Tears of Amrita

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I apologize for the long delay in writing here at Phantom City. As many of you know, it has been a difficult year for me. After a gut-wrenching separation from my true love and wife of ten years, she died suddenly on the very day we were set to formalize my return home.

If you know anything of my personal history, I have been through a lot in my sixty years of life. I’ve been through stage four cancer, bankruptcy, and divorce after twenty-five years of marriage. I saw the death of my father, brother, and mother, all in the space of three short years. But nothing could have prepared me for the separation, then sudden death of my true love, my sweet, beautiful wife, Jennifer.

There are some aspects surrounding her death that I am not at liberty to reveal, due to the highly personal nature of that information, and in consideration of the family, but I will share with you as much as I can.

I last saw Jennifer three days before her death. Even separated, we communicated every day or so by text, phone, visit or email. She was an instructor in culinary arts at our local community college. Because she had so few classes, her income was low. As the mother of a teen, my beloved step-son, Thomas, I provided her with more than 80% of her financial support during our nine month separation. That meant that to pay the bills of two households, I was left with less than $50.00 a week to live on, after paying expenses. It was a very difficult time, but I did it gladly from the perspective that by doing so, she would realize that I was the kind of husband that would be there for her, no matter what.

Because of stress, malnutrition, dehydration, and an unconscious sort of martyrdom, in the space of one year, I lost 52 pounds. During our separation, I was hospitalized several times at the VA, for short periods, to try and get me back on the right track. I was put on medication to combat stress. I had a nervous breakdown, unable to stop crying or randomly shaking when an unwanted thought or emotion came. It became increasingly more difficult to do my highly visible, very public  job as restaurant manager – I could no longer “fake it.” Let there be no mistake about my practice; I turned to the Gohonzon like never before – not to win my wife back, but to navigate the turbulent sea of suffering that was sinking my ship.

Her death came as a complete shock. The night before her passing, I wrote a letter to her mother expressing my grave concern over her declining health. Jennifer refused to go to the doctor. For two years myself, her son, her mother, her sister, and her ex-husband literally begged her to get medical help, but she refused, saying she hated doctors, and that doctors misdiagnosed her father, who died of kidney cancer at the age of forty.

Her symptoms, which we used the Merck Manual of Medical Information to self-diagnosis were: bruises that turned into hard, dark festering wounds that lasted for months and would leak blood and lymph. She had shortness of breath, heart palpitations, frequent and severe migraines, night sweats, random swollen lymph nodes, blood in her urine, and other symptoms that I just can’t recall now. Anyone of these symptoms would have made the average person rush to the doctor, but not Jennifer. She was all about self-diagnosis and self-medication, and it literally cost her, her life. Our self-diagnosis was discoid lupus erythematosus, a serious, but not necessiarily fatal chronic disease, if found and treated early. The coroner, even on our urging, never tested for that or diabetes, or much of anything. It took 90 agonizing days to receive their cause of death. For the record, Jennifer was just a number on a long list to them, and they didn’t test for much of anything. I was appalled by their backwoods quackery. It was like they put stickey notes with possible causes of death on a dartboard and then had a blind person throw darts at it. The first note they hit was their cause of death. Pathetic!

I was set for her to come to my place that Saturday, September 18th at 10:00 a.m., but she did not show or text me. I tried repeatedly to contact her, but uncharacteristically of her, she did not respond. I drove to her place and her car was there. When I went to the door, the TV was on and after repeatedly pounding on the door, still, no one answered. I began to leave, then remembered I had my step-son’s phone number, so I called him. It was about 11:30 a.m. and he picked up right away, saying that he was sleeping and thought his mom was too. Teenagers!

He went to wake her up and I parked and came to the door which was by then open. The minute I got inside, Thomas yelled his mom was unconscious in the bathroom. He was on the phone with the 911 operator. I ran there and we had to squeeze into the bathroom as she laid upright with her head against the door. The moment I saw her I knew she was dead, but I didn’t know if it just happened. I sprang into action, chanting with a great sense of urgency and desperation. He held the phone up to my ear and I cleared her airway, breathed into her mouth, and started chest compressions while he held the back of her neck up. The 911 operator gave me commands and I told him, “I’ve got it!” He retorted, “How can you have it, I just started to tell you what to do…” I told Thomas, “Hang up on that idiot, I know what I’m doing,” and I did. I was well trained in CPR as a former coporate saftey manager. The EMT’s and sheriff arrived a few minutes later and shooed us out of the bathroom. In just a minute or two, the head EMT gave us the bad news, telling us that she was dead and had most likely been dead for at least several hours. My step-son and I exchanged looks of horror. He started to make calls to his dad and grandmother while I called my daughter, then my boss.

As when anyone dies for no apparent reason, it was treated as a crime scene. My step-son and I answered questions from the sheriff and then the deputy coroner arrived with a litany of her own questions. Soon, my daughter, and  the parent of my step-son’s girlfriend arrived. They took him to find his dad, and my daughter and I sat there in stunned silence, waiting for the deputy coroner to finish. They made us leave while the body was taken out of the apartment. My daughter left and I sat there in the apartment and cried until there were no more tears left in my body.

Then came the aftermath. A financial nightmare soon became apparent. Within days of sorting through her bills, I discovered, with student loans and all the other bills or hers that I could find, she left more than $130,000 in debt with zero assets. I consulted with an attorney to find out what I should do and was relieved that anything I did not sign for, I was not obligated to pay. However, I had two credit cards in my name that I had never used with modest limits, and unbeknownst to me, she racked up more than $9000 in credit card debt that I was obligated to pay. All of this financial flim-flam that she conjured meant nothing to me as her death was the only thing that mattered. She left a 15 year old son who had to see his mother’s dead face with that far off look in her eyes, and cold, stiff body – an image I can still not wipe from my own mind or dreams. She left an adoring husband, a sister, mother, step-father, and a large family with countess friends.

There is much more that I cannot discuss, but let me assure you that I can handle death as well as anyone. Although her death was devastating, it was the other details I learned after she died from reading her journals and texts, that pushed me over the edge into what seemed like an endless freefall. I was forced to search for a suicide note because of the strange circumstances surrounding her death, but there was none. The coroner’s office designated her death as accidential.

Now, I am trying to pick up the pieces. My physical body began to rapidly break down and my emotional state deteriorated to the point that I had to resign my job of ten years. My counselor advised me to go on a vacation over Christmas to avoid all the familiar things that would remind me of better times at home. I was scheduled to return, stay a few weeks and train my replacement, but when I returned, my boss had already replaced me. Now, I was out of work, and the income that I thought I would have to tide me over for a month or so was gone. Furthermore, I lived in a building my boss owned, and he asked me to move as soon as possible, giving me less than a month. It was nothing personal, just business.

Is there something that I can share with you about how I was able to overcome the dark cloud of sorrow that had completely enveloped me, threatening my sanity and even my life? Yes, I have had extensive counseling from VA psychiatrists, several psychologists, and my doctor. All of this has been tremendously beneficial, but none of that counseling brought forth that aha! moment.

It wasn’t until I stumbled onto some random literature on grieving that was sent to me by my wife’s former employer, the local community college, that I had my major breakthrough. I cobbled together some of advice that they provided with another idea I had seen somewhere else, but can’t recall. This combination of actions and attitudes, almost immediately broke the curse of sorrow that was stangling the life out of me. Perhaps this approach will work for you or someone you know who is dealing with the death of a loved one and can’t break through or move on.

1. I wrote my wife a long letter expressing what was deep in my heart and mind. The joy of my love, my appreciation, as well as my anger, frustration, and sense of hopelessness. I forgave her and forgave myself.

2. I began to speak to her before going to sleep, as if she were in bed with me, pouring out my heart, yet telling her that I didn’t want to keep her spirit here and I had to let her go. Tears would flow, yet I felt cleansed. Also, when alone, I speak to her as if she’s in the next room. It’s a one way conversation, true, but it’s another way for me to unload the unrequitted emotion and pain that wells up from time to time. This really helps.

3. I set up a small shrine in her honor. It has many of the most precious love notes and letters on a large poster board. It sits on a table with a golden cloth of hers. I put essential oils on it like Egyptian Musk, Sandalwood, Jasmine, and Patchouly Musk, to make her special place gloriously fragrant. These precious, fragrant essential oils were her favorite scents, and when their aroma is sensed, I can feel and visualize her very presence. I put two red candles on the cloth, an incense tray that she made, a meditation chime and striker, and three of my favorite framed photos of us during our happiest times. There are a few personal items of hers on the table that meant a lot to her, including handmade juzu. Each day, after gongyo, I light the candles, burn a stick of incense, and ring the chimes three times. I wait until the ringing of each chime strike to dissipate into soundlessness, then stike it again, until I have rung the chimes three times. In between those strikes, I silently stare at her and the letters and notes, or I just close my eyes and imagine her sweet life, wafting away,  like the dissipating vibration of the chime.

By doing these conscious, almost ceremonial acts, my mind, emotions, and my heart are healing more than anything that the counseling has managed to do thus far. I hope these acts or something like this will help you or someone else that is struggling with the heartbreak of losing a loved one.

There’s not much more to tell you other than I had to file for Social Security Disability because I am now physically and emotionally unable to work, but the conundrum is that I must work to just keep a roof over my head. All my savings are gone and I’m staying with a friend while I try to find work. It’s a cold, cruel world out there, but I’m not afraid – that’s what a strong faith in the Lotus Sutra will do for you. For those who might assume or ascribe my situation as botsu or the result of moving away from the organization or the mentor, have your judgmental moment. Enjoy it. Go ahead…smirk, tell yourself or others that that’s what I (or anyone) gets. All I know is that I take refuge in the Eternal Buddha. I take refuge in the Lotus Sutra.  

I leave you with this: I will win. Compared to what Nichiren went through, this is nothing. I take great comfort in the fact that with faith and practice of the Lotus Sutra, winter never fails to turn into spring. I’ll let you know how it all turns out. Bless you all for your patience and support.

Memorial Words, September 25, 2019

Good Afternoon, my name is Charles Atkins. I am Jennifer’s husband.
Today I wish to be frank with you; can I be frank with you?

On behalf of our family, I thank you all for coming here today to honor the life of Jennifer.

Jennifer Michelle Dubois Mahannah Atkins. Jennifer was the most capable and wonderful woman I have ever known. I was honored to be her husband for the past ten years and I am staggered by her sudden passing.

My pet name for her was “Smurfie,” because her eyes were smurf blue. And, as you know in cartoon lingo, Smurf means good. In Indiana, where she grew up, her name is pronounced Due Boise, but she preferred the French version that rolled off one’s lips in a romantic way, Jennifer DuBwa. So when I was kidding around with her as all married couples do, I used to call her Smurfie DuBois no-hyphen Atkins because she didn’t want DuBois stuck to my name, but to stand-alone. I loved that pride. She thought my pet name was cute and very silly. Jennifer loved silly. I still remember when she used to pin down her son Thomas and blow raspberries on his stomach or any open skin until Thomas was laughing and squirming so hard he almost cried.

I mentioned that Jennifer was capable, and that is no empty euphemism. She was a master chef who taught culinary arts at Parkland College, she was a master baker who was so good; she could have made Mahatma Gandhi break a fast for some of her angel’s food cake or peach cobbler. She was a fabulous sketch artist and oil painter, a brilliant poet although if I were to read some verses she wrote, it might make you blush! She was a musician with total recall – once she heard a song, she could recall it note-for-note. Her signing voice could charm the birds from the trees.

Jennifer was a master of beasts, so to speak, working with the ASPCA and the Champaign County Humane Society, nursing sick cats back to health. Critters of every type were naturally drawn to her. I saw her attract feral cats and hand feed feral cats in Georgia and Tennessee on one of her many road trips to Spring Hill, Florida, where her parents are retired.

If you needed your taxes done, Jennifer was as good as a CPA. She was a computer wiz, and understood electronics and modern technology. I actually felt like a complete idiot at times, as she was so much smarter and more capable than I was. When I sat at the computer with a problem, she would come over and say “MOVE.” She must have really loved me. As all I could do was write, and I honesty think, she did that better than me, as well.

Jennifer was incredibly versatile, capable, and deep. In fact, I can assure you she was the deepest spiritual savant you have ever met – not even knowing, that beneath the shy, silly, teacher, was a human being fully awakened to the world’s mythologies and spirituality. As a practicing Buddhist for the past 36 years, I’ve had occasion to receive training and meet the greatest so-called enlightened beings in the world. Jennifer, was the equal of any guru or realized being I have ever known. Didn’t know that, did you? She never let on that she was an awakened being because she just wanted to live quietly and enjoy life.

Perhaps my favorite memory of her happened about five years ago. Let me explain: a friend of mine from Chicago had fallen on hard times. That day, the brakes on my car failed, and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to visit him to bring him some much needed provisions and encouragement. She rolled up her sleeves, jacked up my car, found the bad part, looked it up on-line, called Auto-Zone, got the part, and then fixed my brakes. She then began to put together a little basket of goodies for my pal, and realized we had no jam for sandwiches, so she went onto the porch and plucked crab apples from the tree, and made him jam – right on the spot! When I told my friend what she did, he said, “You hit the jackpot, man!”

Family was Jennifer’s heart and soul. The most important people in her life were her son Thomas, her parents, her sister Cynthia, her Grandma Porter, Sean Mahannah, and me. Her love for us was boundless. After the death of Jennifer’s biological father, Tom Dubois, Susan married Executive Chef, Marshall Huffman, who many of you know as the former director of the Parkland College culinary arts program. She told me countless times how much she loved, admired, and respected Marshall, calling him her “polished apple.” Over the ten years we were together, I witnessed a profound transformation and deepening of love and respect for Marshall as her father, and culinary mentor. She always felt that she could approach Marshall for advice, and told me on a number of occasions, that she loved him as much as her biological father, who was the most important human being in her life. It was through Marshall’s influence that Jennifer advanced her skills and became a master chef. Jennifer was not demonstrative so she may not have told him, but she sure told me on many occasions, she loved him that much.

Let it be known that teaching culinary arts and running the Parkland HPI club was the greatest thrill of her working life. She literally donated hundreds upon hundreds of hours of her time to develop that program, working with Thomas Bickel, and so many others. She burned up tanks of gas and bought supplies with her own money when necessary, to develop the HPI Club. Her example should now become the gold standard on how that club should work.

Some of you may not know that Jennifer was the weekend, night DJ for Oldies 92.5 in 1999-2000; a job that filled her with pride and great joy, but the radio job paled in comparison to the satisfaction she got out of teaching at Parkland College. I know she will be sorely missed. I must add that she loved her students as if they were her own kids. You guy’s are so lucky to have had her – but she thought she was the lucky one to have had you!

Everyone has an interesting relationship with their mother. Jennifer loved her mother, Susan Huffman so much, that Jennifer would sometimes cry herself to sleep when she didn’t think she lived up to her mom’s expectation – but I have never seen a love so enduring. Based on my observation over the past 10 years, I believe that the reason Jennifer was so capable, was directly due to the incredible influence and teaching of her mother. Their bond was deep and true, beautiful at times, adversarial at times, but it was a mother-daughter bond of fathomless love, respect, and inspiration.

Jennifer often told me how proud she was of her mother and what a lofty example of scholarship and success she had set. She confessed that her mother’s accomplishments were almost too much to measure up to, but by setting the bar so high for her; Jennifer told me that her mother’s example made her extremely proud. The one ironic twist of fate for Jennifer, the shy introvert, was becoming a teacher like her mother and father. They provided the ideal template for her new career, and no one was more surprised and happy than Jennifer was that she became a teacher.

Thomas, her son, was the center of her life. Since I had already raised a child, I kept telling her that you shouldn’t try to be your kids best friend, you need to be their parent, which often means strictness and discipline. Of course, she told me that she was going to be his best friend and his parent! That kind-of put me in my place. I have never seen such selfless devotion of a mother to a child. He was the most important person in her life, and based on the way Thomas has grown up, she did all the right things, with just the right amount of love and guidance.

In some respects, I may have known Jennifer best of all. The two greatest loves of her life were her first husband Sean and me, here two husbands. She made me feel like the luckiest man on earth. As you can see, there was a 23-year age difference between Jennifer and me. I’ve never quite figured out why she gave her heart to me, as I’m not rich or handsome. Regarding me, she liked the creative types, and someone who was big to make her feel secure. As best as I can figure out is that she loved me then became my wife, because she could have deep conversations with me, she instinctively knew that I truly loved her, and that I was secure and protective.

Not to take away from our great love, the greatest love of Jennifer’s life was the father of her son, my friend, Sean Mahannah. Their love will endure forever. Yes, Jennifer loved me deeply, but I think I loved her more.

Jennifer was a superb wife. She was a brilliant conversationalist with an off color, sometimes-silly sense of humor, as her student’s will attest. She preferred the company of men to women, because she thought men were more trustworthy and wouldn’t stab you in the back. Although she was extremely shy, and an introvert, whenever Jennifer spoke, people would take notice that someone of substance and character was speaking. I have known famous people, scholars, spiritual masters, artists, and captains of industry, in my unique capacity as a professional writer and author. In my 40 years as a writer, I have yet to meet any human being who could rival her, and for that reason, today should not be one of sadness – although her passing is truly tragic, it should be a celebration of life, for one of God’s finest creations. She was the most wonderful person I have ever known.

Just last week I wrote her a love poem – although intimate, I would like to share it with you:

Psalm of Smurfie

Golden goddess from above
Moonbeam skin
Piscean love
Sapphire eyes
Lips of fire
Soothing coo of the dove

How I love thee
My feline femme
Passion raging like the sea
Holy heart
Mystic mind
Allure from which I cannot flee

Your True, Eternal Love, Chuckie Bear

If we are to make any sense out of this tragedy, it is that life is both fleeting and precious. In my last face-to-face meeting with Jennifer, she told me she loved me, and then kissed me. That is the memory I shall cherish to the end. It can also be said that life is eternal. Jennifer and I often talked about life and death, religion and spirituality, the mystic nature of the universe, and the powers of the mind. As one who is considered an authority in the study of consciousness, I can say with absolute confidence that Jennifer is not gone:

She is everywhere: Jennifer rides the wind like an elemental force. She can be experienced in the blooming of the flowers of the field. She is the pink-white blossoms of the cherry tree. She is the crest and spindrift of breaking gulf waves. She is the fertile soil of the woods. She is the enduring ember of your fire on a cold winter’s night. She is the quantum world and the dynamic energy of all life and consciousness at every moment. In short, Jennifer is everywhere there is love, light, and life.

During our conversations about religion, Jennifer often said that she didn’t care for religion (she was not a joiner), but she believed in the essence of the Holy Spirit, and was open to God. She loved Egyptian mythology, Native American culture, Jesus, Buddha, and the other sages that brought people hope, but she wasn’t impressed with organized religion. She believed that heaven is not elsewhere, but inherent in life at every moment. She believed in forgiveness and lived by the Golden Rule. Based on her beliefs, Jennifer is here – now – among us, feeling the love in our hearts, and probably wondering what all the fuss is about. I can almost hear her saying, “Go home, make a cheeseburger, have a beer, enjoy the afternoon.”

Today, I ask all of you to feel the joy and beauty of Jennifer’s boundless spirit as we celebrate her truly amazing life. I have never loved one as I do Jennifer. Together with Thomas, Sean, Cynthia, and her beloved parents, I thank you all for coming, and pray that you keep her in your heart always.

Saturday, September 18th will forever be burned into my mind. That was the day my step-son and I found my beautiful, 36 year old wife, dead on the bathroom floor. My therapist urged me to share my experience with others as an act of healing. Perhaps, through the telling of this tragedy, someone, somewhere, will find encouragement or a better understanding of the fleeting nature of existence.

My wife, Jennifer and I separated in January. She was twenty-three years younger than me and the arc of our two lives were on different curves. There was still much love and respect. We communicated daily by text message or short visits. In most relationships, one partner suffers more than the other. In this case, I was the one who suffered most. I dropped thirty pounds and lost the will to live. She reluctantly admitted that she was happier now that I was gone, but she still loved me and hadn’t given up on the relationship. I went into therapy, seeing a VA counselor once a week to find a way to break my dangerous love addiction or attachment to Jennifer. It was most sobering to face up the reality that I had created.

I had been possessive, volatile, and passive aggressive. I invaded her privacy and lacked trust of her fidelity. I suspected her of being unfaithful. The final straw that compelled me to move out was when she began meeting with her ex-husband at her parent’s house that was vacant and up for sale, to enjoy quiet family moments with her son, his girlf friend, and her ex-husband. She did not tell me she had been doing this while I was at work, and the news of this sent me over the edge. It was only later in the back story that I learned that she did this intentionally to break up the marriage to be with him. Unfortunately for Jennifer, her ex-husband had fallen in love with an old high school sweet heart and wanted to settle down with her, thwarting Jennifer’s plans. Now, the man she truly loved was unavailable and the man who loved and supported her had been lied to and living alone.

On the morning of the 18th, I was supposed to meet Jennifer to give her food. She was an instructor of culinary arts at our local community college, but her classes had been scaled back and she had gone several months without any income besides her child support. Although I was helping her financially already, I tightened my belt and figured a way to live on $50.00 every two weeks, using the about $1000 to pay my own modest bills and fully supporting her. I paid her rent, insurance, phone, cable, power, food, and gasoline, as well as miscellaneous expenses. I loved Jennifer so much that my sacrifice actually felt good. She was extremely grateful, but felt beholding to me. I continued this until we found her dead.

Jennifer did not show up at my place for our meeting and se didn’t answer her texts or phone. I wasn’t overly concerned. I must add that myself, my step-son, her ex-husband, and her parents had been literally begging Jennifer to go to the doctor. Two years earlier, we noticed that she bruised easily and that bruise would swell up in knot with the blood clearly not coagulating right. The wound would fester like a boil and when she lanced it, copious amounts of blood, lymph, and other fluids would come out. It was hideous. She refused to go to the doctor not trusting them because doctor’s had misdiagnosed her father’s kidney cancer in the mid 1980s, leading to his death at age forty. As time went on, Jennifer began to manifest other unsettling symptoms like shortness of breath which she ascribed to pleurisy, low grade fevers, frequent migraines, blood in her urine, fatigue, and later nausea. There were other telltale symptoms as well. Finally, she had scheduled a doctor’s appointment for the Monday that followed her unexpected death on Saturday.

When I arrived at her apartment, I heard the TV blaring, but there was no answer to my knock. I shouted, but still no response. I left, and was about to drive away when I remembered that I had my 15 year old stepson’s phone number, so I took a chance. Even though it was about 11:30 a.m., Thomas was still in bed. He thought his mom was still in bed, so I told him to wake her because I had food and needed to talk with her. I parked the car, and by the time I got in the door, he was talking to the 911 operator. He said that his mom was collapsed in the bathroom. It took some serious shoving against the door to squeeze myself in, where I saw Jennifer lying on the floor, face up. Her eyes were wide open but glazed over. I didn’t know if she had just passed out or was in a coma.

My step-son held the phone to my ear looking down on his mother’s body while I cleared her airway. Her mouth was clinched shut but still moist, her lips cool, her skin cold and clammy. I breathed air into her lungs and began chest compressions chanting loudly as I pumped her chest. I stopped to listen for her breath. Looking into her eyes, there was that unmistakable blurry, far away look that indicated he was dead. I pumped harder and the Sheriff came, followed by the EMT. I was told to wait in the next room and only a minute later the EMT came in to tell us that she had been dead, perhaps for several hours.

Jennifer was just 36 years old and because of her sudden passing, an autopsy was mandatory. TV can be very deceiving. On NCIS and CSI the results of an autopsy that conclusively show the cause of death are neatly revealed in moments. In the real world, toxicology and pathology reports can take weeks, maybe months! All we do know from the autopsy was that she has edema about the heart and lung, unspecified systemic, beginning disease in the liver, kidneys, and spleen. We don’t know what if any medications were involved. The coroner strongly suspects that it was not suicide based on the facts at hand and her bright cheery mood proceeding her death. She was communicative, happy, although in dire circumstances, she left no suicide note, and her son was home. No matter how despondent she might have been, Jennifer would have never done that with her precious son in the house. Of that I am sure.

That leaves all her loved ones to wrestle with the many possibilities for her death. As a self-diagnosing fool, she poured over the Merck Manual trying to match her symptoms with illnesses listed therein. After many months of inquiry, she came up with what she thought was her illness: Discoid Lupus Erythematosus. Had she allowed it to progress so far that it caused some cascading organ failure? If I am allowed to wager an armchair diagnosis, I suspect she died of a brain aneurysm. The fact that she’s dead is the bottom line. I am so broken up, I’m not sure I will ever recover as she was truly the great love of my life.

Now you know why I have been absent from Fraught With Peril. I lost the will to live when we separated, and now that she has died, I must find the strength to continue for the sake of my mission and the welfare of my step-son, Thomas.

Thank you for all your prayers. I love you all.