It’s a Wonderful Life

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Today is the third anniversary of the death of my brother-in-law, Dr. Marvin Leibovich. Because I was the only boy with four older sisters, the addition of each new brother-in-law was a welcomed event. He and my sister had three sons, whose ages closely mirrored my own daughters. Consequently, there was a close connection between our families. Here is my oldest daughter’s expression of her special memories of Marvin on the day of his death on October 5, 2015.

My uncle died early this morning, and while I said my tearful goodbyes to him in August, still nothing can prepare you for the finality of life.

I’ve been thinking on his life for the past month as we knew the end was near and even though his obituary is FULL of his amazing accomplishments on this Earth, it is the little things that I will miss and cherish and learn from, as his niece.

Continue at It’s a Wonderful Life

A Christmas Eve Memory

It was shaping up to be a stress-free Christmas. For the first time ever, my wife, Myra, had prepared most of the Christmas dinner and fix-in’s ahead, so it would just be a matter of warming things up on Christmas day. All the shopping was finished and presents were laura-age-8wrapped. My parents were spending the holidays with us (a rare treat). It looked like we were going to have a wonderful Christmas celebration on Wednesday, December 25, 1991.
However, our youngest daughter got sick on the way to her piano recital on the previous Saturday and by that evening, she was showing classic symptoms of appendicitis. I took her to the hospital emergency room and after several tests, she was diagnosed with a urinary tract infection. I stopped at the all-night Walgreens on Park and S Highland on the way home and immediately got her started on the antibiotics.
The next morning while I was at church with the other girls, Myra said that Laura had some excruciating pain and then it subsided. She continued to be lethargic, however, and worsened the next day. A call to the nurse at our pediatrician resulted in an encouragement to be patient and let the antibiotics work.
On Tuesday, Christmas Eve, Laura did not move off the couch. She had no appetite and no energy. My brother-in-law, an ER doctor in Little Rock, called that evening to check on her. He insisted that we return immediately to the hospital. Fortunately, my parents were there to care for the older girls while Myra and I bundled up Laura and headed to Baptist East Hospital in Memphis.
A pediatric surgeon was at the hospital that night and informed us that we had a “very sick little girl” whose appendix had likely ruptured (on Sunday morning), and she needed immediate surgery. Of course, we consented and at 11 p.m. on Christmas Eve, she went into surgery. The appendix had ruptured, necessitating a longer than normal surgery. However, by 4 a.m. on Christmas morning she was in a room, and I went home to play “Santa” to the older girls. We opened presents. Then, with homemade sweet rolls already made, we had our traditional Christmas breakfast. My mother was given  instructions on all the dishes to warm up for dinner, and the girls and I took Laura’s presents to the hospital for her to open.
It didn’t take us long to realize that in God’s providence, He had helped even this stressful time to be a little less chaotic as the Christmas meals were prepared, presents wrapped, my parents presence to take care of our other daughters and the pediatric surgeon ready to go. Most importantly, my brother-in-law’s phone call on Christmas Eve may have saved our precious little eight year old’s life.

It’s Not that Time of Year Without… Remembering Dennis

As Advent begins tomorrow, I was setting up my personal crèche to use as an object lesson with the children during the worship service. Starting out with only the animals and an empty manger, I plan to add figurines each week until the Christ child is added on Christmas morning.

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As I unpacked the nativity set, I thought of Dennis. He was a youth in my first church, who gave us the nativity set nearly 30 years ago. I think of him every Christmas as I break the crèche out of the box.

Dennis had experienced a hard life by the time he came to our church at the invitation of classmates. Both of his parents had died, and he was being raised by an older sister. Short, ruddy, quiet but quick witted, Dennis quickly endeared himself to us.  After a summer youth trip to Branson in which he stabbed another youth in the leg (the truth dennisof how that happened never came out), we had a “come to Jesus talk” and he actually did come to Jesus, that is.

Along with the other youth, Dennis spent a lot of time in our home. He was included in a number of our celebrations, with him supplying the giant cookie from the Great American Cookies store where he worked in the mall. One Christmas he gave us the Fontanini nativity set and he added other figurines over the next few years.dennis-2

I moved to another church staff position in Memphis and then to Iowa, and we lost touch. I tried tracking him down through the internet and eventually found a newspaper article, touting his success in producing organic vegetables and selling them at farmers markets in Memphis. I actually emailed the business he operated, but never heard from him.

Today, my thoughts about this youth, who by now would be about 50, caused me to do a Facebook search again, and I found him. However, I quickly discovered the posts were not by him but about him. Shortly, I reached a post that expressed sorrow for his sudden death on February 15, 2012. The news was like a punch in the gut. I quickly messaged another of the “youth” from that church, who coincidentally just “friended” me on Facebook. He shared that Dennis had a heart attack and died…and “sorry, thought someone told you.”  I know that I could not have prevented his death by staying in touch, but I wish that Dennis had known how I remembered his kindness every time I’ve unpacked the nativity set he gave us so long ago.

nativity-setTomorrow is the first Sunday of Advent. We will be lighting the Hope candle, as it represents the hope the people of God had for the long awaited Messiah. Foreshadowed through the curse of the serpent in Genesis 3, promised in the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 15), and prophesied in many other Old Testament passages (Micah 5:2-3, Numbers 24:17, Isaiah 9:6), God’s people were hopeful. They longed for good news to the afflicted, comfort for the brokenhearted, the proclamation of liberty to the captives, and freedom for the imprisoned (Isaiah 61:1). And they were certain that God would fulfill His promises as He had time and time, again.

With every Advent season and every communion we are reminded of the hope that we have in Christ Jesus. The Messiah came to fulfill all that God had promised and there are still promises to be fulfilled. As a lamb led to slaughter, who did not protest (Isaiah 53:7), Jesus willingly took upon Himself my sin and suffered my death, enabling me to have eternal life with Him. He continues to give hope to all who know Him as He is coming again to receive us unto Himself. And for that, I am eternally grateful for the light of hope shines upon me.

And so, it’s not that time of the year without remembering Dennis. But knowing that Dennis and I had that “come to Jesus” talk gives me the hope that I will see him again one day…the very HOPE that causes us to celebrate the first Sunday of Advent tomorrow.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Local

I went through my hometown last week and had breakfast with an old high school friend, Mike. Actually, he treated me to breakfast in his small cafe on the first floor of a 22-story office building in East Memphis. While an unfamiliar setting, it brought back memories of what epitomized local dining when his parents operated the restaurant in the community near the University of Memphis. Known for serving heaping portions of comfort food, lines extended outside during the lunch hour(s).

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A cropped portion of the print “Buntyn Memories” by Randy Thornton

My first lunch date with the woman who became my wife was at Buntyn Restaurant. I still remember having the fried chicken while she had the vegetable beef soup with fresh dinner rolls. Following seminary, we had returned to Memphis to serve on a church staff and were back for dinner eight years after that first date. Our attention was drawn to a print hanging on the wall that featured the restaurant. It happened to have been painted by the son of a church member, and I was able to purchase the print that has hung on our wall ever since, continuing to give us a touch of “local.”

Though not the same restaurant, last Wednesday’s visit to the vastly scaled down version brought back a number of memories. My friend’s mother, who operated the cash register in the glory days, was there napping in a chair.

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Presidents and celebrities adorned the walls…then and now.

The walls were covered with pictures of the Presidents that adorned the original walls, along with celebrity photos which extolled the good times and food that were enjoyed decades ago.

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Note of thanks from the Eagles.

As customers drifted in and out, mainly getting coffee and breakfast sandwiches “to go,” Mike returned to our table with every break to catch up, just as I remember his dad making the rounds at the original restaurant, conversing with his guests. My friend would occasionally ask customers if he could pray with them, including a young woman who worked in the building but came by with her 4-week old son to grab a treat. Mike knew that her 7-year old son had been dealing with a severe case of scoliosis and had been praying for him. The young mother reported that he was now out of his brace much quicker that doctors imagined. She gave credit to the Lord and the prayers of Mike and others for her son’s speedy response to treatment. I lead in a prayer of praise.

That is the epitome of “local”…that personal care and attention to the needs of others through good service and genuine interest. Mike is carrying on that tradition!

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Standing in front of the original signage for Buntyn Restaurant

For more examples of “local” click HERE.

Preparing to See the “Ivory Palaces”

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Saying goodbye to two of the hospice nursing team members as she “graduated” in March.

I sit in a hospice family room this afternoon, hearing the raspy breathing of my mother in the other room. We’ve already been through this once when back in January she was placed in hospice for palliative care because of uncontrollable seizure activity. After a two month stay, she improved enough to “graduate” to assisted living.

In one way this was a step-down from her earlier independent living, but it was two steps-up from hospice. She adjusted well, but the seizure activity began again, resulting in a nursing home placement for 10 days. She showed some improvement with rehab but with another round of seizure episodes, she was ready to return to hospice for tender loving care, almost exactly three months from her previous discharge.

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“Bunny” holding #31 of 32 great-grandkids

We were grateful for those three months. It allowed us to celebrate her 95th birthday (see Celebrating the Gift of Our Matriarch); she made new friends and caught up with a few old ones, who had moved from her retirement apartment to assisted living; and, she got to meet her newest great-grandchildren, my daughter’s twins. Additionally, she continued to serve the Lord through her witness of faith in church and community. I am on a rotation of ministers who go to the nursing homes, and though I usually accompany myself on the guitar when we sing hymns, she played the organ for me at assisted living while she was a resident. It was nice to have her play for me one last time.

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The “Proposal” recreated!

Mom was a music teacher. A graduate of Grinnell College in Iowa, her first teaching assignment was in Seymour Iowa, where she taught music. It was there she met my dad, who taught business classes in the high school. He joined the Navy in 1943, and they were soon married. She never taught school after that, having begun to raise a family of five, four daughters and a son. However, her music training was not wasted as she sang in church choirs and ensembles and played piano and organ in a several churches.

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Mom and “Chucky Baby” (not to be confused with Chucky’s baby)

Additionally, she supplemented the family income by giving private piano and voice lessons in our home for a number of years. Almost every day, I came home from elementary school to hear the sound of inexperienced pianists playing their scales and struggling through simple songs.

Her playing and singing, however, were exceptional. I remember lying under the baby grand piano while she played, watching the action of the pedal as it moved the dampers up and down and letting the melodies cascade down from the sound board onto my ears. There were other times when I listened from my room to her rehearsals with my sisters, who formed a gospel quartet and occasionally sang at the local V.A. hospital chapel services on Sunday mornings. She even accompanied me as a child, though never for public consumption as I recall. My earliest recollection was at age 5, singing the chorus of the ragtime love song, “O, You Beautiful Doll”:

Oh! you beautiful doll, You great big beautiful doll!
Let me put my arms about you,
I could never live without you;
Oh! you beautiful doll, You great big beautiful doll!
If you ever leave me how my heart will ache,
I want to hug you but I fear you’d break
Oh, oh, oh, oh, Oh, you beautiful doll!

I’m sure I would have been a YouTube sensation if it had been around in 1961.

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“Bunny” giving a great-granddaughter a piano lesson.

As my voice matured, she encouraged me to sing a few songs at church with her as my accompanist. One of those songs was on my mind as I awoke this morning after spending the night close to her bed at the hospice house – “Ivory Palaces.” Before singing it with her

I had never heard the song, but it became a favorite. The writer, Henry Barraclough, wrote this song after hearing a sermon on Psalm 45, a royal wedding song with a secondary application to the Messiah. As with most hymns, there is a progression – a story told. The song speaks of the glorious nature of Christ, but acknowledges the suffering He bore on the cross because of humanity’s sin. However, the new life in Christ brings salvation from sin’s bondage and leads to an everlasting presence before the Jesus Christ the Lord. The last stanza speaks of that ultimate hope and reward for the believer. These are the words to which I awoke and hope for my mother’s imminent awareness:

In garments glorious He will come,
To open wide the door;
And I shall enter my heav’nly home,
To dwell forevermore.
Out of the ivory palaces, Into a world of woe,
Only His great eternal love Made my Savior go.

And so life goes. We prepare for the death of our “great big beautiful doll” of a mother, for whom our hearts will ache when she leaves. However, we know that we will sing together with her again as we look forward to the fulfillment of our hope in Christ Jesus and His promise of eternal life.

Dear friends, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him because we will see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself just as He is pure.

1 John 3:2-3 (HCSB*)


*Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2009 by Holman Bible Publishers, Nashville Tennessee. All rights reserved.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Symbol

When my wife and I were married almost 38 years ago, we had a jeweler place diamonds from her grandmother’s ring in both of our wedding bands. Believing that Christ was to be the central part of our relationship as husband and wife, we chose to have the symbol of his sacrificial love – the cross – as a constant reminder of the type of love we should have for one another.

Wedding Rings

Because I lost my band about 25 years into our marriage, I wear what we felt was a suitable replacement; a band that has three crosses and diamond chips. Though we now wear different styles of bands, the common symbol of the cross serves as a reminder of God’s significant role in our lives as individuals and as a couple.

“Haven’t you read,” He replied, “that He who created them in the beginning made them male and female,” and He also said: For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one fleshSo they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, man must not separate.”    Matthew 19:4-6 (HCSB)

This post is in response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Symbol.”

Celebrating the Gift of Our Matriarch!

Those of you who read my daughter’s post, “To Our Beloved Bunny,” know that my mother (aka “Bunny” to her grand and great-grandchildren) was in hospice care, following a severe seizure episode in early January. What I haven’t reported is that she graduated from hospice this month and is now in an assisted living residence.

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Today, she celebrated the milestone of her 95th birthday. I am glad to say that while not totally back to her old self, she has her humor, enjoys socializing with other residents, reads, watches Netflix (British crime mysteries her favorites), and is back to church.

What do you give a 95-year-old for their birthday? While Mom was doing well in December, my wife launched a plan for a unique birthday gift…a charm necklace. On New Year’s Eve, I put the idea out to the family on Facebook Messenger with the suggestion that her children and grandchildren supply a charm that in some way typified each one’s unique relationship with their mother/grandmother. While there was a hiatus in the planning once she went into hospice, charms began arriving when it became clear that we would indeed celebrate this special birthday. This morning, we gave her gift.

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The oldest granddaughter, who gave Mom the “Bunny” moniker, supplied a bunny charm. My daughter, influenced by Mom’s piano skills, gave a grand piano charm. The funniest charm is a set of false teeth that open. Mom had a knack of amusing the grands and greats by dropping her false teeth and protruding them from her mouth. The most poignant is a girl’s silhouette, representing a granddaughter who died at age 26 in a drowning accident. From a poodle to a camper, each charm brings back special memories of time we’ve spent with Bunny.

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Photo by Sandy Seals

Mom’s spiritual life as a faithful follower of Jesus Christ has been an example to many and she continues to be a witness of His grace (gift of salvation) to others. For that reason, my contribution was a Bible charm, a book that is dear to her as she has read, studied, applied and taught it for years.

Oh, did I mentioned that her given name IS Grace, the word meaning “gift?” We are grateful that God has allowed us to continue to have the gift of our family matriarch.  She is our own “Amazing Grace.”

Postscript: Here is a rundown of the current charms not already mentioned (I’m sure more will be added).
Hummingbird – Hours were spent watching these tiny birds at my parents’ feeders at their home on Kentucky Lake.
Camper – Our family camping history began in earnest when my dad took a guest professorship at Central Washington State University the summer of 1967. Three of the five kids accompanied the folks on that two week trek to Washington, pulling a new Apache tent trailer. It slept four, which meant I slept on the floor anytime we camped. We camped all over the northwest that summer and made some great memories. My parents eventually graduated to an Airstream and a motorhome, but I always preferred the “roughing it” years.
Washington State Ferry– That summer we traveled by ferry on the Puget Sound several times. That was my first time to be on board any boat that size.
Jackrabbit/Grand Canyon – On our return trip that summer we took a southwest tour and spent three days at the Grand Canyon. I’ve not been back, but have an upcoming trip I hope to share with you.
Hersey Kisses – We are a kiss on the lips family…sloppy and wet…deal with it.
Poodle – Mom and Dad owned two toy poodles, Gidget and Ginger. These were their dogs after the we kids were grown, and they traveled with them, so the grandkids got to share in the memories of these special pets.
Tractor – One of the sibling’s family farmed so there were lots of visits to this farm in NE Arkansas.
Book – Mom, a former librarian, is an avid reader and maintained the library at the senior apartment in which she formerly lived.
Dolphins – Our favorite vacation spot is on the panhandle of Florida where our family has been gathering every October since the mid-80’s. We have always enjoyed spotting the dolphins trolling near the beach.
Sand dollar – Our favorite beach once had sand dollars the size of your hand. Now, your lucky to see them the size of a dollar coin, which the name implies.
Quilt – Bunny made a wedding quilt for each of her grandchildren. Thus, a very tangible treasure for each of the 16.
Tennessee – Though having been born in Iowa and living here now, Mom lived the majority of her adult life in Tennessee.
Cooking Utensils – Well, it goes without saying that we like to eat, and Mom ran a good kitchen!
Heart – A contribution of a red heart charm seemed appropriate to fall in the center of all the charms. While I’m sure the grandson who gave it had the idea of love in mind, I think it can represent three things: 1) our love for Bunny; 2) her love for her family and others and; 3) God’s love for us that he demonstrated through the death of his Son, Jesus, whose blood was shed for the forgiveness of sins.

Weekly Photo Challenge: New

Michelle W. issued this week’s challenge with multiple options. I chose to “highlight a new person in your life, and all the possibility that relationship contains.” More accurately, it is new “persons.” My oldest daughter gave birth to twins (her third daughter and first son) last week and we were able to see the New Year in with them.

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Baby Girl

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Baby Boy

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Not to happy about leaving the hospital

We feel so blessed that my daughter had a wonderful pregnancy and was able to carry the twins to 37 weeks, allowing the babies to be fully developed and needing no time in the NICU. If fact, they were able to go home 36 hours after delivery.

As to the hopes and possibilities that these new relationships hold, I can hardly do better than what my daughter wrote in a post on the Fort Worth Moms Blog of which she is a regular contributor.

For you, I don’t desire that you be the most popular, the most athletic, the most beautiful and talented. Because those things, little boy and little girl, are fleeting. My last borns, there are better things if you want them.

For you, my third girl…I pray that your sisters and your brother will be your best friends on Earth, as your dad and I are best friends with our brothers and sisters. I hope that you will dance to the beat of your own drum and remember that YOU have been uniquely created to grace this world the way you are.  When people compare you to your big sisters, don’t listen. You are YOU. You are not them. When your friends are chasing after boys, I hope you remember that if a boy is worth it, he’ll chase after you. You don’t ever need to play dumb or pretend to like sports or worse, give your body away when you don’t want to. Wait for a guy who is like your dad: valiant, good, smart, and funny. Don’t settle for anything less. It’s worth it. I promise. When you choose a career someday, follow your heart-even if it lacks prestige or money. It’s ok to be adventurous and do the things no one thought you could do. You come from a long long line of determined women. You are able, baby girl.

For you, my only boy. I never knew I wanted a boy, until I saw you dancing around on my first sonogram. You looked like nothing more than a little pea, but I knew in my spirit, you were my boy, and that made me happier than you will ever know. I pray you are strong and confident; you’ll need to be with those three crazy big sisters. I pray that you’ll look after them, even though they are older. You will learn young that we women, can be sort of crazy…sort of emotional, and so you will foster the art of compassion. It will serve you well all of your days. I pray you will pursue truth and justice and respect and that you will be a strong force of goodness in this family and in our world. And that you and sweet baby sister will be the best of friends for all of your days. I cried one day thinking about the woman you will someday marry. Choose wisely. Choose a woman who is strong and smart and not afraid to speak her mind. It will be hard, but it will be worth it. Work in a job that makes your spirit fulfilled…no matter the paycheck. Do what you love.

It has become my tradition to take a picture of each of my newborn grandchildren with them grasping my thumb. With the exception of our grandson, who died at birth last summer, the tradition has continued with the twins. The grid below represents each of our six grandchildren, beginning almost five years ago. The pewter hand represents our grandson, who was about the size of the 1 lbs, 6 oz child, whose hand was the model for the key chain that promotes the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.
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Click HERE for more examples of “new.”

Weekly Photo Challenge: Humanity

Humanity is perhaps at its highest when it moves beyond selfish pursuits and comes together to care for the needs of others. Last spring, our church helped coordinate a community-wide “Mobile Hunger Fight” sponsored by Meals from the Heartland of Des Moines, Iowa, USA. Since 2008, the faith-based organization has packaged over 40 million meals for the hungry in Iowa and around the world. With over 150 volunteers from churches, schools, businesses and health-care facilities, the event packaged over 60,000 meals.

It was a joy to see our community come together and make our light shine beyond ourselves. Isaiah 58:10 “Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.”

Click HERE for more examples of humanity.

To the Twins, 13 Years Later

As the United States pauses today to commemorate the thirteenth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attack, I re-blog my daughter’s fitting remembrance of twins, who lost their father on that day. May we never forget the sacrifice made that day by ordinary working people, whether in an office or in roles of fire and rescue, and the resulting absence of those lives from their families.

Original post: To the Twins, 13 Years Later.

There are days sketched on my parents’ and grandparents’ minds forever. Pearl Harbor, crowded around the family radio, hearing the unimaginable. The day JFK was shot, my mom’s lunch lady was crying as she went through the line. The day that Martin Luther King was shot and there were curfews and chaos and sadness in their city.

In my mind…it’s this day. 22 years old and fresh to Texas, the second week in grad school, I was walking down the curved marble stairs after my 8 o’clock class. At the bottom, stood a mixture of students and professors, huddled in disbelief, eyes glued to the TV in the foyer. And the Trade Towers were on fire. And the world has never ever been the same; our innocence was lost in a moment.

That next summer, the youth group I was interning for took a trip to New York. There we were, over 100 of us, fumbling with subway cards, walking miles and miles in matching tee shirts (not exactly the way I wanted to experience NYC for the first time), and searching for bathrooms that weren’t to be found. I was feeling embarrassed.Ugh, why are we here? We look like tourists! Until we arrived at Ground Zero. Suddenly, there was reverence. Even among the 7th grade boys.9:11

There’s something about standing on ground where people have fought for life and lost, that sends chills through your bones.

In the summer of 2002, there was a huge makeshift memorial at Ground Zero. A wall, with words from loved ones and total strangers scribbled all over it, US flags, balloons, pictures. There was too much to look at. I read a few messages and then took in the scene in its entirety.

But then something caught my eye that has stayed with me clearly for 13 years: a snap shot of 2 babies in matching high chairs, with the words, “look how big we are now, daddy” written on the picture. And there I stood, and cried for those twins who didn’t have a daddy and their mama who didn’t have a husband anymore. And now, 13 years later, I think of them. They are much bigger now. Maybe they started 7th or 8th grade last week. Maybe they’ve moved to the Midwest, maybe they are still in Manhattan. Maybe they have an adopted dad, who loves them as if they were his all along. I don’t know. But every year I think of them and pray for them. While my false sense of American invincibility was forever rattled about this time on September 11, 2001, they were losing their dad. And now that I have twins growing strong within me, I think of their mother, who lost her best friend, her help, and likely her joy. And I remember. I can’t remember everyone who lost their lives that day. But I can remember the twins and their mama and one daddy who walked into work on a normal September day and never came home.