A Letter, a Journey, and a Gift of the Heart

 

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Time frame: late 1980’s. While attending college in Minnesota I embarked on a quest to find my cousin, Kathy whom I last seen at age 10. I had told my roommate about her and she encouraged me to try to find her. We last saw each other when we were 10 years old. When we were five, my mother took a photo of us in the kitchen. When we were 10, we visited on the front lawn on a warm summer evening and I piled kittens on her lap. I thought those kittens were so cute but I am not sure she liked having them all on top of her. While I grew up on a farm in Wisconsin, Kathy lived in southern California. Kathy’s parents divorced when she was 11; she could not return to visit her Wisconsin relatives. She also couldn’t travel easily because she had cerebral palsy and used a wheelchair. My immediate family never traveled as far as California. We lost contact with Kathy during the years following the divorce. Although I only met my cousin just a few times in my life, I often wondered about her.

Determined to find Kathy, I met with my grandmother who had written her occasionally and she had written her. But, time again passed so my grandmother could only give me Kathy’s last known address. To make things more complicated, my cousin had married acquiring a different last name. My grandmother couldn’t remember her new last name. Not wanting to give up, I wrote Kathy a heart-felt letter using the wrong address and the wrong name mailing it with a stamp and a sincere prayer. I needed to believe that God would answer my prayer.

Weeks and even a month passed. One day, I arrived at my apartment and found a letter from California.  The return address contained an unfamiliar last name but as soon as I saw “Kathy”, I knew it was from my cousin. I could hardly believe it.  Eagerly, I opened the letter and found that Kathy had poured out her soul in that long, detailed letter. She described some incredible events in her life. She unexpectedly gave birth to a baby girl.

A number of doctors told her that she couldn’t get pregnant. Sometime later, Kathy began experiencing extreme pain and was taken to an urgent care clinic. She was misdiagnosed as having a kidney stone or a bladder infection. The very next day and while on medication for a bladder infection, she returned to the clinic due to increasing pain. She was in labor and was rushed to the hospital by ambulance. Kathy and her husband were shocked, amazed, and overjoyed giving thanks to God for the unexpected and miraculous birth of their daughter, Kristie.

Later Kathy told me that she and her husband tried to revisit her urgent care doctor who had misdiagnosed her.  With her newborn daughter in her arms, Kathy wanted to show him her beautiful “kidney stone.” They were promptly told that the doctor was no longer at that clinic. Can you imagine the shock and surprise of everyone in that waiting room?

I wrote again and we began corresponding; by letter and by phone. We became more than cousins but friends who could talk about anything.  While Kathy told me about her married life and cute stories of her young daughter, I told her about my job working with adults with developmental disabilities, family in Wisconsin, and my personal life.  We shared about our common faith in Jesus. While Kathy had married, I had remained single which enabled me to do some limited traveling taking in time and limited budget considerations. At this point though, most of my solo journeys were short excursions to Wisconsin to visit family and friends. I had made occasional trips to Iowa too. Like I said, limited traveling.

Several years later, Kathy invited me to visit her in California and I was terrified, “I actually have to get on a plane?” Later and with lingering fear I was up for the adventure of traveling cross country. My first journey to San Diego was a direct flight taking about a three and half hours across mostly sunny skies; I watched from my window the changing view of cities, forests, and mountains.  Farms resembled quilt blocks of grassland and crop fields.

When the jet journeyed downward, the rising topaz-tinted desert appeared on one side of the plane and the deep-blue ocean on my side. Sun rays brightened the clear sky and glimmered on the ocean’s surface making the scene sparkle like a sapphire gem. This picturesque view showed me God was there and was blessing my journey. Apprehensive though, I braced for the final approach as the jet glided towards land and jolted as it touched ground.

At the airport gate, I gathered my belongings, and walked through a curving tunnel. With nervousness, I rounded the last corner stepping into the terminal. The afternoon sun glistened through the airport’s vaulted windows and in the midst of a blinding glow; I glimpsed my cousin in her wheelchair. After 17 years we had reunited. I hurried to give Kathy the warmest hug I could.

“Welcome cousin,” she said in such a warm voice that I forgot my shyness.  Kathy, a sensitive and loving person and we soon felt like sisters and even best friends. During this visit I became acquainted with Kathy’s husband and daughter. While I visited that first time, we managed to visit both Disneyland and SeaWorld. Surprisingly, Disneyland was a disappointment especially for Kathy. Many exhibits and attractions would advertise that they were “handicap accessible” but they really weren’t so; at least not for someone who is in a wheelchair. We did find one interesting attraction that was truly accessible; the Mark Twain Steamboat ride. Kathy was easily able to maneuver onto the boat and find a safe place to park her chair. We all enjoyed the gentle and scenic excursion along their makeshift “Mississippi River”.

SeaWorld proved to be more interesting as all wildlife exhibits and presentations there were truly accessible for Kathy; this made our visit much more enjoyable for all. While there we saw two orca whales, Shamu and Baby Shamu who we learned was just a few weeks old.  We could see Mother Shamu teaching Baby to swim and turn in the large pool. Another highlight was seeing the splashing, playful dolphins. As I held onto my four year old cousin, Kristie, one eager dolphin flew in to water to our side showering us in a huge spray of water. My little cousin was soaked from head to toe but she delightedly reached out to pet the friendly animal.

This one visit turned into many. We went on adventures together forging new memories and deepening our relationship. We also shared bus-related misadventures and trips to the beach on warm, sunny days. In one bus related mishap, Kathy was stuck, mid-air, on a broken bus lift and we waited hours under a steamy summer sun for her to be rescued. In another misadventure, we boarded the wrong city bus but did not realize this until the bus turned onto Eucalyptus Street heading in the wrong direction. We then got off the bus as soon as we could and endured a long walk home in the dark as no more buses were available that late in the day.

Also taxis were not an option as I was not strong enough to transfer Kathy into a car seat. During this time, accessible transportation options for my cousin were very limited. To keep ourselves calm, we kept up a steady conversation and prayed for God to keep us safe. Today, I don’t remember what our conversation entailed; I just remember the long walk along those California streets in the darkness like venturing through a dimly lit and unfamiliar tunnel. Also, Kathy at this point used a manual wheelchair so I pushed her along until we were safely home. I have no doubt that Jesus was watching over us during that journey in the darkness.

Some years later, we camped on Mount Palomar where the sun-filtering forest surrounded us like a colorful, woven blanket handmade by God; it was a quiet refuge from the demanding world far below us. We basked in nature’s peacefulness venturing through the woods, picnicking, and relaxing around a campfire.  We visited Mount Palomar Observatory and stayed up late looking through large telescopes, set up in a mountain meadow, to view stars, planets and nebulas. Kathy’s husband and I took turns pushing Kathy’s wheelchair through the long grass so she could gaze through as many telescopes as she wanted. It was a special evening of admiring God’s glowing creations, glittering like jewels embedded in the deep night sky.

The tranquil, emerald-colored mountain was a vivid contrast to the traffic-filled streets, and the sun-scorched climate of Kathy’s everyday life. Years later, she and her family moved to Washington State where they’re amid perpetual greenery. Kathy’s daughter, Kristie, who is an artist and nature lover often shoots photos depicting nature’s inspiring beauty. She once asked me, “Do you remember how green it was on Mount Palomar? Well, it’s like that here but it’s everywhere.” The experience of Mount Palomar affected us all and remained a cherished memory in our hearts.

Over the years we’ve persevered through life’s heartaches and disappointments praying and encouraging each other. In the same year, Kathy’s father passed away, my mother unexpectedly died; together we faced each family holiday with grieving hearts and feeling the emptiness of our parents being gone too soon.

We also encouraged each other in new aspirations. In recent years, Kathy, growing in confidence and a desire to do more in her life, took on the tasks of completing her college degree and exploring professional work opportunities. We both embraced academic challenges and will often challenge each other in trivia and word games.

Several summers ago, I visited Kathy in her Washington home and we again indulged our adventurous spirits by hiking around woodsy Lake Padden. It was a long, winding journey with a paved trail circling the shimmering lake. The thick green forest surrounded us like a warm and familiar cloak. I instantly remembered Mount Palomar. Kathy now used a motorized wheelchair and could easily propel herself up and down the sloping hills of that curving trail. However, I worried about the battery losing its charge as we wandered along.   This had happened before with one of Kathy’s previous motorized chairs. Thankfully, that had been a lighter wheelchair; I just needed to switch the gears to manual and push her home.

But now if that battery died, I realized I wouldn’t be able to push her back home again. Not this time as the chair was much heavier. But Kathy knew her wheelchair and her battery readings better than I; she was confident and eager to continue our trek. We finished our journey and with a beaming smile, she exclaimed, “That was my first rolling hike.”

When I think of Kathy and the friendship we share, I am reminded of God’s words about treasures in heaven when in Matthew 6:20-21 of the Holy Bible we are told, “but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is there your heart will also be”. I went on a quest to find a lost cousin. In return, I had found a new sister and a lifelong friend. Kathy’s friendship is an unseen treasure granted from heaven and a precious gift instilled in my heart.

 

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