Scenes From a Coffee Shop

On February 8, 2012, in Commentary, by Chris

Not long ago, I decided to take a Monday away from the office and work remotely at my favorite coffee shop in town. Time away like that is surprisingly productive – especially with the crush of distractions and interruptions that can come at the office.

As I was burning through the mountains of correspondence, a quiet exchange caught my eye. A little girl and her dad had come in and sat snuggling together in one of the comfy chairs nearby. She with her orange juice and he with his coffee, they beamed at each other and shared a muffin with a love and affection that can only be found between a father and child.

I smiled to myself as I watched, looking forward to the days I would bring my daughter Julia to this coffee shop and do much the same thing.

Not much later, a woman came in – obviously the little girl’s mom – and the scene changed. I didn’t hear all of the words of the conversation between dad and mom. But the tone was unmistakable – admittedly civil, but with the clipped exchanged of a couple that was simply trying to get through an unpleasant situation.

And then it hit me. I was witnessing a kid hand-off between divorced spouses.

The conversation ebbed and flowed in the few minutes they were together. He forgot to get a picture of the girl printed that was to be used for a craft later that day. He apologized, she cut him some slack; but as I looked at her careworn brow, it seemed she was silently adding it to the list of broken promises that had been piling up over months and years.

And the little girl, who had been happy and carefree just minutes before, was stone faced. It was a kind of stoic bravery that I see in people far older and with lives far more complicated than a four year old girl has any business having. And that expression remained as she hugged her dad and went with her mom out the door and down the street.

Please understand, dear reader, that I’m not assigning blame to anyone in that embattled little family. I don’t know their story and would never presume to armchair quarterback the situation – or any situation for that matter. I’m not assigning blame – but I have to tell you that I’m seeing that kind of pain more and more.

My chosen career has afforded me a unique vantage point on situations like this. My job is running a portfolio of initiatives at a local church that deals with the equipping and healing of relationships. Part of that is overseeing the premarital program that works with couples before they’re married to give them a few tools that will prepare them for the continuous exercise in self-denial and service that comprises a healthy marriage.

I also oversee the divorce recovery workshops. Twice a year, a team of dedicated volunteers works with scores of adults who have gone through a divorce and help them heal from the pain of it all. We also work with their children, who sustain much of the collateral damage of the broken marriage. And it’s amazing and humbling to see how a little truth applied with liberal amounts of love can redeem a broken situation.

But it’s ironic to me that if I asked those bonehead-in-love couples entering our premarital program to tell me their aspirations for their marriage, exactly zero percent of them would dream of being divorced within a few years.

It’s never the plan, but it’s sadly the case sometimes. And as I watched that little girl walk away with her mom, I asked myself and my Creator what could be done.

Then I looked down at my work and the answer came to me (from God or from my computer, I’m not sure which):

You’re already doing it.

I am part of a small band of co-conspirators who have spent a year developing a consensus and a plan for a marriage mentoring initiative. I had taken time away from the office that day to put together content for our first vision and training gathering. We’re still in the developing stages at the moment; but we’ve realized that as great as a workshop or a retreat weekend or a counseling session can be, the thing a couple often needs most are friendships that can regularly encourage them to continuously do the simple things that feed a healthy marriage…

Talk to each other
~
Fight fair
~
Laugh a lot
~
Let go of everything you think you’re owed
~
Pour everything you have in service to your spouse
~
Trust God and the identity He’s given you – and here’s how

Forty six couples showed up at our first gathering last Friday night; and the anticipation in the room was truly breathtaking.

Like I said, we’re starting small and developing as we go; but it’s my prayer that this growing conspiracy is going to be able to push back just a little bit against the fearsome cultural forces that are tearing marriages apart or making people give up on marriage altogether.

And maybe someday we’ll see fewer little girls walking away from one parent in the hand of another.

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Heart Day’s Eve

On January 16, 2012, in Commentary, Julia's Journey, Life, by Chris

I rocked my little girl to sleep tonight.

I know that’s not such a news flash. In fact, it’s pretty routine around our house. Even though all the experts say you shouldn’t let your baby fall asleep in your arms, but lay them down while they’re still awake so they can self soothe and all of that, I indulged myself a little bit, just for tonight.

I also cried like a little girl when I read Julia one of her bedtime stories tonight.

Okay, that’s a little less routine. Jocelyn was out at her book study and Julia and I had a great night playing stack up cups and tossing her rattles around and knocking down blocks and doing our silly little dances together. Then she gave me that “I’ve had enough” look and we settled into a few books before I took her upstairs. And I have to admit that something caught in my throat when I read those words to her:

For never before in story or rhyme
(not even once upon a time)
has the world ever known a you, my friend,
and it never will, not ever again…

Heaven blew every trumpet
and played every horn
on the wonderful, marvelous
night you were born.*

*Taken from a great children’s book called On the Night You Were Born by Nancy Tillman. Find out more here.

I have read those lines I don’t know how many times before, but tonight I couldn’t even get through the second stanza before I sat there, thunderstruck and weeping at the realization of what a gift this little girl was in my life. As I tried to compose myself and read through the blur of tears, Julia looked up at me with her wide, innocent eyes, knowing that this was not the usual program.

Okay, I’ll let you in on the mystery behind all the waterworks. Today marks the eve of a very important anniversary in the life of the Cook family and Julia especially. It was a year ago tomorrow that we handed her over to the Cardiovascular Team at Children’s Hospital for an eight hour procedure that made her life a year later even possible.

And it all seems so long ago now…

I took some time this weekend to look back at some of my posts from those seemingly endless days just to jog my memory of what we were facing. The pictures from the surgery day still make me gasp.

But the interesting thing is that we really don’t think about the scary stuff any more. The only reminders we really have is the fading scar on Julia’s chest and a very infrequent consult with her cardiologist.

A year ago, we were gutting it up for eight hours of surgery. Nowadays, we are gutting it up for the war of wills when nap time comes around.

A year ago, we were dosing out four different medicines at several specific times each day. Now we’re doing high fives if we can get a sometimes picky eater to down all of her peas.

It all feels so… normal.

Yes, there’s the morning ritual of her thyroid medicine and the regular (and frequent) adjustment of expectations that come with the territory when you have a kid with Down Syndrome.

But with God’s grace, the prayers of so many and the hand of a skillful surgeon who had the humility to know where his skill came from, our baby’s heart is just fine.

Thanks for celebrating January 17th – Julia’s Heart Day – with us!

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Christmas Greetings from the Farm

On December 24, 2011, in Life, by Chris

It’s Christmas Eve at the farm on Willow Road. Another crystal clear and cold night and we are all nestled around the fire after a day of visits with family and friends, two great meals (masterfully prepared by Jocelyn) and an evening service at St. Paul Church. My dad is starting to nod his head in fatigue as he finishes out his night’s reading, and I’m occasionally looking up with some amusement as Jocelyn discovers the joy and frustration of assembling an educational toy for our daughter. The education, apparently, is mostly for the parent and comes from just getting the product out of its packaging.

It’s been a great retreat so far from the pace and noise of the city. I’m always struck by the comparative silence that greets us when we arrive. The days here are quieter – especially in winter when most of the farm implements have been stowed for the season. But the nights are exquisitely so, the silence broken only by the occasional bay of a barking dog off in the distance. I’ll always try to talk Jocelyn into cracking open a bedroom window on the off chance that we hear the chilling cries of the coyotes that have made their way back into the township over the past few years.

I’ve come into this writing with two thoughts in my head. The first is how important it is to remember. I will forever look back on this Christmas as the holiday when I remembered how to breathe. A year ago, right around this time, we were weeks away from Julia’s open-heart surgery. If you’ve followed the story for that long, I had a countdown clock set for the minute we were to report to the surgical staff at Children’s Hospital. We were recording Julia’s food intake down to the milliliter and guarding against any possible infection for fear of its potentially devastating effect on her health. It was a major undertaking (and not a small risk) to even come out to the farm for a few days.

Now, as the ache in my back eases after standing at the back of the church holding a wiggly toddler for an hour, I am struck by how… normal… it all feels – and how long, long ago that whole ordeal seems. I get far more agitated at the fact that Julia is misbehaving in church than I can ever remember during her recovery from surgery. I guess that’s the mercy and the curse. It would be so easy to simply forget what we had gone through and the sustenance we received from God through so many. So tonight, I am going to remember – and say, “Thank you.”

I’ve also been reminded in the last week or so by how something beautiful and lasting and redeeming can come in such small packages and under the most adverse conditions. I am still amazed at God’s willingness to take us through a tomb of horrors in order to give us the “street cred” we need to speak into the lives of others and bring a level of encouragement that we couldn’t have before. Even more amazing is the posture we have when we are doing it well – not overbearing, but offered with the quiet humility of one whose self-image doesn’t rise or fall on the person taking the advice.

Jocelyn and I have had so many opportunities over the last year to encourage other families going through what we did. And it’s been awe inspiring to see their countenance change over the months from one of fear and uncertainty to the quiet knowing of a parent who has gone to the wall for their kid.

I’ve been reading the entire Bible over the last year with some friends and recently came upon a verse in an often-overlooked book of Hebrew scripture:

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” ~ Micah 5:2

Some seven centuries before its realization, a promise was made that a backwater town (in the shadow of the capital of the religious establishment) was going to be the cradle of a new movement. It would start with a child born under circumstances that some would deem rustic and even scandalous, but its message of a love that was (and is) as overpowering as it is humble would silently weave its way through the ages.

Political and religious powers would try to appropriate its message for selfish gain, and would seem to succeed for a time. To their eventual frustration, though, Love has a life of its own and quietly demands to be met on its own terms: gratitude, selflessness, and service. The swords that people would take up to defend it are useless. The organizations raised to promote it will eventually crumble to dust. But Love will remain, beginning again in a willing heart that simply chooses it. And out of the smallest of packages, beauty continuously unfolds.

It is that Love we celebrate tonight. It is that Love that will not let me forget – even when the crush of life’s demands push in even harder. My prayer for you is that you bind yourself ever closer to the God of that love and let Him push back on the expectations laid before you; and for this time find the rest and comfort that Love so generously provides.

I give God thanks for all that you do, and wish you all the best for Christmas.

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Goodbye, Bill

On December 18, 2011, in Life, by Chris

I didn’t want to go too long before I paused to remember the passing of one of the last of the old farmers. Ever since our family made its home on sixty acres in Saline Township, Bill’s family was a part of the fabric of the community. His great grandfather settled there around 1870 and the family has been there ever since.

Bill ran the farm on his own after his parents died, eschewing the large scale, specialized farming methods and continuing to keep a few pigs, a few sheep, an orchard known throughout the county and a marvelous herd of Holstein dairy cows all descended from the single cow that his grandfather acquired in 1922. Apparently, her name was “Corny”. Seriously.

But that’s not what I really remember of Bill. He was truly a man born of a different and gentler age – and one of the finest 4H leaders I’ve ever known. Other than my father, he is the one man most responsible for getting me through nine years of show cattle projects that ultimately paid for three years of college. As one of the elder statesmen of Washtenaw County agriculture, He also took a ragtag team of teenage boys to the state livestock judging finals. We didn’t get into the top five, but it was his tough but fair coaching that got us there in the first place.

He was one of easy nature and temperament – I only remember him losing his temper once, (for which he immediately apologized). His patience for kids, as I look back, was truly saintly. Although he remained a bachelor his entire life and had no children of his own, Bill has adopted kids all over the world through his tireless efforts introducing so many to the unexpected beauty of agriculture.

It took no patience on my part to hear his stories – from his time with a German family while he was in the Army to the inner workings of relationships from generations back to controlling fire blight on the young apple seedlings. Bill was the consummate yarn spinner who would regale me with tales as we drove the back roads of Washtenaw County on our way to the next judging practice.

But mostly I remember him as one of the hardest working men in that same county. For as long as I can remember, he worked that farm – alone – with the care of his whole heart. He never took a vacation (dairy farms are a tough mistress that way), but in the forty years I knew him, I never heard one complaint. And the barnyard was neater than many fully staffed farms twice the size.

He chose a quiet life of communion with the land, teaching others the ageless value of responsibility, reliability and simply keeping promises. His death was sudden and, at the age of 71, far too soon.

And I’m going to miss him.

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Autumn in the Midwest and Elsewhere

On November 18, 2011, in Julia's Journey, Life, by Chris

Hey – been quite a while. For those of you who have been following our story, I want to apologize. After a year of pounding out these posts in reasonably quick succession, I’ve found myself in kind of a winter of my motivation. I came back from India and honestly wanted to spend some time with my family that was as undistracted as possible. Anyone who knows me knows that’s quite a trick, considering how many things I like diving into.

Blogs – especially if they’re done well – take a lot of discipline to maintain and create an itch similar to when the lawn goes un-mowed for a couple of weeks. You look out the window and there it is, and there’s a tipping point of motivation that comes into play: “Should I get out the lawn mower and get it done or does the couch and the remote look more enticing?” I could wind this metaphor out even further and talk about the neighbors complaining, but you get the idea. (And thanks to my brother-in-law Jonathan for the image!)

So now I’m hanging out at Costco getting some new tires for the Camry, and I thought I’d get you up to speed on the goings on over the last month.

Being away from the family in India for ten days wasn’t as gut-wrenching as I thought it was going to be. There were certainly pangs of it when I sat and thought for too long, but the pace of activity and the crush of the in-country experience thankfully kept my mind off of it. Most of my time was spent behind a camera telling the story of CEM. I came home with 2400+ images and my perspective realigned for a while. I’ll have more about that later.

Not long after my return, we took advantage of a trade show that Jocelyn was attending to visit her brother and his family in Fort Worth. It had been almost a year since we had seen Jonathan and Deirdre last Thanksgiving and their son Oliver has grown up! Julia was really excited to meet him and he showed amazing patience with her even though he is not even a year her senior.

We also had time for breakfast with the Gilmartins, our dear friends transplanted from Detroit. And in Grapevine, Texas, we visited the Torian Cottage, a log cabin bought by one of Jocelyn’s ancestors back in the mid-nineteenth century and occupied by the family until just after the Second World War.

Oh, yeah – and we celebrated Halloween in Texas as well! Miss Julia was styling in her University of Michigan cheerleader outfit at her cousin’s costume birthday party (okay all you Ohio peeps – no hatin’! We are equal opportunity – send us some OSU stuff and we’ll put it on her). She then tore up the trick or treat circuit on the mean streets of Fort Worth in a pink skeleton outfit courtesy of Old Navy – accessories and hair by Mommy.

The family visits didn’t end after we got back. The following weekend, we visited with my sister, Lisa, who was spending some time out at the farm. While we were there, we did a quick photo shoot of Julia for our Christmas card. No previews until after we send them out!

We also met some new friends last week. Babycenter.com was a real godsend to Jocelyn as she was processing and preparing for Julia’s birth and all through the challenges of the months before the surgery. As much as she gained from the deep base of knowledge on the site (there are forums literally for every issued out there from Down Syndrome to the best ideas on effective potty training), Jocelyn is starting to give back with the experience she has gained. Jennifer is a local found us through Jocelyn’s avid activity on Babycenter and read the blog to hear more about our story. She and her husband, Dave, are the parents of twins – one of which has Down Syndrome.

It wasn’t too long before we set a date for the zoo. Truth be told, our hearts have knitted together in a surprisingly short time and I think we may have some lifelong friends!

You’ll be hearing more stories very soon, but we’re going on the road again tomorrow. We’re going out to the farm, transferring all of our baby crap into my Dad’s big “grandpa cruiser” and shooting down to Washington D.C. to spend a long holiday weekend with my sister and her family.

Good to be back!

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