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Perfect Imperfection

Tonight we put up our Christmas tree, the first Ravella/Gilbert tree. Actually we have two trees. One is artificial. It is perfect. It has p...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Christmas Lists

Traffic. Decorating. Long lines. Hustle. Bustle. Lists. Lists upon lists. Gift lists. Grocery lists. Christmas card lists...The kids making their own Christmas Wish lists - Greyson has made 4 different versions, some handwritten and some on the computer. I (Ginger) have addresses scribbled everywhere. Giftwrap, tissue, ribbons all exploding in our bedroom. Endless kids' parties, musicals, yada yada. All of this is so normal. So typical of what all my friends are doing right now. Prior to 2006, this is what I did too. Without a thought, unlike now, of it being sort of unusual. How can the trimmings and trappings of the holiday season feel so out of place when EVERYONE is doing the same thing? I realized that all these activities are the same. Same as ever. But I am the thing that's different. The last two Christmases were a blur to me. The first one a nightmarish blur. I still praise God for the girls in the squadron who bought and wrapped all the kids gifts that year. Presents seemed so utterly ridiculous to me at that point that I probably would have unintentionly harmed my kids by skipping the gift exchange all together. When the ONLY thing you really want is the ONE thing you can't have it just all seems like more of a frustration than anything. I only wanted Troy back for Christmas. The girls gave me a well-known beautifully expensive robe from Nordstroms or somewhere. They were trying so hard to do something for me. I still remember one of them commenting how they had always wanted a robe like that. I knew she meant well by saying it but all I could think was, "Trade ya!" I'll take my husband like you have and you can have the plush robe." Of course I didn't say that because it was such a sweet gesture but what a great example to us all that stuff just doesn't make us happy.

Jim wrote about the beauty of our two very different trees. The real one seems to be hanging on for dear life, trying hard to not let its' droopy branches drop our precious ornaments. Under the tree, Jim put a darling working train set. He was saddened to find that the set he and Andrea always used was either stolen or lost in a move. All we found were a few train tracks left. So he scoured on Ebay and found the no-longer in production train set and it sits under our tree. I knew he and Anthony would appreicate the familiarty of it, even if it wasn't their original. We are trying to keep the girls hands off it. Sometimes I notice it is derailed and I wonder what mischief has gone on. Jim and Andrea had also started a village collection. Okay, they started it with a church and then never added another thing. I understand how it feels to have good intentions and then life just gets in the way. So I decided the kids would give Jim the whole village to complete it. Troy used to make fun of me and say, "Collection contains the word collect. Doesn't that mean it should happen over time?" I told him there was no timeframe on the definition! I admit to liking collections to happen quickly not over years. I know that probably doesn't really make them collections rather more of a purchase. But none-the-less we now have a whole little village (okay tiny metropolis). The kids set it up and we walked Jim into the room with his eyes closed. We added Andrea's original church and then shopped for a few more together. It is special and it is ours. We appreciate all of our past decorations. They are treasures that have special memories attached to them. We wouldn't want to lose them ever. But we also are really enjoying things that are ours now.

Jim is finding out I do LOVE Christmas lights. I love the twinkling and the sparkling and how they make everything so warm and pretty. I am always sad when the lights come down after the holidays because everything just seems a bit more dull. But that beauty comes at a price because those silly lights are always our nemesis aren't they? They are tangled, hard to get on, harder to take off and can work one second and go out the next. As we were struggling to put all the lights on our tall tree this year I remembered back two years prior to a gesture I will never forget. It was the night of November 26, 2006. Days earlier, Amy and I had driven from Phoenix and taken the kids to Sea World in San Diego for Thanksgiving. She was trying to help me pass the time and ease the sadness that Daddy was at war and wouldn't be home for the holidays. In fact, the last time I talked to Troy was in Oceanside, CA the day after Thanksgiving that year. We returned back to Phoenix that Saturday and Amy flew on back to Dallas not knowing she would be turning around in less than two days to come to come and hold her best friend, whom in an instant had just become a widow. Anyway, in between those two days between returning from CA and the knock on my door on Monday morning was Sunday. I go back and remember that day as the last normal day of my life. Not the last wonderful day, as I have those again, but the last normal day. I took the kids to church and Steve preached on the promises of God. The Lord knew we all were about to need a big reminder of those. I got my final email from Troy that night. He sounded better than when I had talked to him two days prior. He had gotten lots of good sleep, changed his office to a better location and was excited about flying the next day. Then that evening, my good friend, Tracy came over to help me put the lights on our Christmas tree. Tracy is one of those rare people who just sits back, listens and watches. She then instinctively moves forward to love you in the way you need. She always did that for me. The one thing I needed at the moment whether it was a hug, letters addressed, rescuing from stresses of motherhood, a meal, a cup of tea, a glass of wine, my carpets spot cleaned, arms to hold me while I wept, whatever it was Tracy sensed it and did it unselfishly and with love. Well, that night my need was help getting lights on the Christmas tree. Troy had always done that and Tracy knew I was frankly just lonely and bored and wanted the company while he was TDY. So I tucked the kids in bed and promised them that the next day, Monday, November 27th, we would decorate the tree. Tracy came over and we went to work on the lights. Now I like alot of lights so this means string upon string upon string. I don't remember what all we talked about but I am sure she was making me laugh and encouraging me that I only had 6 weeks left before Troy would be home and that I could do it. I remember we finished, plugged in the lights and poof! they all went out, simultaneously. We never could figure out what happened. But you know what Tracy did? She said, "Ok, girl, lets take them off and put more on. We are getting this tree ready for the kids to decorate when they come home from school tomorrow!" We were both so tired but she helped me see the project through. She left my house at midnight. Only 9 1/2 hours before I heard the news of Troy's plane going down. And actually only about 3 1/2 hours prior to his actual crash. When I said good-bye to her that night, I knew once again what a true blue friend she was. She stayed up late with me and I knew she had to get up early to home school her kids all day the next day. I knew she hadn't even thought of putting up her own decorations yet. But she knew that was important to me. I love her for that night alone. After the news the next morning and the police and tv crews started swarming the house, we decided to keep the kids out of the house for two days. I had the twins at home with me and the onlslaught of family and friends. But I needed a couple of days to get myself together and figure out what to tell our children. I remember they came home from school on Tuesday and I told them what had happened. I still don't remember what I actually said. I think the Lord spoke and just moved my mouth. We were surrounded by God's love and people and only with His strength did I find the words to tell them their daddy had been killed. Afterwards, as odd as it seemed, Greyson was completely fixated on decorating that Christmas tree like we had planned. He is my child with more of the OCD tendencies and he likes to stick with the plan but I think in that case, it was the only thing that seemed within his 6 year old control. The only way to somehow make something go on as planned. So we decorated that beautifully lit tree. It was like standing in the middle of your house after it was blown to bits by a tornadoe and then trying to put it all back together with Elmer's glue. It was that ridiculous to me.

Then I thought of last year's tree. I wanted to decorate it so that was a step up from the year prior. But things still didn't feel like Christmas. So I went, ummm.... let's just say "unorthodox". I decorated (with Becky, Jess and Amy Ryder) my entire tree in brown and turquoise. Instead of a topper I made this wild floral arrangement of glittery poinsettas, sticks and pheasant feathers. Most of my friends called it the "explosion on the top of the tree". Okay, it was awful but it was artsy and it was a true representation of how nontraditional I viewed not only Christmas but my life. Jim and I hung onto a few of those turquoise ornaments this year just as a reminder of the miracle that God did in our meeting only a month later.

I do wonder how many people reading this blog might be avoiding the decorating or celebrating in a rebellious way because they hurt so much inside. Jim and I talk often about the holidays highlighting either your own happiness or sadness, depending on which ever the case may be. Like a big fluorescent yellow marker drawing attention to your emotional state and the condition of your heart or life. We know what it is to listen to Christmas music either in a hospital room or an airport to a funeral. It makes you almost sick inside.

But this is where I have begun to see things different. Not just now that I have Jim but even over the last two Christmases to some degree. The importance is not shopping or decorating your house to the nines or how many parties you're invited to or what your kids get for Christmas. We all say "Jesus is the reason for the season" but do we really stop and think about what that means? I can tell you when all that other fluff gets highlighted for what it is, just that FLUFF, then you see Christ is it. He IS the bright and shining star. The rest of the holidays and even life, itself, is all extra. Even when we try to squeeze in the real meaning of Christmas with Jesus birthday parties, nativity scenes, candlelight Christmas Eve services (all wonderful - nothing wrong with any of those) we STILL are so permeated with the extra that we do not focus on the eternal.

Isaiah 64:6

"All of us have become like one who is unclean and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.."

The other day, I was rushed, hurried, feeling the stress of getting all the kids and Jim's gifts and getting the right ones. In my head, I am sure I was planning all the meals, gifts and schedule for our upcoming week's worth of visitors. I was needing to check out of the store quickly and race to be somewhere with the kids. Then I looked behind me in line and there was a young man, with no legs, sitting in a wheelchair trying to balance the shopping basket on what little of a lap he had. His drink rolled out of the basket and towards me. As I reached down to hand it to him, I wondered what his shopping experience was like. How extremely difficult I cannot fathom. I instantly prayed that he would have love and joy and hope and peace somehow this Christmas. That somehow is only through Christ at CHRISTmas. I think there is a reason His name makes up most of the word.

When all the distractions of the holidays don't matter anymore are when you can really see them for what they are. This life is wrought with pain. It is intertwined with beauty here and there. God's grace and mercy does flow down and cover us but there is still pain. And we, as those who know the impact of Jesus choosing to follow God's plan and come to earth in the flesh to experience that pain, need to stop and breathe deeply in the powerful gift that is.

I never thought, after what I went through, I would ever get caught up again in meaningless stuff. But I do. But I hopefully have eyes wide open to see when I do it. And to stop and ask myself does this thing; the toy that everyone wants and must be hunted down or this family issue or this desire to turn my home into the cover of Southern Living, whatever it is to each of us... does it keep me from worshipping the Gift of Jesus? Is my yellow highlighter going over His name, "King of Kings, Lord of Lords"? Is that showing in my actions and my attitude?

I ordered a Christmas wreath for Troy's grave last week. Yesterday I picked out a Christmas arrangement for Andrea's grave. Through the years, I have decorated every nook and cranny of my houses and often been hired out to do other people's homes. Yet, I have never once adorned anything more treasured. Yesterday, as I sat at Andrea's grave, I found myself moving the flowers I bought this way and that. Trying to place everything at just the right angle so it would look nice. Amy Ryder went to Arlington and placed the wreath just perfect so Troy's name would still show. These things are special to us. But, in the glow of Jesus' birth, they are miniscule. I confess to feeling the anxiety of the demands, the company, the meals, the timelines, etc.... It tumbles around in my head and mixes with the lump in my throat over Troy and Andrea. But I look around. I see Jim smiling, laughing and wrestlling with giggling twins near the sagging Christmas tree. I see Christmas miracles that happened this year. And I ask myself if it really matters that I still haven't hung up that last garland.

I don't imagine there are many Christmas decorations in heaven. It's just beautiful all the time. Walls of sapphire, emerald, topaz and amethyst. Gates of pearls. Streets of gold. Christmas lights pale in comparison to the light show there.

Revelation 21:23

"The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light and the Lamb is its lamp."

Maybe Christmas Day is just one huge birthday party for our Lord. Troy and Andrea know. We must wait. We must remember that is what this time on earth is and that's especially what Christmas is all about; waiting to be with our Savior. Waiting to go to THE birthday party of all birthday parties.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

My One Year Anniversary


Today was a significant day for me as you might guess, but in more ways than I ever thought. First let me say thank you to all of those who prayed for me and my boys on this day, it means so much to know you cared enough to pray for us and remember Andrea.


My plan for the day was to be at Andrea's grave at 1:07, the exact time she went to be with the Lord. It was the conclusion of reliving the past three weeks culminating in this day and that moment. To tell you the truth I was dreading going to the grave today. I go there about every three weeks and it was becoming easier with time but I guess the anniversary made it different. When I pulled up to section 110, grave 699 I saw flowers on Andrea's grave, and on top I found a card from Ginger. I brought my own flowers which I added to Ginger's I brought a picture of Andrea. I wanted anyone who saw her tombstone to see Andrea and not just her name. A National Cemetery in it's uniformity has it's own beauty but tends to lose the individuality.




As I watched the time tick closer and closer to 1:07 I remembered the events of Dec 17th 2007. Arriving and finding Andrea unresponsive, calling Nic and telling him to get Anthony out of school and come to the hospital. Calling family and friends while I waited for her oncologist to arrive and confirm what I knew I had to do. I remember it being just Andrea and her three boys with her, how we stood around her bed as the nurse brought in the morphine and hung it on the IV stand. I remember praying with Andrea as she slept and singing to her. And then I remember when she passed and the coolness of her lips, and then I looked at the clock, 1:07, and we were alone. It was just like you hear, in that instant her body changed to me, it was no longer her, she was gone. In that instant she was freed from her pain and suffering and she was with the Lord.

I stayed a while longer at the grave to talk to Andrea and I decided to call her Mom and Nic. I thought about my boys who lost their mom, their friend and amazing example of faith. I thought of all the others who were impacted by this day, Andrea's friends who may be hurting today but I found myself thinking a lot about her Mom, June. It is hard to imagine what it must be like to lose a child. It is as unnatural as losing your spouse at such a young age, it is just not supposed to happen. I could not imagine losing one of the kids. Then I thought about Andrea's sister and her niece having lost a sister and mentor. So many were affected by this one life that was cut way too short.

But as I looked at the photo I placed on her grave I saw Andrea with that beautiful smile and I thought that is how she is looking down today on us all, with a huge smile. She was an amazing woman to have known, and I was blessed to have been her husband. As I left I looked back and saw Andrea's picture, it felt different than any other time I left her grave, today was the end of a year of reflection, marking the first of everything without Andrea.

Afterwards I met Ginger. I had about 30 minutes before I had to be back at work so we decided to meet at a restaurant near the base. I had arrived first and sat facing the door. There was only two other people there and when I looked up I saw the door open, and in walked Ginger. At that moment I saw my wife in a new way. It is hard to describe but I saw not just my wife but my life. I saw her smile at me from across the room and I felt her love and excitement to see me. I told Ginger the other day, "Nothing about what happened to Andrea changed because of you, yet everything about my life since that day has changed because of having you in my life." I shudder to think of where I would be on this day without Ginger and her gentle and understanding support. She is my gift, and today I crossed a milestone that I don't think I totally understand. I saw Ginger and I saw my future and for the first time, I did not feel any guilt. Andrea and Troy await our arrival, and until that day comes we serve God with the life He has given us. I know Andrea and Troy are happy and this past year was nothing more than a blink in their eye. I'm happy when I think of Andrea in heaven vice me left on earth. She is where is always wanted to be. Like she wrote in her journal after a Chris Tomlin concert and hearing everyone singing together, she felt it was a little like being in heaven. She asked God can I go and God told her no, it was not time yet. It is the same for Ginger and I it is not our time and until it is our job is to serve God as Troy and Andrea demonstrated to us, with all our heart soul, and minds.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

And The Fight Goes On

In a bizarre coincidence today I had an appointment at Wilford Hall Hospital, where Andrea had her chemo. I had not been there since Andrea had her last chemo, and it was just a little strange as I drove across town on this of all days, Dec 16th the day before Andrea died.

I remember hearing Andrea's first Doctor tell us she had cancer, I think I wrote about it in one of my first blogs, but then we heard that a second time in North Carolina, when cancer's seriousness was taken up a notch. I remember it very well because Dr. Atkins recorded it for us, knowing most of what he said that day would never be heard. Today I listened to that tape as I drove to Wilford Hall. I keep that tape in the cassette deck in my car, cued to the same spot in the conversation, where Andrea talks. Dr. Atkins says, "She won't remember most of what I'm saying today because I just hit he over the head with a two by four." How true. At the end he asks if Andrea has any questions. You can hear her voice, very faintly, as she tries to gather the strength to talk. Her voice is weak, and slowly she gets out her question, "Can you please not give me so much Dexamethasone?" Dexamethasone is a steroid used to limit reactions to the chemo and it's side effects were hard during Andrea's first treatment. By the time we had it adjusted she was getting 1/10 of her original dose. For those who were never blessed to know Andrea I will tell you she was pretty small, 4'11" and around 95lbs, usually most 11 yr old girls were her size. So the adult dosage was always way too much for her. Andrea's voice is cracking and I hear the dread in her voice as she begins to cry, a rare event for Andrea in the doctor's office. It strikes me that of all Andrea faced that day her concern was over that drug. She could have been worried about 1000 other things and maybe she was and it was just this that came out, it is hard to tell because in that moment your mind is racing as you try to process what the doctor just told you.

Soon I arrived at my appointment and it turned out I was early so I decided to visit a friend whose son is in treatment upstairs. I won't say his name since I have not asked them if it was okay to share but I found myself suddenly on the other side of chemo. I was not the one fighting I was the one visiting and as I stood there and made small talk I knew exactly how they must be feeling. It is strange well maybe difficult is a better word, to try to have a normal conversation when you are surrounded by such seriousness. As a patient all you want to do is not be there, for someone to walk in and say there has been a mistake your son's test was mixed up and he doesn't have cancer. So sometimes just talking about everyday things brings back a little of the normalcy of life that is lost when you are told you or someone you love has cancer. It shatters your life an as my friends said, "Normal is gone forever." So as we talked I tried to offer some escape from the reality of what was happening. I found myself praying under my breath as I tried to be a much of an encouragement to them as so many people were to Andrea and I.

After my appointment was over I decided to go to the old chemo room where Andrea had her treatment, and re walk the hallways we took. I looked on my iPhone and I had the pictures I took of Andrea during one of her last treatments. She sits smiling in her chair with her oxygen on and IV drip hooked up. I then went up to the 6th floor and said hello to her oncologist, Dr. Osswald. It was good to see him again and we had a nice talk. Having taken all I could I decided it was time to leave and as I walked out of the hospital and there walking towards me was Andrea's first ICU doctor, Dr Fry. If you read the blogs from Andrea's time in the ICU you might remember him as "Dr Doom and Gloom." Let's just say he did not have the best bed side manner.

I'm not sure what lies ahead for me tomorrow other then it will hurt. These past three weeks have been hard as I remembered Andrea's 21 days in ICU and the crazy ups and downs. But each day I read the blog I wrote that day last year and it helped me remember the emotions of those days. I was glad to have that record of what happened each day. I remember all of you who helped me through those days. Like Kathy who faithfully visited Andrea and massaged her hands and feet to help the swelling go down. Or Karl and Roger and others who decorated my house with Christmas lights to help bring a little normalcy to me and the boy's life. Or the digital picture frame they gave us, loaded with our pictures. It was the best gift ever and I will never forget holding it for Andrea and seeing her smile as we relived each moment of each picture. And there were so many others who came or called. All of you who left the comfort of your own life and stepped in to what I know was an uncomfortable situation, yet you did so and it gave us hope, and comfort that we were not alone. I will never forget that, and I hope I was able to repay that gift today for a little boy and his family.

It is one year ago tonight that I left Andrea's room a decision I regret to this day. And now as I look at the clock I realize it is past midnight. It is Dec 17th, the day has begun.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Heartstrings

I am overwhelmed. I am tying a white cloth diaper (okay you know I never used one but disposable just don't have the same ability to tie) at the end of a stick and waving it. I surrender. I am tired. I am sad. I am tired of being sad. I am thankful. I am happy. I am busy trying to remake old Christmases in new ones. Old memories, precious like glass ornaments, carefully unwrapped cause us sadness, still. Though it seems like centuries, this grief thing for Jim and I, is still so new. We hold onto our fragile memories and reach out to grab onto our new ones. I guess a lot of people do that during holidays. That's why they are so emotional.

It has been a long two weeks. The week of Thanksgiving was (I have been sitting here for 20 minutes struggling to find the right adjective - writer's block, I guess - or maybe there just isn't an adjective) well, it was atypical. Really nice but atypical sums it up. The first part of the week all the children went to Wichita Falls to be with their grandparents, Anthony with his grandparents and the rest of the kids with Troy's mom and dad. Jim had meetings in DC and I tagged along with him. As we landed at Reagan National Airport I recounted to Jim the trip from Phoenix to DC for Troy's burial. Short of a plane crash (and that would have been a welcome relief at the time) it was the single worst travel experience imaginable. We were headed to bury a beloved husband and daddy, across the nation, with 5 kids who had the stomach flu. The twins were 9 months old and were none too happy to travel almost six hours on a airplane. Only Boston truly understood the brevity of where we were headed. I remember the flight back being equally horrible. I hand carried the folded flag in the beautiful triangular wooden box and felt oddly unlike any other passenger as I stowed it away in the overhead compartment with everyone else's carry-ons. My carry-on was attached to my heart with mighty heartstrings. When your heart lives outside of your body and is intricately tied to someone else's; those are heartstrings.

The airline had messed up our seating and though ten of us were traveling together and over half of them children they didn't have our seats together and wouldn't do much to mend the situation. I remember Amy asking a man if he could move for us and he said no, he didn't want to give up his window seat. Lord help me if I ever became the kind of person who sees a forlorn, tear-streaked woman holding an Arlington National Cemetery triangular box and two crying babies and won't give up my seat with the view.

Needless to say, this trip to DC was so much better. I got to introduce Jim to more of my dear dear friends, had a nice evening with and chance to get to know Nic and Kate a little more, visited Troy's last and most well-respected mentor and family friend, General Rand and on the last day visited Troy's grave in Arlington. I realized that I have such strong connections to our nation's capital. Connections on a level and in a way I never imagined when I went there for the first time when I was junior in high school on an American history trip. Arlington National Cemetery was a tourist attraction not where people's hopes died, dreams ended and futures were buried. There are acres of heroes. Rolling green hills dotted with white. Red, white and blue flags. Horses pulling their load. Big black wheels holding up the carriages. Carriages holding the coffins of the ones we love. Cannons go off in the distance. That's the sound of someone else's world turning upside down. I am so sorry for them. I looked out over the hills and told Jim I wondered how many lives were connected to all those graves. I envisioned one of those maps of the world with yarn connecting little red pinheads. Over our nation's history I bet if you started at Arlington there would be a thread linked to almost every place on earth. Someone knows someone who knows someone.... You just pray it's never your someone. If it is, those threads become heartstrings instead.

As Jim and I walked the getting-more-familiar path to Troy's grave I was in awe, once again, of the place's vast and somber beauty. It is a dignified place but one I only planned to see as a tourist. I knelt at his grave and set the flowers down. Little red roses. Jim and I went to the store to pick out flowers early that morning. He doesn't struggle with type of flowers to put on Andrea's grave. Women adore all flowers given by the man who loves them. I feel like I should leave a hunting license or ski lift tickets. I don't know. Just something instead of flowers. But someone would think I was crazy so I bought flowers. Troy liked to send me red roses. They weren't my favorite but they were his so I thought he would think have appreciated the gesture.

As I knelt, Jim took some photos. There I was in between my two lives. No wonder I don't sleep so well at night. Sometimes it's all a little more than one mind can absorb. I walked past other graves of soldiers whose wives I have met, emailed or talked to. What an odd type of neighborhood. Praise God the grave is not the end. Though my soul was heavy, I left there with hope that I will see Troy again and he is the happiest he's ever been.


Jim and I traveled on the metro to visit the cemetery. He and Andrea were stationed at the Pentagon so he knows his way around well. It was nice to let him lead me. He carried the roses. He found me a seat. It was a freezing cold morning. The train was warm and sitting next to Jim was comfortable and safe. I never wanted to get off and face the cold wind nor the harsh realities of life as a VIP pass-carrying member of Arlington National Cemetery. But isn't that just what God wants us to do? Get off the train. Face the cold. Hold His hand. Test the strength of our faith. But we have to get off the train first. That's the scary part. You know that cold northern wind is going to sting your face and chill your bones. During our visit, I spoke at "DC Amy's" (I have so many friends named Amy their prefix has to be regional :)) Bible Study. I told the women my story and that in their lives hard times will come. God will ask us to face something painful. It is inevitable. But at least, if we trust and we believe, we do not step out alone.

We left DC after the stop at Arlington and flew to Dallas to meet up with the kids in Wichita Falls. There we were. Thanksgiving Day, Jim’s first Thanksgiving without Andrea AND the 2 year anniversary of Troy's death. All rolled into one day. I am glad that doesn't happen every year. We all shed tears. Jim, me, Troy's family, Andrea's family. All of us. (Remember Troy's parents and Andrea's parents live 10 minutes apart - another way the Lord orchestrated this whole beautiful mess). We split our time between families. Jim and I laughed that there probably weren't too many other couples in the world who were spending their Thanksgiving with their late spouse's families. As I said in my Christmas letter, there isn't a manual for most of what Jim and I do. We stumbled though the day, holding onto our memories of Thanksgivings past and creating memories of Thanksgiving future. I cut out red construction paper hearts and we all wrote notes to Troy and tied them onto balloon strings. We and Troy's family drove out to the lake, set them free and ate brownies his mom made. Brownies were Troy's favorite dessert. Even though we were all stuffed from Thanksgiving dinner, we managed to eat one for him. We watched the balloons tied with literal hearts on strings disappear into the blue sky. We told the kids we were watching to see whose would reach him first. Afterwards Jim, Anthony and the boys raced each other up a nearby somewhat steep hill. I thought that pretty well represented us; no matter what day of the year it was, we're still climbing. Greyson (who would be embarrassed if he knew I told you) didn't think he could climb it and once he reached the top cried because he was too afraid to go down. That, at times, sums us up as well. Sometimes, after working so hard to climb the mountain, it is scary looking down and knowing you have to work some more to get to your desired location. Especially knowing you can fall and get hurt or you're just plain pooped from getting there. I feel a little of that now, as I still have the hard work of being a godly wife and mother. Still need to do the Lord's work, housework (no Jim, those aren't the same thing!) and general living in a fallen world with a little less strength than you had before. Hopefully with a lot more faith but a little less strength. I have been questioning my trust in the Lord. Do I have enough faith to wade through the sleeplessness, the anxiety, the responsibility, the demands, the grief, the awful dry eyes from my PRK surgery, etc... and still have the kind of perseverance and testimony that I know He is asking me to have? I know that even when my faith shrinks at times, His faithfulness and power are still as big as always.

As we all separately walked back to the cars after the balloons, brownies and boy hike, I noticed Jim walking in the middle Troy's mom and dad. His arms were around them and theirs around him. I spoke to Troy's mom earlier that morning and told her Jim understood if they day was too painful and it would help if he stayed back with Andrea's family. She said no, she genuinely wanted him there. And as they walked arms linked together, I knew she really meant it. No man could ever take her son's place but they are thankful Jim is such a good good man with a heart to love their grandchildren and take over where their son left off. Troy's sister walked ahead, pregnant with twin boys after years upon years of infertility. The kids were all laughing and running and heading to the playground. This was all a miracle to me, no doubt about it.

I am also thankful to each of you who remembered me on that day. I think one of the most special messages was one from my friend Aimee. She sent me a text just to let me know she loved me and then she told me simply “We will NEVER forget.” Thank you Aimee. That’s something I will always be thankful for.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Perfect Imperfection

Tonight we put up our Christmas tree, the first Ravella/Gilbert tree. Actually we have two trees. One is artificial. It is perfect. It has perfectly spaced lights, on a perfectly shaped tree, it's perfectly coordinated ornaments were placed by Ginger's skillful hands. You will see this tree as you enter our house and it is as pretty a tree as you will ever see. I think it could be in a magazine but maybe that is just me.

However, just past the entry way, in the family room, opposite the fire place where nine stockings hang above the fire place you will find our other tree, the family Christmas tree. It is a real tree. It's a little too fat at the top and it does not come to a point as a Christmas tree should. The branches are irregular taking away from the tapered shape that a Christmas tree should have. There are gaps were branches should be, and it has already begun to sprinkle the floor with needles. There are places where the lights are a little too sparce in places but those are offset by the spots with excessive lights. All in all it has many flaws.

There are no color coordinated ornaments, nor is there a theme to this tree. Instead it is covered with handmade ornaments, each proudly made by a child's tiny hands. There are store bought ornaments each with a story behind them. There are ornaments that were gifts, some from Grandparents, some from good friends, some from squadrons marking periods of our lives. The ornaments span the years from 1983 to 2008; 25 years, two families, eleven lives, and countless memories. Many ornaments are missing arms, chipped or have the colors worn thin from the years. But they are all beautiful in their imperfection and for the memories that each one holds.

I'm sitting in the family room, the kids now fast asleep in their rooms and the tree stands before me. It is silent yet it seems to want to speak to me. It stands proudly before me; almost as if it is honored to have given its life to hold such special decorations from its branches. Hours ago six children dug through boxes of ornaments, excited to renew a tradition, and recount the stories of each ornament they pick up. In that moment I witnessed two families becoming one. Ginger and I exchanged glances, both realizing the significance of this moment, both feeling its sadness and the joy that were intertwined in the moment. We sneak off to hold each other, in an attempt to help with a pain that has no remedy. Sometimes it is just going to hurt and nothing can spare you from that. Strangely no joy can erase the pain, it only makes it bearable. They are the opposite emotions; one brings a smile, one a gut wrenching pain.

Tonight we hung an ornament of a mom a dad and two little boys and it represented Troy, Ginger, Boston and Greyson. We also hung pink ribbons and Angles with "Hope" written on their wings. We hung an F-16 and an F-15. We hung a red bulb, with "Andrea 2007" written on it. It was one of Andrea's last ornaments, a Christmas gift from her friends last year. One she never opened, yet it hangs tonight on the center of the tree, the shinny red bulb reflects the white lights of the tree. There is a wooden bell with a camel on it. It is not particicualy pretty but it is treasured above all of the others' belonging to Ginger. Troy mailed it to her from Iraq and she received it just days after his accident. If you took the time to look closely you would see Troy and Ginger's first Christmas ornament. You would see Willow tree angels for hope and healing. Snowman ornaments from Alaska and wooden shoes from Holland. Lots of princesses, Popsicle reindeer and paper angels poorly colored to perfection. You would see a football, a soccer ball and a basketball, a hockey player and several airplanes. You would see a British flag, a Texas A&M and a Texas Tech ornament. There are light houses from North Carolina, bells from Italy, and a shoe from Turkey. It is a hodgepodge of ornaments and it is beautiful to me.

Adding to the imperfection and to its beauty, the bottom branches are overweighted with ornaments, defining the reach of three little girls. Yes there are branches with two ornaments hanging in the same spot, and yes there are places where there are no ornaments at all, but there was never more meaning in the imperfection of a tree.

I think this tree represents us, an imperfect family brought together in the worst of circumstances. We do what we can as we all forge on through new territory. At times we do not understand why we were brought together. But at times, and sometimes in the same moment, we see the blessing of our meeting. Though totally unfamiliar to us, we make our way, surely making many mistakes along the way. We try not to hide our imperfections as if to give the impression that bringing two families together is a cake walk. And if you took the time to look closely at us, you might see the beauty of those imperfections. It lies past the courtesy "Hello" or "Doing good" response. It lies past the smile that may be hiding a tough day. I think our lives are sometimes much like our two trees in our home. When you first enter or meet someone you are presented the artificial tree, without defect, or if it has one it may be purposely chosen and revealed to divert attention from any real problems. But if you can look past or go beyond the artificial tree you will see the real tree. It will have imperfections but if you give it a little time and look close enough you will see the true beauty that lies in its imperfections. Both the victories and the tragedies; they have all formed who we are. When yielded those imperfections will reveal the true beauty and what you see will be Christ. For He takes our weakness to demonstrate His strength and uses our imperfections to show His deity. Our prayer is that you see Christ though our lives and that when you read faith or strength in our words that you know it is not us but Christ in us. Through this blog we have tried to show you our tree with its imperfections, our victories, our struggles and our defeats. In doing so we want you to know that alone we do not have the strength to win any battle nor overcome our losses. Life quickly taught both Ginger and I how easily life came overwhelm us. But it also taught us how deep, how wide, and how tall the love God has for us. Our prayer is you need not face such extreme pain to realize the God's loves you no less.

By the way if you look really really close at our tree you will see in the center, next to the trunk hangs a nail. It was given to Ginger at the Womans Bible Study this week and it is a reminder to us all that it is Christ's birth we are celebrating. It was His hands and feet that were nailed to the tree that gave us our greatest gift, eternal life with our Creator.

Merry Christmas...imperfections and all,

Jim

Friday, November 14, 2008

What's in Your Thankful Jar?

Jim reading to the boys


I took this picture because I wanted to keep this memory fresh in my mind. Jim reads to the boys most every night before bed. It is the same series of books that he read to Nic and Anthony. He saved them never knowing he would have two more sons someday to read them to.

It has been strange starting over here in San Antonio with not many folks knowing my story. I find myself almost not knowing where to start when I meet someone new. I saw a CD entitled "Trying to Fit the Ocean in a Teacup"; that about sums it up perfectly! Though it is extremely important to me, I haven't had much time to give to developing new friendships. However, last week, I was spending a little time with a new friend from church. I had previously told her a brief version of my life with Troy, losing him and my new life with Jim, as well as his life with Andrea. She began reading our blog, which does help cover alot of our history but still is only a window into who we are. She said someone had told her about my interview with Bill O'Reilly on The O'Reilly Factor and she wanted to know more about it. I still feel so honored that he gave me an opportunity to speak out about the American media's neglectful and negative reports on the war and warriors in Iraq. I smiled inside, today, as I drank coffee from my "No Spin Zone" mug. (More about that mug later).

Telling a new person about God's faithfulness jump started this holiday season for me. I realized not too long ago that the 2 year anniversary of Troy's death would fall exactly on Thanksgiving Day, November 27th, this year. We will share the day with Troy's family, which I thought was so appropriate for the very inappropriate coincidence of sadness and celebration that day. Yet when I look deeper, past the obvious pain, I see the Lord revealing His will for me, actually for all of us; to always give thanks, no matter what.

Jim had a nice idea, which was echoed by my MOPS group last week, to keep a thankful jar in your house. It contains slips of blank paper and pens for each family member to jot down something God did for them that day or week. And in reading them at a later date or when facing difficulties, one can remember God's faithfulness, answered prayers and blessings. How quickly we all forget! I also heard a neat idea to take a Sharpie pen and write on artificial fall leaves all the things you have to be thankful for and spread them out on the table before serving Thanksgiving dinner. Decorative AND Praiseworthy! I liked that idea. As we explained what our thankful jar's purpose was to the kids last week, we discussed the importance of being thankful to the Lord. We OWE it to a loving God, even when He doesn't appear to be loving. He has given us eternal life and this is the least we can do.

Hebrews 12:28

"Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful and so worship God acceptably, with reverance and awe."

We know too well that this world can be shaken. Our lives can be turned upside down in the blink of an eye. One knock on the door, one doctor's report, one phone call, one wrong move on the freeway... can change the entire course of the rest of your life.

The last time I rode a rollercoaster, I thought my teeth were going to be rattled out of my head. Every muscle in my body was tense as I gripped the handle rail through the rough twists, turns and flips. I got off the ride and wondered at what point I had gotten too old to ride rollercoasters. I didn't remember them knocking me around or shaking me up so badly when I was young. Maybe I was just too naive to know what could have gone wrong.

Once tragedy strikes your home or your heart, all naivetity is gone. You know you can be shaken so you had better hang on tight. Thankfully the Lord hangs onto us so even when our grip weakens we don't fall out of our seats.

Each day after Troy died, no matter how mad at God I was, I tried to always tell him something I was thankful for. I won't reiterate here what I wrote in my last blog, "Cocoons", but suffice to say I was always thankful for the people God put in my life throught it all. I remember on Day 5 when it was confirmed that it was Troy's DNA at the crash site and his status went from "Duty Status Whereabouts Unknown" (MIA) to "Killed in Action" I thanked the Lord. I did not thank him that Troy had died. I did not thank Him that evil and twisted terrorists had stolen his earthly body from the crash site. But I thanked Him, profusely, that I did not have wonder if he had been taken alive or was being held prisoner somewhere in that forsaken country. Insurance was able to release the money to us. We had closure. We had devastating closure but we had closure that some never get.

I dissected this below scripture in Thessalonians about thankfulness because I needed to understand what God was asking me to do, in my nightmare, with regards to thankfulness. Was He asking me to be thankful that He had taken Troy? Well, I simply couldn't do that. But was I disobeying God by not thanking Him?

I Thessalonians 5:16-18

"Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus."

I looked this verse up in many different translations and not one of them said I had to be thankful FOR all circumstances, just to be thankful IN all circumstances. As Jim and I were talking to the kids about our thankful jar, we talked about this scripture and encouraged them to do this so they would not grow bitter but better by life's disappointments. And so they would always attribute God as the One giving them goodness and not attribute it to themselves.

Hebrews 1:16-17
"Do not be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and poerfect gift is from above, coming down fromt he Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows."

Philippians 1:6

"...being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus."

These scriptures tell us that every good thing comes from our Father AND that He is doing good in us and for us from our birth to our death. Circumstances are misleading. Good to God is not necessarily good to us and vice versa. But if we hold onto, even when we are shaken, His truth that He is working out the good, even in the bad, then we can work through the pain and have hope. Did I do this every second of the day? No. One night when I was really questioning God's goodness to me, plans for me and was struggling to find anything to be thankful for, I received this forward of a forward email. (Thank you Terri and Jennifer!) It spoke loudly yet gently to me in my distress. It was written by a total stranger struggling in his own trials:

"I won't, by the strength of God, give up on all I believe, nor get mad because I don't understand why. God is still God no matter how these events transpire. Circumstances do not define my faith or my God. God is unchanging. His is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Being a Christian does not mean we are given a guarantee of a trial free life or pain free life. In contrast it means we will face trials and pain. Our guarantee is He will never leave us nor forsake us. We do not face trials alone. And through our faith we glorify our Creator and our Savior who gave us another guarantee; that we will live for eternity with Him. So as we get ever closer to the edge of this furnace and as we begin to feel the heat from the fire, we know the flames do not control our destiny. And we rest under the shadow of the Almighty."

That stranger was Jim. That email was written in January 2007, when Andrea was barely hanging onto life in the ICU the first time she went in. Though their trial was entirely different than mine, I knew this couple were still being thankful and faithful to the God we all served.

Jim and I told our children that thankfulness to God will be the biggest testimony we have as a family. I hope it has already begun.


Back to the beginning of this blog when I was telling my new friend about my time on the O'Reilly Factor, I loved telling her the rest of the story. About how, when they asked me to be on the show, I had boldly asked the producer if there was anyway I could get a book or coffee mug from the show. He said yes and I was so touched when not very many weeks after I received not only a mug and an autographed book but an entire boxful of O'Reilly paraphanalia! How great of them to remember me. My friend was touched to hear the rest of the story that she didn't watch on TV. I then told her about that the night after I was on the show, someone emailed Bill O'Reilly and told him there had been a fund established for my children. He showed the email on TV and posted the fund info on The O'Reilly Factor website. I never knew what became of it but felt awfully thankful that people watched and were touched that I spoke out against the anti-war media movement though I had lost so much in the war itself. When I was moving from Phoenix, I stopped by the bank to close out the activity and was surprised to see that the account for the kids had grown by thousands specifically from that 10 minutes I was on the show. Isn't that what God does? We ask for a coffee mug and He gives us a bank account.

I cleaned out yet another straggling box the other day and it was full of cards from strangers, sticky notes and scraps of paper with phone numbers of people helping or praying and pages of scriptures that folks jotted down for encouragement. All of this and so much more gave me reasons to be thankful each and every single day when I couldn't see the sun shining.

Which brings me back to the photo of Jim and the boys reading. Troy loved his kids. He was a great father. He patiently instucted loving wisdom to our children. He loved spending time with them over anything else. And I often said I never would have considered having so many children if it hadn't been that I knew I had the guarantee of him being such a super dad. Turned out that guarantee I had just didn't last a lifetime. Losing not just a father, but the kind of father he was, made his loss that much more crushing for all of us. I knew God could return this blessing again but to be honest, I doubted I would get that twice in a lifetime. I prayed for it and I found God gave it back to me in Jim. I learned I can entrust not only myself, but my children to God's hands and God's plans. He does it all so much better than I could have. He made Jim the kind of father that the children need. He views his second chance at fatherhood, not as duty but as blessing. He loves reading to the boys as much as they love listening to him. Could I look at them and see them as boys who lost everything- their father, their best friend, their mentor, their role model? Sure. Should I instead rejoice with thankfulness and a bit of awe that the Lord gave my sons many incredible male role models through family and friends over the last two years? And that though they have been through unimaginable trauma at early ages, they are whole, healthy, loving and kind young men? Yes. Do I see the miracle that Jim CHOSE to be their father when he had no genetic obligation? Most assuredly yes. For all those things and more I choose thankfulness.

As I mentioned above that I was forwarded Jim's helpful email that night by Jim's friend, Terri, to my friend, Jennifer, and then on to me, I didn't mention that I got to finally meet Terri today! She was an instrument God used not just in my meeting Jim, but in teaching a grieving widow that her God is universally still holding us in the palm of His hand from other runners in an unexpectedly painful race, Jim and Andrea. Terri and her husband are in town from Wichita Falls for the weekend and stopped by so we could meet. Out of the blue, she mentioned the subject of thankfulness. Jim and I had heard about a military family in Wichita Falls losing their one-year old little girl when she crawled through the doggie door and drowned in their own swimming pool. Terri spoke to the little girl's 10 year old big sister at church only the day after the funeral. Terri reads the Bible stories to the elementary kids and helps them with the application. That Sunday's lesson was on the ten lepers being healed yet only one thanked God. The little girl told her that she had something to be thankful for. Terri, like all of us, could not imagine what it could be after such an awful event. The girl said her little sister loved being held and now she was being held all the time by Jesus. And for that she was thankful. I couldn't help but think that she must have heard that from her parents. They are teaching her the very important lesson of gratefulness even when we hurt. That is the best story I have heard of being thankful IN all things.

Thirty people accepted Christ as their personal Savior during Troy's memorial service. I wanted to be sitting in anyone else's seat, other than my own, that sunny morning in early December during his service. Yet, I was thankful that so many would now spend eternity with the Lord. Indeed, it is a new way of looking at life. It's easy to be thankful when all is well in our world. Much more of a challenge when the bottom falls out.

I refer to David, who was called a man after God's own heart, often because he was always seeking relationship with the Lord even when He didn't understand Him. David was just a gut-level-honest-with-God kinda guy. David had many victories and many defeats. He was the king yet, at times, he was as low as a man could be. David was often pursued by his enemies. He didn't always feel God's favor or presence. I really like what he wrote in Psalm 71. Here are some excerpts:

Psalm 71:5
"For you have been my hope, O Sovereign Lord, my confidence since my youth. From birth I have relied on you; you brought me forth from my mother's womb. I will ever praise you."
verse 10-11
"For my enemies speak against me; those who wait to kill me conspire together. They say, 'God has forsaken him; pursue him and seize him, for no one will rescue him'. "
verse 14
"But as for me, I will always have hope; I will praise you more and more."
verse 20
"Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will again bring me up."

Casting Crowns sings a beautiful song titled "Who Am I?". It speaks of our humbleness compared to God's greatness.
"I am a flower quickly fading, Here today and gone tomorrow, A wave tossed in the ocean, A vapor in the wind. Still you hear me when I'm calling, Lord, you catch me when I'm falling, And you've told me who I am. I am yours. Not because of who I am, But because of what you've done. Not because of what I've done, But because of who you are."

What an awesome song that reminds me that the Lord of the Universe knows my name and listens when I call. That is always something to be thankful for.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Blessings and Family

I (Jim) started this blog last week while sitting and relaxing on Veterans Day and I'm finishing it the following week while I watch Boston play soccer. Okay it is a little cold and I forgot a jacket so I'm watching from the car, but I'm in the front row with a good view of the field.

Ginger and I have made it to the fall and every day we fall more in love and grow closer as a family. It was a crazy summer and looking back I wonder if we realized all we had done? We spent 5 months traveling back and forth between Phoenix and San Antonio, followed by the wedding in May, the drive to San Antonio, buying our home. I moved off base and Ginger moved from Phoenix. We unpacked and set up the house in 3 weeks (no small feat) then sent Boston and Greyson to camp. I took Nic and Anthony to Alaska. We planned and set up a second wedding in San Antonio, went on a honeymoon (this was the easiest part), started the kids in a new school, searched for a church home, oh and did I mention we had construction at the house from May till September? Amidst all this. life continues to become "ours" and God has done some amazing miracles right before our eyes. Some of them have come in the form of what is missing as much as what we have been given.

As Ginger and I laid in each other’s arms watching the movie, "Dan in,Real Life", about a man who lost his wife and meets someone else and remarries. (Not the comedy I thought it was going to be, but Ginger had warned me when we were dating to not watch it alone...good advice.) But it made me think of all I have been spared of. All the struggles of being a single Dad in the Air Force. Who would have been there to help with Anthony when I travelled? The nights of utter loneliness? The hopelessness? The thought of trying to "Find" someone else. Dating!! I had only dated once and that was Andrea 27 years ago. It would have been daunting and overwhelming and my life would be void of joy as I lived an isolated life in San Antonio. As I sat there seeing God's hand in my life by what did not happen I could not help but look at Ginger and see God's provision in what I did have. I held Ginger, ran my finger though her hair and she looked up at me with the loving eyes and smiled. I was home, I was complete and I realized I am a blessed man. It made me realize God had blessed me in many ways I had not usually thought about. It was only when I thought of the things that had not happened or I did not face that I began to see God's hand in the things I had been spared from.

As I continue to reflect on the events of the past year I see the obvious tragedies and the obvious blessings in our lives. But when I look a little deeper I see the absence of events as blessings too. We have become a family in a way that could only be the result of God's hand and the answer to countless prayers prayed for all of us. Prayers that may have been prayed over the last 2-4 years but are being answered now. It is as if we are reaping what so many have sowed. Thank you all who have prayed for this family. I love being the father of a big family. Don't get me wrong it is hard work and 6 kids keeps you busy, but there are times like last night that make it all worth it. Ginger and I were in out room with the twins watching "The Wizard of Oz." Ginger with Aspen in her lap and Annalise lying on the sofa with me resting her head on my arm. There was a peace in our home and I don't just mean quietness, but a spiritual peace.

It hit me as I held Annalise in my arms and felt her comforted in me. We were a family. I was telling a good friend earlier this week how humbling it is to hear the girls holler "Daddy" when I walk in the door. There is not a day or a time I hear that that I don't think of Troy; those were supposed to be his words. It was to be his joy in hearing those girls and seeing them run to him. I think of it when I look into Ginger's eyes and feel the depth of love I thought I would never experience again in my life. But all this keeps me humble knowing I am standing in for not just another man, but a great dad, father and husband. But God's plan did not stop there. Our family is far more than the 9 of us. His plan included a bigger concept of family.

Today as I drove Boston to his soccer game at 7:15 am! We talked about Troy and Andrea and the amazing people they were. But then we talked about the miracle that Troy's and Andrea's families are both from Wichita Falls. That also combined with Ginger's parents and Andrea and I all moving to Texas in the same year. What are the odds we would all be so close at that exact time? I believe the odds were 100% because it was God's plan. Because of these seemingly small events, our families are even more intertwined. It allows us to drive home for Thanksgiving and be with Troy's family on the two year anniversary of his death, (which happens to be Thanksgiving Day.) It allows Ginger's Mom and Dad to visit every month to help us with the kids. But most of all it allows grandparents to continue to be an integral part of the kids life. It allows for us all to be an even bigger family. God took what appeared to be the shattering of families and put the pieces together in an even more beautiful mosaic then any of us could have ever have imagined. Isn't it God's way to reveal Himself in what man sees as disaster? Like I told Boston today, God did not leave us even when it seemed He had. He can't leave us. It is not His nature or His character and He cannot change. He seeks us always and His words are true; He will never leave us or forsake us.

I have no idea what any of you are struggling with today, but I know we all have issues we struggle with. My lesson from this past week is first don't forget to stop and see what God is protecting us from. Sometimes it is hard to see or understand what God does for us in the events that never happen, but they can be blessings just as much as anything you receive. Then maybe, like it did for me, it will allow you to reflect on the many things God has given you. And don't forget to look in the smallest of places, like a little girl resting in your arms, a loving look from your wife, or just that moment of peace in your house in an otherwise chaotic day.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Cocoons

Here is a micro science fact for you: in the insect world eggs hatch then become larvae, then pupae, then adults. Funny to calls insects adults but that's what they are after they go through their developing stages. Many insects spin themselves into cocoons to protect them during their maturation process. (My friends are freaking out at this point and wondering what's with all this science talk and where has their friend who has coordinating earrings for every outfit gone?!) No fear. That is pretty much all I know.... Oh and it's me, Ginger, writing this one. I guess the earring comment gave that one away. Anyway, we are all most familiar though with the ugly caterpillar who, after spending time in its' cocoon, emerges as a beautiful butterfly. I think most girls hang onto this natural phenomenon in their awkward teenage years. Hoping, they too, will emerge a lovely creature after all the developing is over. That wasn't just me, right?!
In anything you read about the compostion of cocoons, they are referred to as being made of silk or silken threads. Those little guys spin the thread from their own bodies and I even read that the Monarch butterfly eats milkweed (I am not exactly sure what that is - okay this non-science girl only will go so far in her research) and the silk it spins is green and gold! I love how God doesn't make everything ordinary, don't you? The little caterpillars will first attach themselves to a branch, twig, leaf, stone or even a windowsill and then get busy spinning. Some other insects dangling by a thread to its branch but not butterflies. They want a stable environment for their protection and growth.

I can't help but see the obvious comparison to what God does for us. When we are in our most vulnerable stages of life, He often wraps us in our own cocoons. Cocoons made from precious silk The Maker spins from His own hand. Phoenix was our cocoon. It was so obvious to me the second I stepped back into my old life there just a couple of weeks ago. After Troy died and people asked me where would be moving, my answer was always that God had made us a nest for us there and I wasn't going to leave it until He told me to. I loved that nest analogy because it reminded me of the Lord God Himself being the mother bird and we, the kids and I, as His babies were being housed, protected and fed there. This is one of my very favorite scriptures in all of the Word of God:

Psalm 91:4
"He will cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you will find refuge; His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart."


Rampart means fortification. I think of the high-walled cities up on the top of those hills in the Italian countryside. God's faithfulness and steadfastness (as opposed to our flakiness) is our fortification; protection when the storms come and the enemy presses in.
Actually, that nest in Phoenix was in existence even well before Troy deployed. I remember he and I used to marvel at the amazing sense of community we felt there that we had never felt before at any assignment. Our group of friends there were not only the kind to lend you a cup of sugar but they would go to the store and buy you sugar so you would be sure and have it for next time. They would happily take a crying baby from your tired arms and not just hold for awhile but take it home with them so you could really have so peace and rest. Troy and I were bracing ourselves for what would have been our move to Kansas in the summer of '07 because we knew how hard it would be to find that again.

I think we were mistaken on that point, though, because we weren't the ones to have "found" it in the first place. God made the nest and He knew I would need it when the sky fell on that November 27th morning. Like that baby bird trying out its new wings on the branch above, when the world turned upside down, that baby bird just plopped right back down into its' nest. Many marveled at my nest in the days after Troy's death. I am not that great of person to have warranted so much love and support. It could have only been given by the hand of God.

But what was once our nest as a family there quickly evolved into a more tight-knit intimate protective covering, a cocoon, for the kids and I. I knew it was happening because I felt safe during the most insecure and uncertain time of my life. Everyday (and I mean EVERYDAY) there was someone at my house either helping us or loving on us in some way. There was not a need the kids and I had that went unmet.

A few months after Troy died, the kids and I left our house full of so many bittersweet memories, and moved a few miles down the road into a bigger house. I only got one last move with the military and did not want to use it to move that short distance away. Friends from church and the base came by everyday all day to help pack. Actually, come to think of it, they did most all of the packing because I was either busy falling apart, still trying to take care of the massive amounts of paperwork associated with and KIA death overseas and digging my way outof the months of neglecting bills, homework and to-do lists. But packing was just a part of it. On moving day I was a mess. I knew my pilot friends were coordinating the move but honestly I just wanted to stay in bed and pray that I would wake up from the nightmare so I wouldn't have to deal with what "moving on" meant or what was actually happening. Every military wife knows what goes into PCS'ing (permanent change of station - which is an oxymoron because in the military NOTHING is permanent) a large family. I did not know how to PCS on my own. Troy had always taken care of everything. And now I didn't even know whether we would be living in this different house for 3 months or 3 years. My head spun. I woke up on that Saturday morning to see TWO U-Hauls, SIX flatbed trailers and FIFTY fighter pilots loading and moving all my crap. Can I say that on a Christian blogsite?! Well, my close friends know I have alot of crap! Some of it is really nice but when you are schlepping it up and down two flights of stairs or trying to find some place to put it that is the best noun for it. I found pilots and their wives and my friends unpacking dishes, setting up kitchens and bathrooms, making beds ready for seven people to sleep in. My friend, Sally, made lunch for everyone. It was more than I could take when I saw all of those guys giving up their Saturday for a woman many of them didn't personally know. I was humbled by the brotherhood these guys showed to Troy.
Though I was rendered almost immobilized at times with grief, after the move I fell back on the thing that came naturally and was a little thearaputic: decorating my house. Gary, Lin, Greg and many other men would show up with a hammer and let me abuse them for hours hanging window treatments, artwork and building Pottery Barn kids furniture with poor directions and not enough screws! They all will never know how this ministered to my bleeding heart and wounded soul. I needed to be in control of what my environment looked like (even more than usual!) because it was the only thing I could control at the time.

The list of people and the tasks they performed for me, like Carey setting up "Team Ginger" (girls who would rotate in shifts of two during the week to help out) or the meals that poured in for 5 straight months. Sniper (he sounds scary but he's a big teddy bear), Robb and Coop taking care of everything from my sprinkler system to my finances and everything in between. The squadron that bought and wrapped all our Christmas presents so the kids would have something normal that first Christmas. Girlfriends that came over to hold crying babies or hold a crying widow at the expense of time with their own families. Aunt Faye, who no matter how her cancer or MS were affecting her that day showed up with a smile, a hug and a heart to do our laundry. The Engram Family adopted us and took us in as their own. Some of the memories I will hold closely to my heart were our every-Sunday-after-church roast and potatoes lunch at Pastor Don and Sharon's or the too-many-to-count dinners at Pastor Steve and Tami's. I often sat at their big dining tables crushed in spirit and unable to eat much but those hours spent with that family were like oxygen breathed into my tired lungs. Becky and Jess, two godly and amazing young women that chose to work for me as nannies yet made it so much more than a mere job. They invested in us and poured their lives into my five children. My thankful list would exceed the number of words this blog would hold. When I gave my testimony there at the church a couple of weeks ago, I asked everyone who had ever helped us during the last two years, whether it was a meal made or the great act of prayer on our behalf, to stand up. I am not kidding, 95% of that congregation stood up. And I think that remaining 5% must have been first-time visitors that Sunday. When I asked Boston what he thought of the tribute to his dad he commented on all the people that stood up. I hope my kids will carry that mental picture with them and if seeds of bitterness ever try to take root in their lives they will stop and remember to be thankful for those people God sent to help us. I won't even begin to mention my parents and Amy and all my other friends and family that flew in to be there for us. The hands and feet of God. Literally the Body of Christ at work. Each time something was done for us or given to us was another silken thread the Master Weaver used.

I will be honest with you. (Do I do anything but that?! ha). It had to be the Lord obviously putting Jim in my life and me knowing that was His will for us that could have made me leave my cocoon there. Though my life is exactly where it is supposed to be and we have a wholeness again with another great husband and father, Jim, it hasn't been easy living outside of the cocoon. Being back in Phoenix and with those people felt comfortable and safe. It was effortless to slip back into our old life there. The kids are so at home there and miss their friends so much. Our church home was a place we could honestly call a home. We were taught and fed and loved and grew there. I can't help but question why can't we have our miraculous life with Jim AND that blanket of external security?

But when I look at through the perspective of an actual cocoon's purpose it makes a little more sense. That time there was my time of covering and healing and growing stronger again. When Jim is at work or gone I hear the silence (okay not literal silence I do have six children!) of a home empty of close-knit friendships and the buzz of friends coming and going day and night. I am a people person and this has been a stretch for me to be so much more withdrawn from people than I ever have. Jim and I are still building the foundation of our new family and that doesn't allow for alot of extra time to make friends or entertain. I do understand this season is for that. Besides the couple of friends we already knew here we are beginning to connect. I know it does take time. And as my other widow friend, Carole, said after she got remarried and moved, "Now, Ginger, we have to go back to making friends slowly." Tragedy definitely sends friendships into hyper-growth mode. We are always so frightened for whatever horrible thing might happen but I can tell you that when it did, for us, we watched the depth of our relationships plunge even deeper to a place I didn't know existed. As I reflect back on my time in Phoenix and among that sea of loved ones, I couldn't help but think that must be a smidgen what heaven's community of Believers must be like.
Now the Lord wants me to go back to solely leaning on Him and serving my new husband and children. I had my time in the cocoon and now I am spreading my wings and allowing the Holy Spirit to carry me in the direction I should be flying. Leaving the nest so to speak.

I feel certain the Lord's main agenda for me doesn't include me always being comfortable. He does call me to be content. There is a difference. We look at Paul's words here:


Philippians 4:12
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

He wants us to grow into adults and leave the cocoon. And though He gives us the physical help for a period of time, where we gain on strength for the journey and the stamina for the race can only come from Christ.
Jim and I and another couple just started the Bible Study, Seeking Him by Nancy Leigh DeMoss. Just today we looked at a chapter entitled "Returning to our First Love". This study's emphasis is on Christians returning whole-heartedly to God in a revival. Not the kind in the tent but the kind in the soul. This passage struck a cord with me: "God wants us to love Him first and foremost. When we find ourselves trusting in people instead of the Lord, this indicates our hearts focus has shifted from Him. Love for people- friends, family members or even ourselves- can compete with our love for Him."
Jeremiah 17:5
"Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the Lord."
Easy to read. Easy to say. Hard to do. Man will disappoint us. Man will desert us. Man will die on us. Man will not deliver us from the pit. Only God will.
Psalm 40:2
"He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; He set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand."
That's what my shaky legs needed. A firm place to stand. That place was literally in the deserts of Arizona and in the people He chose that accepted the call to help us in our time of great need. But really, if I dig a little deeper, I see that Christ was the real solid ground I stood on. If it wasn't for Him, there wouldn't have been a them. God Bless you all my Phoenix family!

Tears

I (Ginger) have been thinking on this blog for weeks now. There are so many places I want to go with it that I fear I may take you on a long ride of rabbit trails but I will try to stay focused and record my thoughts in an organized manner. If you were in my head right now you would be dizzy!


Lately I have become obsessed with tear production. Rather the lack of. Seems a huge side effect of PRK and Lasik surgery are dry eyes during the healing period. I have never experienced anything like it. Totally miserable during the first weeks of recovery and now, into my fifth week, it is less of a problem but definitely an issue. It is explained that during surgery the corneal nerves that regulate tear production are "disrupted". I have found that most scientific descriptions of post PRK surgeries sugar-coat the horrors that surround it. This "disruption" in tear production has given me not one night's good sleep in over a month, the constant feeling like I have been standing in front of a wind tunnel with my eyes propped open with toothpicks and all-around general misery. They say that in 6 months all signs of dry eye should disappear. You don't know how much I pray they are right. In the meantime, I am doing everything I can to help the situation. The doctor even plugged up a set of my drainage tear ducts (with some tweezers and a teensy wad of stuff that looked like blue silly putty!) to try to help my eyes hang onto their dimished tear supply. I also supplement my lack of natural tears with artificial ones. Did you know there are 28 different kinds of artificial tears on the market?! This is one area of the beauty aisle I didn't even know existed. Yet now, I am a frequent customer, in search of the one that more perfectly mimics my own. I haven't found one. Seems only God can do that. Naturally, our tears contain three different types that constantly all need to be produced and working in harmony. I am now thoroughly conviced that this is a very important bodily function we should never take for granted.

Jim and I had both read, in different places, that studies had been done on the varied chemical compositions of tears and that ones shed from grief have a different composition than those shed from physical pain or joy. Biochemically, tears of grief release toxins that have built up during emotional stress and release physiological, psychological and spiritual healing. It said it perfectly in one article I read; tears are God's gift to humanity to process the hurt of a painful world. So true, I agree.


When I heard the news of Troy's plane crash it was like a faucet in my eyes was turned on. It didn't shut off for months. I remember thinking one day, about 5 months afterwards, that I finally went through one whole day without crying. It scared me a little because I was so used to it. And though often I would cry so hard I felt like I would throw-up, I usually felt much better when I was finished.


Lamentations 5:17


"Our hearts are sick and weary and our eyes grow dim with tears."



I would cry so hard and for so long that first week that I recall my actual vision being blurry. At first I though it must be caused by my make-up but then I noticed it happened when I had none on. I think this is the dimness spoken of here. Lamentations literally means crying out to God. He created us and penned our stories and therefore must have known it wouldn't be long before we were crying out to Him. Thankfully, He gave me alot of shoulders here on earth to cry on, too. I cried in front of friends and strangers alike. I often made other people cry and there we would be, joined in the harmonious falling of tears. I know people who don't cry easily (Tami :)) and I don't think there is anything wrong with it unless someone feels too embarrassed, ashamed or proud to cry. I let my children see me cry. Not necessarily during the uncontrollable times, as I didn't want to scare them, but I definitely did not want to hide those healthy grief reactions from them. Boston fought the tear flow and still does. I almsot rejoiced on the rare occasions he would cry because I knew he needed to. I think he felt weak, maybe like he wasn't being the man of the house. Or maybe he knew if he cried then I would too. And a boy only wants to see his mama cry so much, you know? My friends and I often found piles of tissues in his bed so I rested in the fact that he might be crying himself to sleep. Seems strange to say I rested in that fact but I knew I felt better afterwards and I hoped for the same relief for him. I would start crying and for awhile there Bella would ask me, "mommy, why are you crying?" and my response was usually that I missed Daddy. Now everytime I cry she asks if I am missing Daddy in heaven? I actually hope my children remember their mother crying from a broken heart over losing their father. I hope they correlate the amount of tears to how much I love and miss him. There were many many nights when I, too, found myself sleeping with a pile of tissues.


Psalm 6:6


"I am worn out from sobbing all night, I flood my bed with weeping, drenching it with my tears."

David wrote this during his darker days. I can't even imagine how many more broken people between David's time and mine have done the same. One scripture that always comforted me, even when nothing comforted me, was this one:

Psalm 56:8
"You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in Your bottle. You have recorded each one in Your book."

I believe we wholeheartedly take the Bible as literal and I KNOW Jesus will show me that bottle of mine someday. I think His hands will lovingly open a beautiful journal with all the dates and times and reasons behind each tear I wept. I just believe that is the kind of God He is. He takes our grief and makes it valid and valuable. I believe Jesus, in His tender mercies, wept with me at times. I don't think He would have told us to mourn with those who mourn if He wasn't going to do it Himself.

Romans 12:15
"Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn."

Music is always a surefire way to make me cry. In the last month Jim and I have been to both Third Day and Mercy Me concerts. If you have listened to any music on our playlist you will see that both groups seemed to minister to us in our grief and sorrow. Third Day's "Cry out to Jesus" is one we have mentioned before. Jim and I have openly cried on one another's shoulders since the day we met. There has been a special kind of healing that has taken place when we have been able to comfort the other or at least do what the Lord told us to do in the above Romans scripture. Simply mourn with someone who is mourning. Is it easy to do this when the one you are holding is crying over the one they powerfully loved long before you arrived in the picture? Absolutely not. But it is necessary for Jim and I to know that we don't have to always cry in solitude. Of course, we do that too.
I know men fear crying more than women. I have seen both my husbands cry and though I know they didn't necessarily like it, I am glad they were able to. I think the first time I saw my dad cry, at all, was when he and Mom put me on a plane to Lakenheath, England to join Troy for our first assignment. I am not sure I saw him cry again for the next eleven years. Then Troy died and I saw my dad weep. He teared up almost as often as my Mom did at times. He will never know how much that meant to me to see him be broken like that and hurt for me like that. In truth, I knew he hurt for himself badly, as well. My dad adored Troy and lost not only a son-in-law but a dear friend. I am thankful that I now see my dad be more emotional than I did growing up. Men will be their strongest in Christ when they surrender their pride and allow weakness to creep in a bit.

II Corinthians 12: 9-10

"But He (God) said to me (Paul), 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.'"

Kind of nontraditional for a wedding invite, we know, (we have a nontraditional marriage afterall) but we put this scripture below on our inviation:

Psalm 126:5
"For those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!"

We sowed plenty of tears and were more than happy to reap some joy. The Lord did that for us. Planted a garden full of sadness, watered it with our tears and gave us a harvest of hope in Him, peace and purpose in our lives and the blessing of finding another spouse's arms to rest our weary souls.

Jim and I still cry over Troy and Andrea. And I know over the next couple of months as we both face our anniversaries of loss, we will, perhaps, cry even more. But I want to cling to these two scriptures so I won't cry without hope:

Isaiah 25:8
"He will swallow up death forever! The Sovereign Lord will wipe away all tears."

Revelation 21:9
"He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death, or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."

Praise God it is not people passing away but death and pain passing away. We can ultimately rest in this truth and live, though grieving, with victory over the grave. I remember Pastor Steve telling me he felt like he had become more serious after his first wife, Pam's, death. Sadness will do this to a person. I see it in myself. Not the kind of devasting depression and dark pit that caused me to feel hopeless, but a thread of sadness or somberness that is continually woven into the fabric of my life. It often rears its head unexpectedly. Like tonight, for instance, as Texas Tech GLORIOUSLY defeated the University of Texas in an incredible football game tonight (I don't even like football and I was yelling at the television!), I felt that familiar "unkind companion", as Marlo refers to it, creep in. Troy and I went to school at Tech, went to football games and have many sweet memories of dating there. I recalled how in the January '07 bowl game each Tech player wore Troy's name on the back of their helmets. That is the kind of university it is. Those are the kind of memories I live with. Yet I live with them with the knowledge that this life is but a vapor. Our lives are a whisper in the wind in comparison to eternity. The pain will pass. Hopefully most of it in this lifetime but certainly He promised it will in the next.

And, yes, I cried while I wrote this blog.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Countdown Begins

It was Friday Oct 26th and Andrea and I were at lunch. It was a beautiful Friday afternoon and we were excited for the weekend ahead. My brother Neil was getting married on Saturday and the family had begun traveling to Austin. We were all getting together for a family reunion which was going to end here in San Antonio with my pin on to Colonel on Monday afternoon. Andrea and I were busy planning the event when my brother called and told me our mom had a massive stroke and was in the hospital unresponsive. Immediately we began adjusting our plans, I cancelled my promotion ceremony and took a flight to Dallas early Saturday morning. Andrea stayed in town as some of our best friends; Mac and Lisa were in town visiting. We decided to go ahead with my brothers wedding on Saturday night, and I flew back to San Antonio just in time to change and drive Andrea to Austin for the wedding. It was as beautiful a night/wedding you could ask for under the circumstances.

Andrea and I at my brother Neil's wedding

On Monday we said goodbye to our friends and decided to drive to Dallas on Tuesday to see my mom who had been moved to hospice. We arrived around 10 and I think my mom passed away around 1. I remember the nurses telling us how it would happen and strangely it was going exactly as they predicted. I remember thinking how strange it was that they could be so precise. When she passed I felt as if I had lost my protection, our father had passed away in 1999 and suddenly all of us kids were on our own. As if we had all taken a step forward in life. Even though I was the youngest at age 46 in a different way we were the adults now. I felt a different burden of responsibility as a dad, and husband. I lost my Mom, who would I call for advice now? Who would reassure me when I doubted? She was one of the greats from the "Greatest Generation."

Andrea my brother Pete and his wife Genevieve
in Dallas after my Mom's funeral

Anthony and Andrea in Dallas

I remember seeing Andrea sitting with my Mom is the room. Hospice was our fear, the inevitable waiting to die, hospice was the end, when you are removed from those with "A chance." Like being separated from the herd to die. Andrea and I drove past the hospice in North Carolina on the way to her chemo treatments and I hated that. Most of the time I refused to even look at the sign as if I could avoid the possibility by not acknowledging its existence. So to see Andrea there, praying and holding my Mom's hand just told me again in another way what a special woman Andrea was. She showed no fear, but I'm sure it must have been difficult for her.

We returned to San Antonio on Wednesday as the family began preparing for our Mother's funeral. Andrea and I returned to Dallas on Friday for the funeral. Since I had to cancel my pin on ceremony, and I was wearing my uniform for the funeral, we decided to do it at the Church. So as the funeral home arrived with Mom, and as and I my brothers lined up to be her paw bearers, Andrea, my sister Maureen, and Anthony pinned on my Colonel rank. It was not what we had planned the Friday before. I was shocked how fast life had changed, how plans we thought assured were suddenly thrown aside. Our family reunion was not as we had planned.

My Pin on

The next two weeks were spent preparing for Thanksgiving and Nic's return from school in D.C. Also, The "Chemo Girls" came to visit Andrea. Tanya, Gina, Diane, and Karen had flown in to see Andrea. By now Andrea had begun to show signs of tiring, I think the past weeks were wearing on her. She was using a little more oxygen but still at times could get around the house without it. We enjoyed Thanksgiving as a family and Nic was preparing to head back to school on Saturday. I think it was on Friday that Andrea's two other friends, Leigh and Roz from the Chemo Girls came to visit. Andrea was definitely tired by now but when it came time to go out to dinner, she refused to just stay home. Andrea said, as she always did, "I will not let cancer dictate my life." And I guess it didn't, it did however dictate her death.

Thanksgiving Dinner, 2 days before Andrea went into ICU

Andrea and Nic Thanksgiving Weekend

Our last family photo

"The Chemo Girls"

Left to right Roz, Tanya, Karen, (a friend who I did not know) Gina and Diane

During the night and early morning on Sunday Andrea began having a lot of difficulty breathing to the point she could not get enough air to the point she asked me tom call an ambulance. Thus began Andrea' last 21 days. I will not recount the events of those days, they are already in this blog, as I wrote a day by day account of our time in the ICU. I think I will reread those blog entries each day as I recount those last days with the most amazing woman I had known. I wish I could convey to you the strength I saw in Andrea, or the courage she displayed, or the peace of God that was upon her. Those were days filled with frustration at doctors, sadness, fear, worry, and anxiety, but in the middle of it all was Andrea, smiling when she could, and always reassuring me it was okay. She gave me strength, and a peace. You could not help but be lifted up when you saw her. Even as she slept, she somehow encouraged me and those around her.

So this week begins the beginning of the end, and the last steps on Andrea's journey to healing. Each day of the next 48 days will be filled with special memories. Memories of Andrea, of friends and of God's amazing grace. Memories of kindness like Kathy visiting Andrea and massaging her hands and feet to help reduce the swelling. Memories of my office decorating our home with Christmas lights. Memories of the digital picture frame they bought and loaded with pictures from my computer. I held it up to Andrea and we watched photos of our life flash across the screen. With each picture I would remind Andrea of the moment. I can't help but think she knew this was the end, and watch her life go by. But she only smiled with each picture in her usual example of strength.

So as I enter this time of memories I can't help but remember Andrea's greatest example, her faith which never wavered. And as I think of what I have lost I think of all she has gained. She walked the walk of faith, she completed her race, and she is now rewarded for that. I have no doubt that Andrea did exactly what God asked of her. It was not what we wanted but it was a powerful lesson that God sometimes asks us to to things we may not want to do. He is after all Sovereign. Now Andrea is no longer tethered to an oxygen bottle, or a wheelchair. She is freed from the ICU bed, the hoses, IVs and medicines. She is healed, she has completed her journey to healing. One day I will see her again, and I'm sure next to her will be my Mom. Two women who made me who I am. I miss them both terribly.