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This is a guest post by a close friend who just returned from a mission trip to Haiti with her daughter.  They travelled as part of a 31 person team with Give Hope Global.  This organization provides funding, supplies, medical and dental care and much more to Haitian orphans.  When she returned last week and filled me in on the experience I was moved to tears.  I asked her to write about it so we could share her story with others:

I just returned from a week in Haiti.  Still trying to process all that happened in that short amount of time.  I am 41 years old and over the years, I have experienced every emotion humanly possible from joy to grief, love to anger, pride to shame.  However, I can honestly say that I have never experienced so many positive human emotions in such a short period of time.  Seven days, seven emotions – love, pride, joy, trust, peace, admiration and surprise.

Love.  I am a child, a wife, a mother.  So, I have experienced love – given and received.  But in Cambry, I experienced a love that was foreign to me.  It was the overwhelming capacity to love and be loved by people I had only known for a short time.  To love children that were not mine biologically as if they were my own.  To love team members as if they were my family.  But what was even more amazing, was how much love I felt in return.

The Give Hope Global volunteers
The Give Hope Global volunteers

Pride.  I traveled to Cambry with my 12 year old daughter.  She turned 13 the day after we arrived, but she did much more than add one year to her age.  Seeing my daughter adapt to Haitian life with such ease, watching her be affectionate with the orphans, hearing her say that she didn’t want to leave and witnessing the changes that took place in her heart – all of these things made me so proud to be her mother.

Rachelle's daughter with the children of Cambry
Rachelle’s daughter with the children of Cambry

Joy.  If you have seen the photos from Cambry, you have seen the infectious joy on the faces of these children.  Children who have little in the way of material things, but much in the way of faith.  The joy during Sunday’s church service when the Haitian people worship with reckless abandon.   The pure joy of young boys playing soccer or girls singing and dancing.  When surrounded by this much joy, it is impossible not to feel it.

Prayer before the first Give Hope Global Cub soccer game
Prayer before the first Give Hope Cup soccer tournament

Trust.  These children trust in the Lord.  Many of these children are not orphans by the American definition.  They have been given up by their parent(s) because they could not care for them.  Many of these children know sickness and starvation by name.  On one of our last days in Haiti, I sat with Ross Cooke, a fellow team member.  He played his guitar and sang me a song entitled “Strong Arm”.  The gist of the song is that God will be with us in our times of need and desperation.  At that moment, I, too, put my trust in the Lord that he will be with and look after these children.  Which leads me to the next emotion…

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Peace.  At that moment, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace.  I had cried several times that day.  Chalk some of it up to being overly tired, but most of it because I didn’t quite know what to do with all of the emotions I was feeling – sadness, anger, fear.  At that moment, I knew deep in my heart that these children were going to be OK.  They all feel love, not only the human variety.  They are being fed and educated.  They have hope and most importantly, faith.  In many ways, they have so much more than children here in America.

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Admiration.  I have so much admiration for my dear friend and co-founder of Give Hope, Angela.  I have known Angela for almost 12 years and always admired her ability to mother and home school her four children, her strong faith in God and her amazing knack for getting more done in one day than most of us do in a week.  When God puts something on her heart, the world better look out.  She stops at nothing.  I am in awe of all she and her father have accomplished in just one year since starting Give Hope.  It is no wonder that their scheduled trip in June is already full – 30 people ready and willing to serve with them.

Angela and her family
Angela and her family

Finally, surprise.  While I was excited to go to Haiti, I was also very apprehensive.  I even had a moment a few days before leaving that I doubted my decision to go.  Much to my surprise, I enjoyed every minute.  I’m not being cliche.  At home, I often feel like I don’t have much to give.  All the little things of everyday life zap my energy and ability to give freely of myself.  Not so in Haiti.  I am a better me in Haiti.

So, I’ll end this post as I do all of my journal entries – with a prayer.

Dear God, thank you so much for the opportunity to serve in Cambry.  Thank you for our amazing team.  I praise you for all of the amazing work that was completed during our trip.  Please be with the children, Lord.  Let them know your love and grace.  And father, please help me be even a little more like my Haitian self.  Amen.

Rachelle with the children in Cambry
Rachelle with the children in Cambry

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“And as we all play parts of tomorrow, some ways we’ll work and other ways we’ll play, but I know we can’t all stay here forever, so I want to write my words on the face of today, and then they’ll paint it”

-Blind Melon, Change

I love change.  Always have.  Big changes, little changes.  Doesn’t matter.  I find it exciting.  Even when the end of something is tinged with sadness, there’s always the prospect of something new.  The unknown can be so exciting and full of possibilities.  Every New Year’s Eve we reflect on the past year.  It is our natural instincts to evaluate, to ruminate on the events and people that colored the 12 months that are winding down to a clink of a glass, a kiss on the lips, a quiet celebration or a jubilant party.

It’s safe to say that the last year had some really tough times for all of us.  Some more than others.  But all of us have struggled with something.  We all share that.  It’s also a sure bet that the coming year will present some new obstacles or challenges.  I don’t think anyone has ever experienced 12 successive months of ease, peace, happiness. No one coasts for a whole year.  But chances are we all had some beautiful moments.  Some of us more than others.  Thankfully the beautiful moments usually outnumber the bad moments.  For this I am grateful.  For this I choose to look back on the last year as a success.  We all should.  We’re all here, and that in itself is a triumph.

Most of us shared an intimate moment with someone special.  Most of us laughed with friends.  Most of us ate at least a few good meals.  Most of us lent an ear to a friend in need and had the favor returned.  Most of us heard a story or read a story or watched a story that touched and inspired us.  Most of us enjoyed a warm sunny day.  Most of us embraced the refreshing rain.  Most of us listened to a song that made us cry, made us rock or made us dance.  For all of these moments, I am grateful.

Isn’t it often the little things?  Grand gestures are great, but it’s the simple acts and words that really warm your heart, give you hope and reaffirm.  It can be an unexpected hug from one of your kids.  It can be a stranger offering to return your cart at the grocery store.  It can be a funny joke your friend texts you because it made her think of you.  It can be an encouraging comment from another blogger you respect.  These are the things I take with me from one year to the next.  These are the things that make me feel like I’m not alone, that we’re all doing this together, supporting each other, all of us just doing the best we can in this life.

The funny thing is, we often don’t realize when we are giving someone one of these moments.  A simple smile or comment or kind gesture that may brighten someone’s day, maybe makes them feel better when they’re struggling.  We do these things and don’t always know how it’s received.  But we do them because they make us feel good.  It feels good to be nice to a stranger.  To be patient with others.  To make someone smile or laugh.

So, bring on the change 2014.  I’m ready.  I know that there will be ups and there will be downs.  I know that I’ll spend a good bit of time on the upward climb.  But at the top comes change, and it’s usually change for the better.  And I know that there will be people, some of you, who do or say something that gives me a little nudge, a little encouragement.  I’m not one for resolutions.  But I do usually have a wish or a declaration for the coming year.  For 2014, I wish for all of you hope, fortitude, strength.  I wish for all of you to feel love and fulfillment and peace.   My wish is for you to all have an abundance of the small moments.

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“And I know it aches and your heart it breaks and you can only take so much….  Walk on.” -U2, Walk On

It was my wedding day.

We had spent the past year and a half planning every little detail, the string quartet, the candles, the sunset. Yes, even the sunset.

One year before our wedding date I stood outside and watched the sky. I studied the sun as it gracefully slid into a warm golden light. Letting it soak in, I marveled at this moment. The warmth and beauty of the world awash in a sublime glow, this gift for us to witness most evenings. I’ve always felt moved, spiritually connected to the sunset. It’s a daily reminder that anything is possible.  As the sun’s dance came to an end, it washed the sky in pink and purple, one last flourish to remind us of the promise of the sun rising for a new day. This was the moment I wanted our wedding to take place, the beginning of our new life together.

A year later, on the actual day, it was beautiful, the sun was putting on it’s luminous show right on schedule. I stood outside of the chapel and watched as my sisters and best friends filed inside. The strings started playing Canon in D and it was time for me to take my last walk as an unmarried woman. My heart started racing and I could feel the pressure building inside of me, the surge of tears threatening to spill out of my eyes. I looked up at the sun, willing it to work it’s magic on me. Let me feel the hope and promise, the assurance that  it would greet me the next morning and everything would be all right.

Nothing.

I felt completely alone, the sunset wasn’t giving me strength, my family and friends had all gone inside. The only person there was the sweet old lady who worked for the chapel and was there to make sure all went as planned. She looked at me nervously, her eyes darting from me to the door of the church.

And all I could think was, “I can’t do this.”

Before I had the chance to say anything, the doors were flung open. I was caught off guard as 80 expectant faces turned to watch me. I scanned the crowd….  I saw my family and friends…. I saw my Dad and Stepfather waiting in front of the alter to give me away, but I was going to have to walk down the aisle alone.

And that’s not how it was supposed to be.

I don’t know how long I paused there. It really was surreal. Like time stopped.

Then my eyes found Joe. And right next to him a single candle burning on a tall candelabra. Gulp. I looked back at Joe and knew that if I could make it to him that I would be o.k.

I felt myself move forward, effortlessly gliding….  Something was propelling me forward.  I felt a sense of calm, warmth and serenity that I hadn’t felt in 18 months.

Eighteen months earlier, my 16 year old brother was diagnosed with a rare pediatric bone cancer.

Given a grim diagnosis, he remained steadfast. He was going to be fine, he was going to live his life. He was still planning a future. He packed a lot of living in a short time.

Ten days before my wedding he lost his fight.

This was the day the world forever changed for the six of us that were there with him. Nothing would ever be the same, there was something deep inside  each of us that had been irreparably changed. I felt gutted, depleted and seething with heartache.

September 15, 1999 was the worst day of my life.

Fourteen years later I still look back and I don’t know how any of us made it through a funeral and a wedding. But we did. We somehow walked through it together, feeling our way through a fog of pain and grief. There would be no postponing of the wedding, as I’d suggested. I couldn’t imagine waking up in a world without my brother, let alone throwing a wedding. Every single member of my family told me in no uncertain terms that my brother would never want me to put it off. He always said he “didn’t have time for cancer”, he didn’t let it stop him from doing the things he wanted to do. And he would be highly pissed if I let cancer stop my wedding.

So, we pulled it together, summoned our strength and even though we were surely still in a state of shock, we had a wedding. There were tributes to my brother throughout the wedding. The single candle stood where he was supposed to stand as a groomsman. There was a beautiful poem in his memory read during the ceremony, and his favorite song was played at the reception. And we danced and we drank and we had fun.

Inexplicably, we actually had fun.

Fourteen years have passed since that day.

Fourteen years later and I’m still trying to figure out how to move through life without him.

Fourteen years later and I’m still learning how all this works, the after part.

And even though I’m sometimes exhausted by all this learning, I know it’s important to pull my head out of the sand every once in a while and pay attention.  I would gladly trade the things I’ve learned to have my brother back…

but I learned a long time ago that bargaining doesn’t work.

Perhaps one of the most important things I learned came from a friend I worked with. I confessed to her that I didn’t think that I would ever feel joy again. I knew I would feel some level of happiness, but true, full, unadulterated joy? I couldn’t see that ever happening. I really thought the part of me capable of feeling with abandon had died. She adamantly refused to agree. She said that I would feel joy again. She was so sure. It actually kind of annoyed me at the time. But her insistence also gave me hope.

And she was right. When I had my son 15 months later, I felt joy, a pure unfiltered happiness. And I’ve felt it many times since then. With my daughters, with my husband, with my friends and family. My son’s birth filled a hollowness that had been residing inside my soul. I have thought of her many times since then even though we aren’t close any more. She gave me something no one else had been able to give me at one of my darkest moments. As an outsider she was able to guarantee me that I would feel again. See, she had a daughter already and knew that when I had a child I would have no choice but to feel joy, that my love for my baby would override the pain. The birth of my son didn’t take away the pain of losing my brother, but it allowed me to open my heart up again to hope.

It gave me permission to feel happy.

I learned to cut people some slack.

You really don’t know what people are going through, what they have endured or are battling. I had many nights and early mornings of driving home from the hospital after staying with my brother where I truly don’t know how I made it home. There were times where I caught myself driving about 15 mph on a busy road. Before my brother’s illness I would have been irate over a slow driver holding me up. I still sometimes get a little annoyed but I always remind myself.

We all have bad days and some of us have really bad days and are just trying to make it to tomorrow, so I try to keep my irritation in check. I’m sure many people granted me that grace, and I’m grateful. I was so fragile and raw that to be confronted by an angry driver or shopper at the grocery store would have been too much.

Compassion and grace isn’t giving people a pass when you know they’re suffering.

Real compassion is giving people the benefit of the doubt, granting them access, assisting them when you don’t know them, when you don’t know what they are going through.  If you have to know the behind the scenes, well then you’re kind of sitting in judgement, right?  I wasn’t an asshole before, but I don’t think I really recognized the depths that people can be trapped in and look completely normal to the rest of the world.

I learned that comfort  sometimes comes from unexpected places.

There are some people who had such an impact on me, who helped me through difficult times and they probably will never know the significance of their actions. There was a coworker who, as I was leaving the office to go to the hospital, stopped me to give me a big bear hug. He knew I was worried about the news we were getting from my brother’s test results, and while I had talked about it with my shy, reserved friend I was completely taken aback with his show of affection. It was a small gesture that I knew wasn’t easy for him to offer. His effort to offer me solace moved me and reminded me that even though many of them didn’t know my brother, there was a whole team of people rooting for him.

Then there’s my husband’s brother and his wife who drove 12 hours to be here for my brother’s memorial service.

My sister in law, who I barely knew was the person I leaned on during that service. I found myself opening up to her and this was only the second time she and I had met. She helped me get through an emotional night and she seemed genuinely touched by the stories she hear from my brother’s friends. She said that he sounded like an amazing person and she felt like she kind of knew him after hearing about his antics.

I almost collapsed with gratitude when she said those words to me.  It let me know that my brother wouldn’t be forgotten, that his spirit and his humor could be translated to people who’d never met him.

I’ve learned that you can, even 14 years later, be blindsided by the cruel reality of it all.

You can be sitting at your kid’s swim practice just trying to write in your notebook when a memory you’re writing about simply knocks the wind out of you and next thing you know you’re wiping away tears hoping no one notices.

You can be eating dinner at a restaurant and the waiter looks just like him and you almost want to stalk him, just so you can pretend for a minute that he’s still here.

You can watch your kids doing something especially mischievious and your thoughts unwillingly flicker to images of your brother egging them on, encouraging their exasperating behaviour.

And you can almost hear him laughing, enjoying every second of finding a way to torture you as an adult as he did as a little kid.

And your heart hurts because you know he would have had so much fun with your kids and they would have loved their uncle so much.

You could bottle yourself up and try to insulate yourself from it, but it’s not going away so you might as well let it happen.

You’ll feel it, you’ll hurt, but you’ll be ok.

And I’ve learned that I still feel my brother’s presence.

I see him in each of my children, in their personalities…  in their sense of humor, which is what my brother was known for.

I feel him when my family is together and my sister and my parents are laughing and we’re giving each other a hard time.

I feel him kicking me in the ass when I’m about to chicken out on doing something that scares me.  I can almost hear what he would say in those situations.

I’ve learned to recognize these moments, when I feel him with me.

They are bittersweet.

They are welcome.

And they tug at my heart because they will never be enough.

My brother was supposed to walk me down the aisle.

When we knew, in those last weeks, that it would not be possible for him to do that, we contemplated our other options.  We considered having both my dad and stepfather walk me down the aisle, having my sister’s husband walk me down the aisle.

But in the end, I decided that my brother was who I had chosen to walk me down the aisle.

There was no understudy, there would be no last minute stand in.  I couldn’t imagine replacing him in that role.

I didn’t know how I was going to manage making that walk without him, I didn’t have much time to dwell on it.  And what I’ve learned is that there didn’t need to be a replacement.

My brother showed up.

He kicked me in the ass a little and told me not to be scared and that I didn’t have time to let my pain stand in the way of my wedding, my happiness.

My brother showed up…

he  was there with me on one of the best days of my life.

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