In that moment I knew. I knew we must go.
We are self employed. We can work from anywhere. We homeschool our children. And we...? We are in the storm of all storms. And we needed a brief escape.
Ever since the storm first revealed itself early summer...I kept waking with images of Florida in my head. It was so strange. When this friend offered this trip...I knew this would be deeply emotional for me.
So on September 2nd, we hit the road. What an amazing adventure it has been. 47 hours each way driving. Some nights we camped. Many nights amazing friends insisted we stay with them. We are not a small family...and their generosity was clearly over the top. What a gift this trip has been. Every step of the way. To hanging with our friends in Boise, ID. To camping in an incredible state park in CO with a breathtaking view (and hair raising drive to get to it). To meeting with my close friend in CO and receiving an amazing gift that still leaves us shocked. To hanging with my amazing friend and business partner in Kansas, and bunking with another friend and business partner in Tennessee. The next night we arrived in Louisana and hung out with more amazing friends. As we were ready to hit the road to camp, they insisted we stay overnight. What an amazing night and they were so so kind. The final day we drove through Pensacola, FL where we bought our van. We went to the dealership and they repaired our window (oh...a sheet of plywood went flying off a truck we were passing in MO and shattered Zion's passenger window! It was rather terrifying!) temporarily and prayed with us. Dean mentioned we are going through the storm right now and the man said we must share our story. He talked about how generation after generation have hidden the stuff, swept it under the carpet and that freedom comes from sharing. Just another voice in this journey saying the same loud and clear message.
As we drove to the beach, the car ahead of us paid our toll. You know ... it was a dollar or two. I don't remember. But who pays for someone else's toll? It was yet another gift. Another whisper from Heaven saying "I'm here. I've got you. I've got your story."
We drove to the beach and got out to see sunset. It took my breath away. Not the sunset...but the fact that we were there. The dream God put in my heart was now a reality. In the roughest season of our lives. I kept blinking the tears away as Izrael chased the birds and the other kids stared out at the ocean. This gift would never be lost on me. And yes...it was from amazing people. But it was also from God Himself.
Because of our choice to stop and hang out in Pensacola, we had to drive all night to our condo. It was tough. We sang, we talked, we ate, we counted deer on the side of the road, Dean poured water on his head...and we lived.
How can each day literally be a perfect day...?
How can each day remind you of the gift so tangibly...? The real gift. The gift of His love. The gift that nothing above or below can separate us from it. Not this fire or any fire.
We have seen incredible gifts every single day. I'm so glad that months ago, at the beginning of this journey, a stranger told me to look for the gifts. She said "if you don't, you will miss them..." and she was so right. There are days that the pain is so overwhelming that you can't see the next step. No matter how bright and clear the day...it looks dark and gloomy and you can feel the storms looming.
Nazara bouncing in the waves of the ocean for hours on end. Saying "Mommy...I love it here". Izrael seeing a bird and getting much closer than anyone could imagine as she beams from ear to ear. Zihao learning to surf. The older kids building sand castles, surfing with Daddy and coming in like little brown bears at the end of the day.
Random dates on the board walk. Really awesome food. Amazing views. And with the love of my life.
It all feels like a dream. And the fact that we have one more full week here...? Bliss. Pure bliss.
We did Magic Kingdom last week and it was simply amazing. I'm not a huge Disney buff but I'll never deny the magic there. There's something special there. Where we all become transported to our youth. Rides. Heat. Food. All of it. We spent 13 hours there...savoring every moment and using every penny spent...well.
We could only do one Disney day so this was the day we chose. But on the way driving down...a friend blew our socks off and surprised us with the gift of another day! The kids have not stopped talking about it and they still can't believe it. So Monday we do Animal Kingdom and we are so excited.
We are trying to mix beach days with adventure days. Tomorrow we go to Kennedy Space Center and the boys are really looking forward to that. Tuesday, Daddy, Zion, Azlan and Azahria go deep sea fishing for 5 hours and they can't wait.
But the real gift...? Is being whisked away from the storm. It's never left our minds. Especially mine. In fact, I woke this morning feeling sicker than usual as I felt this dread come over me about returning home. I don't want to go home. And yes, I know how sad that is with our brand new home. It's not lack of gratefulness...not one bit. It's the presence of horrific memories that I don't want to face. Again. I just don't want to go back.
Dean came over beside me and rubbed my back. He reminded me of all God is doing and will continue to do. He reminded me that we have a business trip as soon as we get home and that my parents will be with us for several weeks. That there will be beauty there.
And so today, I make yet another Janice-decision to not let my emotions win. Decision trumps emotion. That's been my motto. And it's so very hard to live out.
Choose to live this week. Not next. Not yet. This week we still have amazing memories to make. We were swimming in the ocean and I looked at Azlan and said "why don't we collect shells to help us remember this trip?" He didn't hesitate. "Mommy...I don't need shells to remember. I will never ever forget this trip."
The things I have learned in the 'valley of the shadow of death' (that's no exaggeration)...
1. Look for the gifts. They are there. But if you don't look...you will miss them.
2. When you go through the fire of all fires, your faith will be tested all the way to the core. And in the end, it may come down to a choice. Choosing to believe. Choosing to have faith. Choosing to stand on God's promises even when nothing makes sense right now.
3. Your tribe is vital. Don't isolate yourself. I know...I know. We get married, we grow up and we get busy. And our friendships all fall by the way side. I can tell you first hand there are many days when my tribe of amazing friends saved me. Kept me breathing. Kept me moving. There is no question. I cannot tell you enough how important good, solid friendships are in the storm. Yes, I know this comes with vulnerability. We have all been hurt. I'm no exception. I'm just glad I trusted again. Because these friends? They are my tribe and God used them daily in this journey.
4. God redeems. It's what He does. He's not responsible for the evil. That's not him. He steps in and takes that mess of a story and redeems it. And it leaves us all baffled how He makes something much more beautiful than before out of the disaster. It doesn't even make sense. It's just what He does. Let God use your story. All of it. Not just the parts you are proud of. Not the parts you want to share. The other parts. The parts you want to hide. The ones that bring up old emotions and pain. Those ones. You are not the only one. It feels that way, but you aren't. What has amazed me in this journey...is how when we share our story and someone lights up and says "not all of the details but that happened to me...and I've kept it quiet for years because of shame. If you tell your story, you will help me heal. You will help me find freedom. Please share this story..." Ok. Woah.
Sharing your mountain top experiences rarely inspires someone. It's when you share how you survived the valley. The valley...sometimes quite literally...of the shadow of death. That's what brings hope. That's what gives life. That's what inspires. Of course it comes with risk. Of course there are people that will do whatever you fear. Don't focus on them. Focus on the ones you can help. And yes, YOUR story...can free others. Let God redeem. Let God free people through the transparency of your story. It's something only He can do...yet we limit Him but hiding it.
I've said from the beginning we will share. We just cannot yet. Truly, cannot. Once we can, we will. And it's not pretty. You will wonder how we lived. And we will be able to tell you that God gave each next breath. And the friends He places in our life offered us lifelines just when we needed them.
And the gifts. Oh the gifts. From paid tolls, to another day at Disney, to people we barely know refusing to let us camp in the heat and humidity and insisting we move in the for the night, to friends from WA buying us pizza for dinner in FL as they go through their own battle with cancer, to 30,000 less people showing up at Disney than normal giving us a lot better day, to Make A Wish donors extending their offer of free entrance 3 years after expiration giving us experiences we simply could not afford, to a box showing up at our condo door with Disney autograph and photo albums for each of our children to make their experience even more magical, to Nazara patting me on the back as I cried reliving the pain whispering in my ear "Mommy...I keep you safe" to the gift of a new life. When we never could have planned it. Now...? Here...? Yes. Here. When many days it's what kept me eating. Kept me breathing. He makes no mistakes. This baby's name will be very significant of the time in our life he/she was given to us.
Today as our life is put on pause yet again, for another day of sand castles, surfing waves in the ocean, late ice cream walks and laughs for hours without interruption...we are reminded of His gifts. How could something so beautiful come out of something so dark? How can we have a trip we will never ever ever ever forget in the darkest time of our lives?
This is just the beginning of God's redemption of our story. Which was never really ours to begin with. His story.
It's all His.