Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Three Trees and an Icy Swim

One of the choices Tina and I made many years ago was to take out a small life insurance policy on each of the children. I remember thinking how morbid that sounded at the time, but I can also remember thinking that should anything happen to the children, God forbid, the last thing either of us would want to worry about is paying for a funeral. I can't tell you what peace of mind that policy brought to us as we began planning for Peter's services; the cost of a child's funeral, which is generally about half the price of an adult's, can cost anywhere between six to ten thousand dollars. My heart breaks for parents who may sometimes spend years paying for the final resting place of their loved one, and I would strongly encourage any parent out there to consider purchasing at least five thousand dollars worth of insurance for each child, which can cost sometimes as little as four or five dollars per month. Should it ever be needed, the peace of mind it can bring is priceless.

Why all of this talk about insurance? Well, we retained some of the remaining money from Peter's policy once all bills were paid, and we wanted to do something for our home with that money that would be a lasting tribute to him. One of his favorite birthday presents back in January was an apple tree which we planted in our back yard next to the boys' salsa garden, so we decided to do it all over again. Tina purchased three Live Oak saplings which were delivered to our house on Friday. On Saturday morning, we spent a few hours digging holes, driving in stakes and planting the new tributes to our son which we can see every day. I love the idea of planting trees for Peter; our friend, Chandler Brown did the same thing at Walker Elementary last Spring when he planted a group of Crape Myrtles in Peter's honor as part of his Eagle Scout project. Such things last, they beautify, and they reaffirm life to all who look at them and enjoy them.

We did something else just last night that helped us think of Peter. The temperature in McKinney hasn't been unusually cold for November; nevertheless, our pool temperature has dropped into the upper fifties since overnight lows have been a little nippy, so we haven't been spending enormous amounts of time swimming in the pool this month. We are, however, looking forward to a special birthday celebration for Peter when January 28th rolls around. Since Peter loved swimming as his favorite activity and polar bears as his favorite animal, we decided that a fitting tribute to Peter on his birthday would be a polar bear swim! That's right...on January 28th, anyone who wants to come and wish Peter a happy birthday can do so while jumping off of our diving rock into the icy waters below! Since a few members of our family are, shall we say, warming up to the idea, we figured we needed some practice. We invited our friends, the Walters, over for an evening of marshmallow roasting and hot tubbing, and sure enough, everyone who wanted to spend time in the hot tub needed to take a brief dip in the pool first. The teenage boys went first, followed by the Walters' two youngest sons, Connelly and Carter. I then did my obligatory cannonball, and finally it was Tina's turn. I love that woman's style! The screaming started well before she even made it to the diving rock, but she saved the best shriek for her leap of faith. To her credit, I believe she could have given our Olympians a run for their money as she sped from one end of the pool to the other on her way to the spa! The pool temperature read fifty-eight degrees, so you can imagine what we'll be facing in two months (yikes).

A few months ago, I made a promise to myself that I would follow three more children who were battling DIPGs: Mara Adams, Gunner Gillespie and Aidan Zaugg. They are the last children we began following before Peter's passing, and they each put up courageous battles against this horrible disease. As of yesterday, however, the last of these three little warriors went home to his Heavenly Father as Aidan ended his miraculous two-and-a-half year struggle. God bless you Aidan. Rest in peace Mara and Gunner. They are just three names in a long list of beautiful young children claimed by this rare tumor in the last few years, a tumor that still perplexes and confounds doctors around the world. Now that these three have gone home, I plan on stepping back and focusing on my family, even though all of the families who have struggled or continue to struggle with DIPGs will forever be in my prayers.

Many parents make the defeat of childhood brain tumors their mission after the death of their little one. They often create a foundation in their child's name, and they dedicate their lives to making sure that their child's death means something. As strange as it may sound, I don't feel like that is my calling. I feel like the greatest good that I can do after having gone through this ordeal is offer help and insight to grieving parents. Many families break apart after their children pass away, mostly due to their inability to express their grief or reconnect with each other following the disappointment and despair of a child's death. As tragic as the child's death may be, the continuing tragedy of families torn to pieces by grief must also be addressed or else cancer's collateral damage can grow to include both parents and the child's brothers and sisters. I hope that sharing my experiences through this medium as well as ultimately telling Peter's story to a larger audience can help grief-stricken parents understand that life goes on and that it can become sweet again. We hope for that every day, and we know that it will happen to us and to anyone who seeks it.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Approaching Holidays

When we understood and accepted that Peter would ultimately die from his brain tumor, we realized that we would begin marking time differently. Many who have traveled this path before us told us that we were going to be in for a season of "firsts", and our first holidays without Peter would be difficult. Tina and I have already felt many firsts come and go, like the beginning of school and the passage of Halloween, and each one has tugged at our heartstrings. Peter wasn't a huge Thanksgiving fan since he really wasn't old enough to appreciate a turkey dinner with all of the trimmings, nor was he a huge fan of parades or football. With that in mind, I don't feel like Thanksgiving will cause our reflections on Peter's absence to be any stronger or different than any other day; however, Thanksgiving is the gateway to the Christmas Season, and I know that our Christmas celebrations this year will be much different.

Christmas of 2006 came right on the heels of Peter's diagnosis, and we felt just about anything but merry. Our hearts were torn between shock, hope and horror as we contemplated the sheer weight of what we faced. When Christmas morning dawned, our happy precocious boy had been replaced by an emotionally distant, depressed child who seemed lost in every way. No matter what we tried, we could not break through the miasma that enveloped Pete, and our hearts broke as we watched the joy of Christmas have no impact on our suffering child. That was a Christmas we vowed not to repeat, and when Christmas rolled around a year later, the spirit in our home had changed entirely.

We faced the brunt of Peter's illness in 2007, including coming to grips with the truth that he wouldn't survive the tumor. We saw, however, a powerful miracle take place as he returned to school when his tumor stabilized just before Halloween. A second stable MRI before in early December confirmed that we would indeed be celebrating a very special Christmas with Peter, and Tina vowed that we would do everything we could to make that Christmas one to remember. We decorated the house inside and out like we had never decorated before. Christmas music played non-stop on my iPod docking station (and not the annoying stuff they play on the radio, either!), and the house seemed saturated with the smells of good things baking in the kitchen every day. We truly celebrated our Savior's birth into mortality last year, and our home felt wrapped in a halo of light for those weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Peter's joy and excitement that Christmas was as strong and infectious as his depression the previous year had been, and I cherish the photos and videos we have of him at every activity and traditional family event, like acting out the Nativity, or building a gingerbread house. The amazing finale to our holiday season came during our miraculous trip to Montana, made possible by the amazing generosity of someone we didn't even know. I don't think I've ever seen Peter so eager to participate in anything like he was when he went sledding and skiing during that trip, and the generosity of our hosts and the herculean efforts of my mom to make it all happen will never be forgotten.

Peter lived less than three months after our return from Montana, and watching him finally succomb to that blasted tumor was the hardest thing I believe I will ever witness. It left a void in my soul, and I feel the emptiness every day. Luckily, the Lord hasn't forgotten nor forsaken us, and I have felt peace, comfort and reassurance during those moment of excruciating loneliness, and I come through it each time with a new hope for being whole again. Now, we face the Christmas Season once more, and our family will approach it differently than we have ever have before. We know that we can neither duplicate nor exceed the kind of joy we felt last Christmas, so we are not going to try. Rather than inviting direct comparisons to what we consider the perfect Christmas, we will try something new by packing up and leaving town. We plan on spending time with some old family friends, the Parkinsons, at a beach house in Florida, and we are already busily preparing for what promises to be a fun week of new experiences. In honor of Peter, we will light as many luminarios as possible on Christmas Eve and reflect on the beauty of his short, eventful life. I look forward to just sitting on the sand in the cool of the evening, listening to the voice of the gulf telling me its secrets and watching the children play along the beach, digging holes, collecting shells and getting sand in their hair and in between their toes. We hope that by taking this trip, we will remember this Christmas more for being the first time we celebrated at the beach rather than it being the first Christmas we faced without the little man.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Thoughts on a Sunday Evening

I just got off the phone with my brother who lives in California. I miss Mike, and I wish that he lived closer to us; however, he and his lovely wife, Monique, enjoy living on the beautiful Monterey Peninsula, so I need to be content with frequent phone calls and sporadic visits. We talked a great deal about politics, the recent election, California's Proposition 8, and the current state of the world. Mike and I see eye-to-eye on pretty much everything, which I'm sure comes from how we used to always stick up for each other as kids. We moved around a great deal as children, attending a new school just about every year before we were teenagers, and we frequently found ourselves needing to make new friends. Having a brother who was also my best friend made it much easier for me to adjust as we arrived in our new surroundings. When Mike asks me how I'm doing and how Tina and the kids are coping, I know that I can be perfectly candid with him, and I thank my Father in Heaven for loved ones with whom I can have such frank and open conversations. He asked me those questions during our conversation tonight, and I was pleased to report that we're in a healthy place right now. We feel blessed and strengthened to be able to bear the burden of Peter's death, and we feel like our hearts have been softened so that none of our family members have felt overcome by bitterness or anger. We've prayed for these blessings, and God, as always, has heard our prayers. I enjoyed talking to Mike, and I need to talk to him more often just like I need to talk to my sister, Ali, more frequently; she's back in the states after an extended time overseas, and I look forward to visiting her in her new home in New York before Christmas.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Charting new territory

Welcome to my new forum. I have fully embraced this new life that God has given to me and my family, and I plan on sharing thoughts and impressions regularly; I hope that what I write is worth reading in some way. Your comments and impressions are most welcome, and I look forward to this new literary journey with you.