Monday, March 13, 2017

Retreat of Renewal - Reflections & Connections

Paige. Nick. Joseph. Stevie. June. Jonathan. Daniela. Seven courageous fighters. Seven lives that ended much too soon. Seven amazing sources of absolute inspiration.

The guys and I were recently invited to join six other families on a weekend retreat hosted by our TCH family. We traveled by bus to Burton, Texas, the home of Camp for All. Built for accessibility, the camp hosts children with special needs and challenging illnesses as well as retreats for families of those kiddos. It sits away from the "busy-ness" of the city and gives participants the chance to connect, reflect, and have some good old-fashioned fun.

Reunions. Spending the better part of three years in and out of the hospital resulted in some very special friendships. The retreat gave us a chance to spend time with a few of our favorite people:
  • Paige's favorite Child Life Specialist, Alyssa. She was amazing with our sweet girl--through good times and bad. Those two hit it off from the very beginning, and their bond only got stronger over the years.
  • Jackson, our incredible social worker, will forever hold a very special place in our hearts. Not only did he help us in many, many ways over the course of Paige's journey, he was integral in planning and coordinating the ceremony for her honorary nursing degree. That day meant more to our family than he will ever know. 
  • Pam and James, chaplains who served some of the TCH floors we called home, were a couple of our go-to people at the hospital to talk and pray with. 
Connections. The seven families in attendance that weekend belong to a 'club' nobody wants to join. Ever. We are missing important pieces of our lives. Of our hearts. We are trying our best to navigate the choppy waters of grief without being taken under by waves crashing around us. We are different, yet we are the same in so many ways. Stories were shared. Bonds were formed. Hearts are trying to heal, even if it's just a little at a time. We truly get each other, and that means everything.

The Great Outdoors. The weather, a little on the chilly side at times, could not have been more beautiful. Not only did we do some fun team-building activities our first day there, we 'visited' with some barnyard animals. Jeremy was not big on petting any of them, but he did enjoy the face-to-face photo ops. He thoroughly enjoyed the horseback riding component of the afternoon--so much so that he managed to get a second ride in before we headed out. The second day started with fishing (using pieces of breakfast sausage, no less), and Jeremy was excited to catch a fish--though he was adamant he would not touch it. That kid cracks me up sometimes--a lot of the time, actually. While Boyce and Jeremy fished, I took a few moments to explore the area around a small chapel just across the pond and snap a few pictures. A scavenger hunt later that morning found us teaming up with our cabin-mates and new friends. Our two families, both pretty competitive in nature, worked together to complete the 2-hour hunt in just 30 minutes. Jeremy was familiar with the grounds since he previously attended the camp held there by the cancer center (patients could be accompanied by one sibling). He really enjoyed leading us to the different spots--"except for all the running!" His words brought a few good laughs, as he readily acknowledges he is not a fan of running. Beautiful weather, plenty of activities, new friends. That outdoor time did us all good.

Facing Fears. I am afraid of heights. As in deathly afraid. Hotel balconies freak me out. Looking down from the windows of our hospital rooms made my stomach do flip-flops. That said, I have never been a fan of thrill rides or other things that make me leave the ground. Jeremy is a bit like me in that respect. Paige, on the other hand, was my adventurous one. From amusement park rides to speed boats to rock walls, the girl was always ready to try something new. Something exciting. She somehow managed to talk me into a short zip line at church camp several years back. Paige and her friend had made their way down while I sat at the top of the tower, in tears and basically paralyzed with fear. My amazing girl took the megaphone from one of the sponsors and called up to me, "You can do this, Mom! I love you!" That was all I needed. She wanted me to do this with her. I said a quick prayer and took the leap. The hug I got from her afterward will stay with me forever.

A night zip was planned for the first evening of the retreat. Night zip. No lights other than those on the climbing wall and small glow lights on the zip lines. Boyce was one of the first ones up. It was his first time at camp, and he was ready to take on any challenge that was presented to him. Jeremy, however, volunteered to hold phones, wallets, and anything else that would keep him on the ground. I was the wild card. Would I, or wouldn't I? After much deliberation (maybe too much) and encouragement from Boyce and my new friends, I decided to head up the wall.

I was slow and deliberate with each step of my climb. Several times I found myself wanting to give up and head back down that wall, but each time I reminded myself how Paige fought for every single step she took. She never gave up. Ever. I had to get to the top of that tower. For myself. For my girl. Just like my previous zip experience, I was hesitant to step off--into complete darkness, no less. Then something happened. I thought about how much Paige would have loved that experience. How I want to do things she would have loved. So off that tower I went, planning to keep my eyes closed the whole time. I'm so glad I changed my mind. The night sky was simply stunning. Not only were several constellations visible, it was like we could see galaxies. Like somehow the Heavens opened up just enough that night to give us all a chance to be a little closer to our angels. It was beautiful, and it was so very worth it.

Leaving Our Mark. Families were given the task of designing rocks for a remembrance area on the grounds of the camp. We received two rocks--one to leave and one to take with us if we chose. I knew exactly what would be on one of the rocks but was unsure what to do with the other. It made me smile when Jeremy asked if he could design the second one. The one we would bring home. He seemed to have something in mind and went straight to work, creating a chevron design--Paige's favorite pattern--in colors she loved. He even included her verse. It turned out beautifully. Family members placed the rocks around a tree during a simple--but truly touching--ceremony.

Tears of Remembrance. So Many. Tears. Breakout sessions where we faced the hard stuff. Walking the grounds of a place our daughter loved. Family and staff sharing stories about those seven incredible lives and how they inspired more people than we may ever know. A nighttime balloon release. A sweet song and video by the siblings. So. Much. Love.

Strength. Faith. Courage. Hope. The seven sweet angels watching over us were the epitome of those words during their time on this earth. Strength of spirit when their bodies were weak. Faith in their God who is bigger than any illness they faced. Courage to take on the scariest of battles. Hope of better days to come. They taught us to cherish every moment. They taught us to never give up. As difficult as this journey is, we keep moving forward. Sharing stories. Continuing legacies. Shining lights so bright not even death can dim them.

Paige. Nick. Joseph. Stevie. June. Jonathan. Daniela. You are deeply loved. You remain in our hearts forever.