The Plans I Have For You

It has been a few weeks since my last post, and I’ve received some questions lately as to what’s going on in my life and why I’m not posting. So, I’ve decided it’s time for an update. My MIA status is largely due to the fact that I’m in the middle of writing a book about TJ’s story.

Throughout TJ’s illness, I felt God leading me to write about the experience. About a year ago, I began writing the book, and after completing about 100 pages, I became overwhelmed and disillusioned with the publishing process and stopped. Recently, my husband Travis encouraged me in a round-about way to get back to writing.

After TJ died Travis told me to take a year off to grieve before going back to work. Well, a few months ago, he began leaving hints here and there that a year has come and gone. When he saw my reluctance to begin the job search, he told me if I finished my book, I could wait a little longer. That was all the motivation I needed!

The book is called: The Plans I Have For You; The Story of TJ Denham

I clung to the Bible verse Jeremiah 29:11 throughout TJ’s illness and death. “‘For I know the plans I have for you’, declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'” I believed those words and trusted that even with a brain injury, God still had a plan for my son and would give him hope and a future. This verse meant so much to me that it is even on the back of TJ’s headstone.

In hindsight, I believe God’s plans for TJ’s life was to point others to Jesus during his season of suffering with a brain injury. His testimony during that season is powerful, and he is now prosperous and reaping rewards for his faithfulness.

As I’ve been reading over TJ’s Caring Bridge posts, I came across a poem my husband posted several years ago. I love this poem, and it reminds me that what God values is different and better than what I value.

The Prayer of an Unknown Confederate Soldier
I asked God for strength that I might achieve.
I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy.
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life.
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for,
but everything I hoped for.
Almost despite myself,
my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all men, most richly blessed.

I still plan to post on my blog, but it will be sporadic. I’m hoping to send the book to the publisher by the end of the year, Lord willing. God has provided me with an amazing editor, and I’m excited to see what becomes of all this.

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 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.

The Deep Water

Respite Care
Part 3

Who do you turn to when you feel all alone and in deep water?  Where do you go when no one understands and may even lack sensitivity to the struggles you are going through?  Sometimes we try friends, family, church, medical providers, counselors, support groups, organizations all to no avail.  No one has the answers. No one seems to get it. No one stays by your side. What do you do now?

There was a time when I was all alone and in deep water, and I turned to Jesus.  He showed me that He was with me every step of the way and was walking right by my side.

Matthew 14:22-33
“Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away.  And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. Now when evening came, He was alone there.  But the boat was now in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary.

Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear.

But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Be of good cheer!  It is I; do not be afraid.”

And Peter answered Him and said, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.”

So He said, “Come.” And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus.  But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!”

And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”  And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased.

Then those who were in the boat came and worshiped Him, saying, “Truly You are the Son of God.”

So let’s imagine this setting.  Jesus tells his disciples to get into a boat and go to the other side while He stays behind and goes up on a mountain to pray.  The disciples were alone without Him on the Sea of Galilee.

The Sea of Galilee was well known for having sudden storms that come out of nowhere, and that is exactly what happened in this passage.  Now the disciples had been caught in a similar storm before, but that time it was daylight and Jesus had been with them. This time Jesus had sent them out on their own.

On that stormy night, when the disciples were in the boat all on their own, I wonder what they were thinking?  I wonder if they looked out at the dim outline of the hills where they knew He was and wondered why He had sent them out and not gone with them?  Did they feel like maybe He didn’t care and had more important things to do?

But unbeknownst to the disciples, Jesus had His eye on them the whole time.  Mark says in his gospel that He saw them distressed for hours before He went to them.  Why would Jesus do that? Why would he let his followers struggle and toil with fear and uncertainty?  Well, I believe that’s how Jesus trained them to learn to live without His presence. And that was a symbol of what the lives of future followers for generations to come would experience as well.

You see, sometimes Jesus sends US alone into a storm.

  • When you’ve lost your job and you have no idea how you are going to pay this month’s bills.  
  • When you get the diagnosis that your spouse has a terminal illness.
  • When your child has flunked out of college and is headed down a bad road and you are concerned for their future.

Yes, sometimes Jesus sends us into a storm, but He has His eye on us the whole time as well.

After the disciples had struggled for quite awhile, when they were in their greatest hour of need, Jesus came to them walking on the water.  The disciples were afraid because they didn’t recognize him. Were their minds so absorbed in their circumstances that they failed to recognize the One who had come to save them?  Or did they judge incorrectly because it never occurred to them that Jesus would miraculously come walking across the water to rescue them from their plight? Until they heard, “It is I.  Do not be afraid.” What a glorious sound that must have been! Although they were deceived by his appearance, they knew Him by his voice.

Like the disciples, sometimes we also fail to see the work that Jesus is doing in the storm, and we forget that He has His eye on us the entire time as well.  We can become consumed with our circumstances and our fears and our doubts, and we forget that He is there and wants to save us. Jesus can come to us in miraculous ways also.

TJ and I at Mayo in 2013

In December of 2013, my then 17-year-old son TJ was very sick from a brain injury he received while undergoing heart surgery in April of that same year.  The brain injury left his mind cognitively intact but his body severely disabled. At this time in December he was a patient at St. Mary’s Hospital at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

This was during our second Life Flight trip to Mayo after his surgery.  He had initially spent four months there right after surgery and then was discharged, but he declined rapidly after coming home, so he was flown back up there a second time.

By this time in December, it had been eight months since it all began.  Things looked bleak, and there was no end in sight. I stayed in Rochester with TJ while my husband stayed back at home and worked.  I was worn out, scared, and alone. My girlfriends and family were three hours away and had families of their own to take care of. TJ’s brain injury had hit us out of nowhere, and like the disciples, I was in a storm and all alone.

I was staying at the Ronald McDonald House a couple of blocks down the street from the hospital.  My routine every day was I walked up to the hospital in the morning, stayed all day, and then when it was starting to get dark, I walked back to the Ronald McDonald House to sleep for the night.

One particular morning, it was snowing outside, so I pulled out my enormous black coat a friend had graciously given me.  It went all the way down to my ankles and had a huge, over-sized hood that I had to hold up with my hands or it would flop over my face and I couldn’t see.

I rode the elevator down to the lobby and grabbed a granola bar as I headed to the door. I then started my way up the snow covered sidewalk to the hospital. The snow was gently falling, and even though traffic was heavy that morning as people were making their morning commute, it was kind of quiet.  There was a stillness in the air, and everything was white and beautiful.

I had been holding my hood up with my hands as I walked along, but my arms were growing tired, so I decided to let go of the hood and just let it do what it wanted.  I couldn’t see, so I resolved to just keep my head down and watch my feet as I trudged along.

I could hear the snow crunching under my feet as I walked, and my legs felt heavier with each step I took.  I had just woken up but was still so tired…..and I was afraid. My mind was racing with thoughts like: What if TJ never gets better?  What is his life going to look like? What if he doesn’t get rid of that trach? How am I going to take care of his trach and all of his respiratory problems?  How are we going to live like this?

So I’m thinking all of these thoughts, and I’m tramping along through the snow, and then…..for one fleeting second, when I was in my hour of need…..I felt the presence of Jesus walking in step beside me.  I caught my breath and abruptly stopped. I threw off my hood and looked beside me, but no one was there. I was stunned. I had never had that happen before. I cried out loud, “Jesus, please stay. Please don’t go.”  But the encounter was over, and the feeling was gone, so I turned and continued my walk to the hospital…..but with a little bit lighter step because from that point on, I knew that Jesus had eyes on me and I was not alone.

  • That day my relationship with Jesus changed.
  • That day I believed that Jesus was with me in the middle of the storm even when no one else was.  
  • That day I believed that Jesus shows up when I am in my hour of need.  
  • That day I believed that Jesus was a friend who was even closer than a girlfriend.
  • That day I believed that Jesus was walking by my side even in a far off place, like Rochester, Minnesota.

You see, Jesus shows up when times are hard.  Jesus performs miracles when we are alone and afraid.  He speaks to us when we are in our deepest sorrows and in the middle of a storm, and when we hear his voice, we cry “It is the Lord!”

In verses 28 and 29, Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.”  Now remember at this point in the scripture, the boat is in the middle of the lake where the water is deep.  Why would Peter even think to make such a bold request? Because at this point in Jesus’s ministry, Peter would have been used to seeing miracles performed.  His faith and trust in Christ had been built and he was at ease leaving his comfort zone when Jesus was standing by. Jesus’s answer to Peter’s request was simply, “Come.”

Now notice what Jesus did not say.  He did not say, “Okay, Peter, come and bring James and John with you because it’s really scary out here in the deep water and you are going to be afraid, and I don’t want you to be alone.”  Jesus didn’t say that because sometimes when Jesus calls us into the deep water, we have to go alone, and we have to learn to depend only upon Him. We don’t get to take Mary and Susie with us.

When Jesus bids us “Come,” when we get down out of the boat and step out into the deep water, if we do not lose sight of Him despite our sometimes harrowing circumstances, what we learn is…..

  • The deep water is where adventure is.
  • The deep water is where we see miracles happen.
  • The deep water is where our faith grows.
  • The deep water is where we accomplish things we never knew we could.
  • And most importantly, the deep water is where Jesus is.

When Peter realized the miracle he was taking part in, he took his eyes off Jesus and looked at the chaos around him……and he began to sink.  He cried out, “Lord, save me!” And Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him. Even when Peter failed after participating in a miracle, Jesus was there to save him.

Sometimes we too take our eyes off Jesus and we begin to sink….

  • When our minds race with anxiety about our drug-addicted child’s unknown future, Jesus is there to save us.
  • When our fear runs rampant about our elderly parent’s health, Jesus is there to save us.
  • When we are exhausted and lose our temper with our children from the demands of raising a young family, and we are afraid we won’t be able to keep this up much longer, Jesus is there to save us.

Jesus and Peter then got back into the boat, and all the disciples began worshiping Him.  The disciples had progressed quickly from fearing the storm to praising the name of Jesus because of the power Jesus had shown in walking on the water and the love He displayed by taking care of a sinking Peter.

Jesus isn’t just walking toward us, like He did with the disciples that stormy night on the Sea of Galilee, but He’s walking WITH us, just like He did with me on that cold, snowy, lonely morning in Minnesota.  He’s walking right by our side. Even though we can’t always feel His presence, it doesn’t mean He’s not there.

Jesus is closer than a dear friend.  In fact, He’s our best friend, and He truly is the Son of God.

Psalm 68:5-6
“A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows, Is God in His holy habitation.  God sets the solitary in families; He brings out those who are bound into prosperity; but the rebellious dwell in a dry land.”