Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008 A Journey of Grace

2008: A journey of grace

As Bono sang on U2's last project, grace is a thought that changed the world. For us, 2008 was a journey of grace, God's grace.

If one year ago, you had told Laura and I all that we would go through in 2008, we would have asked for things to be different and wouldn't have signed up... but even though we had no clue, or any choice, God was not surprised about what we would be facing!

The year began routinely enough as Lily became officially potty-trained! Daniel's band "A Breath of Plagues" held a few local concerts, but soon broke up. We made January and February visits to my side of the family in PA. I chaperoned an elementary school enrichment field trip with David to the NC zoo.

But, the year feels like it really began with a random text message in April sent by my dear niece Jessica - "grandma is in the hospital. She's got high blood pressure. We'll be up tonight if you want to call." Sent in the early hours of the morning, we didn't get the message until the next day and it didn't seem very serious until Laura's brother Rick, living in Portland, called to say that Laura's mom was unresponsive, probably suffered a stroke, and the hospital was asking serious questions about life support. After contacting Laura at work that Saturday, we made plans to leave on Sunday to be with her mother. Mom had fallen during her women's choral group's rehearsal in northern Kentucky late Friday night, and was in a KY hospital. As we travelled, our sister-in-law Linda reached us by cell, and Laura learned that her mom had awakened, and was actually able to speak with her, which was a wonderful answer to prayer, since just hours earlier we didn't know whether or not to pack for a funeral.

We visited a few days, along with Rick, who had flown in the same day we drove there. Rick was actually able to stay longer than we were, but after learning mom had a stroke she recovered quickly and within the week was moved to rehab where she remained for another week before going back home. Knowing she should have someone stay with her, Laura made medical leave arrangements with work and on April 27 took a train back to OH where she spent the next few weeks. The kids and I missed her greatly and traveled to OH in May to visit and bring Laura home, coming back on Mother's Day. By this time, though, mom was in the hospital for the 2nd time, this time due to cellulites and swelling. Ama, her life-friend for over 40 years, had also driven in from Florida and would be staying with mom to help out which gave Laura the opportunity for the break to come back home.

After a few weeks back at home, and knowing that Ama would be going back to FL, Laura again decided to take a second leave, this time for a longer stay and because gas prices were on the rise, travel by bus was a more affordable option. The bus, however, turned out to be a very long, slow, uncomfortable way to travel. Laura left mid-June and would stay in OH until mid-July, a very long time of separation for us that caused us to appreciate fully what we have and never to take the other for granted. The rest of our family still kept our end-of-June vacation plans to go to my parents’ home in PA. Daniel invited Chelsea, his girlfriend. David and Lily were already in PA as they spent much of the summer with their grandparents, aunt and uncles. On the way home to PA, Daniel, Chelsea and I made a swing through DC to visit Pentagon City mall for some shopping and Arlington Cemetery for some history.

In the midst of that week, my brother Kevin and cousin Kent joined Chelsea, me and the kids, for a drive to Cincinnati to reunite with Laura and to spend some time with her mom, now at home. We enjoyed time with Laura's family, and even lent helping hands as Kevin and Kent installed a ceiling fan for Linda. Before we left, we had a nice family picnic get-together at mom's apartment, and took her with us to the Loveland Castle the next morning - the last time that some would see her again. She was doing really well. We enjoyed a tasty Skyline Chili lunch before saying good-bye to Laura and driving back to Lewistown, PA. En route, we made a slight detour to Shanksville, PA where, as darkness set in, we visited the Flight 93 memorial and left our personal thoughts there handwritten on a card at the temporary memorial. Freedom is not free!! It was a tremendously moving experience to be at the site where people we never knew personally were willing to give everything for the sake of freedom, life and liberty. We capped off the week with our annual family reunion, and my 30th (yes! it’s true!) high school reunion. David and Lily decided to stay in PA for a few more weeks as we returned. In OH, Laura's brother Rick flew in to Cincinnati, with his family this time, so Laura got to meet for the first time, and enjoy, her newest nephew Moebius.

Laura returned to Lynchburg via Greyhound in mid-July on a 19-hour bus trip! If there is a next time for such travel, we will use Amtrak! Lesson learned. After a brief rest, later that same morning, we travelled half-way to PA where we met my family who had travelled the other half-of-the-way down from PA to meet in Winchester. It was great for David and Lily to be reunited with mom!

During the weeks Laura was away, Daniel continued to strengthen his relationship with Chelsea and experienced the thrill of the Jr. /Sr. Banquet. He goes to a private Christian school, so we cannot call it the prom! He and his friends were fortunate to ride in a limousine and had a very nice night. After much (I mean much!!) conversation, debate, and discussion, we also gave him permission to get his ears pierced. He now has small plugs and, gladly, he doesn't plan to go any bigger.

Missing Laura so much during our separation helped me get a bit creative in designing a mystery date weekend - the first time I've done something this extravagant and unannounced in our 24 years of marriage... that's how special this was! I do look forward to doing it again sometime.

I had purchased tickets for Amos Lee/Priscilla Ahn in Richmond, VA at The National. We had first seen Amos open for Bob Dylan in September '07 and really have come to enjoy his music. To become familiar with Priscilla's music, I had also bought her CD and been playing it in the car for Laura. So about half-way to Richmond, we started talking about where were going (the city) and where we may eat (since I had a few options in mind). Our hotel was beautiful, with valet service, and a warm chocolate chip cookie handed to us upon check-in. It was even better because it was a priceline.com bargain - I would never have purchased it at full price. Our dinner at The Thai Room was wonderful, sitting in the outdoor gardens, with a charming waitress, with beautiful and tasty curry-spiced Thai dishes. Then, we headed to The National - Laura still unaware of the destination. When we arrived she read the marquee "Amos Lee with Priscilla Ahn" and was absolutely surprised. The venue was beautiful and we had tickets for the fourth row. If you want to see a video I captured and posted to YouTube, visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F694vq-qc9U.

A few weeks earlier, I contacted Priscilla through MySpace and asked her to sing a song for us, having briefly explained our separation. As she began her last song, she asked if there was a couple "Don and Laura" in the crowd and said "this one's for you", then sang "Find My Way Back Home". I think Laura started to cry. We met Priscilla afterwards, got her signature and had her picture taken with us. To top it off, the next day, we visited the Edgar Allen Poe museum in Richmond, and Oakencroft winery in Charlottesville where we had a wonderfully romantic walk in the vineyard together.

Meanwhile in OH, Laura's mom is back on her own in her apartment, and we intentionally planned a return trip about a month after Laura left so we could gauge how well mom was doing. As it turned out, just a few days before intended to leave, Laura was speaking with her mom by phone and she did not sound the same to her. She asked Linda to check on her, and was found disoriented, having had another episode of some kind, ending her back in the hospital a 3rd time. We still visited, and while we were there, she was able to move out of the hospital and into assisted nursing care. That's also when she realized however, that her condition was serious, and that she would not be returning to her apartment or able to keep her dog. We volunteered to be a foster family though for her beloved dachshund, Gretchen. While in OH, actually my birthday weekend, the kids and I went with Laura's brother Ed to a Cincinnati Reds game followed by a Mercy Me concert - and the Reds actually won!! They also had a visit to the Cincinnati Zoo with daddy!

We knew mom wasn't happy staying there but we had to head back to VA to get ready for the start of school. Mom was soon able to move from the acute nursing facility to an assisted living apartment and be more on her own for about a month. We hear she loved it!! But, then another text message in the early morning hours, this time from Laura's brother Rick on Sep 18 -- "mom's in the hospital again - no solid info yet". Turns out she had yet another stroke and was found on the floor in her apartment 45 minutes after the nurses had given her insulin. She was not able to speak. We made quick plans to go back to OH and visit mom in the hospital yet again. It was much harder this time since all mom could do was communicate with her eyes, her smile, and her humming as she tried to sing along with her music. The kids stayed with my sister Tina and did not make the trip. Rick flew in again from Portland and was actually waiting for us when we arrived. I drove back to VA by myself, as we knew Laura needed to be with her mother and brother.

The prognosis for recovery was pretty grim, and the difficult decision was made to not place a feeding tube, yet mom refused any nourishment by mouth and was moved to hospice care as her condition weakened. Laura desired for us all to visit, so we made a second September drive to OH, with Daniel and Gretchen going along as well. We were each able to spend time with mom in her room, take part in rolling her outside in her bed for fresh air and to hear the birds, and given the opportunity to hold her hand, kiss her, and say our goodbyes, knowing we would not see her again on this side of Heaven. With the difficulty of having to balance work and school, I reluctantly returned again to VA and left Laura with her family where she was surrounded by much love and support. Mom's friend Ama had again driven in from Florida. The rest of Rick's family had also flown in, as well as Ben, the oldest grandson, now in the Navy. Everyone was there!!

We stayed in touch by phone and text message, and the day I decided to drive back to be with Laura and her family, October 7, she reached me by phone about an hour into the trip during the 5a hour, to tell me that mom 'woke up in heaven this morning'. We had already packed anticipating the need to attend services. When we arrived in the afternoon, we began making arrangements. Just as it should have been, the funeral was a celebration of Mary Kay's life and her service to others. The kids handled everything wonderfully. The dulcimer society, of which she was a part, played during the visitation the night before. Over 30 members of her Sweet Adeline’s group were also there and sang several songs in honor of mom. She had been with the group for over 20 years and was planning to go with them for competition in Hawaii in November. We were all very grateful for the love, the support, the kindness, and mostly that we had time to spend with mom in her room, just treasuring her and family memories, and knowing that she was going home to be with her loves - her husband who passed away 20 years ago, October 6, her son Rob who died suddenly in an accident in 2003, and her Savior who said it was time for her to come home.

Since Laura is now executor of the will, we have had to travel back to OH two times since then to clean out the apartment, begin to empty some storage units and handle legal matters. One of the trips was on Thanksgiving Day where our holiday meal was at Cracker Barrel, with Laura’s brother Ed and his wife, Liz. We will also have some trips ahead for '09 to be certain.

In November, Laura and I took Daniel and Chelsea to see Amos Lee and Priscilla Ahn. Turns out, however, that Priscilla had injured her guitar playing hand before the tour, and was there as planned. That was a bit disappointing, but we did get to chat with the band members and obtained all of the "required" signatures on a concert poster we pulled down from the wall of a Five Guys (w/permission of course)!

Meanwhile this year, I continued my pursuit of my MBA with two additional courses, one in summer and one in fall - yes, in the midst of everything else life was throwing at me. I now have 4 courses left to complete my degree, and currently have a 3.75 GPA, which I'm very proud of. Both B's I've received were missed by 1.5 points or less! A bit frustrating to be so close, but hopefully it keeps me humble and working hard! I was also able to reconnect with many college friends through Facebook.

The one advantage of the multiple trips to OH? The frequent Skyline Chili five-ways!

Throughout the year, and even as we miss mom even more now during this holiday season, we were part of so many God-moments, and observed so much grace in our lives as we travelled, were hundreds of miles apart, made tough decisions, and grieved together as family. If you were praying for us, thank you, because we know someone one - we felt it!

As Bono concludes:

What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark, no longer stings
Because Grace makes beauty out of ugly things
Grace finds beauty in everything
Grace finds goodness in everything

May you experience His love and His grace in 2009 and have a healthy and prosperous year.

With love from our family to yours,

Don (and Laura, Daniel, David and Lily)