Birthday Wish List

Bday Wish ListDeb’s birthday is this Saturday, May 28, and she would have been 56 years old.

I found this adorable letter that 11 year old Deb wrote to her Dad with her birthday wish list.  Note the return address of “Daughter Gifford, Upstairs Bedroom, Our Home, 41131819112623425.  And it was addressed to: “Dad Gifford, Downstairs Bedroom, Our House, 52432611918131, USSR (editorial note:  I never knew Deb lived in Russia 🙂 )

Dear Dad: 

May I have one or two items on this list for my birthday if posable (editorial note:  spelling was never really her thing 🙂 ).

radio, alarm clock, bedside table with small lamp, room divider, pillow, watch

Love, Debbie

This is soooooooooooooo Debbie – even at a young age, she was immensely practical, yet always the jokester.  There’s no doubt in my mind she actually wanted (and could use) each of those items.  But I can just picture her sitting down to write this letter with a big smile on her face.  And I can also imagine how it made her Dad smile and how it warmed his heart to read it and then look at Deb who surely had a very sheepish grin on her face.

I wonder which of these items she ended up with – or perhaps all of them!

Happy Birthday, Deb!  We miss you so much, but we also know that heaven is full of laughter because of you.  Until we meet again, we’ll continue to cherish these precious memories.


Wonderful Grad Memories

WPI Grad

This is a great memory from three years ago when we had the blessing of celebrating our youngest son Jeffrey’s graduation at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester MA.  This was near the end of Deb’s first chemo regimen and attending Jeffrey’s grad was a huge goal and milestone for our family.

Deb did a great job describing the experience in her May 14, 2013 Caring Bridge post, and being the wise woman she was, offers all of us the following sage words:

  1. It is good to take a minute in the middle of an event to just stop, take a breath and enjoy the moment.

May we all take the time to heed that timeless advice.


Grad Weekend Summary

By Debbie Thomas — May 14, 2013 4:22pm

Before I started chemo, I told the Doc that I had to be able to travel to MA in May for Jeffrey’s college graduation. The Doc was non-commital in his answer. Kinda like when you would ask your Mom for something and she meant ‘No’ but would say ‘We’ll see’. Last week my lab numbers were good and I was cleared to travel.

I was so happy to see Jeffrey and watch his graduation ceremony on Saturday.  It drizzled during a large part of the outdoor event but we were seated under a tree and remained mostly dry. Alan and I headed inside for warmer/dryer environs while the rest of the crowd remained outside at the end of the ceremony to sing the school song. That turned out to be good timing because the skies opened up just after we went inside.

Mother’s Day was spent packing and traveling home. We arrived home around midnight and spent Monday trying to recover. Our house is filled with luggage and the faint smell of O-De-Dorm-Room. More importantly, it is filled with my family once again. I know that my young men will soon be out and on their own so I will enjoy the time together. I am also thankful for your thoughts and prayers on our behalf.

JFF – Just For Fun

Some things I learned on this trip:

  1. I am one of those people who will go to the hotel lobby for breakfast while wearing my jammies.
  1. For the first time in my life, I can use hotel shampoo to completely wash my hair.
  1. TSA folks can be helpful but it helps to be in a wheel chair.
  1. I love Southwest Air. Between the four of us, we had 11 pieces of luggage, a ripstick (google it), two backpacks and a purse the size of Montana with no extra fees.
  1. It is good to take a minute in the middle of an event to just stop, take a breath and enjoy the moment.




Spring Memories

Spring Tng Singing

The warm Florida sun shown brightly overhead as we all stood, hands over our hearts and our eyes fixed upon the stars and stripes in center field fluttering in the strong breeze blowing in from the ocean just a few short miles to the east. A lone seven year old girl stood directly behind home plate and the white curly W with red trim painted in the perfectly manicured grass.  She looked very patriotic in her blue and white dress and red hair band, holding a microphone adorned with a curly W. As her angelic voice ushered forth the first few notes of the Star Spangled Banner, the crowd knew this was a very special moment. What a privilege to be reminded that we are truly blessed to be citizens of this great nation where we enjoy freedom and to be thankful for those who have gone before us to secure and defend that freedom.

Florida in the Spring is a very special place for me.  I recently returned from a week watching Nats Spring Training, my fifth Spring Training trip in six years.  Deb and I went solo in 2011, combining Spring Training with Disney World.  Alan and Jeffrey joined us in 2012.  We took 2013 off due to Deb’s first chemo regimen but returned as a family in 2014.  Last year I went with wonderful friends Brian and Bonnie Conaway, logging almost 1,000 miles on the rental car hopscotching across the state attending eight games in seven days in five stadiums.  And this year I went solo, catching seven games over six days in four stadiums.  This was also the last year watching the Nats at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, FL.  Next year they’ll play in a brand new stadium that they’ll share with the Houston Astros in West Palm, FL.  I’m looking forward to creating many new memories there.

Looking back, I’m so thankful for the 2011, 2012, and 2014 trips.  2011 was special because it was the first year Deb and I experienced the Spring Training adventure, and combining it with several days at Disney World made it all the more memorable.  2012 with the family was great because we were able to enjoy the trip and create priceless memories before Deb was diagnosed with cancer later that year. And 2014 will be forever etched in my memory for two main reasons.  First, we were again creating wonderful memories as a family.  We decided to make this a family trip because Jeffrey was going to be in Japan that summer for college study abroad and we would not be able to have our usual summer family vacation at the beach.  I’m so glad we made this decision, because we obviously didn’t know this would be our last Florida trip together as a family.  And second, Deb was feeling reasonably well and able to enjoy herself.  This was during her second chemo regimen where she tolerated Avastin well and life was fairly normal/routine for us.  When you’re battling cancer, or any other major illness or issue, “normal/routine” is a wonderful thing!  When you’re loved one has been through so much, there’s nothing better than to see them laugh and smile, knowing that at least for the moment, they’re not in pain or dealing with disappointment.

Spring is very special because not only do we celebrate the return of baseball and the hope of our favorite team winning the World Series, but we also celebrate Easter and Christ’s victory over sin and death that His empty tomb represents. I spent some time at Deb’s grave on Easter reflecting on the day’s true meaning. Just as that seven year old girl in Florida last month reminded me how blessed we are to be Americans when she so beautifully sang the national anthem, DC Washington blessed me as I again listened to him sing “I Will Rise” from Deb’s Celebration of Life service.  As I stood at her grave, my tears flowed freely as these precious words were like balm to my aching, grieving heart:

There’s a peace I’ve come to know
Though my heart and flesh may fail
There’s an anchor for my soul
I can say “It is well”

Jesus has overcome
And the grave is overwhelmed
The victory is won
He is risen from the dead

And I will rise when He calls my name
No more sorrow, no more pain
I will rise on eagles wings
Before my God fall on my knees
And rise, I will rise

I was so powerfully reminded during those moments that because of Christ’s victory, Deb IS with Him – “no more sorrow, no more pain”. The grave IS overwhelmed, the victory IS won!

And that is far more valuable than all the World Series victories combined!




Always “In Touch” With Our Kids

Baby Alan & Deb On CouchThis is such a great picture!  Alan and Deb, cheek to cheek.  It reminds me of how Deb was always “in touch” with our kids on so many different levels.  She always knew what was going on with them, what they were thinking, when they were happy, sad, mad, etc.  And best of all, she knew just what to say or do (or NOT say or do) based on the situation.  Sometimes I’d walk into a room and she’d be chatting with either Alan or Jeffrey, and she’d give me that “go away” look, meaning she was talking with them about something important and Dad’s presence wasn’t needed and/or helpful at that particular time.  That never bothered me.  We were a team, and we both were effective in helping raise our boys.  Sometimes a guy just needs to chat with Mom about stuff.  Other times its Dad.  But it always warmed my heart to watch Deb reading the umpteenth book in a particular series like The Hardy Boys or Redwall because that’s what the boys were into during that phase of their life and was another way she could connect with them.  Or watch movies with them so they could talk about funny characters or the plot.

One of the many running jokes in our house was watching me fall asleep in my recliner during our Friday “Family Night” festivities.  We’d order pizza or subs and watch a movie, but I was usually snoring within a matter of minutes. I’d wake up and the three of them would be looking at me with huge smiles on their faces until I dozed off again.   And again. And again. Wash, rinse, repeat.

But Deb always hung in there.  Always connected.  Always “in touch”.

That’s what Mom’s do.

“She looks well to the ways of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: ‘Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.'” Proverbs 31:27-29Version 2

Valentines Day Thoughts

RoseMany years ago I bought Debbie the flower pictured above for Valentines Day.  I was looking for a unique gift and thought this was perfect.  Its an actual peach rose (Debbie’s favorite flower and color) which was dipped in a special solution to preserve it.  Whereas regular flowers wilt, fade and die over time, this flower will live on as a constant reminder of my own special Valentine (Debbie). Its built to last, just like our love for each other.

I recently found a couple of neat cards Debbie gave me for wedding anniversaries.  The first  one above was for our one month anniversary on August 24, 1982.  She wrote on the back, “After one whole month I still love you.  I think I’ll stick it out with you for a few zillion more months.  Love, Debbie”.  Typical Debbie humor!

30+ Ann CardAnd this one was for our 30th wedding anniversary on July 24 2012, less than three months before our journey with cancer began.  She wrote, “Thanks for 30+ great years!  I look forward to many more filled with fun and love.  Debbie + Robert”.  Although we had only two more years physically together, the depth and quality of our love grew exponentially during that time as we learned to cherish each and every moment together.

This Valentines Day will be bittersweet.  I smile at all the great memories of past Valentines Days we enjoyed together.  But my heart aches because I miss her so much.  But I’m also extremely thankful I have that peach rose to remind me that our love will never wilt, fade or die.  And I, too, “look forward to many more filled with fun and love” – when we’re together again in heaven.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.(Rev 21:1-4)

Music To Our Ears

Wooden Frog

I recently attended a jazz concert which reminded me of the first (and only) jazz event Debbie and I attended together shortly after we were married.  After about 30 minutes of rather eclectic, avant grade-sounding tunes, Debbie leaned over and whispered in my ear, “When are they going to stop warming up”?  Translation:  Debbie was not into jazz.

But even though we didn’t share identical musical tastes, music was an important part of our marriage, especially during her illness when hymns and praise songs bolstered our faith.

God used two different musicians to encourage us at critical times during two of Debbie’s many hospitalizations at Walter Reed.  The first occurred a couple of evenings after her surgery on Dec 26, 2012 to remove her cancerous ovarian tumors.  As we hung out in her hospital room, her nurse asked if we minded if a musician came in to play his guitar.  To my surprise, Debbie said OK as I thought she was in no mood to hear a strolling “zither” (Deb’s word for guitar) player.  So in walks this rather short, portly guy with long hair down past his shoulders pushing a cart with his zither (oops – guitar) and various props.  He introduces himself and asks if we would help accompany him.  One of the props was a wooden frog similar to the one pictured above which produced a unique sound when the ridges were rubbed with the stick. As many of you know, Debbie loved to collect toy frogs so she was immediately drawn to this one.  Zither-guy proceeded to play a superb rendition of one of the Charlie Brown Christmas tunes, accompanied by Deb on the wooden frog and me on hand bells.  He played a couple more songs, thanked us for allowing him to play, and then left. Deb and I agreed that was EXACTLY what we needed at EXACTLY the right time to boost our sagging spirits.

The second scene unfolded during one of her last hospitalizations a few months before she passed away.  We had just learned that her ovarian cancer continued to spread to her lungs, which was very discouraging (albeit not surprising) news.  Again, her nurse popped in to inform us a musician was on the floor and asked if we were interested in a visit.  By this time, we welcomed any distraction.  The musician (different guy from the first story) played a very poignant song on his guitar which moved us to tears.  His song managed to tap into what we were feeling at that exact time and helped us release a myriad of emotions – fatigue, fear, disappointment, etc. We marveled at God’s timing, sending this gifted musician to sing words we needed desperately to hear at just the right time.

Music CDs

And in the final hours of Deb’s life, I played for her wonderful hymns from the CDs shown above: George Beverly Shea’s “I’d Rather Have Jesus” and “Thine is the Glory”, a collection of piano hymns by Joanna Marini. I wanted her to hear and know that God was with us, and that she would soon be with Him – healed and whole.

It’s OK Deb didn’t like jazz here on earth. I’ve got a feeling we’ll find lots of great music we both like when we’re together again in heaven.  And that’s music to our ears!

Oh sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. (Psalm 96:1-2)

Beach Week Sunrise – The Back Story

Beach Week Sunrise

I’ve shared this picture before – Debbie, me, and our friend Jim Christopher watching the sun rise during one of our final days at Ocean City MD during Beach Week ’78.  But what I haven’t shared before is the series of events that came together to make this memorable scene possible.

By this time Debbie and I had spent many, many hours together over a couple of evenings talking (yes, just talking) and discovering we had quite a bit in common.  But by the latter part of the week, I decided to head back to Rockville with another friend (Mitch Franklin, RM class of ’77).  The rest of our friends (including Debbie) were staying another day or so in OC.  So Mitch and I piled our stuff in his car and headed west out of town.

However, when we reached Salisbury (about 45 min west of OC), Mitch’s car started making weird, knocking noises and before long the engine stopped altogether.  We were able to coast to the side of the road where we discovered the engine seized because it ran out of oil.  We quickly decided to hitchhike back to OC where we hoped to find our friends and figure out what to do next.  Fortunately we were soon picked up by some benevolent (although very sketchy) guys heading to OC who speedily (90 mph the whole way) delivered us to OC.

After our rescuers dropped us off across the Rt 50 bridge, Mitch and I started walking and wondering how we were going to find/contact any of our friends.  But within minutes, who should drive by but Jim Christopher and a few folks (to include Debbie!) on their way to see the movie “Jaws”.  Luckily they saw us and stopped, and off to the movie we went!  Debbie and I sat next to each other in the theater, and after the movie we spent the rest of the night hanging out with each other talking (yes, just talking).  At sunrise, we reconnected with Jim on the beach outside the hotel where this picture was taken.  I can’t remember who took the picture, nor do I recall how Mitch reconnected with his car or how I got back to Rockville.  But I do know that because Mitch’s car “just happened” to break down, and those weird dudes “just happened” to pick us up and drop us off at just the right time/place so Jim and our friends (including Debbie) “just happened” to drive by and see us. . . all these “coincidences” conspired to make it possible for Debbie and I to spend more time together and enjoy our first sunrise together.

Don’t you just love coincidences?  Debbie didn’t believe in coincidences, instead referring to them as “God-incidences”.  Me, too 🙂

“But I trust in you, LORD; I say ‘You are my God.’  My times are in your hands.” (Psalms 31:14-15)



Glad She Turned Out To Be My Type

Version 2Part of my high school yearbook treasure hunt yielded this gem from our junior year (’77). This was a full year before our serious friendship began.  Debbie and I took a typing class together for which I recall three highlights:

1.  While the rest of the class used sleek, new “IBM Selectric” typewriters, Debbie used an ancient dinosaur of a machine in the back of the class, the size of the original Gutenberg printing press (see photo below).  When I asked her one time why she insisted on using that monster, she replied (in typical Debbie fashion), “I think its fun!”.  That probably contributed to her lack of progress in the class and why she wrote, “. . .you were in my typing class (even though I never learned to type).”

2.  Ms. Thompson (our teacher) would begin each timed typing test the exact same way by saying, “Fingers in position. . .eyes on copy. . .ready. . .BEGIN!”.

3. And upon Ms. Thompson’s “BEGIN!”, I  would occasionally reach under my desk with my foot and unplug John Sherlock’s typewriter which resulted in some sailor language from him in my direction.  I believe he returned the favor to me several times. But no hard feelings!  John and I ended up as roommates for four years at James Madison University, he was the best man at our wedding, and he’s one of my closest and best friends to this day.

Deb GutenbergAnd speaking of friends, I like how Debbie concluded her entry, “I’m glad you are my friend.  Have a good time over the summer & next year”.

Yes, I’m glad we were friends in ’77 and shared this class.  But reading her words written almost 40 years ago floods my heart with gratitude that God would bring us together a year later during Beach Week ’78 and enroll us in His class, “How To Find Your Soul Mate 101”.  And the first lesson was, “She may not type, but she’s your type”.

“Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever!” (Ps 106:1)

June 1978 – The Fun Begins!

Deb Senior Year Book   I thought it would be cool to find some memorabilia associated with the start of my relationship with Debbie. That led to an archeological dig in the basement looking for our high school year books, specifically our senior year (1978).  You can read here about how our friendship started the week after graduation in June ’78 during “Beach Week” at Ocean City, MD. After several hours of searching, and finding every other year book EXCEPT 1978, I finally stumbled on both of our copies.  I couldn’t wait to see what we had written in each other’s books, and honestly couldn’t recall if we wrote anything.

The picture below shows how my curiosity was rewarded.  This is what Debbie wrote in my yearbook, probably during Beach Week or shortly thereafter.

My Year Book Debs Entry   She wrote very kind and sweet words, indicative of her own kindness and how our friendship was quickly becoming something special. But what caught my eye today and took my breath away was the “P.S. I Love You”.  This is the first time I saw that, which means she inserted it some time later either during our courtship or marriage, intending it to be a nice surprise for me.  Mission accomplished – what a wonderful blessing!

The picture below shows what I wrote in Debbie’s yearbook, again probably during Beach Week in ’78:

Version 2 I really love the yearbook picture of Deb in her “RM Class of ’78” t-shirt because it wonderfully captures Deb’s sense of humor and zeal for life.  I also love the caption, “Debbie Gifford hopes to be discovered by a talent scout.”  I don’t know if I qualify as a talent scout, but I’m sure glad I discovered in June 1978 what an amazing person Debbie was.  Our lifelong adventure was just beginning, and I look forward to sharing other great stories with you.  Rather than be chronological, the stories will jump around based on what other treasures I uncover during my labor of love going through our 36 years of memorabilia.  I’m looking forward to it, and I hope you are as well!

Our Family

I love this picture.

First and foremost – everyone is happy! Not a forced smile, smirk, or pathetic attempt at humor. But we’re all smiling ear-to-ear and genuinely ecstatic to be there, in the moment and enjoying it – together.

Jeffrey’s expression is priceless! Alan and I are thinking, “How crazy is this???”.

And there’s Debbie. The sparkle in her eyes. The dimples imprinted on her cheeks. Her beautiful, long brown hair flowing freely beyond her shoulders down to her waist. Her left hand intertwined in mine, wedding rings visible, representing our union together.

And in this picture, as in everyday life, Debbie was connecting all of us together.

This is our family. Connected, loving, laughing, and experiencing life as one.  Whatever we encountered, we faced it together. Obviously we had no clue at the time that in less than 10 years, the strength of our family bond, as well as our faith in God, would be put to the ultimate test.

This picture was taken in the 2004 timeframe by a professional photographer friend of Deb’s who offered to take some family photos of us. We had not had a family photo professionally taken in ages, so this seemed like a great opportunity. Looking back, I’m so glad we did. The location was a beautiful garden in the Springfield-Annandale area. I think the photographer said something like, “OK, let’s have some fun with this next picture”, after which Debbie immediately jumped into our arms and the photographer masterfully captured the moment. I believe we maxed out the fun meter, because with Deb in the middle of things, you couldn’t help but have fun!

This is how I picture Deb now.  Heaven is her home, and she is in God’s presence. She’s still smiling, with those sparkling eyes and deep dimples on full display. And she’s healthy, happy, and carefree.

She’s also waiting – waiting for the day we can join her and once again be connected by love and laughter in a place infinitely more beautiful than the place where this picture was taken (although it was amazing).

I’ve been dreaming about Deb a lot lately, and this is how she appears. These dreams remind me that she’s OK, and one day very soon (in the context of eternity), we’ll be together again. I can’t wait.

That’s how I get through each day. Because I know better days are ahead, and as Frank Sinatra said, “the best is yet to come!”.

“For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal”. (2 Cor 4:18)