I confess that 2009 has rung in with the bells of opportunity for Sam and me … it’s difficult not to feel euphoric about a new year around our house. The year 2008 started out rough, as we had expected it would. My uncle Greg passed last January after a relatively short, but vicious attack of pancreatic cancer. It was a sad, but beautiful time in our lives to go through that. Sam officiated his first funeral and it was our first experience as a ministering couple to walk people through their loss. It’s a humbling experience to talk with a dying person, thinking you have some kind of comfort to provide, and then realizing he is the one comforting you. For a time, Greg truly had one foot in Heaven and one foot here on Earth. It is life-changing to see the grace God extends to His dying child and as difficult as it was, we would not trade that experience for any fleeting happy moment. This shot of Greg still invites a few tears.

Shortly after that, Sam said a final goodbye to MaMa, his grandmother. I was blessed to know MaMa for only the last 5-6 years, but she had lived a very full life and was ready to go. We just had our first Christmas without her and I could still hear her at the dinner table laugh at PaPa and act offended at his jokes. There is just something so special about grandparents and Sam and I are both blessed to have remained close to our grandparents over the years. I remember this moment with MaMa so clearly because I had never seen her so tickled about Sam’s antics.

Sam’s mom, Susie, was also diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 and we watched her struggle through some painful moments this year. I don’t know how she holds up under the pressure and emotional stress that she has endured, but I am very proud to say that my mother-in-law is now cancer-free and a proud survivor. What a blessing to see such resolution when so many do not ever see such success stories in their families.
I experienced another tragic loss this fall when a former student, named Ryan, died unexpectedly. He was a very bright kid and always asked a lot of questions – a trait he apparently never lost. Ryan was a deep thinker and could not accept certain beliefs until he had reasoned through them on his own … I love kids like this because they keep me sharp about what I believe and why. And Ryan was unafraid to challenge me on all number of topics — we had some awesome conversations beyond what the typical middle schooler thinks about. I taught Ryan when he was in 8th grade and he died as a sophomore this year. I always tell my kids, “Once my student, ALWAYS my student” because it’s so true. But, losing a teenager is a terrible experience for me. I feel like I invest so much time, energy, and prayer into my students. When I send them off to high school, I only have dreams of what they will accomplish with their beautifully gifted minds. No teacher dreams that they may not make it to their graduation … this is Ryan accepting an academic award in 8th grade.
So, 2008 was a year of loss, and yet it was a year of personal inspiration for me because of it. In a Xanga blog on April 7, I wrote that I felt inspired to try something different and these were my options at the time …
1. Learn to play the guitar.
2. Write a novel.
3. Redesign my entire 7th grade curriculum.
4. Plan to become a Yorkie breeder.
5. Make a cheesy music video.
Interestingly enough, I accomplished #2 over a four month period this summer and I am in love with it. And I was forced to redesign my 7th grade curriculum anyway once school started. As for the cheesy music video, I have the footage but haven’t completed the editing yet (check out youtube.com/thedallasfamily to see more of my cheesy music videos featuring the students in my life). All in all, I am thankful to look back and realize I actually do what I say I want to do. I know a lot of people who either live in the past or the future, never in the here and now doing what they really WANT to do. I refuse to be that person.
But my point in all of this is coming … The resilience of people in the face of loss never ceases to amaze me. I can look back on this year and see how difficult it was and watch the people I love survive through it with tremendous strength of character. I remember the times where it felt like my world was shutting down … until this inner strength (called the grace of God) would just carry me until I could walk again. And life continued on and life was good even in the middle of such circumstances. I still accomplished great things (by my calculation) and continued to carry on in my everyday responsibilities. It is this quality of the human existence that my novel, Phantom Island, tends to center its themes around.
The Prologue opens with a mother and daughter coming to terms with the fact that their husband/father has disappeared for good. The search and rescue efforts are finally being called off and the case closed without any real answers. This situation is more than just character development, but a setup for the events that will take place in the rest of the novel. Yet it touches on that human resilience. We’ve all seen the national news stories that go on forever with a family searching for a missing loved one. I’ve always wondered how these families deal with such circumstances … What kind of lies does your mind create as you cope? What defense mechanisms do you come up with to get you through the long days of waiting? And then, at what point do you stop waiting, stop hoping, and just let go? I know – my Psychology background is talking here. But my novel touches on the losses in life (death, divorce, etc.) through a cast of teenagers who are dealing with these issues on top of surviving the normal foibles of adolescence. And then at one fateful summer camp, where these teenagers’ individual lifestories converge for a period of time, they discover a magical Island featuring a people group and a history that only enrich their understanding of life and love. That, my friend, is Phantom Island in a brief, thematic nutshell.
Sound heavy to you? It is a delicate balance to capture those deeper fears and emotions, and still bring out the lighthearted, fun side of Teenage World. And I believe there are plenty of LOL Moments throughout the novel. I love that every person who has graciously read my novel has had different characters or different scenes that really resonate strongly with them. Chance felt sorry for Amelia’s character a lot of the time and identified all the “Brain Ninjas” in the book. Arley just thought Amelia was a brat, but then she and the real Amelia fell in love with Gabriel’s character and couldn’t wait for that one earth-shattering kiss. (Okay, so I should point out that, so far, every female who read the book fell for my Pyradorian Island Boy … to which I say, “Hello? What about Caleb the BFF?!”) Sam loved the magic training exercises and kept hoping for a good fight scene (Book Two, Sammi … can’t give it all away now.). Billy, my deep thinker, loved the magical manifestations of the “life forces” and noticed a lot of [intentional] parallels between the characters’ personalities and what life force they could use on the Island. Sarah could totally relate to Whitnee, the main character, with her fish phobia and affinity for adventure. My mom loved the hamburger incident and the usually accurate characterizations of the male characters … I really believe there is something in this book for everybody, regardless of age and gender … especially if you already have a love for YA fiction.
And so with these wonderful encouragements in mind, I look ahead to 2009 with great hope and positivity. After all, there is so much life out there yet to live and as 2008 proved to us, you never know when your time here is up. On top of our normally scheduled activities (D-Now, camp, Down The Street Week, etc.), I will be going to Argentina for Spring Break, and spending two weeks this summer with Sam in California as he works on acquiring his SECOND Masters … crazy boy-man. Could 2009 also be the year of publishing for me? I guess we will find out …
And, alas, this is a long post, so I must away …