Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Wow...I can't believe how long it's been since I posted. It's not for lack of desire...it's simply been a lack of time. We have literally not had an evening at home for the past two weeks. Tonight's been wonderful...an opportunity to get caught up on several things that have been left undone in recent days.

First, I wanted to post a couple of pictures that were taken over the weekend by my sister-in-law, Maria. On Saturday, all of the Sullivan cousins, including baby Faith, were at the "deer camp" in Briggsville, which is in rural Yell County. (Actually, I think all of Yell County is rural!) Maria, who is a great photographer, took the opportunity to get some family photos. Here's Bethany (top right) with all of her cousins...yes, they're all girls on this side of the family!

Hannah was the oldest of the cousins...she was fortunate enough to be the first grandchild on either side! As such, she definitely got some special treatment!

And another picture...here's Bethany in her "country girl" pose:
Hannah loved spending time at the deer camp with her cousins. So much so, that when we had to make a decision regarding where she would be buried, there was no question that it would be at Briggsville. There's a small cemetery there where Hannah's great grandparents are buried, as well as several other Sullivan family relatives. It's a beautiful place, and I will share more about it in an upcoming post.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Anchor of Hope Cancer Ministry

The Anchor of Hope Cancer Ministry support group had its first meeting tonight. What a wonderful group of people, and what a blessing it was to hear everyone's stories!

Up until the time Hannah was diagnosed with cancer, I had very little idea what life with cancer was like. I had always thought that when a person was diagnosed with cancer, they spent the next several months or years in bed, too weak and sick to do anything. I had no idea that most people with cancer still live full and active lives, in spite of chemo treatments, hair loss, radiation, bloodwork, etc.! Of course, as Hannah's journey unfolded, I leaned that firsthand. And as I looked around that room tonight, I saw people living life, and loving Jesus. What an amazing experience!

"We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies." II Cor. 4:8-10

Friday, September 18, 2009

God's Infinite Wisdom

"God, in His infinite wisdom, created us with the ability to survive these heartaches."

This is my new favorite quote. And now, almost seven months after Hannah left us for Heaven, I'm beginning to understand the truth of it.

The first few days after Hannah's death are pretty much a blur to me. There are some isolated moments that stand out clearly in my mind, but not very many. It's funny...at the time, I felt that I was completely lucid, and things seemed very vivid in my mind...but when I look back at it now, it's very foggy. I do remember feeling very numb, and honestly not feeling a lot of pain. But after the visitation, after the funeral, after the burial, and after all the family left, it was time to get back to "normal life." And that's when the pain hit in earnest. This may be a strange word picture (okay, it IS a strange word picture), but as I walked through each day, every little reminder (and EVERYTHING was a reminder early on) felt like a plastic knife being shoved into my chest. By the time I got into bed each night, I felt like my chest was literally bristling with plastic knives. Why plastic knives? They are not too sharp...sharp enough to cause a lot of pain when they are thrust into your chest, but not sharp enough to kill you. If anything, the number of knives and the depth of their penetration increased over the next several months.

But, God is faithful, and He has created us to survive these kind of heartaches. Gradually, almost imperceptably, the number of knife wounds each day has begun to decrease. Don't get me wrong...there are times that are just as bad as those early days (the first few days of school this year come to mind), but overall, the pain of the heartache is easing. Those plastic knives are always nearby, and I still get shafted several times a day, but it's become more manageable. I have to be completely honest, and let you know that I am worried about some difficult days ahead...Hannah's birthday in October, Thanksgiving in November, and Christmas in December...I know that those days will bring fresh stab wounds. More opportunities to depend on God for strength. I recently saw a framed saying in someone's house (someone who has lost a child), "God is closest to those with broken hearts." I think that's my new second favorite quote! I never knew what a "broken heart" was...yet another thing I didn't understand in my very sheltered life...but I do now. Thank you, Lord, for your comfort.

Walking wounded we press on,
Our scars but badges of Your grace,
Our fragile frames Your dwelling place,
Our hearts renewed though strength be gone.
Jars of clay beneath a blow,
Broken to let Your glory show.
~Author Unknown

"What Ifs"

One of the constant battles I had to fight during Hannah's illness was a recurring chorus of "What Ifs". When we first found out she had a brain tumor, it was "What if the surgery causes brain damage?" or "What if they can't get it all?" Once she got through the surgery with no lasting complications and they "got it all", the "what ifs" changed to "What if the chemo makes her really sick?", "What if the radiation causes new health problems in the future?" or "What if her cancer comes back?" After the cancer returned, the "what ifs" multiplied exponentially...especially with the location of her new tumors on her brainstem and spinal cord..."What if she loses the ability to walk?", "What if she loses her vision?", "What if she starts having seizures?" or even "What if she doesn't survive?"

I reached the point where it seemed like I was spending all my time dwelling on the "What Ifs". And God had to gently remind me that this was not how I should be spending my time. Instead, I needed to give him the "What Ifs" and begin savoring every moment I had with Hannah. Not that it was easy...it was not easy at all...and it required a continual, conscious decision to put the "What Ifs" into His hands and live one day at a time. I had never really understood the concept of "one day at a time", and had certainly never lived it, until that point. As Hannah's health deteriorated, it became one hour at a time, and sometimes even one minute at a time. I really think it was that focus that made the last couple of months of Hannah's life not only survivable, but even, at times, enjoyable for us.

People often commented on our "strength" during Hannah's illness and death, but as I've said before, this is a misunderstanding of God's grace. What appeared to be strength was actually human weakness bolstered by total dependence on God. A couple of weeks ago, we had the privilege to share Hannah's story at a church in Mountain Home, and after the service we visited with a gentleman who had lost his wife to cancer after many years of marriage. Our visit was brief, because there were many others waiting to speak to us that night, and a few days later, he emailed us to share a little more of his story. He ended his email with this statement:

"God in His infinite wisdom created us with the ability to survive these heartaches."

What a simple, yet profound statement! And I am daily discovering that it is true. More on this thought tomorrow....

Monday, September 14, 2009

Go Panthers!

Last Friday night, we went to a Panther football game, and it was my first time to see the "HS" stickers on the players' helmets. (I was working in the concession stand during the first game and didn't get to watch it!) It was an "away" game, and the visitor's bleachers are right at the edge of the field. It's a small school and there is no track, so the football players and cheerleaders are right in front of the fans. We sat down on the third row of the bleachers, I looked up at the players, and it literally took my breath away when I saw the stickers. And then there were the cheerleaders, several of whom were Hannah's good friends, smiling and laughing and having a great time. I was nearly overcome with sadness that Hannah was not there with us. I sat there choking back tears for several minutes, trying to look and act appropriately for those sitting around me. And then I spotted a young man, a senior who is one of the managers for the football team, who shared with Brad last week that he has recently surrended to the ministry. He told Brad that Hannah's testimony was influential in God leading him to this decision. It's amazing how God provides encouragement like that just when it is needed most. That made it a little easier to swallow the sadness and enjoy the game. And the Panthers put on a good show...winning 48-0! Go Panthers!!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

One Year Ago Today

A year ago today, Hannah, Bethany and I went to the American Idol concert in Oklahoma City. If you've followed Hannah's story, you know that she was a huge American Idol fan. She watched the show faithfully from the second season on (the Ruben/Clay year). She was one of those fans who would pick a favorite and vote for two solid hours every Tuesday night. From the third season on (the Fantasia/Diana year), we went to the American Idol concert every year. We would always go early in the afternoon and hang out around the venue trying to meet the singers (we jokingly called it "stalking")...and we were usually successful, getting lots of autographs and pictures every year. It was a fun thing that we always looked forward to doing together, and we would always order our tickets the first day they went on sale.

Last year's concert featured David Cook (the winner) and David Archuleta (the runner-up), along with the other top eight contestants. I didn't order the tickets right away (I believe they went on sale at the end of May), because I just wasn't sure how Hannah would be feeling. As the summer went on, though, she was doing well...she had completed her radiation treatments and was handling the oral chemotherapy with no real problems. She had had an MRI every two months since her surgery, and she had gotten an "all clear" every time. So, probably in July, I ordered tickets for the three of us girls (Brad never seemed to want to go with us...don't know why! (o; ) We were excited about the concert and were really looking forward to it. Hannah was a David Cook fan, and we had a special interest in him because his brother was battling brain cancer.

We spent that weekend with Brad's mom and dad, who live in Van Buren, so it would be a shorter drive to and from the concert in Oklahoma City. This was a blessing, because the weather was awful that weekend. The remnants of Hurricane Ike were blowing through Arkansas and Oklahoma, and we drove to Oklahoma City in heavy rain and strong winds. I remember that Hannah was somewhat tired when we left Van Buren that day, but that was not unusual, as the primary side effect of her chemo was fatigue. It was too rainy and yucky to do our usual "stalking" that afternoon, so we went out to eat instead. I noticed that Hannah actually seemed relieved that we would not be "stalking", even though she had been talking excitedly about it in the days leading up to the concert. We finally arrived at the concert, and showed our tickets to an arena worker, who directed us to the stairs. As we walked up the stairs, Hannah mentioned that she felt a little dizzy. This also was not really unusual...the radiation treatments had left her with a constant feeling of being "off balance"...her world was never completely level. We finally found our seats...in the very top row of the arena. And I mean the top row...the only thing behind us was the wall. We were definitely in what you would call the nosebleed section. As we sat waiting for the concert to start, Hannah again mentioned that she was dizzy, and we attributed it to the dizzying height at which we were sitting. She was very quiet during the concert...not singing along and yelling for her favorites like she usually did...and right about the time David Cook came out (the winner is usually saved for last at these concerts), she asked if we could leave. We immediately got up and left...and what a long ride back to Van Buren that was. We still had the incredibly heavy rain and the tropical storm force winds, and now it was pitch dark. But that's not really what made the trip so long.

As I drove through that stormy weather, a storm was building inside of me. That night, for the first time, I began to realize that Hannah might not survive this. At the time, as far as we knew, Hannah was cancer free. But deep down inside, I knew something was not right. It was the first time that I began to feel like we were losing her. We returned home to the Hot Springs area the next day and within about a week, Hannah developed what we thought was a stomach virus. After several days of nausea, the doctor ordered an MRI (about 10 days before her next routine scan was scheduled) and it revealed that the cancer had returned with a vengeance. There were now two tumors on her brainstem, and so many tumors up and down her spine that the doctor referred to them as "snowdrift" tumors. With tears in his eyes, he explained to the four of us that he believed Hannah had less than a five percent chance of survival at this point. Wow...what a blow! He did explain some treatment options, including a combination of chemo drugs that had shown some success with glioblastoma tumors, but really didn't give us much hope of cure. As the four of us drove home that day, we decided that we were just going to ignore that number...we knew that our God didn't deal in percentages. But, at the same time, we were just beginning to realize that God's plan for Hannah may not include earthly healing.

This post has become much longer than I intended it to be...I will share more on this topic another day...but I did want to mention what a wonderful time we had at Shady Grove Baptist Church in Prescott this weekend. They had a "Faith, Family, & Fun" emphasis this weekend, and we had the privilege of sharing our story both last night and this morning. What a precious fellowship of believers! This church has followed our story basically from the beginning, and took us in just like a part of their family. Of course, we are brothers and sisters in Christ, and it was apparent this weekend. They truly blessed us with delicious food, beautiful music, and wonderful fellowship. Thank you, SGBC!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Reunions & Remembrances

We spent some time in Mountain Home this weekend with family and friends. This past weekend was my 25th high school reunion...hard for me to believe, but true! It was a great opportunity to get reconnected with some wonderful old friends. I was really nervous before I went about being able to recognize people and remember their names. I knew there would be nametags, but you really don't want to have to stare at someone's nametag before greeting them! Funny...I didn't need nametags for the girls...most of them looked pretty much the same as they did when we graduated. But the guys...they were much harder to recognize! It's surprising how hair loss can really change someone's appearance!

Most of my former classmates had heard about Hannah's story, but there were a couple of awkward moments when those who did not know asked me how many children I had. I still haven't figured out how to answer that question without making people uncomfortable. I usually say that I have one daughter who's 14 and one who's in Heaven. This usually results in a shocked, jaw-dropping response, accompanied by a mumbled, "Oh, I'm so sorry..." This is the point where I usually get choked up and am unable to say anything else. Thankfully, this weekend, I was able to retain my composure and share a little bit of Hannah's story. Another sign of progress in this grief journey.

The mention of my child's name
May bring tears to my eyes,
But it never fails to bring music to my ears.
If you are really my friend,
Let me hear the music of her name.
It soothes my broken heart
And sings to my soul.
~Author Unknown

Speaking of Hannah's name...my 2-year-old niece, Julia, has always called Hannah "Arnie." Yesterday, I got an email from my sister-in-law in Indonesia (they are doing well) and she told me that she was telling one of their fellow missionaries about how funny we always thought that was. Her friend suggested that she look it up and see what the name Arnie actually means. Well, she looked it up, and here's what she found:

"Arnie is Hebrew for 'To sing.' Arnold (I looked it up because Arnie is a nickname for it) is Old German for 'Strong as an eagle.' Hannah did sing in her own way. Now, she gets to sing before the Lord God Almighty forever! We all know that that she was, and is now more so, as strong as an eagle! ~Laura"

God is good, all the time!

Friday, September 4, 2009

A Touching Tribute

It's Friday night...and that means high school football! Tonight was the first game of the year....and a convincing win for the Panther football team! Our Athletic Booster Club puts together a football program which is sold at the games, and every year it contains a letter to the fans from our head football coach/athletic director. Here is this year's letter:

"Dear Panther Fans:

Welcome to another exciting year of Panther football. Last year's team finished 8-4, and with the return of 12 seniors, this year should be another good one. The kids have been working hard since the beginning of July for Friday night football.

You may have noticed on the back of our helmets is a sticker with the letters "HS" and a gray ribbon. This is in honor of Hannah Sullivan who was promoted to heaven on February 26, 2009, from brain cancer. Hannah was a manager for the girls' basketball team and would have been a senior this year.

Instead of honoring the passing of Hannah, I would like for us to honor her life. She was my role model. As Hannah battled "her storm," three parts of her life stood out: her faith, belief, and love for God. The year-long battle only made these characteristics stronger in her life.

As I watched Hannah react in such a positive way to all this adversity in her life, I could only think how great it would be if the Panther football team could learn from Hannah and use these traits during the season. I challenge our players to have faith in one another and to work as a team and not as individuals.

I challenge the players to not only believe in their teammates, but also in the coaches and the many decisions they have to make during the season. Finally, I challenge the players to love their team despite any differences they may have.

I especially challenge the team to demonstrate these characteristics during the "rough times" of the game and the season. I encourage them to let their faith, belief, and love stay strong, and to continue to battle and be positive, no matter the outcome. Finally, I challenge the team not only to be like Hannah on the field, but also to model her life off the field.

I can't promise you, the fans, a state championship, or even a district championship if the team follows Hannah's example; however, I can promise you that at the end of the season we will be a better football team, better players, and most of all, better individuals! Panther Pride Runs Deep!

Thank you,

Coach Efird"

I have nothing else to add...Thank you, Coach.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Safe Arrival

I heard from my brother tonight, and they have arrived safely at their new location in Indonesia. It was quite an adventure driving to the airport and getting a commercial flight out of their area with all the smoke, and there is even some smoke in their new location, but they are doing well. Thank you for your prayers!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Series of Tremors

I cannot imagine what it would be like to lose a child suddenly, in some sort of tragic accident. Tonight at church I sat at a table with a couple who lost a child many, many years ago to a lightning strike. Earlier this week, I visited with a co-worker who lost a child just a few months ago in a drowning incident. No opportunity to say good-bye, no chance to tie up loose ends, no last words of love. Just an incredible, earth-shattering shock when one you love so much is suddenly gone from your life. I must say that I am grateful that God did not call me to walk that road.

It seems to me that losing a child to cancer must be a very different experience. Rather than one enormous earthquake, cancer consists of a series of tremors of different intensities. In our case, there was the initial shock of the brain tumor, the shock of the cancer diagnosis, the shock of hearing the devastating list of treatment side effects, the shock of seeing our child wearing a radiation mask and bolted to a table, the shock of the cancer's return, the shock of seeing our child bald, the shock of watching chemo drugs drip into our child's veins, the shock of each worsening MRI, the shock of hearing the doctor say there is nothing else they can do medically, the shock of entering hospice care, and the final shock of our child's death. Even though you reach a point where death is expected without a miraculous intervention from God, there is still a period of shock.

You know the feeling you have when you've been punched in the stomach? That is the feeling I had the entire time Hannah was sick. Our belief that God was in complete control of the situation, and our knowledge that He truly is good all the time sustained us and gave us an unexplainable, deep-down peace, but to be fully honest, I have to acknowledge that my feelings did not always line up with my beliefs. And I think that's okay...God created us with feelings and emotions and I believe He understands that human part of us, because He was human, too.

"For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His steps." I Peter 2:21

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Glioblastoma Multiforme

I've been sitting here for awhile tonight, trying to pull my thoughts together for a blog entry. I had sort of started a theme of sharing about the emotions I've experienced over the past 18 months, and then interrupted it with some other posts, following the death of Ted Kennedy and my brother's sudden move. I'd like to get back on that topic for awhile.

When Hannah was first diagnosed with cancer, it was such an incredible shock that for a few days, I just couldn't mentally process it. At first, Hannah didn't want anyone to know that she had cancer...we finally convinced her that we needed to let people know so they could pray for her. She also did not want anyone to know that she was going to have chemotherapy, so when I sent that first email explaining her diagnosis, I said that they were going to treat her with radiation and "medication." Of course, most people figured out that meant chemotherapy, and eventually, Hannah relented and allowed me to share more details. I remember when I sent that first email explaining her diagnosis, we received many, many wonderful, supportive responses. In those first couple of days, we also received emails from children's cancer support groups, some friends who had lost children to cancer, and someone who told me about where to get free wigs for cancer patients. I remember reading those emails and thinking, "No way...this is not for us...not for Hannah!" After a little time passed, I was ready to hear from those folks, but not immediately.

We got the diagnosis about ten days after Hannah's brain surgery. We had gone in to get her stitches removed, and knew that we would probably receive the results from the pathology report. I remember that Hannah climbed up on the table, the surgeon did a brief exam of her incision, and then he told us that the pathology report indicated that Hannah's tumor was a glioblastoma multiforme. He had told us the day after the surgery that these tumors are rated on a 1 to 4 scale, with 4 being the most serious (he never used the word cancer). Brad asked him what Hannah's tumor was, and I clearly remember him saying, "This is a Four." Those words reverberated inside my head for quite some time. Then he introduced us to our oncologist, who entered the room accompanied by three other people. He gently explained the fact that glioblastoma multiforme is a very aggressive brain cancer with a nearly 100% fatality rate in adults. He also explained that Hannah's youth and the fact that it had been removed put her in a more favorable position. He outlined the course of treatment...radiation and oral chemotherapy...and left us with these other people, who I later figured out were social worker/counselor type people. I guess they figured we would each need one of our own after hearing that news. The one who appeared to be the head counselor offered Hannah an assortment of ugly teddy bears, and I remember that she chose what I thought was the ugliest one. As if a teddy bear would fix the problem. We were stunned by the news, but the peace of God was upon us because we had already put Hannah in his hands, and I don't think we even cried while we were there. Once they saw that they were not going to need to scrape us up off the floor, the counselors left too. Then, after all this, Hannah had to roll over onto her stomach and let them pull her stitches out...all I really wanted to do was hold her at that point, but I had to settle for just holding her hand. We left there that day, went to Firehouse Subs, and prayed over our lunch, again putting Hannah's future in God's hands.

More to come....

P.S. I have not yet heard from my brother in Indonesia. They are going to have to live with another missionary family in their new location, and may or may not have access to the internet. Thanks for the prayers...I'll let you know when we hear from them.