I'm not sure why this post is coming now, more than three years after Hannah went to Heaven. The other day as I was driving (that seems to be when I do my best thinking these days), I was reflecting back on the year that Hannah had cancer and remembering some of the wonderful "gifts" that came our way that year. I put "gifts" in quotation marks because I'm not referring to presents here, though there were certainly many, many of those that came our way during that difficult year, and we appreciated every one of them. No, I'm referring to intangible "gifts" of time, thoughtfulness, understanding, and sacrifice that our family received that year.
Could it be because I'm just now becoming "un-numb" enough to really, truly see some of the gifts that we received in the year that Hannah battled her cancer? It's possible. You know, when your child is fighting a life-threatening disease, you find yourself operating in purely survival mode. You can't think too deeply about anything ... especially the future ... and you just live day to day, doing whatever's in front of you that needs to be done, and frankly, that's about all you can do. Gifts are received and appreciated, but sometimes the emotional stamina needed to respond appropriately to them just isn't there.
So today, I'm going to attempt to list ten especially meaningful "gifts" our family received from February 2008 through February 2009. I approach this task with some trepidation, because I certainly don't want to inadvertently omit someone's gift. I cannot tell you how many cards, calls, emails, letters, meals, gift cards, financial gifts, etc., we received during that year, and we were so grateful for all of them. In fact, I have an entire plastic tub filled with all of those cards, letters, and printed-out emails ... I've kept every single one of them.
But this is a list of exceptional things ... things that truly cost the giver something in money, time, or convenience. A sacrifice was involved in each of these gifts. And because I don't want to lessen that sacrifice, I'm not going to reveal any of the givers' names. In a few cases, I've never even known their names, or I've forgotten them as a result of grief-fog. So here we go...
1. From the very beginning of our cancer journey, we started receiving cards from someone nicknamed "The Mailman." I honestly thought he had earned that nickname because he mailed so many cards to people. I had to laugh at myself when I found out he actually was a mailman. Anyway, most of his cards were addressed to specific members of the family and were notes of encouragement. The specific "gift" I am thinking of was when he sent Hannah a card a few weeks before Christmas of 2008. The card contained a check with a note to her to use the money to buy her sister a Christmas present. So, one day after one of our clinic visits at Children's Hospital, we went by Mardel's and Hannah selected a Bible for Bethany. We had Bethany's name imprinted on it, and Hannah gave it to her for Christmas that year. Thanks to The Mailman, Bethany has a special Bible, a treasured gift from her beloved sister.
2. A few days after we learned that Hannah's cancer had returned, I attended the homecoming pep rally at the high school. I had not been out in public since Hannah's doctor had informed us that she had basically no chance of survival, and I was extremely fragile emotionally. I would never have even gone to this pep rally, except for the fact that Bethany was cheering and I felt that I needed to be there to support her. I had already missed so many of her activities due to Hannah's illness. I walked into the gym alone, without the foggiest idea of how I was going to sit there and watch all of Hannah's classmates celebrating homecoming and going on with their lives, while Hannah was at home recovering from her radiation treatment that day. How was I possibly going to be able to hold it together? About that time, one of the high school teachers came up to me, walked me to a seat, sat down beside me, and kept up some inane conversation in my ear the entire time we were there. She babbled on and on about the decorations, the girls' dresses, the upcoming dance, everything under the sun. I didn't have to do anything, not even formulate a reply to her comments ... but her chatter kept my mind distracted and protected me from the curious. When it was over, she accompanied me to the exit, talking all the way, and it was almost as if the Red Sea parted ahead of us as we made our way through the crowd. Looking back, it probably was like that ... I'm sure people were as uncomfortable about seeing as I was about seeing them. Once I was outside, she disappeared into the crowd. To this day, I don't know if she has any idea what she did for me that afternoon. But I've always been grateful to her for getting me through a difficult situation.
3. We will forever be grateful to the El Dorado High School Class of 1985 for their kindness to Hannah and our family. This is my husband's graduating class, and they are an exceptionally close class. A large number of his classmates followed Hannah's story, and as her 17th birthday approached, they took up a collection and even had a party (they called it a soiree'!) for her. They presented her with a flat-screen TV, a DVD player, and a collection of her favorite movies. We installed the TV in her bedroom (we've never allowed our kids to have TVs in their bedrooms, but this was a unique circumstance!) and that TV was a great way for her to pass the time when she didn't feel well enough to get out of bed. Such a thoughtful gift.
4. As Hannah's health deteriorated, our every-other-day visits to Children's Hospital became extremely taxing for her. The usual routine upon arrival at the Hem-Onc clinic is to spend some time in the waiting room, then go to triage' where weight, blood pressure, etc., are checked, then come back out to the waiting room and wait some more for either an exam room to open up, or a bed to become available if the patient is there for an infusion of some sort. One day in early February when we arrived for an infusion, the waiting room was packed and every bed in the infusion room was full. It was obvious we had a long wait in front of us. Hannah was completely exhausted just from the ride to Little Rock that morning, and could literally barely sit up in her wheelchair. One of the nurses saw us sitting out there in the waiting room and called us back to room we'd never been in before. It appeared to be a lounge of some sort. She pushed a couple of chairs together, grabbed a blanket, and fixed Hannah up a comfortable place to rest while waiting for a bed to come open. This was clearly not a routine thing for a nurse to do ... I will never forget her compassion that day.
5. I believe I've mentioned on this blog before our family's deep affection for Spudnuts. What is a Spudnut, you ask? Only the best doughnut known to man. And they can only be purchased in El Dorado, Arkansas, at a little hole in the wall called The Spudnut Shoppe. These doughnuts are made with potato flour (thus the name) and when they are hot, they absolutely melt in your mouth. Unbelievably good. Anyway, sometime in the last couple weeks of Hannah's life, someone brought some Krispy Kreme dougnuts to her hospital room. I held one to her lips, she took a bite, and she stated, "It's not as good as a Spudnut." We all had a good laugh, and when I wrote my email update that night, I included her statement, knowing that all of our friends from El Dorado would enjoy that comment. The next day, we received SIX DOZEN Spudnuts! A man from Fort Smith(!) read that comment in my email, jumped in his truck, drove to El Dorado, picked up six boxes of Spudnuts, dropped them off at Children's Hospital in Little Rock, and then drove back to Fort Smith. For those of you who may not be familiar with the geography of Arkansas, that's a full day of driving! We didn't know him, and he didn't know us ... but he loved our daughter, and he wanted her to have some Spudnuts. What an amazing gift!
6. We left home with Hannah for the last time on February 16th, 2009, after I went into her room early in the morning to check on her and found her hemorrhaging. Some dear neighbors came over later that day and cleaned up Hannah's room for us, even washing her bedding and taking her comforter to the cleaners, who cleaned it for free when they heard the story. So when we returned ten days later after Hannah had left for Heaven, her room bore no traces of that traumatic final morning. They also took care of our dog while we were gone, and kept our family members (who were staying in our house on and off during that time) well supplied with food. What a blessing to have those things taken care of for us!
7. As Hannah's health declined, we made the decision to transfer from Arkansas Children's Hospital to a hospice facility. This was a heart-wrenching day for a couple of reasons ... we were leaving our Children's Hospital "family" and we were facing the reality that we were ending treatment. The transport was to be by ambulance, and as I watched the ambulance guys transfer Hannah from her hospital bed to the rolling gurney, I was struck by how small and vulnerable she appeared. I couldn't stand the thought of her riding in an ambulance all alone, and I asked the guys if I could ride with her. They told me that it was against regulations ... no one could ride in the ambulance with them. I was heartbroken as we followed the gurney down the halls and the elevators to the ambulance area. Somehow, by the time we reached the ambulance they had changed their mind. Not only did they allow me to ride in the ambulance, sitting beside Hannah, they let Bethany ride in the front seat. I can't tell you how much taking that last ride with Hannah meant to me.
8. Sometime during the eight days we were at the hospice center, someone anonymously left a book and some other items at the front desk for our family. That book was "Holding On To Hope" by Nancy Guthrie, and it was the very first step in the journey that ultimately led to forming the "While We're Waiting" ministry. And the formation of that ministry has been instrumental not only in our healing, but in the healing of many other bereaved parents. I'm thankful that I now know who left that book that day, and I've had the opportunity to thank her personally.
9. Many people came to visit us when we were in the hospice center, but only a few got to actually see Hannah during that time. She was never one to like a lot of attention even before she got sick, and I knew she would not be comfortable with visitors, especially in her condition. I wanted to protect her dignity as much as possible, and therefore, only the people I knew she would really want to see were allowed in. And her friends were included in that group. I will never forget the superhuman courage of her friends who came to see her in those final days. How does a teenage girl find the strength to come see her formally vibrant friend who is now in the last days of her life? I can tell you right now, I couldn't have done it when I was a teenager. I would have been terrified. But these girls screwed up their courage, put smiles on their faces, and came. And I'm grateful for the gift of their presence.
10. Finally ... there were thousands of people who sacrificially spent time on their knees and on their faces praying for our daughter and our family. And those prayers were felt ... they carried us through every day of that year, and continue to carry us today. All of those prayers for peace, comfort, strength, and even healing, were answered. Hannah is already healed, eternally, and we are in the process of being healed. We are so, so thankful for the gift of prayer.
So, there's my list, which is by no means a completing accounting of the gifts we received that year. Honestly, it's been an emotional and exhausting exercise to re-live all of these memories.
So why do it? Why take the time to write about all of these things? To remind all of us (including myself) that when God puts it on our heart to do something for someone, we need to do it. We never know how He might use something that may seem small and insignificant to us. If He can feed the multitudes with a few pieces of bread and fish, just think about what He can do with our little "gifts." Let's resolve to keep our hands and our hearts open as we travel this road together.