Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas in Chicago

"I've got the lights upon the Christmas tree, I've got the candle lit for you and me..."

Those words are from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's CD, "The Christmas Attic". It's my favorite Christmas CD, and I'm listening to it as the snow falls outside while I write this post. Christmas is one day and a wake up call away. I should be making the fudge and wrapping the last presents. But my mind is elsewhere today. I've gone back in time to another Christmas season, one that occured 41 years ago. The Christmas tree was up then, too, and the presents were wrapped and waiting beneath its branches.

But I wasn't home to see any of this. Instead, I was in a hospital, having just given birth to our first child. Joseph Frederic came into the world at 3:30 PM, and what a Christmas present he was! Fred and I couldn't have been happier. So today I'm thinking about my oldest son Joe, who himself is now the father of four beautiful children.

That's a picture of Joe above, and to the left is a picture of two of his children, Ashley in the brown coat, Christopher in front, along with my daughter Sarah's daughter, Cinnamon Rose in the pink coat. Yesterday, Joe's wife Melissa and I took the three of them to the Chicago Botanical Gardens to see the Wonderland Express, a special exhibit featuring hand-made buildings made out of natural-only material -- twigs, leaves, flower pods, seed, etc. -- nestled in a living landscape of trees and plants and made more intriguing by twelve trains that run through and over the exhibit to the delight of the Garden's many visitors.

Before going into the exhibit, we visited the two indoor conservatories where the children were duly impressed by the cacti, the orchids, and the banana trees with their green bunches of fruit.

As you can see by the pictures, even the consevatories were decorated for the holidays, with large red glass balls interspersed among the plants and huge poinsettia balls hanging from the ceilings.

With many of the plants in bloom, it was a sight to remember. I've never grown an orchid, but the one shown here took my breath away. The giant allium plants were pretty impressive, too.

And then it was time to check out the gingerbread houses created especially for the holiday exhibit. They included a train station and tunnel, a fire house, apartment buildings flanking a toy shop and candy store, and several houses surrounded by snowmen and decorated pine trees.

Four Christmas trees decorated by various gardening groups occupied the corners of the gingerbread room that led to the Wonderland Express exhibit. Picured here is a cleverly constructed copy of Navy Pier backed by the Wrigley Building and the Tribune Tower, all of them part of the downtown Chicago part of the exhibit. Not shown is a much smaller version of the Chicago River flowing past the buildings.

This is another view of the downtown Chicago part of the exhibit with the Chicago Water Tower, one of the few buildings that survived the great fire of 1871 that destroyed so much of the city. Next to the Water Tower is the Harold Washington Library with its gorgeous rooftop decorations.

Next is a truly gorgeous replica of one of our many museums. Again, all these buildings were created by hand and took weeks to make. Each year a few new buildings are added to the exhibit. One of the new ones this year was a replica of President Obama's Kenwood home.

This picture shows a neighborhood of typical Chicago-style bungalows. The train running past the home is somewhat blurred, but you get the idea of how the trains were incorporated into the exhibit.

This is a close-up picture of the Harold Washington Library, named for Chicago late Mayor. This new library (well, it's not all that new -- it's been around for a few years) replaced the old downtown building as our main library. It's a fantastic piece of architecture.

Lastly, this is a replica of Soldier's Field, home of the Chicago Bears, before the recent renovation. This is the only building in the exhibit that comes with sound: the Bears' fight song plays in the background.

I hope you enjoyed seeing these pictures. The kids loved the trip, which means we'll all be back in spring when the tulips and daffodils are in bloom in the gardens and hopefully all the snow has melted away! I hope you're able to do some special things with your family this holiday season, too. For us, it was a fun way to help count down the days until Christmas. :)


Monday, December 14, 2009

When Life Throws You a Curve

I last posted to this blog on Thanksgiving when I listed everything I was thankful for. Included on that list were my children and grandchildren, most of whom celebrated the holiday with my husband and I at our house.

Missing that day were daughter Jennifer, son-in-law Jay, and grandsons Dan and Zach. They had driven to Florida to celebrate the holiday with Jay's parents and weren't expected back in town until late Saturday evening. Nevertheless, Jen called on Thanksgiving, and since her birthday was the following day, Fred and I and the rest of the family sang a merry "Happy Birthday" to her over the phone. Hearing that all was well with them, I didn't expect to talk with Jen again until the following week when life for her family had returned to normal.

But the phone rang very early Sunday morning, and that was the end of normal for all of us.

It was Jenni on the line asking us to come as quickly as possible. Jay, a long-time Type 1 diabetic, was experiencing numbness on his left side. She was taking him to the hospital and needed us to stay at the house with the boys.

Having been a nurse for a long, long time, I knew in my heart as I drove the thirty miles to their home that my 43-year-old son-in-law had suffered a stroke. Waiting and praying for the best, while hiding my fears from 6-year-old Zack and 7-year-old Dan, was one of those awful things no mother wants to do. While waiting for a phone call from Jen at the hospital, I kept hoping my gut diagnosis would be proved wrong.

Unfortunately, I wasn't wrong. Jay's MRI showed he'd suffered two strokes, one sometime in the recent past and one overnight on Saturday. Known as lacunar strokes, they occured deep in the brain and were most likely the result of complications caused by his diabetes.

The good news is, Jay's strokes were sensory in nature. He is home now and has full use of his limbs. His speech was unaffected, and his mind is as clear as ever (which means his jokes are as corny as ever!). What he's experiencing now is a lack of normal sensation on the left side of his entire body. Instead, he has painful burning sensations in his arm and leg, and he cannot actually feel anything he touches with his hand or foot. His walking is improving with the use of a cane and daily physical therapy; he's getting accustomed to not feeling the floor under his foot as he walks.

It will be a long time before life seems "normal" again for Jenni and Jay. But faith and the support of family and friends is easing the way for them. The entire family will be celebrating Christmas at their house this year with Jen preparing the turkey and the rest of us bringing all the side dishes. It will be a happy Christmas this year because Jay is with us and the family is still intact. His strokes could have been much worse, and we're tremendously thankful they weren't.

We're also thankful because Jay's sense of humor is one thing he didn't lose. He may not like having to walk with a cane, but he enjoys swatting Jen with it whenever she walks by. (His latest prank -- removing all the towels from the bathroom while she was taking a shower -- earned him a swat from her in return!)

Jay's upbeat attitude combined with Jenni's courage has inspired all of us in the family. Life threw them -- and us -- a curve. We're not sure where that curve is leading us, but we're making the journey together. The way I see it, that's what family is all about.

I hope all of you reading this post will be as thankful for life as we are this year, regardless of the curves thrown at you by fate. May your Christmas be Christ-filled and merry, and may the Source of all life give you hope and peace.