So the weekend began with a major winter storm hitting Arkansas on Friday. As you know, our Saturday morning flight was canceled, but we were able to re-book for 2:40 on Saturday afternoon. As we started to the airport this morning, this is what the trees looked like:
And the mailboxes:
And the interstate to Little Rock:
It was slow going, as you can see. Good thing we left early...we made it to the airport in plenty of time to get through security and board the plane, which left promptly at 2:40. We landed in Chicago around 4:30, and were met by my cousin, Sharon, her husband, Mike, and her two youngest daughters, Rebecca and Courtney. Mike is an incredibly talented cabinet maker and woodworker, and he is currently working on a job in the Trump Tower in downtown Chicago. So they took us on a little side trip to the 86th floor of the Tower, where we visited what best could be described as a penthouse apartment. This is what you saw when you looked out the window (which was basically an entire wall of this apartment):
Incredible, huh? I'm not sure I'd actually want to live there, but I wouldn't mind staying there for a week or two! Then we went out for some Chicago-style pizza (what else?) and headed to their house in DeMotte, Indiana...about a 90-minute drive from Chicago.
We got up the next morning and went to Mike & Sharon's church, where we had the opportunity to share God's goodness through Hannah's story during the Sunday School hour. We talked with many wonderful people while we were there, but were especially blessed by two of our visits. One was with a man named Richard whose precious mother lives in Arkansas, attends our church, and is a part of the Anchor of Hope cancer ministry. She is bravely battling ovarian cancer with the most wonderful, positive attitude. We met Richard one time when he was visiting Arkansas from Indiana, nearly two years ago, when his mom was first diagnosed...about the same time that Hannah was. We struck up a bit of a friendship at that time, and we've become quite close to his mom, so it was great to get to have the opportunity to see him again.
The other special visit was with a couple who lost their daughter, Jill Marie, to cancer ten years ago when she was 17 years old. It's kind of an interesting story how we came to know this couple...a little over ten years ago, we visited my family in Indiana, and once again, we were touring a property that Mike had done some cabinet work in. It was actually a Tour of Homes type event, and several builders had homes on display. One in particular caught my eye, because the home itself was called "The Jill Marie". It caught my eye because Jill Marie is my name...I'd never heard of anyone with my exact same name! My cousin Sharon explained to me before we toured the home that the builder had recently lost his daughter to cancer, and their family had named the home after her. As we walked through the house, there were some family pictures displayed, and I remember looking at those pictures of Jill Marie and their family and thinking, "Wow...I cannot imagine losing a child"...never dreaming, of course, that I would be in the same situation someday. Well, after Hannah went to Heaven, Sharon introduced Jill Marie's mom and I to each other via email. We've corresponded several times over the past year, and she's been such an encouragement to me...demonstrating that it is possible to not only survive, but thrive, after such a loss. We finally got to meet her and her husband in person at church Sunday morning, and then she attended the Princess Tea that evening as well. The bond that exists between parents who've lost children is an incredible thing...it is instant and lasting. I think that their Jill Marie and our Hannah Joy would have been good friends here on earth...and I have to believe they've met in Heaven.
After church, we returned to my cousin's house and had a nice afternoon visiting with them and my aunt and uncle. We brought Bethany and Courtney to one of the youth leader's homes so they could get their hair and make-up done for the tea, and then headed to the center where it was being held about 4:45. It was beautifully decorated in pinks, greens, and oranges. I wish I had pictures to share, but our camera was temporarily misplaced and I didn't have it for the evening. The girls started arriving shortly thereafter and they all looked beautiful. I'm not sure how many actually came, but they were expecting about 95. I do have a few pictures to share which my aunt emailed to me...
Bethany and Courtney:
Bethany, Courtney, Rebecca, and my Aunt Kay:
Me, Sharon, and Rebecca:
The dinner was delicious! Several girls led in praise and worship music, and there was a really cool mixer activity where the girls were each given a different color of sand which they poured in layers into the vases on the table, symbolizing the unity we have as the body of Christ. Each one also got to create her own sand globe to take home, using the different colors of sand.
Finally, it was time for me to share. Many of the girls in attendance had followed Hannah's story from the beginning through the emails....I really didn't realize how many until afterward. Nearly all of them knew at least something about her story. And the telling of her story brought out a lot of emotion from them...making it difficult for me to continue a couple of times. I encouraged them to stay strong in their faith through their storms and to make sure they were prepared for life's storms by having a growing relationship with God. After I finished, one of the leaders provided all of the girls with pens and paper and asked them to write me a note. The highlight of the evening for the girls was a coronation, complete with a tiara, and a reminder to each individual girl that she was a daughter of the King. It was a beautiful and meaningful way to end a special night.
Afterwards, we headed back to Mike & Sharon's house, tired but revived. The next morning we were up at 3:45, at O'Hare by 6:30, on the plane at 8:30, and home by about 11:30. Bethany and Brad were at school by noon, so she could play basketball that night. A very quick, but extremely rewarding, trip.
I didn't read the notes from the girls until Monday afternoon. I was overwhelmed by their honesty, openness, and willingness to share their hearts. So many shared how they have been impacted by Hannah's story. As I read them (and there is a huge stack of them), I could only imagine what Hannah would think. How her prayer that God would use her through a storm has been answered far beyond what she could ever ask or imagine. And how humbling it is to think that God could possibly use me as an instrument to share His glory through her story...all I can do is shake my head and pray that I will be found worthy.
For all of you who prayed for our safety and for the speaking events on this trip...thank you. We could never share like this without your prayer support. Thank you, thank you, thank you.