We spent this past weekend in Kentucky at a camp called ‘The Center for Courageous Kids‘. Indiana’s best friend Scout has been coming there with her little brother Ash and her Mom and Dad for the last couple of years… so this year Indy and I came along. I’d been hearing about the camp for awhile – not just from Scout’s family – but also from people at Indiana’s school and many others. It’s primarily a camp for children with special needs and their families, but once we arrived, it was easy to see that this place was that and much more.
The camp had lots of activities for the kids and grownups to do together, so Indy got to do lots of fun things, like working with wood…
Boating with her counselor Gabby and Scout’s grandma…
Swimming in their big indoor pool…
And though we now have horses at home, Indy wasn’t too sure about getting on a horse at the camp, so we just looked at them…
One of her favorite parts was getting to meet and spend time with the ‘camp dog’ Ollie…
But mostly, she loved being with Scout and Ash for the weekend…
Three times a day, everyone gathered in the big cafeteria and shared meals together. Afterwards, the counselors would put on music and the kids would have a ‘dance party’ and all of a sudden, dozens of wheel-chairs would spring into life and and parents and siblings would hold a child up and start helping them move their bodies to the music… so the child could get to experience something that most of the rest of us take for granted. The kids loved it. So did the parents.
My favorite part of the weekend was getting to meet some of the other parents and kids and hearing their stories. Some stories were heartbreaking and left a lump in your throat and tears in your eyes… but they were all inspiring and had a way of putting Indy and my’s life in a little better perspective.
One moment that I’ll never forget was meeting a twelve-year-old little girl named Adeline, who was blind… but has recently has been given the chance to see because of some new ‘magic goggles’ that she wears. On Saturday evening Ed Collins, the man who manages the camp, invited us to come up with Adeline and her mama and ‘watch’ the sunset over the pond.
I’ve seen thousands of sunsets in my lifetime, but not like this one. When you’re with someone who is getting to see everything with brand new eyes… it changes how you look at the sun setting behind a tree.
It changes how you look at everything.
We all set together for a long time and listened as Adeline explained how her ‘magic’ goggles work to Scout. But pretty soon, Indy crawled off and found a spot of her own to watch the sun setting…
As I watched her, I felt like I had new ‘magic goggles’ on and could see Indiana a little clearer.
I could see the wonder in her eyes. How in her eyes, everything is new. And perfect. And good.
And I found myself realizing that no matter how hard life seems sometimes, or how much pain and hurt we feel like we’re carrying around with us… God gives us ‘new eyes’ each day, and the opportunity to see the good in the life – to experience all the joy that He is trying to show us.
I want to have the faith of a child and feel that kind of joy.
And I want to be courageous like all the special little ones and parents at this camp… who take the difficult hand that God has dealt them and find every opportunity they can to turn it into something beautiful.
Like Scout and her mom and dad…
And I want to be brave like Roger and Stormi Murtie, who followed God’s nudging to move to Scottsville, Kentucky twenty years ago and turn 168 acres of farmland into a peace of heaven-on-earth for a thousand little angels who desperately need to spread their unique wings and fly.
One morning a week I meet a few of my buddies on our neighbor Gabe’s porch for coffee.
Gabe is Indy’s best-friend Scout’s daddy. He’s also a close friend and has worked with Joey and I for years on all of our music videos, tv specials and film projects. He was also the “old-school” host of our weekly television show.
While his wife and babies sleep inside, a bunch of us guys take over the porch of their little farmhouse and drink coffee and do man stuff – whatever that is. Mostly talk and share stories and laugh.
It feels good to laugh.
There’s no agenda. No plan to get to the bottom of anything… except our coffee cups.
Some are doctors and some are musicians that travel the world and perform. Two of the guys, Chris and Matt, own a little coffee shop nearby in Columbia called Muletown Coffee and they supply the inspiration. Both of them have little ones like I do and their wives used midwives when they had their babies, so we have a lot in common.
Some men are Catholic, some attend a Church of Christ or Baptist church or somewhere else, but they all share something in common… they all love God. And they love their wives and want to be better fathers and men.
So together, we greet each other and the day… as the sun comes up over Mr Ring’s barn and cows.
And we laugh.
And we heal.
And we ponder what’s next in our lives. What story God is using us to tell.
It might be something heavy and profound – like what Joey and I’ve been through the last year or two – where you feel His presence and you know you can not get through a single day without Him. Or it might be something much smaller. A moment that seems insignificant, but most-likely it’s not.
Like having coffee with friends. This is where lives change. Where something is said and a path changes. In my life, it’s never been the big events that change everything… it’s always been the small ones. The ones that you don’t think matter. But they do.
And so I will celebrate and capture the big stories and the small ones in my life. Because they are all part of a much larger story that someone else is telling. A story about healing a heart that is broken. Too broken to talk about, so we don’t. We just drink coffee. And we laugh.
And maybe that really is after all…
The best medicine.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been a month already since Joey left this world and made her journey to the next. In some ways it feels like only yesterday, and in others… it feels like forever.
Little Indiana is adjusting to being back home. Spring is here and with it the chance for Indy and I to spend lots of time outside in the grass and on the little wooden swing I hung from a tree for her. Like her mama, she likes being outside. She loves pointing out the horses to me or making sounds like she’s telling me all about the flowers or the windmill that turns up on the hill. She’s glad to see Ranger again and has learned to drop some of her food on the floor from her high-chair so her puppy can come be next to her.
She’s also loving her new school more everyday. She started therapy sessions there at High Hopes that she goes to a few times a week… learning to talk and even more so, learning how to use her legs. She has never liked using her legs (she pretty much pretends that she doesn’t have legs at all), but that’s pretty normal for kids with down syndrome. Their low muscle-tone causes them to not want to use certain muscles and a lot of times that turns into delays in crawling and walking and other things.
When I dropped Indy off at school on Thursday last week, I stayed and watched her for little while in her classroom as she did some fun ‘playtime with foam’ at the little table and then I went with her to her physical therapy session. Indy liked some of the exercises Miss Kristen had her do, but some of them she wasn’t so thrilled about. I had my iPhone with me and captured a few moments to remember this time. My favorite part is near the end when Indy gets frustrated in the little walker… and signs “papa” for me to come and get her!
A lot of people ask me how I’m doing. I usually try to smile and say, “I’m doing okay”. And I am… okay.
I feel so many emotions all at the same time. Blessed. Lost. Proud. Scared. Encouraged. Tired. Thankful. I have a lot of good people around me and they pour love all over Indy and I. It’s hard to be in this old house without Joey, but I know she wants us here. And I know it’s where we need to be. I moved our bed to a different part of the room, against a different wall… because I needed it to be different. I sleep on her side of the bed now. I can’t sleep on mine. And when people come to dinner and they sit in Joey’s chair, I want to tell them not to sit there, but I don’t. But I want to.
I miss my wife… I miss my best friend. I miss her voice and her laugh and her eyes and her smile. It’s still hard for me to imagine that she’s not here, and she’s not ever coming back. But I know that time will make it easier. Because that’s what time does. It heals what is broken. There will still be scars, but I know there will come a day when I won’t miss her this much, when I won’t wonder where she is… and what she is doing right now in heaven.
I make the walk out to the cemetery behind the house everyday and stand over the loose dirt and I talk to her. Like Forrest Gump talked to Jenny under the big tree that they played in as children.
Forrest loved Jenny like I love Joey. Simply. Deeply.
I am a big fan of the movie Forrest Gump. Everyone who knows me knows that. People laugh when I say that Forrest is one of my biggest influences. But honestly he is. Joey knew it too. For our wedding, we had “Forrest & Jenny” printed on the back of our napkins at the reception.
And when we drove away from the church in my old 1956 Chevy, we had fifteen Dr Pepper cans tied to back of the bumper, because Forrest drank “fifteen Dr Peppers” in one scene of the movie.
I don’t know if Joey loved that movie like I did. She never said. But she knew I loved it, and she proudly let me call her ‘my Jenny’ and quote lines from the film to her endlessly over the last 14 years. She thought it was sweet. And it was I guess. But the truth is, it was more than that for me. We all need people to look up to… people who can inspire us to be better people. And since I didn’t have a grandfather or father or anyone else to watch and listen to for some of those things… Forrest taught me. Yes, I know he’s not real, but in another way, he is as real as anyone I’ve ever known. When you watch a movie and you leave the theater, all you take with you is the memory of what you saw and what you heard. And in life, when someone special impacts you… all you are really left with is the memory of what you saw them do and what you heard them say. So for me, Forrest showed me how to keep a sense of innocence and light in a world that just grows darker and more cynical every day. And he seemed to only see the good in people… especially in Jenny. Though I saw Forrest Gump in a movie theater in Texas eight years before I ever met Joey… I wanted to love someone like that.
And so God sent me my own Jenny. And we got married and it was beautiful, just like the movie.
But then Jenny got sick.
And Forrest didn’t understand why.
And Jenny helped him through it as he stayed by her bedside.
And the Jenny left him little Forrest so he wouldn’t have to be alone.
And he stood alone beside a stone beneath a tree and he talked to Jenny.
And he told her all about little Forrest and his school and how smart he is and how she would be so proud of him.
And then the movie ended so I don’t know what happened after that. But I believe that Forrest was okay. And though his love for Jenny never faded, the pain of losing her lessoned.
In Time. All in God’s time.
…I miss you Joey. You would be so proud of our little Indiana.
Easter is Joey’s favorite holiday.
It always has been. Not because of Easter baskets or bunnies or candy or eggs, but because today celebrates the day that Christ has risen from the dead. Joey loved sunrise services, and the Lords’ supper and the newness of life that Easter brought to the world. She would get so excited about the day coming and would talk about it for weeks, months sometimes. I’m embarrassed to say that my favorite holiday is still Christmas. Partly because of Jesus’ birth, but also for a million sentimental reasons and trees and carols and the ‘feeling’ that’s in the air that time of year. I still have a lot of growing in my faith to do I guess.
I can’t help but think of my bride today. To remember all the Easter’s we’ve spent together over the years and what this morning would be like if she were still here with us. What it would mean to her to share Easter this year with our two-year-old. It would be so, so special.
There’s a Bible verse that I have been thinking a lot about lately… John 3:30. It says, “He must become greater; I must become less.” I know that the context of the verse is John the baptist talking about Jesus’ ministry growing as his will become less. But I think of that verse today because of Indiana. And because of Joey.
Indy has not asked for her mama. Not one single time since Joey’s been gone. It’s almost as if she hasn’t noticed that she’s not here. And that is so sad… and oh, so wonderful – all at the same time.
When we first got to Indiana in late October, Joey was Indy’s whole world. Everyone else was… well, just everyone else. Including me. She loved her mama so much and all she wanted was to be with her, beside her or in-sight of her. But in early November, when Joey started to realize that there was a good chance that she might not beat her battle with cancer, she made a decision…”he must become greater and I must become less.”
And she started going against everything in her being that told her “time was short” so hold her baby even tighter… and longer… and more… and instead – she handed the baby to me, and sat alone in a bed and watched and listened as my relationship with Indy grew…and hers lessoned.
I still remember the day a few weeks later when I was sitting on the couch near Joey’s bed and Indy was playing on the floor at my feet and Joey looked over at me and said, “she needs you now… “. I looked at Joey and saw the look on her face and knew what she meant, and I wanted to cry. But she just smiled and said, “…it’s best this way honey”.
Who does that? Who has that kind of strength and character? Not me, that’s for sure. I would’ve taken the low, easy road… the one that served me more. I would’ve tried to make the ties with our baby stronger and her love for me deeper so that she wouldn’t forget me… and in the end, probably left our baby wrecked with grief over the loss of the one person she loved and needed most. But not Joey. She let Indy fall more in love with me…and less in love with her. She carried the pain on her own shoulders, to try to keep it off of mine. And even more so, off of Indy’s.
Don’t get me wrong, there were still lots of times in those last few months that I put Indy in her mama’s lap and they spent time together, loving and enjoying each other. But it was never the same. Indiana loved her mama… but she wanted me. She needed me.
Thank you Joey.
No, Indy doesn’t quite understand what has happened. Why her papa is sad. Why friends hug us so tightly, and why tears fall from strangers’ eyes when they say hello to us. But she will. She may not realize right now how incredible her mama is, but she will. I have made a career out of documenting our lives, and her mother… with songs and video and pictures and they are everywhere. I will play them for her. And tucked away in her little heart will be all of the beautiful memories of these first two years that she has shared with her mama and when the time is right, she will find them and they will make her smile. Yes she will remember. I believe that.
Indy and I go and visit ‘mama’ every day.
We make the walk or ride into the backfield, to the spot where Joey rests and we sit down beside her temporary wooden cross. I talk with my bride about what has happened that day, and what I’m worried or excited about… and I share the latest thing that Indiana is doing.
And our little one plays in the grass beside the flowers. Listening. ‘Talking’ with her hands.
And for a little bit, we’re a family again. Indy is on Joey’s lap and the world is right.
Happy Easter my love.
We love you.
Joey had every intention of home-schooling Indy as she grew up. For many reasons. But life has changed that plan.
I have written before about our desire to live our lives with “high hopes and low expectations”… but during the month of January, when Joey and I decided we needed to start researching what and where the next-best option for school for Indy might be…we had no idea that God would lead us to a place called, of all things… ‘High Hopes’.
It’s a Developmental Center and preschool in Franklin, TN about 25 minutes north of our farm. We had heard about it from our sweet banker friend Lisa Harless and were soon reading all about it online and speaking with the director Gail on the phone. Half of the Center is a preschool and the other half is a state-of-the-art therapy center for children with special needs. When I showed this video about their program to Joey, she wiped the tears from her eyes and with a beautiful smile said, “that’s the one honey… that’s the one”.
About forty percent of the kids in the school have special needs and after walking through and touring the facility the first time we visited High Hopes, it was easy to see that the other parents, the teachers and the staff there all have special hearts too. Joey was so excited about Indy getting the chance to come to High Hopes and I was so thankful that she felt great about it. Somehow she managed to transform her disappointment of not getting to raise and teach Indy into a real hope of something even better. I don’t know how, but she did. And she never cried another tear over it.
Indy has been in the preschool a couple days a week for the last week and a half now and is loving every minute of it.
She is making lots of new friends and loves being around all the other kids…
She likes recess and playing outside…
And getting to ride on fun toys…
and learning lots of new things…
She even likes her new nap time…
Indy has already started physical therapy classes to help her learn to walk and speech therapy to start turning all the words that she can say with her hands into sentences she can say with her mouth. I can hardly imagine how special it will be when the time finally comes that she can walk beside me and talk with me.
I believe that God gives us just what we need, when we need it. Sometimes it’s not what we had planned or what we thought we wanted, but if we keep an open mind… it just might even be better than what we originally hoped for.
When I came to pick her up at the end of her first day of preschool, Indiana’s teacher Miss Susan told me that Indy had found a little plastic figure in one of the toy boxes and was holding it up and signing “Papa”!
Though it’s hard for me to be away from Indiana at all, I also know that it’s a wonderful opportunity for her. And after her living with me in one small bedroom of a house for the last 5 months and not having much to do, she is ready for more stimulation and learning, and her new preschool is truly a blessing from heaven.
Indy and I are trying to adjust to our new life at home. To the empty chair at our table and pillow on the other side of my bed. Desperately missing Joey and carrying her in our hearts with us everywhere we go. Knowing, believing… that she’s looking down each morning as I take Indy into High Hopes, still smiling saying, “that’s the one honey…that’s the one”.