Monday, April 30, 2012

Monday Mourning -- A Surprise Message!

When our girls were young ... let's see, Hannah was 4 and Bethany was 1 ... we moved to the town of Crossett, in southeast Arkansas.  We lived there for three years, and they were three good years.  Brad was the assistant principal at the high school, and I worked part-time for the school district as a speech pathologist.  Our girls were happy and healthy, and life was good.  We had some wonderful friends, we were part of a great church, and we loved our little house on Cedar Street.  It's amazing how simple life seemed when I look back at those years.

Imagine my surprise when I received this message on Facebook last night (I share it with permission)...

Mrs. Jill,

I don't know if you remember me, but I was the same age as Hannah and in the same Sunday School classes with her when you all were here in Crossett. I had an encounter with someone the other day that brought Hannah up and it made me think of you all, so I wanted to share it with you.

I am a member of Grace Christian Fellowship now (it was Temple Baptist Church when you all were here) and I'm in the middle of a bible study with a few members of the church. Well, Mr. Buddy Dean is the leader of my Bible study and he shared a story about Hannah. He never mentioned her name, but he told us of how you all lived close to him when you lived here and how she would visit him and how he always found her to be such a sweet girl. He later mentioned that when all of Hannah's illness was going, you all sent out email newsletters and stuff about her. He said you'd always end it with "God is good all the time, and all the time, God is good." He said it was so encouraging and so true to hear. Later, I asked him if he was talking about Hannah and he said yes and we discussed how God had changed so many lives through her.

During my sophomore year of high school, Hannah actually added me on Facebook and we were able to get back in touch for a while. It was always a blessing to see what God was doing in the midst of her illness. I just wanted to let you know that she definitely changed my outlook on the difference between joy and happiness. She knew the true definition of joy and I've been able to explain the difference to others through what Hannah taught me. 

It was just a blessing to have Mr. Buddy to talk to about Hannah and to know that she's still making a difference no matter what. I hope you and your family are doing well and that God is still blessing and using you daily like He has been for so long.

Love and Prayers,
Nicole Currie

I can't tell you what a blessing it was to receive this message from Nicole.  Of course I remembered her ... she and Hannah were good friends.  They were in AWANA and children's choir together, and she was always a really sweet girl.  

It absolutely thrilled my heart to know that Mr. Buddy Dean (our backyard neighbor in Crossett) is still sharing Hannah's story, even after all this time.  And that Nicole continues to share with others how Hannah's life affected her.  

There is no greater joy in my life than to know that God is still working in the lives of others through Hannah's story.  Thank you, Nicole, for your message.  It means the world to me!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Tell About It Tuesday -- While We're Waiting Weekend for Parents

Has it really been two weeks since I last posted?  How is that even possible?  I really thought life was going to slow down after basketball season ... but, boy, was I wrong.  If anything, we've gotten even busier.  But ... May 24th is on the horizon, and we are officially in countdown mode.  I don't know if I've ever looked forward to a summer break more than this one.

One of the things that's keeping us so busy is the "While We're Waiting" ministry.  But that's a good kind of busy.  We absolutely love hosting WWW events.  In fact, we wish that was all we had to do, but we have these pesky jobs to keep us busy!  :)

This past weekend, we hosted the third "While We're Waiting Weekend" for Bereaved Parents.  I know I say this every time, but it was amazing!  We had a little bit smaller group this time because two couples were unable to come at the last minute, but what a great time of fellowship we had!

As always, I feel that the story of the weekend is best told through pictures.  So, here we go...

Friday afternoon and evening brought a downpour of Biblical proportions...

But Saturday morning dawned bright and clear, if somewhat chilly for late April...

After a hearty breakfast and a time of sharing, we headed out to the barn to help Daddy May feed the animals...

Who doesn't love puppies...

And bunnies...

And miniature horses...

There's just something therapeutic about spending time with the animals...

We came back in for lunch and spent some more time sharing our children's stories...

And then it was back outside for more fun activities, like the Family Farm carousel...

And riding the zip line over the pond...

Don't try this at home...

Just in case the weather didn't clear, we were prepared.  We set up a "Pickle Ball" court inside the Lodge, and Janice taught us all how to play.  And play we did ... until about 11:00 on Friday evening, and off and on throughout the weekend!

And finally, the pictures of our delicious gourmet dinner, prepared and served by our own private chef.   (He wrote these descriptions for me...I could never have come up with these on my own!)  First, the appetizer, which was "English cucumbers with great Northern bean fondue, essence of truffle oil, and drizzled with verde sauce..."

Our salad was "Vine ripened tomatoes with fresh goat cheese and a basil vinegarette..."

The intermezzo was "Mango and mandarin orange spritzers."  Absolutely delicious...

Our entree -- "Smoked Gouda potatoes with double smoked beef brisket, along with a medley of vegetables..."

And finally, the dessert -- "Lemon pudding cake with hot raspberry and strawberry fondue, with vanilla bean ice cream, fresh cream, and mint..."

Doesn't it all look amazing?

You know, the animals, the fun indoor and outdoor activities, and the food are all wonderful ... but that's not really what a While We're Waiting Weekend is all about.  The times of fellowship, encouragement, and prayer we had together over the course of the weekend were indescribable.  Those are things I can't capture in photographs.

This weekend together gave us an opportunity to talk about our children with people who genuinely wanted to hear about them, to share our struggles and our victories with people who truly understand, and most importantly, to discuss what God is teaching us through our experiences.  Our discussion was rich, and our bond was deep.

We ended the retreat on Sunday morning with a time of praise and worship.  Let me tell you, there is nothing like the sacrifice of praise that rises up to Heaven when a group of parents who have lost children sings "It Is Well With My Soul" together, especially if you know the history of that song.

We also had a special couple come to share with us on Sunday morning.  These folks lost their teenage son to a single strike of lightning thirty years ago.  He was mowing a neighbor's grass, trying to earn money to go on a mission trip.  If anyone would have a reason to question God's goodness, it would be this couple.  But instead of abandoning their faith, they have spent the last thirty years applying their faith.  They assured us that there is life after the loss of a child, and not just life, but abundant life.  They reminded us of what it means to truly live well while we're waiting to be reunited with our children in Heaven one day.

So, here we are, a group of bent, but not broken, parents ... determined to serve Him while we're waiting for that glorious reunion!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Ten on the Tenth -- Ten "Gifts" Given In a Year of Cancer

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.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Monday Mourning -- Prom 2012!

So Friday night was Magnet Cove High School's junior/senior prom.  Oh my, what a big deal it was!  We were out of school that day for Good Friday, so Bethany and I got to spend the whole day together taking care of all the pre-prom preparations.  Yes, we usually have our prom on Good Friday!  Something about that just never has felt right to me, but by having prom on Friday night, the kids are able to sleep in on Saturday and it doesn't interfere with going to church on Sunday morning.

Anyway, back to the pre-prom preparations.  There were the pedicures...Yes, I had to get one too!  How did I manage to reach the ripe old age of 46 before I ever got my first pedicure?  Actually, my favorite part is the massage chair!  This was my third one, and I enjoyed every minute of it.  Sitting next to my girl who was going on and on about how excited she was about the evening was pretty nice, too!

Next up was a trip to the salon for a fancy hair-do.  She wore her hair down, in some kind of "waterfall" style.  All I know is that it was gorgeous.  Just like her big sister, she's been blessed with a head full of great hair!

After that, it was off to get her make-up done.  We went to the Clinique counter at Belk on our hairdresser's recommendation.  Who knew that they do make-up there for free?  I couldn't believe it when the girl said we didn't owe her anything!  She did a great job and we enjoyed visiting with her, and yes, I left her a nice tip.

Let me stop here and say that, honestly, I find all of this pre-prom hoopla somewhat ridiculous.  I didn't go through this kind of preparation on my wedding day!  Of course, that was almost 25 years ago, and I guess times have changed.  And I must say, I did enjoy spending the whole day with my sweet daughter.

After nails, hair, and make-up, we went out to her date's parents' house to take some pictures....

Then it was off to the restaurant and a few more pictures...

Finally, they made it to the prom, which from all reports, was a huge success.  Bethany even won a $300 teeth whitening kit at the After Prom party!  Honestly, I think she should pass that along to her mom, don't you?

So, with all the fun activities surrounding prom, why is this a Monday Mourning post?  For a couple of reasons, actually.  The most obvious one is because Bethany's big sister was not there to share the day with her.  To help her pick out her dress, to help her decide how to wear her hair, to critique her make-up.  To lie in bed and whisper with her the night before prom about dancing, and dresses, and, of course, her date.  Which they certainly would have done, because "other Brad" (see previous post for the reason why we call him that) was actually a classmate of Hannah's, and they knew each other quite well.  In situations like this, where a big sister is called for, I often feel woefully inadequate.

And then there's the sadness I feel because Hannah never got to go to her high school prom.  And not even so much because I feel like she really missed out on anything, because what she's experiencing instead is so much better.  It's because I missed out on sharing the experience with her.  How I would love to spend a day with her now, just doing girl stuff ... or doing nothing at all but just being together!

But because of that ... because of that awareness of how much I have missed with Hannah, I was able to fully enjoy and appreciate that time with Bethany.  I was able to forget about the expense (just call me George Banks from "Father of the Bride"), the stress of rushing around from appointment to appointment (and running late all day), and the long night of waiting up for her and just enjoy the ride with my girl.

Father, let me never take time with my family for granted.  Help me to fully experience the joy that You give in every moment of life.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Monday Mourning -- Vacation Recap

Ahhhh, spring break!  The perfect opportunity to take a trip to celebrate our sweet nieces' birthday.  Because they live in Indonesia, we've never gotten to see them on their birthday before.  And no, they're not twins, but they do have the same birthday...just two years apart!  Right now, their family is on furlough, and they are currently staying with family in beautiful eastern Tennessee.  So, the four of us loaded up the car and headed out.  Yes, the four of us...Bethany's friend, Brad (who the little girls have christened "Other Brad" to differentiate him from "Uncle Brad"), accompanied us.

It's about an 11 hour drive from southwest Arkansas to eastern Tennessee, so we left home at 4:00 a.m.  We like to drive early in the morning like traffic, and those early morning hours seem to go by very quickly.  With the time change, it was early afternoon when we arrived, so we had plenty of time to visit before bedtime.  In fact, Brad and Brad were recruited to help hang some swings for the little girls to enjoy.  Once this task was completed, the girls immediately hopped on and began to enjoy their new swings.

Unfortunately, about five seconds after this picture was taken, little Katie (on the right) decided to let go of the chains for a reason known only to her.  She ended up on the ground at my feet, crying and holding her arm, and was soon whisked off to the emergency room by her parents.  She returned home a few hours later with an "inconclusive" x-ray and her arm in a splint.  Not the best way to kick off her birthday weekend!

Kids are resilient, however, and by the next morning, she was ready for her birthday celebration.  Their party was held at a place that had all kinds of fun activities for kids...jumping houses, blow-up slides, mazes, arcade games, etc.  Here are a couple of pictures...

Bethany and Julia

Katie and her Mommy

They made such beautiful birthday princesses and we had so much fun celebrating with them!

After the birthday festivities, we moved on to some other fun activities.  We couldn't be in such a beautiful part of the country without spending some time outside!

We rented a cute little cabin...

We did some hiking...

Had a little fun along the way...

And ended up at a gorgeous waterfall, which just happened to be where my brother and his wife got engaged about eleven years ago.  They did a little re-enactment, just for fun...

...And we got to take some family pictures!  I am usually the photographer of the family (not because I'm any good at taking pictures, but just because if I didn't do it, it wouldn't get done).  "Other Brad" is a great photographer and loves to take pictures, so I actually got to be in a few pictures this time!

Our family...

And the obligatory silly pic...

"Other Brad" brought along his handy-dandy hiking hammock...

The girls had to try it out, too...

Nothing like having a picnic beside a gorgeous waterfall, and then "hanging out" in a hammock for awhile!

The next day, we hiked to another waterfall...Such a beautiful, peaceful spot.

At least until Bethany and "other Brad" started rapelling down the cliff.  Then, it wasn't quite so peaceful, at least for me.  This was her first time to do anything like this, and she loved it!  And Mom actually enjoyed watching, too (after a few deep breaths)!

Probably the highlight of our trip was white-water rafting.  Our family has rafted twice before, and we absolutely love it!  This was an absolutely gorgeous float down the Nolichucky River, with lots of whitewater...several areas of Class III and IV rapids.  The water looks awfully brown in the picture, but there had been a lot of rain recently which had the river churned up.  Of course, it also made for great whitewater!  That's a railroad track you see beside the river, and we got to see a train go by while we were floating, which was cool.

All in all, we had a wonderful time on our trip.  So why is this a "Monday Mourning" post?  Because family vacations are not what they used to be.  As you might expect, there were moments of deep sadness.  The first time we rafted was on the Snake River in Idaho on our favorite family vacation ever...back in the summer of 2007...back when life was simple and uncomplicated.  Our girls were happy and healthy, and we had no idea that Hannah would be diagnosed with cancer seven months later.  Hannah absolutely loved rafting, even though it terrified her, and she always wanted to do it again.  We wished so badly she could have experienced this float with us.

There were lots of these around...

...and every time I saw one, I had to chuckle.  Hannah had a totally irrational fear of geese, which we always teased her about.  Hard to imagine that a girl who would face cancer fearlessly could be paralyzed by a little ol' goose!

Hannah would have loved spending time with her little cousins, and they would have absolutely adored her.  One evening, I was showing Julia the pictures on my phone, and we were talking about everyone in the pictures.  I knew there were pictures of Hannah on there, and I was steeling myself for her to ask me who she was.  I was so pleased when we got to those pictures and she immediately pointed to her and cried out, "Hannah!"  Her parents have done such a good job of making sure that she and her sister know who Hannah is, even if they don't actually remember her.  I'm so thankful for that.

I guess every family vacation we have without Hannah will be this way...a mixture of joy and sorrow. All of life is that way, actually.  I am just grateful that, as time goes by, the joy seems to supersede the sorrow.  This can only be the result of God's immeasurable grace.

P.S.-- Oh, and Katie's arm was not broken, by the way.  By the end of the week, she was sans splint, and doing just fine!