Do you know the cycles of life in which you have a heightened sense or awareness of things? Last week I was overrun by prom details. But, the past few weeks I have been mindful of loss and new beginnings. I am sure some of it is has been due to the news of the Boston bombings and, more recently, the discovery of the three young ladies held in captivity for 10 years here in Cleveland. During that time, I had a new neighbor move in. The house, vacant for over a year, was the home of our sweet friends, the lovely older couple who died within a year or so of each other. Richard and Angie were like family to us. We have met our new neighbor, but it will take time to get to know him. Seeing him sit on a folding chair at the edge of the garage….shakes me. I keep thinking it is Richard sitting there.

And then a fellow blogger returned from a long absence to share the story of her brother’s loss.  It is a beautiful tribute to a wonderful man.  It makes you aware that as life presents its challenges, it also presents the mundane. It feels strange to have to do the laundry, wash the dishes, etc., when we – or others – are facing pain. But life marches forward.

Recently, a woman on my Facebook page asked if I had a pattern for an oxygen bag. I shared my basic bag tutorial and she created a lovely bag. She then shared several T Shirt quilts that she made after her son died. She and I both didn’t remember that she had purchased my T Shirt Quilt Pattern. I asked if I could share the quilts with my readers and if she wanted to share the story of her son.

She sent me this beautiful tribute to her son. I believe we honor those who have died by telling their story. It is part of the reason I love to read biographies. I like to learn about the struggles and triumphs of others in their ordinary lives. 

Donna, thank you for sharing your wonderful quilts with me and – especially – the loving story of your son.

November 7, 1984 – November 25, 2010

I would like to tell you about a special young man who was part of the Stuart Baxter family.  He was born on November 7, 1984, to his mother, Donna Lea (Baxter) Woodard (daughter of Gail Stuart Baxter and Norma Elva (Nauman) Baxter) and Denis Lee Woodard.

He and his parents lived in Sacramento, California for the first six years of his life and enjoyed lots of happy times living in the downtown area of Sacramento.  One of Justin’s favorite things to do on a Saturday morning was to go to McKinley Park and feed the ducks.  Both of his parents worked in the downtown area and Justin loved going to preschool at Little People School.  Whenever his mom would come to pick him up at the end of the day, he was always the child sitting on the teacher’s lap while she was reading a story.  He loved to cuddle!  One funny story about Justin when he was in his early years was when his mom came to pick him up from day care; there was a blue slip on his sign out sheet (a blue slip meant that there had been a behavior issue with the child that day).  The blue slip said that he was showing some of the other little boys his middle finger.  His mom was shocked (he was only five years old!), and asked the director if she thought Justin knew what that meant.  The director assured her that she did not think Justin knew what it meant, but had probably seen some of the older boys doing it and was copying them.  She didn’t even think his mom should mention it to Justin if she didn’t want to.  After leaving the day care center, Justin and his mom were waiting to catch the bus home when his mom reached into her pocket to take out their bus pass and the blue slip fell to the ground.  When Justin saw the blue slip, he looked up at his mom with big, brown, guilty eyes and said “Is that a blue slip, Mama?”  When his mom answered that it was and asked him if he knew what it was for, in a very serious voice he said “Yes Mama, today at school, I was flippin’ the duck!” I guess to a five year old a duck and a bird are all the same!

As a child, Justin was smart, loving and outgoing.  Unfortunately, his parents divorced in 1991.  Even though they weren’t together, he was able to spend time with his father, and he and his mother enjoyed many good times together.  They loved to go on vacations and discover new places.  Because of their limited resources, they couldn’t go far, but did end up going to places like Santa Cruz, Monterey and Los Angeles, California as well as Iowa, Philadelphia, New York, Washington, D.C., and even Alaska. But their favorite place ended up being Sea Ranch, California.  They spent many happy spring breaks at The Sea Ranch.  When they went to Iowa, they were able to visit Justin’s Great Grandfather, Gordon Stuart Baxter, in a nursing home in Sanborn, Iowa.  Justin had a great time getting to know his GGP and shared many laughs with him.  One day when they were visiting Grandpa, he had been complaining about his roommate listening to his TV too loud.  At lunchtime that day, they purchased Grandpa a new remote control for his TV because his was falling apart from being dropped too many times.  When Justin was showing Grandpa how to use it, he discovered that it worked on his roommate’s TV as well as Grandpa’s.  Justin and Grandpa surreptitiously turned down the sound on Grandpa’s roommates TV and had a good laugh about it.

From the time Justin’s parents divorced, after kindergarten, until Justin was in the seventh grade, he went over to his Aunt Debbie and Uncle Bob’s house every day after school.  He would play with his cousins, Ryane and Katie, and had more of a brother-sister relationship with them than a cousin relationship.   Justin and his youngest cousin, Katie, were two peas in a pod and Ryane was the big sister.  Ryane, who was seven years older than Justin and Katie, says whenever she would try to tell Justin to do something he didn’t want to do, he would ball up his fists at his sides and say “Ryane, you just make me so mad!”  Big sisters get such a bad rap!  But Justin grew up with a great amount of love and respect for Ryane and he always looked up to her.  Katie and Justin were practically like twins — always together, and even after they got older and didn’t see each other every day, they were always off in some corner catching up on each other’s lives at every family gathering.  His Aunt Debbie and Uncle Bob were loving and supportive people in his life and he developed a wonderful relationship with them as mentors and friends.

In 1996, Justin’s father, Denis, died of a drug overdose.  The death of his father, left eleven year old Justin scared and confused at times, but he and his mother were very close and they worked through the bad times together.  Justin’s teenage years were a challenge to his single mom, but he never got into any serious trouble and as a family, they considered themselves blessed by having a strong connection to their family, friends and church.

Justin had many other important relationships in his life.  From his Uncles Stuart and Steve, Grandpa and Grandma Baxter, cousins, Craig and Matthew, siblings (from his Dad) Phillip, Megan and Veronica to his teachers, church family, pastor, and many friends, he enjoyed many close and loving relationships.  One of his most precious relationships was with his mom’s best friend, Steve.  Justin knew him from the time he was born and grew up to be great friends with him.  He once told Steve that he liked having him around because he made his mom happy.  He and his mom enjoyed many special times and lots of fun vacations with Steve.  Justin and Steve even went sky diving together while mom watched from the safe ground.

One of Justin’s passions was working with disabled children.  It started when he was ten years old and went with his mom to volunteer at a Special Olympics event.  He was hooked from that day forward.  In his teenage years, he worked with the athletic director for the Special Olympics of Northern California.  She loved working with Justin and had him on her speed dial for every monthly event they had.  She never had to convince him to come, he loved those kids!  In California, high school seniors have to do a certain amount of volunteer work to meet graduation requirements.  Justin had that nailed down without even trying!  He was a musician as well and loved playing his guitar or working the sound board at church.

After graduation from Center High School in Antelope, California, in 2002, Justin worked and took a few classes at Sierra College in Rocklin, California, but didn’t stay really focused on his studies and ended up dropping out of Sierra College.  He later attended Heald Business College and received his Associate of Science degree in Business Administration.  Upon graduation from Business College, Justin was floundering and not making good choices.  Whether you want to attribute it to his father’s genes or just bad judgment, Justin got involved in drugs and was subsequently arrested.  He went to jail for a short time and while he was there, he decided to turn his life around.

Justin applied for and was accepted into a Christian rehabilitation program called Teen Challenge (but it is NOT for teenagers).  The program is a residential facility designed to rehabilitate adults from 18 years and up.  Justin lived at this facility for eighteen months, and learned to thrive and become a disciple of Jesus Christ while he was there.  This program is completely independent of any government funding, so the residents work in different program industries that help with their support.  Justin worked in the lawn care industry most of the time, but his favorite job was to cook for the house.  All of their food was donated, so they always had a mixed bag of ingredients.  Justin would often call his Aunt Debbie (who is a wonderful cook) to ask her advice on what he should make.  You notice I didn’t say he called his mom for cooking advice…there’s a reason for that.

While he was at Teen Challenge, Justin decided he wanted to further his education.  He loved people and knew that he had many life experiences that could benefit others.  He told people he wanted to be a “doctor of the soul.”  He applied to and was accepted as a sophomore at William Jessup University in Rocklin, California.  He wanted the whole “college experience,” so he made the decision to live on campus and became a resident adviser as well as working in security and the cafeteria to earn spending money.  He loved William Jessup University and was fully involved in campus life.  His major was psychology and he eventually wanted to get his Ph.D. in psychology.

After his sophomore year, he was asked to be part of a mission team to Cambodia.  The team was going there to work with children who had been rescued from working in the sex trafficking trade.  Prior to making the decision to be part of the team, Justin wanted to pray about it.  He told his mother that one day while he was in prayer, God told him that all these children know is “Big White Men” who hurt them.  He said, “Justin I want you to be a “Big White Man” who shows them My love.”  That made the decision for him and he took his role on the team very seriously, which in his eyes, was to be a protector of the women on the team as well as “loving on those kids.”  He came home from that trip with a heart for the people of Cambodia.

Some of Justin’s closest friends in college were Chris, Amy, Sabrina and Jeremy but, he was developing strong life-long relationships with students and professors alike at William Jessup.  He was in his junior year, a Resident Adviser at the student apartments, a big part of their community and was a friend to all who were willing.  Many students would later tell his mom that you could always count on Justin for an easy smile, a huge bear hug and a listening ear.  Justin loved life and wherever he was, he was all there!

On Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 2010, Donna Woodard got a knock on her front door at 7:15 a.m.  The news was not good.  Justin was involved in a single car, rollover accident that took his life.

A note from Justin’s Mom:  I miss Justin every day!  So much so that I think I can actually feel my heart ache sometimes.   I am learning to adjust to my new reality – never getting a phone call from him or having him come over to the house and raid my refrigerator for a BBQ at the apartments, or watching one of our favorite programs together, or having him talk to me about his latest paper and asking me to proof read it, or going out to lunch with him after church…no hugs, not even any arguments.  It’s all gone.  And if that wasn’t bad enough, the salt in the wound is that the future that I had imagined is gone forever as well.  I will never be able to feel that sense of pride as my boy walks across the stage to accept his college degree, hear him talk about his first love, watch him marry his bride, or see the look in his eyes when he holds his child for the first time.  All my dreams of being a grandmother are gone forever. 

I am putting this in our family blog because his life mattered and I wanted you to hear it from someone who loved him with all her heart!
I love you Justin!

With all my heart,