Thursday, April 5, 2018

Adventures with Heidi: the Case of the Grouchy Gallstone

Lately I've been using this blog as a quick way to keep all my relatives and friends up to date and on the same page with the events that are happening in my family's lives. I'm not convinced that it's truly "quick", that people have been kept "up to date" or that anyone is "on the same page", but it's an effort nonetheless. I'm aware that some of you have discovered my blog by searching for "fish tacos", "real mustache" and "graeber family crest". For those of you who have stumbled here quite innocently and have no idea who I am or what I'm going on about, here's a brief summary:

I'm Shawn. I'm married to an absolute darling named Heidi. She's very sick right now. More on that later.

We have a son, Owen. He's incredible. He's 2 months old. He spent the first 16 days of his life in the NICU. He's doing great now.

We own a red minivan, which we affectionately call the Cherriot. I am unapologetic in my love for the Cherriot.

We live in Southeast Iowa, the most beautiful section of the most beautiful state in the most beautiful country on the face of the earth. Take that, Canary Islands!

That'll do for an introduction; I'll bring in other characters along the way, just to keep you on your toes.

On March 20th, 2018, I raced Heidi to the University of Iowa emergency room (henceforth called "the ER" or "hospital"), where doctors diagnosed and removed a fairly large gallstone that was giving her alarming "10 on a scale of 10" levels of pain. This coming from a woman that knows a thing or two about pain, what with enduring 24 solid hours of agonizing labor just 6 weeks prior. The gallstone was a substantial 6mm troublemaker. It had exited the gall bladder, carved and scraped a lumbering path down the Common Bile Duct, and had wedged itself against a sphincter. I say 'a' sphincter because I discovered that the human body has all manner of sphincters, when all along I had conservatively placed the "number of sphincters in the human body" at "probably just the one". This particular sphincter (I promise, I'll stop using that word) wouldn't allow the passage of the stone, which prevented bile from safely draining through the duct and caused an inappropriate amount of bile to back up and visit the pancreas. What is an appropriate amount of bile backup, you ask? Zero, probably. Bile should not visit the pancreas.

Now some of you are saying "hey, he said a word about a thing I may or may not have heard about at some point!" Good on you, my friend. You're sharp! The pancreas is the organ that produces insulin and keeps most people from diabetes. I'm not most people; I have Type 1 Diabetes. The pancreas also produces several different enzymes that help digest food. Store that nugget of information away for later. The gall bladder is nestled comfortably against the liver, where bile is produced. The liver is very eager to produce bile. It just makes more and more and more of the slimy, yellow-brown enzyme like it's doing the world a favor. The gall bladder acts like a holding tank for extra bile. "Whoa there, hoss. This food doesn't need that much bile!" the gall bladder is often heard saying to the liver. Occasionally, the gall bladder accumulates little bits of cholesterol and hardens them into gallstones. This is surprisingly common. I say 'surprisingly' because I was under the impression that gallstones happened to elderly, crotchety men that spent their time swilling whiskey sours and muttering bitterly about the economy.

"In the United States, an estimated 10 to 15 percent of adults have gallstone disease. 
About a million new cases are diagnosed each year, and some 800,000 operations are 
performed to treat gallstones, making gallstone disease the most common gastrointestinal 
disorder requiring hospitalization." -US News

That's a lot of grouchy alcoholics. If you would like to read more about gallstones, check this link out. It's where I pulled that excerpt from, so when you get to that part of the article, you can say "Hey, I read this somewhere before."

The gall bladder, liver, and pancreas all share a hallway where food-devouring, highly acidic juices are pumped into the small intestine. This hallway is called the Common Bile Duct. So we've got all these neighboring glands and organs, workin' hard behind the scenes to hide the evidence of your 3am run to Taco Bell. Some cholesterol gets caught undigested in the gall bladder, where concentrated bile juices harden it into a stone. The stone can sit in the gall bladder indefinitely but at some point, without so much as a "howdy do", it'll roll out and slam through the sphincter. I'm sorry, I said sphincter again. I just don't know how to describe these events without saying "sphincter". Perhaps I can substitute "Muscular Opening In Slippery Tunnels", or MOIST. The gallstone's journey to the MOIST causes a severe amount of pain. The pain is not as severe as a kidney stone, but it's still up there in the "very unpleasant" territory. Heidi would feel like she couldn't breathe; as if a vise was squeezing her lungs. She would be doubled over in pain for about 20-30 minutes before the pain relented. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that Heidi had multiple gallstones. At the time, we had no idea what was going on. We'd be winding down for the evening and just crawling into bed when SLAMMO (Sweet Lord Almighty, My Midsection's Ouchy) a gallstone would have Heidi gasping for her next breath. Heidi was pregnant with Owen at the time, and we weren't sure if this was a worrisome omen or just one more funky side-effect of manufacturing a human. It turned out to be a worrisome omen, or WOmen...uh, that's enough acronyms for one blog. This happened three or four times during Heidi's pregnancy, with each instance causing more and more concern. Was this a spiritual attack? Heidi and I would spend time praying and crying and the vise-like weight on Heidi's lungs would release and she would once again breathe freely. I'd ask Heidi if she wanted to travel to the ER, but she's a tough little cookie and would say "no, I think I'm alright."

Fast forward to March 19th, Monday evening. Heidi was feeling short of breath and nauseous. She was no longer pregnant, so we couldn't blame her symptoms on that. We decided to stay at home rather than join our weekly prayer group. Her pain didn't let up, and by Tuesday afternoon, she had vomited several times. When I got home from work, Heidi informed me that she was unable to keep any food down, and was now unable to keep even water down. "I need to go to the hospital," she said.

When we arrived, the ER was busily attending to a roomful of people that were also having a rough day. Heidi's vital signs were checked in a tiny entryway/hallway by a technician who swooshed around on a wheeled office chair. Once he was satisfied that Heidi's vitals looked stable and she wasn't suffering from heart problems, he sent us back to the waiting room. We waited for an eternity, which turns out to be around 40 minutes, to be ushered into a consultation bay where Heidi was more thoroughly examined, poked, and prodded. The pain was mainly in her abdomen; it fluctuated in waves up to her chest and down to her pelvis. Heidi was asked about previous hospitalizations and surgeries, of which she'd had none. She was given some pain medications and we were sent back to the ER waiting room to stay until a hospital bed opened up. An ultrasound was ordered, and revealed several things: a gallstone causing mayhem and a very inflamed pancreas. Well, I think it was the ultrasound. Honestly, I'm not sure the ultrasound showed the gallstone. My memory is pretty foggy. I'll try my best to recount things factually but I am by no means a doctor, so feel free to take my account with nutritionist-approved amount of salt. Anyway, a gallstone removal was scheduled.

By that night, Heidi was placed in a room shared with another patient. I took Owen home and spent the night discovering just how much Heidi did to take care of an infant when most people are sound asleep. Once again, I was not most people. Before I was able to get back to the hospital on Wednesday morning, Heidi had already undergone the procedure to remove the gallstone. They had done an ERCP, which stands for Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangio-Pancreatography. Basically, the doctors used an endoscope to observe the pancreas and remove the gallstone. More basically, good people used a camera on a bendy straw to look at Heidi's innards and make the pain go away. While removing the stone, the doctors made a small incision on the bile duct sphinc, uh, MOIST, to let any additional stones pass through without hanging up. Additional stones? Yep, the doctors were fairly certain that Heidi's gall bladder had additional stones, waiting to cause additional mayhem. A cholecystectomy was ordered. The "Chole" prefix refers to the gall bladder, the "-cystectomy" is the removal part. Surgical removal of the gall bladder.

What does a life without a gall bladder look like? The gall bladder stores excess bile, bile helps dissolve fat, fat makes food delicious. Therefore, no gall bladder = no delicious, right? My math is impeccable! Well, not quite. Without the extra bile on hand to dissolve Thanksgiving Dinner properly, a person's stool might become--I'm using a direct quotation from a doctor--"more floaty". "So Heidi won't have to go on a low-fat diet the rest of her life?" I asked. "Certainly not," her doctor replied, "In fact, she could have an onion-ring eating contest if she wanted. Of course, if she feels nauseous or pained, she should cut back on fatty foods." The day before, I had never heard of a gall bladder surgery. Now, I was being told by members of my church that they'd had the surgery and were doing just fine. That's fascinating to me...people that I'm acquainted with have had surgeries done to their bodies and they're not talking about it, for some reason. If I had a part of me chopped out by professionals and I lived to tell the tale, it would most likely be the second thing I tell you; the first thing being my name. Nevertheless, it was reassuring to know that Heidi's experience was not ultra rare.

The ERCP procedure stirred up quite a bit of stuff and Heidi's body reacted by turning up the heat. Heidi soon had a fever of 101, with occasional spikes to 102. This was an expected reaction, but the fever lasted for a week, which was not expected. It became evident that her pancreas was severely inflamed. The inflammation was worrying the doctors.

Three days into Heidi's hospital visit, her heart rate spiked and her blood oxygen levels dropped. This indicated a clot in the lungs which got all sorts of doctors running, literally. I was sitting with Heidi, Heidi's parents Alan & Jean, and Owen. A nurse quietly mentioned to Alan & Jean that she would like to escort them to a family waiting room. Some doctors were coming to see Heidi, and the small room was about to get crowded. Heidi's parents took Owen with them. Two minutes later, 13 doctors and nurses were crammed into the room, shouting for vitals and an oxygen mask. Some of the doctors were huffing from their sprint across the hospital. The nurse attending Heidi had been told to alert the doctors if there was any sudden change in her vitals, so when her oxygen dropped and pulse spiked, the nurse hit the "ALL HANDS ON DECK" button that paged the doctors. A technician wheeled in a portable X-ray machine, propped Heidi up in bed, and placed a lead shield behind her back. X-ray photos were taken of her lungs. At this point, she was taking shallow breaths but the oxygen mask was bringing her oxygen back up to a tolerable level. Heidi was whisked to the ICU, hospital bed and all. I followed closely behind, wheeling a cart with Heidi's bags.

The next three days were spent in the ICU. I would video message Heidi from home so she could see baby Owen, who was not permitted to visit his mama in the extra dangerous germ-ridden ICU. The X-rays of Heidi's lungs showed no clots, which was an incredible blessing. Heidi would be on an oxygen cannula for the next 10 days, which just added to the host of tubes and wires and hoses covering her body. Heidi was on two separate IV's and had an array of sensors monitoring her pulse and blood oxygen saturation. She had a blood pressure cuff on one arm, automatically taking readings every 30 minutes. She had a catheter installed, so she didn't have to get out of bed to urinate. She was being pumped full of bags of saline fluid, along with a high-power antibiotic and Dilaudid, a concentrated form of morphine.

I would travel home each night and return to Heidi each day. I would work during the daylight hours and then visit Heidi in the evening. Heidi was asleep most of the time; napping in between the barrage of CT scans and vital checks. We discovered that portions of Heidi's pancreas had necrotized. The pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas, had been more advanced than we first thought. Remember that nugget about the pancreas producing enzymes to digest food? Well Heidi's pancreas had been producing insane amounts of enzymes, which were busy eating the pancreas itself. "How bad is it?" I asked the doctor. "Is fifty percent necrotized? Eighty percent?" The doctor paused for a moment before responding "We'd say it's closer to eighty percent," she said. The necrotized pancreas was the reason Heidi was getting pumped full of antibiotics. The doctors had not seen any signs of infection, but since the pancreas was this damaged already, any infection would be life-threatening. Better to risk the side-effects of continuous high-power antibiotics rather than find an infection and be three days behind. One of the side-effects of the antibiotics was the potential to cause a sustained fever. I commented to the doctors that I'd like to see her taken off the antibiotics, or switched to a different one, so that Heidi could get a break from her fever. They complied and changed Heidi's antibiotic. It was a variety that was still just as strong, but was not known to cause fevers. Heidi's fever remained a few more days, and finally subsided. We are not sure if it was due to the antibiotics. Meanwhile, Heidi's daily blood draws were showing excellent results. Two of her enzyme levels, which were supposed to remain below 100 and 80, respectively, were initially at 2,400 and 1,200, respectively. Those enzyme levels lowered day by day, until they settled to an elevated level around 200. Her white blood cell count had elevated, and then lowered back to normal parameters. Her heart and kidneys were functioning splendidly. There was minimal fluid buildup in the lungs, and the liver looked good. The gall bladder was quiet, like a dog that knew it had done something naughty and the owner was looking for a newspaper to roll up. We were waiting for the pancreas to settle down in order to schedule the gall bladder removal. The doctors wanted to have the surgery performed while Heidi was still in the hospital, to finish everything in one visit. They had hoped it would only take a day or two, but as the days stretched into weeks, the doctors began to consider postponing the surgery to let Heidi recover at home.

At this point, we had a clearer picture of what was happening. The pancreatitis was caused by the gallstone. The pancreatitis caused the pancreas to start digesting itself. The inflammation was causing continued pain, even though the gallstone was gone. In order to keep from irritating the pancreas, a feeding tube was pushed down Heidi's nostril and lowered into the duodenum, an area of the small intestine just below the pancreas. There, oatmeal-colored protein juice could be fed into Heidi right past the pancreas without it knowing a thing. A "bridle", the fancy term for what looked like a white shoelace, was pulled in one nostril and out the other to make sure her feeding tube didn't get yanked out in her sleep. With Heidi's fever faded away and her doctor-mandated stint of antibiotics completed, Heidi was released to come home. She had been in the hospital 14 days at this point. Her feeding tube had a kink in it, so she had to have it removed and replaced with a new tube, which wasn't as traumatic as the first time. As I drove her up the lane to our place, she burst into tears.

Heidi is still on her feeding tube, and was given enough protein slurry to remain on it for the next several weeks. With time, we are told, Heidi's pancreas will recover and she will not become insulin dependent. We spent Easter in the hospital and thought about how Christ rose from death to life The gall bladder removal will take place at some point in the future, depending on how smoothly her pancreas improves. For the friends and relatives that suggested lifestyle changes or natural ways to reduce gallstones and avoid the gall bladder surgery, we are so grateful for your concern and for the way you would like to see Heidi keep her gall bladder. We understand that fully. At the time, we had no idea how life-threatening her condition was, and after talking to the doctors, we feel very much at peace about removing the gall bladder so that Heidi's pancreas is not threatened again.

Many friends and family members bathed us in prayer through our entire hospital stay, and we are so grateful. Heidi loved all the gifts, cards, flowers, texts, phone calls, words of encouragement, and visits while she was in the hospital. Heidi's mom stayed by her side for several days and nights at the hospital, and cared for Owen for several days. My parents cut their trip to Florida short and drove home a few days early to help me out and check on Heidi. Dear angels brought vast supplies of frozen breast milk for Owen and groceries for me, which was incredible. Others sent cash for things that we needed. Several of Heidi's friends came over to make sure dishes and laundry were taken care of. Several ladies from church with great big Momma hearts babysat Owen while I worked. We were absolutely, thoroughly pampered and blessed in so many. Others offered assistance and help if I needed anything. I was completely blown away by the outpouring of love and help by our community, and it was a definite blessing to have both my family and Heidi's family close by. We have a journey of recovery ahead, but Heidi's a warrior princess and things are looking good. If you think of us, please continue to pray for swift recovery and ample rest for Heidi.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Baby Owen, the First Few Days

Whew. I didn't give birth to you, but I'm flat-out just as exhausted as if I had.

Owen, I'm so very, very glad you're here! But where is "here"? Well, I'm glad you asked, little man.

Wednesday, January 31st, 2018:

I had spent the day working at the family business. Mom and Dad were traveling in the farthest Western reaches of the United States, visiting Hawaii and Oregon. I was holding down the fort at home, making sure our customers were provided with comfortable heat while the wind howled outside. Each year in January, we count all our stuff at the shop to give an accurate inventory to our tax preparers. The massive undertaking of counting, organizing, counting, searching, counting, compiling, and counting our vast supply of fittings, equipment, and spare parts is lumped under the word "Inventory". Such as, "Hey Dylan, we're going to do some Inventory today," to which Dylan would appropriately groan and roll his eyes. I don't blame Dylan; inventory can often be monotonous. Unlike most of our tasks that can get completed in a day or less, Inventory can take over a week. We often draw it out as long as possible, finding every and any excuse to do something else. "Whaddya mean I have to climb up on Mr. So-and-So's roof? It's howling wind and twenty below! Oh, I don't have to do Inventory? Gimme that ladder."

At 3:30 PM, I had completed my list of service calls and was back at the shop. I wasn't feeling too good but I thought I could work on the Inventory to finish out my time for the day. I had been chipping away at the monstrous, 30-pages-of-single-spaced-items summary of our shop's contents when I decided that I was too nauseous to continue. It was 4:30 PM...close enough to 5PM. I was outside, heading to my car when I vomited everything I had in my body. I had felt it coming so I retched into a spot that was close to the water hydrant. I washed everything away and caught my breath. Finally, a valid excuse to avoid Inventory.

I arrived home. Vomiting had made me feel better, but I was exhausted. Heidi was doing some laundry and told me to lay on the couch. We sat down to watch Captain America beat up some ne'er-do-wells. Halfway through the movie, Heidi's water broke. I checked my watch. 6:30 PM. I checked the calendar, because I was pretty sure I had penciled in your delivery for February 15th, which is when Heidi's doctor said she was due. Didn't you know you're supposed to follow schedules, Owen?

Heidi started having contractions, so I drew her a bath and let her soak. We timed the contractions together, and informed our doctor and Mercy Hospital that the labor had started. I sounded calm and collected, but it was because I was too weak to get worked up. Once the contractions were coming every three minutes and lasting a minute each, we headed to the hospital. We were supposed to go when they were five minutes apart, but Heidi's contractions skipped right past 5 and jumped to 3. This was gonna be a speedy delivery, maybe before we even got to the hospital. I ran through my mental "how to deliver your own baby" checklist. I grabbed the bags Heidi had packed in preparation for our hospital trip and assisted Heidi to the van. It was nearly 9PM. Heidi had been having contractions since 7PM.

We got to the hospital and were taken to an examination room. Heidi and I had taken a birth class at Mercy earlier in January and were shown all the various rooms in Labor & Delivery. During our class, I had joked about the room marked "Test D" because it sounded like "Testy" when said out loud. No, not "Teste", that room was across the hall. I giggled about that one too. We were put in "Testy".

Twenty minutes later, we were moved from the test room to a Labor & Delivery room. Here we go! I thought. Some traces of Strep B had been found in Heidi, and antibiotics needed to be administered for 4 hours prior to delivery to keep the baby from catching anything. The nurses tried to get an IV into Heidi and had to stick her half a dozen times. Heidi's veins could easily apply for an occupation of international espionage, because they are extremely difficult to trace or locate, and when they finally DO get caught, they surrender nothing. "These veins are kinda valve-y," one nurse muttered. They wheeled a small projector into the room that used SCIENCE and LASERS and COOL GREEN LIGHT to find Heidi's veins. I was totally impressed.

It was nearing 10PM. We might have this baby hatched before February. The nurses smiled and told me it could take a while.

"What's the average delivery?" I asked.
"Oh, about 14 hours," said one nurse.
"Heh, I'd hate to be that family that was on the HIGH side of that average," I joked. *insert ominous foreboding here*

Thursday, February 1st, 2018

8 hours of screaming, crying, and laboring went by, and I wasn't so sure you'd be born til MARCH. You were head down, but you had rotated face-up. The hour-hand of the clock was making its rounds but Heidi had only dilated to a 5. A dilation of 10 was 'go-time'. (I can hear the female half of my audience going, "Yeah, duh" and the male half of my audience going, "Huh, what?") Heidi was so exhausted, she was blacking out in between contractions. In the moments she was coherent, she would apologize and say "I just feel so grouchy." Don't apologize, I told her. You're doing great. We've got this. Meanwhile, many of the scary words from my pregnancy studies came prancing back into my mind, words like "Cesarean" and "episiotomy" and "epidural". Heidi and I had written down a birth plan with our hopes and plans for the labor and delivery. We had wanted a natural birth without the aid of drugs injected directly into Heidi's spine, and we smugly grinned at each other when we heard other couples talking about getting an epidural to deliver their baby. "I feel like swearing!" Heidi said, in tears.

Heidi's aunt Louise was our Doula, or birth coach. She had arrived at the hospital shortly after we did, and was busy assisting Heidi and making her feel as comfortable as possible during the labor. Louise is a birth expert, having had eight of her own through the years, and assisting others through theirs. Louise had soft music playing and was applying warm compresses to Heidi's back to soothe the contractions. She fetched juice and water for Heidi and would help her change positions to try getting you down a little further in the birth canal. Dr. Wenzel, Heidi's OB/GYN, was not available so Dr. Shepard took her place and was giving you as much time as possible to come out naturally. Heidi's dilation crept to 6.

"Can I have drugs, please?" Heidi moaned. Her hands were slowly grinding mine into sweaty meat paste.

We had talked about this, and it was my job to be strong for Heidi when she couldn't. That time had arrived. "No, honey, we don't want drugs. You can do this!" I told her. She weathered the next several contractions gamely, but she was completely out of strength and was rating her pain as "10 out of 10, would not recommend."

"I WANT DRUGS," your momma said. She wasn't asking. I felt like I was on the wilderness frontier, about to lose both mom and baby in one horrible, never-ending labor straight out of my nightmares.

We got her an epidural. It took about 45 minutes and I was excused from the room. Mercy Hospital has seen too many people faint when the foot-long, flexible tube is inserted through the small of the back into the spinal column, and they were already wary of my pale complexion. "I'm fine, I just feel abominably sick, that's all," I said. Louise told me she could take care of Heidi and was not afraid of epidurals, having had four of them herself.

I joined Alan and Jean, Heidi's parents, in the waiting room. They had come to support us through the labor and had arrived shortly after Louise. They were awaiting the good news of the delivery of you, their first grandchild, and each hour had them waiting a little more anxiously. I felt guilty for wanting to be away from the labor room, but I was tired of the emotional drain and the completely helpless feeling of watching my bride suffer excruciating pain. I know using the word "tired" is not even valid, because I did not suffer even a fraction what Heidi suffered. Looking back over what I've written so far, I've been tempted to erase it because it really looks like I'm making it all about me, which is dumb. Heidi is the heroine here. She was an absolute champion.

After the epidural kicked in, Heidi was able to relax for the first time in nearly 12 hours of labor. Dr. Shepard was extremely patient and gave us encouraging updates. The dilation crept to 7, then 8. Each time Dr. Shepard checked, she'd give Heidi another few hours to contract. "Let's see where you're at in two hours," she said with a smile. "As long as you're still getting closer to '10', we'll keep letting things progress."

Heidi and I caught short naps. The epidural completely numbed Heidi's nerves from the waist down, but left her muscles free to contract and squeeze. The monitor above her bed showed steady, strong contractions and your steady, strong heartbeat.

At 21 hours of labor, the nurses were getting antsy. "C-section" was getting mentioned. We were on our second or third shift of nurses...there were so many kind, helpful people that worked with us and I wish I could remember all their names. Heidi was finally dilated to 10. She had skipped right past 9 from our last check, so it brought a ray of hope into the room. Things were progressing! Slower than the tectonic shift of the continents, but moving nonetheless! Heidi was instructed to start pushing. You were at +2, 2 centimeters further up than you were supposed to be, my son. Traditionally, a baby is located at "0" when the pushing begins. Heidi had to get you to -2, which meant she had double the distance of a normal delivery. She began to push with the contractions. For the first time, we began hoping for the contractions rather than dreading them. Heidi was on a dose of Pitocin, a drug that keeps labor going. Otherwise, the body might say "That's enough of that!" and leave you stranded halfway.

Heidi pushed valiantly. She gave it everything her body had left to give. I shouted encouragement alongside her, coaching her breathing and helping hold her as she pushed through the contractions. After an hour, I was feeling light-headed and excused myself to the adjoining bathroom, where I vomited again. I didn't think I had anything to offer the porcelain altar but some horrid green stuff found its way out of me.

At 6:59 PM on Thursday, February 1st, you arrived. 38 weeks in the womb. 24 hours of labor. 3 hours of pushing. You came out a worrisome shade of blue, so they placed you on Heidi's chest just long enough for me to cut your umbilical cord before you were whisked across the room to a small warming table. Doctors that had suddenly appeared out of thin air were placing an oxygen mask over your tiny face and monitoring your vitals. I stayed by your side, fulfilling one of Heidi's birth-plan requests that the baby not be left alone. We weren't completely suspicious that the doctors would try to do something we didn't want, but we were a teeny bit suspicious. You began to breathe on your own and we all sighed a huge gasp together, as if some unseen conductor motioned our orchestra to rest for a beat. Heidi was still fairly out of it, and didn't fully realize that you were born. THOSE OF YOU WHO ARE NOT MARRIED SHOULD PROBABLY NOT READ THIS NEXT BIT. She had been told to wait a little bit while your head crowned. Dr. Shepard had noticed the shade of blue, contacted the doctors hiding in the woodwork, grabbed you by the head and forcefully yanked you out. The forceful yank caused tearing in two places, so by the time I had made sure you were okay, she had delivered the placenta and was receiving dissolvable stitches.

They placed an IV into you. Well, they tried for a long, long time. After six attempts, you were having none of it, and you were letting us know with tiny squeals and yelps. They had tried your heels, your wrists, and an elbow, and it just wasn't working. "He has his mother's veins!" I said. That was my first attempt at a Dad Joke. The doctors didn't find it terribly funny, and neither did I. They were finally able to get an IV in place by stabbing into a vein located right on the top of your head. I nearly keeled over. Later I was told that doctors often avoid using that vein, not because it's more dangerous, but because it scares the parents. They were correct. The vein, located on the outside of the skull, does not go to the brain like I first imagined but goes directly to the heart just like a heel vein or an elbow vein. It just happens to look a whole lot more gnarly, paired with the fact that the posterior position of labor squeezed your head into an elongated gourd shape. Moments prior to the IV, you were set on a scale. You weighed 6lbs 11oz, which pleased me because before you arrived I had guessed you'd be 6lbs 9 oz and Heidi guessed 7lbs 2 oz. You were right in between (but I was totally closest).

Another of Heidi's requests for the birth was that she'd get to have immediate skin-to-skin contact with her baby. It's standard procedure and highly recommended, since that initial contact between mother and baby does a whole lot of good for both parties. Mom gets endorphins and hormones stimulated, you get your blood sugar regulated and your pulse settled and both of you feel all warm and glowy. But as it was, you were in the Nursery across the hall, getting stabbed in the brain with the sixth IV attempt and Heidi was asking "Where's my baby?" She had gotten to hold you for less than 30 seconds.

We had been hoping to take you home straight away, but it was looking like some tests would need to be done first. You were placed on antibiotics of your own, even though Heidi had labored long enough to receive four rounds of antibiotics. The doctors were nervous about your tendency to stop breathing, which were called "apneic episodes" (similar to sleep apnea). The pediatricians mentioned there might be bleeding on the brain. You were held in the nursery for observation, and placed on a c-pap machine like the world's most adorable retiree. Around 10 PM, Louise's husband Jason showed up and brought a sack of tacos. I inhaled three, the first meal I'd eaten since Wednesday's lunch. They were delicious but sat heavily in my stomach. Heidi and I were moved to a nice recovery room. I was told that under no circumstances was I allowed to leave our recovery room, what with the vomiting and potential flu. Heidi was allowed to visit the nursery, but only if she wore a mask. There was a notice taped to the nursery door warning about the spread of influenza. I knew the sign had been freshly put up thanks to my rude behavior, bringing in germs and whatnot without checking with the front desk first. Back in our room, Heidi soaked in the bathtub/whirlpool for a while and then we sank into sleep.

Friday, February 2nd, 2018

We woke up feeling somewhat refreshed. Heidi had several nurse visits through the night to get her vitals checked and her uterus pushed back down. She was recovering very well, considering all she had been through the day before. You had needed some oxygen but were doing well. You were being fed with sugar water intravenously. We spent the day filling out paperwork and getting you a birth certificate and a social security number. Heidi and I met with a lively, joyous lactation consultant that called herself "the Boob Lady". Boob Lady taught us how to collect milk with a breast pump. Try as hard as I could, no milk came out of me. Huehuehue Dad Joke. The nurses stamped your footprints on a card and your heel left a tiny drop of blood on the print. Meals were brought to our room, and Heidi ate with good appetite. I picked at the food while I watched Chip and Joanna Gaines resurrect yet another gorgeous home from dry bones. By afternoon I was feeling much better and by evening I wasn't showing any horrible signs of The Plague so they let me come see you again. I held you for the first time. Heidi snapped a photo and I burst into tears moments later.

Saturday, February 3rd, 2018

We were woken out of a deep sleep at 4am to be told that you were being transported, by ambulance, to the University of Iowa Natal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU. We were told that you had experienced a seizure, or something that looked very close to one. You were being prepped for the journey. The doctors had added an anti-seizure medication to the cocktail of three antibiotics you were receiving. We dressed quickly and came to see you in the nursery. The influenza signs had spread faster than the disease and were now posted on every door and in every hallway warning about the horrible, unwelcome guest. I imagine they were talking about the germs but I felt like I was looking at a bounty poster with my mugshot on it. I asked if Heidi could ride in the ambulance, but she was not allowed to. We were given directions on where to go once we arrived at the NICU, and you were shipped off in a small incubator on wheels. I told the ambulance driver it looked like one of those pizza delivery warmers, and he laughed. He said the paramedics call the incubator "the toaster". My Dad Jokes were improving.

We packed up our room, signed Heidi out, and followed you in the Cherriot, our red minivan. When we arrived, you were being admitted for a CT scan with a future MRI scheduled. The staff at the NICU removed the IV from your scalp and placed one in your heel, which looked only half as sinister. Heidi and I collapsed into sleep on a fold-out couch in the family lounge.

When we awoke, you were sleeping soundly in your little NICU bay. The CT scan showed nothing worrisome. There had not been any bleeding on the brain detected, but the MRI would show more. Several blood tests were taken, as well as a spinal fluid sample. The blood tests came back negative for all the infections and bacteria they were searching for, and your spinal fluid was clear and excellent. The MRI showed a well-formed brain with all the proper structure in place, and no bleeding. The doctors at Mercy had worried that some bleeding in the brain might cause seizures, so it was nice to see that ruled out. Louise stopped in with groceries and sweet words of life. Alan and Jean came to see the baby and love on us. They brought steamy hot chicken pot pies from KFC. In the evening, Heidi and I drove home to sleep in our bed. Heidi had been using a pump for breast milk, so we got up every 4 hours. I felt like a dairy farmer, and real dairy farmers received my utmost respect.

Sunday, February 4th, 2018

We drove to the hospital to see you again. Heidi and I met with your doctors to talk about the test results and the plans for the day. Each morning, the doctors visit each NICU baby and discuss all that has been done and that is planned to be done. They were open, honest, friendly, and answered all the questions we had. We wanted to know when we could take you home, and they responded that it may be a week. An EEG, or electro-encephalogram, was scheduled to check for seizure activity. Your scalp was covered in 18 sensors and your brain activity was closely monitored for 24 hours. We talked and sang to you but were not allowed to hold you during the test. The test showed what we had been convinced of the whole time: absolutely no sign of any seizures. What had caused this whole hullabaloo was your tendency to shake vigorously when you were unwrapped from your blanket. Your arms would get stiff and you'd wave them like little egg-beaters. Heidi and I had seen it several times and found it to be cute, because your Dad does the same thing when Heidi pulls the blankets off of him. We realized within the first few hours of your life that you don't particularly like being cold, but evidently the doctors at Mercy took one look at your shiver/shake and cried wolf. I will not write names, because I don't want to make them into the bad guy of this story. The nurses and doctors at Mercy were amazing and took wonderful care of the three of us.

You had several apneic episodes throughout the day, eight to be exact. One episode was serious enough to require "bagging". When I was told this, I imagined you were placed in a giant plastic sack and given increased atmospheric pressure. What really happened was they placed a oxygen mask on your face and used a Whoopie cushion to push a little air into your lungs. The Whoopie cushion was the "bag" part of "bagging". You had turned "dusky" which is a fancy, sophisticated word for "kinda the wrong color, kiddo" and places a whole new meaning to "riding off into the sunset". Aside from that worrisome episode, you had a lot of healthy progress. There was even one apneic episode where you stopped breathing but self-corrected and started breathing on your own again. We were very pleased.

At one point in the afternoon, I stopped in to check on you and found you screaming at the doctors. They were trying to take a blood sample from your foot. I came up beside you and as soon as I said "Owen, it's okay. I'm right here," you quieted down. I felt 10 feet tall.

Barry and Debby, my parents and your grandparents, arrived home from Oregon Sunday afternoon. They quickly came to visit us at the hospital and to see if you looked like their most adorable son. Sadly, you looked a whole lot like me and nothing like Uncle Shelby. Huehuehue Dad Joke. They took Heidi and I out to eat at Village Inn, where I ordered a delicious hearty breakfast skillet full of foods that I love. When it arrived, I was only able to eat a few bites. I no longer felt barfy but my appetite wasn't back yet.

With negative results (negative being good in Hospitals and bad everywhere else) on the blood tests, spinal fluid tests, and others, you were taken off two of your three antibiotics. I remembered that the Mercy doctors had hinted about herpes being an issue and requiring antibiotics. I wanted to set things straight, so I told the NICU doctors that Heidi and I were virgins until we married each other and we have been each other's only sexual partner. Your doctor's eyes widened and she said, "Well, then Owen has a zero chance--no, LESS than zero chance of having any issues with that! Good for you two," she said, a little incredulously. She instructed the nurses to finish you out on your last round of antibiotics and then cease any further doses.

We were told that you'd get your EEG sensors off by evening but it didn't happen. The Neurology guys said they wanted to monitor you for a few more hours, but we secretly suspected they were just watching the Superbowl instead. "In the morning," they said "we'll get those sensors off and you'll be able to hold him again." Heidi and I went home to sleep.

Monday, February 5th, 2018

I spent the morning helping Grandpa Barry at the business office, just trying to get some paperwork taken care of and transitioning him back into the swing of things. He had been gone for three weeks. Heidi and I came to the hospital around noon. The EEG sensors were still plastered all over your head, but the doctors had heard back from Neurology that there were absolutely no signs of seizure activity, and things were looking good. It doesn't look like your brain is to blame for these apneic episodes. A heart echo was scheduled and performed, which is essentially an ultrasound used to look at the heart. All of your valves look lovely squooshing and swooshing blood, and it doesn't look like your heart is to blame for these apneic episodes. The doctors are pleased with your results, but also puzzled about the apnea and the cause behind it. The episodes were much more rare; you had two today. You went 12 full hours without a single problem, which is the longest stretch yet. You're off all antibiotics and are currently being fed breast milk through a straw that enters your nose and runs down into your stomach. You still have an IV pushing some sugar water into you, so between that and the breast milk, you're constantly fed and almost always sleepy. I changed your diaper today, which contained some mysterious bright green nuggets. You took great pleasure in trying to pee on me, but I was quick and smothered your crotch with another diaper just in time. I can already see that diaper changing is going to be a contest of the wills.

Grandma Debby came to visit and brought freshly-baked coffee cakes along with a sack of groceries. She stayed the night to watch you, as did Heidi and I. It had snowed 8 inches today so we didn't feel like going anywhere.

Tuesday, February 6th, 2018

It is currently 1:38 AM on Tuesday, and I've come to an end of this update. Rumors are flying about Owen's condition because Owen's condition changes so rapidly. He's always been healthy, and he's always been improving, but different details about blood on the brain or seizures have been told to family and friends, and it has spread from there. I'm trying to clarify the situation as quickly as I can.

We are so grateful for all the many prayers and encouragement and words of life that we've received from so many. You mean the world to us, and we credit Owen's progress to your prayers. God has kept his hand on us through this, and although we're not home yet, it should be soon. We'll keep you updated.


Shawn, Heidi, & Owen.  

Monday, January 1, 2018

New Year's Note

"Hey Siri, how many days until Christmas?"

It's three hundred fifty-eight days until then, Shawn.

"Heh, I'm WAY ahead of schedule with this whole Christmas letter writing business!"

It appears you missed 2017's letter.

"Oh, well no need to mention THAT."

It also appears that you will be turning 30 next year. My research indicates that is a stressful milestone for human males.

"Okay, Siri, that's enough!"

Based on my accelerometer recordings and the sounds of your labored breathing, it appears you've gained weight.

*aggressively mashes power-off button*

Smart phones.

The Graber household wishes you a very Merry Christmas, regardless of the fact that we're a whole week late in saying it. We had an amazing holiday jam-packed with family reunions. When I was single, there was the Maust family reunion and the Graber family reunion to keep an eye on. My assumption was that marriage would bring two more family reunions to the table BUT WE ALL KNOW ABOUT ASSUMING and somehow there's about 15 reunions now. Heidi loves to say that she's related to half of Kalona and I'm related to the other half. Not only is she right, I dare say she's underestimating the length and breadth of our relations.

Heidi and I are eagerly awaiting the arrival of our son in mid February, and his name is Mr. George José Duncan Walter Zinfandel Ronald Graber, if the guessers are to be believed. We have our name picked out (along with the names of our next three children) and the curiosity arising from our families is growing at an exponential rate. If I could somehow capitalize on this explosive growth...hmm mumble mumble BirthCoins...

 Photos by Lynda Halteman
We had a miscarriage in February of 2017, an early pregnancy loss. The baby was far too young for us to know the gender but Jesus has sweetly shown us visions of a little girl, whom we named Amanda. I'm not sure if that means the FOUR of us wish you a Happy New Year or just the three of us...I'm trying to grapple with this delirious idea that I'm a father of two and I haven't even held a baby yet. I know that this is not an uncommon experience for families, and my heart grieves for each family that experienced a miscarriage this past year.

Heidi and I celebrated our first anniversary in June, where we took a sweet little getaway to Chicago. "Why not just fly to Afghanistan, it's less violent!" I hear you say. We had some fascinating experiences in Chicago, and most of them were amazing. We stayed in a fancy hotel in Schaumburg and traveled to the heart (gizzard? liver?) of the city each day to explore. We toured Willis Tower and stepped out into a tiny glass box suspended 108 floors above the ground. We moseyed through the Museum of Science and Industry, where we did all sorts of interactive things that were too fun to be considered 'learning experiences', even though that's exactly what they were. We visited the Shedd aquarium and a sweet staff member let me not only pet stingrays, but keep a section of their teeth. Maybe you don't know how cool that is, but it is way cool. Stingrays lose their teeth sections (which look like tiny, flat combs) about as often as a shark will lose its teeth. They regrow constantly, so it's no big deal for them to just drop chunks of their teeth. I am the only person that left the aquarium that day with a section of stingray teeth. What's that? You say it's because that's kinda gross and nobody else would want them? Pish posh! I had fun stumping my brother Shaylon with the small comb of teeth, giving him clues as to its origin and seeing if he'd guess which animal they belonged to. He guessed it eventually, because he's a genius.

Willis Tower, Chicago
View from the Willis Tower glass boxes. We were in one box, photographing 
across the open expanse to the other box. The floor, walls, and ceiling are all glass. 
Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago
Shedd Aquarium, Chicago. Heidi is petting various stingrays.

Stingrays in the Shedd Aquarium. They felt smooth and slippery.
Speaking of brothers; my brother Shane got married to his adorable fiance Fern in July. We had an awesome time with the whole family out in Storm Lake, IA. Shannon & Konrad, Shelley & Randy, and all their kiddos made the trip out, which was extra amazing. With the addition of Fernie, we now number 25 in the Barry Graber family, with 11 of those being grandchildren. An interesting side note; our forthcoming son is the grandson/granddaughter tie-breaker. I didn't know that was a competition, but of course the boys need to win, for reasons.

Heidi's brother Christopher has been in Costa Rica for the past 18 months with Pura Vida ministries. Christopher had a short break for the holidays; it was so lovely to spend time with him, his girlfriend Rosetta, and the whole Zook family this Christmas. Chris has returned to Central America and we miss him already.

Heidi and I bought a minivan...we couldn't be more excited. I do mean WE, because I've been wanting a minivan since I was in high school. It's superior to an SUV in every way. Sliding doors rather than traditional doors that swing wayyyy out and ding nearby vehicles, a low center of gravity that keeps the vehicle on its four wheels where it belongs, and most of all: the blessings that other drivers give. Just think about it; when you see a humble little minivan making its way through traffic with a cute young lady at the wheel, you say things like "Aww look at that little momma just doing her best, day in and day out!" but if you see an SUV on your way to the grocery store, your thoughts are more "Who does that IDIOT think they are? What a pretentious oaf!" You can't tell it's a cute young lady driving because of the tinted windows and the fact that it's upside-down in a ditch.

 Our sweet new-to-us minivan, a 2006 Nissan Quest

2017 was a busy year for Heidi. She's been cleaning houses and finished painting the rooms in our trailer. Colors with the names "Midnight Sonata", "Mill Run Blue", Summer Shower Green", "Quiet Rain" and others have transformed drab wallpaper into beautiful vistas. Her latest project has been setting up a delightful baby room. Decorating, organizing, painting, rearranging furniture...all the things that would drain my energy seems to replenish hers. Heidi is transitioning out of her house-cleaning jobs and plans to stay home with our baby when he finally decides to arrive.

One of our 2017 goals was to take swing dance lessons, and we just finished our beginner lessons this past month. Initially we didn't plan to take up dancing while Heidi was pregnant, but she was a champ. We took 12 weeks of lessons with the University of Iowa Swing Dance Club and we had a marvelous time. We learned East Coast, Lindy, and a little bit of Charleston. We took a single class of Balboa and that was ultra saucy. For those of you ne'er-do-wells that have no idea what swing dance is, it's that fun, old-timey dancing that you see in all the old classic movies, like It's a Wonderful Life (George Bailey is dancing the Charleston when he ends up falling into the swimming pool) or Singin' in the Rain.

We experienced the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse. It was everything we had hoped to see and much, much more. Heidi and I got up in the wee hours of August 21st and traveled to Jefferson City, Missouri, which was located in the totality band of the eclipse. NASA set up their eclipse coverage in Jefferson City, so that tells you how prime of a spot it was. We took Heidi's brother Austin and my brother Shaylon along for the ride. I had initially planned to take a 10-passenger van and fill it with friends, but then I discovered that most of my friends weren't that eager to go. I didn't blame them; there were news reports stating that it would be the worst traffic jam Armageddon in the history of the United States. "Take extra water!" the reports shouted "You'll probably be stuck in your vehicle for a day!" The drive down to Missouri was swift and smooth with hardly a hint of traffic. We arrived with hours to spare, and met up with my dear friend Brian Shirk, who invited us to camp out in his front yard. This is totally an instance of "It's not what you know, it's who you know." I had known Brian lived in Missouri but I didn't know where, so when I found out that my planned eclipse watching spot was 10 minutes from his was mind-blowing. After setting up chairs and a telescope and setting out sheets of paper for temperature testing, we saw such a beautiful eclipse...I'm still having a hard time describing it. Photographs of the eclipse do not do any justice of any kind to the event, and no, you can't say "I saw it" if you only saw pictures. That would be akin to me saying that I've been in Europe, when I've only been in the Amsterdam airport. (That's true, by the way. My friends won't let me say I've been to Europe because I didn't step outside of the airport. What's that all about? Do airports exist outside of the physical realm?)

The eclipse was beautiful and well worth the trip. As the moon fully concealed the sun, we were able to take off our glasses and view the event with the bare eye. We could even see the sun's corona, the white-hot ring of burning gases around the surface of the sun. It appeared as a white wreath around the black of the moon. The return home took two hours longer than the trip there, and I got all fidgety and fussy but that horrifying snarl of traffic is now just a dim, foggy memory. The eclipse still stands bright and clear in my mind. Worth it, no doubt.

It was a chore to find pairs of solar eclipse glasses, 
but we had enough to go around by the time we left.

My packing list for the solar eclipse. 
The welding helmets were added just in case 
we needed additional solar protection.
One of Brian's friends brought a sweet telescope to view the eclipse. We were able to observe sunspots on the surface of the sun with it, as well as track the progress of the moon as it traversed across the sun. It was absolutely incredible. Note the duct-taped solar shield on top of both the telescope and the spotting scope; this was to keep our eyes safe. Ain't nobody got time to eyeball the sun directly through a telescope!
View through the spotting scope, not quite halfway to the eclipse
View through the main telescope, taken nearer to the time of total eclipse.

We have three cats that run around outside and bring us freshly-killed moles and birds as gifts. Clutch and Chester are brothers and nearly full-grown. Shane's cat Ferris is their mother, and appears to be waddling around with another litter of kittens inside her. Even though Clutch and Chester are beautiful, they're a touch on the wild side and are difficult to snuggle with. I know a lot of people that view their dogs and cats as more than pets...they're members of the family! Fur babies! Bah humbug to that, I don't even think our cats are pets. They're just cats. If I had to call something my pets, it would be my ever-growing collection of guns, of which I now have ***REDACTED***

I've been busy working with my dad at Graber Heating & Air. Dad made the last payment on the business this year and he now fully owns the business. I'm in my last year of apprenticeship and plan to take my Journeyman's exam this year. And what a journey it's been; many of my fellow classmates are gone. What started as a class of over 30 in 1st Year was down to 15 or so in 3rd Year. With 4th Year classes beginning next week, I expect to see even less of my classmates. Several have accepted other job offers or dropped out of the HVAC industry. The U.S. is desperate for more plumbers and HVAC technicians (very high job security, BTW) and there doesn't seem to be enough applicants.

Barry (my father) giving Lynn (my grandfather) the last payment for Graber Heating. 
Brother Shelby loiters in the background.

Some trips Heidi and I made this year:

-Three weeks in South Carolina helping with Strait Paths ministries in February
-Anniversary trip to Chicago in June
-July 4th trip to the Maquoketa Caves with the Barry Graber family
-A weekend in Storm Lake, IA in July for Shane's wedding
-Camping trip to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin with the Alan Zook family
-A day in Missouri for the eclipse in August
-Two separate trips to Ohio for weddings, one for Dawnita (Martin) Stoltzfus and one for Jeanette (Falb) Stoltzfus. I probably should have caught this, but those two girls married boys with the same last name. Huh.
-A quick weekend trip to Minnesota to visit dear friends Doyle and Teresa Byler in November
-Field trip to Des Moines, IA to visit Shane & Fern and tour the Iowa Capitol building in November

Capitol building, Des Moines, IA
Maquoketa Caves, IA
Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin
That one time we went dumpster diving and found questionable meat; undisclosed location.
Downtown Chicago, IL
Heidi and I are still attending Cornerstone Community Church, where it has been fun to connect with our growing church family. Soapbox alert: I find it strange that the Bride of Christ meets in so many different buildings on Sunday mornings, but it is nice to get to know people and see familiar faces each week. If you're one of those people that says "Well we couldn't possibly combine a Sunday service with *those* people because they do [fill in the blank] differently than we do", I encourage you to thoughtfully consider those reasons this new year.

Speaking of the new year, I ALSO encourage you to pronounce it "Twenty-eighteen". Saying "Two-thousand-eighteen" is SO last decade. I hold this gleam of hope in my heart that by 2020, everyone will be on board with saying "twenty" rather than "two thousand", but who knows; we're a stubborn culture. If you won't change, then at least be consistent. Pronounce ALL the years in long-hand. For instance, I was born in One-Thousand-Nine-Hundred-and-Eighty-Nine.

I realize that my blog has been abandoned and neglected and otherwise completely unused since last year's Christmas letter. That surprised me a little; where has time gone? If I keep with this schedule, I'll have a little 10-month old to talk about the next time I write. :)

Heidi and I love each and every one of you, and we're grateful for your influence in our lives. We pray God's abundance in finances, health, wisdom, and joy for you and your families this new year.

P.S. I'm totally looking forward to 30 next year. Take that, Siri!

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Christmas Letter

In what seems like a short span of time, I've made the switch from bachelor to husband. That switch comes with monumental changes in a person's life that extend far past adjusting one's Facebook relationship status from "single" to "married". I welcome those changes but still find myself catching up to what it is that married humans do. Writing a Christmas letter to send to family and friends is so far down on a bachelor's list, it hovers near "hunting for the source of that moldy smell" and "baking cookies to give to the neighbors and not eat all of them by yourself". I'm not saying Christmas letters are a bad idea...just one that didn't occupy my world until recently.

Heidi and I sat down and wrote a Christmas letter several weeks ago, but were unable to print it off and send it out to our families. We found ourselves traveling to the East coast for a lovely wedding and working every spare minute in between, with the Christmas letter falling beneath "sleep" and "eat" on our to-do list. But like good Mennonites that don't want to let anything go to waste, I'll post our Christmas letter here, rather than allow 2017 to show up without people knowing what Heidi and I are up to.

December 2016

Greetings, family and friends! Heidi and I wish a very Merry Christmas to each and every one of you.

Okay, am I done?

“No cutie, you’re supposed to tell everyone what we’ve been up to.”

Oh, right!

Heidi and I have been blissfully married for just over 6 months, and for all the unmarried cousins reading this, we highly recommend the whole operation.  We’ve done a little bit of traveling but for the most part, Heidi has been transforming my humble trailer in the woods into a beautiful chateau perched near the English River. After kicking out my roommates (essentially by telling them how many cooties they were going to contract if they stuck around after our wedding), we began to meld two houses into one. Several friends and brothers pitched in to transport Heidi’s baby grand piano.  I admit I didn’t think there would be space for it in our trailer but it fits naturally in the living room and looks extra festive with a small Christmas tree perched on the lid. It took a few weeks, but the application of candles and scented oils purged out the baked-in bachelor stenches that had permeated the household before Heidi moved in. 

During the week, Heidi housecleans, babysits, delivers insulin to me when I leave it at home (which is more often than I'd care to admit), and fights off the crafty mice that have found their way into our chateau. She’s recently started repainting the rooms in the trailer, which have been in serious need of updating. Heidi is intensely focused when it comes to renovation projects but will set aside time to speak life to friends, family members, visitors, strangers…she is positively bursting with words of affirmation and love. 

I’ve been working at Graber Heating & Air, our family business. There are all sorts of wild stories to tell about the basements and attics and crawlspaces that I’ve been in, but I can’t possibly tell you about those because they may involve YOUR basements and attics. :D I’ve been busy attending classes to become licensed in Heating, Ventilating, and Air Conditioning, or HVAC for short. I’m currently three years in to my 4-year apprenticeship, with a Journeyman’s program to be taken after that, and a Master’s exam following that. It sounds like a lot, but it’s relatively few classroom hours. I've already completed the apprenticeship's required 8,000 hours of on-the-job training, since they allowed me to grandfather in all the years I've already worked.

Heidi and I took an impromptu trip to Omaha, Nebraska recently to deliver an ancient gas pump to a collector, in order to keep it from falling into the hands of a greedy swindler. That tale requires its own letter, so I'll save that one for later.

How’s that, honey?

“Great! Did you mention Coach yet?”

I was totally getting to him, but then I got sidetracked and forgot. Thanks for the reminder! Coach is our stubborn golden cat that behaves like a dog. In my opinion, that’s the best kind of cat behavior.
EDIT: Coach died suddenly and unexpectedly on Christmas Eve, and I cried more for him that I've cried for any pet. I never thought I was much of a cat person but Coach and I had a strong connection. True to his nature, Coach stubbornly refused to let something like a work van make him move from his comfortable perch in the middle of the driveway, and got squished. In the dark, rainy hours just before the dawn of Christmas day, I buried him in the woods a short distance from our trailer.

Heidi and I have been meeting with a small group of believers on Sunday at a school house in Kalona. The group is called Cornerstone Christian, and it’s been wonderful to see God at work in the fellowship. We had a Christmas Eve service in lieu of attending a service on Christmas day, and it was lovely. Heidi and I were in charge of a children's meeting, and I read a story I found written by Dave Miller, which is worth the read. I'll leave the link for that story here.

I married a marvelous chef, and my body bears the evidence. I’ve gained 15 lbs since our wedding thanks to her incredible home-cooked meals and treats. Heidi’s family created a secret barbecue sauce recipe that requires all sorts of exotic ingredients. I’ve been commanded not to share it…well that’s not true. They don’t realize how revolutionary this barbecue sauce is, so I’ve decided to keep it a secret myself. Once I start marketing it as “Mama Zook’s Zesty Spread”, we’ll become millionaires, like that Sriracha guy. 

“Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
–Hebrews 13:20-21

As Heidi and I nestle cozily under warm fuzzy blankets inside, we watch fuzzy snowflakes blanket the yard outside. We wish you all a Christmas as warm and joyful as ours.

“And a happy New Year too.”

Oh yes, and a Happy New Year to you and your families!


Shawn & Heidi Graber

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Love Your Spouse Challenge

Lately on Facebook there have been a lot of trendy "challenges" that have swooped through; the ALS ice bucket challenge and "Change your profile picture for Paris" come to mind. Currently the hot topic is the "Love your spouse" challenge. Now, I'm not against these challenges, especially the latest one. My standard Facebook news feed is bloated with advertisements and awful news, so seeing a man praise his wife with words of love or a woman speaking life to her husband is a welcome respite from the barrage of drama and Farmville requests.

A few weeks ago, my cousin Kendra tagged me to complete the challenge, which requires a person to post something uplifting about their significant other once a day for seven days.

"Posh!" I declared.
"As if that's a challenge!" I scoffed.

The notion that loving one's spouse was a challenge to be conquered...I rejected the whole premise. I shouldn't have to be CHALLENGED into loving my wife, I should do it naturally! I should desire to! My relationship with Heidi shouldn't be based off someone double-dog-daring me to say "I love you." Silliness!

But it is a challenge.

Loving a spouse takes everything, and the moment you say to yourself "Ah, this romance is effortless", you've been lulled into a dangerous complacency.

Big words for a man who's been married one day over three months.

"Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others." (Philippians 2:3-4 ESV)
I've gone from being grouchy about this whole challenge to introspective about it. The challenge is calling men and women out and saying "Hey, you know that love you lavish on each other? That's rare and precious in this culture. Share about it." For perspective, Heidi and I have some Godly friends in Canada that are completely unfamiliar with displays of affection between husband and wife. One couple explained how they turned it into a game; chasing the children down the hallway before giving their spouse a quick peck, unseen by the kids. Now "love" and "excessive displays of saliva transfer" are not the same. But what should be considered normal--the love of a man for his wife and a woman for her husband--is abnormal in our time and is almost unseen by the youngest generation.

Essentially, that's all I have to share. You may continue browsing Facebook now, or perusing other blogs, or checking those unread emails, or harvesting your crops in Farmville.

All gone? Okay, good. Heidi, this is for you.

I love you, Mrs. Graber. I love the way you prioritize communicating with me throughout each day, even when your hands are full. I love the hand-written notes and drawings you make for me, as well as the texts and voicemail recordings and Snapchats and phone calls. That barrage of communication may seem overwhelming to a bachelor but let me tell you, this former bachelor adores it. You are the bee's knees, little lady.

Thank you for waking up early to pack delicious lunches for me. I have been SO well-fed by you, Heidi. The touches that you put into my meals are astonishing. I often feel like an emperor as I pull out perfectly crafted sandwiches, piping hot soups and stews packed in a Thermos, tasty snacks and fruits and desserts and salads...all in the same lunch box. Seriously, you have done an expert job reminding me that my bachelor years were woeful times indeed.

Speaking of challenges, I love the way you rise to them, Heidi. I have loved marriage with you, and I owe a lot of that to the way you meet every obstacle with vigor and determination. I am so grateful I'm not a mountain in your path, because I know I'd get bulldozed just after you've had your morning coffee.

This photo was taken at our yearly extended Graber reunion, which takes place over the course of a Sunday afternoon and packs enough conversation to last a four-day weekend, easily. There were around 100 Graber descendants at this reunion and Heidi jumped right into the noisy fray. (Great-great Uncle Joseph hosted the reunion this year and held it in a refurbished hog barn on his farm. He remarked that our reunion cacophony sounded very similar to the barn's previous inhabitants.)

Heidi, you're holding a hammock strap that was impossibly knotted to itself, so tight that both my Mom and I gave up after assailing it with pliers, screwdrivers, and stern looks. I say "was" because you managed to unravel the knot that stymied the rest of us. The word "helpful" gets thrown around a lot but you are truly full of help, my dear.

This photo was taken after work on an especially long day for both of us. You had been cleaning and running all over the countryside, but when I arrived at home you had me sit down so you could rub my hot, sweaty feet. I have been so respected by you, Heidi. You have shown with your words and your actions that you cherish me. If putting up with my smelly toes isn't the epitome of faithful loving, I don't know what is. :) Even when you spend your full day blessing others, you bless me too. When I get home, you greet me at the door with a hug and tell me how glad you are that I'm back.

I love that you Snapchat me throughout the day. I also love that I have a difficult time finding Snapchats that are appropriate to share publicly. ;) You are beautiful, my love. We just received a copy of "Cosmopolitan" magazine (which puzzles me, because neither of us signed up for it) in the mail. The magazine's cover boasts about the latest "super sex secrets" and "booty boosting cardio tricks" but that magazine can take a hike. I have beheld true beauty, and she snuggles with me at night.

Life with you has been a true adventure, and there isn't a soul I'd rather have by my side, honey. I love the snarky humor you have, especially about the way you believe the world is out to inconvenience short people. There are a lot of complainers out there who have the ability to manufacture gripes out of just about anything.
Sunny day? "It's too hot to do anything!"
Rainy day? "My socks are all damp ugggghhh."
Day without coffee? "Waaahhh I can't get anything done I'm hopeless without my caffeine fix."
Day with coffee? "Man this coffee is expensive and tastes bad and probably isn't fair-trade."
But that's not you, Heidi. You have remained steadfast and upbeat and always have a word of encouragement to keep me going, even when it's "This too shall pass. I'll go get you another pair of socks."

Heidi, you've been sick this past week with a fever and a bad cough. You've had days where it was painful to breathe and nights where your coughing kept you from sleeping. The doctor prescribed some antibiotics and said that, unchecked, your condition could have developed into Walking Pneumonia, which sounds even more awful than Regular Pneumonia somehow. Through this, you have worked extremely hard to provide for our marriage and our home. You have been faithful to care for me despite your own need for care. Yesterday I had a slight cough and you rushed around to nurse me back into health even though you were coughing enough to summon the Grim Reaper.

I have been so blessed beyond what anyone could ever hope to deserve. I'm so grateful for you, my darling. Thank you for being my spouse.

I love you, Heidi.