Saturday, July 28, 2012

From Carnage to Comical: How Aurora PD Laughed Again

In today's 24/7 news cycle, bad news shouldn't shock us. After all, that's usually all we see. And 8 days ago, that trend continued when a shoot-em-up, grisly murder scene leapt from the movie screen to reality. In the very place where people come to be entertained by imaginary violence, 12 people lost their very real, very precious lives.

Of course, we know all these facts by now. We know about Aurora, just like we know all about Columbine, Springfield, Fort Hood and so many others. And though we should be used to such tragedies, we never are...because as humans, we instictively know there is something better out there than this messed-up, sinful world.

My cousin Cody knows what evil looks like. He's the cop in the photo above. And he was working the graveyard shift on Friday morning, July 20 in Aurora, Colorado.

It had been a busy night. Cody was called out to bust up a domestic disturbance when he got word of a noise disturbance. Could he go check it out? Nope, he said, he was too busy.

They say God works in mysterious ways, and it's true. That fight saved Cody's life.

The shooter meticulously planned the massacre for months,  right down to attempting to kill as many cops as possible.The guy booby-trapped his apartment and set his music to blast suddenly at midnight. That first part of the plan worked; hence the call to police from his neighbors.

Protocol calls for police to go into any open door if necessary. The shooter knew that and left his door open, hoping all the police would rush to his apartment with the first blast, and therefore be spread thin when the theater 911 calls came in. But Cody was occupied elsewhere and so never went...thank God.

When he got word about the shooting, his squad car flew 110 mph through once-peaceful Aurora. Later, Cody's partner was assigned to stay with the bodies. The hours ticked by. The air began to change, while the cell phones, choked with worry from friends and family, rang incessantly -- the only sound coming from the dead. And there was nothing that the brave policeman could do about it.

Cody, along with the rest of the police department, was exhausted when dawn broke. Yet his very next shift, another big call came, this time for an apartment fire. It didn't look so good. Was this going to be another night of death and defeat?

Thankfully, no. Instead, it turned into a night of small triumph and a reminder that evil is only temporary.

And those lessons came from a squirrel.

As the fire climbed higher, cops and firefighters noticed a squirrel trapped by the flames. Of course, their priority was human life (and thankfully, everyone was saved that night), but they so badly wanted this little squirrel to live.

It paced back and forth on a ledge. The fire crept closer. Finally, his fur started to smoke, then singe. There was nowhere to go. Or was there?

The squirrel, now beginning to catch fully on fire, backed up. To the many cheers of the emergency responders below, he took a running start and leapt through a wall of flames Superman-style.

He fell several stories....straight into a swimming pool below. The cops grabbed a net, fished him out and laid him on the pavement.

The squirrel didn't move for several minutes. Then, after regaining some strength, he ran off, apparently unhurt. And the Aurora Police Department smiled and laughed and breathed a sigh of relief.

It might sound silly, or stupid even, to feel happy about saving an animal after such a human bloodbath. Yet it meant something to the men and women who deal with evil firsthand. "It was absolutely hilarious how that little squirrel did that," Cody told me, "and it was even better how a bunch of cops that had dealt with such a tragedy the night before were able to feel good about pulling a little squirrel out of a pool."

I know there have been many miracles surrounding the Aurora massacre (including a precious baby making it to his birthday), so maybe this one doesn't sound like much.  But I think God knew Aurora's firefighters, paramedics and cops like Cody needed it.

No, one saved squirrel doesn't bring back a dozen people. It doesn't lighten the anguish that so many families will forever carry, nor does it erase the memories that brave souls like Cody and his partner will replay in their brains for years.

God cares about people. He cares when we hurt, and his heart breaks when we cry. Yes, he knew that the terrible night  was going to happen, and yes, he could have stopped it. For some reason we may never know, he permitted it happen.

I don't have all the answers as to why. Evil reigns and bad things happen to good people.

Like that exhausted squirrel, the survivors and families may need to lay low for a while, even feel paralyzed by grief. But Aurora (not Batman!) will rise again and dash back into their "wild, precious lives" as poet Mary Oliver says. Eventually.

Just 2 days after the shooting, Cody, his pregnant wife Ashley and their daughter Mikayla stood in church and sang with the congregation.

Greater things have yet to come

And greater things are still to be done in this city
Greater things have yet to come
And greater things are still to be done here.

In Columbine, Springfield and Fort Hood.

And in Aurora.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Cheers to True Friendship

Nick has gotten me hooked on Cheers. Yes, that Cheers -- Ted Danson, shoulder pads and sailor dresses and Cliff Clavin's terrible Boston accent. I know I'm a few decades behind, but you can blame that on my upbringing. Popular TV shows just never were a priority in my house. In fact, I was so Cheers-deficient that when my pastor in Idaho preached a sermon called "The Church Where Everybody Knows Your Name" a couple years ago, accompanied by a live cover of the theme song, I had no idea how everyone else in the sanctuary already knew it.

So a few weeks ago, when I heard the now-familiar strains of "Making it in the world today takes everything you've got," it all sank in. Ah ha! (Yes, I was homeschooled. Next question?)

I am not a passive sitcom viewer. I have this habit of watching a show and mulling over its meaning for the next several hours or even days. This quirk of mine has led to some great discussions about marriage, parenting and life between Nick and me (Me: "I can't believe you agree with Tim again!" Nick: "So? You always take Jill's side!" Points to anyone who can identify the show).

And so it is with Cheers. This cast of hysterical characters gets its fuel from their friendships. Yet I think the writers have gotten it a little tweaked. True friendship comes not from quick-witted barbs (oh Carla), love-hate relationships (Diane & Sam) or even overlooking country bumpkin ignoramuses (my favorite characters, Woody and Coach).

Instead, I think true friendship looks like this:

Letting your high school best friend broadcast your deepest hurt to the world so more people can pray for you, even though it reminds you of the precious newborn daughter you lost days ago. Also giving said friend permission to call you at any time of day or night to check up on you, because it makes her feel like she's somehow helping.

True friendship means watching a very energetic toddler 3 days a week for several hours at a time for no pay. If not for Melody, I could not have taught 60 piano students in Idaho. I also would never have gotten a pedicure. And if you're wondering, yes, before she became a mom, Melody was a model.

True friendship means letting your best friend cry for 45 minutes straight into your ear over her heartbreak from the day before without reminding her whatsoever that you opened for STEVEN CURTIS CHAPMAN last night (a dream come true, and well-deserved). After Run for Compassion Salem, all I wanted to do was sob to Rochelle. I did, and she comforted me with Bible verses, prayers and words of truth and wisdom. Only after we hung up did I realize that not once had she mentioned her big night. She had solely concentrated on me and my needs.

True friendship looks like Artists' Point in Yellowstone: wild, inspiring, organic, sometimes dirty and real. Without Tessa, I would never have discovered a career that I crave and love. I also would not know that it was possible to be a liberal in Wyoming.  

True friendship means getting up early, making a cardboard sign and trekking up a mountainside to cheer your friend on in a marathon. And also gladly peeling off her sweaty, disgusting clothes at the finish line because she was too tired and sore to do it herself.

These are the women who teach me what real friendship looks like -- not some scripted, funny moment, but selfless sacrifice and commitment played out in real life. It's not always pretty. Sometimes those relationships involve a lot of sweat (literally -- just ask Mel). Sometimes they mean speaking the harsh truth in love (if you need help in this area, see Rochelle). And sometimes, they involve tears. Yet true friendship is always worth the investment.

What does true friendship look like in your life?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

I Didn't Want Her. Then I Didn't Want to Return Her.

I opened the dishwasher, saw the clean bowl (backwards, of course) and swallowed another lump in my throat, willing myself not to cry again. I had to empty the dishwasher and wasn't happy about it.

But not for the reason you might think. That backwards bowl had been placed there by Celia, the de facto Spanish Dishwasher Princess for the past year. And now, she was gone.

As I grabbed each cup and plate, my mind drifted back to last summer -- a beautiful August evening spent with friends "I'm afraid of her," I confessed to my friend Kori. "I didn't understand teenage girls when I was one!"

"Her" was a 15-year-old stranger from Madrid, Spain who was at that very moment flying to live with us for a year. And I was terrified.

Getting an exchange student had not been my idea. Like anything out of the ordinary in my life, it was all Nick from the beginning. "Pray about it, please?" he had asked when a friend tried to sell us on hosting. No way, I said. The wife gets all the work of an exchange student, and have you forgotten we have an infant? "Then we can say no," he assured me. "Just pray about it."

And so I agreed, convinced God would be on my fatigued side. For 2 weeks, I waited expectantly for a no...but never got one. "Okay, Lord," I huffed. "You're going to have to send us the perfect kid. And did you know my mom thinks this is a terrible idea and tried to talk me out of it?"

We looked at a few hundred applications, picked out a Slovakian girl who listed her top 3 hobbies as looking after small children, cleaning houses and baking cakes, and waited. No dice. Some other lucky housewife had snagged her over the weekend.

I took that as a sign -- SEE?! This is not meant to be! But then we looked again. And Celia Martinez Rivera, a young Spaniard with a genuine smile, caught our eye.

She had one older brother (quite cute, actually) only a few years younger than us. She was Catholic and got excellent grades. She loved tennis and was in love with Rapha Nadal. Her mother was an international flight attendant, her father a businessman. She wanted a family with little kids even though she knew nothing about them.Gulp.

We said yes to parenting a girl who was born when we were 11. We didn't know it at the time, but we also said yes to more joy than we could ever imagine.

She arrived in the middle of the night. In my bed already, I heard them walk in, heard Nick show her the room we had worked hard to convert from an office into a teenage girl's oasis (though no Justin Bieber posters; I just couldn't go there). And I felt irritated that she was already causing us to lose sleep, already inconveniencing us.

If I had only seen myself on July 1, 2012, once again with Celia at the airport, this time a mess not from the inconvenience, but the heartache.

It felt strange having this new person around, awkward even. Yet as time passed, she began to figure out where the extra toilet paper was, that Jude did not like being separated from his pacifier and that sweet spot on Klaus' leg where he prefers to be scratched.

Celia taught us things -- about Madrid, about Europe, about Catholicism and private all-girls' schools with uniforms and soccer-crazed fans filling up gigantic stadiums and the difference between Mexican Spanish and "real" Spanish.

And so we taught her as well -- where food comes from, how to make brownies from scratch, what a cow looks like (well, in her defense, that mix-up only occurred once), how to make jam, how to change a diaper, the rules to American football, the pure genius of West Side Story and Nacho Libre.

Along the way, Celia surprised us, enthusiastically singing (off-key, unfortunately) to the oldies station and quoting lines from American movies. And we in turn surprised her -- she had been told we were 30 and couldn't imagine having such young parents (at the airport, she caught a glimpse of Nick and thought it surely must have been her host brother). She also thought we would be fat, because Europeans assume all Americans are fat. (I was quite happy to shatter that stereotype).

We quickly learned the many facets of Celia's personality; she could be loud, then quiet; happy, then irritated; hard-working, then ready to sleep in. And she figured out we were the exact opposites...and then exactly the same, too.

We showed her the many joys of living in Oregon: the mighty Pacific hugging 101, the mountains, the snow, the quirky small towns and even quirkier cities (I'm looking at you, Eugene and Portland). And the rain. I don't think Celia will ever forget the rain.

And week by week, we started becoming a family. Jude's first word, thanks to Celia's prodding, was "gracias." I adjusted my meals to feed 3 adults, always making sure there were no raspberries (Celia is allergic). Nick honed his "scare away young men at all costs" techniques, practicing every chance he got...and he got plenty. I started looking forward to 3:45 p.m. every day, waiting for the moment when she would burst through the door.

When her grandma died, she instead burst into tears. I awkwardly rubbed her back, stroked her hair and prayed in English as she cried in Spanish. And for the hundredth time, I didn't know what to do with this woman-child whose parents were half a world away, trusting their baby to complete strangers.

I learned that day to get used to it.

We attended her basketball games and tennis matches, laughing at the awkward glances from strangers who assumed we were her biological parents. We took our family Christmas photo with her in it, feeling strangely like "The Blind Side: European Edition."

And unexpectedly, she became ours. Jack began introducing her as his big sister, thanking God for "Klaus and Butler, and Celia and Jude" in his nightly prayers (always in that order). She frequently called me and Nick mom and dad, mostly in public to freak people out. Without thinking, I started telling new friends I had 3 children.

This 3rd child brought unanticipated fun. Used to Thomas the Train and Mighty Machines, I gingerly stepped into this foreign world of homecoming dress shopping, makeup, nail polish and teenage texting acronyms. My usual routine of preschool now meshed with high school....and I loved it.

It wasn't perfect. She sometimes was late for curfew, snapped at Nick (though it was deserved most of the time!) and fought with Jack over pathetically small issues. She was, in short, one of us.

Over evenings of Say Yes to the Dress and Murder She Wrote, we talked -- about boys, God, family, school, sports and life. She asked questions, I tried to answer. It was weird. It was different. It was wonderful.

Evidence of her year here is everywhere -- in the flowers from her goodbye BBQ still going strong, in the flecks of her Del Sol nail polish still on my nails, in the way Jude peers into her room looking for her and Jack asking for her to come back and breaking my heart.

And despite fantasies of her parents not wanting her after a few weeks and returning her to us, I know that stage of our life is over. I wish it wasn't, of course, but I have to look at our time with her as a gift.

When Celia recites all 8 of her last names to new friends the world over, we hope she tacks on Kupper, too.