I love how Minnesota is so community-oriented. What is great is that we are only twenty minutes from Minneapolis and have all the amenities of a city accessible, but at the same time lakes everywhere (like 4 within a mile of our house), along with the corresponding walking trails and large parks and play structures for the kids. Each day you will always bump into someone from your small group from church or a neighbor at the coffee shop, the Eden Prairie Mall, the library, a lake, or AJ or Gracie’s schools.
Also, there is a culture of "Minnesota nice." People born here complain that it is artificial, which it may be, but frankly if someone is thinking mean thoughts inside, I much prefer them keeping it to themselves rather than ruining someone's day, who will then ruin someone else's day, ruining the culture in a domino effect. I really appreciate that there is a culture of kindness to neighbors, smiling at everyone you make eye contact with, and trying to be helpful. I have to say from the perspective of someone who's had a lot of bad days, a smile from a stranger on the other side of the cash register makes a world of difference. (Actually, the first year after Andrew died, 3 different times 3 different ladies asked me if I needed a hug when they saw me crying in my car, at Ikea, and I can't remember the third place, probably a coffee shop. I accepted. I needed a hug.)
We moved to Minnesota three years ago last September. Five months after that, and a few weeks after we moved into our house (we didn't even have much furniture at the time, and thus had nowhere to unpack a lot of our boxes still), Andrew was diagnosed for the second time with cancer. I am so grateful that the Lord moved us here before then, because I can't imagine being able to get through the last three years without our church and my neighbors. I've talked a lot about my church on this blog, so this particular blog, I'm going to talk more about others in my community who I consider provisions from the Lord, even though they probably don't think of themselves that way.
After moving into our house, one morning, I specifically prayed that the Lord would provide a neighbor who's yard we could be back-and-forth in. A few days later, I found out Sarah was moving next door from Northern California. The first time I met her, before she even walked into her new house, she walked over to me in my backyard. I was so excited. Also, as Andrew got sicker, it occurred to me that I would no longer have time to take the kids to the park every day, so I prayed the Lord would drop a play structure from heaven, knowing with Andrew so sick, I could not even think about looking for one to buy. The next day, Sarah walked over to tell us they had just purchased a giant play structure and that they wanted our kids to always play on it without having to ask them, and even when they weren't home. Every single day, now, AJ plays with her son Adrien, who is one year older than AJ, outside after school. They are back-and-forth between our two yards, using their yard for the play structure, and our yard for the open, flat grass.
Sarah used to have the kids and I over for dinner once a week for the first six months after Andrew died. Even though she said she wanted to do that, I probably would have felt too shy to keep going, if she didn't call me every week beforehand and make sure that we were still coming.
Various neighbors anonymously snow-blowed my driveway and walkway whenever it snowed (which was almost constantly), sometimes before I even knew it had snowed. In Minnesota, this is everything, because the snow does not melt at all here until March or April or maybe even May. So if it is snowing and the snow is not getting shoveled every two hours, I'm not really sure how you'd get out of your driveway for a few months. I certainly did not know back then. It was not even something I had thought about. It was as if the Lord used tens of people to take care of us, when I didn't even get a chance to worry about what would happen if these things weren't taken care of.
Sarah also drew our neighbors together in a way I had always wished to have, but was not at a place in my life where I, myself, could organize anything between the neighbors. Sarah made sure that our four families got together once a month for dinner. This is how I met my neighbors, Melissa and Mary Anne. Not only do our families get together for dinner, but we ladies get together just us sometimes too. This was wonderful for me to have when Andrew died, because while he was sick I really hadn't had a chance to form any friendships that were based on just enjoying each other. All the relationships we had in Minnesota mostly revolved around people ministering to us in whatever ways they could find to help people they had never known previous to our trial. Nobody knew Andrew as everyone before knew him. No one here knew him as the super hotty that looked like a model (well, actually his friends referred to him as "the model," since he was asked to model for a Korean catalogue once, even though he wasn't Korean). Few here knew him as one of the most capable, efficient people they had ever met. Most people here knew him only because he was so physically weak, had speech impediments, looked much older than he was, and who's health made our family needy of so much help.
Having friends to hang out with from church or my neighbors, just us, and no children, helps me to feel human again. It helps me to breath again, recharge, and remind me that life doesn't always have to feel so relentlessly heavy, but that for a few hours, I, Grace, can still feel carefree, even though I'm not a kid anymore, and even after all I've been through and am still going through, and all the responsibilities I have. That is a provision and kindness of the Lord, who knows we are human and knows we need rest and laughter.
Aside from snowblowing my driveway, my neighbors, Mary Anne and Doug, still think of us after all this time, and if they happen to cook too much food one night, they give us a call. They are such sweet people.
Though I hardly knew her at the time, as Andrew was dying, Melissa called me and said that even though she knew I had my church to take care of me, sometimes neighbors can help in a unique way due to their proximity. The first six months after Andrew died, when the horror that Andrew would not be coming home for dinner would hit, many nights I would walk the kids to Melissa's house and knock on her door in desperation. She would invite us in to have dinner with her family. I think God has specially gifted Melissa to be a friend to widows and people who are ill. You would never imagine someone so capable and has never been through anything like this before could understand such weakness, yet it is as if as she prays for us, God specially gifts her with insights into our hurts and struggles, so that she can understand as much as one on the outside possibly could understand.
I consider Melissa to be the female version of Andrew. She's one of the most practical, level-headed women I know, yet so fun at the same time. I call her all the time for her opinion on various decisions, from small to big, and her responses always sound so logical and rational, reminding me of Andrew. It's as if the Lord has provided her to balance me, similar to the way Andrew used to.
|Cooper and Kayla (Mary Anne's kids), Gracie, Avery and Isaac (Melissa's kids), and AJ.|
There are countless people I could keep mentioning that I've never mentioned on this blog. Like a couple of Andrew's co-workers that live a few blocks away and would initiate coming to find things that needed repairing before I even thought about those things.
As a newly widowed mom of two very little ones, I did not have the liberty to check out in my grief. I definitely was not as present as normal people were; I was always preoccupied with Andrew in my head, but the Lord kept my hands moving, taking care of my children, and kept people coming to fill in so many gaps before I knew there were gaps to fill.
I am grateful that the kids were exactly the age they were when Andrew died - 3 and 4. They had both just gotten out of diapers but were not as independent as they are now, and most of all, they still took an afternoon nap. I could keep them as extensions of my arms, which meant they required less of my mental energy as they do now.
It is amazingly hard being a single mom. Additionally, no one takes my kids on weekends the way they might if I lived in New Jersey near my parents or Andrew' parents or the way I hear a lot of single moms have, and after nearly two years of this, I am totally worn out. But it helps me to think back to how the Lord has exercised abundant grace to me in all my needs before I knew what I needed, and that I need to trust that His character has not changed and that He always keeps His promises. "...for your Father knows what you need before you ask him" (Matthew 6:8).
Melissa, Mary Anne, me, Sarah and baby Owen on Mary Anne's birthday. So grateful for such wonderful neighbors.
The kids dancing at my church friend, Anne’s house
|Only 1/4 of small group showed up at my house Sunday night. But since our small group is 4 times larger than normal, it worked out just fine. We always have a potluck and eat dinner together.|
AJ's kindergarten is a few blocks from our house. I am very grateful that the school was able to accomodate us, and AJ was able to get a male teacher. It is amazing to me that for the first time in almost two years, AJ gets to have a male influence in his life five times a a week. Obviously that influence is spread out over 13 children and is not as personal as AJ had before, but it's definitely an improvement over the last nearly 2 years without any consistent male influence. Also, it is amazing to me that AJ's class is the smallest in the school; the next smallest class has 20 students, so that that attention is spread out over 13, but not spread out as much as it would be in a more average-sized class. And, his teacher is very attentive to all his students and gives each of them special attention whenever he gets the chance, kneeling to their level, looking them straight in the eye, asking them lots of questions about themselves. So AJ will come home and tell me when he bumped into his teacher before class and his teacher will sit down with him and eagerly converse for a few minutes then, or on the playground, or even when he bumps into him around town. This makes AJ so happy. Finally, his teacher has had a student before who lost a father, so he already has some experience with a student in AJ's situation.
Andrew's letters say to get as involved in AJ's kindergarten as possible. I am hoping to volunteer in AJ’s class once a week. So far, I have helped out three times. Parents are so involved that every single day of the week is filled on the volunteer schedule. Since AJ's teacher welcomes parents to come in as much as they want in addition to the schedule, when I went to help once, there were four of us parents volunteering.
AJ’s teacher gets a lot of things done with the kids in a very short amount of time. In the one hour I am there, they will do the alphabet, have a snack, play a game, work on reading, work on an art project, play outside, go to the bathroom or drink water on their way back inside, and work on learning the calendar and how to describe the weather outside. I also find it interesting that the chalk/white board is such a peripheral aspect of their learning. Instead, central to their learning is the “Smartboard,” which is like a board-sized computer that you control with your touch, like a giant i-phone or i-pad.
The most recent time I helped in AJ's classroom, each of us parents lead a small group of students read a beginner reading book. I loved being able to reinforce and teach AJ and three of his classmates how to sound out the words. I love getting to know who all of AJ's classmates are and see Andreus, who AJ calls his best friend, and Andreus’ twin brother, Matteo. We’ve had play dates with them, and I’m getting to know their family. Together, the three of them look like triplets to me, since they are also half-Filipino (they're dad is originally from the Philippines and their mother is German). The twins seem to be drawn to Filipinos, as Andreus is always approaching AJ, and whenever I come into the class, Matteo always hangs onto my hand. When I’m in AJ's classroom, he's always so excited to have me there and always wants me to stand or sit next to him, holds my hand, hugs me and asks for kisses. Kindergarten boys are at an age in their development where they need a lot of affection that they won't be as needy for later, so I love that AJ can go to school and still get all the hugs and affection from his mom that he asks during those times, since I'm right there with him.
AJ was not very interested in learning the alphabet with me last year, but he loves all the movements they do with the sounds of the letters in school. I think the positive pressure of all his classmates beside him gets him excited about whatever they're doing as well. In the clip below they are working on their alphabet using the Smartboard at the front. AJ is in the green shirt on the right side of the screen, turning around because he's looking for me. Sorry for the pathetic camera-manship. I kept trying to bend down low behind the table, so they wouldn't notice me with the camera.