The point is, Orlando is awesome. We have loved it. We have had to move before, but there was always the expectation that we would be back very soon. This time is different. This feels final. We know that there really is no way to move back for at least seven years. Residency is three years and Heather's fellowship is another four - something they don't even have available in Orlando. At that point, Josiah will have graduated from high school, Natalie will be in high school, and Gabe will be entering middle school. (Did you just have a panic attack at that? Me too.) The even bigger thing to consider is that Heather is entering a specialized field of pediatrics. She is going to be a pediatric pulmonolgist who works with kids with cystic fibrosis, severe asthma, and premie babies. There are entire states without a single doctor of that type working there. Orlando has several practices located here. Isn't there some responsibility to go where people need the physician instead of just where the physician wants to live? We think so. That means that this move is most likely NOT going to have a return relocation. Sure, we will be back to Orlando. But not as frequently as we would like. Heather has limited vacation. My mom is moving back to West Palm Beach. Heather's parents like outside Jacksonville. If we are coming to Florida to visit, those two cities are the most likely landing points. We recognize all of this and have accepted it. But that is why this has been so hard.
I spend a lot of time talking about restaurants and churches and stuff like that. Yes, I will miss the ability to go to Four Rivers BBQ any time I want (except Sundays - unless they cater a church event on Sunday). I will miss Tijuana Flats and Tenders and Jeremiah's Italian Ice. I will definitely miss our church. I will miss being close to THREE Apple stores. But, that's not the real reason it is hard to leave Orlando. I had planned on writing about jobs I had here and churches we attended here. But the thing that kept popping up was the collection of friends we made over the years. I have some truly amazing friends that I love dearly. Leaving them stinks. I know we all have Facebook (except for Aaron, who is reading this thanks to the link on Google+). And I've had people helpfully offer, "You'll make new friends." That's what I tell my kids to make them feel better. But it never works on them either. I don't WANT to make new friends. I WANT to pack all my friends up in this truck in my driveway and take them with me. But I don't want to be negative or sad. So I am going to celebrate my friends instead.
I feel like I have had several different eras in Orlando. First, there was the overarching UCF experience. Within that, there were actually two distinct experiences. There were the first two years when I was in Student Government. Then there were the second two years when I was in the BSU/BCM/BSM/BCU/Baptist Group and attended FBC Oviedo as a student. Totally different groups of people. I still keep up with some of the SG guys, mainly through Facebook. But the BCM people have been my friends for nearly two decades.
- Matt and Sarah Sharp - I have known Matt since Kindergarten. Literally. We were good friends at King's Academy together. I used to go hang out at his house and play with his Star Wars toys when I wasn't allowed to watch the movies. He left TKA after 2nd Grade. But we still would see each other at various academic competitions ("Nerd Games"). Then we went to 9th grade together. We ran into each other visiting UCF in our junior years. And we roomed together in our freshman year of college. We were in honors classes together and he invited me to BCM. He was in my wedding. We have been friends for almost 35 years. He is one of the most brilliant people I have ever met. He is hilarious and always good for a discussion on sports or movies or comic books. And his wife Sarah is very giving and kind. She had done our family photo shoots for years. She brings us clothes for Gabe when her son outgrows them. She has done tons of special things for us and our kids over the years. Great friends.
- Allen and Candy Turner - I became good friends with Allen during my junior year in college and roomed with him my senior year. Way before they started dating, Candy used to be part of the cadre of BCM students who would come to our house to watch Magic games on our big tv. Allen has been one of my very best friends over the years. I was in his wedding; he was in mine. He was my co-best man. The funny thing is that over the years, Candy became one of my wife's best friends. They got close when we attended church together about seven years ago. We watched their son all day when their daughter was born. We have babysat each other's kids. We would hang out together ever New Year's Eve. We would play Dutch Blitz together. Their kids went to the same preschool as ours. I cannot even list all of the ways they are special to us without tearing up. Their family is one of the five hardest things to leave about Orlando. I must move on. It's getting dusty in here.
- There are other BCM friends that I still see around town like Byron and Bern Kirkpatrick, Mark Dao, Jeff Kipi and his family, and Jamie Waters. That is one of the really neat things about having decades of history in a city. You go to Target, go to Publix, go to church and run into people you know. We have common friends. If we ended up at a party with any of these people, I could spend hours talking to them. That familiarity is hard to match.
After I graduated from UCF, I moved to Tampa and then Jacksonville. After about five years, we moved back to Orlando where I worked at First Baptist Oviedo for over four years. There were some overlaps with my BCM crew at this point. But I also forged dozens of new friendships from that staff experience. It is actually hard to believe how many people I know from this time of my life. This is the Target crew or Mall crew. I go to Target on a Wednesday afternoon to kill time in between getting the kids and run into someone from FBC Oviedo. It happens about twice a month. They may be from First Years Preschool, from the staff, or a church member who I knew from a project or event. These are people like Ron and Dana McKay, Shannon Chambley, Marlene Olsen, Diane Strathdee, Jim Wadley, Cheryl Pavuk, Debbie Ellison or Schmidt, Randy and Donna Moore and family, Jill Myers, the Mannas. I also taught college Sunday School for years there. I had tons of students that came through those classes that have now gotten married and had kids. I watched them start as freshmen and blossom into brilliant and tremendous adults, workers, parents. Some of them have ended up as teachers in the area, some are ministers, some are counselors. I have had kids in preschool with their kids. One of my favorite things as a teacher is to see the end result of a student. It isn't the frustration you have when they are learning. It is seeing that person as an adult out there and changing the world. That is such an amazing feeling. I also became very good friends with Tiffany and Erik Wieder. I worked with Tiffany at the church. I remember when she first started there. Her life had been so tumultuous and she seemed shell-shocked. It was a friendship of mutual teaching, though. I would talk to her about some things, and she would talk to me about others. She helped me to understand how wrong my worldview was when it came to issues of compassion and social awareness. I helped her to realize meat was worth eating and there was hope for a better future. Once she and Erik got together, I had the pleasure of watching that relationship blossom. I did their premarital counseling and performed their wedding. I remember having a broken heart when their first child nearly died after being born early. Heather and I were in Jacksonville for Christmas and just desperately wanted to drive to Orlando just to hug them. To see this boy now, you would never know he was ill. He is thriving and rambunctious. They have a beautiful baby girl, in addition to Tiffany's stellar teenaged daughter. We love their whole family. We can easily kill hours and hours talking. I'm almost disappointed to go to a movie with them because we miss out on talking.
Thanks to FBC Oviedo, I became friends with Charles Wise. I remember the very first time I sat down with him was when he took all of the secretaries out to lunch. (What? I was a secretary. Want to fight about it?) I heard about his counseling ministry and was blown away. I went home after work and told Heather, "I met this guy today who run a counseling ministry. He was awesome. I know it is strange to say this, but I really want to work with him at some point." At first, I did some freelance graphic design work for him. As years went on, we talked more and more. In 2006, we ended up starting Defender Ministries together. For the next seven years, we have ministered together and grown to be very deep friends. I can't count the number of lunches we have had together. (But I can count the number I have paid four. Five.) We have traveled all over the place to speak at Defender events, run seminars and breakout sessions, and scout locations for future projects. There is very little that we don't share with each other. I don't know if I have ever had a deeper friendship. He knows almost everything about me and I know tons and tons about him. He encouraged me so much to develop my skills in writing and design and speaking. We have worked together for over seven years and we have never had a fight. We have had maybe two disagreements. We don't always see eye to eye. But I believe there is such a mutual respect that we still value what the other person says even if they are wrong. Through the Defender experience, I became much closer friends with Brad Crawford, the BCM Director at UCF. We would drive the vans for him to National Student Week. Brad had me come and speak once a year at BCM. He would make me pulled pork, although not as frequently as he should have. I also further cemented my friendship with Aaron and Jill Morrison. I knew Aaron as a student in BCM and worked with Aaron at FBC Oviedo. We became good friends through our time working together. But our friendship got deeper after those years while I was working at Defender. It was probably because we didn't "have to" see each other and "chose to." I ended up performing Aaron and Jill's wedding. When they started going to Summit with us, we again intensified our friendship. They came over twice to help us pack, just because. They went to Islands of Adventure with us just to help us have a better (and cheaper) time. Two of the most giving people I have ever met.
The last four years we spent in Orlando seem like an entirely different era. We had this huge history with FBC Oviedo, BCM, Defender which all blended together because they pulled from the same pool. Then things shifted. We stopped going to FBC Oviedo and ended up at a church plant. I had to get other jobs to subsidize my income from Defender. I started working at International Community School and Apple Retail. Heather was preparing to go to medical school, which meant we were "on a clock" of sorts. Our church still had some familiar faces - the Kirkpatricks, the Turners, the Sharps, and Randy and Susan Gillis who we were familiar with, but not super close to. It turned out to be a wonderful shift of experience. Our friendships with the Turners, Kirkpatricks, and Sharps got a jolt and developed a new dimension, with Heather getting to know all the principles better. We got to realize the Gillis family was a blessing sent from God. And I got to make a whole new group of friends that had nothing to do with my college years. Apple was a wonderful experience. It ranks as one of my favorite jobs ever. I still would go back and work there part time if I could. I loved just about every day there. Plus, I got to meet people like Neil Otto, Chris Anenome, and Veronica Fish. ICS was a great place for me. I got to teach and invest in the students there. I also got to know the teachers and become friends with them - Carrie Baker, Wendy Bowerman, Shelly Uner, William and Jessica Eggleston. I also spent time with the parents like Wendy and Steve Kreidt. And I met Greg Willson, the most bizarre example of "It's a Small World" of them all.
When I got hired to teach Bible, the class originally was all taught by "Mr Willson" who I assumed was an old man who would hate me. The kids were all hacked to get split up. The administration decided to have half of the class with Greg, and half with me. The half with me was mad. I figured I would be walking into a landmine. When I met Greg, I realized I had guessed severely wrong. He was younger and awesome. I loved getting to school early for my class just to talk and joke with him. He was a part-time minister and a musician and an Apple fan. I kept telling Heather how much I liked Mr Willson. One day, she picked me up from school and he was walking by. I said, "There goes Mr Willson." She looked up and said, "Wait. What is his first name?" I told her it was Greg. She asked if he was from Middleburg. I said that quite frankly I didn't know. He had indicated Jacksonville. She told me she was in band with him. Uh, what? I walked over and got him to come to the car. It was true. They had gone to high school together and been in band! Their moms had been friends. His wife had been in high school with my brother-in-law Mike. Bizarre. After our year at ICS, I moved to Tallahassee. But I always managed to have lunch with Greg when I was in town. We kept close when I moved back, mostly by eating at Four Rivers or Chipotle. He was on church staff and he told me that they were planning on relocating to a church in Columbia, SC. Then we ended up matching in Columbia. So we are both moving up there at the same time. Our counselor also turned out to be one of Greg's best friends. It truly is a small world after all.
Upon our return from Tallahassee, we again were in a new place. We had med school friends that came back with us. Even though they were mostly Heather's friends at first, they became my friends too. It was hard to say goodbye to these people at graduation, knowing Facebook was going to be the main contact point with them since we scattered all over the country. Zach and Jasmeet are headed to Michigan. Katrina is going to Louisiana. Sheallah is staying in Orlando. Even our dinner club - a group of couples that ate at ethnic restaurants monthly - have splintered. Mark and Shannon are staying in Orlando. We are going to South Carolina. Richard and Meagan and their soon-arriving baby are going to Baltimore. We also ended up at Summit Church for our final stretch here. It was unlike any church experience we had ever had. I got to serve by writing, something that is extremely rare at a church - to have a lay person writing. I also made some tremendous friends like Michael Murray, John Parker, OJ Aldrich, and Brian Hogan. One of the best things about Summit was the Gillis family. They have always been a part of my Orlando story, but it seemed in a "close call" way. Randy was in the UCF BCM, but he graduated right before I started going and went to seminary. Then he was a college minister in Gainesville when I was a college minister in Tampa. We went to the same conferences frequently and became familiar with each other. They moved back to Orlando just after we did. Their oldest daughter is the same age as our oldest son. At a birthday party for Allen Turner, they showed up with their infant second daughter, who was a week older than Natalie. They enrolled their kids at First Years just like us. We went to church with them at the church plant and Randy and I were on staff together there. They had a third daughter by that point. We started to get close as a family during that time. What really solidified things, though, when they had their fourth child and first boy less than a month after Gabe was born. Those two have been friends since birth and now are best friends. They play together all the time. In fact, our families both play together all the time. The kids are all matched up in ages. Randy and I play the same computer games. Being at Summit together gave us even more opportunities to share experiences, which was awesome. Randy and I wrote together for the kids' service. Since Gabe and their youngest were at First Years together, I saw Susan all the time. We would pick up each other's kids, watch the kids for each other. During some family events for the Gillis family, we had all their kids spend the night. We even shared a babysitter! All four adults are all friends with each other. It has been a truly amazing family friendship. It also is one of the five hardest thing to leave in Orlando - if not the hardest. I know my kids shed many tears about leaving the Gillis kids. It was heartbreaking to see Gabe broken up about losing his first best friend. I've got to move on again. Stupid dust.
All in all, I count myself supremely blessed to have had the friends I have. They have refined me and defined me. They have helped me to grow into the man I am and have had patience with me as I did. They have encouraged me and lifted me up. And each one of them holds a treasured place in my heart. In response to the answer to finding new friends, I may be able to find new ones. But they can never replace the crop I have now. They are gifts from God. I firmly believe that. And I thank God that I had them for whatever time I did. So thank you all. You can never know what you meant to me. I love you guys.