Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Windows of Heaven

Hello my friends, it's been quite some time since I've sat down to write. Many of you faithful blog readers have encouraged me to write again, and I thank you. I know others refrained from prodding or persisting that I write due to the immense strain my family is under, and I thank you as well.

Since we last visited, my wife Heidi has been on the mend. There was a short stent of narcotics addiction and weaning off. She's been so very brave. She no longer has any phantom limb pain from her right-arm amputation but there is still much physical pain. Her stump is full of nerves and they waste no time screaming when she's bumped, jostled, or works as vigorously as she'd like. Our two young boys keep her remaining hand very full. We have not yet fitted Heidi with a prosthetic arm, on account that her excellent state-provided health insurance was terminated and her arm is still too sensitive for the fittings. We have two nannies that come once a week to help with our house and the kids and various projects, funded through the generous donations of hundreds of people that came to our aid in the weeks and months after the accident.

Heidi and I are homeowners now. We moved into our home in July 2019 and purchased it in November from my Grandpa Graber. It's the home I've wanted to live in since I was a young boy. It's just up the hill from my workplace and my parents' home in rural Iowa. Often times I'm overwhelmed with this massive, complex machine that I live inside, but mostly I love it.
If I were able to make this into a "Choose Your Adventure" book, I'd give you the opportunity to select the next topic you'd like to know more about.

Perhaps the "Learn Along with Shawn as He Restores an 1800's-era Brunswick Billiard Table"

And "I Wrote a Children's Book and am Thinking of Publishing It"

Or "Mighty Heidi and How She Conquers Day-to-Day Activities Single-Handedly"

Maybe "How to Shop for Lawn Mowers When You Would Literally Rather Do Anything Else"

Also “The Great Graberly Thanksgiving Exodus to Oregon”

And "Happy New Year! I Forgot to Write This Three Months Ago"

Perhaps at some point I'll turn each and every one of those headlines into a navigable link to a separate post. But instead I'll write about the trip that Heidi and I just went on.

In July 2019, Heidi approached me with a vacation idea. "What do you think about going on Sail & Sing's cruise?" she asked me. I was nonplussed. Heidi had lost her arm just two months before and we were still recovering. The community had rallied to help us with a liberal outpouring of money, gifts, cards, helpful tips and advice, offers of service, breast milk for Canon and much more. At one point there were so many people offering a hand to do anything we needed, I suggested to Heidi that I might recruit one group to dig holes in the yard and have another group fill them back in. We were completely overwhelmed with the amazing response of loving family, friends, neighbors, distant relatives and complete strangers. With the money that was coming in through various fundraisers came new responsibilities. Some of our friends had experienced a life-altering accident and the benevolent response of a Mennonite community. They shared that some of the money they received had unspoken expectations tied to the gift; expectations they knew nothing about until they had spent the money on something else that they needed. The donors felt slighted and it caused sensitive, wealthy feathers to be ruffled. Heidi and I were told to be cautious about ruffling those feathers, because it may negatively impact future fundraisers. If the community thinks that someone is going to spend the donation money foolishly, they might not give as freely. With the looming threat of unspoken expectations swirling in my mind, I set out to spend the donation funds as fiscally responsible as possible. Heidi’s suggestion to spend donation funds on a vacation cruise fell solidly into the “foolish” category, in my mind. I mentally envisioned the community sharpening their pitchforks.

“That’s nonsense!” another friend scoffed. “If the donor didn’t put specific requirements on their cash donation, they have no say in how you spend it.” The friend described that donors could, if they so desired, earmark their donations to go toward particular items or request that we pay for an object and get reimbursed upon presentation of a receipt. That approach made more sense to me than openly donating money while secretly hoping it went toward something specific, but donations are emotional affairs.

But Heidi was insistent. She was eager to go on this cruise, slated for February 2020. Not only did she want to go, but she wanted to take our two infant sons along as well. My snort of incredulity nearly shifted the house foundation.

“WHAT!” I declared, “Our boys won’t even remember the trip!”

“Maybe not,” Heidi replied, “but we’ll take lots of photos and show ‘em to our boys when they get older.”

In 2016 Heidi and I went on a 4-day cruise through the Bahamas for our honeymoon. We absolutely loved it. All the food we could possibly eat, gorgeous tropical islands, snorkeling over a coral reef, loads of fun activities and beaches and sun, all for the low, low price of $333 per person plus tips plus required gratuities plus glamour photographs plus shore excursions plus room service plus virgin piƱa coladas. It was a delightful experience and we both wanted to go again someday.

“Steve Stutzman’s whole family is gonna be singing on this cruise!” Heidi informed me.

A Sail & Sing cruise (which my brain transposes into “Sing & Sail” every time. Why does it feel shorter?) is just like a regular, normal cruise but hosted by a Christian outfit that coordinates entertainment from groups like Gospel Express singing families and the ventriloquist Ryan & Friends. Not every passenger would be part of the Sail & Sing group; Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas could hold 6,000 passengers and 2,000 crew. Sail & Sing had 750 tickets available. But it would be an opportunity to fellowship (i.e. suntan) with likeminded believers and perhaps even witness to the unsuspecting heathens that would be trapped beside us on the high seas with nowhere to escape. Heidi had grown up listening to Steve Stutzman’s family sing. Tanisha, the eldest daughter, is one of our dearest friends and was planning to move out of state. Heidi was eager to reconnect with Tanisha, who had lived just down the street from us before she and her husband and their two darling babies relocated to Pennsylvania.

“Absolutely not!” I thundered, “Do you really think this trip is worth FIVE of our honeymoon cruises?” I was critically eyeballing the cruise ticket prices in the Sail & Sing brochure. Owen would turn two the day before the ship’s departure, and would require a full-price ticket. Canon would be just shy of 9 months old and would require a full-price ticket, minus $200 since he wouldn’t be eating any of the food. We would have to purchase a larger cabin since there would technically be four of us staying together. Heidi wanted a cabin with a balcony view of the ocean, which was an additional upgrade. Pitchforks danced in my peripheral vision.

Meanwhile, Heidi was persistent. I wanted so desperately to provide her a restful getaway. Things had been stressful with recovery, heavy doses of pain medications, and the subsequent addiction. Heidi fought bravely to wean off the powerful narcotics but it was truly miserable. She no longer had phantom pains shooting error messages to her brain, but her stump was still incredibly sensitive and painful. She had trouble sleeping. As funds poured in, we converted our house’s existing deck into a screened-in porch to give Heidi the peaceful sanctuary that she had been dreaming about. But a cruise? I fought with Heidi about it to the point that when the topic would come up, we’d both be in tears before long. She had a deep peace about going and was assured that Jesus was telling us that we should take the trip. I was hearing nothing and refused to consider it. I was a complete bully. After two weeks of arguing, Heidi said softly “I give up. If you don’t want to go, we won’t go.” She had been worn down by my negativity. I couldn’t afford this trip, so therefore it was out of the question. But now that I saw how devastated Heidi was with the idea that we wouldn’t go, I began to pray. I should have been praying long before that point, but I realized that maybe I was completely off track only after telling Heidi “NO” the fifteenth time. She had humbled herself and submitted to my decision, so now it was my turn. I humbled myself and asked Jesus, “Should we go on this cruise?”

He replied, “Why not?”

Why not? Six thousand reasons why not! I thought of all the things that could be done with the money this trip would cost, all the medications or physical therapy classes or handy kitchen utensils that are made for single-handed use. I could feel the community out there, silently expecting me to build a handicap-accessible bathroom or something. I sincerely doubted the community would humor me if I told them “You can’t spell ‘stewardship’ without ‘expensive vacation cruise to the Caribbean.’”

But I realized in His simple query the depth of my selfishness and fear. I was saying “No” to my wife because I was afraid of what people might think or say. I was afraid I would be labeled a “poor steward”. I felt that my wife wanted things that I couldn’t provide myself, so therefore I wasn’t enough for her. So many lies and fears straight from Hell had coursed through my mind that I was completely blocked off from saying “Yes” to a new adventure. I repented to Jesus and to my wife.

In August 2019 Heidi and I made a non-refundable down-payment for our cruise tickets. The full balance of the tickets would be required of us in a few months.

I wish I could say I was fully on board after that moment, but I still had huge reservations. Get it, on board? Reservations? I’ll see myself out now. The truth is, I was still deeply pessimistic about the entire trip. Heidi began to prepare for the trip but had to drag my grudging, reluctant behind along with her each step of the way.

The children would need passports in order to travel outside of the country. I downloaded and printed the required forms and filled them out. We traveled to our local Post Office to submit the forms and get our photos taken. We elected for passcards for the boys, since they were slightly cheaper than full passports and would be good for travel into Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean, just as long as we didn’t fly. The passcards are good for 5 years, so we elected to make Owen wait until he turns 7 to fly to Switzerland. Heidi needed a new passport, since her maiden name was still on her existing one. Mine was set to expire two months after we returned, and since the cruise line requires a passport valid for up to 6 months after the end of the trip, I got a new passport as well. It made no sense to me at the time. I had no intention of playing hooky off the ship and hiding in Puerto Rico for a couple months. But seeing the cruise ships wandering around the ocean for weeks waiting to dock during the COVID-19 epidemic showed the wisdom behind this extra precaution.

Heidi began to compile packing lists. We would need a suitcase each for her and myself, along with a shared suitcase for the boys. We’d have to take along formula and diapers and a Pack ‘N Play for the boys to sleep in. The list began to grow ominously. Because we would be driving down to Florida, we didn’t have to stress about airline luggage restrictions. But the amount of baby furniture that we would need to hoist along was flaring my stress back up to its pre-prayer levels.

One evening, Steve and Dorcas Stutzman called us. They asked if we were in the mood for some good news, and we said “yes please!” They explained that some mysterious benefactors had paid for our cruise tickets. The entire remaining balance.

Heidi and I cried.

We don’t know the names of the people that paid for our tickets. All we know is that they live in a different state. They had received a word from God to buy us tickets with the specific instruction to buy tickets for the boys as well. Dorcas recounted that the benefactors weren’t even sure if we’d be interested in the trip, and would Dorcas please secretly find out if we were interested? Dorcas, knowing that we had already placed a down-payment, laughed and told them that yes, she was pretty sure we were interested.

How amazing is that? Heidi had heard from the Father and obeyed.
These random strangers had heard from the Father and obeyed.
If either of us had not obeyed, we would have missed out on such a sweet, incredible gift.

Lavish. Extravagant.

But isn’t that how our Father in Heaven operates? Isn’t that the God we read about in the Bible?
Planning for the trip began in earnest. I no longer felt like I was dragging around a ball and chain of fiscal responsibility. We would drive down to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida where the ship was departing from. We’d leave with plenty of time because Ft. Lauderdale is right next to Miami, where the Superbowl was to be hosted. The Superbowl was taking place the same day as the ship departure, so the hotels and highways were sure to be jammed full.

We left in the wee hours of Friday morning, while the boys were still asleep. We nestled them into their car seats in our tidily-packed-but-crammed-full van and set out. The GPS told us we had 1,462 miles to go, which should take 21 hours and zero minutes.

 Owen (left) and Canon (right) buckled in for adventure.

For those of you who have traveled with infants, I commend you. I understand you. My parents traveled with me when I was an infant and it’s a miracle that they didn’t pitch me out the window. My boys were absolute champions but it was taxing on all of us. Heidi had made a sweet little bed in the middle of the van for us to take turns sleeping, but since the children needed lots of love and attention, it felt like we were taking turns babysitting. The boys were confused why they had to be restrained by five-point harnesses for hours on end instead of getting to run wild and free with the wind caressing their tiny little leg hairs. We stopped often and the hours trudged by.

As evening approached, we elected to stop at a Cracker Barrel for supper. Those of you with infants know how much of an ordeal it is to take them into a sit-down restaurant on a normal day, but these kids had been wedged in the van for nearly 14 hours which cranked the frazzle factor up to eleven. I felt guilty for knowingly releasing two crotchety sirens into a public eating area, but Heidi and I were emotionally strained and ready to be anywhere but inside the Cherriot. Owen was also glad to be out of the van; I supervised him as he ran laps through the Cracker Barrel gift shop, touching every stuffed animal and children’s book. Shortly, we were escorted to a table in the middle of the restaurant. It was Friday night and the place was hoppin’. I would have preferred a corner booth so we could hide our smelly, travel-worn bodies but was glad we were seated so quickly. Heidi struck up a conversation with the older couple seated at the neighboring table while I followed Owen through the restaurant. He found a checker board and within the first ten seconds lost a checker. Where did it go? Did he throw it into the neighboring booth? Did it roll across the floor and disappear into the kitchen? Did he pitch it into the cheery fire roaring in the nearby hearth? I took him back to our table after thoroughly scouring the area to no avail. Heidi was busily chatting with the neighboring couple, who were eating dinner with their adult daughter. They were from Florida on their way to Illinois and found it delightful that we were making the opposite trajectory. I asked them how they managed to raise their daughter to an adult without strangling her when she was a child. They laughed heartily. They blessed our journey and said sweet things about our boys before getting up to leave. A few minutes later, the daughter rushed back to our table and gave us $40 in Cracker Barrel gift cards.

Heidi and I cried into our mashed potatoes.

The food was good but it sat heavily in our stomachs. The thought of continuing through the night felt overwhelming. We were approaching Atlanta and quickly called up some friends that lived just outside of the city. They graciously opened their home to us even though we had only given them an hour’s notice. We arrived at their place close to midnight. We had been on the road for 17 hours and still had 9 hours to go. I wondered if there was a setting on my GPS for “traveling with infants” that would automatically add 6 hours to the total journey. Maybe it was near the “avoid ferries and toll roads” menu?

We slept heavily and left our friends’ home in the morning after eating the fantastic breakfast they whipped up for us. It was Saturday, February 1st, Owen’s 2nd birthday. Even though we had celebrated his birthday with cake, presents and family a few days prior, I still felt horrible strapping him back into his car seat. Another day of grueling travel was not fair to him, even if he didn’t know it was his birthday. As I tightened his seatbelts, Owen looked pleadingly up at me as if to say, “Please Dad, don’t make me sit in this chair any longer.” Our friends told us to stop back in on our way home, after we returned from the cruise. We said goodbye and told them we’d take them up on their offer.
Sweet little birthday boy. Thank you for 
making the best of a long, weary trip.

For lunch we stopped at a Chick-Fil-A with a play place to let Owen eat chicken nuggets and burn off some energy. A grandmother watching us eat slipped a $20 bill to Heidi. We cried again.

By evening we were nearing our destination and the very last edge of our ragged nerves. God had provided so abundantly during our trip, but couldn’t He have just teleported us to Florida? And what was up with these paper straws? The entire state of Florida had switched from plastic to paper. I’m a huge fan of nature, conservation, and sustainable plastic use but each paper straw that smugly disintegrated halfway through my beverage and left a gooey membrane on my lips made me want to personally choke a turtle. I often share drinks with Owen but his habit of biting straws mangled the paper ones and left them unusable.

We stopped in Port St. Lucie for supper and to purchase a few items we had left behind at home, namely extra bottles for Canon and a small trash can for the van. I had emptied the trash can in the house but forgot to reinstall it before we left on our trip. The small grocery mart that we visited didn’t have mini wastebaskets but they had cleaning buckets, so we bought one of those along with some garbage bags that would fit it, more or less. Near the grocery mart was a pizza place that was no more than a hole in the wall. The interior was dimly lit and grungy but the scents of fresh pizza were delightful. Heidi and I sat down to order some pizza. It became quickly apparent that customers only stopped at the restaurant long enough to get their pizza to go; they had ordered ahead of time and were here just to pick it up. The dining area could hold maybe 20 people and we were the only ones that were going to be dining in. While we waited for our pizza to arrive, I decided to change Owen’s diaper. I took him to the back of the restaurant, down a tight hallway stacked high with empty pizza boxes and into a tiny, cramped closet that was the bathroom. There was nowhere to set Owen down to change him, so I turned back around and returned to our table. I decided to change his diaper right there. After all, he was just wet and my diaper-changing skills had vastly improved over the past months. Heidi could still change diapers but it was labor-intensive to do it single-handedly. I would be quick, like a NASCAR pit crew. 

Well, I wasn’t quick enough. The owner/head chef came boiling out of the kitchen and chewed me out for changing my son on the table. I understood his anger; no restaurant owner wants bare buns on their eating surfaces, especially when those surfaces get cleaned only once a month. I apologized to the man. I did not confront him about his restaurant’s lack of OSHA-approved baby-changing stations. Those were made from plastic, right? The State had probably outlawed them. Soon enough the pizza arrived hot, fresh and delicious; we ate it in silence and left. 

We finally arrived in Ft. Lauderdale Saturday evening and stopped at the first hotel that we found. It had taken us nearly 40 hours to get from our home to the hotel. I paid a premium for a room but was glad that there was even a vacancy, since we were close to the interstate and only a few miles from Miami and the Superbowl. I also paid to park my van at the hotel for the week while we’d be gone; the hotel offered a free shuttle service to and from the cruise ships and their parking was $8 per day rather than the $15 per day if we parked at the docks. 

Heidi and I put the boys to sleep, showered, and tagged our luggage with little identification papers that would tell the porters which room to deliver the bags to once we got to the ship. Our boarding time was noon on Sunday, so we slept in and grabbed a leisurely breakfast at the hotel. Their orange juice was truly fantastic. All orange juice should taste that rich and fresh. 

The shuttles were running behind. Not so much that it would be an issue, but enough that we started getting antsy milling around in the hotel lobby. It was nice to see palm trees and sunshine but we were ready to just BE somewhere rather than in between. I found a small foam football in the parking lot and tossed it back and forth with Owen while we waited. 

Waiting in the hotel lobby for our shuttle.

Finally, our shuttle arrived and escorted us to the ship. At this point, neither Heidi or I had seen the ocean and we were competing with each other to see it first. Florida is totally flat so we were able to see the ships before we spied the water. I shouted “Ocean!” a millisecond before Heidi. She claimed I had an unfair height advantage. 

The ship boarded from early morning until early afternoon, with departure at 4pm. The boarding is staggered so that you don’t have to compete with 6,000 other humans trying to swarm the gangplanks at the same time. We were assigned a boarding time of 12pm and arrived around 12:30pm. It was time for the boys’ naps and they were reminding us very loudly that they were tired and displeased. Even with the staggered boarding times, there was still what felt like thousands of people trying to force their way through the security checkpoint. When the boarding staff saw Heidi’s amputation and our two little megaphones, we were directed to take the handicap entrance. We cut straight past 400 people and went through security right away. Canon was strapped to Heidi’s chest while she carried a diaper bag and rolled two suitcases. I was rolling a suitcase, carrying Owen, a backpack and two Pack ‘N Plays. We had to shuffle our loads or just sprawl the items across the hangar floor each time we were asked to display boarding passes or passports. I was frantically searching for a luggage drop-off location but found none. I should have taken the time to find it, but we were just caught up in the sea of humanity flowing toward the ship, struggling to prevent separation from our children or each other. Every staff member we asked about luggage drop-off would shrug and act like they had no clue. This is one of the low moments of the trip. We carried our luggage and two screaming children up six flights of gang-plank ramp, down the entire length of 2009’s largest cruise ship ever made, and to our cabin. We were sweating, miserable, and totally exhausted by the time we got there. The room was small and had a twin bed and a couch, with a glass door that opened up onto a tiny balcony. We flopped our luggage inside and put the boys down for their naps. I was in a foul mood. It had been over two days of back-breaking, mind-numbing work to get my family to our room on the boat. The boat that I still felt guilty about lodging in. 

 A view of our room on the cruise ship
 The ocean-view balcony that we were so dearly grateful for.
While the children took naps, Heidi and I would 

escape to the balcony. It's tough to see, but that's a
glass half-wall. The boys enjoyed smearing their
hands and faces on the glass.

The next seven days were a flurry of activities, events, island hopping, and more food consumption than a possum at a potluck. Heidi and I lugged the children around the ship, which slowly became more and more familiar to us as the days progressed. We became acquainted with the waitstaff that took care of us each day, cleaning our room, serving our meals, and changing out our soggy towels. Seri was our head dinner server. He was from Thailand and dearly missed his grandchildren. Nayeli was one of the staff members on the pool deck. She was from Mexico and helped me with my halting Spanish. We had a good laugh when I mixed up the word “towel” for “everyone”. We found fun little nooks for Owen to run and play, but failed to find the actual children’s playground until the last hours of the last day that we were on the ship. There were comedy clubs, singing events, an underwater opera, ice skating, zip lines, fresh donuts, ice cream machines, hot tubs, volleyball, and a pizza parlor that served hot, delicious thin-crust pizza for free until 3am. When we first wandered through the ship, Heidi and I couldn’t distinguish which restaurants were complimentary and which would require an additional charge, but we soon sorted it out when we realized all we had to do was follow the large congregations of Amish and Mennonites. They knew where the deals were. 

 Canon often spent the day in a chest carrier.
 Owen enjoying some breakfast on the 14th floor at the Windjammer Cafe. 
The breakfast buffet and lunch buffet were free, and we loved our meals there. 
The staff were especially sweet to our boys, and we discovered many of 
them had young children back at home that they dearly missed.

Heidi's plate has breakfast food from four different cultures. 

Formal night. Heidi looked stunning. 
Each day there were planned events for the Sail & Sing group. We had to be wearing our name-tag lanyards, which were our entrance badges to the events. This ensured that only our group would be together at the concerts and shows. There were various denominations represented. Heidi and I were surprised at the amount of Amish aboard. We were told that there were ten Amish couples that were spending their honeymoon with our group. I only knew a handful of the people at the event, but I stumbled across Lester, a dear Canadian friend that I had no idea would be on the ship. He and I had a good chat catching up with each other’s lives. 

One of the evening sessions with Sail & Sing. The
stage was off to the left. That blue floor rolled away to
expose an ice skating rink.

Heidi, strolling on the boardwalk. There is a children's slide to the left that Owen loved. The boardwalk had delicious donuts and an open theater that faced the rear of the ship

Owen loves forks and spoons, so having three forks and 
two spoons (and a fancy dinner napkin) excited him 
greatly. A butter knife kept Canon well occupied.

Although there were other families with young children, the majority of the passengers on our cruise ship were senior citizens. We were told that the new trend in senior living is “cruise ship hopping”. Rather than living in a condo or rental somewhere down South, senior citizens are jumping from one cruise ship to the next during the winter months. The food is prepared by chefs, the rooms are cleaned daily; it’s a fully-staffed resort that takes you around the ocean for a week. We met one couple that told us they had just gotten off a 5-day cruise on the Princess. “The food on this ship is much better,” they confided in us. The food was truly delicious. Heidi ordered a plate of escargot one evening and fell in love with them. I wasn’t as quick to try them, but Heidi encouraged me to try some. They were far more delicious than I expected. The snails were bathed in a buttery garlic sauce and paired well with the dinner rolls. “You just can’t think about the shape while you eat them,” Heidi advised.

One day I was sitting in the open-air central park on the ship. Real trees stretching toward the sky provided shade over strategically-placed park benches. Fake birds chirped and tittered through hidden speakers in the foliage. Heidi and I watched as an older woman berated a buss boy. She launched into one tirade after another about various slights that had happened to her that day. We’d catch her saying “AND FURTHERMORE…” as she harangued the employee about things that just weren’t quite up to her satisfaction. The muscles in my body tensed as I coiled, ready to spring into action. Heidi wasn’t sure I should intervene, but I could tell this woman had nothing but time on her hands and complaints on her brain. The buss boy was not the cause of her troubles; he was just the closest available set of eardrums. I scooped up Owen under my arm and ran over to the duo. “Excuse me sir,” I said, interrupting the woman, “could I quick ask you a question?” The woman looked at me, down to the small child clutched under my arm, and quickly decided that my needs were more pressing than her own. Her face brightened as she said, “Gotta go!” She turned around and swiftly disappeared. The buss boy offered her a kind farewell and turned to me, genuine help and concern in his eyes, and said with a thick accent, “What can I do for you, sir?” 

“Oh,” I replied “I don’t have a question.” 

The buss boy seemed extremely puzzled. “You…don’t have a question?”

“No, I just wanted to rescue you from that lady.”

“Oh,” he replied, still confused. “She is no problem. It is my job to listen. I listen to her, no problem.”
I thanked him for being so sweet to her, patiently letting her chide him for things he had no control over or responsibility for. I told him he was free to get back to whatever he needed to do. He thought for a while and then it finally dawned on him what I was up to; that I had chased off that lady by asking him to help me. “OHHH!” He said, beaming. “You have a question but you don’t have a question!” He seemed to think that was very clever. I did too. 

A lot of the crew on our ship were making $4 a day (which is why many of the staff depend on tips and gratuities).  They hail from countries all over the world. One crew member from the Philippines told us that he works 9 months away from home a year, but since his wages allow him to send his children to a private school, it is well worth it. The absurdity of a wealthy American woman griping to a boy that is paid so little, so far from home really struck Heidi and I. We set out to be extra grateful (and reflect that gratitude in our tips) to the staff that waited on us. 

Owen, offering to share his ice cream with mama Heidi. 

The ship’s first stop was St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. I had a lot of good times but that was my favorite day of the entire trip. Some of the guys chartered a fishing expedition and invited me to join in. Heidi blessed me going but I turned them down; I wanted to be with my family on the beach. We got off the ship and wound our way off the pier. On the sidewalk were enormous iguanas lounging in the sun, waiting for tourists to share concession food with them. I needed some sunglasses since I had left mine in Iowa, and wouldn’t you know, vendors were more than glad to sell me a pair at a premium. We paid for the sunglasses and headed toward the waiting line of taxis that would take us to anywhere we wanted on the island. The fees were printed on a large sign to show us what it would cost to go to each destination. I told the man in charge that we wanted to go to Emerald Beach. He asked how many of us there were, and I said four. He got up to point us to a taxi and a taxi driver started waving his arm at us. The man in charge barked at the taxi driver something to the effect that if he didn’t put his hand down right that very second there would be harsh and dire consequences that would last for several generations. The taxi driver sheepishly lowered his hand. The man in charge sent us toward an older woman that was waiting patiently for passengers. As we followed her to her taxi, which was a Dodge pickup flatbed with what looked like a trolley perched on the back, a younger female taxi driver came nearby snipping and shouting at our taxi driver. She was carrying on about our driver not having graduated from high school. Our driver stopped, turned to the woman and replied “Yes, you are right, I never finished high school and you did. But we are out here doing the same thing anyway!” which promptly shut up the younger driver. Our driver turned to us with a smile and explained “Every time the boats come, people start to eat each other. It’s people eating people!” She helped us get into the back of the taxi/trolley and took us to the beach. We were the only riders and she could have taken 15 passengers, but the beach was only a mile away and she was more than glad to make the journey for just us. She only charged us for two adults and let the boys ride for free, so I gave her a nice tip. 
Arriving in St. Thomas

A stocky American approached us as we walked onto the beach. He was in his 50’s, tanned darker than a walnut, barrel-chested but in good shape, his white goatee trimmed neatly and his head protected underneath a red baseball cap. He pointed to the rows of lounge chairs on the beach and asked us if we’d like to rent one. I wasn’t keen on the idea since my wallet was still howling about the sunglasses. 

“How much do the chairs cost?” I asked.

“Ten dollars for the whole day.” He replied.

I turned him down but when Heidi and I found a nice spot to set our things, she quietly asked me to reconsider. “It would be nice to have a spot to put our things out of the sand,” she said. I returned to the man and rented two. I was glad that I had, because they eventually sold out. 

Owen and Canon sharing a lounge chair in the shade. 
Emerald Beach on St. Thomas island. Two older men yelled at each other
over a beach chair rental misunderstanding under that shade in front of
us. The shades were rented out for an extra fee.

The beach was packed. One lady told us this was her sixth visit to the island and this beach was normally her secret getaway. “It’s often sparsely inhabited.” She said. I looked around at over 3,000 people on the beach. Loud music was blasting out of stacks of speakers over at the “Grown & Sexy” beach bash. There were 2,000 passengers on our ship that were part of that group, which catered to older African Americans that were single and ready to mingle. They had just happened to choose Emerald beach for their partying rather than the thirty other beaches on the island. We didn’t mind. They were rowdy and energetic but treated us kindly and spoke sweetly to our boys. The sun was shining brightly, the water of Emerald beach was crystal clear, the children were happy, and Heidi was rested. I found a fist-sized rock on the bottom of the ocean and spent 45 minutes lifting it with my foot to let Owen throw it back in. We giggled and cackled and had a swell time. 

Heidi, swimming in the ocean.

Despite lathering sunscreen on my forehead twice, I still burned to a crisp.
Our second stop was in San Juan, Puerto Rico. We were only there for half a day and I would have gladly stayed there much longer. There was so much to explore, with portions of the Old City still standing 499 years after its founding in 1521. The effects of the recent devastating hurricanes were still evident on the island, with wind-damaged buildings and trees stripped bare. The people were bright and friendly though, there was much to do and lots of tourism dollars to collect. Our cruise ship was one of three docked there that day. Instead of booking an island excursion with Royal Caribbean (who priced a bus tour at $79 a person) Heidi and I grabbed a bus on the pier and rode around the city for $25 a person. The tour took us through Old and New San Juan and showed us a lot of the interesting, touristy sights. After the tour, Heidi and I searched earnestly for horchata, a Mexican beverage made with rice water, milk and cinnamon served over ice. We came up empty-handed. The locals seemed to know what we were talking about, but gave us conflicting directions. One would say “try the shop down the road there” and that shop would tell us to go to another place. We ping-ponged around for a while before giving up. 

 Bus tour through San Juan
 The island commemorates every U.S. President that visits the 
island with a life-sized bronze statue. The last one there is Barack Obama. 
 The bus air conditioner struggled to keep up in the tropical heat

 A grassy hill with a massive cemetery and portions of the Old San Juan fortress. 

Moments after this photo was taken, the iguana slipped off my shoulder and fell.
With surprising reflexes, I snatched him out of the air on his
way down. The owner was very grateful.

A man in a large floral shirt let people hold his parrots. There was a long 
line of people waiting. The parrots were well-behaved and would cuddle in your arms.

Our ship, the Allure of the Seas. I pronounced it "Owller" instead of "Uh-lure" 
because my incorrect pronunciation rolled off the tongue easier. 
Poor Heidi puts up with a lot of that.

Our third stop was on Coco Cay, which is a small strip of land peeking above the surface of the ocean. The island is owned completely by Royal Caribbean. All of the major cruise lines have their own island, where they can drop their passengers off on a secluded beach. We went to a similar setup on Half Moon Cay during our honeymoon cruise with Carnival. The island has restroom facilities and a huge pavilion where lunch is prepared and served for free. Royal Caribbean had built an entire water park on the island but it cost $70 per person to enter. Heidi and I elected to find a beach and sit in the sun. It was 68 degrees with a brisk wind, which had the island staff all huddling in thick winter parkas. “This is cold, man!” the 6’ tall, 300lb tram driver told us. “When it drops below 60 degrees, we all call in sick. We get a week of sick days each year and we save ‘em for cold days.” 

 The beach on Coco Cay

 This mini pop-up Pack 'N Play was such a lifesaver. Heidi packed so well for our trip.

We finally returned to Ft. Lauderdale and deboarded. We let the boat staff take our luggage down. On the shuttle back to the hotel, Owen started vomiting. He seemed perfectly normal and gave me no warning before showering himself and me with hot, sticky barf. 

Back at the hotel we discovered that someone had stolen the rear license plate off of our van. I stormed into the office and asked what they were going to do about it, and they shrugged. The hotel was not liable for theft or damage. “But I paid good money to have my van stored here!” I said. “Just call the police and file a report,” the hotel staff advised. I was ready to go home, not sit around for hours waiting for the police to show up and say “Yup, sure looks like your license plate is gone.” But I called them anyway. A kind officer took my statement over the phone and logged a police report. She made sure that our information was filed so that we wouldn’t get into trouble for driving around without a license plate. We started homeward. If you happen to see a vehicle driving around with the Iowa license “IDO4EVR”, let me know. 

Owen continued to vomit. He threw up multiple times on the drive home and we stopped to get him electrolytes and medicine. He seemed unbothered, albeit dehydrated, so we did all the worrying for him. We went through almost all his remaining clean clothing as he vomited on his outfits. We pulled over onto the side of the interstate to clean him up and stuff the smelly clothing and blankets into a clean garbage bag. While we were pulled over, a tow truck came up behind us, lights flashing. The back hatch of our van was up and the side doors were open. A Hispanic driver hopped out and asked if we needed any assistance. I told him that my son was sick and we were just cleaning him up. I thanked him for stopping and then closed my back hatch. The tow truck driver immediately noticed we didn’t have a license plate. I explained to him what had happened, how our plate was stolen. I told him that I had another plate on the front of the van, since our home state of Iowa requires a front and rear license plate. I had wanted to move the plate from the front to the rear, but found myself without a screwdriver. I promised to remedy the situation that evening when we stopped back at our friends’ home in Atlanta. The tow truck driver said “No problem, I’ll move it for you now.” He swapped the plate in a few minutes. It didn’t have the registration sticker but we had the phone line and case number of the report in Florida to help us out if we got pulled over. 

We returned to our friends’ home and stayed the night. We were so grateful for their sweet hospitality. It was a gift from Heaven. 

There were frustrating, tear-filled moments during the trip but there were so many sweet, restful moments too. Heidi and I felt loved and lavished. Malachi 3:10 refers to God’s blessings after faithful tithing, but we felt it directly applied to us during this trip. 

Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need. -Malachi 3:10 ESV

The fundraisers, donations, gifts, intercessory prayers, food items, cards, words of life, meals, and tickets to a vacation cruise all felt like the windows of Heaven had opened up over Heidi and myself.