Audy Leavitt is the interior designer for Charmed Playhouses and co-host of Animal Planet's Playhouse Masters. She shares her stories of faith on her blog alwaysaudy.com. The following story is written by her friend and client, Kelley Opedisano, about her family's playhouse miracle. Kelley's family was featured on the latest episode of Playhouse Masters, which airs Friday at 10/9 central on Animal Planet.
Early fall 2015, while watching TLC's Treehouse Masters together as a family, and after countless requests from my kids, I opened my laptop and filled out the casting application for the show. There were about 10-12 essay-type questions asking for detailed background information about our family and dream plans for our potential treehouse.
We all sat around while the show played and gave feedback for what this treehouse would look like. We had a great time contributing our thoughts to what was likely just a fun fantasy and that was that. I’m pretty realistic so I knew the chance of getting a response was small. I also knew our budget was probably not enough, so in the weeks to come I expected nothing, but of course would have been happy if we did get a call. My kids, on the other hand, spoke about both the structure and the TV show as if it was just a matter of when, not if.
In late January I was home fully embracing the peace of two little ones napping, two older ones in school, and one in the middle eating a snack and coloring at the counter while I tackled the seemingly endless chores and laundry that goes along with having a family of seven. My time home on maternity leave was quickly coming to an end so when I say I was embracing these chores, I really was! In the middle of this my husband, RJ, called and was clearly upset. My father-in-law, who had been battling a glioblastoma for the past year and a half, had just collapsed after riding his exercise bike and was on his way to the ER. RJ left work right away and told me he would keep me posted, but things didn’t look good.
At the hospital, doctors explained that there was bleeding on the brain and severe swelling around the site of the tumor. The family all came together and was told to pray for the best but prepare for the worst. He was unconscious and had little brain activity. RJ and I now had to decide the best way to tell our kids, who loved their Grandpa dearly, and give them the option of coming up to say their goodbyes. The crowd of family at his bedside in the ER was growing quickly.
At one point a nurse came behind the curtain to kick everyone out while she checked vitals. Close to 20 family members congregated in an empty curtained “room” next to his. When something like this happens to a family, the tears come in ebbs and flows. When you think they’ve subsided something else triggers the waterworks and there you go again. When RJ’s aunt arrived, the tears and emotions were triggered again as she adjusted to the shock of what was happening. I could feel my phone buzzing at the peak of this collective display of sadness, and when I grabbed it to put it on silence I noticed that it said Hollywood, California.
Welcoming the distraction, I listened to my voicemail and started chuckling, trying to keep it to myself. A woman named Megan said she was from a production company that was forwarded our application by Treehouse Masters casting. She explained how the people at TM loved our application, but unfortunately, our budget was not big enough for that show. However, they thought we would be a good fit for a new show set to be filmed called Playhouse Masters, which had a similar premise except the structure was on the ground (which she jokingly mentioned would probably be safer for our family anyway).
As I intently listened to the message, I couldn’t help but think that this was “Pa’s” doing. He had always said he was going to build the boys a treehouse, but he also promised our princess (the fifth and last baby after four boys) a pony. When I looked up from my phone, I saw everyone staring at me. I apologized, but wasn’t off the hook that easily because they all wanted to know what was so funny . . . thus began the not so coincidental Playhouse miracle.
I called Megan on the way home from the hospital and got some more information from her. She was looking to set up a time to schedule a Skype interview with us and I told her what was going on in our family. She was immediately sympathetic and said no rush for anything but I told her that her call actually came at the perfect time. RJ and I were about to face the toughest conversation we had ever had with our kids to date. They would be devastated, but this call back would give them something to look forward to in the midst of their heartbreak.
When we got home, we sat the kids down and just like we expected they cried and cried and cried. For a good 20 minutes, we just hugged them and let them cry. And then I decided to use my secret miracle of distraction. I said I had something else to tell them. Something that would not take their pain away, something that would not make Grandpa ok again, but something that would make them smile. I shared my phone conversation with Meg with them and you know what? They stopped crying. And they laughed. And they said, “we knew they would call us!”
Our two oldest, Trey and Zack, decided they wanted to go to the hospital and say goodbye. They understood that Grandpa wouldn’t be awake, that he would have funny tubes coming out of his mouth and nose, and that he wouldn’t hug them back. They still chose to go. It was hard. It was very hard. The doctors had said that brain activity was minimal, but he squeezed his hand or wiggled his toe to let you know he knew you were there. Some of the doctors explained it as involuntary reactions, but when you are witnessing the perfect timing of these reactions, you know they are anything but involuntary. Trey got a big squeeze, Zack got a big squeeze, and then Zack told Grandpa his story. “Guess what, Grandpa? We’re getting a playhouse!” He gave another squeeze.
When I finally got around to checking the kids’ backpacks that night, they both had an open ended assignment as part of a school-wide event called PARP (Parents as Reading Partners; a two-week event focusing on family efforts to promote literacy at home). The title of the open ended assignment was called, “Imagine Your World.” It could be literally anything, a poem, a PowerPoint, a craft, you name it and about anything.
When we talked about it the next day, the kids were throwing around some ideas and one of them, (I don’t remember if it was Trey or Zack) asked if he could imagine his Playhouse and come up with a design. Well, of course this was perfect. Zack would set to work to design the outside and Trey would do the inside. In the meantime, my father-in-law’s earthly body was slowly shutting down. The back and forth to the hospital waiting for the process to complete was emotionally draining on everyone. The weekend came and went; the kids began the school week and worked on their projects when they got home from school. We had a scheduled Skype with another producer that Thursday. We had been casually preparing some of the things we wanted to share for that interview and the kids were super excited for that.
Meg had told me that we would get an invite for the Skype right before they were ready. The kids got off of the bus at four p.m. so we had an hour to get everyone semi freshened up for the five p.m. interview. Five o’clock came and went and we heard nothing. Finally, I called Meg. She apologized and said there was some kind of scheduling conflict and someone would call us back to reschedule. That same day, January 29, 2016, my father-in-law, and a beloved husband, father, grandfather, son, brother, friend, earned his heavenly wings and left this earth. The hustle and bustle of making arrangements began. Everyone was devastated, but yet life goes on.
The kids had to finish their projects for PARP, RJ had work responsibilities to take care of, and I had to get ready for going back to my work as a reading specialist after a nine-month leave. There were three days of services so what was supposed to be my first day back at work ended up being a “personal” day. Services are odd social events. In the midst of beginning to deal with a loss that will never fully heal, people still try to celebrate. Celebrate a life well lived, catch up with family and friends you haven’t seen, offer a shoulder to cry on, and try to keep minds occupied by talking about ordinary things. Word travels fast in a large circle of family and friends so the topic of a potential show using our family was quite the conversation piece during this time. I had a little obsession with Kate Plus Eight in the past so many found it funny that we would be filming on the same TLC network. My father-in-law would have definitely gotten a laugh about that. In fact, when he thought I was getting fresh he would call me Kate (one of MANY terms of endearment he had for me) and many times joked that the only reason I kept having kids was to have my own reality show!
February began and the kids definitely had their moments of sadness, but they remembered many good times and still truly believed that the playhouse thing was going to happen because that’s what Grandpa would have wanted. At their school-wide closing ceremony for PARP, they each presented their “Imagine Your World” project with many of the things they loved, including a purple chair in the corner of the inside of the playhouse to remind them of their Pa, who always sat in his own purple Lazy-Boy at home. The kids told everyone at school that they were going to get this playhouse built and be on TV, but three weeks had gone by since our original Skype date and I hadn’t heard anything. Trey and Zack came home from school one day nagging me to just call and find out something. I really didn’t want to be that person, but because of the circumstances surrounding the interview, I pretty much begged Meg to at least set up the Skype so that we could do this one thing as a family, even if they didn’t plan on using us.
Meg ended up calling me back almost right away. She explained that there were some differences of opinion in the direction the show should take. Some key decision makers felt strongly that the show should focus on celebrities and their families, and others felt “regular” families would help the show feel like a dream playhouse was actually attainable. This was why we hadn’t heard anything. Meg was part of the latter opinion and was pushing to get us the interview. Finally, she helped make it happen and once again a date was set in late February for the Skype.
The kids went to school absolutely hyper that day and were still on a high when they got off the bus ready to get this interview started. When it began it was pure chaos: four out of five speaking-aged kids shouting over one another to talk to the “camera,” some whacks on the head with the projects Trey and Zack wanted to show off, Gerber puffs everywhere as I tried to keep Emerson quiet, our fourth son, Ben, also known as Big Baby, decided to lay down on the table at one point, while Dominic (#3) snuck some powdered donuts from the cabinet and came back into full view of the screen with a white goatee. When we were done, RJ and I looked at each other and said they will either hate us or love us. There’s no in between!
Again, we were left to wait, and wait. It was now March. One evening as I was leaving school with Dom, who attended pre-school at the same elementary building I teach in, I got another call from Meg. (Oddly enough, Dom had just presented as “The Croc Hunter” for my school’s culminating night for PARP, which ran later than Trey and Zack’s school.) The casting team had showed our interview to Tyson and Audy Leavitt of Playhouse Masters and some other powers that be and they loved our family.
She said that everyone on her end was rooting for us and when they had gotten the news that we were selected they all cheered. Of course when Dom and I got home to tell the rest of the family they were ecstatic! Shortly after we had our first phone conference with Tyson, a Skype session with Wayne Visbeen, the architect, some behind-the-scenes background checks, some finance checks and discussions about budget, pictures being collected, text messages, property details, and so on!
When we met Tyson and Audy in person, we couldn’t help but share with them how surreal the whole process was and how so many little things working in our favor could not just be luck. The connection we felt to RJ’s dad through how things panned out seemed like a little miracle for our family. The timing of everything, the welcomed distraction, the fact that he always talked about building the kids something, the fact that he made jokes about a reality TV show for us, the fact that the kids had projects that directly related to the interview process, the fact that Tyson and Audy also came from a Christian background as Mormons and believed in little miracles.
All of this happening at the exact same time that Audy shared struggling with some things of her own and watching our Skype interview was a moment of clarity and peace that doing the show was the right decision for her own family. And so now, when our family reflects on the time that my father-in-law passed, it will not just be filled with sadness and pain but also happy thoughts and the memory of one of the best experiences we’ve ever had as a family. Filming that episode and every exciting thing that came along with it was no coincidence. It’s not just an episode on a TV series; it’s a reminder for us that God has us. He’s got His hand in the details. He knows our wants and needs. And sometimes He delivers it in the form of a playhouse.