Saturday, April 8, 2017

Cohen's Dream

There wasn't much that Cohen and I didn't share with each other during our 17-year friendship; we kept secrets and encouraged each other in struggles no one else knew about. I've felt compelled to write about this for awhile, mostly because I may have been the only person Cohen told about it, and it's a story that deserves to be told. I don't want it to end with me, because it's such a testament to the person Cohen was and the faith she had through the entirety of her illness. It's not easy to write about, but here it is - Cohen's story still continuing to impact me and others even though she's not with us anymore.

When Cohen first started having symptoms, we were all stumped. The doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong with her and none of us knew how to help her. Her symptoms persisted for months until the pressure on her brain built up so much that she needed to have a shunt placed. Her doctor referred her to Indiana University Medical Center, and I skipped my last week of grad school in April 2013 to drive down to Indianapolis with her and her family. The night before we made the trip, I stayed with her at her mother and stepfather's house in Fort Wayne, the two of us unable to sleep knowing what the next day would bring.

As we sat on the mattress in her bedroom, I could still smell parts of the house she grew up in - the wood-burning stove, the trees in the yard, the smell of gasoline and car parts coming in from the garage where Cohen and her father would work on her '63 Ford Fairlane. She had newer, thicker, black-framed glasses on, her vision impacted by whatever it was that the doctors couldn't quite diagnose. I was scared for her, and my voice clearly showed it as we talked, but her voice was unwavering as she told me that she hoped the shunt surgery (and the biopsy that was to follow a few days later) would give doctors an answer and that she would be able to be cured.

As we were talking together late into the night, she said she wanted to tell me about a dream she had. I have no idea if she ever told anyone else about this dream, but it stands out in my mind and will forever. I've shared this with my husband and family, and I distinctly remember the emotional moment I told my brother Brandon about her dream as he rode in the passenger seat of my van when we were driving to my new house in Ohio back in 2014. Like I said, I've been feeling like I need to share this because I don't want to be the only person impacted by it; Cohen loved everyone and took every opportunity to help others and speak into their lives.

She began telling me about the dream she had had a few nights before. In the dream, it was Earth Day and she said all of her loved ones were with her at her father's house, planting trees on his property. There was a red barn at her father's house where Cohen and I used to go exploring to find bats and investigate the treasures inside (it's since been torn down), and in the dream, Cohen looked over and saw a ladder leading up to an opening toward the top of the barn. She walked over to the ladder, climbing it and crawling into the opening at the top. When she got inside, there was a screen set up with memories from her life playing on it. She said she saw a bright light and heard God speaking to her.

As she watched the memories play in front of her, she said God asked her whether she wanted to go be with him then, or if she wanted to wait awhile longer. She said she wanted to wait awhile longer, and I asked her why she chose that. She said that, as she was watching the memories with her family and with me and my family, she wanted to stay for us. She said she hated the thought of seeing us in pain and hurting, so she wanted to be with us as long as possible.

Afterward, she said God told her that he would see her in just a little while, and she crawled back out of the opening and down the ladder to continue helping all of us plant trees. Then she woke up.

I had mixed emotions after Cohen told me about this dream. First, I truly believed that this dream was from God, and I was speechless. But I also felt a profound sadness. If this dream was the "real thing," as I believed it was, that meant Cohen only had a short time left with us, and I couldn't imagine ever being without her. What was even worse was that we didn't even know what was wrong with her yet, but I knew at that moment that whatever it was would eventually take her life. She knew it too, but she was more concerned about us than she was about herself. The illness was the way she would be taken from us, and that hurt her so deeply.

She told me about that dream in April 2013. That same month, she had a shunt placed and a brain biopsy that revealed she had a terminal brain tumor. Later that year, she had a stroke that left her immobile and almost completely blind. Her body continued to betray her over the next fews years, but she had chosen that over going home to be with God because of her friends and family, because she loved us so much.

Cohen passed in January 2017, not quite four years after her dream. The doctors told us she would have 10 years to live, but she only lived for four years after her diagnosis. As God told her, he came back for her after just a little while, and she was waiting for him. I knew it was coming. During those four long years of watching Cohen suffer from a horrible and debilitating illness, I knew it wouldn't be long. I knew because of the dream, and I knew because of Cohen's immeasurable faith. It was so hard to spend four years wondering when her time was going to come, but Cohen's battle was even more difficult. Through it all, she maintained a strong, unwavering faith. Through it all, her positive attitude prevailed and her smile and laughter never left. Even through the pain and heartache, she was still Cohen.

Losing Cohen earlier this year was like losing part of myself. When I saw her on her birthday on January 16th, I knew the time was coming where I would have to say goodbye to her, and I knew it would be soon. Seeing her frail body on the verge of letting go on her birthday and then having to go back to work and school like nothing was wrong was a nightmare. Her birthday was on Saturday, and my phone never left my side as I went about my days on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, receiving the call early Wednesday morning (January 19th) that she had passed. I commute to work and school, so I had plenty of time that week to think about Cohen, what it would be like to finally have to say goodbye to her, and how I would even be able to hold myself up and continue with life afterward. There was a song on the radio that kept me going during the days following her death, and I heard it many times that week:

There's never been a moment I was not held inside Your arms
There's never been a day when You were not who You say You are
Yours forever, it don't matter
What I'm walking through
Cause no matter where I'm going
There's never been a moment That I was not loved by You

The lyrics reminded me that God was present, that he was with me and helping me through this loss. But even more than that, the lyrics reminded me that Cohen was never alone. God never left her. She was so loved by him. Even through her terrible illness, she was loved and held by God.

A couple weeks ago, I was driving to school and missing Cohen. I kept thinking about her, still not quite able to grasp that I was living in a world where she didn't exist anymore. As I was driving, trying to figure out how I was going to get through the day, that song came on the radio. I smiled and remembered God's promise to her - she would be with him soon, and hearing that song then reminded me of her dream and that she was indeed resting in God's presence.

Friday, February 17, 2017

A Celebration of Life

Last Friday, I celebrated my 28th birthday. The following day, we celebrated the life of my best friend at her memorial service. It was a bittersweet weekend, but I was grateful to have been surrounded by family and friends who helped me remember how beautiful life can be even in the midst of tragedy.

Justin and I traveled back to Indiana on Friday and spent the afternoon going to my favorite antique shops with my dad. My dad bought me a fabulous book from James Whitcomb Riley that was published in 1940 but looked like it hadn't ever been opened. My great grandmother loved James Whitcomb Riley and would talk about his poetry with me often. She even gave me some of his poetry collections that she had kept throughout her life, the pages wonderfully yellowed with time and creased with years of use. The book was the perfect gift.

Later that evening, the whole family had dinner together and then gathered at my parents' house for cake. It was strange being back in the town where Cohen and I grew up together, knowing that I would be saying goodbye to her one last time the next day. As I walked to the various shops downtown with my dad and Justin, I just remembered all the times Cohen and I had walked those streets together.

Cohen's celebration of life was beautiful and heart-wrenching. Justin and I arrived early and walked into the sanctuary of the church. Photographs of Cohen were in a slideshow on the projector screen: a photo of her with Justin and I on our wedding day, one of us with our moms at her sister's baby shower, my favorite photo of her with me and my brothers. We had 17 years of memories together, and I think it finally sank in for the first time that we wouldn't be able to make any more.

I helped Cohen's mother put together an arrangement at the front of the sanctuary while noticing that the framed photo next to the urn was one that my dad took of her during our senior photo shoot back in 2007. I remembered how beautiful and sunny that day had been; we were so full of excitement and hope for the future and wonder and anxiety about college. I never would have thought back then that I would only have 10 short years left with the girl who had become my sister. Outside the sanctuary, Cohen's family set up a journal where people could write notes and memories. I had gotten that journal for Cohen as a gift for high school graduation; I'd hoped she would use it as a travel journal someday when she was able to fulfill her dream of going all over the world. I never would have thought the journal would be used at her funeral someday, still empty because she became sick right after college.

So many people came to celebrate Cohen, and the service was like looking at a scrapbook of all of our years together. We had friends come from all over who represented various points in our lives: high school friends, some of her family friends who I grew up with because we were always together, college friends who were with us during our involvement with various campus ministries. It reminded me of the film Big Fish (which Cohen and I actually saw with friends on her 15th birthday). The man tells so many stories throughout the movie, but you don't realize until the end how "larger than life" he actually was.

Justin got up at the beginning of the service and read a piece I wrote for Cohen. I hope I captured even just a glimpse of the relationship Cohen and I shared. The music was beautiful and we sang several of Cohen's favorite songs, including "I Can Only Imagine" (a song she put on quite a few of the CDs she made for me in high school and college). One speaker joked that there were no photographs of Cohen and I without each other, and there is some truth to that. He pointed out how all the photographs represented our adventures and experiences together, and he was spot on. Cohen and I loved to take photos, and we had to document everything we did. Now that she's gone, all of those photographs mean more than I could ever say.

After the service, we listened to Cohen's little brother talk about her and how special and unique and funny and loving she was. We shared a meal and remembered Cohen, laughing and swapping stories about the impact Cohen had on all of us. The service ended with a balloon release at Buckner Park in Fort Wayne, a place where Cohen and I took many photos together during her little brother's birthday celebration several years earlier. As we watched the 28 blue and yellow balloons (representing Batman, her favorite superhero) drift into the air and out of view, I silently wondered what life would look like for me from that point on. I can never replace Cohen, and it's going to take time for me to navigate this life without her.

During the dinner at the service, Cohen's mom gave me a necklace of an angel. She got the same necklace for herself, my mom, and Cohen's sister Amanda. The necklace represents everything Cohen meant to us, but it also shows unity among us. Cohen brought us together and our families melded into one during our 17-year friendship.

On the drive back to Ohio later that night, my heart was so full after having seen so many people who meant the world to Cohen (and me) over the years. She was so loved by so many and will be remembered as the strong, brave, compassionate, and generous person she was. But my heart was also heavy; life will never be the same without Cohen. I will never be the same.

I love you, Cohen, and I look forward to the day when we will see each other again.

Even when the rain falls
Even when the flood starts rising
Even when the storm comes
I am washed by the water

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Dylan + Ally - Photo Shoot

I don't even know where to begin about these dear friends of mine. When Justin and I lived in Indiana, we had the privilege of living life alongside a wonderful group of people at a campus ministry house. Our friend Dylan lived there and I remember so much fellowship and great conversation, often around a bonfire in the backyard. Ally became a part of our campus ministry family later and I had the joy of getting to know her during the 2 years Justin and I lived at the house. I remember the first time Justin said that we should hang out with Dylan and Ally and get to know them better; we had dinner at Granite City one night in July several years ago and that was the catalyst for a beautiful friendship. It has been a pleasure to watch Dylan and Ally's relationship grow and flourish over the years and to continue to share life with them (as we all live in Ohio now!). Justin and I are so excited to celebrate with you on your wedding day this August!

I love these people, and we had an amazing time shooting these photos together. It was a cold Saturday in February, but that didn't stop us from exploring both the woods and the city, capturing photos of the love these two share. Here are a few of my favorites from the shoot yesterday just outside of Columbus, Ohio:

To see more of my work or to book an appointment, check out my website: LaFollette Photography.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

For Cohen

There aren't words to express the role Cohen had in my life. We met in 7th grade when my family had just moved and I was the new kid at school. While we weren't immediate friends (she once flung a spoonful of oranges at me from across the lunch table after I called her Deanne), I never would have guessed that we would eventually become inseparable friends. Our 7th grade year was the start of a beautiful friendship that would blossom over the years until we became sisters - we were part of each other's families.

I thought Cohen and I would always have each other. I never imagined that the closest friend I've ever had, the only sister I've ever known, would pass away at the age of 28. Five years ago when she called to tell me an optometrist had noticed something weird about her optic nerves, I would have never thought that she would be gone a short time later. I never thought I would have to know how to do life without her.

I will never be the same, but that's because Cohen changed my life for the better. She taught me about love and friendship and sacrifice and faith and staying positive when things aren't going your way.

She fought through five years of a devastating, terrible illness. She didn't lose her battle; God was ready for her to come home.

There are so many things I could say about Cohen, but I don't think words are enough. After all, Cohen loved taking photos as much as I did. And this is our story, and what a story it was. I can hardly think of any aspect of my life the past 17 years that didn't have Cohen in it. She's part of me, and that part will always be missing, but she left me with memories of a relationship I didn't even know was possible, one that taught me that not all families are formed by blood.

This is our story.

Deanne (Dee/Cohen) Rochelle Landes
January 16, 1989 - January 19, 2017

My dad captured this picture of Cohen and I in middle school track. This was the beginning of it all. She always kept her hair so short those days, and because we were young and didn't yet have the bodies of young women, everyone always mistook her for a boy. She would never correct people, but I always had her back (often to her embarrassment).

This was our first camping trip together with our friend Jessiy and her family. What I remember most about this trip is Cohen jumping out of our canoe and flipping the whole thing over.

This was my first time spending the night at Cohen's mom's house in Fort Wayne. We loved playing with her brother Seth when we would visit (I think Seth was probably about three years old when this picture was taken).

Here we are in the backseat of my mom's car, probably driving to visit Brandon at college. Cohen was always with my family.

The 1963 Ford Fairlane. This car took us to prom. It drove us to school and back. It took us to Fort Wayne to see Cohen's brother Brice when he was born. She named it Magneto, and it was a big part of our high school and college days. This car meant the world to her.

We had a tradition of spending Halloween together. Her mom, Brian, and the boys would come and we would all go trick-or-treating. (Well, Seth and Tyler would trick-or-treat and Cohen and I looked forward to dressing up).

This is one of my favorite photos of us, and this is the Cohen I will always picture in my head. Here, we were at Walmart with her mom and brothers and, for some reason, decided to take a photo in front of the paper towels. 

This was us every summer out on the lake with Cohen's dad. We would swim for hours, knee-board, go tubing, and sometimes even spend the night out on the lake under the stars. 

Another one of our Halloweens together. We dressed as fugitives and both of our little brothers dressed up as Batman (much to Cohen's excitement). 

I have this picture hanging up in my home - all of my siblings together. Here we were visiting Brandon while he was away at college at Purdue.

We made it - high school graduation, class of 2007.

My dad did our senior photos for us, and I love this one after the shoot was over - brothers are the best. My little brother recently said that he couldn't remember a time when Cohen wasn't around, and that's because he was four when Cohen and I became friends. One thing I loved about Cohen was that she loved Tyler and would always invite him to hang out with us. She was a sister to him and he loved her.

Visiting my brother at Purdue right before we went off to college for the first time. Our parents discouraged us from going to the same school and living together because they thought we wouldn't be friends afterward, but it ended up being one of the best decisions we ever made.

Our freshman year of college was the best. We lived in an old house on campus that was falling apart and had no air conditioning, but we finally had something that we could make our own. We skateboarded in the basement, got involved with a campus ministry, and had our first college boyfriends. This photo is of us at Cohen's surprise 19th birthday party.

Cohen and I ended up living together all four years during undergrad. Our freshman year, it was just the two of us in a big, old house on campus. Our sophomore year, we lived with two other roommates in the new student housing. Our junior year, we did the same thing but with two new roommates, and our senior year, we lived in a two bedroom suite. Here we are during our junior year, spending the evening walking around a park near our university. 

This was at Cohen's 21st birthday party, which I will always remember as one of the most wonderful nights I've ever had. My favorite memory of this night was singing karaoke (Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody") with Cohen. (And, if you look close, you can see Justin photo-bombing our picture). 

Our senior year of college. I was graduating and going to grad school at the same school and Cohen had one more semester to get through. I remember us talking through what our next step would be and where we would live. (We ended up getting an off-campus apartment together where we lived for almost two years).

Our senior year spring break. Cohen and I drove 32 hours round trip to see our friends Emily and Elisabeth in North Carolina. This trip was amazing, and it was a great way to say goodbye to our college days. 

I can't even begin to tell you how loyal Cohen was. She made this sign for me and held it up during my college graduation, cheering so loud that I could hear her in the giant auditorium. I still have this sign, and it reminds me how she would do anything for me to make me smile and feel loved. 

Right after my graduation, Cohen's dad flew us out to Boston to visit him. I can't even begin to describe how fabulous that week in Boston was. We took a haunted tour, walked around the city, visited Harvard, and went to a Red Sox game. I'm so grateful for that time with her. 

Later that year, Cohen graduated with a Bachelor's degree in journalism and a minor in film studies. I may not have had a sign, but I was right there cheering her on at graduation. She had big dreams of working at a radio station (which she did) and traveling the world.

A few months later, Cohen moved to Fort Wayne to intern with Star 88.3, a Christian radio station. She called to tell me that a routine visit with her optometrist showed that her optic nerves were swollen and that she would need to see a specialist. To make a long story short, she saw many doctors who couldn't figure out what was wrong with her. At one point, I went with her to the hospital to get a spinal tap done. She was so sick afterward that we ended up in the emergency room just to be sent home. Her family doctor thought she had encephalitis and admitted her to the hospital for treatment. After a week in the hospital, she was released. She was able to make it to my bridal shower, but she didn't feel well the entire day. Even though she was sick, she pushed through it so she could be there for me. 

A month later, Cohen stood beside me on my wedding day as my maid of honor. I was very adamant that I only wanted family in our wedding party - my brother Tyler (the best man) and Justin's brother Ryan stood with him and my brother Brandon and (sister) Cohen stood with me. It was a beautiful day and Cohen looked amazing in her orange dress. However, we all noticed she wasn't feeling well that day, either, despite the doctor telling us she was cured from encephalitis.  

Cohen's symptoms persisted. A few months after my wedding, her symptoms got so bad that she was referred to a specialist at Indiana University Medical Center in Indianapolis. I skipped my last week of graduate school to go to the hospital with her and her family. Pressure was building up in her head, so her doctor decided to put in a shunt to relieve some of the pressure. The surgery was long and I remember writing my last papers for grad school in the waiting room. Eventually, the doctor came out to tell us everything went well. That night, I had a nurse pull a cot into Cohen's room so I could sleep next to her. She was groggy and in pain, but we stayed up talking and eating crackers out of white paper boxes. A couple days later, she went back into surgery to have a brain biopsy. The doctor told us that there was something wrong, but that he wouldn't receive the results of the biopsy for a couple weeks.

The results came back that Cohen had a brain tumor - an oligodendroglioma grade II. In May of 2013, she had surgery so that the doctor could remove as much of the tumor as possible. The surgery injured her eye, but it went well. However, the doctor gave us the devastating news that Cohen's tumor would return and that there was no cure. Her condition was terminal. 

Despite her prognosis, Cohen still kept going. This picture was taken outside my house during one of her visits, summer 2013. Shortly after this photo was taken, my grandmother passed away and Cohen was right there beside me at her funeral. 

This photo was taken a few months later at Cohen's sister's (Amanda) baby shower. We all came together to celebrate new life, and Amanda now has a beautiful three-year-old boy named Adam who loved his aunt dearly. 

This photo is of Justin, me, Tyler, and Cohen at a benefit concert that was organized by some friends we went to high school with. So many people came out to support Cohen and donate to help her with medical costs. It was amazing to see our community rally around her. 

Cohen's tumor continued to grow. She went through chemo, radiation, and steroid treatments, and at one point, her tumor had shrunk. We prayed for God's will to be done, and Cohen's faith never faltered. She trusted God and never doubted or questioned him about what was happening to her. She inspired me everyday and continued to be the best friend and sister that I had always known, encouraging others and talking to them about her faith. 

But that's not the end of our story. Cohen fought hard against her illness, and while she went into a coma-like state in July of 2016, her spirit continued to encourage and inspire others. At one point when I visited her in July, we didn't think she was going to make it. I said goodbye to my best friend, but she still had some fight left in her. As her birthday approached this year, we all celebrated with her at her home. I like to think she knew I was there. I like to think that she could hear me telling her I loved her and that she was my favorite and that I missed her. 

As I drove home later that day, I felt unbelievable sadness knowing that, at the age of 27, I was going to lose my best friend and the person I had been closest to on this earth. But I also had a sense of peace knowing that, after all of her pain and suffering, she would join our Lord in heaven in a new body. 

And five days after her birthday celebration, I got the call that Cohen had passed away peacefully in the middle of the night. 

Our story is unique. We were unlikely friends, but since the 7th grade, we formed and grew a beautiful relationship that is unlike any other I will ever have. I can hardly fathom not being able to talk to her, to hug her, to laugh with her, to share in life's joys and adventures with her. We were stuck like glue for 17 years. I watched her grow from a 12-year-old tomboy into a wonderful young woman who was an amazing daughter, sister, aunt, and friend. I will never be able to put into words what she meant to me, and I'm sad that some of you didn't get to meet her. Had you met her, you would have seen her intense and contagious happiness, her joy, her strength, her compassion, her generosity. 

I will never forget you, Cohen. You will always and forever be my sister and my best friend. I can't wait to see you again someday.

And, as we always used to say to each other:

"We're still perfect. Immaculate." 

Thursday, January 5, 2017

January 16th

January 16th.

January 16th is the birthday of my grandmother and my best friend. My grandmother was born on January 16, 1939, and Cohen was born on January 16, 1989. Exactly 50 years apart.

When Cohen and I were in college, we lived close to my grandparents. We made many trips to visit them while we were away at school; it was our "escape" from the stresses of college life. We could go to their house and relax, talk, laugh, walk to the park down the road, and watch our favorite shows and movies. Those times are some of my most cherished memories.

Cohen and I eating French fries in my grandparents' kitchen during one of our visits (2010).
My favorite visits to my grandmother's house were when we would celebrate her birthday and Cohen's birthday together. We would order takeout from Memories' Pizza & Ice Cream, our favorite place in the small town my grandparents lived in. Cohen and I would go pick it up - pizza with barbecue sauce, lots of cheese, and veggies. We would also pick out fun ice cream flavors at the shop and watch as they scooped it from the freezer into pint-sized containers.

My grandfather would always go to bed early, but Cohen and I would stay up late with my grandmother, popping bags of microwave popcorn, dumping them in plastic bowls, and covering them with salt and melted butter. We would eat the popcorn and ice cream from Memories' together, loving the sweet and salty combination. I remember the time we even convinced my grandmother to watch the original Twilight movie with us. Since they didn't have a DVD player, Cohen and I dragged my grandfather's old TV out of his bedroom and hooked her portable DVD player up to it. The screen was so small, but we enjoyed every bit of that night together.

Sometimes after a late night of talking, sharing stories, and eating snacks, we would get up the next morning and go shopping. My grandmother's favorite place to go was Bailey's, a huge discount store near her house where you could find anything and everything. We would sometimes spend hours there and Cohen and I would take pictures of all the weird treasures we would find in the warehouse (tea sets, Veggie Tales themed cookware, giant stainless steel bowls, outdated lollipops in strange flavors, etc.).

The three of us would always have fun together, regardless of whether or not we were celebrating their shared birthday.

On my wedding day in October 2012, my grandmother got sick, went into the hospital, and was never able to come home. She passed away on July 31, 2013. During the summer of 2012, Cohen started having concerning symptoms with her vision and was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor in 2013. After having major brain surgery in May 2013 to reduce the size of her tumor, Cohen's mother drove her over two hours to attend my grandmother's funeral in early August. Even though Cohen had just endured unimaginable pain and heartache after her diagnosis and surgery, she was there for me. Cohen, with her hair shaved and an eye patch covering her eye that was injured from the surgery, sat next to me as we shared stories about my grandmother and remembered our time together. As we laid my grandmother to rest, Cohen was the last one that stayed behind at the cemetery with my family.

Now, three years later, I know my time with Cohen here is short. Back in July, Cohen stopped responding and is being cared for by her family at home. In November during a visit to the emergency room, we found out Cohen has just a short time left with us.

January 16th is a difficult day because it reminds me of what I've lost, but it's also a great day because it blessed me with two of my favorite people. My grandmother and Cohen have blessed my life in ways I can't even explain, and I love them both so much.

I'm so grateful for the cherished memories I have of both of them and of the three of us together.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The 10-Year Anniversary of the Event that Changed My Life

On October 29, 2006, my father was in a serious accident (for an earlier post I wrote about this, follow the link: 1000 Paper Cranes). For years, I've told this story as a way to share my testimony, to tell people about hope and love and faith, and to help others get to know me, because this has been a big part of my story. I've always wanted to make a video that tells this story and reflects on how it impacted me and my family, and I thought it was the perfect time since this year marks the 10-year anniversary of my father's accident.

I'm grateful to my husband Justin who shot and edited this video for me - thank you so much for helping me tell my story.

And thank you for watching and listening.

Video credit: Justin Samson

Yet if you devote your heart to him and stretch out your hands to him, if you put away the sin that is in your hand and allow no evil to dwell in your tent, then, free of fault, you will lift up your face; you will stand firm and without fear. You will surely forget your trouble, recalling it only as waters gone by. Life will be brighter than noonday, and darkness will become like morning. You will be secure, because there is hope; you will look about you and take your rest in safety. You will lie down, with no one to make you afraid, and many will court your favor.
-Job 11:13-19

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Fiddler's with Steve

When I started college in 2007, I was a biology/pre-med major. I wanted to be a doctor (for more on this, see this blog post: Why I Wanted to Be a (Medical) Doctor). I was taking a biology course with a four-hour lab that fall, and I got the flu one morning during the week and had to miss lab. Of course, I had to make it up once I was well, so I went in on a Friday with another student who had been absent to complete the lab activities we missed. This student's name was Steve, and we had never talked before since he didn't sit close to me, but we hit it off right away. I was 18, fresh out of high school, naive, focused on nothing but school. He was a paramedic in his late thirties with gray hair and six kids. We didn't have anything in common, but somehow we developed a wonderful friendship.

From that point forward, I sat with Steve in class and a couple other classmates, Heather and Cyndi. We all became close and would work together and study together for our biology class, often taking our work to South Bend's famous Oaken Bucket across from campus. They would drink beer, I would drink diet Pepsi. We would share appetizers. We would talk, laugh, and sometimes get some studying in.

We would talk about becoming doctors and achieving our dreams and goals. Steve said he wanted to go to medical school in Chicago and that he would take the train from South Bend to get there. I admired his drive and determination. He was very intelligent and seemed to know all the answers in our biology class.

Steve was very progressive and was on the fence about religion. I was a new Christian, eager to talk about my faith, but also wanting to hear the stories and beliefs of others. Steve invited me to Fiddler's Hearth, a well-known Irish pub in downtown South Bend for dinner one night, and we ended up talking for hours. He told me about his time in the Navy, his ex-wife and the four kids he had with her, his partner Erica and the child he had with her (his daughter Aley wasn't in the picture yet). I told him about my family, my best friend Cohen, the campus ministry I was involved with. I told him about my father and his accident and how he somehow survived. I will never forget Steve's response: "Kristin, he should have died. As a paramedic, I would have given him a 1% chance of survival." I think that was when he realized miracles existed, that they were real.

We ended up having many of these dinners at Fiddler's Hearth. Steve, an Irishman from a Catholic family, would drink Irish coffee and beer and we would eat cheese from a platter. We would share everything with each other, me always enjoying a rarebit grilled cheese with fries and plenty of ketchup. I thought of our meetings as a "theology pub" - a place where two completely different people with completely different beliefs would meet and talk and share stories and views and still be the best of friends. Steve was one of the most interesting people I've ever known, and he taught me a valuable lesson about people and life - you don't have to agree with someone to love them.

I got to meet his partner Erica and their son, Dominic. Later, I got to meet Steve and Erica's newborn daughter, Aley, and Steve's second-oldest daughter Brittany from his first marriage who became a cherished friend.

I was dating a guy named Josh when Steve and I first met, and he would always ask me if Josh was treating me right and that I deserved only the best. When I started dating Justin, Steve recognized him from classes he had taken with him at IU South Bend (Justin was also a science major for awhile). Steve called him a "punk," but gave his approval when he would see how happy Justin and I were together. His opinion mattered so much to me that I invited Steve to lunch with Justin and I so they could get to know each other better.

Justin had sinus surgery while we were dating, and I had to take care of him. There were a few complications, and I would be on the phone with Steve telling him about what was going on and Steve would be giving me advice, helping me stay calm, offering to come over as soon as possible. He was always calm in tough situations.

Right after my last semester of college ended, I was going through some crazy stuff in my personal life. I needed a place to stay, and Steve and Erica let me live with them. Their house had three bedrooms, one for them, one for Dom, and one for Aley, but they moved Dominic into Aley's room so I could have my own space. They didn't charge me a dime to live there. Steve's daughter Brittany had moved in with them, as well, and she was staying in the basement. There was one shower for the six of us, but it worked. I lived with them for the whole summer before I got back on my feet and was able to get an apartment with my best friend, and it was an experience I will always remember. I was a part of the family, and I could so strongly feel the love that their family felt for each other. Justin was always welcome, and Steve never thought I was weird when he would see me leaving the house at midnight with tennis rackets because Justin and I wanted to play a late-night game of tennis. Brittany would cook perogies for us, I would feed little Aley green peas off my plate, we would sing and dance with the kids. I loved being a part of their family.

Steve and Dom came to my graduation party after I finished college. Erica and Brittany celebrated with me at my wedding shower and my bachelorette party. Steve and Erica danced together at my wedding reception.

We lived life together. Steve was a once-in-a-lifetime friend who made a huge impact on me. He taught me about love, acceptance, generosity, caring for others. He is one of the most generous people I've ever known. He took in children who were not biologically his. He took me in.

I found out last night that Steve passed away. I am heartbroken for Erica and the kids. I can't imagine the pain they are feeling right now. I hope and pray that Steve could see God through me during all of our dinners together at Fiddler's Hearth, during the nights when Dom and Aley would come in my room after I had been sleeping and I would hug them and send them back to bed, when he would come to my campus ministry meetings with me on Thursday nights in college. I hope I will see him again one day in heaven.

Thank you for your friendship, Steve. I will miss you.