Sunday, December 31, 2006

Reflections for the New Year by guest columnist Craig R. Smith

A Lesson from the Amish
By Craig R. Smith © 2006

Reprinted by permission
Posted at on October 9, 2006

The difference between being ordinary and extraordinary is simply a choice. A choice to be great is never easy and may take sacrifice, but that is why there are plenty of ordinary folks in America yet very few truly extraordinary.

When I think of extraordinary athletes, I think about the time and sacrifice that went into the training that produced the great homerun hitters and the touchdown scorers. The world record holder of the 100-yard dash made a choice to get up very early each day and brave the weather to put in the hours necessary for greatness. The concert violinist spent countless hours practicing scales and reading music. The world-class heart surgeons dedicated hours to study and practice. In all cases there was a conscious choice to do what needed to be done to be extraordinary.

This week America witnessed this principle in the most profound way. A group of peace-loving, hard-working, self-sufficient, faithful citizens laid to rest their precious children who were cut down in their early years at the hand of a man in Nickel Mines, Pa. We all know the story. The Amish community was shaken to its core as a man entered a schoolhouse, tied up 10 young girls and then proceeded to slay them. Methodically, one by one they were shot execution-style until ultimately the shooter turned the gun on himself and the horror-filled air rang silent. I can't imagine what the scene must have been like, much less what that scene looked like in the minds of the parents who loved those children.

After the smoke settled and the reports started to pour forth, we watched as a group of extraordinary people responded to this tragedy as only extraordinary people would. They mourned and cried and then went about the grim task of hand digging the graves in which their children would soon be laid to rest. Afterwards they arranged, by meeting all the requirements of the state, to make the sorrowful trip to the coroner's office to take possession of the lifeless bodies so a funeral and subsequent burial could take place.

They drove their horse and buggies to the gravesites and buried their dead. Every last shovelful of dirt was gently placed on the coffin with the same care and attention as it was removed by the love of a father, brother or uncle. All the while the state offered transportation, counseling and various services in hopes of making this tragedy less burdensome. The response was "Thank you, but all we ask is for our privacy and your prayers".

The most remarkable part of this sad story is not what was visible but what was invisible. The invisible shows the extraordinary character of these fine people. During this whole process you never saw a finger of blame being pointed at anyone, including the gunman who took innocent life from the Amish community. The most you heard was an Amish spokesman's prepared comments read by a policeman. The comments were filled with love, understanding and forgiveness for what took place. Comments that talked about how this man made a bad choice and they forgive him for making that choice. They didn't blame guns, politicians, media, society or any of the other normal targets that we ordinary people look to blame. They didn't blame God or look to make sense of what is a truly senseless act. They made a choice to live their faith and trust in God. Knowing full well God loves them and has forgiven them, in turn they forgive others – even when it means the loss of something as precious as a child. They chose not to allow hate to fill their hearts. They know hate produces darkness and eclipses the light of God in man. They chose to walk in light and not in darkness. Walking in darkness can only produce more evil, and for the Amish that wasn't even an option.

Some may suggest that is a sign of weakness, but I know that it is the sign of ultimate strength. Make no mistake, however; it was a choice. They could hate and seek revenge. Instead they returned evil with good. They choose to love and not hate. Their natural reaction was to reach out to the family of the killer and invite them to the funerals of their slain children. The Amish have been more concerned about the pain of the killer's survivors than they are themselves. Perfect love and forgiveness has sprung forth from this truly extraordinary group of people.

What a great life lesson we could all receive if we choose to do the same as we watch Democrats criticize Republicans and Republicans criticize Democrats. We see no forgiveness from either camp for mistakes made or poor choices. Instead all we see is the constant straddling for political advantage. Who can trip up the other versus trying to heal each other's pain. How elections mean more than truth. Human decency loses out to advantage and politics.

This week was a rather extraordinary week to me, for I watched Americans all across this country choose to either be ordinary or extraordinary. A man chose to walk into a school and kill innocent kids. A group in D.C. postured and played political gamesmanship to beat an opponent. They both walk in darkness because their motive is hate. Then there is a group of folks who chose to be extraordinary simply by living their faith in a God of love. They didn't blame or criticize. They didn't look to gain advantage in order to destroy their opponent. No – they loved and forgave and chose to walk in light.

Some call the Amish old-fashioned. They don't watch TV or listen to the radio. They don't fill their minds with the toxic waste coming from Hollywood. They work hard, love their families and love God. I think we all owe the Amish a collective sense of gratitude, for they have shown us this week what America could be if we shut off the iPods, turned off the TV, ignored the agenda-driven media and simply walked in light. They chose to love and not hate. I can only hope each member on Capitol Hill and across the nation heard the message coming from Pennsylvania this week.

To the Amish, I express my heartfelt sorrow and mourning for your loss. The nation grieves with you. But we also rejoice in knowing your faith proves to us all there is more than this life. We know those beautiful young ladies are walking with Moses, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They have now spent time with Paul, James, Peter and Silas. They have all now seen HIS face.

Craig R. Smith is an author, commentator and popular media guest because he instantly engages audiences with his common-sense analyses of local, national and global trends. Serving as CEO of Swiss America for nearly 25 years, Craig understands that Americans want solid answers to the tough questions and that real leadership begins with servanthood. Craig's most recent book is "Black Gold Stranglehold: The Myth of Scarcity and the Politics of Oil," which he co-authored with WND columnist Jerome R. Corsi. For media interviews please call Holly at 800-950-2428.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Blue and White Christmas: Remembering a Life That Mattered (Part III)

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.” ~ I Thessalonians 4:13,14 (NASB)

Continued from last week

I am still in awe over the timing of my father-in-law’s death, and I think we’ll all be eternally grateful to God for giving us the opportunity to say our good-byes just one week before he passed away. In life, Dad wasn’t the emotional type, and he wasn’t much for hugging. But before he died, we were all able to hug him and hold his hand and tell him everything we wanted to say while we still had the chance.

Since I arrived early, I took that time to tell Dad how much I loved him and appreciated everything he had done for our family over the years. “You’ve got a heart of gold, Dad,” I said, with tears in my eyes. “You’ve been the best father-in-law anyone could ever have. You’ve been so good to us . . . too good to us.” Then I thanked him for raising such a wonderful son. “My life has been so happy every day because of him. He’s been an amazing husband and father. Thank you.” Dad just smiled. Then we started talking about other things and I asked him how old his father was when he passed away. “Forty-eight,” Dad replied. “That’s so young – that’s how old I am.” Dad paused, and then he looked at me and said, “Take care of yourself.” My voice cracking, I said, “I will Dad. I’ll do my best.” I told him that ever since my cancer diagnosis, I don’t take a single day of life for granted.

That night after supper Keen went into his father’s room and knelt by his bedside. He held his hand, kissed him, told him he loved him, reminisced about all the fun times they had as a family, and thanked him for the great life he had given them. Then Keen asked his father: “What do you think, Dad?” Dad returned the question. “I don’t know. What do you think?” he asked. “Dad, I think you’re dying,” Keen replied. Then Keen asked him if he was afraid, and Dad shook his head and quietly answered, “No.”

Later on, I joined Keen by his father’s bedside. “Hi, Sweety,” Dad said. Keen moved over so I could kneel down by him. I held Dad’s hand and told him that we loved him. “That’s right, Dad,” Keen said. “We all love you here, and they’ll all love you there – your parents and grandparents and Uncle Keen and Jack – they’re all going to be there to greet you. Everything’s going to be all right.”

“We have come from somewhere and we are going somewhere. The Great Architect of the Universe never built a staircase that leads to nowhere.”
~ Robert Millian

The next day we accompanied Dad to his scheduled doctor’s appointment for more x-rays. They would only allow one family member to go back with him, so we all agreed that Josh would be the best person. After an hour had passed, we started becoming more and more anxious in the waiting room. Finally Josh emerged with the announcement that the doctor wanted to meet with the entire family.

When the doctor entered the conference room, the look on his face spoke volumes. There was no easy way for him to deliver such devastating news; the cancer that was removed in May had spread to Dad’s bladder and surrounding tissue. “This is an especially aggressive and vicious form of cancer,” he explained. “And there’s really nothing we can do to reverse it.” He said that he would prescribe some stronger pain medication in an effort to keep Dad comfortable.

After returning home, the family gathered together and tried to comprehend the magnitude of the situation before us. At one point Kihm explained that sometimes family members will tell their loved one that it’s okay to let go and quit fighting. She said it was up to each person to decide what they wanted to do. Kevin replied, “I’ll never be ready to tell him that.”

Then we had to discuss Dad’s wishes, which he had expressed verbally and in writing through a living will. Still, the decision was difficult. Josh explained it this way: If he went to the hospital, there would be a lot they could do to him, but not a whole lot they could do for him.

Hospice was called in on Friday. As Dad’s condition worsened, Kevin was able to tell his father that it was okay to let go. Two days later we received a call from Kihm. “Dad is with the Lord now,” she said tearfully.


Eight out of nine grandchildren served as pall bearers at their grandfather’s funeral. (Josh was an honorary pall bearer, having served in a different capacity the week before.) In addition, all three children shared personal stories about their father.

Kihm shared many memories from her growing up years, and several “one-liners’ that she recalled her Dad saying. (I’ve added a few more sayings to Kihm’s list.)

1. When you asked him how he was, he would often reply: “Bearing up under the strain,” or, “Doing the best I can with what I’ve got to work with.”

2. When he wanted to take a nap: “It’s stretch-out time.”

3. When everyone was on their own for dinner: “It’s fender night – fend for yourself.”

4. When giving advice without really giving advice: “I’m not trying to tell you how to run your business, but can I make a suggestion?”

5. When preparing to fix a drink. “Doc said a drink every now and then would do me good,” or, “It’s five o’clock somewhere,” or, “I’m not very hungry, but I think I could munch on a beer.”

6. When Kihm and Mom would get to giggling in the car: “What kind of Kool-Aid are you girls drinking?”

7. When exploring or driving through a new town: “Just think – if you lived here, you’d be home now,” or, “We’re not lost, we’re just taking the scenic route.”

8. When talking about the best way to handle conflict: “Sugar draws more flies than vinegar.”

9. When talking about important meetings: “Always arrive 10 minutes early,” “Better overdressed than underdressed,” and, “God doesn’t charge you for your time.”

10. When waking his kids up when they were younger, “Rise and shine, it’s rabbit chasin’ time!”

11. When announcing that he was ready to go: “We’re gonna make a mile,” or “We’re gonna shake out of here.”

12. Miscellaneous one-liners: “It’s better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it”, and, “You don’t cut the dog’s tail off a little bit at a time.”

Kihm concluded her comments with the following words: “For twenty-five years, I have been a nurse. From the beginning of my career to the present, I have cared for every patient as if they were my dad. In the last year, as I went with my father to the doctor he would say to everyone, “I brought my two nurses with me.” I had the ultimate privilege of my life to care for my dad. And yes, I was at his bedside holding his hand when he took his last breath. I wouldn’t give up the last 400 days of my life, living every day with him, for anything in the world.”

Kevin’s talk centered around the two words his dad always greeted him with: “Hey Bud.” Whether he was taking him on a motorcycle ride while vacationing in Indonesia as a kid, giving him advice as a young adult, and later as a husband and father, or whether he was telling him, in all seriousness, how he did not want to die. “I’ve seen what hospitals can do to a person to keep them alive, Kevin, and I want you to promise me that you kids won’t allow that to happen to me.”

Kevin closed his message with these words, “There's going to be a void in my life from not hearing, ‘Hey, Bud,’ from my dad. But the Bible tells us, and I believe, that there will be a reunion in Christ’s kingdom. So I know that one day, I will hear those words, in that voice, again.”

Keen shared some humorous stories about a few mishaps Dad had over the years while attempting to help out. Those stories included the time he started Keen’s truck on fire while in the process of changing oil, and the time he killed everything in our garden with granules of ground killer which he mistook for fertilizer, after having just planted several varieties of tomatoes and other vegetables in perfectly straight rows.

But that was Dad. He wasn’t happy unless he was doing something to help his family. In fact, he rarely ended a telephone conversation without saying, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” And Dad wouldn’t have minded a bit that his friends and family had a few laughs at his funeral. Truthfully, that’s most likely the way he would have wanted it. As Victor Borge once said, “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people,” and no one could tell a joke better than my father-in-law. He had a vast reservoir of good, clean jokes stored up in his memory, and he was always ready to pull one out whenever the opportunity arose. I think my favorite joke was one he used to tell about a grade school production of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The teacher could only come up with two brown bear costumes and one white one for the baby bear. So when Papa Bear delivered his famous line, “Who’s been sleeping in my bed?” - someone in the audience hollered out, “He might well ask!”

Dad’s sense of humor remained intact until the very end. One day when Kihm was trying to determine how coherent he was, she asked him if he knew her name. After a short pause, Dad looked up at her and said, “Well, it used to be Kihm.”

Even though we were all somewhat prepared for Dad’s death, Keen took it harder than he thought he would. When one of his colleagues asked him how he was doing, he said he felt like he used to be on solid ground, but now it seemed the ground beneath his feet had shifted. Later he said there are no words that can ease the pain of such a great loss – it’s like putting mud on a bruise. When I asked Keen to describe how he was feeling he said it reminded him of how parents feel when they take their kids to an amusement park and they run off and get lost in the crowd. The parents are scratching their heads and thinking, “But they were just here!” Keen said that’s how he felt, except this time he’s the kid and he’s looking around for his Dad, but he’s gone. And he just keeps thinking, “But he was just here.”

“Love only hurts when you can't give it away (to the ones you love).” ~ My friend, Kat

No one has felt the loss more than my mother-in-law, Jean. Recently, when Mom attended a Christmas production with Kihm and Kevin, the tears started flowing once again as the carolers sang, “Blue Christmas” (by Billy Hayes and Jay Johnson).

I’ll have a blue Christmas without you
I’ll be so blue just thinking about you
Decorations of red on a green Christmas tree
Won’t be the same dear, if you’re not here with me

And when those blue snowflakes start falling
That’s when those blue memories start calling
You’ll be doing all right, with your Christmas of white
But I’ll have a blue, blue Christmas

Although Jim and Jean shared fifty-three years together, it never seems quite long enough to spend with the love of your life. That’s when we have to hold on to our faith which assures us that because of God’s very first Christmas gift of His Son Jesus, we can all look forward to a glorious family reunion in Heaven – one that will last for all eternity. And we can find comfort in the fact that Dad will be “doing all right, with his Christmas of white.”

“In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” ~ John 14:2 (KJV)

Christmas 2004

Monday, December 11, 2006

Remembering a Life That Mattered (Part II)

“To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven:A time to be born, and a time to die . . .”
~ Ecclesiastes 3:1, 2a (NKJV)

Growin’ up a Kansas farm boy
Life was mostly havin’ fun
Ridin’ on his Daddy’s shoulders
Behind a view beneath the sun

Yes, and joy was just the thing that he was raised on
Love is just the way to live and die
Gold is just a windy Kansas wheat field
And blue is just a Kansas summer sky

Matthew ~ written and performed by John Denver

It is a beautiful Sunday in December as I sit down to pay tribute to my late father-in-law, Jim Umbehr. My only prayer is that I will be able to do him justice.

My father-in-law was born on October 20, 1929, to Keen Sr. and Augusta Ann Umbehr. The name they chose to give him was simply Jim. Not James, just Jim. Legend has it that his paternal grandmother, Ida Umbehr, took umbrage with the fact that little Jim wasn’t named after someone in the family the way his older brother Keen had been. So Grandma Ida took it upon herself to endow him with the unofficial middle name of Alfred, after her husband and Jim’s grandfather. So when the local newspaper would report on the comings and goings of families in the Alma area, young Jim was referred to as “Jimmy Alfred.” In fact, Jim himself was reportedly 32 years old before he obtained a copy of his birth certificate and discovered that he didn’t actually have a middle name. Years later, when we decided to give our second son his grandfather’s name for a middle name, we named him Joshua Jim Umbehr, instead of the more traditional form of the name – Joshua James.

Jim’s father Keen was a construction engineer who bid on various road construction jobs all over the country. This meant that the family of four moved around quite often. In fact, Jim was born in Seymour, Texas, and his brother Keen was born in Hutchinson, Kansas. Many times they would start school in one city and finish it in another. Jim even spent one year of grade school living with an aunt in Stafford, Kansas. (Little did he know that one day he would meet his future wife there.) But that all stopped when Jim was about nine years old and his parents decided to put down roots in Alma. His paternal grandparents, Alfred and Ida, had been one of the first settlers to the area, and Grandpa Alfred owned a variety store on Main Street. The family bought a farmhouse with some acreage on what is now known as Illinois Creek Road.

Jim’s father sadly passed away unexpectedly at the age of 48. Apparently, he suffered a fatal heart attack while building a stone fence. Jim was only 17 years old at the time. After Jim’s brother Keen graduated from Kansas State University with a degree in geology, he and his wife Helen took up residence in the family farmhouse and began farming the land and raising livestock and crops. Together they had three children; Jack, Iris, and Carol. (They now have five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.)

Brothers Jim and Keen

After graduating from Alma High School (now Wabaunsee High), Jim attended Kansas State University and joined the R.O.T.C. He also attempted to join the Army, but when they discovered that he didn’t have an eardrum in one ear, he was turned away.

Jim later found work in the oil industry, which eventually led him back to Stafford, Kansas, where he would meet a beautiful nursing student by the name of Doris Jean Bartlett. Jean was living in the nursing dorm when handsome Jim Umbehr arrived to pick up another girl for a date. Unbeknownst to Jim, his date had asked the other girls to make up an excuse for why she couldn’t come downstairs. When Jim realized he had been stood up, he looked around and asked if anyone else would like to go across the street and have a soda with him. Jean said that she’d like to go, and they hit it off right away. Several years later, on the twelfth day of the twelfth month, 1953, Jim and Jean Umbehr became man and wife. This past Tuesday would have been their 53rd wedding anniversary.

In a previous column written for Mom and Dad’s 50th anniversary, I wrote about the adventurous life they led, traveling all over the world with Jim’s job as a salesman with an oil company, Dresser Industries. Together with their three children, Nancy Kihm, Keen Alfred, and Kevin Bruce, they lived in Africa, Singapore, and London. (Mom and Dad used to joke about how they would have gotten divorced a long time ago, but neither one of them would take the kids.) From those three children, they now have nine grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, and one more on the way in February. (With many more still to come, I’m sure.)

Last May, Dad began having some problems, and the doctors discovered a cancerous tumor on his ureter, which connects the kidney to the bladder. The tumor was removed and later identified as Stage 4 sarcoma. At that time, the doctors believed they got it all, so they did not recommend chemotherapy or any other kind of additional treatment.

Keen and I saw Dad over the summer when he and Mom came for a visit. Thankfully, he was able to meet his great-granddaughter, Katelyn Seraphina during that visit.

(He and Mom had already met Emma Eileen earlier in the year when Erin and the boys had a layover in Houston.)

During that time, we noticed that Dad was becoming short of breath and would tire easily, but other than that, he seemed to be doing fairly well. Then in the fall, he began experiencing some other problems, including severe pain in his back. Since Keen’s sister Kihm had moved to Texas about a year ago, she was able to offer much-needed support to Mom and Dad throughout all the months of tests and appointments while the doctors tried to figure out what was going on. (Of course, Keen’s brother and his wife Falethesa have always lived near the folks, so they have provided an immeasurable amount of help and support over the years.) As recently as August, the bone scans did not reveal any signs that the cancer had spread.

Keen and I made plans to visit his parents at Thanksgiving. I flew down a couple of days early because Keen’s sister and mother had offered to help me with my Christmas card mailing. (As it turned out, Keen’s brother, wife and daughter Valorie pitched in, too.)

When Kihm picked me up at the airport, the first thing she told me was that there had been a noticeable difference in Dad’s condition over the previous three days. She said all he wanted to do was sleep. In fact, he was already in bed by the time I arrived, so I didn’t see him until the next morning at breakfast. As he walked into the living room ever so gingerly with Mom on one side and Kihm on the other, it was difficult for me to contain my shock. His face was ashen and his body, thin and frail. “Eileen is here, Jim,” Mom announced. Dad slowly lifted his head, and after spotting me across the room, he greeted me in a raspy voice. “Hi, Sweety.” I tried to keep my composure while I gave him a big hug and told him that I loved him. Then he kissed me on the cheek and said, "Love you, too." At that point, my emotions got the better of me, and I had to leave the room. I was simply not prepared to see how much Dad’s health had deteriorated since this past summer. It was just so hard to see him that way. When I found my mother-in-law in their bedroom at the back of the house, I broke down and cried. “I feel like I’m looking at a dying man,” I said as we hugged each other.

Shortly afterwards, Dad was sitting up at the kitchen table and he told Kihm that his back hurt. Then he looked up and said, “I guess that’s just part of it.” Kihm gave him a pain pill along with his other medications, and then she helped him eat his breakfast. “I want to go back to bed,” he said to anyone who would listen. “I just want to stretch out for an hour or so.” Kihm explained that he could get pneumonia if he stayed in bed all day and didn’t sit upright. After hearing this, Dad looked down at the floor and shook his head dejectedly. Then Kihm slowly helped him to his recliner in the living room.

Later on while Kihm and Mom were busy getting ready to take Dad to his doctor’s appointment, I knelt down by my father-in-law and rubbed his arm. “How are you doing, Dad?” I asked. With the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen, he seemed to be pleading with me. “I want to go back to bed.” “I know Dad,” I replied apologetically, “but they said you can’t.” With furrowed brows and a hint of indignation, he asked, “Who says I can’t go back to bed?” I told him that Kihm and Mom did. “Why can’t I go back to bed?” “Because they don’t want your lungs to fill up with fluid, Dad, and they’re both nurses, so they know what’s best for you. I’m sorry.” In a voice not much louder than a whisper, he repeated his desperate plea, “But I want to go back to bed.” It broke my heart to see my father-in-law suffer like that; this kind, gentle, generous, unassuming man whom I had known and loved for over 30 years.

While Kihm and Mom took Dad to the doctor for a bone scan, I stayed back to get started on my Christmas card mailing. When I turned my cell phone on, there was a jovial message from Keen waiting for me. He said he just wanted to make sure that everyone was working hard and not slacking off on the Christmas card assembly line. “Don’t be afraid to crack the whip if you have to,” he joked. I knew that I needed to prepare him, so I called him back right away. “Keen, I have to warn you,” I said. “This is not that kind of a trip. Your father has taken a drastic turn for the worst.” Then I called our son Josh, who immediately offered to drive to Texas with his dad. Apparently, Josh and Lisa had already talked about the possibility a few nights earlier, so Josh knew that Lisa would be all right with the idea. So Keen cancelled some appointments and Josh’s father-in-law Gary agreed to drive to Kansas City to baby sit Katelyn while Lisa was at work. Josh and Keen were on their way to Texas later that same afternoon, and they arrived the following morning. Even with the advance warning I had given him, Keen was shaken by his father’s physical appearance and weakened condition.

“We are given nine months to prepare to be born, but no one prepares us to die." ~ Patricia Van Kirk (my late sister)

To be continued . . .

Mom and Dad picking blueberries in happier times

Helen, Jim, Keen, and Jean

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Remembering a Life That Mattered (Part I)

Jim and Jean Umbehr and Family
December 26, 2004

“. . . it is appointed unto men once to die. . .” ~ Hebrews 9:27a (KJV)

Our Thanksgiving plans this year were not unlike the plans of hundreds of thousands of other people across the globe. We would fly to Texas to spend the holiday with Keen’s parents and siblings. We would laugh, exchange stories, and eat too much turkey and pumpkin pie. Then we would give each other hearty hugs that would last until we met again.

What we didn’t expect is that it would be the last time we would see Keen’s father here on earth.

As we prepare to travel to Texas once again, this time for a very different purpose, I would like to share a poem written by Michael Josephson titled, What Will Matter. Mr. Josephson was kind enough to grant me permission to share it with you.

When I return, I will write a more detailed tribute to my father-in-law, Jim Umbehr. In the meantime, please remember to tell your loved ones how much they matter to you.

“So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” ~ Psalm 90:12 (NKJV)

What Will Matter
By Michael Josephson

Ready or not, some day it will all come to an end.
There will be no more sunrises, no minutes, hours or days.
All the things you collected, whether treasured or forgotten, will pass to someone else.
Your wealth, fame and temporal power will shrivel to irrelevance.
It will not matter what you owned or what you were owed.
Your grudges, resentments, frustrations and jealousies will finally disappear.
So too, your hopes, ambitions, plans and to-do lists will expire.
The wins and losses that once seemed so important will fade away.
It won’t matter where you came from or what side of the tracks you lived on at the end.
It won’t matter whether you were beautiful or brilliant.
Even your gender and skin color will be irrelevant.

So what will matter? How will the value of your days be measured?
What will matter is not what you bought, but what you built;
Not what you got, but what you gave.
What will matter is not your success, but your significance.
What will matter is not what you learned, but what you taught.
What will matter is every act of integrity, compassion, courage or sacrifice that enriched, empowered or encouraged others to emulate your example.

What will matter is not your competence, but your character.
What will matter is not how many people you knew, but how many people will feel a lasting loss when you’re gone.
What will matter is not your memories, but the memories of those who loved you.
What will matter is how long you will be remembered, by whom and for what.

Living a life that matters doesn’t happen by accident.
It’s not a matter of circumstances, but of choice.
Choose to live a life that matters.

© 2006 Josephson Institute of Ethics; reprinted with permission. Michael Josephson, one of the nation's leading ethicists, is the founder of the Josephson Institute of Ethics and the premier youth character education program, CHARACTER COUNTS! For further information, or to make a donation, please visit

Monday, November 27, 2006

The River of Life

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you – I have called you by your name, you are Mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you, and through the rivers they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned or scorched, nor shall the flame kindle upon you. For I am the Lord your God. . . .”

~ Isaiah 43:1b, 2 (Amp)

To continue with my theme from last week, the above Bible verses illustrate the fact that we all “walk through the fire” and “pass through the waters” at some point in our lives. Notice it doesn’t say if these things happen, it says when these things happen. But the good news is that these events need not defeat us, but rather, by the grace of God, they can and will make us stronger.

“We are hedged in (pressed) on every side – troubled and oppressed in every way; but not cramped or crushed; we suffer embarrassments and are perplexed and unable to find a way out, but not driven to despair; We are (persecuted and hard driven,) pursued, but not deserted – to stand alone; we are struck down to the ground, but never struck out and destroyed.”

~ II Corinthians 4:8,9

This past year one of our sons experienced a very painful disappointment in his life. As Keen counseled him, I listened intently and prayed that our son would take his advice to heart.

“A wise son heeds his father's instruction . . .”

~ Proverbs 13:1 (NKJV)

I described the father-son discussion in the following email to a friend:

“My husband spoke to him with words of wisdom; encouraged him to believe that greater opportunities and challenges will now present themselves; will now become a possibility when they would not have been otherwise. . . He reminded him of the elections he had lost without understanding why; of the time the law school turned him away and he had to try again; of the time a judge dismissed our case, ruling that it was without merit. He told of how, in each and every situation, he was later able to look back and see all the good that sprang forth from what, at the time, felt like a death. He told our son to look at his mother, how she was given a frightening diagnosis, how she waited for what seemed like an eternity to find out if she had that dreaded gene; how the doctors said she could have a lumpectomy . . .just a lumpectomy. How after the surgery they said there was more; they didn't get it all; she'd have to be cut again. And how she made the most difficult decision of her life; a decision that would cost her her breasts . . . but would save her life. "Your mother," he said, "had to become so strong, so fast. . . . and you will, too." He told our son that he knew it was hard, and that it would be for some time. He said, "You can't speed the process up; but you can slow it down." He told him to hold his head up high and not to speak one ill word against [anyone]. . . He told him that he might not see it now, but, looking back, one day, he will see. He will be stronger because of this.”

“The curious thing about pain/loss/etc is that if we pretend it didn't happen, it will continue to eat at us and we go into an avoidance mode - then it (the pain) controls and limits what we can or will do. But if we embrace the pain, feel it fully, accept it and say: ‘Yes, this too is a part of my life experience granted by God,’ then it becomes a building block, not a road block. It is the wise who find this out before they die (and the younger you learn it the better).”

~ Duane Herrmann

My friend Kat has the unique ability to derive meaningful lessons from life’s most emotion-packed moments, and then express those thoughts in words that inspire the reader. Since Kat has graciously given me permission to pass along anything she writes to you, I would like to share her most recent gift of words, which were written from her perspective as the mother of a son:

God has made 'reservations' for each of us.
How we long for something that we think is the best. . .
then it simply vanishes and we are speechless
from the pain and rejection.

all the while....

the reservations that God has made for us
silently wait.

Just as it is with those we make at our own favorite restaurant,
all we have to do is get ready and be there on time
in order to receive the service and
attention we appreciate, anticipate, and need.

It is only from experience that I can say this. . .
there is a planned succession of reservations
already made for each and every one of us
by our Father in Heaven.

He is excited and pleased, because
He knows that we will be delighted with
what we are given.

The test is simply . . . time.
It's hard to be young. . . with all the energy and vigor
which naturally propels us forward through the unknown
and unforeseen obstacles.

Faith is the 'confirmation' we hold that assures us
of great things to come. . .
just for us to enjoy
just for us to experience
just uniquely
for us.

Our children seem like stallions at times.
Pawing the ground,
tossing their manes,
snorting with impatience.

Hold fast!
The best lies waiting for you.
It is perfectly aligned with your heart and soul!

Sons own our dreams.


There's bound to be rough waters
And I know I'll take some falls
But with the good Lord as my Captain
I can make it through them all

Yes, I will sail my vessel
'Til the river runs dry
Like a bird upon the wind
These waters are my sky
I'll never reach my destination
If I never try
So I will sail my vessel
'Til the river runs dry

The River ~ performed by Garth Brooks

“The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.”
~ Psalm 18:2 (NKJV)
Chalk Creek - Nathrop, Colorado

Sunday, November 19, 2006


Make a joyful shout to the Lord, all you lands!
Serve the Lord with gladness;
Come before His presence with singing.
Know that the Lord, He is God;
It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves;
We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.

Enter into His gates with thanksgiving,
And into His courts with praise.
Be thankful to Him, and bless His name.
For the Lord is good;
His mercy is everlasting,
And His truth endures to all generations.

~ Psalm 100:1-5

Cornucopia – cor·nu·co·pi·a (noun): a great abundance of something

Recently when I sat down to compose my annual Christmas poem recapping the major events of the Umbehr family from 2006, I discovered that the task was a little more challenging than usual. I mean, really, have you ever tried to find a word that rhymes with mastectomy? When I read the first draft of my poem to our son, Josh, I must admit that it sounded terribly tortured and had us both in stitches. Even though I didn’t intend for it to be comical, that’s how it came across. Afterwards I made up the following mock verse, just to poke fun at how pathetic that first draft sounded:

Grandma fell and broke her hip
And as if that weren’t enough,
Grandpa broke his tailbone
When he went to help her up!

When I asked Keen what he thought about my poem, he had a little different view. “Well, it’s not very cheery, but it shows that we’re survivors.” His comment gave me pause. Then our son, Keen II, added his thoughts:

“Hey there Mom, sorry for taking so long to get back to you on this but I'm just now getting caught up on email. I would have to echo Dad’s opinion here. I think it is a great mixture of all of the real life things that have been happening in everyone’s life. Of course I can relate to it because it’s my family, but I feel like it just created a 'feels like home' feel when I read it. Of course I may be a little biased, but I think it’s great!”

As a result of the unexpected optimism conveyed by the two Keen’s in my life, I decided to rework the poem in an effort to salvage it. In the end, even Josh agreed that the revised version was a great improvement over the original.

As Keener pointed out, most people can relate to the ups and downs of life. The important thing is that we continue to have a heart of thanksgiving for all the good that remains.

“…gratitude is a sure cure for self-pity – that special illness at the heart of all grief.” ~ Catherine Marshall, To Live Again

I’m reminded of my special friend, Rebecca Miller, who is such a shining example of someone who chooses to focus on all that she has been blessed with, rather than on the things she might not be able to do because of her condition. Rebecca finds the time to bake cookies for others, play the violin at her church, and write kind, encouraging notes to people like me. We could all learn a valuable lesson from Rebecca’s inspiring life.

Last week I was invited to speak to a wonderful group of women at the First Christian Church in Junction City, Kansas. That was a first for me – but hopefully not the last – because I enjoyed the experience immensely. I appreciate any opportunity I have to share from my heart, whether through writing or public speaking.

Marge Ingmire, who has kept up with our life story through my column in The Prairie Post, suggested I talk about some of the trials we have gone through this past year, and how God’s strength sustained us through every one. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, it was natural for me to tie those experiences in with a theme about being grateful.

One significant point that stands out in my mind regarding thankfulness in the midst of trials is that being a Christian doesn’t mean you’ll never have any struggles. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The Bible says “many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all.” (Psalm 34:19) Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33b) It’s a message that prepares us for the realities of life here on earth and yet offers a message of hope that no matter what comes our way, He will be there to see us through. Jesus said these things so that in Him we might have peace. (John 16:33a)

“Fear not; (there is nothing to fear) for I am with you; do not look around you in terror and be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen and harden you to difficulties; yes, I will help you; yes I will hold you up and retain you with My victorious right hand of rightness and justice.” ~ Isaiah 41:10 (Amp)

My point is that our life this past year has been a cornucopia of both challenges and blessings. But we’re still here – and we’re still standing strong. And that, my friends, gives our family an abundance to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

God’s blessings to each of you this Thanksgiving and all the year through!

“Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever.” ~I Chronicles 16:34 (NKJV)

Sunday, November 12, 2006

'Tis [Always] the Season to Give Thanks

“Bless the Lord, o my soul, and forget not all His benefits.”
~ Psalm 103:2

This week I find it necessary to rely on the graciousness of my talented friend, Pat Barrett, who uses her gift of poetry to share life lessons and give glory to God.

(The photograph is also courtesy of Pat.)

November Contemplation
By Patricia Kohls Barrett

Some think you are barren
Since they see no green life
By your end, trees look naked
As having been through great strife

After wind shakes them loose
They shed their leaves all around
Then join rest of nature in sleep
Like the bulbs under ground

There is growth in your solitude
What appears lifeless is not dead
It is preparation for great splendor
In the warm spring months ahead

You’re the month of transition
Start with warmth, end with cold
Ease us all close to winter
When white flakes fall so bold

In the midst of transformation
We observe traditions of old
Gather together our families
Thankfully our hands we fold

You’re the advent of celebration
Of the season of peace
Folks are at best and worst
Gather, shop, share, and feast

You remind every mortal
Life is certain to change
We can’t hold any moment
That we try, is so strange

The Blessings are Always There
By Patricia Kohls Barrett

The blessings are always there
In the life of a child of God
It depends on his chosen focus
If he sees grace that is so broad

He can set his mind on problems
Center on what he doesn’t own
Wallow in pain and suffering
And pick to complain and moan

He can look for the glass to be half empty
And gaze around for what is not best
Find fault in what God had given him
Embrace seen troubles to his chest

Doing such he can miss all that’s good
That surrounds him on every side
And fail to behold his advantages
Miss opportunities he could have tried

This is a sad choice of unhappiness
Because attitude is within his control
On what he decides to center attention
Will determine if he meets a goal

He can decide with his Lord’s help
To direct thoughts to notice what’s right
Let God’s Spirit guide his viewpoint
With God’ Word adverse views fight

See on the reverse of undesirable
Are great blessings for him to unfold
As he sees God turn bad to good
He’ll find benefits worth more than gold

The blessings are always there
In the life of a child of God
It depends on his chosen focus
If he sees grace that is so broad

“You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy, that I might sing praises to you and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give you thanks forever!” ~ Psalm 30:11,12

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Absorbed by Love (Part II)

“The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love yourneighbor as yourself.’”
~Galatians 5:14

For as long as I shall live
I will testify to love
I'll be a witness in the silences
When words are not enough
With every breath I take
I will give thanks to God above
For as long as I shall live
I will testify to love

Testify to Love ~ performed by Avalon

This column is a continuation from last week when I shared some stories and thoughts we received after the birth of our granddaughter, Katelyn Seraphina. These next several paragraphs came from some of my dear female friends:

First, Katelyn: Oh my, what a gift you've been given. To care for a special spirit is a precious opportunity. So many things are easy in our western world. So many things taken for granted. Special ones slow us down and give us the opportunity for gratitude and humility, and perhaps above all the opportunity to practice kindness, patience, and unconditional love. Congratulations. I hope that some day I can meet Katelyn, or at least see pictures of her life and hear stories of her journey (actually, I'm sure I'll hear stories!). Ask Bev about Christie, a special daughter of friends of hers from North Dakota. I met Christie, who has Downs. She was in her 40's I think when I met her, and absolutely delightful. She was thoughtful and had a great sense of humor, was living on her own in a group home and was very happy. I've also worked with special folks in Alaska, and everyday my heart was warmed and my spirit lifted by young people and adults with developmental (dis)abilities of one sort or another who were moving through their lives with integrity and love.


A friend of mine who has two children with some severe genetic disorders once told me that the most difficult thing for her was that people would not share their good news with her. It made her feel isolated from the party. She does not dwell on the challenges of her day to day. Like the rest of us, she finds ways to celebrate her norms. There are blessings in every day no matter the circumstances. I can see your son’s family is already finding that to be true.


Katelyn can teach all of us about the joys of life; every one of her accomplishments will be a cause for rejoicing and celebrating, and it teaches us that we all too often take healthy children's development for granted.


Eileen, I read your article at work and spilled quite a few tears. I have been worried this past week about the baby and Lisa that something wasn't right, since I didn't hear back from you. I want to say I'm so sorry but those are not the right words. I told you that God sent an angel (Josh) to you to help you make the right decision [about the breast cancer diagnosis]; what I didn't know then is how much of an angel of God he really is. I have always believed that God sends special people to be looked after by special people, and Josh is definitely one of those special people. So the right word is “Congratulations!” And I believe, like Keen, that we all are about to witness a miracle. If you look around at the families that have kids with Down syndrome, those are the families that are the happiest and the closest. I loved the pictures, she is a beautiful baby.


Congratulations on your newest member of the family, another precious baby girl. She will add such a special piece to the "Umbehr puzzle". Another baby to love!!!


Thank you for all the messages this afternoon. Thank you for the pictures of the new little baby, Katelyn. She is a blessing from God and will be there for all of you when it counts the most. God chose her especially for a family whom He knew would do the best for her. All of you will love her with all the love you have to give and teach her to be independent along the way. There will be so many memories, but you'll have to forget the hurting ones and work your way past those. As you remember, I worked in Special Education for almost 19 years and have had a lot of learning experience. Congratulations to all of your family! God certainly knows what He is doing.

Remember what is most important.
It’s not having everything go right, it’s facing whatever goes wrong.
It's not being without fear; it's having the determination to go on in spite of it.
Remember that every day ends and brings a new tomorrow full of exciting new things.
Love what you do, do the best you can, and always remember how much you are loved.

~Vicki Worsham


Lisa’s brother Aaron came across a truly inspiring video on the internet about a father and son named Dick and Rick Hoyt. When Rick was born, he was strangled by the umbilical cord leaving him brain damaged and unable to walk or talk. The doctors told his parents that he would be a vegetable and suggested they put him in an institution. But Rick’s parents refused to accept what the doctors said, and they took Rick home to love him and nurture him.

Eventually, Rick was equipped with a computer which he was able to operate by touching a switch with the side of his head. Then when one of Rick’s high school friends was paralyzed in an accident and the school organized a charity run, Rick typed: “Dad, I want to do that.” From that moment on, Rick and his father have been participating in marathons and even triathlons. Rick says it’s the only time he doesn’t feel handicapped But he still has one more dream to fulfill: one day he’d like to be the one pushing his dad.

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” ~ John 15:12-13

(Tissue alert: If you’d like to watch an inspiring video depicting Dick and Rick’s journey, go to and type “Rick Hoyt” in the search window.)

It’s true that sometimes miracles hide . . . and sometimes they don’t.

We love you, Katelyn Seraphina.

“. . . perfect love casts out fear.” ~ I John 4:18a

A big smile for Great-Grandma Jean (Umbehr)

Friday, November 03, 2006

Absorbed by Love (Part I)

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” ~I John 4:7-11

Recently I met a woman who has a seventeen-year-old daughter with Down syndrome. Her daughter seemed amazingly well-adjusted and functional. I told her about our granddaughter, Katelyn, and asked if she had any thoughts or advice she could share.

Her first piece of advice was to say that all the available resources are wonderful, but, as Katelyn’s parents, Josh and Lisa will be the best teachers she ever has because they’re with her all the time. She explained that while her daughter’s IQ is not very high, she is able to manage very well in life, and performs many day-to-day activities. I took particular interest in her next comment: she said that her daughter has an incredible memory when it comes to matters of the heart – that is, experiences or people that touched her heart.

Next, she told me that there is a waiting list to adopt children with Down syndrome. That is sadly due to the fact that so many children who are diagnosed before birth are being aborted. She said, “People look at them as though they’re not right, but the truth is that there’s more right about them than most people.”

Lastly, she said, “Tell your son and daughter-in-law not to be afraid to have more children. I have seven children in all; four born before her, and two after her.” (A friend of ours is the youngest of eight children, and he has an older brother with Down syndrome.)

At the end of our conversation, my new friend gave me a hug. Then I asked if I could give her precious little daughter a hug. She said yes, and once again I felt as though I’d been touched by an angel.

Shortly after Katelyn was born, I was trying to describe her to my sister Peggy. “There’s just something so special about Katelyn,” I said. “When you’re around her, she just draws you in. It’s like she absorbs you.” I think that’s what makes children with Down syndrome so special; they are all love, all purity, all innocence – they are, so to speak, completely complete.

“The secret things belong unto the Lord our God . . .” ~ Deuteronomy 29:29a (Amp)

Katelyn all bundled up

After writing my column about Katelyn titled Angel in Disguise, I received numerous encouraging comments. This first story was sent to me from our friend Larry Perry, who gave me permission to share it with you:

Dear Eileen:

What a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing it.

I remember when our youngest son was born. There was another baby born that same evening with Down syndrome. I remember the father of the baby with Downs standing by me looking in the window to the nursery and crying. I talked with him a few minutes and discovered the situation. I explained to him that he was one of the most fortunate men on earth and he suddenly stopped and listened. I told him that God only gives challenged children to special parents who are strong and who can help them and that obviously he was one of God's chosen parents and would experience a very special kind of love over his life. That he and his wife were in for a very, very special life with their newborn child. Oh, there would be ups and downs, but there are with all parents. However, their child would show them a kind of love that most people never experience. Many people would envy him and his wife because of this special event. He seemed relieved and began to think about it. I patted him on the shoulders and asked him to give his wife a big hug and our congratulations for a beautiful baby. He left and I never saw him again at the hospital.

I did not get his name nor address and as time would go by had forgotten the incident. Then about fifteen years later, I was doing a photographic workshop/seminar in Minnesota on wildlife. There were about 6 or 7 students in the workshop. After a couple of days, one of the students asked to speak to me alone. He asked if I had a son from Knoxville that would be so many years old. Somewhat surprised, I told him I did. He then told me he was the father of the child with Downs that was born the same time and that he and his family lived down in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and were very happy. He further told me that he had thought about what I said to him that day at the hospital many, many times – about being a special parent and that over the years he agreed that his child with Down syndrome made their family the happiest in the area. Oh, there were special needs, but he and his wife absolutely loved doing them. He also mentioned that they had two other children who were normal and who were very supportive of their special angel. After hearing his story and the chance meeting of him 15 years later, when I got back to the motel that night, I just thanked God that He had put those words in my mouth 15 years earlier and that He protected the baby and blessed his parents. What a great day that was for me!

Eileen and Keen, I know you will be blessed the same way as I can already see it in your writing and your photos. Congratulations, and now you too will see a kind of love that very, very few people on earth ever experience. That means that you too are very special people.

“God gives us situations, challenges, tests so that we can expand to encompass them and render them harmless, and we grow because of it.” ~ Duane Herrmann


This next story came from another friend of ours, Jack Casner, who also gave me permission to share it with you:

When I was seven years old I used to spend weekends with my father, in Severy, Kansas. There I met a man named Walter Palmer. Walter was about 40 years old and he had Down syndrome. I didn't know anybody else in town and the two of us became friends. He showed me some good fishing holes and some beautiful rural areas close to Severy.

After Walter felt really secure with me he invited me inside his house to see his "stuff". Now, Walter's mother was about seventy, a former farm woman and much the worse for all her years in the sun and weather. But she was a sweet lady and fixed Kool-Aid for both of us. Then she went to get Walter's "stuff". She brought out a load of white, cotton dish towels, each with the most beautiful embroidery work I had ever seen. Even today, I can see Walter's work in front of me. And I can see Walter. And I can see Walter's mother. I can see the things we did.

Walter was my best buddy in Severy until my dad died. None of the kids I met there were nearly as smart as Walter, or as friendly, or as good to be with as Walter.


My high school buddy Scott, who has given me blanket permission to share anything he writes, sent the following encouraging words:

When I read your words about Katelyn, I remembered something from "Fried Green Tomatoes." When Ninny Threadgoode told Evelyn about her son, Albert, who was born with mental challenges, she said this, "How could anyone believe that little baby could be a burden? He was God's greatest gift. Why, I think there never was a purer soul on this earth. I had him with me until he was 40 and then he went to sleep and didn't wake up. Sometimes I can't wait to get to heaven to see him again."

I have known many people with children born with various challenges, and what I've heard from all of them is that they are blessed everyday by these wonderful children. I pray this will be so for Josh and Lisa.

To be continued . . . .

GramE and Katelyn reading a book

All smiles from Katelyn and Mommy

"I saw someone kissing Kate-lyn ..."

Josh, Lisa & Katelyn

Monday, October 23, 2006

Mishaps, Mountains, & Memories (Part II)

Now he walks in quiet solitude, the forest and the streams
Seeking grace in every step he takes
His sight has turned inside himself to try and understand
The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake

And the Colorado Rocky Mountain high
I've seen it rainin' fire in the sky
You can talk to God and listen to the casual reply
Rocky Mountain High, Colorado

Rocky Mountain High - Words by John Denver; Music by John Denver and Mike Taylor

To pick up where I left off last week, we finally made it back to our cabin – soaking wet from rain on the outside, and soaking wet from sweat on the inside. From there, we went directly to the natural hot springs located on the grounds of Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Resort. It was so refreshing to soak in a 95 degree pool when the outdoor temperatures were so cold. Keen even found some parts of Chalk Creek that were actually too hot. As a bonus, we met a delightful couple (George and Mary Beth) who shared a wealth of information about the area, including the proper (local) pronunciation of Buena Vista (like the name Beulah), and a more direct route from the airport.

After checking out of Mt. Princeton, we met with their event coordinator, Zelma, to work out the details for next year’s family reunion. As it turned out, Zelma has relatives from the Eskridge area as well as a good friend from Alma. It really is a small world.

Next we headed for Buena Vista for The Liar’s Lodge, a bed and breakfast where we made arrangements to stay for the remainder of the week. It’s a beautiful spot on the outskirts of town located right on the shores of the Arkansas River. A plaque on the wall explained the origin of the name: “Fisherman, hunters, and other liars gather here.”

We hit the sack early that night, and the next morning we were greeted by the breathtaking sight of an early snowfall.

So we bundled up and headed out on a pre-dawn walk. The two dogs, Stubbs (a lab), and Dakota (a Siberian Husky), followed us into town. On our way back we noticed that Dakota was lagging behind, so we had to keep stopping until he caught up. When we returned, the innkeeper, Mark, was anxiously waiting on the front porch. “Have you seen a white dog?” he asked, with a hint of panic in his voice. We explained that both dogs followed us into town and we didn’t know how to make them stay. Then we found out why Dakota was huffing and puffing so much on the way back – because he is 12 years old! Mark jokingly remarked, “You broke my dog!” Then he added, “Don’t worry – the exercise was good for him,” and Keen and I both breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Later that day, Keen decided he wanted to hike and bike on the Barbara Whipple Trail located directly behind the lodge.

Barbara Whipple (1920-1989), was an artist, hiker, skier, and lover of the outdoors who owned an art gallery on Main Street in Buena Vista. She was well known for her woodcuts and etchings.

I decided to stay back to catch up on some laundry (and rest). Keen ended up pushing his bicycle all the way up the trail, and he had a precarious ride back down. Needless to say, he was exhausted when he returned.

But that afternoon I was surprised when Keen suggested we go on another hike. He said, “I’m just giddy – I don’t want to waste a minute.” So we set out in search of a trail known as Agnes Vaille Falls. Agnes Vaille was born in 1890 to a prominent Denver family. She led an adventurous life, joining the American Red Cross in France during World War I. Upon her return, she became the Secretary of the Denver Chamber of Commerce. She had a true passion for hiking and mountain climbing, but sadly, this passion ultimately led to her death when she slipped on some ice and fell down Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. It is told that she survived the fall but froze to death before help could arrive.

The trail was absolutely gorgeous, leading to a remarkable water fall. But it wasn’t enough for Keen to see part of the waterfall; he insisted that we continue our ascent until we found the origin of the waterfall.

I must admit, it was worth it, even though I almost slipped on some wet, moss-covered rocks in an attempt to capture that perfect picture with the waterfall in the background.


View of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from Agnes Vaille Trail

It struck me that Agnes Vaille, as well as my sister Patricia and so many others such as Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, have lost their lives while pursuing their passions. That seemed so tragic to me, but Keen felt differently. He said he couldn’t think of a better way to die than to be doing something you loved.

Afterwards, Keen and I both agreed that we had discovered the perfect spot for the 1st annual Patricia Van Kirk Memorial Hike – a tradition we plan to start and hope to continue each year as a way of remembering/honoring our late sister and her love of life and the great outdoors.

Next we took a side trip through the historic Colorado Midland Railroad tunnels which were carved right out of the mountains near our lodge.

The Colorado Midland started in Colorado Springs and arrived in the Buena Vista area in 1887. Passengers were taken to the station by horse-drawn wagon.

On our way back we spotted about a dozen deer along the railroad tracks.

After a while, deer sightings almost became commonplace. One day we saw some deer cross the street right in the middle of town, and another time we spotted a family of three in someone’s front yard and we nearly mistook them for statues!

The next day we took a two-hour road trip to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve near Mosca, Colorado.

I was able to capture a few pictures before we entered the park, but when I tried to take a picture of Keen standing on the sandy dunes, my digital camera flashed a message informing me that my card of pictures was full. I was so disappointed until I realized that the message was proof that my camera had indeed been working properly all that time, despite the fact that I had dropped it on the sidewalk on the first day of our vacation. After touring an alligator farm on our way home, we stopped at Wal-Mart and bought another card to store pictures from the remainder of our trip.

By the time we got back to the lodge, I was ready to call it a day, but Keen convinced me that we still had time to hike up the Barbara Whipple Trail before sundown. So off we went, and I’m so glad we did. The hike was exhilarating and the view was spectacular.

We finished up our hike just as the sun was setting behind the mountains, and Keen commented about how glad he was that we hadn’t wasted a minute of our day. “I guess it’s never too late to follow your heart,” I replied.

The next day we checked out of the Liar’s Lodge and returned to Mt. Princeton to meet with our event coordinator, Zelma. Zelma greeted us with a massive amount of information including price lists, brochures from area recreational spots, as well as an impressive type-written document containing answers to all of our many questions. As a result of all of Zelma’s hard work, I’m happy to report that the Van Kirk clan will indeed be invading Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Resort next summer. We are really looking forward to it.

After our meeting with Zelma, we drove to the old ghost town of St. Elmo, which was built in 1878 and is located about 10 miles up the road from Mt. Princeton. While we were there, we walked around the historic Iron City Cemetery. The sign posted at the entryway listed the names of many of the people buried there, along with information about how some of them met their untimely demise.

Entrance of Iron City Cemetery near St. Elmo

Sadly, many of the graves were for small children. One gravestone erected in 1891 was for two sisters named Sadie and Gertie. It read: “Born 2 year[s] apart; Died a day apart; Buried a hand apart.”

When it came time to make the long trek back to Kansas, Keen and I were both ready to leave Colorado behind for the time being. As reported in the Fall 2006 edition of the Kansas Traveler, the internet web site named the Kansas Flint Hills as No. 5 on their list of the top 10 travel destinations in the United States.

But then, we didn’t need them to tell us that there’s no place like home.

"People travel to wonder at the height of the mountains, at the huge waves of the seas, at the long course of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars, and yet they pass by themselves without wondering." ~St. Augustine

Monday, October 16, 2006

Mishaps, Mountains, & Memories (Part I)

“Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.”
~ Psalm 90:1,2 (NKJV)

Last week Keen and I took a road trip to Colorado to check out the area where we plan to host the Van Kirk Family Reunion next summer.
The month leading up to our vacation had been incredibly busy for Keen, so we were both looking forward to the well-timed trip. The day before we left, Keen sent me this note via email: (My response follows.)

Eileen: I left this morning without telling you that I love you. I think about you so much during the day. I am so happy, so satisfied, so glad that you love me. I am so excited about being with you for a whole week. I just couldn’t get started today without writing you a note this morning.

Have a great day!



Dear Keen,

You have no idea what your note meant to me this morning. I had a terrible dream; a frightening dream. So when I got up, I was hoping to find a note from you. I looked all over the house – in the bathroom and the kitchen. Then I turned on my computer and I could hardly believe my eyes. A note from the love of my life, my cherished husband of 28 years with the subject line: "I love you!" Has God blessed us with a wonderful union or what?

I love you, too, Keen, and I am pinching myself that we will be together - on a real vacation - for seven whole days. Rain or shine - I know it will be sublime, because I'll be with you and you'll be with me.

I love you, Keen.


After packing our suitcases and tying up several loose ends, we loaded our bicycles on the back of the Durango and began our long trek to Colorado. Along the way we passed the time by listening to the Kansas State Wildcats 31-27 win over Oklahoma State. After eating dinner at a truck stop where the food didn’t look anything like the pictures on the menu, we decided to take a “shorter” route to our destination, which left us out in the middle of nowhere by nightfall. We kept driving and driving, thinking that we would come upon a town with a population greater than 25, but that didn’t happen for much longer than we anticipated. So then we just started acting goofy and laughing while we sang off-key to the music on the radio. But Keen got the biggest laugh of the night at my expense. We were holding hands and be-bopping to the music when, without thinking, I decided to lean over and give Keen a kiss on his hand while it was still “be-bopping." This resulted in one or both of us effectively punching me right in the nose!

We finally reached civilization in Colorado Springs and checked into a hotel. Our second mishap occurred the next morning when I stepped out of the passenger seat and my digital camera fell off my lap and crashed on the ground. After examining the damage, we discovered that the most important feature of the camera still seemed to be operational. However, I could no longer view the pictures after I took them to verify whether it was really working or not. So I just kept taking pictures like normal, hoping that the clicking sound I heard meant that the picture actually took.

Our next stop was the Royal Gorge Canyon and Bridge in CaƱon City, Colorado. The Royal Gorge Bridge is the highest suspension bridge in the world. Since Keen and I decided not to walk the quarter-mile bridge over the canyon, I just took some pictures of it from a distance.

Then we headed for our next destination – Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Resort in Nathrop, Colorado, which is where we plan to hold the family reunion. The resort is located halfway between Salida and Buena Vista, nestled in the majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains near the San Isabel National Forest. Keen and I discovered Mt. Princeton last summer when we were on our way home from visiting my stepmom. That’s when Colorado became our second favorite state.

After checking into our cabin, we grabbed our walking sticks and set out to take our first hike in the mountains. We ended up on the Colorado Trail just up the road from Mt. Princeton and directly across from the beautiful Chalk Cliffs. There was a slight drizzle, but we didn’t let it stop us, although we did notice the difference in altitude as we both ran out of breath rather quickly. On the drive back we were excited to spot a large group of deer on the side of the road. They don’t dart away like they do in Kansas, so it was fun to be able to take lots of pictures from our vehicle.

Lastly, we stopped at the Chalk Creek falls and snapped a few more photos.

The next morning it was still raining, but Keen was merciless. “It’s no hill for a climber!” he said. So we bundled up and headed out for a bike ride in the rain. The ride downhill was a blast as we sailed like the wind, but the trip back up was sheer agony.

“Look at everything as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time. Then your time on earth will be filled with glory."

~ Betty Smith

To be continued . . .

Saturday, October 07, 2006

In Pursuit of Sleep

“In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for Thou alone, O Lord, makest me dwell in safety.” ~Psalms 4:8

A while back, the Prairie Post ran an article titled, “If quality sleep is a challenge … the Morris County Hospital may have a solution.” This article caught my eye because Keen went through the St. Francis Sleep Disorder Clinic about 15 years ago. Since Keen and I are on our way to Colorado for a week of hiking, biking and yes, some much needed rest, I thought I would share a copy of a speech I once gave about our experience titled, “Journey to a Good Night’s Sleep.”

“Laugh and the world laughs with you. Snore and you sleep alone.”
~Anthony Burgess

For the first 12 years of my married life I slept with a snorer – and a loud one at that. I didn’t like it much, but there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about it, so I learned to adjust. That is, until 1989.

1989 was the year our fourth child, Kirk was born. Kirk had digestive problems that went undiagnosed until he was 8 ½ months old when we finally learned that he was allergic to milk. But up until that point, he cried frequently during the day and didn’t sleep through the night. Plus, I had three other children to take care of.

“People who say they sleep like a baby usually don't have one.” ~Leo J. Burke

Between Kirk’s crying and Keen’s snoring, I was pretty much in a constant state of sleep deprivation. Eventually I became so desperate for some relief that I asked my dear husband if he would please sleep on the couch so I could try to get some rest.

Fortunately, that arrangement didn’t last long because for Christmas that year my father gave us a video camera. That wonderful new gadget gave me the tool I needed to prove once and for all that my husband’s snoring really did sound like a chain saw! But as I was videotaping him one day during a nap, I observed something else. Keen didn’t just snore – he actually stopped breathing during his sleep – for what seemed like an eternity. This interruption in his breathing would be followed by a loud gasp for air before the snoring resumed and the cycle repeated itself.

I had always been concerned about the effect his snoring had on my life, but then I became worried about the effect it might be having on his life. So I contacted the Sleep Disorder Center at St. Francis and they recommended that we make an appointment with a specialist who could refer Keen to the clinic for a sleep study and evaluation.

The evaluation process involved Keen spending the night at the sleep clinic while being hooked up to all kinds of electrodes that monitored every facet of his sleep. It didn’t take very long at all for them to diagnosis Keen with an ailment known as obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA.

The Greek word “apnea” literally means “without breath.” This syndrome is caused by a blockage of the airway which occurs when the soft tissue in the rear of the throat collapses and closes during sleep. When we’re asleep, our muscles relax more than they do during waking hours and in some people, this relaxation lets the airway in the back of the throat become too narrow, thus interfering with breathing. Some other causes of sleep apnea are being overweight, having a smaller-than-normal jaw, an overbite or enlarged tonsils. The end result of obstructive sleep apnea is excessive daytime sleepiness which is caused by the fact that the individual is literally struggling to breathe all night long.

In Keen’s case, he stopped breathing up to 400 times a night for up to 60 seconds per episode. At that rate, he was actually not breathing more than he was breathing.

After observing Keen for a couple of hours, the technologist at the sleep center decided to equip him with a breathing machine known as a CPAP, which stands for continuous positive airway pressure. This device forces pressurized air back into the patient’s lungs through a mask that fits securely over the nose.

I would be remiss not to reiterate the significant and potentially life-threatening consequences of untreated OSA. In addition to the dangers associated with daytime sleepiness such as job impairment and motor vehicle crashes, sleep apnea can cause high blood pressure, memory problems and headaches. But the most dangerous aspect of sleep apnea is the increased risk of heart failure, heart attack or stroke.

According to David Miller of the St. Francis Sleep Disorder Center, at least 30% of all heart attacks are related to sleep apnea and not to heart disease. Put in simple terms, a heart attack is oxygen starvation of the heart muscles. During episodes of sleep apnea, the blood oxygen level drops dangerously low and over time, this oxygen deprivation takes a serious toll on the heart as well as other vital organs.

The good news is that the CPAP machine works! In our experience, it’s made all the difference in the world – not only for Keen’s quality of sleep, but also for mine. Now Keen wakes up feeling rejuvenated and ready to face the challenges of the day. As for me, I’ve grown accustomed to the soothing hum of the CPAP machine and no longer need to ask my husband to sleep on the couch so I can get a good night’s sleep.

The bottom line is this: snoring is no laughing matter. So if someone you love snores, please encourage them to see their health care professional. Not only could it improve your life – it could save theirs.

“A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor's book.”
~Irish Proverb