This month, I interview Diana Rhodes Cook, a relative of mine who lives in New York. I see her pretty often at reunions and I enjoy spending time with her daughters.
- Tell me about your childhood.
My childhood was blessed – amazing memories.
My dad was in the Air Force, so from the time I was born throughout my childhood, our family lived in a variety of different places. That reality made my childhood a rollercoaster of adventure and emotion – my mom always said I wore my heart on my sleeve. I never wanted to move – and often cried my heart out when we did move – but we learned to make friends quickly. It was always so difficult to move because I always loved the people and experiences along the way.
In my memory of family fun…. There were camping trips, and overnight family visits with aunts, uncles and cousins in upstate New York where my parents met. We’d visit my dad’s hometown of Salamanca, New York, where we also lived when he was stationed in Saudi Arabia and Vietnam – each time for a year.
When I was very young, a baby, we lived in Texas, which I don’t remember. We lived near Washington DC after that and I do remember being taken to the Air Force base after John F. Kennedy was shot – to meet the First Lady coming back on the plane – her dress covered in blood and all the adults crying as she appeared from the plane.
The brightest memory of young childhood was living in England for three years in a small English village called Woodbridge. This is where I found my first connection with faith and spiritual support.
At age seven I was walking by myself for a few blocks to the Catholic church every morning. I felt so connected to my heart, soul, God, and insight towards people and the world in that chapel, I believe I found ‘grace’ at an early age. Recognizing my interest, the priest ‘broke the rules’ for 1967 and allowed me to prepare the church altar, and act as ‘altar boy’ at the early morning service, ringing the bells, bringing the chalice and helping to serve communion. He also swore all the little old ladies attending mass to secrecy.
I attended a private school in the village called St. Anne’s and was the only girl in a class with 9 boys. The local theater company came looking for me too – an American little girl – to play the part of Dagmar in an American play, “I Remember Mama”. Because I had developed an English accent at the private school, I had to learn to ‘speak with an American accent’ to be in the show.
When we returned to the States and my dad went to Vietnam, I had lots of friends who loved my English accent and walked me home from school every day. As my accent disappeared, so did they – except for my first real best friend, Jody. I loved to read and write. She loved to draw. We began writing stories together – which also jumpstarted my life-long love of writing.
- How did you meet your husband Steve?
I actually FIRST met my husband Steve when I was living in Virginia Beach, working and taking college classes, when he and some friends came to pick up me and some friends to go to the movies. We met again a short time later when my apartment building was sold and I had to quickly find a place to live. One of my high school friends, also in the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area, rented a house with two other guys. Bill and Steve were stationed with a Naval submarine, the USS Flying Fish, and they invited me to move in. When I did move in, Steve moved out of the second bedroom and into the attic, which had very little flooring, so I didn’t have to navigate and sleep up there. It made sense since he and Bill were in and out of port for days, weeks, months at a time…. But it was also kind of chivalrous. Over the next year we became good friends and eventually more than that.
- What evidence can you give for God’s existence?
While I truly WANT to believe in the Science of evidence or tangible proof, I also truly feel that people interpret evidence or proof differently. Some people want to ‘see a physical form of God’ and others recognize that this ‘physical form’ is all around us, in the nature of plants, weather, geology and people and animals, and really exists as the soul, or an energy – and something difficult to tangibly measure. Some people prefer to focus on ‘evolution’ as a scientific process, occurring on its own, and as the only element in play for how the plants, people, lands, seas, world, solar system, universe developed. I can’t look at all those elements and NOT see their development and intricately amazing integration as evidence of God’s existence – not believing that this could have all happened without divine intervention and direction. I don’t disbelieve ‘evolution’, for example, but just feel the story is much more complex – that we, as humans, don’t have the ability to understand, nor any way to ‘prove’ it all one way or another at the same time. Some things do come down to faith. One of my favorite personal philosophies – related to people’s belief systems about God, his existence, nature, evolution and religion – is “What if it’s all true?” Beyond that, personal evidence includes answer to prayer, hindsight related to God’s perfect timing and protection, a real sense of God’s spiritual presence and love all around me, and faith affirmed in moments when God’s intervention was truly needed.
- What ways do you feel God has helped you?
God began guiding my life right away when I was born, by uniting me with the family that adopted me – which set a path for my life. Being a part of that family lead to an amazing extended family and friends of all nationalities and colors, abilities, genders, religions and spiritual experiences which solidified my faith – the foundation of what allows God to help me.
I don’t really believe in coincidence. God has helped me many many many times in carrying my burdens, be they physical, emotional, financial or spiritual. This often means relinquishing control, putting a situation in God’s hands, and keeping faith that everything to happen will happen in God’s perfect will and timing. For example, after my first daughter was born and had hydrocephalus, which required complex dosing of medication at changing intervals through the day and night with no guarantee that it would resolve the problem, it was overwhelming. It wasn’t until I went into meditative prayer and visualized actually putting her in God’s arms that I was able to let go of the anxiety. And I knew at my core that I would know when she was healed. It was after the doctors released her from checkups and care, two years later, that I had a dream in which Jesus appeared and handed her back to me. Or take the very simple miracle that when my husband was driving to work in an ice storm, and a tree came crashing down and landed on his car, it hit the hood and bounced over the roof, leaving him untouched and alive. I can’t even begin to list the ways I know of when God intervened in helping me, much less the many ways he may have helped, and I never had any idea those loving powers were at work in my life.
God has also put me in places, and situations, with various people in which I’ve felt strong purpose. Most of those circumstances allow me to use my talents, personality, passions and experiences to help and grow with others, providing insight, hope and connections essential to the path we share, as we all progress on our personal spiritual paths. I am very mission-driven and I believe God helps me and guides those large and small missions each and every day.
- Tell me about your children.
I conceived five children. The first conception happened before I was married, in a new relationship, when neither of us parents were yet committed or sure of a future together, and I struggled with decisions.
Although others judged me, I always felt God had blessed me and this child with LIFE and with that decision. Although I felt every child deserved two parents, and was not confident in my ability to raise him, I also could not imagine never knowing where he was or if he was alright. It was a step out in faith, encouraged by a close Christian friend, and hearing the voice of God after Jon was born, with a promise that I would see and be a part of this child’s life someday, that ultimately made the decision to place him in an open adoption in 1982. We were reunited in 2007, meeting his new wife Christa as well, almost immediately after he first learned he was adopted. Jon is an active Christian who recently received his masters degree in Divinity Studies, with hopes of becoming a Pastor. He and his wife have one child – our first grandchild Anya – and are expecting another daughter in February. We have been further blessed and welcomed as friends by both Christa and Jon’s families, which has been an amazing blessing, and provided wonderful times together.
Two years after Jon was born, I married Steve and we went on to have four more children. Amber, Brittany, Josie and Chad.
Amber loves music and theater (think musicals, Glee), gaming, kitties and knows a lot of trivia in various subjects. Amber majored in Psychology and Human Services, works as a mentor for a young woman with supervision needs, as well as at a mall Taco Bell and Gaming Arcade. She is a unique personality with talents towards detail, being a good and loyal friend, and I believe is still on a path of discovery. My greatest hope for her is that she finds love and receives the same kind of care she gives to others.
Brittany is a talented cartoon artist and has been drawing since she was 2 years old. She was non-verbal until the age of five, but we believe could read books at age three (when she was diagnosed with autism), and communicated with a computer device as a toddler and young child, until speech services unlocked her voice. Brittany was the first child with autism in our school district to be fully integrated into the mainstream educational setting, went on to obtain her college degree and is moving into the work force. My prayers for her include finding a good friend that remains in her life – something she has never truly had.
Josie is our study in constrasts – with the perfect complement of personality, seriousness, humor, love and spiritual exploration. She is a writer, animal lover, social activist, music lover, and the best of friends. She has the heart most like mine, but also most questions the existence and structural connections with God. In her mid-20’s now, she is living her dream location in New York City, writing online for Buddy TV, grudgingly bringing in the bucks working at an equities firm, volunteering for animal rescue and crusading for causes … definitely on that young adult path of discovery, learning and growing in her career, friendships and interests.
Chad is also an interesting combination of both his parents. He is good at, and interested in, most subjects, from math to science to creative writing. He is also logical, focused on the historical and the spiritual, with a wander lust of discovery for the diversity of the world – loves to travel. He wants to teach English as a second language in other countries. Recently he began studying the ‘little known’ books of the Bible and other historical writings removed from the Canons of Religion – seeking greater understanding.
My greatest hope for all my children is that they find FAITH and a spiritual connection that supports their journey – because I honestly don’t know how anyone survives without it.
- What Is your favorite Bible verse?
I really have a hard time with picking one favorite of any kind – whether it’s food, friends, songs, colors, or Bible verses. Part of the reason is that I believe life is focused on exploring diversity and that much of life is intertwined for a reason – teaching different lessons. I have two pages of Bible verses, prayers and affirmations I review and reflect on every day. Favorites include : “ The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; Your love, O Lord, endures forever” ; “Do not be anxious about anything. But in every situation by prayer and petition with thanksgiving present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” ; “For I know the plans I have for you says the Lord; plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” ; Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight” ; ONE of my favorite Bible verses in recent years is “I did not give you a spirit of fear, but of power and love and a sound mind.” This helps me with anxiety, particularly. Believing, as I do, that all choices/viewpoints/actions are driven primarily by either LOVE or FEAR, it reminds me to choose LOVE over FEAR. It reminds me of the gifts God gives us – a thoughtful mind and intelligence, strength and love – and reminds me to focus on the foundation of my inner spirit as it rises towards love. Because more than anything, I believe, it’s all about LOVE.
- Who is your favorite biblical figure besides Jesus?
Mary, mother of Jesus. I have felt the spirit of her presence since I was a young child in England. When I was a teenager and attended a retreat in which we engaged in building a spiritual workshop in our minds and calling ‘advisors’ to appear – Mary was one of the three persons that appeared to me, and her spirit continued to guide me. I relate to her as a nurturing spirit of faith, and as a mother. I felt connected with her by my own story (becoming pregnant with Jon and the sacrifice of letting him go) and in fact, I choose Christmas eve in front of the nativity to tell my younger children about Jon – so that we could talk beyond the facts to my faith and belief in following the idea of how our destinies may be more than we can comprehend and imagine. Overall, as a biblical figure, for me, she inspires, faith, love, and even surrender through unimaginable grief and challenge.
- Who in your life makes you want to be a better person.
Again, I find it very hard to pick one person – because so many people have influenced my life. There are certainly priests, friends, and even animals that have inspired me towards that goal. If I had to pick one, it would be my daughter Brittany. The journey of understanding her perspective of the world required me to learn more about people, their similarities and differences, education, team-building, and to share that with others. In many ways it formed and evolved my own personal adult journey towards understanding varying insights, encouraging others to find common ground, to contain judgement, and focus on advancing love, hope and supporting the abilities and talents we each have, and/or can learn. For example, Brittany was often placed in classrooms with some of the best regular-education teachers in the district. Through my encouragement and resources gained in research and experience through her preschool years, and insisting on being a part of the ‘team’, every single one of them learned more about educational strategies that worked for ALL kids, and often said that they became better teachers in the process. Sharing that knowledge with others also allowed them to go on to make a difference for even more students. As Brittany’s mother I was inspired – and am still inspired – to become a better person, mother, teacher, advocate, and person of faith and support. A very wise woman from my community once said this – a phrase that continues to inspire those who knew her and certainly embodies how Brittany has helped me be a better person. “Never stop learning, always share”. Anyone who inspires that will not only become a better person but encourage others to become better people as well.