In Memory of Levi

Levi's eulogy was the most difficult thing I have ever had to write. Not because I didn't know what I wanted to say, because I did.

Sharing Levi's eulogy was the most difficult thing that Jason has ever had to do. But he did.

God gave us both the strength to share the story of this precious little man with those at his funeral yesterday. For those that were unable to attend, I am posting it here. His story is pretty powerful, and I hope that, if you take the time to read the entire thing, it will remind you to focus on the important things in life, the ones that really matter.

Hug your kids. Love your neighbours. Worship God. Fulfill your purpose. Don't get trapped into caring about things that don't matter.

Your life is too important for that. And the people around you are too special not to love with every drop you have to give.

Levi Simon Winters

April 2, 2012 - June 3, 2015

Young families are meant to get bigger, not smaller. But usually, the number goes up just one at a time.

Levi’s story is a little different. This little guy joined a massive group of people into a family, all of us welded together by our love of one special little person. And although he is the first of us that Jesus took home, those that remain will be forever impacted by the three short years we got to treasure him.

Levi Simon Winters was born on April 2, 2012 as Orion Ethan Simon Stanley. He was welcomed by his mother, Jennifer Lea Stanley, his older brother, Quinton, and his grandparents, Brian and Laverna Stanley—aka “Papa” and “Nana”.

Orion was always a big boy, and grew quickly, but his smile was the biggest of all. He was a happy, joyful baby with a smile that would light up the entire room. His big grin would melt the hardest heart, and his big brown eyes made everyone who saw him fall in love with him.

Little Orion, Jennifer, Quinton, Papa and Nana all lived together in one big house. Nana was sometimes sick, and Papa had to work, and Mommy sometimes needed a break, but between them, Little Orion was always, always surrounded by love and care.

Papa would love to feed him his bottle in their big living room chair. After that, little Orion would fall asleep and Papa would hold him until he woke up.

Sometimes Orion would take his naps on a soft blanket on the floor. Sometimes the dog, Ali, would lay down beside him to watch over him while he slept.

Jennifer and Orion were nearly inseparable. She loved to take him to the pool, on road trips to Grande Prairie, and to visit friends. On occasion, she even brought the little guy out to visit her friend Talena, who of course thought he was adorable!

The Winters met the Stanleys in 2006 when Jason and Brian began carpooling to work at DMI. After nearly two years of their wives listening to stories about their husbands’ carpool buddy, Laverna and Talena finally met and realized they had a lot in common. Quinton bonded right away with Noah and Jabin, the younger of the Winters’ three sons.

This budding friendship seemed doomed when later in 2008 the Winters moved to Arkansas for what was supposed to be a permanent transition. But the job opportunity fell flat, and six months later, they were back in Peace River.

Jason was no longer working at DMI, but the friendship with the Stanleys was immediately renewed. Brian and Laverna even purchased the acreage right beside the one Jason and Talena were homesteading, and were a constant willing source of help, labour, and equipment in that process.

When Jennifer got pregnant, the Winters were excited for her and welcomed her little man into the world with love, as did so many other friends and family.

As often happens with a big change like having a baby, the Winters and Stanleys did not see each other often in 2012 after Orion’s birth, as Laverna’s health and Orion’s needs kept them very occupied. Talena also home schooled their three boys, which does not leave much room for a social life, either.

The Winters’ second son, Noah, has a birthday at the end of February. In 2013, his party was late. It was simply a pool party on a Saturday in the middle of March, to which the Stanleys and another family were invited.

Brian brought Quinton and Orion alone to give Laverna a chance to rest. At Tim Horton’s afterward, he shared with Jason that as Orion was approaching his first birthday, Jennifer was struggling more and more with being a single mom, and their family was at a loss as to what to do. Laverna’s health and their current age prevented them from adopting Orion as their own as they had with Quinton.

Jennifer had begun working during the day, leaving Laverna home with Quinton (who was 9) and Orion, but the little guy’s weight and Laverna’s health made picking him up next to impossible for her. To top it all off, the little go-getter began walking only days after the pool party. A whole new world opened up for him—and made the need for a solution that much more urgent.

The Winters had talked about adopting for years, but the timing never seemed right. They had wanted to wait until they were finished having natural children, and until the youngest was at least four years old.

Once their third son, Jabin, had reached the age of 4, they had begun the process of adopting through Alberta Child and Family Services, but there was delay after delay. After years of hoping God would see fit to bless them with one more child, but having the process drag on and on, Jason was no longer sure he wanted to pursue it, and Talena’s heart was finally at peace that their family was complete. In October of 2012, when CAFS called to complete the final pre-authorization step required to qualify them as an adoptive family, they said no.

It’s funny how God works, isn’t it? His timing is perfect.

When the Stanleys realized that they were going to have to give Orion up, they were heartbroken. How could they let strangers take the little boy they loved so much? Some of their own family may have been able to take him, but they all lived so far away, it would not have been much better. They all wanted what was best for him, but they feared what it would mean for them.

While Jason and Brian were talking at Timmy’s that day, a miracle happened. Jason said something that he would only have said through the Holy Spirit putting it in his mouth. And Brian saw a flicker of hope in their situation for the first time.

Jason, whose heart had always been hesitant about bringing one more child into the family, was the one who initiated it (however surprised he was by the fact later!) Brian, Laverna, and Jenn were all open to it, despite how hard it was for all of them. After several family meetings to see if the Winters could offer supports that would enable Jennifer to keep Orion, it became clear that the solution was for the Winters to adopt him as their own.

Less than one blurred, whirlwind week after Noah’s pool party, Orion came to live with the Winters, and his name was changed to Levi Simon Winters.

I don’t know if any of those involved would necessarily recommend this route as a preferred way of adopting. For the Stanleys, they lost someone they loved with little preparation. No, he wasn’t really “lost,” but the nature of the relationships were changed completely. They had to learn how to love him as grandparents and Jenn, instead of parents (the role all three adults had played in his life before). They had to grieve that he was no longer in their arms every day and filling their house with his little, amazing laugh. And they had to start this grieving suddenly, with almost no warning.

In an adoption, everyone grieves. The Winters, while full of joy that they were adding another son to their mix of boys, were also grieving. The Winters were grieving for Levi, who was grieving in his own little way. They were hurting for the Stanleys, whose pain was evident and for which they felt somewhat responsible (although everyone knew this was the best thing for Levi—guilt is a part of grieving, no matter what the grief is for). And they were also grieving for the changes they had to make in their lives to go back to “baby stage” so unexpectedly—no nine months to prepare and adjust their lives.

It was the hardest thing any of us had gone through up until then. But despite the pain, we knew it was perfectly orchestrated by God.

It took a year of ups and downs and redefining relationships and frank talks. But through our love for Levi, we were all knit into one big family. (Brian calls the Winters his “outlaws.”)

Levi continued to have a special bond with all of his original family members. But soon, he bonded tightly with Mommy, Daddy, Jude, Noah, and Jabin. Really, he was one lucky kid—with two moms, a dad, four brothers, three grandfathers living, and three grandmothers, he had the biggest family of any of us. And we were all blessed because he joined us together.

Levi’s adoption story impacted much more than just our families. In the small community of Peace River, Levi was famous. DMI published a 6-page article in their company newsletter that featured the Stanleys and their adoption story. Their church, the Salvation Army, rallied around them, as First Baptist Church did with the Winters. Whenever Talena took Levi to Walmart (where Jennifer works), there were always a few ladies with special smiles for the little man.

During that transition, as with this one, Levi’s influence was felt to the borders of our community and far beyond.

Levi’s bouncy personality re-emerged as the grieving process took its course. As he grew, his interests became obvious—and his interests were “anything with wheels.” Wheelbarrows, strollers, trucks, cars, lawnmowers, you name it. If it had wheels or was mechanical in any way, he was drawn to it like a moth to flame. As such, his favourite movies were Disney's Cars and Planes I & II. His second word (before “Mommy” or “Daddy”!) was “truck-o!”

When he was just a year, he loved to be held at the front window to just look at the vehicles parked outside or the train as it went by. Even at three, he would run to the window to see who drove in every time the dog barked, and he could hear the train coming minutes before the rest of us could.

Levi also loved animals—although they didn’t always return his none-too-gentle affections. The Winters’ Golden Retriever, Sunshine, was his constant companion whenever he was outside (which was often.) She would follow him faithfully around the yard. He would maul her face, strangle her with his hugs, sit astride her while she tried to nap, sometimes experiment with hitting her, which she usually took without complaint. She was never, ever rough with him, and if she had had enough, she would just give him a little warning growl or flinch away and go sit at a safer distance for a while.

Levi’s mauling of the cats was less well-received--but his desire to play with them seemed to outweigh his ability to figure out why they weren’t keen to do so.

He had an amazingly strong will, and a stubborn streak that Talena is sure came from Jason’s side of the family. (Laverna and Jenn say it came from Brian’s.) He dug his heels in at any effort to hinder what his little one-track mind desired, so redirection became an essential parenting skill. His strong will was challenging, but we hoped that he would one day be able to use it for amazing things.

Levi was loud. He had so much energy, sometimes the only way he could let it out was to yell. When he was really little, he would scream for fun. As he got older, it morphed into a yell that he would sometimes break into just for the joy of yelling—his little eyes full of mischief as he waited to see what you would do about it.

Levi had two speeds—running and sleeping. He didn’t walk. He ran, he bounced, he jumped, he sprang, he sprinted, he sometimes even rolled, but walking was too mundane. Nana’s nickname for him was “Leapin’ Levi”. His brothers’ nickname for him was “Captain Wiggles”, and he often got to “fly” around the house under that alter ego (with a little assistance from Daddy or big brother Jude.)

For his first birthday, only 10 days after he came to live with the Winters, Papa and Nana got him a little ride-on truck. It had lights and made noise (of course! They caught onto that grandparenting thing quick!), but even long after it broke—er, the batteries died—and he had abused it to the point that nothing would make noise anymore anyway, it was still his favourite toy.

He was very organized, and loved having things “just so.” One of his favourite ways to play with his trucks was to line them up in a bumper-to-bumper caravan, or to jam-pack one end of the dining room table with every toy vehicle he owned in a gridlock. He would line up his favourite “cars of the day” on the table to “watch” him eat, and they had to sit in a perfect side-by-side line—if you bumped one, he made sure you knew you had to move it back! Instead of cuddling a stuffy in bed, he would choose one or two toy vehicles.

He wasn’t tall enough to reach his coat hook, but he had already begun learning to put his boots away when he came in from outside. Sometimes he would even clean up his own blocks when he was done playing with them without being asked.

Levi was incredibly intelligent. We were only beginning to see what potential his amazing little brain had, but right from day one, he was a problem-solver. “Resourceful” was a natural character trait. If he wanted to do something, he would find a way, never mind the obstacles, using whatever resources were on hand.

He had amazing concentration when building things, and would construct elaborate “trains” and “trucks” from his MegaBloks from an early age. He even made a replica of Papa’s Max once! (A Max is a six-wheeled all-terrain vehicle.) In fact, “the Max” or “Papa’s Jeep” were favourite topics of conversation, as well as models to build from blocks. Mommy wondered what he might choose to do as an adult—he could become a truck driver or an engineer and love either vocation equally.

While his words were sometimes difficult to understand, he had a large vocabulary and communicated well, despite being temporarily speech delayed from the trauma of the adoption. He knew all his colours from age 24 months, and could count to at least ten without help. Only last week, he began using some very complicated sentences, and corrected his verb tense a few times. He even knew a few Spanish words from watching “Go, Diego, Go!” and “Dora the Explorer.”

When he was told that he was getting to be “such a big boy,” though, his response was always, “I not a big boy! I little!”

Levi was in our lives for only three years, two months, and one day. For someone so little, he made a bigger impact than seems possible.

“Levi” means “God has joined.” The Winters chose it because Levi joined their family, and God had had his hand on the whole thing.

“Simon” was the name of Levi’s great-grandfather on Laverna’s side of the family. The Winters kept it to honour his birth, and also because it means “He has heard”. God heard and answered the prayers of so many when Orion was born, and when he became Levi.

We see God’s hand on Levi’s entire, all-too-brief life. God did more than just join Levi to a new family—he used Levi to join two families. Hurts that may not have been healed were healed because he lived. Stanleys and Winters will always be “outlaws”, regardless of the paths God leads them on. And hopefully, there are those whose faith will be born, renewed, or strengthened because of the story of this little man’s life.

We don’t understand why we got to hold him in our arms for such a short time. Maybe one day we will, but we don’t always get to know why God allows tragedies like this to happen. But we pray, as you remember our precious Levi, that you would know how much God loved him, and us, and you. God cares for every sparrow that falls out of the nest, Jesus said, so how much more does he care for us.

God’s heart is grieving for us right now, as the Winters once grieved for the Stanleys' loss. But Levi has already changed homes once before this, and God made something very beautiful come of it. Now that Levi’s home is in heaven, it is the heavenly Father’s lap he gets to be cuddled on while he misses us, and while we all miss him so much. One day, we will see him again. Until then, we must let the same arms that hold our baby hold onto us and carry us through.

Because the Father’s arms are the only ones big enough to hold us all.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
— Matthew 19:14

More about Levi: