The adoption process was over before we knew it. It actually went by kind of quickly. A new birth certificate was issued for Allie with our names in the spaces that said MOTHER and FATHER. We were Allie’s legal parents for only a couple of months before we left Northern California and trekked diagonally back across the country to Florida. We thought that would make things easier, but in some ways, things got harder.
Living in South Florida was much more expensive than living in Humboldt County, so I took on odd jobs to supplement our income. I worked as a cashier. I built web sites. I took on freelance writing jobs. I tuned up my chain saw and worked as a tree trimmer. I was grateful for any work I could get, but I didn’t think this was a sustainable way of providing for my family as I got older. We started thinking about what to do long-term. We had health insurance for Allie, but Susan and I didn’t. I loved the work I was doing with the missions agency, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to continue to raise support, do the traveling that was required, work odd jobs, and give Susan the help she needed to care for Allie. I needed to find something that was more permanent and stable.
We started going to church at Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale. We were part of the church in its early years when it was first founded and much smaller and still had many friends there. The pastor at the time, Bob Coy, had compassion for families who had children with special needs, and brought on a man who, himself, had special needs; Joel Sonnenberg (check out his story -it’s phenomenal). He developed a ministry that focused on families caring for children with special needs. We reached out to Joel via email and he responded immediately to us and invited us to take a tour.
Allie loved going to church there, and we loved the volunteers that cared for Allie. As relationships developed, we learned that the communications team for the church was looking for somebody with ministry, web, and writing experience to spearhead a strategy to expand the church’s reach into social media, which was right down my alley. After some time volunteering with the web team and having a few conversations with the director of media, I was offered a new position to develop a social media presence for the church. It has turned out to be a good fit for our family all the way around. It seems that even when we were in our most desperate times, God was preparing us for something we didn’t even know would suit us. That brought a tremendous peace to our lives.
Where strength comes from
Susan continues to work every single day with strong, faithful determination. No one notices her as she goes through the day, but everything she does benefits others. I’m convinced she saved Allie’s life. She makes me fearless because no matter what I try to do, she backs me and keeps my head in the game.
So much of what you’ve read up to this point comes from my perspective. This is a story about Allie, but it’s filtered through me. But I’m the me I am because of Susan. None of what I’ve written could have ever been typed onto an empty computer screen if she wasn’t with me.
One afternoon a few years ago, I recorded a conversation as I compiled thoughts to turn into content for our story. What follows is a transcript of the conversation we had around a list of “Big Questions” we continue to work through in our day-to-day lives.
Big Question 1: How long did the worst part of your grief last?
Susan: I don’t know how long it lasted because I’m still grieving.
Bryon: (I probably should have said something to comfort my wife at this point, but instead, like most dudes, I talk about what I think) For me, grief has diminished, but it comes back in small waves sometimes.
Susan: I guess the worst of my grief lasted from the time we left the hospital until we moved back to Florida. I think that’s how long my grief lasted. I think my grief is so deep I can’t express it in a way that people would consider “proper.” I thought if I did express it, I was going to lose myself. There would be no coming back.
Bryon: What do you mean? Lose yourself? Do you mean you’d have a nervous breakdown or something?
Susan: That or worse. I felt like I had to be strong for everyone in the family, and one little crack of emotional vulnerability would lead to everything crumbling.
Big Question 2: How do you deal with grief now?
Susan: I don’t know how I deal with grief now.
Bryon: Does Ben and Jerry’s ice cream play a role?
Susan: (laughing) Potato chips do. Comfort foods do, but I’ve been trying to eat really healthy so the eating doesn’t get out of control. We need to stay healthy for Allie (she gives me a scolding look because in our family I’m known as “the bottomless pit; I’ve never met a meal I couldn’t finish”). When I feel sad, I go out and take my sister shopping (Susan’s sister, Debi, -one of Allie’s favorite people in the universe- is going blind and cannot drive). We go for coffee. We relax. I try to sidetrack myself. But I guess I’m not really grieving. I’m just stuffing the grief down. (Debi and her husband Michael moved to Atlanta shortly after this was recorded. Providence has brought new family and grandchildren through the marriage of our son Aaron so that Susan continues to have people to spoil and love.)
Bryon: Are you stuffing the grief down or are you still healing?
Susan: I think I’m still healing. It comes in waves.
Bryon: Tim’s out of jail now.
Susan: Tim’s out of jail. You go on his Facebook and see he’s having fun. He’s at the fair. He’s out partying with his friends. He has his life back. Allie will never get her life back. His being out of prison is opening up a whole new area of grief.
Bryon: Is it grief or anger?
Susan: It’s sadness and anger. Bitterness. Why does he get to live his life? He’ll get married. He might have more kids. Allie doesn’t have that option. Her disability is for life. It’s not something she’s going to recover from. And, yet, after his three years parole, he’s scot-free.
Bryon: How come you can’t just forgive him. And forget?
Susan: I have forgiven him.
Bryon: Even though he hasn’t asked for it? (There will be more about this posted in the near future.)
Susan: Even though he hasn’t asked for it. I’ve forgiven him because I think that was the first step in healing for me. But you can never forget.
Bryon: So “forgive and forget” isn’t even a real thing?
Susan: No. I think you can forgive somebody, but you don’t have to forget what he did. You can’t forget. I can’t forget what he did to Allie. Everyday Allie is a constant reminder of what he did.
Big Question 3: Do you feel like you deal with grief better?
Susan: I think now, I’ve learned to bring it to the Lord when I’m having a bad day. I think I’m learning that it’s okay to be sad; I don’t have to do something to get rid of it. It’s a human emotion. It’s ok. It’s part of healing. But I noticed it hits me at the most ridiculous times. Things on TV suddenly make me want to cry. There’s a sadness that flows just under the surface. If I see a tragedy in a TV show or on the news, it pushes me over the edge.
Big Question 4: What’s the most confusing thing about being the parent of a disabled child?
Bryon: Here’s what I mean about confusing: you’ve lived your life the best way you can and then, suddenly, you’re the parent of a disabled child. You think you’re doing everything right, and God lets this happen to you.
Susan: I get confused sometimes and ask God why he let this happen, but then I’m reminded that I don’t see the big picture. I think about all the lives Allie has touched. Someone left a post recently on Facebook encouraging us to get it all out there and write about this because what we’ve done by adopting Allie has encouraged them to become foster parents and to adopt little kids on the verge of becoming orphans. They, too, have questions about why God would let such things happen, but even while they’re asking the questions, they’re doing something to change a little kid’s life.
[Susan continues] I think of all the doctors and nurses and all the other people we’ve met as we take care of and love Allie. Her testimony has touched so many lives. But not knowing the big picture is still confusing to me. I don’t know where all this is going and why. But I’m learning that you just have to press on and see what God does next.
Where are my Angels?
“See that you do not despise or think less of one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven [are in the presence of and] continually look upon the face of My Father who is in heaven.”
— Matthew 18:10
When Charity and Aaron were growing up, we always told them they had angels that watched over them. When something bad happened to Charity or she was a little melancholy, she would ask, “Dad, where are my angels?”
When Charity was a teenager, she taught herself to play guitar and write songs. She wrote a song called “Where Are My Angels?” that became pretty popular around our town with the kids in her school. Other local bands covered the song and it became a local punk rock hit.
Because our family has moved so much, we’ve never been able to find the lyrics to the song anywhere. Charity wrote the song in a journal that had gotten lost over the years. I don’t remember any of the words, but I remember that the tune and the chorus were haunting. The sadness of the melody matches the mood of Allie’s story. But as Allie’s story plays out, we discover God sends angels to us all along the way. It’s been our job to learn how to recognize them.
“Isn’t it obvious that all angels are sent to help out with those lined up to receive salvation?”
— Hebrews 1:14