Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Eve Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Thoughts on Christmas Eve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"My First Christmas in Heaven"

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Big Buck!

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

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

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

Christmas shopping this year has been a rather surreal experience...It's so strange to be shopping for only one child instead of two. And it occurred to me this past weekend that this Christmas may actually be harder for Bethany than for any of us. She has never known Christmas without her sister...Hannah has always been a part of her life. I really can't imagine how she will feel opening presents all by one to share them with. I'm not sure that's even occurred to her yet, but it will. At her specific request, we will be spending Christmas Day at home, just the three of us, and we won't be getting together with our extended families until later in the week. I've heard from so many of you that you are praying for our family this Christmas (and we are feeling it, believe me!), and I would just like to ask that you please remember Bethany specifically. She's in a difficult spot...Brad and I have each other, and although we are always here for her, in many ways she is on her own. She's handled it well, but there are definitely times when she struggles.

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

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Old Grandpa's Church

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 18, 2009

Christmas Is Coming....

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

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

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

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Heroes All Around Us

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

We passed two milestones this seemingly small, and the other a little bigger. The first one -- we built a fire in the fireplace. Hannah loved to have a fire burning. As soon as it started getting a little bit cold outside, she would start asking her dad to make a fire. We have a good, old-fashioned wood gas logs or gas, it's a bit of a job to make a fire. We would always try to put her off until it was at least cold enough to make it worth the trouble. Once we started making fires, Hannah would always sit on the least until her back got too hot and she had to move. As Brad built the fire last night, we talked about how we could still see her sitting there...a good memory. We also remembered the first time she asked us to help her to the fireplace, saying she was afraid she might fall into it...a not so good memory. Eventually, it got to the point that in order for her to get up from the hearth, I would wrap my arms around her waist, she would wrap her arms around my neck, and we would stand up together. I would savor the feeling of her cheek against mine, and her downy soft hair just beginning to grow in...similar to when she was a baby. Who would have thought that the simple act of building a fire in the fireplace could evoke such vivid memories?

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

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

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

My Hero

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Moving Forward...

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

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

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

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

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

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