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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Fathers Day

The natural progression of raising children goes something like this: taking care of their many needs as infants…. watching them develop into “real little people”…. raising them to be godly, responsible young adults….equipping them with the skills they need to succeed in life…. and then finally enjoying watching them repeat the cycle with their own children….

The dots in between represent the little daily conversations, exchanges and events that take place in common everyday life. The way we all get to know one another as intimately as we do in what we call the family unit. Husbands and wives. Parents and children. Mothers usually spend a little more time at home so we are the ones front and center to watch the dynamic action between those relationships take place. When Troy would get home from work one of my favorite things was to humor him (or complain to him- depending on the day) about the goings-on of that day.

I always enjoyed telling Troy the cute, funny, fascinating and often “unique” things his kids had said during the day. I miss that. Don’t get me wrong, I love telling Jim these things, too, and the better he gets to know each child individually the more he appreciates and understands the subtle humor or inside meaning. Or the way their individual personalities expose themselves in the light of everyday banter. As time is marching on, he is definitely sharing in this side of the adventure more and more. With each passing month I witness his relationship with the children growing. Jim is a natural-born observer of human nature.. When that quality is the most needed is in the arena of parenting. As much as I see him observing the children I also see them observing him. Troy and I always had very open and loving children. And by the grace of God, the power of thousands covering their precious little hearts in prayer and many people to stand in the gap when Troy was physically gone or I was emotionally spent, they are still those same open and loving children. I knew they would embrace Jim and whether or not they truly understand it now one day they will see the many ways he is pouring himself into their lives. Jim's boys have not as readily embraced me. Yet, out of my love for their dad, I will never stop opening myself up to them and seeking relationships with them. I know Jim misses sharing their more-developed life occurrences with Andrea. I know next year when Anthony graduates from high school and Nic marries Kate one week afterwards, Jim will greatly miss their mother being next to him and seeing her boys reach yet another milestone and crossing into adulthood even further.

I can speculate as to what Jim feels about this situation. However, since he is an amazing writer I will leave it to him to write about his perspective on the subject of parenting without his original partner. Jim did get the blessing of sharing his boys’ childhoods with Andrea. He crossed many bridges with her. I, however, only made it part way before the bridge collapsed. Our babies were still pretty much babies when he passed away.

I dearly miss Troy knowing the kids better than he did when he last saw them. They have grown up and changed so much. Who they are, the way they think, the way they look at life becomes more evident with each passing year. The years are passing, Troy, without you. That thought makes me sad.

The first year milestones like birthdays, first times of this or that happening, holidays and the like become immediate in-your-face type of things I was all too acutely aware he was missing. Better known as the empty-chair syndrome. They caused muc heartache. Still I walk through those days gingerly, waiting for the wave of grief to come and sweep me away. Praise God, much healing has happened and I can enjoy these days for what they are now. Ever missing Troy but in a gentler, softer and more muted way.

However, it’s the little things, especially the little things that come out of the little mouths in our home, that I will never stop longing to tell him.

Troy, like Jim, was good at pegging other people’s personalities with having very little information about them. He was a great judge of character. He talked a little less and listened a little more than I probably did so that fact made him a great observer. And there is no one he observed more than our children. He really studied them. He talked to them a lot. He listened to them more. He spent quality time with them. I think as moms we are a bit envious of the fact that dads get to do that more than we do. I often felt like I just had too much to do taking care of all the needs and demand of feeding and cleaning them. You know how those big piles of laundry or the dirty toilets can seem more important at times. I admit it’s sometimes difficult to stop what I am doing and just listen to them. Troy was much better at that than me. So, even though the bigger kids were only 8, 6 and 3 years old at the time he left for Iraq, I still take comfort in the fact that he already knew as much as he could about who they were. Unfortunately with the twins only being 6 months old, he really never got that chance. I had a new photo taken of the kids and he received it just a few days before he died. His comment about the twins were “wow, they are big and beautiful!” They still are, Troy. Off the charts on height and weight! They look older than they are. And I have to brag, with their angelic little faces, big blue eyes and the blonde ringlets you never saw… they ARE beautiful!

I remember him talking about Bella’s strong will and sparkling personality. He knew she was independent and tough. He always laughed that boys cried much more than she did when they all got spankings. He thought she was going to grow up to be beautiful. He called her his “Pretty P” (the P short for princess). He also knew she would have some princess traits (aka somewhat high maintenance). Once when she was about four years old, I asked her repeatedly to pick up her toys in the living room and take them upstairs to the playroom. She looked me square in the eye and said, “Mom, I can’t do that.” When I asked her why? She replied “I can’t go up there because I look much more beautiful downstairs.” Hmmm, Pretty Princess. You were spot on, Troy. He also said nothing scared him in the world more than raising her, his first daughter.

She also has her daddy's obsession with all things chocolate. On more than one occasion I would catch Troy eating brownies for breakfast or handfuls of chocolate chips before dinner!

Bella and Greyson find an endless amount of topics to debate. Despite mine and Jim’s constant monitoring and disciplining, he looks for ways to make her feel stupid. A couple of months ago, I was standing on the back patio steps with the kids and we were all watching two bright green geckos as they watched us. The kids were fascinated. I asked the children what they thought the geckos might be thinking about us. I said, “Do you think they think we are some kind of giants?” Isabella likes to be the first to comment about anything and proudly speaks up, “Yes, I think they think we are the New York Giants!” Greyson turns to her with a look of disdain and says, in a quite demeaning tone, “Bella, we aren’t even FROM New York.”

I often wonder what Troy would do about this ongoing battle to encourage them to love one another. They constantly rub each other the wrong way. They delight in pushing one another’s buttons. I don't think he would be surprised , either, at how much Greyson and Isabella fight. I know it would ring and all-too-familiar bell in his mind at how he and his sister, Rhonda, went at it. Troy tormented her to no end. And always thought he needed to exhibit how much more he knew about everything than she did. Well, guess what Troy? I am getting the payback for that sin of your past with these two! I just know you would be apologizing to your mother about now for the endless amount of squabbling she must have endured between you and your sister.

He laughed at Greyson a lot. He always got a kick out of the way Greyson thought outside of the normal box compared to everyone else. He knew Greyson was going to be pretty intelligent, too, when he was amazed at how quickly Greyson picked up multiplication in kindergarten just by observing while he helped Boston with his homework. Greyson is in the gifted classes and had near perfect scores on the TAKS test this year, so you were right, Troy. Greyson was more interested in scientific facts and mathematical statistics than sports, though. I remember when Troy subbed for Greyson’s soccer coach once and Greyson was just leisurely strolling down the field noticing grass, butterflies and people more than that round black and white ball. These traits didn’t quite go with Troy’s competitive and excellent athleticism or natural drive, focus or determination. He wasn’t sure he could ever coach Greyson on a team again. He always said we might end up visiting Greyson as an adult in his paleontologist’s trailer on a dig site in some remote country. Greyson is still quite into science and space and looks at life with an interesting twist. But I think Troy would be surprised to see what a great basketball player he has become. Not necessarily because he has Troy’s same natural athletic ability but he does now possess Troy’s level of determination that he lacked that day on the soccer field. He will practice shooting hoops for hours all by himself. He has even developed his own daily workout routine. I catch glimpses of him laying on the driving repetively lifting a chair up and down. He likes numbers, routine and following directions to the letter. Troy never knew those things. He also has sleeping issues some nights and I wonder if it's because you are gone Troy, or would he have had them anyway? He never was a great sleeper so maybe that would happened anyway. Greyson also has a bit of a short fuse like his daddy so we work on good sportsmanship and exhibiting patience with others. But he would be proud of him for not giving up and I think Troy would find he might even enjoy coaching him now!

Boston. Ahh, Boston. You always said “That boy has a mighty heart. He’s special.” You couldn’t have been more right, Troy. As I watched him at his elementary school graduation last Friday, I thought of you. I saw the boy you knew growing into the young man you knew he would become. He won both best athlete and best artist. Two things you excelled in as well, Troy. He was on the Presidential list for academics. He was voted “Best Sportmanship” on his club soccer team. He won the Tim Duncan character award from the Spurs. His teacher put him in for it against many other students from all over San Antonio. He exhibited all the qualities the great player and man, Tim Duncan himself, deems valuable: putting others before self, good sportsmanship, integrity, going the extra mile… etc.. We only lived here a year. Even in that amount of time, strangers saw in him things you saw long ago. His character is solid. He is gracious and thoughtful and kind. He is a natural born leader yet never abrasive. He is patient and kind. He loves the Lord and even reads his Bible on his own. He grapples with deep spiritual issues. I will never forget, one day, months after Troy died, Boston and I were loading groceries in the back of the car in the Wal-Mart parking lot. We were both heartbroken, hurting so badly, desperately wanting the pain to go away. And Boston looked at me and asked with frustration, “Everybody always talks about how Jesus is coming back any day now. Why doesn’t He just come now and take us all to heaven?” There wasn’t much I could say. I wondered the same thing.

Boston, like his father, demands justice. He doesn’t like unfairness or people getting away without repercussions for their actions. I believe this is another way he is like Troy. Troy went to Iraq and fought the good fight that day in late November because he wasn’t going to let the bad guy get away with it. Boston has drive and determination yet is never demanding. He is the only child that remembered to ask me what I wanted for Christmas. And last week at the hospital during his scary fainting episode and ambulance ride, afterwards he thanked me for being there for him. You were right he has a mighty heart.

There have been many times just in the last few months that I have wanted you to hear the things they say or answer their questions. I had to have “the talk” with Boston because his fifth grade class watched the movie on puberty and body changes. I pulled out the book my mom read to me so many years ago and tentatively waded my way through the unfamiliar waters of telling your first-born the facts of life. Troy would have chuckled at the end when Boston said “Mom, I pretty much already knew most of this.” I guess I was too late. Ha.

Boston is addicted to soccer. He seemed to focus in on the sport soon after Troy died. Again, maybe he would have anyway or maybe it gave him something to pour his broken heart into. Either way, he now excels at it and practices alone in the yard for hours every day. He faithfully watches most soccer games and keeps up with all the players and soccer news. He analyzes the pros slick tricks and fancy footwork and is always ready to show me his latest success. The last one was taking his shirt off while bending over and balancing the soccer ball on the back of his neck without the ball ever falling off. Pretty amazing I must admit. He is always telling me about his favorite players and who is being traded for which team. But the other day, he just said out of the blue, “Mom, I wonder who Dad’s favorite soccer player was.” I was saddened to tell him I didn’t know. I wished he had been sitting at the dining table to ask that too as well. My only response was “You’ll have to remember to ask him that when you get to heaven.”

In Mercy Me’s song, “Finally Home”, I always think of Boston and Greyson when Bart Millard, who lost his own father as a teenager, sings about finally getting Home and being reunited with his father. How he tells him:
“I'm gonna wrap my arms around my daddy's neck and tell him that I've missed him and tell him all about the man that I became and hope that it pleased him.”

That will be my boys.

Isabella is never one to shy from a crowd. She never met a stranger. She notices EVERYTHING. Every little beauty flaw. Every little comment. She talks to everyone about everything and believes she is an expert on the subject, whether she is or not. (I think she might have gotten that trait from her Daddy!) The other day, we were talking about adoption and out of the blue, she told me that a little girl in her Sunday School class said that if parents don’t want their baby then Barack Obama will just kill them and wondered whether that was really true. As a mom, how do explain that one to your five-year old? Where was Troy to explain pro-choice vs. pro-life issues with her?

Then another day last week in the car we were discussing one of her friend’s and Bella was telling me about finally getting to go to her house and play. She said “Mom, she has the most beautiful toys. And she is really beautiful, too.” I agreed with her. Then Bella said, “Mom, you know who isn’t beautiful? Satan.” Well, yes, I had to agree with that one.

I confess I see a lot of both me and Troy in Isabella. As my friend Amy has always said, “Isabella has every personality trait Troy and I possess and that is a lot goin’ on in one little girl!” Sometimes it makes me smile. Sometimes it makes me cringe. She takes life by the horns and with passionate determination like her daddy. She loves socializing and girlie stuff like her momma yet is totally comfortable hanging in there with the boys and can persuade you to her side just as vehemently as her dad could. I always told Troy he’d have made a great lawyer with his debate skills. Isabella, too, has the power of persuasion!

She is fascinated with people, especially the famous ones. Where could she have gotten that from? (Yes, I still have every Princess Di book in print.) I also have a shameful little addiction to reading People magazine. Recently I have caught Bella pouring over the pages. For the most part it’s harmless. She likes to look at the pretty movie stars in their fancy clothes in exotic places. She will spend a little extra time on a page if it has some couple kissing. She loves love just like her momma. Yesterday we were sitting the lobby waiting on a prescription to be filled. Not much reading material for children there. Annalise was looking at a parenting magazine. Aspen chose a boating recreation one. And Bella, grabs the Entertainment Weekly, of course. She is scanning the pages looking at the rich and famous. I was watching her “read” and noticed a picture of George Clooney. I told Bella that I thought he was very handsome. She looked at me and said “He looks like Daddy Troy.” I think so too, Bella. Like mother, like daughter.

Jim was recently gone TDY for over a week and I noticed Bella tearing up more frequently over Troy. Then the second Jim returned home she would not leave his sight and clamored for his attention and affection. We wondered if his absence brought her back to life without the presence of a dad.

I know there will be an endless string of things Troy will never hear. A lifetime of stories and quips and comments that I can’t share with him about the children he and I lovingly brought into the world. But I still smile, even if it’s a smile tinged with sadness, when I think of telling him at the not the end of our day, but the beginning of our eternity how much these kids of ours, for better or worse, resemble us.

Troy, you were an inspiring example of how to be a great dad simply by knowing and spending time with your kids. I tell the kids you are watching them from heaven. Not necessarily because I have any biblical fact to base that one. But because I just can’t imagine you not being forever involved in their lives. And totally committed to helping them be the best they can be in Christ. You would be proud of Jim. He has stepped up to the plate and wants to make you and the Lord proud of him. You know how crushed I was that first Father’s Day without you. But, I remember we shared it with good friends at a resort swimming pool and Isabella learned to swim that day. I didn’t teach her. My friend Tami did. I was too sad. Too tired. Too heartbroken to even realize she was ready to learn. Troy, you were such a better swimmer than I. I can’t do the strokes correctly and I am always fearful the kids will drown if I let go of them. You were supposed to be there to do that. But how just like God to send us Jim, another great swimmer, to teach your last two little ones.

Parents dying before children is the "natural" order of things but not so soon. And not before they get a chance to witness all these firsts. For reasons I will never understand God thought you, Troy, had seen enough from your earthly perspective. Instead, He sent many others to step into your shoes that day. Pretty much every single day since you went Home. The Lord always had an amazing way of doing that after you were gone, Troy. Always.

The other day, Jim played me an old song titled, “You Left Me When I Needed You Most” by Randy Vanwarmer. I had heard it a long time ago. I think it must have originally been written by someone whose loved one had chosen to leave them behind but the words somehow still closely resembled the cry of my heart after Troy died.

"You packed in the morning and I
Stared out the window and I
Struggled for something to say
You left in the rain
Without closing the door
I didn't stand in your way

But I miss you more than I
Missed you before and now
Where I'll find comfort, God knows
'Cause you left me
Just when I needed you most

Now most every morning I
Stare out the window and I
Think about where you might be
I've written you letters
That I'd like to send
If you would just send one to me

'Cause I need you more than I
Needed before and now
Where I'll find comfort, God knows
'Cause you left me
Just when I needed you most

You packed in the morning I
Stared out the window and I
Struggled for something to say
You left in the rain
Without closing the door
I didn't stand in your way

Now I love you more than I
Loved you before and now
Where I'll find comfort, God knows
'Cause you left me
Just when I needed you most
Oh, yeah
You left me
Just when I needed you most

You left me
Just when I needed you most"

I did feel like I was standing in the rain holding all five of our children’s little hands. There couldn’t have been a more difficult time for him to have left us. I guess that’s how it always feels, though. There is never a “good time” to be left. Though, I can promise you that God never left me. Not alone, though I felt abandoned. Not in the rain, though it felt my entire life was swept away in a flash flood. Where I found comfort, God DID know. I found comfort in Him. The One who promises to never leave us or forsake us. He is the only Father that will remain forever. He is the Alpha and the Omega. The ultimate Father on Father’s Day.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

What I deserve

Matthew 6:19-21
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Courtesy of the Air Force this Father’s Day I’m sitting in a hotel room in Montgomery Alabama. It is not what I would have wanted but that is our career and sacrifices are all too common. My friend Mike said, “I can’t believe you have seven kids and are alone on Father’s Day.” Seems crazy bit maybe it was so I would have time to write this blog.

Today I heard a song today as I traversed Montgomery searching for a church, the song was by Natalie Grant, called “Our Hope Endures.”

You would think only so much can go wrong Calamity only strikes once And you assume that this one has suffered her share Life will be kinder from here
Sometimes the sun stays hidden for years Sometimes the sky rains night after night When will it clear But our hope endures the worst of conditions It's more than our optimism Let the earth quake Our hope is unchanged
How do we comprehend peace within pain Our joy at a good man's wake Walk a mile with a woman whose body is torn With illness but she marches on

We never walk alone This is our hope Our hope endures, the worst of conditions It's more than our optimism let the earth quake let the earth quake let the earth quake Our hope is unchanged

I listened to the words as I drove and I thought the concept of what we deserve. Of course Ginger and I have had this discussion many times. We did not deserve what we endured and Andrea and Troy did not deserve to have their lives cut short. But I doubt they feel cheated out of anything right now, it is those of us left behind are the ones who tend to fell cheated out.

I did not deserve to watch my wife suffer and die, and Ginger did not deserve to have men in blue uniforms knock on her door. What we deserved was to be happy and for life to progress the way we had laid out, to follow the script. The script many of us adhere to. A script usually penned by our own hand. The one that says when we place our faith in Christ we have a contract with God that entitles us to “What we deserve.”

This past week I was talking to a good friend and they are about to celebrate their 25th anniversary. I did not get that with Andrea and for an instance it hurt and last week our friends retired and built their dream home and have begun life without kids. I did not get that and in a way it also hurt. Andrea and I were 18 months away for an empty nest, and nearing retirement. We had paid the dues of a 20+ career in the Air Force and we were about to reap our harvest, our reward for faithful service, but we never got there. We would always say we will do that when “We get where we were going.” We never got there. And there is a sense of injustice when death erases all dreams plans and entitlements. One of the harder events soon after I lost Andrea was I attended a friends retirement. I sat and listened to the summation of a career and watch the happy family get what they deserved, the accolades for a job well done. I watched the wife pin the retirement pin on her husband and I listened to proclamation of recognizing the efforts of his wife. I watched the excitement as they set off on a new journey outside of the hectic pace of the military life. I felt cheated for Andrea because she will never be praised for all she did for me, my career and the Air Force. She did not get what she “deserved.”

But maybe my grip is not so much what Andrea deserved but what I think I deserved. Really Andrea and Troy got more then they deserved, and it is called mercy. Today Andrea does not hurt, her bones do not ache and she no longer suffers endless doctor’s appointments. Today she has no need of faith, like the lyrics from “I Will Rise” by Chris Tomlin. “My faith shall be my eyes.” Who says we deserve living in the presence of our creator? Thankfully we don’t get what we truly deserve.

Romans 6:23

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

After church today I noticed I had missed a call from Ginger. I played the message and I heard three sweet voices tell me, “Happy Fathers Day Daddy, I love you. As I listened to their words I thought of Troy. I always think their love is his. I fell like I’m at the Academy Awards Troy is unable to attend the announcer says, “Accepting the award for Troy Gilbert is Jim Ravella. The crowd still cheers and applauds but I know their praise is not for me. The pride I fell is his pride and the joy I feel is his. I just have the honor of standing in. It is hard to describe the emotions of being a dad to Troy’s children. He did not walk out on them, nor did he dread his role as a father to five. It could not be more opposite. He loved his kids and loved being a dad. You don’t have to be around very long to learn that about Troy. You hear it from family and friends but I see it most in Boston. He loved his dad and he misses him. Greyson and Isabella know what a special dad Troy was and they definitely feel the loss, but Boston remembers his Dad the most. As the oldest I think he felt the pain Ginger suffered in a different way than the other kids. He was thrust into manhood when all he should have been worried about was being a boy.

I don’t feel nearly the weight of filling in for Troy as a fellow fighter pilot, and he was a war hero. Instead it is the weight of fathering his children that I feel the most. I feel that weight every time I read to the boys hear the girls holler “Watch me Daddy.” I feel it every day of my life. Every time I watch Boston play soccer, Greyson play basketball, Bella draw a picture, Aspen dress up and imagine herself at the ball or Annalise fearlessly take on life. And I feel somewhat guilty for taking any credit for their accomplishments but it how I honor Troy, and his memory.

It helps me to think of myself as standing in for Troy because I know one day I will meet him. I want to know I did my best to raise them to know Christ to know the amazing man that their father was. I know Ginger wrote about the adoption earlier and truthfully that was merely a legal ceremony where I pledged to be legally responsible for the kids. Not to belittle that day because it was a very special day for us all, but I did not become their father that day, I was just made their legal guardian. I considered myself their father the day Ginger and I decided to marry. I picked up a baton that Troy laid down and I will carry it with honor until God calls me home. I don’t ever think of myself as replacing Troy in anyway, but I do stand in the gap for him and in many ways I feel him beside me.

I think one day I will be held accountable for my life. First of course is to Jesus, for my life and what I did with the gifts and talents He gave me. But second, I think is to Troy, for how I raised the kids. This is probably not a biblical principle but it is the level of importance that I place on my role as their father. I hope Troy is proud of me when we meet.

I wish I could attach the message the girls left me to this blog because I cannot capture what it meant to me to hear that from my girls; my first official Father’s Day as their dad. You have heard the saying sweet as honey that is what their words were to me. I’m woefully inadequate in my ability to capture what I felt in this blog. I have been a dad of boys my whole life and I love raising boys and doing boy things but I’m learning that girls are very different. They really do melt your heart. I loved playing Army, or rockets with Nic and Anthony. I loved cutting out guns from wood or making battle flags and forts. I loved reading mysteries and adventures with them. I loved and still do, love watching sports with them. With Nic living abroad he does not get a lot of American sporting events so I called him on Skype and turned the video camera to the TV and we watched Hockey and football together. I have many fond memories of being a dad to Nic and Anthony and I feel that again with Boston and Greyson but I can tell you there is adoration and love in a little girl’s voice when she tells you she loves you. It is humbling to be given such responsibility to care for a little girl. I don’t want to upset any women who might read this and think somehow I think girls are not equal to boys, or boys are better then girls. That is not what I’m trying to say. Boys and girls are equal and they are different and that is okay, it is how God created us. I find that more than my boys, I feel a responsibility to protect my girls. I feel that with Ginger and I felt it with Andrea. It is what made watching her suffer and not being able to stop it so difficult. I can tell you I feel it when I heard the girls say, "I love you Daddy." You sense it in the way they respond when you talk firm or discipline them. They seek your approval more than a little boy and they advocate the role to you. You don’t sense the struggle for independence as much as you do with a boy, Bella being excluded! But even in their independence they still seek approval from dad and I felt it in their sweet soft voices when they said “I love you daddy.” How I felt today when I listened to their voices will be with me forever.

Then it hit me, as much as Andrea and I did not deserve the suffering we endured I do not deserve the blessing of raising seven wonderful children. I concluded maybe I should not look at this life as my reward or my punishment. Maybe I need to remind myself that what I deserve is not wrapped up in the results of this life but in how I react to this life. The truth is the only crown we are promised is when we stand before Jesus.

1 Peter 5:1-5

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ's sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: 2Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

I’m reminded that this life is hard and sometimes it does not go according to the script but then again that depends on whose script you are reading. I need to remind myself that I freely accept Christ suffering for my salvation yet somehow I feel a sense of injustice when I’m asked to pick up my cross.

I will close with my own Father’s Day wish,

Happy Fathers Day Troy. You would be very proud of the kids. Of course they are all growing up way too fast but they are children of character who are a Godly example to those around them. From what I hear, they get that from you.

Until we meet,