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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...

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.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


The above plaque reads:

This Welcome Center is dedicated to the memory of Troy Gilbert, who was killed in action on November 27, 2006, while serving his country with the US Air Force in Iraq. Through his vision and perseverance this Welcome Center was established in 2005, and he was instrumental not only in its inception but also faithfully served here each Sunday morning welcoming visitors until his departure in September 2006. We are grateful for his selfless service and genuine care for others, and we will always remember Troy as a dedicated pilot, a loving husband and father and faithful follower of Jesus Christ.

"Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers..." Hebrews 13:2

We just returned from our first visit back to Phoenix. As we landed I felt that familiar mix of joy and pain. That city was our home for four years. When we arrived there in the Spring of 2004 Troy and I embraced the ease of living back in the States after being overseas. We looked forward to a new assignment, meeting new friends and becoming first-time homeowners. We could have never imagined what lay ahead of us. I never considered the possibility that I would leave that Air Force assignment without my husband.

We were welcomed there this weekend with the warm and loving arms our precious Arizona "family". Our church, Desert Springs Community, celebrated its' 25th anniversary and we enjoyed being a part of it. The kids and I had the privilege of unveiling the new plaque which dedicated the church's Visitor Welcome Center after Troy. What a special honor to Troy, who poured his heart into creating that very Center. It might be our Southern roots or military moving mentality but Troy and I always felt it was extremely important for a church to be friendly. We felt God's people surely ought to exude a bit of warmth and if we didn't find it, we usually continued looking for another church. When we first stepped into the doors of Desert Springs, we instantly felt that genuine friendliness we sought. The Bible teaching was hearty and we soon joined. We wanted to contribute and become involved. We took it upon ourselves to seek out new faces, meet them, greet them and make them feel comfortable. We served this church in many areas but the mark I hope we (Troy mainly) left behind was that Welcome Center. Honestly, I wanted to just continue our initial method of smiling, hugging and handshaking with the folks at church. But Troy, liking more organization and purpose, came up with an official place people could visit to receive not only a friendly greeting but information and help. He wanted to not just tell new people where their Sunday school class was, he wanted to walk them there. I struggled with the big commitment of setting up and taking down the portable center. With so many little kids Sundays mornings were hectic already. But Troy had a vision for it and commitment to it and he promised he would help get kids ready, take them with him or do whatever needed to be done. And I am so glad he followed through with it. A woman I knew from church came up to this past Sunday after the anniversary service and told me Troy had helped her carry her child to the car and opened the door for her and how much that meant to her. I know he touched a lot of people in ways I never even realized.

Troy's gift of reaching out to others continued while he was deployed to Iraq. Ironically, he flew out of this city, San Antonio, with several doctors who were stationed here at the time. They spent days traveling to get to Iraq with many stops along the way. I think it gave them a chance to get to know each other. And it sparked a desire in Troy to go to the busy trauma hospital there in Balad and visit them. He began spending a lot of time there watching the doctors work on our wounded soldiers. And to my surprise on the enemy wounded as well. After watching his doctor friends patch up an Iraqi who had just been caught launching missiles and planting explosives, he wrote in an email to me,

"But that is the type of People, Country, Air Force and Army we are. That's what makes us different from them."

So true. Troy also volunteered there to help the doctors or just be with the patients. After he died, I received many emails from those doctors he worked with. Here are some of the things they wrote:

"Well, after that first visit, it became common to see Troy in the hospital. I never really asked him why he spent so much time at the hospital. I'm still not really sure why, but it was always nice to see him. He was so positive. Everyone liked to be around him. I was working in the ER the night the call came in that one of our pilots went down and the search and rescue teams were out. It really didn't even cross my mind that it could be Troy, but I found out the next day. I've never seen a group of doctors so depressed before. He touched so many people, myself included. Troy seemed to have a way of making everyone around him comfortable. He always seemed genuinely interested in what that person was saying at that specific moment. His faith was obvious in his conversation. Not pushy. But obvious. He was never negative, which was a true gift around the hospital. Things tend to get cynical here, but he always brought a positive vibe. He was just a good guy. A good man. I only knew him for a few months, but I guess the best way I can say it is that Troy is the man that many of us aspire to be. At Troy's memorial service I learned that he had this effect on everyone. I've never seen anything like it. Thanks for sharing him with us."

Troy showed some of the doctors around the aircraft on the flightline. Many had never seen anything like it before. They all commented on the specialness of the day Troy took them on a "field trip" to the Ops side of Balad AB. Another doctor wrote:

"Despite our very busy schedules we each spent time in each other's element and learned things that we've never seen before. Troy said that he not only enjoyed going to the hospital to visit with us but it was necessary for him to gain perspective on the war and on life in general. He was an extremely thoughtful and insightful man."

And yet another doctor wrote this to me:

"Several of the pilots, including Troy, have been volunteering at the AFTH (hospital). They're not afraid to work either. I've seen all of them holding injured babies, helping to stock, mopping floors and assisting with patient care (changing dressings, etc). They've earned my respect. "

This last one was from an email I received almost a year after Troy's death. It began:

"This is probably the 5th time I have tried to write a letter to you regarding your husband and my short but sweet friendship with him in Iraq... Another thing that impressed me was the way Troy made everyone feel significant and appreciated. As a Christian, I could tell he was living out the second greatest command of loving your neighbor, but he did it in a remarkable way. He introduced me to the guy who packed their gear, the guy who works on the plane, the guy who calls from the control tower, the guy who ran his office where all the pilots headquartered. In each instance, he relayed their importance, significance and the outstanding job they were doing. It was really amazing and in stark contrast to the way some other high ranking professionals treated others."

I remember after he died a friend of his telling me he just knew that Troy was welcoming newcomers to heaven. I am not sure of what he and the Lord are doing now but here on earth it was touching to see that beautiful bronze plaque with his photo and story on it. It will hang in the church in the permanent Welcome Center Troy never got to see.

I think my spiritual gift is hospitality too. But I am not certain that I have stretched myself as far as Troy did. Actually, I am pretty sure I haven't. I hope to, though. And I am thankful for the legacy of kindheartedness he has left behind.

Matthew 22:37-39

Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it:'Love your neighbor as yourself

Do we practice the true art of hospitality - loving our neighbor? What if that neighbor was our enemy? What if we get no response or acceptance when we reach out? One of those doctors wrote that he declined Troy's invitation to tour the flightline that day thinking there would be plenty of time to do it later and he says he wishes he hadn't. He said that was a lesson to him and now anytime he declines an invitation he really thinks about it first.

Romans 12:13
"Share with God's people who are in need. Practice hospitality

Monday, October 13, 2008

Missed Opportunity

Jim and I wanted to write this together. (Can you tell the twins have gone to spend a week with my parents? We are cranking out all the blogs we have been waiting to write!) I was telling him about this experience I had earlier in the week. I was in a store and saw a man come in. As you know my vision is still really blurry and I can't see details of people's faces from a distance. But the thought crossed my mind that maybe the man had been burned. The salesclerk told him his merchandise was in the back and that he would be receiving the military discount. As he walked to the counter and stood near me I got a better look at him. He was burned beyond recognition. I have never seen anyone with such severe burn damage. He had no hair, very tight discolored patchy skin and was missing most of the ear I could see. His physique was that of a young man. His arms and legs were also scarred badly. I stood there so saddened for him. For the man that he still very much was that was now hidden under layers of burned flesh. With the clerk"s comment about the military discount, my mind began racing that he must have been burned in the war. And my heart began beating faster knowing I should maybe ask him if his accident happened in the war and if so thank him for his service. I only had a matter of minutes and knew as he was paying my opportunity was slipping away. I feared if it wasn't from the war then maybe I would offend him. I didn't want to make him uncomfortable. Yet even as those thoughts ran through my mind, I remembered how I felt when I knew people avoided me and just didn't tell me how sorry they were that I had lost my husband. I remembered how much it meant when people told me or the kids that Troy's service to our country and ultimate sacrifice were greatly appreciated and would not be forgotten. And when I was in a crowd of strangers I thought, "Don't you see how badly I hurt? Would you just stop and hurt with me for minute so I know you care?" Yet my battle wounds were on the inside. My scars were invisible to the naked eye. And here was my chance to share God's love, possibly my own story of loss from the war or mainly just the privilege to show gratitude to one of our servicemen for the high price they pay everyday for my freedom. I KNOW all this and still let him walk out the door. I could tell the man had been in before so I asked the cashier if he knew if he was burned in the war and he said yes he was. I missed my opportunity. I got in the car and my eyes welled up with tears. I walked into that store thinking of nothing but the fire pit Jim and I wanted to put on our patio and left thinking of the fire that soldier must have been through. What he still must go through everyday, I cannot imagine. I thought of Troy and if he had come home as so many do, with physical, mental and emotional scars. That would have been so difficult as well. I prayed for that man as I drove all the way home. I prayed for him in the night when I awoke. I will continue to pray for the struggles he has. That part I won't regret like I do for not talking to him as the real hero he was. I told Jim about him the next day and he reminded me of the time he spent in Brooks Army Medical Center (BAMC) with Andrea. I will let him tell you in his own words.

When Andrea told me she needed to go to the emergency room I did not know where to take her, to BAMC which was closer or to Wilford Hall which was on the other side of San Antonio but it was where the Oncologists worked. Seeing as she could not breath I decided to take her to BAMC. As it turns out BAMC is the military burn center and treats most if not all victims from the war. During the 21 days that Andrea was in BAMC I saw many heroes and their families, mostly at the cafeteria eating lunch. My sister Maureen spent quite a few days with me at BAMC visiting Andrea and several times we would see this one solider and his wife at lunch. He was severally burned much like the man Ginger describes. His young wife was always by his side helping him eat. I will tell you it was difficult to understand what they were going through and I felt for them, even though I could not relate to task that lied before them. One day Maureen asked, "Do you think they would mind if we talked to them?" I said probably not especially since Maureen wanted to tell him thanks for his service. So we went over and sat down with them. Immediately you could see they appreciated someone talking to them and just treating them normally. I thought the man he was was still there. The young man who was so proud the day he finished basic training, or the night of his senior prom, or his wedding day. Inside he probably felt the same as the day before he was injured, the wounds hid from us his physical features but he was the same we just had to look past the scares. I think that is what they wanted, that is all Ginger wanted, it's probably what all of us want when we are hurting; to just be treated normal. I remember Andrea saying that when people would ask her how she wanted people to see her. "Just as a woman, mother and wife, not as a cancer patient." She did not want cancer to define who she was. Although once you loose your hair and put on a scarf cancer becomes your identity, much like I'm sure these men feel when they are burned. Much like we may feel when we look at ourselves in the mirror. Do we see our past failures, sins or mistakes. Failures and sins we feel cannot be forgiven? Mistakes we feel cannot be overcome? We seek someone to understand us and look beyond our sins and mistakes. That someone is Jesus, when He turns his eyes upon us he does not see our sins or who we are but who we will be in Christ. When you see someone who has physical scares or a scarf remember to take the time to look at them as the person they are inside and not the reflection of what you see on the outside. Remember we all carry around scares and most of them are internal and unseen. To others we appear "normal" or successful, maybe even happy, but inside there are deep scares. Those scares are easily hidden when our relationships are superficial, and stop at, "Hello how are you?" "Good and you?" It takes a little time and a little effort and a little empathy to look past the masks we wear and see the struggles we all have

The lesson God taught Ginger and I this week is to look at others as Christ sees us. Just as our friends did when they got past the uncomfortable feeling of approaching us and gave us support when we needed it. We need not fear saying the wrong thing or feeling foolish, just take the time to express love the way Christ command us.

Mark 12:30-32

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."


I (Jim) am sitting on our back porch on a rainy Monday, but it is a day off so that makes it a beautiful rainy morning. There is a slow soaking rain falling and I'm looking over our newly completed back yard. It is all Ginger and I had ever wanted in a home, we just paid a high price. I like to call it the house that Troy and Andrea built.

This weekend Ginger and I had my office over for dinner, it was our first "Event" as a couple. To most of the people there Ginger and I are all they have ever know as the "Ravellas". They are innocently unaware of who Troy or Andrea were. That was a little strange but it also felt normal, and that was nice.

I have always openly expressed myself in this blog, mostly because I want to have a record of this time in my life, but also because it helps me understand the thoughts I have and finally because I pray God will somehow use our words in a small way to help someone who may be struggling with similar issues or questions of faith. So as I begin to type what has been on my mind for a while I pray it is not misunderstood or taken in the wrong way. I say that because I have tried to understand these thoughts many times and I have yet to fully grasp what it means.

When Andrea died, that moment I stood up and looked at her body, it was immediately different, her spirit, what made her Andrea was gone. I remember looking at her body and that was all it was, just a shell. It was as if her personality was gone and I knew she was no longer there. It was a strange feeling because in an instant I did not know what to do. Minutes before I was fighting with her to live, now I was standing with my two boys wondering what do I do? As a parent you are always taking care of you kids, making decisions for them and preparing them for what happens, but in that moment I was as lost as they were. So I asked the nurse, "What do I do now?" Her name was Ronda and she is an amazing nurse, and was a blessing from God in that ICU, and she told me she would take care of Andrea. All we had to do was go to the admin offices and sign some paperwork. So it all began; my life as a single dad, my life without Andrea, layer one.

The following days for me were the same as anyone who loses a loved one, totally numb, you go through the motions and get done all that must be done. A funeral is planned, mostly by others, thank God for my brothers and sisters and my office who stepped in to take care of nearly every detail. I was left with the usual dreaded tasks of picking Andrea's clothes, and the casket. I remember sitting in the funeral office when the lady pulled out a folder with Andrea's name on it, I could not process what I was doing there, and her questions cut through me. Our last step was the coffin, which I did totally isolated from the reality of it all. I guess my mind blocked what I was actually doing, and it would not hit me till I saw that coffin in the church. I remember thinking Andrea is in there, and it became a little more real. I cried as I followed her casket out of the church. I knew the next stop was the grave, 6ft of physical separation and a wall between us that could never be torn down until I draw my last breath. It was the last moment for this to all end and wake up from the nightmare. It was layer number two.

Next came the emptiness of the house, the gut wrenching loneliness of coming home to an empty bed, cooking alone, just living was a constant reminder of my loss. The silence was deafening and I missed talking to Andrea. I wanted to hear her voice to tell me what to do. The sight of smiling pictures of Andrea only confused me as if life was still happy. I had no desire to cook, one of Andrea and my favorite things to do together so Anthony and I ordered out a lot. We never ate at the table again, only in front of the TVs merciful distraction. Work was impossible and I had no interest in it whatsoever. When I would find the strength to go into the office I would close my door and cry. I was confused, totally lost at this time, not knowing what was life was anymore what my future was, I realized all our hopes and dreams were erased and my life was undefined and my identity uncertain. It was layer number three.

Next came the packing of Andrea's clothes, the emptying of the closet, the sorting through her things and the separating into stacks all the things I wanted to give to her friends. It was Andrea's friends, Amy and Darla, who helped me through this difficult time. They bought the plastic tubs to store Andrea's clothes in; a suggestion from Ginger who knew permanently giving away or throwing away Andrea's clothes was too difficult this soon, yet a closest full of clothes was equally difficult. So the compromise to put them away for storage was perfect. All but her personal items, like her nightie from our honeymoon, which she kept and wore every anniversary. To this day putting those in the trash has been the most painful thing I have ever done in my life. I cannot describe the pain of taking those from her drawer, holding them and putting them in a trash bag. I felt I had to do this, they were things I thought should not be touched by someone else. I was discarding our intimate moments, my marriage and nothing said my wife was gone more than it did in that moment. It was layer number four and it hurt more than all the others combined.

The weeks and months afterwards were punctuated by small events that built upon the separation and emptiness of my life. Songs on the radio that brought me to a moment with Andrea were all too common. We had loved Christian music. It was one of our main sources of strength. The words and songs defined periods and moments of Andrea's struggle. Now they became painful reminders. Many of those songs are on our blog like Steven Curtis Chapman's "I Still Believe", Jeremy Camp's "Walk by Faith," Chris Tomlin's "How Great Is Our God" or Bebo Norman's "Borrow Mine". They all brought me back to specific days and events. When I would be driving I would look across to Andrea's empty seat and almost see her there, raising her hands praising God as she sang those songs, or remember a concert we went to, seeing Andrea standing hands lifted up, crying. I remember traveling for work, sitting on a flight back from DC and listening to my iPod crying uncontrollably. It was strange to hurt in public and it made me think how often had I sat next to someone who was hurting and never knew it. Either I did not notice or did not want to. Daily events like walking home for lunch, and seeing the porch where Andrea would always be waiting for me became billboard reminders of the changes in my life. Next came the inevitable reminder of returning to church, a place I needed to be as a source of strength was also a painful reminder of my loss. It was here that Andrea and I held each other and sang, where we were fed, where we gathered strength and where friends lifted us up. Church now was void of all that. All I saw was an empty chair next to me. Ginger and I both commiserated that we never felt more alone in all ours suffering than at church surrounded by believers, couples and families worshipping. However all this made us realize people are hurting all around us and gave us a more compassionate outlook when we fail to understand people's distance or rudeness.. What if they are having days like we were? I began to understand there are people going through the motions of life hurting inside and I was one of them. It was layer number five.

Amongst all of this, I met Ginger and began to fall in love. It was a very confusing time for me, to feel happiness, a bond to another woman while trying to deal with losing Andrea. To even have feelings for another woman was a betrayal to Andrea, my wife I pledged to love forever. I was still very much in love with Andrea, and at the same time falling in love with Ginger. I remember three dreams I had about Andrea during this time. In each dream Andrea had fallen in love with another man and I would come to her and ask her, "What are you doing?" Her response was, "It is nothing, don't worry I love you both." I was so hurt and angry in my dream and Andrea was so nonchalant about it all. I did not have to think hard about what those dreams meant. To be honest I still struggle with having feelings for Ginger although thankfully they are less and less. I never loved another woman other than Andrea and suddenly I was on a honeymoon loving another woman. It was layer number six.

To avoid any confusion let me use a line from my Pastor in North Carolina, "Don't hear what I'm not saying." Yes falling in love complicated my grief process in some ways, but having Ginger in my life is what gave me hope that life would return to "normal." Ginger knew what it was like to live without hope, to live with the emptiness, to ache to be held or touched by a spouse. Those are things I thankfully did not have to experience and I will leave it to Ginger to write about what that was like. So yes, for me I added some level of difficulty to my grief, but it also spared me from a lot of other grief and for that I thank God for Ginger and the absolute blessing she was and is to me. Not to mention, I knew the kids needed a family and that stability in their life has been worth any additional pain or confusion I had to go through. I knew in my heart and spirit that Ginger and I were meant to be together so if someone had to deal with a more difficult path as we brought our families together, I felt it was better for me as the adult than for 6 children. Looking back and now seeing our kids having stability and normalcy, I'm convinced I did the right thing. I think Ginger paid the biggest price as she tried to understand me as I was working out my conflicting emotions of loving her and in some way feeling I was betraying Andrea. I struggled that others would think somehow I did not love Andrea and nothing could be further from the truth than that. I loved her more than myself, at times too much.

It was Andrea's dad that gave me sage advice that I have thought of many times since. He said, "You loved my daughter, you kept your vows to her and to God. Remember it was God who broke your wedding vow to Andrea not you." Those words and knowing Andrea is exactly where she always dreamed of being, with her Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ, are what gave me comfort and allowed me to fall deeper in love with Ginger each day. It helps me as I deal with the layers of separation from Andrea and the layers of memories and foundations I build with Ginger and the kids. I'm in uncharted waters for me, a place I never in a million years thought I would be, dealing with memories of Andrea, and finding joy and happiness in another life. I know this is not over, and I wonder if at some level I will always be dealing with this. I know that each day Ginger and I become more one with each other and our life becomes more of our own. The kids and I bonding together as does Ginger with Anthony, and our identities mix in this amazing blessing that we are living out. And my prayer is that the miracle of our life together is not lost in my words here, for God has done what man could never do. I am humbled to have been loved so deeply by Andrea, and be blessed to be loved again in the same way. I do not deserve to be blessed this much in a lifetime.

As I end this blog, Isabella just came out on the porch to give me a picture she drew for me. I have my music playing and the song, "I Would Die for You" is playing. It is a song I used in Andrea's memorial. Bella just asked, "Does this music remind you of Miss Andrea?" "Yes," I said, "It does." Then she reminded me that it rained last night, too, "But," she added, "The sun will come out again Daddy!" Yes it will Bella. Yes it will. In fact I think it already has.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

My Closet

I (Ginger) wait until the Lord puts something on my heart to write about. I don't have much time to sit around and conjure up ideas and besides that, the Lord always gives me better material! I have had one I have been wanting to write about all week but I still am struggling with my lack of ability to clearly focus since my eye surgery, so I have been discouraged everytime I sit down to type, email or even read. Then yesterday the Lord gave me something else to write about first. Then this morning as I sat down to start writing about it I finally got a chance to read Jim's blog about their prayer closet. I knew he had been working on it this week but that is how busy our life is that we don't even get to read each other's blogs for a few days sometimes.

Anyway, I decided to put my other two writings on hold and piggyback on Jim's beautiful and touching story about their holiest of holies, their prayer closet. I remember when I first started emailing he and Andrea and he wrote about their closet being their place to pray, I could picture them in there, though I had no idea who they were or what they looked like. I was all too familiar with the idea because I, too, had spent endless hours in my own closet after losing Troy. I loved the word picture he painted of them on their kneeling bench and the very protected and purposed times they would enter in. My time in my closet more haphazardly happened. After Troy died, I sold the only home we had evr owned and moved into a rent house with the kids. I had the biggest master bedroom and closet we had ever had. But the bedroom shared a wall with the guest room. I, thankfully, had a constant stream of people visiting and helping out so someone was pretty much always sleeping in the guest room. I had insomnia for months and months on end. I would cry, listen to music, talk on the phone or talk to God. All necessary but somewhat annoying to the person trying to sleep on the other side of our shared wall. Even in the daytime there was always commotion from the children and seldom any quiet in the house. No place for me to go and be alone in my pain.

So I would go into my closet off the master bathroom and lay on the floor to talk or cry or pray. For those of my friends that know me well, you know I often had to move over a somewhat large pile of clothes and shoes to do this. ha. But it was in that closet that I could pour my heart out to Jesus. I remember when the times of grief were so engulfing and overwhelming that I would lie on the floor and wish I could sink INTO the floor. I felt at the lowest place a human could be and the thought of being below ground level oddly seemed comforting and befitting to how I was feeling. It was an unusual thought. One I had never had. Yet now I wonder how many others, even those reading our blog, want to sink into their floor, wishing the earth would swallow them up. Swallow up their pain and consume their suffering in hopes of finding some relief. All I can say is Jesus meets you there on the floor of your closet. One of the lyrics in "Cry Out to Jesus" is "He will meet you wherever you are...". He will. I, like Jim and Andrea, often felt His presence in that closet. Even the times I didn't feel the Lord's presence, I knew He was with me because of this promise to us in the Bible:

Matthew 6:6

"But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."

Now I know Jesus was talking to the pious Pharisees, who prayed in public just for show so everyone would think they were highly spiritual. He sought more humble worship from them. But I think this is also great wisdom for all us to just get away from the distractions and have some quiet time with our Saviour. It was during one of my loneliest moments that I remember sitting in that closet and begging the Lord to not leave me in my present state. I had just found a letter written to me by a fellow soldier of Troy's in Iraq. He told me that he hadn't known Troy well but each time he saw him in the chow hall and they struck up a conversation, it always came up how much he missed me and the kids. The man wrote that he had passed by Troy's desk and how he had lots of photos of us up. He wanted me to know that though his encounters with Troy, in the middle of a war, were brief and few, it was evident he was a man that loved his wife and children very much. I put the letter aside and laid on the floor of my closet that night and thanked the Lord for giving me a man that so openly loved us so much. I also earnestly prayed that He would give me that again someday or allow me to be content to live with only the memory of it.

I Timothy 5:5
"The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and ask God for help."

I remember calling my now good friend, Marlo, for the first time one night in that closet. It was a night I needed to talk to a fellow widow and I felt God saying, "Go ahead and call this woman in North Carolina. Don't be afraid. Go into your closet. I will be there too." I cried to a stranger that night on the phone, with my Father beside me, hunkered down in that closet.

I have since thought of men in foxholes, children in hospitals, women in shelters or the homeless who have no closet to go to. And then I remember yet another thing I have to be thankful for. But I know Christ is there with them, too. Even if they don't feel it.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Are You Aware?

I have felt an obligation to write a blog since it is October and breast cancer awareness month but to tell you the truth I'm not a big fan of October or the color pink. I guess I'm already "aware" and these only serve to as a cruel reminder in a long month of reminders. Like pink Campbell’s soup cans, pink ribbons on their NFL referees shirts, or pink ribbons on rear windows of cars in front of me. It was a favorite time for Andrea and her friend Lisa. They would always shop for the Brighton breast cancer bracelet, or other breast cancer commemorative items like shirts etc... Each with the words faith, hope, believe, or courage on them. Andrea had quite a collection of bracelets and after she passed away I was able to give one to each of the "Chemo Girls" and her Mom sister and niece and one for myself. I thought that is exactly who Andrea would have wanted to have them. It was those woman who stood by Andrea and supported her. I think of them wearing the bracelets and seeing the words faith, hope, or strength and thinking of Andrea because she was all of those.

Don't get me wrong I'm thankful so many companies and individuals take the time to raise money for breast cancer research because that is what it is going to take if a cure is ever to be found. Andrea did all she could to help research, she volunteered for every trial she could. Her first treatment in Alaska was a protocol for a new drug called Herceptin, which is now the standard for treatment for woman with Andrea's type of cancer. When we moved to DC Andrea entered a vaccine trial and a trial for new types of detection techniques. When we went to North Carolina Andrea's Doctor was on the cutting edge of treatment. I think at one point the 3 out of 4 drugs he was using on Andrea on drugs Andrea were not even developed or used for breast cancer when Andrea was diagnosed two years early. And at the same time Andrea entered a trial at Duke for a new drug. Andrea also volunteered to do a TV interview with her doctor stressing the need for people to enter trials. Most of the women who enter a trial will never benefit from the drug they are testing; it is those after them that reap the benefit of those before. As I know many will from the data collected from Andrea's treatment. Drug development and testing is a fast moving game and it amazed me how fast new drugs were being introduced.

I will tell you finding a "Cure" is a very complicated endeavor. There are many different kinds of breast cancer, and many more triggers that cause the cancer to grow or spread. Although cancer is very widespread there is not one size fits all treatment or cure for that matter. It can seem overwhelming when you think about the odds of finding a cure but every pink ribbon or wrist band helps to provide the funds necessary to one day beat this disease. My hope is Bella, Aspen and Annalise grow up in a world where breast cancer is like polio is to me, a think of the past. I will tell you that was Andrea's dream as well, of course she hoped to find a cure in her lifetime but she also wanted to help those who followed in her footsteps.

Here are facts of breast cancer: Nearly 200,000 new cases are found each year and just over 40,000 women will die from breast cancer each year. You have a 1 in 8 chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer in your lifetime. The overall survival rates are 89% at 5 years.

I will tell you statistics are nothing but historical facts based on groups, they are not reflective of an individual or really predictive of someone’s specific case. Because treatments are developing so fast what happened to people 5 or more years ago does not totally apply. Plus every cancer is unique and odds are just that, odds not facts. For that reason Andrea never asked and thankfully her doctor never told her how long she had to live. Andrea would say every cancer has been beaten, even if the odds are 1 in a million, "Why can't I be that one?" How someone handles cancer and their odds is each person’s own decision, there is no right or wrong. But I'm thankful we lived everyday as if it were NOT our last day. Sure in a way I wish I would have Andrea write a letter to the boys or video her testimony but in doing so we would have totally changed our outlook and the "normalcy" of our last days together. Plus it happened so fast, in fact Ginger commented today that Andrea and I had lived in San Antonio for 5 months when Andrea went into the ICU that is the same amount of time we have been married. Hard to believe it all happened so fast. When we moved in July she was strong and seemed to be getting better, and in 5 months she was in the ICU.

So for the ladies out there, remember to do your monthly self exams, get your annual checkups/mammogram. Hiding or not knowing will not make cancer go away. If God forbid you are the 1 in 8, finding out early will give you more options and a better chance to live to see your grand kids.

So even though I cringe at the sight of pink ribbons I know that one day the money raised from that ribbon may keep one of you from suffering as Andrea did or allow our children to escape the horrors of seeing Ginger sick. And nothing would make Andrea happier than that.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Holiest of Holies

Romans 8: 18, 24-27

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us

It was 10 ft long and 4 ft wide closet, and besides the usual stuff in a closet there was a small kneeling stool that our good friend Lisa gave us, on it was the word, “Believe” written on it. In the midst of Andrea’s battle this small closet became our sanctuary or the “Holiest of Hollies” as Andrea called it.

Matthew 27:50-51

And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.

It was here we would spend our sleepless nights when life was difficult to understand, and there were plenty of those. I would awake in the night many times and see the closet light on and I knew Andrea was hurting physically, or the next day she would tell me, “I had to go into the Holiest of Hollies last night.” We had some amazing “meetings” with God in that small closet. Sometimes we went there with a specific prayer request but most times I would awake in the night or early morning and just feel God nudging me, “Get up, we need to talk.” It was always a great time of prayer, and listening. And even though God never healed Andrea in this lifetime, He gave us amazing comfort and peace and it was in that closet that we found our strength to endure a weight far beyond our ability. I would try to describe the despair we felt on many nights in that closet, but all I can say is it was overwhelming. Cancer was relentless in its attacks and the waiting, the hoping, the praying, the tests, the pain, the sickness, the vomiting, the aching, the wheezing, the gasping for air, the moaning, all weight on you and you find yourself being crushed by it all. But we had our closet, our shelter from the storm, a place where cancer seemed marginalized and puny in a way. In the closet, God was the focus, and we didn’t go for answers, but assurance. We went because we were helpless, because there were no answers, no easy fixes. I know how it is to be in a hopeless situation and want so bad to wake up and it all be a bad dream, but that is not life, sometimes God is asking us to walk the difficult road and as much as we ask for and seek relief there is none. It was in our closet that we found a strength we did not possess. Although the physical reality never changed when we left the closet worry never came out with us. Cancer was our cross to bear, really Andrea’s, and it became our act of worship. In that closet cancer lost it power over us. It could threaten us, but it was nothing more than a bully and its only power was the fear we gave it. On our knees cancer became an instrument that God was using for His purpose, we just offered ourselves to God. Every story we heard from those who Andrea impacted became our joy, and our confirmation of God’s power and plan. To see life and death from God’s perspective was Andrea’s gift and that is what she learned in that closet as she met with her savior.

Last night Ginger and I took the Boston and Greyson to a Third Day concert. It was great, but as I sat there I just kept saying please don’t sing, “Cry out to Jesus.” Andrea and I listened to that song all the time and it was in our closet that Andrea and I cried out to Jesus. I also knew Ginger had listened to that song many times after losing Troy and if you listen to it you will know why this song touched us both:

To everyone who’s lost someone they love
Long before it was their time
You feel like the days you had were not enough
when you said goodbye

When your lonelyAnd it feels like the whole world is falling on you
You just reach out, you just cry out to Jesus
Cry to Jesus
To the widow who suffers from being alone
Wiping the tears from her eyes
For the children around the world without a home
Say a prayer tonight

There is hope for the helpless
Rest for the weary
Love for the broken heart
There is grace and forgiveness Mercy and healing
He’ll meet you wherever you are
Cry out to Jesus, Cry out to Jesus

It turns out they did sing that song and Ginger and I held each other, her tears hitting my face as we remembered times of great pain and need in our life. Afterwards I thought the title of that song expresses best what occurred on the closet. Sometimes you don’t know how to pray, sometimes the words elude you, and all you can do is cry out to Him.

Romans 8:24-27

For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.
And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will.

It was during those long nights that I experienced the most amazing times with God. We went into the closet because I was at the end of my rope, I was tired and Andrea was tired. We had very little relief and our prayers seemed unanswered. Andrea’s tests results countered our requests for healing. But in all of that, what many would see has the worst times, when Andrea just could not seem to get better, and her tumor markers or CT scans at best showed a slowing of the cancer; it was in our little closet we found “The peace of God that surpasses all understanding.” Sometimes I felt His words; sometimes He was frustratingly silent, but even in His silence I found comfort and strength.

Recently I have found a new favorite song it is from Mercy Me's latest album, "All that is within me." It has a video version of a song called "Bring the rain," (A song that takes faith to just sing along with) at the end they sing a verse from an old hymn that I love and expresses my experiences in the closet. When we learn that sometimes God does take away our problems , He changes our viewpoint

"Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look on His wonderful face, and the things of this life will grow strangely dim in the light of His wonderful grace."

It the simplest terms that is what happened in our closet. And in a strange way I miss the closet, I miss the closeness of God that the intensity of cancer brought. It was utter despair that stripped away everything of this world and left us with nothing but our need for our God. It was simplistic and beautiful and I’m sad that I needed tragedy to bring me to that point in my faith.

Matthew 6: 25-34

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink;
or about your body, what you will wear.
Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?
Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.
Are you not much more valuable than they?
Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow.
They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you,
O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Tying the Knot

Picture Day, October 2, 2008

Troy's Memorial Service Church Luncheon, December 6, 2006

Arlington National Cemetery, Dec. 11, 2006

Proverbs 3:3

"Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart."

Neckties. Being a military man's wife, one really doesn"t see a lot of neckties either hanging in the closet or around her man's neck. I always liked them. I think maybe because my dad was a college educational professional and they just went with the job. Since Troy was in the Air Force there really wasn't much need to own a lot of ties but since I liked them I would buy them occasionally for Troy. In 2005 when Troy went to work for Air Force One and President Bush we had to go suit and tie shopping. Strict policy that no military personnel could look "military" when working near the President of the United States. It was kind of fun (though expensive and not in our budget) to go shopping for Troy civilian clothes for a change. The suits bored me a little but the ties... ooh the ties. They beckoned my name. All the gorgeous patterns and colors! I wanted to be a man just for a moment so I could purchase a bunch and hang them neatly in my closet to wear to the office. Instead, I lived vicariously through Troy and his with his upcoming adventures with the President.

Fast forward a year and there I stood, in shock and mourning and grief, in our closet the night before Troy's memorial service. I was sorting through his neckties with my six year old son, Greyson. Not because I wanted to. The pain was unbearable. But because Greyson told me, "Mom, tomorrow for Daddy's funeral, I want to wear one of his ties." Whoa. He said it with total confidence and eloquence and determination. He would wear one of his Dad's ties to honor him.

I don't remember who tied his necktie for him that December 6th morning. But I remember seeing him in that blue dress shirt, just like his Dad's, and that beautiful necktie. It was possibly the most breathtakingly agonizing beautiful thing I had ever seen. It was too big. He wore it so proudly. It all made perfect sense. Why hadn't I thought of it myself? Well, probably because I don't think like Greyson. He has this incredible gift of thinking outside the box. Plus he has the confidence and self-assurance of a young man three times his age. He is comfortable in his own skin and hasn't a worry what the rest of the world might think. It is his most endearing quality. He is a super intelligent kid. He loves trivia and has the memory for it. He can be sensitive. He's always an odd mix of totally focused and somewhat distracted. I think there is just so much that goes in his brain at one time that the rest of us in the family just can't keep it all straight.

Again, on 5 days after Troy's memorial in Phoenix, Greyson pulls out the same tie to wear to his Dad's burial in Arlington National Cemetery. Pictures flashed across the Air Force Times web site. I am not sure how many people that viewed those photos knew that that little boy with the overly big tie was one special son who missed his Daddy very much. If they looked closely, I think they would have figured it out.

The next year, Greyson surprised me again. Picture day at school. Greyson pulls out one of Troy's ties and asks if I will tie it. So bittersweet. It was all I could think. Though I am not a big fan of school photos, I framed that one. Last year every time I looked at it, there at the end of the hallway by my lonely bedroom, I always thought how handsome and confident Greyson looked wearing Troy's yellow tie

Fast forward another year. Yesterday was picture day at school.. Another all-together different year but Greyson stays true to his plan and pulls out one of Troy's neckties again. This time we decided on the red one to match the plaid in his Bermuda shorts. The biggest blessing this year was that Greyson didn't have a fumbling mom tying a crooked knot. He had another amazing dad to help him. I told Jim what Greyson wanted to do and without a word Jim stepped in, wrapped that tie around Greyson's neck and began tying the most lovely AND loving knot I had ever seen. Jim worked to make it perfect. Not too long in the back. As nicely proportioned as a man's tie on a young boy could be. He then went to his closet to find him a tie tack to keep it together. Greyson chose the American flag one. Watching Jim love on him, hug him and support and watching Greyson visibly love both of his earthly fathers was a little more than I could watch without tearing up. Jim and I told him how proud Troy would be as he looked down from heaven and saw his tie around his son's neck. He looked so precious.

When I picked them up from school yesterday, I asked Greyson how his teacher and friends felt about his tie. He said he had a substitute and that a boy in his class made fun of him. . He seemed okay with it, because Greyson doesn't mind too much what other people think. As for me, I will be emailing the teacher and working at forgiving his insensitive classmate As for Troy, well, I just know he loves Picture Day.

Blurry days

This post should be interesting to write as it is my first attempt to type one since my PRK surgery last week. I am so thankful for everyone's thoughts and prayers. That "little" surgery ended up being alot bigger deal than I thought - more painful than my C-Section recovery (not kidding) and I am still struggling with some double viosion and lack of focus. The doctor tested my eyesight today and I was miraculously 20/40 BUT the healing that brings the eye's ability to focus takes weeks to occur and I am not there yet. So I am struggling through not only typing this but daily tasks like driving and reading the mail, etc... I must be patient as a patient. Jim was the most unbelievable caretaker. Andrea was so blessed to have him as her nurse, comforter and encourager for those long years. He is a much better nurse than patient himself, though. We barely survived his bought with swimmers ear this summer and are bracing ourselves for cold and flu season. ha. Jim is not a happy camper when he is sick. But neither was Troy so that must come as standard issue with most husbands. Just as I now appreciate being able to see clearly and will never take that for granted, I appreciate having a husband, once again, to care for even when he's ill.

With my eyesight being blurred, I have noticed I am much more careful doing daily tasks, like walking, driving, cutting food, etc.... The first few days after surgery I had to be led around the house by my mom and Jim. I couldn't even open my eyes without excruciating pain. Nothing humbles you like being totally dependent on someone taking you to the bathroom when you need to go. I have to liken this stage to what a newborn baby must feel like; the world a fuzzy place. Except those lucky babes just get to sleep and eat and don't have to drive to soccer practice or try to help kids with homework.

I pray I will see clearly again soon. I think of amazing people who are totally blind, like Christian musician Ginny Owens and am challenged to keep praising and keep trusting. If she can do that with no sight at all, surely I can with this slight impairment.

This thought of comparing what we are going through to what someone else has gone through is always what gives us perspective. I am attending a Ladies' Bible Study here in San Antonio. I knew it was necessary for me to get back into organized study of God's Word and a way to meet new friends. There were several studies to choose from. I chose one on being a godly wife. Yet I knew this study would involve lots of discussion of marital struggles. After Troy died it was so frustrating to hear any woman complain about her husband as I felt they should just get on their knees and thank the Lord they HAD a husband.

I wondered whether I was ready to face the normal tendencies we all have to complain about more things than we give thanks for. However, I decided I could use some polishing in the arena of wifehood again as I have now re-entered the world of marriage. So I signed up and have been going every week faithfully. The title of it is "Changing Me". I found that fascinating as most women would assume a better title would be "Changing Him"!

I have to admit to feeling a little lonely in a crowded room as I am so new and not a part of everyone yet. And so I didn't want to say what I knew would inevitably come bubbling to the surface of my mind - perspective and thankfulness in marriage. Though the pastor's wife that leads the study is careful to not let there be any husband bashing going on, it is natural that women would want to seek Christian advice on their own marital difficulties. This week I debated on going as I hadn't driven yet and was not confident I could recognize which room was which in the church with my weepy blurry eyes. But a sweet gal called and offered to come by and pick me up so I went. Sure enough this was the session that unfulfilled expectations came up and ladies began with their laundry lists of husbands not measuring up. The standard ones; not helping with the children, not picking up laundry, not mowing the lawn, not being a leader, etc... all came up. I knew not one of them knew what it was like to long for a man's dirty socks to lie on the floor waiting to be picked up. Because that meant there was a man there wearing them. I could feel the frustration, tinged with a little bit of grace, coming up in my throat. But I didn't want to make anyone feel like they couldn't be real just because I was in the room. All I said was that I knew from being married, now twice, there will always be things (even some bigger things) that make marriage difficult but I encouraged them that at the end of the day would they weigh their frustrations with the thought of what ifs? What if their husband never returned home from work that night? What if the doctor gave the worst possible news? Jim said Andrea wrote in her journal once, "Thank you Lord, that I felt good enough to do laundry today."

Perspective is a beautiful and necessary thing.
My eyesight will return in some way, I pray, perfectly. And when it does, I will remember siting here typing this email and seeing two letters for every one letter and I will thank the Father for giving me some perspective.