He Ain’t Heavy; He’s My Brother

“What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.”
John 13:7

TJ had a sister named Chandler.  They were three years apart and were the two youngest of our five children.  They had the typical sister-brother relationship growing up. They loved each other, they hated each other; they fought, they made up; they were embarrassed of each other, they defended each other; they told on each other, and they covered up for each other.

TJ was the compliant younger child, and Chandler was the bossy older sister.  Chandler pretended she was the mother, and being the easy-going child that TJ was, he did whatever she told him to.  They were the perfect match. She dressed him, carried him around, painted his fingernails, and styled his hair with barrettes.  Other days she lined TJ and her stuffed animals up in her room and made them sit at attention while she played teacher and gave them homework, and once in a while she drove TJ around in her little pink motorcar.

Chandler & TJ, 2005

They shared a close bond and were the best of friends.  It’s hard to find a picture of them when they were youngsters without their arms around each other.  They raised hamsters together, planned practical jokes to play on their father, and spun cars in circles on Ashworth Road when they were teenagers, which I didn’t find out about until TJ’s funeral.  They were definitely partners in crime.

Chandler was married in January of 2015.  TJ was two years into his brain injury and had just moved back home two months prior.  Chandler wanted a simple wedding at home with just a few close family members. Her wedding venue was our family room.  It was a beautiful, intimate wedding. After the ceremony, during pictures, TJ broke down and sobbed, and the entire room began wiping their eyes as they watched this young man struggle.  I never asked him why he was so upset, but I believed it was because the days of them being kids together was over. Life had now changed drastically for both of them and they could never go back to the way things used to be.

Chandler & TJ
January, 2015

After they were married, Chandler and her husband Julian moved to Cedar Rapids, which is a city two hours away from Des Moines, but they were still close enough to come home quite often to visit and spend time with family.  Many times while Chandler was living there, she expressed that she was homesick and wanted to move back to Des Moines but was unfortunately unable due to jobs and financial reasons. Finally, after a few years of living away, in the fall of 2017, they were unexpectedly in a good place where it was the perfect time to move back home.

Chandler & TJ
Summer, 2017

At the time of their move, Julian was blessed with a work-from-home job, and only Chandler had the task of finding a new job.  In the summer of 2017, we began self-paying for caregivers, and since Chandler was moving back, we struck up a deal with her to be his caregiver for a while until she found a permanent job.  It was a win-win for all of us.

But just a couple of days after she moved home, TJ was admitted into the hospital for what was to be his last time, although we didn’t know that at the time.  Whenever TJ was in the hospital, we generally never left him alone because communication with the nursing staff was very difficult, so Chandler took the evening caregiver shift.  She was wonderful at it. She took ownership of it and having her there gave me a tremendous break. She was fiercely protective of him and was his biggest advocate……but she also made him do things that he didn’t want to do, and now that he was older, he wasn’t so compliant anymore.

One day Chandler gave TJ a shower, and he was irritated with her.  When she tried to clean him on the right side, he moved to the left.  And when she tried to clean him on the left side, he moved to the right.  After struggling with him for 45 minutes, she told him it was time to get out.  But TJ didn’t want to get out, so he wrapped his arm around the shower bar and held on for dear life as she pulled and tugged.  And when she finally got his arm free, he then pushed his leg against the shower wall to brace himself so that she was unable to move him.

And then my phone rang.

“Hello,” I answered.

“Mom, TJ isn’t listening to me,” Chandler said.  “He has been in the shower for 45 minutes, and he won’t get out.  Therapy is coming in soon, and he needs to get ready.”

“Ok, put him on speaker,” I said.  “TJ, knock it off. Get out of the shower.  You need to listen to your sister. This is already hard enough, and you don’t need to make it any harder.”

That was all it took, and then he got out.

Many times during this hospitalization, Chandler expressed frustration about TJ being in the hospital.  When she moved home and became his caregiver, she was looking forward to hanging out with her brother again and doing fun things together, like going to movies, bowling, and shopping.  But since coming home, all they had done together was sit in a hospital. She couldn’t wait for him to get healthy again and be discharged.

Chandler & TJ, February 2018
(Taken a couple of weeks before
TJ passed away)

But as the hospitalization drug on and TJ’s health declined, for the first time, Chandler began to understand how stressful and exhausting it was taking care of him.  Many times while on her way to the hospital, she called crying and said she was so anxious about taking care of him. Because he was unable to talk and was too weak to sign, it was impossible to figure out what he needed.  When we couldn’t figure it out, he became agitated and upset. It was miserable for both TJ and the caregiver. We felt incredibly sorry for him for the pain and suffering he was going through, and we constantly felt like we were failing him.  It was a lot for a young woman in her 20s to go through.

By the end of TJ’s three-month stay in the hospital, his lungs had been destroyed by either cavitary pneumonia or blood clots.  Doctors told us that even if he did live past this illness, the cavities in his lungs would fill up with fluid and he would get infection after infection and the infections would eventually kill him.  That was brutal news for a sibling to hear. Chandler was grief stricken to lose her brother and went home every night researching other hospitals we could transfer him to and different procedures we could try like lung transplants in hopes of prolonging his life.  However, her father and I instinctively knew that this was the end. We had done all we could do for him and taken him everywhere we could think of, and it was time to let him go. Death is incredibly painful, and it was hard watching both of our children struggle.

Months after the funeral and shock wore off, although Chandler was still incredibly sad, we began to see a beautiful spirit emerge from inside of her.  In the beginning of TJ’s hospitalization, she was frustrated and didn’t understand why God would bring her here to be TJ’s caregiver just to sit in a hospital day after day with him, but after TJ’s death, she was able to look back and see God’s loving hand orchestrating her move back home at just the right time so she could spend every single day of the last three months of TJ’s life with him.  What a blessing she had been given from the Lord.

There are many times when we do not understand what God is doing in our lives.  And quite frankly, sometimes it looks like He is doing everything wrong and we could do it better if given the opportunity.  When everything around us starts to crumble, we must resist the human urge to grumble against Him and trust that He is always at work, that He always has a plan, and He always has our best interest at heart.

God loves us, and even though we may go through incredibly painful events in our life, if we choose to focus on Him and not on our circumstances, we will see His loving hand guiding, directing, and providing for us.

“Faith is trusting in advance what will only make sense in reverse.”
Philip Yancey

The Mini Fridge

TJ and Dylan, Summer 2012

TJ spent the summer of 2012 in Dallas, Texas with his oldest sister Ashley working at Trophy Club Country Club, which his brother-in-law Matt managed, as a cart attendant on the golf course.  We were excited that he had the opportunity to spend time with Ashley and her family, which included an adorable, little 2-year-old nephew named Dylan. TJ and Dylan became very close during TJ’s time in Dallas. They bowled, went to Rangers baseball games, and ate at fun restaurants, but their favorite activity together was swimming.  Like any 2-year-old, Dylan loved to jump in the pool and have Uncle TJ catch him over and over again, and by the end of the summer, Dylan grew brave enough to jump in, be caught, and then promptly sink to the bottom of the pool with Uncle TJ only to shoot back up again. Dylan loved his uncle TJ and Uncle TJ loved Dylan.

TJ and Dylan, Summer 2012

While TJ was in Texas, Travis and I planned to surprise him with a newly remodeled bedroom in the basement upon his return.  He had never really had a nice bedroom before, so we were very excited about the opportunity to surprise him. Travis had worked in construction most of his life and could do almost anything, so he spent the entire summer working on it himself to save money.

The room was a large room and was big enough to fit a dresser, full-sized bed, large TV and entertainment center for storing TJ’s Xbox equipment, and his drum set.  Travis installed beautiful, dark laminate floors which would make cleanup of TJ’s food and drink messes easy since TJ was a slob. In one corner of the room was a very large closet with a hanging bar and rows of shelves for storing his paintball equipment, and in the other corner on the same wall was a small bathroom with a sink, toilet, and a corner shower.  Even though it was small, it was his, and he had everything he needed. I decorated the room with a poster of a Navy Seals Sniper on the wall, a black manly comforter on the bed and black area rug under the drum set, and brown accessories in the bathroom. And the temperature in the basement was just the way he liked it, very cold. It was the perfect space for a teenage boy.

When TJ arrived home, I could barely hold my excitement in.  All three of us sauntered down the stairs to the bedroom together to reveal the surprise.  When he walked through the bedroom door, his eyes lit up. Of course, being the teenage boy that he was, he didn’t show as much emotion as I hoped for, but I still think he was pleased.  We told him we planned on getting him a mini fridge that he could keep water and Gatorade in for him and his friends, and like any guy would be, he was more excited about the mini fridge than the comforter, pictures, and shower curtain color. 

Fall and winter came and went and still no mini fridge.  When TJ asked about it again, we told him we were sorry, and we reassured him we would definitely get him one soon.  In the spring of 2013, TJ was diagnosed with a heart defect requiring surgery, and the mini fridge was then the last thing on anyone’s mind.  After a bad surgical outcome which resulted in 2-½ weeks in the hospital in Des Moines with two respiratory failures, a Life Flight trip to Mayo Clinic that resulted in a 7-month hospitalization with another respiratory failure that very easily could have ended in death, and four more surgeries, the mini fridge never crossed our minds again…until one day when TJ was in the general pediatric floor in the Francis Building at St. Mary’s Hospital.

TJ and Aiden, Summer 2013
St. Mary’s Hospital

I was sitting in the room with TJ like I did every day when he signaled that he wanted to ask me something.  I grabbed a pen and paper, and I held his hand while he finger spelled, “C – a – n – I – s – t – i – l – l – g – e – t – a – m-i-n-i – f-r-i-d-g-e?” All the air left my body. I didn’t know what to say, and my mind raced to come up with an answer.  I didn’t want to remind him of all of his deficits and squelch any shred of hope he — or I –had, so I answered, “Sure, of course, you can still get a mini fridge.”  But then after answering, I immediately felt terrible that maybe I had just given him false hope. But what else was I supposed to do?

Later in the day, the pediatric psychiatrist and a resident came by like they often did a couple times a week.  Their role was to talk with the patients and offer counseling, but since TJ couldn’t talk, they generally ended up just visiting with me.  We were standing in the hallway just outside TJ’s door when the doctor asked how TJ was doing. I responded, “Well, he asked for a mini fridge for his bedroom at home this morning.”  And then I added, “But I don’t know what he thinks he’s going to put in it because he can’t swallow anything.” And at that moment the ridiculousness of what our lives had become hit me, and I began to laugh uncontrollably.  My son who was still cognitively all there but couldn’t swallow, open his mouth, hold his head up, sit up, had minimal control of his arms and was in a wheelchair wanted a mini fridge for his bedroom. A tangled mess of emotions had been swirling inside me for months.  I was heartbroken he was injured, thankful he was alive, terrified of the future, hopeful for recovery, grief stricken beyond belief all rolled into one, and that tangled up mess was like an overfilled balloon begging for an outlet.

And as I stood there laughing, the psychiatrist and the resident stared at me with straight faces and never cracked a smile once.  I imagined they were either thinking that I was behaving very inappropriately for laughing at my son’s condition or that I was having a nervous breakdown and needed to be thrown in the nearest padded room immediately.  Either way, their refusal to join with me in my laughter made me laugh even more. In my exasperation about TJ’s condition, I had come to the place where I knew I could do nothing else but laugh about it.

What about you?  Does life ever get to be too much for you and you just feel like throwing in the towel or catching the nearest bus bound for sun and fun?  While jumping on a bus may sound like a good idea sometimes, it may end up causing you greater problems in the long run. Try laughing instead.  God designed each one of us with an awesome ability to laugh. The old saying “laughter is the best medicine” has been proven to be true, and studies have shown laughter has powerful health benefits.  It bonds us with others, lessens pain, decreases stress, and helps us cope with sadness.

Proverbs 17:22 of the New Living Translation says, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit saps a person’s strength.”  Scripture teaches that a cheerful heart is more than just great for the personality, it is good medicine for the body as well. But scripture also says that the person who lives with a broken spirit will feel the effects of it right down to their bones as their defeated attitude saps them of all their strength.

Laughter helps us to surrender control and place the outcome of our situation in the hands of a mighty God who truly loves us and knows what’s best for our lives.  So the next time life becomes overwhelming and you’ve had just about all you can take, remember to laugh and place your trust in the Lord, and instantly He will give you a new perspective.

“She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future.”
Proverbs 31:25

Praise You In This Storm

TJ’s heart surgery took around six hours.  Throughout the surgery, a nurse went back to the OR and checked on the status of how things were going.  At each check-in everything was going well. Right before her very last check-in, she told us that this was the most critical part of the surgery.  I started praying as I watched her leave the waiting room. When she came out, she said she stood in the doorway, and the surgeon gave her a thumbs up.  Relief washed over me. We were almost done.

The surgeon came out after it was over.  The first thing he said was, “It was complicated.”  I caught my breath and immediately asked him, “But he’s okay; right?”   He nodded. That was my first inkling that something was wrong, but the surgeon said he was okay, so I quickly pushed it out of my head.

I then went upstairs to TJ’s room and sat with him until he woke up.  The first thing he said was, “Mom, I didn’t die.” Sigh. We had gotten through it.  But almost right away we noticed he couldn’t swallow and couldn’t move his eyes.  His eyes were pointed down, and he tilted his head back to look at us. We told ourselves it was just the anesthesia, and it will go away soon.

But as the hours ticked by, it wasn’t going away.  In fact, things were getting worse. He was becoming increasingly confused.  He was hallucinating and saying crazy things. He ripped his IVs out and had to be tied down to the bed.

As the week progressed, he continued to worsen.  Even though his confusion got better, his talking became a whisper, and then he quit being able to talk altogether, and he stopped being able to write.  He couldn’t hold his head up anymore. His mouth started clamping shut, and he tried desperately to pry it apart. He started biting his tongue and lips and would squeal in pain.  He was coughing and coughing and choking, and it went on and on for hours. We were trying desperately to suction him, but because he couldn’t open his mouth, we couldn’t get the secretions out.  At one time he whispered, “This is miserable.”

TJ before and after intubation

A week after the surgery, he went into respiratory failure.  During intubation, his lungs had been over inflated, and the increased pressure blew holes into his lungs.  His entire body filled up with air. They then put chest tubes in, which are very painful, to remove the air.  They also at this time discovered blood clots in his lungs, which can be fatal.

The doctors were very confused about what was happening to him.  His MRI had a few little infarcts on it, which are areas of oxygen loss, but they said it wouldn’t be causing what was going on now.

They thought he might have an autoimmune disease, Myasthenia Gravis, that may have been triggered during the surgery.  They were testing for it, and we were anxiously awaiting the results that would shed light onto the mystery.

I spent a lot of my time walking the halls and praying.  I was terrified and physically sick from the intense fear that gripped me day and night, but I knew I had a choice to make.  I desperately wanted to cave into the fear and scream and go berserk, but I chose to have courage and walk through the fear believing that God was by my side.

Right before TJ’s surgery, I had taken a Beth Moore Bible study called Believing God.  During that study, I learned that the Christian life wasn’t just about believing IN God, but it was about believing what God says and taking God at his Word.  I was now at a crossroads. Was I going to take what I learned and apply it to my life, or was I going to remain untouched? I chose to trust Him, and He showed me He was with me every step of the way. 

TJ’s Myasthenia Gravis tests came back negative.  I was really hoping and praying we would get a diagnosis and then they could fix him.  Despair was knocking on the door, and it was a battle to fight it off. Exhausted, I laid down on TJ’s couch. I didn’t know where to go from here or how to help my son who was suffering so miserably.  And I was so scared. I drifted off to sleep. I don’t know how long I had been asleep, but I awakened to the song by Casting Crowns Praise You in This Storm going through my head.

As the thunder rolls
I barely hear You whisper through the rain
I’m with you
And as Your mercy falls
I raise my hands and praise
The God who gives and takes away

And I’ll praise you in this Storm
And I will lift my hands
That you are who you are
No matter where I am
And every tear I’ve cried
You hold in your hand
You never left my side
And though my heart is torn
I will praise you in this storm

God’s presence was so near to me at that moment, enveloping me, drawing me closer.  I was not alone.

Immediately after, the neurologist then came in and said they were now going to test for another autoimmune disease called Guillain-Barre.  At that moment hope sprung to life again within me. Not long after that, I received a text message from a friend who I hadn’t talked to in weeks.  She had heard what we were going through and sent me a YouTube video link. I clicked on it, and it was the video Praise You in this Storm by Casting Crowns.

God is so good!  I knew He was with me.  He knew how much this was hurting me, but He wanted me to praise Him despite the terrible storm I was in.  I decided that no matter what lay ahead, I wasn’t going to get angry at Him and turn my back on Him but that I was going to trust Him and remain faithful. 

“Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you, yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.” 
Isaiah 41:10

Ball Juggling

Psalm 34:15 & 17
“The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and His ears are attentive to their cry.  The righteous cry out and the Lord hears them; He delivers them from all their troubles.”

It was a Thursday, and TJ and I had had a busy day of therapy in the morning and school in the afternoon.  Because TJ started his senior year second semester, the school didn’t have a nurse employed for him, so they asked me to be his nurse.  I was thrilled TJ was going back to school to finish his senior year and would be around young people again, so I eagerly accepted. Even though it meant that I was extremely busy running him from one thing to the next, I didn’t mind.  It was better than him sitting alone in front of the TV all day.

After writing poems and learning about America’s government, we returned home from school, and I parked him in his favorite La-Z-Boy chair so he could play Xbox.  He loved his Xbox. He played it all the time, but with hands and arms that had a mind of their own, I don’t know that he ever really accomplished much. Most times when he was playing, I found him with his arms over his head, the controller upside down, and the character on the TV running around and around in circles.  Even so, it didn’t seem to bother him, and he still kept trying.

TJ & Aiden, 2011

After getting him settled in, it was late in the afternoon when I looked at the time.  3:30 pm. Aiden would be getting off the bus in a half an hour. Aiden is our grandson we adopted as a baby.  He calls us Nana and Papa. He was in kindergarten at the time, and it was West Des Moines’ policy that kindergartners had to be picked up at the bus stop by an adult.

After attempting to do a little housework before picking Aiden up, I heard TJ’s call button sound.  I strolled into his room to see what he needed and found that he had had an accident and was very upset.  I lifted him up, walked him to the bathroom, and began cleaning the mess and doing laundry. I was so focused on my chores that I lost track of time until I heard the sound of my phone ringing.  I halted what I was doing and looked at my phone. It was the West Des Moines School Bus. I quickly glanced at the clock and saw that it was 4:10 pm. I immediately knew why they were calling — I had forgotten to pick Aiden up from the bus.  Panic set in, and I felt my stomach getting sick.

“Hello?”  I answered.

“This is Lisa from the West Des Moines School Bus.  There was no one to pick Aiden up from the bus stop today so the driver kept him on the bus.  Are you home now?”

I could feel my stomach twisting and turning inside of me.  All I could think of was Aiden sitting on the bus, scared with tears running down his cheeks because his nana had forgotten him.

During TJ’s initial hospitalization, while TJ and I were in Rochester and Papa was working nights, Aiden was shuffled around from house to house for months.  He was too young to understand what was happening and sometimes begged his papa not to leave him.

TJ and Aiden
St. Mary’s Hospital, 2013

During that time, my hope was that after we came home, things would get better for Aiden and we would achieve some type of normalcy.  But things hadn’t gotten better. Caring for TJ still took up most of our time, and Aiden was left with the scraps.

We were failing.  We were juggling more balls than we could handle, and some balls were dropping.  I knew deep down that it wasn’t our fault, that it was out of our control and we were doing the best we could, but I still felt incredibly guilty and worried that Aiden was going to pay the price.

“Yes, I’m home.  I’m sorry. My other son is disabled, and I was in the bathroom with him and couldn’t get to the bus stop.  Is Aiden okay?”

“Yes, he’s fine.  It’s no problem. The driver will keep him until the end of the route and then will drop him back off at his stop.  I will let you know when he is on his way back.”

“Thank you so much.  I will be there,” I said and hung up the phone.

I quickly went back to cleaning TJ up and began a conversation with the Lord expressing my frustration with our current situation.

“I don’t understand, Lord.  Why would You give us this little boy when You knew TJ was going to get sick and we wouldn’t be able to handle all of this?  This isn’t fair to Aiden. Please do something.”

But nothing changed.  We were still juggling too many balls, and Aiden was still getting the scraps, but we kept pressing on, trusting in the Lord and His promises, and doing the best we could. 

One day several months later, I noticed that Aiden was watching something on YouTube.  Becoming concerned about what was entering his little mind, I asked him what he was watching.

“Bible stories,” he answered.

After studying what was on the screen, I noticed they weren’t just children’s Bible stories like Veggie Tales or cartoons.  They were adult Bible stories, like the Ten Commandments.

“Hmmmmmm…..that’s a bit unusual,” I thought.  “What kid wants to watch adult Bible stories?”

I was intrigued and somewhat skeptical, so I sat down with him to find out more.

During our conversation, I learned that he had been searching YouTube for Bible stories and had watched almost every one of them and was trying to find more.  He clearly was fascinated by them. I was astounded and could hardly believe it.  I thought back to when I was a kid and remembered how much I disliked those movies.  I thought those movies were boring and that the people on them were strange and dressed and talked funny.

After telling a friend a few months later about his incredible love of Bible stories, she commended me on our great parenting, and I burst out laughing.  I knew it had nothing to do with us. We had been so focused on taking care of TJ and searching for answers that would improve his life that we hadn’t been spending quality time with Aiden and teaching him God’s Word like we should have been.  The honest truth was we were failing him. But God wasn’t. God was instilling a love for His Word in Aiden’s little heart, and without us even knowing, He was picking up the balls we were dropping.

Aiden & Mrs. Stuart, 2019

Aiden is now 9 years old and entering fourth grade, and he gets more individual attention from Nana and Papa now than he sometimes wants.  He still loves Bible stories, and one day after his amazing NBA career is over, he wants to be a pastor. This past year we enrolled him in a Christian school after TJ died, and at conferences this year, one of the first things out of Mrs. Stuart’s mouth was, “He is enamored with Bible stories!”  At the time she knew nothing about his past or how much sharing that tidbit of information would encourage me. What a blessing that was to me.

What about you?  Do you sometimes feel like you have too many balls in the air?  Do you feel that you just can’t keep it all together and do everything well?  During my time of ball juggling, I learned that God hears us and is always with us.  He strengthens us and upholds us (Isaiah 41:10). He sets our feet on solid ground and steadies us as we walk along (Psalm 40:2).  He makes a way when there seems to be no way. Although we may fail, He never does.

Whatever difficulty you are going through, you are never safer than when your trust is in the Lord.  He loves you. He will hear you and will deliver you from all your troubles.

The Woman with the Box

Philippians 4:19
“And my God will meet all your needs according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”

It was a hot summer morning in Rochester, Minnesota, and a wave of heat hit me as I exited the doors of the Ronald McDonald House.  Summers here were milder and shorter than in Iowa, but needless to say, we still got the taste of a good heat wave for a couple of weeks in July.  The hospital was always so cold, so I didn’t mind a little heat. After meandering through the parking lot to the sidewalk just beyond, with my head down, I started out on my morning walk to St. Mary’s Hospital.  I began thinking about the coffee I would soon be purchasing at the Caribou across the street. Pleasing thoughts of mochas and lattes danced in my head, and I quickened my pace in eager anticipation of drinking one of them.

While walking, I looked up to see how far away from the hospital I was when I noticed a rather peculiar sight.  There was a young woman a ways up ahead of me carrying a large box. Even though I was still quite a distance from her, I could see she was really struggling with it.  It held my attention for a while because I wondered why she would be taking such a large box to the hospital. Unable to come up with a reasonable explanation, I went back to walking with my head down.  The next time I looked up, I was surprised to see that she hadn’t arrived at the hospital doors yet. She apparently had given up on carrying the box and was now sitting on it beside the sidewalk.

“Hmmmmmmm,” I thought.  “That’s not something you see every day.”

As I approached her, I soon realized she had stopped and was sitting on it because she was bawling her eyes out.  Concerned, I stopped and asked, “Are you okay? Can I help you carry the box?”

She nodded.  Together we picked the box up and started out again for the hospital, and she began opening up about what was troubling her.  “I’m from North Dakota and my baby is having heart surgery. I have three other kids at home with my husband, and my husband is angry at me, so he only sent me half the money he was supposed to.  I need to ship this box, and I don’t have enough money to ship it.”

My heart sank.  This was such a hard place.  Everywhere I looked there were sick children and grief-stricken parents.  For most families financial difficulties loomed, and fear of the unknown outcome of their sick child hung over their heads like a black cloud.  It was no wonder she and her husband were arguing. One very sick child was a state away with one parent, and three other young children were at home with the other.  They had to be stressed to the max. As we walked, I listened and offered what encouragement I could.

After arriving at the hospital, we came to my elevators just inside the Francis Building.  “These are my elevators,” I told her. “How much farther do you still need to go?”

“Not much farther.  I can handle the rest by myself.  Thank you for helping me,” she said.

I then stopped, set the box down, pulled out my wallet, and handed her $60.

“Oh, I can’t accept this,”  she said.

“No, please take it,” I said.  “It’s not my money anyway. People gave it to me.”

While TJ and I were at Mayo, I was amazed at the amount of money I received in the mail.  I couldn’t believe how kind people were, and some of them were people I didn’t even know. A few weeks after TJ’s surgery, when we realized his medical problems were not going to be over any time soon, I quit my job to stay with him.  Since we lost an entire income, my goal was to use the money I received in the mail to live on so I would not have to dip into our already tight finances back home. Up to this point in our stay in Rochester, I always had everything I needed.

So after again encouraging the woman to take the money, she finally relented and accepted it, and we went our separate ways.  I pushed the up arrow for the elevator, and when the elevator doors opened, I was happy to see there was no one in there and I would be riding the elevator alone because I had some praying to do.  As I rode to TJ’s floor, I prayed, “Lord, I gave that woman almost everything I have, but I know it’s what You wanted me to do. I’m low on money now, Lord, so You are going to have to help me.”

I then walked off the elevator and pushed my concerns about money aside because I trusted that God would take care of me.  I really didn’t have time to worry about money anyway. I had to keep focused because there were more important things going on.  TJ was having trouble with excruciating headaches as they weaned him off powerful medications.

Over the next few days, I tightened the purse strings.  There were no more mochas or lattes from Caribou, and I ate simple meals that were prepared in the kitchenette in my room at the Ronald McDonald House.  About three days after the box incident, during a short lunch break, I walked to the Ronald McDonald House to check the mail. I was excited to see that in my mail cubby was a card from a good friend named Carole.  I always loved getting mail from home. After opening the envelope and reading the front of the card, I noticed there was a folded-up check inside. I unfolded the check, and to my surprise, saw that it was for $60, the exact same amount I gave the woman with the box.  God had met the needs of the woman carrying the box as well as my own needs.

I learned a powerful lesson that week when I was in Rochester.  I learned that if I hold on tight to everything I have because I’m afraid of where more will come from, then I really am not trusting that God will provide for my needs.  But if I take a step of faith and believe that God will meet all my needs like He says He will, I learned that I will hold on to what I have loosely and will allow myself to be used as a conduit so that God can use me to get money to others who are in need as well.  The Lord says in Matthew 6 that just as He feeds the birds of the air and clothes the grass of the field, He will also feed and clothe His children. All He requires of us is to trust Him and take Him at His Word. And if we do that, then we will be enormously blessed by watching how the great Hand of God moves into action and provides for His people.

He truly is a God who will meet all of our needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.

Airplane Melinda

1 Samuel 18:1
“…..the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.”

My cousin Brandon

It was a warm, Florida afternoon in November of 2005 when I received a phone call from Iowa and learned that my cousin Brandon had been killed in a car accident at the age of 27.  Upon hearing the news, I crouched down on the floor of my Aunt Marcy’s living room and wept. He was the first one to die in our large family of cousins on my mother’s side, and he died way too young.  Fond memories of the ornery but loving young boy running around my grandparents’ farm shooting us with toy guns and the handsome young man he grew up to be singing karaoke to the song Love Shack at our summer picnics by the pond flooded my mind.  Nothing was ever going to be the same again.

At the time of Brandon’s death, we had been living in Florida for a few years, and I was terribly homesick.  I hadn’t been back home since we moved, and I missed everything about Iowa. I missed my family and friends. I missed spring and the excitement of watching the flowers push up through the ground while the robins hopped around the yard and gathered material to build their nests and lay their eggs.  I missed the Iowa State Fair in late summer with its farm animals, talent shows, and, of course, deep fat fried foods served on a stick. I missed watching the corn grow in the cornfields all summer long and then marveling at the beautiful colors when it turned bright gold in the fall. I missed walking through the woods without worrying about getting bit by a rattlesnake.  I missed breathing in the cold air during the winter nights and the smell of smoke coming from the chimneys. Even though it was a tragedy that initiated my return, I was thrilled to be going home. Living by the beach in beautiful Naples was lovely and was a time in my life I would always treasure, but what living there had taught me was that I was a northern girl and my heart belonged to the Midwest with its rolling hills and friendly people.

Upon learning of Brandon’s death, my husband quickly bought an airplane ticket for me, and I boarded a plane headed for Des Moines the very next day.  As I shimmied down the tight aisles with my carry-on suitcase in hand, I found my seat and realized that I was unfortunately in the middle. “Oh, well, you can’t have it all,” I thought.  “At least I am going home.” I quickly stowed my luggage away in the overhead bin and sat down.

I noticed in the window seat next to me, was an attractive woman about my age with dark hair and brown eyes.  I looked at her for a few seconds with the intention of saying hi, but she seemed to be engrossed in a book. Her eyes never left the page, so I decided to leave her alone.  I quickly pulled out my book God’s Story by Anne Graham Lotz and began reading as well.

Almost immediately, I felt the Holy Spirit prompting me to strike up a conversation with her and tell her about Christ…….and I didn’t want to.  I wasn’t very good at witnessing to others. It was uncomfortable, and I felt like I never made any sense and stumbled over my words. I ignored the nudging and continued reading my book……….but the nudging persisted. Still trying to find excuses to ignore the Holy Spirit, I noticed the book she was reading was a Christian book, so again I talked myself out of it and told myself, “She’s probably already a Christian anyway, so there’s no need to talk to her.”  But the nudging continued on and on.

When we were getting close to Atlanta, tired of trying to fight off the Holy Spirit’s coaxing, I finally summed up the courage to say something. Upon hearing the captain’s voice that it was clear skies in Atlanta, I glanced out the window expecting to see beautiful blue skies but instead saw big puffy white clouds. I said to her, “Well, that’s sure a lot of clouds for clear skies.” She perked up right away and agreed, and we began visiting.

I learned her name was Melinda, and she lived not too far north of where I lived in Naples.  She was a teacher at a Christian school and was headed home to Iowa as well for a funeral. I learned that she had grown up in Iowa like me and moved to Florida later in life.  I was surprised to learn that we had attended the same church and knew some of the same people. She also shared that for a time she lived in Washington, Iowa while growing up. My husband had family there and she knew them as well.  I was astonished at all of our commonalities. I looked around the plane, and thought, “Out of all the people on this plane that I could have been sitting by, and I just happened to be sitting by her, someone I have so much in common with.”  There was an immediate bond between us. I then said to her, “God put us together.” And she agreed.

We visited the rest of the plane ride to Iowa, and by the time we got off the plane in
Des Moines, it was like we were old friends.  As we rode the escalator down to baggage claim, Melinda’s sister was standing at the bottom waiting to greet her. As she watched Melinda and I make our way toward her, visiting and laughing all the way, a confused look spread across her face, a look that said, “Who is this woman, and how on earth could you have possibly known anyone on that plane?”  Melinda then introduced me and we exchanged hellos. Before going our separate ways, we compared plane trips home. We both were disappointed to learn we were returning to Florida on the same day but at different times and on different planes, so we exchanged phone numbers, hugged, said goodbye, and promised each other we would stay in touch. I then set out to find my mother who was picking me up.

Uncle Ed (Brandon’s father) riding the cow made by
Great Grandpa Dougherty

During my visit, I stayed in the country at my Aunt Frankie’s house.  She and her husband Barney live a very simple lifestyle, and nothing had changed much since I had been gone.  The hand-painted cows made from gas tanks and antique cream cans my Great Grandpa Dougherty fashioned together still stood in the front yard, the wall of mirrors that greeted you when you first walked through the door into the living room hadn’t changed, and the fish tank by the front door still remained.  It was comforting to be back in my old country environment.

The funeral was at a small country church on a gravel road and was officiated by a pastor who had been associated with our family for many years.  The church was so full that the sanctuary couldn’t hold everyone, and some people had to stay in the basement during the service. I watched in sadness as Brandon’s mom struggled to walk down the aisle and take her seat at the front of the church.  She understandably was unable to contain her grief and wept loudly. Burying a young person is not the natural order of life and leaves a person with many unanswered questions.

After the funeral service, we pulled into the country cemetery for the graveside service and parked right behind a big pickup truck.  It was snowing heavily, and the snowflakes were unusually big and beautiful. I hadn’t seen snow in a few years and was excited that during this return trip home, God blessed me with snow.  As we were undoing our seat belts, I watched as a cute, small-framed woman jumped down out of the truck in front of us bundled up in a Carhartt coat. A smile broke out across my face. Yes, I was definitely back in Iowa.  You would never see a wealthy Naples woman in a Carhartt coat.

The visit went too fast, and early the next day, my mom dropped me off at the airport for my return flight home.  As I was checking in, I learned that the plane I was booked on had mechanical difficulty and I was being moved to another plane which left later that morning.  I then had quite a bit of time to kill, so I purchased a coffee, yogurt, and magazine and proceeded to my gate to wait. As I was reading my magazine, I happened to look up and saw Melinda walking toward me with a big smile on her face.  I had been moved to her plane. We rode all the way back to Florida together. When we arrived at Ft Myers airport, both of our families were waiting for us, and everyone met each other. And we have been friends ever since.

Meeting for dinner in Ft Myers, FL spring break 2019
(left to right) Aiden, Travis, Kelly, Micah, Melinda, Mike

During that airplane flight to Iowa, I thought God was nudging me to share about Christ with the woman seated next to me.  Sometimes my simple mind thinks that God just wants me working, working, working for Him. But that wasn’t God’s intention at all.  God was nudging me because He just simply wanted me to have a friend, and if I hadn’t obeyed that day, I would have missed out on an incredible, lifelong friendship with a woman who has brought so much blessing, encouragement, and wisdom into my life. The nudge from God that day reaffirmed to me that it is always wisest to obey the Lord, especially when it is something you really don’t want to do because you never know what the Lord has planned.

Melinda and I have now been friends for 14 years. Our friendship has weathered moves that separated us by hundreds of miles, parenting challenges, chronically ill children, busy lives, and both of us losing our contacts in our phones at the same time which rendered us unable to contact each other for months. The friendship we share may seem kind of strange to people and some may wonder how two strangers who meet on a plane can have an immediate bond like this. But the answer is simple. It’s Jesus. Because of our common bond in Jesus and our mutual love for Him, He is the thread that knits our souls together. 

A Birthday Celebration Disaster

Deuteronomy 34:4
“Then the LORD said to him, ‘This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’  I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.’”

As TJ’s second birthday without him is fast approaching, I’ve been reminiscing lately about how we spent his first birthday without him.  Last year in July, we went on our first ever family vacation which included nana and papa, daughters, sons-in-law, granddaughters, and grandsons.  When all of us are together, we number 21 in total.

We found  a very large house in Salt Lake City, Utah to accommodate us.  It was nestled into the side of a mountain and had five bedrooms, one of which was a bunk bed room for all of the little gremlins; a media room with a big screen for watching movies; and a giant game room which was any child’s–or husband’s–dream.

Salt Lake City, Utah

We chose the beautiful Salt Lake City for our vacation destination last year because it was a good halfway point with our daughter Whitney who lives in Washington state.  I had never been to Salt Lake City before and was taken aback by the beauty of it. The city is located at the base of the Wasatch Mountains on the east with the Great Salt Lake across the valley to the west.  I enjoyed my morning walks along the edge of the mountain looking out across the city below to the view of the Great Salt Lake in the distance. It was breathtaking.

Our fourth day there was TJ’s birthday.  After shedding a few tears in the morning and doing crafts and baking cookies with the grand kids all afternoon, the plan that evening was to release sky lanterns in memory of TJ.  I had been imagining this event in my mind for months. I pictured releasing them by a lake with beautiful mountain scenery surrounding it. All of us would be standing together with our smiling faces turned upward and maybe some tears streaming down our cheeks as the sky lanterns all floated away together.   The kids would be cheering with joy on their faces as they watched the lanterns light up the sky. Everybody would be happy and thinking about TJ, and I imagined TJ looking down from heaven with a big, peaceful smile on his face. 

But that is totally not what happened.

Early in the day, my husband drove around the city scouting out the landscape looking for the perfect place to release the lanterns.  That evening as our caravan of cars arrived at the location he had chosen, I gave him a thumbs up and complimented his choice. It was a beautiful location.  It was a flat, park-like setting with a pond of water nearby with vegetation growing around it, and mountains were standing tall in the distance. It looked perfect…..but looks can be deceiving.

It wasn’t until we got out of our cars that we began to realize the water close by was stagnant and the mosquitoes were insane–like nothing we had ever experienced before.  Almost immediately we were attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes. As we were flailing our arms to defend ourselves, most of the younger kids began wailing at the top of their lungs and frantically scratching their arms and legs.  We hurriedly scattered and turned our attention toward the children. In the background, while we were running, I could hear our son-in-law Matt yelling, “Why was this place chosen?!”

After tending to the screaming children, still undeterred and doing our best to ignore the bites, we proceeded with TJ’s birthday celebration.  We started lighting the lanterns, but almost immediately we began experiencing more problems. The lanterns weren’t easy to light and were catching on fire. Pockets of fire were scattered around the park.  Our son-in-law Ben, concerned about the police being called, was running around like a mad man putting the fires out with small drinking bottles of water. The lanterns that didn’t catch on fire wouldn’t rise.  Our daughters were running after their lanterns that were hovering at eye level blowing and flapping their arms wildly in an attempt to get them to fly. After the last lantern was lit and burst into flames, we counted them up, and only 3 of the 26 lanterns actually flew.  The rest were burning in a heap on the ground. We then cleaned up the mess, put all the fires out, hurriedly escaped to our cars, comforted the bawling children, and drove away as fast as we could, scratching our bites all the way home.

My deceased son’s first birthday celebration without him was an utter disaster.

To onlookers, this couldn’t have looked like a family who was honoring their son who had recently passed away.  This looked like pandemonium and irresponsibility for lighting lanterns in the hot, dry climate of Salt Lake City.  Coming from the green, rolling hills of humid Iowa where releasing sky lanterns is legal, it never occurred to any of us until the fires began that lighting lanterns in a hot, dry climate wasn’t a real smart idea…..or even legal.

In my younger years, I would have been devastated that my son’s first birthday celebration after his death was a complete catastrophe, but now in my older years, I’ve learned a few things.  I’ve learned that sometimes when things don’t go as planned, it still can be beautiful. The morning after our disastrous evening, we sure enjoyed sitting around recounting the night and laughing hysterically at our foolishness.  In the wake of the devastating tragedy of losing TJ that cut each one of us to the core, it was a much needed family bonding moment. We came to the conclusion that if TJ could have seen it, he would be laughing as well at his crazy family.  In fact, he would have enjoyed seeing our mosquito-infested, tumultuous evening way more than the tear-filled, sappy celebration I had envisioned in my mind.

What about you?  Have you had times when things didn’t turn out as you had envisioned?  Have some of your dreams ended in disaster and you just weren’t sure how to pick up the broken pieces and carry on?

During my Bible study time the day prior to the birthday celebration, I read about Moses.  Moses led God’s people out of slavery in Egypt. Numbers 20 says that in the first month after leaving Egypt, the community arrived at the Desert of Zin.  There was no water for the community, and the people began to quarrel with Moses. Moses and Aaron then went to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and fell face down, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them.  The Lord told Moses to take the rod and speak to the rock and water would pour out. But Moses instead struck the rock twice with the rod and then spoke harshly to the community. Despite Moses’s disobedience and because the people needed water, the Lord still provided abundantly for the people and water gushed out of the rock, and the community and their livestock drank, but the Lord told Moses that because he didn’t trust Him enough, he would not bring the community into the land the Lord would give them.

Because of God’s Holiness, His correction of Moses was hard…and deserved.  Moses was a leader and leaders are judged by a higher standard. All of his life, even since he was an infant, Moses was being prepared to deliver God’s people from Egypt and bring them into the Promised Land.  I wonder as Moses grew, when he heard the miraculous story about how Pharaoh’s daughter plucked him out of the Nile River while the other Hebrew babies were murdered, if he knew his life had been saved for a special purpose?  I wonder as Moses played and ran through the palaces of Egypt as a child, if he could feel God’s calling on his life and knew that there was something God had planned for him to do? I wonder while Moses was in Midian, if he came to realize that he was there so God could continue to mature him before He sent him out before Pharaoh?  I wonder how many times while bringing the people out of Egypt Moses had dreamed of the day when he and the whole community would set foot on the soil of the Promised Land? But now because of his own disobedience, Moses would not lead the people into the Promised Land and another person would finish the job. How unbelievably disappointed Moses must have felt.

After leaving Egypt, because of disobedience, the community wandered in the desert for 40 years, and then the time finally came to enter the Promised Land.  The baton had been passed from Moses to Joshua, and Joshua would lead the community into the Promised Land. In the 34th chapter of Deuteronomy, the Lord took Moses high up on a mountain and showed him the whole land that He had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Then Moses died and the Lord buried him. A tender, loving, gracious Father allowed Moses to see the Promised Land with his own two eyes and then privately buried His faithful servant Himself in an unmarked grave.

Maybe God said no to your prayers and hopes and dreams, and life hasn’t turned out for you like you had planned.  Moses’s hopes and dreams didn’t turn out like he had planned either…..but here’s the beautiful part about Moses’s story.  A short time after Moses was forbidden from entering the Promised Land, God took him home to an eternal life with Him forever.  The loss of not being able to enter the Promised Land was only momentary, temporary, and for those of us who are in Christ, the same is true for us.  God will also take us home to an eternal life with Him forever as well, and these disappointments and losses that we experienced here on this earth will become a faded memory.

This year for TJ’s 23rd birthday celebration, we are headed out on our second annual family vacation, but this time to Breckenridge, Colorado.  We are minus two daughters and their families due to scheduling conflicts and distance. We are foregoing the sky lanterns this year–surprise, surprise–and are in the process of brainstorming a new way to memorialize TJ’s birthday.  You will hear all about it in an upcoming blog post in a few weeks.