A model in ‘finishing well’

My dear friends marked their daughter’s 44th birthday on Saturday, the way they’ve faced it for nearly 20 years — with sweet memories, thoughts of what might have been, a desire to share special moments with her and a deep slice of grief permanently attached to their hearts.

I met this inspiring couple about a year after their daughter’s car accident and formed an instant bond that has only grown stronger through the years.

In February of this year I met a new friend — Janice Pitchford, of Abbeville — who was marking her daughter’s 44th birthday that month in a similar manner.

It was the 30th time for Janice but I found it interesting that the two daughters’ birth years were the same — only two years after my own. And the more I learn about both young women, the more I feel certain the three of us would have found many common bonds if we had had the chance to know each other.

Janice shared about her daughter Dawn’s battle with cancer in 1987 and how she entered her “eternal rest” seven months after her 14th birthday. Journaling the details of that devastating time (January through October 1987) became a therapeutic exercise for Janice, and now she hopes the rawness of those captured moments helps others who are fighting similar battles.

In 2015 Janice pulled her journal entries together, added a section about how their family survived losing Dawn and published a book — “Finishing Well: My Daughter’s Journey Home.”

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Dawn’s sweet spirit, compassionate heart and fierce determination come alive through the pages of Janice’s storytelling. Dawn definitely had an extra dose of grace, perspective and maturity, similar to what I observed in my niece Belle, who fought a five-and-a-half-year battle with cancer starting at age 2.

So much of Dawn’s story reminded me of Belle’s journey and how it impacted her parents and siblings. I connected quickly to Dawn’s Aunt Sherry and saw the familiar faces of an entire community of extended family, friends, church family, doctors, nurses, teachers and so many more as Janice walks us through each step.

The details related to the medical procedures and pain Dawn endured help fully tell the story. The transparency Janice offers in the struggles she faced as mother and primary caregiver keep the story real and relatable.

Janice’s writing style is clean and easy to read but you will need tissue within reach. She also does a good job with the pace. While the book can be read relatively quickly, it took me several months to finish because of the emotional connection to the topic. Janice’s ability to bring the reader into the hospital room alongside the medical staff is definitely what you want in an author — and the reason I could only read for a while before having to step away from it. The experiences Dawn and Janice faced are extremely real for the reader.

Each chapter left me inspired and hopeful despite the sadness of knowing the end of the story.

“As a family we have faced some difficult and painful days,” Janice writes in the epilogue, “but I have to say that through it all we have become stronger and we have grown in ways that I could have never imagined.

“I find that as a Christian, I now see death not as a defeat but a victory,” she continues. “We were dealt a devastating blow by Dawn’s death but our choice was to cherish the memories and reach out to help others through that suffering. In Isaiah 58:10 it says, ‘If you extend your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall dawn in the darkness and your darkness shall be as the noonday.’ I believe without a doubt that the way through our personal darkness is found by reaching out to others.”

—Jennifer Davis Rash

Life lessons from ‘The Sender’

A review of The Sender: A story about when right words make all the differenceimg_20170311_092500.jpg

Admittedly a fan of leadership books in general, I was certain to like Kevin Elko and Bill Beausay’s The Sender. But what I didn’t anticipate was the wave of emotions I would experience while bonding with the characters in the story.

My friends Diane Covin and Larry Byrd of The Sterling Group shared the book with me, noting they thought I would enjoy it — and they were right. There are a few editing slips that distracted me for a second but nothing that confuses the content in any way.

Not only does the book have valuable leadership and personal motivational tips based on Scripture but it also presents practical and strategic concepts in clear, everyday, manageable steps — not necessarily easy but simple. It all comes down to our choices each day, the authors explain.

And despite the adversities that come with life, we can still choose to fight rather than be defeated and flourish on the other side.

University of Alabama Head Football Coach Nick Saban said in his recommendation of the book that “Dr. Kevin Elko has certainly contributed to our success in providing a new twist on focus, attention to detail, team work and grit.”

Elko’s background and work with numerous college and professional football coaches and teams leaves no surprise that the main character in The Sender is a football coach.

Maybe my love for football, especially SEC football, made the book even more endearing or maybe it was because of the engaging storytelling ability of co-author Beausay. Then again it could be because the story was set in Alabama, specifically the Birmingham area.

And while all of those reasons certainly made the book appealing, I’m pretty sure my strongest attachment to the story resulted from 10-year-old Max’s amazing attitude and influence on people despite his heart-wrenching battle with cancer. My precious niece Belle would have turned 10 this coming May. Max’s resolve, joy, peace and overall character remind me of Belle. He is a rock star at the fictional pediatric cancer center much like Belle was in real life.

The section on fighting weary also made me think of Belle and how she mastered the ability to live life to its fullest every second when we all knew she had to be truly depleted. She could always dig deep and pull from this amazing reserve of something — something all of us around her clung to with everything we had.

When the motivational letter writer in The Sender addresses the concept of fighting weary, he says: “It’s easy to fight when we are fresh. But how you have success in parenting, success in business, success with our health, overcoming the condition of cancer, is we learn how to fight weary … and survive the assault. Here comes your opponent’s assault but it was just an assault. It wasn’t a victory. Your energy stayed even. … Every relationship has an assault to it. … When you start to feel tired and when you start to feel frustrated, it is a sign you are getting close.”

—Jennifer Davis Rash

The difference a toy can make

I know you will want one as soon as you hear about it, but there is onlyIMG_20150228_093800 one that exists and it was sweet Belle’s doll. We aren’t sure where she got it but one day as she played with her Auburn-haired cuddly doll, she said, “Hey, she looks like Aunt Jen Jen.” And from there the doll’s name became “the Aunt Jen Jen doll” — not because of how cuddly she is but because of her wild Auburn hair.

Belle liked to help me attempt to tame my sometimes uncontrollable locks or “crazy hair,” as Belle described it.

The Aunt Jen Jen doll now resides among the treasured possessions in my collection of Belle memorabilia and reminds me of how much Belle, like all children, had favorite items such as blankets, dolls and other toys.

Receiving a new toy at the hospital while receiving chemo or radiation also became a consistent part of Belle’s life. Those toys provided a moment of excitement and served as a positive distraction while the not-so-fun other activities were taking place.

Belle’s mommy, Kelley, is collecting toys this month to give to the children at Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte, N.C., where Belle had many of her treatments. Please consider donating a toy (must be new because of the variety of health issues) for Levine or your area children’s hospital.

Email me at jrash@thealabamabaptist.org or message me on Facebook or Twitter (@RashionalThts) to find out the details.

—Jennifer Davis Rash (aka Aunt Jen Jen)

Definitely the right decision

What do you see when you look back? What do the anniversary milestones indicate?

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Do you ever look back at past decisions and shiver when you realize what you would have missed out on if you had not made the choice you did?

Many times we think about our regrets and missteps, but what about the countless decisions we made each day that brought us to this very moment, decisions that were exactly right?

Jason and I celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary this past Sunday (July 12), and while I could easily focus on him as why that was a right decision, there is another anniversary this week that makes me know without question I was supposed to be part of the Rash family.

Six months ago today Jason’s twin sister, Kelley, and her husband, David, released their bDSC_0391aaby girl into the arms of Jesus. Saturday, Jan. 17, was barely a reality when she left us. We had all said our goodbyes in the last hours of Friday, Jan. 16, as the minutes ticked toward the inevitable.

Belle left this life like she lived it — fearless, peaceful and full of joy. Even though physical limitations gradually overtook her ability to show her fun-loving side to its fullest, we knew she was still as sassy as ever when, despite no longer being able to walk, she demanded to go swimming that week.

She also continued her sweet attention to others by zeroing in on specific past moments with each person who dropped by to say their goodbyes. So many stood in amazement holding back the flood of tears that fought to be released as she left them with the kind of memory only Belle could give.

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As we watched her slip away over the course of that last week, we took turns sitting with her around the clock. She and I did makeup that Wednesday and talked about my doggie Rudy several times throughout the week. She and Uncle Jay played thumb wars and picked on each other like they always did. Her siblings held her iPad so she could watch her favorite shows on Netflix. She even pushed them away and scolded them when they started aggravating her — just like normal. She held on tight to her daddy as he moved her from bed to sofa and back to bed, and among her final spoken words were, “I love you, Mommy.”

Those final moments are still so real, so raw. Six months seems like an eternity some days and six seconds on other days, but most often I simply want to believe it really didn’t happen.

And while the intensity of the ache of missing Belle will permanently be etched in our beings, I remain forever thankful and blessed that God saw fit to allow me to be part of the Belle experience — and that because of His saving grace I will be with her again. She is merely a little ahead of us on the journey Home.

Born May 24, 2007, Belle’s cancer battle began in September 2009. She fought haIMG_0338ard and beat all the odds for five and a half years. What a privilege for me to serve among the ranks of Team Belle, to be Belle’s Aunt Jen Jen and god mother, to give her all of my heart and watch her transform it beyond what I could ever imagine.

If Jason had not picked me, if I had not married him and if Kelley and David had not trusted and loved me so much, I would have missed out on the very reason I was created. God used Belle to touch so many lives, chief among them mine.

What happens next? How do we push through the grief? Who are we now?

Today, at the six-month mark, I can’t yet answer those questions. But I do know the future — a future anointed by God and enhanced by Belle — is bright, bold, joyous, compassionate, full of surprises, wrapped in excitement and, of course, streaked in hot pink.

—Forever Aunt Jen Jen

January 17, 2015

Streaks of hot pink (Belle’s favorite color) engulfed the sky around Rock Hill, S.C., on Jan. 17, 2015 — the day Belle left this earth.

Happy Birthday, sweet Belle

Belle’s Ball

May 24, 2015 — Belle would have turned 8 today.

By Catherine Williams (friend of Belle’s Aunt Jen Jen)

Belle my sweet girl we still miss you soBelle dress up Aug 2014
You are with Your heavenly Father, this we all know
Your smile brightened our day, bravery inspired us too
We were always amazed by the things you could do
You loved the Disney Princesses, for a princess you are
God loaned you to us, but He is never very far
Belle on your birthday we miss your sweet smile
For you have been the Belle of the ball for quite a while
We miss you sweet Belle, this fact is true
And although you are in heaven we still miss you!
One day in the future we too will dance at Belle’s Ball
But for now may our love be a beacon of hope for all!

—————–

We shared a sIMG_20150524_222514pecial weekend together as a family celebrating Belle’s birthday (for the first time without her here). Along with lots of sweet memories and laughing at so many fun Belle stories, we did a few things in her honor such as wearing (temporary) tattoos of characters in Disney’s Frozen. She would have gotten so tickled to see her Daddy with an Elsa tattoo on his hand. Of course, she would have picked out each of ours for us as well as where they would have been placed if she had been with us.

To learn more about Belle’s story or to read Belle’s birthday post by her Mommy visit  www.caringbridge.org/visit/bellemitchell.

—Jennifer Davis Rash (aka Aunt Jen Jen)

He’s only 9, but he’s stepping up

Jack is a good-looking kid with a lovable smile who lives life in full-throttle and has a thirst for activity, adventure and amusement. He also can be a bit loud, but the volume merely represents the excitement he is experiencing in the moment.4x3 Jack quote RGB

Jack was a good big brother to Belle. With only two years’ difference in their ages, they were buddies, roomies and confidants. He protected her as a big brother should and he challenged her as any sibling would.

Belle’s fight against cancer ended Jan. 17. Jack and his sisters Taylor and Emily stood by her side through it all and were so strong as they said goodbye. They, along with their mommy and daddy, miss her beyond anything words can describe. So many of us do, but theirs is a pain only they can understand and a hurt so deep that climbing out of it seems impossible at the moment.

Brotherly instincts

And while Jack is the younger brother to Taylor and Emily, I can already see those brotherly instincts to protect his older sisters kicking in. I have a younger brother myself and he has those same instincts. The age order doesn’t always matter when it comes to brothers looking out for their sisters.

Jack was already prepped to make this move because he had turned a corner last summer. I’m not sure what clicked when he turned 9, but he was different. His mannerisms changed and he developed a protective and courteous spirit toward lots of us that we had not seen before then.

New maturity

And that new maturity continued to grow and develop through the fall and into winter, right in line with the decline of Belle’s health.

As I watch Jack help shoulder grief and pain that comes with the loss of a child in a family, I also see him embrace his mom and dad’s decision to “praise the name of the Lord” in all circumstances (Job 1:21).

Even at his young age, he gets it. He lives with hope and peace and knows that “God works all things together for good for those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).

I can’t wait to see the young man he becomes. His life is richer because Belle was his sister and I know he won’t waste an ounce of the part of his heart that belongs to her.

—Jennifer Davis Rash

Allowing others to hold the rope provides blessing both ways

7-year-old Belle Mitchell

7-year-old Belle Mitchell

“Belle will be featured in my prayers this day — for her, for each one who has a part in caring for her and Aunt Jen Jen, may the Lord wrap you in His loving comfort and enduring courage.”

Prayers like this have been coming my way continually through email, handwritten notes, Facebook messages and texts. Friends from around the world are following the cancer journey of my 7-year-old niece Belle (www.caringbridge.org/visit/bellemitchell). They have been such a great support to all of us, especially during the intense moments like now. As I write this column, Belle is having a difficult recovery from her fourth brain surgery.

Each day brings new challenges but also new levels of support.

Many who are praying have never even met Belle, yet they tirelessly secure the rope for us to hold on to during this time.

Along with prayer support, many are doing practical things like helping with Belle’s other siblings, mowing the family’s grass, bringing meals and even sending meals from hundreds of miles away (ordering pizza and having it delivered … a great idea I’m going to remember to use myself).

Showing grace

And so many are helping me personally by taking on extra work assignments, assisting me with my personal responsibilities and showing lots of grace for the commitments I’ve put on hold at the moment.

Some friends are too far away to help clean the house or do laundry, but they sincerely want to help.

“I’m not just saying it. I mean it. Tell me something I can do,” one friend said. Another, “I mean it. We are here to serve.”

And while I know what it is like to be on the other side sincerely wanting to help, it is still hard for us as a family to allow people to do too much. We are always appreciative and even shocked at the care shown by so many, but we start feeling as if we have used up our compassion quota and worry those around us are experiencing compassion fatigue.

Still we are learning to accept the offers more widely and depend on others during the tough moments.

The small things

It is amazing how much someone showing up at the front door with a bag of paper products or a gallon of milk can make a difference. Then there’s the Thinking of You card that shows up with a few $1 bills in it to help with vending machine and parking deck fees at the hospital. (For more ideas on how to help a family in crisis, see Arkansas Christian Parent magazine Fall/Winter 2013, pages 10 and 11.)

Observing the various options for assisting a family in crisis and plugging into those areas seamlessly and quietly seem to make the greatest impact, I’ve noticed.

Even inexpensive gestures that save the family time or make a routine responsibility more convenient means so much.

Above all though, consistent prayer support undergirds the family. It helps even more when specific prayer needs are known. The best way to keep up with these needs is to follow the patient’s preferred communication plan (CaringBridge, Caring Pages, Facebook, a blog, a family spokesperson, etc.). Another ministry to a family in crisis is to protect the immediate family members’ time and energy and work through extended family, close friends or church connections to stay updated and know how to help.

We have a hard time letting others serve us. We are used to being the ones serving, but what a tremendous blessing it is — in both directions — to allow people to minister to us. It is truly a picture of God’s people at their best.

— Jennifer Davis Rash