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After attending Matt's ...
After attending Matt's inspirational funeral and reaching out to Gina with offers of support, Cathy was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. She died only seventeen days later, leaving behind her husband, Michael, and three young children. In her final hours, Cathy instructed Michael to 'call Gina Kell.'
The Color of Rain illuminates the stepping-stones of loss and healing that ultimately led to a joyful new life for Michael, Gina and their five children. Their path to becoming a modern day Brady Bunch was filled with grief, laughter, and a willingness to be restored to a new and even better life, despite the inevitable resistance they faced.
As the dual first-person narrative reveals what it is like to walk through loss and love simultaneously, readers receive an intimate look at how this ordinary group of people lived, died, and ultimately persevered through extraordinary circumstances.
The morning of my thirty-second birthday, I was already looking forward to dinner with my parents. Dad and I shared the same birthday and Mom was making our favorite, linguini with traditional meat sauce and meatballs, to celebrate. With a name like Antoinette Valenti, you know her sauce is ridiculously good. I've yet to meet a person, regardless of how many vowels they have in their name, who can make a more tender meatball than my mother.
Bright sunlight bathed the kitchen in warmth. Two-year-old Drew had just finished eating oatmeal, and Sam was sitting in his high chair launching toys in between bites of Gerber baby cereal when the phone rang. My best friend, Colleen Schomaker, was calling with a solo performance of "Happy Birthday." She sang at hyperspeed, so as not to actually sing, and then reminded me that I am still older than her. We said good-bye with a plan to meet for lunch.
As I hung up, the television caught my eye. Smoke was billowing from one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. I leaned my elbows on the counter to watch on my tiny black-and-white kitchen television and called Colleen back.
"Are you watching this?"
"Yeah, I know. Unbelievable."
We mulled it over for a few minutes and hung up again. By now, I had turned on the television in the family room. Sam was still in his high chair, happily being entertained by Drew as I watched a passenger jet explode into the second tower. My body recoiled with every replay of the plane entering the building. I sat on the coffee table in stunned silence and began to feel nauseated. My soul ached at the sight of incomprehensible suffering. With the rest of the world, I was riveted to my television on this otherwise gorgeous September day, helplessly watching America wounded and bleeding.
It took my husband, Matt, several hours to return home from his downtown office at the local NBC television station in Detroit. When I heard the garage door go up, I ran to meet him. We held each other tightly, still in a state of disbelief. My parents had already arrived. Time was standing still as we came together to watch the horror unfold. Around five o'clock I walked outside to clear my head. The late afternoon sun was blinding. I felt like I had been in a tunnel all day. My body ached from tension. It was surreal, and it wasn't even happening in our state. It was, however, happening in our safe country, in a city we had visited many times, and in a place where people we knew and loved were living. It was happening to people just like us. It was happening to us.
Dinner was quieter than usual, although the kids helped keep things light. The world may have paused, but Drew still had spaghetti sauce on his face, and Sam was still throwing things from his high chair. There wasn't much conversation aside from expressions of deep sadness, gratitude, and a strong sense of unity with our fellow Americans.
I took an hour tucking the kids into bed that night, snuggling, reading, and saying prayers. What kind of world had I brought them into? I walked downstairs and collapsed into Matt's arms. The television was muted and we sat quietly watching the images on the screen.
"I have a present for you," Matt said.
"For what?" I asked and then remembered it was my birthday. "I don't feel much like celebrating. How about if I open it tomorrow?"
"Okay, but you have to read this tonight." He handed me a letter.
Especially today, with the enormity of current events, I want to convey to you again, how much you mean to me and how proud I am to be your husband. The hard work that you are engaged in right now is exhausting, invisible and largely thankless in the short term.
But honey, please know that buried at the core of this tedium is the most noble and important work in the world—God's work; the fruits of which you and I will be lucky enough to enjoy as we grow old together. Watching these little guys grow into men is a privilege that I am proud to share with you, and the perfect fulfillment of our marriage bonds.
You are a great mom.
You are a great wife.
You are my best friend.
You are very pretty.
Matt's generosity restored my hope. He made me feel safe and loved and purposeful. In his own adorable way, he even made me feel beautiful, which every mother of young children knows is no small task. At a time in our lives when careers and kids were creating loose threads in our marriage, and on the worst day in our nation's recent history, Matt gave me a renewed perspective about our life together and our future. His letter was like a stitch in the mending process. It was the best birthday present I'd ever been given.
A few months after 9/11, we celebrated our tenth anniversary in California. We planned the trip several months prior to our actual October anniversary, mostly to accommodate schedules. We rented a convertible Porsche Boxster in San Francisco and made the leisurely drive south to Big Sur. Matt was in his glory. Evidence of God surrounded us. The Sierras to our left, crashing surf to our right, and a little black sports car beneath us. Heaven. We looped around the Seventeen-Mile Drive and took in all the sights. The Lone Cypress Tree, tall Spyglass palms, and sea otters serving themselves a dinner of abalone on the rocks as they languished in the Pacific. We twisted and turned a bit farther south on Highway One until we arrived at the Ventana Inn and Spa, a quiet, romantic resort nestled in the cliffs at Big Sur. Pulling into the resort we noticed smiling people meandering around in white robes. Before the bell captain could open the car door, Matt leaned into me and whispered, "Resort? Or insane asylum?"
"Either way, we'll fit in," I replied with a laugh.
Ventana was quite a contrast from our everyday world. It was an extremely quiet, romantic escape. There was a bit of culture shock, but it didn't take long to adapt. Fifteen minutes after we mocked the crazies in the white robes, we were donning our own monogrammed terries with matching white f lip-f lops, sipping a delightful Napa Cabernet on our leisurely stroll to the Japanese hot baths. We giggled like kids who were getting away with something. We had only two days to luxuriate, so we made the most of them, eating extraordinary cuisine and taking deep breaths of the night-blooming jasmine.
After dinner we sat on the terrace of our bungalow overlooking the tranquil mountains. I rested my head back and felt the tension in my body melt away. When I opened my eyes, there was an open jewelry box with a beautiful pair of diamond earrings sitting on top of a Ventana notepad with a handwritten note:
Here's my big idea. When the time comes, we give one to Drew and one to Sam as "down payments" on engagement rings. Then, we go get you two giant rocks! I love you.—M
I hugged him around his neck and we kissed. He got it right. The earrings were perfect, but most of all, I loved his big idea. He considered five people in giving this gift. It was for me, our boys, and their future wives. His thoughtfulness would touch people he didn't even know.
"Try 'em on," he said, smiling. He knew he had me. Matt had been buying me jewelry for years, but much of it sat idle in the jewelry box. I had never been one to wear much jewelry, mostly because I was hyper-aware of the fact that I had it on, and I tended to fidget with it. My discomfort, however, did not stop my persistent salesman husband from buying it. Now, after ten years, he had found the perfect gift, elegant and understated, with the perfect message.
"Thank you," I whispered. "I can't wait until our boys can understand this about you."
Matt hit play on the CD player on our nightstand, and we listened to a complimentary CD titled Going to California. The CD was an acoustic guitar tribute to Led Zeppelin. I liked my rock-and-roll, but this mellow CD worked with the robes-and-slippers mood. It became the soundtrack for a perfect weekend getaway.
Back home, the week of our actual anniversary in early October, Matt and I were not feeling pressured to buy gifts or plan an elaborate night out. Great memories of our California trip lingered, but we were glad to be home in Michigan this time of year. The autumn chill was beginning to creep back into the air, which meant sweatshirt weather, football games, and spicy chili. Everything smells different when the leaves begin to turn. Their yearly morph releases a burnt perfume that sweetens the air. The vibrant colors and crisp temperatures make me feel like I could run a thousand miles, although after the first two, I'd rethink that idea. Autumn arouses all of the senses like no other season, perhaps because we can feel the beginning of the end, nature's grand finale.
Matt was upstairs showering and Sammy took his morning nap while I molded Play-Doh with Drew. I took notice of the leaves that hung just outside the window. The chartreuse green was giving way to hints of vibrant red, orange, and yellow.
"Gina!" Matt shouted to me from our bedroom. I walked to the bottom of the stairs to see him wrapped in a towel, dripping wet.
"Feel this," he said as he pushed his finger into his thigh. At first I thought he was being funny but quickly realized that his tone was more serious.
"What is it?" I asked, rushing up the stairs.
"I don't know. It feels like a marble in my leg, like a tiny tumor."
I stopped moving and glanced up at him with a confused look.
"A tumor? W ho says that?" I said half sarcastically. That thought lingered in the air a moment until I realized, a Kell says that. While the average person does not jump to the conclusion that it's a "tumor" before considering every other possibility, Matt's family, given the genetic history on his dad's side, tended to assume the worst. We continued feeling around his thigh. The marble was very deep in the muscle. Matt and I agreed that he would call his dad's oncologist.
A few days later, on the day of our tenth anniversary, I was in our bedroom and saw our acoustic Led Zeppelin CD from Ventana. I realized that the timing of our trip had been less about logistics and more about a divine plan. As Matt lay in our bed recovering from surgery to remove a tumor from his leg, I pressed play. The last two songs on the CD were "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" and "Stairway to Heaven."
Autumn had arrived.
Cold spring waters run over the small rocks at the far end of Grandview Beach, providing the only sound to the predawn stillness on Mullett Lake in Northern Michigan. The perfect crystal surface rests, motionless. In the distance, at the first break of light, a lake perch stretches up toward the tangerine sky just enough to gulp a breakfast of fallen mayf lies, then disappears quietly below the surface. The silent ripples on the water glide toward the now-smoldering horizon. As the sun begins to wrestle the darkness into retreat, I wish the world could remain this perfect for just a while longer.
As I wallow in the calm, the moment quickly becomes bittersweet with the realization that, in the blink of an eye, this perfect tranquility will surrender to the sound and fury that accompany each new day. Cars and boats, people and noises, busyness and bills to be paid, and all of the blessings and curses that occupy the space between dawn and twilight will soon be upon me. In the end, the silent bliss that is morning on Mullett Lake is friend and foe alike; a beautiful and cruel Shakespearean device that each day seduces me with its promise and then shatters me with its heartbreak.
For my wife, Cathy, this was a unique and spiritual place. Her parents, Larry and Jill Lutz, owned a cottage on Grandview Beach, a pretty stretch of sandy shoreline at the far end of the lake, and Cath spent many summers there. One of the largest and deepest inland lakes in the U.S., Mullett Lake seemed to call out to her each time she stayed away a bit too long. She became a different woman when she was up north. (That's what the locals call it; when one goes to the lakes in Northern Michigan, one goes "up north.") Along with f lip-f lops and waterproof sunblock, Cathy put on a new self when she was there and it looked good on her. Her slender frame seemed taller than the 5'6" listed on her driver's license. Her summer hair caught just enough of the sun's magic to brighten with highlights. Her skin, fair and pink for nine months out of the year, grew deep brown, making her teeth piercingly white when she smiled. Being at the lake agreed with Cathy.
While she and I were still dating, I had to be dragged there. "Come to my parents' cottage," Cathy pleaded.
I wanted none of it. I was strictly concrete. I loved the city and was never going to be a "happy camper." Roughing it for me was when room ser vice stopped serving at midnight. Plus my only notion of a "cottage" came from the dreadful visits to Wisconsin where my dad had taken my three siblings and me in order to get a little outdoors in us.
"You'll love it," Cathy insisted.
"I will not love it," I said, channeling Woody Allen. "Crappy fishing shanties and deerflies the size of Volvos ..."
"It's not like that," she said. "Besides, we need a nice getaway."
"Getaway has words like Hyatt in it. Spas and tee times. That's a getaway! The only thing we'd be getting away from up north would be indoor plumbing and twentieth-century dentistry."
Yet, as we all know, love makes you do the occasional foolish thing. So I packed a case of SPF 90 and a five-gallon canister of calamine lotion, and we drove north out of Chicago.
As soon as we arrived, all of my fears of outhouses and backwoods banjos were put to rest. It turned out that her parents' "cottage" was actually a beautiful and well-appointed lake home with four bedrooms and two bathrooms. Being a top salesman in the furniture industry gave Larry Lutz not only access to the finer things but a taste for them as well. Their home was spotless, with a clean, contemporary style and a touch of up-north charm. The meticulous white walls remained free of any clutter, except for three large framed photographs that Larry himself had taken and hung prominently in the great room. They had more than one hundred feet of lakefront and all the water toys you could desire: ski boats and pontoon party boats, flotation devices of every kind, and even a SeaDoo to ride.
Nearby I discovered a golf course called The Secret—a fabulous little semi-private track carved out of the virgin pine forest that always seemed to have an opening on the first tee whenever I asked. The people there were great and the course not too difficult. I soon developed a love/hate relationship with the par-five eighth hole, which always taunted my ego into going for the green in two, though there was a well-placed pond in front. This diamond in the rough (all puns intended) was the deal maker for me with Mullett Lake. I began to look forward to going up north as much as Cathy.
Eventually I mustered the courage (brains really) to ask her to marry me. As I waited for her at the altar on our wedding day, I looked around the church at the countless friends and family gathered. My dad caught my eye and smiled a wedding smile at me and then turned toward the back of the church. Just then Cathy appeared, glowing at the end of the aisle. Dad wheeled around and caught my eye again. This time, though, he appeared dazed by the vision he'd just seen. I understood. Cathy had that effect on people.
It was her smile that took me captive the day we met, and never once let me go. There was an authentic quality to her smile that made people stop and look; a basic human truth that seemed to emanate from deep within her and naturally find its way upward and out. Like the magma f low from Vesuvius, there was simply no stopping Cathy's smile. It could freeze people where they stood and hold them there, sometimes forever.
That's what happened to me anyway.
Excerpted from The Color of Rain by Michael Spehn Gina Spehn Copyright © 2011 by Michael Spehn and Gina Spehn. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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