Tag Archives: loss

Far Away

Every now and again I have a moment.

You know, a moment. A moment when I’m not sure. A moment where I hope all we believed we were meant to do is what we were truly meant to do and not some hideous, horrendous mistake. A moment where I find myself struggling with all we left behind. A moment where I feel displaced instead of where I belong. Lost instead of found. Empty instead of full. Absent instead of there.

Far away.

And I chide myself for it, these moments. My mind knows better than to indulge them because I know the pitfalls of backward looking. Sometimes you just can’t second-guess going in the direction God takes you. It smacks of looking back to Egypt and might land you wandering in the desert for 40 years. Better to seek Him further, pray for direction, find your way, and be content.

But I can’t. Not today.

In these last few weeks, I’ve struggled. In our absence, our former town has been earthquaked and hurricaned.  An old friend from Lititz, newly back from Afghanistan, lost his home to the raging fires in Texas. Our church lost one of its youngest members to cancer, a courageous little warrior named Conner, gone home to be with Jesus and just five years old. And tonight, at his memorial service, the entire county has been flooded like it hasn’t been since 1972.

And here in Nebraska it was a beautiful 72 degrees and sunny. It just doesn’t seem right.

Funny,  I thought the simple missing of my friends and work and house and life would be the tempter to send me looking backward. But instead all the calamity and loss has taken me there . I’m far away from my friends and they are hurting. And even though there probably isn’t a single thing I can do for any of them to make it better, my heart longs to be there. If only to stand there. If only to pray with them.

And so from here I pray. I can’t be there but He can be. So know, dear friends, that I’m praying for you all tonight. For your safety, for your sadness, for your broken hearts. I’m praying that the clouds will part, the sun will shine, and that God will keep you close.

And in that, maybe I’m not so far away after all.







Dancing Shadows: A Farewell to Julie

Yesterday we lost a dear, old friend. Just like that, she left this earth. A sudden, stunning exit.

I met Julie Loyd Benner when I was 16 years old, standing in front of the Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. I liked her immediately because she was straightforward and came with no pretenses. She was who she was. She was smart, brilliant. A computer wizard and a self-described geek with an eye for detail and artistry. She was an enthusiastic people person, but when I met her that day in 1982, she was unsure of herself in this. She worried that she would overstep her bounds with people; laugh too loudly, speak too intensely, say too much, or say the wrong thing. We were alike in this. It was years later when we had the conversation where she told me she had learned that having a gentle and quiet spirit had nothing to do with how loud you were. And she was musical, a worshipper. And that day when I was 16 she came over and introduced herself to me specifically to talk about worshipful things. Another dear friend of mine had played her this little ditty of a tune I had written, and she came to tell me it inspired her, that she heard God’s Spirit in it and wanted to encourage me to write more. At the time, I really appreciated her words but was too insecure to believe her. I find it ironic that she told me the same thing recently about the writing she’d read in this blog, and again, I was hard-pressed to believe her. I guess some battles are fought over a lifetime. I think Julie understood that.

A few years later, Julie and I found ourselves in the same town, the same church, the same circles. She was my sister’s roommate and would visit me in at my dorm in college. I remember coming home to my room and finding her written notes of encouragement on the whiteboard on my door. “Hey Toni, I saw your pink and green neon shirt with matching sunglasses on Sunday and thought it was a great look for you..” What can I say, it was the 80’s. Her townhouse became something of the home in town for the single church ladies. I spent a lot of time there, alternating between having fun party times and serious Bible studies and faith discussions. Later, we were teammates and partners on a missions trip to Trinidad. I recall being amazed by her ability to strike up a conversation wherever she went. She could make people feel comfortable just by smiling at them. Was interested in anything you had to say, especially if you had something to teach her. She would ask you a hundred questions, and cock her head to one side, listening intently to your explanation. She might even take notes. She never seemed to tire of listening and learning from people. Even in a foreign country, she shined like that. My brother took to walking around with her and going up to people on the street saying “Have you ever heard a laugh like this?” and every single time he said it, it still struck her funny and she would laugh on cue. Her amazing laugh, a tremendous, resounding sound reminiscent of so many clarinets and so many wind chimes heaving in rhythm . I remember sitting at the dinner table at some home in Trinidad while the people served us this truly yucky stuff–I forget what it was called–but it looked like slimy seaweed. She chatted it up and ate the stuff, valiantly. It was all I could do to swallow, much less speak. Wow, did I admire her grace then!

Then came the day when we were walking around the Polo Field in Rothsville and she was telling me about this man she met. How she was sure he was “the one.” And he was. It was so easy to see how Gary and Julie were meant for each other. Two truly delightful, joyful, vigorous souls. Together they could make you practically bust a gut laughing. But they could also turn around and share deep things of faith with tremendous intensity. Julie was a person of profound feeling and emotion. And whatever she was ruminating was right on her face, heart on her sleeve, just out there with it. On a perfect spring day, I sang in their wedding, the most music-filled ceremony I have ever, ever, ever attended in my life. I still remember the song I sang, “Father God, and I always think of her when it comes up on my iPod. I’m probably the only person on earth with that song as a permanent fixture on shuffle.

When Orlando came into my life, we became “couple friends” and did so many things together. Restaurants and festivals and concerts and movies. Julie and Gary were foodies with refined palates. Orlando and I were, and still are, much less discriminating. I can still hear the uproarious noise we made when we saw “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” at the Allen Theater. But my favorite memory was a trip the four of us took to Newport, Rhode Island, to see the mansions. Such a dichotomy, we were. Orlando and I went through the museums looking at the treasures, learning bits about the Vanderbilts, commenting on the china patterns and the furniture. Gary and Julie rented the tour headsets. I still have a picture in my mind of Julie examining an exhibit, listening to every possible piece of information on that thing and inspecting every single artifact. It literally took her hours longer to tour those homes than it took us, not that we cared. We had a grand time.

It wasn’t too long after that when our twins joined our family. I’ve never seen two people more excited to hear of a pregnancy as Gary and Julie were for us. Gary, being a twin himself, had and still has, a special place in his heart for our boys. Eventually Orlando and I were called to a different church and our times with Gary and Julie became infrequent. We reconnected on Facebook several years ago now, but other than running into them occasionally, we didn’t get to see them as much as we wanted to. But even through a thin medium like Facebook, Julie’s precious heart still shone through. Encouraging comments, kind words, fun pictures and posts. Orlando and Gary just ran into each other this weekend and we were going to finally make a date. Time just ran out on us. At least for now it did.

Julie became sick this weekend and left us yesterday for the perfection of heaven. And her departure makes me sadder than sad for Gary and for all those saints who loved her deeply. But I have been able, in this mournful day, to see a glimmer of joy. Just a glint. A flash. A voice in the wind. I see her laughing and dancing and rejoicing. I see her listening intently, with her head cocked to one side–finally, as my sister would say, getting the answers to all the questions she has asked after so many years. All of this with Jesus, the One whose presence she had longed for so intensely through her days on this earth. Getting to see Him face to face, no longer through a glass, darkly. Her joy is complete. Her race finished. Her “Well done, good and faithful servant” given and received.

And in the shadow of that, I hear her laughing.

We love you, Julie. See you soon.

Cliffwalk, Newport, RI

Impressive desserts


The Goldfish Dilemma

I don’t enjoy animals that can only look at me with one eye at a time. Birds, lizards, fish. Those staring eyes have always kind of creeped me out.

So no one was more surprised than I when we found ourselves with a tank full of fish a few years ago. Someone from school gave Orlando this enormous fish tank, so in trying to be a good sport I played along with the idea of fish pets. I was hoping at least we could fill it with beautiful, tropical looking creatures that would remind me of the beach. Make me think of sunshine and Coppertone. No such luck. Our fish tank is filled with goldfish. Dirty, ever-growing goldfish. Believe me when I tell you this was not by choice.

Several Fall Fests ago each of our boys won a goldfish. (For those of you who don’t know, Fall Fest is a carnival sort of thing our church hosts every year.) We carted them home in Chinese soup containers and set them loose in our new, big watery box. Okay, so no big deal, we have four goldfish in our tank. We can still get prettier ones to add in, right? It didn’t quite turn out that way. The next Sunday morning I arrived at church and began to find Chinese soup containers everywhere. Fish included. In the coatrooms, in the bathrooms, on the counters. I ended up with nine containers of abandoned goldfish. What’s a girl to do? Not having the heart to flush them or let them die a slow, oxygen-less death, we added them to our tank. So much for the tropics. Now we house 13 boring goldfish.

Except one of them isn’t quite so boring.

Among our common-as-cornflakes variety of goldfish, we have one fishie that isn’t really gold at all. She’s white. With a long elegant tail that sweeps in the water as I might imagine an angel’s wings would move. She’s a goldfish, but she’s a mutant of some sort. The only way you could identify her as belonging to the goldfish family is by a small, orange circle on her side. Our boys affectionately named this fish “Dot.” And needless to say she is the favorite in the tank. Maybe because she’s the prettiest, or maybe just because she’s the only one that is distinct from the others.Dot has been our only named family pet for going on three years now.

So what to do with these fish as we consider moving to Nebraska has been a serious point of consternation for us. My vote has been to give them to someone to use in an outdoor pond. Most of them have become quite large to be in a tank. (I often tell Orlando that some of them are big enough to filet. :)) Plus I can’t even begin to conceive of how we would get them there alive. I can just see Dominick sitting in the van with a bucket of fish on his lap, getting sloshed by the water every time the van stops too quickly. Or heaven forbid we find them all floating, bottom up,  in the merciless, 120 degree heat that will overwhelm the inside of our van when we stop for lunch at McDonald’s. Iowa in July could kill anybody, much less a cold-blooded fish. Orlando is, of course, much more gentle about it. “We’ll find a way,” he says. “We don’t want to add trauma to an already hard enough event.”

“Trauma? They’re not real pets. They’re just fish for goodness sakes! One step up from bugs!” (Who, generally speaking, can at least look at me with two eyes at a time!)

“Not to the boys,” he says. “And what about Dot?”

Well, okay, he’s got me there. Maybe we can leave the rest behind and take Dot along. She’s just one fish. We could take her into McDonald’s with us in one of those fashionable, fish-carrier things. It could work. Maybe.

So imagine the scene the other day when Orlando noticed Dot wasn’t moving so well in the water. She was hardly swimming, and when she did, she tilted to one side and sunk back to the bottom. Her spine looked bent almost, as if she were curling up in pain. It didn’t look so good, and for a species that, generally speaking, is dead or alive with no in between, it appeared to us that Dot was on her way out.

Ever the practical member of the clan, I began to think what a blessing this could be. It will be so much easier to leave the fish behind if there is no Dot in the mix. It’s hard to miss a nameless fish. So I was thinking happy thoughts about the demise of Dot. Until Nicholas ruined it for me.

Benjamin and Nicholas have shown the most love toward the fish. Dot was “Benjamin’s” fish, meaning he was the guy who initially won her.  Upon seeing that she was sick, he got up and left the room. I checked on him, but he was fine. I think he just didn’t want to see her die. But not Nicholas. Nicholas came into the room and sat in his dad’s lap and wailed. Watching her pathetic swimming efforts, that little boy would not leave her proverbial side. Big, mournful tears falling down his face. He cares about this little, mutant creature as much as I might love a warm, cuddly puppy. So much for being one step up from a bug. I put him to bed while he prayed earnestly for the health of this fish, so great his love for the little beast.

Ugh. Now what do I do?

Well, my mother’s heart got the best of me and I did what I do best. I got out my computer and googled  “Fish swimming sideways,” and treasure hunted around for information on sick fish. I found out that goldfish can have all sorts of physical ailments that people actually treat them for. Seriously, did you know you can buy antibiotic goldfish food? Who knew? After reading fish blogs and fish medical reports for an hour, I finally came to conclusion that Dot had a common ailment known as “Fish Bladder Disease.”  The cure? Feed her cooked peas without the outer skin.

So Orlando scooped her out of the tank, put her in a bucket, and I shelled peas and dropped them in the water until she actually ate one. And then I fed the rest to the other fish just in case they were thinking of swimming sideways, too.

And today, She looks much better. Still a tad bent, but swimming straighter and definitely not hanging out at the bottom of the tank. The fish doctor info said recovery would take 3-5 days, so it looks like we’re off to a good start. Benjamin and Nicholas were chattering at the tank this afternoon. “Dot, you’re swimming so great! You look so much better! Yay!” they squealed in their little boy voices.

And I must admit I feel a bit relieved. One tragedy averted and one mommy educated. I had no idea that a child could care so much about a fish. I guess a pet doesn’t need to be cute and cuddly to be valued. It doesn’t even need to be something you’ve chosen to have. It just needs to be alive. It just needs to be yours.

So I guess I’ll be holding a sloshing bucket of fish all the way to Nebraska this summer. Oh my, and it’s such a long drive. I wonder if they make “fish Dramamine”?

Our "filet-able" fish, with Dot off to the right

Nicholas with the fish, a few days after we brought them home.

Three Words That Changed Everything

I was born in the valley of the shadow of death.

I am the daughter of an Irish mother and an Italian father. My father died suddenly and tragically three months before I was born. A young man, just 39, with seven children and one on the way, his death was a turning point for my family. There was life the way it was before his death and life the way it was after it. And I was born right there at the pivot. So as a child I felt strangely linked to my father’s passing, like in some way my life was birthed from the ashes of his death. That somehow we had brushed by each other between worlds and we had exchanged his final breath for my first. A cloud of mourning settled  over my cradle and stretched into my childhood games and backyard play times. I could see his death in my family’s eyes. Their tears of joy always mixed with sadness when they looked at me.

My family was Catholic, so my earliest memories contain images of tall statues, burning candles, swinging incense, stained-glass windows, and reverent people wearing black robes. I recall sitting in mass on Easter morning as a young child, staring at the huge crucifix that hung behind the priest, wondering what it was all about. This Jesus was a mystery to me. I saw Him as two things: the little baby that was carried around by the Holy Mother, and this lifeless man hanging in front of me. I knew Him by all the right words. Savior, Lord, Christ. But to me He seemed weak and helpless. Someone to be pitied.  Someone who couldn’t defend Himself. Someone who was dead. And dead was something I was well acquainted with.

When I was about nine years old, my family moved to a very small town in Central Florida. Somehow and some way, I found myself drawn to the only church in town, a tiny protestant church with a sand parking lot and clear windows. I recall walking  through the doors that first day and immediately encountering the large, white cross hanging in the front. I found a seat next to a kind-looking elderly woman, and sat down, puzzling.  She smiled at me and handed me a program, and I took the opportunity to ask her the one question that was burning in my mind. “Ma’am,” I asked her pointing to the cross, “Where’s Jesus?”

And this woman, who was old and wrinkly and absolutely radiant with the light of God, looked at me like as though she was expecting the question. She leaned close to me, and whispered three words. Three words that pierced right through my heart and have remained there ever since. “He is risen!” she spoke softly in her warm, joyous voice. “He is risen!”

And in that moment, all I could say was “Ohhh!”  All of a sudden those three words blossomed in the light of that white cross in front of me. He’s isn’t up there because He isn’t dead! He has power beyond death, over death, in spite of death. He, unlike my dear father, conquered death. He is risen!

And as I sat there in that wooden pew, a young girl who had just stumbled in off the street, I knew that I was forever altered by this powerful truth. This God who left the cross and the grave was indeed living, and He was calling out to me. I could exchange the breath of death I had carried for so long for the clear breeze of His resurrected Life. And at that moment, I could feel myself begin to gulp in this clean air as one who had just emerged from a cloud of dirt and dust.

In the weeks to come, I would return to that little church to learn more of Him from those precious, elderly saints. And in the years to come, I would move far from there, and even travel the world in His service. But I must say, when I think of Easter, I always remember that little church and those whispered words. And even though I have walked with Him for many years and have heard those words many times, my heart still leaps with the revelation of their meaning as it did the day I first heard them.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In His great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you” (I Peter 1:3-4). When all is said and done, the death and resurrection of Christ is our greatest hope. It is the cornerstone of our faith. It paves the way for our redemption, and our adoption as sons and daughters of God.

“He is risen.” Three words that changed me. Three words that changed everything.

Happy Easter!

My parents, Marie and Anthony Juliano, at the boardwalk in Asbury Park, NJ.

Missing Nelda

Nelda Stutzman Yoder Vogt  was my friend.

I can even go as far as saying that Nelda was one of the best friends the great state of Nebraska ever sent my way. Nelda was Orlando’s aunt, the wife of his mother’s brother. I must admit that our friendship was somewhat unexpected and unlikely. When I met her, back when Orlando and I were first married, she was about 60 years old and working as a waitress in my in-laws’ restaurant out on the interstate. She was short, wore big-framed glasses, and had beautiful white hair that she wore fluffed up on her head. She always buttoned the top button of her shirts, and I never, ever saw her in a pair of closed toed shoes. Even in the middle of the harsh Nebraska winter, she would come to work with sandals and socks on. Let’s suffice it to say that Nelda always did things her own way.

I got to know her working the evening shift at the restaurant. We would wait on tables together and close up the place. Nelda was quite independent, and at first I thought this was going to drive me crazy. She loathed the ice cream machine, but always felt it was her job to clean it every single evening. And by golly, did she clean the thing. She’d get out this little step stool because she was too short to pour the bleach water in the top. She would stand there with the bucket of water, teetering enough that I would feel the need to stand behind her, and scrub scrub scrub. It took a long, long time of my working with her before she would let me dump that stupid bucket of water in there for her. But after a while she let me. And then she started to ask for my help doing the daily jumble puzzles in the newspaper. Eventually we began to do things outside of the restaurant and she would come over sometimes and we would all go to Lincoln together. She enjoyed fajitas and seafood and well, you just couldn’t get those things anywhere but in the city. And over time we grew closer and I learned her story.

First I discovered that Nelda was an identical twin. Her sister’s name was Elda, and they were such similar creatures it made sense that they had such similar names. Of course, they were very close and so not surprisingly, Nelda and Elda married brothers. Two of the five Yoder brothers married Nelda and Elda in a double wedding.  They farmed together and had a dairy together for a number of years. Wallace and Nelda had two children together, Madge and Shane. But then Wallace was involved in tractor accident and  was tragically killed.  She told me that it took her a long time to come to a place where she could grieve her loss because “Darn it, she had kids to raise and a boy to get better.” (Shane had been injured in that same accident.) So she moved her mind off her grief and she did her best to set it squarely on her kids and what she needed to do to next.

Somewhere in there she owned a business, she fought cancer, and she married a jovial truck driver named Lonnie. She loved Lonnie, but still I remember her telling me one day that “Wally” had been the love of her life and that’s just the way it was. Even though I never walked in her shoes, I think I understood that. Even so, Wally may have been the love of her life, but her children and her grandchildren were certainly the apple of her eye. Her admiration for them was well known. Her daughter’s intelligence, her son’s talents, her grandchildren and their beautiful singing voices, her new grandbaby and her lovely eyes. I was able to share with her the struggles I felt at the time, battling infertility and not being sure if we would ever have the family that we wanted. She  encouraged me that even though life “isn’t always what you expect,” I should look for the good in it and the good will come.  If she could do it, she said, then I could do it.

And she helped me think that yes, maybe I could do it.

I’m sure Nelda was a lot of things I know nothing about, but for me, an unexpected twist  in her was her love for the weather. Since I am a weather geek myself, I found this trait particularly endearing. I think times being different, someone, somewhere should have encouraged the woman to go to college to study meteorology. I recall one summer evening Orlando and I were at the restaurant and we spotted a tornado out the back window, maybe five miles down the road. (You can see that far in Nebraska). Having not heard anything about tornado warnings, we called Nelda because we knew she would know. All of a sudden,  Nelda was calling us from her cell phone in her Buick–she was out chasing the stupid tornado and had spotted it in a field! Orlando was pleading with her to go home and take cover but she would have none of it and made it home to tell the tale.

Like I said, she always did things her own way.

Nelda died on September 11, 2007. She had developed a brain tumor that began by robbing her of her strength, then her memories, and eventually took her life. The last time I saw her, we had lunch at Red Lobster  . My boys were laughing with her and Lonnie about the live lobsters in the lobby, but even then she was noticeably changed. But what I remember most about that day was her smile. She couldn’t remember if she had ordered her lunch or what to call her food, but she would look at me and Orlando, surrounded by these little boys, and she would just grin. Somehow, in all she had lost, she remembered our story and was able to rejoice with us.

Nebraska without Nelda will be tough, but she would tell me to look for the good, so that’s what I’ll do. Maybe I’ll start by chasing a few tornadoes myself….

The Box from the Basement

When I fell in love with Orlando I could fit all my worldly possessions in my car. Today this is certainly not the case. In marrying him, I took on a sentimental, old soul who is connected to his ancestry by a plethora of dishes, trinkets, books, paintings, and furniture. That’s Great Grandpa Gascho’s glass cabinet–maybe he made himself–and it is a treasure chest. Inside sits Great Grandma Gascho’s glass vase with the scalloped edge and rounded handles. And next to that is Grandma Stella’s carnival glass bowl. And on that shelf is Great Aunt Jessie’s plate collection. Valuable antiques and garage sale frippery jumbled together in a vast array of special memories. A slideshow of his life. Quite beautiful, really. But add this piece of furniture to the others like it, plus eight years of baby gear and little boy toys, and you get the idea. Our house is stuffed!

I saved so little up to the point where we were married, I forgot that I even owned anything prior to the event. So recently when Orlando was sorting through the collections in the basement in preparation for our move–deciding what to sell, what to toss, what to keep, what to give, like we learned from TLC–he came up the stairs carrying a box, plopped it on the table and said “This one is yours.”

Really? I have a box?

I opened it to find a bunch of paper-old college notebooks and folders. Essays written for classes I took so long ago they seemed almost comic–how stupid we are when we know everything.  But then I came across a stack bundled together with a rubber band, and I found something that took me by surprise. Letters! The real kind. The old fashioned ones that required a stamp and a mastery of basic penmanship. Letters from the dear girl next door who wrote to cheer me up after I moved from Florida. Cards from college friends sent during summer breaks. Thank you notes and postcards and old wedding invitations and baby announcements. And then a special stack. Letters from my mother.

I choked up just looking at her handwriting. Almost eleven years ago, I held my mother’s hand as she went on to Glory, and yes,  I know with every ounce of my being that we will meet again. Even so, I miss her every single day. So as I read her letters, one after the other, I heard her voice so completely in my head it was startling. I think I’d almost forgotten the cadence of her speech and the warmth of her tone and the humor in her heart, but it was all there in her writing just as if she were sitting there with me. I laughed when she talked about silly things like her favorite baseball team (the Mets–who were actually good at the time of the writing of the letter.)  Every time she wrote the word “Mets” she enclosed it in a heart. In one letter she told me she was sending me some vitamins and gave me a direct order to take them–I’d forgotten that she’d taken care me like that. In another letter she spoke of my future as a teacher and reminded me it was a task I was “born for.” Such encouragement!  And they all ended with a simple “I love you.” I knew that–I always knew that–but it was so nice to hear it again.

I guess we all have our treasures, whatever they may be.  They remind us of how we got here, and good or bad they are a part of us. I’ll have to remember that as I move along from here and transplant myself  in the land of Orlando’s heritage. I’ll have to remember that I have a story of my own, and even though its memories are preserved on old scraps of paper and not heirloom antiques, they represent a lifetime of lessons and counsel, of friendship and love, of loss and redemption.

And the box? We taped it back up to take to Nebraska. You don’t garage sale a treasure chest.