There are moments in life that freeze in time. You never forget where you were, what you were doing that day, and most of all, how you were feeling. Then, if God sweetly whispers something that speaks to that moment, you most definitely never forget it.
In those moments, I think the words and the experience both impact us in such a powerful way, that they are etched on the tablets of our hearts to never be forgotten. I believe that tablet is filled with life lessons that we can refer to time and again especially when the memory arises, or a similar experience causes us to reflect, and our heart begins to speak.
I have had many of these moments and good or bad, I’m thankful for them all. Regardless of the circumstances, I always gain some perspective which leads me to always see the amazing grace of an amazing God.
This is a story that begins in the midst of one of those moments which found me pulling my car off the side of an old country road near a set of railroad tracks. The day was gray and dreary as expected in the winters of Ohio. I was crying so hysterically, I could no longer see to drive. I will never forget that feeling of utter helplessness and hopelessness even though I knew better. I was completely overwhelmed with such an emotional upheaval that I couldn’t think; I could only suffer. At least, I had enough awareness to cry out to God for help and went on to tell Him how I could not deal with this and how unfair it was to be given something I couldn’t fix. I knew that I wasn’t meant to fix everything or I would have no need of the God that did know how. Nonetheless, at that moment, I couldn’t put two thoughts together, but God met me at the point of my need because I called on Him ... and He heard me.
We had just come home from the Cleveland Clinic where our beautiful son, at the age of 3, was diagnosed with a form of Autism called Asperger Syndrome. When the doctor read off the list of things our son would “never“ do, it was like everything was in slow motion. At that time, in 1993, there were much fewer cases, so not much help was available, which led to his final decree of, “There is no treatment, no cure, and no hope.” He went on to describe how it was too much for parents and that there were group homes and places for our son to live. We declined that offer and my husband said, “Well, we may not understand right now but one thing we do have is hope and our son will be with us.“
Life had to go on, as devastated as we were. My husband had a speaking engagement later that night and left crying. There was no internet, no information, and 4 books in the library. That’s when I came to the place at the side of the road. I finally asked God desperately, “What am I going to do to help my son?“ I really wasn’t expecting an answer, but this exemplified Ephesians 3:20, “Now unto Him that is able to do exceedingly abundantly ABOVE all we can ask or think according to the power that works within us.“ I heard the voice of the Holy Spirit say these words: “Take all your heavenly resources and all your earthly resources and use them both.“ There it was-that moment frozen in time where Mercy met me on the side of the road. I had my answer and my assignment.
This story is not about me, but I had to preface it in order to introduce this wonderful person. I realize that it would take prayer and faith and entrusting God in order for Heaven to send earthly resources in many forms. It took a lot of work and research, but we were finding help and some of it came in the form of incredible people. Yes, without a doubt, these people were heaven-sent. Our son, Austin Chandler, began to make progress in what we saw as a progressive miracle. He had stopped speaking at 14 months. That is the cruelty of this condition; babies develop normally then begin to decline and lose developmental milestones. I won’t go into all of his story but through dedicated therapists, and family and friends, he was talking and able to go to school, though he would need assistance. He could be mainstreamed with a tutor and sometimes, taken somewhere else for more difficult lessons.
Now, although he struggled, Austin reached the fourth grade where his tutor worked with this new teacher everyone called Mrs. R because her last name was Rasmussen and most kids had trouble with that! Her brother, known as Mr. Wilson, was an outstanding 5th-grade teacher in our school. There was something so striking about Mrs. R, and Austin immediately responded to her. She just knew how to get through to him through such creative means, finding out what he liked, then tailor-making his lessons around that so schoolwork was fun. Her classroom was like a Wonderland and she taught me a valuable lesson. Whatever mood you are in, kids will follow. She was always happy and fun-loving, so the kids were happy and anxious never knowing what excitement she had in store. She created such a wonderful atmosphere for learning and instinctively knew how to get through to students and meet any challenges with an uncanny sense of how to bring out any talents and gifts. School was never seen as a burden because learning was a lifelong adventure, and she took everyone with her!
When we would meet and discuss the issues Austin was facing, she never seemed worried, burdened, upset, or negative. She reminded me of a quote I recently read by author Cheryl Strayed, “Every last one of us can do better than give up.”
Mrs. R just had that Can-Do spirit and truly believed what Jesus spoke in Matthew 19:26, “With man this is impossible, but with God ALL things are possible.” To her, ALL THINGS meant ALL THINGS! Austin wasn’t the only student she was teaching; she taught me so much!
Needless to say, Austin flourished so much that year, she continued to be his teacher. After his tremendous tutor had to move, Mrs. R took on the very self-sacrificing role as his tutor through junior high until his sophomore year. She saw how instrumental she was to his success. Some miracles work immediately, and some are progressive. The latter always reminds me of an old-fashioned quilting bee where each lady had their material, pattern, and particular assignment, but the overall design had already been chosen and they were together, working and chatting, but all with the same goal in mind.
I could go on detailing all the incredible work that Mrs. R put into her lessons and field trips. She always went above and beyond what was expected, further showing the nature of God that lived and breathed through her. Seeing her at work taught me that if you love others and know that whatever you do is helping them, then you will also love whatever you do. That is why work didn’t feel like work to her. She was operating in her calling and assignment from God in that season of her life. Within our seasons, we have many assignments, but our calling recognizes much less. When we know our calling, we stay within the confines of it and that brings peace and joy for everyone.
Her favorite calling was being a mom to her beautiful daughter and handsome son. You can tell how a mother loves by how that love is returned. Day after day, I’d watch her kids run in her classroom to see her, eat lunch with her rather than friends, and always be met with joy and excitement when they’d see each other. She was loving beyond description, deeply caring and so affectionate. Most of our conversations, over many years as dear friends, always circled somehow back to our kids. We’d share funny stories, or what crisis they were going through, what we loved about them, what our dreams were for them, and of course, how our Mama Bear claws would come out if anyone hurt them! We could talk for hours, much to the aggravation of our kids waiting on us. I just loved those times because she was an easy person to share anything with, whether it was joy and laughter or sadness and tears. She always reached out with compassion and my, what a comfort she was to me as well as Austin.
I wish I could keep describing all the many things she did to create success for Austin in areas that were an issue. Being social is very difficult for kids on the spectrum. Mrs. R could’ve been content with just the day being the two of them, but no! She took an empty classroom and through the summer decorated it in all the colors and themes of things Austin and other kids would like. The room was magical, and she was so talented and creative that she could’ve had her own HGTV show! She created a social group for Austin made up of angels, I think. None of these kids had learning challenges and were all very intelligent, friendly, caring, and selfless which also included her own daughter. My daughter floated in and out often too! Even though Mrs. R’s son was much younger, she would include him so he could learn how to be comfortable with people that might seem different.
Part of learning social interaction is to model and engage with kids like these. Sherri had kept this group together until the crucial years of junior high and then created this space for all of them to meet in the morning, have a free period, lunch, and other times together. I believe that God had shown Mrs. R the full picture, not just snapshots, of what would work for Austin’s overall development and achievements. She always reinforced all the goals he met so courageously and was a constant source of love, support, and encouragement. She didn’t see Austin’s weaknesses, she saw his strengths and built on those.
The unique aspect of this condition is that most individuals on the spectrum have very particular focused interest termed as hyperfocusing. This refers to an intense fixation on an interest or activity for an extended period of time. People who hyperfocus often do so to become engrossed in something in order to block out the world. It can be a great advantage because people become experts in areas. My son has an eidetic memory, so he could recite a Sesame Street video when he was young. As he grew older, his interests widened and included books and reading about cartoonists, the history of cartoons and comic strips, vintage cartoons, comics, the DC/Marvel universe, collecting, and more. Whew! That’s just touching the surface.
Many people on the spectrum channeled that and due to many, we have the technology we have today because they hyperfocused in that area. The disadvantage is when it becomes their safe place because it doesn’t change. It is their predictable world where no people can interfere because people are scary. We learned that we had to become very predictable with our behavior in order for Austin to feel safe. All that said, Mrs. R didn’t see that as a weakness but rather a strength she could build on. Again, she instinctively knew when to draw Austin out of his comfort zone into the real world by making it safe. She incorporated his favorite characters into lessons and projects, so nothing felt threatening. It was truly such an amazing gift. She spent hours of her own time developing ways to reach into his world and bring him safely into ours where he could enjoy experiences he had wanted to experience but was afraid to. Having his group we called “the gang” helped so much too.
Because of her endless devotion, she helped a little boy step out from his world, and patiently, step by step, become a teenager that broke out of that shell into confidence, social involvement, and engagement. His personality developed as well, and he especially became someone who was and is really funny and witty. One thing that stuns his doctor and others is that someone with a spectrum disorder has mind-blindness, which means they don’t have an awareness of what people might be thinking or feeling, and that’s one reason social cues are hard to follow. Well, one of his doctors continues to be astounded by the fact that Austin doesn’t have mind-blindness. Beyond that, he is even more sensitive and compassionate about the thoughts, feelings, and needs of others than “normal” people! God never heals half-way!
I do believe that was part of his healing, but unless he saw others operating with love and compassion, he would have been unable to understand how to follow. He always had the sweetest heart from the time he could talk, but I believe he had many examples to follow in order for love and compassion to develop from a bud into full bloom.
Mrs. R saw him daily, loved him, and reached out to him with such compassion that it felt good and safe for him to follow her. He could watch how she was the same with her son and daughter and other students and people. Sherri’s love spoke loud and clear and as one of her beneficiaries, I can tell you her compassion was felt. She always understood my ups and downs and consoled me when I was simply sad on days Austin struggled; it’s just hard and I can remember the many tears we shared together. She was more than Austin’s teacher and tutor. She became my dear friend, and with her, I felt safe too. She would always encourage me that tomorrow would be better and soon we would be laughing again.
One of my favorites, Mister Rogers said, “I feel that when I’m with the people I love, that I’m really at home. And what a good feeling that is.” Austin, me, and so many people loved Mrs. R, and being with her felt like home. I’m ever so grateful that we ended up in her neighborhood!
I loved her personality, and I can still hear her laugh. She was earnest and sincere and loved God. That was another thing doctors said Austin would never understand because God was too abstract. That was another “never” we crossed off and Mrs. R made sure God was in the classroom and part of the lessons as well as her life. We often had deep conversations about the things of God and she had very deep roots. Her faith, tenacity, and courage in the face of some of her life’s worst moments truly and deeply inspired and taught me.
I know this has been long, but a story unfolds and is difficult to make concise. Twelve years with Austin can’t be described in a few paragraphs – neither could the amazing Mrs. R. Austin ended his high school career with an earned 4.2 grade point average. Certainly, we had many people to thank for his overall success and the contributions they made in many different ways. We were blessed with heroic hearts and hands that held onto God’s unchanging hand.
When Austin was little, he hugged me and said He loved me so sweetly; another moment frozen in time. Why? Because I asked him, “You are just too precious and heavenly to be human, are you sure you’re not an angel?” He replied just like an angel would, “Yes, I am. My wings are just hidden in my heart.” Only heaven could send such a reply to bless me in such an endearing way that left me in a puddle of tears thanking God for both my little angels!
Well, there is one person I could’ve asked that same question. Sherri Rasmussen was Austin’s angel and our angel. We were a family who was desperately seeking those heavenly and earthly resources, praying fervently, and certain that God would not fail.
At just the right moment, there she was … and everything changed from there. There was something special about her beyond all her gifts, talents, and abilities.
I told her that sweet story about Austin and I have to wonder if they shared a little secret and she whispered, “I’m one too and my wings are hidden just like yours.” I don’t know, but to this mom, it certainly seems possible with hearts like those, especially along with this quote from ~The Little Prince~:
“Here is my secret. It’s really quite simple: One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”
It was this past November when Sherri and I were texting back and forth trying to set up a visit finally. Due to the pandemic, we hadn’t seen each other and only stayed in contact by phone like most. She wasn’t feeling well on the day we had set, and it was Thanksgiving week. We decided to reschedule for the week after she returned from driving out of town to see her parents and extended family for the holiday. I remember something Sherri said that really stood out to me. She was saying how she didn’t feel up to the drive, but she felt very strongly that she needed to see her family together.
When she returned, I received a text from her that she had tested positive for the COVID-19. We were concerned, but not alarmed, and still discussed our plans for a visit.
Over the next week, Sherri became very sick and went to the ER. She was admitted, then sent home with medication and oxygen, along with a diagnosis of pneumonia. Her text had said she’d never been so sick in her life and asked for prayer, declaring “I WILL LIVE AND NOT DIE.” I immediately started getting a prayer army assembled.
Later, she passed out at home and was taken by squad to the hospital. I scrolled through my last text messages and her last words to me were, “I love you so much and am so thankful for you. ??????” Those words are frozen in time and etched on the tablets of my heart never to be forgotten. Those are my exact sentiments that I pray are etched on the tablets of her heart as well.
Over the next few weeks, Sherri’s condition worsened, and she was placed in ICU. Her precious daughter Kirsten was kind enough to keep me updated often each day. I cannot begin to thank all the people that were fasting and praying for a miracle. More moments came when her daughter informed me she was put on a ventilator. The family had music playing for her, a poster of photos, and made calls of love where someone would hold the phone to her ear. They believe in faith that her spirit was aware regardless of what else was happening. Sherri fought so hard through this ordeal and her past illness. She faced down giants with such bravery and fortitude. As I prayed and had conversations with Kirsten, I started asking God for Sherri’s choice to be honored and that His will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. I believe when we get so close to the other side that something happens, and children of God can choose. Others may not share my belief, but I’ve been in many situations, as a pastor’s wife, where I can just see when a type of transition seems to take place. I saw that in my own father when I walked into his house and he was in another place, his eyes were fixed on something and he didn’t know I’d come in until later. I stood and watched and felt a heavenly presence. What an honor it was. I knew he was choosing to go home and then he told another person but not us. He knew his family would try to keep him here. Within the week, his heart had stopped, and he was where he wanted to be.
This past Monday morning, I picked up my phone to see a text. I will never forget the moment – it was 7:53 – or where I was standing, that I was alone and reading words I never wanted to see. It was a text from Kirsten, who was thoughtful enough to take her last minutes to tell me what was happening; it shows the character her mom modeled for them. It said, “She’s not going to make it, we are here to say our goodbyes.”
Time had frozen as had I. Soon thereafter, another text came saying, “She’s gone.”
I collapsed on my bed in tears of grief and disbelief in another surreal moment.
Later, Kirsten texted me how she felt, and my heart felt like glass shattering as I ached for her. I wanted the perfect words of comfort, but only God holds that which is perfect and I knew He would not withhold anything to bring all the grace and mercy that He does on this side of heaven where He is well aware of what humans face because he became one and suffered so He could be.
I know anyone reading may think I went so long with such detail. I make no apologies for describing how God worked and used an amazing woman that He called and gifted. It is one of the main reasons my son is where he is today. I don’t deny the many people who also put so much of themselves into Austin’s life be it past or present. God created a quilting bee and everyone had their materials and their assignment along with the pattern to create the beautiful handiwork of God from a silent little boy to the miracle he is today as a young man who just left for work. The quilt is not finished, but I know the creating goes on.
To honor Sherri Rasmussen is not because of what she did for my son, but because of the person whose heart I knew and loved. Because of who and what she was, and WHOSE she was, that she supernaturally understood all the what, when, why, and how that went into his continuous progress.
To share the news with Austin that his beloved Mrs. R went to heaven is another moment I’ll never forget. I regard his privacy but will share one thought he told me later: “What bothered me the most was that Mrs. R was suffering and so sick and I wanted God to stop it. I wanted her happy and healthy again. I wanted God to do it here, but I know heaven is much better.” I guess only angels with hidden wings know where other angels belong.
To the Rasmussen/Wilson Family: Her devoted husband Jim, her wonderful children and reasons for loving and fighting, Wesley and Kirsten along with her husband Kyle that she said was hers too. Her precious parents Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, great brothers Matthew and Scott, and treasured sister, Kelita, and a host of others. I feel like I know all of you because Sherri talked so lovingly about you and beamed with pride. I heard so many stories because we did a lot of talking! The greatest gift parents can give is to raise their child in church because that truth is rooted deep and continues to live on in the lives of others.
A special thank you to sweet angel, Kirsten, for all the text messages and information shared and for being so kind and gracious to do so. You are your mom’s twin!
Sherri’s life lives on in all of us she touched, and we will carry that part of her forever.
You have all of our deepest sympathy, our earnest prayers, and our abiding love.
May God continue to be your comfort and strength in the days to come.