ELDENA – Erin and Brad Shippert noticed something was different.
They were driving down Eldena Road around 12:30 a.m. last Saturday, approaching their small, brick home just inside the unincorporated rural Dixon community.
As they pulled into their gravel driveway, bleary-eyed and exhausted from a few weeks out of town, they realized their screened-in patio had been remodeled.
"It took a couple of seconds for it all to sink in," Brad said.
Then, after they checked out the colorful planted flowers, the soft lights and the wicker-style furniture, they noticed a card in a yellow envelope, inconspicuously set atop a table near the door to the house.
"We were just in awe," Erin said, fumbling for words. "We were looking at every single little detail."
"We were finally home," Brad added.
The Shipperts were thrown for a loop about 3 weeks prior to their homecoming last Saturday.
Erin, 30, who recently quit her part-time job to be a stay-at-home mom to the couple's 11-month-old daughter, Reagan, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that had metastasized to her liver.
She and Brad, 29, who grows corn and soybeans on a sixth-generation family farm, scrapped their plans to build a larger, more comfortable house off state Route 26 south of Dixon.
Their only option was chemotherapy to hopefully shrink the tumor, so the couple sought opinions from family and friends and traveled first to Milwaukee and then to Houston for consultations.
They settled on MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, considered one of the best cancer treatment centers in the country.
"They had such a different approach," Erin said. "They were more proactive."
"They were a lot more compassionate, too," Brad added.
"They asked me what I wanted from them," Erin said, "and I told them that I didn't want to be treated like an older person with this disease, that I am young, I have an 11-month-old, and I have a lot of life left to live."
On June 5, the Shipperts left for Houston. Their friends and fellow farm couple, Tiffany and Nathan Hummel, had come by the house to help see them off.
Brad had the mail stopped. He instructed his friends only to check on the house and take care of the cats.
Erin, as she stepped out of the house and into the screened-in patio, remarked about the state of the room.
"I was like, 'This porch is so disgusting. It's gross,'" she said.
"It really was," Brad added. "We had this crappy, smelly all-weather carpet. The screens were all scratched up. We had a crummy table and chairs."
"It was just one more thing," Erin said. "The house was messy, and then on top of it, [the patio] was nasty."
The Hummels thought they might be able to spruce up the patio as a homecoming gift. They ran the idea past their friends, mostly young farmers and members of the Lee County Farm Bureau Young Leaders. Everyone jumped on board with time, labor and money.
"We can't help them medically, but we can help them spiritually and emotionally – and that's just as important," Tiffany said last Friday, as a handful of people gathered to put the final touches on the patio.
Over the course of a little more than a week, the crew removed the old, dirty all-weather carpet, then painted and sealed the floor; painted the ceiling; replaced the screens and their frames; installed a door (with a cat door), and set up a new set of patio furniture and put up decorations.
They even replaced light fixtures on the outside of the house and planted flowers not just around the porch, but around the house, too.
The group of friends and family also made meals to stock the freezer, cleaned the house and did laundry.
"We knew they needed food, so people made meals," Tiffany said. "We knew their house needed cleaning, so people cleaned the house.
"It could have been any of us," Tiffany continued. "What else do you do but band together?"
On June 8, Erin started her first round of chemotherapy.
She suffered almost all of the typical side effects of the powerful drugs – nausea, vomiting, diarrhea. She had an allergic reaction and a headache. She was tired.
But by June 10, Erin finished the first round.
The same day, Brad texted Tiffany. He asked if she or someone else from their group of friends would print off on colored paper the supportive messages collecting on CaringBridge and on Facebook and scatter them throughout the house.
"It would be nice to have some ready to surprise [Erin] when we get home," he wrote.
The patio project well underway, Tiffany replied to Brad. She managed to keep under wraps the work going on at the house while they were away.
"Sure, I think we can do that," she wrote. "A surprise is always nice."
As some of the crew gathered to finish the project last Friday, anticipating their friends' homecoming, they talked about how the Shipperts might react to their new digs.
"We all want to hide in a bush ..." Tiffany said.
They also talked about their own reactions.
"What else can we do to help?" Jeremy Wolf asked.
"We're really doing this for their morale," Aaron Wolf said. "They'd do the same for us."
"We wouldn't do it for any other reason than to make them smile," Tiffany added. "We want to show them that we're really here for them – not just 'Call us if you need something,' then go about our lives, but 'We are here to support you.'"
The Shipperts love their new space. They are thrilled to spend time outside – out of the sun – with their daughter. They also feel inspired to make the rest of the house feel like home.
"I'm a little excited that we're going to fix up our little house," Brad said.
"It brought back the excitement of this house," Erin added.
The couple, naturally, are overwhelmed by the gesture of their friends and family.
"It's sort of like, do you really feel like you deserve people doing all this for you?" Erin said. "We just can't believe it's happening to us."
Follow the journey
To follow the Shipperts' journey or to send a message of support, go to caringbridge.org/visit/erinyardshippert