Dear Sheri

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Dear Sheri,

It’s so hard to believe that 15 years has passed since you left us. Fifteen! How can that be. I can still hear your voice, as if I spoke with you yesterday. I can still see the contours of your face, feel the warmth of your hands, and hear the sound of your laughter. I easily picture your small frame and the way you walked (a purposeful walk!). I can see you standing by the sink on one leg like a flamingo, rinsing out your mouthpieces after a breathing treatment. I remember you in your blue robe sipping juice at the kitchen table with damp hair in the morning. I see you sitting at your sewing machine working on your quilt. Do you know, I never took that little piece of medical tape off your sewing machine? You must have put it there to mark a seam. It reminds me of you.  And speaking of medical tape, I’ll admit, I’ve started wrapping gifts with it sometimes too now. I mean, why not?

I don’t dream of you as often as I used to. I suppose that is affected by the passage of time, and the fact that the intense grief is less constant now. But when I do, they’re always vivid, and I wake up feeling like we really talked. In my dreams, you’re always wearing a bright pink shirt. We sisters have been talking about our memories from the last months of your life. I remember the last time I saw you. I knew it would be the last, and it was so hard. You were laying on the couch, so still, and so tiny. In my memory you were wearing that pink shirt. I honestly don’t know if that’s accurate, but your pink shirt has become, to me, representative of you.  Just like that shirt, you were bright. You lit up the room, and you were also so smart! You were vibrant and colorful. You were confident. You were fun.

You left an indelible mark on me. In fact your life had a tremendous impact on all our family, and on your friends and acquaintances too. You did such a good job living, keeping your humor, keeping your faith, staying you in the midst of your struggles. I know that’s not easy. In fact it overwhelms me to think of how much you suffered, especially at the end. Honestly, it scares me. Yet you lived and even died with grace and with purpose and with gratitude. You focused on the gifts and blessings and beauty around you and endured the pain and loss and grief without bitterness. You had so much strength and an incredible amount of courage. You lived well and you died well.

I wish I could sit down with you over beverage…coffee for me these days (I’m tired!). Maybe some Faygo for you. What would I tell you if we could chat? What would I say about these last 15 years? I’d want you to hear about the new medication I’m hoping to take soon for my CF. I hear it’s life-changing. I’m hopeful. I think you’d be so excited about it. How I wish you were here too and we could try it together.

I’d probably share some of my CF struggles. It would be nice to tell someone who truly understands. But I wouldn’t want to spend much time there. It’s not the biggest, most important part of my story these last years. I won’t allow that, because I learned from you, that it should never be. You never made cystic fibrosis your focus or your identity and I’m trying to follow your example.

I know I’d want to talk about my kids. First Lucas. I’d want you to know that he loves you.  It is really the sweetest thing. He always includes you when he makes lists of family members or counts how many aunts he has or asks me about what it was like growing up. He told me when he gets to heaven he will be sure to find you. He wishes he knew you here on earth. He talks about you quite regularly. He comforts me when I’m sad because I miss you. He reminds me of you in some ways. He’s smart and very creative like you! He’s very loving. I think you’d get a kick out of the things that make him unique. 

And Alena. There are times when I see your face in hers–an expression or a passing look. I’ll never forget the first time she smiled at me, a true “soulful” smile rather than a reflex. She looked up at me and her whole face broke into a grin and it felt like the sun had just burst out from behind the clouds. She is already vibrant, like you! She’s opinionated and feels free to “speak” her mind when she deems it necessary, also like you. She has a great laugh. She makes us work for it, but it’s so worth it! It’s bubbly likes yours. She doesn’t know you yet, but she will.  We will tell her.

On my bed I have a basket full of supplies I might need for Alena in the night or early morning. It’s that basket you made, covered in blue fabric with cute little tulips. It’s a reminder of you within arms reach. I imagine maybe someday she’d like to have it.

I guess what I’m saying is that I see daily reminders of you–in my kids, in my house, in nature, in myself. Perhaps it’s because I’m always looking. It keeps you close to me and makes the distance between us feel a little less vast. But really you are here. Bits and pieces of you that you left along the way. Ways you touched our lives, memories we have, stories we tell our children about you, gifts you made, funny things you’d say, advice you’d give, things you wrote. Especially the example we had simply by watching you. All five of us sisters looked up to you (figuratively of course 🙂 ).  You were a worthy line leader and an amazing example. I miss touching you and talking to you, yet you live on in my heart and I’ve brought you with me in my experiences. Because I loved you, and you loved me, and we are forever part of each other’s stories.

I miss you and love you so very much. We all do. How could we not? That will never change. And when we get to heaven, we’ll find you.

Love, Betsy

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Sheri Leigh Van Bruggen~September 26, 1968-September 4, 2004

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gone But Never Forgotten

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This past weekend we drove to Western Michigan. We were attempting to enjoy our annual beach weekend, although the weather had other plans.  Luckily we got one really nice evening in at the beach before the storms rolled in.

After a dip in the lake, some soccer and a little dune climbing (for Jaime and Lucas), we arrived at my parents to spend the night. Lucas said hello and deposited a considerable amount of sand on my parents’ entry way floor before heading to their refrigerator. He wasn’t after snacks as you might suppose, he wanted to see the pictures they have displayed of our family. He loves to look at his aunts, uncles, and especially his cousins. There was a new picture up there that he noticed right away. It was a picture taken on my 40th birthday of five of the Waterloo girls.

“Aunt Dianne printed that for us so we could hang it up,” my mom explained. “I like it because I can look up there and see my daughters.”

“But not all your daughters,” Lucas replied without hesitation.

Hearing Lucas include Sheri and recognize her enduring place in our family gives me so much joy. She is gone, but not forgotten, not even by my son who has never had the pleasure of knowing her first hand.

He does know her, though. He has been asking about her a lot lately. He is piecing together her story, the story of our family, where she fits in, and where cystic fibrosis fits in. So what will I tell him? What do I want him to know about his aunt–who she was, how she lived, even how she died?

Sheri was fun, creative, smart, and resourceful. She was also stubborn (just like he is!), and very determined. She was bright and full of life, even though death so frequently tried to choke out her life. She loved a good bargain and had a knack for sniffing them out. She was an artist, a musician, a teacher, and a mentor. She loved flowers.

When she learned that she only had months to live, Sheri didn’t breathe a sigh of relief. In spite of all she had suffered and all she was suffering, she still fought. She wanted to live. She didn’t give in until the day she felt God telling her that her work was done, and then she rested until He took her.

I have learned so much from Sheri. I have learned not to wait around for a set time or life circumstance, not even wait for things to get easier, but to live life today, with all I have. There is just as much purpose and meaning in a sick day as there is in one where I go out and (figuratively) conquer the world. There will be bad days, likely bad weeks or months, maybe even bad years. But here is always joy in the midst of pain, there is always goodness and grace to be found, and the sweetest victories come after a hard fight. She used to say that God never wastes our pain, but uses it for our good and for His glory.

I have learned not to put such high esteem on physical wellness. Sheri was not physically healthy by almost any standard, but she had a vibrant, healthy soul. Her life was shortened by her disease, but no one who knew her could argue that it wasn’t full, meaningful and well-lived. She took each day God gave her and she made it count.

I ran across a quote from theologian Jurgen Moltman in Philip Yancey’s book Where is God When it Hurts which resonated with me. Yancey was discussing our tendency to wish for and idolize a physically healthy life–one that is characterized by the ability to work and to enjoy life without being weighed down by illness or disability. He quotes Moltman who says,

…true health is something quite different. True health is the strength to live, the strength to suffer, and the strength to die. Health is not a condition of my body; it is the power of my soul to cope with the varying condition of that body. (p.190)

By this definition Sheri was healthy. She wasn’t perfect, but she weathered the many storms of her life with resilience and grace. And to the very end, the strength and beauty of her soul shone through.

She is gone, but never forgotten. Aspects of Sheri live on within me, my sisters, my parents, and maybe even my son who is getting to know her now.

We all love you, Sheri. We miss you. You will never cease to be part of us. We hold you close until we meet again.

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ALL the Waterloo girls, circa 1983.

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Sheri Leigh Van Bruggen, September 26, 1968 – September 4, 2004

 

Sheri’s Answers

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A few weeks ago, Jaime, Lucas and I left for our annual beach weekend in western Michigan. We started this tradition when Lucas was three and now it’s something we all look forward to. We’re fortunate that my parents live just a little more than a half hour from Lake Michigan so we have the most wonderful place to stay!

This year we left in the early afternoon on Friday and drove straight to the beach. I figured we would have a few hours of sunlight left to enjoy the sand and watch the waves. It had been cold and windy earlier in the day so we knew we wouldn’t be able to swim but the air was fresh and the water and sky were so beautiful.

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It was only a short time before the park emptied out, and finally, we were the only three left on the beach. “Mommy, I just love watching the waves,” Lucas told me as he snuggled on my lap. Me too. It was wonderful.

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As I gazed at the expanse of the lake, it struck me how peaceful it was on the beach. It wasn’t quiet–the waves were choppy and rough and they crashed forcefully onto the shore. Seagulls were squawking and scuffling.  But still it was peaceful, natural, lovely. A gentle breeze danced around us and I found myself breathing deeply of air that felt clean and pure. I could practically feel my heart disarm, setting aside its indignant complaints and surrendering to God’s peace. Peace amidst the turbulence.

The words of the old hymn, Be Still My Soul, came into my mind, and I was transported back, again, to the summer when Sheri was dying. That hymn was meaningful to our family around that time. I quoted from it in a letter I wrote to Sheri just before she died. I posted it on my refrigerator as a way to be strengthened in my grief. My sister Julie wrote a beautiful piece incorporating its words on the first anniversary of Sheri’s death. Sheri died on September 4, 2004–thirteen years ago, today. It’s so hard to believe she’s been gone that long. I miss her so much.

I think of Sheri all the time, perhaps even more now that I find myself wrestling so much with the effects of this disease. I often wonder what advice she might have for me. Her faith in God sustained her, this I know. I saw it with my own eyes. But would she have specific suggestions for me? Would she attempt to answer the unanswerable questions? She fought through a seemingly endless string of challenges in her life without bitterness, and left a mark on this world that no one who knew her would deny. She was so faithful and so incredibly strong. But I know it was hard. She told me it was hard and I saw her struggle. I imagine that sometimes, when the house was quiet and the night was dark, she too felt overwhelmed by the burden of the fight and surrendered to the tears. Knowing that makes me feel close to her, even though 13 years have passed since I’ve talked to her and touched her.  Sometimes I just go ahead and ask her the questions. I don’t know if she can hear me, and I know for sure I won’t hear an audible reply, but sometimes just giving voice to them brings me comfort.

Sheri trusted God. She had hope, she had confidence in His goodness and love, and she knew God was in control. She knew He would give her the strength she needed to live and love fully until the day He took her home. And He did. There were good days, great days! Days filled with joy and hope and love. She touched so many lives and accomplished so much in her 35+ years here on earth. There were bad days full of hospitals and doctors, medicines, loss, and pain. Some days were downright ugly and filled with darkness and despair. But the beauty of her spirit is what we remember most of all–how hard she fought, how victorious she was, how strong, how loving, how generous. We remember those things because she refused to be defined by the disease that plagued her. At times cystic fibrosis ruled her body but she staunchly refused to allow it to break her spirit. Her husband Pete once told me that rather than allowing CF to define her, Sheri defined CF. Cystic Fibrosis on Sheri’s terms.

As the lyrics of the hymn scrolled through my mind that evening on the beach, I began to think that the words contained some of the answers she might give me, answers to the questions of how to weather the losses and disappointments, how to face my fears, how to resist bitterness and choose thankfulness and joy even when I feel battered and bruised. “Be still my soul” is a good start.

“Be Still, My Soul”
by Catharina von Schlegel, 1752
Translated by Jane Borthwick, 1855

Be still, my soul; the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul; thy best, thy heavenly, Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul; thy God doth undertake
To guide the future as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence, let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul; the waves and winds still know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.

Be still, my soul, though dearest friends depart
And all is darkened in the vale of tears;
Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe thy sorrows and thy fears.
Be still, my soul; thy Jesus can repay
From His own fulness all He takes away.

Be still, my soul; the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord,
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul; when change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

I love you so much, Sheri. Thanks for loving me. Thank you for being a great example, leaving for us a legacy that continues to guide and inspire our journeys of life and faith. I’m so grateful for the 26 years I had with you, and that I’ll see you again, when the vale of tears is lifted and love’s purest joys are restored. Until then, you will remain forever part of the fabric of my being, my dear and beloved big sister.

Sheri

Sheri Leigh VanBruggen, September 26, 1968 – September 4, 2004

 

 

A Little Help From Aunt Sheri

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I was still in college when my sister Sheri gave me a gift. She had been a special education teacher for more than five years in a Michigan town before the stresses of the job combined with her CF struggles became too taxing on her body. The district in which she taught was a low-income area that housed a prison, and some of her students had parents or other relatives in that prison. The needs were great. Sheri’s heart was big and she was the perfect one to love and nurture these children while helping them learn.

Because her district didn’t have the resources that some wealthier areas have, Sheri invested a great deal of her own money and time into making materials to use with her students. Her creativity really shone through in a lot of what she made, and when she left teaching, she brought some of it home with her. She gave it all to me while I was in college preparing for my own teaching career. I was able to use her creations in my own classrooms and later, with my tutoring students as well.

This fall I acquired a new student…an extra special young five named Lucas. At conferences, his teacher mentioned that he could use additional practice with fine motor activities such as writing his letters and cutting. For several years now, Lucas has been asking when he would be old enough to be a tutoring student and this was the perfect opportunity to make extra practice at home exciting for him! I put together a program which included muscle strengthening and fine motor practice but also tasks I knew would be fun and easy for him to make it an enjoyable time for both of us. When I broke the news to him he was thrilled and proud to be old enough to come to my office like a big kid. And I was excited too! It’s been lots of fun to have these two loves of mine intersect. Lucas has been an enthusiastic participant.

I was also excited to take out some of Sheri’s creations that had been dormant for a while. I told Lucas all about how she had been a teacher and how she had made a lot of the tools we were using to learn. We keep a picture of her nearby while we work–a Christmas ornament she made with her students one year. I even found some fun animal pencils she and I had made together once and the cat pencil has become Lucas’s official tutoring pencil.

I wish that Lucas could have known Sheri and that she could have known him. Someday that wish will come true. But for now, I’m so grateful that she can still be part of his life, even in this small way, and that we can remember her together as we learn.

img_0985Lucas was one excited boy on the first day of tutoring! He even uses the outdoor entrance like my other students do. After all, he wants it to be official!

Coloring, cutting, matching, tracing. It’s all good.

Here we’re using some of Aunt Sheri’s materials! Lucas is holding her special pencil and ornament, working on more matching activities that she put together, and jumping on vinyl letters she cut out and labeled to blend sounds into words.

img_1535Today in tutoring we learned how to draw a cat. Perhaps Lucas didn’t inherit Sheri’s natural artistic abilities, but I think they’re great and I know she would have liked them too. 🙂

Sheri, thanks for the help! Your legacy lives on.

A Look of Love

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This time of year always stirs up my emotions. As the summer draws to an end and Labor Day weekend approaches, my mind wanders back to that summer of 2004, the summer when Sheri was dying. I saw her several times then, as much as her energy would allow. In the earlier months I would bring food for her and we would play games or work on crafts to pass the time. As the summer drew to the end, the visits were short and she wasn’t able to do much more than lay on the couch.

Time softens the pain of losing a loved one in some ways. I have gotten used to not seeing her regularly. I don’t expect to see her name pop up on my email or see her neat, cursive writing on a card in my mailbox. But each year at this time, when I reflect on her life and her death, the wound reopens and feels as raw and fresh as it did that first day when I knew I wouldn’t see her again on this side of eternity. There are always torrents of tears as that longing surges up–the longing to see her, hold her, touch her, talk to her and share life with her once again.

Last night I was looking through a box of memories–photos of Sheri, emails and letters she wrote, her book of poetry. I found a few pages I had written the month after she died. I wrote:

I remember when Sheri had a bad lung infection, a blocked bowel, and the tobramycin in her system got to toxic levels. She lost part of her hearing. She lost kidney function and had to go on dialysis for a while. She was in Ann Arbor, away from home for weeks. I remember I drove her and Mom to the hospital. She had a towel and a bucket with her in case she threw up. That was the weakest I’d ever seen her. She turned and gave me a look of total love and compassion before she stepped out of the car. It was the same look she gave me the second to last time I saw her alive. I hope I never forget that look. So much was wrapped up in it. She felt so much compassion for me, watching her go through her pain and how much it hurt me to see her like that, and compassion for the fear I felt in wondering if I’d ever go through similar things, and the love she had for me and how much she wanted to protect me from all the pain she’d been through. All that was in her gaze.

I remember that moment clear as day. I can still see her with her towel and bucket and more importantly, I can see that look of love. In the midst of one of the most trying and painful times in her life, she was reaching out to me with her eyes–extending comfort, love, and understanding.  She was not so overcome by her own struggle to miss the grief of her little sister who was sad and more than a little bit scared.

That look of love brought me comfort then and it brings me comfort now. I remember Sheri’s strength, her courage, her poise, her compassion, and especially the feeling of her love. She fought for life and brought so much joy, laughter and grace into our lives. She refused to be defeated by pain. Her life may have been short by today’s standards, but she used her life for good and for God’s glory. And now in heaven, she’s experiencing only joy and peace–no need for tobra or towels or buckets or tears. Her example gives me courage and strength.

I see Sheri’s gaze only in my memory now, but I know God looks on me with those same eyes of love. His love is an everlasting, steadfast love. His mercies never come to an end. The sadness is there. The fear is there. But God is also there. And someday, we’ll be together again. When God’s purposes for my life are complete, I’ll join Sheri in heaven. It’s fun to imagine what we might do. Run a marathon just because we can? Have French fries without the side order of pancreatic enzymes? Have a fit of laughter that doesn’t end with coughing? Those things are just silly fantasies and chances are, none of that will matter. But I’m pretty certain, when I see Sheri, I’ll get to see that look of love again.

Sheri Leigh VanBruggen, September 26, 1968 – September 4, 2004

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Our Sheri, in 1985. 

 

 

To Sheri

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I’m having trouble finding words for today–words to honor you for the beautiful, faithful woman you were. I need words of love and admiration because you were strong and kind and selfless and I always looked up to you. I need words of thankfulness because enriched my life so much and your example continues to guide me on my journey.

But I also need words of heartbreak because you’re gone and I miss you so much. The grief of losing you, the pain that’s been part of me for eleven years now, it’s sharp today. I would give anything to see you walk through my front door. Maybe we would share a Faygo pop–half regular, half diet, just as you liked it. I would tell you what I’ve been up to.  We would talk about crafts and you would show me all the projects you had planned. I would tell you about my current students, and you’d have some great tutoring ideas for me. I would make you laugh with funny stories about Lucas (and Jaime, but those would be secret). You’d have some advice for me–words to encourage me in my current challenges, words of empathy because you knew my struggles like the back of your hand. 

I know it would have been hard for you to see me struggle, the protective big sister you always were, so perhaps it is a grace that most of my health issues occurred after you were gone. However, I wish I could tell you in person that I understand on a whole different level now what you went through and it has made me admire your strength and poise even more. I wish I could have supported you better, as someone in the know. 

We are not the same without you.  But I’m glad for the pain because it reminds me that our relationship was deep and full–one worth having. And so it hurts to live without you. There is a hole that will never close up–not until we meet again and all is made right. But that day is coming! I so look forward to seeing you again. For now it’s comforting to imagine you in heaven, still living fully, but also living free. 

I love you, always and forever.

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Sheri Leigh VanBruggen ~ September 26, 1968 – September 4, 2004

Changed

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My sister-in-law, Sheri, died on this day eleven years ago. It really is incredible to think that much time has passed. So much has changed since she left this world. But a lot changed while she was still alive too. And a lot of that change was because of Sheri.

Shortly after Betsy and I were married we were all gathered together for a mini-family reunion. One of the afternoons it was decided that we would take a field trip to a local used bookstore. Amongst Sheri’s many qualities, she was exceedingly generous so before we entered, Sheri handed everyone a five dollar bill. Sheri was also always on the lookout for a great deal and I think she was excited to see what hidden treasures each of us might unearth in the stacks of used books.

I picked up two or three books that day. But the one that I will always remember was a big, green cookbook. That’s right, a cookbook. It was an odd selection, because at the time I didn’t cook. Gender roles in my family growing up were pretty traditional. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But it did mean that I was used to the women doing the cooking. The only real reason I ever ventured into the kitchen was to try and steal cookie dough while my sisters were baking! In any case, the title caught my eye: The Art of South American Cooking. I picked it up and started paging through it. It contained recipes for some very familiar dishes as well as some I’d never heard of but sounded tasty.

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After all these years you can barely make out the title: “The Art of South American Cooking”.

I found a couple of other books and went to pay for them. All three books and I had change left over – a great deal! Sheri was interested to see what I had picked out. As I recall her exact words were, “I’ll look forward to you cooking something for us!”. I didn’t want to burst her bubble. She’d obviously not understood that I was really buying the book for Betsy.

That reunion weekend was pretty much the last of the summer fun. Upon returning, Betsy started her second year of teaching and I was started work on my master’s degree in Economics. Curiously, I seemed to have a lot of time on my hands. I remember one day feeling oddly guilty when Betsy arrived home, exhausted after working a full day teaching the youth of America and still had to fix dinner. I think my accomplishments that same day had included reading a couple journal articles, going for a run, and watching two UEFA Champions League soccer games.

So the next day I got out my green cookbook and decided I would give cooking a try. I decided to go with something that I’d never tried before – pollo al palillo. Basically chicken with yucca root in a fluorescent yellow colored sauce made of lime juice, tumeric, and cumin. And it even turned out to be edible! I was probably more pleased with myself than I should have been. Betsy was very appreciate of my efforts and made it clear that from now on, I was welcome to share the cooking responsibilities. What had I gotten myself into?

Now, I love to cook! I love to prepare meals for Betsy and Lucas. I love to have people over for dinner. My cooking has been largely influenced by the semester abroad I spent in Spain. Some of my favorite dishes to prepare include: estofado de buey, tortilla de patatas, pollo al chilindrón, empanadillas de carnelentejas. Mmmmm. I never got a chance to cook that meal for Sheri but I think she would be proud of my culinary skills. I think she would be even more proud that I learned something new, something that, over the years, has helped me to take care of her little sister.

I’ve accumulated lots of other cookbooks over the years but that first, big, green cookbook will always have a place on our shelf. It reminds me of Sheri. It reminds me that, through the small gesture of buying me a book, she helped me to become the person I am today. And I think that’s probably true of everyone that came to know Sheri. And while we miss her greatly, we are constantly reminded that we have been changed by her example of love, kindness, faith, perserverance, and joy.

Changed for the better.

We miss you, Sheri.