Thursday, December 17, 2015

Ten Tips for First Time Cruisers

Vacations are such a needed thing.  Everyone needs a break from the stresses and burdens of everyday life.  We've taken road trips and other kinds of vacations to the mountains and other places, but the best vacations we ever take are cruises.  We recently returned from our 14th cruise and I just have to say, cruising is just about my favorite vacation ever!  People cook and clean for you and you just feel pampered every step of the way.  For the price, it's a wonderful vacation option for couples or families with children.

Here's a list of some of the tips I've picked up along the way:

1.  Book your cruise early and use a trusted Travel Agent.  When we cruise, we will usually book our cruise about 1 year before.  This is very helpful because you only need to pay the deposits for each person up front and then you have several months to completely pay for the cruise ahead of time and be ready to go.  Make your cruise payoff be one of your monthly bills until it is paid for.   Using a Travel Agent can be good because he may know of a better rate or room that would fit your family better.   The first few times we cruised, we booked directly through the cruise line and ended up in rooms that weren't in the best of locations.  Travel Agents will know which locations are the best.

2.  Pack light! - Every cruise, I always see people who have way over packed for their cruise.  It is so much easier and less stressful to pack much lighter and have your experience getting on and off the ship go easier.  My family will only take 1 small carry on size luggage per person.  Regardless of the number of days we will be gone.  The rooms on the ships are super small and there isn't much closet or drawer space, so bringing a ton of clothes and other items just simply isn't necessary or practical.  As a perk for cruise loyalty, we now get free laundry service when we cruise which is really awesome!   But even before we got this perk, we still only took about 3 changes of clothes per person.  I bought some of those laundry detergent sheets and brought along a coin purse full of quarters and one night (usually during the middle of the cruise), I would head over to one of the laundrettes on the ship and do a couple of loads of laundry.  When you debark the ship at the end of your cruise, you are given options on how you want to get off.  Self assist (which means you roll your luggage off yourself), or the traditional way where they take your luggage the night before and have it in a big warehouse for you to search for the next day.  Self assist is the best way to go, but only when you have minimal luggage to take off.  

3. Unpack! -  When you get to your room on the ship, and you get your luggage delivered to the room, go ahead and unpack.  Don't live out of your suitcase all week!  Hang things up in the closets, put away things in the drawers and in the bathroom.  It's much  more relaxing to have your luggage put away and just enjoy being on vacation.

4.  Main Dining Room - Take advantage of the Main Dining Room for dinner each evening.  I always see lots of people avoid the main dining room for dinner because they think they have to dress up or feel awkward about people serving them.  You're on vacation!  Don't spend every meal at the buffet getting your own food.  The food there is amazing too, but there is just something about the Main Dining Room food that is a little more special.  The waiters there really take time to remember things you like and don't like.  They remember your name and are wonderful at anticipating your needs.  Other than "elegant night", you don't have to dress up in the Main Dining Room.  They only ask that you not wear shorts.  

5.  Photos - take lots of them!  You are going to see some amazing sunsets at sea and the sunrises are even better!  There are plenty of opportunities to have your photo taken by the ship's professional photography staff.  Take advantage of each one.  There is no cost for them to take your picture.  Once the photos are up in the photo gallery, take a look at them.  If you like them, you can purchase them.  If not, you can discard them in the provided bins.  There is no obligation to purchase them.  My family usually has our pictures made by many photographers at different backdrops around the ship and then we check them out to see if any turned out great. 

6.  Ports of call - Get off the ship at each of the ports of call on your cruise.  I hear people talking about how they've heard certain ports of call are not safe and there is no way they would get off the ship there.  That is just ridiculous!  The places the cruise ships go usually only even exist because of the cruise industry.  Their economy heavily relies on cruise ships coming to their country.  If the area was not safe, the cruise lines would not even consider them as a port of call.  As with anywhere, you should always be aware of your surroundings and be cautious, but the ports are very safe.  I remember being scared to get off the ship on our first cruise.  We finally did and were so shocked that it was so completely safe!  It's very interesting to see and experience a different culture.  Don't miss the opportunity!

7.  Excursions - The cruise line excursions are pretty expensive compared to what you can do on your own.  If you want to purchase a particular excursion from the cruise line, do your research first and find out what you can get the excursion for if your book it with a private company.  There are lots of tour companies that can save you about half or more.  Just be aware of the timing and make sure you leave yourself plenty of time to get back to the ship before it leaves the port.  You don't want to get left behind.  Another option is to just get off the ship, find the taxi stand and get in one.  Once you're in the taxi, you can ask him how much per person he would charge to drive you around the city or island for several hours.  Usually, we can get a driver to accompany us for about $20 per person for about 4 to 5 hours.  This gives you a chance to really see the port or call, ask the driver questions about everyday life there, etc.  And this is way cheaper than other excursions.

8.  Tipping - The cruise line will automatically add tips to your account during the cruise so you don't have to go around tipping your room steward or wait staff throughout the cruise.  These automatic tips are spread out to the different people who made your cruise enjoyable.  It's really not very much considering all they do.  The cruise ship employees don't make very much money, and a lot of times, they send most of what they make back home to their families.  So, don't try to remove the tips from your account unless there is just something major that was wrong.  They work very hard and do a wonderful job.  In 14 cruises, we've never had a bad experience.  We've always had very attentive room stewards and waitstaff. 

9.  Kids programs.  Take advantage of the onboard kids programs for your children.  They are free (up until a certain time at night) and included in the cruise fare you paid for your child.  They have a ton of safe activities that your child will love!  

10.  Be open to try new foods and different things to do.  The cruise ships are full of foods that you've never had before.  Don't be afraid to try something new!  You just  might like it!  The cruise ship has a ton of activities onboard.  Try to participate in some things you don't normally do.  Go watch karaoke, take part in the photo scavenger hunt, go down the water slide, relax in a hot tub, and many other things.  Every cruise you take will be different from the last one.  Have fun!  Enjoy the pampering!  It will end soon enough and you'll be back to daily life in reality.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Our Fall Trip to Florida

Swinging Competition
October has just flown by for me.  We took a trip to Florida for a preacher's conference in Pensacola. Any time you have kids with you on a road trip, it turns out to be a LOONNNNNGGGG trip!  You know they each have to go to the bathroom ... at different times!  And then you have the random statements coming from the back seats of the Tahoe:  "Mom, I'm thirsty."  "Mom, I'm hungry."  "Mom, can we stop and buy a toy?"  "Mom, I wanna go to a park."  And every statement leads to another statement ... from another boy.  It's a crazy life!

So we found a park along the way, and let everyone get out and run around for a while.  It helps a lot!  We found a beautiful little neighborhood park in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

All the fun came to an end, though, when Mom pulled out the camera and got the bright idea to take this opportunity to have a Christmas Card Photo Shoot!  The smiles which so easily adorned their faces, were wiped away and replaced with horrible fake smiles through gritted teeth.  But I was able to get a few good pictures despite the struggles!  

In Mobile, Alabama, we stopped and saw the USS Alabama, along with lots of military vehicles and airplanes.  The boys loved this stop ... obviously.

After the conference was over, we drove down to the Orlando area to visit some good friends who used to attend our church, but moved to Florida several years ago.

The boys had so much fun!  They live on a small private lake and took the boys out on the wave runners and the boat.  Alligators live in the lake, so you have to be careful to scare them away with the motors.   The only bad thing about the visit was that it was so short!

 While they were all out on the wave runners and the boat, I was able to sit in "The Hammock", an amazing screened in little house, complete with living are, dining area and kitchen.  It was one of the most relaxing days I've had in a while.  I enjoyed all the wonderful sounds and smells and the air was cool.  Heavenly day!

Sadly, we had to leave and head out for the 2 day trip back home.   Along the way, we spotted this airplane practicing stunts for an airshow and she stopped to watch him.  The boys loved it.

 The trip was a great time - heard some good preaching at the conference, had some fun with our boys and I got to spend a little time with my husband too.  That's a good trip!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

5 Reasons I Love Fall

Yesterday was the first day of fall, but here in Texas, that can mean absolutely nothing sometimes.  I woke up thinking, "Okay, it's fall!  It should be 50 degrees this morning and reach a high somewhere in the low 70s.  It's a crisp cool fall day!" .... Reality set in when I opened the door and remembered I was in Texas.  It was hot!  But hopefully, in the next few days and weeks, we will get to experience cooler weather.

Here are 5 reasons I absolutely love Fall:

1.  Cooler weather is on the way!  It gets hot here in Texas during the summer and honestly, we need a break from it!  The first day of Fall means that the temperature will be dropping soon and we can enjoy being outside without being able to fry an egg on the sidewalk.

2.  Pumpkin Spice!  Need I say more?  This is the time of year when everyone offers a variety of Pumpkin Spice creations.  Coffee, cookies, gum, etc.  I love Pumpkin Spice anything!

3.  Fall Decorations!  I love it when people pull out the hay bales, scarecrows and pumpkins to decorate their homes.   I love making home decorations from fall leaves, (usually silk ones since we usually never see beautiful fall leaves here).  

4.  Football!   Call me crazy, but I love football.  Any kind of football.  Little League football, high school football, professional football.  It's just exciting to watch.  Plus, I know my husband really likes football too, and I like to see him excited and happy when he watches it.

5.  Thanksgiving and Christmas are just around the corner!  Who doesn't love Thanksgiving and Christmas?!  Families get together for fellowship and meals, the smells are amazing, and it's just fun to watch the look of excitement on everyone's face.

Fall is my favorite season of the year.  When we have traveled up to Ohio and Indiana in the fall, we've seen some extremely vibrant fall colors on the trees - colors we'd never seen before here in Texas.  It's just beautiful!  God did a wonderful thing when he created these colors for us to enjoy.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Our Adoption Story

My husband and I met in June of 1993.  Thirteen days later, we were engaged, but we waited about 9 months to get married.  We knew we both wanted children, but not right away.  So about two years after we got married, I stopped taking birth control and we waited.  We waited, and then waited some more.  And nothing ever happened.  Nothing.  No pregnancy, no child, nothing.  At first, I was saddened by my inability to get pregnant.  I was emotional when a friend would announce her pregnancy.  I probably never even told anyone this, but when my brother and his wife announced they were expecting, at a family dinner, I actually went into the bathroom and cried like a baby.  I was happy for them, very happy!  But I knew something in me was defective and I really, really wanted it to be me that was making an announcement.  I guess those are just the emotions that go along with being female and not being able to take part in all the things females are supposed to be able to do.

When my niece, Lauren, was born, it was a very exciting time!  She was so beautiful and I felt a connection with her.  That year on Thanksgiving, during dinner, she started crying and so I offered to hold her.  It was warm in the house, so I carried her outside for a few minutes.  The cool air was just what she needed and she quietly looked up at me.  With tears in my eyes, I said to God, "God, I'll never have this, will I?"  He responded, "You have this."  I really cried, with a happy heart.  That night really changed the way I thought about my situation.  I began to thank God that he had brought certain children into my life for me to love, care for at times, and be around.  I didn't feel any emptiness anymore because I was busy being the best Aunt Sissy I could be!  Me and David lived our lives, he was in Bible College at the time, I was working as a paralegal at a law firm in Dallas, we were happy.  Very happy!

A few years later, in 2003, we started our church and poured ourselves into it.  Everything we had ... financially, physically, emotionally.  2006 and 2007 were a rough couple of years for us.  I developed a chronic illness called Crohn's Disease and almost died in early 2007.  After a complicated surgery, the surgeon told David that if we had waited to come to the hospital, I would have been dead in about 6 weeks.  I recovered and things went back to normal.  In April of 2007, at one of our ladies' meetings at church, we had a guest speaker come in.  Mrs. Tina Pugh and her husband are great friends!  That night, she handed me a card with the name of an adoption agency on it and said that she had a friend she worked with who had adopted through that agency and she thought of us.  I thought at the time, "That's weird!  We have never even told anyone we wanted to adopt."  Because we really didn't think that was possible.  When we had researched adoption years before, we hit a wall at every turn.  At one place, the fee to adopt was about $25,000!  It may as well have been a million, because we didn't have that kind of money.  We looked in to international adoption and that was even more - about $40,000.  A supposed "Christian" adoption agency was literally selling babies.  And they charged more for babies that were a certain color.  It was so disgusting, and we gave up.

I put that card from Mrs. Pugh on my desk at church and forgot about it.  A few months later, I came across that card and remembered the night she handed it to me.  It had a website listed, so I pulled it up on the computer began to read everything on their website.  They had a new information and training class starting that night (it was a 2 week program to get started).  I told David about the card Mrs. Pugh had given me and asked him if he thought we should go.  He said yes, that we should go and if we didn't like it, we didn't have to go back.  That night, we went to the class and met lots of other couples who were interested in fostering and/or adoption.  After it was over, we talked and prayed and we really felt like this was what God wanted us to do.  At the next several training classes, we were told over and over again that if we wanted to do straight adoption, that we would never get a baby.  We would probably get older children.  And that was fine with us.  We didn't care.

Over the next few weeks, we finished our training, CPR, first aid, fingerprinting, FBI background checks, home study, home inspection and other things you have to do in order to adopt.  But in September, I got a call from my previous boss at the law firm.  She asked me to come back to work for at least a month and help out while she found a new employee and then I would train her.  I agreed, because, honestly ... we needed the money.  We were having to make purchases of kids furniture, bedding, clothing, toys, etc.  And then not to mention some things we had to do to our home to get it ready for the fire marshal inspection coming up.  So, the time I was going to be spending getting those things done, was spent working at the law firm.  At first it seemed like an unwanted delay to having what we wanted, but God knew better.  He needed the timing to be just right and our boys weren't ready for us yet.

Once we got all the repairs and updates made to the house, it was the holiday season and everything was delayed again.   We were starting to feel like we would never get everything finished and get licensed to adopt.  But after the beginning of the year in 2008, things started happening pretty quickly.  The fire marshal came, inspected, and we passed.  Our home inspection was a success and all the paperwork was sent in to the state to apply for our license to adopt.  In March, we got word that our license came in.  So we were ready to go!  They immediately put our names in for any children that became available for adoption.  We had decided we wanted a sibling set of 2 or 3, boys or girls, any race, any medical situation.  Our adoption case manager told us to make a scrapbook that they would be able to show the State of Texas in case we were selected to be in the top three families for any set of children.  So I created a scrapbook about where we live, all about me and David and about our parents and aunts and uncles.

I remember the first call I got from our adoption case manager.  I was shopping and she told me about 2 little girls and a little bit about them.  They were 2 and 3 and she asked if we were interested in them.  I said yes, and she put our name in.  We never heard anything back about them.  About a week later, I got another call about a 3 year old boy and his 4 year old sister.  We never heard anything back on them either.  We weren't selected.  I remember wondering if this was normal or if there was something wrong with us.  No, it wasn't that ... God didn't want us to have those children.   The third call I got from her, she told me about 2 little boys, they were 4 and 5 years old.  She told me a little about them, and I said we were interested.  But I didn't get my hopes up this time, because we were disappointed the two previous times.  A few days later, she called again and I expected to be told about another set of children.  She said, "Guess what!?  You and David have been selected as one of about 20 to get these two boys."  I didn't know this before, but apparently every time children become available, there are hundreds of families that get submitted as possible candidates to adopt them.  So a few days later, she called again and said, "Guess what!?  You and David have been selected as one of the top 3 families to get the boys."  A meeting was scheduled with the State of Texas and our case manager, along with the other 2 families' case managers where they would review the families and make a decision about which family would be best for the boys.  The meeting went well, and we were contacted and told that we were selected.  WOW!  We were getting our boys!!!!

This happened in April, and we were told that at the end of May, we would be able to pick them up and take them home, as soon as the oldest finished Kindergarten.  So we frantically, got ready.  Boy bedding, balls, cars, clothes, shoes, everything boy and everything for a 4 and 5 year old!

On May 7th, our case manager called me at home.  It was 10:00 a.m.  She said that there was a problem with the older boys' paper work, and doctor examinations that they needed before they would allow us to have them and it might take more time to get them.  It would probably be the end of June instead of May.  I was a little disappointed by this news and kind of put out that we had to wait even longer.  So when Courteney told me she had some other news to give me, and told me I should sit down to hear it, I was a little frustrated and standing at the kitchen sink and told her to just tell me.  What she said next was news I thought I would NEVER hear!

She said the birth mother for our two boys, was at the hospital and had another baby two days before. She and the baby had tested positive for drugs and so they were not going to allow her to keep him.  She asked if we were interested in fostering the baby, with the hopes that we would eventually be able to adopt him too.  I was in shock and really didn't know what to say.  I said, "So if we say yes, then when we get the boys in June, it would be three instead of two?"  She said, it's three boys, but the baby is being discharged from the hospital TODAY, and they needed us to take him TODAY!   She said I needed to discuss it with David and to let her know our decision within 30 minutes.  So I called David - no answer.  I called again - no answer.  I texted him and asked him to call me back ASAP - Emergency!  He never answered and never called me.   I called my mom and she said, what would he say if he was standing right in front of you?  I knew he'd say yes.  I prayed and asked for wisdom and it was clear, I called Courteney back and told her yes.  She said to be ready and they would bring him home in a couple of hours.  I hopped in my car and drove to where I thought David was.  I was right - he was on a visit with a new family in our church and had left his phone in the car.  I knocked on the door and I was crying.  It was very awkward, but I didn't know what else to do.  We left there and he went home to rearrange the furniture in our room to hold a crib.  I called my brother and had him dig out their old crib from the shed and he brought it over and helped us set it up.  I went to Walmart and picked up things we needed for a baby.  David says I had a baby shower for myself at Walmart and I was very generous.  Haha!  A couple of hours later, we were at home, waiting and getting ready.  I had time to really think about what Courteney had said, we would be fostering this baby in the hopes that we could adopt him.  I prayed over and over, "God, if you allow this baby to come into this home, please don't ever take him away."  I didn't think I could handle getting attached to a baby and then have him taken from us.  Some people can do that, and I'm thankful for those people who can, but I didn't really think I could.

Courteney and another case worker came to the house to get our license switched from adoption only to "foster to adopt", then shortly thereafter, the CPS caseworker drove up and David could not contain himself.  He went out side to help carry the baby in.  He came into the house with tears in his eyes and an infant car seat in his hands.  There he held the thing we had dreamed of for 14 years.  A baby.  A child of our own.  He set the carrier down in front of me and I looked at his tiny little blue gown, brought for him by the CPS worker.  It said "Thank Heaven For Little Boys".  And I did Thank Heaven!  I thanked God for this little miracle.  After the case workers and everyone left, it was about 5:00 on

a Wednesday evening.  I looked at David and said, "We have a baby!  What are we gonna do now?!"  He said, "We better get ready for church!"  So off we went to church with a 2 day old baby in tow.

About six weeks later, the time came for us to meet the older boys.  We went to their foster home one evening and we played a game with them in the living room.  We had to leave them there for one more night.  The next day, we went to the day care they were at and picked them up, and this time we took the baby with us.  We promised ourselves ahead of time that we were never going to lie to the boys about anything.  We put everyone into the car and headed off to go to Chick-fil-a.  They tell you to take them to a neutral place before you take them to their home.  This helps them adjust to you slowly.  On the way there, Nathan asked about Joshua.  He said, "Is this your baby?".  I said, "Yes.  He's your brother."  He said, "Did he grow in your tummy?"  I said, "No, he didn't grow in my tummy."  Nathan got a curious look on his face and asked, "Well who's tummy did he grow in?"  David and I just looked at each other and I said, "He grew in your birth mother's tummy, just like you."  He smiled really big and thought that was the coolest thing.  As we pulled in to the parking lot of the restaurant, I heard someone saying, "Mom.  Mom.  Mom.  Mom. Mom."  I turned around suddenly and said to Noah, "Oh!  You're talking to me!  No one has ever called me that before!"  The caseworkers had explained to us that Noah was diagnosed with RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder), and that he would never really attach to us as his family and would probably never call us "Mom" and "Dad".  I just had to smile!  He had called me "Mom" before we even made it home with him!

The next few months were hard for sure, but they were also very rewarding.  Every day, we would see little changes in the boys.  They were slowly thinking of us as their parents.  I felt so sorry for them in the beginning.  I know it must have been hard and so confusing to them.  One thing they tell you during training, is that when an older child learns that he can really trust you, he will want to experience being a baby with you.  He will crawl up in your lap and act like a baby, maybe suck their thumb, baby talk, etc.  This sounded crazy, but one evening before bed, Noah (who was 4), crawled up into my lap, and curled up as small as he could and started baby talking and sucking his thumb and asking for a pacifier.  He would pretend to whimper and then giggle.  And I played right along with him, remembering what we were told at our training.  David came walking through and said, "Boy, get up from there and stop acting like a baby!"  I must have given him the evil eye because he left the room and after I put them to bed, I reminded him what we were told.  He and I both were shocked that Noah had done that.  It was a real break-through.

Nathan really remembered his birth-mother and he was very attached to her.  At night, he would start to cry, and I would go to him and one night I took him to the living room and held him.  He said something that broke my heart ... for him and for me.  He cried, "I want my Mommy!"  Those four little words broke my heart for me at first.  I was thinking, "Hey!  I'm your Mommy!!!!!"  But then my heart broke for him because of everything he had had to go through in his 5 years.  Nothing that happened with his birth mother was his fault, and yet my boys had had to suffer the consequences of poor decision making by her.  They didn't deserve that.  And so I felt the need to make everything they had gone through really worth it.  I wanted to give them every opportunity, and every advantage, and lots of love and teach them to love the Lord and want to serve Him.

I got to meet their birth mother at a visit for Joshua.  She was allowed weekly visits with him and I took him to a visit once.  She really liked me and I gave her a photo album of us with all the boys and she really appreciated that.  I realized that she was just a normal person whose life was controlled by addiction.  She wasn't a bad person.  She just allowed her need for drugs to ruin her life.  On another visit, David went with me.  She asked to talk to us in the parking lot after the visit.  She told us that she wanted to give up her rights to Joshua and allow us to adopt him too.  It took several more months, but she did eventually sign the papers.  We went to court in November on National Adoption Day to finalize the adoptions of Nathan and Noah.  Then again in April of the next year to finalize the adoption of Joshua.

National Adoption Day 2008

Almost three years passed, and I got a phone call from their birth mother.  She told me that she was pregnant again and was due toward the end of May.  David and I decided that we should go ahead and start the process of renewing our license just in case we were asked to take the baby.  Just a couple of weeks later, she used a chemical substance and it caused her to deliver the baby 5 weeks early.  He was born with that substance in his system along with other substances.  He spent 2 weeks in the NICU.  We were not allowed to visit him in the hospital.  Our adoption caseworker tried to intervene but was unsuccessful.  She did, however, get CPS to place him into one of our agency's foster homes.  After he was taken there, I received a phone call from a very nice lady.  She said, "Is this Angela Grice?"  I said, "Yes, it is."  She replied, "I'm holding your baby in my arms right now."  I instantly knew it was the foster mother who had our Josiah.  She invited us to come to their home that evening to meet Josiah.  We were told that an MRI of Josiah's brain showed lesions and he would develop Cerebral Palsy and may never talk or walk.  So we were surprised to see him looking so good.  We were still working to get our license renewed and so he stayed in that foster home for 3 weeks.  I was able to go visit him once more with my Mother during that time.  When we finally got approved, the foster mother brought him to our home along with a ton of clothes and toys she had bought for him.  She was a real blessing!

Josiah was prescribed physical, occupational, and speech therapy for 1 year.  We worked with him, went to appointment after appointment and he began to develop at a rate that was just shy of normal.  Another MRI was ordered and the lesions were not as pronounced.  Therapy continued and he continued to improve.  His development was almost in the normal range and so the neurologist ordered one more MRI.  This MRI showed nothing!  God had removed the lesions from his brain!  In January of 2012, we went to court one more time and finalized Josiah's adoption.  When Josiah was about to turn 1 year, his physical therapist could see that he was about to walk on his own.  So, she discontinued his therapy saying that he was completely fine.

Josiah on his Adoption Day with his Foster Family

So, that is the story of our family ... so far!  God knew WHEN he wanted us to have children and WHO he wanted us to be parents to.  We just had to be patient and wait on him.  It's not easy to do that, I know, because in our little brains, we think we should know about everything that is going to happen in our lives.  One thing we always think about is, that first week when we started our training and they kept telling us how we would NEVER get a baby ... it was impossible, etc.  If you do the math on the timing, that week is possibly the week that Joshua was conceived.  So people don't know!  God is very capable of doing what people think is impossible, and He sure did with us!

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