[Summer 2012] Bonnie Raitt, now 62, has a new album out and one reviewer described it like this: “Bonnie Raitt’s voice is even better with more miles on it, still sounding like the sonic equivalent of a glass of Southern Comfort.” [Allen Morrison reviewing her new album “Slipstream” April 2, 2012] What a great phrase! To my way of thinking, the comparison could not be more spot-on. But in this decade of craft beer and Merlot I wonder if the metaphor might be lost on some.
I saw Bonnie Raitt before she was legend at some old ballroom downtown Minneapolis in the mid 70’s. She kept a standing-room-only crowd mesmerized singing the blues like we had never heard before with pure lyrics in warm tones oh so familiar. Really … just like a glass of Southern Comfort.
For me a reflection about alcohol could potentially take a number of turns and twists. After all, my dad got his 1 year Alcoholics Anonymous pin at the tender age of 80 and I watched my mother cry over his drinking until she died. She never did get to see him clean and sober. My husband’s dad went through the spin-dry once a year for five years after his wife of 28 years divorced him because she finally just couldn’t take it anymore. It could be argued that Karl and I have a little bit of baggage when it comes to drinking. It also could be argued that there might be some generational tendencies at play in our home. We probably need to remind ourselves to be a little careful about that from time to time.
Last summer when our family began to unravel at the seams, Karl and I began to lick our wounds and feel sorry for ourselves. This of course involved wine. Nightly wine.
I remember one evening in particular; we took a bottle of red into our side yard with two over-sized titanium glasses. We settled into our pastel Adirondack chairs under the big Oak tree and poured ourselves each a two-glass glass. We began to commiserate, trying in vain to solve problems that were clearly not ours to solve. In other words we were having ourselves a first class pity party. And you know what they say about self-pity: it’s like peeing in your pants on a cold winter’s day; a very warm feeling for a very short time.
It was a perfect summer evening; a warm breeze rustling through the oak leaves above us, gently stirring the bamboo coconut wind chime my sister gave me. The musical strains of Amos Lee’s “Mission Bell” were lilting from next door.
We have the BEST neighbors all around us; every one of them in every direction. Tom and Allison, our neighbors to the north, have outdoor speakers mounted under their gutters so we get the benefit of the music they play. Love. It. They also installed a sprinkler system to cover the area around the limestone stone fire pit they built on our property line. It’s gorgeous, complete with two-tier seating made of foundation stones of an old barn. The fire pit is 11 feet across and 3 feet deep. It’s such a beautiful setting … no kidding … we’re talking Architectural Digest kind of beautiful.
So there we sat in Adirondack chairs, on a pretty summer night, on our pretty little street, listening to “Windows Are Rolled Down”, sipping Malbec and crying in our beer. It had been a TRYING year and we were TRYING to make sense of it all. What the heck was going on with our kids? Last year they were normal everyday boys, raised with love in the suburbs. This year, all of a sudden, they are either in jail or pregnant, having been secretly involved with drugs and sex.
WHAT. THE. HECK.
How will we make sense of this? What are we going to do? What’s going to happen? How can we trust God with this? Didn’t we tell them? Over and over? How could they not get it? How could they do this to us? How could they derail their young lives like this? We had laid out a cake-walk for them, now they will have it so hard. Waa. Waa. Waa. Sip. Sip. Sip. Waa. Waa. Waa.
The sun set. Fireflies flickered across the yard. Bats began to dive-bomb mosquitoes. Suddenly we noticed we no longer heard music; Amos Lee had been replaced by deafening tree frogs and cicadas. Heeaay! I pick up my cell to text Tom, “Hey, where’s our music? We’re still out here. Turn the music back on.” Before I could press SEND, another sound joined the chorus. Whaassssshhhh. We strained to identify the sound, when louder … WHAAASSSHHHH. Suddenly it made sense. We both caught it in the side of the head full force. The lawn sprinkler had come to life. At point blank range. From the grassy knoll. We couldn’t help but laugh out loud, scramble for our titanium, and run for cover.
Back inside our house, I giggled as I dabbed at one side of my dripping head with a dry towel, wiping mascara running down one side of my face.
I stared into the mirror. “Ok”, I thought, “enough is enough. Even inanimate lawn equipment could tell that it was time for us to stop moaning over things we had no control over. Our kids’ predicaments were clearly were not ours and rehashing it over and over was never going to change that fact.
It occurred to me that they didn’t need us to fix it for them. They didn’t need us to nag them about it. They didn’t need us to make them feel judged. And they certainly didn’t need to see us glassy-eyed every night.
What they needed was to know that we would love them forever no matter what. They needed to know they would have a soft place to land when this all blew over. They needed to know their folks were stronger than this unexpected turn of events and they could count on us.
None of that was going to come from us the repeating the generational tendencies of our fathers. After all, if they couldn’t see us trusting God with them, how could they ever learn to trust God with their own lives?
So as warm and welcoming a glass of Southern Comfort might seem, as relaxing as a glass … make that a bottle … of Malbec may be at day’s end, what this family needed to get through this was a straight shot of clear thinking and a little mercy chaser.
Christmas gifts. What’s up with that? How did this all start? I suppose it goes back to the gifts of the Maggi. Those three kings bringing gifts to the Christ child. Did they even know what there were doing? Let’s see, what did they bring? Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. Gold was a gift fit for a king. Frankincense was used at prayer times to visually remind people that their prayers rose up and mattered to God. Myrrh was a reality of life – an embalming spice, reminding us that Christ came to experience a human life and to die a human death. And we should not miss the fact that Jesus got another gift that first Christmas – swaddling clothes! Here is a little poem explaining those gifts.
Gold, we give a gift of enduring worth Frankincense, a prayer reaching God above Myrrh, all the wonders of life on earth Swaddling Clothes, surrounded in your parent’s love
Two years ago in 2010 our sons were 18 and 21 at Christmas time. They were growing and drifting further and further from our reach. We realized that and knew it was the healthy progression of things. “Best Buy” Christmas gifts with their shiny promise of the newest coolest electronics were a childish thing of the past was my opinion (although not entirely theirs) so we embarked on a new more mature season of gift giving. We surmised that at this age of a young man’s life, what was really needed was not more technology and gadgets, but a sense of the world around us … a wider perspective of culture and history and people different than those found in our Suburban Bubble. So we went to Belize. We hung out with really rich people and really poor people, and incidentally, found that they really weren’t so very different than middle class people we grew up with up. Really they all just desire a better world for their children. During our first week in this Caribbean paradise, we experienced San Pedro on Ambergris Caye with its world class snorkeling and sunset cruises and breathtaking beaches where we met rich Americans and Europeans on holiday. The second week we spent inland with the citizens of Belize with real families and teachers and indigenous people. We got to learn about their culture and their history and day-to-day struggles. The boys went zip-lining over the jungle canopy and explored caves by swimming into areas with undisturbed Myan artifacts from 1,000 years ago. We visited Mayan ruins at Xunantunich with a guided tour from good friends who called the Rain Forest their back yard. We camped out in the jungle where we heard holler monkeys early in the morning and saw iguanas basking on tree branches and witnessed giant indigo butterflies bursting from their cocoons. This was a much more expansive world than the our suburban home could offer. This trip reminded us that everything matters to God whether you live in the “Carmel Bubble” or in the impoverished rain forest of Central America. Frankincense was used at prayer times to visually remind people that their prayers rose up and mattered to God.
One year ago in 2011 our sons were 19 and 22 and we wanted to offer them a practical expression of God’s grace and forgiveness. Again we successfully resisted the temptation to cave in to the “Best Buy” commercialism of Christmas and we came up with another idea. We declared it the Year of Jubilee. And here is how it worked. We tallied the amount of debt our college boys had built up through all those “I’ll pay you back, Mom, I promise” moments and we wiped the slate clean. No more were those car payments, missed student loan payments, household repairs, computer parts, speeding tickets, court costs, or book damages hanging over their heads. They were debt free as far are we were concerned. I even made up little scrolls which itemized the debts on record and stamped them “PAID IN FULL”. They were thrilled. They got it. Gold … gift fit for a king.
This year in 2012 these young men are 20 and 23, and they are struggling to determine their purpose in this world. Should I stay in college? What should I major in? What kind of work should I take on? How will I support my family? Who am I? What on earth am I here for? The realities of life. Hard to face. Hard to sort out. Especially when you are 20 and 23. Most of us have stumbled though it and it’s turned out ok for us. But of course, as parents, we hope of something better for our kids.
Coincidentally, this is the ten year anniversary and re-release of the best-selling book THE PURPOSE DRIVEN LIFE by Rick Warren (52 million copies sold as of this writing). So we landed on our Christmas theme for this year. We want to help give our kids a sense of purpose. An overview. A road map with God as the navigator. So this year we gave them the book “THE PURPOSE DRIVEN LIFE – What on Earth Am I Here For?” The trick will be to get them to read it. And fill out the study guide in the back so they really get all they can out of it. I really feel they are drifting because they have left God out of the equation. They are just bumping along. (Just like me at that age so I guess it’s not the end of the world.) But in true helicopter mom style, I will “encourage” them to read it cover to cover … and I will bribe them with money. We will pay for one of those daunting bills that stalk them as soon as I see they have read the book and have answered the study questions in the back of the book as proof. What a jackpot for them on so many levels!
Every Christmas we offer our kids swaddling clothes; we surround them with their parents love. Whether it’s Elmo dolls or Pokeman or a new bike or an iPod Touch or the latest fashion in clothes. As misguided and as sometimes meddling as it might seem, our boys know they are always surrounded by our love for them, no matter what, and whether they like it or not.
Swaddling clothes seem a little constricting for guys 20 and 23, so we sort of hope we don’t strangle them – on most days anyway. But as parents, we do want do impart to them a sense of the larger world, and a sense of God’s grace and forgiveness, and a sense of their God-given purpose.
And we want to do this before they become too far from our reach.
What is a scar? Marcie Lynn McClure says, “Scars are but evidence of life. Evidence of choices to be learned from…evidence of wounds…wounds inflicted of mistakes…wounds we choose to allow the healing of. We likewise choose to see them, that we may not make the same mistakes again.”
Or paraphrased for purposes of this essay: Stories about scars are evidence of life. Evidence of choices to be learned from…evidence of wounds…wounds inflicted by mistakes…wounds we barely survive. We choose to tell those stories over and over and show off those scars, so we may not make the same mistakes again – hopefully.
I have only two scars on my body and both stories are pretty boring. One is from my hysterectomy incision; I was 35 and it was perhaps, physically, the best day of my womany life. The other is from a rusty barbed wire fence when I was 13 years old. I was camping out wearing sandals at a slumber party, and in the middle of the night I climbed over a barbed wire fence and one of those little sharp barbs stabbed into arch of my foot. As I swung my free leg over the top wire, my anchored foot pivoted against the barb and it sliced into my arch’s tender flesh. Deep enough and long enough for 14 stitches. The town doctor came straight from his bed and met us at his office in the wee hours of the morning. He was wearing pajamas. It was weird.
Anyway, I survived both slices, no worse for the wear, and have the scars to prove it. So while the stories of my scars are not very dramatic, I will share three true stories that could have easily ended my life. Each one should have left me with scars, but they didn’t. And they all involve horseplay.
In my twenties I owned a few horses and rode western-style showing them in horse shows in timed events like barrel racing and pole-bending. One balmy summer evening, I was practicing poles with my quick little Arabian mare whose registered name was Lucky Lola. Looking back, I should have quit while I was ahead. The best pole benders know there is usually only one good run for a horse and rider on any given day.
Normally we would glide between those poles, switching leads like a Lipizzaner; barely a breath from each one, floating on the wind. But today, the sun was going down and it had been a long day. Lola was getting tired. I was pressing my luck. We were both loosing focus. As if to let me know she was done for the day, her here-to-for nimble weaving between the 6 poles just 21 feet apart, turned into a straight line race that slammed my knees against each of those poles at a break-neck speed.
Like I said, I should have quit while I was ahead. Instead, in a flash of pain and frustration, I planted my spur into her left shoulder and yanked the reins to the right to let her know I didn’t want her to hit another pole with my kneecap. Well, I must have pulled those reins way too far and down we went! I had pulled her head right out from under her, just like in the TV westerns when the rider gets an arrow in his thigh. Consequently, she went into a forward roll at a full gallop. Needless to say I was not ready for that, and as she went down, I flew from the saddle right into her path, breaking our collective fall with the crown of my head on the hard packed dirt. I held on to the reins and she rolled right over me – all 900 pounds of her. I don’t know how long I lay there as she stood over me. The next thing I remember I was leading her around and around the edge of the arena trying to cool her down. Later that night, I ended up in the emergency room with a concussion. Not a scratch on me. No broken neck, as could have very easily been the case. And no scar. But what a story.
Mistake to avoid in the future: Quit while you’re ahead. Never think you can man-handle a beast nine times your size at the end of a long day and escape unscathed.
Another time, I was helping my horse trainer boyfriend with a thoroughbred that was really fast but had a problem with the starting gate. He was scared to death of that tiny space and would not get in. So the trainer got the bright idea to take both my horse, Lucky Lola, and this new one he was training to the track during off hours, thinking my little Arabian would have a calming effect on this spooky race horse.
Me: Are you sure this will work? Trainer: Of course it will, trust me.
The thoroughbred had been soured at the track in his previous life, so when he stepped out of the trailer at the race track, his entire countenance ratcheted up a few notches. Ears straight forward … nostrils flaring … fighting the lead rope, he knew where he was and didn’t like it one bit. We trotted around for a while to get the lay of the land and eventually it turned out my seasoned little mare had a calming influence on that flighty thoroughbred after all.
We approached the back side of the starting gate. I remember thinking that I agreed with the race horse; it looked really tiny.
Me: “Are you sure this is a good idea? It looks a little dangerous.” Trainer: “No it will be fine, just ease her on in there. You go first.”
Lola had never seen anything like it, so, no reason to be frightened she walked right inside the gate with me on her back. The thoroughbred saw Lola walk in unafraid and so he did the same. For an instant, there they both stood as if they were in their stalls waiting for supper. But when the gate shut behind us with a loud CLANK, Lola began to freak out, snorting and pawing the ground beneath us. I swear she was trying to get down and crawl out on her knees. She became more and more agitated – again banging my knees against the teensy metal cage. Note to self: starting gates are not made for people in western saddles.
Finally the bell rang and the front gates flew open. My little grey mare shot out like a watermelon seed on the Fourth of July on to the race track and barreled around the curve like she thought she was Secretariat.
I’m not sure how to describe this except with the imagery made famous by Saturday morning cartoon characters. You know the ones … where Wiley Coyote hangs in midair for several seconds looking terrified before he plummets to the bottom of the canyon to his violent demise.
There I hung in midair … my trusty steed becoming smaller and smaller as she barreled around the track … until suddenly and with great impact, my tailbone slammed onto the track with a dull thud and I slid to a stop on my back in a cloud of dust. The mix of sand and clay found its way into every crease and crevice of my 20something year old body. When my head stopped spinning, my ears were ringing and I could taste blood and dirt. There was sand in my boots. There was sand in my bra. There was sand in my underpants and where the sun don’t shine. I feel like I may have been taller before that day … like my spine was compressed just a little with the impact.
When I regained my bearings, I looked around to see that goofy thoroughbred just standing inside the starting gate looking around. The trainer was encouraging him with whip and spurs to spring forth, but I think that race horse was just too stunned at the sight of greased lightning resembling a little grey Arabian mare disappearing down the track, and her rider, the big eyed Wiley Coyote suspended in midair before crashing to the ground, little birds circling her blonde head with their maniacal chirping. I could have easily been paralyzed. But again, not a scratch, not a scar, but what a story.
Mistake to avoid: Always hold on tight when faced with something new. And don’t put your blind trust in someone when you have the slightest inkling to the contrary.
My third near death experience happened in the dead of winter. Yes, it was Minnesota, but we were die-hards and rode horseback summer and winter just the same. We had purchased a pure bred Arabian stud colt as a yearling and counted the days until he turned two and we could begin to break him for riding. He was high strung and gorgeous, dark dapple grey with striking confirmation. Finally, in late winter he was old enough to ride. I was lighter so I got the honors. It was a crisp and cold Saturday afternoon. I put the saddle on him inside the barn and cinched it up tight. I knew better, but I was in a hurry and my fingers were cold. Horsemanship 101 or just plain common sense teaches you to tighten the cinch a little at a time, walking the horse around a little bit between each tightening. Remember this is a brand new sensation for a young horse, and it’s best to take it easy the first time if you want to have a second.
Anyway, I cinched up that saddle as tight as I could and led him outside. I remember hearing the hard packed snow squeak beneath his hoofs, but his steps were halting and stiff. I hadn’t realized that he had filled his lungs with air and was holding his breath like a little kid throwing a temper tantrum. It really wasn’t working for him to walk and hold his breath at the same time. I felt like I was dragging him with each step.
In his panic when he finally took a breath, he seemed to just explode — rearing up on his hind legs and throwing his head from side to side. I was at the end of the lead rope and knew I could not let go of this young stallion. A stud loose on a horse farm will cause mayhem with a capital M.
We were just a few steps outside the barn door when he reared up and I flew thru the air like a rag doll at the end of the lead rope. When I landed in a snowdrift on my back, his two front hooves landed firmly on my sternum. He stood there stiff legged for what seemed like forever; his full weight planted just below my throat. I was holding on so tight, I could feel his hot breath on my face.
I was saved that day by the grace of God and cold weather. I had on two sweatshirts, a down vest, a down jacket, and insulated coveralls. Providence must have known all those layers weren’t quite enough to save me from harm, so I mysteriously landed in a foot of freshly fallen snow, and not on the icy driveway just a few feet away.
Mistake to avoid: Always use patience and common sense when dealing with the young and inexperienced. Rushing through the basics can produce bad results. And never underestimate cold weather and the grace of God to save you when you screw up.
Stories about scars are evidence of life. Evidence of choices to be learned from…evidence of wounds…wounds inflicted by mistakes…wounds we sometimes miraculously escape. We choose to share those stories over and over, and show off those scars, hopefully avoiding those same mistakes in the future.
“Now you sit there and don’t you move ’til I come back!”
There they sat. All six of them. On a mahogany bench in a long hallway at the Marion County Courthouse. Confused but obedient, they watched him disappear. They listened to the hollow echo of their father’s footsteps grow faint.
He never came back.
The next morning they woke up in what would be their home for the next several years, The Indianapolis Orphans Asylum.
Who would make a choice like that? And what led up to it?
It all started in Washington, Indiana, between the two great World Wars. Born to Jesse McKinley Hinkle (8/28/1895) and Besse May Houchins Hinkle (6/30/1896) between 1916 and 1929 were six beautiful babies: Mabel, Virginia, Jake, Bob, Jim, and Harold. Times were desperate across America in the 1930s. The Great Depression tightened its grip, and many families struggled to hold on. Too many kids. Not enough money. Even hope was in short supply.
After the last baby was born, what would today be called “postpartum depression” set in—and it set in hard. She began to wear thin and finally couldn’t bear it another day: the kids, the hunger, the dirt, the wind, the crying.
Besse made the only choice she felt she could. She took off. When she returned a few weeks later, no one asked where she had been. “I’ll take you back this time. But don’t you ever disappear like that again. If you do, don’t bother coming home,” her husband Jesse told her quietly.
After that, things got worse. Any trust that had been between them vanished. He found work when he could on the railroad as a boilermaker, but the stock market had crashed and the dirty thirties blew in drought and despair.
A few months later she took off again. This time she didn’t come back. After all, she had been warned; the choice had been made for her.
It didn’t take long and Jesse chose a younger woman. Maybe he thought she would step in and love his children. Turned out she didn’t have it in her.
Bob was five that year. Every night he wet the bed. It enraged her. Every morning when the pungent odor hung in his room, he was beaten with a belt and locked in the closet until noon. Most days, his sheets were hung on the line and then replaced on his bed unwashed. She did this every day for three years. He continued wetting the bed despite her methods.
A sad thing began to happen. The younger children started to forget what their mother looked like. They began to forget her touch and how she smelled. All they knew was how this new woman in the house made their father seem powerless.
One cold and damp February day in 1933, she finally took Jesse aside. “That’s it,” the older children overheard. “I can’t stand this another day. It’s either them or me.” She demanded that he choose…and he didn’t choose them.
The next day they piled into a borrowed pickup and a few hours later found themselves in downtown Indianapolis, on that hard bench in that long hallway. Six children between 4 and 17 years of age.
Whether he felt sad; whether he had a tear in his eye as he said goodbye (if he said goodbye at all); whether he did it because he knew they’d be better off without his wife; whether he thought he didn’t have a choice in the matter; whether he ever regretted that day—we will never know. All we know is how that day is remembered by the children—first abandoned by their mother who had left three years earlier and then abandoned by their father.
The day continues to be a snapshot frozen in their minds. The sight of the marble hallway, the hollow sound of his footsteps, and the terror in their bones that kept them glued to the bench until closing time. Had he signed any papers or had he simply dropped them off like unwanted kittens? They would never know. It really didn’t matter anymore.
4107 East Washington Street. The Orphanage. The Children’s Home. Children’s Bureau. The Indianapolis Orphans Asylum. Whatever the name, these kids had heard about it and new fear gripped their hearts.
But what they found was quite the contrary. Three square meals a day. Clean sheets on their beds. Shoes that actually fit. School (PS 59) every day with real books. Regular medical and dental care.
And at Christmas time, there were after-hours visits to L.S. Ayres Department Store for each child to pick out a new matching outfit, new shoes, and a toy of their very own. Sure, there were lots of kids and lots of structure, but what a trade off! Their needs were met more completely than ever before. And they were safe.
Oh, and that bed wetting thing? During a regular medical exam, it was discovered that Bob, then eight years old, needed a minor surgery to correct the problem he had been born with. After the simple surgery, Bob’s bed-wetting days were over.
As the children grew, some were assigned to foster homes. Some homes were better than others. Some just wanted free labor and really weren’t interested in parenting children. In those days, orphans were literally “put up” on a railroad flatbed or a platform stage and paraded in front of prospective parents, to be selected based on size and looks. That’s where we get the degrading term “put up for adoption.” The girls were often chosen to iron, do laundry, and clean the houses where they were assigned. The boys were chosen by farmers to help with harvest. None of the Hinkle children were ever legally adopted. A couple of them were placed temporarily in foster homes but chose to return to the Orphans Home. The boys pretty much bided their time until they turned 17 and enlisted in the military. By then World War II was brewing in Europe. The girls found husbands in the factories where they went to work. And they all lived happily ever after!
Well, not quite.
What about Bob?
Bob was my husband’s father. A tough old bird, he grew from this rocky start into an alcoholic who smoked four packs a day and died alone from the effects of hard living—infected ulcers on his legs that would not heal, emphysema, and congestive heart failure. He divorced his wife after 28 years, became a recluse, and went through spin-dry programs six times before relegating himself to the role of dry drunk. Mean and verbally abusive to the ones closest to him, he was charming and generous to new acquaintances.
So, here’s the point. In today’s climate of self-realization that too quickly blames our parents for our troubles, it occurs to me that the Hinkle children really did have something to blame their parents for.
But did they? Let’s see.
They justified their abandonment by the Great Depression. They pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and did the best they could with quite limited resources. They finished school, fought for their country, married, and had families. No violent crime. No jail time. They did their best to put together the puzzle of family, without having the picture on the box top to see what the puzzle should look like.
In the end, The Orphans Asylum seemed to meet its promise of rescuing children from poverty and dangerous situations and developing them into productive members of society.
Simply put, they overcame choices that had been made by their mother and then by their father. These choices of others affected all six deeply in different ways.
So what do you think?
Is it hard wiring from before birth that makes us choose the Bible or the bottle? Or is it the Bible or the bottle that hardens our wiring?
Is it childhood trauma that hardens the heart, closing us off? Or does childhood trauma soften the heart, making us open to love?
Or does it all boil down to the little choices we make every day?
To overcome or not? To fear or not? To trust or not? To love or not?
The assignment was to write about an event that changed my life. Hmmm. I have heard it said that if nothing ever changed, there would be no butterflies. So why do we resist change so fervently? Fear? Laziness? Comfort?
A life changing event? Would it be too obvious to say it was …
The morning I was haphazardly born into a middle class family in Minnesota farm country instead of into any great number of other states or countries or centuries or socioeconomic shackles. That morning certainly set in motion the rhythm of my days.
Could it have been the summer I turned eleven years old and they auctioned off my simple farm life and with it our puppies and horses. That single event changed my geography and my prospects forever.
Or perhaps it might have been my first pair of ice skates, my first try at hurdles, my first acting role, my first joint; all these events showed me things I would never be any good at!
It might have been my first horse show; it revealed to me a confidence I didn’t know was in me.
How about my college graduation day, it changed my earning capacity and job satisfaction.
Undoubtedly it could have been my wedding day. That event united me with the love of my life forever.
It might have been the rainy Christmas Day I moved from Minnesota to Indiana; that move rid me of one life and gave me a new start.
It very well could have been the day my husband and I closed on our first home; that event would weave a tapestry of love and community that would last for years.
I think of my life in two spheres; before the passing of my Mom and after; That sad day would extinguish a guiding light and push me to new and deeper places of understanding.
How about my first visit to a developing nation; it opened my eyes to a brand new awareness of poverty and the power of the human spirit.
Without a doubt an event that changed my life forever was the day I became a mother. That event changed in a delightful way how I would spend my time and money forever, it would change the way I would sleep and eat forever; and it would change the way I would see the world, forever.
All of these were events and they all changed my life forever, bit by bit. But ONE event that changed my life? Hmmm. I have wrestled with this question for weeks now, and have narrowed it down to one quintessential event.
I was 17 years old. I was attending a prayer meeting at someone’s home. I can’t even remember whose house it was now. Somewhere after the Bible teaching and singing some choruses, people were praying all around me, some out loud and some in silence. I was probably one praying quietly, when I had a vision of Christ standing in the hall doorway, luminescent white robe and all, with his arms outstretched toward me, palms turned upward, and warm brown eyes connecting with mine in a most real and surreal way. I am not sure how long it lasted. Could have been a moment, might have been longer. I know it was real. I don’t think I told anyone; looking around it was obvious that no one else had seen Him. I kept it safely tucked away in my heart.
Now you would think that something that amazing would keep a person on the straight and narrow and living for God all day every day. Sadly that hasn’t been the case. I could tell you here about all the times I would wander and stray away from the path He groomed for me. About the activities and attitudes I would nurture showing I had clearly forgotten all about his outstretched palms. About the times I would shade my eyes from his gaze.
But instead I will tell you about how that one brief moment in a teenage girl’s life has served as a shelter for many decades now. I will tell you about the power of this vision to pull me back to center when I am feeling alone or isolated. I will tell you about His arms reaching toward me that welcomed me back again and again. About his luminescent white gown and how it glowed when I came close to Him. And I will tell you about those warm brown eyes, so alive in my memory, piercing and forgiving and loving all at once.
When I look back at those pivotal points – that list of events that changed my life – I can see now how He guided and orchestrated each of them for a specific purpose. His purpose. When I sulked over having to move off the farm when I was 11 because it meant we had to sell our horses, he sent me a little grey mare when I grew up, who showed me I had some confidence after all. When I was quite satisfied to be a single working girl, finishing college, and happily dating, He sent me the love of my life who brought me to Indiana, to a new life that included a good solid church. When I struggled with infertility and my arms ached to hold a baby, he had just the little boys in mind and he guided them to me through adoption. When I lost my job and my mom got cancer, He provided the time to spend the last six weeks of her life together, which proved to be one of the deepest spiritual experiences of my life. And when I had inkling there was great big world out there where people needed a gentle touch and the love of Christ, He brought me women with passports and big hearts and helping hands.
Although He has never showed himself to me in quite the same way in all the years since, that event has proven to be the roof over my very existence. Max Lucado compares the roof of a home to God’s provision. “The roof of a house is seldom noticed.” He said. “How often do your guests enter your doorway saying, “You have one of the finest roofs I’ve ever seen!” They are more likely to comment on a $10 lamp inside than the roof protecting your home.”
He is right, the roof of a home is seldom noticed, but imagine your house without it. Nothing inside the house would hold its value for very long exposed to weather and wildlife. The people living inside the house would be unable to sleep or function very well inside the house if the roof was missing. Contractors work feverishly to get the roof on before bad weather, so they can keep working inside after the storms come.
I think God constructed the roof over mankind when he sacrificed his Son for all of us. And I think God placed the roof over my life when he allowed me a glimpse of His Son standing in the doorway.
Dayna was my God-child. I was 22 the year she was born. It was 1976. I was a mess that year and that’s why it was especially amazing to me that Dick and Carleen chose me to be their baby girl’s God-mother. What an honor and what a joy.
As I look back, Dayna was my touchstone to the rest of my family during those couple of years. She was just a baby but I adored her and I couldn’t wait to be with her. In 1976 the rest of my family was vocal and disapproving of my choices, of my relationships, of my friends … perhaps rightfully so. But not Dayna! She would kick her little baby feet and her eyes would light up whenever she saw me. As she grew she began to look like me and worse yet … act like me. Dick began to call her Mia Jr.
I was so painfully shy as a little kid. So that is why it wasn’t curious to me on Dayna’s fourth birthday when she disappeared into the bathroom and locked the door just as her guests were arriving for her birthday party — where she remained throughout the ENTIRE afternoon. The rest of the family tried to coax her out with cake and presents and promises of fun. But no dice!
Just a few months earlier on Easter Sunday the whole family was together at Carleen’s folks Dayna had crawled inside a hexagon coffee table, pulled the doors closed, and stayed in there until everyone was gone. No amount of bargaining would persuade her to come out and join the fun.
Her dad loves to tell this story: Dayna was taking swimming lessons at a pool in Maple Grove. She was just little and wasn’t interested in getting into that freezing cold water to learn some ridiculous strokes. Every time they went to swim lessons, it was the same old struggle – she wouldn’t get in the water. One time I went along and Dick asked me to talk to her and convince her to cooperate with the instructor. There she stood in her cute little swim-suit at the edge of pool … NOT getting in. Dick watched me lean down and look into her eyes, offering words of bravery, encouragement, and stick-to-itiveness. After a little back and forth exchange, I called Dick over and proclaimed, “She doesn’t want to get in the pool. She wants to go to Dairy Queen. Let’s go.” And off we went. That was the end of swimming lessons.
Some worried, but I knew that everything would all turn out alright. I knew she’d be fine. Dayna and I had a connection because I knew what it was like to be in her skin … so painfully quiet and shy and terrified of people.
Well, I don’t need to tell you that Dayna grew up to be anything BUT quiet and shy and terrified of people.
We have all heard the story of the little girl walking along the beach where thousands of starfish had washed up and could not find their way back to the safety of the ocean. A sensible grown-up happened to walk by and notice the little girl picking up one starfish after another and tossing them back into the sea, “What are you doing?” he asked. The girl replied, “Throwing starfish back into the sea. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they will die.” The grownup replied, “Don’t you realize there are thousands of starfish on miles and miles of beach here? You can’t possibly hope to make a difference.” The little girl listened politely, then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it back into the surf. She turned to the man and said, “I made a difference to that one.”
That was Dayna. She made a difference to one at a time.
Beautiful Dayna blossomed into a smart and pretty and confident and independent woman. She grew up to be a unique individual not tied to convention. She grew to be a leader in her own corner of the world; an advocate for the forlorn and the forgotten. She grew up thinking outside the box with a deep compassion for those around her.
In her teens, Dayna worked with Habitat for Humanity and other service groups bringing tangible help to the underprivileged. In college she worked at a home for autistic adults showing unbelievable patience for those in her care. She received her Bachelor’s Degree in social work where she, along with the State of Minnesota, could help those who were down on their luck get back on their feet. She volunteered at a home for displaced teens doing art therapy. She gave of herself to provide a wide range of help for the poor, women and children, victims of domestic abuse, and the homeless. She raised money for the lymphoma society, suicide prevention, breast cancer research, and a variety of other great causes through walk-a-thons, marathons, and other means.
With an immense heart for humanity she continued to “throw back into the sea one starfish after another because”, as the story goes, “it made a difference to that one.”
Dayna has always meant a great deal to those who knew her well. Whether she was god-child, daughter, sister, niece, grand-daughter, aunt, cousin, friend, co-worker – Dayna will always hold a special place in our hearts.
But let’s never forget that Dayna made a big difference to the world around her in so many ways. Every day, Dayna brought a ray of sunshine and glimmer of hope to everyone who happened across her beach.
Dayna left this life for a far better one on March 11, 2012. She was just 36 years old.
“New Castle Indiana, March 1996: A 24 year old woman gives birth to a premature baby girl in a hotel room while trying to kill herself. The baby is found nearby, stuffed inside a pair of soiled sweat pants with the umbilical cord wrapped twice around her neck, barely alive. The woman later tells the press that she intended to kill herself and her baby in order to spare the child a life of poverty.”
Granted there is more to the story than we read in the newspapers and granted the woman and her family are obviously entrenched in crisis on more levels than poverty and unplanned pregnancy, but stories like this always hit me hard.
As an adoptive parent, my first impulse is to scream, “Hasn’t this woman ever heard of adoption?!”
As a Christian, I must stop and wonder, “Didn’t anyone reach out to this girl in the midst of her darkest hour and offer some light, some alternative solutions to her seemingly insurmountable problem?”
I believe this woman and many like her inside and outside the Christian community who have faced an unintended pregnancy, make decisions based on the subtle messages received from family, friends, teachers, media, and the church. Much too often these messages carry a negative perspective of adoption.
How often have you heard the following unkind and inaccurate terminology used in conversation regarding adoption?
“She had an illegitimate baby.” [As if the baby is somehow responsible for her parents’ actions.]
“Is she going the keep the baby?” [As if the child is a possession to be kept or discarded.]
“She put up the baby for adoption.” [“Put up” is a term that comes from the orphan trains of the 1800’s where agencies would literally “put up” the children on a flatbed train car to be claimed for free labor.]
“How could anyone give away such a beautiful little child?” [Is this a person or a possession? Is it OK to give away a homely child but not an attractive one?]
“Why didn’t she just have an abortion?” [As if eliminating a child is preferable to letting someone else raise her.]
“She did the honorable thing and married the father; they kept the baby.” [Sometimes this works, most times it does not and if it doesn’t the child is raised in a home of resentment.]
“In our family we just don’t do that; we would never give up a baby for adoption. My mom or grandma will take him.” [Children raised by single parents are more likely to be raised in poverty and on welfare, more likely to turn to crime, and more likely to become parents as teenagers, than children raised in a permanent home by two parents.]
“Why did her real mother give her up?” [If biological mothers are the only real mothers, are the rest of us imaginary or pretend?]
“Do you have any kids of your own?” [How are your own kids are different than your adopted kids?]
“They have one adopted and one natural child.” [If biological children are natural, are adopted kids unnatural?]
“We adopted a puppy from the Humane Society.” [No you didn’t; you bought a dog that you likely will return the first time it pees on your carpet or snaps at your toddler. That’s very different than adoption.]
“My child’s class adopted a wolf and a puffin.” [Your child’s teacher was scammed by an organization generating operating funds by tugging on heartstrings of children by incorrectly using the term ‘adoption’.]
“What do you know about his real parents?” [First of all it’s none of your business and secondly we are his real parents.]
“They love their adopted child just as if he was their own.” [As if? What? Their adopted children aren’t their own? Whose are they?]
“He acts up in class, he is such a handful. You know … he is adopted.” [Like kids born into their families never have behavioral issues. HA!]
Each time a young woman hears one of these statements, she hears the message that to make an adoption plan for her child is somehow disgraceful and wrong for her, and risky and second best for her child. This notion could not be further from the truth.
Women who make adoption plans for their babies are usually ordinary women who happened to get caught in an unintended pregnancy, but had the courage to look deep into their own capacity to parent at that particular time, and then made an adoption plan to help assure their child’s best interest is met long term. Such women are not irresponsible people without conscience, as suggested by the above characterizations.
As Christians, we are called to reach out to people and help to show them the love of Christ as they work through their crisis. We need to do this in tangible and subtle ways. First and foremost, we need to pray. Next, we need to establish relationship and walk alongside those in need. But we also need to speak with kindness and compassion to and about those around us. I am not talking about trendy political correctness here. I am talking about kind and accurate language that shows people around us that we have a heart for them and that we are approachable to help shed light in their dark hour.
I do not mean to present a simplistic solution to a tragic situation. But I do wonder what drives a young woman to such desperation.
Is it one major event? Is it years of crisis and dysfunction culminating in a very bad choice? Is it a hopeless paradigm though which life is viewed? Or is it a combination of all the above, seen through a frame of reference which has been built by subtle messages received every day?
As I pray for that young woman in New Castle, I pray that we may become more tuned in to the small messages we send out in each and every conversation we have, by choosing our words more carefully:
POSITIVE LANGUAGE /NEGATIVE LANGUAGE Birth parent / Real parent Biological parent / Natural parent Birth child / Own child Born to unmarried parents / Illegitimate child Terminate parental rights / Give up Make an adoption plan / Give away To parent / To keep Parent / Adoptive parent Search for birth parents / Track down parents Child placed for adoption /Unwanted child Court termination / Child taken away Child from abroad / Foreign child Child with special needs /Handicapped child Was adopted / Is adopted
I will never forget the day I drove into the parking lot at my son’s elementary school ready to volunteer for my duties at Cherry Tree Elementary Track & Field Day. The school yard was a blur with hundreds of little kids- five years old thru 5th grade – running, jumping, laughing, dashing, leaping, throwing, cheering, and in general having the time of their lives; happy to be outside on this warm spring day and finally out of that stuffy classroom.
A circle of kids caught my eye as I got out of my car. I couldn’t quite make it out. All the teachers and volunteers were busy running events or applying Band-Aids and ice packs. The kids in the circle were some of the older kids, laughing and squealing and chanting, but their circle formation sort of blocked my view. As I walked closer, I thought I caught a glimpse of my son in the middle of the group, but I still couldn’t quite bring into focus.
My steps quickened as a few scenarios ran through my mind. After all, my son was African American in a predominantly white school and he was one of the smaller 5th grade boys. I pushed the thought from my mind and just walked a little faster. Maybe they were break dancing, I hoped, just showing off for the girls.
When I reached the scene however, it took a few moments for it to register. It WAS Walker in the center of the circle all right, and he was flying through the air like a rag doll, his body parallel to the ground at the mercy of centrifugal force. He was holding on to the back of another boy’s power wheel chair, the driver cranking the controls in the fastest tightest circle he could muster. Both boys were weak with laughter. The crowd squealed with delight. I didn’t know whether to cheer with them; it was so cool to see them engaged in such ecstasy — or scold them; this can’t be good for this expensive chair and it can’t be ok with his mom. So I just stood and watched until a teacher came scurrying over to put an end to this nonsense and ordered everyone back to the games.
That little boy driving the wild wheel chair was JC Russo and it turned out his family lived in our neighborhood. That summer JC and Walker became good friends and spent a lot of time playing at one house or the other. With a full charge on his battery JC could make it all the way to our street and back before dark. They played inside and outside; we built a ramp for our front step so JC could roll in and out of our house with ease. His power chair was super heavy so there was no lifting it up the step. They mostly played video and computer games, but sometimes they would think up driveway games using balls and goals.
You see, JC and his sister Natalie were born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a form of Muscular Dystrophy, and have both been in power wheel chairs since they were pre-schoolers. SMA is the number one genetic illness causing death in children under two years old. When they were born just a year apart, there was no sign of any illness, but then first Natalie then JC – between the ages of 12 and 18 months – were each diagnosed with this debilitating disease. Both siblings have had surgery to insert metal rods tied to their spines which have served to straighten their posture and protect their vital organs. Years ago, before this type surgery was available, the life expectancy of children with SMA was less than 12 years, mostly because of the breathing difficulties associated with the atrophy of the muscles.
JC and Natalie’s parents are Karen and Dominic Russo. Hardworking and dedicated are words that fall short of just how diligent and resourceful they have been with regards to tending to their kids’ special needs. After enrolling JC and Natalie in every club and sport and camp available to children in wheelchairs, they heard about this thing called Power Soccer. The kids played a few games and loved it because it was the first sport they could do on their own totally independent without the help of an adult. If their kids loved it, it stood to reason that other kids in power chairs would too, so Dominic and Karen set to work organizing leagues across Indiana. They had to work out all the details other sports clubs have to deal with; coaches and managers, venues and travel, rules and regulations. All through high school and college Natalie and JC looked forward to weekends where they would travel to tournaments and compete with some of the best teams in the world.
Developed over 30 years ago, Power Soccer is the first competitive team sport designed and developed specifically for power wheelchair users. Two teams of four each attack, defend, and spin kick a 13-inch soccer ball in an attempt to score points in a goal. The ball is maneuvered and passed to their team mates with a special foot- guard mounted on the front of the wheelchair. The sport is co-ed by design with boys and girls often playing on the same team and the game is usually played indoors in a gymnasium on a regulation basketball court. Anyone who uses a power wheelchair can play, as long as they can operate their chairs safely. Participants include people five years old and older who have muscular dystrophy, quadriplegia, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, head trauma, stroke, or any other physical disability. Power Soccer is a real sport and has made a huge difference in the lives of the people who play it. And it is awesome to watch!
Well, JC Russo is now 21 years old and last Sunday, November 6, 2011, just outside of Paris, France, he and Team USA won the World Cup of Power Soccer! JC is the Goalie. Wild cheers were heard all around Carmel and Indiana and Facebook with the news that Team USA had shut out Team England, 3 – 0.
Largely due, I am certain, to the excellent spinning skills of Team USA’s amazing Goalie JC Russo … skills I am sure he began honing back in the school yard of Cherry Tree Elementary as Walker flew like a rag doll through air on that warm spring day.
Note: The 2011 Team USA was the first team in the history of the sport to win back to back World Cups. Both Natalie and JC were on Team USA that won World Cup Japan in Tokyo in 2007.
It was a perfect spring day! It was unusually warm. The sky was a vivid bright blue. A gentle breeze rustled through the trees. Though the last traces of dirty snow had melted just days ago, the temperature soared into the seventies. “Just heavenly!” everyone thought.
It had been a long dark cold winter, but today baby bunnies poked their heads out of their grassy nests. Puppies born under the granary finally opened their eyes and were nosing their way into the light. Kittens in the hay mow suckled at their mother’s belly. Red-winged blackbirds darted between the cat tails in the slough. And a little colt kicked up his heals in the pasture behind the house as he ran circles around his mother grazing in the morning sun.
Yes, it seemed that all was right with the world, but there she sat … straight faced and arms folded. It was the first day of kindergarten. You see, in 1960, the children were so bright and capable, they only required six weeks of kindergarten in the springtime before entering the first grade. On a lovely April day, this hot and sterile classroom was the last place she wanted to be. But her mother insisted, saying something about “a pushy mother being the next best thing to a good education”, and wasn’t she lucky … both were in the cards for her.
The little girl didn’t speak when her mother introduced her to the teacher. She didn’t reply to the other children when they said hi. She didn’t utter a word when the teacher offered to hang up her coat. She wasn’t letting go of that faded and stained light blue parka that had hung with all the other barn clothes in the corner of the kitchen for the last several months. When she put it on that morning, her mom conceded under the agreement that they would leave it in the pick-up before entering the school. But no dice!
When her mother gently reminded her that the parka smelled like livestock and didn’t really go with the first-day-of-school dress she was wearing, she might as well have been speaking another language. So in they walked, hand in hand, past the office where the secretaries waived at the adorable little five year olds coming to school for the first time, down the cavernous hallway with shiny floors and metal lockers, and into the classroom where all the other children seemed to know one another. She figured they must all be “townies” and that she was the only farm girl. She just wanted out of there! She wanted to go back home to play with the puppies.
Finally her mother left the school and she was on her own. Class began. Children fanned themselves. She sweltered in her parka. No air-conditioning. The other children chattered and wiggled. She sat as still as she could and stared straight ahead, her hot little red face and blonde hair poking out of the top of that smelly blue parka. The teacher offered again to take her coat. She didn’t speak but it was clear the answer was, “No, I’m fine. Really, I’m fine.”
Weeks later, her mother still dressing her up for school, she still put on that faded blue parka and wore it TO school and IN school, suffering in silence. Recess was the worst. The wild children careening down the sidewalk to the gravel playground where they would continue running, jumping, skipping, and yelling until it was time to go back inside. She would invisibly hang to the back of the line, slip around the edge of the building where she would stand in the corner overlooking the Monkey Bars of Broken Bones and the Merry-Go-Round Spin of Death … and all the other children happily playing … without her. One day her dad was at the blacksmith shop right across the street and saw her standing there all by herself. It broke his heart. “What ever would become of her,” he thought, “so quiet, so painfully shy and awkward.”
Twenty years later, things were quite different much to my parent’s delight. I had survived and thrived in school after all, and had many friends. I got a degree, got a job, got saved, got married, got divorced, got out of town, and got married again. But I never forgot that first day of kindergarten and how terrified I felt in all that chaos.
That’s why it wasn’t curious to me when my little blonde niece disappeared into the bathroom and locked the door just as her guests were arriving for her fourth birthday party, where she remained throughout the entire afternoon. The rest of the family tried to coax her out with cake and presents and promises of fun. But no dice! Last time the family was all together, she had crawled inside a hexagon coffee table, pulled the doors closed, and stayed in there until everyone was gone. No amount of bargaining would persuade her to come out and join the fun. Some worried but by that time, I knew that everything would all turn out alright.
Both girls grew up to be anything BUT quiet and shy and terrified of people. They both grew up to be smart and pretty and confident and independent. They both grew up to be unique individuals and not tied to convention. No one would force their square peg into a round hole. They both grew to be leaders in each their own corner of the world; advocates for the forlorn and the forgotten, at home and abroad. They grew up thinking outside the box with a deep compassion for those around them.
In her teens, Dayna worked with Habitat for Humanity and other service groups bringing tangible help to the underprivileged. In college she worked at a home for autistic adults showing unbelievable patience for those in her care. She received her Bachelor’s Degree in social work where she, along with the State of Minnesota, could help those who were down on their luck get back on their feet. She volunteered weekly at a home for displaced teens doing art therapy. She worked with St. Stephen’s Services, a venerable Minneapolis nonprofit supplying a wide range of help for the poor, women and children, victims of domestic abuse, and the homeless. She raised money for St. Stephens, the lymphoma society, suicide prevention, breast cancer research, and a variety of other great causes through walk-a-thons, marathons, and other means. With a heart for humanity and in the growing tide of economic need, she continues to “throw back into the sea one starfish after another, because” as the story goes, “it makes a difference to that one.”
Aunt Mia found purpose over the years in making connections with those around her. No longer terrified of people, she developed a heart for adventure and an interest in what makes people tick. Over the years, this sense of adventure has taken her to Europe on a history tour, horseback camping in the Big Horn Mountains, canoeing in the Boundary Waters, dirt biking in local gravel pits, barrel racing in Minnesota, bussing from Indianapolis to Reno, touring Norway, snorkeling in Belize, riding the rails though the Copper Canyon, and sunning in St. Thomas. She and her husband have spent over 25 years working in ministry and in the church sharing the Gospel throughout the Midwest and with the mission fields of Belize, Mexico, England, Ireland, Russia, and Nicaragua. She finds it fascinating to discover cultures different from her own and their histories and their stories.
Now she is the mother of two teenage boys and finds that parenthood is an amazing frame of reference. Parents talk with other parents about their children’s successes and struggles and achievements and challenges. And they commiserate over their frustrations. It is amazing how they sometimes get all caught up in the present moment as if all of life hangs in the balance; an assignment not turned in, a goal missed, a poor choice of friends, a GPA under potential, a disrespectful tone, detention. Could these perhaps be signs of growing and changing, and NOT permanent character traits?
Note to self: Next time I over-react to what appears to be shortcomings, let me try to recall how very different those terrified little girls became after years of growing and changing. Stop and think. Give them some love. Give them some space. Give them some grace. They are after all, kids, whose job it is to grow and change and develop into who they will become.
Today on this beautiful spring day, things are very different and very much the same. Baby bunnies are probably venturing out of their nests and red-winged-blackbirds are darting around somewhere, but today I am sitting at the edge of a soccer field, cheering wildly for my son’s winning team. Other enthusiastic parents join in the chorus and drown out the sounds of birds chirping and the breeze rustling through the trees. Our eyes are so fixed upon those boys racing up and down the field crashing into one another at break-neck speeds, we barely notice the vivid bright blue sky.
 His words took her breath away. Yet weeks earlier she’d had a gut feeling that something was wrong. That’s when she had felt that first lump in her left breast, but with none of the usual risk factors she hadn’t been too concerned. After all, she was only 41 years old with no family history of cancer. She never drank or smoked, she exercised regularly, ate a healthy diet, and took good care of herself.
“Traci, I am not as concerned about the lump in your breast as I am about the mass here under your arm.” It was three fingers wide. “Haven’t you felt pain around this area?”
Traci Runge explained to Dr. Thomas Schmidt of the Breast Care Center of Indiana, that she felt like she was in the best condition of her life. She was just three days from her first triathlon and had been training vigorously for months. She was a busy mother of three daughters ages 6, 12, and 16 and was involved in all their activities. She was up at 4:30 every morning to work out, get the kids off to school, work part time at the elementary school, navigate the girls’ afternoon activities, prepare dinner, assist with homework, and find time with her husband. Yes, she did feel a little tired sometimes, but who wouldn’t?
Traci had felt that lump in her breast in mid-March during a regular self-examination but decided to wait until her next menstrual cycle to see if it went away. It didn’t. In fact the day before her appointment on Monday, April 12, she noticed it had grown and was now noticeably protruding. A mammogram, indeed, indicated there were several tumors in her left breast. As she stared at the film, all she could see was the long list of dozens of carcinoma and their sizes: ‘1.0, 2.5, 2.3, 1.5, and all’, as Dr. Schmidt pointed out, ‘highly suspicious for breast cancer.’ As the doctor tried to explain the results, all she could hear was that one word pounding over and over again in her head: cancer, cancer, cancer. She wanted to run out of the office and keep running. She felt a gnawing in the pit of her stomach. She felt like she was going to vomit.
And Traci felt a tremor in her world.
That night as she lay in bed, her safe and secure world turning upside down, she waited for her husband’s breathing to become deep and regular. She slipped out of bed and tiptoed to each of her daughter’s bedrooms and as they slept, she whispered to each how much she loved them and she prayed over them. When she got to little Gracie’s room, she climbed into bed with the sleeping six-year-old and held her body close for a long time. She thought, “I know I have something deadly in me. I just know it.” Then her prayer became a plea, “Please Lord, give me some time be a mom to these girls you gave me.” She made her way downstairs where she and God could be alone together. There in the stillness of night, they had a long talk and a good cry. Traci didn’t sleep at all that night.
At 4:30 am, Tuesday, April 13, Traci did what she had always done. She worked out, made breakfast, and got the girls off to school just like any other day. She polished her nails, got all dressed up in full make-up and heels, and drove to work. Then looking her best, she went off to her biopsy appointment.
Time seemed to stand still for the next few days as she waited for the biopsy results. When the phone rang the evening of April 15 at 9:45 pm, she knew it couldn’t be good. It was Dr. Schmidt. “The biopsy reveals that you are triple positive for invasive ductal carcinoma breast cancer, HER2/neu, estrogen and progesterone induced. Traci, this is very aggressive.”
And Traci could feel the earth shake.
Another sleepless night. Another long talk with God until dawn’s first light.
The next morning, Friday, April 16, she called her friend, RegGina Mattis, to let her know she couldn’t do Sunday’s triathlon. Traci continued, “But would you like to walk in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure with me tomorrow?” That was the beginning of a mighty transformation for Traci. After they registered for the Race, RegGina spoke with Executive Director, Dana Curish, and explained that Traci had just been diagnosed the night before. Dana invited Traci to join her at the front of the walk along with Indianapolis Colts’ Jeff Saturday and his wife, Karen. Traci declined, “I’m not a survivor like all these women. I’m just a two-day fighter.”
That evening Traci and her husband, Dan, told Hannah and Allie (16 and 12) the news, but it wasn’t like the Hallmark script she had hoped for. Dan was running late coming home from work and the girls had places to go, so they rushed through it without time for much discussion or processing. Dan left for another appointment and it actually turned out to be a Friday night just like many others.
So there she was, alone again, in her big empty house. “God, it’s just you and me here tonight. What is my purpose in all this? My girls don’t deserve this. What good could possibly be achieved by wreaking this kind of havoc on my body and in my family? Whatever it is Lord, please give me the strength to carry through.” And that became Traci’s daily prayer.
Because of the aggressive nature of the cancer, her bio-markers, and the dozens of tumors growing in Traci’s left breast, it was determined that her treatment would be chemo, surgery, and then radiation. The first chemo treatment was scheduled for Thursday, April 29.
Dan and Hannah went with Traci to her first chemo treatment. A complete stranger, Shannon Minnaar, approached Hannah and struck up a conversation in the chemo room. She was with her twin sister, Shelly Ruch, who was also receiving chemo that day. Shannon’s words were a great comfort to the frightened 16-year-old. They talked about what to expect, the best way to tell friends, and how they would find a way to get through this. Traci came home and posted this on her Facebook page, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
In the weeks to follow, Traci was blindsided by the pain and the despair and the fatigue and the sores and the trembles that accompanied the chemo treatments. But before each appointment, in true Traci fashion, she would get all dressed up, put on makeup the best she could, and enter that chemo room with a smile on her face. All the patients knew her name and she knew each of theirs. She was a bright ray of sunshine to those patients, nurses, and all who knew her. For example, when Traci began losing her hair, she gathered her close friends and daughters around her. They took turns cutting her soft brown locks, shaved her skull, and laughed and cried the afternoon away.
Every other Thursday, her chemo was an especially strong dose of Adriamycin. The nurses had a name for it – The Red Devil. It would make her completely incapacitated on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. She was overcome with vomiting, diarrhea, mouth and throat sores, and much more too unpleasant to go into here. For the next three days she would be flat on her back, but on the third day she would somehow rise again.
One day Traci overheard a nurse administering The Red Devil to another patient. Traci spoke up, “This stuff is supposed to make us better, right? And you call it The Red Devil? I don’t like the idea of having The Red Devil coursing though my blood. Instead I think we should call it The Blood of Christ. After all, it only keeps me down for three days and on the third day I somehow rise again. If Christ could endure the Cross and the pain of hell and rise again on the third day for His children, then I must endure this treatment and rise again for my children. Yes, let’s call it The Blood of Christ from now on.” And they did.
And Traci added one more ray of sunshine to that chemo room.
She endured multiple rounds of chemo last summer and it worked. She had a mastectomy on September 14, 2010, the day after her 42nd birthday. Her radiation ended in December. Her right breast was removed May and she finished chemo July 12, 2011. Smiling ear to ear and with her family all around her in her doctor’s office she rang the freedom bell proclaiming she was free from treatment. She participated in her first triathlon in March, exactly one year after her diagnosis.
Today Traci is cancer free. That is nothing short of a miracle.
In 15 agonizing but life-changing months Traci has come to understand miracles. The miracle of doctors, medicine, and cancer treatments. The miracle of people coming around a family in need with meals, cards, transportation, house cleaning, and emotional support. The miracle of deep conversation with teenage daughters as they helped to change oozing bandages. The miracle of God’s comfort in the middle of the night. The miracle of a woman growing in strength and delightful audacity to share her faith. The miracle of being with her girls for Young Authors projects, Camp Tecumseh field trips, the 8th grade dance, and cheerleading tryouts. And the miracle of hope — upcoming proms, graduations, college visits, weddings, and grandchildren.
You are probably thinking what a courageous woman this Traci Runge is, facing adversity with such faith, insight, and dignity. You may know someone like her who was diagnosed with cancer and also fought it with uncommon grace and tenacity. So what makes Traci’s story different?
Here is where Traci’s story stands out from all the others.
Three years earlier in 2007, Traci Runge was a healthy 38-year-old woman coaching her daughter’s cheerleading squad. The mother of one of her students was diagnosed with breast cancer. Many families rallied around them bringing meals and sending cards. Her name was Carrie Fogleman and she ultimately lost her battle with cancer. It tugged on Traci’s heartstrings to see this wife and mother so close to her own age also with three daughters suffer and die from this disease. She began to read everything she could find about breast cancer. She learned about risk factors, heredity, diet, exercise, early detection, annual mammograms, and the importance of regular self breast examination. When she learned about the research being done to find a cure, she prayed that a cure would be found before her own daughters were grown.
One day she stumbled upon an article that took her by surprise. It said that the Susan G. Koman Breast Tissue Bank was collecting healthy breast tissue from volunteers because they believed their research was the link to the cure. She made the decision to step up and donate her own breast tissue in honor of her friend, Carrie Fogleman. Indianapolis is the home of the only breast tissue bank in the world. They take samples only five times annually. Traci showed up late in the afternoon on the last day, and was nearly turned away. Before she donated, she was interviewed on video tape about her life style, family history, and why she had decided to donate her tissue.
Fast forward three years to spring of 2010. After the Race for the Cure, Traci felt compelled to make a call to the Breast Tissue Bank. She left a message explaining that she had donated previously in 2007, that she had just been diagnosed the week before, and that she wanted to donate tissue again before her treatments began.
So on April 25, 2010, the Sunday before her first chemo treatment, Traci Runge went back to donate breast tissue for a second time. John Hammarley, National Director of Susan G. Koman, flew in from Texas to interview some of the donors. During Traci’s interview he asked if she could remember what she had said at her first tissue donation in 2007. She didn’t remember exactly. John paused and looked directly into her eyes. “Traci, when asked on tape why you were donating your healthy breast tissue, you said, ‘You never know, it could be me.’”
Dr. Susan Clare was the researcher with Traci during that second biopsy. She was as giddy as a scientist could be when she turned to Traci and said: “Do you have any idea what you have done here today? You are the first person in the world to donate both healthy and cancerous tissue for research. Traci, you just may be the key to the cure!”
And Traci was witness to one more miracle. The miracle of purpose. It occurred to her that God was answering her plea: “Lord, what is my purpose in this?!” ~~~
Through the extraordinary insight and vision of Allison Melangton, President and CEO of the 2012 Super Bowl Host Committee, who believes Indy’s 2012 Super Bowl is an opportunity for our community beyond game day, a partnership has been formed between the Host Committee and the Tissue Bank to make a cure for breast cancer happen.
[Here is their press release.] The 2012 Indianapolis Super Bowl Host Committee is proud to partner with the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Tissue Bank at IU Simon Cancer Center (“Komen Tissue Bank”) to develop Indy’s Super Cure. Indy’s Super Cure initiative capitalizes on Indianapolis’ robust health and life sciences resources to propel the search for a cure. Continuing to make Super Bowl XLVI More Than a Game, Indy’s Super Cure invites you to assist in this fight and make a difference.
Indianapolis Can Make a Difference: Indianapolis is home to the world’s only known tissue bank (Komen Tissue Bank) that collects healthy breast tissue for cancer study and research. Local Resident, Traci Runge, has provided the Komen Tissue Bank with the first specimens of healthy tissue in 2007 and then cancerous tissue in 2010 – this unique collection could be instrumental for researchers in finding the cure for breast cancer. Indianapolis is the home of leading edge pharmaceutical, biotech and healthcare initiatives as well as renowned physicians in cancer research. Indianapolis can add to the NFL and American Cancer Society’s “A Crucial Catch: Annual Screening for Saving Lives” initiative that encourages mammogram testing and is promoted through NFL players wearing “pink gear” during October (Breast Cancer Awareness month).
Indy’s Super Cure Goals are to raise awareness about the Komen Tissue Bank Increase the diversity of breast tissue donations and fundraise for the Komen Tissue Bank to advance breast cancer research.
How you can be a part of Indy’s Super Cure: Contribute financially to the Komen Tissue Bank. Donate breast tissue at the Komen Tissue Bank next time the host a donation drive. Volunteer at the Komen Tissue Bank.
Indy’s Super Cure Events in 2012 helped to raise public awareness. Leading up to Super Bowl XLVI, Indy’s Super Cure hosted a major fundraising dinner on November 18, 2011 with nationally recognized breast cancer advocates. Several tissue donation events were also organized including during the week leading up to the Super Bowl.
In addition to the Indianapolis Super Bowl Host Committee and the Komen Tissue Bank, other representatives partnering on Indy’s Super Cure include: Cancer Support Community, Catherine Peachey Fund, Inc., Community Health Network, Indianapolis Chapter of National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO), Indianapolis Colts, IU Health and IU School of Medicine, National Football League, St. Vincent Health, Susan G. Komen for the Cure® (Central Indiana Affiliate) and the Women’s Fund of Central Indiana.
Breast Cancer Facts:
Every 13 minutes a woman’s life is taken from this disease
1 in 8 women will get breast cancer
Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in women between the ages of 15 and 54