Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Christmas Letter


 A family picture was mandatory this year. The group shots at Matt and Phoebe’s wedding didn’t turn out, so in October we hired Jenny’s photographer friend Janane and assembled in the dry weeds by Muddy Creek. Paul maneuvered down the steep bank with the help of his cane, and we all lined up as instructed. The year’s gains and losses are all there, in our faces, in the stiff left arm, in fresh lines and gray hair, in Paul's bent and slightly shortened stature, and in the lovely new addition.

So I sent out photos to a long list of people, but I didn’t get around to writing a family letter. If you want to know more of what the photo tells you, here it is.


Dear Family, Friends, Readers, and Strangers who cared for us this year,

2019 ended with our family managing to get together for at least part of the holidays. For our globetrotting bunch, this is always an accomplishment.

Our youngest son, Steven, finished a paramedic internship in Las Vegas and planned to fly home just in time for Christmas. Shortly before, he discovered that his driver's license had expired, and he wasn’t sure he could fly.  So we mailed him his passport so he’d have current identification. Unfortunately, the package was placed in his landlord’s mailbox, and the landlord was out of town for a few days.

We were more frantic than Steven, as usual.

But he flew home, chill as ever, right on time.

“What did you do for identification?” we said.

“Well, the mailbox had this slot in it, and I could just see the edge of the envelope, and I could juusst get my fingers in the slot. So .  .  .” Shrug. Grin. “You do what you gotta do.”

Our oldest son, Matt, and his fiancé, Phoebe Penix, were also in Oregon for the holidays, and we all discussed dates and details for their wedding.

We waited a long time for a wedding in the family and could hardly believe we were comparing venues and discussing dresses.

So, as I said, our family was all together, which, in the last ten years, has often seemed like a miraculous feat. We’ve had children living in various states and countries, coming and going, and very seldom all together at once. We rented a house at the Oregon coast for a few days, a family tradition.

2019 ended well, and 2020 looked bright and promising.

Ben, our second son and a grad student at Oregon State University, agreed to have a fun competition with me. He hoped to publish three papers on smoldering combustion, and I hoped to publish three books. I made a fun racetrack chart to keep us on course.

Just before Christmas, Matt, who had worked in Washington, DC, as an engineer for the Navy for seven years, flew to Houston for an interview with NASA. He was soon hired as a systems engineer for the Lunar Gateway project which aims to have a station orbiting the moon by 2024. We were so happy for him. He's always wanted to go to space, and helping to get other people there is almost as good.

Matt moved to Houston at the beginning of February. In the middle of this process, he got miserably sick with a fever, cough, and general overall awfulness.

“Oh how sad,” we said. “Dear me, right when you’re moving.”

Now, of course, he and we suspect he picked up a case of Covid-19 on DC’s crowded Metro from one of the thousands of foreign tourists.

Like the rest of the world, we had no idea what was coming.

On March 6th, I was scheduled to give a talk at a local senior center. The day before, the activities coordinator called me. “I’m afraid we’ll have to cancel your talk. There’s a case of this new coronavirus at one of our facilities in Washington, and in an abundance of caution, we’re canceling all our events. I’m so sorry. It seems like overkill, but it’s policy.”

I assured her I understood.

Only a week later, Oregon State University halted in-person and on-campus classes. This immediately affected three of our children.

Ben had to leave his lab and work from his house a mile or so from campus. He could work on the computer from results of lab work he’d already done, but of course he couldn’t burn lignin or glucomannan in beakers in his kitchen. 

Amy, our oldest daughter and a senior in the Family Studies/Human Development program, as well as Jenny, our youngest and a junior in Mathematics, both began studying and tutoring from home.

"Ok, now type in your email address."

At the time, Paul and Jenny were both teaching at Pioneer Christian Academy in Brownsville. Paul taught math and Jenny, science. They had to switch to online teaching. It was tough for both of them, but especially for Paul, at age 60, to learn the ways of iPads and filming and online homework. Jenny did a lot of coaching him through it.

Paul also began preaching Sunday sermons to a near-empty church and a video camera.

Steven had moved home and was working at a transport service in Eugene as well as a second internship. This sort of work can’t go online, of course, but they had to adapt to all the Covid precautions.

Life didn’t change so much for Emily, our middle daughter, who was living at home and working on a book about her year of travels around the country, and for me, the mom, except I had to adapt to having lots of people around all day.

Before long, NASA told all its workers to go work from home. Except, Matt said, the people on the International Space Station, who were pretty much the only ones working like normal.

Phoebe had moved back home to her parents’ place about ten miles from here. Matt decided he could work from Oregon just as easily as from his lonely apartment in Houston. So he came to Oregon and moved in with Ben and his roommates.

The wedding plans went every which way. The beautiful venue they had booked cancelled all its summer events. Bridal and jewelry shops closed. The governor restricted group numbers.

It didn’t have to be either/or, Matt and Phoebe decided. It could be both/and: a celebration with family and friends that followed all the state mandates. So they put together an outdoor, drive-in wedding at a friend’s farm. Relatives and friends joined us. It all worked amazingly well.

Paul preached the wedding sermon and performed the ceremony. That was special at the time, of course. But, looking back, it feels even more so, a memory to encase in glass and set in a special shrine in our minds.

Matt and Phoebe left on their honeymoon. I rested from all the action and worked in the garden. Paul got ready for the grass seed harvest.

The newlyweds came back from the coast and prepared to leave for Houston.

Amy finished college, but graduation was canceled. She had hoped to return to Thailand, but they weren’t allowing Americans in.

All three girls started on harvest-related jobs.

On July 7, I got a call saying that Paul had fallen at the warehouse, and life as we knew it tilted sideways and everything slid off.

His injuries included a fractured skull, two shattered wrists, five broken vertebrae, a bruised spinal cord, broken ribs, a small brain bleed, and a huge gash in his head.

At the hardest and darkest time we had ever faced, all of our children were in the area. After all those years of scattering, they were all here.

At the children’s insistence, we brought Paul home after a week in the hospital instead of sending him to a skilled nursing/rehab facility. Matt and Phoebe bought an Airstream travel trailer and moved into the front yard. Everyone helped bring Paul back to health. It was unbelievably difficult and rewarding, exhausting and full of hope.

In the middle of healing and bonding, hard things followed hard things.

Like everyone else, we dealt with Covid’s interference in daily life, but thankfully only on a nuisance level and not in tragic loss of life, health, or business. But eventually Covid’s repercussions upended our lives in unexpected ways. At times, following our consciences required a great personal cost for various family members. We faced dilemmas, disappointment, division, and disapproval in ways we were unprepared for and still don’t fully understand. We wished that more situations could be resolved like Matt and Phoebe's wedding, where we were able to make it both/and rather than either/or.

In September, a dry summer ended in days of orange smoke-filled dread as huge fires ate up miles of Oregon forests, taking lives, homes, livelihoods, breathable air, and beautiful places.

The only thing staged or filtered with this photo was the mask. I was wearing it because of all the
smoke, but I took it off and put it on Paul so the picture would show the full story of 2020--
fires and smoke, electricity out, Covid, and Paul's injuries and trying to do normal work again.

Paul and Jenny did not return to PCA to teach, but Amy got a job teaching a small “pod school” with children from two families. Jenny found work tutoring physics students online and also began her senior year of college at home. It was hard. "You want to look at a classmate in a math class and see that they're just as confused as you are," she said. 

Steven moved to Corvallis to live with Ben and got a job as a fire engineer at the Junction City fire station. He is dating a lovely young lady named Abby Smith who is also studying to be a paramedic.

September also brought positive change for Paul as he was finally released from his casts and braces. He began going to physical therapy every week and slowly regained strength and skills. Dressing himself, doing bookkeeping for the warehouse, showering, peeling potatoes. Who knew, though, that zipping a jacket is almost impossible without two fully functioning arms?

The biggest barrier to recovery was the paralysis in his left arm. It hung useless, causing a near-constant ache in his shoulder. Gradually, though, his thumb was able to touch his fingers, his hand learned to grip, and some of the muscles in his forearm came alive.

In October, a car accident took the life of a wonderful young man, Tanner Zehr, a former student. Paul preached the funeral sermon, and, like the wedding sermon, it took on a sense of large significance. “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away,” he said. “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

We held our breaths in November and December, waiting for another devastating shock. Nothing terrible happened. We slowly exhaled, worked on healing, and enjoyed time with our family.

Emily published a book called The Highway and Me and My Earl Grey Tea. I helped her with the publishing and printing process. After lots of delays, 36 boxes of books showed up in mid-November. To our relief and delight, half of them sold before Christmas. Her goal is to support herself with writing. This is a huge step in that direction. You can buy a copy of the book at

A family west of Junction City gave us a hot tub. The sons helped set it up, and Paul has spent many hours in there, pushing, flexing, and bending with his arm.

He learned to drive again, with one arm. I supervised him like a fierce driver’s ed teacher and soon learned that he knew what he was doing. The independence this gave him was a relief to all of us and a taste of a return to normal. Going to Harbor Freight by himself and poking around looking at tools was more healing than a week of therapy, I think.

At the last visit with the neurosurgeon, she said that Paul’s bicep had gone from a zero to a two (out of five) in terms of nerve activity and muscle function. Other muscles had gone from two or three to five. That was incredibly encouraging.

However, the difficult news was that the deltoid, up at the shoulder, and the supinator, in the forearm, were both still at zero. The supinator rotates the forearm, so that means his arm and hand always hang a quarter-turn from normal.

The doctor also talked about surgery. The damage to the spinal cord was from the fall, of course, but specifically from the fact that the channel is really tight at vertebrae 5, 6, and 7. This puts him at high risk of further paralysis if he would fall again or be in a car accident.

So Paul is scheduled for surgery on Wednesday, December 30. They plan to remove two bulging disks and replace them with little titanium spacers. He’ll have to spend at least one night in the hospital. Because of Covid restrictions, we can’t be with him.

I feel a certain dread about this, of course, but I also look forward having it and the inevitable setback in progress behind us. There’s a level of risk, of course, but it’s probably smaller than the risk of paralysis if Paul would slip on that wooden ramp into the chicken shed.

I published a few articles in 2020, but neither Ben nor I met our publishing goals with scientific papers and books. Lots of other projects and goals remain unfinished--sewing, organizing, repairs, and travel. But we survived, and I feel we all ought to get lots of points for surviving. As Steven said, you do what you gotta do.

Last week, I realized I don’t hear as much about Paul’s shoulder aching. “My arm doesn’t feel as heavy as it did,” he said, “like it’s not such a dead weight any more. It somehow feels lighter.”

Unbelievable, what good news that was.

Matt and Phoebe continue to live in their Airstream at our place and will be here to help after Paul’s surgery. NASA hasn’t announced when their workers are returning.

So this strange, happy, terrible year draws to a close. We see God’s hand in sparing Paul’s life, in His protection during the fires, and in His incredible timing in having all our wandering kids close by when we needed them most.

We also saw the love and compassion of Jesus in the many many people who helped and encouraged us in 2020. We end the year feeling exhausted and about ten years older, but with an expanded faith, compassion, and sense of wonder. We survived. Imagine that.

We are loved, held, and kept in Eternal hands.


Yes, laughter is the best medicine. 


  1. We see God's hand....yes! He is molding us through these circumstances....we all have our stories of this. Thank you for sharing yours!

  2. Love how God has protected, healed! Keep pressing on! Thanks for sharing your 2020 experience. God is Good!

  3. Love how you share such hard things in a way we can all relate to.

  4. Praying for you as the December 30th surgery looms large. It's been a privilege to prayer walk this year with you. God bless.

  5. Thank you for this recap of your year. I don't normally find a total stranger's letter interesting but this one makes normal life very interesting! Thank you!

  6. Thank you for the letter. You did a great job of weaving a lot of hard things and amazing blessings into a smoothly flowing narrative. And the pictures were a good addition. The one of Paul at the desk is especially representative of 2020 for your family, a spur-of-the-moment classic. May God continue to protect and prosper your family. Praying for a successful surgery for Paul tomorrow and a smooth recovery, LRM

  7. I'm holding your family in my prayers, Dorcas, especially over the next few days. Many blessings to you all!