Dear Sara, Annie, and Sam,
Today, two bombs exploded in Boston near the finish line of the renowned Boston Marathon. I watched, to my horror, scenes of terror and destruction ripple through the streets which held old men and old women, young girls and boys, and mothers and fathers. I saw the graphic images, nauseated by the grotesque reality of what simple homemade explosives can do.
And so, Sara, I held your hand in those moments, turned off the television, and looked into your eyes. What I saw is an innocence that should never inhabit the same world as one where an 8-year-old child is killed by such cruelty of man. You overheard me talking to our neighbors about what was happening, and though I wish I could take back what you heard, I know that I cannot shield you forever. It bothered you, what you heard. And I could tell throughout the day that you were affected, not understanding why such things could happen. I’m so sorry, my sweet girl. This is the world in which you must live. It’s a world of hatred and cruelty, of evil and fear. There are beautiful places in this world. But those where man lives will harbor the darkness and corrosion of sin.
And yet, it’s among humanity where you will find God redeeming the pain, turning despair into hope, sorrow into joy. Don’t leave humanity, Sara and Sam. Don’t believe for a moment the lie that none can be trusted or that none are capable of good. You must learn that Jesus is in the mess, and more importantly, you have to follow him there.
There is no fear that overwhelms me like the fear of losing either of you. All at once, I’m angry, scared, and deeply wounded by a world that has been cast into perversion and mayhem. There seems to be no end to the horror that lies deep within man’s propensity toward selfishness and hate. But I cannot isolate myself or isolate you. See, the world needs you. It needs us. Where such great evils leave off, we must enter with a message of hope that is procured by a belief in greater things. You cannot become disillusioned, fashioned by the hopelessness sewn through poverty and death and hatred. My children, you must see that an empty tomb means everything to these things. Hope begins there.
Being your father means everything to me. It means that I hold the incredible responsibility of preparing you for good. My task isn’t simply to protect you or to make sure you succeed or ensure you marry and have children of your own and a steady job. My task is to disciple you and send you. My task is to love you and nurture your hearts, preparing them for a Spirit of truth. I wish that it was to guarantee that you will always be right here with me, that I might always be able to hold your hands and lead you through still waters. But that task is not mine to have. And your mother and I trust the One to whom it belongs.
My dear Annie, you’ve taught me more than I could have ever imagined. Your sweet life touched this world only momentarily, and yet I find that it consumed my heart with a joy and a love and a peace that some people never find. Maybe the most important thing that you taught me was that all really will be made right, soon and very soon. Chaos will cease and death will end. Mothers and fathers will mourn for their children no longer. Hatred will be overcome by unending love. And fear will be no more. I can’t wait to see that day, my girl. And I can’t wait to see you in it.
I love all of you, and I simply can’t imagine a world where you are not mine.
I had found rest in the midst of heavy expectation. Lynne watched my light sleep from across the room and decided not to wake me. The movements that she once felt within her were no longer there. And for two hours she held shallow breaths to pick up the slightest indication of movement, of life.
But she found none. And after I awoke and approached her bedside, she spoke in tender words, “Baby, I think that’s she’s passed. I just want you to know. I didn’t want to wake you up. But she hasn’t moved for a while now, and I just think she’s gone.”
I held Lynne’s hand and kissed her cheek. The doctor and nurses came in, and it was time to push. I wondered at the sight of it all, at the joyful expectation that was heartbreakingly absent from the quiet room. Unsure of the way Annie was presenting, the doctor had an ultrasound technician come and once more we saw her sweet image.
Today, Lynne and I celebrate Annie’s first birthday. We met with one of those nurses today over coffee and breakfast. She reminded us of that last ultrasound, and she told us with tears in her eyes of the heartbeat that she saw, the heartbeat that only she saw, the heartbeat that she had wanted so badly for us to know.
We did know that heartbeat. In all of it’s glory, we knew it. When Annie was born, the doctor declared, “We have a heartbeat. She’s alive.” And so, to our surprise, we held our baby girl and watched her live. For 45 minutes, the world cast it’s eyes on her and time stood silent and still. I was the father of two girls, two precious creations with heartbeats.
My dear wonderful Annie,
I don’t know that your heartbeats will ever leave me. They faded like the light at sunset into a glorious sky and melded with my own. I feel you in every heartbeat, and so does your mommy.
There are things on this first birthday that we’ll miss. But we miss them knowing that our greatest celebration of your life pales in comparison to Jesus’ celebration over you. He formed you. He knit you together. And it is he who counts the wonderful heartbeats that we miss.
My daddy, your granddad, wrote a letter to me on my first birthday. He sealed it in an envelope and dropped it in an old cedar chest. It wasn’t until years after he died that we opened the cedar chest and found that letter. He told me about how I was the answer to many prayers and dreams. He told me how I’d never know how much he loves me. And he told me that I could never know the times that he thinks of me for no other reason than that it makes him smile. “Love always, as you grow up,” he signed, “your Father.”
I still have that old cedar chest. And I think perhaps that I’ll drop this letter in for you. I can’t hold your hand when you read it. I can’t see your face. I can’t know your smile or laugh or touch. But, my daughter, I know your heartbeat. And I will forever keep that with me.
Happy birthday, Annie. I love you so, so much.
I had a golden retriever mix - mixed with what, I don’t know - growing up as a kid. I called him “Friend,” which might have been the most fitting name for a dog who knew no strangers. He had wandered up to the back door of our house before I was even born and made himself at home. Of course, the extra scraps of food each night at dinnertime made the transition pretty easy.
Friend was a neighborhood dog. I don’t guess there are many of those anymore. These days, people seem inconvenienced by the occassional canine wanderer. But our quiet, dead-end street loved him, and I wouldn’t be surprised if other people claimed Friend as their dog, too. He was just that kind of dog.
Friend was patient, more patient than most dogs I’ve come across. He was dealt a lot of blows from this rowdy little boy, and he took it all in stride. For the years that I knew him, he had an old soul and would lay with you for hours on end. I’d spend the cool evenings with my head against his soft fur, reenacting the sort of boy-dog relationship that I’d read about in books like Shiloh and Where the Red Fern Grows and Old Yeller.
Toward the end of Friend’s life, he had some trouble getting up and down. His eyesight failed him, too, as the cataracts slowly clouded over his puppy eyes. Then, one day, I stepped outside to see my mom crying, and I knew even before she said so that Friend had passed on. He had trotted down next to the fence, behind a shed in our backyard, laid down, and passed away.
My dad stayed out most of the afternoon digging a place for Friend. And so we buried him, there in the shade of the magnolia tree.
I miss Friend and the home that he was a part of. I imagine that all of us past a certain age feel that way. I’m no old man, but I’m not young anymore either. Too much has happened, and in a sense, has clouded over these puppy eyes. Sometimes I sit on the edge of my bed at night, close my eyes, and try to remember what home felt like. The cool walls of the narrow hallway, the way the afternoon sun would light up the dim living room, the patch of ground by the back porch that never would grow a blade of grass, the curved area where the driveway met the curb that I would jump with anything that had wheels. I’ll just sit and imagine it all and wonder what it would be like to go back home for just a day.
I don’t know about you, but it seems like as each day comes, I’m grabbing for the last. It’s been especially true since last November. Just wishing that today was yesterday.
It all sounds depressing really, and I guess that it is. But I’m not so sure that the idea is totally wrong. Home, as I see it, is an Eden of sorts. It’s where things were right until death entered in, made a mess of things, stole all of the color and left a trail of grey. Maybe that’s why when I close my eyes and imagine home, the colors are so bright.
I think that if I wasn’t a Christian, I’d still be interested in Jesus. He and a lot of people that came after him talk about going home again. Sometimes when I’m reading about him, I get the sense that he was trying to point people toward home, just grab them by the shoulders and say, “This way, friend.” I get the sense, too, that all the miracles and signs and wonders, all of the exorcisms and resurrections and water into wine and multiplying food couldn’t do justice to the picture of home that he was trying to paint for us. It’s just that good.
From the way I understand things, God doesn’t want for us to look back on Eden with a sense of what was lost. What he wants is for us to remember that he’s making something new, and he already made a way to it. Jesus didn’t make a grand entrance to tell everyone about home. He brought the key, welcomed us to follow him there, and gave us a glimpse of home with his grand exit. “Don’t follow anyone else,” he said. “Follow me.”
The above entry has been sitting as a draft for about 2 weeks. I didn’t really know where I was going. Just rambling, really. But the picture that kept appearing each time that I closed my eyes was that of my backyard and that old, tall magnolia tree. It towered over everything else. And there was just something magical about that tree. I can walk to it in my mind and sit in its shade, look up at my home, and feel a peace within my heart.
Over the Thanksgiving break, Lynne and I went to Annie’s grave. We told her “happy Thanksgiving,” held one another in silence, and finally wished her a happy upcoming birthday. Lynne found a small limb and wrote “happy birthday” carefully in the dirt.
We noticed to our disappointment that the grass hasn’t made it’s way over her grave yet. Wondering about this, I just happened to look up. I just happened to realize why the grass wasn’t there.
It is shaded by a magnolia.
Im beginning to realize just how careful I must be. I have to take care to stop, to force myself to a complete halt, and face the heartache that meanders just behind.
And it always catches up. Sometimes I’m caught off guard - when I don’t remember that he’s back there; when he brushes the sleeve of my shirt and whispers a November chill into my spring heart. “Remember,” he says and turns away as if he’d traveled all this way and spent all that time at my heels to say one word, over and over.
“But I always remember!” I shout back, cursing his insinuation that I had even remotely come close to forgetting. And so goes the short return trip to grey-lit hospital beds and holding my heart in my hands and feeling like I may never see innocence again.
It’s getting cool here again. The daylight is becoming more timid, showing up later and leaving too soon. Days like this remind me that I’m nowhere near done with the hurt of absence, the pain of remembrance. Some people like to put a time frame on these sorts of things. Others consign to a lifetime of it. I don’t know what I think. “Here I am.” That’s what I think.
No one can really share in these things with you. You want them to. You want them to sit shiva with you indefinitely. You want them to scream at the injustice of having to watch others seemingly care more about Presidential candidate mishaps, chicken restaurant philosophy, and Facebook news feeds than why Jesus has your child and you don’t.
Every so often, I allow myself to drink from the well of pop culture and social media, but the rancid taste always leaves me seeking the waters of November. It seems that the only place that feels real is the very place that keeps me from the world around me. Cultivating relationships has become a chore. Answering the casual “how are you” has been like dodging bullets. I’m slowly following the call to “remember” and not turning around.
Maybe that’s where Jesus is.
I’m beginning to realize this, and that it’s perhaps a misnomer to call it all a “journey.” I don’t really feel like I’ve journeyed anywhere at all. Not really. I feel like I’ve been uprooted and am waiting while the gardener tills richer soil. I’m no longer planted where others thrive, where the waters of innocence and light of common experience nourish. I’m uprooted, unstable, unknowingly about to be planted in different soil. Yet the fear that grips me is in my wondering, “Why must I be planted elsewhere?”
Lift up your head
Help is on the way
And it won’t pass you by
You’ve just got to reach out your hand
Lift up your eyes
Love is on the way
And He won’t pass you by
You’ve just got to reach out your hand
Tybee Island, GA
Today I met Jesus again.
He was glad to see me, as always. We met near the waterside at a lake near my hometown. I tossed a few pine cones into the early morning waters, and he watched intently, as if time was no bother.
Watching the sunrise with the Creator of the sun (yeah, the whold three-in-one thing can be confusing), I was surprised to see how much he took joy in its beauty. He soaked in the warmth like I do, closing his eyes just as the burned orange crystallized into a million sparkles on the glassy water. “What’s the most beautiful place to see it rise,” I asked wondering at the chance that it might be right where we stood.
Smiling as if knowing my thought, he said, “Here… with you. But you should’ve seen the first one.” We laughed. I realized though that it must have really been something. It must have been something before the killing began and brothers turned against brother. It must have been something before people forgot and gold was forged with adultery, before we messed the whole thing up by turning inward. I wonder how must brighter it was before babies died and mothers tilled the earth with angry hands and hopeless tears. Can you imagine the the way the colors must have melded seemlessly with the earth below, before creation was a disposable resource?
Anyway, we sat there for a while in the shade of an oak. A branch stretched over our heads almost touching the shoreline as if reaching out to check the temperature of the water. Every now and then a breeze would bring it to life and leafy fingers would tap the surface just enough to send circles out into the lake. “Tell me about Annie,” I said hoping that he would be willing to talk about her. I’m not sure why I thought that he wouldn’t because when I asked he smiled. It was a smile of recognition, of memories.
“She loves to dance,” he said closing his eyes. Turning to me, I could see that he had tears forming, “There’s not an ounce of saddness in her.”
I want to meet her, I thought. I had seen her before in one of these meetings with Jesus. But the meeting that I want is one that I can’t have, not yet. Thinking on this, I realized that Annie had somehow managed to touch this earth without losing the fullness of the sunset. She had entered into a dying world, and though dying herself, she never left the care of its Creator. Can you imagine being carried from this life into the next, drawing nutrition from the womb of your creator, and entering into the arms of creation? It would just be long enough to tell them about Jesus, just long enough that they could count the times your chest rose and fell, and then you would return.
“Does she know how much I love her?”
He looked down for a moment and then out across the lake. “She knows nothing else.” And I knew what he meant. That my love is his and his mine. That aside from the beauty of being with Jesus, she lives in his love knowing nothing else. Right there is where he wants us, you and me. He wants us there where beauty doesn’t have to be exchanged for ashes anymore.
That’s all, I guess. I just thought you would want to know that there’s a better place than this, a place that my longing for Annie keeps pointing toward. Not all is as it should be. But, my friend, it will be, soon and very soon. In the meantime, I just thought you would want to know the most incredible thing out of it all - he loves you. And of all the places he could be, the place that he wants to be is
“Here… with you.”
This morning I woke up at 6:45 and was prompted to pray. “It’s time to meet while you’re not distracted,” He whispered humorously. It’s no secret that I’m terrible at mornings. Certainly, God knows.
After some convincing, I got up and wiped the sleep from my eyes. I went downstairs with a Bible and journal in hand, hoping that the creaking stairs wouldn’t wake up Sara. Lynne was already awake. “Okay, let’s talk,” I said and opened the Bible to Psalms, picking up where I had previously left off.
Psalm 146 - a lot of praising. So I read through it slowly, in a way hoping that as each word entered my thoughts, it would delve into my heart and make it real. I wanted to have praise in my heart, but honestly, anxiety and fear has been in the way lately.
And there He sat with His highlighter in hand and the freshly touched words of verse 3 - He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. I finished the Psalm but came back to the the verse. Marking a line beneath the words and writing in the space above, “07/24/12 Will this baby be like Annie? Ultrasound today.”
Returning to 146, I realized that what He wanted to give me, along with peace, was a song of praise. Finishing my prayer, I asked that He give me a song*, and immediately my heart recalled:
I love you, Lord
and I lift my voice
to worship You.
O, my soul, rejoice!
Take joy, my King
in what You hear.
Let it be a sweet, sweet sound
in Your ear. H
So before the technician placed the wand against Lynne’s belly, I knew that I would praise Him, no matter what we found on that screen. I knew because it was within me, He had given it to me. He had given it to us both.
I squeezed Lynne’s hand and waited.
11 weeks** and a healthy baby.
* When I told Lynne about my prayer for a song, she immediately recalled this.
** We found out about Annie’s diagnosis at her 11 week ultrasound.
Sara playing in a shallow creek near the Montreat Retreat Center in Montreat, NC. (See July 18 post)
I met Annie a few nights ago.
We met at a creek in Montreat, North Carolina. The cool water only rose slightly above my ankles. It met just below her knees.
The last time that I was there, the place was crowded. Toddlers and teenagers, mothers and fathers with their babies, young boys and girls tread through the crisp stream, feeling the smooth rock on their bare feet. The second time, the time that I saw her, we were alone.
Except Jesus was there.
So when my eyes followed the soft ripples of the water, upstream from where it flowed, they met first a reflection and then a face. I saw her holding His hand, His unmistakable gentle hand wrapped around hers. As our eyes met, she smiled. Oh, God the smile! It invaded my heart. She couldn’t wait to run to me, but she first looked to the One who brought her. And with a smile, He sent her to me.
I picked her up with her bare feet dripping into the creek below. I noticed first, to my surprise, that she didn’t look like Sara. She was her own. Her eyes softly set with a dark brow that expressed emotions much like her sister. Her face was round as yet to lose the chubbiness of infancy. But she had grown, and I could tell by her frame that she was to be smaller than her sister at 3.
And, oh, that beautiful dark hair. She was healed. She was whole.
We just looked at each other for a while. There in the stream. I buried my head in her shoulder and wept just the same as I did when she was born. This time she threw her small arms around my neck and whispered, “I love you, too.”
For seven months, I’ve remembered the pain of losing her, loosing tears of grief for the baby girl that I can no longer see. But in that moment, the tears that came were of a in-breaking joy. I saw my little girl, my Annie. I felt her and held her.
As I stood there staring at this beautiful little girl, He watched from just a few feet away. I could see His face, pained by what could have been, what should have been. And with kind eyes filled with tears He said to me, over and over, “I’m sorry. Oh, I’m so sorry.”
I knew what he meant. I knew because His words and His tears plucked a note of finality in my heart, needed from an unresolved feeling that God was somehow indifferent to my pain. But I knew then - He grieved my loss. It was not as He wanted. This was not the plan - to see my little girl only in the meeting place of prayer. His sorrow melded with the promise that I and her mother will one day forget how much we missed her because we will hold her in an eternity of glory. I can’t understand that now, but I believe Him. I trust Him.
I must have told her that I love her a hundred times before I set her tiny feet back into the water. She walked back to Jesus, looking back as if wondering when I will come back to see her. So when I looked to Him to ask, He gave a knowing smile.
“I’ll see you soon then,” I told her. And she smiled, reached for His hand, and disappeared into the soft shade of the creek ahead.
I walked deep into the wood.
Clothed my heart with old scraps of white linen, carefully. Gently. And tucked it within this old burlap sack that used to hold the things I cherished the most. Things I no longer need. Adjusting to its weight, I hide my hands in empty pockets and look to the path ahead. What could it hold? I’ll never find out unless my feet move from this dusty ground. Push me ahead, releasing the hold this small ray of sunlight has on me. Its warmth suddenly masked by the path nestled between twisted oaks and stricken with the darkness of the unknown. If I go in, I’ll never come out. This much I know.
And at once a cool breeze bites at the small pieces of flesh that show through this tattered gray jacket. “Who was I before I came here?” I think and place a foot within the shadows, leaving the world of technicolor. The color was fading anyway. Pulled here. Like the light surrounding a black hole to places only a few have seen. But they never came back out. They never returned to tell us that it would be okay, that we could go, that the path is safe. We were only left to wonder.
My belt feels loose, and I notice that I’m still wearing these same jeans. Muddy from the journey here. Dried pieces of orange clay fall off and catch the last remaining rays of sunlight as I step past the oaks fully into the wood. “Farewell,” I whisper looking back at the last bit of color I feel that I may ever see. My heart has become heavy again, and I readjust so that the weight is over both shoulders.
I conjure up an old poem I remember my father had turned into a song with deep, grounded vibrato. Closing my eyes to hear him again, I start:
One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as ‘twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.
I can’t bring to mind the entire thing. This wretched mind forgets all that’s lovely. The sound of dry leaves beneath my feet is keeping it away so I stop and tighten my eyes until color streaks across the darkness. I remember.
I do not see why I should e’er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.
They would not find me changed from him they knew—
Only more sure of all I thought was true.
The path ahead is blanketed with pine needles. Roots cross and peer above the quilted floor reminding me to mind my footing. I must be a several miles in now. The hum of engines stopped long ago. A robin stares and shakes his head at me through wilted leaves and weak limbs as if saying, “You’ve come too far, traveler.” I stop to throw a rock at him, but he flies off to where it must be safer. “I’ve come home.”
I’ve known God and he’s not here. Beneath a faded blue sky with wisps of gray clouds, the trees surrender this truth. Everywhere else they open their hands in worship. Here they look lost, scattered arrays of twisted timber with dead limbs pressed into a solemn sky. The warmth of memories washes over me, and I must stop to let it pass. Not long and I’ve broken and the tears come. “Press on,” I repeat and dig fingers into the cool forest bed that gives no hope of ever leaving. This path was created by people like me, tilled by the pain of their fingers. Where are they now? As I draw a knee up to stand, I hear it.
It was faint, but I know the sound. I know the voice. Pressing every fiber of my body to stillness, he calls again, “Orphan.”
The familiarity is haunting, and as the ring of his voice fades, it leaves these woods with an aching silence. It was me. He was calling me.
Streaks of gold break through to touch the forest floor with a gentle caress of warmth, and I realize that I’m no longer alone. Brought to life, stones glint in the new light as if polished by a decade of waves and sand. I see now that where I kneel is surrounded by these rocks, quarried to hold water. Fern seedlings pushing up to gasp for air tell me that it’s been dry here for days, maybe even weeks. Elephant leaves freckled by brown and black soot. If they could rise, retrieve their roots and leave, they would. What is happening here? Tightening fists around the burlap, I demand an answer, “Where are you?”
Then I see it. Written on the floor of this water bank. Only tiny hands could have carved these letters in the dark silt. Rays shift and illumine the shallow crevices of each letter, blown by a force that wills me to read what was written here. For me. “Stay.”
And I no longer have need to stand. I recognize his writing, like the voice that still echoes in my weary bones. The burlap has rubbed raw my cracked hands, and I slowly peel the straps from burned flesh. Remembering. With weak will I collapse to the dying ground, clutching my chest where my heart once beat in joyful harmony to ignorant breaths. The pain is matched by confusion - Where am I? How did I get here? The light shifts again, and I faintly make out just to the rim of this quarry something I hadn’t noticed. A path. Carved by the same hands, not meant for travel but for delivery. The smooth edges of the stones that line its entrance surrender the truth that a water source lies within. He is there.
I had thought him gone. Felt his absence. But looking around I see that the wood has changed. The faint whisper of a soft wind brushes against the oaks that surround this dry patch of land. Their language is of worship now, and I look up to see the gentle sway of their hands. My skin has grown warm by the penetrating light, and I take off my jacket to lay upon this new land. “I must die here,” I realize, confessing to the trees what I’d known since I heard his voice. This is where the travelers went. This is where they came, brought here by the weighty sorrow of an unrelenting pain. Taken away by an unrelenting Savior.
And as this revelation comes, so does the water. Any remaining will I had to continue this dark journey into the wood is now being covered and shaped and loosed by the wonder of a raging river, flooding into this quarry. The earth beneath me moans at the force that beats upon its chest. Compelled to save my own life, I look to the heights for a place that might give me refuge from this certain death. But I remember the voice. The word. I am the orphan. I must stay. And as I close my eyes to the sound of trees breaking beneath the force of violent waves, I know what this is.
He has come to me.
The waves break against unmoving rocks, yet I’m held by a willing spirit. I don’t want to die, but I know that I must. It’s the only way to heal. The force that drives toward me is frightening. Bloodied hands are now clenching at a floor of shallow roots, grasping for air that I will soon lose. “It can be no other way,” and I gently release the soil, letting it fall through surrendered hands. With this river of living water he has come to rescue me, to drown me in redemption. From me. From this world. From the pain that has brought me here. “Yes!” I scream and hurl my heart at the approaching wall. And before the water crushes me, I see the color burst from the burlap as it’s torn in two. I see it infuse with the crystal wave and captured by light that is now blinding. I see it disappear. And just as I’m struck, I feel her in my arms again. I’m surrounded and dying. But I can only hold her. “Annie,” I think. And I breathe in the water around me, filling my parched lungs with its life.
“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” John 7:37-38
“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” John 14:18