Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Still "Christmas-Ing"

The calendar may say that Christmas is over...but not for the Sullivans! We've actually been celebrating Christmas for nearly two weeks now. We had our Persenaire family gathering in Mountain Home the weekend before Christmas, enjoyed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with just our little family at home, and will be heading to Van Buren to celebrate with the Sullivans this weekend. We're going to be ready to go back to work and school Monday, just to get a break from all this merry-making! (Not really.)

Emotionally, this Christmas has been far better than last year. We've enjoyed reminiscing and talking about good memories of our Christmases with Hannah. Back in early December, I mentioned in one of my posts that we were going to start collecting JOY items to place on our Christmas tree and also to put in Hannah's room. Oh. My. Word! Since that post, I have received so many fun and JOY-filled surprises from some very sweet friends. I certainly wasn't expecting that! And I can't tell you what an encouragement that has been to me over these last couple of weeks. And as I carefully put them all away this week, I actually felt a sense of excitement and anticipation about getting them out (and adding to the collection) next Christmas. I haven't been excited about Christmas for the past three years...so that's a big deal! What a great reminder of the JOY that only Jesus can bring!

There's something else I'm looking forward to this weekend. Last year, after we finished opening all the presents with the Sullivan side of the family and things had quieted down a bit, we asked each one of our extended family members to do something special for someone in 2010 in Hannah's memory. We requested that they write it down in a card, put it in an envelope, and put it under the Christmas tree this year. So on Saturday night, after all the presents have been opened and the chaos is over, we'll open all of those cards and read what everybody did in memory of Hannah. In a way, these will be like their gifts to Hannah...although they will actually be gifts to God. And how sweet is that?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Week 2010

What an interesting week this has been! We've had a wide variety of experiences this week...all tied together by one thread...and that thread is Hannah. Even though she is not physically present, her fingerprints have been on everything we've done this week.

Monday night was our monthly Anchor of Hope Cancer Ministry support group meeting. These meetings are always a great time of fellowship and encouragement, but this month was a special blessing. We were excited to welcome some guests...Alan and Melissa McCone from Crossett. When we lived in Crossett fourteen years ago, and Brad was the assistant principal at the high school there, Melissa was one of his students. She and her husband have been on their own cancer journey for the last couple of years. Alan was diagnosed with Stage IV renal cell carcinoma (kidney cancer) in September of 2008, and they have had quite a battle on their hands since that time. You can read more about their story here. They came to our meeting because they are considering starting a cancer support group in the Crossett area. We had a really neat time of sharing and praying with them. The whole evening was just really special. As I drove home alone that night (Brad and I were in separate vehicles), it really hit me that none of what had occurred that night would have happened had it not been for Hannah's storm. We certainly would not have been leading a cancer support group, we would never have gotten reacquainted with the McCones, and none of the people in that room would have experienced the sweet fellowship and encouragement that group has provided over the past year. The feeling I had could best be described as a sense of awe about what God has done and is still doing through Hannah's life and death.

On Tuesday, we were visited by a Magnet Cove High School student who is doing a documentary about Hannah for her multi-media class. She handed us a list of interview questions to look over while she set up her three cameras in our living room. I was feeling pretty confident about the whole thing...after all, we've shared our testimony numerous times. Then I read over the list of questions and nearly lost it. I can tell the story...I can talk about her diagnosis and her treatments and what God has taught us without breaking down (most of the time anyway)...but answering questions like, "What was your favorite thing to do with Hannah?", "If you had a chance to talk to Hannah, what would you say and why?", "As a mother, what was the hardest thing to watch your daughter do?", and "What is the one thing you wished you could have seen your daughter do?"...That's a whole different ball game! Those are incredibly hard questions! It's not that I don't know the answers, because I definitely do, but those are questions that really trigger an emotional response. We managed to get through the interview, holding it together most of the time, and hopefully, she got some material she can use. And, you know, even though it was emotionally taxing, I think it was really good for me to spend a little time thinking about some of those things. We always welcome any chance we have to talk about our girl, and this was a really unique type of opportunity. We were able to share our faith and give glory to God through Hannah's story, and that is always our desire.

On Wednesday evening, we received word that Brad's Aunt Anna Jewel had gone to Heaven. She's been quite ill for a few years now, and we knew for a couple of days that her death was imminent. Aunt Anna Jewel loved both of our girls, but she and Hannah had a particularly close bond. Hannah was the oldest grandchild on the Sullivan side of the family until Bethany was born, so she always got a lot of attention. When she was little, she spent a lot of time on Aunt Anna Jewel's lap, listening to her read stories. As they both got older, Hannah always enjoyed visiting with her, sitting and listening patiently to all her stories of the good ol' days. Back then, we would never have imagined that Hannah would beat her to Heaven. To think that Hannah was there to greet her as she arrived is truly awe-inspiring.

Then, on Thursday, we went to visit a special family, the Crooks. I've requested prayer for Lauren Crook and her family several times over the last couple of years on this blog. Lauren has battled cancer off and on for almost five years now, and is just 22 years old. When Hannah was diagnosed with cancer, Lauren was a student at OBU, and she heard about Hannah's story through the grapevine. She reached out to Hannah via email, while her mom, Lisa, reached out to me. They were both such an encouragement to us...although we never actually physically met them. At that time, Lauren was cancer-free and doing well. Just as Hannah's health really began to decline, Lauren's cancer returned with a vengeance. She has gone through many months of exceptionally grueling treatments, but to no avail at this point. At this time, she is at home receiving hospice care. We decided it was finally time to meet this family, so we drove to Benton to see them yesterday. What a blessing it was to spend some time with them! God has truly given Lauren and her family a special grace as they've walked this difficult road, and innumerable lives have been touched by their testimony. Hannah and Lauren would have been great friends had they met on this earth, and I can just imagine how they're going to hit it off in Heaven. Of course, I do believe that God may yet choose to heal Lauren...it may be many more years before they meet in Heaven, and I pray that is the case!

As I sit here on Christmas Eve in front of the fireplace and reflect on the past week, I am struck by how differently we would have spent our time if Hannah were still here with us. The Anchor of Hope Cancer ministry would not exist, there would have been no interview in our living room, we would have viewed Aunt Anna Jewel's passing through a completely different perspective, and we wouldn't even know the Crooks. How would we have spent our time? Welcoming Hannah home for her first Christmas break from college, for one thing. It hurts to know that other families are enjoying time all together tonight...I'm not going to lie. Our family of three, though precious to me, feels sorely incomplete at times like this.

Back to those interview questions....There was one I didn't even attempt to answer on Tuesday. "If you had a chance to talk to Hannah, what would you say and why?" If I could talk to Hannah tonight, I would tell her that I am so proud of her. Because of the courage and grace with which she walked through her storm, lives are still being touched today. Because of her determination to bring glory to God, He is still being glorified today. Because of what we perceive to be her early departure to Heaven, we now live with an eternal perspective. And it's because of that eternal perspective that we can celebrate the true meaning of this season with JOY in our hearts. We pray that you will do the same.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Woman in My Driver's License Picture

I made my quadrennial (don't you love that word?) trip to our local revenue office last week to get my new driver's license. In Arkansas, your license expires every four years on your birthday. With my birthday falling on a Sunday this year, it almost slipped past me. Fortunately I remembered to go last Friday. I knew it wasn't going to be a good visit when I saw a sign taped to the door that said, "The office is short-handed today. Please forgive any delays." It wasn't like I could come back on another day, so I sighed, entered, took my number and sat down in a cold, hard folding chair among several impatient revenue office patrons. Number 54. They weren't kidding about being short-handed. There was just one guy behind the counter processing applications for new car tags, car tag renewals, and driver's license renewals. He was on Number 43, so I knew it would be a little while. These are the times when I really enjoy having an iPhone. I pulled it out and checked my email, my Facebook, the Drudge Report, and read a little bit on my Kindle app. As he got up into the lower 50's, I decided to pull out my current driver's license so I would be ready to go when Number 54 was finally called.

As I studied this little piece of plastic I'd been carrying around for the last four years, I was struck by the woman in the picture. She looked familiar, but I quickly realized that I didn't really know her anymore. This woman's eyes were happy and clear, and obviously hadn't shed many tears. Her smile was easy and bright, and clearly unforced. There were no lines around her eyes, and it was apparent that those eyes had seen very little pain and suffering. Her shoulders were erect, and obviously had never been bent over by grief. There was a lightness and a shallowness to her appearance, and on that December day in 2006, she was probably looking forward to going Christmas shopping for her two daughters after the hassle of getting her driver's license renewed. This was a woman who took pains to insulate herself from suffering. A woman who had never seen a bald, cancer-ridden child in person before; a woman who changed the channel when the St. Jude telethon came on TV; a woman who avoided talking to families who were dealing with cancer. After all, what did those things have to do with her? She was a woman who had no idea that her own child would be diagnosed with terminal cancer less than two years later.

The woman in the photo on my new driver's license is much more familiar to me. The eyes of this woman fill with tears several times a day most days; her smile doesn't come as easily and quickly as it once did; her shoulders often feel heavy with the weight of grief; and pain has carved a few lines into her face. But, you know what? She's a far better woman than the one in the picture from four years ago. Her faith has been shaken, and has not only stood the test, but grown stronger. God has multiplied her capacity for compassion, and given her a love and concern for the suffering that certainly never existed before. He has also given her an awareness of and an appreciation for His many blessings that has provided a depth of joy she's never known. He's given her sense of direction and purpose that didn't exist before. This woman has had a glimpse into eternity as her child stepped into Heaven before her very eyes, and her perspective on life has been forever changed.

The guy who took my picture at the revenue office on Friday never noticed that the two women represented by those photos were so very different...but I sure did.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Ten on the Tenth

OK, so Bethany and I finally got the tree up and the house decorated for Christmas this week. We decided to go "minimalist" this year, and rather than get everything out and have to deal with all the boxes and clutter, we just chose to display our favorite things. Thus, the inspiration for this month's "Ten on the Tenth". Here, in no particular order, are my ten favorite Christmas items.

1. Hannah and Bethany had the same Christmas stockings for years. Last year, I couldn't face the thought of using them, so I got Bethany a new one. It is just one symbol of the new traditions we started as a family last year. Notice the JOY stocking holder.

2. Here's an ornament that sweet Aunt Maria made for our tree last year...It says "Our Special Angel" on the other side...

3. Several years ago, Bethany surprised me on my birthday with a whole bunch of ornaments that look like candy. They all look good enough to eat, and I absolutely love them...especially because she picked every one out herself.

4. A precious friend sent me these photo ornaments in the mail the other day after reading my last post. What an amazing surprise that was! I got so much JOY from putting the girls' pictures in them and hanging them on the tree...

5. This adorable reindeer is actually a Christmas card holder. If you look up at the top, you can see a few cards are already in the slots. He has been a part of our Christmas tradition for probably about ten years now. He was handmade by a very dear friend, and he's one of the first things I bring up from the basement every year. The little Christmas Westie down at the bottom is Lacee's favorite decoration...

6. Bethany decided that the other "reindeer" in our living room needed to look festive for the season, so she took matters into her own hands. I'm not sure that this actually qualifies as a "Christmas item", but it sure made a cute picture...

7. My mother-in-law gave us this beautiful nativity set a couple of years ago at Christmas time. The detail in each piece is exquisite, and it's Bethany's job to set it up every year. She's way better at that sort of thing than I am.

8. This ornament was given to us at Hannah's visitation. I don't think I have to explain why it's one of my favorite Christmas items...

9. You've already seen the beautiful church my Dad made for me this year. I actually don't consider this a Christmas item...I plan to display it all year round.

10. I have to end with this one. I like to display it prominently, so that even amidst all the hustle and bustle, I'm reminded to keep the focus where it belongs...

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Are You Ready For Christmas Yet? Well...

Well, you can tell basketball season is underway by my lack of posts recently. I love basketball season, but it sure does keep us busy! Of course, we go to Bethany's games, but since Brad is the principal and I am the official scorekeeper, we end up going to ALL the games. It's a good kind of busy, though, and I am thankful for it.

That busy-ness is probably one reason why we haven't done any Christmas decorating at home yet. Well, that, and the fact that the decorator in the house (and I use that term VERY loosely), has not yet gotten into the Christmas mood. I am not one of these people who can make a magnificent Christmas centerpiece out of a random assortment of Q-tips, pipe cleaners, rubber bands, pine cones and metallic spray paint, like so many of my talented blogging friends can do. I am doing well just to get a few items up on my mantel that look semi-decent together. I'm just not good at that sort of thing, and I'm never very satisfied with the results. So Christmas decorating has always been somewhat of a chore for me.

Last year, our first Christmas without Hannah present, decorating was just downright painful. We did it, though, doing some things differently to make it a little bit easier...getting a real tree, buying some new ornaments, changing up some traditions. We were hosting the faculty and staff Christmas party at our house, so that was a good motivation to decorate.

This year, I'm happy to say that though it's still hard, it's not as painful. I just haven't been ready to do it yet. In years past, we would put up our Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving...sometimes even on Thanskgiving afternoon. But I've decided I don't want to do that anymore. I want to truly experience and appreciate Thanksgiving before I move on to Christmas. I think that many times in the past, I tended to view Thanksgiving as simply a stepping stone into the Christmas season. From now on, I want to finish Thanksgiving before I start Christmas. This may not make sense to anyone but me...but that's just how I feel. Maybe it comes from the experience of living with a child who has terminal cancer...and the desire to get everything you can out of every day you are given.

So...my goal for this week is to prepare to celebrate Christmas. We have begun collecting items that say "Joy" on them to hang on our tree, and also to decorate Hannah's room with when Christmas is over. "Joy" was Hannah's middle name, and has so much meaning to us on so many different levels. I'm looking forward to adding to our "Joy" collection this year and in the years to come. Because, after all, isn't that what Christmas is all about...the JOY that only Jesus can give? Let's keep our focus on that JOY as we enter into the busy-ness of this season!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

A Memorable Thanksgiving

This year, for the first time ever, we hosted the Sullivan/Persenaire Thanksgiving celebration at our home. My parents came, and so did Brad's parents, along with all of his siblings and their kids...Seventeen people in all. I cooked a 22 pound turkey, complete with stuffing, along with a broccoli and cheese casserole, and two pies. The rest of the family brought cornbread dressing, green bean bundles, corn casserole, tater tot casserole, sweet potato casserole, "pink stuff" (a Persenaire family tradition), and more desserts.

The whole day was made a little more interesting when a heavy rain storm moved through the area and knocked out the electricity. Yeah, the turkey was about half done at the time. We sat around and visited for about an hour, thinking surely the power would come back on soon...but it didn't! All the kids were already hungry, we still had about two hours more cooking to go, and the Cowboy Cookies I had set out as snacks were long gone by this time. What to do? Well, borrow your neighbor's oven, that's what! There was a large area without power, but we were apparently right at the edge of it, because our neighbors right up the road had power. Bethany texted her friend Stacey whose family was just leaving to go to her Grandma's house, and with their permission, we moved our giant turkey into their empty, and already warm, oven. Our electricity came back on about 45 minutes later, just in time to get all the sides heated up while the turkey was finishing. We sent the guys over to get the turkey, and by the time it was carved, everything else was hot and ready to serve. We couldn't have planned it any better. The meal was delicious, and the family fellowship was fantastic.

I also got a really fun surprise on Thanksgiving Day. If you've followed this blog for awhile, you may remember me writing a post titled "Old Grandpa's Church". You can read it here. In the post, I wrote about the church my Great Grandpa made for our family in 1965, the year I was born. I concluded the post by wondering if my Dad might make me one just like it for Christmas some day. Well, he started working on one not long after Christmas last year...I knew he'd been working on it, so it wasn't really a surprise...but I wasn't expecting to get it until Christmas! Look how pretty this little church is!



The top lifts off, just like the original, to reveal the handmade pews, pulpit, and organ inside. There is a music box that plays "Silent Night", it lights up, and the steeple lifts off and you can ring the bell.


The building of this church was truly a labor of love. My Dad's hands are gnarled and twisted with arthritis, yet he painstakingly labored over every detail. What a precious family heirloom this little church will be. Thanks Dad...I could not love it more!

This Thanksgiving holiday has been somewhat overshadowed by the illness of a very dear friend. She's been very, very sick, and just underwent her third abdominal surgery since November 16th today. Her husband has faithfully kept me informed about her condition, but it's been tough for me to just wait for each update to see how she is doing...such a helpless feeling. I've gotten a little bit of an idea of what it was like for the people who read our email updates and prayed for us while Hannah was sick. Please join me in praying for Laurie...for wisdom for her doctors, for peace of mind for her family, and for complete healing if that is His will for her.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thankful...

I am so thankful for the opportunity we had to speak at the Arkansas Children's Hospital Hematology/Oncology Memorial Service on Sunday. What an amazing blessing it was! The service itself was beautifully done, culminating with a slideshow of pictures of the precious children whose lives have been lost to cancer in the past year while their parents lit candles in their memories. There were 28 of them...twenty-eight! That's too many kids dying of cancer! The heartbreak represented in that room was immeasurable. It was truly an honor and a privilege to be able to share our grief experiences and our faith with them, and I pray that God was glorified in the process.

I am thankful that this year I am looking forward to celebrating Thanksgiving with anticipation, and not with dread, like I was last year. We are hosting it at our house, and will have a house full of people tomorrow...grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins...I think it's going to be great! I'm so thankful that all of the "firsts" are behind us. As we start this round of "seconds", I can see that, by God's grace, it's going to be easier. This poem, from the Arkansas Children's Hospital "Good Mourning" Newsletter, pretty much says it all...


A Bereaved Thanksgiving
By Darcie Sims

It doesn’t seem to get any better…
But it doesn’t seem to get any worse either.
For that, I am thankful.

There are no more pictures to be taken…
But there are memories to be cherished.
For that, I am thankful.

There is a missing chair at the table…
But the circle of family gathers close.
For that, I am thankful.

The turkey is smaller…
But there is still stuffing.
For that, I am thankful.

The days are shorter…
But the nights are softer.
For that, I am thankful.

The pain is still there...
But it only lasts moments.
For that I am thankful.

The calendar still turns,
the holidays still appear,
And they still cost too much…
But I am still here.
For that I am thankful.

The room is still empty,
the soul still aches…
But the heart remembers,
For that, I am thankful.

The guests still come, the dishes pile up…
But the dishwasher still works.
For that, I am thankful.

The name is still missing, the words still unspoken…
But the silence is shared.
For that, I am thankful.

The snow still falls, the sled still waits,
and the spirit still wants to…
For that, I am thankful.

The stillness remains…
But the sadness is smaller.
For that, I am thankful.

The moment is gone…
But the love is forever.
For that, I am blessed: for that I am grateful…

Love was once (and still is)
A part of my being…
for that, I am living.
I am living…
and for that, I am thankful.

May your holidays be filled with reasons
to be thankful. Having loved and having
been loved is perhaps the most wondrous
reason of all.

Darcie Sims—1992

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Skipping Church

Yes, it's Sunday morning, and I'm still in my pajama pants and a sweatshirt, sitting in front of my computer. I'm here by myself...Brad and Bethany went hunting yesterday, and Bethany shot at, but missed, a "monster buck". That's only the second time she's ever missed something she's shot at! They were going to come home from the camp after the Razorback game last night, but it was so late by the time the game was over (double overtime), and you know, that monster buck was still out there somewhere, so they decided to stay another night and hunt this morning. So, I felt that this was the perfect opportunity to have some alone time, where I could really focus and put the finishing touches on a presentation I've been working on.

And the timing is good, too, because we are giving the presentation this afternoon! Today is the day we will be speaking at the Arkansas Children's Hospital Hematology/Oncology Clinic memorial service. It is an annual event, where all the parents who have lost children to cancer at ACH in the past year get together for a time of remembrance.

We were asked to speak at this event several weeks ago, and I've had plenty of time to prepare. Yes, the last few weeks have been very busy, with basketball starting back up and Bethany being involved with a school play...but it's not like I haven't had time to work on this speech. It's just been a very difficult speech to write, knowing that our audience will be entirely made up of grieving families. I want to be so careful not to inadvertently add to anyone's pain (see my four recent blog posts about grief), but to be an encouragement to them, and to help them see that it does get better with time. I want to share our faith in God, yet not have anyone feel that we are shoving our beliefs on them. I want to share about the things God has taught us over the past 21 months, yet not come across as if we've got it all figured out, because we certainly don't!

I have spent a lot of time in prayer about the content of this speech. I'm not sure if I can really explain it very well, but when I write something like this (and even when I write on this blog sometimes), it's as if God won't give me the words to say until my heart is right, and ready to receive them. And sometimes, He only gives me a little bit at a time. And I can tell when I go off writing on my own...it comes off sounding stilted and often self-aggrandizing. That's how the writing of this Children's Hospital presentation has been...it has come to me in bits and pieces, I've written it in fits and starts, and it's taken awhile for it to come together into a coherent whole. So I got up early this morning, spent some time in prayer, and I believe this speech is now in a presentable form.

Now my prayer is simply for strength to make it through this speech emotionally. I have not been back to Arkansas Children's Hospital since the terrible day when we left there to go to the hospice center. I even get a queasy feeling in my stomach on the rare occasions that we've driven by it since that day. Not that all of my memories associated with ACH are bad...Some of my very best memories were made there...I can't really explain the effect it has on me. So just going there today will be emotional for me. Thankfully, the memorial service is not in the main building where we always went, so that will help. I believe some of the Hem/Onc Clinic staff will be at this service, and I am a little nervous about seeing them. We haven't seen Hannah's oncologist since the day we left, and that will be an emotional reunion as well. He and the nurses there loved our daughter, and we've missed seeing them.

Brad just called, and they're on their way home. No monster buck. Of course, you never get anything when you hunt on Sunday morning, isn't that right? That's what I've always heard anyway!

Thanks for your prayers for us, as always. I know there are many of you who pray for us often, and we are so appreciative of that. I can't help but feel that I'd rather be anywhere today other than this memorial service...Hannah should be here with us, and we should be getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving together this week. But she's not...she's where she was created to be...and while we're waiting to be reunited with her, we will seek to honor the Lord by living well and sharing what He's taught us through Hannah's life and death.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Ten on the Tenth

Let's take a break from some of the heavy topics we've been discussing lately, and do something that some of my way cooler than me blogging friends do...Ten on the Tenth! As best as I can tell, Ten on the Tenth works like this...On the tenth of each month, you make a list of ten things that fit into some type of category. So, in the spirit of good blogsmanship, here's my list of Ten Things I Love.

(Notice that I said "things", not "people", so this is not meant to be a list of people I love, although there are a couple of people who are a big part of the things I love. I've also decided not to include "food" on this list, because I think I can make that a topic for the tenth of some other month....although I may have difficulty narrowing that list down to just ten things!)

Ten Things I Love (In No Particular Order):

1. My iPhone. And not because I like to talk on the phone, because I don't. There are just so many other things about my iPhone to love, like my Kindle app, my Facebook app, my FOX News app, my ESV Bible app, my Skype app, my Weather Channel app...I could go on and on. And I do enjoy texting...I'd much rather text than talk.

2. Contemporary Christian Music. You name the artist, I probably have at least one of his/her/their albums on the aforementioned iPhone. I have a very wide range of CCM interests, from TobyMac to Chris Tomlin to Casting Crowns to Switchfoot to Skillet to Stellar Kart to Brandon Heath and everything in between. I pretty much love it all. When I'm at home alone, driving in the car, walking on the treadmill...wherever I'm at...I have music playing.

3. Storms. I love a good thunderstorm. I get all excited when storms are in the forecast, and am always disappointed if they don't happen. The louder the thunder and the brighter the lightning, the better! I think I'll become a storm chaser when I grow up!

4. Pajama pants. I love the rare evening when I can come home from work and change straight from my dress pants into my pajama pants. I'm pretty tall, so I've always had problems getting pajama pants long enough...I do not love feeling a breeze on my ankles! Fortunately, my even taller sister-in-law introduced me to a company called Long Elegant Legs, which actually makes pajama pants which are too long for me. But hey, I'm not complaining! Too long is better than too short!

5. Evenings at home. The kind of evening where I can put on my pajama pants and warm socks when I get home from work and not take them off until I go to bed. The kind of evening where there is nowhere else we have to be, no responsibilities to fulfill, nothing else we have to do. A fire in the fireplace and a good book on my Kindle make these evenings even better! The rarity of these evenings during this season in our life makes me appreciate them even more.

6. Watching Bethany play basketball. If we can't be at home for the evening, the next best thing is sitting in the stands cheering the Magnet Cove Lady Panthers to victory. Actually, I'm not usually in the stands, I'm sitting at the scorer's table keeping the book, which makes it a little hard to actually cheer, but hey, I'm still loving every minute of it!

7. Bath & Body Works hand soap. B&BW makes the best-smelling hand soap there is, and I get all excited about trying the new scents when they come out. Every once in awhile, I'll decide that it's silly to spend the extra money just for soap, and I'll try something cheaper. But it's just not the same...So, I watch for coupons and B&BW sales, and stock up when I can!

8. Falling leaves and sprouting leaves. Maybe that's two things, but since they both have to do with leaves, I'm going to count them as one thing. I love watching the leaves fall in the autumn (especially when I'm walking or driving through them) and I love seeing the new leaves grow in the spring. Maybe it's really the change of seasons that I love. Yes, I think that's it. I'm glad I live in a state with four distinct seasons, because I really enjoy each one.

9. Calendars. I actually have a rather curious obsession with calendars. I get downright giddy about choosing calendars for the new year...and yes, I said "calendars" plural. I have multiple calendars in my house. Embarrassed mumbling now...I even have one in my bathroom. (Stop laughing, Mom.) I bought a new planner for 2011 at the Christian bookstore the other day, and I was ridiculously excited about it. There's just something about turning the page on an old month (or year) and starting a new one that I really like. Yes, I know I'm really a dork at heart.

10. Shopping with my Mom. I love to shop with my Mom, even though we don't usually shop "together". Oh, we go together...we love to go to Springfield or Branson, Missouri, on our shopping trips, but as soon as we get there, we split up. "Meet you at noon", we'll say, and off we go to our various favorite stores. I hit the stores that sell calendars and contemporary Christian music, and she hits the stores that sell purses. Quite often, we'll run into each other at Bath & Body Works checking out the new varieties of hand soap, but then we'll split up again. We meet for lunch, and then split up again for the afternoon. Then, on our way home, we'll stop for some sort of decadent ice cream treat. It doesn't matter how many calories they contain, because, after all, we worked hard shopping all day! (And, there are no husbands there to see us eating them, so the calories don't count, right?) When we finally get home, we show each other all our purchases and tell each other what great bargains we got. She'll exclaim over my calendars and I'll ooh and ahh over her purses, and we'll start planning our next trip.

So there are Ten Things I Love on the Tenth of November. That was actually really fun...I like this Ten on the Tenth Thing. Hmmm....What will my topic be for December.......

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Final Thoughts On Grief...

OK, so we're finally coming to the end of my seemingly endless blogging on grief. Whew! I don't know about you, but it's been kind of a rough series of posts for me. I've just learned so much over the last couple of years...things that I had absolutely no idea about before...and I've wanted to share it all. As I said when I started all of this (please read the last three posts if this is your first visit to this blog), I just don't think we spend enough time talking about grief, especially in our churches, when we are surrounded by people slogging their way through it.

So, back to Nancy Guthrie's four needs of grieving people:
  • They have intense sadness that is lonely and lingering and needs to be respected.

  • They have significant questions that need to be answered in light of Scripture.

  • They have broken relationships that need to be healed.

And finally,

  • They have a deep desire to discover some meaning and purpose in their loss.

Once again, I think she's right on with this one. It has made a huge difference to us that we've been able to actually see God's purpose being fulfilled through Hannah's death. I think we've been particularly blessed in that regard due to the fact that Hannah actually prayed for a storm in order to give God glory and to bring others closer to Him. We've seen her prayer answered over and over again, and it continues to be answered even today.

I really believe there is some purpose in every loss...we sometimes just have to look a lot harder to see it. I don't believe that God does things randomly. Now, we may not find that purpose until we get to Heaven someday...and we may have to learn to live with that. He didn't promise us answers, but He did promise us Himself.

I think that Nancy could have added a subpoint under this one, but she didn't...so I will. Here it is.

  • They have a deep desire that their loved one be remembered.

You know, when an elderly person dies, they leave behind a legacy. They have children, grandchildren, maybe even great grandchildren...all of whom carry their DNA. They've had a lifetime to build relationships with others, and their influence in life may have been very widespread. Long after they leave this earth, their legacy lives on through their descendants and the people they've influenced during their long lifetime.

When a child dies, there is none of that. That child will never have a single descendant; their relationships have been few; and their circle of influence has been limited. After they leave this earth, their parents, siblings, extended family members and close friends are still filled with their memories, but not many others.

This is why so many bereaved parents start foundations, establish scholarships, or launch ministries following the death of their children. They have a deep desire not only for their child to be remembered, but also to bring good out of a tragic situation. Just a few great projects that have sprung up out of immense grief are the following: Keep the Faith, Kamo's Kids, and Vincent & Annabella's Garden. God has a way of bringing beauty out of ashes, but we must be willing to let Him use our sorrow for His purposes.

We've been so grateful that He's allowed us numerous opportunities to share His glory through Hannah's story, and that He's brought the Anchor of Hope Cancer Ministry into being as a result of our experiences with cancer. We are particularly excited about two things that He is doing right now.

We have been asked to speak at the Arkansas Children's Hospital Hematology/Oncology Memorial Service on Sunday, November 21st. This is an annual service that is held for families who have lost children to cancer over the past year. I must say that I am thrilled and terrified about this opportunity all at the same time. Thrilled, because I am looking forward to sharing what God has taught us over the past 20 months, but terrified at the thought of being back at Children's Hospital. I have not been back there since the day Hannah was rolled out of there on our way to the hospice center. It will be a difficult day emotionally, so prayers would be greatly appreciated!!

We are also excited about a new venture that God has placed on our hearts. I don't want to disclose too many details yet, because it is all still coming together, but we have been meeting with another bereaved couple about it, and it is very apparent that God is at work. That's all I'm going to say about it right now, but I will share more when I'm able. We would also appreciate prayers about this project, even though I'm not going to tell you what it is at this point. Just please pray that God will keep His hand upon it, that we will follow His leadership, and that He will bring it together according to His will.

Thanks for sticking with me through this whole series on grief. I've often said that even if I knew nobody else ever read it, I'd continue to write this blog simply because it helps me so much. I am thankful that there are people who read it, though, and it always makes my day when I hear from someone that something I wrote helped them in some way. It's humbling, too, and even a little bit scary to know that so many people read what I write. I pray that I will always be careful to follow God's leadership as I write. And thank YOU for your faithful prayers in that regard!!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Even More Thoughts On Grief...

Picking up where we left off.....(Please read the last two posts if you're new to this blog).....I'd like to share more about our experience with grief after losing our daughter to cancer a little over 20 months ago. Again, credit goes to Nancy Guthrie and Greg Laurie for the basic outline of these thoughts.

According to Nancy, grieving people have four primary needs. In my last two posts, I discussed the first two:
  • Grieving people have intense sadness that is lonely and lingering that needs to be respected.

  • Grieving people have significant questions that need to be answered in light of Scripture.

Now, for the third:

  • Grieving people have broken relationships that need to be healed.

A crisis or grief situation can cause enormous stress within a family, and in outside relationships as well. Again, my comments on this topic are those of a bereaved parent, since that is the only kind of grief I'm familiar with.

Have you ever heard the statistic that 75% (or 85% or 90%!) of couples divorce after the death of a child? I certainly had...and then I was actually reminded of it by a few "helpful" people after Hannah went to Heaven. But did you know that that statistic is a myth? Recent studies show that the divorce rate for bereaved couples is actually BELOW the national average! If you don't believe me, google it! A 2006 study by The Compassionate Friends (the nation's largest self-help bereavement organization for families) actually shows that only 16% of bereaved couples divorce. Who knew?

Now, that's not to say that there are not stresses on a marriage resulting from the death of a child (especially if the marriage is already strained before the loss). There certainly are...not the least of which is the fact that husbands and wives tend to grieve differently. Brad and I certainly do, and it requires a great deal of patience and understanding to allow each other the space and time to do so. There are times when we might wonder if our spouse will ever be the same...and you know what? They probably won't! Losing a child is a life-transforming experience...Neither spouse will ever be the same. But that doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing. If we allow Him, God can use our experiences to change us for the better, and to bring us into an even stronger relationship with Him and with our spouses. In one of her books, Nancy Guthrie describes the relationship between bereaved spouses as that of two wounded soldiers, limping off the battlefield, leaning heavily on each other, basically holding each other up as they are walking. Now that's a word picture I can relate to!

Relationships with extended family can also become strained, as expectations regarding holidays, family gatherings, birthdays, etc., can become a source of stress. Often, grieving families want to start completely new traditions, and extended family members may not understand. They are grieving, too, and sometimes just don't know how they can help their hurting loved ones navigate these difficult waters. Some bereaved families choose to just "skip Christmas" or other holidays for a year or so. We didn't skip Christmas last year (though we considered it!), but we did do some things differently, because some of our family traditions were just too painful. I'm chafing a little bit at the Christmas displays I'm already seeing at Wal-Mart...We just work at surviving one holiday at a time these days. Hannah's birthday is behind us...we tackle Thanksgiving next...I'll start thinking about Christmas after that.

Then there are those people outside of the grieving family...the people who love them, who are concerned about them, and who desperately want to say something to make them "feel better." These people are well-meaning, and have only the family's best interest at heart. But...some of the things they say can hurt. Or even if they don't really hurt, at best they're not helpful. Here's a list of some rather "unhelpful" things that people commonly say to grieving people:

  • "I understand what you're going through." (Unless you really, truly do...if, for example, you've also had a child who died of cancer. And even then, nobody REALLY understands another person's grief.)

  • "He/She is in a better place." (Yes, I'm glad Hannah is in a better place...but I really wish she was still here with us!)

  • "It's a good thing you have another child." (Ummm...No comment.)

  • "God always picks His best flowers first." (What does that even mean?)

  • "God must have needed him/her more than you did." (But couldn't He have left him/her here for a little longer? I really needed him/her, too!)

  • "God must have wanted another angel in Heaven." (I'm really not sure this one passes theological muster. I don't think Hannah is an angel...I believe she is far superior to the angels.)

  • "How are you doing?"...followed by a hand on your arm and a compassionate look deep into your eyes with the follow-up question..."But how are you REALLY doing?" (Especially if you are in a public place...that second question can often lead to the release of a lot of pent-up emotion that the person may not wish to share with everyone.) Let me also say...If you are a very close friend or family member of the grieving person, you are in a private place, and you are prepared for an honest response, it's okay to ask these questions.

Then there's the other extreme...the avoiders. I understand this group very well, because I have been (and still kind of am) one of them. These are the folks who see a grieving family coming down the church hallway or down the aisle at Wal-Mart, and suddenly realize that they need to go to the bathroom, or remember that there was something they forgot to pick up in another aisle. I know this because I've done it!! I've done it for two different reasons...one was that I simply didn't know what to say and was afraid of saying something wrong, and the other was that I was afraid I might start crying, choke up, and not be able to say anything at all. Did you catch that both reasons involved being afraid? I really think that's the root of the avoidance issue.

Some grieving families are very hurt by the fact that people avoid them, or may spend time with them, but avoid the subject that they most want to talk about. For me, personally, this has not been a problem, because I understand the avoiders so well. For many people, though, this can be a source of great pain and lead to broken relationships.

I hope you're not beating yourself up right now and thinking, "Oh no! I've been doing (or saying) everything wrong for my grieving friend or family member!" Please don't do that! As Paul would say, "I am the chief" of wrongdoers in this area, and only learned better through the death of my own child. I still slide back into my avoiding habits from time to time...Thankfully, God is still working on me.

So, what's the "right" thing to do when you encounter a grieving person or family? I think a lot depends on how well you know the person. If they are just an acquaintance or someone you have a relatively shallow relationship with, it is probably best to say something like, "I'm sorry about what happened. I'm praying for you." This is highly preferable to "How are you doing?" because it doesn't require a response from the grieving person. If you knew the person who passed away, a brief word about what they meant to you might be appropriate. If you're in a private setting, you might share a little more deeply about what the person meant to you, but be careful about doing this in public settings. It may be more than the grieving person can handle at that particular moment. Honestly, particularly early on in my grief, when I was in public...church, a football game, work...sometimes I was just trying to make it through the event. I would walk through a crowd thinking to myself, "Please don't stop me to talk about Hannah, please don't stop me to talk about Hannah, please don't stop me to talk about Hannah." I knew that if somebody did, I would totally lose it. A brief "I'm praying for you" or a quick hug, I could handle, but not much more than that. Your prayers are absolutely the best gift you can give to a grieving person.

If you know the person well...just love them. Spend time with them. Let them talk. Don't be afraid to bring up the person who has died...I can promise you they're already thinking about them anyway! Allow them to share their questions and struggles without judging. Give them space to work through their emotions, and don't expect them to get over it quickly. Be prepared to spend a lot of time listening, and refrain from attempting to "fix" them. Only God can do that!

I'm almost done...Just a couple more thoughts to share...I promise!

Take a few moments to talk to your children about how to help people who are grieving, especially if you know of a situation they may be encountering with a friend or classmate. When Bethany returned to school a few days after Hannah's funeral, she was met with the following comments from fellow students: "I know just how you feel...my dog died last week." "Hey, I heard your sister kicked the bucket." "How come your sister had to die on my birthday?" I'm not kidding. Her classmates actually said these things to her. Please, please talk to your kids.

Sometimes grieving people have a hard time returning to church after their loss. There are a variety of reasons for this. The memories make it hard...If you've been accustomed to sitting together as a family in church, it can be extraordinarily difficult to come back without one of your family members. Oh, how I miss hearing Hannah singing next to me. The music makes it hard...Music can always trigger emotion, especially when you're grieving. And some of those praise songs can be hard to sing when your heart is heavy and your faith is shaken. The people make it hard (although they don't mean to!)...a grieving person can sometimes feel like they're in a fishbowl, and that everyone is watching them to see "how they're doing." The sermons can make it hard...some messages (particularly those about families) can be difficult for a grieving person to hear. Finally, the expectations make it hard...We tend to have a certain expectation for how people are supposed to behave at church. We dress ourselves up, pick up our Bibles, and put on our smiles. I'll be honest...sometimes it's just too much effort to keep that smile on for two (or more) straight hours. If a grieving person or family doesn't return to church right away after their loss, it may be that they are just not ready to face all of that yet.

I actually started writing this post three days ago. (I'm sorry if it feels like you started reading it three days ago :-) !) I never intended for it to be this long. I've actually lost sleep over this post...waking up early, early in the mornings and thinking about what I wanted to share. My intention is not to criticize or make anyone feel bad about something they've said to a grieving person. And I certainly can't speak for all grieving people...many of them might feel completely differently than I do about some of these things. I can only share from my own experience. And my hope and prayer in sharing all of this is that it will open your eyes and give you a better understanding of those of us who grieve.

Finally...If you are someone who is grieving, and your heart has been broken by something that someone has (or hasn't) said, let me share one last thought with you. The day I started this post, I stopped by our local Christian bookstore to pick up a new 2011 planner, and found a neat little flip calendar for my desk. It's called "Rain on Me: Daily Moments of Hope and Encouragement" by Holley Gerth. When I sat down at my desk to start writing this blog, I opened up that calendar to November 4th, and this is what it said,

"If people have said things to you in God's name that have wounded you deeply, if you sit in the pew on Sunday morning and feel utterly alone in your pain, if you have been hurt by the very ones intended to heal you--then please know that is not God's desire for you. We are imperfect people, and we are capable of tearing each other apart in ways that break our Heavenly Father's heart."

How cool is that? On the very day I sit down to write about grieving people having broken relationships, that is what my brand new calendar says. Someone must have needed to hear that. Our Heavenly Father grieves with us, and some day, He will set all things right.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

More Thoughts On Grief...

In today's post, I want to share some more thoughts about grief. If this is your first visit to my blog, you might want to read my last post to get an idea where I'm going with this and why. Again, I want to give credit to books and interviews by Nancy Guthrie and Greg Laurie for the basic framework of this series of posts.

Nancy stated in an interview with the Gospel Coalition Blog on August 4, 2010, that grieving people have four primary needs. After countless discussions with bereaved parents, and through our own experience after losing our daughter to cancer, we've found her statements to be very accurate.

In my last post, I shared the first need:
  • Grieving people have lingering sadness that is lonely and lingering that needs to be respected.

Today, I want to share her second point, and discuss it in light of our experience.

  • Grieving people have significant questions that need to be answered in light of Scripture.

As I've stated before, I've been in church basically my entire life. But until my teenaged daughter was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I was quite content to stay in the shallow end of the theological pool. To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure I had ever even learned how to swim...I really think I was still sitting in an inner tube wearing floaties. Not really a pretty picture of a 41-year-old woman!

But when that diagnosis came, I suddenly found myself in the deep end of the pool with a hole in my inner tube and the floaties stripped away. I'm so thankful that even though I'd never really had to apply them, I'd been getting "swimming lessons" my entire life. I could at least dog paddle, I knew the Master Lifeguard, and I had access to all of His written swimming lessons. I knew where to turn for help.

But, still, there were questions...deep questions that were not easily answered.

Why does a 16-year-old girl who is serving the Lord get cancer?

If God is a God of love, why doesn't He heal my child?

Why pray, when God's going to do what He's going to do anyway?

Does God even care about what happens to our family?

You may remember that we went to a Respite Retreat with other bereaved couples over Labor Day weekend. We spent hours and hours just sitting around and talking. There were no shallow conversations at that retreat...all of us were navigating the deep end of the pool, and that's what we wanted to talk about.

A common experience of bereaved parents is that they no longer enjoy "small talk." Who has time to talk about the weather, or the latest ball game, or even politics (make sure you vote today!) when there are life and death issues to discuss?! One of the moms at the retreat exclained, "I love it here! Everywhere else we go people want to talk about Kindergarten, and we want to talk about Calculus!" I knew exactly what she meant.

I still don't have all the answers to my deep theological questions. But there are a few things I know:

God is good, He is in control, and He's working out His plan. Sin, evil, cancer, death...all of these things will come to an end in His perfect time.

God is God, He sees the big picture, and He has a purpose in everything that happens (even if I don't like it...okay, even if I hate it!)

God is sovereign, and He can be trusted. I don't have to understand everything, I just have to rest in the knowledge of His care.

These are the kinds of things that grieving people need to be assured of. Don't try to answer all their questions with "Sunday School" answers, but listen to their questions without judging. Love them, pray for them, and gently guide them to the Master Lifeguard.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Some Thoughts on Grief...

You know, I've been attending church for my entire life. My parents made sure we were there every time the doors were open. Sure, when I went to college, there were some Sundays that I attended Boxsprings Baptist (an old OBU joke), but for the most part, I was in church. As often as we've moved since we've been married, we've always made finding a church home a priority. So over the years, I've been in literally hundreds of church services, Bible studies, and Sunday School classes.

And in all those years, I've never heard a single sermon or Sunday School lesson on grief. Until the death of my daughter in February 2009, I didn't know ANYTHING about grief. I had never learned anything about it at church, and I certainly had never experienced it. I had never lost anyone close to me...grandparents, yes, but grandparents are "supposed" to die. I had no idea what it was like to be deeply, achingly sad. I also had no idea how many sad people there were around me. I've learned a lot over the last couple of years.

So, when Brad and I were asked to share with the deacon body at our church last week, we knew right away what we wanted to talk about...grief. And who needs to know more about ministering to grieving people than the deacons? It was the perfect opportunity to share some of what we've learned.

I'd like to share some of that presentation with you over the next few posts. Many of the thoughts I'm going to share originate with Nancy Guthrie and Greg Laurie, both of whom have lost children. I'll also be adding lots of our own experiences and stories. My goal is to be as transparent and honest as possible, to try to give you a window into our grief. I'll be writing from the perspective of a grieving parent, because that's the only kind of grief I know. My prayer is that God will use something I write to help you personally, if you find yourself in a season of sorrow, or that He will provide you with some sort of insight to help a grieving friend or loved one.

In a recent interview, Nancy Guthrie discussed four needs that grieving people share. The first was this:
  • They have intense sadness that is lonely and lingering and needs to be respected.
Here's how ignorant I used to be about grief...I honestly thought that when someone lost a loved one, they were really sad for awhile...maybe about six months or so...and then they just kind of got over it. I had no idea how long it takes to work through grief (and it is work!). It's been twenty months since Hannah left for Heaven, and we are definitely not "over it", nor do I think we ever will be. Greg Laurie describes losing his son as somewhat similar to the amputation of a limb. The wound from an amputation heals over time, but your limb is never restored. Unlike a broken leg, which heals and allows you to return to normal life, an amputation changes your life forever.

The intense sadness of grief tends to come in waves. Sometimes the waves are fairly gentle and can be ridden out, and sometimes they are tsunamis that suck you down, spin you around, and leave you gasping for breath. Depending on the status of those waves, you may see the grieving person smiling and doing "fine", or you may see them doubled over in tears. You can't make assumptions on how a person "is doing" based on what you see at any given moment. Because in the very next moment, things could change.

We need to respect a person's need to grieve by giving them the time and space to do so. The person may not be able to return to their normal activities right away....or they might. They might find comfort in returning to a routine. They may want to talk about their loss...or they may not. Think back to the story of Job in the Bible. His friends sat with him in complete silence for seven days...things fell apart when they opened their mouths! Unless you are a very close friend or family member, don't ask them, "How are you doing?" That is an incredibly difficult question for a grieving person to answer. For one thing, the answer could vary widely depending on the status of the waves at that particular moment. And, there is no simple answer to that question. Don't ask it unless you have plenty of time to sit and listen to what might be a brutally honest response.

Saying "Let me know if you need anything" isn't particularly helpful either. Someone who is going through an intense period of grief may not be emotionally able to ask for the help they need. It is much better to figure out what their needs are and take steps to meet them. A wonderful neighbor took care of our dog when we spent long days at the hospital. People brought food to the extended family staying at our house while we were at the hospice center in Little Rock. There was a hot meal waiting on our kitchen counter the evening we arrived home after saying our final good-byes to Hannah. Dear friends collected pictures and personal items of Hannah's and arranged them beautifully at the visitation and funeral. I could never have done that on my own. We didn't ask for any of these things...people just obeyed the Holy Spirit's promptings and did them. And while a grieving person may forget a lot of things...these kinds of things are never forgotten!

Grieving people need time, space, and "permission" to be sad. That sadness may last awhile. And that's okay.

More to come in a future post...

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Hannah's Birthday In Pictures

The breakfast of champions...Hannah's favorite, home-made Mississippi Mud Cake (no nuts). I could absolutely eat myself into oblivion with this stuff. Good thing I only make it once a year.

Bethany and I decided to play hooky from work and school. She was our driver for the day.

Our first stop...the Wal-Mart in Jessieville to buy roses. Bethany just had to take this picture out of her window in the parking lot. If this woman only knew that she was providing us some much-needed comic relief!

We finally arrived at our destination.

Our rose petals...

Spreading the petals...

After spending some time letting the tears flow, we decided to snap a few pictures...


She figured out how to set the timer on the camera, so we got some pictures together. In case you're wondering...Our shirts say, "I wear gray for my daughter" and "I wear gray for my sister". Gray is the color for brain cancer awareness, just as pink is the color for breast cancer awareness.


...And she took some pictures of me. I've shared on this blog before about my extremely strained relationship with Hannah's grave. As a matter of fact, yesterday was the first time I've stood beside her grave since her last birthday. I still am not comfortable there...I still don't like being there...but yesterday, I believe I took the first step toward making peace with her grave.

We finally started home, but made a couple of stops on the way. Given our affinity for taking pictures in the middle of roads, we just had to stop and take a couple of pictures here...


We considered all the possible reasons why these lines look like this...Did the line painting truck driver have a little too much caffeine that morning? Did he let his kid drive the truck for a little while? Is this section of road sitting on top of a fault line? We don't know the answer, but we had a lot of fun thinking about it! Our other stop was at the Sonic in Hot Springs Village.

Mozzarella sticks with marinara sauce...

...And two cherry vanilla Diet Cokes, please!

I really couldn't believe it...but we actually had fun on our trip to visit Hannah's grave! How can that be? Only by the grace of God...and by the knowledge that she is NOT THERE!

We weren't home for long, when it was time to head to the Casting Crowns concert. As we were getting ready to go, a wonderful young couple from our church called us. They had won backstage passes in a contest on Twitter, and wanted to give them to us. They knew Hannah's story, and how Mark Hall, the lead singer of Casting Crowns, had called to encourage us during Hannah's last few days at the hospice center in Little Rock. They also knew it was her birthday, and they wanted to bless us in this way.

Here's Bethany with Mark and some of the band:

And here are all of us...


These are some of the most down-to-earth, sincere people you'd ever want to meet. We spent several minutes visiting with them and sharing some more of Hannah's story with them. We also got to meet Lindsey McCaul, an up-and-coming Christian artist who opened for Casting Crowns last night.

You know, God really is good all the time. As we listened to Casting Crowns sing "Praise You in the Storm", we were reminded again of our commitment to praise the God who gives and takes away. And it is a commitment...One that needs to be made again and again. When I find myself feeling cheated because I'm buying rose petals instead of birthday presents, I need that reminder. When I find myself becoming angry that I'm sitting on the grass beside my daughter's grave instead of sitting beside her on her bed in her dorm room, I need that reminder. And when the tears roll down my cheeks, like they've done so often in the last couple of years, these are the lyrics I need to remember:

"And every tear I've cried
You hold in Your hand
You never left my side
And though my heart is torn
I will praise You in this storm".

Pretty powerful stuff. And just what we needed to close out our daughter's 19th birthday. And even as I breathe a sigh of relief that October 22nd won't come around again for a whole year, my heart overflows with the many blessings of yesterday. Yes, God IS good all the time.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Dear Hannah...

Dear Hannah My Joy,

So tomorrow is your birthday. You would be turning nineteen years old...Nineteen!! That's almost an adult! I wonder if you celebrate birthdays in Heaven? And even more than that, I wonder if you get older in Heaven? Like, if I were to join you there in twenty years, would you be 39? Are your great-grandparents all over 100 now? What about people who die as babies? Do they still have to go through infancy, childhood, and that horrendous adolescent period? Or is everyone in Heaven exactly the same age...maybe about 29? I wonder about things like that ever since you left. You'll have to fill me in on all of that when I get there.

Back to you...I'm writing this from your bedroom, looking through your window. You wouldn't believe how much the trees we planted have grown over the last couple of years. I can barely see our neighbor's house now. We moved your bed out a few months ago, and put it in Bethany's room. You know, she always wanted your queen-sized bed. We painted her room a really bright turquoise and your black and white comforter looks like really pretty in there. Yeah, we covered up all those squares we painted on her wall a few years back. Well, the ones Bethany and I painted while you directed us where to put them. Your room still has the pretty burgundy colored walls, but we've made some other changes. We put a black and white rug in there that you would just love, and a super comfortable chaise lounge. We also moved the desk in there, and put it directly in front of your window, and that's where I sit and write. We left all your stuff up on the walls...don't worry, we didn't touch all those awards of yours or your El Dorado picture. Your clothes are still hanging in the closet...except for the ones Bethany has permanently "borrowed". She wears that polka-dotted shirt of yours all the time. And I know you'd hate this, but I just had to do it. Remember that self-portrait you drew with pastels when you were in about third grade in Mrs. Mason's GT class? The one with the really cool frame? (I still can't figure out exactly how you made that.) Well, I hung it up in your room. I remember how you hated that picture, but I've always loved it. So now it's on your wall.

Speaking of Mrs. Mason, I bet you were really surprised when she showed up there a few months ago. I know we were. I'm sure you two have enjoyed getting caught up on all the good times you had at Southside Elementary. And have you seen Mr. Shorty? I remember you and Bethany sledding down Briarwood Drive with him like it was yesterday. He's probably up there passing out free popcorn like he did at the bank all those years. I still use his peanut butter cookie recipe and made some just the other day. And baby Carter is there now too. I'm sure he's proud of his mom, and the work God has been doing in her life since he left. We've met so many parents now who have children in Heaven. We've gotten a lot of comfort from talking to them and hearing how God is carrying them through these days while we're waiting. I sometimes wonder if, when we're meeting each other here, you're meeting their kids there. That would be pretty cool.

I doubt you care anything about politics now, but I know it was a big deal to you when you were here. Election Day is just around the corner and you'd probably be glad to know that it looks like the conservatives are poised for a comeback. I remember how you used to love to watch the election results come in. Kind of unusual for a teenage girl, but we had a lot of fun with it, didn't we? It was almost as exciting as watching the American Idol finale! You wouldn't even recognize American Idol now...Would you believe Paula left last year and they replaced her with Ellen? And now Ellen, Kara, and even SIMON have quit? Randy is the only original judge left...and the new judges are going to be Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler. You know, the guy from Aerosmith (you used to think his name was Arrow Smith...LOL)! And then there's Jon & Kate...You don't even want to know what's happened with them. We've watched some of Dancing with the Stars this year. Sarah Palin's daughter is on that show this year. Kind of hard to imagine, huh? She's really not very good. On the other hand, Razorback football this year has been great. We went to the Texas A&M game two weeks ago, and cheered them to a victory (even though we were sitting in enemy territory). Last week, they fell victim to some particularly bad calls. The refs actually called a touchdown for Auburn when the guy clearly didn't have the ball as he crossed over the goal line. Our quarterback is rumored to be a Heismann candidate, but I'll be really surprised if he gets it. Remember when we thought Darren McFadden was going to win it?

I know how much you always enjoyed getting together with all of the family. I'm sure if you were here, we'd all be celebrating your birthday together this weekend. Your cousins are really growing up...they're not those silly little kids you used to laugh at all the time anymore. Well, sometimes they still are, but like I said, they're growing up. They really miss you, Hannah. They're just not quite the same since their leader left. They didn't even put on a Christmas play last year. And Faith would have made the perfect baby Jesus. She's so cute...all blond curly hair and blue eyes...and she's so tall. Of course, that's no surprise! I'm so glad you at least got to hold her before you left. And Julia and Katie Joy are so sweet. We sometimes chat with them on Skype, and it's so cool to be able to see them all the way from Indonesia. I wish you could have met Katie before you left...I wonder, can you see her now? Your aunts and uncles and grandparents miss you too. We all know you're where you're supposed to be, but we can't help but wish you were still here with us.

Can you believe that you would have to look up to Bethany now? I remember when you were little...you were head and shoulders taller than all the other kids your age. We always thought you'd be about six feet tall. But you topped out at about 5'8"; and then you actually shrunk a couple of inches before you left. Bethany, who was always an average-height kid, suddenly started growing about the time you left, and she's about 5'10" now (she thinks she's 5'11", but I'm not so sure about that). She's still playing basketball, and they should have a really good team this year! They are going to be so much fun to watch! Their coach has really been practicing them hard...lots of running, which she hates...but they're going to be in shape. Bethany's playing has really improved, especially her shooting. She looks really intimidating when she walks out on the floor because of her size, but she's still having to learn to play aggressively...that just doesn't come naturally to her!

Bethany's driving all the time now. Of course, she doesn't have her license yet...that won't come until June...but she got her permit as soon as she turned fourteen, and has been driving me around ever since. Remember how she always used to holler from the back seat that you were giving her whiplash when you were learning to drive? Well, whenever she makes a quick turn or sudden stop, I always remind her of that. Actually, she's a pretty good driver...better than you ever were. I wonder now if maybe there were some vision problems interfering with your driving that we (and you) weren't even aware of at the time. We keep telling her that we're going to pass the Blazer down to her when she turns 16, but we'll probably let her have the Camry. They both have over 100,000 miles on them, but she thinks the Camry is so much cooler than the Blazer. And that's okay with me, because then I can get a new car! We sold your little red car...actually, we let Grandpa do it (you know how he loves to play car salesman). We didn't want to sell it to someone locally and then have to see someone else driving your car around. Grandpa talked to the lady who bought it just the other day, and it's still going strong!

Bethany is in tenth grade this year...the same grade you were in when you got sick...and she has the exact same teachers you had. She's even been called "Hannah" by a couple of her teachers. They both felt bad, and told me about it at parent/teacher conferences. I told them not to worry about it...what teacher hasn't called a student by their sibling's name? Even I call her Hannah sometimes! I even occasionally call her Lacee, but that's probably because I'm almost 45. And hey, she found those messages you wrote on the tables in the journalism room. I'm sure when you wrote "Hannah Hearts You" on those tables, you had no idea what it would mean to her someday. Pretty cool. And get this...when Mrs. Rockett randomly handed out the English textbooks this year and told the students to open them and write their names in them...guess whose book Bethany got! Yep, it was yours. I mean, what are the odds? Just another little God thing. Oh, and this Friday night (your birthday) is homecoming, so it's spirit week at MCHS. Guess who Bethany was for Hero Day...You! She really misses you, sweetheart. There are times she could sure use a big sister to give her advice about schoolwork, high school drama (and I'm not talking about the Thespian Club!), and boys...especially boys. It's just been too long since I've been there myself, and so much has changed since I was a teenager. You'd be proud of her, though...She's really taken a stand for her faith, and has become known as someone kids can go to for Christian advice. Her experiences throughout your storm have really grown her up.

Dad's doing good. It's been hard on him since you left. He really misses you a lot. It was tough on him going back to work after you left, seeing your empty locker and walking past your lunch table in the commons every day. He's been so careful not to waste your storm...sharing the grace of God through your story with everyone he meets. You know how he's always had the gifts of encouragement and mercy? Well, he's had lots of opportunities to put them to use since you left. And you would have been so proud of him at graduation last year. I don't know how he did it, but he managed to stand up there and call out all your classmate's names to come up and receive their diplomas. Well, I do know how he did it...It was God...but I also know it was a heartrendingly difficult thing for him to do. Did you know they left an empty chair for you? Or do you even care about things like that in Heaven? I suspect you don't. Why would you?

Me? Oh, I'm doing okay. I'm sad a lot. I miss you more than I ever imagined I could. Especially when I think about the fact that our relationship would be so different now that you're practically an adult. The mother/daughter bond would, of course, always be there, but I really think we'd be developing more of a friendship now. You would be living on your own (or at least with Brittany in the dorm at OBU!), making your own decisions, starting to find your own way through life. You'd be coming home for weekends occasionally, and I'd be washing your clothes and letting you sleep 'til noon in your own bed. We'd enjoy every minute of you being home, and then hug you good-bye as you headed back to school, already looking forward to your next visit. I'm so disappointed that we're not getting to experience that with you. And I know we'll be facing more disappointment as the years go by and your friends start getting married, having babies, etc. You would have had such beautiful children. I wonder if you would have met somebody special by now. You know, I was nineteen when I met your dad at one of those Ouachita "functions" at the Arkadelphia skating rink. Would you bring him home to meet us on one of those weekend visits? Would Dad like him? Probably not...LOL!

Did you know that I have a blog now? I know you didn't want me to have one while you were here...I understand that you didn't want any more attention focused on you than there already was. I didn't think you'd mind after you left, though. It's been such a great way for me to work through all the emotions and questions I've had since you've been gone. If you can see it, I'm sure it's probably driving you crazy that the picture at the top isn't centered, and it's bugging me too...I just can't figure out how to fix it! We've both always been a little OCD about stuff like that!

And I'll just bet that you DO know one thing...that your prayer to bring God glory through your storm has been answered over and over since you left (actually even before you left). I've got to believe that is something you're fully aware of there...actually, you've probably heard the angels rejoicing several times over decisions that have been made! Maybe you've even joined in with them. What an amazing thought! Through your storm, God has taught many people how to live well, and some, how to die well. God is still using you, even now, and for that, I am thankful.

So how are we going to celebrate your birthday tomorrow? I'm not sure yet. I did just finish making your all-time favorite Mississippi Mud Cake for us to enjoy. I wish you were here to help Bethany lick the bowl. I don't know yet if we will go to work and school, or just take the day off. Tomorrow night is homecoming at MCHS...We are definitely going to skip out on that. Homecoming without you coming home is just too painful. Our school administration is so wonderful...They're going to give Dad the night off. So we're going to a Casting Crowns concert instead. Would you believe they are going to be in Hot Springs tomorrow night? I'm not sure how I'll handle hearing Mark Hall sing "Praise You in the Storm" on your birthday, but I'm going to give it a try. Then on Saturday, Bethany and I are going to Tiger Tunes at OBU, and we're going to meet Brittany and a friend of hers there. Brittany is absolutely loving Ouachita, and it's been great to spend some time with her recently. I wish we were meeting her and you there on Saturday...and I know she wishes the same thing.

Well, this letter has gotten pretty long...much longer than I had intended. So I'll say good-night for now. We're all waiting, more or less patiently, for the day we get to celebrate your birthday together again. Somebody told us once that when we finally get there, it will be like falling asleep in the car on the way to Grandma's...We'll suddenly be there and it will feel like no time at all has passed. That sounds good to me. Until that day, we will just keep trusting Him.

I love you,

Mom

Thursday, October 14, 2010

October Musings...

I've always loved the fall...the month of October in particular. The crispness in the air; the first day you get to wear that favorite hoodie again; Friday night football games; and the glorious colors of the changing leaves. And my absolute favorite thing about fall...driving through falling leaves. We live in a very woodsy area and daily drive under lots of overhanging tree branches. I just love it when the wind is blowing and the leaves are falling like rain and I get to drive through them while they're falling...something about that just makes me feel a little giddy!

This has been an unusually hot, dry fall in Arkansas. I still haven't pulled my Magnet Cove Panther hoodie out of the closet. And in our area of the state, we haven't had a drop of rain in over a month. So this year, instead of the beautiful reds, oranges, and yellows typical of fall, the leaves are just turning brown and falling off the trees. So I'm still getting to drive through them...they just aren't as pretty!

Like the leaves, I've been feeling kind of dry and withered myself. This is the second October since Hannah went to Heaven, and I just haven't felt the same sense of excitement about the change of seasons as I used to. I think part of that is the fact that Hannah's birthday and the holidays are approaching, and the anticipation of those dates weighs heavily at this time of year.

Friday night football games certainly don't have as much draw for me this year. Last year I went to most of the home games, even though it was hard to see Hannah's friends there, knowing she would have been there with them enjoying her senior year. I really thought this year would be easier because her friends would all be gone to college and I wouldn't be seeing them at games anymore. But you know what...most of them went to college nearby and come home for the football games! Somehow the fact that they've been away for awhile and are home for the weekend enjoying time with their families makes it even harder! I find myself thinking about how much their parents are looking forward to seeing them, how they're cooking their favorite meals, how they're planning out every minute they're going to spend together; how they're preparing their bedrooms for them...and I feel so sad (as I sit here writing in what was formerly Hannah's bedroom) knowing that she won't be coming home for the weekend. How I wish she could! What I would give for one more weekend with her.

I watched the rescue of the Chilean miners this week with a mixture of sadness and joy. I was absolutely awed by the fact that they were able to survive for so long in those conditions, and how the world came together in support of their rescue. And I was thrilled that the rescue operation went off without a hitch...It was one of those totally amazing events that you will remember all your life. But now I'm going to give you a glimpse of my fleshly self. As I watched the footage of those miners being reunited one by one with their overjoyed families, I had a really hard time truly celebrating with them. The sight of them hugging their families was almost too much to bear. I was in tears, but it wasn't because I was happy for these people. Instead, I found myself consumed with thoughts of how unfair it was those families got to be together again, complete and whole, when our family is still one less.

And then, it was as if God thumped me upside the head. I could almost hear Him saying, "You think those reunions look good? Just wait until you see what I have in store for you someday." And just that suddenly, my perspective was transformed. The scenes of dirty miners in hard hats and sunglasses hugging their grateful families surrounded by TV cameras and clapping strangers were replaced. Instead, I could see a reunion of Heavenly proportions...so much bigger than coming home for a weekend or being lifted up from half a mile below the earth's surface. And I'm reminded that I just have to wait for my reunion. I'm not very good at waiting. As a matter of fact, I really pretty much stink at it. But I really, truly believe that God is going to make it worth the wait. So...I'm waiting...

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Woooo Pig Sooooie!!

Yes, I'm still calling the Hogs after their victory over Texas A & M yesterday. The old Arkansas/Texas A & M rivalry was revived yesterday at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and we were there to witness it! The trip was a belated birthday present for Brad, and we had a great time. Bethany brought her good friend Stacey along, and she added to the fun. We left bright and early, and stopped at Chili's Restaurant #1,000 (there was a big plaque out front commemorating this remarkable status) somewhere between Dallas and Arlington and had lunch.

Cowboys Stadium is a pretty incredible place. We had the opportunity to tour it over the summer, and it was fun to go back and see it full of people yesterday. The giant screens are just as impressive in person as you hear about on TV (probably even more so). The picure below gives you some idea what the screens are like, but really doesn't do them justice. When you're there, you don't know whether to watch the action on the field, or just watch the big screen. For me, it was easy to forget there was an actual game going on down below, I got so caught up in watching the screen sometimes!

It took us a few minutes to locate our seats, and we were a little surprised to find that we were the only Razorback fans in our section. As we looked around a little more, we discovered that we pretty much the only Hog fans in that entire half of the stadium. There we were, all decked out in our Razorback gear, sitting in the middle of Aggie territory. Across the way, we could see all the Arkansans calling the Hogs.

Here are Bethany and Stacey at halftime. Who cares if we're sitting on the wrong side...We're having fun anyway!

You know, as a non-native Arkansan, I've never been able to call the Hogs without some degree of embarrassed self-consciousness. "Wooooooo Pig Sooooooie," just doesn't roll off my lips effortlessly, and I've never felt the need to wear one of those rubber pig noses. As someone who views sports as entertainment and not as life and death, I've always thought some Arkansas fans were just a little over the top in their enthusiasm for their team. But the Razorback fans have nothing on Texas A & M fans. The hog call is mild compared to all the crazy chants and songs that these people had. They had these cheerleader guys dressed in white who led the crowd in a huge variety of cheers, which contained a mixture of cuss words and what appeared to me to be obscene gestures. And the entire crowd participated. It was actually pretty amazing to look around us and see them going through these elaborate series of motions, chants, and cheers. They did have a very cute mascot (much cuter than Tusk!) who didn't seem to share the crowd's enthusiasm.

My favorite part of a football game is halftime, because I really enjoy watching the bands march. And I was not disappointed. The announcer informed us that this is the largest Razorback band ever, with 375 members, and they pretty much covered the entire field. They were excellent, but since we were on the Aggie side, they marched with their backs to us.

The Aggie band was also outstanding. They wear military-style uniforms and marched with true military precision. I don't think they ever stopped marching during their entire performance. Here they are as they were leaving the field.

The Aggie fans didn't really appreciate us Razorback fans, especially as we kept standing up and cheering whenever our team did anything good. Bethany and Stacey even got hollered at to sit down one time after the Hogs scored a touchdown, which I thought was a little ridiculous since the people behind us weren't going to miss anything with that giant screen hanging down. But we did try to be considerate, and I thought Brad in particular did a pretty good job of containing himself as the Hogs ended up winning the game 24-17. One Aggie fan behind us even offered to take our picture, which I thought was nice.

You know, it's kind of funny that the biggest Razorback fan in our house (besides Brad, I suppose) was Hannah. Bless her heart, she inherited her athletic ability from me, which means she got none! Oh, she enthusiastically played soccer, basketball, and softball when she was younger, just never very well. As she got older, she realized that academics were her forte, but she remained an avid sports fan. She loved watching Darren McFadden and Felix Jones when they were playing for Arkansas, and of course, she was Bethany's biggest fan as she was playing basketball. She would have loved being at that game yesterday.

But just like we found ourselves sitting rather awkwardly in the middle of all those Aggie fans yesterday, as Christians, we find ourselves out of place every day here on this earth. We couldn't really get too comfortable where we were yesterday, and I don't think God wants any of us to get too comfortable with where we are in our lives either. Hannah wasn't at the game with us yesterday, and we definitely missed her....but she is where she was created to be. She'll never have another awkward, out-of-place type experience. What an incredible thought! And until I'm reunited with her in Heaven someday, I know that I'll never be completely comfortable here again. And for that, I'm actually thankful.