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A balloon, a note, and healing words

The story starts on Sept. 11, 1988. It was Rally Day for Glenwood Lutheran Church — a kickoff day for Sunday school after the summer vacation. On this Rally Day, the Sunday School sponsored a balloon lift. Like most Sundays, the Pedersons were in attendance. Attached to each helium-filled balloon was a notecard with a message celebrating God’s love, along with a simple request: if you find this note, please return it to the church.  “It was a sight to behold,” said Randy Pederson, Andrew’s dad. “It was a beautiful blue-sky day and dozens of brightly colored balloons ascended heavenward from chubby little fingers as the squinting eyes of children watched them as far as possible,” he said. One boy letting go of a balloon was Andrew Pederson, a wheat-blonde-haired, blue-eyed five year old from Glenwood. It was a fun day for Andrew and the rest of the kids. Sadly, the sunshine of that day would give way to more gloomy days ahead. “For several months my wife, Jeannie, was becoming increasingly concerned about Andrew and his more frequent incoordination and weakness,” said Randy. “He was exhibiting classic signs of a neuromuscular problem,” said Randy, who is a chiropractic physician. “As a father and husband, I was attempting to try and rationalize the manifestations as somehow transient or at least treatable, rather than confronting the progressiveness and unrelenting nature of this cruel disease.” A muscle biopsy and other laboratory tests were done that December, and the Pederson’s worst fears were confirmed. Andrew was diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD), a debilitating muscular disorder with no known cure and a dramatically shortened life span. “As we walked out of the hospital, Jeannie said, ‘It will be OK,’ but even so, both of us were devastated,” said Randy. “Though we are believers, Christmas that year seemed to hold little for us to celebrate. Even then, however, God already had in place a plan to mobilize the support of His children.” It was dark time for the Pederson family. And while family and friends lent their support, it was a letter from a stranger that would help give them the light to see their way through some of those darkest days. During the first week of the new year (1989), the church office called the Pedersons. A letter had arrived. “The church secretary said they had received a manilla envelope for Andrew from the University of Minnesota,” said Randy. “I assumed it was some correspondence regarding Andrew’s condition that had been incorrectly delivered to the church — and as our grief was still beyond words at that time, I picked up the envelope with little discussion.” When Randy studied the return address, he became confused, as it read, “U of M Dept. of Ecology and Behavioral Biology. The envelope was dated Jan. 3, 1989. “I was convinced that, besides our lives, the entire medical records system of the university was in complete chaos,” said Randy.        He opened the packet and found a weathered note card signed by Andrew and released on Rally Day. It had been found a month after the balloons were released. Accompanying the note was the following letter, dated Nov. 28, 1988 . . . “Dear Andrew, I am writing this letter to return the card you attached to your balloon earlier this year. I have included a copy of a Minnesota map and drawn a red dot where I found your card. The closest town was about two miles. It is called Longville (over 100 miles from Glenwood). The balloon must have gone very high into the air to be carried so far up north. Andrew, I want you to know that finding your card was a very special event in my life. I was walking in the woods with a friend doing some biology work. We were very deep into the woods when I saw your card on the ground. It was too far into the woods to have been dropped by a person. I don’t think anyone ever walks where we were. Your card was practically covered by the leaves that fell during the fall season. If I had come by that spot a few days (or even hours) later it might have been covered forever. But I saw it and was overjoyed to read about you and your school. The Pederson’s later learned that Andrew’s note was the only one found from the batch released into the sky that day. The letter continued . . . Andrew, I believe that God must have had a reason for me to find your card. It just seems so exciting that this card was found in the middle of those woods. I hope that your balloon lift has done as much for your school to remind you of God’s continuing presence as your card has done for me! Andrew, may God always bless and watch over you and your family. Thank you, and thank your teachers for thinking of this activity. Very truly yours in Christ — Todd Huspeni.” It was an emotional letter for the Pedersons to read. And the arrival of the letter could not have come on a better day for this grieving family. “My eyes welled up with tears and a big lump formed in my throat, but my heavy heart felt a peace,” said Randy. “My first thought was how powerful in his quiet way our little Andrew had been made in God’s infinite wisdom. Even though Andrew’s physical self was literally beginning to contract, his spiritual mission was expanding to ever greater heights.” After showing the letter to Jeannie, Randy was eager to go back to the church to share the good news with the pastor (Rev. Gilbert Lee), who later shared the story of the discovered note with his congregation. “He illustrated how it was the disciple Andrew who, when mentioned in the Bible, was the one who quietly introduced people to Jesus — his brother Peter, the boy with the loaves and fish and the Greek strangers who wanted to meet Jesus,” Randy remembered. “He said this same God chose another Andrew — and through Todd Huspeni — reminded this grieving dad of His love and mercy.” After Randy and Jeannie received their letter from Huspeni, they wrote a letter back to him. In 2000, the Pedersons reconnected with the person that lifted their spirits a decade earlier. They managed to track down Todd Huspeni through his parents. Turns out, their return letter was an important piece in Huspeni’s life, just as his letter to the Pedersons had impacted their life. The following is part of the note that came back from Huspeni, who was now married and with a daughter and pursuing a PhD in biology at the University of Santa Barbara. “I think of Andrew and your family often,” he wrote. “I keep your beautiful letter in my desk and read it when the days seem dark and path rockier than usual. In this degree program I have had many occasions to read your words. I have taken your letter to prayer often, wondering about Andrew and your family. Part of me didn’t want to intrude and so I decided not to. But I am so happy to hear from you and wonder how you all are doing. I know that God does work in marvelous ways and that we never know how God can use us to touch others.”    Within a couple of years after the diagnosis, it became necessary for Andrew to use a wheelchair for his mobility. And as the years passed, the disease took hold of Andrew’s body. But that didn’t slow him down much. Those wheels kept on rolling. “The wheelchair actually allowed him great independence for play with his friends, such as towing in-line skaters, for school and for work,” said Randy. Andrew worked for several years at the local radio station (KMGK), engineering the sound board for commercials during high school sporting events. He used the money he earned at the radio station to buy a computer with voice recognition capabilities. Some of the words to describe Andrew were enthusiastic, adventurous, devoted, spirited, passionate and courageous. How courageous? “I will never forget his bravery and calm when he underwent a 7 1/2 hour surgery to stabilize his spine when he was 13 years old,” said Randy. “He chose to drive himself through a gauntlet of masked and gowned surgeons and nurses right up to the operating table.” His adventurous side often came out when they traveled. And boy, did he travel. In fact, Andrew joined his family in visiting all 50 states by the time he finished high school. He eventually made his way to Mexico, Canada, France, Switzerland, Italy and Norway and also rolled his chair through 20 of the National Parks. Andrew passed away on Oct. 16, 2009. He was 26 years old and nearly nine months. The following week, at Andrew’s celebration of life service, his older brother, Erik, spoke about Andrew’s life and the memories they shared. “We saw so much beauty in his lifetime that I can close my eyes at any time and be with Andrew in the mountains, alongside a river, under the Redwoods, on so many beaches, in the desert, in a rain forest, on a glacier, aside a fjord or on Mount Lookout with my family gazing at Lake Minnewaska.” He went on to say, “my brother Andrew was the strongest person I have ever known.” After the service, the extended family drove up to Mount Lookout, one of Andrew’s favorite spots in Glenwood. This time it was their turn to release a balloon. The Pedersons watched as they released a single balloon into the sky. The balloon flew quickly across Lake Minnewaska and out of sight in the western skies. “It was one of the most meaningful things I have ever seen,” said Jeannie. “It had been a cloudy, dreary day and when we went up to Mount Lookout, the clouds broke up and we watched a beautiful sunset under clear skies. It was amazing.” The Pedersons decided to contact Huspeni after the funeral to tell them of Andrew’s passing. This past September, Dr. Huspeni made a trip to Glenwood to visit with the Pedersons and to be part of a special presentation. Now a professor at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point, Huspeni was present at both services at Glenwood Lutheran Church on Sept. 19. He was part of a presentation that included a special painting — it was a painting of Andrew releasing a balloon at Rally Day in 1989. The painting shows the note that Andrew sent with the balloon and the letter that Huspeni sent back to the Pedersons. The painting is now a permanent fixture at Glenwood Lutheran Church, located near the chapel and the library. It was painted by one of Andrew’s favorite teachers and artists, Susan Fossen of Glenwood. It is an uplifting story of Andrew’s balloon, Andrew’s spirit, and the power of a letter written by a stranger. And, thanks to the painting, it is a story that will be re-told for generations to come.

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