Friday, December 21, 2012

Unexpected grief

Last Friday, December 14th was pay day. I had bills to pay and errands to run and Calvin needed to go to preschool at 8:30 for an extra activity. I also had stake training for the new Sunday School curriculum the night before and it wasn't until I was leaving that morning that I couldn't find my purse. Then it dawned on me. It was still in Jared's van. At his office. Minor inconvenience, but inconvenient nonetheless.

Now I wouldn't be able to run my errands because it's a little difficult to do without any money. So I got my purse instead and gas for the burb before picking up Calvin again within the hour.

When we got home, I checked my online banking and discovered my first bi-weekly payment for our mortgage had not been debited. This meant something was up and would require a series of unplanned phone calls.

It was when I went online that I saw the Yahoo banner alert about a school shooting in Connecticut. My first thoughts, "not another one!" We were still reeling from the Clackamas shooting here in Portland three days before. But something else caught my eye. "Elementary school" and "18 children dead."

This wasn't going to be good. But I'd have to read up on it later. I had issues with my mortgage company and needed to give it immediate attention. I wasn't happy about the news I discovered about the bi-weekly debit (or lack of) as I was put on hold. I was so upset in fact, I was shaking. (Gotta learn some control over my emotions when it comes to money). While I was on hold, I gave myself a pep talk to be cool. It wasn't the company's fault, not entirely. They were VERY unclear about the information I received which is where the mix-up happened.

My friend in Forest Grove texted me while I was waiting to be transferred to another department with the mortgage company. She asked if I had heard about the shooting and said she's been sobbing all morning. I responded that I had but to be honest was a little hardened at the moment because I was dealing with the mortgage company and a mix-up they didn't care to tell me about. But...I did also say, "keeping it all in perspective though considering the shooting today."

I did catch snippets of the news here and there online because the TV wasn't on. Absolutely devastating. But..."insensitive me" had to get to Costco and had 3 dishes to prepare for the ward party later that evening. Karcyn also had a dance rehearsal that afternoon and needed to be dropped off and then picked up at the start of the party, which Jared had to set up for right after work. It was a crazy day for us.

And took a turn I wasn't expecting after the ward party had ended.

As I was leaving with the 4 younger kids, Jared came up to me and asked me if I remembered the Parkers. I was a little confused because we have a Parker family in our ward currently. Then he said, "Robbie Parker?" Of course...Robbie and Alissa Parker. They were a Physician's Assistant student family in our ward about 2 1/2-3 years ago. We always do what we can to take any PA student family under our wings and to share our experiences in hopes of making that transition as easy as possible for them.

That's when Jared said that their daughter, Emilie, was one of the children killed in the school shooting in Connecticut. (Interestingly enough, even though there were ward members at the party Friday night who are closer to the Parkers than we are, it was through our PA connections that we got the news. Supriya and Erin--the two female PAs employed at our office, were in Robbie's class. It was Supriya who texted Jared the news.)

WHAT?? We actually knew and rubbed shoulders with someone who had been directly impacted by this evil? That's when it all changed for me.

I managed to get the kids home, but jumped online to get more details and the first picture on Yahoo just happened to be of the Parkers...walking away from the firehouse after receiving word that Emilie wasn't coming back. The anguish on Alissa's face was gut wrenching. Robbie looked like he was in shock. Jared came home with Jake after cleaning up at the church shortly after that. I showed him the picture. I still couldn't believe it was them. I had also found the "Emilie Parker Fund" on FB and saw one of their family pictures from a year ago maybe. Emilie's resemblance to Karcyn was chilling.

It would be like losing Karcyn! My heart just crashed through the floor.

We gathered our kids in family prayer and the only thing we said is that there had been a shooting in Connecticut and many children had died that day, including a little girl that had been in our ward. We prayed for all those families, especially the Parkers.

I cried when I tucked Karcyn in that night. Told her how much I loved her and just looked at her. I could not imagine her bed being empty that night. All our children are loved and special, but Karcyn's our only daughter. I could not imagine my life without her--our little sunshine. I literally could not breathe for a few seconds when I tried choking down that thought.

At first, the reports were saying it was kindergarteners who were killed. But it was actually first graders. Karcyn and Emilie are the same age...just two months apart. When the Parkers were in our ward, these two little girls were in nursery together. I still remember people telling us how much those two looked alike and how they were always confusing Karcyn and Emilie.

After the kids were in bed, I sat on mine and just out of the blue started bawling. I couldn't stop. I cried and cried and cried. Jared was so good. He just sat there holding my hand and rubbing my back. Never once telling me to get over it. (He didn't want to tell me the news, but he knew I'd find out eventually and if I discovered he had already known and didn't tell me, he figured I would have been upset. And he's right.)

I cried for a good 30 minutes or so. In between sobs, I asked Jared why I was crying. We don't have any real claim on the Parkers...not like other friends in our ward. We didn't live in the same neighborhood so our kids didn't play together. We just had a quick 9 month connection to them as PA students.

He said it's because I'm so sensitive to these things. I thought it was sweet he would say so, but I didn't feel sensitive. I didn't start crying the second I heard about this and keep crying off and on like soooo many others have.

Somehow, I drifted off to sleep.

But beginning Saturday, I was in a fog. I felt empty inside. I prayed more than I ever have in a long time. But I just couldn't smile. I felt robotic.

We even had our long anticipated office dinner party Saturday night and I just wasn't in the mood to go. I got dressed anyway, but once we got there, I wanted to just sit in the car and avoid going inside for as long as possible. Jared was good and just obliged. He didn't like seeing me so down, but never made me feel bad about it. I didn't like being down either, but I couldn't figure out how to not be so sad.

If I wasn't talking and literally using my mind to do something else, my thoughts instantly went to Emilie and her parents. I tortured myself with thoughts of "What was Alissa doing that morning before she got the phone call that would forever change her life?" "What did they do Thursday night?" "What was Emilie and her class doing moments before they were gunned down?" "What did they do last Sunday...not knowing it would be the last time they'd be in church as a family?" "Did they have weekend plans?" "What were the gifts for Emilie that would remain unwrapped or unopened?"

And of course, even though I could not physically imagine or try to picture a gunman storming through an elementary school, all I could picture was Karcyn and her classmates and her room in the school. Her classroom is the first one down the main hall just past the library and the front office. She sits up front, close to the door. I've volunteered at that school for a good three years each week as circumstances allow. I know it well and most the teachers. Karcyn's teacher this year, was her Kindergarten teacher last year. Those children are so sweet and precious. They're just learning how to read and write and are SO excited about everything.

We finally went into the restaurant Saturday evening even though I didn't want to be there. I knew I couldn't put on a "show" for everyone. I'm not that talented. Everyone knows I'm an "open book."
And it didn't take long before several co-workers were asking if I was alright. They jokingly thought Jared had done something wrong (they like to tease Jared that way). They were stunned to find out we actually knew people whose daughter had died the night before.

I'm sort of the one who actually leads the party happenings telling them to go ahead and eat the appetizers, announcing the gift exchange and presenting Dr. Hicken his gift from the staff. I had to tell some other gals to get the gift exchange going. And when it was time to give Dr. Hicken his gift, I literally did not have the strength to stand up and say anything. Another co-worker said she'd get their attention. I was grateful she was taking over. What she did however, was clink her glass with a piece of silverware. Once she had everyone's attention, she said, "Jenn would like to say something." Drats. So I forced myself to my feet, picked up the card for Dr. Hicken and reached past Jared to give it to him and said in a very monotone voice and without a smile, "We have a gift for you." It was very anticlimatic and so unlike me.

While we waited for dessert, Supriya came over and said that Robbie had done a press conference earlier that evening and told me to watch it later.

I did. It was very moving and emotional. A friend, who has also lost a teenage daughter unexpectedly, told me yesterday he was totally being held up by angels. You could just tell. She's right. (What I didn't know until after reading an interview with Robbie's stake president yesterday is that Robbie did that press conference without notes or a spokesperson. I don't think I would need a spokesperson, but I seriously doubt I could have done that without notes. I'd be a mess. Jared probably could though. In that interview with the stake president, he also said that he offered a prayer for the family at Robbie's request. While he was praying he felt impressed to say that Robbie would speak publicly about this and he would be a voice of compassion and peace.)

Admittedly, I felt a smidge better after watching Robbie's press conference. I knew that their faith and conversion to the gospel would carry them through this. If they could acknowledge that right now...a day after losing their daughter, I knew they were in a good place that way. They still have a horribly long road ahead of them, though. This first year is going to be SO difficult.

My tears had mostly stopped falling, but I still couldn't perk up. I was still sick to my stomach and couldn't eat. I was still haunted by Karcyn every time I looked at her and talked to her. There are 20 families and extended families and friends who are aching for their little first graders. And I still had mine.  I didn't really know what to do with myself. Everything seemed to be a reminder of this terribly tragedy.

It doesn't seem like Christmas anymore. I see the decorations and our tree, but I have a hard time feeling excited about it. This year we donated our Christmas to a needy family, so our children won't be opening up anything except a couple gifts from grandparents and their Aunt Kelly. Santa is bringing them a small gift also (to keep up that charade for those who still believe) so in some ways, I'm glad that it isn't going to be as BIG a Christmas as it could be...the smaller scale holiday this year already seems like too much to me.

Sunday, the invocation was given and the Parkers were prayed for. Jake happened to be the youth speaker. He knows the most about the shooting besides me and Jared. Once he realized they were in our ward and Emilie and Karcyn were the same age, he was deeply touched. His talk was on the gift of eternal life given to us by the gift of the Son. He paid tribute to them at the end by saying:

Some of you may remember the Parker family who lived in our ward briefly a few years ago. Their sweet little 6-year-old daughter Emilie was one of the victims of the horrible shooting in Newtown, Connecticut Friday morning. Even though this is a devastating blow for them, because Brother and Sister Parker have kept their temple covenants, they will be able to see their daughter again. What a blessing of peace and comfort. What a gift. This is the message of the gospel…to bring peace and hope of a better life to come.

“God be thanked for the matchless gift of His divine Son.”

During Sunday School, I was actually able to lose myself in service and forget about the shooting for about 40 minutes. My class was going to go visit the two inactive members to let them know we love and miss them. I think that was the first time I had laughed in a couple of days. Which doesn't seem like a long time. It felt like an eternity.

But back in Relief Society, we were signing cards of sympathy for the Parkers. JJ had been sleeping with Elissa but woke up shortly after Relief Society started and so we were in the halls and my mind kept wandering. Why can't I stop thinking about this?

After church, a friend of mine stopped me and said that Emilie, totally reminded her of Karcyn. She said she could never keep the two of them straight...was always confusing them. She had to talk to them to find out who they were.

Singing in choir was another good distraction. I thought I was doing better Sunday, but Monday came and I was still...sad...not feeling like myself. I've been praying to feel better. Why can't I shake this? I didn't understand.

I was teaching 3rd grade in Clearfield, Utah when 9/11 happened. My school taught the kids who lived on Hill Air Force Base and when the base went on lock down, so did we. It was a very LONG and exhausting day. By the time I was able to leave at 6pm that night (once all my kids had been signed out by an approved adult with ID), I cried. Mostly from exhaustion and not really knowing what was going on. I cried the next day when we said the Pledge of Allegiance. And that was it. I was in the thick of 9/11 with military students and their families and I was not effected by those events like I have been this past week. My emotions been a little confusing to me.

I figured I probably wouldn't feel like I could move on until after Emilie's funeral...when I hoped and prayed Robbie and Alissa would get some kind of closure. And that wouldn't happen until Saturday.

Tuesday I still couldn't shake my grief for a family, that truthfully, I don't really know that well. Glorified acquaintances you could call us. I was starting to have conversations with Heavenly Father like "I think my reaction is a little weird...I really need to start pulling myself together. I should have been over this by now, right? I don't understand. Is there something wrong with me?" It's just felt like something more that I couldn't articulate. I told Jared yesterday I had lost 3 pounds in 6 days. He was excited for me until he realized the reason behind the weight loss. Even if my stomach isn't hurting, I just haven't been able to find my appetite since Friday night. I just wanted life to be the way it was before the 14th. I just wanted to turn back time. I didn't want to hurt anymore or be reminded of the tragedy anymore and I'm not even directly effected by this! So what's my problem?

Last night, Karcyn had her first dance recital. I haven't seen her dance at all these past few months since she started, because I've been anticipating this one moment. She was actually sick Wednesday and was trying to get over it yesterday. I was so disappointed at the thought she might not be able to dance because she may be too weak and not feeling up to it. We got her ready anyway because she wanted to and I told her she could dance as much or as little as she wanted.

She was a trooper!! She danced EVERY dance and was so beautiful in angel white and sequins. My eyes welled up with tears because, yet again, I thought of Emilie when I saw my own blond hair, blue-eyed baby girl.

I thought maybe this unexpected grief was because not only did I used to teach, I taught first grade reading my first year. But that didn't seem to be the reason. All I can figure is that it's because I too have a first grade daughter who looks very similar to Emilie and we've crossed paths with and served and spoken with her parents.

I woke up today with a sense of dread. It has been one week since the shooting. (Just a week? It feels like months.)

About 30 minutes after I got up this morning, my dad called. We had been waiting for biopsy results. He and my mom are getting ready to send in mission papers again and during his physical, it was discovered that my dad's PSA levels were high...not abnormally so, but they got really high, really fast--not a good sign--so a biopsy was ordered to rule out prostate cancer. We knew about this before the shooting. His biopsy took place on the 14th, but we wouldn't know the results until Wed. or Thursday this week.

There is no cancer! A wonderful Christmas gift to be sure! In my heart, I didn't feel like it would be cancer (the PSA test is not very accurate, but the only one doctors have), but you just never know.

What my dad had to tell me next was startling. He started to cry and said I might want to sit down. Oh no...I know this routine. Who died??

He said that Alissa Parker and little Emilie are my cousins. We're related to them. My dad's grandpa settled in Ogden and his sister married into the Cottle family which is Alissa's maiden name. Even further, my uncle and Alissa's dad went to dental school together. Uncle Brent talked to Doug right before his biking accident which he later died from the end of September.

I was overwhelmed with this information. I wish I had known this when they lived here! This isn't the first time we've found relatives through PA school and our wards here in Oregon.

About 7 years ago, when I was sitting in our Forest Grove ward, I saw a young mother leave Sacrament meeting with her small child. This was the first time I had ever seen her and instantly I was filled with a sense of familiarity. Why? We've never met. We don't know each other. But wow...I could not deny there was some connection there. Four or five months later, after getting to know each other and becoming friends, that same young mother, our neighbor, knocked on my door. She found out from her aunt that she and I are second cousins!

And this morning, once again...I had my answer. After I hung up with my dad, I went straight to my room and fell to my knees in prayer. I cried and cried, tears pouring down my cheeks and thanked Heavenly Father for this information. Now I know why I was grieving so. This wasn't just a good acquaintance whose daughter was killed....this was my own blood. Now it makes sense. Anyone who has done temple work for ancestors knows that the spirit to spirit communication is real and powerful. My spirit was mourning for a cousin and her family. My spirit knew before my mind did. Now I feel like I really am justified in my mourning. Now, I really do have a claim on little Emilie and her mom. They're family.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Major milestone!

This past Tuesday, December 4th, marked 5 years that we Houghs have been in our home. Whoa...
most days it still feels like we just got here, even though we've added 2 more children since we bought the house the end of 2007. Read about our first home buying experience here.

We've never lived in a dwelling more than 15 months, so this is truly monumental for us. We love our location, we love our now-functional backyard, we love our neighbors and subdivision, we love that we have access to a pool and rec center and little parks and a pathways throughout the neighborhood. We love that we're close to our ward chapel, only 2 miles from the urgent care that Jared sometimes moonlights at and only 5 miles from his office. We love that we're only about an hour from the Pacific coast and a couple hours from Mt. Hood and about 35 minutes from the Portland temple. While Jared would still like to live in the country some day, I think our first little home has many advantages and we feel SO blessed.

We've done a few improvements since moving in...mostly on the exterior. Here's a look back...

The yards...front, back and sides. This was a 4 year project and Jared has worked very tirelessly and often enlisted the boys and my dad for help. We've also paid many young men and a few professionals to assist in hauling, digging, and trimming back the jungle that was our back yard. The first picture below is AFTER Jared cut down the 50-ish arbor vitae bushes that were 30 feet high and flanked both sides of our house from the back fence boundary line to the street out front.

This was what our yard looked like last August before we had a sprinkler system and sod put in, as well as a retaining wall. Ewww. Nasty and not very usable, unless you wanted to increase your chances of breaking your ankle while walking across it. Not to mention the mud pit that was a given every fall and winter.

Finally! A back yard that's functional and aesthetically pleasing. We have since torn down the old dilapidated metal shed (not pictured) and replaced it with a "tuff shed" and added central air! I seriously love my A/C more than my furnace. And I should know. I've lived without both of them. Just a tip...don't have central air installed the week of Christmas. It gets really chilly, really fast!

We've also tried our hand at painting. Survey says: we don't like it so much. Which is why the bedroom walls remain "white".

We get lots of compliments about the red in our dining room. Wish we could take credit for it, but it was there when we bought the house. There was just white above the chair rail. We wanted something to help set the chair rail off so we added beige above it. We've been really happy with that decision.

Next came the family room. We toyed with the idea of having two separate colors for the kitchen and family room, but there is no real way to end one color at the edge of the kitchen before the family room starts. So, we opted for one color and I forget how we decided on it, but "denim blue" was what we went with. Anything but white!

This is a picture of Karcyn right after she turned 2, getting ready for Easter Sunday. I included it so you could see the old windows and white walls. (Isn't she a cutie patootie??)

Here's that same window (after it was replaced in June 2008) and the family room after painting it. I don't regret the blue at all. I love how it sets off the floor and fireplace. We get enough light (west facing windows and a big sliding door) that the blue doesn't make it cave-like.

The only disadvantage to the dark color is that it isn't very forgiving when it comes to painting...especially with novice painters like us. It was this room that did us in. Jared and I were totally through with painting. (Having a 2 year old and infant and only being able to paint once the kids were in bed late at night might have had something to do with it, too...) So we hired a young adult to finish painting the kitchen for us while we were on vacation. She also painted the living room for us, too. Once we put the beige in the dining room, the living room color clashed with it.

Apparently, we thought "split-pea soup" green would be better! At the time, we loved it. Anything but white! But it was about a year when I had had enough and another year before we were able to do something about it.

Again, we hired a young man to paint for us. (We're all about stimulating the economy and funding high adventures or future missions)! This brown is MUCH better.

And even more tolerable with new furniture that we were able to purchase just this spring after 15 years of marriage. We were so grateful for the hand-me-downs from Jared's parents that they purchased 23 years ago when he was a sophomore in high school! But after years with them and years with us, those pieces of furniture were shiny with dirt and grime. (Oh, JJ, why so sad??)

After Jared removed all the arbor vitae "shrubs" from the sides of our house, this was what was left on the driveway side. While I was out of town in 2009 helping my parents pack up their home in Anchorage, Jared hired some of his young men to help him put in a walkway to eliminate the mud mess.
And this is what they came up with. I was so touched and grateful because that's the only "doorway" to and from the backyard with the garbage cans and mower, etc. It looked SO much nicer too!

Unfortunately, the pea gravel never settled and the mower would sink in it, making it virtually impossible to push the mower or even pull it for that matter. So, the following spring, Jared helped a friend put in another walkway...this time made of concrete! It's been such a fantastic addition! I don't know how the owners before us did without it!

We knew we would need to replace the garage door relatively soon when we bought the house. We figured we'd just use it until it died. It was old, wooden, creaky and loud enough that it could be heard from the bedroom wing of the house. Whenever we went to open or close it, we always crossed our fingers that it would still work. We got almost 3 more years out of it!

At the end of 2010, we put in the new, white, metal garage door with a key pad entrance and double layer of insulation. So nice. So quiet. I love, love, love the key pad entrance. It's saved us from a few brain blips when we've locked ourselves or our kids out. Also handy for neighbors to help us in a pinch!

In this picture is our old, icky roof. Again, when we did the pre-purchase inspection on the home, this was another item on the short list (10 years or less) that we knew we would have to take care of. While it didn't leak, I hated the light color that clashed with the paint and the moss that appeared to be growing under every shingle. An opportunity to get a new roof presented itself 4 1/2 years later, so we took it. (The guy in the red shirt and hat giving a freaky sideways glance was one of the roofers and VERY nice :)

I don't know why I didn't get a full-on view once the new roof was installed. There could be a plethora of reasons why. But here's most of it done. Wooo's a very LOUD process getting your roof replaced. Fortunately, all the wood underneath the old shingles was found to be good and solid. We also had a "pick-up-nails" party once the process was over. Even better...we didn't need to replace any tires on our vehicles!

I love the clean, new look of the new roof. And that it's moss resistant! And has a 50 year warranty! And that the warranty can transfer to the next buyer!

Add some new exterior paint one of these summers coming up and I think we can wrap up our exterior improvements. Minus gutters. If you can even call ours that. They're pretty bad and those are something that cannot be "bad" in the land of perpetual rain. But that's okay...we're just grateful we've been able to make these improvements over the past 5 years to our little investment in Aloha. We hope to be here for many more 5s :)