There is always an uneasiness in our family at this point every year, and it's understandable.
I remember five years ago when the phone rang at 6 in the morning and our oldest daughter, Sarah, was frantic. She said her family's house was on fire, and they couldn't reach their toddler-aged daughter, Ella.
Yes, Ella suffered severe burns that day, and we were uncertain we would ever see her again when she was airlifted to Springfield to begin a recovery journey that continues to this day.
All these years later, and through all the surgeries and ongoing rehabilitation and therapy, there remains a unique air of thankfulness surrounding Ella that makes each day around her an experience in gratitude that is difficult to accurately describe.
I am thinking about this even more this week because of several similar disasters that have unfolded across our region in recent weeks. The reason for penning this piece is not to reminisce, but to offer a valuable commodity for others affected -- hope.
Five years ago, our family was uncertain whether the sun was even going to come up the next day, but it did. And it has risen every day since, and with each passing week, month and year, life seems to get a little bit better.
Has it been easy? No, of course not, but never underestimate the heart of a determined little girl, or her mom, dad and brother. And never underestimate the collective heart of a community, which to this day remains an incredible support vehicle.
Rarely do I make a trip through Hy-Vee or County Market that I am not stopped by a handful of people who still ask how Ella is doing.
"I still pray for her every day," so many tell us.
I've had to wipe away tears more than once during those kinds of conversations.
To anyone wondering what the future may hold, be patient. You'll be surprised at the assistance that is out there in a time of tragedy.
The gratefulness that our family now enjoys does not mean there are no longer hardships -- there are plenty. Ella must deal with daily doses of pain and heartbreak that the rest of us can only imagine, but at the end of every day, she is still here and she is enjoying her life as much -- or more -- than any other 6-year-old.
Occasionally, there is someone who will make an inexcusable remark about her not having any hair on the back half of her head or about some of her scarring. That's when we hold her closer and say a prayer for the person who made the insensitive remark.
There is not a day goes by that each and every member of our family do not think about the brave men from the Quincy Fire Department who saved her, and for all of the doctors and nurses in Springfield who helped her through those first tumultuous and painful early months of recovery.
For anyone who may be wondering today what the future holds, take heart. The road will not be easy, and there will be plenty of pitfalls. But you will make it.
If you find it difficult to believe my wards, there's an endearing little girl I will introduce to you. Her smile will provide the answer to any question you may have.