Christmas, Family, Grace, Hope, Uncategorized

2017: A Year In Review

It always takes a bit of mental sorting to write a Christmas letter. To rewind the memories of the mind. To retrace steps of a year gone by. Especially when that year held moments that fragmented the heart. However, no matter the suffering, it is always a healing balm to be able to see the flesh of a baby in a manger. The light of love come down. The warmth of hope wrapped in swaddling clothes. Christmas throws a rope of rescue to those of us needing something to cling too. And although stores fill their shelves to overflowing this time of year, nothing behind those glass doors holds the miracle of strength, of renewing. The stuff of Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays will never be able to give an understanding of journeys. Journeys of exhausting proportions. Journeys of diseases fought, marriages glued back together, depression trampled, or death knocking on or knocking over those we love. If there is anything Ben and I have learned it’s that there is a whole separate journey in witnessing the walk of a Godly King through a year of hard. See how His footsteps match yours print for print. How His hand opens doors of healing, spreads hope like a warm robe, and carries grace right through your front door!

In years past, I have enjoyed breaking down the family by individuals and bragging about their growth and development. I feel like I get to introduce them to you all over again, because each year comes with a view of someone new emerging. But this year, we couldn’t separate. This year, we printed out a proclamation from writer, Ann Voskamp, stuck it on the wall and memorized it, “Family is a VERB. It’s not just what we ARE, it’s something we actively KEEP ON MAKING!” Because, without experience, I had no other way of knowing how to get through what I knew would be hard.

The first 2 months of 2017 were spent consulting with doctors in Grand Rapids and here in Petoskey, and on March 1 I was officially diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. Like my mother, my little sister, my grandma, two uncles, and several cousins ahead of me, I learned what infusions centers looked like, I learned how to give blood on a weekly basis for months, I learned how PET, CT, MRI, and MUGA all precede the word SCAN and what that means to a mortal body. I learned how to wear blue bandana’s so that people would say how pretty my eyes looked instead of how bald my head was. I learned how a husband can fall in love with a young bride in her prime, and 20 years later, still see her scarred body as beautiful. I learned how a 12 year old girl could instinctively care for a 3 year old baby brother, put lunch on the table, and clean a bathroom, and still make straight A’s, while her mama slept away the effects of chemotherapy. I learned what it meant to a 9 year old boy to have his mama at his baseball games, even if she was the one wrapped in three blankets and wearing a winter hat in the spring. I learned how a church pulls together and offers comfort, meals, care, all while their hands are raised in prayer, and how that feels like warriors going to battle for you. I learned how friends show up to stuff your kids in their cars and take them on play dates, take them to lunch, take them to get their hair cut, while you waste away a little. I learned how ‘family’ was something we HAD to actively keep up, so that cancer wouldn’t destroy us. And even when your bones ached and your skin tingled you still pulled those kids close and read them stories and said their bedtime prayers together, because you knew the ache of losing them would hurt so much worse.

This was also the year Ben altered the course of the business a little. It wasn’t meant to all happen at the same time, but for several months last year, he had been preparing to focus more on the custom cabinet business. And for the first time in 15 years here in northern Michigan, his company did not build a single home in 2017. Instead, he poured time, money, and resources into building a team, a family, at Stillwater Custom Cabinetry. It was necessary to slow down the growth to build the foundation. We pulled the purse strings tight at home and he spent a great deal of time developing a software program to help run a smoother cabinet shop. He and his team are preparing for larger manufacturing orders, as he has done the research to know that the need is out there and not being met. He’s part of a board of advisors to a software development company on the west coast. They all want to change the way computers, equipment and carpenters can communicate and produce products at a high level of quality in the most efficient amount of time. It’s been the cutting edge challenge he needed and desired. The customers are calling and the list is growing and we haven’t even advertised yet. It will be another sort of journey to see where Stillwater goes in the year 2018.

Maddy, Brett, & Judah. Only a parent can know the slow breath of relief that this was a year of healthy kids. We got to watch them snow ski, ride bikes, play in the sand, smash baseballs across diamonds, and build forts in the woods. We let a lot of things go this year, we didn’t plant a garden, never made it to Farmer’s Market even once, and only used the boat twice. But we did read through stacks of books, finished up our fifth year of homeschooling, built an entire fort village in the woods at the edge of the property, and just basked in the company that flowed in and out of our driveway as they came to offer the support and care that they could. We felt especially grateful when the doctors stopped my chemo at the end of June and put me on Prednisone so we could make the trip on the ferry across Lake Michigan to Milwaukee, WI to witness dear friends say their vows. Then drive up and through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and across the Mackinac Bridge. One week later we packed up the camper and spent a week at Camp Au Sable for family camp, cherishing every moment with family and friends, every worship service at the lakes edge, every class taught, every song sung. And when it was time to plan for the next school year, we did what we’ve done through everything, we bowed before the Good Shepherd of our journey, and asked what we should do?

Camp Au Sable not only helped us create memories this summer and gave us a break from medical requirements, but they have now become the place for Maddy and Brett to get their education. The doors were flung open and both kids have flourished in their new environment. The teachers, the students, and the woods have all helped keep the Creator of all life front and center. So when Isaiah 42:16 says, “I will make the darkness bright before them and smooth out the road ahead of them”, Ben and I could see what that meant. Nothing has eased our minds more than putting our kids in a school that offers such light, and, though the road to get there each day is long, it is the smooth road.

If I could end this letter there, I would be ok with that, but sadly, I cannot. The year was not without its deep pain. In August Ben’s step-mom, Treasure, was diagnosed with Metastatic Cervical Cancer. For a moment, I thought that swapping hats and wigs back and forth would be something we would laugh about someday. But her battle was fierce, consuming, deadly passionate about destroying her. And on November 24, her tiny little body could fight no more. We kissed her, and held her hand and said our final good-byes and wished with all our hearts that this was a big bad dream. Losing Treasure has left a huge hole in our family. She was something special and unique to each of us. Her contagious laugh, mouth-watering meals, and blithe sense of humor will be massively missed. We are sad, but not without hope. Hope in seeing her again someday minus her wheelchair. She and Brett have a standing appointment for a foot race first thing when they get to heaven. I’ll be at the finish line hollerin’ loud and hugging both of them something fierce.

With all the hard this year, there has been so much good‼ We’ve been able to see how people really do show up. How they have heard the gospel and understand what it means to reach out and serve. We’ve been reminded of how to live not climbing ladders, but instead, pressing our knees into the floor. So with Christmas here, it’s no wonder we find ourselves pressing ever closer to a crude manger holding a baby-King.

And if you are receiving this letter, its because you have been a part of our journey. You’ve bowed low and prayed loud and helped absorb our storm and we are SO grateful for you.

The Brower Family

Ben, Kathy, Maddy, Brett, & Judah

Christmas, Family, Uncategorized

Our Family in 2016

Dear Family and Friends Everywhere!

I’ve been mulling over the past year wondering how it ended already. I wonder if I’m dangerously close to standing in a blurry spot. That spot where life races and you’re head down trying to stay one step ahead, but you’re the girl in the kitchen behind the party and you just may have missed the events. The kids have sure grown like weeds. I haven’t missed that! Maddy is 11 and in the 5th grade. She grew three inches this year and stands at 4’11! Ben has admitted to confusing the two of us out of the corner of his eye on more than one occasion. I realize the high likelihood of looking her directly in the eye in another year and am grateful that her chocolate brown eyes are usually so kind to look into. She is doing very well in her schoolwork, and still finds time to read a stack of books every week. We redid the guest room last Christmas and moved her into it, so her favorite books and trinkets are now in her own space and the boys are much less likely to destroy her set-up. It definitely felt like we had literally moved Wendy out of the nursery‼ I didn’t understand how apron strings can get loosened and how a bit dizzying that can feel. Some of you are nodding and giving me the ol’ “Just wait!”. I know. But I’m grateful for the girl she still is. I love the girl who studies hard and works hard. I love how she hangs long across her bed and reads into the night. How she loves all things horses. How she loves downhill skiing and snowmobiling, but is happy to leave organized sports to Brett. I love how she offers to bake cornbread to go with our chili and how she volunteers to dress Judah on Sabbath mornings when Ben’s showering and, honestly, I just want a dress that fits! I love all the good that she is and is becoming!

Brett is taller too. Just turned 9, and in the 3rd grade. He’s stronger and smarter and has taken to sports with an overwhelming leap! Suddenly his body and mind put all the rules and moves together and his high energy and need to move took over and the old farmhouse feels too small to contain his run. It doesn’t hurt that he has a high level of competition flowing through his veins. I love what a big picture thinker he is. I love how fast he gets his chores done, and how he insists on memorizing every new piece of music the piano teacher gives him. I love how he loves to go to the coffee shop for a hot drink, a fresh pastry, and a moment of my full attention. I love that he’s already planning next summers fort in the woods and I so admire his forward thinking. I don’t know what company he’ll run one day, but I’m almost certain he will.

Judah is 3 and my most independent kid. He lives in a complex world of wanting to play hard, but never quite keeping up with the older two. He still requires a nap every day and loves sharing a room with an older brother. He pushes his way into Maddy & Brett’s chores, into their piano practicing, and into their board games determined to take over or at least be included. It all sounds brash, but really, with his shining blue eyes, soft sweet dimple, and his seriously infectious giggle, it’s hard not to want him around. He’s easy to entertain. A few Hot Wheels cars, a couple of books, and some music and/or musical instruments, and you’re set for hours. It also doesn’t hurt to include the great outdoors and his little Strider bicycle. The kid is an adventure just to watch and be around. We love him like crazy and wonder how our lives ever spun without him.

Ben and I spend a great deal of our time parenting these three with less sleep, more grays, and an endless supply of God’s grace. On top of that, Ben is still a devout entrepreneur. He is still building custom homes here in northern Michigan. We also have seen huge growth in the custom cabinet business, Stillwater Custom Cabinetry. He also continues to be heavily involved at church and still finds time to work around the farm, pull kids around the lake behind the boat, and camp a handful of weekends during the summer months. I love his passion for both family and work and how he prayerfully moves both forward, taking us where only God could reveal.

And as for me? Well, most of you know or can at least guess at what I have spent this last year doing. Three kids growing, learning, and playing, and I watch them and guide where I can, teach when their listening, and pray without ceasing. I teach them school, taxi them, tickle them, and time their math fact sheets. I read them great books, feed them bread for their bodies and their souls, and I pray feverishly that I won’t completely mess them up. I also try hard to grow edible things in our garden on a hill. I preserve, freeze, and dehydrate fresh foods while the dryer spins, balls bounce high, and the piano pounds loud. And in the midst of all that, I make time to love my husband and serve my church and write.

So this Christmas, between all the busyness of the season, we want to stop and slow down and see each of you for who you are. We want you to know that we’re rejoicing over here about this baby Jesus. This Son-King. We’ve been reading for Advent the story of the family tree of the Christ Child and how it grows in the most unexpected ways, and we feel the same about our family. We also look at each of you and see the special way you’ve each woven your way through our family and how only a God “who holds the wind in his fists, who wraps up the oceans in his cloak, who has created the whole wide world”* could have done all that. Please know that we Browers want to wish you the very Merry Christmas that you deserve. Because He came for you. Special you!

With love,

Ben, Kathy, Maddy, Brett, & Judah                                  *(Proverbs 30:4 NLT)

browerfam1of26

Christmas

Norman or Jesus?

I wanted this post to be spot-on Christmas. All glittery and snowy and cinnamon touched. After all, it’s December, people are hauling trees home to decorate, families are smiling cheesy in front of cameras, and the neighbors blowing up a giant snow-globe to bobble in the front yard. We had snow. But it melted. But this is northern Michigan, it could snow at any given sneeze. Yeah. I was planning to write about family traditions, and recipes, and how to win “best hostess”. Or something along those lines.

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But I’ve been jerked into an about face.

I’ll admit, the part of me that missed Christmas last year because of our family circumstances was pushing me to overdue this years festivities. To be some catalog perfect mother with everything spit-spot and polished and organized and Norman Rockwelled right into a Hallmark card!

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But the truth is, it’s December 6, and I’m writing this from my baby’s hospital room. The only thing perfect so far is, well, nothing. I have 18 days to figure out how to create something for my kids to remember. 18 days to reach out and holiday touch family and friends. 18 days to menu plan, Christmas bake, grocery shop, and clean the kitchen 54 more times. I have 17 nights to watch the moon rise and throw it’s beams across the painted floors and wonder how.

The panic was setting in. The weight was laying heavy on the pillow at night. The ideal nearly had me undone.

Then the baby’s fever began to climb and his breathing rattled and I woke up to a very real life.
An about face to a babe in a hospital bed and suddenly all the fancy gifts simplified.

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This is a season about another babe birthed by a young girl and fathered by GOD! And no matter how you tell that Christmas story, there’s no way to get around the humble quiet beginning. The stripped down stable, the weathered stall, the forked hay piled in a feeding trough. There was NOTHING shimmering or bells jingling. And yet, *sigh*, that’s what I was planning to make this holiday all about.

Please don’t misunderstand, there’s nothing wrong with decorating and baking and filling the house with Christmas carols and smelling candles. But if you don’t take a moment (or more) to read Jesus Christs’ story at least once, or reflect on the real birth of pain and mess all over cattle hay. If you haven’t yet strained to hear Mary gasp for breath or hear Joseph’s heart pounding over the near panic of the whole scene. And if you’ve forgotten what it’s like to stare at a newborn so long you put a crick in your neck, then this is the season to do that.

There was raw pain for two newlyweds that Christmas night, and there was raw pain for a Savior whose human body hung on a very humble cross to “save a wretch like me”. Let’s not get lost in the catalog’s and credit cards. Instead, let’s get lost in the birth of new babies. In the building of families. In the carols sung in the heart when love finds us. Cause that love? That’s from Him. Him whose birth the angels sang.

Are you struggling to see Him through the mess of tissue paper and tinsel? Are you feeling the hurry grabbing you by the throat? What ways are you slowing this season to take time to kneel before the stable? Share with us?

In His pure newborn name, Jesus,

~kathy