Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Baby Changes Everything

Indeed a baby does change everything. One changed the whole world about 2000 years ago and another changed our lives again significantly last year. Below is the 2009 installment of Schwamb Current History. Enjoy!


As we looked through past letters in preparation for drafting this memorable manuscript, we couldn’t help laughing hysterically at how crazy we thought our lives had been before! Previous subscribers to the annual installment of the Schwamb family history annals may recall that we ended last year with a bombshell:Lauren’s cardiologist told us it was time for a heart transplant. He told us to go home, enjoy Christmas together, and then check her into the hospital to wait for it starting right after New Years. We did exactly that. On New Year’s Day, we all went snow tubing! Lauren wasn’t too sure about it, but the rest of us had a blast! The next week, Cristi and Lauren’s unfortunate incarceration began. Both sets of our parents took rotations to help take care of the kids. Had it not been for their sacrifice, we absolutely couldn’t have done it.

It wasn’t too long before we had a big snow at our house. Addison and Brennan went out to play, and, against Tim’s better judgment, Brennan decided to get a Rubbermaid tub to use as a sled. Give the kid some credit, though; he managed to steer the thing to avoid the metal bench, brick wall, and mortal peril. Tim finished the winter with a bang. He had the opportunity to go to the military salute to President Bush just prior to inauguration. A couple of weeks later, he went TDY to Germany to his old stomping grounds: the 1st Combat Comm. And, in case you wondered, it is possible to have schnitzel at every meal…and you never get tired of going as fast as you like on the autobahn. Meanwhile, Cristi and Lauren tried not to get cabin fever. Lauren rode her tricycle all over the halls, charming everyone she passed. Fortunately, a wonderful church in the area ensured they were well cared for.

In March, as Spring was just arriving and the ground was thinking about thawing, Tim took the big kids to Great Wolf Lodge with some friends. They also made frequent trips to Philadelphia to see Cristi and Lauren. On one visit, the whole family took over the Rock Band game in the playroom. Obviously, the moral of the story is that the family that rocks together stays together! Tim made a solo trip up there in May for the CHOP Prom – an event the hospital puts on for all the kids, especially those older kids that may miss their prom because they’re stuck in the hospital. Cristi and Lauren dressed up and got their hair and nails done at the hospital, and Tim wore his mess dress uniform. One of the staff arranged for the local TV station to interview us all, and we showed up on the evening news! Lauren really was a star! Later that month, Cristi made a whirlwind trip home to see Tim and the big kids in the church musical called Imagine! that traced the history of God’s music through the ages. Tim even played Jesus! Cristi was gone for less than 24 hours total, but it was completely worth it. We’re thankful for Tim’s mom, who stayed with Lauren. Brennan also had two food challenges in the Spring – for milk and eggs – and passed both. Now he’s only allergic to peanuts! He wasted no time digging in to scrambled eggs, cheese, Doritos, chocolate, cheesecake – all the delicacies in life! Lauren began taking advantage of the warming weather and occasionally got to go outside (heavily supervised) for some fresh air.

As summer began, we began to wonder if the transplant journey would ever end. But still we pressed on. Brennan and Addison went off to camp. Now Addison is very self-sufficient. We don’t even look back when she goes. Conversely, Tim talked to Brennan for weeks about how he would have to be responsible when he went. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that Brennan would be in an entire cabin full of his friends. Tim took heart that he wasn’t called to come get him, but when he went to pick Brennan up at the end of the week, his shoes were muddy and soaked through, apparently from daily crawdad-hunting. Didn’t realize that was a sport! Tim also found out after arriving back home that, despite having his outfits separated into Ziploc bags, he didn’t feel the need to change his underwear every day. Un.Be.Lievable! In mid-July, Tim took the big kids camping with some friends. Even though it rained, they all had a great time – especially hiking up to the waterfall and sticking their feet in. Then, on Monday, July 27th, we finally got word that a heart was available. Tim dropped everything and headed to Philadelphia. Early the morning of the 28th, Lauren received her new, strong heart – a perfect match! And the angels sang, “HALLELUJAH! HALLELUJAH!” The surgery was incredibly successful, and life was good again. She recovered better than expected, exceeding all the doctors’ expectations. Tim stayed a few days, but had to return to out-process from the Pentagon. After four years, his sentence had finally been commuted. He took a couple of weeks of Leave to spend time with the family. First, he took the big kids up to Philadelphia and hijacked Cristi, so that we could all go to Six Flags, while Tim’s mom stayed with Lauren. Right on the heels of that, Tim took Addison and Brennan to Busch Gardens. Brennan discovered he liked roller coasters and they rode the biggest and baddest the park had to offer, including the Griffon, that suspended you over the edge to contemplate your 90-degree plunge before actually doing it.

All good things must come to an end, though, and Tim had to go back to work – this time as a full-time student, attending the National Defense Intelligence College for his mid-level professional military education. He’s working harder than he wanted to, but really loves the classes. He’s doing his thesis on countering Islamic extremism in Somalia and is totally enthralled by it. Cristi and Lauren finally traded incarceration for house arrest just before Labor Day, moving out of the hospital and into an extended stay hotel. Tim took the big kids, a small grill, and food, and had a cookout at the hotel to celebrate. At the end of September, after 266 days, Cristi and Lauren came home for good. Can I get an AMEN?

As Fall kicked into high gear, everyone (including Cristi) went back to their normal fast-paced routine. Tim is now the worship ministry lead at church, which takes most of the time left after school and family time. Cristi continues going to a seemingly infinite number of appointments – physical therapy, occupational therapy, feeding therapy, allergy shots, orthopedics, the list goes on…Her greatest feat since returning is going to three appointments in three states in one day. Addison and Brennan continue to embarrass us by learning more Bible verses than we can count at AWANA. Addison also started voice lessons and loves it. Watch out Hannah Montana! At the end of October, the big kids ran in the Marine Corps Kids Run – a one-mile run and did great! Tim intended to run the 10k this year, but was still suffering from an early-Summer ankle injury. Thankfully, he’s finally in physical therapy for it. At Halloween, the entire family went trick-or-treating…and got three memorable quotes. 1) After being taught to walk up, knock, and say “trick-or-treat” when the door opened, Lauren went to two houses at which no one answered, so she said, “This doesn’t work!” 2) Brennan: “I’m tired!” Cristi: “You could quit and go home.” Brennan: “No! I’m not a quitter!” 3) Addison, after trick-or-treating: “These gummy brains taste weird!” In November, Tim and Brennan went on a guys camping trip with several guys from church. After a grand total of five hours, Brennan fell and broke both bones in one forearm. His recovery has been long, but it’s finally in a cast (vs. a splint) and healing properly.

In December, Tim got an early Christmas present: He was hired to be the comm squadron commander at Little Rock! That’s a significant milestone, and we’re very excited as a family for next summer. As usual, Christmas time seems more stressful than peaceful, but as we reflect back on how blessed we are, despite the year being almost a total blur, we realize how great a year it’s been. God continues to bless us in unimaginable ways, including the birth of His son. We hope you have enjoyed an abundance of blessings this year as well and look forward to hearing from you!

Merry Christmas!
Tim, Cristi, Addison, Brennan, and Lauren

Thursday, July 30, 2009

And on the 204th Day...

...God provided a new heart for our little girl! The day began like most of the previous 203. I got up and went to work feeling tired, worn out, wishing it would end...I even came across a cool word that I hadn't used in a long time while reading an article: ennui. I even posted it as "the word of the day" on my Facebook status update. I went about my day and didn't give it anymore thought.

I left work a little early because I had to run by the church to take care of some stuff. Then I went home, changed clothes, and stuck my dinner in the nuker, thinking about what I needed to get done that night. Suddenly the phone rang. The caller ID said it was Cristi. At 6:30, I thought it early for her to be calling, but occasionally she calls me at odd times, so I didn't think about it too much. After all, why should I expect anything? It's been Groundhog Day for 204 days! But, after exchanging marital pleasantries, I hear, "So, are you up for a road trip?" "Come on, are you kidding me?", I respond. "I couldn't kid about that. You'd kill me!" "Yeah, but it's been so long! Do you really want me to come right now?" "Yes." "OK. I can leave in an hour."

I arrived at the hospital about 9:45. Lauren was just finishing up labs and x-rays, but still didn't know what was happening. We knew that if we told her, she'd never go to sleep, and she'd need her rest with the trauma to follow. Cristi did read her the transplant "storybook" from Child Life, though. Lauren liked reading that book. They read it several times that night.

It was great getting to hug Lauren before the big event. After putting her to bed, Cristi and I went and hung out with some dear friends from New Jersey that came over to keep us company. It was nice to be able to think about other things for a while, but strangely, neither of us had the uncontrollable wave of emotion we expected. We also talked to Lauren's doctor, who was away for the week at transplant camp. He told us the heart was not good -- it was perfect! Awesome! Then it was worth the wait! At midnight, we sent our friends on their way. We knew it was going to be a long night, because, at that point, the Philadelphia team still hadn't arrived at the origin to pick up the heart. The adrenaline was wearing off, too. I was getting tired. Cristi and I went back to Lauren's room to get a nap. At this rate, it would be morning before Lauren was out of surgery.

At 1:30, we woke up to find anesthesia in the room. I guess that heart travelled quicker than we thought. Cristi quickly woke Lauren up, who took one look at the anesthesia team and said, "My new strong heart?" Cristi told her, yes, it was time, and as Lauren's nervousness came on her, the anesthesia team sedated her. We walked her all the way to the OR. Her eyes were open, but no one was home. I suppose that was good. Well, here began the journey into the unknown...

We went back to Lauren's room to get some sleep. After just a few minutes (about 2:15), a nurse came in, introduced herself, and told us she'd give us hourly updates, but to expect the surgery could go 4-6 hours, possibly up to 10. At 3:30, she came back and said that they were ready to put the new heart in. At 4:30, she told us they were just finishing up -- after only 2 hours! That could only mean good news! At about 5:00, the surgeon came in and said that everything went extremely well and he was going to go extubate her (take her off the ventilator). We were shocked! That usually takes at least 24 hours! We found out later that that surgeon tends to be very conservative, which makes the extubation that much more remarkable!

At 5:30, we were finally able to see Lauren. She kinda woke up -- enough to mutter a little bit, but stayed pretty much out of it that whole day. The doctors said that they couldn't be happier! We couldn't have been either! So much culminated in that one moment: Joy over a successful surgery and transplant, the realization that the end of this portion of the journey is finally in sight, and the realization that it had only been a few short hours since a family had seen through the grief of losing their child to give ours the gift of life.

We continue to think about the donor family and to be thankful for their generosity. We received a package yesterday that allows us to send an anonymous thank-you note to the family. We can't wait to relay our thanks, tell them about our wonderful little girl, and how many people have been touched by her story.

Lauren continues to do well, and we've passed a major hurdle...but this story is far from over. As Lauren's cardiologist explained to us, we've essentially traded one disease (heart disease) for another (transplant disease). Obviously, one is a better option for life than the other, but she will be on a large drug cocktail for the rest of her life. Her immune system will be suppressed, which means it will be much easier to get sick. And, transplanted hearts don't last forever. We don't know how long it will last. What we do know is that hearts transplanted 15-20 years ago are failing now. Doctors have learned an enormous amount over that 15-20 years, but it's still fairly safe to say that she may have to go through this again. Wow! Hard to think about...

Lauren still has all of her other issues, too -- or at least we don't know how they've been impacted. We're not sure if her pulmonary hypertension has resolved with the new heart. Her cardiologist told us beforehand he believed it would resolve. We should have a good idea about that before Lauren comes back home. She still has poor muscle quality (i.e., not all her muscles are formed correctly). We can hope the new heart will at least give her more stamina that she can pair with her physical and occupational therapies to get stronger. There's also an on-going study that may give us some insight as to potentially helpful treatments. Finally, she's still completely tube-fed. We had a few weeks of working on eating prior to transplant. Unfortunately, Lauren didn't cooperate with the two swallow studies and they terminated the feed-a-Lauren program. Who can blame her? Who likes barium, or having a camera shoved up your nose and down into your throat? We're hoping to start working on that again before discharge. There are so many much to think I won't right now.

Instead, I will rejoice in the answered prayer of a hugely successful surgery and our family being reunited. We don't have an exact date yet, but we have a target timeframe. Lauren will remain in the ICU for 1-2 weeks, then she'll transfer back to the regular cardiac ward for another 1-2 weeks. During that time, they'll be constantly monitoring her progress. After discharge, she'll have to remain in the local area for another couple of months due to the high number of appointments. She'll have doctor appointments twice a week and several heart caths during that time. But that will taper off, and our family will once again be whole again -- probably around Halloween. That's about 10 months of being apart. In that time, our family has changed a lot. Lauren talks all the time now. She's like a little person with her own personality. Addison has turned into a full-fledged Tween while Cristi's been gone. Brennan's grown up, too. We've moved and Cristi doesn't know where anything is in the new house. There will be challenges reintegrating, but I'll take it. We have a date!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Camper's (B)Log

A couple of weeks ago, the big kids and I went on a family camping trip with some dear friends of ours, the Leonards, up to Cunningham Falls State Park in Maryland -- just south of Gettysburg. Below is the play-by-play of that eventful trip.

Thursday morning: We went over the Leonards to pack the coolers and finalize details for our departure that afternoon. The plan was to leave mid-afternoon (before rush hour got too bad) after an appointment for Brennan and a mid-day engagement the Leonards had.

Thursday afternoon: It turned out to be 3:45 by the time we got off for various reasons, and I knew that we'd hit some rush hour traffic. Sure enough, before we even hit the -270 spur, traffic came to a stand-still. I assumed that traffic would ease up once we finally hit the -270 HOV lanes -- and it did -- but then it came to another stand-still before we got out of the DC metro area. We finally heard rumor of an accident about three miles south of I-70, 20 miles north of where we started. So, our 1.5-hour trip turned into a 2.5-hour trip. The Leonards got delayed and didn't make it to the site until 8:00 that evening -- and they had our food! Once they got there, they started setting up their camp and I started cooking the food. Cooking (and eating) in the dark was definitely interesting. For those that didn't know, the fire from a propane camping stove does NOT provide much light!

Friday morning: I awoke to find out that something (a raccoon perhaps?) had gotten into our picnic pavilion and into the trash. No biggy. Just pick up the junk and double-bag the trash. Brennan really wanted to make a fire in the fire pit to roast marshmallows (what kid doesn't?), so he and Reese (the Leonards' 4-year-old son) went out to collect sticks while I cooked breakfast. The landscape around our campsite had a fair drop-off, but the kids had been careful and had been playing for a little while. All of a sudden, Reese screamed. Vanessa ran to him and he was holding his arm. To make a long story short, his arm didn't look good, so Vanessa loaded Reese up in the car and took him to the hospital. It turns out that he broke his arm at the elbow and had to have surgery to put pins in, which would require an overnight stay -- less than 12 hours after we all arrived! So much for a nice, relaxing family/friend camping trip!

Friday afternoon: We went to the hospital to visit Reese later that morning. When we returned, we quickly had lunch and it was starting to rain. Thankfully, I had just sealed the tent prior to the trip, so the rain was no problem. Uh-huh. I walked in the tent only to hear my kids tell me that there was water on the floor of the tent and some dripping over their heads. What happened to all that tent sealant I put on??? Well, the rains came down...and down...and down harder. As the day wore on, we developed more leaks. I was left wondering whether it was the sealant that didn't work or the sheer volume of water that almost any tent would be hard pressed to withstand. Finally, out of boredom, Brad came over and asked if we wanted to go to Gettysburg just to have something to do. His two remaining kids are 3 and 1, so entertaining them for the afternoon was much harder for him than for me. So, we packed everyone up and away we went for an afternoon driving tour down History Lane. We didn't get to walk Pickett's Charge, but we did walk the ground of the high water mark of the Confederacy. Love that place!

Friday night: The rain finally quit. I fixed dinner, then Brad took his kids to see Reese at the hospital. Addison, Brennan, and I enjoyed a nice relaxing evening roasting marshmallows and reading.

Saturday morning: I awoke to find that the raccoon had gotten into the trash again...and the two bags of marshmallows that I forgot to put in the car the night before. Oops! I fixed breakfast for all of us and discussed plans with Brad. Reese was going to get discharged that morning, so he was going to go pick them up and bring them back so that we could all go hiking to the falls. Vanessa loves waterfalls and didn't want to miss it. After that, they were going to eat lunch with us, then pack up and head home. The falls were actually a stream of water that cascaded down a high and wide rock face rather than a traditional water fall. But, you could climb up the rock face, which was cool. We had a great time!

Saturday afternoon: After a late lunch, the kids and I headed over to the lake. We decided we'd either go swimming or rent a canoe or paddle boat. It turns out that the lake is a huge draw for folks on the weekend. It was almost as if the state park was there for the lake and, oh by the way, they have camping, too. We aren't used to seeing that many people around where we go camping! On top of all the people, both swim beaches were closed due to contamination and there was an infinite wait for a boat. So we decided to go hiking instead. We found a trail map and found that we could hike from our camp site back over to the falls -- only about a mile hike -- so we decided to do that then come back for an early dinner. When we reached the falls, we climbed all the way to the top of the rock face to enjoy the view, then we picked out a place right next to the water and just sat there. Addison convinced us that we should take our shoes off and stick our feet in the stream. I didn't want to at first, because I'd just have to put my shoes back on...with wet feet. After a few minutes, I couldn't take it anymore and decided to live a little. I took my shoes off and stuck my feet in, and I'm so glad I did. It felt good. It was peaceful up there. It was awesome! We hiked back, had dinner, and enjoyed a very restful evening roasting marshmallows (newly purchased from the camp store!) and reading before dark. Now that's the life!

Sunday morning: We struck camp and headed home, minus the traffic jam. Overall, a very nice weekend -- even with all the unexpecteds! I am sorry that Reese broke his arm and turned the Leonards' weekend upside down. I know they were hoping for a restful weekend as well, but I think they enjoyed the small time they were there. Oh, and Reese is doing very well, but he has a massive cast on his arm. He's quite a trooper!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Boys Will Be Boys

Brennan went to camp for the first time this year. He was very excited. Addison has been the last 3 years, and Brennan was ecstatic that it was finally his turn. He talked about it for weeks -- that he was going to camp with his friend, Tommy.

We had a minor diversion early that week: Brennan got hit in the head with a baseball bat and had to have five stitches. Asked how it happened, he replied, "Standing too close." Yep. Hoping Darwin's theory will mean that he'll use his head a little more (or is it a little less?) next time he's standing next to the kid with the bat. That was on Monday. On Friday, Brennan got the stitches removed to cut down on scarring. So, having had experience in these matters, I told him to be sure to put sunscreen on his face every day because scars don't tan well. Otherwise, he might end up with a bright red war wound on his forehead for the rest of his life. He assured me he would.

Having outgrown all but his peanut allergy, food was not so much of a concern. In fact, I was quite glad that he would get to partake of daily canteen (i.e., Coke and candy) with very little restriction. The only minor concern was that the daily I-don't-like-that-food option was the make-your-own PB&J. Now, we're not quite certain just how allergic to peanuts he is since he's never been exposed, but his blood test numbers are (literally) off the charts. We do know, though, that there's no problem with him being around peanuts. We just don't want them on or in him. He can theoretically sit right next to someone having a PB&J with no adverse effects. So, I told him not to get in a fight with the kid at his table eating the peanut butter sandwich. He assured me he would not.

I helped him pack his suitcase. I even separated his clothes into ziplock bags for each day -- complete with a change of underwear. We talked briefly about this, too, but I wasn't too worried, because I was assured by our veteran camp-goer that campers are required to take a shower every day. After all, if you have a ziplock bag for every day and you're required to take a shower everyday, by the transitive property of logic and mathematics, one can assume that the boy will take off the entire old outfit (including underwear), take a shower, and put on the entirely new outfit (including underwear), post-shower. Good dad.

With preparations complete, we loaded up the car, and drove out there. It turns out that, not only was his friend Tommy there, but also several of his other friends. We arranged for them all to be in the same cabin. I felt sorry for his counselor. He had an almost entire cabin-full of rising third-graders -- most every bit as rowdy as Brennan. All I can say is I'm glad it was him and not me! I do have to say, though, despite all the things you're already anticipating I'll say, apparently, Brennan was the master bed-maker (a trait we'll be sure to make use of at home now that we know!)! He won best bed in his cabin one day and was apparently hired to make sure that the beds were made properly for all the boys that were (shall we say) bed-making challenged -- to ensure that the entire cabin wasn't penalized for untidiness. So, props to my son! Who knew?

Well, I missed my son. I e-mailed him everyday, but never heard from him. It was probably a good thing. That at least meant that he wasn't sending letters saying he was homesick! So, I was excited to go pick him up. When we got there, Addison saw him first and rushed up to him. I followed behind and the first thing she said was, "Look at his shoes!" I looked down and they were solid brown. They used to be blue and gray. The conversation then went something like this:

"What happened to your shoes?"

"I was wading in the creek looking for crawdads."

"With your shoes on?"


"How many days?"

"Pretty much every day."


"So, did you use sunscreen every day?"


"How come?"

"I didn't have time!"

"You didn't have time to put on sunscreen?"


"But you had time to hunt for crawdads?"


Amazingly, his scar looks pretty good. I'm thankful, but wondering why I don't catch breaks like that...

Later, at home, unpacking his suitcase, I found one pair of socks that went straight into the trash (still wet), another that looked salvageable that went into the laundry, and five pair that were still rolled up neatly in his suitcase. I said (You can see it coming, can't you? After 11 years of being a parent, I still have a propensity to ask dumb questions!), "Why didn't you wear these socks?", to which he replies, "Well, I didn't want to get my socks all messed up wading in the creek looking for crawdads!" Right. Guess it was okay for those shoes, though!

Still sorting through the suitcase, I notice that pretty much everything is wet in there. I ask, "Why is everything wet in here? Is it because your towel was in here?" He responds, "I don't know. Maybe. Or it might be that my clothes fell in the water while I was taking a shower." Really? How is it that all your clothes got wet in the shower every day??

Finally, as I come to the bottom of the suitcase, I find ziplock bags in there with...wait for it...clean underwear still in them! I said, "Why is there clean underwear still in here?", to which he responds, "I don't know." Still having not learned my lesson about asking dumb questions, I continue, "I thought you were supposed to take a shower every day." He says, "I did!". "Wait," I said, "you took a shower every day, but didn't change your underwear every day?" Shyly, "Right." "So...How many days did you change your underwear?" Mind you, he was there for 8 days. "Oh, prob'ly three." Un. Be. Lievable.

I just shook my head. I wanted to be upset with him, but instead I just laughed to myself. I vaguely remember doing stupid stuff like that when I was a kid. Some things never change between generations. And some things are obviously in-bred...To boys! Stop thinking that! I heard that! It's all boys -- not that he got it from me! At least it's never a dull moment around our house! Oh, and the shoes? They went in the trash...right after he wore them to the store to buy new ones. I leave you with a couple of pictures of the old shoes. Any other parents seen these shoes before?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Day 156: Another Milestone

Today is Day 156 of Lauren and Cristi's unfortunate incarceration as we've taken to calling it. You may wonder why this particular day would be significant, other than the fact that it's an even (but not round) number. Today marks being in the hospital for one day longer than all of Lauren's previous 20 hospital stays combined. Yes, you read that right: Lauren accumulated 155 days in the hospital in just short of 3 years and 20 stays, and has now been in the hospital waiting on a heart transplant for 156 days -- a combined total of 311 days in 3 years and 5 months. Wow! Thinking about that makes me wonder how long?

On days like this, though, I'm reminded that our deployed troops spend at least 6 months away from their families -- some over a year. That kind of puts it in perspective. Having been deployed twice, though, I can tell you that, no matter how many people you're around, you miss your family. Certainly that's true for my family as every day begins to look like Groundhog Day.

As I feel myself slipping into sadness, though, I'm reminded of a literary classic called Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (that I'm reading with the kids for about the fourth time). In that book, Harry encounters dementors -- absolutely horrid creatures that quite literally drain the happiness out of people -- and Harry is afflicted worse than most it seems. Fortunately for Harry, it's possible for practiced wizards to conjure a patronus that fights them off via a complex spell that is sparked by focusing your mind on an extremely happy memory. Fortunately for me, too, I can fight those feelings of despair by focusing on all the good things God has blessed me with. You can see a partial list here. Add to that the successful cath earlier this week and the fact that I get to see Lauren and Cristi regularly (even if not as frequently as I'd like) and you really just can't ask for more under the circumstances. But instead of a complex spell that spawns some powerful vapor-like being, it's the Peace of God that passes all understanding, knowing that it will all be okay, because He promised it would.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Candid Conversations With a Three-Year-Old

Ever wonder what goes through the mind of a three-year-old? Sometimes, when they speak, they make you laugh. Sometimes they make you cry. Sometimes they make you proud. And, sometimes, they make you sigh. We've always known that Lauren understands a lot -- more than most little kids do (or should) at their age. In fact, one thing is abundantly clear: Lauren is not sitting idly by in the hospital wondering why the wall is blue, oblivious to everything. The other day, Cristi had a philosophical conversation with Lauren -- just out of the blue. I thought I'd share it with you.

[One morning in the playroom]

Lauren: Who works in the cath lab?

Cristi: Dr. Hanna. (Lauren's cardiologist)

Lauren: Who else?

Cristi: [Pauses to think]

Lauren: Does Robert's (one of the older boys she knows on the ward) doctor work in the cath lab?

Cristi: No. He works in the operating room.

Lauren: Can he fix my heart?

Cristi: No, but he might help when you get your new, strong heart.

Lauren: Will he put it in my back?

Cristi: No, it will go in the front.

Lauren: Oh. I'll lift up my shirt for him in the operating room!

[An hour or so later, as Cristi is putting Lauren down for her nap]

Lauren: Will you go with me to the operating room?

Cristi: Yes, I'll go all the way to the operating room with you.

Lauren: Good! [Pauses] I'll cooperate! (We tell her she has to cooperate when she goes to the gym, or Mommy will have to leave)

[Later...back in three-year-old land...]
Lauren was pretending to play Rock Band in the playroom. She pretended to turn on the TV, open the X-Box, and put the imaginary disc in. Then she got the drumsticks, sat down, tapped the sticks while saying, "1-2-3", and then proceeded to sing a song: "Merf, Merf, Merf".

Then, Cristi and Lauren were playing Dora Candyland. She got tired of playing with just the two player markers (Lauren, not Cristi!), so she kept making up new players (Tico, Benny, Backpack, etc.). Cristi said she must have had about 10 imaginary players on the board that they were trying to keep track of! Imagine how many times that many players could hit Queen Frostine and have to go back to the beginning! Talk about a never-ending game! Of course, at that age, it's way more about the playing than the winning.

Well, there you have it: A three-year-old's mind at work. One moment, happily pretending that she's a rock star -- another moment, clearly spending significant brain cells on the implications of her "unfortunate incarceration" -- who's involved, how it works, what to expect, whether she'll have to go through it all alone...I'm awe-struck. What an amazing little girl!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Living the Dream of a Prom Queen

Last week was a busy week. In the first three days, I had already worked about 36 hours, trying to get ready for my big briefings that begin the process of building the Air Force budget for 2011. The days were long, I needed more time, and I was about to go crazy. But in the middle of the busy-ness, I got to take a little time out for a really special night with my daughter. Last Thursday was "Prom night" at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and Cristi asked me to come up, wear my Mess Dress, and be Lauren's date. Now how could I turn that down?

About 3 years ago, they began having an annual prom for the kids who were stuck in the hospital and weren't able to go. They open it up to all the kids, though, and really make a big deal out of it. I took up a formal for Cristi and the dress Addison wore as a flower girl in Cristi's sister's wedding for Lauren. It was perfect! The hospital spent the whole day getting ready for it. On Lauren's floor, they transformed the playroom into the 6 East Beauty Salon. They had a stylist there, so Lauren got her hair and nails done. She knew how to show it off, too. She even asked one of the nurse practitioners if she was going to the prom and what she was wearing. She replied that she thought she'd wear what she had on (a very stylish shirt/slacks combo, which she wore to work that day). Lauren gave her a look that said that was clearly not appropriate! Talk about a diva! I was amazed, wondering where she learned such behavior! I think it must be from her sister!

The entire floor went down together. We quite literally paraded down the halls to the elevator, IV poles, heart monitors, and medical staff all in tow. Even with all the added gear, it was quite a site to see with all the kids dressed up in their best clothes. When we arrived downstairs, we got to walk down the red carpet with photographers taking pictures and people cheering the kids on. They transformed the cafeteria into a dance floor (not unlike they did for Cristi's and my first two proms together) and had a DJ there to get the kids and adults moving together on the dance floor. Just imagine teens, 3-year-olds, and AF majors raising the roof, doing conga lines, and line dancing. pictures...You'll just have to imagine that!

They even had local media there covering the event, and before we knew it, we had been volunteered to get interviewed. I could tell you all about it, but I'll just let the story speak for itself (click here).

Unfortunately, I had to drive back home that night so that I could be at work early the next morning for my briefings. Just a short trip, but one well worth it! Enjoy the pictures!

Lauren and her cardiologist, Dr. Hanna

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Lights, Camera, Action! (or, Playing Jesus)

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to participate in something really moving: a musical called Imagine. Now, I'm not an actor. I never took Drama in school. The closest I ever got to theater was playing in the orchestra for high school musicals (different from High School Musical that your tween knows and loves). I do love music though, and I'm passionate about worship, so I impulsively tried out for a role in our church's spring production.

Imagine is an original musical, written by one of our members, that traces church music back from the very beginning when, Jubal, the father of music, is mentioned in Genesis 4 down to today's contemporary Christian ubiquity. The 60% of our family still living in DC all decided to take part. In fact, we all had to try out -- yes, try out...all of us. The kids tried out for their song-and-dance number first. Addison's done choreographed numbers before, so dancing wasn't a big deal, but singing in front of everyone made her nervous. Brennan on the other hand went up there and belted out a song fairly well for a kid with no training, but then looked like the quintessential football player doing ballet when trying the choreography! It was comical! My audition didn't go so well either; you'd've thought that I got dared into doing "Born to be Wild" at a Karaoke bar. Thankfully, the director was "taking" everyone. We were just trying out for role placement. The next day she called me with my "assignments: Among other things, I got to be...wait for it...Jesus! My heart sank. How can I play Jesus? I mean, He's like...God!

The rehearsals started the next week. That left our weekends in the dust: Every Sunday for 3 hours. Sunday was no longer a day of rest. And, as we got closer to the show, I kept taking on increased responsibility. First, it was leading the chorus during the music portion of the rehearsal. Then, it was helping with the set. Forget a heart transplant. The show must go on -- especially since Cristi was coming to town for the Saturday night performance (we had a wonderful hour-and-a-half together, by the way)!

Actually, helping with the set turned out to be both fun and educational. I showed up and asked how I could help. The next thing I knew, I was climbing 20-foot ladders hanging lights from the ceiling. Yes, Karin had hired someone she knew from local theater that had been doing lighting and sound for 30+ years! I had no idea you actually had to "focus" the lights -- who knew? Who knew I'd have to wear makeup, too? Foundation, blush, lipstick, and a makeup beard! I even learned how to put it on myself (except for the beard part; I had people assigned to dress me in my Jesus garb and do my makeup during quick-change superman drills) and impressed a couple of the teenage girls. Of course, I'm not sure that's a proficiency they should be looking for in a guy...

Finally, after a grueling last week of rehearsals, opening day arrived. I had so much pent-up energy, and despite seeing it several times in rehearsal, I couldn't wait to see how the show "came off". It was a kind of paradox of feeling, actually. I wanted to see the show so that I could imagine what it must have been like to have witnessed all those scenes. Yet, at the same time, it was incumbent upon me and the rest of the cast to bring it to life for the audience -- so that they could imagine!

Well, since many of you couldn't be there, let me walk you through several of the scenes, and let you imagine what it might have been like...

Imagine being in the fields with the boy David as he played with his friends and sang traditional Jewish songs...

Imagine the dedication of Solomon's temple -- all the grandeur of the temple itself and the pomp and circumstance of a dedication ceremony driven by the awe and passion of a people who realized they were taking part, not just in a historical moment, but in a moment that had God's undivided attention...

Imagine the temple being destroyed -- a time of such despondency among the priests and the people that the splendor and orchestral majesty seen in the temple dedication was ordered replaced with monotonic chants...

Imagine Martin Luther telling the people how stupid that was -- that God gave us the gift and beauty of music and that we should use it for His glory...

Imagine Handel writing the Hallelujah Chorus, going several days without food, and then hearing it performed for the very first time...

Imagine slaves singing a spiritual, not only as a cry to God, but also as a call to assembly and escape...

Imagine a white church and a black church in the same town that finally come together, breaking down age-old barriers...

Imagine a large gathering of Christians all lifting their voices together in high-energy praise...

Imagine what Heaven will be like...Imagine all the kids running to Jesus when they see Him for the very first time as all of Heaven sings, "Worthy is the Lamb! Praise the great I AM!"...

Unfortunately, this word picture paints but a fraction of the full canvas, but I hope you could see just momentarily in your mind how powerful some of those moments through the ages must have been (or will be, in the case of Heaven). I'm humbled to have been a part of it -- especially humbled to play the part of Jesus -- one that I'm certainly not worthy of. I have to tell you, though, that it lit up my heart to see all those kids running toward me. Imagine what that will be like...

All good things must come to an end, though. And, after the last show Sunday night, we had to take down the entire set. That was fun in its own right, though. I volunteered to take down lights (since I help put them up). This time, it wasn't the ladder, though. Yep...I got to drive one of those scissors lifts. Drove it all the way from the parking lot, into the church building, and up and down the aisles taking down lights, poles, cords. I felt like a little kid! I mean, who'd'a thunk that you'd get to drive a scissors lift at church?!? I think I need one of those at home!

Later that night, I finally made it home, crawled into bed and went to sleep. It seemed just a short time until the alarm went off for Monday morning. Alas, all good things must come to an end...

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Storm has Passed

We got great news about Brennan today! It's been a while since I posted an update about him, so you may want to refresh your memory by clicking here and here. I mentioned in my previous Brennan update that putting this puzzle together was a bit like putting together a puzzle of a bunch of spilled candy and doing it without the box. Only now it's as if I just realized I just needed to turn the pieces over for it to all come clear. OK, enough intrigue and metaphor: Brennan's neurologist called today with the results of his EEG that he had over a month ago (finally!); everything's clear! Before, he was showing subtle epileptic activity, but now, even knowing what to look for, there's nothing there! No epileptic activity, no seizures, nothing. Just plain-jane vanilla brain waves. She thinks it may have been one of the medicines he was on to treat his supposed bipolar.

His psychiatrist rescinded the bipolar diagnosis a while back and replaced it with anxiety. Thankfully, we've been able to manage that with weekly therapy sessions and without medicine. He still struggles with temper outbursts, but I think it's getting better. You can almost see the wheels turning in his head when something makes him mad. He's fighting his demons to determine which side will win. That's a huge step forward! Of course the true test will be when his mother gets back, since that's where he's had the hardest time controling his outbursts. I'm convinced it will be better, and perhaps (hopefully), this separation has been a healing rain of sorts.

On top of his weekly psych therapy, he's getting weekly occupational therapy. Brennan's incredibly talented in some ways, like sports and math, but has problems in multi-sensory environments and with real-world problem-solving. His occupational therapist specializes in that sort of therapy, so we're hopeful that will ease some frustration he may be having over "simple things". He's at least having fun! He gets to do things like build obstacle courses and test them out and play with putty that makes bathroom noises when you squeeze it. What more could an 8-year-old boy ask for?

We are so absolutely thankful that yet another burden has been lifted. Brennan still has a fair amount of therapy ahead of him, but we're now convinced that there's nothing extremely serious or harmful wrong with him. Praise God! He is good!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Rock You Like a Hurricane

Our family loves the Wii. And last weekend, I had the chance to try out a game I was sure I would love but hadn't yet played: Rock Band. What made it even sweeter was that Lauren loved it, too!

I got to babysit Lauren all morning while Cristi went out shopping, and she wanted to play, not once, not twice, but three times!! Well, being the good dad, I couldn't really turn her down, could I? We jammed to Bon Jovi, Nirvana, and a couple of others. When Cristi got back, she said, "I see Daddy babysits different than Mommy!" Yup!

Of course, then I got Cristi in on it, and we all played together: Me on drums, Cristi on the axe, and Lauren wailing on the mic! I loved it!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Ridin' the Waves

OK, so this is, like, so last century by now, but I wanted to share pics of our trip to Great Wolf Lodge. We went down with some friends of ours, the Leonards, with their three kids, and we had a blast! It was our fourth time down there, and it just never gets old.

The lobby

The wave pool

Addison, Brennan, Vanessa, and I coming off the Howlin' Tornado

Disciplining Brennan with water torture

Splash down!

My model

All boy...

The Wolf Den

Dancin' the Night Away

Teaching Brennan to boogy board

Good learner!

Great time!

Count Your Blessings (Reprise)

Last week was a tough week.

Lauren seemed to be declining again. She "just wasn't quite right" as Cristi described it to me. She was also falling a lot -- like her legs were just giving out underneath her. That was certainly a disturbing new development. The doctors were beginning to get concerned. Of course we're always concerned that she'll start going d0wnhill before she gets her heart.

Work wasn't going well. I have two main programs I'm responsible for. One is already on life support, and started getting worse. The other one was going fine, but then an organization I work with decided to start throwing a fit about stuff I didn't think was that excitable.

I was starting to get nervous about finding a house. We thought we found one, but it looked like it was going to fall through. Then, instead of going to Philadelphia to see Cristi and Lauren, I'd have to stay here looking at houses...and I really missed Cristi.

The kids were off to Georgia with Opa and Oma, and I was left by myself. I absolutely HATE being by myself. I wound up working late every night only to come home to work that needed to be done around the house. Then stay up late, get up early, repeat.

The stress was mounting to the point that I just wasn't sure how much longer I could take it. Everyone always talks about how positive we are. I do try to look for the positive --to have joy -- in every situation...and in most cases, it helps. But it didn't this time. Little annoyances just kept happening -- things that ordinarily wouldn't be that big of a deal. But they were this time. The veneer had cracked, and I feared I had somehow lost God's protection and comfort. I feared that others might be disappointed that "the Schwambs who are so strong" hadn't cracked the code on perpetual peace after all. How can I encourage others when I've no longer got the calm assurance that all is good? I actually felt a bit like Elijah when he was hiding in a cave, running from Jezebel. He said, "I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” (1 Kings 19:10). Okay, so I didn't really feel like people were trying to kill me, but I sure felt the kind of stress that Elijah felt...and it's okay.

God calmed Elijah with a gentle whisper. He calmed me with the gentle whisper of friendship and prayer. It was then that things started looking up. I went to praise team rehearsal last Wednesday, and it was good to be around people, and good to be prayed over for my stress. My spirits began to lift. My kids would be back that weekend. Two days later, I got notified we got the house, which meant I could go to Philadelphia -- two more weights lifted. Lauren stopped falling, and today seems to have her energy back. I briefed my 3-star yesterday on my program with so many issues and got kudos for a good brief. And, Brennan passed his milk challenge yesterday. Wow! So much relief over the last several days. Life is definitely good again.

And God continues to be faithful.

Cristi posted a new blog entry a couple of days ago (you can read it here), called "Count your Blessings". I think it's time I did the same:

1) Lauren is at the best children's heart hospital in the world, getting care from top docs. You couldn't ask for more.
2) A wonderful wife that I truly love with all my heart and, amazingly, she tolerates me.
3) Two kids that have been through more than kids should ever have to go through, and they just roll with the punches.
4) God continues to answer my prayers -- about Lauren, the house, work, Brennan, ...
5) A boss that lets me take off whenever I need to, with no questions asked
6) An amazing base of care and concern from a ton of friends that I know -- and some that I don't
7) Two sets of parents that would move heaven and earth to help in any way they can
8) I get to sing my heart out and throw all my cares away at least once every week
9) I don't have to worry about health insurance costs. The military is truly a blessing.
10) Facebook and e-mail. It's been our lifeline.

"Your light broke through my night, restored exceeding joy. Your grace fell like the rain and made this desert live. You have turned my mourning into dancing! You have turned my sorrow into joy! This is how we overcome!"

Friday, March 13, 2009

False Start...Five Yard Penalty...Repeat First Down

By now, most of you have heard about our day yesterday, but I thought perhaps you'd like more than just the bottom line -- perhaps a glimpse into what yesterday was like. And, besides, blogging is therapeutic for me!

Yesterday started (almost) like any other day. I had breakfast with a friend, which put me at work later than usual. I had a ton of stuff to do that day, starting with going over weekly project updates and finalizing a briefing for a couple of General Officers. I was working on the briefing with a colleague when Cristi called.

I saw the hospital number on the caller ID and figured something was up. It's not unusual to get a call at work, but not on my cell phone, and not since she's been in the hospital. Sure enough, she said, "We may have something." "Should I jump in the car?", I asked, but she told me to hold off for an hour while they ran some initial tests. I was excited, but not convinced; we had been warned about false starts. Two hours later, Cristi called back and reported she still didn't know anything, but she was having lunch with a couple of friends that had come up for the day and would try to find out something when she got back. By then, it was getting to be about 1:00, and I figured I needed to get on the road; the 4-hour time limit we'd ben told about was running out, and I didn't want to miss seeing my little girl before surgery. She told me to make train reservations for late afternoon, and we'd hope for the best.

By 2:00, we still didn't really know, but Cristi figured no news was good news (i.e., the longer we went without hearing something was longer they weren't finding a reason not to use it). Cristi advised me to go ahead and leave work and head to the train station in the hopes that we'd know something before I left. They were tentatively talking a 7:00 surgery. I told my boss, left work, came home, quickly finished packing my suitcase, and headed to the train station. As I got on the Metro, Cristi called and gave me the official word: It was a go! I made a few phone calls to family, boss, and close friends (those were interesting conversations to be sure! I think most were more emotional than I was!) By the time I got to Union Station, I had missed my train, so I had to trade it in for a later ticket. I traded for the 5:05 train and went to wait.

As I waited, I reflected back on the day and how "perfect" it had been. The timing was perfect: I was already scheduled for leave next week. My partner was already prepped to do the majority of the briefing, so I wouldn't be missed. Cristi had friends up there to keep her company to keep her from going crazy. The heart was a perfect match! I was even wearing my Mickey Mouse watch yesterday. How perfect is that? I thought, "Surely this day has been chosen. This is fantastic!" I took time to pray, but my mind was such a flurry of thoughts that all I could muster was, "Remember all those things I've been praying about? Do that!"

Finally, the time came for them to start taking tickets and letting folks on the platform. As I held my ticket and ID and gathered my stuff to move toward the door, my phone rang -- Cristi. Uh-oh. Why was she calling me? We already had a thumbs-up. As I said hello, ticket in hand, moving toward the ticket-taker, I could hear it in her voice: "Where are you?" "Just getting ready to go through the gate", I responded. Then the dreaded report came: "They called it off. Every member of the team agreed unanimously." I fought my way through the crowd to get out of the way so we could talk. How could this happen? We had gotten a thumbs-up! The whole hospital staff was absolutely ecstatic. They were certain, too! This was the perfect day! What happened?

They had run a battery of tests that are practically pro forma; they almost never come back with problems. Unfortunately, Lauren has always preferred to keep the bookies in business. Best we can determine, these tests look for, among other things, potential weird, wild infections that the donor may have had currently or previously, knowingly or unknowingly. It's probably something of that sort that called it off that late in the process, and so definitively.

So, I went back home. After a day of hope, promise, manic excitement, I was exhausted after the plunge from an amazing high to utter disappointment. Lauren was blissfully oblivious, but Cristi was definitely upset. I was okay, just tired. Today, though, was different. My boss gave me the option of staying home or heading to Philadelphia, but I chose to go in. I had work to do (and a briefing to give), and there really wasn't anything else to do. There was no point going to Philadelphia. But I realized my heart just wasn't in it.

The transplant team warned us about false starts, but we had been so close! Why does God allow false starts? Why when we were that far along? Maybe to offer hope after beginning to feel like it would never come? I don't know...At least we know what to expect now. And what of the donor's family? I can't imagine the roller coaster they went through yesterday. I don't know if this problem would have prevented other organs from being used, but if so...Wow! That would have been devastating on top of already losing their child...really tough on closure...I pray God's rich blessing on them. Wow!

Today is another day, though. Cristi and I are doing much better. Lauren's still blissfully oblivious. Another heart will time. We pray it will be sooner rather than later, but it will come on God's time. We will wait, and we will be patient.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Where's That Magic 8-Ball?

It's been a while since I've written, but thankfully, things have been blessedly uneventful. The hospital's had a nasty GI bug going around, so a couple of weeks ago, they took some drastic measures to try to reverse it. They locked down the germ factories previously known as the play room and family lounge, and stationed a large guard at the entrance, turning away all kids and anyone else that breathes funny. Fortunately, as of this writing, they've opened the playroom back up.

Lauren has been healthy through all of this; it's really been great. But while she has been "healthy", there have been some subtle indications that something's just not right. Her resting heart rate has risen since we checked her in 2 months ago. Her pulmonary pressures seem to be creeping up. And, she's coughing more. All of these point toward a gradual onset of heart failure. The doctors have noticed, too, and have begun thinking about how to stay ahead of Lauren, rather than constantly reacting. They've also shared that with us so that we could be prepared, rather than having it sprung on us when it's time.

Lauren is still doing fine. She's in no imminent danger and really nothing to get too concerned about, but some kid ran off with the Magic 8 Ball and hasn't brought it back, so we're left with a few interesting questions but fewer answers: Is her heart, in fact, deteriorating? If so, how fast? Is there anything we can do about it? Will she be able to hold out until we get a heart? Since Lauren's as adept at the unpredictable as Agatha Christie, the doctors decided to do a heart cath -- partially because they like to do them every 3 months on transplant patients and partially to get some more clues to just how well (or lousy) Lauren really is doing.

We got good news. Lauren's heart function is effectively unchanged from December, with one significant difference: Lauren's heart isn't pumping as much blood per beat, but it's beating faster, so it's compensating. So...the doctors are as satisfied as they can be, but they'll certainly keep their eyes on her. Should she start declining, they have a few options. They can, of course, continue fiddling with her heart and diuretic meds. They can also put in a Berlin (mechanical) heart. She can theoretically keep getting up and around with one of those. If breathing becomes more difficult because her heart just can't keep up, they can put her on a ventilator to give her heart a break. Obviously, she couldn't be up and around then.

Lauren's had a fantastic attitude through all of this (except for those I'm-3-years-old-and-I-run-this-place moments). She's learned to ride a tricycle and has enjoyed riding it all over the floor. Check out Cristi's blog for pictures. And, of course, she's charming everyone. Because of that, we're certainly concerned that Lauren's health could decline before a heart became available. I know that God will provide a heart for Lauren on His time. I just continue to pray that Lauren will stay strong until that time comes -- however long that is.

Speaking of that, we did get a bit of good news the other day. Lauren was offered a "back-up heart" (whatever that means; Cristi forgot to ask), but they turned it down due to concerns of infection on the part of the donor. While it wasn't a "real heart" offer, it at least means we're getting high enough on the mythical list to get offered something. After two months and the promise of several more, that's really encouraging.

Many have asked how we're doing. The truth is that, in some ways, it's hard. We don't get to talk every day, and sometimes, the days we do get to, there's not much to talk about, so I feel like I've wasted my opportunity. My trips to Philadelphia seem rushed, like there's just not enough time. I hate that the kids don't get to see Cristi and Lauren regularly. I'm tired of sleeping alone. I worry that Cristi's not eating well or getting enough rest. I worry that Lauren is spending a critical time when she really needs good parenting, getting her way more than she should (i.e., getting spoiled). In other ways, we're doing fine. Our totally unselfish parents are quite literally keeping the household running. We've gotten countless notes and words of encouragement. I don't have to worry about health insurance bills. I do actually get to see Cristi occasionally. If this were a deployment, I wouldn't get to see her for 6+ months. I think what makes this different, though, is that a deployment has a (somewhat) definite end date with little to worry about but enduring. Conversely, we don't know whether this will end tomorrow or next year. Lauren's long-term health is uncertain. But we will make it. Our marriage is incredibly strong. And we do get to talk fairly often. And Lauren will come through transplant splendidly. But some days are just harder than others. Thanks to all for your prayers and words of encouragement. God has blessed us with an incredible circle of support.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Best Wife Ever

With the exception of Christmas, Cristi and I hate gift-giving holidays: Mothers' Day, Fathers' Day, and, yes, Valentine's Day. With everything else going on, we find ourselves with so little time that these occasions just seem like a chore, rather than something we can put time and effort into to make them special. So we'd rather not make a big deal out of them than to cause additional stress that's not needed. That was illustrated quite clearly yesterday by my low-maintenance wife.

Yesterday, a friend of ours came up to Philadelphia and stayed with Lauren so that Cristi and I could just go out and enjoy ourselves. No big plans...We just wanted to hang out and enjoy being together -- pure and simple. Wow, it was great! We drove up to a suburb north of Philadelphia where they have a huge shopping center so that we could look for some stuff and just goof off. We went into Old Navy, and Cristi found a shirt to spruce up her spring hospital wardrobe. As we finished checking out, the clerk said, "Have a great day. Enjoy your holiday!" As we're leaving, Cristi says, "Oh yeah...I was trying to figure out what holiday it was today." I love that woman!

A Trip Home, Part Drei

Our last day there, the day we flew out, we started at Kaethe Wohlfahrt; I needed to pick up an ornament for my mother. We headed to Mackebach next. Coincidentally, Don and I both lived there while we were stationed over there. We stopped at the grocery store first to do our last-minute shopping. I still needed coffee and Kinder Eggs. If you’ve never had European coffee, it’s the best. And, German coffee is one of the best of those. Kinder Eggs, are little eggs made out chocolate – about the size of Cadbury Cream Eggs – that are hollowed out and have little toys inside them. Many of the toys you have to put together, which is the really cool part. It’s amazing how much stuff you can fit in a tiny chocolate egg! Addison and Brennan have had them before and asked me to bring them back some. I figured I better get some for Lauren, too. Not that Brennan and Lauren can eat them, but remember: It’s not about the chocolate; it’s about the toy inside!

So, I strolled through the store, first stopping for coffee. I initially picked up 5 bricks, but at about $6/brick, I figured that was a lot, so I put a grand total of one back. Hey, I’m only willing to sacrifice so much! Then, on my way to the candy aisle, I went down the sauce aisle. Yep. I’m all about the pre-made schnitzel sauce! The only complicating factor is that the ingredients are in German, so I couldn’t guarantee they didn’t have milk products in them and be safe for Brennan, but I was reasonably confident, figuring I could always translate via Google, so I pulled a couple of packets. Finally…on to Kinder Eggs. I pulled nine and went to check out. Now, since it was our last day, I had used up most of my cash; I was hoping to use a credit card here…But no luck. I was frustrated but not that surprised. In many ways, German culture is a good 40-50 years behind us. This was a good example: Using credit cards everywhere just isn’t the German way. So after embarrassing myself, Don offered up his remaining cash, and I brought back only half the coffee I had intended to.

Our last item of business before lunch and a drive back to the airport was to stop at Don's landlords' house in Mackenbach. Don's wife insisted that he stop by, but Don was afraid after so many years that they might not remember him, or like being dropped in on. Well, he was wrong -- way wrong! They opened the door, immediately recognized him, gave him a bear hug, and invited us in. We talked for a little bit, then their youngest daughter came in, now a college student; she had been Don's babysitter when they lived there. I mentioned how I used to live in Mackenbach as well, and in fact, lived just a few blocks away. When I told them which house I lived in, they said, "Ah, Frau Mayer's house!" Frau Mayer was my landlady. We both had digital pictures of the family handy, so Don left some for his landlords to keep, and they offered to tell Frau Mayer I said hello and take a family picture of us! Then they offered us coffee (Wow! Starbucks got nuttin' on German coffee!!) and offered to take us out to lunch! We tried to decline politely, because we really didn't want to impose on them, but they absolutely insisted. In fact, when they couldn't find a single restaurant open (not that unusual in Germany), they just made lunch for us. This was one amazing couple! I can see why Don's wife was insistent! After lunch, I took some pictures for Don, and we left for the airport. What a great way to end our trip to Germany!

I started this blog post with the title, A Trip Home. For me, it really has been -- and for Don, too, I'd say. I’m fascinated by Germany because of its history and culture, and because my ancestors emigrated from there (and by its good food – have I mentioned that yet?). Couple that with going back to the 1st and a trip down memory lane, and – even without any real “sightseeing” – you’ve got one of the best trips ever!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Trip Home, Part Zwei

We took the majority of the afternoon off. I went to check e-mail and Facebook (to let Cristi know I made it safely). We met again that evening to do some more shopping before dinner. I had to go pick up a 110/220 adapter for my laptop (who’d’a thunk that there’d be no 110 outlets in billeting???), then to the commissary to buy some breakfast goods. We then went to find the Polish Pottery store tucked away in a little village somewhere. I had never been, but Don had when he was here a mere 6 years ago. I couldn’t even remember where the village was; he got us that far, but then the adventure began. He couldn’t remember exactly where it was, so he was looking for something familiar. Failing that, we turned down nearly every side street looking for it, ending up on two-way streets only wide enough for one car because of all the cars parked along the side because they were residential streets. Finally, we had to ask two Germans out walking. We finally found the place. It did have a fairly good selection, but man the prices were high – about 4-5 times what I paid for the stuff in Poland 10 years ago! I got the two pasta bowls to complete our collection, and Don got what his wife sent him for. Off to dinner!

When we were in the commissary, we were discussing where to go, and a lady overheard us. She told us if we wanted good schnitzel, and lots of it, to go to this place called “Big Emma’s” in Ramstein Village. We got half-portions that weighed in at a hefty 17 oz. The full portions were 35 oz, and for those big appetites, they had 71 oz portions available! It wasn’t as good as the Firehouse, but it was pretty good, and we certainly didn’t go away hungry! And so ends a great first day back in Germany…

The next day, we started our meetings – out at our new old stomping grounds. The 1st was planning a new building when I left, to replace the old WWII bomb shelter and hardened aircraft shelters we used for our workcenters. The new place was stunning! The troops now have bays big enough to store and work on their equipment indoors – a good thing considering the rainy German weather. That’s pretty impressive considering it takes a lot of space for satellite terminals, air traffic control equipment, and generators.

Combat comm units have a long tradition of high morale, probably because their sole mission is to go anywhere in the world to support the guys that put bombs on target. I already alluded that this was my best assignment, but we also have a long history of unit loyalty (we disparage the 3rd Herd and 5th Mob all the time because of their inferiority to the 1st), so I just had to get my picture taken with the 1st Combat Comm rock.

That picture will look nice in my office, don’t you think, right next to my 1st Combat Comm flag? Oh, and we had a good conference, too. The 1st’s commander, Lt Col Bill Waynick, was a great host (two more nights of good schnitzel), and we had the right folks here from the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 644th to get some real work done figuring out what combat comm should look like in the future.

To be continued...

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Trip Home, Part Eins

(This post became so long, I decided to break it down into three parts to make it easier to read)

I got an amazing opportunity this week. I got to go back to Germany – the land of my ancestors and place of my first (real) assignment. Because of the flight schedules and jetlag, it’s almost impossible to make the trip without scheduling in a little extra time – a time I intended to take full advantage of!

I traveled with a guy I work with, Don Cournoyer, who had incidentally been assigned to the same unit I was in Germany, the 1st Combat Communications Squadron, just at a different time. For those of you unfamiliar with a combat comm unit, their mission is to deploy to a bare base that has no infrastructure whatsoever, and set up an entire base communications network, starting with a satellite communications link to connect back into the military network, and extending phone, classified and unclassified networks, video teleconferencing, and radio connectivity, among other things. We can also set up air traffic control services. Needless to say, this is about the coolest job in the whole Air Force!

We arrived Tuesday morning at 0700 with nothing to do except stay awake, because the quickest way (albeit grueling) to get over jetlag is to stay up all day, then crash early that night. So, we went shopping…and eating! We headed off to the BX to pick up some sweets to take back home for the family (Gummi Bears and German chocolate), then to Kaethe Wohlfahrt. This store stays open year-round, and sells nutcrackers, smokers, and Christmas ornaments. When we left Germany 8.5 years ago, we were pregnant with Brennan. To announce the news to the family, we bought these cute little wooden Christmas ornaments of a baby buggy under a Christmas tree. Unfortunately, we forgot to get one for ourselves to commemorate the occasion. So, I was under strict orders to go look for one over there. I didn’t hold out much hope that they’d still have that exact ornament, but Cristi asked me to look. Would you believe I got the last one they had?? I picked up four other ornaments (total of five – one for each member of the family).

By then, it was lunchtime, so we agreed on Fish ‘n Chips (authentic British-style) from this nice takeaway place in Ramstein Village. Unfortunately, it had closed. We had already discussed going to the Alte Feuerwache (Old Firehouse) at some point, so we took off over there to see if they were open for lunch. As you can see below, it really does look like an old firehouse, German-style (which indeed it was before becoming a restaurant).

This was Cristi’s and my absolute favorite restaurant in all of Europe. We had planned our last meal in Germany there, and we hadn’t had it in a while. Unfortunately, when we arrived, they were on holiday and weren’t open. We were crushed. I had wondered if it would still be open, because it was run by an older German couple. In fact, with the exception of a few grocery stores (like Aldi) and department stores (like Real, H&M, and Ikea), most businesses, hotels, and restaurants are all mom-and-pop operations. It turns out it was open, but under different owners. They had changed their menu to include Italian and some other things, as well as German. Fortunately, they still had a healthy selection of schnitzel. I ordered the Zwiebelschnitzel with bratkartoefln (onion schnitzel with fried potatoes). The portions were about as big as I remember, and the food was great, too. Here’s a picture (before I ate it!).

To be continued…

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Mother of All Invention

Whoever said that necessity is the mother of all invention was wrong -- or at least not completely right, unless it includes the necessity for a thrill. I explained to the kids this morning that, unfortunately, it iced last night, so they wouldn't be able to play in the snow today; it would just be all iced over. Leave it to Brennan to prove me wrong.

After lunch, I told the kids that I needed to go outside and shovel the walk. The ensuing conversation went something like this:

Brennan: Hey, Dad! I know something you could use in the place of a sled.

Me: What?

Brennan: An unused storage tub!

Me: Well, that's a grand idea, except that we have nowhere to sled!

Brennan (undeterred): Yeah, we do!

Me: Where?

Brennan: The hill across from our house!

Me: (I 've obviously forgotten how to think like a little boy that craves adventure) That would be a great idea, except for the bolted-down bench and the huge brick flower box that guards the bottom of the hill!

Brennan: I could sled down the hill without hitting it! I can steer the tub!

Me (laughing): Right! No, I don't want you to. It's too dangerous.

End of scene...Fast forward to me shoveling the snow outside...Out comes Brennan carrying an old Rubbermaid tub. I don't know why, but I just didn't tell him again that I didn't want him doing it. Instead, I resigned myself to watch him very closely. Back to the mother of invention, he positioned his tub so that he would slide diagonally down the hill, missing the bench and brick wall altogether. He turned over quite a few times to be sure, but, nevertheless, he had worked it out. I found myself just shaking my head at him, thinking that I couldn't believe he had figured out a way to do it. I went inside and grabbed my camera to capture his moment on film. After all, if this turned out successfully, Cristi would want it on film!

Next thing I know, Addison's decided that she wants to try! They must have stayed out there for over half an hour trying different configurations, all the while being careful to avoid the things that would quickly turn it into a bad day.

I just couldn't believe it. I'm still shaking my head. Of course, what I'm really wondering is whether I was a bad parent that got lucky today, or whether I've forgotten what it's like to be a kid...Given my typical positive outlook on life, I'll choose the latter. Now if I could just recapture that spirit somehow...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Our First (Only?) Big Snow of the Year

My parents had been up here helping with the kids -- doing school, fixing meals, ferrying the kids to appointments and activities, and doing laundry. I have to say it was nice to be able to go to work and still let the kids continue doing all of the things they need to. They left on Saturday, though, so I've been at home with the kids this week. As helpful as they were, it's been nice to have some all-by-ourselves time. I think I picked the wrong week, though! Yesterday, it was swim team practice at 0630, school, an allergy shot for Addison, and, oh yeah, try to get some work done from home. Thursday is school, another allergy shot for Addison, an appointment for Brennan (probably coupled with a trip to the pharmacy), and getting ready for Friday. Friday, we start the day with an egg challenge for Brennan (to see if he's out-grown his egg food allergy; I have to cook and bring some scrambled eggs and french toast) that will take all morning, then leave from there to go up to Philadelphia for an overnight trip. Saturday, Cristi's parents arrive.

Today, there wasn't much on the schedule other than school, and an appointment for Brennan. I was looking forward to getting some more work done. It was snowing when we woke up this morning -- what a wonderful surprise! We spent the morning doing school (interleaved with a little bit of work for me), then went outside to play for a while. It wasn't a blizzard or massive snowfall by anyone's calculation, but it was 2-3 inches -- enough to play in! They had grand intentions of building a snowman and a fort big enough to fend off an army of medieval snow catapults...but it just wasn't to be. The snow just didn't want to pack, so we had trouble getting any big snowballs.

Still they had a great time! After spending quite a bit of time working on large snowballs, Brennan devolved into the Ice Age hand-to-hand combat model of snowball fighting. Realizing he wasn't pounding his enemy into submission, though, he made his own catapult using the snow shovel! I would have gotten pictures, but I was too busy running! Nevertheless, I did get a few photos to share. We love snow, but this will probably be our only significant snow this year...Too bad!

After getting frozen in the snow, we came back in to thaw out. We talked about having our semi-official post-snowfall hot chocolate. Addison came up with a new idea instead: Coffee with chocolate milk (i.e., a mocha latte!). Mmmm...was it good!

P.S. Lauren continues to feel well, but can't shake the cough and runny nose. Consequently, she's still quarantined. We just keep hoping it will run its course very soon. Fortunately, Lauren is getting into a routine. Cristi says it's a delicate balance between having a schedule that Lauren can rely on and being bossed around by a 3-year-old dictator (i.e., "Mommy, I watch Dora. You go get breakfast.")! She's so cute, you can't help but love her! Finally, for those that were wondering, I suspect that if a heart were to become available right now, they'd go ahead with the transplant despite the persistent cold symptoms, so that's good news.