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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


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,