It has been a real blessing to me and my family to get to know a family that has been visiting our community for the past 2 weeks. Please keep them in your prayers and seek God's direction for the days ahead. A shorter version of this story appeared in Conspire Magazine Winter 2013.
I have always loved birthdays -looking back with gratitude, looking forward with hope. Gathering with family and overlapping circles of old and new friends converging to celebrate one life. I have been blessed with many memorable birthdays but this year was the first I shared with a family whose son shares my birthday but is not on this earth for the celebration. I have gotten their permission to share their story with you my family and friends and pray that you will be blessed in the reading of it. I know it is a little long so make yourself a cup of tea and join me please I wish you could have been there for a slice of carrot cake and an ice cream sandwich.
I met Jason and Helena before last Sunday’s worship service. In the usual course of introductions we named and listed and smiled about our children. They pointed to their sons David, 6 and Caleb, 4 and then I named our four kids Malachi 9, Zora 7, Seraphina 4 and Phoebe 2 and pointed out the three girls. Malachi, as usual was off somewhere. Then Jason said, “I don’t know if you know, we have three.” Helena pointed to the small photo on a chain around her neck of a bright eyed smiling little boy, their Adam. Their eyes began to glisten with tears and I felt my face flush and eyes join them in tears that expressed what any words in that moment could not. I can’t say that I have ever met people and been moved to cry with them in that same interchange. Needless to say, I knew we would be friends.
Later that week Helena was walking with her boys at the same time I was meeting my kids at the bus stop. We converged behind our house where my husband Michael has hung three rope swings from the giant oak and created a tight rope between two smaller trees. Instantly, without the formal exchanges of words to define their identity, the children spoke to one another the pure language of play. Helena said, “So this is Malachi. He is so much like Adam. He is such a beautiful boy. I’m sorry I’m going to start to cry.” Beneath the sheltering branches we smiled and wept and laughed together as the children swung and climbed and balanced. Malachi played with David like his older brother probably would have, a little rough but not cruel, and David was delighted. Helena is always reminded of her son when she sees boys his age but our son in his mannerisms, body type, smile, disheveled hair and the way he played with her boys bore a resemblance that seemed to be both painful and beautiful to her. When her husband joined us his response was almost the same, “So this is Malachi?” He looked at his wife and sighed, “...so much like Adam” as a fresh lake of tears flooded his eyes. He was glad when I offered to watch his boys so he and Helena to go together to work in the garden. The sight of them all together was too much for them to bear at that moment
Jason and Helena came with their boys to our community for a 2 week visit from Canada. They had been invited by one of the partners here who was a childhood friend of Jason’s. We had known for months that they would be coming and of the tragedy that had precipitated their need for a change in scenery. Adam had died last September in a farming accident. They needed a break from the farm and some space to grieve. Beyond that I did not know what to expect. Would they want to talk about it? Would they be reclusive? Would we have to be careful about the kinds of questions we asked? Would we have to guard our joy in life for fear of offending their grief? Those questions fell away as we entered into the daily rhythms of work and play together. As we pushed our littlest ones on the swings one day after lunch Helena said, “I am just so thankful that I know Jesus and that I will see Adam again in heaven, it gives me such hope. I can’t imagine going through what I have been through without Jesus.” She thought about the refugee families that come through our community who have endured even greater loss, if grief can be measured or compared, and could not fathom how anyone could do it without Jesus. This was the voice of a woman who had a blessed assurance of God’s goodness, not because her life had been perfect but because God’s goodness had prevailed in the face of unbearable loss. She was quite frank in confiding that she could see how people would be compelled take their own lives after such loss. It was the Good Shepherd himself that was walking her tenderly through the valley of the shadow of death, giving her strength each new morning to rise from the pit of despair. Before they came I expected their visit might be a chance for us to offer hospitality and to be open to minister to them in their loss, which I believe, by God’s grace is happening. I did not anticipate, however, how deeply God would be using them to minister to me and to the rest of our community.
I asked her if her children talked about Adam. “Oh yes,” she replied, “ every day and at night we always pray for him and when we look at the sky, I think we are looking at Venus, the brightest light in the sky, but we say that it is Adam’s star.” One week before Adam went home, as Helena puts it, he drew a picture of a rainbow and of a ladder going up into the clouds. Their was a little boy in the ladder with a star in his hand. He told his mommy, “This is me, I’m going up to heaven to give Jesus a star.” In the moment he drew it, it was to his mother a beautiful picture by a tender hearted little boy, a week later it was a premonition of the journey he would take, and for the rest of her life a piece of heaven to comfort those he left behind.
On Friday, Jason and Helena offered to share their story during noon devotions. In our community library full of about 30 people they hardly knew they shared more in that half hour than many dare to share even with their closest friends. Helena began by telling the story of her life. Of growing up poor, one of seven children who desperately missed her father. He was a truck driver who was on the road more than he was home and she felt that loss deeply. As a young adult she worked with street children in Paraguay where she saw children that had suffered sever neglect and abuse and where she met demons head on. One day when she was walking alone there a man ran up to her, in broad daylight, and held a knife to her throat and said to her in Spanish, “I am going to kill you.” She looked in his eyes and could see that the voice speaking and doing this to her was not the person there. She spoke directly to his tormented soul and said calmly, in Spanish, “Jesus loves you.” He screamed in terror and fled. Another time when she was taking an early morning walk two men approached her with ill intent, when a police officer appeared, like an angel, and arrested them on the spot. She spent time in other countries and was content to be single and resolved to dedicate her life to working with suffering children. What a surprise when she met and married Jason and experienced great satisfaction and incredible joy in welcoming their own children into their lives. She expressed the incomparable love a mother has for her firstborn, then the wonder in feeling that love expand to embrace David and Caleb.
She then told the events of September 9, 2011 - the day their world turned upside down. How Jason would not let her see Adam’s face as she held the bloody hand of her beloved son and felt it go from warm to cold. How they had to forgive and seek daily the strength to live in forgiveness of the accident, the split second of inattention, that cost their son’s life. How Jason’s father, a man not prone to fanciful visions, had a vision soon after the funeral of a shooting star that zipped right in front of him and there was Adam’s smiling face saying, “Grandpa, look what I can do!” then the star did a somersault and zoomed into eternity, assuring them all that he was whole and well. How they could count on their fingers the days since his passing that someone has not told them, “We are praying for you,” and how those prayers have sustained them through the terror of grief. How neighboring farmers, without being asked, showed up with combines and took in the wheat harvest for them that fall. How on the evening of September 9th this year their community filled their lawn with lit candles. How a mother told them that in the three days of school before the accident Adam would swing on the swing set at recess and talk with her son about Jesus.
While Helena talked Jason remained silent behind the beard that he began growing that terrible day. He had just one story he wanted to add. For the entire year Helena had prayed for the spot of land upon which the accident happened. Not the whole field, just for the redemption of that one piece of earth. She begged God for sign, that somehow, in some way there would be a visible difference. When Jason took in the harvest on that row the hopper was full of grain, they got 70 bushels per acre. Each of the other rows only 50 bushels per acre. It was such a marked difference, with no earthly explanation that Jason could only concede that it was a miracle that he saw with his own eyes. When he told Helena she said, “God does love me!” Jason, on the other hand, was very upset by this outcome. How could God care enough and love them enough to produce this miraculous harvest but not be able to save their son’s life? There was not an ounce of pious serenity or aloof religiosity in their story. Every day is marked with tears. Their children and their marriage were not perfect before or after the accident. Yet God has remained sovereign and has become more real to them. They point not to their flawed forgiveness or their tested faith but to the power of the Holy Spirit, to a loving God who knows the grief and pain of losing his first born son, and to Jesus their savior who has held them back from the brink.
Yesterday was my 34th birthday. It was also Adam’s ninth birthday. Jason and Helena planned to take their children out to the mountains for a hike, to do the kind of thing Adam would have loved. I invited them to stop by my house in the evening, only if they wanted to, only if they were up for it. Michael had baked a carrot cake, my favorite. Zora and Seraphina had iced it and covered it with sprinkles of every color, their favorite. We had gathered around a fire beneath the big oak for popcorn and hot apple cider and grilled meat. The autumn chill and darkness were too much for our kids to bear so we headed inside for the cake. Caleb and David showed up just as we were going inside. They told us it was Adam’s birthday. I wondered if their parents would come, if it would just be too hard to grieve and celebrate at the same time. As the kids began to play, David suddenly burst into tears. He said he wanted to go home. Caleb wanted to stay, so our friend Bernard began walking David to the house where he was staying. A few minutes later Helena came in and wished me happy birthday and Jason and David soon followed, the tears gone. The lights went out and our house burst into song as family and friends wished me a happy birthday. I prayed for Adam’s family as I blew out my candles, aware like no birthday before of the gift of breath. After cake was served the kids initiated a game of whisper down the lane. We all laughed hysterically at the distortions of our words. Then Helena disappeared for a moment and returned with two boxes of ice cream sandwiches. They were Adam’s absolute favorite dessert and the last thing he ever ate. She asked if it would be OK to share them to honor his birthday. As the kids ate contentedly at their good fortune of two desserts and the adults ate contemplatively David climbed up on Malachi’s lap and Malachi let out a rip roaring belch. A week earlier I may have corrected or scolded but in this moment it was a comfort to my guests to be in the presence of a real live nine year-old boy. David laughed then we all burst into laughter as Malachi burped again, as we danced the narrow line between the mundane and the sacred, tragedy and celebration.
Today is Sunday again. In one short week the way I look at my son with his crazy hair and goofy mannerisms, the way I look at my heart with its petty grudges and struggles to forgive, the way I look at ice cream sandwiches, and the way I look at Jesus with his care for even a sparrow that falls to the ground have changed forever. Today Jason and Helena took Malachi along with their boys for a long afternoon walk in the woods, his favorite, and I am sure Adam's too. In worship Jason reluctantly accepted the offer to talk about the daily choice to forgive and the sacrifice God made of his own precious son, one Jason knows all to well, to give us that gift of forgiveness. Each coming birthday will remind me of the time spent with Adam’s family, the gift that his life is to an expanding circle of friends, and of the unbroken circle that binds us with one another throughout eternity that makes it possible to look back with gratitude and look forward with hope.