Bryson’s 6th Birthday Letter

It is time for Bryson’s annual birthday letter! On November 8th he will officially be a 6-year-old!

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I’m sure I mentioned to you that when Aunt Gynny had her twins last week, we were at the same hospital you were born at. The same doctor who delivered you, delivered your new cousins! The sanitized hospital smell, the fluorescent light in the hallways, the taste of the cafeteria food….it all reminded me of the first time I saw your face. It’s all fresh in my mind and yet you are somehow turning 6. You are growing into the most amazing big boy. You are even more than I imagined you’d be the first time your big brown eyes met mine in that hospital room. I’m so thankful God gave you to us.

Your introspection. It is way beyond what I thought a child could have. It is delightful and interesting…but it also makes me a little nervous. Because, my mind races a mile a minute. It always has. I pick apart everything. Does that happen to you? Sometimes I see your wheels turning and I wonder if it happens to you the way it does to me. If it does, I hope you’ll use your constant thinking to meditate on things like love and service and that you’ll make a choice to not settle on fear and worry. It took a long time for me to make that choice. And I see that sometimes you get scared…but I also see your big faith in God and how you are learning to choose trust and that is amazing.

At night you ask me big questions. “How do I show my friends God’s love?” or “When I’m scared at night, I just want Jesus to come sit next to me, how come I can’t see Him?” and you pray the most selfless prayers “Dear God, I hope you had a great day in heaven today.” “Jesus, help Alex to not pull a stick at school tomorrow.” And you tell me that when you grow up you’re going to be a Pastor and that when you have your own church there will be Lego time after you teach. We would totally go to a church like that, bud. Sign us up.

You long for our approval. And I want to make sure I never take advantage of that. You come home from school and tell us you were good. You do the things you know to be “right” and break down into tears when you fall short and do something wrong. I want you to know that your achievements do not equal your self-worth, baby. You are going to be imperfect for as long as you have breath in your lungs, and that’s okay. That’s why we need Jesus. Mommy and Daddy are so proud of you, but I want you to know you don’t have to earn our love. I need to tell you that more…because we are the most influential authority figures in your life right now and that means that in all likelihood, your views of God will be formed partially by your views of us. And I never want you to feel like you have to earn His love. I never want you to know what it’s like to crumble beneath the burden of “not good enough.” I pray that we are able to show you how kind and gracious and loving God is in the way we parent you. I pray you’ll know that when we set boundaries for you or when we allow you to face the consequences of your mistakes that it’s out of deep love. And I pray that, in all of your introspection, you’ll come to the conclusion that that’s how our Father in heaven works, too.

I pray you will know in your soul how valuable you are, so that you can freely accept God’s love as He so freely gives it. And I pray His love moves you to change the world, even in the small ordinary tasks of your life. Whether you know it or not, you’re already doing that. You told a cashier at Target that she looked beautiful only for her to whisper to me that she “really needed that.” You walked up to a woman once and told her that you wanted her to know that Jesus loved her and she turned around to me with tear-filled eyes and told me how great you are. At the doctor, you blew the grumpy nurse a kiss and she giggled. I’ve seen you share when it’s hard to share and love when it’s hard to love. At 6-years-old you have a way of making people feel like they aren’t forgotten. And this is a big, busy world where feeling forgotten is all too common. You have a gift. Use it because it’s beautiful, not because you want to be good enough. God is good, and that is enough.

Bryson-you are my only son. And you hold such a special place in my heart. I love your big faith and your innocence. I love the way you smile with your eyes and laugh from your belly. I love when you ask me for one more hug and kiss before bed. I love that sometimes you grab my hand for no reason and that you still kiss Daddy on the cheek. I love that every day when I pick you up from school you are shouting “Mommy!” before you even get to the car. I love that when we were leaving Tampa, you turned around and ran back to Grandpa to give him one last hug, because you understood that you would miss each other and that it was hard to say goodbye. I love that you are patient with your sisters who would rather play with dolls than your Batman toys. Everything about being your Mommy is such a great gift. I love you higher than the sky and deeper than the sea. Happy Birthday, baby.

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Where I’ve Been

The blog has gone quiet over the month of October and now with November rapidly approaching I thought I should tell you where I’ve been. Life has been the most beautiful whirlwind of helping M settle into life outside of the shelter and then packing up our suitcases and making the long drive to Florida to visit with family, We had only one goal this particular trip. Serve my sister. Like some kind of warrior woman, she carried twins 9 full months and blew everyone away. It was my pleasure to be by her side. Despite my one focus being on her this trip, my Mom and sister completely caught me off guard and threw a surprise 30th birthday party a month before my birthday. It’s basically impossible to out give them. :-)
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Our time in Florida was so full. My sister consistently blew my mind. She somehow found energy for the beach, the movies, finishing up work, playing with our kiddos, even taking her little fur-baby to the dog park! We rapidly approached the time we’d have to return home and I tried to come to terms with the fact that my little niece and nephew were comfy in their Mommy’s womb. I knew it would be hard to leave, but I was grateful for the time I got to spend with her. It was the day before we were due to leave and she was still pregnant. Kevin and I woke up and began to pack our belongings. I took a break to go with my Mom and sister to her non-stress test, which she went to twice a week at the end of her pregnancy. The doctor informed us it was time for the babies to come and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I think all three of us did some of both. Kevin called the hotel and Budget to change the dates of our hotel stay and car rental drop off and by God’s grace, we got to watch my sister become a Mommy.

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There aren’t really words that adequately express the combination of feelings that come charging at you full force when you are a big sister, watching your little sister go through a big life change like this. She is my best friend, so I was excited to hear all the details. She was the first person I ever got to practice “mothering” (whether she liked it or not, ha!) so I was nervous and praying she’d be safe. She is my sister, so I was grateful she was giving me a niece and nephew. She is someone I have always longed to be there for, to be a good example to, to invest in…and so I was incredibly proud.

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It has been nearly 5 years since we moved to Texas. We have made many trips back and forth to visit family. It has become routine. But this, by far, has been the most difficult goodbye. The babies are beautiful. But if you’ve seen my sister, we all knew that was coming! They are sweet and tiny and Kevin and I are just smitten. We have talked about them non-stop since we’ve been home. And my sister. I’m just so proud. So grateful. So happy to see the woman who she has become. So impressed with how beautifully motherhood suits her.

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So that’s where I’ve been! And now we try to get back into our routine. Except that I try harder to keep my phone close by. Because when my precious niece and nephew settle into their moments of calm, my sister sometimes calls. And I don’t want to miss any of this.

Until the next blog…be blessed!

To Accept the Things I Cannot Change

I am prone to lean towards “control freak” status from time to time. I’ve been that way for as long as I can remember. As a teen and young adult, it tormented me. I struggled for years with an eating disorder upon learning that one thing I could effectively control was food. Time and experience has taught me to surrender. Control is a facade. None of us are really in control of anything. No matter how much we’d like to believe otherwise, we are all just one phone call, one event, one doctor’s visit, one unexpected moment away from our lives being turned upside down. I don’t say that to be melancholy, this realization has strangely brought me so much peace. There is only One who has control. But thankfully, I trust Him. He is good and just and loving and so it is okay. There is freedom in surrender.

Still. This control thing creeps up from time to time. And anxiety breeds rampantly in the mind of someone grasping for control. It is the thorn in my side like the one Paul spoke of in 2 Corinthians. It keeps me from becoming proud. It reminds me of my need for the Peace-Speaker in the midst of my chaos. And so in a way, I am grateful.

Last night my mind wandered down the dark and twisty path it sometimes ends up at. I thought about the burden of living in a world where terrorism, violence, deadly illness and natural disasters are so common it seems ironic to call them news. I thought about how much heavier that burden is living in a world with children. What if one of these awful things touches their lives? I can read for hours about effective ways to help Layla with the needs she has. I can remind the kids to wash their hands and say their prayers (because Jesus & germs are everywhere…). I can teach them about “tricky people” and make them wear helmets and I can find the fine line between teaching them to be brave and keeping them safe. I can always, always pray for them. But even if it goes against every fiber of my Mama Bear instinct I must accept this one thing…I am NOT in control of their lives. Only God is. I have to relinquish any sort of control I try to hold even if it’s under the pretense of wanting to protect them.

I can teach. I can direct. I can discipline and encourage. I can and will spend more hours in prayer for them than I have for anyone else in my entire life. But they will make their own choices, face their own consequences, and experience their own tragedies. I have been placed in the position of responsibility of these precious lives and I will care for them, I will guide them and I will love them so much it hurts. But I must surrender their lives to the One I have surrendered my own life to and trust. He loves them more than I am capable of loving. He is a good Father. It can all fall apart tomorrow and if it does, we will deal with it then…but tonight I will sleep in perfect peace. Because I will choose to trust Him.

Stuff is crazy, ya’ll. In personal lives, in society, in the country, all over the stinkin’ world. And so maybe you’re feeling a little anxious, too. Maybe your mind has ventured off to the dark and twisty places that mine has been. Be encouraged. Be still and know that He is God. Our emotions don’t have to be defined by our circumstances. Choose trust. Choose peace. We can rest in knowing that He is good. Always.

Until the next blog…be blessed.

Mental Healthcare for the Poor

There are things that weigh very heavily on my heart and mind that never would have had we not adopted Layla or started working with families in crisis. I am grateful for the challenge and for the constant reminder that we must refuse to be complacent. But I wonder how I can take all these thoughts and feelings and turn them into action. I know that we are able to make a difference serving as a host family with Safe Families and through building relationship with those in poverty, but it is overwhelming how many nuances there are in this “crisis world” that I often speak of. It’s all far more complicated than I could have ever imagined.

I’ve been thinking a lot about mental healthcare because of Layla. Recently Layla’s psychiatrist sat us down and basically told us that she felt that Layla’s case was beyond her abilities to treat. She sent us off to find a developmental specialist who could do extensive testing, nailing down some concrete diagnoses and taking it from there. And so the search began. We found that in our huge metroplex, there were only THREE specialists. Of those three, only two of them were taking patients. Thankfully, we have good insurance, and so we had the choice of both. One was an hour away and the other two hours, so we picked the one that was closer. They sent us an estimate of what we would owe after insurance and we certainly had some sticker shock. Thankfully though, we were able to do it. The doctor’s office was fantastic, everyone in there was so knowledgeable and helpful. When we walked through the door the doctor was already well versed on Layla’s history and chart.  It is true that sometimes you get what you pay for. In our time taking Layla to a variety of specialists, we have noticed the more “exclusive” ones are usually pretty amazing.

I have never seen a doctor pay closer attention to a patient, all of her words, every single action. He was like a pediatric mental health genius. At the end of it, we walked away with our pockets a little lighter but FULL of information as well as the official diagnoses we needed to get Layla more helpful treatment. For the last couple of years we have spent so much time and energy trying to put together the complex puzzle that is our sweet big girl. At the end of our time with the specialist I felt like he threw us a ton of puzzle pieces that we had been missing and it was truly priceless. I’m so grateful.

At the same time, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this experience. That we were able to get her this great help because of good insurance. And because of money. And because of a reliable vehicle that can get us an hour’s drive away. All of those things are privilege. And I’m wondering more and more what mental healthcare looks like for the poor. Do their issues go unnoticed or undiagnosed? Does it stop at their primary care physician who just writes some prescriptions and hopes for the best? ‘Is this why we see substance abuse prevalent among the poor? Not because they are “bad” but because they are self-medicating? How does someone with mental health issues hold down a job or become a productive member of society when they are unable to get the help that they need? We still have a long road ahead with our amazing little girl. But is Layla’s future brighter simply because we can afford for it to be? It’s a hard pill to swallow.

One of the Safe Families mothers we have worked with has mental health issues that were only diagnosed after she got into trouble. Apparently this is common. In 2008, one single jail in Harris County Texas was spending $24 million a year on mental healthcare alone. And all too often, inmates get their first diagnosis only after being incarcerated. This particular Mom was able to get on the proper medication and dosage to treat her bipolar disorder without complication. Then her insurance provider stopped covering that particular script. The other medication that took it’s place causes nausea and vomiting and lethargy which she now takes a whole bunch of additional medications for. All because she can’t afford the first prescription.

I’m writing all of this not having any of the answers. But I think that if we are going to adopt the “love thy neighbor” mindset that we need to at least consider the issues that our neighbors struggle with.

Do any of you have thoughts on this? Are there resources or agencies that I’m not aware of that we could stand behind as a family to help? If so, please comment or e-mail me, I’d love to learn more!

Until the next blog…be blessed!

Moving out and finding her worth…

Yesterday, we filled the Suburban to the top, no nook or cranny missed and made the trek to Fort Worth. It was M’s big moving day. M is one of the Mom’s whose girls we hosted twice through Safe Families. I have written about her multiple times because she is a favorite of mine. Over the year we have known each other, we have become family. Watching her come full circle, now moving out of the shelter and into an apartment of her own was overwhelming in the very best way. We had talked ahead of time about the possibility of me taking pictures and telling her story. She eagerly agreed, wanting people to understand that all poor people do not cheat the system. She often gets grouped into that stereotype. She hates it so much that she didn’t even want to accept disability for her daughter who has muscular dystrophy because she didn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea or think she was trying to live off of hand outs. She wants people to know about the world of poverty and how impossibly difficult it is to dig yourself out when you’re doing it the honest way.

I had big plans to take lots of pictures to share with you guys…but mostly it was like any other moving day with things to unpack and children to wrangle so I barely got any. But mostly, it looked a lot like this:

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and this…

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We unloaded the Suburban. Kevin brought in his tool box and did all the assembling while M and I kept the kids under control and went through boxes. She cried when she stood in the kitchen and realized it was hers. I’ll never forget that. We listened to the kids say that they were hungry and I watched her get uneasy. She had already confessed that with her recent $0.75 raise at work that she lost half of her food stamps. She confessed animosity towards the girls at the shelter who don’t work at all and get 3x the support she does while she works long hours in a nursing home kitchen half the time and as a CNA the other half. We talked about how the right thing and the easy thing are seldom the same but that God honors integrity. 

We went through a couple of things that were donated from a nearby nonprofit. We figured we’d be able to find the girls something to eat from the box of food they brought. As we sorted through, a lump formed in my throat and I got sick to my stomach. The boxes of donations screamed to me that women like M are not of any value to the world. How can she know her worth when all she’s ever experienced in her life is other people’s throw away stuff?

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Those bananas had a thin film of white mold along the backside of them…which was gross, but nothing compared to the green fuzzy mold that had accumulated on the bread and tomatoes. The small bag of canned food held promise, until we read the expiration dates mostly consisting of 2010 and 2011. I blinked away tears and we put away a can of tomato soup, a couple cans of veggies, a small bag of cheetos and an orange. M immediately peeled the orange and cut it into 5 equal pieces for her girls and my kids and I wanted to scream, “STOP IT! Don’t you give that food to my kids….you feed your babies!” but instead I thanked her for her generosity. The kids continued to play and we sorted through the bag of non-food items that came along with the other donations. She already moved the couch to the dumpster and we quickly saw why. It smelled like urine and bugs had made their home on the inside of it long ago. That someone could say  “give this to the single Mom moving out of the shelter, it’ll be fine for her” blows my mind. Donations like that show her what society thinks of her. I hate that. What are we saying about her value that it’s even acceptable to give her these things? Still, not an ill word spoken from her. I asked her how she felt about all of it and she just said “I don’t want to complain, I’m grateful for everything.” The last thing to go through was a plastic bag. And she pulled out 3 shoes…nope, not 3 pairs of shoes, literally 3 shoes.

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M is a single Mom who works long hours, has an almost 2 year old who is constantly on turbo and a 3 year old with special needs. There is no such thing as fancy dresses or going out anywhere. But these were the 3 shoes. They were 4 inch lacy heels and at this point all we could do was laugh. We made jokes about how there should have been a piece of paper included that said “Can you please throw this stuff away for us?” and also some more crass jokes about the types of occupations one might have needing shoes like that. And sorry if it all sounds offensive or ungrateful, I just wish you could have seen her defeated face overshadowing her grateful, humble words. We’ve got to do better.

If they knew M, they would have set aside the best of the best for her. If they knew her story, they would have known she is worth more than moldy food and mismatched shoes. She moved from Puerto Rico leaving an impoverished area, but also all of her family and security, behind. When she left Puerto Rico she had 0 high school credits. The first thing she did when she got to Texas was find an alternative school that would let her work at her own pace so she could get her diploma. It was really important to her that she got to have a diploma instead of a GED. And what takes most kids four years to accomplish, M accomplished in less than a year. She worked tirelessly to complete all of her classes and at the age of 19 received her diploma.

She knew she was on the right track, and when she fell in love she thought she’d get all she dreamed of when she moved from Puerto Rico. First an education, then a family, and then her dream career. She started her family, marrying who she believed to be the love of her life and basking in the security of it.

They had their first baby when things took a turn. There was fighting…so much fighting. It got worse when he started dealing with his anger by self-medicating. One day, she had no choice but to get the police involved. She said she would press charges, but was afraid she would get in trouble, too because admitting abuse meant she exposed her baby to that abuse. The officers assured her that they would never punish a victim, but the next day CPS came and took her baby away. Her husband in prison, her baby in foster care, she was lost. Soon after she would find out that she was pregnant again. She sold everything she had to afford an attorney. She spent all of her savings and went into debt to fight for her daughter. She took all the classes required of her to have her parental rights restored and in the process lost her job. When the judge ordered she be reunited with her daughter he told her, “I want you to know that this almost never happens.”

She had her daughter back but had nothing else left. And so came the shelter.  When we met her, we were taking in her girls who were then 9 months old and 1 1/2 years old. She said she’d never use a program like Safe Families, but then she broke her foot. The girls couldn’t stay at the shelter alone so it was either us or CPS. She didn’t have much of a choice. She was guarded and protective. I didn’t understand why she wouldn’t just let us in. I didn’t know that the last time someone came and took her baby, she lost everything to bring her back. In time, we began to trust each other. We became friends. We started talking because we genuinely enjoyed each other. No because she was a charity case, not because she wanted anything from us, but because God was molding the most wonderful friendship. And then one day she found out that my Daddy is Puerto Rican and all bets were off. She was sold. And we became family.

We’ve rejoiced with her when she got her CNA, and got a better job. We’ve mourned with her when she lost said job because it wouldn’t work with her childcare hours. She called me crying when her daughter was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and I cried to her when I was stressed out about Layla’s struggles. She has nothing to give and yet she always says, “If you need anything, I’m here.” And she’d give me the little she has without a second thought because that’s just the way she is. 

Kevin snuck out and ran to Walmart and when he came back we started unloading groceries. M’s tired face softened and she was mostly silent. I couldn’t tell if she was embarrassed or overwhelmed but I didn’t want her to feel uncomfortable so we left the groceries in their bags and I just hugged her really tight.  I told her we had to get the kids to bed but that we loved her and would see her soon. Kevin would later tell me that the girls immediately started tearing into the yogurt because they were so hungry. M would later confess that the girls were just going to have that bag of donated cheetos for dinner. When we got in the car we talked about how therapeutic it is to serve others. We talked about how easy it is to love someone who is so different than you and how it’s so obvious that love comes from God. We talked about how easily we can take for granted our own full pantry until we see an empty one.

Then my phone rang. We were maybe 10 minutes out and it was already M. She was sobbing. She said that she didn’t want to cry in front of us, but now she couldn’t stop. She told me that no one in her life actually meant it when they said they loved her or that they were there for her. She said this is the first time. She said she had been sitting there while the girls ate wondering how she was going to repay us. She said that she hoped I knew that she was always there for us, too. And I begged God that the little that we’ve been able to do for her would help show her that she has value and worth.

I told her that everything that we’ve been able to do for her has been because the Lord has provided for us and that He was using that provision to provide for her, too. And that He loved her so much, that even if He hadn’t sent us, He would have sent SOMEONE. It’s not because we are good people or because we just have so much extra to give, it is because He loves her so much that He has sent help. We talked about the way God brought us together to be family and that He is a good Father who takes care of his children and where we might fail her as family, because we are human, that He will never fail her. I pray she comes to know this deep in her soul.

I pray that God will send helpers to the M’s all over the world. There are so many. And I pray that all of you reading this will learn the faces and the names of poverty and take them by the hand and walk with them. And I pray that it changes their lives and changes your life the way it has ours. I pray that when you drop your boxes of donations off to the shelters or the food pantries, that you think of the single Mom moving out on her own for the very first time and that you will put the best of what you have in that box and that in return, she will feel like she has worth.

Until the next blog…be blessed.

Sometimes she leaves us…

One minute she’s with us and then the next minute she’s gone.

 

All is well when she gets in the car after school. I hand her a snack and she tells us she earned a sticker. We make our way to Target and the mood shifts. I can see the manic look in her eyes and my stomach drops. She is defiant and loud. Her movements are brisk, her eyes refusing to make contact with mine. She’s gone.

She’s not Layla anymore. She can’t be reasoned with or spoken to. She doesn’t even hear us. She just screams. We leave and she won’t keep her seatbelt on. Out of desperation, Kevin puts her in the car seat with the 5 point harness. He hopes she won’t take that off. She’s not safe.  She scratches him and yells. I get in the seat next to her and wrap my arms around her tightly as Kevin drives away. I squeeze her arms close to me so she feels some sense of security in the midst of her thrashing around and I whisper “Shhhhhhhh” into her ear over and over. Her body goes limp and she cries. I cry, too. And I silently thank God that her Occupational Therapist gave me the right tools to do something. I silently thank God that it worked. She doesn’t know why it happens. We talk about all the better things she can do when she starts to go to that place. She tells me her brain talks to her and sometimes it says bad things. She is confused and sad and we are exhausted in every sense of the word.

Honestly, on days like this I fantasize about a Layla who was never exposed to drugs in her birth mom’s womb. I dream about a Layla who doesn’t struggle with dark moments in private. My mind drifts to what it would be like without a world of Neurological testing, Occupational Therapists, Psychiatric visits and medications under our belt. The doctor says scarier things than she used to. Like how to look for signs of bipolar disorder. I feel ill-equipped. But the moment I catch myself thinking this way, I stop myself. God has assigned Layla her portion and cup. And he has assigned me mine, too. And if I acknowledge that He is good, (He is, by the way) then I must acknowledge that what He allows is for our eternal good as well. We can do this. One day at a time.

It’s just that it gets so lonely. To most of the world she appears normal. The well-meaning “She seems fine to me” comments are like a punch in the gut. I am grateful that you have never seen the scary side of her and yet simultaneously frustrated that you do not understand. On the other hand, if you HAVE seen that side of her, I am terrified you will compare her to her brother and sister and somehow view her as less. Is there a way for you to recognize she is different without treating her that way? I’m not sure.

Before the night is over she is completely back to normal. And our aching hearts are already on the mend. We have been there/done that too many times before. We may go months before we see anything like this again, or tomorrow may bring another day of pain. We just never know. But we carry on. We know that even when Layla is at her worst, she is the most incredible gift. And when she is at her best, there is not a greater feeling in the world. I wouldn’t trade her or change her for anything. Her story is beautiful and she is a fighter.

 

P.S.-Give grace to the family with the kicking and screaming child walking out of the store. Yes, that child may be a spoiled, entitled, brat. But that child could also be the most pleasant, well-behaved, sweet thing who fights the hardest, darkest battles behind closed doors. And her Mommy and Daddy might be afraid and overwhelmed. One smile and nod can remind us that we are not in the trenches by ourselves. Assign positive intent. It makes all the difference.

First Day of School!!

 

 

 

 

 

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Our babies are growing up so fast!! Today Layla started 1st grade & Bryson started Kindergarten. I am counting down the hours til I get to pick them up and find out how their day went! Tomorrow Bryson will have to miss school because he’s having a little procedure in hopes of finding out what’s been going on with his tummy lately. I’m so grateful it worked out that he didn’t have to miss his first day though! I’d like to write a post soon about the crazy whirlwind of a month we’ve had and how lovingly God has poured peace into our tired souls in the middle of the most difficult circumstances. But for now, let’s all cry about how big my kids are!! Hehe! 

 

Until the next blog…be blessed!