It was the spring of 2011 and the excitement was almost palpable. Big things were coming. Karissa was graduating from high school and would be starting university in September. Josiah and Eden were starting at new middle schools in the fall. Sarina and Nathan were starting kindergarten. The only one staying in the same place was Arlynne. She would be starting grade 11 at the school she had been attending that fall.
As for me, full-time motherhood was finally going to be replaced by work that fall. The twins would be in school half the day. They had been approved for daycare for the other half. Arlynne would stop by on her way home from school and pick them up. I was finally, hopefully, going to start making a financial contribution to our family.
The summer was pretty well looked after. Josiah would attend camp, as usual. Karissa had a job for 6 weeks at a day camp for kids with Autism. Arlynne was going on a missions trip for 8 weeks. I figured we had a week or so after everyone was done in August to take some kind of a vacation before we all dispersed for the fall. One last hurrah. We needed it.
We did everything we needed to do that spring, to get Arlynne ready. Arlynne wrote letters and got financial support. We had a mom and daughter shopping trip to add to her wardrobe. We planned a combination graduation/farewell party for Karissa and Arlynne. Arlynne would be at training before Karissa actually finished but there was no doubt that she would have a diploma in her hands in a week or so. We wanted to celebrate before Arlynne left.
The day we dropped Arlynne off for training at the end of June was a beautiful summer day. She had been up early, finishing her last minute preparations, tidying up her room, getting ready for her last Sunday with her Sunday school class and church until the fall. She was excited. We all went to McDonald’s for lunch that day. It was close to the church and we had a long drive ahead of us. I’m sure we made quite a scene. Even though there are some larger families around here, seeing 8 people of various ages piling out of our Yukon was definitely unusual. We managed to get everyone fed and ready to go. It would be our last meal together for a while.
I don’t remember the drive to Brantford that day. The twins probably slept. I don’t remember if the kids were fighting (but they probably were!). Even in a big vehicle, it was a tight fit and tempers can flare. But we made it. I was ready. At least I thought I was.
We weren’t the only big family at the training camp that day. There, we would probably be considered average amongst families of 8 or more kids. The teens had already met on an introductory weekend a few weeks prior so they at least knew each other. They were excited. Maybe a little nervous too, but excited. They were about to embark on an adventure.
The area directors mingled with the teens and parents. No one knew yet where the kids would end up for the summer. They would train for 10 days or so, then be dispatched in teams to various areas of the province. One of the mission staff, who had been the provincial director when I was a summer missionary, talked to us about where Arlynne would end up for the summer. I had thought she would be somewhere close enough for me to drive to, to surprise her on her 16th birthday at the end of July. The mission had other plans. He asked us if we would be okay with Arlynne going to Thunder Bay for the summer. I have to admit, I was shocked, unprepared for this kind of news. Pete stood beside me and told him that we would be fine with Arlynne going wherever God wanted her that summer. He had to answer, I was speechless.
We left a little while later. We had said our good-byes. We hadn’t told Arlynne what the director had said. It wasn’t certain and it wasn’t our news to tell. If it was to be, she would know soon enough.
The night of Karissa’s graduation we took her to a fancy restaurant after an almost unending ceremony. It was almost 11 p.m. as we waited for our order when my cell phone rang. It was Arlynne. She had just found out that she was going to Thunder Bay. She wasn’t supposed to be using her phone but the news was too exciting not to tell me. She was nervous. She was partnered with a girl who seemed to be her opposite. They were both outgoing and committed but they were also very different. She had also never been on a plane before and they would be flying up north. She would be making the return trip, by herself, after 4 weeks in the Thunder Bay area. She was headed north.
I guessed that I wouldn’t be surprising her with a visit for her birthday. Pete and I talked about it. He encouraged me to go but it seemed too impractical, too difficult. I would have to think of something else.
It was the same week that we returned to Brantford for a special service. It was a gathering of the families with their teens before they left for the summer. We prayed for them as they shared a little bit of what they had learned. Training was wrapping up. The teens all knew where they were going. They had formed these amazing friendships in the 10 days. They all loved God and they loved and encouraged each other. They were ready to go. They couldn’t wait to tell a lot of kids how much God loved them.
Arlynne wasn’t outside when we pulled into the parking lot that evening but a couple of her friends quickly got her as soon as we arrived. She was so happy to see us. I was thrilled to see her. We watched as those teens worshipped God with everything they had during that service. I can still remember watching Arlynne across the room as she stood, hands raised, singing the Chris Tomlin song “I Will Follow”.
“Where you go, I’ll go
Where you stay, I’ll stay
When you move, I’ll move
I will follow you
Who you love, I’ll love
How you serve I’ll serve
If this life I lose, I will follow you,
I will follow you.”
Those words still ring in my head. Arlynne wasn’t a great singer. In fact, she could hardly carry a tune, but that night she was pouring out her heart to her Father God. She meant it. I can still see her, in my memory. She was so happy. She was doing what she felt God wanted her to do. She had our blessing.
I wonder if God gave me that experience, gave me that picture as a hint of what was to come. I wonder if He was preparing me even then. I think He was. I trusted Him then and I trust Him now. I might not always like His ways but He is good. I couldn’t go on if I didn’t.
I never got to go surprise Arlynne for her birthday. It wasn’t the right time. I would go, we would go as a family to Longlac, the town where she spent her 16th birthday. We just didn’t know that yet. I called the wife of the couple who she was staying with that week. I wanted to send a package up to Arlynne. Nothing too big. She had a daughter’s pride ring that she had picked out on order for when she got back. The package was just a collection of some small things. The spicy peanuts that she liked. A box of “Ice Age” bandaids (she was accident-prone!). A Karen Kingsbury book or two for her ride home on the plane. We had been sharing Karen’s novels in the past few months. We both loved them. We cried every time we got to the sad parts. Arlynne had adopted a verse that Karen includes in a lot of her books. It was Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” I have that verse engraved on the inside of my wedding ring. Arlynne believed it. She trusted that God’s plans for her were good. Her faith in her Father God was strong, unshakeable.
Arlynne got her package on her birthday. The camp where she was working gave her a birthday cake and balloons. I missed seeing her on that day. I couldn’t even talk to her but she knew how proud I was of her. I had sent her an email the weekend before and she had teared up, in front of the young men of the home where she was staying as she read it, but she knew. She knew. I am so glad I listened to the stirring in my heart to tell her how much she meant to me. I find comfort in the fact that she knew.
We spoke to her the night after her birthday. Her cheery “Hello!” as I answered the phone is one of the things I miss the most about her. It is one of the memories of her that I cherish. Camp was over and they were relaxing before starting a VBS program the next week. They would do some preparation and some outreach over the next few days but they would also get to recuperate from the sleep deprivation of camp and have some fun. The phone got passed around to everyone in the family that night. The twins were already asleep so they missed out but everyone else got a chance to hear her voice. Pete prayed a blessing over her and before I knew it she had hung up. I didn’t say good-bye but it was okay. I would talk to her soon.
Two days later, I hadn’t heard from her so I sent her an email. I missed her so much. I figured they would be busy. I knew she was good so it was okay. I would hear from her soon.
That evening, the police officer arrived at our home. He had been sent to tell us that there had been an accident. The group that Arlynne was with for the weekend had gone out to a local camp for an evening of fun. Arlynne had gotten on the camp’s ATV and gone for a ride, by herself, up the driveway. After 5 minutes or so, other members of the group thought she should be back and they went looking for her. The ATV had flipped over as Arlynne took it from a gravel road to pavement. Arlynne had died instantly. She was gone.
This might seem like it is the end of the story. It isn’t. Her story was so intertwined with mine that it has to continue. Her influence continues. The story of her faith continues. And so does mine.
My story, since Arlynne has been gone, has not been a fairytale. It has been soaked with tears, even as I type it right now. It has become a story of ever-deepening faith. It has become a story of longing for Heaven. It has become a story where I don’t know all the answers. It is a story of trust. Trust in a God who doesn’t always do things that make me happy. But He does things for my good. Trust that He is molding me into the woman I am today. The woman with more wrinkles, more grey hairs than 3 1/2 years ago. The woman with a story that others don’t want. I don’t want you to have it either. It is a difficult story. But it is a story that I can sense God’s hand in. I can see His fingerprints all the way through it. I need Him. I can’t do it by myself. It is too hard.
A friend of mine reminded me recently that every story is precious. I needed to hear that. Every story is precious. Unique. And worth sharing.
Thank-you for sharing mine.