Riley’s Story: A Girl and Her Gift

“I would love to tell my story. Could you help me?”

When I got a letter from this spunky, brave, strong-like-a-butterfly girl asking if I could tell her story, I couldn’t resist.

Meet Riley. She’s ten years old and she’s read Her Own Two Feet five times. She’s also had stomach surgery “twice in the same spot.”

The first time I’d heard about Riley was back in November of 2021, when I got an email from her mom. She said Riley’s fourth-grade teacher was reading Her Own Two Feet in class when Riley had to have emergency surgery.

Mrs. Wilson and Riley

Her mom said Riley was talking about Rebeka in the surgical prep room, but at the time her mom didn’t know what she was talking about. “Come to find out, she was using Rebeka as an example of surviving anything. Riley reads your book over and over again.” I was so touched. Before Her Own Two Feet came out, Rebeka told me she hoped her story would help kids who were going through hard times, so this was really gratifying. I printed the email to send to Rebeka and sent Riley a letter and an autographed sticker for her book.

Five months later, this April, I got a package in the mail from Riley.

The letter, with stars dotting the i’s, said she had another stomach surgery on the same spot. In her letter Riley said, “Rebeka helped me so much.” I wanted to hear more, so I asked Riley’s mom if we could zoom so I could ask Riley a few questions and she agreed. We chatted a bit and Riley showed me her butterfly shoes and pink crocs, just like Rebeka’s.

Then Riley told me about her first surgery. How she had started having bad pains the night before, and the next day after her regular doctor couldn’t diagnose what was wrong and she couldn’t stop getting sick, her mom rushed her to the hospital.

She talked about how there were so many doctors in the room, the bright lights, lots of medical equipment, and how nobody could go with her when it was time for surgery. It sounded a lot like Rebeka’s experience that we describe in the book. “It sounds scary but once you do it, it’s not scary,” Riley told me.

Which isn’t to say that it’s easy. Riley told me about her second surgery, how she had the familiar pains at school this time, and had to have the same surgery again. This time she got the same medicine Rebeka had before her surgeries to help her relax (Riley called it the “I don’t care” medicine), and she got to choose a flavor for the air in her mask like Rebeka, too.

What struck me about Riley is how much it helped to face a painful, frightening situation with courage because she had seen someone else do it. And now she has her own story to share with others, her own encouragement she can give. Encouragement is such a gift, and Riley is an excellent gift-giver.

When I asked her about the gifts she sent for Rebeka’s family she explained their specific purposes. In Chapter Thirteen of the book Rebeka uses tape to hang a tutu on the wall of our house. “What a wondrous thing this tape was! How Papa would love a roll.”

Riley explained that the clothespins can be used to hang clothes on a rope to dry. And the rubber bands? Riley remembered how Rebeka hurt her knee when she crawled on a piece of dry maize in Chapter One of the book. She imagines how someone might use rubber bands to hang the maize to dry up high, so little kids won’t hurt themselves.

Not only is she strong, and courageous, and kind, Riley is creative.

My favorite stories tell both the big moments (like emergency surgeries) and the little heartwarming ones (like rolls of tape, clothespins and rubber bands in a package.) I count it an honor to tell a little of Riley’s story here, and I hope she goes on to share it herself. She’s got lots to give.

When I shared this post with Riley and her mom, before posting, Riley wanted to tell me “one more thing.” At her school library, Her Own Two Feet is in the “Heroes” section, and she thinks that is the perfect spot for our book. To the librarian who made a spot in the library for books about heroes, and the teacher who read out book to her class, and to Riley’s mom and Grandma who helped her reach out to us, and to Riley who’s sending a roll of tape, rubber bands and clothes pins across the ocean, you are our heroes. Thank you.



Read 6 Comments

Peace Like a River

His name is River, and we are enchanted. Ever since our grandson came into this world on April 8th, my world of walking the dog and editing my manuscript and answering emails and doing basic daily tasks has faded next to the primary goal of when I can get myself back to the River. Leon Bridge’s lyrics repeat . . . take me to your River, I wanna go . . .
Alayna, my daughter now a mother, spent most of her childhood growing up next to the Colorado River (though it’s called Lake Austin since it’s dammed up at both ends). Now Clay and I live beside a river once again, though this time it’s called Lady Bird Lake. Maybe that’s why I like his name so much. Or maybe his name could have been Horace Fankfurter Fartsalot and I would have been just as enchanted because just look at this boy.
Back when the kids were little and we lived by the river, I remember how quiet it could be on weekday mornings, the light filtering through the cypress trees. We made a mug for our neighbors one year for Christmas with pictures taken out our back door, and included a lyric from a beautiful hymn, Peace Like a River.
I feel that same peace when I’m holding this little guy. As I write this, little River Davis Choi is only a week old, and I have to say, he is one peaceful little boy. Fill him up with his Mama’s good milk . . .
. . . make sure his diaper is clean, and he is content. There is so much new to encounter. Clothes to wear (so exhausting) and dogs to meet, but he takes them all in stride with very little fuss.
I’ve been blogging here since 2011 (and at our Faces in the Street site in 2007-08). That’s a lot of stories, some the big, splashy kind and some the sweet, quiet kind. There’s our trip around the world with the kids, that time I grew some pretty great tomatoes, our year with Rebeka, the foster babies, Her Own Two Feet, two beautiful weddings, favorite books I’ve read, and now River. He’s our once upon a time, the beginning of a most wonderful story and I can’t wait to find out what’s next. But I’m also quite content to hold him on these first few pages of his life, while he stares at the world in wonder and dozes and coos. He makes me peaceful like a river.

Read 9 Comments

Two Women Walk Into a Bar . . .

It’s so cool when the circles of your life intersect, and I’ve found it often happens when you say “yes.” Yes to writing an article or stepping into a new group of friends or taking an extra minute to reach out with an email. Circles like writers, family, friends, book club, dog park, church . . . each has its own thread. Here’s how two of those threads, they all seem so random sometimes, braided together in an unexpected way. I was running around chasing a doodle and writing stories in Austin, Texas . . .

In the elevator, after a good play at the dog park.

. . .and a then-stranger named Julie Rubini with her much-better-behaved dog Luna, was also writing stories in Toledo, Ohio.

We first connected when I wrote an article for Nonfiction Fest about my process in writing Her Own Two Feet and Julie won the giveaway, woohoo! We got in touch so I could mail her the book and she kindly mailed me one of hers in exchange, children’s biography Virginia Hamilton: America’s Storyteller. A friendship bloomed, ala’ digital pen pals. We already had a connection in that she had been inspired to start a book festival in Toledo after visiting the Texas Book Festival, created in honor of their daughter Claire, who tragically died at the age of ten.

I was so touched and impressed by all that she and her husband had accomplished through Claire’s Day, truly an awesome children’s literacy event that changes lives and has grown tremendously over the years. She and her husband had also traveled extensively in the US, with their kids in an RV, and Clay and I have traveled a bunch with our kids overseas, and Alayna and Choi had their RV travels. So we had lots to talk about.

Our trusty steed in 2008, Stockton Beach, Australia.

This caption was originally titled, “Kids having fun doing homework in campervan!” Yeah, right!

But I figured that was that, two women separated by many miles who would occasionally correspond via email, until Julie texted saying she and her husband were in town en route to pick up an RV in San Antonio. When I say, “please let me know if you ever come to town,” I mean it! Julie believed me, and I’m so glad she did. The four of us (Julie and I plus husbands) got together for lunch, and serendipity number two, their hotel was right across the street from where Nate’s band Everett was playing their first concert since the pandemic!

Julie and her husband Brad joined Clay and I, some of our friends, and old and new Everett fans for drinks and great music. The energy on stage was awesome (shameless plug, I love the new Superhero release) and Julie and I snapped a quick pic in the dark bar all smiles.

I would have never thought, writing that article, I’d end up with a new friend sharing drinks in a little bar off Red River listening to Everett. It’s not a big thing, really, but life is a little richer and the friendship stronger and who knows where it might lead?

I like to think the braid isn’t complete. Maybe I’ll find myself in Toledo someday, or in an RV with Clay at some campervan park, meeting up with Brad and Julie. And we’ll turn on the radio, and Everett will be playing, it’s a top ten countdown, and Julie and I will be talking about our recent bestsellers and tracing the braid since the last time we met . . . because we never stopped saying “yes.” It’s so worth it.

Leave a Comment

Bookshelf: The Beatryce Prophecy

I would not be unique in saying how much I love Kate DiCamillo, or Sophie Blackall. I have a Sophie Blackall print hanging in our condo that I first saw when riding a subway in New York. It features a quirky group of subway riders including two nuns sharing headphones, a guy in a bear costume, a woman holding a fiddle leaf fig, and a guy playing an accordion.

I just love her sensibility, and I like to think how Kate must have swooned to have her illustrate The Beatryce Prophecy, to “illuminate” it and give it life.

The first DiCamillo Book I read was The Tale of Despereaux and I loved the voice and the quirkiness and how it talked about darkness and light, good and evil, wrapped up in a great story with unforgettable characters. I’ll never forget her description of poor, beaten Mig’s “cauliflower ears.” The Beatryce Prophecy is also quirky with great characters. There’s a goat that strikes fear in the heart of grown men and a mute girl, there’s a mystery that needs solving, and underneath it all there’s something deeper going on. What’s the importance of prophecies, and what can change the world? This book talks about the importance of stories, of reading, of words, of using your voice, of power and laying down your power.

I picked up this book at the perfect time, when I had the time to read it all in a couple of big gulps on a few gray days. I read it as I’m approaching a writing project of my own, puzzling how to intertwine the bones of plot with the tendons and sinew of theme and purpose and things that matter. DiCamillo does it so, so well.

Read 2 Comments

The Best Story Ever

On September 4th I wrote a post about Nate and Jo’s wedding ceremony getting postponed due to Covid, and while we were sad we had to cancel the plans in Washington State, we knew it would all work out and there would be a good story to tell. We had no idea what was in store for us two weeks later.

First, Nate had to get over Covid. Their friends were really sweet, even dropped off pretty white flowers and a bag of chips and hot sauce, Nate and Jo’s fave.

They decided to get married in Austin, and we got to work planning a ceremony at our ranch that would take place at 8AM Sunday morning, September 19th. We had about 12 days to get the ranch ready and make all the wedding plans. By the time Alayna and Choi flew in to Austin on the 17th, we were just about ready and so excited! Imagine a bottle of champagne that’s been shaken-that was us. Then Alayna and Choi gave us this happy news.

Alayna told us she was ten weeks pregnant and we exploded in a joyful, crying, hugging, high-fiving fizz of celebration. We decided to keep it a secret from our families until after Nate and Jo got married and drove off Sunday afternoon. After a full day Saturday getting everything ready, we gathered that night for barbeque down the road with all the families. Nate and Jo seemed amazingly calm and so, so happy.

Many people have asked, “Why so early on a Sunday morning?” When the sun came peeking over the horizon, and our good friend who did the ceremony came in to our last minute hustle and bustle and showed us a pic he snapped, I knew Jo’s instinct for Sunday morning was right.

You may remember from the last post how Jo hadn’t tried on her dress until the night before she was supposed to leave. This dress, it was something special. She had dreamed it up and found a seamstress who could make it, something with a transparent layer on top of a silky layer. The sun shone through the sleeves and hit the tips of the tall grass and it really was just beautiful. So were our friend’s words, about love and faith and the sacred vows they were making.

After the ceremony we took pictures, and then Nate and Jo went off to take some more pictures while we got the breakfast tacos and juice set out. (Did I mention that a morning wedding means a super simple menu? Breakfast tacos, fruit, coffee and mimosas!) While we were doing this, I heard someone say, “Hey, there’s horses!” Horses? We don’t have horses.

We found out later they had escaped from a ranch nearby, they really seemed like a touch of magic galloping across the meadow with their tails flying. Nate and Jo did a first dance not long after the horses departed.

And then there was brunch, and toasts, all of us gathered around tables we’d pushed end to end to make one long table down the driveway. Lots and lots of sweet words to bless this couple as they start their life together. Jo’s sister made us all cry.

And then they cut the cake, and we threw petals as they ran to their car, and then they drove off down our asphalt drive. We told our families about Alayna being pregnant, and we continued celebrating, and our ranch is now full of so many more wonderful memories. I would have never imagined the horses, and I didn’t have a clue we’d have baby news that weekend, but could I have imagined these two sitting in a field full of tall grass grinning nose to nose in their wedding best? I had a hunch.


Read 2 Comments

Bookshelf: Ways to Make Sunshine

I wish this had been on my shelf a long time ago. On the heels of lots of rescheduling/looking on the bright side around here (thank you covid), I was already sold on this title. When I saw reviews comparing the main character to Ramona, one of my favorites growing up, I couldn’t wait to crack it open, and this cover . . . so cute! Renée Watson gives us Ryan, an African American fourth grader who is full of spunk from the first line of the book when she tells us, “I am a girl with a name that a lot of boys have.” But when the boy sitting next to her in class points this out to the substitute teacher she feels compelled to say, “I do not have a boy’s name. I have my name. My name is Ryan and Ryan means ‘king’ and that means I am a leader . . .”

A few pages later she races this same boy at recess and almost wins but doesn’t because she trips on her own shoelaces. She doesn’t complain or pout (even though she skinned her knee and it’s bleeding) or make excuses (even though her friend says it’s no fair). She keeps up her end of the bet and buys the boy his candy, but she buys herself some, too. She’s had a hard day, and she needs some chocolate. I like this girl.

I also like slipping into the skin of an African American girl and seeing the world through her eyes. There is a chapter where Ryan’s mom tells her not to go swimming because her grandmother recently straightened her hair, something that took a lot of time. So while Ryan’s girlfriends are all having a blast in the pool she has to hang out on the side in her swimsuit and just get her feet wet. She can’t stand it, so finally she ties her hair up in a scarf, pulls on a shower cap and jumps in for a holding-your-breath contest. She wins, but the consequences are dire. My heart broke for Ryan when I saw the illustration, her eyes closed so she doesn’t see yet what everyone else does.

One of the girls says, “Your hair looks like it got electrocuted!” It is the perfect description spoken just how a fourth grader would say it; so, so mean. So heartbreaking. And yet you can just hear the giggles, right? We’ve all been in those circles where some clever person came up with the perfect insult that made everyone laugh. It’s brilliant how a book can give a reader empathy, build it, and word by word change the world by changing a heart, reader by reader, story by story. Whether that reader is the teaser, or the one who has been teased.

Fast forward to Ryan looking at herself in the mirror. She’s combed out her wet hair, pulled it into a rubber band making a “big, big Afro puff.” She says, “I like the way my hair looks like one massive storm cloud, how if I stretch it, it boings back into place.” Ryan decides to “try to be the beautiful person Grandma says I am.” This book is filled with goodness. Parents that love Ryan and want her best, a Grandma who speaks truth to her, and a stable church she’s gone to forever where she’s been nurtured in their Easter tradition of reciting poems. There’s a teacher that understands her quirks, friends who love her no matter what, and a market with sugary elephant ears. Sure, there’s plenty of conflict. Her dad loses his job, they move to a smaller house that’s run down, and she doesn’t have a talent for the upcoming show but ungirding Ryan’s world is sunshine and hope and positivity. I checked this book out at the library, but I’ll be buying it and adding it to my shelf.

Leave a Comment

The Story of Love

Consider this Part Two to the post A Dark and Stormy Night, the story of Nate’s proposal to sweet Jo. On May 28th they got engaged, and ever since they’ve been planning like nuts for their wedding. They also had some really sweet engagement photos made.

photo courtesy

The plan was to get married in Olympic National Park on the morning of Sunday, September 5th. That’s right, three months and a week after getting engaged they were going to get married in a tiny little ceremony in the forest. They worked so hard, figuring out a complicated schedule of rental cars and flights, to get parents and siblings and grandparents and a few close friends to gather. Alayna and Choi were in that neck of the woods (literally) and found the most beautiful spot.

Of course, it wasn’t going to be perfect having a destination wedding in the midst of a pandemic. We laughed, a little nervously, about the stories we were sure we’d be telling about that weekend wedding. On Tuesday (5 days before the wedding), Nate found out they had both been exposed to covid the previous weekend. They have both been vaccinated but as soon as he heard they started wearing masks and both got tested. Their rapid tests came back negative that afternoon. Jo spent the night in our condo that evening, and I made sure she had a special book bedside, giddy with excitement about all that was to come.

The next day Nate got on his health portal online and thought he got a negative PCR result so even though he started feeling a little run down and sniffly, he figured it was just a sinus infection. The day was busy, busy, busy with wedding details, trying to pull last minute stuff together plus Jo moved into the condo where they will live together. Their first home is actually going to be six floors below us, a little one bedroom nest. Nate didn’t come back upstairs to our place until late, and he was really tired.

Jo got back a negative PCR result on Thursday afternoon, phew, but Nate was feeling worse. He went back and checked his health portal and realized he had seen an old PCR result from a test he took months ago. Uh-oh. He called the doctor, but they still didn’t have his new PCR results back yet. His had been sent to the lab in a different batch. Nate and Jo’s flight left Friday morning and Jo still didn’t have her dress. In fact, she hadn’t tried it on since it had been altered, but her tailor had assured her it would be delivered to our condo at 1, make that 6, well, maybe 7 . . . but, “Don’t worry,” she assured Jo, “It’s on the way.” At this point things were not looking good for Nate but we were hope, hope, hoping Nate had a really bad cold or something. Honestly, looking back, we were in denial. Nate was in bed down in their new condo when we got the text at 7:15 that the dress had arrived. I ran down to get it and met Jo and her friends up in our condo (Clay was out with Humphrey). The sun was setting, rosy pink, surely it would be all right.

Jo unzipped the garment bag, we squealed, she took the dress out of the bag, and my phone buzzed. It was Nate. I answered, and he said, “Can you hand the phone to Jo?” And sweet Jo, holding her dress in one hand, took the phone and listened for a minute. Her eyes got glassy but she did not burst into tears or rage. She did not turn to self-pity or anger. She said, “I am holding my dress, and I’m still smiling. I love you, and we’re going to get married, and it’s okay.” And that is why I am so happy my son is marrying this girl. Nate was covid positive, they would not be getting married in Olympic National Forest on Sunday morning, and it was okay. With tears running down my cheeks I hugged sweet Jo. That kind of love comes from being rooted in a love bigger than either one of us, being covered in a Holy Spirit peace we can’t understand.

And that is the story of love. Jo’s friends gave her big hugs. Nate texted me “How is Jo?” (did I mention Jo dropped her phone earlier that day and it wasn’t working?) and I texted him back, “she’s just fine.” We’ve still got Jo’s dress in our closet. I had to smile at the name on the garment bag, ironic, funny but not funny because Jo will absolutely wear that perfect wedding dress, and it won’t be long.

And as for Humphrey, we got him a short haircut in anticipation for a long stint at the boarders. He has no idea what he narrowly escaped. I live in fear of him getting into the closet and messing up Jo’s dress.

And these two? Stay tuned for Part Three. I have no idea what it will be titled, but I’m certain of this, it will be a really good story.

photo courtesy

Read 9 Comments

Storytime: Be Yourself

To see summaries of the five books we used to talk about being yourself, scroll to the bottom of this post. If you have a couple minutes . . . I envisioned doing storytime posts once a month this summer, but here we are in July and here I am with my first summertime storytime post. Ahhh, these long, sometimes lazy, sometimes crazy days of summertime!

One of Humphrey’s many napping spots

Humphrey and Penny, doing the Doodle Duel

Humphrey has no problem going from lazy to crazy! (And yes, I realize Humphrey’s naps feature prominently in several storytime posts :-))He recently had a playdate with his doodle friend Penny, and those two, they have so much fun together. We were a bit reluctant bringing Penny into the condo, wondering if Humphrey would totally lose his mind since he usually only sees his friends outdoors where there’s lots of room to run and wrestle, but they were fine. Sure, they wrestled quite a bit and Humphrey only settled down for maybe half an hour in the four hours Penny was with us but no furniture was destroyed and nobody went to the bathroom inside so we counted it a success.

With dogs, pretty much what you see is what you get. They are themselves. For some reason it’s harder for us humans, young and old, and these picture books have some great reminders that we are pretty special the way we are, and we can celebrate our quirks and differences. Here’s to lazy summer days and storytimes and being yourself, no matter who you are!

Camilla’s New Hairdo by Tricia Tusa

I am a huge fan of Tricia Tusa’s illustrations! In this book, great for all ages with a not-too-long story, a woman named Camilla does her hair up in crazy hairdo’s like fruit baskets and forests, mimicking what she sees out her window. She never actually sets foot outdoors, in fact she lives in a tower with only a window and no door, until the day a little girl crash lands on her balcony and Camilla discovers she’s brave enough to not only venture outside, but invite people inside. It’s a story about being yourself while still stepping outside your comfort zone, and it’s worth multiple reads just to study those amazing hairdo’s!

The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf

Oh I love the gentle bull in this classic book, and the black and white illustrations do such a good job of showing perspective and emotion. The page where Ferdinand sits on the bee . . . but I get ahead of myself. Ferdinand isn’t like the other bulls. While they like to “run and jump and butt their heads together” Ferdinand sits quietly and smells the flowers. Some men come along looking for the roughest bulls to fight in bull fights in Madrid, and they see Ferdinand just after he sits on a bee and starts running around snorting and pawing the ground, so they choose him. Oh no! The bull fighters are so nervous when they hear about crazy Ferdinand, and there’s this great spread where Ferdinand runs into the middle of a huge crowded arena, and sits down, and smells the flowers the women have thrown from their hair onto the ground for the matador. The gentle bull refuses to fight, so he gets sent home, and he’s happy being himself, the end. What a great, great book.

The Princess and the Pig by Jonathan Emmett, illustrated by Poly Bernatene

There’s a lot of funny nuance in this book for older kids and adults, with allusions to fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty and Puss in Boots and the phrase “it’s the sort of thing that happens all the time in books.” It’s basically a tale of mistaken identity, where a piglet and baby princess get mixed up at birth and are raised in very different homes. When the peasant parents become aware of the mistake they try and make things right, but the king and queen aren’t convinced. The peasant girl may be smart and beautiful, but she doesn’t look or speak like a real princess and so she can’t possibly be their daughter. Their daughter (the pig), is dressed in fancy gowns and jewels, and so things stay the way they are. The peasant girl (who should have been raised in a castle) gets married happily ever after to a young shepherd, and the princess pig is married to a handsome prince who is assured that once he kisses her, she’ll turn into a beautiful princess because, “it’s the sort of thing that happens all the time in books.” Except . . . not in this book! This book got a good laugh out of the kids and me.

The Mightiest by Keiko Kasza

I adore this author/illustrator, and often use her books for storytime. This one was new to me but I knew it would be good and it didn’t disappoint. Lion, Elephant and Bear see a crown sitting on a rock with the words “For the Mightiest” carved on the side. They argue over who is the mightiest and will get to wear the crown, until a little old lady comes along and they decide whoever scares the lady gets the crown. Each of them scares her so much that they start arguing over who scared her most, but then a giant comes along and he takes the crown and scoops up the animals and tells them he’ll drop them over the edge of a cliff but then the old lady yells “George!” And he stops and drops the animals because she scares him. A little old lady! Turns out she’s his mama 🙂 The animals give the crown to the little old lady who was able to calm the giant, which is kind of what I expected, but then, SHE PUTS THE CROWN BACK ON THE ROCK!!! She tells them she has her little hat and it’s good enough for her, and there’s this great line, “The mightiest didn’t need a crown after all.” Isn’t that just great?

Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems

Mo Willems books are so, so good for read alouds, this one works for pretty young kids with very short text but older kids will appreciate it, too. It starts with great word play, “Leonardo was a terrible monster” could mean two things. It could mean he is really, really mean and horrible, or it could mean that he’s bad at being a monster, and in this book, it’s the latter because you turn the page and it says, “he couldn’t scare anyone.” There’s this great picture of Leonardo throwing a monster tantrum, mouth open and blue tongue flailing. What a cute monster (with human parents). I love the language, like he wants to “scare the tuna salad” out of someone. He finds a boy named Sam and he thinks he scares him but then Sam explains that he’s crying for a bunch of other reasons and not because Leonardo is scary. So Leonardo decides to just be himself, and that means being a good friend, which is exactly what Sam needs. Ahhhhhh.

Leave a Comment

A Dark and Stormy Night: The Proposal

It was a dark and stormy night, the night Nate proposed to Jo.

Nate had been planning it for months, a carefully orchestrated event that first involved choosing the perfect ring and the perfect location (the roof of the Long Center parking garage where he and Jo go for downtown views and to watch the sun set). He called someone at the Long Center to make sure it would be okay, set up the photographer (one of Jo’s best friends, the talented Aubrey Jean) who would hide and take pictures when he went down on one knee, and coordinated with several of their friends who would arrange flowers and candles before they arrived. He even sent me a picture he drew of the way he envisioned it looking.

Meanwhile, Clay and Benji and me would be waiting at the condo with Jo’s family and a few close friends, ready to cheer and toast them with champagne.

Most importantly, he had to find a date that worked for her parents and brother in Louisiana (Luke, Tory and Ryan), and her sister and brother-in-law (Reagan and Cody) in Dallas to be here. All this planning meant that Jo probably had a pretty good idea the proposal was happening so it wasn’t a huge surprise. We kept asking Nate if he wanted to try and make it a surprise, maybe scratch all the planning and just go crazy and propose on a whim. He wavered for half a second, but held firm. He was certain the most important thing to Jo was having her family there, and the earliest that could happen was the evening of Friday, May 28th. The evening of Friday, May 28th, we could see the roof of the Long Center parking garage from our balcony.

No sunset would be visible to the west, only dark storm clouds that were quickly approaching. Nate and Jo opted out of entrees and wolfed down their salads in an effort to hurry through dinner as our phones buzzed with alarming warnings.


The phrases “ping pong ball sized hail” and  “people and outdoor animals will be injured” were especially alarming. I had been texting with Jo’s parents, who were being diverted off I-35 due to the terrible storms and were running late. They were worried they may miss everything. Reagan and Cody were about 45 minutes ahead of them, driving through storms but would probably make it in time . . .

At this point, Jo was pretty aware that this was the night. She had been giddy all day. Her roommate, who was in on the whole thing, was spontaneously bursting into tears of joy and excitement. Jo didn’t know how, or where, but she knew. Nate excused himself from salad and hopped on a call with Clay and his friend, Jaret. I think the photographer was texting at the same time. Their friends met Benji downstairs to pick up the candles Nate bought earlier that day. The wind was picking up. The sky was getting more wicked by the second, but Nate thought maybe if they hurried they could make it. Who cared if they got a little wet? They’d have a story to tell. About then I got a text that Reagan and Cody had arrived at the parking garage, so I went to meet them and bring them up the elevator. The plan was to park Jo’s family on higher levels so when Nate and Jo parked in the garage later, they wouldn’t see her family’s cars.

So Reagan and Cody come up, and they’re changing out of their wet clothes, when Nate and Jo call. The storm has hit, and it’s bad. No way they can go to the roof of the parking garage. They call an audible, they’re coming to the condo. Nate will propose here. The friends are on their way, they want to know if they can decorate on the 10th floor, which has a big outdoor covered area next to the pool. I tell Reagan and Cody to hurry up and hide all their stuff, and themselves, in the closet. I hide all the party stuff in another closet and run downstairs to see if we can use the 10th floor, while Clay takes another call from Nate. Jo’s toe is bleeding after stepping on something while dancing in the rain. He’ll meet them in the parking garage with paper towels . . .

By the time Jo and Nate make it up to our condo her parents have made it and are awaiting further instructions in their car out on the street so they could avoid being seen in the parking garage, her sister and brother-in-law are hiding in the closet, her friends are fiendishly decorating the outdoor area of the 10th floor while a wicked storm rages, lightning and thunder and rain blowing horizontal. We’ve done a good job of removing all traces of any party but now have to stall for . . . I find out it will be another 20 minutes. That’s a long time to wait in the closet. Benji and Clay are running tools surreptitiously to the 10th floor. I get Jo’s parents to the 9th floor garage level and to the 10th floor to wait while Jo and Nate tend to her toe. At one point I’m pouring hydrogen peroxide on the cut and Nate says, “I’m going to get a clean shirt,” and I’m all, “Okay.” I don’t say a word about who he’ll find in the closet. I just wait. I find out later he’s trying to open the door and he can’t, and inside Jo’s sister is blocking it, afraid Jo will see (she doesn’t know we’re in another room), and then Nate sees Reagan and Cody’s heads pop out and it scares the pee out of him.

I’m trying to figure out how to lure Jo into my master bathroom so I can sneak Reagan and Cody out of the closet and down to the 10th floor when she asks if she can borrow my hair dryer because her clothes are so wet from dancing in the rain. Perfect!

While Jo is distracted, I nab Regan and Cody and who dash out of the closet and out of the condo. We’re halfway down the hall to the elevator, Reagan is barefoot, when we realize Humphrey is leaping alongside, full of excitement. I take him back, take them down, and get back before Jo is dry. It isn’t long before Nate gets the go-ahead. All is ready for the big moment. Benji ferries Jo’s family up the freight elevator, back to our condo, while Nate takes Jo down to the 10th floor to “watch the storm.” She was all smiles. She said later, when Nate went down on one knee and asked her to marry him, she all of a sudden wasn’t sure what to say. Was it, yes or I will or I do?  “So I said all three!” she said.

Ahh, Jo’s face, and Nate’s grin, these two . . . photo courtesy

This was the first picture we saw, all waiting up in the condo. Not a dry eye. .

Dark clouds can’t stop these two! photo courtesy

Loved watching these girls celebrate their friends well, photo courtesy

Storm? What storm? These guys made it beautiful no matter what! photo

It happened! And it was so sweet. photo

You remember how we tried to tempt Nate to go for the surprise? How we thought it would be so cool if he could fool Jo, if she didn’t see it coming? Well, we were wrong. I knew it as soon as I saw the first hug, and then the next, and the next. This girl, she loves her family, and they love her, so, so much. They are tight. It makes me happy that Nate will be marrying a girl who has been loved like that. Jo just fell into their arms, so happy and so complete when she got to share her joy with her mom and dad, sister and brother.

Just look at these sweet faces, left to right Jo’s mom Tory, proud dad Luke, she’s hugging brother Ryan, and brother-in-law Cody is grinning-photo courtesy

Ahhh these sisters! Jo and Reagan, photo courtesy

These two, Jo and Nate, we wish them love and joy. Jo held on to those flowers all night, clutched them tight. I’ll hold on to these memories the way you held on to that bouquet-oh what a night! photo courtesy

And one last picture, one last footnote to our story. The next day? The sun came out! We caught this pic of Nate on one knee, acting out the proposal, a sunbeam resting right on Jo’s ring. It just feels like a wink from up above, a benediction perhaps? He approves. All that thunder the night before? It was clapping. 🙂

Leave a Comment

A Virtual Visit From Rwanda

top row left to right Sonni Mackzum (ANLM), Meredith Davis, Rebeka Uwitonze, and below students from Cotting School

In January, I got an email from Ms. Cain at Cotting School in Lexington, MA. She had a class of 14-18 year old students with physical, behavioral and cognitive disabilities who picked Her Own Two Feet to read as a class and she said they were loving it. She was wondering if there was any way she could chat with Rebeka and me about our book some time. My knee jerk reaction was that sure, I would love to talk to her class, but connecting with Rebeka was too hard. With a seven hour time difference between Rwanda and Texas and spotty technology, not to mention that fact that Rebeka is in school and it would require asking Africa New Life staff in both Portland and Rwanda to help set it all up . . . it’s just something I don’t ever do.

But then I read the email again. This sounded like a pretty special group of students, and a pretty cool teacher. I googled the school, and wow. Part of their mission statement is to, “provide outreach services, nationally and internationally, to expand our commitment and expertise in the field of special education . . . enable students to realize their highest potential both during and after their enrollment.” I decided to ask the good people at Africa New Life and see what they said.

The phrase “chance comes once” is a big deal in our book.

It’s the idea that sometimes a chance comes along just once and you’ve got to take it, even if it’s hard. Rebeka had several of these “chance comes once” moments. Like when she had the chance to have surgery to straighten her clubbed feet, but it was hard. It meant leaving her family at the age of nine, and flying across the ocean to live with strangers (our family) for almost a year. The kids at Cotting School have had “chance comes once” moments, and my friends at ANL recognized this as one of those chance comes once moments, too. They said yes, and the wheels began to turn. Augustine, who helped me with interviews when Rebeka and I were writing the book, translating for Rebeka’s parents, arranged the details with Rebeka’s school and got the wheels rolling in Portland.

Augustine showing me Rebeka’s school file in 2017

Sonni (pictured in the top left of our zoom screenshot) set up our call and was on at 5:30AM Portland time the morning of our virtual visit. We got a call from Augustine that the French president was in Rwanda, roads were blocked between Kigali and Kayonza and he was running a bit late that morning, but the headmaster had things under control and as I sat in my computer in Austin, Texas in my little zoom box, chatting with Sonni in her cozy little zoom box in Portland, talking to Augustine in his mobile zoom box driving down the road in Rwanda using his cell, all of a sudden the headmaster in Kayonza popped up in his zoom box, and then there was Rebeka, looking so spiffy in her new high school uniform with that same dazzling smile and sparkle in her eye.

My eyes got all welled up with tears but I kept my cool and shortly after, more and more zoom boxes popped up in Massachusetts as the students in Ms. Cain’s class came in, each on their own computers so they would all be able to interact well during our visit. They asked such good questions, both easy (“How old are you?”) and difficult (“Why couldn’t the doctors fix your arms?”), and Rebeka took them all in stride. It was awesome to hear from her again and see her interact with readers and talk about her story.

After about thirty minutes she had to get back to class, but I stayed on and shared some slides and we chatted a little more before saying goodbye.

I am so grateful for the opportunities to connect with students and share Rebeka’s story. I am a thousand, million, kajillion times grateful to Africa New Life for the hoops they jumped through to bring Rebeka onto our call with Ms. Cain’s class, all the way from Rwanda. And I am grateful for how this slide, with a quote taken from the book, never fails to recalibrate my day. One of the last things I do during an author visit is teach students how to say the word thank you in Kinyarwanda. It’s murakoze. I say murakoze to the people at ANL, to Ms. Cain and her students, and to the one who continues to bless this story.

Read 3 Comments