Posted in Celebration, Charity, Childhood, Faith, Family, Freedom, God, Grief, Hope, jesus, Joy, Love, Missionary, Peace, Rwanda, Sacred, Thanks, Third Culture Kid, Travel

Dear President Kagame of Rwanda,

“In all my travels, I’ve never seen a country’s population more determined to forgive, and to build and succeed than in Rwanda.”  (Pastor Rick Warren)

Dear Mr. Kagame,

I visited your country this past week.  It was the first time I had ever been to Rwanda.  When I was growing up and then a young mother, your country was constantly in the news, and not for good reasons.  There was strife among your people groups and the politics that surrounded them and then ultimately horrific genocide in the spring of 1994.  Even I, an American child growing up in war-torn Ethiopia during the 1970s, would have been terrified to visit.

That was not the case about a year ago when I was invited to go on a clean water trip to your “Land of a Thousand Hills,” something I learned this past week was more true than I imagined.  I was elated at the idea and said a hearty “yes.”   About three years ago, having heard the basic story of the healing journey your people have embarked on for the past 20+ years, I became intrigued with your country and felt a pull to experience it personally and in detail.   Yes, I wanted to bring clean water, but more so, I longed to learn and know your people and their stories of utter heartache and unexplainable hope.

Your country that is now known for its clean streets and touristy treks to encounter mountain gorillas descended into the dark hole of savagery in 1994, only 24 short years ago.  Your nation was shattered beyond recognition.  Your people turned on their neighbors, their friends, their own families.  They murdered innocent men, women and children, leaving behind a completely decimated economy and environment, destroying themselves from the inside out.    This genocide lasted 100 days and over 1,000,000 (roughly one out of every seven) of your beautiful Rwandans lost their lives.

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When it was all over, there was a crucial decision that had to be made.  What do you do with a nation where 70% of your children personally witnessed the killing or injuring of a family member, 80% lost somebody in their household and 90% were afraid they were the next to die?  What do you do with a country where so many were perpetrators and even more were victims?  What do you do when all the light goes out and darkness appears to have definitively prevailed?

Only the most ludicrous options remained for your countrymen:  the excruciating, very personal and communal passage towards repentance, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration.   Under your humble and wise leadership, your brave people began their continuing journey towards hope and healing.  This incredible and very rare approach to this cruel tragedy provided the essential environment where each man, woman and child who remained could experience life and love again, in all their fullness.  Children could go to school.  Parents could raise their crops and their families.   Rwandan’s businesses could thrive.  Your country could move from tragedy to triumph.

You have come a long way in just these 24 years.  Your country is beautiful, the rolling hills once stained with blood, now dotted with crops and livestock.  Your streets are exceptionally clean, unlike anything I’ve seen.  Your people, adults and children alike, are filled with joy.  Your neighborhoods are safe.  Your unity and respect for each other, from the highest nobleman to the lowest pauper, abounds.  Your visible equality among men and women in places of authority and leadership is highly telling of the mutual, inner esteem you have for each other.  Your desire to become the first African nation where 100% of your people have access to clean water reveals the spirit of hope and excitement that I witnessed in spades.  From your bustling capital of Kigali to the poorest, remote village where we dug our well, positivity and hope-filled energy permeated each person we met.

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We were welcomed with bright smiles, waves and shouts of “Muzungu” (look that up on Google, you readers) as we rode past adults and children performing their daily tasks of fetching clean water, transacting business in the marketplace and taxiing their neighbors on the backs of bicycles and motorbikes.  Never for a moment did I feel as if I was not wanted there.  As I very sadly pondered your blood-stained streets only a few short years ago, I witnessed first-hand the miracle of this very “other-worldly” and one-of-a-kind route you and your people have taken.

Instead of revenge, you have given each other forgiveness.  Instead of continuing hatred, you have learned to “love your  neighbor as yourself.”  Instead of war, you have an authentic peace that surpasses all human understanding.  Instead of continuous destruction, there is marked restoration.  I do not say this lightly.  It’s palpable.

It’s as close as my eyes that saw church and political leaders working together, diligently creating plans to help the least of their countrymen.  It’s as close as my ears that heard joyful singing of villagers as we watched together the water spurt out of the dry ground.  It’s as close as my mouth that tasted the delicious fruits of your harvest, from bananas to coffee, sweet potatoes to cassava.  It’s as close as my nose that relished the unique smells of the bustling city of Kigali to the rural countryside of the Ruhango District.   It’s as close as my arms that received hugs and high-fives from soccer players and church goers, government workers and school children, the wise elders and the curious children.  More completely, it’s as close as my deeply-transformed soul that I carry with me out of your beloved land.

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From the bottom of my heart, I salute you and your people.  You have courage beyond my comprehension.  You have chosen great love in the face of extreme difficulty.  Each one of you shines like a bright beacon in our dark world.  Thank you.  My heart has captured your dream to bring clean water to every Rwandan father, mother and child and wish to make your vision a reality:  “hope for the hopeless, rest for the weary and love for a broken heart.”  Godspeed, Mr. Kagame!

Esther Goetz

 

PLEASE CLICK HERE FOR OTHER THOUGHTS ON MY TRIP TO RWANDA!

 

*If you liked this, please go onto social media and give me a thumbs up or a like.  This one especially shares my heart and it would mean a lot to me.*

 

 

 

Posted in Beautiful Mess, Celebration, Emotions, Faith, Family, Freedom, God, Grief, Health, Hope, Love, Marriage, Sacred

The Tale of Our Three Marriages (THE BIG REVEAL)

If in the dark we lose sight of love,
Hold my hand, and have no fear
Cause I will be here.
(STEVEN CURTIS CHAPMAN)

When we stood at the altar over 27 years ago, and my friend Marcy sang those haunting words, I had no idea in my 25-year-old head how true they would ring this many years later.  I didn’t know we were embarking on a journey of Three Marriages (and that’s so far…who knows how many more we have in us).

When we meet couples who are on their second marriage, sometimes we feel like we can’t relate.  After all, what do we have in common with them?  But as Allen and I joke, we aren’t only on our second marriage, we are on our third…it just happens to be with the same person.  Very different and also somewhat the same.

Our “Three Marriages” have been loosely marked by the decades we’ve been together.  This past weekend, questions were posed to us by our Pastor when we were interviewed on stage at our church, “Tell us about the early years of your marriage.   What came naturally… and what was a challenge for you?  Any Points of Conflict?”

My answer to him was hard for me to say and even harder for me to hear out loud and share with the audience.   However, it was worth telling because vulnerability breaks strongholds and provides undeniable freedom.  (Sorry.  I have kept you in suspense long enough with how I answered, so here goes.)

Our first Marriage was characterized by HIDING.   We so longed to be the perfect Christians, the right kind of wife and/or husband, the ones everyone would look at and say, “We wish we could be just like them.  They have it all together.”  Needless to say, with this kind of pressure to perform, we hid from ourselves, our families, our church and mostly, from each other.   We had lots of manners, not a lot of meaning.  Lots of talk, not a lot of truth.  Lots of outer, not a lot of inner.  During that time, we actually did NOT have a lot of CONFLICT (which probably made my conflict-avoiding, peace-loving husband a happy camper), but we also did NOT have a lot of CLOSENESS.  And to be honest, it felt good.

Thank God He didn’t leave us there.  It all “hit the fan” at the end of those 10 years.  Our first marriage came to an abrupt end.  With the help of some friends, Allen took a huge risk and shared some of his “not-so-perfect” stuff with me.   I would love to tell you that I returned his risk with the reward of kindness, understanding and grace.  Not so much.  His reward was judgment and anger.  After all, I liked my perfect, cookie-cutter world, where we were “godly” people and had a picture-perfect marriage and family.

Over the next months, my heart began to slowly change.  Allen’s risk affected me.  I was free to explore the ways I was hiding, the “not-so-perfect” parts of me.  For the first time in our marriage I felt safe and free to share those things with him.  If he wasn’t perfect, then I didn’t have to be either.  What a relief!

This was the beginning of our second marriage, one characterized by a lot of HARD WORK.  Transparency and authenticity came to the forefront, and was mostly met with forgiveness, grace, and compassion, which required long talks and much conflict.  We plunged headlong into books on authenticity, life groups that offered mutual transparency and trust (we have a couples’ group and we each have our own group comprised of just men and just women), and fought for these everywhere in our life:  each other, our kids, and our friends.

As that decade came to a close, and our second marriage felt fairly successful, God called us to another, even deeper level in our relationship with Him and with each other.  With the help of a very safe and close-knit group of friends who regularly meet together and the decision to go to counseling, we found out that we “married the wrong person,” to quote Pastor Tim Lucas’ book on the subject.  We began a slow undertaking towards HEALING, wholeness (I MEAN SLOW), another marriage, our third.  Our small group went on an inner journey together exploring our pasts and how those played into who we are today, for both good and bad.  Counseling revealed to us that we each had core wounds that effect most aspects of our lives and especially each other.   That was tough.  There was even one very scary night that stands out vividly in my memory.  We were lying in bed, seeing very little light at the end of the tunnel, and asked each other, “Will we make it?  Is there any hope for us?”  We actually weren’t sure and this made for a very dark time.

We pushed ahead with our group and with counseling.  This journey for HEALING seemed endless.  One evening during a session, we came right out and asked the question, “Do you see any hope for us?  Is this normal, that it gets much worse before it gets better?”  Thankfully, our counselor answered with a resounding, “YES!”  to both questions.  That gave us the spark we needed to move (albeit slowly) forward.

We have found a few things during this time that have been huge for true HEALING in our marriage:

  1. Working on our marriage without recognizing and working on our own individual brokenness is pointless.  They go hand-in-hand.
  2. Removing blame from each other for our own wounds is huge.  Blame produces shame, shame begets blame and the cycle goes round and round (that might just be why our fights kept going in circles).
  3. Neither of us is changing the basic core of who we are.  We have each had to (and are continuing to) grieve the things about each other that we wish were different.  To give you an example, I am just not a physical person and Allen’s highest love language is physical touch.  Even if I set alarms on my phone to cuddle and hold his hand, it just doesn’t come naturally to me.  It’s really sad for Allen.  It might never change, no matter how hard I try.   He is grieving what might never be.  The hope we cling to is that at the end of the stages of grief lies acceptance and freedom.  YAY!  We’re slowly getting there.  (Believe me, it’s not just one way.  I’m grieving too, but not throwing Allen under the bus this time around.)
  4. The journey is SLOW.  There’s no way around it.  It takes lots of time and needs the “long-view” approach.  None of us can undo years of damage and bad patterns in days, weeks and even months.  The good news is that this perspective calms hearts and gives the much-needed room for long-term growth and change.
  5. The process requires struggle.  It might be painful.  There will probably be some conflict.  It won’t be comfortable.  On Wednesday, Allen reminded me of the image of a butterfly, my all-time favorite creature.  Without the stage of the cocoon, there would be no transformation.  Scientists tell us it looks pretty gruesome deep inside the chrysalis, kind of like caterpillar soup.  Finally, after weeks of this and the butterfly is ready to emerge, it takes hours of struggle to get free and more hours of waiting to fly.  The result is sheer beauty.
  6. The other person is worth fighting for.  Each of us longs to have true intimacy:  being fully-known and fully-loved, naked and unashamed, as Genesis defines it.  We want it for each other and for ourselves.  This is the place where the most transformative healing can happen, inside true transparency and trust.  This is the toughest and yet most rewarding path of all!

We wonder if we will have even another marriage, one where HIDING, HARD WORK AND HEALING are over.   It actually sounds a little bit like HEAVEN to me!

(MANY OF YOU HAVE ASKED FOR THE LINK TO OUR “ON-STAGE” PERFORMANCE WHERE WE SHARE MUCH OF THIS.  HERE IS THE LINK TO THE WHOLE MESSAGE (which was fantastic and so worth watching) AND OUR INTERVIEW IS ABOUT 26 MINUTES IN AND LASTS ABOUT 10 MINUTES)

Here are links to my other posts about Marriage:

Family

Fidelity

Flaws

Faithfulness

Forecast

Friendship

 

 

 

 

Posted in Beautiful Mess, Celebration, Childhood, Emotions, Faith, Family, Freedom, God, Grief, Hope, Love, Sacred, Taboo

A Grief (and Celebration) Observed…A Thin Place

“525,600 minutes.  How can you measure the life of a man?  It’s time now to sing out, though the story never ends.  Let’s celebrate.  Remember.  Remember the love!  Measure in love! Seasons of love!”  (Rent)

Last weekend, I had the honor of speaking at a Celebration of Life for a remarkable man named Stephen Friars, who passed away suddenly.  For his family and those who loved him, shock came first.  Confusion quickly followed, along with anger and heartbreak.  Overwhelming grief, yet glimmers of joy, memories filled with laughter, and the desire for a celebration of a man utterly-loved and a life well-lived followed.  Plans were made to invite coworkers, family, and friends to a beautiful backyard to pay tribute to and honor a “too-soon-taken” brother, husband, boss, co-worker, and friend.  Here are my words:

Today, we engage in one of the most complicated and sacred acts that we participate in as humans. We gather to both grieve AND celebrate the death and life of Stephen Friars, beloved brother to Gail and Gary.   It might look to anyone driving by or peeking out their curious neighbor window like a typical spring barbecue, where friends are gathering to eat some grub and celebrate the latest Yankees win. But as we here know, it’s definitely not that yet it is. No, we are not celebrating the Yankees, or the Rangers, or even the Giants, but we actually are in a way, because the one we are celebrating loved those teams and we are cheering (and obviously wearing) what he loved. Go red, white and blue! (And this is a big deal for this Pittsburgh fan!)

Viewings, funerals, memorial services and celebrations of life are, like I said, one of the most complex and difficult things we take part in as humans, but also one of the most beautiful and sacred. It’s one of the times, and it’s happened today already, where we are laughing AND crying, devastated AND hopeful, and confused AND yet have the greatest clarity about what life is truly about in the same few moments. It’s one of the “thin places” the Celtic speak of, where heaven AND earth touch, even ever so briefly. It’s the place where the boundary between the divine AND human worlds becomes almost non-existent, and the two can, for a moment, dance together uninterrupted. I felt it when I held my new grandson in the early morning light that first week he was born. I felt it when I listened to Dooey sing God Bless America on the cusp of the New Year in the darkness gathered with friends on our front stoop (but I was secretly freaking out about what our neighbors thought). I feel it every year on Christmas morning.  It happens when I catch a glimpse of a rainbow or listen to the guitar solo during Hotel California.  You know what I’m talking about. You have your own thin places. Today, it is happening in spades. It’s these times where we listen with our souls, not just our ears, dive deeply into those parts of us that are kept quiet during the hustle and bustle of our lives, and maybe, just for a moment, feel God’s presence in a very palpable way.

Stay with me in this moment and enter into the sacred of both grief AND joy, heartache AND hope, confusion AND clarity. Why do we have all these seemingly contradictory emotions at the same time during times like this?  Just like all of us, Stephen is complicated. Both his life and death are a tangled, intricate weaving of both good AND bad. And who can attest to that better than Gail and Gary, his siblings? Just take a minute and think about your own. We each know all too well both the light AND dark sides of those we shared our home with. Siblings are the people who you would kill in one moment AND die for in the next. For Gail and Gary, this tragedy has made this all come front and center. During his life, Stephen kept mostly to himself and struggled with letting others in. On the other hand, there were glimpses when he would just let himself go and have fun in the moment (WATCH THIS “Best Holiday Party Performance” if you don’t believe me). He did not have many close friends, but he was very friendly. He didn’t seem to need others, but was there when they needed him. He had a hard time expressing his love at times, but his dogs made his heart come alive. He loved them unconditionally and they loved him the same way.  He struggled to be completely himself at times with his family, but he shone as a bright light and went above and beyond the call of duty both to care for and nurture his co-workers.

To be honest, Stephen’s death is just as complex. There are not a lot of answers from the doctors and from Stephen himself.   It’s hard to figure out what happened, why it happened, what could have been done to prevent it and why God allowed it. There’s even anger that this is just plain old wrong. And that is the truth. It is just plain old wrong. It would have been better if all the wrongs could have been made right, all the “I love you’s” could have been mutually shared, and there would have been the “happily ever after” ending. Normally, we don’t like to talk about this hard stuff. We want to paint a picture of perfection. But that’s just not true. The truth is that each one of us, just like Stephen, are a mixture of good AND bad, wonderful AND difficult, really, as Gail spoke of, an absolutely beautiful mess.

For years, I spent my life only living (or pretending to live) in the “beautiful,” the “good”, the “happy.” I dismissed the shadowy sides of pain, difficulty, sorrow and loss. After all, that’s the American dream, “up and to the right.” But I was missing out on half of my journey. Today, I understand and try to live in that tension of embracing the thought that my life and yours and Stephen’s is comprised of all of it. That’s what makes it truly a FULL life, one where we haven’t missed out on anything!

That’s why we have grief AND joy today. Grief over the loss of ability to make all things right here and now. Grief because Stephen is gone and there is no longer a physical future to be shared together. It would be strange if there wasn’t this grief.   Yet there is surprising joy at the memories shared, the funny stories that bring laughter even today. Grief AND joy. There is also heartache AND yet hope. Heartache over what might have been and will never be, yet hope at what’s to come as we believe we will see him again in the best possible place. Heartache AND hope. There is confusion AND clarity. As I spoke earlier, there is confusion over what exactly happened, what could have been done to prevent it and why God allowed it. But there is also great clarity today that life is really about love and kindness, joy and mercy, and family and friendship, which causes us to hold those we care for just a little bit tighter, make the wrongs right and speak the “I love you’s” before it’s too late. Lots of confusion AND yet undeniable clarity.

Stephen’s life-long legacy lives on in each of us, forever having changed the footprint of the world for good. He was truly one-of-a-kind, of infinite worth. We who are here and able to enjoy the future that is still with us are also utterly unique and priceless. It’s why this is all so important, this celebration. We don’t want to rush through the grief as it honors Stephen and the flowing tears continue to remind us that he is so loved and now so missed. But we also can embrace the celebration of a life well-lived, a man who, though imperfect, like each of us, was funny and kind and smart and truly and deeply loved.

One of the first questions Gail asked me that terribly sad Monday morning after Stephen passed away was what was it like for him now.  After all, he had his own personal demons (as we all do), but as Dooey stated, “he was such a great guy, Esther, you would have loved him the minute you met him.” His heart for his beloved wife and his furry friends was more than evident at every turn. His coworkers obviously adored him and looked up to him and miss him terribly.  He loved well and was loved in return.  The answer came to me about a week later as I was passing one of those imposing billboards on the Pennsylvania Turnpike that makes me cringe every time. It shouted in bold letters: “After you die, you will meet God.” There was some phone number you could call at the bottom to get the help you need to straighten yourself out before your impending doom. After all, God is angry with you and He’s got a score to settle. It all hit me like a ton of bricks and I asked God, “Is this really what you are like?  Do you want us to be afraid to meet you?  It all sounds like going to the principal’s office.”  In that moment, my heart settled and a gentle voice whispered to my soul. “I AM LOVE, ESTHER.  Change the wording.”   And so I did.   “After you die, you will meet LOVE.”  So different.  So healing.  So inviting.  God longs for and invites us into a relationship filled with love.  We do not have to be afraid to meet Him!

I have spent a lifetime trying to get to really know this God who created us, bestowed on each one of us, including Stephen, infinite worth and loves us, not because of who we are, but because of who He is. He can’t help Himself. He actually is LOVE. He really is. So what will it be like when we ultimately meet Him after our physical trappings are taken away? What was it like for Stephen? From what I understand today as I stand here before you, those thin places we enter into here and now will no longer be needed. The boundaries that stand between heaven and earth will be completely torn down.  The place where God is only palpable for a fleeting moment will turn into an eternity of endless moments. Stephen has come face-to-face with pure and unabashed LOVE, what each of us long for at the deepest parts of who we are.   So next time you see that dreaded billboard, hopefully my words will “haunt” you.  Yes, we will each meet God, but the deeper truth (or as CS Lewis calls it, “the deeper magic,”) is that we will meet LOVE, for God is LOVE.

So, Stephen, we salute you. We thank you. We miss you. You are truly, deeply loved. Anything that stood between you and understanding that in the fullest sense is now a temporary bump in the road, a glitch. It’s gone. We hope you are enjoying that love that you longed for all of your life.

ENJOY ONE OF HIS FAVORITE SONGS SUNG BY HIS NEPHEW SAM!

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Celebration, Emotions, Family, God, Grief, Hope, Sacred

Cheers to You Cathy! (and your beautiful girls you loved so very very much)

“I am exhausted from trying to be stronger than I feel.” (Whisper Quotes)

April 14, 2017.  Good Friday.  “My beautiful daughters were killed in a head on collision on I-17 by no fault of their own. They died instantly and went home to be with the Lord.”

It’s been one year.  One year.  Hard to believe.  Hard to still fathom what happened and especially why it happened.  Losing one child is hard enough.  But losing both?  Horrible.

Cathy was one of my best and dearest friends in high school.  Our parents worked at the same mission organization and we went to the same church and youth group.  We both grew up in different parts of Africa so we had that in common.  We both had the middle name of Joy and we sang together in competitions under the name of Double Joy.  We had boatloads of fun, dated friends, were on our Bible quiz team, loved one another fiercely, and even got in some mischief together (like the time we were arrested because I pointed a dismantled BB gun out of the window of my car and an undercover policeman happened to see it…long story for another time).  I think my mom made me “break up” with her because of this (little did my mom know that I was really the one to blame and Cathy was the one who should have been breaking up with me).  Needless to say, Double Joy (and maybe Double Trouble) fit us perfectly.

After I left for college, Cathy went on in her career and then moved to North Carolina to become a highly successful mortgage loan officer and then top sales rookie for Aflac Insurance Company her first year.  During that time, she raised two beautiful girls, Karli and Kelsey, into wonderful adult women.  Karli went to Grand Canyon University and was about to graduate at the end of  April 2017 with a BA in Communications with plans to get her masters degree.  Kelsey was a Bio-Medical Premed student at Western Carolina University.  They both loved life, their Savior, their friends, their mom and one another!  Please read more HERE.

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In the early-morning hours of Good Friday, April 14, 2017, the girls were killed in a wrong-way crash.  Please check out the first news story HERE.  There are more links to come.

Photos, videos, condolences, tributes and a GoFundMe fundraiser immediately flooded social media on behalf of Cathy and her girls.  News stories from North Carolina and Arizona went viral.  Check them out HERE and HERE.

Three days later, April 17, 2017, Cathy posted:

“The past 72 hours have been more than I can bear and my sorrow and broken heart I can’t even share. So much I want to say but I still just can’t. My tears are many and my soul and body know no rest.”

The morning of the viewing:

“Tomorrow starts the worst 36 hours of my life.  I’m afraid to even go to bed because it means I have to wake up. I still struggle to breathe and function.  I ask for much prayer as I truly physically and mentally hurt more than I ever thought possible. Smarli and Smelsey, Mommy is here and will love you forever. My heart belongs to you both forever and my life will forever be unhappy because your smiles and laughter will not be seen or heard anymore on this earth. I’m jealous of those in heaven as they get to be near and with you: which is where I want to be. Mommy”

The day of the funeral:

“Today I bury my children, something a mother should never have to do. I ask for prayers every minute as I do the final task for my children today, the one last thing I can do for them as mommy. I will lift them up to the Lord and I will speak on their behalf.”

That afternoon, with the church packed to the gills, Cathy stood on stage for more than an hour, at times reading from notes, but more often speaking freely and telling stories about her girls.  She spoke haunting words to the audience, asking “Are You Listening?,” wanting others to heed the call of her girls’ tragic and undeserved deaths.  You can actually watch the Youtube video HERE.

Fundraisers all across Arizona and North Carolina popped up.  Richard Petty’s iconic #43 race car drove in honor of the girls.  Dutch Brothers Coffee in Arizona raised money.  A GoFund Me page was set up and more money poured in than expected.  Vigils were held.  Benches were dedicated.  Pictures were painted.  Videos were made.  Trees were planted.  Letters of support came from across the globe.

Only 10 days later, Cathy flew to Arizona and walked in Karli’s place at the Grand Canyon University graduation ceremony to receive her daughter’s diploma.  Check out this article and the following very touching interview.

 

 

In the painful weeks to follow, Cathy spent time with family, friends, Cathy’s kids (a group of several young adults who call her “Mom” and spent Mother’s Day with her) and her cats, found a plot of land to build K2 Ranch, a home she wants to invite others into in honor of the girls, and went to vigils and fundraisers.  She grieved often and openly, finding some purpose in their deaths.  Read more HERE.

Kelsey’s birthday, July 15, was marked by great grief and incredible joy as friends gathered to celebrate her:

“July 15, 1998.  Kelsey Mae Richardson was born. Intense labor and you entered the world screaming. Full head of hair, the famous eyebrows and the beautiful pouty lips: from day one you had it all. You grew into a incredibly smart, beautiful, full of life, talented loving young woman: only to have it all taken away in the blink of an eye.  From the moment I heard you to the moment I first held you, I loved you! As you grew and got mouthy, then extra sweet, then clingy, then adventurous and even more beautiful than ever, I loved you more. Your incredible mind made you uniquely different and as that developed I became your best friend: the one who really understood you and “got you”. Kelsey, I still “got you”!  You now have a future with the Lord God Almighty, and “He got you” way more than I do. HE is your protector now and your guide: watching you love and laugh as you run around heaven carrying Karli.  I know where you are today on your birthday, you are with Jesus, you are celebrating with the Most High. Tonight look down about dusk, I’m sending presents up to heaven to you tonight. You’ll love it and you’ll think to yourself: “aw, mom still has my back”. I gotcha Smelsey, I love you and miss you and I gotcha! Happy Birthday Kelsey, mommy loves you forever and always”

Eleven days later, the truth came out.  The girls had definitely been killed because of too much alcohol.  Cathy began to share their story anywhere and everywhere people would listen, at Kelsey’s college, on the radio, and through social media.  She desired (and still does) to inform others about the dangers and devastation of drinking and driving.

 

In late August, I had the chance to spend the day with this incredible woman.  We drove around with the top down in her fancy sports car and enjoyed the gentle breeze and the beautiful day.  She showed me her land and her plans to build K2 Ranch.  She shared endless stories about her amazing girls.  She took me to see Memorials that have been made and we even stopped in to visit local veterans at Richards Coffee Shop which houses Welcome Home Veterans Living Military Museum where she and the girls spent so much time and energy honoring those who have served and continue to.  We even stopped to see one of her clients that she “gave a talking to” about how his choices were bad for his health and his family, but that she was still going to try to get whatever money she could for him from the insurance company.  We ended our time with a wonderful dinner on a lake at her favorite local eatery and she still had time to drive me home and have a quick visit with my parents.  I was enamored by her.  Her grief was open.  Her spunk was not destroyed.  Her joy was unhindered.  Her love for others was evident.  Her heart was the same, filled with adventure and kindness.  She was all of those things at the same time and in the same moments.

More grief as her cat Ollie dies on September 12:

“I woke up to find the cancer had finally won the battle with my precious little Ollie. A year ago Ollie walked into my yard and rescued me. I didn’t rescue him, he rescued me. God knew this would be the year of my life that would forever change me, and He gave me this little guy to sit on me when I’d cry, sleep with me at night so I wouldn’t be alone, be silly and cause laughter and smiles. To be loved completely and greeted immediately: that’s my Ollie. What he gave was what humans just can’t give me this year.  He helped me to be calm when I was restless and lost. I love you Ollie and I’m so grateful for you saving me this year. Give kisses to Karli and Kelsey and tell them I miss them and love them.”

September 14, 2017

“Five months ago, God took you both home. I still don’t understand why but I’m trying. I struggle daily and some days are good and others unbearable. My heart is heavy but when I close my eyes I can feel your soft skin and smell your hair and feel it run through my fingers as I hug you tight and you hug me back. So brokenhearted today…”

September 17, 2017  Cathy spoke:

“I had the honor to speak at Western Carolina University on behalf of my beautiful daughter about the tragedies of drunk driving. It was a emotional night but I know God is using my beautiful girls for His glory and knowing this I will make it through life until one glorious day I have them both in my arms again.”

Cathy spent Christmas with her elderly mom, but it was an unimaginably hard day:

“1 year ago. Laughing and smiling and loving my life 100%!!! All I love around me. Never again will smiles be the same or a fully happy heart. God let’s me know they are happier than I can imagine but my heart is broken beyond imagination. Thank you for texts calls and emails. Knowing I’m prayed for and my children are not forgotten is one thing that warms my heart and makes me smile. May they never be forgotten. My soul will one day be full again when the Lord takes me home and I will feel them in my arms and hear their laughs and smell their hair and know that my babies are with me and we are together.”

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On New Years’ Eve, the reality of the night ahead pierced Cathy’s heart.  Too much drinking and possible driving tonight.  Other families will grieve as a result.  She warned:

“I pray you all READ and remember: SHARE this especially tonight.

This should never have happened. My incredibly smart, funny, loving and beautiful daughters should be ALIVE today! DRUNK DRIVING caused this, killed them and killed the drunk too! DO NOT DRIVE DRUNK TONIGHT!!! For EVERYONES sake DO NOT DRIVE DRUNK TONIGHT! No mother should get the knock on the door tomorrow morning like I did. If you think it can’t happen to you, it happens. DO NOT DRIVE DRUNK!!!!!!!!!!!”

Cathy’s birthday, January 7, is marked by another day of horror and beauty, brokenness and redemption:

“There was a plan that the girls devised, of how our older years would be and how the girls would take care of me.  Kelsey would work and make all the money.  Karli would watch all the children and clean Kelsey’s house and mine. I was the cook and financial planner. We would all live on 15 acres which Kelsey would buy with her “doctor’s” income.  Today, they are taking care of me but in a way that I wish I could change. I’d rather live in a tent than live without them! But today, they are building me a ranch house in the country to live and retire in. It will be handicap accessible and will protect and care for me.  Beautiful acreage and everything I could possibly ever need and want. They are providing for me and caring for me from above in a way I never thought of. It’s hard and emotional to build this.  I cry almost every time I go out to see it. People ask if I’m angry at God, and the answer is sometimes I am. I cry and I yell and I wonder why everyday. Yet, through all this He made sure I would still be cared for as I was left here on earth: they are caring for me and keeping their word and will forever provide for me till I see them again. My precious babies mommy loves you so much and I can’t wait till the Lord brings us back together again in heaven…”

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In February, we had lunch together as I was back in Charlotte to care for my mom.  She spoke of how she was doing, what was happening with the ranch, and listened to my stories with a kind heart.  Again, she was authentic and vulnerable, not sugar-coating her grief, but also filled with laughter, the same girl I had known my whole life.  It marked a wonderful three hours as we tried to eat healthy, but ended up having some treats, just like two 50-somethings would do when they went out to lunch.  So normal, yet so “not normal.”  It’s never normal to talk about your children’s deaths and all the after effects.

March 26, 2018, Karli’s 21st birthday, another speaking engagement and a cake made by a friend.  Another day of grief and beauty.

Good Friday, March 30, 2018:

“A few weeks ago I got permission from the new owners of our old home to remove a 10 year old Pin Oak tree that Karli and I planted when she was in 3rd grade. It was a sprig in a paper cup she brought home from school and insisted we plant. She watched over and watered and protected that sprig, and it actually began to grow.  I will be able to look out my back porch and see the tree that my little big girl and I planted years ago, and as it grows I will remember my little big girl who never gave up and believed that she could do anything she put her mind to.”

Same day, right before bed:

“Many of you have texted, called, messaged and done very kind things for me today: and I truly appreciate it all. It is Good Friday and last year the girls died on this day.  I struggle daily with so much. I remember day one, minute one, second one when each were born. How I long to go back.  April 14 will be the toughest, the actual day when 1 year will have passed without us laughing, hugging, talking, giggling, watching Scooby Doo, going to DQ and Pomodoros, watching movies with Gma, shopping and sharing in the life we had put together and loved so much. Karli I can’t stand it that I don’t get your constant Facetime calls, and Kelsey it’s almost unbearable to sit on the couch on Fridays now and know you aren’t going to walk through the door and surprise me with a weekend visit. God needed you and I don’t know why, but knowing how safe and loved you are up in heaven gives me the comfort I need to know I will see you again: I WILL SEE YOU AGAIN! Good Friday is a important day and when I think about it you both are so special and important it makes sense He would take you home on that day: you had to go and you both were so good and how honored to go home on the day the Lord did too. He will rise on Sunday, and because of that you rose out of your grave and are with Him: and someday I will be up there also and again we will laugh and hug and be together again, only this time forever. Nothing will ever again separate us once God brings us back together again. Pain and suffering, forever down here I will have, but Praise God for Easter as one day all suffering will end.”

 

April 7, 2018 “In one week it’s been a year. Breakdown today. I can’t take it.”

Sunday night, April 8, I sent her a message.

“I have felt so compelled to write a tribute to YOU this week on my blog. For a year, your heart has been laid out for all to see and especially the excruciating pain you have gone through. I have admired from near and far. I just want to give you a huge shout out, but wanted to get your permission first.  It will be a way to honor you, your heart, what you want to come of this and also your girls and their legacy. You are one beautiful soul, Cathy, and I want to honor you.”

 Her reply:

“Oh thank you Esther. How kind. I’d be honored and humbled.”

 

April 9, 2018  “Karli’s tree is doing beautifully if you look closely there are full buds on every branch of the tree is living just like Karli and Kelsey are living in heaven above mommy loves and misses you both so much.”

April 14, 2018  Cathy is currently in Arizona heading on a hike and a luncheon to honor the girls on the anniversary of their deaths.   A “Come Light a Candle Event” is taking place in North Carolina.  These girls were so loved and they are very missed.  This morning, her heart poured out again.

“I was reminded last week that Paul told us in Philippians that we all should run the race to receive the prize for the mark of the high calling. It hit me, it really hit me. God puts us here to run the race for Him and we are to run for Him and when we have won the race He put us on earth for, He takes us home.  God gave me two incredibly and wonderfully-made girls and by the age of 18 and 20, they had finished the race TOGETHER that God intended for them.  I sat there looking up to heaven with tears streaming down my face and all I could think of was ‘I get it!.’  They ran the race for the mark of the high calling and they won!  My children ran and they won!” 
So Cathy, here’s to you, sweet Mama, and to your beautiful and broken heart.  Your girls won their race and you are winning yours!  So many times, we wait until a funeral (really until it’s too late) to tell people how valuable they are and what they mean to us.  You did not do that with your girls.  You told them every day how much you loved them and what they meant to you.  I am learning that from you.  So today, I choose to tell you this:  YOU are the one left here and standing and sad and YOU are beautiful and important and wonderful.  I see you.  I hear you.  You matter.  You haven’t given up. You’ve been authentic and real in the heartache and struggle of it. You have questioned and trusted God through it all.  You’ve honored your girls in such a profound way. You’ve loved those around you.  I love you.  Cheers to you Cathy!
Posted in Anxiety, Beautiful Mess, Childhood, Emotions, Family, Freedom, God, Grief, Hope, Joy, Love, Parenthood

Launch Sequence (I thought it would be easier)

“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you.”  (Frederick Beuchner)

Jared moved to Pittsburgh five days ago.  Since graduating last December, he’s been living in our basement apartment, working with his business partner to launch a web-based company, while doing odd jobs and serving at a restaurant.  As a nervous “millennial” mom, I asked him every so often if he was okay and was he going to be living in our basement when he was 30.  I don’t want to be that parent, the one everyone talks about, that does not “launch” her adult children properly (if there even is such a thing, but I can assure you, there are tons of articles about this very thing that make me a little crazy).

About a month ago, I got the phone call.  “Hey Mom, what do you think if I move to Pittsburgh with Joe?” (see business partner above)  Shortened version of my response:  “Sounds great, Jared.  You could live in Dad’s apartment while you get one of your own (for those of you who don’t know, Allen commutes there three days a week and has a one-bedroom apartment).   You could work for Uncle Charley while finding a job (Charley has a large landscaping company).  I think you will love it.”  Inside my head, I was doing a little cheer, because it would be the beginning of the launch sequence.  I could even hear the countdown in my head.   After all, Pittsburgh is the perfect place.  Allen grew up there.  His parents are there.  His brother is there.  His other brother just bought a farm and moved there with his wife and seven children.  Even his sister is moving to Pittsburgh one week a month.  And most importantly, Jared is a huge Steelers and Penguins fan and his favorite part would be that there would be no more game black-outs.  All the ducks would line up in a perfect row.  YAY!  But of course, part of me believed it wouldn’t come true (negative thoughts rearing their head).

As the month marched on, I was proven more and more wrong.  All the pieces kept falling into place.  Joe got a good job and Charley said yes to Jared.  Everyone in Allen’s family did a jump for joy when they heard the news.  Jared in Pittsburgh.  What a treat!  Even Charley, when he heard the news, said to him, “You finally came to your senses.”  So, on January 2, 2018, Jared packed up his car and moved to “Da ‘Burgh” as it’s known to the locals.  He started work for Charley just two days later on January 4.  All seemed super happy and positive.

Here’s where it gets a little sticky!  I thought I would be elated.  Doing my own jump for joy.  Proud of myself for getting another one out of the house, “launched” as I frequently say to friends (we even use the rocket ship emoji every time this happens to someone).   No more extra food-making.   No more dishes from the basement to wash.  No more feelings of being tied down.  Although those things did happen, other emotions flew in unannounced.   Sadness.  Worry.   Sentimentality.  No more “do you want a smoothie” texts with a reply “Would love one.  Thanks Mom.”  No more “where are you?” texts from him as he pulls in the driveway and my car is gone, causing me to feel needed and loved.  No more hugs as he comes up the stairs to get his laundry.  On New Years, the night before he was to leave, tears flowed unprovoked.  We shared the following texts.

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Life is filled with this.  We experience “BOTH AND” as I like to say.  On many occasions and even at the same time.  BOTH happy AND sad emotions.  BOTH difficult AND easy situations.  BOTH scared AND brave thoughts.  BOTH excited AND anxious feelings.  BOTH joyful AND sorrowful events.  This is one of the times.  I thought (once again, because I am slow learner) that I would only have all the good emotions since this is exactly what I want for Jared (and myself).  But that is not to be.  My heart is filled with a myriad of emotions and a cornucopia of thoughts.  And I am okay with all (okay most) of them (finally).

I lived a lot of my life trying to live in and for ONLY the positive and the good.  I shunned the negative and the bad.  It created much anxiety in anticipation of the “shoe-dropping” moments I dreaded might come true.  I have slowly come to realize that life is filled with it all.  And each part, either negative or positive, can be embraced, lived with and through and then incorporated into who I am and becoming.  It’s a much more whole and integrated place to live and be.  And believe it or not, my anxiety and fear about the dreaded “what bad thing is around the corner” has dissipated.  Bad things will happen.  Good things will happen.  I will be happy and sad.  There will be joy and grief.  It all may happen even in the course of the same event or moment.  BOTH AND.  A much more freeing place to live from.  I keep plugging away toward this place as my life marches on, repeating this mantra, “BOTH AND.”

All that being said,  I am BOTH sad AND happy that Jared has moved out of our little basement apartment into a whole new experience in Pittsburgh.   And Jared, I write this again (even though it’s on a graduation plaque in your bedroom downstairs) to remind you of my heart for you and my dreams for you.

May the Lord bless you, Jared, and grant you His favor FOR:

  • a life filled with knowing and receiving God’s amazing and unconditional love.
  • a wife, children and grandchildren who will love and respect you with passion and fierceness and that you can grow with as you journey through life.
  • success in the work of your hands. 
  • you to find your passion and that your work would bring fulfillment for you.
  • blessing financially so that your generous heart would be able to give freely.
  • a long and health-filled life, unhindered by disease and suffering
  • deep and abiding friendships that will build you up and support you on your life’s journey
  • you to have the peace of God that will guard your heart and your mind.
  • you to have the confidence to be yourself and hold onto who you are in an ever-changing world.
  • purity and integrity in your mind, body and heart.
  • a kind and gentle spirit who will continue to seek out those who need help and offer them yourself.
  • you to entrust yourself to the God who is trustworthy.
  • you to hold fast to God and be unwavering in your loyalty to Him, as He is to you.

I love you Jared!  You are one of the best gifts I have ever known and I will miss you.

Mom

P.S.  I loved your snapchat pic when you were pulling out of the driveway.

By the way, Jared’s web-based company is on the move.  For all of you who are of have up-and-coming college students, you will want to check it out!!  Look for a launch date coming soon!!

Posted in Beautiful Mess, Celebration, Emotions, God, Grief, Holiday, Hope, Sacred

Advent (The Howl of the Not-Yet)

O ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow…

The past few weeks have been marked by much suffering for those I love.  The pain seems overwhelming: substance abuse in adult children, the possibility of a very scary diagnosis, a seemingly unfair and senseless job loss, a sibling carted off to jail in the middle of the night, an impending divorce and the unnerving future of being alone, a debilitating disease that prevents normal life-function, and mental illness that doctors are having trouble treating.  You get it.  You are hearing that kind of news as well.  And like me, your thoughts might be shouting, “How long?  How much?  Why?  Why right now?”

I love the holiday season.  From November 1 to January 1, like many of yours, our house is filled with decorations, food (and way too much of it, as my waistline is currently showing), family, friends, celebration, and traditions.  Along with these external manifestations of the season, there are also the underlying inner emotional expectations of gratitude, wonder, joy, peace, love, hope and generosity, to name just a few.  A quick confession:  I like this paragraph more than the first one.  I want to live here.  I want all good things, happy thoughts.

The period leading up to Christmas morning is commonly known as Advent.  It’s Advent right now.  Shauna Niequist reminds us that “advent is about waiting, anticipating, yearning.  Advent is the question, the pleading and Christmas is the answer to that question, the response to the howl.  There are moments in this season when I don’t feel a lot like Christmas, but I do feel a lot like Advent.”

For many weeks now, as you read above, I agree with Shauna.  I feel a lot like Advent.  Advent is NOT Christmas morning.  Advent speaks about and grieves broken places that are yet to be healed, questions that have no answer today, and yearning that is unfulfilled.  Advent gives a glimpse of hope at the end of a long season of waiting.  Advent is “both and.”  Advent says there is suffering and it is real, palpable.  But advent also says there is hope, just as real and palpable.  Advent says “don’t skip over the suffering.  Don’t minimize the heartache.  Sit in it, acknowledge it, and feel it.”  This is not an easy place.  And if the truth is told, I struggle with Advent.  I do not sit with the grief, acknowledge and feel it.  I skip right to Christmas morning, the happy place, where the answer is here and salvation has come.

I am slowly learning that skipping right to Christmas doesn’t work.  It doesn’t take away the pain.  It doesn’t make bad things not happen.  It doesn’t bring true healing.  Advent brings healing.  It is the place of real truth that speaks both heartache and hope, both suffering and a savior.

Sometimes God does His best work during the seasons of advent in our lives, the waiting periods, the not-yet times.  And that hard work usually takes the form of those who “sit with us in the dark,” when we can’t see the light, those who go to the not-so-pretty places with us and remind us of who God is and His undying love for us, for as long as it takes until we can see “Christmas” on the horizon.

There are more than two weeks until Christmas.   Let’s not skip to that place.  Let’s live in the not-yet, the place of anticipation.  Let’s dive into the questions, the grief, the “howl,” the yearning of both ourselves and those we love.  Let’s be okay in the waiting.  Christmas will come soon enough.  A baby will be here.  A Savior will come.  What is empty will be filled.  Heartache will be healed.  Yearning will be fulfilled.  What is broken will be repaired.  What we’ve lost will be found.  But in the meantime, we will wait together, not forgetting the howl of our hearts.

Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
O rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing!

(It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, Fourth Verse)

Posted in Emotions, Grief, Love, Sacred, Suicide, Taboo

Grief – A Friend’s Story (Railroaded)

“There is no pain so great as the memory of joy in present grief.” (Aeschylus)

I sat in the car on a long trip, asking questions and listening.  Hard questions.  Painful questions.  The friend I was traveling with had lost her teen son to suicide only 14 months earlier.  The sacred beauty that poured out was mesmerizing and heart-changing.

Most of my life, I avoided all things about death.  One of my close friends in high school lost her battle to depression and died by suicide when we were in our 20s.  After that excruciating pain, I vowed to avoid all suffering, especially death.  It worked for many years.  I was not confronted with the horror until last summer.  And as you read in my first grief post, it came on full-force.  So much loss.  To so many.  People I loved.  People I could not avoid.

I decided to go deeper.  Lean in.  Experience pain.  Go to the hard places with those I cared for.  Seek to understand and learn and change and grow and plunge into the depths of all that it means to be human (including profound loss).

During our car ride, I asked this friend to share her thoughts in written form.  I wanted to pour over, pray over, learn from and understand this shadowy part of life.   Two days later, I received a Facebook message from her, sharing her current grief and continued suffering, trying to make sense of what had happened to her.

I encourage you not to click away and avoid, but listen with your heart and share her sorrow with your soul.  Come into the shadows, where hardship is, but where beauty lies, where suffering is, but the sacred is revealed.  I warn you.  Grief is beautiful and terrible and wonderful and necessary all at the same time.  Here is some of her heart.  

Nothing about my life is the same since my son died. Nothing. Yes, he is gone, but it is much more than that. My friend asked me one day if I felt “railroaded.” Yes, that’s it. Railroaded.

Before my son’s death, I had two kids who attended school and played sports. I hopped from here to there providing taxi service as well as being a spectator of those sports. I spent my weekends on a soccer field or at a cheer competition or sang at church. A free weekend was rare. I was a business owner who worked 4-5 days a week. I worked out five days a week and watched what I ate. I had just lost about 35 pounds and felt great. I spent evenings on the couch with my kids watching our favorite shows. I organized a charity Christmas party every year that we as a family participated in and Dad was Santa. We vacationed one week a year in the tropics and one week at the Jersey Shore. I planned girls’ nights. I went out with friends. All summer long, friends would be over for BBQs and the pool.  I was the life of the party.

After.  I don’t even know where to begin. My daughter got one too many concussions and had to quit her sport. I do not have to taxi anymore. I am not on a soccer field or at a cheer competition on the weekends (unless we go to watch friends). I do still sing at church. That’s one thing that IS the same.

Work is tough. Feeling like I can’t function and am just not up to doing things, it falls through the cracks. I do what I absolutely have to, but my regular work schedule is thwarted.

I work out as much as I can, but often not the five days I would like. If I feel bad mentally, I push through and go, but if I feel bad physically, I often don’t make it.

I feel, like my friend said, railroaded.

Eating. Another area that has been railroaded. Food. It’s what people bring when someone passes. Food. For months after. Food. Please don’t get me wrong. I greatly needed and appreciated all the food. If it weren’t for those friends who brought meals, I’m not sure any of us would have eaten. It is just much harder to eat the way you know you need to. Days turned into months and months into more than a year.

Railroaded. There are still shows that I watch with my daughter. But it just isn’t the same watching things without my son. Sometimes during Survivor I still get teary-eyed.

The Christmas party lives on. It was just different this past year. It felt railroaded as well. It was hard to plan because my son’s birthday is in December and I couldn’t do it that day. We struggled for the right day, but we did it because the kids would miss it. Dad was still Santa.

Vacations. Another victim of the railroad. We all did go to Florida last year. My husband and I were tourists, and our daughter spent her time at a cheer competition. Even though we were all there, it didn’t seem like a family vacation. There was the trip to Costa Rica that wasn’t. Cancelled at the last minute. It was just too hard to go without our son and brother. There was the attempt at Vegas for Christmas. We were there less than 24 hours. Too much anxiety and pain. We ended up coming home and blessing some homeless people in the midst of our pain. The Jersey Shore. I miss it so. I spent one weekend in early June and have not been there since. I miss a beach house and boardwalks with our family and friends. No more boardwalks, just railroads. I miss true family vacations.

My social life. Railroaded. I don’t want to be Julie the cruise director any more, planning a fun night for friends. Sometimes I turn down invitations because I don’t feel good. I miss being carefree and going out with friends. I miss feeling good.

As I contemplated my friend’s word, I realized it meant even more than she intended. This all started the night my son died on train tracks. My life has been, in more ways than one, railroaded. I hope that some day I won’t feel so lost and off kilter. I know that through all of this, God has held me in his hand and He has not let me go. That is the only thing that is keeping me on the tracks.

My response to her:

This is a good start to getting your feelings out there.  It makes so much sense to me.  It’s good to speak of losses and to say them out loud.  It gives a beautiful glimpse at the real stuff that makes up grief.   It is so good for me to hear and learn from you and share your pain.  It brings me both sorrow and healing.  I pray your sharing would bring you some measure of healing.

For those of you who have loved fiercely and lost someone precious to you, I pray that you would find a safe space to share your true heart, the one that might be hurting.  I pray that those who listen would dive deep and sit still and share some measure of your grief and suffering.  I pray that in God’s vast wisdom, compassion, kindness, mercy and love, He brings unfathomable healing to each of us in the places only He can reach.

To my friend who was willing to put her heart out there today, thank you.  You have given me the gift of yourself and there is nothing greater.  I am asking God to give you many good gifts straight from His heart to you today.