Christmas contest winner :: Ali’s story

At the beginning of the month I set out to see past the commercialization of Christmas, past the insanity of Christmas shopping, the bombardment of Christmas advertisements, the glut of Duck Dynasty merchandise, the $30 Elf on the somebody else’s shelf and the siege of angry holiday traffic.

I didn’t have to look too far to see beyond the racket. Everything I needed to see was “invisible to the eye,” as my favorite children’s book author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry so eloquently articulated in The Little Prince.

{“Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” In English this means, “One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”}

At the start of the month when I posted a storytelling contest I had no idea this one would come my way. As the author of this wacky blog, I expected to receive wacky stories ripe with sarcasm. I expected at least one reference to the Griswold family and one reference to the frozen flag pole in A Christmas Story.

Instead I got a story that began with a phone call at the end of November from a young woman in Kentucky named Ali. She wanted to know if I was available the week after Thanksgiving to take photos of she and her 20-month-old son. They would be on vacation for a week on Longboat Key. She wanted beach photos of just the two of them.

“Nothing extravagant,” she said. “Just an hour or so of me and him doing our thing.”

She seemed a little scattered, a little distant. As a journalist, I wanted to know more. As a photographer, it was none of my business. Were these Christmas portraits? Your basic mom/son portraits? She didn’t say.

I penciled her in for a Saturday just before sunset, which was how we got on the subject of lighting sky lanterns.

“It would be great if you can get photos of that,” she said. “It’s my husband’s birthday weekend and I’d love to do something sweet to honor him. He would’ve been 31.”

And that was all I needed to know. She was a widow. A widow with a 20-month-old son.

She said the pictures were for her son. One day he’d be grown and fully aware of their loss and wonder how on earth his mother managed in those first few months. She wanted him to know that she manged, that they were OK.

So on the last day of November on a partly cloudy evening, I photographed Ali and Ben doing their thing.

 

 

I corresponded a little with Ali in the weeks that followed our shoot. We talked about how her husband died (liver failure from an as-yet-to-be-determined cause). We talked about motherhood, writing, photography and her resemblance to the actress Monica Potter.

One day she emailed me the eulogy she wrote for her husband. In the body of the email she wrote, “I absolutely hate public speaking, but on the day of his funeral, I couldn’t wait to get up in front of all 900 people and read what I wrote. It was the proudest day of my life. Justin was my college sweetheart. He was the nicest man, the most loving husband and the absolute best daddy.”

I did not intend to run a eulogy on Christmas. I struggled with whether Christmas was the worst time or the best time to share Ali’s story. Tonight I considered posting a photo of our tree topper (Godzilla) and wishing you all a monstrously awesome holiday while letting Ali’s eulogy be remembered only by the family and friends who attended Justin’s funeral.

But then I started thinking … and thinking  … and thinking … until the thinking made my head hurt and I came to the conclusion that THIS was perhaps the greatest thing I could share with you on Christmas. Ali’s story, while not a Christmas story, is a loving tribute to a loving man whose life was unfairly cut too short far too soon.

And therein lies the reason why it matters today.

Christmas is a celebration of people. Plain and simple. Nothing else matters. The rest of it is just stuff. And this goes for the other days of the year too. People are what make our lives worth living, not things, not the toys you did or didn’t get your kid, or the outfit you planned to wear to Christmas dinner or the looming stress of returning to work after a five-day break. Your people are what matter most. Spend your days loving them. If that’s the only takeaway you get from Ali’s story, then I’ve picked the right contest winner.

I know too many people struggling with grief right now to let Ali’s story just sit in my inbox. She asked me share it. She wants the world to know how fabulous her husband was and rightly so. To my friends and family who are struggling with loss this Christmas, please know you’re not alone.

Life is beautiful and cruel, but that’s kind of the deal, ya know? Nothing lasts forever, so cherish your people, appreciate them, love them and by all means live life richly. This is a metaphorical request, not a literal one.

Merry Christmas readers. Here’s Ali’s story.

xo, Heidi

:::::::

Just a little over four years ago, Justin and I were standing in this very church professing our love for each other in front of our friends and family, many of whom are here with us today. It was the happiest day of my life. As I walked down the aisle, I visioned our life together – starting a home and a family, watching our children grow and have children of their own, and growing old and happy together. We promised each other to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part. Little did I know how soon these vows and our faith would be put to the ultimate test and how too soon in life I would be experiencing the saddest day in my life.

The first time I met Justin was in fall of 2001 at Xavier University orientation day. We were 18 years old. My roommate ended up becoming friends with one of his suite mates and we all started hanging out more. Justin and I had an instant attraction for each other. He had the prettiest blue eyes and lashes that would make any girl jealous. He had a great smile with teeth white as snow. He was funny and a true southern gentleman. We gravitated towards each other and officially started dating on January 27th, 2002.

We had crazy, fun, intense and enduring love. It blossomed like only the prettiest flower could. I became closer to his wonderful family and group of friends that he so loved and adored. There is a saying that once in a while in an ordinary life, loves gives us a fairytale. I was living a fairytale and knew I had found my soul mate.

Justin used to tell me the only thing he loved was seeing me happy and he sure did treat me like a queen. He was a true romantic – whether it be tickets to see the Cinderella ballet, “just because” flowers, setting up a picnic at our house after buying it to celebrate, coming home after a long week with a spa gift card waiting, writing me little notes and leaving them around the house, surprising me with a puppy – our Honey Valentine – on Valentine’s day and of course everyone knows about his over-the-top proposal: whisking me away to Paris and asking me to marry him while the Eiffel Tower twinkled in the background.

Justin was getting ready to turn 31 this November. In his short time on earth he accomplished so much. As a young boy, he grew a fondness for animals, especially dogs and turtles. His nickname was bug boy. He loved to camp and go fishing. He was an outstanding tennis player. He began playing varsity tennis in the 4th grade and went on to win three consecutive regional titles during his high school years.

He was awarded a tennis scholarship to Xavier University for his outstanding play and he captained the team during his senior year. He was also an amazing musician. He could play the guitar, piano and drums. Really if you gave him any instrument, he could play it. He could learn how to play a song just by hearing it. Justin also tutored underprivileged children for reading during his lunch hour.

He was an impressive impersonator, a true comedian and funny prankster. He was the most generous person I knew. He would cut off his right arm for you if you needed it. He was a humble, simple guy – never wanted or needed much. And I think most people would agree with me when I say he was the least selfish person you’d ever meet. He never put himself first. While he was exceptional at so many things, he disliked attention on himself. I, on the other hand, loved to brag about him.

Justin experienced true unconditional love in his partnership with me; a love so genuine that it created another life – our son Ben.

Justin was able to witness his son’s birth. He solely named him. He saw his first smile, first laugh, celebrated his first birthday and saw his first steps. Most importantly, he heard Ben call him by name – “Dada.” “Where Dada,” Ben would say.

Our sweet Ben is taking on all the qualities of Justin. He is curious, smart, sweet, musical and everyone always says he is the best baby they have ever been around. I am most thankful that he has Justin’s pretty blue eyes and whenever I look at Ben I am reminded so much of Justin.

Justin was sick and didn’t know it. Nobody knew it. He was 30. He felt good. He was happy and functioned like the rest of us. In reality he had a chronic illness that had been going on for a while, but his noticeable symptoms appeared too late. And even though he was the No 1 singles player and endured six-hour long tennis matches in the heat of summer, he couldn’t win this match.

Everyone says God has a plan. There are no answers, but looking back on our life and how the diced rolled, maybe God knowing Justin was sick was the reason why he led us to the most perfect house – right behind our brother and sister. God knew that Ben and I would eventually need them for help and support. Maybe that is why God gave us somewhat of a quick and surprised pregnancy, so that Justin could experience fatherhood and the love of his son before coming to heaven.

And maybe that is why even after hoping for a girl at first, God gave us a boy, so I would always have a piece of Justin for the rest of my life.

I miss my Justy Bunny so much it hurts. I keep thinking everything is going to return to normal and that he’s going to walk back into our home and we’ll cook dinner together while listening to music and playing with Ben. Sometimes I wish it would have been me rather than him.

I ask that Justin give me the strength from heaven to be strong, positive and somehow heal. I believe that he will guard over Ben, Honey and me and continue to keep us safe and healthy. I know one day we will meet again in heaven and I will be able to kiss his lips and look into his beautiful blue eyes.

But until that time, I am going to have to learn how to move forward. I am not quite sure how I can possibly go on, but I have to for our son. Not a day will go by that Ben will not hear about Justin. Ben will know his father and learn about all the things he loved here on earth and how he had a positive impact on many. I will somehow teach Ben music, tennis, and I will take him camping and fishing.

When we do these activities, Justin will always be in our thoughts.

And now some last words to my husband: Justin, you have made me so happy. You were my first and only true love. We had a love that some can only hope for. We had a life that some dream about. You gave me the sweetest baby in the world and now you are giving me yet another gift. You are going to be our guardian angel for all time. It breaks my heart that you cannot be here with us any longer and watch your “bubby,” as you so adoringly called Ben, grow up. I promise to raise him to be a person you are proud of. I love you with my whole heart and always will.

While all fairy tales must come to and end, memories live on forever. That is the one thing that can never be taken from us – the beautiful memories we created together.

They say God gives the hardest battles to his strongest soldiers. Please continue your prayers for me, Ben and Honey so we can continue to be strong soldiers and help with the void we will feel in missing Justin every day. Everyone has their own vision of heaven. I believe that heaven is a place where you can do, see or have anything you want. I rely on this vision because thinking about Justin jamming out with Jimi Hendrix in the Galapagos Islands brings a smile to my face.

Comments

  1. Sara says

    I am so glad you posted this today. Thank you for this. Thank you Ali, for sharing this as well. Beautiful words. Experiences and memories are the most valuable things in the world. What better day than Christmas to think about that.

  2. Nicole says

    A beautiful tribute to her husband. Merry Christmas and blessings to that family. My husband lost his father to liver failure when he was 8 years old. As he nears the age of his dad’s death we are reminded of all that he missed out on. Ed has always said that he feels his dad’s presence and protection and Ben will have that from his own dad. Thank you for sharing your story.

  3. Crista Yeager says

    Thank you so much for posting Ali and Justin’s story. I am a very lucky girl to be the sister in law of Ali’s that lives behind her. The amount of courage and strength Ali has shown since Justin’s passing could never be measured! Please continue to pray for Ali, Ben, and the rest of the Yeager family for continued strength and faith. God bless justin, our guardian angel this Christmas!

  4. says

    What a loving story. I am the mother of Ali’s twin, Stephanie. Through my daughter, I witnessed Ali and Justin’s budding love while they all attended Xavier together. They were truly a perfect match supported by two loving families and many friends. Ali’s strength and courage at such a young age is admirable but a loss no young woman should have to endure. But through our deep faith, we find comfort in Gods plan trusting that is a perfect plan that mere mortals don’t always have the capacity to understand. Ali, you are loved by many that will be here for you no matter what.

  5. says

    Heidi,

    You made a perfect choice. I have tears in my eyes right now. I’m going to send Ali and Bubby Ben the songs, “My Very Best Present is You” and “Friends.”
    You should send Ali and Ben the full track of Wilton Wilberry and The Magical Christmas Wishing Well, too. I hope they listen to it as Bubby gets a little older and that it will help them remember Justin.
    (I’ll send them to you first, so you can forward them.)

    Mifflin Lowe

  6. says

    Heidi,
    Now that I think of it, I also want to send “A Watch of Nightingales” from The King Who Forgot His Underpants. I originally wrote this song and sang it on Beasts By The Bunches add as goodnight lullaby for putting kids to sleep at the end of the CD, but after my mother died, I rerecorded it with just me and a guitar — as a goodnight blessing to my mother — hoping and trusting that she would and will be watched over even after she passed away.

    Mifflin Lowe

  7. jennifer says

    this is such a touching tribute, makes us all take a moment and reflect on what God has given us. May Ali, Ben and Honey all find strength in the days, weeks, months and years to come. I am a believer that the angels above us take great care of us, until we are all together again.

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