The Spirituality Channel at Patheos asked bloggers to post about “Stepping Stones” on their spiritual journeys. This is my entry, a story of loss and faith. I offer it as a testimony, and look forward to hearing about your journeys as well.
Scott, my husband of five years, died while I was seven months pregnant with our first child, Sarah. Ten days later, she was delivered stillborn. It was, and is, fifteen years later, nearly impossible for me to believe that can happen to a person.
Within a year of their deaths, I became a Jesus Freak. It was, and is, fifteen years later, nearly impossible for me to believe that can happen to a person.
But it can. And it did. And ever since, God has been proving himself faithful to my ever doubtful heart. The primary means of his grace has been through my family, and I never tire of telling people what he did to restore my heart and my life:
Nearly two years after Scott died, I returned to school to pursue a doctorate studying the effects of bereavement on children’s development. There, I met Jeff, a university chaplain. He was kind and funny and smart. He wrote me a song and gave me a scarf to stay warm. Scott would have liked him, and I fell in love with him easily.
We dated for a few weeks and decided to get married. It was a joyful, all day affair. We got married at the beautiful church in the middle of Harvard Yard. Scott’s best friend walked me down the aisle. I saw him as standing in for Scott, giving me his blessing as I joined another man to make a life together. I thought I would cry, but I didn’t. Instead, I joined two hundred of our friends and family as we belted out hymns, laughed and cheered, and shared communion together. In some ways, the entire day was one long celebration of communion.
A few months later, on the morning of Mother’s Day, I sent Jeff to the store for a pregnancy test. It was positive. We were having a baby. My pregnancy was labeled high risk, and those next months were filled with as much anxiety as hope. I never did know why Sarah had died, and I feared each trip to the obstetrician. I held my breath each time he put the heart monitor probe on my stomach. Would I hold this baby while it was still alive?
We learned that the baby was a boy. We named him Zachary Scott. Zachary means The Lord remembers. The Lord remembers Scott. And He remembers all that Jeff and I had been through to find each other. He remembers us, I kept telling myself throughout my pregnancy.
Zachary was born on December 19th. I held him all day, but let the nurses take him at two in the morning. For the first time in months, I slept without waking up to wonder if he was still alive.
At six-thirty, thirty minutes before the sun would rise over the harbor and the dark Boston sky was giving way to daybreak, the nurse walked in with Zachary, who was wailing. He went to nurse immediately, bobbing his head to and fro as he eagerly sought to latch on. Jeff continued to sleep, lying next to us undisturbed by my shifting elbows and Zach’s impolite slurping.
After twenty minutes of our awkward attempts to latch on, him to my breast and me to the reality of his presence (How is it possible that he and I shared the same body only a day earlier?), my sweet stranger-baby fell asleep. Jeff woke up and brought Zach to the bassinet to change and swaddle him. Bent over the bassinet, Jeff ‘s mouth hung open and his tongue was pushing out his lower lip, a sign that he was undertaking something that required great powers of concentration, like Michael Jordan driving to the basket or a three-year-old drawing disproportioned daisies.
Looking at Jeff’s silhouette against the dawn sky as he cared for his son, I felt something I can only describe as awe, a powerful awareness of how very big this scene was, and how small. Surely millions of women had witnessed such a scene. It was simply a father changing his son’s diaper. And just as surely I could scarcely believe that any woman could ever be the same after witnessing something so heartbreakingly beautiful. A father changing his son’s diaper.
Jeff handed Zachary to me and crawled back into the single-width hospital bed. We lay there silently, staring at Zach and each other. Eventually they both fell asleep. I lay there with Zach on my chest and Jeff on my shoulder, surrounded by life. Tears spilled down my face, adding to the mix of fluids and smells. There was blood from my uterus and c-section incision, two days of sweat, crusty breast milk on the corners of Zach’s mouth, and a bit of unwashed vernix left on his skin. Still, his newborn smell was intoxicating.
I held him close and tried to take it all in. I wanted to say something to myself – something powerful and wise to make sense of the five years since Scott and Sarah died. But my mind was unable to do anything more than register different senses. What did this look like? Smell like? Feel like?
I watched my boys sleeping and I remembered the nights of anxiously watching Scott. This time I wasn’t anxious.
I remembered the last time I was in the hospital holding a child I had just borne. This time the child was warm.
I kept thinking about Joyce, the grief counselor sent in by the hospital after Sarah died to calm the woman who was yelling at nurses.
“You may never be as happy as you were. But I can tell you that you can come through this experiencing more joy than you ever knew was possible.”
Here it is, I thought – joy. A joy I never knew was possible. I had had glimpses in past five years, but here it was in full sight. And to my surprise this rich joy, which bore no resemblance to happiness, felt more like gratefulness.
Certainly, I thought, there must be someone to whom I owe this gratitude. I had been a Christian for several years at this point, but this was the surest I had ever felt that the God to whom I had given my life was in fact there. Today, I kindle the faint glimmer of that memory to sustain a faith that is often shaky.
I’ve spent a lot of time since then listening to stories of loss and despair. I completed a dissertation on the effects of loss on adolescent development. I worked for two years with middle school students whose parents died. I facilitated a support group for surviving parents after a spouse died, and taught a class at Harvard on family interventions to address loss. I often find myself the repository for stories of loss, shared with me in lowered voices at cocktail parties and grocery stores.
I try to listen deeply as people share those stories, listen and nod my head in agreement with how awful it is. I bear their story with them, and in so doing remind them that they are not alone.
In addition to near-silent solidarity, I offer my prayers. As I sit and listen, as I try to take in the full magnitude of what they are telling my, I pray. Sometimes I pray out of gratitude, thankful to be in the presence of so much that is real and human. Sometimes I pray out of humility, aware of how little else I have to offer. Sometimes I pray for healing words. Often, I pray for the grace to be quiet.
When I am with someone whose losses ring of Job, I pray that my faith would withstand another occasion of what appears senseless and unbearable. I try to remember that, despite my inability to discern otherwise, God’s ways are never senseless. And I tell myself the story of what God was doing while I was in New Jersey watching my life fall apart:
After Scott and Sarah died, a woman from Massachusetts named Liz, a woman whom I had never met, stood up at her church for several weeks and asked people to pray for me. Liz lived with a friend of mine named Ora, and had followed my travails through her. She learned from Ora that I wasn’t a religious type and she wanted to make sure that someone was praying for me. Jeff, who went to the same Massachusetts church as Liz, a man whom I would not meet for nearly three more years, was a member of Liz’s church and would have prayed along with the rest of the congregation that God would take care of my body and heart.
Liz moved to England, and I never met her or heard about her efforts to solicit prayer on my behalf. Several years later, she asked my friend how I was doing. Ora told her that I had met a nice guy, a chaplain at Harvard if she could believe it! She mentioned Jeff’s name, and Liz asked incredulously, “Jeff Barneson?” Liz told Ora about the times that she had solicited prayer on my behalf, realizing that Jeff would have been there as well. Ora called to tell us, and we were struck with awe that, without knowing it, Jeff had been praying for me before we met.
One afternoon five years ago, after I finished telling this story to my friend Kathy, she said, “Hey, so was I!”
“I was praying for you too. Liz was in my prayer group, and came to our group so distraught by your story that she asked us all to pray for you. We prayed for you for several weeks. But when I met you, it never occurred to me that you were the same woman.”
I was stunned.
Kathy continued, “In fact, Jean and Julie would have been there at church as well, so they were also praying for you back then.”
I spent the rest of the day crying. Jean, Julie and Kathy are three of the five women in my prayer group. They are among my dearest friends. Knowing that Jeff had been praying for me before we met had always touched me. But hearing that it wasn’t just Jeff, it was these women who had become my spiritual sisters as well, shook me deeply.
Piecing it all together I wept and wept, unable to imagine the grace of it all. In 1997, when I was an agnostic widow living in New Jersey, a group of Jesus Freaks in Massachusetts had been praying for me. I moved to Cambridge in 1999, found deep friendships and a loving husband. Years later I realized these very people with no previous connection to me had prayed for me in my hour of deepest need. In the process God had shaped us to love one another. He had prepared a place where I would find a new home, a home in him and with his people.
Why so much care to find me new friends and a new husband, but so little care to keep my first husband and baby alive? I don’t know. But if I’m honest, I have to admit that the question just doesn’t hold much purchase with me. Instead, as I did when I first met Zach, I feel humbled and joyful.
It is that same feeling I have when sitting with a teenager whose mother died of addiction. Awed by how little we control, by how ugly life can be, and by the beauty that seeks us out in the midst of all the horror. So – gratefully, tearfully, and joyfully – I sit with the mourning whenever they’ll allow it. I pray for God to help me be quiet enough to love them well. And I pray for God’s love to do what I cannot, for Love to bind up the wounded places, leaving its scar to bear witness to the power of both loss and love.
And then I choose to believe that he will.