We're currently on day nine of a ten-day vacation to Florida, and I'm sitting in the hotel laundry room washing a few loads of clothes and reflecting on the previous week and a half.
I have tons of photos to post when we return home, but I just wanted to write for a few minutes tonight about some of the striking similarities this trip bore to our previous trip to Disney World in 1996.
Twelve years ago I had just married the love of my life in October, but we waited until Christmas break (I was taking classes that semester) for our "big" trip. My paternal grandmother had been declining over the past few months, and one of my aunts took me aside before the wedding and made me promise that if my grandma passed away that I would not cancel or delay my trip at all. "She knows you love her," my aunt told me, "and she would NOT want you to alter your plans in any way." Our wedding trip was still over two months away at that point, and I couldn't imagine such a thing actually happening, so I told her what she wanted to hear and didn't think too much more about it. Sure enough, on New Year's Day 1996, just two days before Jeff and I were supposed to leave for WDW, God called my sweet grandmother home. On the very same day, Northwest Arkansas got a ton of ice and several inches of snow making travel to Little Rock impossible. And as if that weren't enough, I came down with a nasty case of bronchitis and had to scramble to find a doctor who could see me given the fact that it was a holiday and the weather was so bad.
I have never felt so conflicted in my life as I boarded the plane for Florida at the exact hour my grandmother was being memorialized in a city 200 miles away. Never mind the fact that there was no way I could have gotten there safely. And never mind the fact that I was on the brink of pnemonia. My sweet aunt was kind enough to call me several times that morning to reassure me that things were turning out exactly as God wanted them to. He knew my heart was in Little Rock, and my family knew my heart was in Little Rock. All I knew was that my body was on an airplane bound for Disney World, and it felt like the most disrespectful thing I had ever done in my life.
Fast forward 12 years.
Striking similarity #1: A couple of weeks or so before we left, I came down with a nasty case of strep. When I realized that I wasn't getting any better with over-the-counter stuff, I high-tailed it to the walk-in clinic because once again I couldn't get in to see my regular guy (this time flu season was to blame, not a holiday). After 10 days of an antibiotic that at first seemed to be working but ultimately proved powerless, I was seen by Dr. O the day before our vacation was to begin. When I saw him, I was in worse condition that I was 10 days before (and I was in pretty bad shape then).
Striking similarity #2: It snowed three days before we were scheduled to leave and a big snowfall was forecasted for the night before.
When I started noting the eerie correlations that seemed to be unfolding with each bag we packed, fear gripped my heart and I asked my husband to pray that the similarities would end there. My dad's mother was 94 when she died, and my maternal grandmother is now 95 and lives in a nursing home just like my other grandmother did. All the strange coincidences were causing my imagination to run crazy with thoughts of "what if ..."
We prayed that the snow clouds would go a different direction ... and they did. We prayed that my new drugs would work quickly ... and they did. We prayed that no tragedy would occur in our immediate or extended family ... and it didn't.
Until tonight. Less than 36 hours from our return home.
While sitting here in the laundry room checking email and reading news from home, I was blindsided to read the obituary of my dear friend Joyce. She was my neighbor for more than four years and has been a mother figure to me, especially since the loss of my own mother.
I last saw her a few days before Christmas when the kids and I stopped by one Sunday afternoon to drop off a gift to her. We knew her health was declining, but her spirits weren't sagging at all. She had some gingersnaps for the kids, and we sat and visited for quite a while. A few weeks later, one of her brothers came to visit from Florida in his motor home and she got permission from her oncologist to make a trip to Birmingham to visit her daughter Carol.
On the day of her departure, I was supposed to run by her house to tell her goodbye, but something held me up that morning. I gave her a phone call instead to wish her a safe trip. It never crossed my mind that she wouldn't be coming back in a few weeks as planned.
She got to Birmingham and it became apparent that the medication she was taking for her leukemia wasn't working, and her oncologist told her that he was releasing her to hospice care.
I'll never forget the day she called to break the news and to ask me for a favor. Would I please call all her neighbors to let them know that she was dying? I've wanted to blog about it all before now, but my heart has been so broken I've hardly known what to say.
By the end of the phone call, she and I were both crying hard, but she was able to say these words that she had never spoken to me before: "I want you and the children to know how much I love you all. I really, really do." I reassured her of our deep love for her and our daily prayers for her health.
I talked to her several more times after that, the last time on her 74th birthday on February 23. She sounded so strong as she told me about her wonderful hospice workers and the great care they were giving her. If the doctors had given her any idea of how long she had to live, she never mentioned it to me, and so I was hoping for time to visit her in Birmingham. When I asked if I could bring the girls to see her this summer, she seemed delighted by the suggestion, and I was glad I had asked.
If there's anything I should have figured out by this point in my life, it is that there are no guarantees of a tomorrow. I am losing count of the friends I have lost that I really didn't give a proper farewell to. Of course, we as Christians know that we're not really saying goodbye, but you know what I mean. It's hard enough to grieve a loss without also grieving a missed opportunity to say things that need to be said. To give one last hug. To say one last "I love you."
So I'm going to say it here.
Miss Joyce, you meant the world to me and my family. You were the first neighbor to welcome us when we moved in across the street from you. You were the first person to come visit me just a few short weeks later when we brought Gavin home from the hospital. You shared your tomatoes with us in the summer and showed me the best places to go pick blueberries. You shared your favorite books with me and all the wisdom you had gained from successfully raising two daughters. You were like another grandmother to my kids, and they are going to be devastated tomorrow when I tell them that all their prayers for God to heal you have now been answered in the way we were not at all hoping for.
You maintained your hope and courage until the very end, and I hope that if I ever face a terminal illness that I can handle it with the class and grace that you have displayed.
I miss you so much already, but I take joy in knowing that you are now free from leukemia and all of the medications and treatments that took a harsh toll on you these past few years. I take joy in knowing that we will see you again one of these days. If you can arrange for my home to be somewhere near yours, it would delight me to no end to trade garden vegetables with you again and swap novels.
Think you could pull that off??