Thursday, February 28, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday -- The Tyranny of Dates

Well, we've made it through another one of those tough dates.  Tuesday marked four years since Hannah went to Heaven ... and it was okay.  I was overwhelmed (in a good way) by the number of cards, texts, phone calls, and Facebook posts we received ... people letting us know they were praying for us and friends and family members posting pictures and memories of Hannah.  Made the day much easier.

I was thinking on Tuesday about how I felt in those very early days of grief.  When I counted every day Hannah had been gone.  And how I eventually started counting in bigger units of time ... it's been a week, two weeks, it's been a month, three months, six months, nine months.  I remember how, for awhile, the 26th of every month was a weight on my shoulders.  How I dreaded those anniversary dates to the point where it nearly made me physically ill.  I found myself living under the tyranny of these dates.  I wondered how I could possibly make it for a whole year without her.  Then that dreaded one-year anniversary came and went, and then it was 18 months, and then, somehow, it was two years.  And now, unbelievably, it's been four years ... and two days.

Last night, we had our second While We're Waiting Support Group meeting.  We started our meeting by going around the room and doing very brief introductions of ourselves and our child in Heaven.  For example, I said, "We are Brad and Jill Sullivan, and our daughter Hannah went to Heaven in February of 2009 at the age of 17 following a battle with brain cancer."  We got about halfway around the room and heard from several parents whose children had gone to Heaven relatively recently.  Then we got to two moms who had lost their children many years ago.  The first one introduced herself and told us her son's name, but then went blank on what year he died.  She knew what year he was born and how old he was when he died, but said she'd have to do the math to remember the exact year.  Then the next mom said that her son had died forty years ago, then got a thoughtful look on her face and said, "No, it wasn't 40 years, it was 30 years ago."

And for just a moment, I must admit that I thought to myself, "How could you possibly forget how long ago your child died?"  And then it hit me.  These moms hadn't really forgotten, they just knew that it didn't really matter how long it had been.  They weren't living their lives under the tyranny of those dates anymore.  After all, the amount of time we spend without our children here on earth pales in comparison to the amount of time we will spend with them in eternity.

What a lesson that was for me!  And what a comfort to know that, over time, those special dates will loosen their grip on me, too.  I'm happy to say that I'm beginning to see that happen.  And that's what I've been thinking about on this Thoughtful Thursday.

Oh, and how's the basketball going?  Well, I'm glad you asked.  The Lady Panthers won their game on Tuesday, moving them on to the second round of the state tournament.  The game was closer than we would have liked, and I was so relieved that the end of Bethany's basketball career didn't fall on the fourth anniversary of her sister's death (speaking of the tyranny of dates).  I just have to share one picture from that game...

This picture just cracks me up.  It's the tip at the beginning of the game, and you can see that Bethany is jumping as high as she possibly can to get that ball.  The other girl apparently never even jumped.  Yes, Bethany got the tip!  :)

Monday, February 25, 2013

Monday Mourning -- Four Years

Tomorrow will mark four years since our Hannah went to be with Jesus.  Strange, but the day has almost snuck up on me this year.  Oh, I knew it was coming ... I could tell by the heaviness in my spirit over the past few weeks.  But we've been so busy, I've been able to push it to the back of my mind.

What's been keeping me so busy, you ask?  Well, since Bethany's senior night a few weeks ago, our lives have been absolutely consumed with basketball.  Over the last few weeks, the Lady Panthers have won the conference championship, the district championship, and then Saturday night, they won the regional championship.  Please indulge me as I share a few pictures from the final game with you...

The tip.  Look at that #25 jump!  :)

We had actually already played this team three times this year, twice in the regular season and then again to win the district championship ... a close game each time.  We were on opposite sides of the bracket in the regional tournament, and wouldn't you know, we had to face each other again in the finals.  Take a look at the final score (we were the visitors)...

Here are the senior girls immediately after the game.  These girls have played together since fifth grade, and this was an emotional moment for them.  I love this picture.

Celebrating the victory!

And a hug for Dad...

Oh, but we're not done yet!  Tomorrow night, we'll be watching Bethany and her team play in the first round of state tournament.  I can't wait!

The last three years, we've spent February 26th very quietly, visiting Hannah's grave and just having some special family time together.  We've shared memories and spent time laughing and crying together. Tomorrow will definitely be a change from that.  This year, we'll be spending the day noisily ... yelling and screaming and jumping up and down as we watch the Lady Panthers play ball.  And hopefully, the day will end with shouts of victory!

One thing I've had to fight off over the last few weeks is sadness that Hannah is not here to share these  moments with her sister.  Hannah was truly Bethany's number one fan.  One of her very last public outings (besides to the oncology clinic) was to the gym to watch her sister play.  Unable to walk without assistance, she entered the gym with one of us supporting her on each side.  We got her seated, and she proceeded to whoop and holler her sister on to victory.  I remember that she ate her favorite ball game snack while she was there ... a frito chili pie.  She was wearing her wig and her face was swollen from steroids, but she really didn't care.  She was determined to be there to support her sister.

Do I think that Hannah still watches her sister play ball from Heaven?  Do I believe she was jumping up and down along with Bethany on Saturday night when they won regionals?  Mmmmmm ... I don't know.  Maybe.  Or maybe she's so enthralled with the majesty and glory of Heaven and her Savior that she can't tear her eyes away.  I don't know.

But here's something that has really helped this month.  There are some very special people who have taken a particular interest in Bethany.  And these folks (we've started calling them her "fan club") have been coming to her games, cheering for her, and supporting her.  They're there to greet her after the games with hugs and encouraging words.  And when they can't be there, they are texting me requesting scores, following my Facebook posts, or calling me to find out who won the game.

And these folks have really made a difference.  What a way to make a girl feel loved!  And I'm just gonna say, when someone takes a special interest in your child like that, it means so much to a parent.  Those are the things that a parent never forgets.

Would these people be such a big part of our lives now if Hannah hadn't gone to Heaven?  Some would, just because they are great folks and we already knew them through our church or other places.  But some of them we never would have met if we had not lost our daughter.  And, to be honest, I really can't imagine these people not being a part of our lives.  I can't tell you how our lives have been enriched by their friendship.

When Hannah left us for Heaven four years ago, I could not have anticipated the ways the life of our family was going to change.  The bad stuff, which there has been plenty of, I could have predicted.  But who would have thought that God had so many blessings in store for us?  I certainly couldn't see it at that time.  But, as I look back over the past four years, I am grateful for His goodness, even through my tears.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Monday Mourning -- A Unique (And Exciting) Opportunity

Waaaaay back in April of 1997, Brad and I became members of the National Bone Marrow Donor's Registry.  A  sweet young mother in our church had been diagnosed with leukemia and the search was on to find a bone marrow donor for her.  Pretty much our entire congregation was tested at that time and became a part of the national registry.  None of us matched this young mom, however, and by the time a match was found and the procedure was done, it was too late for her earthly healing.

Since that time, though, we've remained on the registry, and I've always been careful to keep them updated every time we've moved or our contact information has changed, especially after our experience with Hannah's cancer.  Hannah herself was never a candidate for a bone marrow transplant ... it would not have been effective for her type of cancer ... but we've encountered so many families whose children's lives were saved or at least extended following a bone marrow transplant.

We receive generic emails from the National Marrow Donor Program from time to time, so when the email popped up in my inbox the other day, I didn't think much about it.  I figured it was just another "Please update your contact information" request.  When I finally did click on it, I was prepared just to skim down to the contact information section and make sure everything was still correct.  Since we haven't moved in quite awhile (Thank goodness!) I figured it would be just a quick and easy task.  Even the "Important Message -- Please Respond" in the subject line didn't alert my radar.

But, I froze as I began reading...


You've been identified as a possible marrow match for a 1-year-old female in need of a transplant.  The patient's doctor is trying to determine treatment options as quickly as possible."

The remainder of the email was an urgent plea for Brad to call an 800 number as quickly as possible to confirm whether or not he was still willing and able to be a donor.

As I was still sitting on the couch gaping at the letter on my laptop screen, Brad walked in the door from work.  I showed him the email and he picked up the phone, dialed the 800 number, and spent the next twenty minutes on the phone answering questions.  Of course, he took the opportunity to share Hannah's story with the NMDP lady as they visited.  I think she was pretty amazed that she had found a potential donor who actually had a very personal reason to want to give the gift of life to a child.

She explained that Brad would have to undergo some additional testing to determine if he is an appropriate match for this little girl, mainly involving bloodwork, as I understand it.  She emailed us a consent form for him to sign, which I faxed back to her this morning.

And now, we wait.  And I am nearly overcome with the hope that he will be chosen.

When we stood in line in the fellowship hall of First Baptist Church of Crossett to get our blood drawn for bone marrow testing nearly sixteen years ago we could never have dreamed where we would be today.  That one of the two little girls who danced around beside us in that line would now be in Heaven following her own battle with cancer.  That we could possibly have the opportunity to give hope and life to a one-year-old girl and her family is almost more than I can imagine.  What a picture of God's grace coming full circle!

We don't know this little girl's name.  We don't even know what state she lives in.  We know she has leukemia, but that may be all we ever know.  Would you please join our family in praying for her and her family?  I can just imagine that her mom and dad praying that a donor match would be found for her ... and nothing would make my husband and I happier than being the answer to that prayer.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday -- Valentine's Day 2008

Even after nearly four years of this grief thing, some days are still just hard.

Today is one of those days.

You see, five years ago, on Valentine's Day 2008, is when it all began.  That's the first day we had any indication that was something not quite right was going on with Hannah.  When she got up that morning with a headache so severe it made her nauseous, I assumed she had a sinus infection or maybe had caught some kind of virus.  And when, after a nap, she woke up feeling fine, I was sure that whatever it was was aleady behind us.

Until the next day, when the same thing happened again.  And again the next day, when the headache lasted beyond the morning hours.

I have such a vivid memory of standing in the pain reliever aisle at Walmart, searching for something that might help her headaches.  As I pawed through all the bottles of Excedrin, Advil, Tylenol, Motrin, and aspirin, I had the strangest sinking feeling that none of these medications would really help.  Somehow I just knew that these were not normal headaches.

I remember her calling me from school on the Monday after Valentine's Day, asking me to come pick her up from school.  She said her head was really hurting and that she was seeing double.  As we discussed whether or not she really needed to come home, a teacher came into the office where she was on the phone and I could hear her teasingly say, "Oh, Hannah, you're okay ... You don't need to go home."  And she said to me, "I'll be okay, Mom ... I don't need to come home."  We said good-bye and I hung up the phone ... and I felt that eerie sinking feeling again.  I almost raced up there and got her, but talked myself out of it.

When she came home that afternoon, she told me that she had been seeing double, but "just sometimes, not all the time", and as she said that, I looked into her eyes ... and for the first time, I noticed how abnormally dilated her pupils were.  I tried to keep the rising panic off my face, because I didn't want to scare her, but I knew something was wrong.  As soon as Brad came home from work, I pulled him aside and told him what she had told me and what I had noticed about her eyes.  He saw it too, and we decided she needed to see a doctor the next day.

Things snowballed from there, and within 48 hours of that decision, we were informed that our 16-year-old daughter had a tumor the size of a small egg right in the center of her brain.  That's when we began the year-long roller coaster of surgery, radiation treatments, chemotherapy protocols, every-other-day platelet infusions, and hospital stays.

Fast forward to Valentine's Day 2009.  I can still see my beautiful girl, now 17, reclining weakly in her favorite chair ... baby-soft peach fuzz regrowing on her head now that all the treatments had been discontinued ... thanking her daddy multiple times for the roses he sent her.  The cancer, which was regrowing like her hair, was making her like an octogenarian with Alzheimer's ... every time she caught a glimpse of those roses, it was like she was receiving them for the first time.

Two days later, we rushed her to the hospital in the wee hours of the morning, and twelve days later, she was with Jesus.

And so we come to today.  Valentine's Day 2013.  Hannah has been fully healed for almost four years now, yet we are still in the throes of the healing process.  Will we ever be fully healed?  Not until we join her in Heaven one day.  We've come so far over these past few years, but days like this really make me yearn for that great reunion.

I'll be back at the gym tonight cheering Bethany and the Lady Panthers on in their quest for a district championship.  There's only one place I would rather be on this Valentine's evening, and since God is apparently not finished with me yet, I will choose to enJOY the blessings He has given me here on earth while I'm waiting!

"I waited patiently for the Lord; He inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure." Psalm 40:1-2

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Ten on the Tenth -- My Favorite Contemporary Christian Albums

Did you miss last month's Ten on the Tenth?  I didn't either ... at least not until about the 14th, when I realized I had completely forgotten about the tenth of the month.  So, I'm making sure I'm getting it done this month, even though it seems like a completely random topic.  But before I start that, I wanted to post a couple of pictures from Bethany's senior night.  We had a great time that evening, and got a big kick out of watching Bethany lead the team in scoring with 15 points.  Here are a few pics...

The last picture is of all the seniors along with their coach.  It's really been a great year for them, and it's not over yet.  We have district tournament next week, regional tournament the following week, and hopefully state tournament the week after that.  Oh, and did I mention that Bethany led the team in scoring on senior night?  ;-)

Now, back to the list.

My love affair with contemporary Christian music began when my Aunt Marie sent me an Amy Grant cassette for my 13th birthday. At that time, I didn't even know that that type of music existed.  I fell in love with that cassette at first listen ... I practically wore it out.  Not long after that, I discovered a radio program that came on our local station for a couple of hours each Sunday night.  They played artists like Second Chapter of Acts, Dallas Holm & Praise, Phil Keaggy, Steve Green, Don Francisco, and, of course, Amy Grant.  I would record the show on my tape recorder and listen to it over and over until the next week's show.

As I got a little older and started earning money, you can probably guess what I spent it on.  I could hang out in Christian bookstores all day just looking at the shelves of cassette tapes?  Does anyone besides me remember that cassettes used to have stickers on the shrink wrap that you could collect and redeem for free cassettes.  If you bought four cassettes and collected the stickers from them, you could get one free.  I painstakingly clipped out every one of those things and would breathlessly run to the store as soon as I had collected enough for my free music.

My love for this music has continued all the way into my middle-aged years.  My tastes have broadened over the years, and I enjoy a very wide range of Christian music, as you'll see from my list. So, without further ado, here are my ten favorite CCM albums from over the years.  These are in no particular order, other than a loose chronological order.

1.  "Never Alone" by Amy Grant -- Since this is where it all began, I had to include this one!

2.  "Live" and "Nothing But Praise" by Dallas Holm & Praise -- Yes, I know that's two albums, but I can't list one without the other.  I had these two records and played them over and over.  And my first "official" date with Brad was to a Dallas Holm concert at OBU!

3.  "Forgiven" and "Got to Tell Somebody" by Don Francisco -- Two again.  Sorry.  I loved these records too, especially "He's Alive."  What an awesome song that was.  Excuse me while I go check iTunes for some Don Francisco songs.

4.  "More Power to Ya", "Not of this World", and "Beat the System" by Petra.  Okay, quit counting.  I just can't narrow these down.  Brad and I also went to a Petra concert together ... before our "official" first date.

5.  "DC Talk" and "Jesus Freak" by DC Talk.  Back when we were first married, we worked with the youth group at Richwoods Baptist Church in Gum Springs, Arkansas.  Several of those teenagers were DC Talk fans, and when we heard that there was going to be a free concert in the parking lot of the Crate Deals store in Benton, we hit the road.  At that time, they only had one album, the self-titled "DC Talk", and it had nine songs on it.  Those guys stood on the back of a flat bed truck and sang (well, rapped) all nine of their songs twice.  They also did a marvelous gospel presentation.  They drew a huge crowd that day ... lots of people who would probably never darken the door of a church.  It was awesome.  And speaking of DC Talk leads me to my next favorite album ...

6.  "Diverse City" by TobyMac, who was formerly the lead rapper/singer for DC Talk.  I love all of TobyMac's albums, but Diverse City has to be my favorite.

7.  "Declaration" by Steven Curtis Chapman.  I have loved all of SCC's albums, but this one would have to be my favorite.  "Live Out Loud" is such a fun song with an awesome message.  I also love "Beauty Will Rise", which he released after the death of his daughter, Maria, but I rarely listen to it ... the emotion is just too raw.

8.  "Almost There" by MercyMe.  I loved how this album didn't sound "Christian" ... it sounded like what was being played on the radio Top 40 back in 2001.  And it contained the song "I Can Only Imagine".  'Nuff said.

9.  "Lifesong" by Casting Crowns.  Need I say more than "Praise You In the Storm"?

10.  "Hello Love" by Chris Tomlin.  This album was released just as Hannah was nearing the end of her earthly battle with cancer, and the song "I Will Rise" was such a blessing to us.  It was sung during her funeral service and was such a great reminder that her pain and sorrow was all behind her.

11.  "Snapshots:  Live and Fan Favorites" by Chris Rice.  Chris Rice is such a creative songwriter, and has some amazing songs about Heaven.  I love all of his music.

12.  Every album by Switchfoot.  I tried to pick one (or two or three) and couldn't do it.  I love them all.

Oh, sorry ... Was that twelve?  I thought I asked you to stop counting.  ;-)

Actually, I probably could have gone on and on ... There are just so many good Christian albums! Thanks for indulging me in this trip down a musical memory lane.  I'd love to hear some of your favorites!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Wacky (aka Wonderful) Wednesday -- "The Gospel In Four Minutes"

I ran across this video on Facebook, and thought it was an amazing summary of the gospel in just four minutes.  Enjoy and pass it along...

Monday, February 4, 2013

Monday Mourning -- Senior Night 2013

Would you look at that sweet little game face?  That's my girl, circa 2007, just before the seventh grade championship basketball game.  And here she is in 2013...

Tomorrow night we'll be participating in Senior Night after her ball game.  So hard to believe.

I absolutely love the expression on her face in that first picture.  I remember that little girl.  She was pure and sweet and innocent, and blissfully unaware of what the future held for her.  She didn't know that her best friend was about to be diagnosed with terminal cancer.  She never imagined that only a year later she'd be holding her sister's hand as she took her final breaths on this earth.

Over the last five years, I watched that little girl vacillate between fear and faith as her sister's health declined, I saw her shuffled around among family and friends as we took care of Hannah's medical needs, and I missed many of the ball games and other events that were so important to her.  I heard her bravely speak at her sister's funeral about how we didn't lose Hannah ... that we knew exactly where she was.  Lost in the fog of my own grief, I didn't see that she had lost her rudder and, for a time, was drifting in potentially dangerous waters.  And, by the grace of God, I've seen her faith and her joy restored.

And somewhere in those five years, that little girl grew up.  I watch her sometimes, when she doesn't know I'm doing it, and I often find myself in awe of what I'm seeing.  I see a girl-woman who carries herself with confidence, who demonstrates leadership with compassion, and who has a heart for hurting people.  She has strong opinions and is not afraid to voice them, she is wonderful with children, and she has a personality that brightens up any room.

I was watching her at a ball game the other night and feeling that now-familiar sense of awe ... and I found myself wondering why "awe" was what I felt.  Maybe it's because I know what she's been through.  Maybe it's because I know how far she's come.  Maybe it's because I never got to see her sister grow up like this, so I'm witnessing it all for the first time.  But I finally decided that it's because I know how fragile life really is, and I'm fully aware that everything can change in a second.  I know that I need to fully appreciate every moment I have with her.  And I plan to do just that.

So tomorrow night, as I walk across that gym floor beside my beautiful daughter, I might shed a tear or two ... but it won't be because I'm sad she's growing up.  I will never be sad that my girl is growing up ... that's what our children are supposed to do.  No, if there are tears, they will be tears of joy that she is growing into the woman God intended her to be.

Today, I went to our local party store and ordered some balloons for tomorrow night's ceremony.  The saleslady was very helpful and even personalized the balloons with Bethany's name and uniform number.  As I swiped my debit card, she said, "Have fun tomorrow night."  I thanked her and headed for the door, and just as I opened it, she called out, "Enjoy her!"  I stopped short, looked back over my shoulder, and said, "Oh, I will."

If she only knew.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Free-For-All-Friday -- Catching Up!

Well, it's obviously basketball season, isn't it?  That would explain the lack of posts since ... oh, the Tuesday before last?  We have been busy, busy, busy ... and there's really no end in sight at this point.  With a win over Mountain Pine tonight, the Lady Panthers have officially completed their conference season undefeated.  Next week brings junior high district tournament and then the following week will be senior high district tournament.  And as the official scorekeeper for Magnet Cove, that means a lot more late nights for the next two weeks.  Thankfully, they usually get me some help for weeks like that.

But, there have been a few things besides basketball going on in the Sullivan household ... Here's a little wrap-up of the last week or two...

1.  We had our first While We're Waiting Support Group for Bereaved Parents Wednesday night.  We had a big crowd there, and several more who wanted to come but were unable to make it due to illness or other obligations.  Our topic for the evening was "Even If He Does Not", because every parent who has lost a child has faced that dilemma.  What do we do when it appears that God did not answer our prayers for healing, or for protection, or even just for the safe birth of our child?  Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, we must choose to trust Him, "even if He does not."  I'm not going to share any of our discussion because I feel like the things we share with each other are confidential.  I will just say that if you want to be inspired ... spend some time with a Christian parent who has lost a child.  They are some amazing people.

2.  For the second time in our twenty-five year marriage, our household has been chosen to participate in the Nielsen ratings.  Yes, they actually do pick real people to do that.  For the next week, we have to keep a diary of every single thing we watch on TV.  Since we have two TVs, they actually sent us two diaries.  And for our trouble, they sent us five crisp, new one dollar bills.  No, not five one hundred dollar bills ... five one dollar bills.  Not even enough to be a combo meal at most fast food places.  At least there won't be much to write down due to said basketball tournaments.

3.  We booked a family vacation this week.  We're going to go snow skiing over spring break!  No, I don't ski ... Are you kidding me?  Not that I haven't tried.  Well, I guess I didn't try real hard.  Brad and I went skiing the first year we were married, and while he took to it naturally, I felt fortunate just to make it down the mountain alive.  And while Bethany and Brad have already been trying to cajole me into giving it another try, I am thinking that a few days in front of a fireplace in a condo with gorgeous mountain views and only my Kindle to keep me company sounds like just the kind of vacation I need.  

4.  I can't believe how quickly January flew by and that February is already upon us.  February has been my least favorite month for the past few years for several reasons...mostly because it's full of very difficult memories.  I am encouraged, though, by the fact that my attitude going into this month is much better than it's been in recent years.  I didn't feel the sinking in my soul that I usually feel when I flip that page on the calendar.  You know, sometimes in the day-to-day life of grief, it's hard to see progress ... but when you come to a certain date or a particular event and can look back at where you were a year ago or two years ago ... that's when you realize how far you've really come.  

5.  Next Tuesday is Senior Night.  Yes, we're back to the topic of basketball.  Can't seem to have a conversation these days without eventually getting back to basketball.  On senior night, each senior basketball player and cheerleader is called out to the center of the gym floor, where they meet their parents and give them flowers. The emcee tells all about the student ... their extracurricular activities, their plans for the future, and their favorite high school memory.  It's a sweet little ceremony.  For the first two years after Hannah went to Heaven, I went and "hid" in the bathroom while it went on.  It was just too hard to sit through it knowing Hannah never got to experience her own senior night.  Last year I was able to sit and watch it without too much emotion, and now this year, I'll be participating in it.  Not sure where I'll be on the emotion meter this year.  I will say that if there are tears, they'll be tears of joy that my girl is growing up like little girls are supposed to.

Ho hum ... Looks like it's time for bed.  Better get some sleep while I can.  Sure am looking forward to sleeping in in the morning!  :)