Category Archives: Grief

Frosting and Barbie Dolls

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Her frosting recipe is my favorite- not too sweet and easy to work with when you have the correct ingredients available. I have to make a substitution when I make it here in PNG, but it still turns out mostly ok as long as it doesn’t start to melt in the heat before I have the chance to actually ice the cake. My aunt Debbie made our wedding cake. It wasn’t nearly as big as the wedding cake she made for a Chicago Bear football player (a cake that ended up being taller then she was). With our cake, her eyesight was declining due to blindness brought on by diabetes, so my cousins helped her do the finishing touches. The cake was of course delicious. My aunt told me that one of her tricks is to substitute milk when the recipe calls for water because it makes for a nice moist cake.

My aunt passed away last week. She had suffered a stroke this year and when my sister sent me a message two weeks ago to tell me that Aunt Debbie was in the hospital due to having water in her lungs, I knew that was not a good sign. She was just 60; my dad’s only sibling. My heart hurts especially for my grandparents, my uncle and my cousins. Aunt Debbie was someone who loved to help people. She loved to bake and she loved to spoil her nieces and nephews with gifts when we were young.

There is one gift in particular that I will never forget. It was our first Christmas back from Africa. My sister had passed away that year, and it was not an easy adjustment moving from a country where I felt comfortable to one where I had to completely relearn social rules.

That year I remember walking around in the toy section and a Barbie doll caught my eye. She had brown skin, long black hair down to her waist, bangs (who didn’t in the 90s) and her accessories included rollerblades and ice skates. I was so drawn to that doll. I loved to rollerblade. Her bangs and waist long hair mirrored mine just in a different color and her brown skin reminded me of the country that I had recently left. I didn’t tell a soul that I wanted that doll, yet when I opened my Christmas gift from Aunt Debbie there she was.  My cousin had been given the matching roller skating/ice skating doll with red hair and I was given the exact doll that I had longed for. Somehow, my aunt knew. It was a sweet reminder that God saw little eight-year-old me in the midst of my grief and cultural adjustments.

Due to living on the other side of the world and still waiting for our daughter’s passport to be sorted out, I won’t be attending the funeral service this Saturday. Times like this make it especially hard to be far away, a very real challenge of the expat life. I know my aunt touched many people’s lives from her work with Make a Child Smile, and volunteering at a local food pantry to the many, many cakes that she decorated helping make sweet birthday and wedding memories for countless people. She will be missed. She touched the world in her own unique ways, and I will never forget the ways that she touched me.

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From the Other Side of the World

0956603-R3-E037 The last several weeks have been a blur—traveling to incredible new places all over Australia while silently wishing I could be on the other side of the world attending my Grandpa Pontier’s funeral. And yet, I’ve felt so wonderfully full making new memories and meeting new friends that it’s hard to even process everything. My childhood dream of seeing a koala came true, and as I stood gazing up at the furry gray ball sleeping away in a gum tree I couldn’t help but smile at the richness of it all. Life- it’s but a moment. I tried several times to blog about my grandpa after hearing that Alzheimer’s had taken its toll on his life, but words eluded me. It didn’t quite seem real until I saw the pictures posted of my mom receiving the flag that had draped his coffin. When I saw my Grandpa last he seemed frustrated. Ready to go home as he put it. Lonely for his wife, whom he had loved so faithfully, and ready to meet his Savior. He’s home now. Knowing how much he longed for that I’ve found it hard to be sad. He was a strong man, principled and very much in love with his birthplace, Congo. Even when Alzheimer’s set in and he would tell the same stories over and over, I still loved to hear his stories. There was the story about when he shot an elephant with a single shot, stories of frog hunting with his best friend, stories about his time in the US army, and stories of how a tall Texas gal had captured his heart. During my time in Kenya I saw a classroom building and house that he had built years before I was born. I smiled when I saw his work knowing that his labor as an engineer and builder was still being enjoyed not just in Kenya but in other parts of the world as well. I’m thankful for his legacy and thankful that I inherited his red hair as well as his love for Africa. I’m grateful to call such an amazing man my grandpa with all of his accomplishments and even with his flaws I loved him dearly. He taught me about faithfulness, and about the beauty of holding your partner’s hand no matter how old you grow. He taught me about the art of telling a good story, and he taught me to appreciating a country that is different from the one your passport reflects. I’m thankful for the life that he lived and even from thousands of miles away I was there in my thoughts as he was laid to rest—happy and finally home. IMG_5677

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It Hurts to Love this Deeply

I woke up the next morning with a throbbing toe. That’s when I realized that I had kicked some of the loose rocks in the driveway a lot harder than I thought I had. I was heading to town when he called. “You have to let them go,” he told me.

Let them go! How do you “let go” of two of your kids? How do you go from kissing them goodnight, braiding their hair, and helping them with their homework to possibly never seeing them again? God, I’m just not strong enough for this.

We’d made an exception when a mother with a paralyzed husband begged us to take her youngest daughter along with her granddaughter who was being raised by a single mother with epilepsy. We don’t normally take children with parents at the children’s home where I work, but in this case Pastor Simon had made an exception. An exception that was now causing all of us a lot of pain.

A year later the mother changed her mind. She wanted the two girls back. She didn’t like the fact that she couldn’t come and take the girls whenever she wanted to. She was threatening to cause trouble if we didn’t return them that week so that they could start school where she lived. That’s when I realized that it’s possible to love someone so much that it hurts.

I wanted to fight. Take it to the courts. Legally the children were under our guardianship, and I didn’t want them to go back to a home where they wouldn’t be taken care of like they had been over the last year. But, the decision was not mine and while everything in me wanted to fight it deep in my heart I knew that a judge would end up rewarding the children back to their biological relatives, so was it best to go down that road?

I felt like a robot packing a backpack for Esther while Richelle packed one for Michelle. Their toothbrushes, dolls, jump rope, shoes, and clothes. This was it. Our family was being split apart. I tried to hold it together for the other kids , but I wasn’t doing a very good job. I love my girls. Sometimes when I would be cooking breakfast on a Saturday morning Michelle (who is usually very independent) would come up to me, jump into my arms and hold on to me like her life depended on it. Esther is not much of a cuddler, but when we walked down the road she loved to hold my hand and when I’d tell her that I loved her she would always flash me one of her beautiful, bright smiles. I loved her giggly laugh, her cute cubby checks, and her sweet personality. When I told her that her mom wanted her to come and live with her again her eyes immediately filled with tears, and then she got very quiet. The brightness in her eyes disappeared and was replaced with a vacant stare. How do you explain to a child that you have no control in some situations? How do you say goodbye to one of your children knowing that if you do ever see them again everything will be different. They belong to someone else now. My mind still can’t fathom that.

I cried a lot—confused, desperate, angry tears. I felt numb, powerless, and broken as I watched the car drive away. “I’ll come back when it’s over,” Michelle had said quoting a line from “The Call” one of her favorite songs.

“I hope so,” Richelle had told her.

“What is hope,” she asked.

“I want you to,” Richelle said.

Ruthann had the hard job of riding with the girls and Pastor Simon to give them back to their relatives, and then it was over. At least as over as something like that can be.

I sat with little Kevin and held him as he cried over the loss of his sisters. Later, I sat with my arm around Niko when I found him sitting on the edge of the driveway in tears. I had no words, no answers, nothing to give but my presence and at that moment it didn’t feel like enough. The rest of the day is a blur.

One of our older boys gave me a pep talk about how God sees everything and knows everything. “I know,” I told him, “But, I’ll never see them I again.”

“Two mountains never meet,” he replied, “but people, people will meet again.”

Maybe we will meet again. I have no guarantee but maybe. In the meantime we are all still praying for God to get us through this, to hold us, to bring some good from this heartache. He sees. He knows even when we don’t. That doesn’t lessen the pain, but as least it is a whisper of hope. Right now, by God’s grace, we’re surviving one day at a time. Sometimes people think that working in a children’s home in Africa is some kind of romantic adventure full of wet kisses and fun little adventures. Some days that is true, but other days it just plain hurts. It hurts to love this deeply.

My beautiful Esther

My beautiful Esther

My precious baby girl Michelle

My precious baby girl Michelle

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Some Days it Just Hurts

Nothing is normal about our family of seventeen kids, three “aunties”, one “uncle”, a cat, two Germany Shepard’s and puppies on the way. We had to say goodbye to our uncle this week as Jeremy returned to the US. Goodbyes are never easy, but they are even harder for a child who has seen too many people in their life come and go. But God calls different people to come for different amounts of time. As hard as it is for the kids to say goodbye, it is beautiful to see that even though goodbyes get messy (literally) with tears, wailing, and snotty noses. It means that the kids have opened up their hearts and let in love—a risky thing to do when you’ve been abandoned, abused, and neglected.

I start to feel physically sick when I think about having to say goodbye to these kids in May even though I’ll only be gone for a short time. They have wrapped their fingers so tightly around my heart that it hurts to think about being separated from them even if it is only for a couple of months. But, I miss my family too. I can’t wait to go home for a visit to catch up with friends and  to spend time with the people I love in the US. I just wish there was a way to be in both places at once. When I booked a plane ticket back to the US, I didn’t realize at the time that I would be leaving on Charity’s birthday. Charity, the one who sobbed when I took a weekend trip to Uganda and begged me not to go. The one whose eyes teared up yesterday when Richelle asked me what time I was leaving in the morning (she was asking about my trip into town to buy school shoes for the boys). Charity panicked for a second thinking I was leaving, leaving.

God help me. As much as I love my family and can’t wait to see them, I don’t know how I’m going to have the emotional strength to do this. I love these kids even with their off key singing, mood swings, and muddy shoes. We’re a family. An odd family, but a family still and every day I thank God that He has allowed me to be apart of helping raise these kids. Some day in heaven there will be no more heart wrenching goodbyes. God will wipe our tears and our snotty noses and all the pain will dissolve into joy. That will be a beautiful day. Until then, we have to survive this emotional rollercoaster of life; and get used to the fact that our hearts will often be left in multiple places. But, as hard as goodbyes are they show that love exists. If you never had to say goodbye it would mean that you never met anyone new or that you never traveled outside of your own small world. Yes, goodbyes hurt; but I’ll take the heartaches along with the adventure.

I don’t want to stay so safe and protected that I become stagnant. I want our kids to know that God brings you through the hurt of goodbye and adds new people and experiences to every day He gives you. It hurts, but it heals, and until we reach our final home in heaven goodbyes are going to have to be apart of this process we call life.

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It Could Have Been Me

I wasn’t in Westgate Mall when terrorists took over the building, but I could have been. It’s my favorite mall. The one I usually go to whenever I am in Nairobi. I love its global feel. I love the free wifi at Arts Café (my happy place). I love the posh atmosphere. After spending time in Kenya’s more rural mountains, Westgate is always a little piece of paradise.

The last time I was there I ate spinach ricotta lasagna. It was heavenly, the first real cheese I’d eaten in three months. I caught up on emails, watched the adorable little Indian girls sitting at the table next to mine, and soaked in the buzz of life happening around me. I went to Nakumat and bought chocolate bars for my co-worker, Alyssa, as a peace offering for leaving her to take care of the kids while Ruthann and I went into the capital to take care of visa issues. I bought cute little toothbrush holders for the kids and wandered the supermarket aisles feeling like I was back in the US wandering the aisles of Target.

When I think of Westgate I think of culture, beauty, mango smoothies, family outings, and movie theaters. Now I’ll always think of grenades, gunshots, children screaming, and people jumping from the upper floors in order to get away from the terror.

I can’t wrap my mind around the thought of all those families trapped in the mall—a simple family outing turned into a tragic nightmare. What is the point of attacking a mall, killing children, and destroying a place a peace? It’s been four days now. We are still waiting to hear how it is all going to end. Every time I read an article about what is going on at Westgate the death count is higher.

What if it had been me sitting there enjoying my spinach ricotta lasagna when the gunshots started? What if it had been me when they asked the hostages to recite an Islamic prayer or be shot? What if it had been me taking one of the kids from the children’s home where I work on a special treat into town? I can’t imagine being unable to protect my child from terrorists with grenades and guns. I can’t imagine how those mother’s felt last Saturday when they had to live through hell.

What kind of person targets a mall? What kind of person attacks children simply going about their day? It’s heartbreaking. Yes, they created terror but for what? It’s sickening just to think about it.

If it had been me, I pray I would have been strong—strong enough to forgive such evil, strong enough to help those weaker than myself. But, it wasn’t me. I’m here safe in my rural mountain home away from the chaos, away from the pain of hundreds of families aching for their loved ones. But, I am not untouched even here far away from it all. My heart hurts for Kenya, for the injured, for those planning funerals, for those whose memories are forever scarred by choosing the wrong day to go to the mall.

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Fragile

I wasn’t able to go to the funeral. I’ll be in Kijabe soon but not soon enough. I thought about not going to work after finding out that my aunt had passed away, but one of the best things about working as a nanny is that holding babies can be therapeutic.

I’m tired of writing about grief. It hurts. I’m tired of stressing about what’s going to happen next. My dad left me a voice message last week telling me to call home and my first thought was, “great what happened now?”

Life is fragile so very, very fragile.

My first clear memory of Aunt Martha was after my twin sister died suddenly. She sent my cousin and me American Girl paper dolls and cookbooks. Mine was Molly and Amanda got Kirsten. For an eight year old, it was such an appropriate gift. A thoughtful way of saying, “I know things are tough for you right now, but I care.” That’s the kind of person Aunt Martha was.

She ran a guest house on the coast of Mombassa. My friend and I had planned to spend a long weekend at her house in June. We’d been messaging back and forth confirming dates and talking through travel options.

It still hasn’t completely hit me that Aunt Martha won’t been there when I get to Kenya next month. I know she is in a better place, but selfishly I still want her here. She touched so many live, brought so much joy, and was an inspiration to me and to so many other people.

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Lasting Memories

Love birds

Love birds

 

Last Thursday I headed to Florida, but it wasn’t a happy spring break trip to Florida it was for my grandma’s funeral. I was put in charge of collecting pictures for the photo board display at the service and also creating a background slide show to run during the visitation.

Grandma and her camera

Grandma and her camera

I love pictures especially old black and whites and also those adorable cute kid pictures, so I spent several hours pouring over my grandma’s photo collection. I know I inherited some of my love for pictures from my Grandma Pontier. She had books and books of neatly organized and labeled albums lined up on shelves in her bedroom. Every grandchild has a book stuffed with baby pictures and almost every out of state trip earned a book as well. My pictures are nowhere near as organized as Grandma’s, but I’ve massed quite a collection myself.

Due to a limited amount of time before the funeral, I didn’t finished the slideshow to my satisfaction, so on the 13 hour car ride home I decided to finish it. When I think of my grandma, her love for pictures is one thing that I am very thankful for. The memories she captured on film I’m sure will continue to touch generations for years to come.

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The Absence of your Presence

A tree planted in Kenya in memory of Alice Mbugua

A tree planted in Kenya in memory of Alice Mbugua

Today marked a year. A year without someone I truly cared about, a year wishing she was still here while knowing that it is impossible to go back. I remember last year right before Valentine’s Day. I was driving down the road and started thinking about the single women I knew whose lives I admired. Alice’s name was the first name to pop into my head. She always seemed willing to try new things. She brought a sense of joy and an honest love for humanity with her where ever she went. I don’t ever remember hearing her complain about life. She just experiencing life adding a special charm and polish where ever she went. As I was driving that week of Valentine’s day, I remember thinking that I should email Alice just to let her know how much I appreciated her and how she lived each day. I never sent that email. The following Sunday a sudden cerebral hemorrhage took her life.

Today I did my best to cook Kenyan food something we used to enjoy doing together. But, as I attempted sukuma wikie and chapattis, I was reminded just how much I still don’t know. I used to help cut up the ingredients, roll out dough, and just help where needed. Alice was the mastermind who made it all come together. This time it was just me.

Food has a way of being a comfortable familiar even when it doesn’t come out exactly like you hoped it would. But, at the end of the day my attempt was more about honoring a memory then it was about the actual food, and in that sense the endeavor was successful. Alice, I still miss you. Even though you are in a place of perfect happiness the world still feels the absence of your beautiful presence.

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If It Was Easy They’d Let Girls Do It

My left calf muscle is burning, and I rolled out of bed very slowly this morning. But, I completed my first 5K yesterday finishing with a time of 38:31:31 placing 276 out of 463. With only three weeks to get ready for the race, I’m happy with my time although I do want to run a 5K in under 30 minutes.

Interestingly enough, Hoops for Life is the second toughest 5K in state of Missouri due to all the hills that make up the course. I didn’t know this little piece of trivia when I sent in my registration form. Silly me thought the slogan “A Tough Race for a Tough Cause” referred to distance not incline, but I survived!

It seems crazy to go from not running at all to attempting a 5K in just three weeks. I tried to find a training schedule, but all the ones I found were for 9 or 5 weeks. I ended up starting out with the Couch to 5K program only running six days a week instead of three and then the last week running under the Jonny method.

The Jonny method consisted of my younger brother literally running circles around me while he was wearing a weight vest and complaining about having to slowdown his pace. He would then tell me to run when I wanted to walk and say just a little bit more when my legs were screaming. But as my dad says (when he wants to see me get mad) “If it was easy, they’d let girls do it.”

The day of the race was gorgeous. Over 600 walkers and runners, most wearing neon orange shirts, participated to raise money for pediatric brain tumor research in honor of Sahara “Hoops” Aldridge. Sahara’s parents started this 5K after they lost their 13 year old daughter to a malignant brain tumor. While there was so much adrenaline and excitement surrounding the race, I couldn’t help but think how Sahara’s parents would feel after the last runner went home. Yes, thousands of dollars were being raised to help other people’s children, but Sahara was gone. She would have turned 18 this year.

Having the courage to bring something good out of a tragedy is one of the bravest things someone going through grief can do. It is easy to give in to the pain. It’s hard to move forward. I’m sure the families connected to the movie theater shooting in Colorado can attest to this.

Grieving is a lifelong process. There is a lot of attention at the beginning when the pain seems the most intense, but it never fully goes away. You learn to cope, to celebrate, to grow but you can’t ever go back to how it was. It’s a tough race, a daily race with very real pain, but that pain can sometimes turn to hope like it did yesterday when over 600 people’s lives were touched by a girl who most had never met.

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Eyes Full of Life

A wave of red curls.

That mischievous, dreamy smile.

A bond, but how do you explain what it feels like to be with someone from the very first day you existed.

Sweet eyes

Full of life

Until July 16th, 1995.

The day we both turned 8 1/2.

I still miss you.

I know I always will, but I’m thankful for the ways you grew me, changed me, made me who I am today.

Thank you, it doesn’t seem like enough but thank you Allison Rebecca.

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