos, hanging nearby in the hallway. This seems appropriate and declares the clear source of her radiant beauty - she has heard the call of her Bridegroom. She has oil for her lamp. She is ready.
Norm, her earthly bridegroom and chief caretaker, appears at the foot of the bed and says, “I think that’s enough for now.” I want to say, “But look at her – she doesn’t look tired; she is happy to be with us! We don’t need to leave yet. Not yet.” But there is no trace of “suggestion” in his voice. It’s time for us to go.
Though it was rarely verbalized, I could see that a predominant theme running through the messages to Roberta was an echo of my own heart’s cry of “not yet.” Regardless of our assurance of her destination, we were not ready to let her go. Those who know the Lord that Roberta loved and served know that there will be a reunion with her one day, and that it will be an extraordinary day – but not because of the reunion with Roberta. It will be extraordinary because of the presence of Jesus, who Roberta would be the first to tell you, is the source of the steadfast characteristics that we were privileged to know in her.