April 25th holds mixed feelings for me. April 25th is the anniversary of my father’s death. My step-father, John Ekwall, the man who raised me and brought me so many life lessons, support, and unconditional love died on April 25th when Lauren was only 7 weeks old. His death was tragic and was the indirect result of a staph infection (MRSA) in his spine when he was only 56 years old. Lolo was tiny, Jonathan was 3, we were in Minot, North Dakota and Phil had to leave soon after the funeral to fulfill his job as an Air Force One advance agent. He was to head to Berlin ahead of “W” to prepare for his European trip and meeting with Putin. When he left it was May 16th and it snowed two straight days. There was a blizzard in May. I remember looking out the window of our house after a very long Minot winter and thinking……I am never going to get through this.
My mom was there because we brought her back from California to stay with me. She was barely able to get up each day she was so heartbroken. Jonathan was 3 and was mad at the world because his daddy was gone and his Pop had gone to heaven and all he had was this little baby that took so much of mama’s time. I knew when Phil came home for a short time, he was going to turn around and leave again for a 90 day deployment to Afghanistan. Little did we know he would return from that and instead of getting to retire, Operation Iraqi Freedom would begin and the beginning of the B-52s and the “shock and awe” bombing campaign would begin In other words, Phil was not home too much during Lolo’s first year of life. We also had a lot of stress. However, that sweet baby made me smile every day. As I grieved for my father, I would hold Lauren in the middle of the night and cry. I didn’t want to put her down because I kept thinking she was a gift from God that would heal my heart and the man I thought of as my hero. She cooed and smiled. She ate and slept well. She was a dream come true. And, her big brother LOVED “his” baby. He bragged about her to people and told people she thought she was “famous” because she was always draping things on her arms for bracelets and putting on sunglasses.
For the longest time April 25th was a wound. However, we realized that on the April 25th back when my dad died, it was Earth Day or had some Earth Day celebration. My dad worked for his uncle as a forest ranger in the summer for his Uncle Bob in Trinity National Forest. My dad loved the outdoors and the wilderness. He would be so proud that Jonathan was heading to the wilderness of Colorado for Outward Bound in June for 22 days. He will be watching over him the whole time; I just know it. Jonathan is named after my step-father John. So, when we can, we used to plant things, sometimes trees on April 25th to remember him. He would like that. When we met Father Weeder and found out his birthday was April 25th, I just knew my dad sent him to us to help us know how to survive Lolo’s leukemia. So, we opened our hearts to Father Weeder and trusted his wisdom. Happy Birthday, Weeds…from the Hackers!!!
April 25th is now not so painful to me. I feel my dad’s presence now more than ever. I was so lucky to have him. I know he is watching over Lauren. I also remember one of my first strong spiritual experiences after my dad died. I was sitting in the park near our house crying in the middle of the night. I felt a very powerful presence tell me, not with actual words, but a definite immediate thought……”Get tough,this is not going to be the worst thing you are going to go through.” I felt so sure about this message. When Jonathan was little, he was failure to thrive and had some serious feeding issues. When I heard that message, I sometimes worried something would happen to Jonathan. For some reason, I didn’t worry about Lolo. She was such a strong and healthy baby. She didn’t have a lot of angst as a child. She was easy. I always worried about Jonathan. The message was right that my dad’s death was not the worst thing that I would go through. When Lauren got diagnosed on 12/12/12, one of my first thoughts was…..ok, this is going to be the worst thing I go through. I knew it was coming in some way. I just didn’t know it was going to be that bad. But, I spent years thinking of ways I could become stronger. I don’t know if the message was God, or my dad, or just a strong intuition on my part. I think it was my Dad, to tell you the truth. I have always believed. I felt he was preparing me and I listened.
One of the side effects of having leukemia is that you might not be able to have children in the future. Dr. Coulter explained that if Lolo has a bone marrow transplant, that would be a reality for her. If she doesn’t she may get to carry a baby. But, Dr. Coulter in his wisdom and kind way talked to Lauren about different ways to build a family. He shared a personal story with Lauren. I also shared with her that my step-father wasn’t my natural father, but I couldn’t have loved him more if I had to. She has confidence that she will be a mother someday is accepting of however that might happen for her. The rest is her private and personal business, but the realities of leukemia and bone marrow transplants, I think should be shared. The levels of stress, loss, fear, grief, etc that a little girl 14 years old has to endure as a result of her disease is unimaginable. She has adult decisions and grief on top of fighting for her life. However, she also has one tough mama that has fought some battles of her own to help her. I shared my dad’s story to say that sometimes when we have tragedy or multiple tragedies, it doesn’t weaken us. We have a choice in these tragedies, to open our hearts and feel the pain or to close off our hearts and ignore the pain. We also have the choice to move forward with love or bitterness. I have chosen love. I am teaching Lolo to choose love. She naturally does anyway, but sometimes in the midst of this, she gets too tough and hardens some. Her natural instinct is to let it go and choose love. But, we all have to fight bitterness. As a child, I had a rough go of it in many ways. My parents had a very tumultuous divorce. My mom remarried a man coming back from Vietnam that did not want children and made that clear. I kind of grew on him like a fungus and in time, he grew to be a super dad. We often smiled at each other when people would say I had his eyes because they didn’t know he wasn’t my real father. My sister and brother lived with my biological father, Marshall, in Idaho. I only saw my siblings at some holidays and in the summers. I missed them terribly. I moved every year of grade school because John was an Air Force pilot. Because of John’s parents, Guy and Ginny Ekwall, I became Catholic when I was 10. I wanted to be a family like they were. But, the gift John gave me was steady, even love. He was a lot like Phil. He was a good, honest man with a beautiful smile. He was so damn handsome. He made me feel extremely special. He did that for a lot of people. When you were in John’s presence, his full attention was on you and it was genuine. I owe most good things about me to John. The biggest gift he gave me was to love and adore my mother. He healed her heart and treated her like gold. I often think of that. He modeled the standard for me of how a husband should treat a wife. I think all fathers should do this. We were so lucky to have him in our lives.
So, today on the anniversary of my dad’s death, I am thankful that he is still with me, helping me to keep my heart open…..
I pray that Lolo’s leukemia is the hardest thing our family ever endures. I hope it is the hardest thing she endures. I hope this time will be a distant memory and that both she and Jonathan are blessed with good spouses and children…..and very long lives! I haven’t had any other strong messages that have told me otherwise. I had one time in high school where I felt a strong message like the one I talked about after my dad died. I also had one during Lolo’s last treatment. When I would pray the rosary last time she was treated, I would kept thinking “Get your house in order.” I took that to mean so many things. In all of those ways, that is exactly what our family has been doing while Lolo was in remission. I hope we hang onto those things during her treatment now I have so much hope lately for Lauren. Her smile in the midst of the worst times gives me hope. Father Peter bringing her the Father Flanagan’s cross gives me hope. The rosary blessed by Pope Francis brought to Lolo from her beloved principal, Peggy Grennan gives me hope along with the one she still has from her dear friend, Kiley Root. In addition, all of the statistics Lolo has beat…..give me great hope!! Next weekend, she will be confirmed the same day as her classmates. Archbishop Lucas stopped by to confirm that he will make her confirmation happen up at the hospital….this gives me tremendous hope. Her confirmation saint is St. Therese of Lisieux….the Little Flower. Lolo picked this saint and I have been reading up on her. It was the Holy Spirit that helped Lolo pick St. Therese…..it is a perfect fit! I used to call Lolo “my little flower” when she was a baby. She never knew that.
She can do this!!! Go, Lolo, Go!