Thoughts for Thanksgiving

I’m supposed to be working on a final paper for one of my master’s classes today; an overall analysis of what’s worked and hasn’t worked on this blog. I have a cool table of the stories I’ve posted on here overlaid with traffic patterns and metrics of likes and shares.

Instead, my mind is on an email I received from my friend John’s wife today:

This morning at 6:32 a.m., John died in my arms. A few days ago, our hospice nurse (affectionately known as “Rachel the nurse”) told us that he would not last much longer. So his last days were spent with our whole family, lots of loving visitors, gorgeous notes, tearful Facebook messages, and precious time laying on our bed together. Last night, we sang hymns and prayed for John and ALL OF US in our bedroom, surrounded by dimly lit candles, tons of Kleenex, close friends, hope-filled hearts, and the peaceful presence of God.

It happened just today but it seems like so long ago. As for me, I am doing alright. In fact, John said last night that I have been “a trooper.” As I woke Jake up this morning with the news about his dad, he said “I’m sorry, Mom. You know we are gonna be OK, right?” Rachel knew why I was waking her up a bit early, but she smiled and said, “He is not suffering anymore, so I am very happy.”

I hate that this has happened to our family. I want God to bring good out of this, and I have asked Him for that. By some of your notes to me, I think He is doing that. Please know how sad we are, but how hopeful we are that we will meet again, and that God is working this out for all of our good. I’m not exactly sure how or what, but I am trusting in His Word that this horrible chapter in our story has not escaped His notice. He’s not going to leave us hanging. Never has.

John is having his Thanksgiving Feast a day early….and it will last for all eternity. He probably ate a hamburger first! Having not really eaten ANYTHING for about 6 weeks, that man—that gorgeous, funny, admirable and courageous man—is enjoying so much….feasting on the beauty of heaven, the beauty of our Savior, the non-caloric food, and the fellowship of those who have gone before us. Let’s be thankful today for John’s journey home. Thankful that he is no longer suffering. We know we are going to be OK—it is just going to hurt for a really long time. I already miss him so much. And I forgot how he taught me to transfer funds from one account to the other…John????! How do I …..? There will be a LOT of those “missing John moments” in the days ahead. Happy Thanksgiving, faithful friends. Enjoy your family and feast. Remember John and pray for our broken hearts.

Feeling God’s comfort,

Kristin, for John, Rachel and Jake

I’m sitting at my computer with three screens open: Final paper, blog metrics, and Kristin’s note. I read Kristin’s note and had to stop writing to find a box of kleenex to blot all the tears streaming down my face.

I’m not sure why this blog is so filled with references to death, with notes about attending funerals and tributes to friends who’ve passed away. I set out to write about my children and life and so much of the laughter that punctuates our days.

Maybe it’s because the specter of death makes the moments of this life all the more precious. I believe there’s another world, one without sorrow and tears. A world of health and healing and reunions of more perfect souls than we’ve known here.

But the partings from this life just make me want to chuck the paper and go and see a movie with my kids. I want to hike a mountain. Listen to some beautiful music. Swim in the ocean at sunset. Get lost in a novel while I bask in some sunshine. Eat a really great meal with people I love. I sort of want to crawl between cool, clean sheets with a hot guy, but that’s not my life right now. It’s a reaction to death that makes me want to seize life.

The paper just needs to be written. Then I need to buy cat food, join the throngs of folks at the grocery store, and pack clothes for the kids for our trip to my sister’s for Thanksgiving. I’ll pray throughout the day for Kristin and Rachel and Jake. And I’ll remember John who worked with my magazine team for years.

John jotted down all special occasions and took the time to note each one. I’d call his office in Charlottesville, VA to ask about a production issue and John would say, “Isn’t today Megan’s birthday?”

Several years ago, a group of us were having dinner together at a conference in Nashville. I excused myself to renew a parking meter for my rental car, and John and his colleague Greg insisted on leaving their dinners to walk me to my car. A gentleman, always.

I know a little too well what lies ahead for Kristin, feeling her way through the next weeks and months of some aching loneliness. Seven years later, and I’ve never learned how to sleep in the center of my bed. I still have a side.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. And I’ll celebrate the day with gratitude for the small normalcy of our days. You have no idea how good it is to buy cat food and make small talk with Larry, the nicest, friendliest cashier at QFC, until normal is gone.

May your Thanksgiving be filled with both the lovely mundane as well as the moments that take your breath away. May you be grateful for both in your life.

John Baltes
March 26, 1976 – November 21, 2012

Reading Our Way to Christmas

I love traditions. Maybe it’s because unlike flossing your teeth or doing stomach crunches, traditions seem like fun habits to create.

Every Thursday evening, we have Backward Dinner night at our house, where we start with dessert and work our way backward through our meal: dessert, entrées, and then onto salads or starters if I’ve managed something that elaborate for dinner.

Mostly, my kids love to observe Backward Dinner Night when their friends come over to our house. Or, if we’re eating out, they get to explain to our server why we need our desserts first.

Another more recent tradition is to plan a tourist day in our own city on Veterans’ Day, which we’ll be doing again this Monday. We’ve taken the elevators to the observation deck of the Columbia Tower; had lunch at the Fairmont Olympic; gone glass blowing or cupcake tasting. In the evening, we set up our artificial Christmas tree and decorate it. No sense in waiting until December to enjoy the lights and ornaments. (Yeah, sometimes the kids talk me into a real tree as well in December.)

On Veteran’s day, we’ll also wrap our advent Christmas books. Starting on Dec. 1, we open one wrapped book (the kids rotate who gets to choose which present to unwrap) and read a Christmas bedtime story each night. The stories range from silly (Santa’s Eleven Months Off) to sweet (Redheaded Robbie’s Christmas Story); Sentimental (The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: An Appalachian Story) to iconic (How the Grinch Stole Christmas).

On Christmas Eve, we read the Nativity story.

I’ve change out a few books each year as the kids have advanced from infants to toddlers to grade school and middle school. The scratch and sniff book, The Sweet Smell of Christmas gave way to Pearl Buck’s, Christmas Day in the Morning. And the list is a blend of Christian and secular.

It’s been years of scouring bookstores and book lists and libraries to find some favorites. In case you need to purchase holiday presents for small people or want to start your own Advent book tradition, I thought I’d share my list with you—25 because it’s a nice number even if it means you’ll have to figure out which book you’ll exclude leading up to Christmas!

In random order:

  1. Redheaded Robbie’s Christmas Story, by Bill Luttrell
  2. The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg
  3. Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry
  4. Snowmen at Night, by Mark Buehner
  5. Auntie Claus, by Elise Primavera (The three Auntie Claus books are my kids’ favorites at the moment!)
  6. Auntie Claus and the Key to Christmas, by Elise Primavera
  7. Auntie Claus, Home for the Holidays, by Elise Primavera
  8. Penny’s Christmas Jar, by Jason F. Wright
  9. How Murray Saved Christmas, by Mike Reiss
  10. Merry UnChristmas, by Mike Reiss
  11. Olive, the Other Reindeer, by J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh
  12. Mooseltoe, by Margie Palatini
  13. Christmas Day in the Morning, by Pearl S. Buck
  14. The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: An Appalachian Story, by Gloria Houston
  15. Legend of the Christmas Stocking*, by Rick Osborne
  16. A Wish to be a Christmas Tree, by Colleen Monroe
  17. The Legend of the Candy Cane*, by Lori Walburg VandenBosch
  18. A Wish for Wings That Work: An Opus Christmas Story, by Berkeley Breathed
  19. Santa’s Eleven Months Off, by Mike Reiss
  20. How Santa Got His Job, by Stephen Krensky
  21. There Was a Cold Lady Who Swallowed Some Snow, by Lucille Colandro
  22. The Little Shepherd Girl: A Christmas Story*, by Julianne Henry, Jim Madsen
  23. Humphrey’s First Christmas*, by Carol Heyer
  24. My Dad Cancelled Christmas, by Sean Casey
  25. How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss

(I’ve noted specific Christian-themed books with an ‘*‘ so you can tailor your list in case you want to focus on or avoid the religious books suggested. I’ve also bolded my own personal favorites!)

Our Town Revisited

On March 22, 2009, a private plane crashed into a cemetery in Butte, Mont. Three couples, along with their 7 children, died in that crash, including my high school friend Vanessa and her sister Amy.

Vanessa and her husband, Mike, were absolutely wonderful at gathering friends for adventures: marathons, weekend get togethers, excursions on their family’s boat. Since the crash, friends of the Jacobson’s and Pullen’s are continuing the adventures in their honor. Every time we travel to unique places, run in half or full marathons, or whenever we’re doing something they would eagerly participate in, we’re wearing Jacobson/Pullen shirts in their memory.

In January, Megan and I will be doing the Tinkerbell half marathon in California in Vanessa’s honor. Whenever it’s rainy and cold, (and let’s face it, it’s cold and rainy a lot here in Seattle) and I don’t feel like getting out there to walk/run, I think about Vanessa’s ability to just dive in and do things. And I miss my friend.

[April 2009]

I must have been around 12 when I saw Our Town for the first time and fell in love with the minimalist sets, Thornton Wilder’s gentle, ironic humor and his astute observations of “the way we were in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.”

There’s a specific delight in introducing your kids to some of your favorite things and watching them discover it anew. Last summer, Megan and I drove to the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore. to see Our Town. I loved watching her watch the play…getting teary-eyed through some of the same scenes that struck me when I was her age.

My clearest memory of the play is the third act, where rows of chairs line the stage as graves. Emily, escorted to death through childbirth, is struggling to rest in peace. When she discovers that the dead can revisit scenes from life, she decides to go back to her twelfth birthday, despite stern warnings from her fellow deceased souls.

And the dead souls are right. You can’t go back. You can’t bear to watch people walking blithely through their days never noticing that the ordinary is what makes life extraordinary. Emily observes her birthday and realizes that everyone in her family was moving through their daily routine never pausing to really look and see and savor what was contained in those moments.

“Do human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?” Emily asks the stage manager who narrates the play. Hardly anyone save the “saints and poets, maybe” ever realizes life, the stage manager replies.

Wilder was right that death provides us all with special lenses through which to see our lives for a time. It’s the stark reminder to prioritize well and savor the ordinary moments that grow into some of our best memories.

Even though we were in Northern California for my friend Vanessa’s memorial service today, the friends and the memories were all from “our town” in Southern California. The town of haystacks and veggie burgers. Sunday mail service. Ultimate games in Ford park. Beach vespers in Corona del Mar. And crazy drives through the canyon between Redlands and Loma Linda. Friday evenings making homemade ice cream and hot-tubbing at each other’s homes.

I loved the memories friends shared of Vanessa. They were utterly consistent with the Vanessa that I knew. She was genuine and kind and intelligent. Organized without being rigid. Generous and unflappable. An amazing hostess who was never pretentious or unnatural. It’s no surprise to me that she instigated an annual appreciation brunch for her kids’ teachers and the administration at Lodi Elementary—it’s just the kind of thing Vanessa would think to do…and be able to pull off beautifully.

When I think about Vanessa, it seems to me that one of her finest gifts was her ability to live graciously in each moment. Was she one of Wilder’s saints or poets? I don’t know. But her life certainly reminds me to realize life as we live it. Every, every minute.

Vanessa and Mike with their children, Sydney and Christopher.

High school graduation with Vanessa, center
Vanessa’s sister Amy, with her husband Erin Jacobson, and their children Jude, Taylor and Ava. Erin’s older brother was Eric’s best man at our wedding.

Brent and Kristen Ching with Caleb and Hailey. Before the trip, Kristen had just loaded ultrasound photos onto her laptop; they were expecting their third child, a boy. Brent’s parents are long-time friends of my family.