Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Our Family Heirloom...

Before I even start writing - I need to tell you how important this journal entry is to me. And always will be. My plan is to just write as I think and let it all come out and hope it all makes sense in the end.  It's a journal entry about a chair and all that has fit in it and, well, let's begin....

I remember being in the baby store. A swanky baby store because we were expecting our first child, a son we would name Gavin, and you go "all out" for the first. I remember telling Ed that we really needed to splurge on a great nursery rocker - one that was neutral so we could use it for future children whether they were girls or boys. I instantly fell in love with a chair and knew the second Ed sat in it - and pictured himself holding his son - he'd be sold, too. A few weeks later, the chair was being carried into the nursery. And, after what seemed like an eternity, the son we bought it for would finally be home from the NICU to spend many hours rocking on his Mommy's chest.
The chair became the spot for all the important photos and the "just because" photos and all the photos in between.
I blinked and before we knew it, Brian was sitting in the chair.
Some of my very favorite photos have this overpriced chair as a backdrop. And some of my very favorite memories are the nights I spent rocking or nursing or reading or even sleeping steps away from a sick child. 
Then...our world was turned upside down. Gavin was dead. Dead. I might have found myself avoiding his room - that chair - if it weren't for Brian. Brian took over Gavin's bed and soon we found ourselves sitting there, grieving together, in that familiar chair.

Soon, we were decorating another nursery and the chair was moved again. The very day we brought Hope home from the hospital, we met our photographer friend in the nursery for family photos. 
And the cycle started again creating new memories with the newest member of the family.
That "overpriced" rocker has become priceless. If it could talk... oh, the stories it would tell.

As we settled into our "new life" without Gavin and with Hope, I got a message from a friend. Her brother, who was once the on air host of two PBS shows called "Noodle and Doodle" and "The Sunny Side Up Show," had an idea for a TV show and was wondering if we'd be interested in participating. Sean had always been a fine artist and wanted to incorporate that talent into a show. The concept was to talk to a family who wanted a portrait done - and then follow Sean as he completes the painting. Then, of course, there's the big reveal of the portrait to the family. I had been dreaming of a way to have a photo - not even a painting - that would include all four of our children: Gavin, Brian, Darcy and Hope. That became the theme. We immediately agreed and he set up the shoot.

Sean came over with a camera crew and spent the afternoon at our home.  It was an easy day for us. All we were obliged to do was talk about Gavin and that was exactly what we did. It was (and is) one of my favorite pastimes so I enjoyed the day immensely. Sean took notes and sketched out a plan for his portrait. He said he'd come up with a clever way to include Darcy, which intrigued me very much.

A lot of time went by. Every once in a while I would remember and wonder what was happening with the show or the painting. Then, just a few weeks ago, Sean contacted me and wanted to set up a time to deliver the portrait. He told me a lot had changed. Painting our children had been a very emotional experience for him and he poured his heart into every detail. During that time he also decided his heart wasn't in the TV concept anymore. He needed to get back to painting and creating in the studio. And that's just what he did. He's an extremely talented artist. You can check out his work HERE.

The day came for the reveal and I couldn't wait. I had no expectations - and really had no idea what to expect. I videotaped Sean revealing the painting to me. It was just Hope and I at home that afternoon - Ed would see it soon after (and burst into tears). Watch the video...
Incredible, right? 
Ed and I couldn't wait to show Brian when he got home from school. Here was his reaction...

The details in this portrait are remarkable. It looks as perfect as a photograph! He got every feature of Gavin's right from his smile, his hair, his skin color - and even the visible veins in his temples.
And he perfectly painted Gavin's eyebrows and eyes which were not your typical shape.
Hope's likeness is also spot on from her head shape to her beautiful eye color. He had a lot of photos to use as reference and I didn't give him any input as to what clothes I preferred or anything. I was so happy to see Hope in what was my favorite infant shirt of hers. I always loved how feminine she looked in the dusty rose and ruffles.
He even got her perfect little mouth just right.
His painting of Brian is just incredible. He captured his bright eyes and long lashes - his hair color - his smile...
He captured the entire essence of him, really. 
But I'm sure you noticed the biggest details. Gavin is holding Hope - something we know has probably happened, but we have never been able to witness. Seeing them in each other's arms immediately took our breath away. 
I love seeing their hands together and his arms wrapped around her. 
Seeing Brian squished up next to his brother - like he always was in pictures - warmed our hearts in the most bittersweet way. And, of course, they are all together in that familiar nursery rocker. I'm pretty confident that rocker will always  be in our family. It's become even more valuable thanks to Sean.
 I bet you're wondering how he incorporated Darcy. She is symbolized - as are many other things - on Brian's jacket. The number 5 1/2 is very symbolic to us and that started with her. 
I delivered Darcy in the 5th month of May - when I was 5 1/2 months along - and it took me 5 1/2 days laboring in the hospital before her body would leave mine. Gavin would die at the age of 5 1/2. And my sister pointed out to me when she came to meet Hope in the hospital that Hope's time of birth was written out as half past five. Coincidence? Or proof that connections are deep and strong.

We will never be able to repay Sean for this portrait. It will be our treasured family heirloom, for certain.

I want to end by thanking everyone who participated in Gavin's Usborne "Bookraiser!" It was a huge success. We sold $2,086.88 in books which translated to 219 books sold - and 51 of those books were donated straight to the two organizations we chose. I now have $800 to spend on books to split between the Child Life Department at Nemours A.I. duPont Hospital for Children ("Gavin's Hospital") and the Chester County Intermediate Unit (Gavin's "school" for therapy and teacher services). To say I am thrilled about all of this would be a huge understatement. And so is Brian. The two of them loved to read books together. 
If you missed the speech that Brian wrote and delivered on video thanking everyone who participated, here you go!

I know Gavin is smiling for all the children who will now enjoy new books in so many different circumstances. I'll be buying many copies of the book "Here in the Garden" so the Child Life Department can gift it to any children who have lost a sibling at the hospital. It's a nice alternative to "The Invisible String" which Brian received as a gift from them after Gavin died. Here is the book description from the Usborne website:
"This extraordinary picture book about loss, love and friendship shows that we can always find our way back to a loved one through our hearts and our memories."

The "Bookraiser" is over, but if you feel like you missed out and still want to remember Gavin on the third anniversary of his death with a book, I can make that work. Just message me through this blog or my Facebook page.

Thank you to my incredible niece, Emily, for hosting this great book party in her cousin's memory. And thank you, as always, to all of you. For still being here three years later. For caring about our little family. And for helping us get through each anniversary in ways that bless so many others in Gavin's name.

**Don't forget! You can follow me on Instagram @kategavinsmom and follow me on Facebook at Chasing Rainbows Blog. You can also follow me on Twitter @kateleong.***

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Plans I Never Had...

Last week, without warning or fanfare, Hope stopped nursing. And she didn't look back.

I never had plans to nurse her this long - just shy of two and a half years old. But it worked for us. There were a few times when I thought, "I wonder if I should try to wean her..." but then quickly decided there was no good reason to! Hope was happy - it didn't bother me - we were always together - and, let's be honest, I barely leave the house. 

Part of me was very happy to be done. I waited three days before running out to get a brand new, professionally fitted "normal" bra that didn't have trap doors. Yay! And I realized I would no longer have to endure some of the less than glamorous parts of nursing a toddler... like teeth mishaps and elbows and knees to the gut while she was trekking to the other side of the mountain ("mountain" being a gross exaggeration, not that you asked).

But there is a bigger part of me that is wistful. This is a marker. A milestone. A sign that we are moving farther away from baby Hope... and farther away from Gavin. The truth is, Hope was a plan I never had. 

As it turns out, the existence of Hope - shocking as it was - wasn't the biggest surprise of all for me. The biggest surprise is how different the experience has been. From the second I saw her perfect little face.
When she was born, she was taken away to the NICU before I could hold her. I wasn't able to breastfeed her - or hold her! - for a couple days. I tried not to panic, but I did fear that it would interfere with bonding and that she would have trouble breastfeeding.
I'll never forget the night the nurse wheeled me up to the NICU to see her. Ed was home with Brian when the nurse offered to take her out of her isolette so I could hold her. It was just me and Hope in the dark of night that first time we embraced. I even took the picture myself. She just sunk into me and I'll always remember that moment. I knew we would be fine.
But I never expected that we'd be in such a special, nursing relationship for such a long time. I feel very grateful to have been able to breastfeed at all - let alone over two years. And I've enjoyed the snuggles and closeness while it lasted.
These days it looks more like this!!
And this!
When people ask me what Hope is like, I tell them there are too many adjectives to describe her. My experience raising her so far has been drastically different than the boys. We did everything for Gavin, because he needed us to. Then, when Brian came along so close behind him we were still in the "doing" mode and just did everything for him, too! I'm not sure if we hindered Brian's development and independence for a while or if he was happy to have us do things for him. He just didn't seem too interested in doing things independently. 

Then Hope came bursting onto the scene. She wanted to feed herself and use a cup - put on her shoes and zip up her coat. She likes to click the straps closed around her in the shopping cart and the carseat and the kitchen chair. She's a page turner and a iPad swiper and, quite frankly, she is the "director of fun" in the house. We are never bored. Ever. In other news, I often need a nap.

From the day she found her voice, Hope has always been vocal with her wants and needs - most of the time using please and thank you! So, when she didn't ask to nurse on that last night - I asked her. You know, just in case she forgot.

"Hopi, did you want to nurse?" 
I half hoped for a yes.
"No thank you, Mommy," she answered. 
Then she reached into her books and chose three to read. And that is our new bedtime ritual.

I wasn't prepared for the plans I never had...
but I wouldn't want my life to look any other way.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Choosing Love is Mandatory...

Three years ago on this day, we followed our son's hospital bed as it was wheeled down the hall and into surgery. We kissed him goodbye one last time and stood together in silence as the doors closed. We watched until they were out of sight before slowly walking away. Walking away was probably the hardest thing we've ever had to do... knowing that we would be entering the biggest, longest waiting room of our lives. But there was one thing that brought us comfort. Gavin was an organ donor. When his surgery was complete, two beautiful kidneys were on their way to a gentleman who is still doing well to this day, thank God.  
After Gavin's death, we had choices to make. To us, they were obvious ones. We chose life. We chose joy. We chose to not let losing Darcy and now Gavin rip our marriage apart. We chose to honor their lives by living ours - and being the best parents we could be for Brian... and now, Hope. 

The morning of my birthday on the very day Gavin died, his wonderful nurse came to work with a birthday cake for me. Can you imagine? She actually ordered a cake ahead of time and picked it up on her way to the hospital. I was stunned. She had them write on the cake, "Celebrate Life - Gavin and Mommy." I loved it so much that I only want that on my birthday cake for the rest of my days. It is now a sweet tradition.
It has also become a tradition to celebrate my birthday and Gavin's anniversary in fun ways as a family. It started last night with a fun birthday dinner. 
I loved watching Brian's eyes light up when I told him he would be skipping school the next day! We had celebrating to do! 
Our day today was jam packed. We went to a morning movie at the Movie Tavern and saw "Zootopia!" As it turns out, morning movies on a weekday are a great idea when you bring a two year old along as the place was mostly empty. Hope sat in her seat - for about ten minutes, tops. Good times. Not so good that I'd do it again in the next two years... but I guess it wasn't that bad. 
Brian, of course, was thrilled to be there. The two of us LOVE seeing movies at the Movie Tavern!
After the movie, we went to a nearby park. It was a gorgeous day!
We ALL had our matching "Super G" shirts on, which has also become a tradition.
Hope has the same fearless nature that Gavin had. You could never swing him too high or spin him too fast and he never met a slide that was too steep. I have stopped panicking as much when Hope wants to attempt something that seems beyond her age. She is so tough!!
And Brian, who has always been the more cautious one, is getting bolder every day. I love watching him dote on and protect his little sister - but she also pushes him to experience new things.
They definitely balance each other out.
I am sure that Gavin was happy as he watched us enjoying the sunshine and smiles.
We couldn't end the day without a trip to Arnold's Family Fun Center. It was one of Gavin's favorite places!
Brian racked up ego points playing Skee Ball.
Hope found and gently kissed every animal...
...and I had a flashback of a fun "love bomb" date I had with Gavin a mere five months before he died.
But the kids had the most fun going down the bouncy slides.
Hope has reserved her biggest smiles for her big brother from her first smile until now. They just adore each other.
Choosing life can be easy. Choosing joy can be challenging. Choosing love is mandatory.
As I rest my head on my pillow tonight, I can feel sure that Gavin had a great day.
And so did we.

Thank you to everyone who has purchased a book for Gavin's Usborne "bookraiser!" I decided to celebrate his love of books by asking people to purchase books for their own children, a charity that means something to them or two organizations that meant something to us as a way to honor Gavin on this difficult anniversary. You can find all the details about how you can get involved in THIS POST. Or you can just skip right to the shopping page, which you can find HERE. Whether you purchase a book for you or for someone else, I get "hostess credits." I intend to turn those credits around to purchase MORE books for two organizations we've chosen - the Child Life Department at duPont Hospital and the Chester County Intermediate Unit. Gavin's Usborne shopping link will be open until April 24th. Feel free to share it with your family and friends! The whole idea is to share Gavin's love of books - and all around happy spirit - with children far and wide. 
Thank you, as always, for loving our little family... and remembering our special little boy.

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