The Color of Rain (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011)

Matt Kell is a young husband and father in the late stages of terminal cancer. His former classmate Cathy Spehn has recently moved to his hometown with her husband and three children. Four weeks after Matt dies on Christmas Day, Cathy develops a bad headache. She dies seventeen days later of inoperable brain cancer. On her last day of life, she tells her husband, Michael: ‘Call Gina Kell.’ The Color of Rain illuminates the stepping-stones of healing that led to a new life for Michael, Gina, and their five children.

Order The Color of Rain

TCORThis remarkable real-life Brady Bunch story explores the differences between despair and grief, denial and joy, bitterness and redemption. Told from alternating points of view, Michael and Gina’s gripping journey of ‘growing new hearts’ inspires readers to not just survive loss but to receive the courage, faith, and identity that God gives in the midst of tragedy—and be transformed forever.

Michael and Gina personify the beauty that God can bring out of the ashes of sorrow.Kathy Lee Gifford
Host, NBC's The Today Show Fourth Hour
The Color of Rain is not only an instant best-seller, but also an instant classic. It is simply a profoundly moving guidebook to the Valley of the Shadow.Hugh Hewitt
Nationally Syndicated Radio Host

 

The Blessed Partnership: Moms

My mother, Dolores Spehn, was a great mom. She took care of our every need growing up, attended every game and concert. She encouraged me to tryout for teams, run for student council, and ask out the cutest girl(s). She did so while raising three other children and running our household while our dad worked.

As we got older, busy with our lives and distractions, Mom used to chide us for not calling often enough. “I have four other children,” she’d say tongue (half) in cheek. “But you only have one mom.”

Her point of course was to emphasize to us that we’d better treasure her while she was still here because she was the “only mother we’re gonna get.”

She was right about appreciating her while she was here. She left this world in 2004 and with every passing year I seem to appreciate her more and more. What I wouldn’t give to be able to call her today.

But Mom was wrong about one thing: You don’t “only get one mom”. Yes, there is only one person who gives birth to you, but being a mom is so much more and so much different than giving birth. When we were kids, my mom’s best on our block was Mary Walsh. Though she had ten (yes, ten!) kids of her own, Mrs. Walsh helped raise us as well. She was our “second mom”.

Later, in my high school days, my best friend was Dan Pelekoudas. Because my parents had split up by then and because Mrs. Pelekoudas was greek and could cook like nobody’s business, I spent a lot of time at their house. Mrs. Pelekoudas became my second mom during those days.

Today my five kids all have second moms. Mrs. Lynch, Mrs. Dean, Aunt Colleen… These are the second moms to our kids. And we all are blessed because of it.

Perhaps the greatest example of the “second mom” plays out every day in our home where our kids are blessed with true second moms, Gina and Cathy. They co-parent, one in heaven, one in the kitchen, in a a blessed partnership, in service to their children, and to their God.

One brought these kids into this world, the other brings them up in it. And it’s my privilege to watch. Somedays I want to cry. On others, I simply marvel at His plan and give thanks that it works in our lives.

To all the moms… and second moms, in this world, thank you. Not just for the infinite things you do for us every day. But also for the blessed partnerships you form with really great women, who become our second moms, and help shape our futures.

Coolidge Avenue

Gina (far right) and “Santa’s Helpers” at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, MI

Coolidge Avenue runs North and South through suburban Detroit and is a mostly-straight, unremarkable stretch of road that could exist in just about any town.

Almost seven years ago, on a clear and cold morning, I drove a little too fast along Coolidge Avenue trying to get to Beaumont Hospital where my beloved Cathy battled against brain cancer. Within hours of my arriving, she would lose her battle.

This morning I found myself once again driving a little too fast down Coolidge Avenue heading for Beaumont. This time however, my mission was different. The social workers there organize an annual “Adopt a family” program for Christmas. Each department in the hospital “adopts” a family who, on top of going through the horrors of cancer, also are facing severe financial distress. While this is always a difficult situation, it becomes especially sad at Christmas time. So the good folks at Beaumont adopt a family in need and shop for them, and give them a Christmas to remember. When we at the New Day Foundation for Families heard about this program we wanted in. Then, when we mentioned this in casual conversation to our friends at LJPR, Inc. in Troy, they said they wanted to be a part of this as well and they adopted a family too!

There are thousands of little “programs” like this all around this country. In churches and hospitals and corporations and schools. Wherever two or more are gathered… The spirit of giving is alive and well and I just wanted to point that out.

Today I drove a van full of toys and gifts and clothes and diapers… and even wrapping paper and tape so that the parents could share in the joy of wrapping Christmas gifts before giving them out to their kids. I had nearly nothing to do with this. I didn’t pay for the gifts – the generous donors to the New day Foundation did that. Gina shopped for most everything. As the delivery man I simply got to reap the infinite blessings of the smiles and the hugs. That makes for a pretty good day.

I thought of Cathy and Matt. I thought of the literally thousands of people who have given from their hearts to our foundation. I thought of the families I’ll never meet who will, for one day anyway – Christmas Day – have something to smile about.

And I thought… Redemption is real.

So for one day anyway, driving a little too fast down Coolidge Avenue, on a clear and cold morning, was worth it.

Merry Christmas.

Coloring in Pontiac Michigan

I met a new friend today. Her name is Nadia. (Not really. You will discover in a moment that I’ve had to change the names in this article.)

Nadia is four and a half years old. Her mother, Talia, was born in Russia. The father is… well, nowhere to be found. He abused Talia to the point where she was hospitalized, ran away with Nadial to a women’s shelter. Ultimately they found their way to a place called Lighthouse in Pontiac, MI.

Although her mother is Russian, Nadia was born here and is an American citizen. After her mother fled her abusive relationship, she could not find work because she was not an American citizen. Soon Talia and Nadia had nowhere else to turn but Lighthouse. They arrived almost a year ago with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. They were given an “apartment” that is approximately 300 square feet. It has a kitchenette with 40 year old appliances and no table to eat at. There is a tiny bathroom and an 8′ x 9′ bedroom they share. Talia has decorated it all in pink for her little girl. The main room, where I met my new friends, is small, dark and has a few pieces of donated furniture. Nadia spends part of her day in the Montessori school on the lower level of the building. When she is done for the day she does her favorite thing in the world: coloring with crayons. She draws pictures of princesses, horses, green fields and smiling people. Dreams of a life she’s never known. Her mom tapes every one on the inside of the door. (The 40 year old refrigerator is too small.)

The staff at lighthouse helped Talia get her green card so she could work legally. One of their great strengths is removing barriers to people working. Talia has found a job and now saved enough to get a used car. She and Nadia intend to be at Lighthouse another year. In that time she will take classes to learn about budgeting and parenting. She will role play with staff members to help her interview to get an even better job. By the time she and her daughter leave Lighthouse they will be self-sufficient and on the path to a safe and productive life.

For those who are interested in the math on all of this…

The average cost for families like Talia’s to stay at Lighthouse is $13,000. This includes everything. Once they are out and on their own, a study done at the University of Michigan found that that $13,000 was “paid back” to the community on average within 18 months of families leaving Lighthouse. This is actual productivity and taxes paid and does not even include the dollars saved by taking the family off public assistance and welfare. Further, Lighthouse boasts a 91% success rate for families in their Lighthouse PATH program. This works.

On Wednesday night President Obama and Governor Romney are going to debate the important issues facing our country. And in the interest of full disclosure, I’m a conservative Christian who typically (but not always) votes Republican. When the conversation tomorrow night drifts to sound bites about “the 47%” and the “entitlement class”, etc., I hope that, no matter what your political leaning, you will not consider the conversation to be abstract or hypothetical. Because it isn’t. It isn’t about economic theories or political platforms. It isn’t about winning the news cycle or “appealing to the base.”

It’s about real people in real places.

It’s about a little girl coloring with crayons in a tiny apartment in Pontiac, Michigan and a mom who needed a little help to get her and her daughter on the right PATH. In a country of 308 million people there are many many, more like them. I pray there are Lighthouse-like programs in their area. And I pray we never turn our backs on these people and those in service to them.

James 1:26-27 sums it up well.

“Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

 

More about Lighthouse

The good folks at Lighthouse have extraordinary programs that are aggressively (and impressively) addressing poverty in America. Lighthouse Emergency Services offer emergency food, utility assistance, medical assistance and other crisis support. Lighthouse PATH provides women (typically single mothers who have been abused or have had other crisis) up to two full years of transitional housing in a safe and structured environment and an opportunity to rebuild their lives. Family counseling, daycare, child educational services, and other services are offered. Lighthouse Community Development literally is rebuilding impoverished areas with affordable housing units that clients can take ownership of and pride in. The Center for Working Families provides financial counseling, employment assistance, classes in how to get a job and coaching on how to use a family budget and live within means. They specifically treat root causes for poverty, removing barriers to people connecting with jobs, self-sufficiency and a hopeful life.

Making the turn…

I turn 50 today.

As a golfer I look upon this milestone with the same bittersweet feelings one gets making the turn between the ninth and tenth holes and a really great course. I’m exhilarated to have played some great holes (and some not so great) and I am still in the midst of the game, yet the round is at least half over now. I’m faced with the “homeward holes”. The back nine of life. The part of the course that will take me back to the clubhouse. Mmm.

I really don’t “fear” the clubhouse. It actually was one of my favorite parts of the day back when I was learning the game. My dad taught me to play. He and I played countless rounds together and, almost without fail, when we were through, we’d go into the clubhouse for a root beer and some pretzels at the bar. Dad would put his arm around me and say, “Let’s get a little ‘RB’.” I can still see the foam rising in the glass today.

I feel as though my life so far has mimicked the experience of playing Pebble Beach. It’s a course I played several times and know it well. It is as special as you’ve heard. The front nine however has some forgettable holes. Number one is only remarkable because it is the first hole at Pebble Beach. Number two is a very reachable par five. Three is an iron off the tee and a long iron into the green. Four gives you your first glimpse of ocean on the right while playing a very short par four (the only test here is a well-trapped green).

Then you come to hole five. Redesigned in 1998, this is a beautiful par three. After the first four holes of adolescence, number five offers you the same special feeling you get as you enter adulthood for the first time. You sense that you’ve entered some special station in life, yet you don’t feel the full weight of grown up pressures just yet.

The par five sixth hole begins to reveal something more is expected of you now. This isn’t your muni course back home. This is real. This is like when you got married and bought that first house. Get the ball up the hill on your second shot. No “or else”. Just get it done.

Number seven is the first time you have kids. One of the most photographed holes in all the world, it’s nothing more than 106 yards downhill to a fairly good sized green. No problem, you say? Okay. Let me introduce you to the wind off the Pacific that will gust to 50 mph unexpectedly, leaving you scratching your head wondering whether to hit a half a wedge or a driver.

Welcome to “the cliffs of doom”. Number eight is simply breathtaking and frightening all at once. This is time to take chances. Make the kind of shot that changes your life, er… round. If it works, you’ll ask someone to take a photo of the moment. If it doesn’t, you’ll slink into your cart and cry for mommy.

Number nine is long and difficult. It is a 481 yard par four usually into the wind, with the fairway and green both sloping severely toward the ocean on the right.

So here I am. I’ve worked hard. Carded some bogeys, at least one triple bogey, but also got me a couple of birdies – and not lucky ones chipping in from 100 yards out, I’m talking tap-ins! When I look at my scorecard for the front nine I guess I’m at about even par. And although I’m a little intimidated at the thought of finishing the round someday, I do look forward to the back nine ahead. I’m a little better player now then I was on the front side. I’m more patient and seem to think through the shots more carefully now. Plus, the 18th at Pebble Beach awaits me.

My faith tells me that, when I putt out on that 18th green, my eternal life in God’s clubhouse will begin.

When I arrive, I do hope He’ll have an RB and some pretzels on the bar.

Sweet Home…

I have a milestone birthday coming soon (September actually) but since we have two major events that month (For New Day Foundation, click for info) so this past weekend my wife Gina surprised me with an early birthday gift. No it wasn’t a new set of Ping irons (with 65 degree loft wedge and a great new golf bag). What she chose was actually the most personal and thoughtful gift I have received in a long time.

She brought me home.

One of Gina’s favorite new songs is the one by Phillip Phillips called “Home”. In it he sings,

“Hold on to me as we go. As we roll down this unfamiliar road. And although this wave is stringing us along, just know you’re not alone. Cause I’m gonna make this place your home.”

I like that. I’m gonna make this place your home, just by being in it. My presence here makes this your home. Take that any way you wish. Spiritually, literally… Either way, it works nicely. And it makes me think that Gina likes the song for reasons other than Phillip Phillips is cute.

Gina fooled me into thinking we were spending the weekend here at a local Detroit hotel and instead spouse-napped me to the city of my birth, Chicago. Once we were there she had several other surprises in store starting with a knock on the hotel door. When I opened it there stood six friends with whom I had played a regular poker game here in Michigan. A few years back, the circumstances of life scattered us all over the country. But here, in my hometown, my Michigan poker buddies had come.

That night, after an evening of catching up and gorging on Chicago’s finest stuffed pizza, we settled in for a long night of doing what we became famous for: Trash talk, sarcasm, hysterical laughter that still makes our faces hurt, really bad music (sorry Luke) and some cards thrown in there too. Finally, around three in the morning, more from attrition than desire, it had to end.

The next day more surprises. The boys I met when we were ten, now men I am proud to call my lifelong friends. They came. Soon we were all packed into the Red Line El train headed to Clark and Addison; Wrigley Field. Walking into this baseball cathedral is like stepping into a time machine. I swear I can hear the announcer telling me to “Get your pencils and scorecards ready…” Over there is an Andy Frain usher. Cathy’s face is getting red from the Sun out in the bleachers. Standing by the beer guy is my dad and his brothers. Just four rows back from first base is my brother and his sons. In the field it’s “Santo, Kessinger, Beckert, Banks – The infield third to first. The battery is Holtzman and Hundley.”

It was a dream. A sun-kissed Saturday at the Friendly Confines. Everywhere I looked was a memory. As we took the El train home the windows provided a flip-book memory show as we flew past Belmont Ave (Leona’s restaurant and their Sicilian Chicken), Armitage (Gamekeeper’s and nights of debauchery), North Ave (The Second City Theater), and on. Restaurants, taverns, the church where Cath and I got married, parks where we played pick-up basketball, my first apratment… and so it went.

Later that night there was more food, more recollections, more stories from the old days, more “What’s new” with these new days. Eventually it was time. The weekend came to a close. As we drove East on the Skyway headed back to Michigan I was quiet for a time. Stunned really.

I couldn’t believe they all came. Busy men, all with full calendars, responsibilities, bills to pay, etc. They all just put it down for a day or two to come and be together. I loved that. I was humbled by that. I was blessed by that. I know that I call Chicago “home”, but really, home is where your people are. Home is where your boys are. They “make this place your home”. Billy, Curt, Karl, Jim, Luke, Mychal, Scott, Jeff and Danny. Men from different eras of my life. From different parts of the country. Men who blessed me, and each other, by going home for the weekend.

Anyway, I am reminded of Thomas Wolfe. He said, “You can’t go home again.” Obviously he never met Gina.

She did the impossible. She brought me home. I could never imagine a better gift. (Unless of course those Ping irons also included the rescue clubs too! I mean let’s be practical!)

____________________________________________________________

For anyone who appreciates this kind of thing, here is the incomparable Buddy Guy doing the song the way it’s supposed to be done…

I Am the 86%

Tomorrow night the opening ceremony for the Olympics will play out on TV. It is expected that more than a billion people will be watching – 14% of the world’s population – as 10,000 performers, 900 children, and nearly 100 farm animals (seriously) will engage in what amounts to the Orange Bowl halftime show on steroids.

Women (or at least the two women that I’ve been married to) seem to love the Big Show. Men – not so much. We’ll watch the Big Show if we have to but mostly to make fun of it. Women on the other hand seem to be genuinely entertained by these spectacles. This baffles me. Like anyone, I’m impressed by the enormity of the Big Show. I mean… it’s Big! Okay. But beyond that, it reminds me very much of the shows we used to put on in our garage when we were kids. We’d get every kid in the neighborhood, put on that Elton John/Kiki Dee classic “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart”, and we’d all gyrate around barely dancing, barely together, and mouth the words of the song.

I will grant you that the Big Shows have much better costumes and lights but…

I started watching Big Shows back in the 70s. It was there, as a young lad, when I first saw the “Up With People” version of the Big Show. This served as a specific delineating moment in my adolescence: I did not like Up With People, therefore I could be assured, I was heterosexual. (If you think I am exaggerating, put on your bell bottoms and check out this link: Up With People Halftime at the Silverdome)

Later, the halftime shows tried to get edgier. They hired Mickey Rooney, George Burns and The Grambling State Marching Band to lip sync the song “What a Feelin’” from Flashdance. This was followed by a year of n”Sync/Aerosmith/Britney Spears. Comedian Lewis Black called the sound they made, “It wasn’t music… it was the sound of chaos. The sound of pigs being slaughtered, women weeping and men gnashing their teeth! Sounds so horrible that if I were to repeat them for you now you would run screaming from this place.”

Of course soon the organizers of The Big Shows of the world got really hip. They started to invite MTV to produce their shows and book stars like Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson. (I contend that not only was that infamous “wardrobe malfunction” pre-planned, it was set up by the makers of TIVO. Think about it.)

Now there have been a few worthwhile Big Shows. Well, one. The Super Bowl halftime in 2002. This was mere months after 9/11 and the world was still very much in shock. The Super Bowl was one of the first really big public spectacles since the attacks and people were uneasy. Watch what U2 did with the moment and tell me that, even ten years later, it doesn’t still bring chills. (U2 Super Bowl Halftime Show)

There was one other really great moment in the world of Big Shows. This was the opening piece done by NBC for the Beijing Olympics. Great visuals, great script, perfect voice… When it was presented live it ended dramatically, perfectly, on the word “Now!” at the 4:23 mark. However, they couldn’t just leave it be. They had to make it “Big-er” They actually added American Idol winner David Cook singing “This is the Time of My Life” to a montage at the end. (Here’s the link: NBC Beijing Olympics Opening)

Let’s hear it. Were you among the 14% of the world watching this year’s Big Show? What did you think?

Leave your comment below.

I Went to Target with My Wife

I went to Target with my wife tonight.

Before you shake your head you must know – she asked! That’s my excuse. That’s all I got. She asked.

It’s akin to when, once a year, I pass a KFC and the kids ask, “Can we get KFC tonight?” For some reason, at that exact moment the reasonable thing to do is say, “Sure!” Then after a total of two bites you think, “I’ve made a huge mistake.”

So on this otherwise fine summer evening I said “Sure!” to Gina’s suggestion of going to Target. (And PLEASE, when you read the word Target, do not put that cute little French accent on the end of it, “Tar-zhay”… It’s not cute and it’s not French.) Anyway, just as with the Colonel’s place, two aisles in I knew I’d made a huge mistake.

On the way into the store I actually made Gina laugh when I asked what I thought was a reasonable question. “Do we need a cart,” I asked.

“At least one…” she answered.

I pushed the cart a respectable distance behind her as she walked each aisle. (I remembered as a kid pushing the cart with my mother and running over her heels. I still have ringing in one ear from the smacks on the head!) Gina was a seasoned pro. There is a saying in sports: “See the whole field…” Or “See the whole court…” This is a coach’s tip to players so that they can begin to anticipate what will happen in the next few moments of the game.

Gina was a player who saw the whole aisle. She knew right where the discounts would be. She could anticipate the moves of not only the other shoppers but also the employees as they restocked the shelves. There was a moment few who were there will ever forget. Thinking she was headed down the greeting card aisle Gina hesitated for just a second then made a smooth left turn into personal hygiene. There, almost without changing speed, in one move she reached and dropped her prey into the cart: the 8 pack of Lever 200o, on sale for 20% off. I have chills just thinking about it now.

Eventually the cart became so full we looked like a retail version of the Joads from Grapes of Wrath. I had no idea what was really in there; I just knew I was beginning to lose my breath while pushing it.

The real fun came when we went to check out. Gina had “Just one more thing” to get so I began unloading the truck sorry, cart. As I did I made a startling realization. We had to go to Target tonight because it turns out we needed… everything!

Shaving cream, paper plates, Tiger’s jerseys, black beans, a new bra (not for me), a game of Risk, wiper blades for the car, tampons (again, not for me!), canned tuna, a 4-pack of sunscreen, Pepperidge Farms cookies (okay, that one’s for me)… $442.79 worth of (here’s the real French word) crapola!

Needless to say I was exhausted by the time I reached the car. Not from hauling the stuff – Gina did most of the heavy lifting. No, I was worn out by the notion of it all. How could we need all of that stuff? How could she know that we need all of that stuff? How could one cart hold all of that stuff?

I’ve learned my lesson. I now know exactly what to say the next time Gina asks me if I want to go to Target.

“I can’t dear. I promised the kids I’d take them to KFC!”

Unwell

I am sick today. Don’t panic, send prayers or call 911. I have a cold.

“Big deal,” all are likely to say.

Yes, but I have a cough too!

As I have aged I have noticed that men and women (in particular, fathers and mothers) have different experiences when they have colds. Specifically, men get to have them and women do not.

This plays out in homes all across the world I imagine. Last night it was our turn. That little tickle that had bothered me for a day or two evolved into a full blown cough and cold. I checked my wife: sleeping soundly. I needed medicine… and sympathy. I made what I thought was just enough noise to wake her when I went downstairs to get the Nyquil. But alas, she slept though it all.

A few hours later I was awakened by the din of Sunday morning at our house. On my way to the bathroom Gina noticed the unmistakable shuffle of the “husband with a cold” and said, “How you feelin’?”

I went deep into my nasal passages to muster, “Not too good.”

When I was very little, my mother would take my head in her lap and stroke my forehead, showing me extraordinary love and taking my temperature at the same time. Inevitably I would fall asleep in her lap.

Later, as I grew up a bit, my maladies were typically  met with, “Man up,” “Tough it out,” and “How about I take you down to the Children’s Hospital and you can meet some kids who are really sick?” Eventually I became accustomed to going to school and working when I had a cold, flu, bronchitis, etc. I had a kidney stone once; was at work the next day.

These days it’s my wife who has the job of “petting my head”. I will sprawl on the couch, forehead extended, and in a very cocker spaniel-like way, offer to “let her” pet my head. For me, it is the tactile equivalent of chicken soup: It won’t make me better, but it couldn’t hurt! This act of selfless love offers her absolutely nothing. It remains a mystery as to why she chooses to do it. I would thank her profusely, yet before I will be able to, I will have fallen asleep in her lap.

My wife doesn’t seem to get to get sick. At least, I don’t remember the last time she was sick. Wait a minute… I’m sure she gets sick. She must, right? I just can’t remember any of those times.

Now that I think about it, I don’t remember my mom ever getting sick either.