My blonde-headed stepchild (Cassandra Mae)

Step is stupid.

And I’m not even allowed to say stupid in our house.

Yet it’s true. Stepchild, stepmom, step whatever. I hear that word and I get flashes of Cinderella and the 27 remake movies where the horrible stepmom (usually ugly to boot) is a cruel task master who robs her stepdaughter of love by forcing her to work tirelessly during the big ball/prom/dance/sports gig – depending, of course, on which remake you watch.

Red-headed stepchild – another phrase of endearment from the culture. I looked it up just now. Definition: a person who is neglected, unwanted or mistreated.

Well now.

Three of my children are stepchildren. I am their stepmom. And they are anything but neglected, unwanted or mistreated (most days).

I’m crazy about them.

In this series of blogs, I’ve been writing about my kids. They are some of the main characters in this big, beautiful story I get to live. I’ve written about Wilna, Lovence and Samantha. Today I get to write about Cassandra, my blonde-headed stepchild.

Cassandra: her name means “Shining upon man” “Helper of mankind.”

How fitting.

Cassie is fiercely loyal, strong and beautiful. She fights for the people she loves and will sweep in to save the day with her bright captivating smile. She’s an adventurer, a sports lover and a passionate soul. She came to visit us for almost a full summer last year and then moved to Colorado for a short window a few months later. She helped with the kids during the critical transition time and made a lasting joyful impression on them.

Cassie is now back in Ohio, having being wooed by the boys in her life – her handsome boyfriend, Miles, and her adorable nephew (our grandson), baby Lucca.

How can we compete? We didn’t stand a chance – even though we look pretty stinkin’ cute in our tank tops and onesies too.

I love Cassandra. She’s a fighter and feels deeply. She hasn’t had it easy, but she hasn’t turned bitter. Divorce is horrific and all our adult kids paid the price.

I hate that.

But it’s part of our story.

One afternoon when Cassie was visiting, we were tossing the football back and forth out front. She threw a perfect spiral and I’m nearly certain I threw one right back. I looked across at this beautiful young woman with the bright smile and love flooded my heart. No, I didn’t carry her in my belly or watch her take her first steps. I didn’t even get to be there for the wild teen years, bad hair days and sports accomplishments – but I delight in who she is today. I feel strong warm motherly affection for her. I ache for the pain she has walked through and long for only good to come. I dream big dreams for her future and believe in her with fierce abandon. My prayers come from a mother’s heart and I wish only the best for her. I miss her when she’s not around. She is family. She is a joy. She is a daughter of my heart.

No step required.

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I love you, Cassandra Mae!

Lovence – special needs, special boy (unexpected, unbelievable, beautiful).

For a boy who doesn’t speak, he sure says a lot.

And he surprises me. All the time.

Lovence was rescued from a mountain village in May, 2012. He was four years old and fourteen pounds. He couldn’t walk or talk, he gorged himself on food only to throw it all up. He was never expected to survive…

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And yet he did.

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When the orphanage director asked if we would consider adopting him, I was scared. I’m an older parent. I’m limited on energy. I’m selfish. Could I take on a boy with such severe special needs? Did I have it in me?

I prayed. I wondered. Brian prayed. We talked. We asked.

We went to visit and held him in our arms.

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We were still scared, still uncertain. But our hearts were opened to a beautiful boy with an amazing heart.

I’m embarrassed when I think back to my questions. I feel so grateful today. So honored. So blessed. He is an incredible boy with a heart of gold. For a child who was neglected and abused, his heart is full of love. For a boy who suffered so deeply, he loves so easily. He is strong, kind, loving and brave.

He has surprised us with his capacity. Within six months he feeds himself, makes a great cup of coffee, uses some sign language, and has gained boatloads of confidence. He is fully potty trained after eight long years (thanks to my hubby’s persistent love and care in that area). He runs and climbs and tumbles and jumps. His hearty belly laugh gets us all going – it’s wild with abandon and full of joy.

He is our miracle boy and I can’t believe we get to raise him.

When Lovence first came home, his history of heartache would leak out at night. For the first five months, he would cry nearly every evening when we put him in bed. We’d cuddle next to him and wipe the tears from his cheeks. We’d pray and talk and hold him fast. One evening I took him to bed and curled up next to him. I expected tears, but when I looked over – glimmering in the dark were his bright beautiful teeth. He was smiling. He leaned in close and put his head on my shoulder.

Oh, how I love you son.

Lovence sits with us every Sunday at church. He’ll hold our hands and lean against us. Last Sunday, he held his arms up to me and I lifted him up. He smiled his beautiful smile and as the music played he lifted his face skyward.

He was worshipping. I have no doubt. 

And that made me think about heaven one day. Of course I hope he gets to speak and use words here, but if not, I will get to hear him in heaven. His body will be healed, the broken synapses in his mind will be fully restored. He’ll run up to me with a strong gait and wrap his arms around me. “I love you, Mom,” I imagine him saying.

And I’ll be a puddle. A heap on the heavenly floor. Just like right now as I think of it. Tears, sniffles, joy.

I had no idea that my special needs son would be one of the greatest gifts God would ever give me.

But he is.
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Wilna – the big of our littles

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She is brave, strong, fiercely passionate about almost everything. At 12 years old, she is part woman with grown up thoughts, ideas and feelings and part little girl who can get lost in dress up and loves a colorful band-aid on her boo-boos.

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I tell her often that God overdosed when he poured out her talents. He simply forgot to move on to the next person and gave her far more than her fair share. She smiles her dimpled grin and shakes her head when I tell her that, but it’s true. She’s athletic, beautiful, musical, artistic and her smile takes our breath away. She’s got a knack for fashion and does a better job of dressing me than I do.

She is our daughter and we are crazy about her.

She also has pain. Anger. Deep hurt from circumstances beyond her control. She misses her family and friends and the ache is deep. The stories she has shared deep into the night have left me sleepless with their intensity and heartbreak. How could one so little have suffered so much? She tells me with calm control, but the tears or anger come at other moments – when it’s safer to feel. Something that seems small will trigger the pain and I have to remind myself that behind the moment is so much more. I will hold her, wishing I could make it better, ease the pain, erase the memories.

And at the same time I know that it’s those things that have made her so strong and fierce and brave and beautiful.

So I pray over her and I hold her fast.

She is ours and we love her.

Twelve years old is a volatile age. Hormones raging, friendship challenges, emotions all over the map – and that’s without a history of heartbreak and loss.

And yet she manages it so beautifully, far better than I would have at her age. I’m proud of her, protective of her, prayerful for her future.

I want her to keep expressing emotion, keep crying, laughing, cuddling, processing. I want the emotion to come out as it is and I pray to keep it from going to dark, hard or bitter places. We pray that with her – that God would give her avenues to express herself and for the enemy to keep far away from those open wounds.

I can’t wait to see how God heals, restores, rebuilds. I can’t wait to see Wilna use her talents to shine Jesus into the hearts of others. I can’t wait to see her beautiful story unfold.

And I just pray God gives us just what we need to mama and papa her through it all.

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I watched you today.

 

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I watched you.

Sometimes with my heart in my throat, sometimes with tears in my eyes.

I wanted you to connect, to feel welcome, to make a friend. I wanted people to be nice to you and you to be nice to them. I watched. I watched you as you giggled nervously and then as your smile broadened the safer you felt. I watched as you high fived one of the girls, laughed out loud, inhaled a piece of pizza.

And I nearly started balling.

Right there at a bowling alley with hundreds of 5th and 6th graders.

I didn’t. And you can thank me later for the way I covered the tears in my eyes with a hearty sneeze and shrug.

Darn allergies.

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I delighted in you. In the moment. In the fact that you are our daughter and I get to be here, right now, with you.

I had the same feeling today when you performed in your first baton march. They called your name and pronounced our last name wrong, like they usually do. Our last name. OUR last name.

And you smiled brave and strong, lifted your knees high, gracefully navigating your 8 step routine.

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Tears came to my eyes again.

I wanted you to succeed, feel joy, be proud of yourself. I wanted it for you and with you.

And in these things, in all these things, you didn’t know. You were completely unaware of the intensity of my emotion.

Then my breath caught – if this is how I feel in all my incredibly frail brokenness – how much more does our God feel that way about me, about us? When we risk, when we connect, when we make a friend, be a friend. When we stretch ourselves, test ourselves, live big and brilliant.

I think we are completely unaware of how much he is in every moment – how deeply he feels, how much it matters to him, how he is for us and with us, all the time.

Oh my word. Sniff. Sniff.

Darn allergies.

 

Taken by ambulance – you won’t believe what happened next!

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It started with a ferocious leg cramp.

Like a  charley horse on steroids, it hit the muscle in my shin. Never felt anything like it. Whined like a baby as Brian tried to stretch and massage it.

I stood up and hobbled around the room. Finally sat on the steps leading upstairs and planted my feet on the tile floor. Tried to gently stretch the muscle back out.

We’d been hiking that day, but nothing too strenuous – three miles out and back. It had been hot though. Really hot. So maybe I just needed some water?

Brian gave me some electrolytes. Fancy stuff from the runners store. Tasted horrible, but I chugged some down.

Then I started feeling dizzy. Cold sweat. World fading in and out.

Cassie and Savannah had been out jumping on the trampoline. They just walked in when my world started going woozy. They tell me I turned shades of green, blue and finally ashen. Cassie grabbed frozen potstickers from the freezer and put them on my neck (we were out of peas – she made do). Mom got a cool wash cloth and put it on my forehead. Savannah went to a side table, pulled out a kleenex, sprayed it with water. She brought it over and pressed it into my neck. “This will make you feel better, Mama.”

Oh baby girl…

I started to come back around. Brian ran for the blood pressure monitor and they placed it on my arm. It tried to read my pressure two times before saying “error.”

The world started fading again. I was drenched in sweat. Brian was holding the phone in his hands. “You better call,” I said, before I dropped my water and crumpled down another step.

I could hear Brian talking into the phone as Cassie cradled my head – I was in and out. Although I do remember having the wherewithal to hope the EMTs might be handsome, young and single since I’d messed everything else up for Cassie’s second day in town.

The ambulance arrived. The guys asked me a ton of questions and hooked me up to an IV. I’d had some arm pain so they were concerned about my heart. They suggested I go in to the hospital to get some more tests. I was scared enough to comply.

They loaded me up on the gurney and into the ambulance.

Brian would follow close behind while Mom and Cassie kept an eye on Savannah.

The ambulance started moving and the EMT asked me more questions. I knew I was a little slow in answering, but I tried to stay focused.

Then he raised his arm to adjust something on my IV. His forearm was directly in front of my face and he had a very large tattoo.

The grim reaper.

Big. Shadowy. Dark cloak. Skull. Reaper thingy in his hand.

Death.

On his arm.

Facing me.

In an ambulance.

Suddenly I was no longer at a loss of words.

“Nice choice of tattoo.” I managed, quite clearly.

“Oh,” he said, as if it were no big deal that he has a GRIM REAPER on his arm in an ambulance with a potentially dying, delirious woman on his gurney. “I got that before I started in this job.”

Oh, you mean back when you were working as… a murderer? 

I kept my eyes open. Alert. Aware. Watched his hands. Don’t move a muscle mister. I watched Karate Kid 1, 2 AND 3. I got moves.

We arrived at the hospital and I was never so happy to be wheeled in to an ER.

They ran some tests. It seems it was all just a perfect storm of going hiking on a hot day with one kidney and little water. My calcium was low too, and that seemed to intensify it all. Follow up with the doc and maybe a few more tests, but all in all – not near as bad as it could have been.

It was not my heart. I didn’t die.

No thanks to the grim reaper.

So here’s the thing, I know tattoos are really popular these days. But if you have any type of cloaked figure, skull and crossbones, poison symbols – anything dark and deathly and you happen to work in the health care field – cover it up. Masking tape. Gauze. Paint. Long sleeved shirt. Anything.

Please cover it to avoid giving a perfectly healthy dehydrated human a heart attack.

So that’s the story. Oh, and while Cassie didn’t find the man of her dreams in the EMT crew, we did manage to have some fun for the rest of the week. And we also received some adoption news. to check that all out, you can watch the YouTube here.

Be safe my friends! And may none of you encounter a grim reaper this week!

From Tragedy to the Best Stuff Ever

Four years ago, it was tragedy that prompted my Christmas letter. Within two months time, our world was upended. In May my husband gave a kidney to our oldest son Sean, and we fought through the healing/rejection/healing process. Then my dad went sailing one warm July day and never came home. He somehow fell overboard and drowned at sea. Twelve days later my 17-year-old nephew was killed in a car accident.

I wanted people to know. Somehow it made it more real to write it all down – to say to myself and others… this really happened and it nearly broke my heart.

This year has been the complete opposite and I find myself in the same position. I want people to know. Because as horrible as 2009 was, 2013 was one of the best years ever. I mean, ever. Two major miracles happened this year and every time I think of them, my heart fills up with goofy, sappy Christmas joy.

Savannah Grace: She is our first miracle. Ten months old today, Savannah entered our world in the most unexpected, delightful way. After the heartbreak of a failed adoption (when a birth mom changed her mind), we began our pursuit of our Haitian children. Then in February of this year – one week before Savannah was due, we received a phone call – were we still interested in adopting a baby? Our hearts soared and two weeks later, Brian and I stood in the delivery room as Savannah entered the world. Moments later in a memory that will forever be etched in my heart, Brian cut the cord and Savannah Grace was ushered into our waiting arms.

A miracle. A delight. The best gift ever.

We have enjoyed every moment with Savannah since. The nighttime feedings, the drool, bath times, first smiles and today the wobbling stance as she grips the table and tries to stand.

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Savannah and her Christmas bear

Then another miracle. For nearly nine years, my husband and his daughters have been estranged. I had never met them, although we literally prayed for them every single day. Over the years Brian faithfully reached out. He so longed for relationship with them and refused to give up.

One day he received a text message. “It’s time to bury the hatchet,” said one of his girls.

Not too long after, Brian had a business trip to Ohio and invited the girls to dinner. They said yes. All of us here in Colorado prayed that whole day. Brian met them at a nice Italian place and as the hours passed, we anxiously awaited word. Did it go well? Were they able to enjoy one another, talk, laugh?

Four hours later, Brian called. He’d spent all four hours with the girls, lingering over a meal. Conversation and laughter flowed easily. “It was as if we’d never been apart,” he said.

My mom, Sam, me… tears. Joyful hugs. Awestruck delight.

Over Thanksgiving I had the chance to meet my step-daughters for the first time. They were beautiful, smart, gracious and kind. They met their sister Savannah and one day soon will get to meet Samantha.It all felt so right and good, so natural – better than any of us could have hoped for or dreamed of…

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First meal: Cassie, Sean, Jessica, Savannah, me and Brian

I don’t want to forget this, this overflowing joy of answered prayer. Life is hard. Painful. Broken. And I know so many of you come into this Christmas season carrying grief that nearly bends you double. I get it. We still carry the loss of Dad and Caleb in our hearts – even more so as we wish they could have met Savannah, Jessica and Cassie. But for some of you the pain is fresh and deep. After this last year I just want you to know, I want everyone to know – that there will be good days ahead. That God hears and answers prayer, that there is light (huge, bright and beautiful) still ahead.

Sometimes  I wonder – what will 2014 bring? Will we get to bring Wilna, Lovence and Laurentz home from Haiti? Will our hearts break with new tragedies? Or will there be some other unexpected bundle(s) of joy on our doorstep.

I truly don’t know.

But whatever comes, I am so very grateful for our God. He is the one who gives good gifts and yet still holds us when the heartbreak comes.

It may sound like just the type of thing I would say for Christmas, but it’s so stinkin’ true. In God’s arms I am safe no matter what comes and so are you. That is the very best gift we could ever receive.

Thank you, Jesus!

And Merry Christmas my friends…