Observations of a Father’s Love

I wish I could say this post is about my father, but it’s not. It’s about another man I know. He’s my Uncle Pete. With the recent passing of his wife, my Aunt Mary, I’ve spent more time with him and come to appreciate his dedication to his son.

Sacrifice Versus Abandonment

My uncle retired from his job over 25 years ago to help his wife care for their disabled son Mark (who was in high school at the time). They have been his primary caregivers ever since.

Because of Mark’s condition, he doesn’t get out of the home much or have contact with many people. My recent trips back home to help them relocate and grieve the loss of their wife and mother have given me a chance to connect with them both.

Visiting Aunt Mary’s gravesite.

What I’ve observed is the toll caregiving has on the family–in this case my uncle. I’ve taken on a bit of the emotional toll myself–the love and longing to help combined with the periodic sense of helplessness.

Since my last trip was near Father’s Day, I couldn’t help but reflect on the sacrifice my uncle has made for his son. It is in stark contrast to the fathering I received.

My father was married 6 times. My mom was wife number 4. Some might say he had a pattern of abandonment. As a recipient of that abandonment, I can’t argue with it. I’m sensitive to the hole in one’s heart due to the absence of a father’s love and attachment.

The Sacrificial Love of a Parent

My Uncle Pete has weathered the storms in his marriage, maintained faithfulness and provided through thick and thin, or until death us do part. He has been a devoted husband and father all these years.

When life’s challenges hit us, we can either rise to the occasion or shrink in defeat. My uncle has been the steady foundation for his family. I admire that in him.

As parents we unconditionally love our kids just like our heavenly Father loves us. How much more difficult that is when our kids are less than perfect or do not live up to our standards. Whether it’s through the trials of drug addiction, alcoholism, sexual promiscuity, illegal activity or physical or mental disabilities–we love them and pray for them. Sometimes we have to use tough love and other times we learn to let go.

I can’t fathom the pain and suffering my uncle has endured through the years as he clung to hope for his son’s healing.

So I dedicate this post to my Uncle Pete and all the fathers who chose to selflessly devote their lives to become caregivers to their disabled children. You are extraordinary fathers. Your children are blessed to have you under their care and protection.

May the Lord give you the courage, faith, hope and strength to pour into your children on Father’s Day and beyond.

A Caregiver’s Prayer

Heavenly Father,

Help me better understand and believe I can do what you ask me to do.

Forgive me for the times when I question your judgment.

Lighten my burden, answer my prayer, and give me the strength to do what so often seems impossible.

Give me a quiet place to rest when I need it and a quieting of my anxieties when I’m there.

Change my attitude from a tired, frustrated and angry caregiver to the loving and compassionate one I want to be.

Remain my constant companion as I face the challenges of caregiving and when my job is through and it’s time for me to let go, help me remember my dear one is leaving my loving arms to enter your eternal embrace.

Amen.

Friends of St. John the Caregiver (www.FSJC.org)

In Loving Memory of my Aunt Mary

There was another passing of a loved one in my family recently. It was my Aunt Mary, my mother’s younger sister, and last of the siblings in their family. My aunt was included in my published story, “Walking My Mother Home,” in Journeys to Mother Love. She loved my writing. It served to bring us closer together. So I thought it would be fitting to write a piece in her memory.

The 5 siblings: JoAnn (Mom), Mary, Henry, Helen and Ginny, 1974.

Déjà Vu

After my Aunt Mary passed away, I devoted two weeks of my life back home in the St. Louis area with her family. Previous to that, I was unaware that her health had been declining. When I heard of her condition and that she was put on hospice, I immediately called her husband, my Uncle Pete. I felt that all too familiar pull to be there—to be by her bedside, to pray with her and for her—and to help in any way I could.

My initial help was limited to calls to the funeral home and cemetery. When I talked with my uncle, I could tell that my aunt’s time was extremely limited. I wanted to jump on a plane and be there. I began the online search for flights and other travel arrangements. It felt like déjà vu—not knowing when to leave or how long to stay—just like when my mother passed.

I waited and prayed for two days.

Then I got the news that my aunt would probably pass in the next 24 hours. I knew I wouldn’t make it back in time so we prayed together. Again, just like when my mother died, my uncle put the phone on speaker. I asked my Uncle Pete and his son Mark, my cousin, to lay their hands on and over my aunt.

We communicated our love to her and asked the Lord to release her from her pain. My Aunt Mary had been unresponsive just prior to our prayer. But then Mark said she squeezed his hand while I prayed. It comforted us to know that she heard our prayer. My Aunt Mary died a few hours later.

I took the red-eye flight to St. Louis that night. The next few days were a blur of appointments and decisions related to the funeral. Both of my parents were cremated, so I hadn’t been down the road of a full-blown funeral and burial before. God was with us as all the pieces fell into place in three days.

One of the things I offered to do was buy the clothes that my aunt would be buried in. She was a very petite woman, much different than myself, but I knew she had a flare for fashion like me and my mother. There were so many cute options for a size 4! I was thrilled to find just the right outfit to bring her back to life, so to speak—in a vibrant coral dress and sweater combination with matching jewelry.

Another Eulogy

When the funeral home found out I was a writer, they asked me to write her obituary. I kindly agreed. I also created her funeral program and offered to do her eulogy. I stayed up late the night before the funeral prayerfully writing it. (More déjà vu and preparation from my mother’s passing.)

I’m honored to stand here today and share a few words about my Aunt Mary–something I never saw myself doing. I didn’t have the benefit of getting to spend my youth living near her and my Uncle Pete. So I didn’t know her well back then.

I have more childhood memories with her sisters, my Aunt Helen and Aunt Ginny. However, I did have the sense as a child that my mother JoAnn and Mary were closer to each other than to their other sisters. That could be because they were closer in age. But as I reflected about who Mary was to me and my memories of her, I realized she was very much like my mother.

Mary was a vibrant attractive woman. Like my mother, she had a flare for fashion and other feminine things like cosmetics. (I say this because I’ve never been like that, but I noticed.) I have this vision of her as a blond bombshell, sort of like Marilyn Monroe. You can see it in some of the early pictures of Mary and Pete. She was a beautiful woman.

Her beauty didn’t go unnoticed by my Uncle Pete either. A few days ago, he told me a cute story about how he met his wife. He said he met Mary at a night club at Scott Air Force Base over 50 years ago. She was out with friends. He saw her walk by him and he knew he wanted to dance with her. So Pete got up the nerve to ask her to dance to a slow song. She agreed. He said he knew then that she was the one.  There was no one else for him.

I only met my aunt and uncle a few times when I was young. When my Uncle Pete was stationed in Alaska my aunt and uncle visited us in Portland, Oregon on their drive to their new home in Anchorage. I think the next time I saw them was after my parents divorced. My mom and us kids were living back in Illinois. I was in high school. They made the rounds visiting family with their young son Mark. A few years later, they were permanently transferred back to Illinois. Unfortunately, I went away to college the same year, so our paths didn’t cross much when Mark was growing up.

When I got married and had kids of my own, Mary and I grew closer, although we were still separated by a great distance because my husband and I lived in the Seattle area. I started the family tradition of sending out an annual Christmas letter and having a family portrait done. Every year she would send me a Christmas card, write a personal note and send some gift money for the kids.

I brought those Christmas cards with me and would like to give you a glimpse into her heart–the heart of a mother, a sister, an aunt.

I tearfully read a few years’ worth of her annual notes to me. My aunt and I both shared a love for Major League Baseball and her notes often included talk about the St. Louis Cardinals or the Seattle Mariners. Some of her notes even mentioned people who were in attendance at the funeral.

Then as I re-entered my mother’s life before she passed 7 years ago, I grew closer to Aunt Mary. You can also tell that from her notes to me. We kept writing at Christmas, but when my writing and publishing started to take off, I would send her paper copies of my writings. She played a big part in healing my relationship with my mother, most notably responding to my plea to go see her in the hospital after her stroke in July 2009. Mary came back with a good report of my mother’s condition. She also prayed over her. I believe God answered her prayer and kept my mother alive long enough for me and my siblings to see her again and to reconcile.

My aunt’s Christmas notes during that time often referenced my mother and my visits back home to see my mom or Mary herself. Reading those annual notes from her was like reliving those visits again. As painful as it was to share those experiences again, it helped me to face going through the same situation with my aunt’s passing.

My aunt praying for my mother.

It felt so familiar to me, yet so different. The events and the decisions on this trip were much more complicated than my mother’s death. Although I wasn’t solely responsible for these decisions, I was helping my uncle and cousin carry the burden.

What was familiar was how God showed up in so many ways. I felt lifted up, confident and equipped to walk with them through their grief and to look at another layer of my own inner healing work.

I think Mary sort of came to adopt me like a daughter to some degree. I never really had a mother-daughter relationship due to my own mother’s mental illness. I did welcome the rare occasions when Mary and I would talk. And I regret not being more available to her as the years passed.

I guess that leads me to why I came. Mary held a special place in my heart. I didn’t have to pretend to be someone I was not around her. We could talk about things at a deeper level. As I got my own emotional and spiritual healing, I was able to more fully understand the complexity of her life and the sacrifice she made for her family. It gave me compassion and empathy for her.

So when I heard of the decline in her health, I couldn’t help but come. I wanted to be able to give back one last time to Mary and for Mary, in a meaningful way. She deserves that. I wanted her to finish well.

I was scheduled to fly back home the day after the funeral, but couldn’t bear to leave. I stayed another week with my family to help them as they started the transition to a new season of their lives without their wife and mother.

For Mary and for God

I’m back home now, but my memories of that trip and time spent with my family linger in my mind. At 88 years old, my uncle relied heavily on me. We had several bittersweet conversations. My aunt and uncle were married for almost 51 years. Along with their special needs son, the three were pretty inseparable.

Visiting my mother’s gravesite on her 87th birthday.

When I was with them, I felt a special bond to them and had the confidence and strength to pour into their lives. I couldn’t stop to think about all the work, the decisions, and the seemingly impossible task ahead.

We often prayed together during the trip. I openly shared about God and comforted them in their grief. There were times when I felt Mary’s presence or could hear her voice saying my name, “Ardis Ann.” At one point my Uncle Pete told me that I was sent by his wife and by God. Together we wept. These are the memories I cling to now.

I don’t fully understand why God wired or equipped me to come alongside my uncle and cousin like he did (and continues to do). I trust it is the next step of my own healing process as well as theirs. The Lord seemed to confirm that by burying my aunt just a few spaces away from where my mother and other family are buried (and it was not prearranged).

I cannot urge you enough that if you haven’t done so, please make your burial and end of life wishes known to your family. Prearrange as much as you can, especially if you want to have a full funeral with a visitation, burial, etc. The decisions and costs are huge. It is a big burden to the family to address this in their time of grief.

I am grateful that I could do this for my uncle and cousin, and ultimately for Mary. Just like my mother, my Aunt Mary is a part of me. I look forward to seeing her again soon. With the Hope of Christ and the Resurrection Power of Easter, I know this is true.

Rest in peace, Aunt Mary.

Returning to Spain, Again

Spain has been on my mind a lot these days (mucho todos los días). With the passing of another day, my internal clock tells me it’s time to officially write about it. I’m returning to Spain! This time I will be in the company of my husband.

The last time I was in Spain was on the Celebrate Recovery mission in the fall of 2014. When I said my goodbyes to my Spanish family, I set a goal to return in five years. At the time that seemed like forever and that it would take a miracle. So I began praying and believing in faith.

Taking the Metro (subway) to Barajas Airport with Rosa, October 2014.

A Missed Opportunity

A few years later in April 2016, there was a wonderful opportunity to return to Spain for an international Christian women’s conference. It was held at the same church, Comunidad Cristiana Luz y Vida, where I spoke on the CR mission, in Rivas, a suburb of Madrid . The women’s conference was followed by a guided prayer journey to Southern Spain, the same trip that I was to attend as part of the 2014 CR mission. The prayer journey in 2014 was cancelled, but funds remained from that mission for a future trip.

I prayed and prayed to return to Spain for the conference and prayer journey in 2016. It was at the same time that I returned to full-time work at my husband’s clinic. What was initially a temporary assignment to convert to a new computer system unexpectedly turned into a permanent position. (And still is.) How I grieved not being able to go. My heart and prayers were with the other attendees every day of their trip.

Sightseeing during the CR mission, Segovia, Spain, October 2014.

A Difficult Decision

Around the same time, I learned of an American couple, the Hernandez’s, who were called to a missionary assignment in Spain. Much to my amazement, they had attended a similar prayer journey led by Pastor Fajardo, my mission partner in Rivas, a few years before the CR mission to Spain. Hearing of the Hernandez’s missionary call to Spain felt like answered prayer to me for all of the miles and footsteps I prayer-walked through Spain in the summer of 2013. I immediately felt a connection and spiritually aligned with their mission.

The financial need was great for these new missionaries. I felt prompted to release the remaining mission funds to the Hernandez’s mission. Being prompted by the Spirit doesn’t naturally mean that it was an easy decision though. It was accompanied by an internal struggle–a human and spiritual struggle. On the one hand, I knew that the funds would be used for God’s Kingdom in Spain. On the other hand, it seemed like I was giving up my dreams to return myself–especially in a ministry capacity. The funds were released and sent to the Hernandez’s mission in October 2016. It gives me much pleasure and peace to continue financially and prayerfully supporting them and their work in Spain. (And you can too!)

The Hernandez’s with Pastor Fajardo, Toledo, Spain.

Still Waiting

Then, miraculously (to me), on Christmas Eve 2016, my prayers were answered. I was surprised with the gift of a trip to Spain. The last present we opened was a card from my husband with a note to attend Pedro’s university graduation in June 2017. Not knowing what the card said, my sons were alarmed by my tearful reaction. They were tears of joy and gratitude–not just for my husband, but to God for answering my heartfelt prayers. Months later we made the difficult decision to delay our trip and not attend Pedro’s graduation. As much as it broke my heart to not be there for this milestone in Pedro’s life (more letting go), it was all for the best.

Pedro, right, and his friends at the university graduation, June 2017.

When I was invited to another Spanish prayer journey in April of this year, I was naturally excited to consider attending that. More internal struggle prevailed, accompanied by more prayer. I let go of my personal wants so that my husband can experience Spain on his terms. After all, he has never been to Europe.  As we approach our 35th wedding anniversary, it seems fitting that we experience Spain together from a different perspective.

Not Just a Tourist Destination

To me, Spain is not just a tourist destination. It is a second home and a place of great spiritual and emotional significance. I know there will be many God encounters on our trip. I can’t step on Spanish soil without praying into the nation, the Church, and the people. I will visit churches and cathedrals once again. I hope to personally meet the Hernandez’s and reconnect with other ministry colleagues.

I’ve often considered myself a self-appointed ambassador to Spain–sharing about Spain on social media, on my blog and whenever the opportunity arises in face to face conversations. (Did you hear that Spain surpassed the United States as the second most popular tourist destination in the world? I think I did my part!)

In downtown Madrid, National Day parade, October 12, 2014

Last fall when the turmoil in Catalonia was at its peak, a patient from Spain sought treatment at our office. We naturally connected about the political situation and her homeland in general. I delighted in helping her to understand how insurance coverage works in America. (Not that I agree with how it works, but it was necessary to explain it. Just imagine how that seems to someone from a country with socialized medicine.) The patient has offered help with our Spanish and brought us souvenirs from Spain after visiting family over the holidays.

I also routinely chat with Pedro and various members of his family. I look forward to seeing them again soon. (Hopefully I’ll be more prepared to personally communicate with them as I ramp up my Spanish to the next level.)

With my Spanish family on my final night in Spain, summer 2013.

Let the Countdown Begin

The countdown officially started the day we bought our tickets in November 2017. But I’ve been preparing for the day I would step on Spanish soil again in my heart and in prayer ever since my goodbye to my Spanish family in October 2014.

So today I am officially publishing the countdown (on right sidebar) to the day we both embark on a journey to Spain (April 28th). There will be tears upon our arrival at Barajas Airport in Madrid–seeing my Spanish family again after nearly five years–and when my husband meets Pedro’s parents face to face for the first time since he arrived in our home in July 2010.

The waiting is almost over. There is a mountain of work to do in the meantime–secular work. I’ll keep praying for Spain and preparing my heart for the next leg of this journey.

Toasting my return to Madrid with Rosa, October 2014.

I know this is God’s timing for us to go and for me to return. Because when the dates finally started to materialize in our calendars, I realized that I would be spending Mother’s Day with Rosa. That was confirmation to me–no prayer journey–this trip is about family. Rosa and I have been uniquely linked in spiritual and emotional ways through the passing of our mothers (as I wrote in “Walking My Mother Home,” my story in Journeys to Mother Love).

So isn’t it fitting that the Lord would return me to Spain for Mother’s Day (el día de las madres) with Rosa? It will be a reunion of heavenly proportions.

A Father’s Day Message of Hope

The year before my father died I wrote him a long letter for Father’s Day.  It’s not something I’d ever done before.   He was 93 years old, and I felt prompted to speak into matters of the heart with him.  It was a very risky endeavor—because he was not an emotional person and there was a ‘history’ between us.

Me & Dad circa 1962.

My Father History

My parents divorced when I was nine years old.  My mother and us kids moved across the country to live near my mother’s relatives.  My time with my father was then limited to a few summer visits in my teen years.

He was my father in name only for most of my life—and not only to me, but to the kids he also fathered in previous marriages.  That never seemed to bother me though.  He was MY father.  I loved him and longed for his love and acceptance.

While he was absent from most of the milestones in my life and lived thousands of miles away, his presence loomed large in my life in ways unbeknownst to me.

The Healing Journey

When I entered recovery over a decade ago, I started to see the effect of his absence in my life—the absence of real relationship and love.  As I got healing for my inner father wounds and took responsibility for my behavior and choices, I also learned to accept him in his failings.  I grieved what I didn’t get from him and released myself from the guilt I carried around my parent’s divorce (a common by-product of divorce).

The more healing I got, the easier it was for me to recognize how his words affected me, and to maintain an adult stance around him.  As I got stronger with my adult voice, I started to respectfully speak up for myself and my beliefs.  I didn’t let his opinions and his lack of empathy dictate my own self-worth.

In short, I grew confident in who I was as a woman and gave my little Ardis the chance to grow up as well.

My father and I had a good relationship the last few years of his life.  He observed how I restored the relationship with my mother and cared for her at the end of her life.  He was genuinely interested in the resulting turnaround in my life.  The healing and forgiveness I experienced at the end of my mother’s life then became a catalyst for me to initiate the same change in our father-daughter relationship.

Fishing with my father on the Columbia River.

A Father’s Day Letter

A few months after my mother passed away, my father’s last surviving sibling passed away.  I was still early on in my grief process over the loss of my mother, and I sensed that my uncle’s death may have been hard for my father too.  I used that as an opportunity to speak to his heart by way of a long letter.  I sent it for Father’s Day that year.

The purpose of the letter was two-fold.  One purpose was to fill him in on the inner healing I was experiencing and how God was revealing more things to me about my mother and the legacy she left me.  The second purpose was to express my forgiveness to him and propose a similar gesture as a lasting legacy for our family.

I was bold in my words, yet compassionate in my plea for family healing.  I prayerfully wrote the letter, releasing the outcome to the Lord and having no expectations of his understanding or emotional shift in his attitudes towards family.

Dad and me at his 90th birthday party.

A Father’s Day Reminder

I believe that letter made all the difference in my father’s ability to go in peace.  He never spoke of the letter, but my step-mother told me he read and re-read it several times.  He was outwardly softening as I think the Lord was inwardly doing a work in him.

He passed away the following year in a beautiful way that brought family together and gave us all peace in his passing.  We honored him with a private family memorial service that gave us closure and more healing.

While Father’s Day can still be a painful reminder to me of what I didn’t get from my earthly father, I’d much rather focus on how the Lord redeemed those years by giving me a heartfelt connection with my father at the end of his life.

I’m thankful the Lord prompted me to go down the path of healing and forgiveness for both of my parents before it was too late.  It has made all the difference in me and helped me to model that kind of healing with others.

2 Corinthians 6:18

I hope and pray that Father’s Day isn’t painful for you as it has been for me at times.  If your father is still alive and your relationship needs work, don’t wait until it’s too late.  Offer forgiveness and love, releasing the outcome to the Lord.  And remember our heavenly Father is with us as a friend, counselor, and Abba Father, regardless of the circumstances with our earthly father.

Nominations Open for Mother of the Year

As Mother’s Day approaches this year I’ve noticed a bit of longing for the times when my kids were young and family plans were made to do something special to celebrate the day.  If something wasn’t planned, you could always count on the school to assign students a Mother’s Day project.

I’ve still got my children’s Mother’s Day projects filed away with their school papers and art projects.  Some have made their way into my scrapbooks and another hangs in my office as a reminder of one of those cherished memories.

An Unlikely Nomination

Many years ago one of those Mother’s Day projects was a major wake-up call for me.  I got to see myself through the eyes of my 11-year-old son, and I didn’t like what I saw.

Each student was given an assignment to write a Mother-of-the-Year nomination for their parent.  It was a good writing assignment for a 4th grader—learning how to structure a one-page paper.

It started out with the three reasons for my nomination.  Then there was a paragraph for each reason to give more background and details.  The final paragraph was a summary of the nomination.

My son started out by nominating me because “she has a great personality, works hard for her job, and lastly she is dedicated to the family.”  It warmed my heart—until I reached the paragraph about my work.  That was when my son’s words hit a nerve.

“My mother stays up late to keep working most of the time.  Normally, it is 2 AM before she goes to bed.  Also there are times where I don’t see my mom until the next morning because she stayed at work.  She does this just to bring money into the family.  If she didn’t have to bring in money then she wouldn’t do these things.”

Hard work is one thing, but I was modeling to my son that working long hours into the night and not seeing him, was acceptable behavior—all for a paycheck.  That may seem innocuous to many people in these days of high tech and high stress jobs.  But his truth about my work habits and unconscious belief system was a glaring red flag.

I didn’t like the message I was sending my son.

The bigger story behind this was that I was demoted from my job a few months earlier.  That demotion was the catalyst that got me into recovery and out of denial about my work addiction.

By the time I received my son’s Mother’s Day gift, I was making healthy changes in my life and working less hours.  However, the damage had been done.  My son already saw the result.  Thankfully, all of this led to getting more balance in my life and by the next year, I took a leap of faith and left my job.

A New Nomination

I never shared with my son the impact his words had on me.  He was too young to understand.  Now that he is 24 and working in a job that he loves, maybe it is time that we have that talk.

Over the years since leaving that job, my kids have been very much aware of my recovery journey and passion for emotional and spiritual healing.  Back in 2004 when he nominated me for Mother-of-the-Year, I’m sure I didn’t feel very worthy.

The joy of Mother’s Day with my sons, May 2000.

I wonder what he would say now—what either of my son’s would say if they could nominate me now.  I still don’t feel very worthy of something like that.  However, I know that I’ve made a difference in their lives.  While I haven’t been a traditional homemaker type mother, they know that I love them.

And like I did when I left that job over a decade ago, I’ve modeled something I’m much more proud of—leaning on God.  The scripture that helped me through that difficult time is still one of my favorite life verses.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding, seek His will in all you do, and He will direct your paths.” Proverbs 3:5-6, NIV

While my son’s Mother’s Day gift that year didn’t initially feel like a gift, it turned out to be one of the most memorable I’ve ever had.  The timing and his words were perfectly orchestrated by God to get my attention and help me to shift my priorities and grow my faith.

What are you modeling to your kids this Mother’s Day?  Are you worthy of The Nomination?

A Bittersweet Birthday Gift

Every year since my mother passed away, I can’t help but think of her on my birthday.  It was on my 50th birthday that I was by her bedside, 2000 miles away from friends and family.  It was a very poignant and bittersweet birthday.  It wasn’t at all how I planned to celebrate turning 50.

50-birthdayJanet, one of my friends had planned a birthday party for me—something I was looking forward to for weeks.  It was going to be a big celebration, with invites to women who had all jointly participated in a series of emotional healing classes.  It was how I really wanted to mark this major birthday milestone in my life.  But God had other plans.

An Unexpected Trip Back Home

I had not seen my mother in several years.  We didn’t have much of a relationship.  Her mental illness had driven a wedge between us.  Over the years it didn’t bother me much—on the surface.  I told myself it was all for the best.  Deep inside though, I carried a lot of guilt and shame around my relationship with my mother.  It was my choice to turn my back on her.

I never knew what it was like to have a mother to confide in, to mentor me, or to teach me how to be a good wife or mother.  I certainly didn’t think I needed one either.

joann-ny-2

My mother, JoAnn, circa 1956.

Then came the dreaded phone call.  You know the one.  When bad news is delivered, shaking your world.

My mother had a major stroke leaving her partially paralyzed and barely able to talk.  Medical decisions were made to give her the care she needed and life returned to status quo.

A few months later, after she had another medical emergency, I felt it was time to go.  It wasn’t an easy decision, but somehow the Lord was getting hold of me.  I needed to be an adult and face not only the difficult end of life decisions for my mother’s sake, but I also had to face my own pain.

A Change of Heart Towards Mom

I arrived in the St. Louis area on a roundtrip ticket with a return flight home a few days before my 50th birthday.  Seeing my mother that first time was difficult.  She didn’t look like herself.  She was pale, thin, and aged.  Years of bedridden medical care and living in a nursing home environment had turned her into a much older looking woman.

Despite her limited ability to speak, her eyes said “I love you.”

My heart ached for her.

My days were split between time with my mother and in meetings with her healthcare team.  Day after day I immersed myself in my mother’s care and living environment.  Occupational speech therapy was underway.  Hospice care was recommended and initiated while I was there.

Every night I talked with friends and family back home.  Their prayers gave me the courage and the strength to carry on each day.

When the time came to leave, I couldn’t bear the thought.  There still seemed like too much to do.  I didn’t know when or if I would see my mother alive again.  I didn’t want any regrets. God was softening my heart toward my mom, giving me compassion and empathy for her.

A family reunion with mom.

A family reunion with mom.

My sister-in-law, Carol, came to the rescue.  She sensed my angst.  Carol made arrangements for me to stay longer and made plans for us (my brother, her and myself) to return in December, for one last family reunion.

When it came to telling Janet about my plans to stay and to cancel my party, she made it easy for me too.  Janet was very understanding and loving.  She offered up prayers and to throw me a party another time, when I was ready.  (That party was five years ago and had a totally different meaning and feel to it.)

A Bittersweet Birthday

When my 50th birthday arrived, the day wasn’t outwardly that much different than any other day of my visit: time with mom, feeding her, gently massaging her feet and legs, talking with her care team.  Inwardly though, God was reminding me of the significance of the day.

It was bittersweet.  I couldn’t help but think that she brought me into the world 50 years ago and cared for me day and night as a baby.  She helped me to start life well.  Now I was returning the gift to her—helping her to end life well.

My final gift to my mother on this trip was the gold cross pendent I received from my godmother for my first communion.  I treasured that gift for decades.  But now, as I left my mother in God’s hands, and returned home, I wanted her to have something to cling to—to remember me.  It was my promise to her to return again.

My 50th birthday with my mother.

My 50th birthday with my mother.

A Legacy of Healing

That bittersweet day was eight birthdays ago.  My mother passed away 15 months later.  I made two more trips back home to see her before she died.  Each time her health deteriorated more and more.

That first trip opened my eyes to her suffering.  It opened my heart for the healing between us—much of it never verbally spoken, but shared in the gentle touch of my hands and the tears in our eyes.

So on my birthday, I feel especially close to her.  She didn’t know it then, but she gave me the most memorable birthday gift.  And for me, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.  It’s the gift I give to others who are also helping their parents end well.  But really it’s the gift we give ourselves, if we are open to walking through the pain and turning healing to hope.

He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. (2 Corinthians 1:4, NLT)

For more on this story, purchase a copy of Journeys to Mother Love, through my site, or through your favorite book seller.

A Grateful Lesson in Letting go of our Children

If you have grown kids, I’m sure you can relate to this feeling of gratitude. Another timeless parenting lesson in love, sacrifice, and letting go.

Journeys To Mother Love

Letting go of our children reaps a harvest in unexpected ways.

As much as I want it too, time doesn’t stand still. In fact as we age I’ve found that it actually seems to move at a faster pace. Kids grow up, graduate from college, leave the nest, and settle into a new life as they seek independence and start a career or family.

Whether our children choose to live nearby, across the state, or across the country, we will be faced with challenges to our parenting and our ability to let go.

It’s a timeless lesson in love and sacrifice.

My older son graduated from college a few years ago and, because of a lucrative job offer, immediately moved out of state. There was no time for transition between the two major milestones.

It was a crazy time for my husband and me as parents. We experienced the pride of his graduation and excitement for his new life. We packed…

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Not your Typical Exchange Student Experience

This week marks the 5th anniversary of meeting Pedro González Arbona, a short-term Spanish exchange student, and his adoption into our family.  Every year at this time, my internal clock reminds me and sends me down memory lane.  That’s because Pedro’s arrival in our home set a series of life-changing events in motion for me emotionally, spiritually, and with my writing.

While our adventures that first summer were fairly typical of the experiences of host families and their students, the relationship that ensued was not typical.  It led to a deep connection between his mother and me as we prepared for our mothers to pass away; it led to launching Pedro’s music and film composing career; and it led to my church mission to Spain last fall.

Welcome poster

Pedro’s welcome poster, July 2010.

Five Years of Celebrations

So for the last four years, I’ve deliberately marked the occasion in some personal way.

Five years later, and I realized I had never publically shared the behind the scenes story of how this all came to be.  Even the way in which Pedro ended up in our home was not the usual course of events that occurs when signing up to host a foreign exchange student. It was a whirlwind of surprises and quick decisions a few short weeks before Pedro arrived in America.

Pedro at the Nelson family piano, July 2010

Pedro at the Nelson family piano, July 2010

Rekindling an Old Friendship

The story starts in June 2010.  My oldest son was a senior in high school and auditioned to perform a classical piano piece at the Baccalaureate ceremony.  The evening of his audition, our son shared over dinner that one of the judges was Kris, a family friend from our old neighborhood.  We’d lost touch with each other through the years.  She remembered my son from way back when our kids played together.

After years of no contact, I decided to connect with Kris over email.  That started a nice string of replies back and forth and the rekindling of an old friendship.  My son passed the audition, and we made plans to see each other at the ceremony later that month.

Pedro in the recording studio, July 2011.

Pedro in the recording studio, July 2011.

Looking for Host Families

A few days later, Kris sent us an email about Education First (EF), the exchange program that she was in charge of for our area.  She asked us if we would be interested in hosting a student.  44 students from France and Spain were arriving in 4 weeks and they still needed homes for some of the students.

My husband and I had a Finnish exchange student through Rotary International in our home early on in our marriage (over 20 years ago) before we had kids.  It was such a fun experience; we were open to doing it again, and sharing the experience with our now teenage sons.

We had never heard about the EF program.  We learned EF was a short-term program, generally just a few weeks.  Some years the program involved students being in language classes during the day.  Other years the program entailed multiple planned field trips for the students, and lots of unscheduled time to be immersed in the culture and life of their host families. This particular year, was the latter program for 4 weeks in July.

We talked it over as a family and decided to give it a try.  We filled out the application, went through the home interview process, and had our references checked.  Since most everyone in my family had taken some Spanish in school, we requested to host a Spanish male student in our home.  We anxiously awaited word of who our host son would be.

Our EF leaders, Kris & Jan.

Our EF leaders, Kris & Jan.

Matching Host Families and Students

Ten days later, I eagerly opened the email that matched families with students.  When I read our host son’s profile, I was surprised to see that he didn’t play the piano.  During the initial interview process, Kris shared that there was definitely at least one student who played the piano and that we would be matched with him.

From the moment the opportunity to host an exchange student came up, I felt God was calling me to stretch myself outside of my comfort zone.  I was excited about welcoming a student into our home, but I was also nervous about it.

So when I noticed that the student assigned to our family did not play the piano, I prayed about what to do.  Was I to blindly trust that this was ‘the student’ for us?  Was I supposed to speak up and make our desires known?

I contacted Kris about our assigned student.  Her response was welcome news.  She made a mistake in assigning the students.  We were supposed to be matched with a young man from Spain who played the piano.  His name was Pedro!

Pedro in his studio in Madrid, July 2013.

Pedro in his studio in Madrid, July 2013.

First Contact

Our family had the advantage of knowing a little bit about Pedro and his family by way of the profile sheet that he filled out as part of the EF program.  Right away I sent Pedro an email introduction and family photo.  He quickly replied, sharing his excitement to visit Seattle, and about his love of music and cinema.  He had also looked up our location on Google Maps, said how beautiful it looked, and naturally asked about the rain.

Communication was also then initiated with his parents, Rosa and Rafa.  In our first email from his parents, they told us we “have friends in Spain if you want to come to visit.”  (Three years later I took them up on that offer.)

Several emails followed over the next two weeks before his arrival in our home.  It was a crazy time for us.  Our son was graduating from high school and we had an out of town trip planned to a family wedding.  Somehow I managed to prepare the house and my spirit to welcome this young man into our home in short order.  (I’m sure prayer had something to do with it.)

We had a fun filled 4 weeks together exploring Washington State, and learning about each other’s countries and cultures.  And of course, Pedro played the piano every chance he got.  Unbeknownst to us, he was also playing some of his own compositions, like “Portman,” still one of my favorites.   A few months later, he sent us “Seattle,” a song he composed and dedicated to my family.  (Click to view studio recordings or listen to songs on the media player in right sidebar.)

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Pedro, at the keyboard at the VIP screening of Tempting Fate, Houston, July 2014.

Pedro, at the keyboard at the VIP screening of Tempting Fate, Houston, July 2014.

A Match Made in Heaven

I’ve never regretted opening up our home to an exchange student or specifically to Pedro.   We were so attached to Pedro, we invited him back the next summer for a personal visit.  Five years later our families still maintain regular contact via email, Skype, or Whatsapp messaging.

It was truly a match made in heaven.

The experience has expanded my definition of family and stretched my heart, my mind, and my faith in amazing ways.  Sometimes the geographical and language barriers make our relationship challenging.  Other times it brings such great joy.

When we agreed to host an exchange student in our home, I never thought I was signing up for this kind of long-term commitment.  But I was open to being used by God; and I trusted Him each step along the way.

I have been immensely blessed by Pedro, Rosa, Rafa, and the rest of his family.  They were a conduit for the Lord’s healing to be manifested with the passing of my mother several months after Pedro returned home.  (That is the story published in Journeys to Mother Love.)  Rosa is my Sister in Christ.  I am a proud benefactor of Pedro’s music (pgarbona.com), and relish our friendship.

Pedro & his American family from Seattle, July 2010, a match made in heaven.

Pedro & his American family from Seattle, July 2010, a match made in heaven.

Be the Blessing

We never know how God is going to use some small act of kindness to bless us or others.  I hope you will give heed the next time He nudges you to do something outside of your comfort zone.  The blessing may just be on the other side of obedience.

Pedro EF

Being First: A Graduation Legacy

Last week a class of 115 students proudly walked across the stage of our church auditorium to receive their diplomas from a new high school in Washington State.  My son was one of these students in the first graduating class of Nikola Tesla STEM High School.  Naturally it was a proud moment for family and friends in attendance as well as the faculty and staff.

What it means to be firstBeing first, the administration had the opportunity to create a graduation ceremony that was unique and fitting to this academic community of STEM scholars.   The evening had many memorable highlights and surprises.

What it Means to be First

One of the surprises was an essay penned by each of the graduating seniors to the prompt: “What it Means to be First.”  Their essays were alphabetically listed in the program in the order that they would later walk across the stage to accept their diplomas.  It warmed my heart to read my son’s essay while waiting for the ceremony to start.

“Being first can mean going before others into the unknown but can also mean to claim a reward for your efforts.   Being first to graduate from STEM fits both of these definitions.  While I specifically am not the first, I am among them; the entire graduating class is the first.  We will be the first to claim our reward from the school for the years of work we put into our education and the first to leave this school and begin our lives as adults.  Our teachers will be the first to watch us go and the first to be proud for the students they invested years of their lives into.  Our parents will be first to say goodbye as they help us prepare for what lies beyond high school.  And we shall be the first to be grateful for all of these investments of time and energy as we remember the time we spent here for the rest of our lives.”

My son later shared that he easily wrote that essay as an in-class English assignment.  That was significant because many times during the school year he struggled to get a start on his writing assignments.  He would stare at the blank page for long periods of time.  This short essay was a gift to read and re-read knowing that it marked a breakthrough in his writing, and possibly his ADHD barriers to creatively express himself.

STEM 2015 Yearbook

STEM Yearbook

Graduation Speeches that Inspired

Graduations are full of speeches intended to inspire students as they start on their next level of education or venture out into the world.  These speeches were no exception.

We heard from the Superintendent of the school district.  As a writer, I thoroughly enjoyed her speech as she compared their journey to chapters in a book and identified the students as authors of their stories.

Student speeches followed.  A pair of students spoke on the phases and milestones that this first class journeyed through to get to this point: school construction, developing clubs and extracurricular activities, defining internship opportunities, naming of the school, and more.  That was followed by two more student addresses.

The second speaker creatively wove famous quotes from 50 other historical speeches and famous movies.  He quoted Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I have a Dream speech.  He cheered on the graduates exclaiming: “Live long and prosper” and “May the force be with you.” The audience broke into bursts of laughter throughout.  It was highly entertaining.

Below is a short video clip of a few graduation highlights created by the Lake Washington School District.

As much as I enjoyed those speeches, it was the faculty address by my son’s English teacher that meant the most to me.  Throughout her speech she wove the theme of the “Odyssey” by Homer, an ancient Greek poem about Odysseus’ journey home after the fall of Troy.  (The senior class chose to read this because they entered STEM starting with their sophomore year and missed reading it as freshman.)

It wasn’t the story that she told, but the examples she shared of memorable student moments that again hit an accord with me.  That was because his teacher anonymously shared something my son did in class.

Faculty addressA Compassionate Heart

Several weeks prior, to celebrate this teacher’s birthday, she held a Poetry Café.  Students were asked to bring in a favorite poem or one that they wrote and to share it with the class.  That night at the dinner table, our son told us about that day and what he did—heeding to his heart.

At the graduation ceremony, his teacher got choked up when she spoke these words to the audience:

“A quiet student stood in 3rd period, a student not many had heard from.  This was in a Poetry Café.  When the student stood, he stated I don’t have a poem I just want to tell you how much you mean to me.”

I felt the tears start to well up inside me too—proud Mama tears.

This teacher made a difference in my son’s life.  English was not his favorite subject, but English was his favorite class while at STEM.  She was his favorite teacher all three years and made English interesting to him.   When she signed his yearbook days before, she said he always made her smile and referenced the Poetry Café.  She wrote that my son worked so hard and she was extremely proud of him.

GraduationOn the eve of graduation I sent her an email telling her too how much she meant to my son.  She encouraged him throughout his high school struggles with his ADHD and instilled confidence in him.  She believed in him.

Then a few days ago I made one final stop at the school to see this teacher and give her a personalized copy of my book, Journeys to Mother Love.  We talked about the Poetry Café again.  She went on to share that one female student in the class told the teacher several times how touched she was by what my son said and that it made her cry (like it did the teacher).

My son has that way about him—kind, compassionate, and caring.  Someday a young woman will look past his shy demeanor, connect with him on more than a surface level, and sparks will fly, but not yet.

His teacher and I parted ways with a hug and tears welling up in our eyes.  Oh, to be a teacher and collect those special memories—knowing that they made a difference in a student’s life.

A School with a Heart

Back to the graduation…following the faculty address by my son’s English teacher, the student’s ceremoniously walked across the stage to receive their diplomas.  With a small group of graduates, they were able to add another memorable highlight to the ceremony.  There wasn’t one person who shook the hand of each student or even a rotation of teachers handing out diplomas.  Somehow they arranged it so that students received their diplomas from a teacher of their choice.  He proudly smiled for the photographer and received his diploma from his English teacher.

IMG_2619Before the customary switching of the tassel from one side of the mortar board hat to the other, another surprise awaited the parents of these fine graduates.  They had each written their parents a thank you note (another English assignment).  They were challenged to quickly find their parents in the crowd, give them the note, and return to their seats.  (You can’t do that in a large high school!)  More tears were shed in reading our son’s hand written note thanking us for our understanding of all he went through to complete high school and that he was grateful for how he was raised.

For the last three years of my son’s life, he forged a path of firsts with the other students at this school.  In a world that is continually more and more focused on ‘likes,’ attention on achievements, and social media presence, it’s nice to see that my son has his head in the right place…and that is in his heart.

I’m proud that is the legacy he left Nikola Tesla STEM High School.

Congratulations STEM Class of 2015 Graduates!  And thank you teachers and faculty for making STEM a school with a heart.

The Graduation Road Less Traveled

Today is a bittersweet day for me and my family.  My youngest child will be walking across the stage and receiving his high school diploma.  What is so significant to me about this is how he got to this place and time—all of the obstacles he overcame, and how he did it his way.

My son forged his own path to graduation.  It wasn’t the same journey as his brother four years earlier, or the way that I had envisioned it over the years.

Like the ending line in the famous poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost, my son took the road less traveled.  And in so doing, he was a pioneer of the spirit.

Senior portrait

My son, a pioneer of the spirit.

Following in his Brother’s Footsteps

In parenting our only other child, his older brother, we got caught up in the competitive race for the coveted prize of his attendance at one of the best engineering schools in the country.  Thankfully God had other plans.

Being our first born child, we didn’t know what to expect.  When we noticed his giftedness at a very early age, we sought and were granted a waiver to put him in Kindergarten a year earlier than his peers.  He ended up settling into the gifted program and taking a rigorous AP and honors course load throughout school.  Those choices led him to a few different schools in the district, not our neighborhood school.

When our youngest child entered the school system, we made the tough decision to place him in the elementary school where his brother attended.  He also followed his brother into the same extracurricular activities: baseball, piano, and chess.  He eventually dropped out of those and developed his love for music by playing the flute, saxophone, and drums.

Once his brother went on to junior high, my youngest son switched schools and attended the school in our neighborhood.  It wasn’t long after that we noticed his school difficulties surface.  I was not overly concerned, but couldn’t help but wonder, is there something else going on here?  It was unfair to compare him to his older brother, and I thought his occasional struggles were more ‘normal.’  Things got worse for him in junior high.

When it came time to go to high school, we decided to check out several of the high schools in the district.  He wasn’t interested in the high school his brother attended.  The large high school that most students in the neighborhood attended didn’t excite him either.

We attributed some of his school problems with lack of motivation.  So we felt it would be better for him to be in a school with smaller classes and a learning environment that more closely matched his interests.  A new school had opened up in the district and was accepting students on a lottery basis.  This school was specifically geared to a STEM based education (Science Technology Engineering & Mathematics).  Living in the high tech corridor of the Seattle Eastside, this was a magnet for local kids, as was proven by the standing room only audience at the information night for this new school.

School Pioneers

Our son was accepted into the STEM school and started in the fall.  It was also at this time that the school district was converting middle schools to junior high schools and all high schools to a 4-year format.  The STEM school was launched with incoming freshmen and sophomore classes.  My son would be in the first graduating class of the school—the class of 2015!

An educational pioneer and future graduate in the class of 2015 at his 2002 pre-school graduation.

An educational pioneer and future graduate in the class of 2015 at his 2002 pre-school graduation.

These new students were educational pioneers in the district and had to endure some growing pains in the process.  For example, while the school building was still under construction the first semester, the school was co-located on the campus of the big neighborhood high school.

It was hard for the students and the school community to define its own culture and identity.  With the school half completed, after the Christmas holiday break, the students and faculty moved into their brand new campus and started to create their own academic community.

The course load was rigorous, much like the academic classes that his brother took in high school.  From our earliest meetings with the school administration, we and other parents were assured there would be other less rigorous class options for students.  Unfortunately that wasn’t the case.  My son struggled to make it through the first quarter of his sophomore year.  We heard stories of kids dropping out of the school and returning to their neighborhood high schools.

Despite my son’s recent diagnosis with ADHD, he wanted to be at this school, and was determined to make it work.  There were times along the journey that we had conversations about transferring to another school.

It was a painful decision for all of us.  When does the parent have the final say?  How do you know what is best for your child?  Each time he came back to his desire to stay, accepting that it would be a challenge.

During a recent conversation with my son about his tenure at this school, I asked him if he had to do it all over again what he would do.  He acknowledged that going to his neighborhood high school would’ve been a lot easier for him.  But he didn’t miss a beat in saying that the STEM school was good for his character development.  He wasn’t wrapped up in his GPA or the college competition.  He was content that he graduated, made good friends, and was learning more about his abilities.

A Graduation Homecoming

I’m not going to apologize for using my blog to publish a bit about the story of my son’s journey to graduation.  I see it as a major milestone in his life.  My husband and I are both proud of him, like any parent is of their graduating senior.  It is particularly poignant to me because it feels like a joint effort.  I know many of my friends and family have prayed for him and us during his high school years.  Those prayers made a difference in getting us to this point.  (Thank you!  You know who you are!)

What I haven’t lost sight of in the process is where his graduation ceremony will take place tonight.  It’s not at the school.  They don’t have the space for this type of event.  The graduation will be held at our church.  It was in this same church that my son learned about Jesus, accepted Christ as His Savior, was baptized, and has attended all his life.

It adds to the bittersweet nature of the event for me.  And it serves as a reminder that the Lord has been at my son’s side the entire time.

My son is a Pioneer.

He is a STEM Scholar.

He is unique, gifted, and talented in many ways.

He found his own way.  He took the road less traveled to do it.  To quote Robert Frost again:

…and that has made all the difference.

I’m grateful he did.  Congratulations Son!

My son, the flutist, taking the road less traveled.

My son, the flutist, taking the road less traveled.

  • WELCOME to my site!

    I'm an author, writer, speaker, mentor & mom. I've struggled to find my voice all my life as I lived in the shadows of a mother with mental illness. Thankfully that was not the legacy that she handed down to me. It took a lot of recovery and deep healing work to rise above it.

    I am thankful to God for Making Me Bold in the process. Now I use my writing and speaking voice to help others on their journey to turn healing into hope.

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