The first day of January found us heading north from Austin. It turned out that our dear friend Andrea, who was one of the many exchange students The Music Man's parents had over the years, and his lovely wife Sarah were in Dallas over the holidays and reached out to see if we were in the area. Just picture it: he's Italian and loves Texmex, she's Texan and loves Italian. They are a match made in heaven! It was Andrea and Sarah's wedding that we went to at a winery in Tuscany back in 2009. And it was, without a doubt, infinitely more magical than it even sounds... except for the night before the wedding after the delicious Texas BBQ when a bunch of us ripped off our fancy party clothes (don't worry, it was dark out) and dove into the pool... and I was so nervous and in such a hurry to jump in that I managed to break a toe. Major bummer. If only I had been willing to sacrifice my favorite dress and new Dansko clogs to the chlorine gods and go all in. Hindsight is always 20/20, right? Anyway, Sarah was a stunningly beautiful bride, but even more catching was just how gracious she was... and for days on end (it being a destination wedding, and all). We jumped at the chance to see them on US soil and joined them in Dallas for some extravagant Texmex snacks. We had a really great night swapping stories and stuffing ourselves silly. These are some wonderful people and we are delighted to hopefully be able to connect with them again on our trip overseas.
Immediately after, we intended to drive a few hours to my folks' house in northern Texas, but we both found ourselves slipping into a food coma, so we played it safe and slept at a Love's truck stop. We love Love's. Love's has been very good to us on our adventures. And besides, it's named Love's!
We woke up on the 2nd to bitter cold in Rhome, Texas, and breathed a deep sigh of relief that 2013 could no longer harm us. We laughed that we were in Rhome (Rome?!) Texas, the day after seeing our Texan and Italian friends, the day after The Music Man had multiple unexpected conversations at a party (in Texas) about Italy, the day after I declared that we absolutely must make a final decision about whether or not we were going to Italy after Jerusalem so we could buy our freaking plane tickets already. I think God likes to have much more fun with us and has a much better sense of humor than most of us realize. So we prayed about whether we should go to Italy after, and then for how long... and I must say that praying became a lot more fun since that whole Sozo thing when we realized that God actually talks to us and we can actually hear him. To The Music Man's delight and my horror, we both heard "6 weeks". You might be thinking, "boo hoo!" but for someone who prefers being home and having a routine and knowing where I'm going to lay my little head at night and how we're going to survive and all that, 6 weeks of carrying another person and all your possessions (including a car seat!) on your back is a super long and expensive amount of time. I've always maintained that Europe isn't actually that much fun... until you're home. While you're there it's exhausting but once you've had a night back in your own bed and you're laying around checking out all the pictures you took, well... IT. WAS. AMAZING! Am I right?
We fired up The Sozo Van and started to drive, only to discover that something was horribly wrong. When we pulled in the night before, the van was perfectly fine... and the next morning, not so much. We literally had no warning on this one, and I have this weird sixth sense thing about when something is wrong with a car and what it might be (such as when I correctly identified it being the CV joint in November or the alternator in February). After a lifetime of riding around in old beater cars, it's more like an intuitive game of pin the tail on the donkey and less like actually diagnosing the problem. The Music Man somehow managed to get us up a small hill from a full stop with only third and fourth gear, and onto the freeway, and we had just enough gas to hopefully get us to Wichita Falls, where my folks live (although we did have to blow through a few stop lights to make it to our destination). By the time we got there, the cold Little Buddy no doubt picked up at the zoo in San Antonio was in full effect, and Mama and Baba were in desperate need of some serious down time.
We largely ignored our woes for 2 days whilst enjoying the company of Grampy Dan and Granny Penny... including a lovely visit to the Prairie in Oklahoma (where we saw real live bison!) but on the night of the 3rd day, The Music Man became violently ill. On the night of the 7th day, a mere 12 hours after Little Buddy had kicked his cold and was finally back to his old self, he also became violently ill (and lost over 10% of his body weight over the course of the next week).
At night, Little Buddy was beyond miserable for one reason or another, so I was up almost all night holding and nursing him in a chair in the living room for the first 9 nights. These nights were physically exhausting but emotionally beautiful (comforting him and meeting his needs), and spiritually they were an absolute gift. I encouraged The Music Man to get at least some sleep during the night so he could take day shift. So even though I was holding a sick baby, I was also getting some serious alone time -- which felt like a day at spa. For two people who both replenish primarily by spending time alone, the complete lack of alone time the last few months has been a real shocker. I definitely hadn't spent much time pondering life or talking to God since cancer. But here I was again: exhausted and sleep deprived, needy and desperate, and sporadically raging (the holidays were actually pretty hard)... but I was showing up. I've always been of the mind that even when you're really pissed at God, it's better to talk to Him, or even scream at Him, than it is to stuff it down and pretend it's not there. It's not like He doesn't already know what's in our hearts. It's not like He can't handle it. During those long nights I shouted (whisper-shouted, so as to not wake the baby), and we talked, and I finally found my tears again, and I spent hours and hours praying in a way I've never prayed before about letting go of a lifetime of fears and pains and regrets. And then on day 10, a few hours after I considered myself finished with all of that, I finally took my turn being violently ill. I know I got it simply because it was going around, but it was as if my body's physical purging reflected the purging that had just taken place in my soul. Our bodies and muscles hold our memories, many of which I longed to be emptied of, so I surrendered to the sickness and embraced wave after wave of up and out. On the other side of it, my body felt like I'd been run over by a truck but I myself felt brand new... and still feeling sad but no longer feeling broken over losing our little Maybe.
Meanwhile, the van wasn't fixing itself. I repeatedly prayed that it would, but it didn't. At that point, we had about $1,000 -- which was exactly enough to either have the clutch replaced OR buy the parts to fix it ourselves and still have enough money for gas to get us back to Southern California. We prayed and asked Holy Spirit was the problem was. He said we indeed needed to replace the clutch, but I was skeptical because I've spent a lifetime driving old beater cars and I know the telltale warning signs of a clutch going out and we simply didn't experience those behaviors. So The Music Man did a little research and it turns out there's this one little plastic part that is sometimes the culprit. He ordered the part from Van Cafe in California and when it arrived, he and my Father, whom I affectionately refer to as Poppy, got to work. They had fun and successfully replaced the part, but it did not fix the problem.
So we prayed again. Same answer. But you know, the clutch is a big job and we didn't now no longer had enough money to take the car into the closest shop we could find that worked on old VW's (which was in Oklahoma, over 100 miles away), so we decided it was probable that the master cylinder had failed. The Music Man ordered the parts from Van Cafe in California, and when they arrived, he and Poppy got to work. They had more fun and did another great job replacing the master and slave cylinders, but it did not fix the problem.
So we prayed again. Same answer. Weird, right? Except by now, we definitely didn't have enough money left to take the van to the shop, even if we wanted to! We prayed about whether we should fix the clutch ourselves and heard yes, so we ordered the parts from Van Cafe and waited for UPS to come again.
Now you probably already know that this little situation at my parents' house was the first time The Music Man had ever done anything to an engine beyond checking the fluids and changing the fuel filter, but you might not know that my Poppy is a mechanical and engineering genius who has spent a lifetime fixing and designing and building a wide variety things. I think he's absolutely brilliant. The Music Man couldn't have had a better mentor for learning to work on the van, and we couldn't have been in a better, safer place to break down.
Our intended 7 days with my parents turned into 25, and it was a truly wonderful time! We are thankful for them and our time together for so many reasons. First of all, being sick in a van is the pits. And we weren't just in a van, we were in a van in the endless crazy cold of this wicked winter (which began mere moments after he hit the road in search of warm weather and sunny skies). So let's hear it for a warm, clean, spacious, fully childproofed house and a big cozy bed and an upright piano and a huge jacuzzi tub and a big, fenced yard (with LOTS of rocks to move using Grampy Dan's little Tonka excavator and dump truck), a telescope for stargazing, early bedtimes, yummy food, and a warm, spacious garage with lots of well worn tools with which to fix our broken down van...
But more than that, my parents are amazing Grandparents. Their specialty is just letting Little Buddy be himself and do what he does -- and they drink it in and delight in him, perfectly content to do nothing or anything at a moment's notice, with no real agenda other than to love and accept him. To be fair, they've been grandparents for something like 24 years now (my much older brother, Dann, started quite early, whereas we started quite late -- in fact, I went to his youngest child's high school graduation while I was pregnant), but I'm sure it's sometimes hard to contain themselves, not knowing if Little Buddy will be their last.
My Mama has this amazing way of coming up with fun activities to do with Little Buddy but has a knack for offering them in a way that is irresistible and implementing them in a way that is so natural and effortless. From planting seeds to moving rocks to drawing murals on the sidewalk to homemade puzzles to decorating a 2 year old boy's ultimate fantasy Christmas tree with all things unbreakable (complete with excavators and a paper chain and candy canes and worms fashioned out of pipe cleaners). I mean, Mama wasn't a preschool teacher for all those years for nothing!
She has always been really good at going with the flow, rolling with the punches, and winging it (which she calls punting). She's also really good at using humor to not let challenges get the best of her... like the proverb about the virtuous woman: she laughs at the days to come (Proverbs 31:25). She is such a strong, brave woman and while she is imperfect, just as we all are, she has loved and continues to love her family so well, so generously, so effortlessly. My parents are both pretty over the top when it comes to being generous. They won't just give you the shirts off their backs, they'll give you their whole hearts while they're at it. It's amazing. Half way through our time together, The Music Man said he finally understood why I am so aware of other peoples' needs and empathetic to other peoples' feelings (even if I pretend not to notice, it is impossible for me not to) -- it was my family culture and our way of life. When my big brother and I got in a fight, it was always the same thing: Poppy would sit us down and bust out the bible and read to us about esteeming each other higher than ourselves and putting each other's needs before our own. He's a good man, my Dad. He has always led by example and walked out in his own life so much more than anything he ever asked of us. He might have the world's oldest computer and "digital" camera (that stores up to 12 photos on a 5 & 1/4" floppy), but he is a man of the utmost integrity and commitment... and also he's almost always right, even about things like microwaves and electrical fields and Apple computers, even if sometimes it takes 20 and 30 years for science and/or popular culture to catch up with him.
I'm so grateful that Little Buddy got to have so much time with my folks, and that they got to have that time with him too. It was good for all of us, really. On the days we were waiting for parts (and nobody was barfing up a lung), we did a few projects that involved a bit of heavy labor and made a Texas sized pathway around the side of the house and moved a bunch of unrelatables to storage, thus making it possible for my father to reclaim his territory in the garage, and putter around doing all the the mad scientist, engineer-type-things he does so well.
What makes a parent great isn't that nothing bad ever happens to their kid, although that is a possible by-product and we all hope and pray that nothing awful ever happens to any of our little ones -- but what makes a great parent is that when your child experiences this imperfect world, they aren't in it alone. You are in it together with them -- to talk to them and listen to them and understand them and accept them exactly where they are at, even if it's really dark and uncomfortable for you. You love them no matter what -- all of them -- even the parts you don't know what to do with.
I've gone through many seasons with my parents over the course of my adult years, and here we are again learning to relate to each other in a whole new way, and loving each other has become more effortless and rewarding than ever. I really want to honor them publicly for all of these things that they are to me. Bless you guys...
In the end, The Music Man took his turn staying up for many nights, and... and he did it! He fixed The Sozo Van!! I mean, he took at least 100 pieces off that engine (including the transmission, which is a big deal), documented, cleaned, repaired, replaced... and did it all with all the love and care and attention that he puts into absolutely everything he does. And then he fired it up and we drove away and here we are 3,500 miles later and all is well.
It turned out that God was right: the pilot bearing was shredded (the replacement of which necessitated replacing the clutch, and when the clutch was removed it was impossible to ignore the numerous pieces of what had formerly been the pilot bearing).
My Poppy was so proud of The Music Man, and I was so proud of them both. My Dad, who is 70, mind you, and hasn't technically been under a car in a few years, was down there numerous times helping out in every way he could: answering questions, looking over The Music Man's good work, helping pry the transmission off and wrangle it back on, getting dirty, and being a friend. It was a really special time for all of us. I was under the car myself a few times too. The three of us managed to get that 100+ pound transmission off the engine, and then back on... but not without help. We wrestled with the tranny for close to an hour and could NOT get it back on. It's so hard to lift and maneuver that kind of weight while lying on your back and we were exhausted. You can't get the kind of leverage you need when you're reaching that far. We just couldn't get it and we were all aching and tired so I prayed for mechanic angels to come help us and -- and I don't care what you think or how it sounds, but here's what happened: we were all resting for a moment, trying to decide what the heck to do next when I got this funny feeling and I said, "this is it!" The Music Man was standing up and inspecting the thing through the engine above to see why it wasn't mounting and Poppy was below but was using both hands to twist something on either side of the tranny and I gave it a little push from behind and that whole huge mass of metal lifted up a half inch and over an inch and a half and was seated perfectly. The Music Man thought Poppy was pushing from below the engine but he wasn't, and Poppy thought The Music Man was pulling from above the engine but he wasn't, and I gave that thing a little push but there is no way I did that all by myself. It was really weird. A lot of weird things have been happening lately. Like that time a few days after Christmas when Little Buddy picked up and briefly held a white hot coal that jumped from a fire with his bare hand and started screaming in pain... but after we prayed for him and opened his hands to looks at them, there were no burns and other than being really scared he was perfectly fine. That's weird, right?
At some point mid-month, I went to a lab and had my blood tested for a post-cancer follow up. If memory serves, I hadn't had my titers (cancer marker levels) checked since mid-October and I was a few months overdue. The anticipation of getting the test and then waiting for the results is always a little nerve wracking... but the results once again showed that I am cancer free! We already knew in our hearts that it was true, but confirmation is always comforting. Every time I get that good report I remember my first doctor declaring that "once it starts to grow back, it will NOT go down again..." and banging his fist on the table with each piercing word, "IT. DOES. NOT. HAPPEN." Oh but it does. with God all things are possible. And we've started meeting other cancer miracles on our journey... I am not the only one. It does happen. Miracles do happen. Just keep that in your pocket, in case you even need a miracle of your own. I hope you never do, but just in case...
Little Buddy really blossomed musically during our visit. He started carrying a tune, writing his own songs, and strumming the guitar (with a surprisingly excellent meter and very sensitive phrasing -- no joke). It was good to be anchored for so long, but with the van repaired, we packed it up, said our sad goodbyes (and boy was Little Buddy ever sad to leave his beloved Grampy and Granny, and our sweet friend Robin), and headed out to make our way back to Austin. We stopped for a few hours to put our cargo case back on the van (we made a poor business decision when we decided to leave it to lighten our load) and have dinner with Benito, Dave, and Angel. We either had to stay in Austin for a few days until the storm had passed, or head out quick to get out in front of it. We had already payed to attend (what I hoped would be our last) conference in Pasadena, which started Wednesday at 2, and of course the person we wanted to see the most was first. We headed west about 10pm and it was a treacherous drive, but we prayed hard, drove slow through the fog and the ice and freezing rain, and stayed ahead of the worst of the storm. We slept from 4am til 9 then headed out for another long day of driving. Little Buddy was so incredibly patient. We had another night of very little sleep but we made it to Pasadena with 20 minutes to spare! That's like 30 hours of driving in less than 48 hours (with a toddler).
It was really disappointing not getting to see darling Auntie Ciara again as we'd planned, or not getting to spend time in Big Bend, or not getting to stop to see any of our many new friends in Phoenix (especially after repeatedly promising Little Buddy that we would stop to see Angela's family) but we were glad we pushed hard and got there for that first round.
We were grateful for such a special time with my folks but it was good to be our own little family again... and it was good to be back in Cali and feel the wonderful warmth of the sun!