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 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 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. 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!