Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Eve Reflections

As 2009 draws to a close, I feel a sense of relief that this year is over. It's been such a difficult year. Every New Year's Eve since we've known each other (24 years), Brad and I have had a discussion entitled, "I Wonder What Next Year Holds", always full of joyful anticipation of upcoming events. Last New Year's Eve that discussion was much more sober and subdued...without a miraculous intervention from God, it was becoming clearer every day that our daughter would go to Heaven in 2009. And she did, and now we have reached another New Year's Eve.

We made it through Christmas remarkably well, due to the prayers of so many faithful friends and family members. We enjoyed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at home, just the three of us, and it was a precious time. Bethany was thrilled with all of her presents, especially her iPod Touch. I cooked a nice dinner for us, and then that evening we went to see The Blind Side (which I highly recommend)! It wasn't until we were on our way home from the movie that the pent-up emotions of the day hit all three of us. We finally made it home and had a message on our answering machine...a very sweet little voice saying "Mewwy Twismas...This is Julia...I love you!" It was our little niece who lives in Indonesia. We were sorry to have missed their call, but that precious message helped lift us out of a low spot.

The day after Christmas we headed to Brad's parents' home in Van Buren, where we celebrated Christmas with all of his family. The event was somewhat overshadowed by the fact that his mom fell and broke her arm that morning. I know she was in pain that evening, but she sat with her arm in a sling and propped up with pillows and watched all of her granddaughters (there are no grandsons!) open their presents. We left out some of the family traditions this year...as the oldest, Hannah always directed her cousins in a presentation of a nativity play, and she was usually "three French hens" in the family rendition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas". It was just too painful to go there this year. They did have a beautiful snowfall in Van Buren on Christmas Eve, so the cousins got to play in the snow, which was a special treat.

The next day we headed to my parents' house in Mountain Home to celebrate Christmas with them and my older brother's family. My nephew was on a church youth retreat, so we did not actually open presents until Tuesday night when he got back home. In the meantime, we enjoyed lots of good family time. My mom and I participated in our favorite Christmas tradition...shopping! We spent the day Monday in Springfield, Missouri, where we found some great after-Christmas bargains, and basically just enjoyed being together. My dad, Brad, and Bethany enjoyed their favorite Christmas tradition--hunting--and Bethany killed a doe. We will have plenty of deer meat in our freezer this winter! Of course, we missed Hannah while we were there, as well as my younger brother, sister-in-law, and two nieces in Indonesia. It seemed like a very small gathering this year, but we enjoyed our time together.

Yesterday, we came home, only to turn around and drive back to Little Rock last night for the Arkansas Razorback/Baylor Bears basketball game. Brad's sister works for the Baylor University athletic department, and she got us fixed up with second row seats, just behind the Baylor bench. If you happened to watch the game on ESPN2, you saw us. You may not have realized it, but you saw us. Out of consideration for the Baylor player's families with whom we were sitting, we did not wear our Razorback red or participate in calling the Hogs...which felt a little strange! By the end of the game, there wasn't much for a Razorback fan to cheer about anyway. Of course, I didn't think to bring a camera, so I don't have any pictures to post, but we had a great time!

And that brings us back to tonight...New Year's Eve. As I " Wonder What Next Year Holds", I realize that I have no idea what next year holds. Next year is completely and totally out of my control. That is just one of the many things I have learned over the past 22 months. As a control freak, that is sometimes hard for me to accept...I like for everything to fit neatly into my plan. But life doesn't work that way, and I am thankful for a God who is in control. All I have to do is let Him be who He is.

I want to close tonight with the words of Hannah's favorite contemporary Christian song. Whenever she heard it on the radio as we drove back and forth to Little Rock for radiation treatments, platelet transfusions, and chemo infusions, she would say, "Turn it up!"


"You Never Let Go"
from the CD "Beautiful News" by Matt Redman

Even though I walk through the valley
Of the shadow of death
Your perfect love is casting out fear
And even when I'm caught in the middle
Of the storms of this life
I won't turn back; I know You are near
And I will fear no evil
For my God is with me
And if my God is with me
Whom then shall I fear? Whom then shall I fear?

Oh no, You never let go
Through the calm and through the storm
Oh no, You never let go
In every high and every low
Oh no, You never let go
Lord, you never let go of me.
And I can see a light that is coming
For the heart that holds on
A glorious light beyond all compare
And there will be an end to these troubles
But until that day comes
We'll live to know you here on the earth
Yes, I can see a light that is coming
For the heart that holds on
And there will be an end
To these troubles
But until that day comes
Still I will praise You
Still I will praise You

Oh no, You never let go
Through the calm and through the storm
Oh no, You never let go
In every high and every low
Oh no, You never let go
Lord, You never let go of me.

Hannah truly lived the lyrics of this song...she faced her storm without fear, and He never did let go of her. It's a good reminder that we too can trust Him as we step into 2010.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Thoughts on Christmas Eve

Last year, I sent out this email on Christmas morning...

"It is early on Christmas morning, and I have a few things on my heart that I want to share with all of you who have been so faithful to pray for our family over the last several months. No one else is up yet....the girls no longer wake us up before dawn begging to open their presents...as teenagers, they would much rather sleep in, and open presents whenever they happen to wake up. We no longer have to stay up late on Christmas Eve putting toys together...the "toys" they want now are high-tech gadgets that they have to open up and figure out how to use themselves...we're of no help to them in that department. We have always lived a few hours away from both sets of the girls' grandparents, so we have rarely spent Christmas Day at home over the years...we're usually at one or the other grandparent's house, or traveling in between on Christmas Day. Circumstances did not allow us to travel this week (platelet infusions yesterday and tomorrow in Little Rock), so we will be spending all day at home, just the four of us. And while we are praying for Hannah's healing and trusting God that our family of four will spend many more Christmases together; we are fully aware that, in His sovereignty, this could be our last. And that is not only true for our family in our present circumstances, it is true for every family who is reading this email. We do not know what the future holds for any of us...so please, this year more than ever, enjoy the time with your family, treasure the memories you make, and be sure that you know the One whose birth we celebrate on this day."

As I wrote this email, I knew in my heart that, without a miraculous intervention from God, we were about to spend our last Christmas with Hannah. We were already beginning to see small signs that she was gradually leaving us, and less than two weeks after Christmas, she began to have some difficulty walking. Two months and one day after Christmas, God called her home.

We were given a unique gift last Christmas...the gift of awareness of our blessings. We were able to focus on our family time together, and truly appreciated every moment like never before. We took several pictures, but not too many, because Hannah really didn't like to be photographed after she lost her hair, and we tried to be sensitive to this. This is my favorite picture of her from last year...


She had just received those pretty boxes from her grandma...I plan to use them now to put some of her special things in one of these days when we go through her bedroom.

As I re-read that email from last Christmas, it brought to mind several families who have also lost children or other family members this past year. Many of them did not have the gift of time that we had with Hannah. Many of them had no idea that last Christmas would be the last one with their loved one, and my heart breaks for them.

We've received so many nice Christmas cards and encouraging notes from people this year. One of them contained a poem that helps to put all of this in perspective. If you are one of those hurting families, I hope this is a comfort to you, as it has been to us.

"My First Christmas in Heaven"

I see the countless Christmas trees around the world below,
with tiny lights like Heaven's stars reflecting on the snow.
The sight is so spectacular, please wipe away that tear,
For I am spending Christmas with Jesus Christ this year.

I hear the many Christmas songs that people hold so dear,
But the sound of music cannot compare
With the Christmas choir up here.
I have no words to tell you the joy their voices bring,
For it is beyond description to hear the angels sing.

I know how much you miss me, I see the pain inside your heart,
But I am not so far away, we really aren't apart.
So be happy for me, dear ones, you know I hold you dear,
And be glad I'm spending Christmas with Jesus Christ this year.

I send you each a special gift, from my heavenly home above,
I send you each a memory of my undying love.
After all, Love is a gift more precious than pure gold,
It was always most important in the stories Jesus told.

Please love each other as the Father said to do,
For I cannot count the blessings or Love He has for you.
So have a Merry Christmas, and wipe away that tear,
Remember, I am spending Christmas
With Jesus Christ this year.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Big Buck!

This past weekend, Brad and Bethany had the opportunity to go to Mississippi and go deer hunting with some family friends. They've been looking forward to it for weeks...Here's my beautiful girl getting ready to hunt down a big buck.


And here's the result of her efforts...


This is not her first buck (she killed a 9-point two years ago), but it is by far her biggest. She has already told me that it's going up on the living room wall, and Brad will be going to see a taxidermist this week. She called me right after she killed it...I was in Target, doing my version of "hunting"...and she was so excited. One of the first things she said, though, was "I sure wish Hannah was here." Nearly did me in, right there in the middle of Target.

Christmas shopping this year has been a rather surreal experience...It's so strange to be shopping for only one child instead of two. And it occurred to me this past weekend that this Christmas may actually be harder for Bethany than for any of us. She has never known Christmas without her sister...Hannah has always been a part of her life. I really can't imagine how she will feel opening presents all by herself...no one to share them with. I'm not sure that's even occurred to her yet, but it will. At her specific request, we will be spending Christmas Day at home, just the three of us, and we won't be getting together with our extended families until later in the week. I've heard from so many of you that you are praying for our family this Christmas (and we are feeling it, believe me!), and I would just like to ask that you please remember Bethany specifically. She's in a difficult spot...Brad and I have each other, and although we are always here for her, in many ways she is on her own. She's handled it well, but there are definitely times when she struggles.

This year, more than ever, we are grateful to God for His indescribable gift...His Son, who came as a baby to pay our debt on the cross. Because of Him, we know we will be reunited with Hannah someday. We will miss her smiling face beside our Christmas tree, but we know she will be celebrating with Jesus this year. And what could be sweeter than that?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Old Grandpa's Church

When I was a little girl, one of my favorite parts of Christmas was when my mom would get out "Old Grandpa's Church". "Old Grandpa" was my great grandpa, and we always called him that, I guess to differentiate him from our regular grandpa. It sounds kind of funny to me now, but it was normal to me then. I was probably about eight years old when he went to Heaven.

In 1965 (the year I was born), Old Grandpa used some wooden fruit boxes to make a special gift for our family...a beautiful little church.


He built the church out of these boxes, painted it white, covered it with clear glitter that looked like snow, and used sheets of red plastic to create stained glass windows. He put a music box in it that played "Silent Night" when you wound it up in the back. The top of the steeple could be lifted out, and it had a bell on it that we kids loved to shake (you can see the bell if you look carefully). The entire top could be lifted off, and inside, he furnished the church with pews, a pulpit, and an organ...all handmade. The front doors could open and close, and if you look carefully at this picture, you can see some of the pews.


The church in these pictures is actually not the one we had in my home growing up...it is an identical twin that he made for my aunt and uncle who now live in Colorado. My uncle recently refurbished this one, and added the sign with my Old Grandpa's name on it. My aunt put these pictures on Facebook, and I got such a kick out of seeing them...what great memories they brought back. It's funny...when I looked at these pictures, I could actually smell that old church.

The one I grew up with needs some refurbishing of its own...my brothers and I were pretty hard on it over the years. While visiting with my parents and my brother in Indonesia on Skype tonight, my mom mentioned that maybe my dad would try his hand at building a church like this. Hmmmmm...that would make a great Christmas present for his daughter next year!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Christmas Is Coming....

We leaped yet another hurdle in our journey last night. My husband is a high school principal, and every year we host a faculty/staff Christmas party in our home. For the last couple of years, we have co-hosted it with the junior high principal, and last year it was held at his house, because Hannah was so ill at the time. The party is simple...we eat, and then we play "Dirty Santa", which is a gift exchange where you are allowed to steal other people's gifts. Hannah loved these parties, even last year. She really enjoyed the opportunity to socialize with her teachers outside of school, and always got a kick out of seeing their silly side as they played Dirty Santa. She would look forward to it all year. We enjoyed the party last night, and had a good time as always, but her absence was apparent throughout the evening.

As Christmas approaches, many people have asked us how we are doing. I'm happy to say that we are doing remarkably well. Yes, we have some very sad moments, and times when we cry, but most of our conversations and memories make us smile. I've even wondered a couple times over the past week if there was something wrong...maybe we weren't facing reality or not grieving properly. But then, it suddenly hit me...it's God! So many of you are continuing to support us with your prayers, and some have even told me that you're specifically praying for our peace and comfort throughout this holiday season...so why should I be surprised that God is providing exactly that? I know we still have difficult days ahead, as Christmas actually arrives, along with all the family gatherings, but God has proven Himself faithful again and again, and I know He will be with us. One thing that I have learned in recent weeks is that I have to be willing to accept that peace and comfort, and not just let myself sink into despair. There is a choice involved.

Romans 12:12 tells us to "Be joyful in hope." Where does hope come from? Jesus! What a perfect verse for the Christmas season...as a matter of fact, I'm going to try to keep that verse at the forefront of my mind over the next couple of weeks as we work our way through this first Christmas without one of our girls. Thank you, Lord, for the hope of Heaven that is ours because of the gift of your Son!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Heroes All Around Us

In my last post, I talked about Hannah's heroism, but I failed to mention the heroes all around us. We have met so many heroes over the past 22 months. Some of them are still fighting their heroic battles against cancer, and some are now in Heaven with Hannah. Sometimes I can't believe how blind I was...blissfully unaware of the suffering around me.

We passed two milestones this weekend...one seemingly small, and the other a little bigger. The first one -- we built a fire in the fireplace. Hannah loved to have a fire burning. As soon as it started getting a little bit cold outside, she would start asking her dad to make a fire. We have a good, old-fashioned wood fireplace...no gas logs or gas starter...so, it's a bit of a job to make a fire. We would always try to put her off until it was at least cold enough to make it worth the trouble. Once we started making fires, Hannah would always sit on the hearth...at least until her back got too hot and she had to move. As Brad built the fire last night, we talked about how we could still see her sitting there...a good memory. We also remembered the first time she asked us to help her to the fireplace, saying she was afraid she might fall into it...a not so good memory. Eventually, it got to the point that in order for her to get up from the hearth, I would wrap my arms around her waist, she would wrap her arms around my neck, and we would stand up together. I would savor the feeling of her cheek against mine, and her downy soft hair just beginning to grow in...similar to when she was a baby. Who would have thought that the simple act of building a fire in the fireplace could evoke such vivid memories?

The other milestone was my birthday, which was today. As with every other "first", I was dreading this day. But, as with every other "first" (with maybe one exception), the anticipation was worse than the actual event. Brad and Bethany did so much to make the day special, and I received an overwhelming number of Facebook and text messages...all of which made what could have been a sad day into a day of blessing. Hannah loved birthdays, her own and everyone else's, and I was glad I was able to enjoy the day in her memory.

I know there are many, many people who still pray for us...Thank you for your faithfulness! Your prayers continue to carry us through day by day.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

My Hero

I remember the exact moment my teenage daughter became my hero. She had already been through brain surgery, 33 radiation treatments, and several MRIs. She had begun an oral chemotherapy protocol where she took a dose of a drug called Temodar for five days out of each month. She had to swallow five large capsules (what I would call "horse pills") each night before bed. The next morning, she would usually wake up very sick, and then remain drained of energy all day. I would watch her take those pills, one at a time, and wonder how she could do it. How can you force yourself to swallow something that you know is going to make you so sick...and not just once, but five times...and for five days in a row? I distinctly remember watching her one evening, taking one pill after another, very matter-of-factly and without complaint, and thinking for the first time, "She is my hero." Taking those pills was really a small thing, in light of all she went through during the year of her illness, but to me it was heroic.

Last night, I looked back through some of the emails I was sending out last December. I was kind of surprised to be reminded that Hannah was going to school at this time last year. She had completed her radiation treatments at the end of October, and we were waiting for her blood counts to rise high enough to start chemotherapy. She was constantly battling morning nausea, but was determined to try to go to school...she didn't want to get too far behind. She had not attended school since September 26th, the day we found out that her cancer had returned. All those pills she had swallowed had not been effective...in fact, our oncologist said that the cancer "was laughing at the Temodar."

I remember dropping her off the first day she went back in December, and thinking how brave she was to walk into that building after being gone for so long, wearing a wig, face swollen from steroids, not knowing how people would react to her. That was another day when I was struck by her heroism. I wanted to walk in with her, holding her hand, like I did the first day of kindergarten. But what high school junior wants her mom to walk into school with her? And besides, I knew that her dad, the principal, was in there waiting for her. I remember driving away with a heavy heart, wondering if going to school really mattered...her prognosis did not give much hope for graduation.

But she was determined to go, and for the few days she attended in December, she did well. The first day she went back, her social studies class was reviewing for a test. She took the test the next day, and made a 100, never having studied the material. I've looked through some of the notes she took and work she did during those days, and it is heartbreaking to see her once beautiful handwriting appear so shaky and unsteady. She had always doodled in class, usually making elaborate designs and symmetrical patterns. She did some doodling during those days in class too, but it is messy and uneven. I wonder now...what did she really feel like at that time? How does it feel to know that you have tumors growing inside your brain and spinal cord? She really never talked much about what she was feeling, physically or emotionally. She was always very private...never one to share too much. As time passed and her motor skills deteriorated, gradually stealing her ability to walk, she told me one day, "I don't like being this way." That was it...that was her one complaint.

How did she do it? No one could do what she did in human strength alone. The only answer is her faith in God. She knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that this was His plan for her, and she accepted it without question. And that is why she is my hero.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Moving Forward...

I must confess that I've been in a bit of a funk lately. That, and our incredibly busy schedule, is one reason I haven't posted since right after Thanksgiving. I just haven't felt up to it...spiritually, I've been down in the dumps. I suppose the holiday season has contributed to that. If you read my last post, you know that Thanksgiving was difficult, which has only added to our apprehension about Christmas. Every year, we put up our Christmas tree and decorate the house on Thanksgiving weekend. We had no desire to do that this year...Bethany even said she did not want to have a Christmas tree at all this year, and that was fine with us.

Then, today, we went to a church in Searcy to share Hannah's story. I knew going into it that I was not in the right frame of mind, spiritually or emotionally. But, on the 90-minute drive there, God began to work through some of that, and by the time we arrived, I was ready. He allowed us to share His work in our lives through Hannah's story, and it was such a blessing. We have not shared in several weeks, so today was a great reminder of all He's brought us through in the last 21 months. I'm always amazed by the fact that even as people tell us they are blessed by our story, we receive a far greater blessing by telling it. By the time we left there, I had a new perspective and a revived spirit.

And, I guess I wasn't the only one, because on the way home, Bethany announced that she was ready to put up the Christmas tree. We had decided that, if we put up a tree this year, we would go out and get a real one...just to do something different than we had done in previous years. So, when we got home, we hooked the trailer up to the Blazer, and headed out to Lowe's. Bethany wanted a BIG tree, so that's what we got. We also bought a few new things for the tree...a star for the top, some pretty ribbon, and a special ornament in honor of Hannah. We brought it all into the house, set the tree up in the stand (dropping needles everywhere in the process!) and got out our ornaments. Now, we've never had a "theme" for our tree, or matching ornaments, or anything like that...our tree is filled with snowflakes the girls made in elementary school, construction paper wreaths with their pictures in the middle, candy canes made of red and white beads, etc. We have also gotten the girls an ornament every year, usually related to their interests or activites that year. So you can imagine the memories that went along with each item as it came out of the box. And you can imagine the emotions that were evoked.

Here's the special ornament Bethany and I chose to honor Hannah this year (Hannah's middle name is Joy, and she brought us so much joy!)


There is one other very special ornament that was given to us by some dear family friends at Hannah's visitation back in February. I got it out last...and we decided not to hang it on the tree. It came with a display hanger, so we placed it on our fireplace mantel, beside our favorite picture of Hannah.


Here it is up close...It pretty much says it all....

Monday, November 30, 2009

Our First Holiday

We spent Thanksgiving eve and Thanksgiving Day with Brad's parents and his brothers and sister at the "deer camp" in Briggsville. We knew going into it that this would probably be a difficult time...our first major holiday without Hannah. I'm not sure that I was prepared personally for how difficult it actually was. We've become pretty accustomed to life at home as a family of three...caught up in the busy-ness and routine of school, work, basketball, cheerleading, etc. As we stopped to celebrate Thanksgiving, however, especially as an extended family group, Hannah's absence was glaring. If you've followed this blog for awhile, you know that the "deer camp" was one of Hannah's favorite places to be. I put "deer camp" in quotes, because it's probably not exactly the rustic, primitive place you may be picturing in your mind.

This deer camp actually consists on several hundred acres, which have been in the Sullivan/Castleberry families for many, many years. Originally, the camp consisted of a mobile home, which sits on the site of the Sullivan family homestead. The firepit outside the trailer is actually ringed by stones which at one time formed the mantel for the family fireplace. Recently, Brad's parents bought his great aunt's 4-bedroom house, which is not much more than a stone's throw from the trailer, as the crow flies. So now, the deer camp is actually made up of the mansion on the hilltop (the house) and the chateau on the lake (the trailer sits on a pond). Well, it's not exactly that fancy, but that's what we jokingly call them. It's actually very comfortable and homey...not just a hang-out for hunters.

As I said, Hannah loved spending time there with her sister, her grandparents, all of her aunts and uncles, and most of all...her cousins. The house was acquired after she became ill, so she spent most of her time at the trailer (when she wasn't hunting or riding 4-wheelers around the fields). The six cousins (all girls!) had their own room at the trailer, and their grandma gave them permission to put some grafitti on one of the walls.

If you look carefully under the words "COUSINS -4- LIFE" you can see a list of all the cousins, in order of age...Hannah, Bethany, Emily, Hayley, Allison, Caitlin, and Faith. I know, if you count that up, it's actually seven girls...Faith is only 11 months old, so she has never had the chance to spend the night in that room with her cousins...it won't be long, though!

Here's some of Hannah's grafitti....


While we were there this past week, the cousins found this notebook page in a pile of stuff in that room....What a treasure! It is now prominently displayed on the "Cousins' Wall".

Hannah's family loves her too...and we sure missed her this week! It was very difficult for me to be at the deer camp, where memories of her are everywhere. Like I said earlier, we've become accustomed to the memories we encounter every day within our usual routines...it's a little more difficult when we're out of our normal setting.

Someone who began walking the same road I am on ten years ago sent me an email last week that said, "God chose you to love Hannah and to teach her to love Him. Sounds as if you completed that job." That was a unique perspective for me...I'm still rolling that thought around in my mind. I do believe that Hannah completed her job here on earth...but I had never really thought about how I had completed my job with her. I'm thankful that I had the opportunity to do that job as her mom...and I'm thankful that Hannah was able to express her thanksgiving directly to her Father Himself this year. What an awesome thought!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving

This morning I looked back at the emails I sent around Thanksgiving 2008, just to refresh my memory about where we were at this time last year. Hannah had completed her second round of radiation treatments about a month previously, and we were still waiting for her bone marrow to rebound enough to start her new chemotherapy treatment. Her blood counts were still extremely low, and she was getting weekly blood transfusions, and almost daily platelet infusions. The chemo treatments were our last hope, medically speaking, for Hannah's survival. Hannah was feeling pretty good at Thanksgiving time last year...the "ground-up glass" feeling in her throat from the radiation treatments had diminished, and her sense of taste was just beginning to return, so she really enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner. It was an excruciatingly difficult time for us, though, as we were seeing daily indications that without a miraculous intervention from God, she was leaving us, little by little.

This year, I find myself with many things to be thankful for. I am thankful for my wonderful, godly husband, and my beautiful, healthy daughter. I am thankful for our extended family, and the many friends who have loved us and prayed us through the difficult months of the recent past. I am thankful for the 17 1/2 years we had with our precious daughter, Hannah, who has been a resident of Heaven nine months tomorrow. And most of all, I am thankful for Jesus's sacrifice, so that we will all be reunited in Heaven some day.

I am not a big fan of forwarded emails, often just deleting them without reading them. But, when I received this one a few months ago, I was struck by the truth it contained and I decided to save it and pass it on at the appropriate time. As I consider my blessings this Thanksgiving, I want to try to be thankful for my thorns.

"Sandra felt as low as the heels of her shoes when she pulled open the florist shop door, against a November gust of wind. Her life had been as sweet as a spring breeze and then, in the fourth month of her second pregnancy, a "minor" automobile accident stole her joy. This was Thanksgiving week and the time she should have delivered their infant son. She grieved over their loss.

Troubles had multiplied. Her husband's company "threatened" to transfer his job to a new location. Her sister had called to say that she could not come for her long awaited holiday visit. What's worse, Sandra's friend suggested that Sandra's grief was a God-given path to maturity that would allow her to empathize with others who suffer. "She has no idea what I'm feeling," thought Sandra with a shudder.

"Thanksgiving? Thankful for what?" she wondered. For a careless driver whose truck was hardly scratched when he rear-ended her? For an airbag that saved her life, but took her child's?

"Good afternoon, can I help you?" Sandra was startled by the approach of the shop clerk. "I . . . I need an arrangement," stammered Sandra. "...For Thanksgiving. I'm convinced that flowers tell stories, "she continued.

"Are you looking for something that conveys 'gratitude' this Thanksgiving?" the shop clerk asked.

"Not exactly!" Sandra blurted out. "In the last five months, everything that could go wrong has gone wrong." Sandra regretted her outburst, and was surprised when the clerk said, "I have the perfect arrangement for you."

Then the bell on the door rang, and the clerk greeted the new customer, "Hi, Barbara, let me get your order." She excused herself and walked back to a small workroom, then quickly reappeared, carrying an arrangement of greenery, bows, and what appeared to be long-stemmed thorny roses. Except the ends of the rose stems were neatly snipped: there were no flowers.

"Do you want these in a box?" asked the clerk. Sandra watched...was this a joke? Who would want rose stems with no flowers! She waited for laughter, but neither woman laughed.

"Yes, please," Barbara replied with an appreciative smile. "You'd think after three years of getting the special, I wouldn't be so moved by its significance, but I can feel it right here, all over again," she said, as she gently tapped her chest and left.

Sandra stammered, "Ummm, that lady just left with . .. . uh . . .she left with no flowers!" "That's right," said the clerk. "I cut off the flowers. That's the 'Special'. I call it the Thanksgiving Thorns Bouquet. Barbara came into the shop three years ago, feeling much as you do today," explained the clerk. "She thought she had very little to be thankful for. She had just lost her father to cancer; the family business was failing; her son had gotten into drugs; and she was facing major surgery. That same year I had lost my husband," continued the clerk. "For the first time in my life, I had to spend the holidays alone. I had no children, no husband, no family nearby, and too much debt to allow any travel."

"So what did you do?" asked Sandra.

"I learned to be thankful for thorns," answered the clerk quietly. "I've always thanked God for the good things in my life and I never questioned Him why those good things happened to me, but when the bad stuff hit, I cried out, 'Why? Why me?!' It took time for me to learn that the dark times are important to our faith! I have always enjoyed the 'flowers' of my life, but it took the thorns to show me the beauty of God's comfort! You know, the Bible says that God comforts us when we're afflicted, and from His consolation we learn to comfort others."

Sandra sucked in her breath, as she thought about what her friend had tried to tell her. "I guess the truth is that I don't want comfort. I've lost a baby and I'm angry with God."

Just then someone else walked in the shop. "Hey, Phil!" the clerk greeted the balding, rotund man. "My wife sent me in to get our usual Thanksgiving arrangement . . twelve thorny, long-stemmed stems!" laughed Phil, as the clerk handed him a tissue wrapped arrangement from the refrigerator.

"Those are for your wife?" asked Sandra incredulously. "Do you mind telling me why she wants a bouquet that looks like that?"

"Four years ago, my wife and I nearly divorced," Phil replied."After forty years, we were in a real mess, but with the Lord's grace and guidance, we trudged through problem after problem. The Lord rescued our marriage. Jenny here (the clerk) told me she kept a vase of rose stems to remind her of what she had learned from "thorny" times. That was good enough for me. I took home some of those stems. My wife and I decided to label each one for a specific "problem" and give thanks for what that problem taught us." As Phil paid the clerk, he said to Sandra,"I highly recommend the Special!"

"I don't know if I can be thankful for the thorns in my life,"Sandra said to the clerk. "It's all too . . . fresh."

"Well," the clerk replied carefully, "my experience has shown me that the thorns make the roses more precious. We treasure God'sprovidential care more during trouble than at any other time. Remember that it was a crown of thorns that Jesus wore so we might know His love. Don't resent the thorns."

Tears rolled down Sandra's cheeks. For the first time since the accident, she loosened her grip on her resentment.. "I'll take those twelve long-stemmed thorns, please," she managed to choke out.

"I hoped you would," said the clerk gently. "I'll have them ready in a minute." As the clerk presented the bouquet of thorns, Sandra said, "Thank you. What do I owe you?" The clerk replied, "Nothing. Nothing but a promise to allow God to heal your heart. The first year's arrangement is always on me." The clerk smiled and handed a card to Sandra. "I'll attach this card to your arrangement, but maybe you would like to read it first."

It read: "My God, I have never thanked You for my thorns. I have thanked You a thousand times for my roses, but never once for my thorns. Teach me the glory of the cross I bear; teach me the value of my thorns. Show me that I have climbed closer to You along the path of pain. Show me that, through my tears, the colors of Your rainbow look much more brilliant."

Praise Him for the roses; thank Him for the thorns.

~Anonymous

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Need for a Savior

There's a danger, when someone dies before we feel they should, to view that person through rose-colored glasses. Reading this blog, with all the stories about and tributes to Hannah, might lead you to the incorrect conclusion that she was perfect. Hannah was a joy to raise, and while she never got involved in some of the destructive things teenagers do, she was far from perfect.

Let's see...There was the time that I had her and Bethany cleaning the bathroom together (they were probably about 8 and 5), and I heard a blood-curdling scream. I raced into the bathroom to find that Hannah had sprayed Bethany directly in the eyes with Windex. They had had a little tiff, and Hannah thought she would solve it by giving her sister a squirt in the face. I picked Bethany up, stuck her head under the faucet, and rinsed out her eyes with water while she screamed her lungs out. I don't know if Windex can blind somebody or not (apparently not!) but I made sure Hannah understood that she could have done permanent damage to her sister. Hannah's defense was, "I didn't know it was gonna hurt her!"

As they grew older, their arguments grew less physical and more verbal. They really didn't fight much...just picked at each other sometimes. Usually, it would start as a joke, and then escalate to the point where someone got their feelings hurt -- usually Bethany!

Hannah was a perfectionist. I clearly remember trying to teach her how to write a lowercase "a" when she was about four years old. She wanted to be able to print her name, and she had the H's and the N's down, but she just couldn't get the A's. She was quickly becoming frustrated, and after one of her attempts, I said reassuringly, "That one's fine...it doesn't have to be perfect." She looked at me sharply, and through clenched teeth, she snarled, "But I WANT it to be perfect." She remained that way throughout her school years. She was extremely competitive and couldn't stand for anyone to make a higher grade than she did. These perfectionist tendencies sometimes even affected her relationships with her peers. She was determined to be the valedictorian of her class, and was not about to let anyone get in her way!

In the previous post, I mentioned that Hannah had been caught cheating. Yes, she was, and it happened more than once. The first was on a homework assignment, when several girls worked together on something that they were supposed to do individually. Another time, she allowed a friend to look off her paper during a test. Both times, when confronted by the teacher, she readily admitted her involvement, and served time in detention. She took a lot of good-natured teasing from fellow students...after all, she was the principal's daughter...the principal's daughter is not supposed to cheat!!

No, Hannah did not ever commit what some might consider to be "serious sins". And if there was ever someone who you might think could have earned her way to Heaven by being a good person, or by enduring suffering, it was Hannah. But she was born with a sin nature, as we all are, and she needed a Savior. The Bible tells us that "All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23). Thankfully, there is a remedy for that...in Romans 6:23, we are told that "the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."

It seems like I've known Romans 6:23 all my life...memorized it in Sunday School when I was a little girl...spouted it off mindlessly in church...but, until my daughter's death hit me square in the face, I had never really considered its meaning. The disease and death that we experience here on earth is a direct result of living in a world that is controlled and corrupted by sin. Romans 5:12 says that "...just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, in this way death came to all men, because all sinned." From the time of Adam, mankind has been mired in sin, sorrow, and death. "But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8)." If we could somehow save ourselves just by being "good enough", why would God have sent His own Son to die for us? Here's the good news...Romans 10:9-10, 13 says "If you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved...Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved." Hannah could never have been "good enough" on her own to make it to Heaven. She is there today because she called upon His name, confessed her sin, and asked Him to be her Savior when she was eight years old.

As we approach the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons, I must admit that there is dread in my heart as I think of facing these days without our precious Hannah. But, with God's help, I am seeking to be consciously, purposefully grateful for the assurance of her eternal life through Jesus Christ her Lord. II Corinthians 4:18 --"So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal."

Friday, November 13, 2009

Hannah's Peers

I've been sitting here with tears rolling down my cheeks for the past thirty minutes or so. I'm all alone in the house tonight -- Brad and Bethany are gone to "deer camp" for the weekend, and I've been spending a lovely evening at home by myself. I'm serious...I love evenings at home by myself. I love being able to eat whatever I want, watch whatever I want on TV, and go to bed whenever I want. Or eat and watch TV in bed...what could be sweeter? I wouldn't want it this way all the time, but I do enjoy having time by myself on occasion...and, of course, I have Lacee, our Westie, to keep me company.

Well, tonight, I decided to watch a couple of DVDs that were given to us last spring, shortly after Hannah went to Heaven. One was made by Hannah's AP English classmates, and the other was a slide show made by her Spanish teacher. When they were given to us, I was grateful to receive them, but I just didn't feel emotionally ready to watch them. I put them away with the DVDs of Hannah's celebration service and burial, and didn't run across them again until earlier this week, when I was digging for a DVD on which to record a TV show for my brother in Indonesia. I decided that I was ready, and that I would watch them this weekend, while I was home alone (Brad watched them back when they were first given to us).

Wow...what an emotional experience! I watched the one from her English class first, and it completely blew me away. It was filmed outside, at different spots around campus, and in it, Hannah's classmates took turns telling what she meant to them, and what an impact her story had made on their lives. It ended with her four best friends sitting on a big rock and sharing stories of things they had done together...getting caught cheating (I'll have to explain that one a little more at some point!), eating lunch together every day, going to Magic Springs, etc., and how their lives had been impacted by hers. It was amazing to see these teenagers sharing from their hearts so openly. Hannah's English teacher closed out the video by telling about the difference Hannah had made in her life. I was completely overwhelmed.

Then I watched the second DVD. It was full of pictures of Hannah that I had never seen before. You know, I don't think I ever fully realized how really beautiful she was. And in every picture, there was her trademark smile. Then there were pictures of a ceremony that was held on the school campus on March 6, 2009, about two weeks after her death. We were unable to attend, so it was wonderful to see pictures of it. A tree was planted on campus in Hannah's memory, and the students, one at a time, sprinkled rose petals around the base of it. I can't even describe how it feels to look at those pictures.
It's really been eye-opening for me to see Hannah through the eyes of her peers. I can only see her through a mother's eyes, so it's been very interesting and enlightening for me to get a glimpse of her life from another perspective.

I want to share another college entrance essay with you this evening. This one was written by Hannah's dear friend, Tyler, who sent it to me this week and gave me permission to share it here. She titled it, "Dulled Edges".

"Death and the subsequent act of grieving are a package deal that visits all of us at some point in our lives. While the long term effects of some losses may not be immediately viewable through the overwhelming cloud of sorrow, they are always waiting. As hard as it is to believe, death has the power to bring clarity to some situations. Eight months after losing one of my best friends to brain cancer, the cloud has cleared enough for me to see the effects. My friend’s mother sent out regular e-mails both before and after Hannah’s death, and she shared a saying with us that I have now found to be true: “The hole will always be there, but the edges will become less sharp.”

Hannah Joy Sullivan’s middle name was the most fitting middle name I have ever heard. She was, in essence, the physical embodiment of the emotion. When we were children, she could be counted on to have a smile stretched across her face every single day and to be always able to point out the silver lining in any type of cloud. Her family moved when she was 12 years old, but true friendship is not deterred by distance. I, along with two other close friends, kept in touch with her via phone, e-mail, and the now antiquated AOL instant messaging. Hannah was always the friend I chose to accompany my family on our annual trip to Hot Springs, always the friend that I went to concerts with, always the friend that I stayed on the phone for hours with talking about American Idol and other current fads in our respective schools. She was actually the one who got me interested in the juggernaut that is American Idol because when I called her on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, she would actually make me hang up and wait for her to call me back when the show ended! Obviously I had to start watching whatever show was keeping her so entranced, and that kick started an entirely new interest for us to share. Hannah and I attended many post American Idol concerts when they toured, and the memories we made on those trips have become priceless.

In February of 2008, after weeks of nausea and double vision, Hannah went to the doctor and was referred to the most terrifying specialist of all – an oncologist. He delivered some of the most dreaded news possible: Hannah had a Type 4 Glioblastoma tumor in the middle of her brain stem. The diagnosis depicted a particularly vicious type of cancer, one that had a dismal 5% survival rate. I remember everything about the night when one of the two friends who also kept up with Hannah called me with the news. I was at choir rehearsal, and although I never answer my phone during practice, I did for some reason that night. I went into the art room and sat on a stool as I listened to the three words that changed my life forever: “Hannah has cancer.” I remember feeling numb for the rest of that night and the following days. I had no idea what to do with myself, and though I wanted to help or to go visit her immediately, there was nothing I could do. The tumor was successfully removed five days after it was found. I watched Hannah put on a brave face when no one else could and go through her intensive treatments with that trademark smile upon her face. For a while she was doing extraordinarily well; the medicine seemed to be working and the cancer seemed to have given up the fight for a blissful couple of months.

The very end of 2008 brought more bad news though as her cancer returned in full strength with an army of tumors to replace the original one on her brain stem. Worse yet, even more were found along her spinal cord. The news was devastating. I watched her go through changes that no 17-year-old should have to: losing her thick, beautiful hair, losing her balance, losing her eyesight. My friends and I went to visit her in January of 2009, and about an hour into our visit, she took off her wig. Her mom later told us she never went without her wig in front of company, and it was a sign we had made her feel comfortable enough to show us the prized asset that the cancer had taken. In spite of the great number of physical characteristics that the disease had ravaged, Hannah was still our Hannah. She joked and laughed and, of course, smiled.

The last time I saw Hannah was five days before her death. She had been moved to a hospice house by this point, and I was in the city for the weekend. For this visit, however, I was not accompanied by my two friends, making it infinitely harder. I entered her quiet room, and rubbed her hand while I tried to say everything I thought was absolutely necessary. I am sure now that none of it was, but how does one prioritize things that need to be said, knowing that this is the last chance? I believe that Hannah knew it was me, although I cannot be absolutely sure. She hardly talked, and the lack of her smile broke my already cracked heart. Her energy was low, so I whispered that I loved her and left her to rest. Seeing her one last time brought the closure I needed, even if it could not soften the pain of her death.

The months following her death in February were a blur. Nothing I did felt like it had meaning, and at times I felt utterly helpless. Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months, and I began to feel happy more and more often. I knew this was what Hannah would have wanted, but experiencing happiness too soon after a death feels wrong, and it took me a long time to get re-accustomed to the feeling.

I have come to realize that Hannah’s death has subconsciously made me more appreciative of the little things in life. I make an effort to never take relationships that are dear to me for granted, and I find that forgiveness is not nearly as hard to give. I would love to be able to say that I never hold grudges anymore, or that I do not take petty things too seriously, but I would be lying. I still make mistakes, and I still take life for granted sometimes. However, I notice these things and make changes faster and more often. I would like to believe that I have learned more about the fragility of life.

A teenager in the prime of life with everything going for her, Hannah was the most unlikely candidate for brain cancer. Because of her, I have realized the importance of every day of life I am given. Life is a gift, and it should not be taken for granted. It may seem unfair for such a young and thriving person to be taken away in such a cruel manner, but, thinking back, I found the silver lining – I know Hannah would have. Because the cancer took her from us relatively slowly, we had a year to value our time with her and, most importantly, to say goodbye to her. This turned out to be the greatest gift of all, as I simply cannot imagine having her taken away without so much as a warning. I am sure the time we were given to come to terms with the inevitable softened the blow more than I can even imagine.

Grief is a common and yet mystifying emotion. Despite the fact that everyone has experienced grief, it never seems to present itself the same way in any two people. For me, it made everything insignificant for a time and then ended up showing me what I was supposed to have learned from Hannah’s story. I miss my best friend every day, and I would trade the lessons I have been taught from her death for her presence any day. However, I know I cannot bring her back, and therefore I must make the most of what the situation has given me. The incredible power grief has over each of us proves that not all of the aftermath of loss is negative and that, given time, the edges of our holes can be dulled."

~A beautiful tribute....Thank you, Tyler.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

God Is In Control

On February 20, 2008, Hannah and I went to National Park Medical Center in Hot Springs for an MRI, which had been recommended by our ophthalmologist due to concerns about double vision and dilated pupils. To be perfectly honest, I really was not that concerned about these symptoms, because I really thought they were due to sinus problems. At the same time that this was going on, Bethany was also having some strange medical problems, and she seemed much "sicker" than Hannah...I was actually more concerned about what was going on with her.

But as the MRI was going on, the technician leaned out of her office door (I was sitting in a chair flipping through a magazine right outside her door--would you believe there was a magazine there from 1987?) and handed me two tickets for free meals in the hospital cafeteria. She said something about Hannah and me eating lunch there when the MRI was done. I thanked her and took them, but I knew we wouldn't stay...I was anxious to get back home and check on Bethany, who was at home by herself, too sick to go to school. When the MRI was completed and Hannah came out, I tried to give her the tickets back and told her we weren't going to stay for lunch. She insisted that we go down for lunch while she checked the films and made sure everything turned out okay. She said that if something didn't turn out, Hannah might have to get back in the tube. She said we should go eat, and then check with her before we left. I thought this was a little strange, but I remembered that whenever you get an X-ray, they tell you not to get dressed until they check the films. I had never had an MRI before...maybe this was routine. So, Hannah and I went to the cafeteria and ate lunch, then headed back to the MRI suite. As we walked back through the maze of hallways, I began to feel a little uneasy...when we first arrived, the technician had told us that it would be 2 or 3 days before we got any results...surely this "checking back" was just a part of the process.

When we arrived back in the MRI suite, the technician was waiting for us. She had pulled two of the waiting room chairs close together (there were only three chairs in the room, and they had each been in a corner). She had us sit down, and then told us that our ophthalmologist was on his way over. She then disappeared into her office, leaving Hannah and I looking at each other questioningly. Before we even had a chance to say much to each other, she reappeared, telling me that our ophthalmologist was on the phone and wanted to talk to me. I stepped into her office and shut the door, leaving Hannah alone in the waiting room, and picked up the phone. Now, I need to stop here and explain that our ophthalmologist was a good friend of ours...a friend from college, who sang in our wedding over twenty years ago. In a very calm voice, Tommy explained to me that the MRI showed something...he needed to talk to the radiologist before he could tell me more...but it was something that was going to require treatment. He was on his way to the hospital to talk to the radiologist and then was coming to meet with me. I asked him if Hannah should be included in this meeting, and he said that was up to me. I knew in an instant that Hannah needed to be a part of this meeting...I knew she would have lots of questions that I wouldn't be able to answer, and I knew she would want to know exactly what was going on.

I hung up the phone with Tommy, and saw the technician sitting there crying. She stopped me before I went back out to talk to Hannah and asked if I was okay. Well, I was, until she asked that question. Not really okay, but at least holding it together. I don't remember what all she said, but she was very kind as I pulled myself together and stepped back out into the waiting room where Hannah was sitting alone. By this time, she knew something was up, and I told her that something had showed up on the MRI and Tommy was on his way to talk to us about it. We cried a few tears, but held it together for the most part. While we were waiting, I showed her the magazine from 1987, and we actually laughed at some of the ads and articles.

Then, suddenly, Tommy was there, and he was taking us into the technician's office area and showing us pictures of an egg-sized tumor in the center of Hannah's brain. We sat back down in the waiting room (the technician had pulled up the other chair by this time) and Tommy explained to us that Hannah was going to need brain surgery, and that we were going to have to decide if we wanted to go to Arkansas Children's Hospital immediately or wait until the next day. He held our hands and cried and prayed with us (what a wonderful guy!), walked us out to the car, and offered to drive us home. We did have lots of questions for him, most of which he was unable to answer, and at that point, Hannah's biggest concern was whether or not they would have to shave her head for surgery. I honestly don't remember a lot of what he said that day, but one thing does stand out vividly in my memory...he said, "As much as we don't like it...it is what it is." Nothing very spiritual, but something we said to ourselves many times as we walked through the next year. There was nothing we could do about the circumstances...we were not in control...but God was.

As I've been listening to my new Steven Curtis Chapman CD yesterday and today, I've been struck by the lyrics of another song, which so vividly expresses these feelings.

Our God Is In Control
This is not how it should be
This is not how it could be
But this is how it is
And our God is in control
This is not how it will be
When we finally will see
We'll see with our own eyes
He was always in control
And we'll sing Holy, Holy, Holy is our God
And we will finally, really understand what it means
So we'll sing Holy, Holy, Holy is our God
While we're waiting for that day
This is not where we planned to be
When we started this journey
But this is where we are
And our God is in control
Though this first taste is bitter
There will be sweetness forever
When we finally taste and see
That our God is in control
And we'll sing Holy, Holy, Holy is our God
And we will finally, really understand what it means...

I know there are many readers of this blog who are going through difficult circumstances: a prodigal son or daughter, the loss of a child or another loved one, or maybe you are traveling the cancer journey yourself or with a family member. Even as I join you in feeling that "this is not how it should be", I am comforted by the knowledge that God is still in control.

Monday, November 9, 2009

SEE

I love music...especially contemporary Christian music. I own more CDs than any one person has a right to own. Maybe someday I'll switch to an iPod..It sure would save a lot of space! But I doubt that I will, at least not any time soon. I really like being able to read the song lyrics and the liner notes included with CDs. When I'm alone in the house, the music is always playing...no TV for me!

I bought a new CD the other day...one that I have really been looking forward to getting. It is the latest Steven Curtis Chapman CD, titled "Beauty Will Rise". On May 21, 2008, Steven's 5-year-old daughter, Maria, went to Heaven after being struck by a car driven by his son in their own driveway. The songs on this CD rise out his family's experiences and emotions following this tragic event. Before I ever listened to the CD, I sat down and read all the liner notes and song lyrics...a very emotional experience, because every one of the songs on this album captures some element of the journey we've been on for the past several months. I want to share the lyrics of one of these songs, along with the story behind it, in Steven Curtis Chapman's own words:

"SEE"
This little three-letter word took on enormous meaning to my family and me on May 22nd of 2008. The day after Maria went to Heaven, Mary Beth and I went to our house with friends to get some clothes for the next few days. (We had decided to stay with our friends The Andersons until we felt we could return to our house for good.) We walked from room to room feeling like we were lost in some terrible dream and tried to imagine ever living in this house again that had suddenly become so terribly quiet and empty. As I walked through the dining room I noticed a piece of paper on Maria's little art table where she and her sister would spend hours coloring and drawing and cutting and gluing. (Maria especially loved the gluing part!) On that piece of paper was a flower that had been drawn and colored with markers. It was one of Maria's signature flowers that she loved to draw, but this one appeared to be unfinished as only one of the petals was colored in with blue marker...the others were just outlined. Then I noticed something was written with marker on the back side of the paper. Now let me back up for just a minute and explain one other part of this story. Shortly after Maria had been carried away to Jesus, all of us, and particularly Caleb and I began to talk about how desperate we were just to "SEE" something...a dream or a vision...anything that would help confirm in some tangible way what we were holding onto by faith, that Maria was truly "okay", and even more than "okay", that she really was safe in the arms of Jesus. It was a plea that I heard us all say several times in those first hours..."God, please just let us "SEE" something!" So back to the flower artwork on the table--I turned the page over and was completely stunned to find a word written on the back in Maria's handwriting. To any of our knowledge she knew only 6 words that she could write..."I love you", "Mom", "Dad", and her name, "Maria". But there on the back of the paper she had written in all capital letters the word, "SEE". Even as one who is usually careful not to attach more meaning to something than it deserves, I was and still am completely convinced that this was a precious "gift" from the broken heart of our Father in Heaven delivered through our daughter's own hand the very morning before she left us for Heaven...I could picture the face of our little girl smiling at us and saying, "SEE mom and dad, SEE everybody, it's just like you said, only so much better...and I really am okay!" And it was our Father's way of saying, "SEE with eternal eyes, SEE that I have your little girl safe and sound with me, and SEE by faith My promise of the day that's coming very soon when I will make everything new and wipe every last one of these tears from your eyes." It wasn't until several days later that we also began to recognize a significance in the "unfinished" flower that she had drawn on that same paper. Of the six petals, only one was colored in with her favorite color, blue. Of our six children, only one has been completely "colored in" and made whole. The rest of us are still waiting for that coming day when finally we will clearly and completely SEE! I Corinthians 13:12.

SEE
(Song lyrics)
Right now all I can taste are bitter tears
And right now all I can SEE are clouds of sorrow
From the other side of all this pain
Is that you I hear?
Laughing loud and calling out to me?
Saying SEE, it's everything you said that it would be
And even better than you would believe
And I'm counting down the days until you're here with me
And finally you'll SEE
But right now all I can say is, "Lord how long?"
Before you come and take away this aching
This night of weeping seems to have no end
But when the morning light breaks through
We'll open up our eyes and we will SEE
It's everything He said that it would be
And even better than we would believe
And He's counting down the days 'til He says "Come with me."
And finally...
He'll wipe every tear from our eyes
And make everything new
Just like He promised
Wait and SEE
Just wait and SEE
Wait and SEE
And I'm counting down the days until I SEE
It's everything that He said that it would be
And even better than we would believe
And I'm counting down the days 'til He says, "Come with me"
And finally, we'll SEE
Wait and SEE
Oh taste and SEE that the Lord is good
The Lord is good
Oh taste and SEE that the Lord is good
The Lord is good.

While we wait to be "colored in", we look forward to SEEing what Hannah SEEs right now! It's even better than we would believe!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Basketball Season Has Begun!

Today was Bethany's first basketball game of the season. She's a starter on the junior high team, and is the tallest girl on the team, at about 5'10" tall. Last year at this time, she was probably about 5'6". She has really shot up in recent months, and takes great pride in the fact that she is now taller than me.

I missed Bethany's first game last season, because Hannah was inpatient at Arkansas Children's Hospital and I was staying there with her. She was hospitalized with fever neutropenia, which is basically extremely low blood counts accompanied by fever, leaving her with little to no immunity against infection. We actually spent about three weeks in the hospital last November, just trying to get those blood counts up. Brad and Bethany did come to visit us that evening, though, and brought a DVD of the game with them. We watched it on the TV in her room...and Hannah enjoyed it as if she were watching it live.

Hannah was her sister's biggest fan, and she hated missing her games. Even when she was not hospitalized, she got to go to very few games because her immunity was so low...she could not be around crowds. One of Hannah's last public outings (other than to the hospital or our local clinic) was to one of Bethany's games in late January. She did not feel good...that was obvious to me, because she wore an old, ill-fitting T-shirt...something she would never have normally worn to a school activity...she liked to dress "cute". We had to sit apart from the main crowd because of her ongoing immunity issues. Her friends could come up and speak to her, but had to keep their distance. A friend of ours took pictures of our family watching the game from across the gym, and when I looked at those pictures later, I was startled by how sick she looked. Being with her all the time, we didn't really see all the changes that were going on, but it sure does show up in the few pictures we have of that time. Her face was swollen from steroids, her eyes deviated from their normal position, and of course, she was wearing her wig. But she sat there at that game, ate a frito chili pie (her favorite concession stand food) and clapped and cheered for her sister all the way through it.

I'm looking forward to basketball season this year. I'm looking forward to being able to enjoy watching Bethany play, and not be worried that she's feeling neglected because her mom is not able to be there. I will miss sitting beside Hannah and hearing her yell encouragement to her sister. I may just have to get me a frito chili pie.

Oh, and the Junior Lady Panthers won this afternoon...hopefully a sign of good things to come!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Musings on Heaven (Part 2)...

Have you ever noticed how many of the old hymns of the faith refer to Heaven (usually in the last verse)? I have to say that I never really paid that much attention before...I must confess that I have often been guilty of mindlessly singing along, while my thoughts are elsewhere. But now that Hannah lives there, those words practically leap off the page -- or the screen, at our church....

"When we've been there 10,000 years; bright shining as the sun;
there's no less days to sing God's praise than when we'd first begun."

"I heard about a mansion He has built for me in glory,
And I heard about the streets of gold beyond the crystal sea;
About the angels singing and the old redemption story,
And some sweet day I'll sing up there the song of victory."

"When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart!
Then I shall bow, in humble adoration
And there proclaim, "My God, how great Thou art!""

"O that with yonder sacred throng
We at His feet may fall
We'll join the everlasting song
And crown Him Lord of all."

I've not been able to sing those songs in church yet without getting choked up...I'm never quite able to sing that last verse. The thought of Hannah being part of that sacred throng is just a little too much. Notice, also, that all of these songs refer to singing and praising God in Heaven. I'm beginning to realize that I am closest to Hannah when I am doing what she is doing...worshiping Jesus! I don't have to wait until I get to Heaven to begin that everlasting song -- I can start now! I have to be honest and say that I don't always feel like doing that, but God is faithful, whether I am or not. And for that, I am thankful!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Musings on Heaven...

"I heard the singing of thousands and millions of angels around the throne and the living beings and the elders. And they sang in a mighty chorus: "The Lamb is worthy--the Lamb who was slain. He is worthy to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing." Revelation 5:11-12

Before last February, I have to be honest and say I really didn't think that much about Heaven. I certainly didn't have what I would call a "longing" for Heaven. That has all changed. I now find myself frequently thinking of Heaven, and anxiously awaiting the day that I arrive there. There is a conflict in this longing, though...if I am completely truthful with myself, I have to recognize that it is not Jesus I am longing to see most of all; it is Hannah.

Nancy Guthrie (who has last two children) addresses this conflict in her book, "The One Year Book of Hope". She asks, "Should you feel guilty about wanting to see someone you love in Heaven? I don't think so. It is a desire God uses to awaken us to Himself. When someone we love is there, Heaven becomes more real and our longing more vivid. It is a sacred longing."

She goes on to say, "While people we love are precious to us and our reunions with them in Heaven will be grand, the fact that we long for them more than we long for Jesus reflects our current human limitations of taking in the beauty and magnificence of Jesus. In Heaven, we will see Him in His fullness, and we will not have to choose between focusing on the people we love and loving Jesus with our whole heart. We'll be swept up with the chorus of Heaven singing, "The Lamb is worthy" (Revelation 5:12). And together with those we love, we will look to Jesus."

We have not been in our home church too many Sunday mornings since Hannah left us for Heaven, because we've been traveling and sharing her story so much. And the times we have been there, we have not sat in our "usual place" (you know how everybody in church seems to have a certain spot staked out where they always sit). Yesterday, though, we found ourselves back in that spot where the four of us always used to sit. The girls usually sat between Brad and me, and I always enjoyed singing the hymns and choruses along with them. As I stood and sang yesterday morning, I could almost feel and hear Hannah standing next to me singing like she used to. And I am reminded that someday, I will stand next to her again, and sing in the actual presence of Jesus. What an awesome thought!!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Scholarship Essay

Today I want to share with you an essay written by Chris Gage, one of Hannah's classmates. He is a senior this year, and he has granted me permission to share his college scholarship essay on my blog. The assignment was as follows: Consider an experience that has had a profound influence on any of your academic, creative, career, or service goals. Discuss how what you learned from that experience informs your future plans.

Here is what Chris wrote:

"The lessons that can be learned through the death of a friend are hard to find. The grief and shock of the death do not help in any way, but these life lessons are very important. These lessons can make something good come out of the friend's death, the silver lining of an extremely dark cloud.

Hannah Sullivan died in February of my junior year in high school. She was the person everybody liked. She was the person that people went to when they had any type of problem. If a person was having a hard time in class, Hannah would always help out. Hannah was the genius of the class and it was assumed that she was going to be valedictorian.

The summer before my sophomore year, Hannah went to a church camp and heard a sermon about the storms God gives to people to uplift Him. Hannah asked God to give her a storm; that storm was brain cancer. Hannah's storm brought the best out of her already amazing personality. She fought the brain cancer with grace, always with an unforgettable smile.

Hannah did use her storm to uplift God. She showed everybody what God could do. How his power can help any person in any way, and how God can reach any person in any way. God reached many of Hannah's classmates through Hannah.

Hannah always had faith in God. She knew God would always protect her. Her faith spread to other people. I was saved when I was seven, but Hannah's storm taught me that God would always be with me and help me with every challenge I face (writing this essay, for example). I know now that God will always protect me and never give me anything that I cannot handle. I will be able to handle all of the challenges life throws at me. All I have to do is give my all and trust that God will take care of me.

Hannah taught me to never give up and to always have faith in God. Hannah never gave up. She fought for a year. Seeing Hannah fight for as long as she did taught me to never quit. Hannah's goal was to bring as many people as possible closer to God. By bringing just one person closer to God, she accomplished her goal. I have many goals myself, and I know that if I never give up, no matter how the odds are stacked against me, I can accomplish my goals. This attitude has helped me get ready for college and this attitude will enable me to handle college.

Hannah's death affected thousands of people. She touched every person she met. The nurses that cared for Hannah said she always smiled, never complained, and was one of their best patients. That was how Hannah touched me before the cancer. She always smiled, always had an encouraging word, and never complained. Hannah's storm is how she touched everyone else and is how she taught those who already knew her a life lesson. I miss her, but am glad I found something good out of her passing. It destroys the dark cloud and turns the silver lining into gold."

I don't know who is on the scholarship board at the U of A, but if I were on it, Chris would definitely have my vote for a full scholarship! Thank you, Chris, for your kind words about Hannah and your willingness to share what you wrote...hearing stories like yours are a huge comfort to our family, and remind us what life (and death) are really all about.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Homegoing

Please be in prayer for the family of Jamie Morris tonight. After battling osteosarcoma for the ninth time in his 21 years of life, he went home to be with the Lord this afternoon. When Hannah was in the middle of her battle, he often sent her emails of encouragement. He told his mom not long ago that even if he could, he would not change anything about his life...that cancer had made him into the man he was. He was a man of strong faith, and touched many lives along the way. Please remember his mom Susan, stepdad Charles, and wife Jennifer, as they face the difficult days ahead.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Hannah's First Birthday in Heaven

Eighteen years ago today, Brad and I excitedly welcomed our first baby, Hannah Joy...weighing in at 7 pounds, 6 ounces, and measuring a whopping 22 inches long. We were thrilled beyond words to have been entrusted with such an amazing little life. Her middle name was well-suited for her, because she brought us nothing but joy for 17 1/2 years.

Today, we took a day to celebrate and remember her life. Bethany and I stayed home from work and school today, and Brad worked until 12:30. Even though it was pouring rain, we had decided to go visit Hannah's grave this afternoon (about a 3 hour round trip for us). Brad came home from work with a basket of pink rose petals from the senior class, along with a note signed by all of Hannah's classmates. How perfect was that? I had wanted to put something on Hannah's grave, but just couldn't bring myself to go out and buy some plastic flowers. Rose petals were just right for today...Bethany sprinkled them all over the grave and headstone.

Our nickname for Hannah was "My Joy"...for example, we might say "Hannah My Joy, it's time to get up" or "Hannah My Joy, you need to do your homework." So, when it came time to decide what to put on the headstone, that was the obvious choice. Along the bottom, it says "We will praise God in the storm because He is good all the time."

Hannah's Aunt Maria made this beautiful cross of fall flowers and placed it here a couple of weeks ago.
I do need to be honest and admit that I have a very strained relationship with Hannah's grave. I don't normally like to spend time there. There's something about seeing your child's name in granite that brings you back to cold, hard reality. And although I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that Hannah herself is not there, and that it is just her earthly shell there below the ground, it is extraordinarily difficult for me to be that close to her body and not be able to be with her. Her body was just a vessel...I know that...but I loved that vessel. I cared for that physical body, when she was a newborn and unable to do anything for herself, and then again, as the cancer stole her ability to care for herself. I know that many people are comforted by spending time at the graveside of their loved ones, but I am not one of them. Having said that, though, it was the right place for us to be today. I think it was good for all of us.

We ended the day by going out for a nice dinner, then came home and watched a home video of Hannah's 14th birthday in 2005. That was the most recent video we had...our video camera quit shortly after that (we still had one of those great big ones that sit on your shoulder, much to the girls' chagrin when we used it in public!) and we had never replaced it. It was the first time we had heard her voice since February...and the last couple months of her life, the sound of her voice had changed due to the cancer. We also got to hear her laugh...another wonderful sound. I had made a Mississippi Mud Cake this morning (Hannah's favorite) and we ate that tonight while we watched the videos.

As much as we miss her, we know that this was God's plan for her life...and for ours. She was living with a physical body that was hopelessly flawed, as we all are. I have used this quote in a previous post, but I love it. At the end of C.S. Lewis's The Last Battle it says, "They were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before." We often refer to our recent journey as "Hannah's story", but her real story began when she entered Heaven. We rest in the knowledge that today was the best birthday Hannah has ever had!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Special Day

Tomorrow would have been Hannah's 18th birthday. Eighteen...that sounds so old! Hannah always looked forward to her birthdays (her favorite number was 22). In recent years, we always had a big family party for her birthday. She preferred getting together with her grandmas and grandpas and aunts, uncles, and cousins, to having a party with her friends.

Last year's birthday was a series of highs and lows. Less than a month before, we found out her cancer had returned and our oncologist had tearfully told us that she had less than a 5% chance of survival. She had started a new series of radiation treatments, and 4 days before her 17th birthday, she lost all of her hair. (The picture of us in the road was taken just a couple of days before that.) The bald patches had just started growing in following her first round of radiation. I shaved it off in the living room (she didn't want to do it in front of a mirror) and when I was finished, she went to look at herself and said, "I still look like me...I just don't have any hair!" She put on her wig, and went on with life.

Hannah received some wonderful gifts for her birthday last year...our extended family all got together and bought her a laptop computer (the same one I use to type these blog posts); the El Dorado High School Class of 1985 (Brad's graduating class...quite an amazing group of people) got together and gave her a TV for her bedroom, along with a DVD player, an iPod, and a pile of movies; and her high school classmates gave her a digital camera and digital frame. She also received dozens of cards, phone calls, and emails. God used so many different people to remind her of His love.

It's strange, but as I sit here tonight, I can't remember what Brad and I got her for her birthday last year. I'm just drawing a blank. The only thing I do remember is how strange it was to shop for her birthday under those circumstances, and wondering if this was going to be her last one. I also remember making a conscious decision to enjoy every moment of that day, in case we didn't have another one. I guess that's why I don't remember what we got her...it just wasn't important.

Tomorrow, we will make a conscious decision again...to take the day as a family to remember and celebrate the life of our precious daughter and sister. Please pray for us as we go through this first birthday without her.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Homecoming 2009

What a difference between Magnet Cove High School Homecoming 2008 and Homecoming 2009! Last year, we had just been informed that Hannah's cancer had returned, and she had begun her second round of radiation treatments. Our school has an afternoon ceremony/pep rally where the homecoming queen is crowned, and then a pre-game homecoming court presentation. Last year, I went to the afternoon event to watch Bethany cheer while Brad stayed home with Hannah. I remember watching the events in a tearful daze, seeing all of Hannah's friends participating and feeling so sad for her that she was not able to be a part of it. I will always be grateful for my friend, Cheryl, who sat beside me and effectively acted as my "bodyguard"...talking a blue streak the whole time, keeping me from sinking into my own thoughts, and fending off the well-meaning questioners who would have truly sent me over the emotional edge.

Fast forward to this past weekend. We found out on the first day of school that Bethany had been selected to be the freshman princess for homecoming this year. Our school has a senior high queen, a senior high princess, and a freshman princess. Bethany and I have had a wonderful time over the past few weeks shopping together for a dress and all the accessories. Friday morning we went and had her hair and make-up done, and here's the result of all this hard work:

Her Daddy, whose eyes filled with tears at his first sight of her in her dress, proudly escorted her.

The girls are allowed to have more than one escort, and she asked her two grandpas if they would like the honor. Of course, they did!

There were far fewer tears this year, even though our family picture only contains three members...

...we know that Hannah is enjoying her home in Heaven, and we look forward to a far greater Homecoming celebration with her in the future! And while we are waiting, we choose to celebrate the precious family moments He gives us here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Fields of Faith

Tonight was the Fields of Faith event at Lakeside High School in Hot Springs. This event was sponsored by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and underwritten by the Kamo's Kids Foundation. The Kamo's Kids Foundation was established in memory of Kameron Hale, a sixteen-year-old Lake Hamilton student who died following a 4-wheeler accident in January. We never had the opportunity to meet Kameron, but from all we've heard, he was an amazing Christian kid who was a friend to everybody. We met his parents a few weeks ago, and have begun a friendship with them. It's amazing how quickly you can form a bond with someone who has experienced the same kind of heartbreak you have.

The crowd began to build by about 6:30 this evening...and eventually grew to over 1,000 people.

Bethany was one of seven student speakers this evening, all chosen from different high schools around the area. Each of the students spoke for about five minutes on different topics, and all of them did a wonderful job. Bethany was very nervous...it is a frightening thing to speak about such a personal subject in front of your peers...but she did a great job.

After the students spoke, a former professional football player shared for a few minutes (his name escapes me at the moment), and an excellent drama team performed a very moving skit. The FCA director wrapped it all up by sharing Kameron's story, and referring back to the things Bethany had said about Hannah. An invitation to follow Christ was given, and we sat there on the astroturf next to Kameron's parents and grandparents, tears rolling down our cheeks, as literally hundreds of kids went forward.

What an amazing experience! We could just imagine Hannah and Kameron as part of a great cloud of witnesses in Heaven, smiling as they watched those kids turning their lives over to Christ. How humbling it is to know that the ripples of their lives are still being felt. In fact, a little boy from our church (about 10 or 11 years old) came up to me tonight tugged on my sleeve, and said, "I want to tell you something." I leaned over, and he said in my ear, "Mrs. Jill, you know your daughter who died? Her life had an impact on me." Hannah would be so pleased.