Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Christmas Card Outtakes

This past weekend was a beautiful autumn one in Belgium. I am trying to get a little jump on Christmas cards this year, since they will have to be shipped here from the US, and then most of them will turn around and go back to the US. So I grabbed a blanket, Jay, a camera, and headed outside to spring a surprise photo shoot on the kids. Trust me...not what an 8 and 10 year old are most looking forward to when they are already playing outside with their friends!

I have noticed as I looked through the last years worth of pictures that I have fewer and fewer of the kids together. It used to be so easy to get them to pose lovey dovey together. Now...not so much. So, I needed to take some new photos of them to come up with a nice Christmas card.

I had a couple things I wanted to try for the photo shoot. On occasions like this, Jay knows he is the photographer and I am the stylist/visionary/OCD mother. Jay also knows to just "go with it" at this point.

We started with a blanket on the grass. Great idea for this overhead shot with the kids head to head. Failure #1. The sun was still too bright for this idea, and I ended up with a lot of this:
Umm, yeah, not so much.

So then we moved on to back to back. Cute but not what I wanted.

I had wanted to get a few individual shots of the kids too. Jackson- no problem. He wanted to get back to playing ASAP, so he acted like a professional model: come to "set", give me the shot I need, and head out. Jensen, however, believed that giving me variety was they key to a great shot.

So, lastly it was time for the grand inspiration. I had seen a card template with the caption "Silent Night, Holy Night." We took MANY shots trying to make the "shhh" face. They were trying so hard to make the "right" shhh face, but the funny mouth poses led to a couple serious shots, and then many of the two of them cracking up. The shot might not have worked overall, but certainly the best part of the afternoon was seeing those little faces I love light up with those huge giggles.
After all this, we did get some really great shots for the card. I ordered them this morning, and hope to be able to get the out a little early this year.

Please tell me I am not the only one that has to take TONS of shots to get the right ones. I love them all though, and felt they were worthy of a debut on the blog.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Celebrating My Dad Today...

My dad passed away two years ago today. To honor his memory and legacy, I am sharing a post I wrote not long after his death. I read it now and seems raw, but usually my best expression of thought comes when I am still in the throws of emotion. I miss him very much, and I celebrate him in my heart every day. OK, here goes:

A little about me- I am a 36 year old woman, wife, daughter, and mother of two. I am a blessed Mama of an 8 year old boy and a 6 year old girl. My husband is my best friend and hero. He is a US Marine, currently deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. I am an only child, and my parents divorced when I was 5. One of the greatest gifts my mom and dad gave me was their civility, and even friendliness, with each other throughout my growing up and into my adulthood. In many ways I had a super cool parental situation because I was too young when they split to ever really remember them married. So to me, they were always these two separate- and vastly dissimilar- people in my life. Two years ago, in October 2007, my dad called me and told me he had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer- metastatic squamous cell carcinoma. Diagnosed at Stage 4. Boom. No warm-up. What followed this was 24 of the toughest, most stressful, difficult, trying, maddening, frustrating, saddening, confusing....and beautiful...months of my life.

My dad and I had always been close. We had a special connection, born from our love of list-making, deep discussions, entrepreneurial ideas, good books, trashy reality TV, and many other topics. He had served proudly in the US Army as an officer during Vietnam in the Special Forces division. Upon returning from Vietnam, he became a helicopter pilot. Since I have been "grown up" and married, we have talked more than ever, usually several times a day. I knew that not sharing those phone calls would be one of the things I would miss most when he was gone.

Another key personality trait of my dad was eternal optimism- some (I) might say to the point of denial. I believe his optimism was both truly who he was at his core, and a protective mechanism- choosing to focus on the positives and possibilities instead of the gloomy forecasts from his doctors. His optimism became stubbornness and denial. It became very difficult to have conversations with him about the inevitability of his passing. But without that tenacity, he would have been gone so much sooner, so I tried hard not to begrudge him that small bit of control he maintained, as hard as it was for my family and I sometimes.

I have never had anyone close to me die. I have never watched that decline. I have never had to help someone make that transition from finite life to eternal life. Until my dad.

I have always felt God's presence in my life. I certainly haven't always made the wisest decisions, but have always tried to use my mistakes as a correction to my course. I know I am learning every day. But during this time with my dad, I knew all along I was on God's path. As difficult, twisty, and utterly baffling to me as it was, I KNEW I was on God's path for my life. I KNEW there would be a resolution that only HE could have designed. Through all of the muck and the yuck, I knew it would work out....just as it was supposed to be.

I believe that God used me in my Dad's life to help him explore his own spirituality, religious beliefs, and feelings about death. We had many deep conversations, both in person and over the phone, about prayer, the will of God, bodies, blessings, and on and on.

My dad remarried when I was 12, and had two other children- a son and a daughter. His son, my half-brother, grew up to go to West Point, and become a US Army Officer (sound familiar?). Dad always said he was afraid to pray because he did not want to ask God for anything- he wanted to save his request for when my brother would inevitably be sent to a war situation. I tried, and tried, and tried, to explain, in my limited ability, that I certainly did not believe our God had a one-request limit. I tried to explain, in my limited ability, the concept of God's will for our life, and praying for peace, guidance, and direction. I tried to explain, in my limited ability, that our earthly body is temporary, and even if it had been riddled with cancer here on earth, that in Heaven we would run freely and brightly.

You see, all I know is that I don't know much. It is the classic situation of the more you learn, the more you find out you never knew. But I knew, I could just feel it, that part of God's plan for my life was to be used in this way to help my dad, thereby strengthening my own beliefs, ideas, and faith.

We were so close. So, so, so close. And then he nosedived. He disintegrated. I lived across the country from him, and was doing my best to coordinate his care from long-distance. Those last phone calls were so hard. He came in and out of clarity, and it was so gut-wrenching to use what I was sure was some our last minutes to try to bark at him about getting to the hospital, and trying to understand the confusing things he was trying to tell me.

Oh, OK, I get it God....this is why you gave me the GIFT of all those months of phone calls and heart-to-heart (soul-to-soul) conversations. We had said it all. As much as, in my humanly way, I wanted MORE time, and MORE talks, I had a PEACE that I had already received my gift. I knew all of my dad's wishes. I knew all of his dreams. I knew all of his struggles. I knew all of his resolutions. I knew how much he loved my children. And, I KNEW how much he loved me, and I KNEW how proud he was of me...because he TOLD ME over and over. Even when he was at his worst, in hospice care and unable to speak, he looked at me, responded to me, even used all of his energy to smile at me. I got to say everything I ever wanted. My kids made special memories with him as well, holding his hand and squeezing his toes. How blessed I am. I had a two-year goodbye. What a gift. God was truly present in that room, and my heart. "See Jennifer, for I know the plans I have for you..."

Dad went home to God on October 4 of this year.

After these long two years I am still amazed by the power of God's resolution, which is still unfolding in my life. Over the summer, Jay and I had talked about buying a small vacation home on a lake in South Carolina, near where my mom and step-dad have retired. Jay loves boating, and we have never had a permanent place to own that we would not have to sell in a couple years upon our next military orders. We wanted to own a tiny piece of the world that we could always come "home" to, no matter where in the world we were currently living. In dealing with dad's situation, there were so many "plans" Jay and I made, to the point I was driving myself crazy. I am a planner by nature, and planning gave me the peace to deal with the enormity of the situation. My planning was like my dad's optimism- we each had our coping mechanism. But as plan after plan after plan was modified or outright failed, I paused to say, "What is the lesson from God here? Why can I not come up with a plan that will work?" It seems so obvious now, but God would not let it be obvious to me then. I had to go through all of that to realize I was not supposed to be the planner. I had no control in the "grand plan." When I found the listing on the lake villa we eventually bought, I was literally overcome with this indescribable feeling that THIS was something we were supposed to do. This was the right thing, and I was being given confirmation- finally- on this plan. Oh, OK, I get it, we buy this place- something we can keep for a long time, and while we are living in California, dad can live in it for us, and when we come back to visit I will get to be near both parents.

My dad loved the idea and was happy to help make it a reality. He helped me research online about the property, and wanted typed lists from me as to what of his furniture he should bring. Yes, we both knew he was very sick, but having this new-and-improved plan to work on gave us both direction and purpose.

As Jay prepared our squadron for their impending deployment, and my dad was beginning to decline rapidly, I had another major God-moment. It was if guidance suddenly washed over me: I was supposed to take the kids and go live in the new place in South Carolina with my dad (if possible) while Jay was deployed. This would give me the time I needed to live close enough to help my dad, help him with his house, and advocate on his behalf with the medical care. Then, as I knew the end could not be far off for him, I anticipated the...loveliness...of having my mom and other family close by to help me during my grief. Because of our military lifestyle, I consider myself a bit of a tough chick in some ways. So many of us spouses have had to maintain the home and kids while our better half deploys. The support of other spouses is so key during these separations, as sometimes those are the only people that "get you" and know how you are feeling right at that moment. I hated the thought of leaving them all behind in California, but just KNEW that I needed to be close to family- for once- and be selfish. That is so hard to admit...I always want to to the right thing by everyone else. But this time I had to do what was best for my dad, my kids, and me.

So Jay moved us hurriedly across country. The day after we arrived in SC, we headed to Florida to see my dad, who by this point was getting really bad, was very confused, and was in the hospital. I had to show up, and literally within minutes sit down and sign orders for him to be placed into hospice and sign his DNR. God gave me another major gift that day- my dad was suddenly clear and coherent. He was very present, and of course (if you knew him) dictated a list of all the things he wanted me to take care of ASAP especially involving his impending move in with me to SC. (Eternal optimism...true to character!) I took good notes, and I still have that note in my purse. Late that day he was moved to hospice, and never came home again. I spent as much time with him as I could there in the hospice center, trying to balance my kids and their needs with not wanting to leave him alone for a second. I finally decided to drive home for a night so I could leave the kids at my mom's and come back the next day on my own, but he decided that was his night to go. And I wasn't there. After all of that, I wasn't there. Part of the plan I am sure.

But if dad would have held on even one more day, neither his son or Jay, my husband, would have been able to come. They were both in imminent deployment departure status. I know it was tough for my dad, who never gave in to his disease, to make his peace and finally let go...just so his son could be there, and I could have the steadiness of my rock Jay there.

If you are reading this and you know me personally, and in any way prayed for me or my family upon my dad's passing....THANK YOU. Thank you for being present in my life. Thank you for the strength your prayers gave me. Thank you for helping me get through planning my dad's military honors funeral, writing his headstone, choosing and handing over the clothes in which he would be laid to rest, and reading in his honor at his funeral. Thank you God for the blessing of my husband that showed such strength, class, and quiet guidance in taking the lead in planning the actual funeral ceremony and delivering the eulogy. Jay's words that day about my dad were so well-thought-out, powerful, timely, and beautiful. To see my husband in his full dress-blues stand in front of my father's flag-draped casket....words are lost on me. The power of ceremony in a military funeral...what a force.

Through all of this I have never felt wronged, or punished, or cheated, or bitter, or let down. Through all my pain and grief, there is a beauty and light and peace....that can only- for me- be described as GOD'S PRESENCE.

There are many other meanings and manifestations of God's presence for me, and I will try to explain those later as well. But I am sure this was more than enough for one post! I am nowhere near an "expert Christian" (who is?) and in fact rarely speak publicly about my faith. That should change. Even when I mess up and don't use the right words, say the right things, or describe things in the right way, just know I am trying and I am new to living consciously in God's words.

In summary, I want to have this blog where I can explore being present in my own life- all of my life- and how I can tune into God's plans for my life. I want to develop a non-profit organization to answer what I believe is my calling and gift- to help children of the world- particularly orphans and children needing the basics of survival. How can I best be present for my role as a mother, wife, and woman- a woman that is a child of God, has been blessed by God, saved by God, and hopes to in some small way to do the will of God.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Our trip to the Belgian Hospital

Well, here is a post I never wanted to write, and certainly I hope this is the only time we have this experience!

Last week, I was enrolled in a SHAPE Newcomer's Class. Wednesday, among other things, we learned about how to go to the hospital in Belgium, including the word for emergency in French: URGENCES. Thursday, we took a great bus tour of Mons, which included a drive-by of the two local hospitals. Thursday evening, all of that came in handy as we anxiously drove our son to the URGENCES for a dog bite to the thigh.

He came limping in, bloody leg and a bit hysterical, as I quickly asked the receptionist, "Urgences, s'il-vous plait?" Jackson was scooped up in a wheelchair and we were taken right to the ER. We were seen within 3 minutes (which is a big difference from taking Jackson to the ER last eight hour wait.) They put him on a table in a room that looked as if could also serve as an operating room, which scared Jackson even more. The nurse went to put a mask on his face, which I assumed was oxygen to help him calm down. Jackson was scared, but started to breathe deeply, and soon was talking very funny, and asking me what was happening. He said he could see nothing anymore except me, and then started yelling through the mask asking me if they were giving him anesthesia. "No, just oxygen," I said, until it sunk in that this probably was NOT oxygen. Jackson started to tell me about a dream he was having (while he was talking to me non-stop...he never went out or even closed his eyes), and I realized he was being given Nitrous oxide...laughing gas!

A few seconds later, the doctor pronounced he was done, and up until this point I had not even looked at the wound. I was completely focused on helping Jackson and trying to calm him down. So when the doctor said he was done I ventured a quick look at Jackson's thigh and saw a staple sticking out. Eek. At this point, I about needed some laughing gas. The doctor said that he only put one staple to help hold the wound closed, but that they wanted to leave most of it open to aid in drainage and healing without infection.

A patient liason helped me finish some paperwork, and then we were on our way to the pharmacy to pick up Jackson's meds. Very smooth, and very efficient. The hospital even validated our parking so that was free.

I was very happy with our visit. Obviously, it was helpful to Jackson to have service this quickly and seamlessly, but it was also so helpful to me...the could-have-been-hysterical parent. I also loved that they use the gas. Before the child even really knows what is going on, the wound is all fixed up. In the US, I bet they would have injected lidocaine around the wound, which I know for sure would have caused a SERIOUS freak-out in an already scared little boy.

Jackson also got a tetanus shot at home from one our owners here. It is soooo helpful to have your chateau owned by two MDs! Catherine has also been checking up on the wound, and changed the dressing for us.

Another Belgian funny- Catherine wrote the prescription for the tetanus shot, and I filled it at a local pharmacy. Strange to go in and buy a shot! Well, at least strange that I wasn't in a bar at the time, but that is another story. Ahem.

Here's to a from-now-on-hospital-free stay in Belgium!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Chateau Trivia of the Day: Sept 14, 2011

I learned the other day a fun new bit of Chateau trivia. There is a small island in the moat here. Before the current owners had this place, there was a stretch of time where the home was uninhabited. The island served as a "party spot" for local teenagers, who would canoe to its shore in search of an isolated destination. Once, there, amongst the trees, they would drinking...champagne. We are, after all, a mile or so from the Champagne region of France. To conceal their "activities," they would turn the bottles upside down and shove them into the dirt to make them virtually disappear. So we have an island paved with glass bottle bottoms!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

If I was a country, I'd be Belgium.

So for today's long overdue blog post, I wanted to let you know that if I was a country, I'd be Belgium.


Belgium kind of has a split personality: two languages, two separate parts, two major landscapes (country and city), two sides (coastal and inland). I don't have a "split personality", but like many of us, I have many sides. I like to spend time in different environments and with different activities throughout my days. For example, I don't always want to be in the country. I love living in a fairly rural area, but also love our easy access to civilization (read: shopping). Likewise, I certainly couldn't always be in a congested city... I need space to breathe. I like that there all of these different facets to Belgium, all still trying to work themselves out and learn how to play together, even after such a long history.

Belgium is not on everyone's radar. I like things that are different and "not as popular". I enjoy the "road less traveled" in the sense of beating my own path in the world. Although I live less than 5 minutes from France, Belgium is certainly no France. When you say "France", people think they have it all figured out, but "Belgium" conjures a more enigmatic picture...what does it mean to be Belgian? I like that. If I was a country, I wouldn't want to be the big obvious tourist destination. I would want to be around people that were with me because they had traveled a lot already and thus had a lot of wisdom and experiences to share with me, or people chose me because they were purposefully looking for something different. I like when people can see the beauty in the non-obvious places and ways. Paris is Paris because it lives up to its own hype. But I can feel a little lost in something so well tread. What is there for me to discover on my own that I can't read in a Fodor's book? Don't get me wrong, there are reasons to see those popular locales, and good reasons to love them. Also, I love good travel advice from books and the internet, but I sometimes feel like it is harder for me to have a connection to somewhere so visited (overdone?) by so many people.

Belgium has great food. If I was a country I would have great food too. And beer- I'd have the best beer in the world. That is just cool. I love that the "Belgian food" is very accessible- people get it. Who can't have fun with fries served in a paper cone with a cute little fork? Or a waffle in paper from a street vendor?

That being said, if I was a country I'd love to be known for things Belgium is: those great fries, the best beer in the world, chocolate (oh, the chocolate), waffles (love, love, love),! Not a bad combination!

If I was a country I'd be good at mixing old and new, I'd have more castles for my size than any other country in the world, and I would have good-looking farm animals.

If I was a country, I'd have weather that not everyone always loved. I would want you to be with me because you were willing to stick it out even when I rained too much, or changed too often. Besides I love a country where there is no bad weather, just an opportunity for better clothing choices.

I would have super cool a Sunday morning brocante (flea market), where you want to come just to find your next big treasure, or even just to walk around and be amongst your fellow Belgians.

If I was a country I would be so cool, and be in such a great location that an international organization like NATO would live with me.

Belgium has a little attitude problem, a little bit of "it is not possible", and I would have that too....just because I could.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Time for some pictures!

From the last post, I mentioned the amazing cows of Belgium, and now I have the photos to prove it!

Here is a new Mama. See her fresh incision? The babies are so big here they must be delivered by c-section!

Saw some cows near the Northern coast of Belgium that share their pasture with WWII-era pillboxes for artillery storage.

See, I told you. ;-)

Monday, August 8, 2011

Random Belgium Observations...August 8, 2011

There are so many little things I see here daily that intrigue me. I am fascinated by the qualities that I feel make Belgium...well, Belgium. Sometimes these things are not enough for a whole post in their own right, but they deserve mention nonetheless. So, in what is most likely the first in many, here is a collection of some of my random Belgium observations.

1. Ventured into a store a few days ago that looked like it could be the "Sam's Club" of Belgium, but on a small scale. Lots of industrial looking racks stacked high with "bargains"...although very little is cheap here. Loved that the first section you went through was beer and wine. These people have their priorities clear. The aisle then led me past the butcher (a real person!) with a beautifully presented and diverse group of offerings, including lots of variations of lapin (=rabbit). The aisle then continued to the chocolate and waffle section, aka heaven on earth. Here I grabbed some waffles (I have grown fond of the plain sugar variety) and some chocolate bars. I had good intentions to mail some back to the US, but the family decided to test this first purchase of Belgian chocolate out on themselves. Loved that every aisle had unmanned sample stations, including wine! Most of the milk in Belgium is "shelf milk" which is stable at room temperature. It is strange for me to see the milk in a central aisle of the store. In this store I found the milk, right under the feminine protection section. Really? I will be venturing back to this fun store.

2. The cows are everywhere. So are the sheep. A suburban-type street can have a small field of sheep right in between two houses. Whole different zoning system.

3. Fields are mostly corn and wheat, at least from what I can identify and what is us close to where we are staying. This last week or so has been wheat harvest. My oh my, has it been smelly around here!

4. I love living in the land of French. It is a fun challenge.

5. I have to remember to convert the Euros to dollars in my head. They are close enough that when I see a price it is easy to think dollars without even realizing it. "Oh look, this jacket is 60 Euro. Hang on a sec, that is 85 Dollars!"

6. The bread really is THAT GOOD.

7. We headed up to the beach a couple weekends ago. On our way, we happened upon a McDonalds. There are not many here. It was about lunch time, so we decided to stop rather than look for something else. First funny: the Quarter Ponder with Cheese really is called a Royal with Cheese (funny if you have seen Pulp Fiction). Second "funny": Jay tried to get a refill on our drink so we could take it in the car. When he came back to me, he said, "Here. We better drink every drop. That refill just cost 2.23 Euro (3.16 Dollars)!" Third "funny": Our bill was equivalent to 28 Dollars, for four of us, and only two of us ordered drinks. Ouch. I was a little happy though, because this will encourage us to always try to find a better alternative than McDonalds!
So we finally start our move-in to the chateau apartment in two days. I will be so glad to get out of a hotel, but we still won't have our own bed for another 1-2 weeks. It will be nice to be able to stay in our place before the bulk of our things arrive, however, so as to get a better feel for how to arrange our furniture, etc. Took our dog for a visit a couple days ago to begin to acclimate him to the "smells of the chateau!"

Au revoir for now! Jennifer