Monday, March 28, 2011

Happy Birthday, Dear Audrey!

Happy birthday to my baby!  We might as well take a moment to recall the good times.  Take a look at some pretty cute pictures of our baby on her first two birthdays:

(I don't even remember how she got the black eye!)
(See how chilled out we were by baby #3...she wasn't even completely dressed at her own birthday party!)

It seems like yesterday that we were baking Audrey’s Easter basket cake when she turned two, and here we are again at another birthday.  It’s only the bottom of the second inning (early in the game of living without her), and here is the count: 2 birthdays with and 4 without.  Today Audrey would have been six.  I always approach major events like birthdays and holidays as if they were like any other day. After all, Audrey has been absent from us all the time for a while now. What makes these “special” days…well… “special”? Even with this practical outlook, something unexpected usually gets me started down the path of grief, and this “special” day was no exception.

I still teach the Sunday school class full of Audrey’s little cohorts. They are in kindergarten now. They are full of life, learning exponentially, spouting some pretty big spiritual truths, and basically exuding “adorable”. Yesterday we recognized our sweet Ella. She has a birthday this week. Our lead teacher gathered Ella in her arms, put a birthday crown on her head, and we all began to sing. Precious, innocent voices filled the air with joyful noise (and a few silly additions to the birthday song…cha, cha, cha!). Ella will turn six years old on Saturday. As we sang, it seemed that time froze. I watched little Ella, surveyed the length of her legs, looked at the expression on her face, drank her in. How big would Audrey be? What would she look like? I closed my eyes and imagined that we were singing to her, too. She would have been in this tight-knit group, and she would have worn that little birthday crown on her head yesterday, too.

While Audrey’s absence is obviously devastating and the thought of what-might-have-been weighs on my heart, I also struggle with what to physically do with days like these. At dinner last night, Bryan asked the girls, “Is there anything you would like to do tomorrow for Audrey’s birthday?” There wasn’t much reply, but even if there was, I am not sure I would have heard it. I immediately withdrew from the table and into my own thoughts. Here came that pesky question again. What do I do with the cemetery? While the girls are at school tomorrow, should I go put flowers on her grave? Do I want to? Several times through dinner, Bryan called to me. “Come back to us, Sarah. Where did you go?” I managed to choke down my nachos and snuggle my Caroline, make some conversation. But I was, indeed, lost.

After we put the girls to bed, the question nagged again. What do I do with the cemetery? I imagined someone casually walking by Audrey’s grave, noticing her birth date on the marker, and wondering, “What kind of parents would not come and put flowers on their daughter’s grave on her birthday?” I know this thought was rather narcissistic. Who is going to walk by today and notice it is Audrey’s birthday? Who would care? Still, these are things that cross my mind. I know some people cannot stay away from the grave of a loved one. They somehow feel closer to their loved one there. Some are opposite. They cannot go because it upsets them. I am 100% in the middle. I am not afraid of it, not put off by it, totally comfortable with it. But, it also holds little meaning to me in this world. I am, quite honestly, baffled by it. Leaving it alone feels wrong—as wrong as walking away from Audrey’s body at the hospital and away from the casket on the day of her burial. A parent does not walk away from her child’s physical body forever. It is unnatural. And, yet, Audrey’s body—for now—no longer needs my care. She is not going to be sad I didn’t come to “visit her”.  Is she?

No matter what we decide about the cemetery, we still have to figure out what to do with the rest of the day. How do we celebrate another birthday for a child who is not present with us? Each year, this challenge seems to grow. Friends and family ask in advance, “Are you going to do anything for Audrey’s birthday?” Patiently, they try to keep their calendars clear just in case we get inspired or really want their presence. But, I am running out of ways to make this day seem positive. I am out of the energy it takes to throw another party, prepare food, come up with a message of hope, and communicate it to adults and children alike. I feel the burden (and the responsibility and the desire) to lead those around me in the grief process, to put a truthful (with a capital T) spin on things, to be the author of this story. But, I am admittedly tired today.

On Audrey’s third birthday, we planted a garden in our back yard with family and close friends. It was a lovely way to affirm life. We purchased a red bud tree. It has heart-shaped leaves and blooms in March—a reminder that hope springs eternal.

Here is a picture of the same garden in August of the year we planted it:

When we moved in March of 2009, our first gathering in our new home was Audrey’s fourth birthday party. We bought helium balloons and gave them to our friends and family to release while we sang “happy birthday”. We attached notes. Everyone wrote a personal message—what they would say to Audrey if they could. We baked a cake and blew out candles.  I don't know why, but I cannot find one picture of that gathering. 

In April of that year, we planned a garden for our new yard. It was an attempt to carry our old one with us. Doing it ourselves was hard work, so we solicited the help of some landscapers. We explained what it meant to us, and they were so kind to re-create it for us. Here is a picture of the precious men who completed Audrey’s new garden:

Last year, on Audrey’s fifth birthday, I don’t even remember what we did. I couldn’t muster up the strength to host a party. I do remember that our friends brought us dinner and ate it with us. And, today, it looks like we will be echoing that low-key kind of remembrance. I have some flowers to finish planting in Audrey’s garden. That task will be a good one. I need some time with my Savior. I need to be with the Source, be reminded of the hope I have. I can’t stay strong without Him. In fact, I am NOT STRONG. I may head to the garden center in a bit to refill the bird feeder with cardinal food. It seems we have attracted a pair of cardinals, and I would love to continue to enjoy watching them.

Later tonight, we are taking the girls to see a movie. I am sure we will find something to stick a birthday candle in as well. Blow it out. Say goodbye to this day and move on with Tuesday, March 29th. That sounds like a relief to me. I know most people won’t read past the first paragraph of this post. Who is brave enough to face their own grief, much less the grief of another? And, I know that I am not offering much encouragement today. You want real? Well, you got it. This is my process, and I have been told people like to see “process”. This, my friends, is what “living out your faith” looks like. It isn’t always pretty.  It is jagged and steep and foggy sometimes.  And, it is certainly not guided by my own abilities.  It is God-led, God-authored, God-grown.

I don’t know what future birthdays will hold, but it seems that, over time, we are drawing in, keeping it close to home. I think of Mary, who “pondered all these things in her heart”. God knows, I think to myself. No one else knows the depth of what I am feeling, but God knows.

So, the count stands at 2 with and 4 without. Looks like we are nowhere near the 7th inning stretch. It’s could be a long game, folks….may go into extra innings. Good news is (yes, I always end with the good matter what I am feeling!)...Good news is, the victory’s a guarantee.

Thank you all for the messages pounding my inbox today. Many of you have been faithful to remember, and that means the world to us.  When you think of us, don't forget to contact my husband.  Daddies need encouragement, too.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


As a child growing up in Dallas, one of our yearly family outings was a trip to Six Flags Over Texas. On the night before we traveled to the amusement park, I would lie awake dreaming about the thrill of the whole experience: the rides I would venture to try, the foods I would eat, the fun I would have with my parents and my brother. From our home, the drive took about 45 minutes, but it seemed like 4 hours instead! I still remember what it felt like when we made our final approach toward the park and the roller coasters would come into view from the highway. Zach and I would giggle, point, and shout. It was pure, joyful anticipation.

There are few things in life that are more delightful than watching my own kids experience that same anticipation. Last week we spent our spring break at the beach in Port Aransas, Texas, with some good friends. Of the five kids we brought along, only our two had ever seen the ocean. But, because Caroline and Mary Claire were just babies on their first trip, this might as well have been their first time. We drove down to the coast on Friday night, and everyone in our van stayed awake well past bedtime and well after dark just hoping to catch a glimpse of the water. When we arrived, our gaggle of sleepy children gleefully helped unload the cars and set up our fabulous beach house for the week. I have never seen such willingness to work hard! At midnight, once the children were finally tucked into their little beds all in a row, Mary Claire remained awake. When I inquired as to why she wasn’t sleeping yet, she replied, “Mommy, can I go see the ocean tonight? Please??” It was so hard to wait!

You could not have wiped the grin off of their sweet faces the next morning as we prepared to go to the beach. All five children bounced around as we donned swimsuits and hats, pasted bodies with sunscreen, and gathered towels, buckets, and shovels. But, it was their all-out sprint on the boardwalk that got me thinking.

I stood back, watching the children barreling across that boardwalk, and I wondered: When was the last time I was so excited about something that I literally ran toward it with a big fat smile on my face? This particular boardwalk was a long one with sets of stairs at several places along the way. You could not see the ocean from the starting point. But, that did not stop the children from making a break for it the second their little flip-flops hit the wooden bridge. They knew that the boardwalk meant they were closer than ever to the object of their desire: the smooth sand and the cool water. Even though they had never seen it, they wanted to go. They could hear the waves crashing on the shore, and they knew they were close enough to run.

In the wake of a season of intense grief in my own life, some days I am not sure that there is anything left for me to run toward. Sometimes I think I am done here with that kind of joy…that there is nothing on earth that could be exciting enough to anticipate with wonder, stay awake dreaming about, and eagerly pursue. I don’t think I am alone. The older we get, it seems that the things we dreamed about may have come and gone. And, some of those dreams didn’t really pay up, if you know what I mean. Maybe we couldn’t sleep on the night before our weddings because we were dreaming of meeting our handsome prince at the end of the aisle and being whisked away to a life of bliss. Now, I’m not picking on marriage. I would choose my husband again and again. But, we all know that’s not what it is really like now, don’t we? It’s deeper and better than that…if you’re willing to work for it. But, it is harder than that, too. So, the school of life teaches us, over time, not to get our hopes up…not to anticipate anything too highly. If we do, we may be disappointed.

But, something about that mindset just doesn’t jive with my soul! I can’t get my mind off of my children running toward the ocean. Must we give that up? Does growth and maturity really equate with self-protection? My nine-year-old Caroline got stung by a jellyfish while jumping the waves. Up until that painful experience, she probably didn’t even know what a jellyfish was…maybe except for seeing them on SpongeBob cartoons! But, she got up close and personal with one. Ouch! And, I have to tell you, it was a tender job coaxing her back into the water the next day. Who wants to get stung twice? Wisdom says stay out of the ocean, right?

I don’t think so. Real growth, real maturity teaches us that, yeah, there are jellyfish out there, but if you focus on them, you’ll miss the beauty of the waves, the cool sand on your feet, the castles you can create, and the amazing formations the birds make as they glide over the water. As adults, we justify missing these kinds of things every day because of fear. Stop for a second and ponder it. Getting burned once (or twice) has kept us from going places and trying things that might hold joy, and more importantly for us Christ-followers, kingdom purpose. Even if we don’t avoid something altogether, we protect ourselves by keeping our expectations low so that we won’t be disappointed. We pass our fear and cynicism off as “maturity”! How ridiculous! What a loss!

I do think there is middle ground between a childlike perspective and a jaded adult world view. We know about jellyfish now. Sand is sticky and gets in your eyes. Life is full of imperfections. There’s no going back. But, we can have a grounded, mature, Biblical world view. And, there is nothing jaded or cynical about it! This perspective says, “Yep. There are jellyfish. But, God is in that ocean! I want to meet Him there! I want to see Him in it! I want to join Him in what He is doing there!” If I saw my world through those kind of eyes, could I begin to anticipate things with joy once again? Could you?

I am challenged by my children to see the world around me with new eyes, to view the things I think I already know from the perspective of a newcomer. What if I missed something the first time? What if I do not remember it because I was a “baby” the first time I saw it? What if the growth in my heart and soul affords me the chance to perceive things differently now?

I am challenged by the Holy Spirit to see the world around me with new eyes, too. When I go to spend time with God, do I approach His throne of grace with that kind of abandon? Do I run toward Him in joyful anticipation? Do I expect great things from Him? Even when I cannot physically see the object of my desire, do I see the beginning of the boardwalk, hear the waves crashing in the distance, and, knowing it is the path that leads to joy, break out into a sprint? If not, why not?

As I close my eyes and envision myself approaching the boardwalk, a prayer is emerging from the depths of my soul: Lord, I want to see your beauty. I want to see You. I want to see You in the people and the world you created. I want to want You. I want to desire You so much that I cannot sleep. I want to desire You so much that I cannot take a leisurely stroll towards the things you have planned for me. Cause me to move toward you in an all-out sprint! Don’t allow me to fool myself into thinking self-protection is maturity. YOU are my protector! Please cleanse me from the fear and cynicism that have built up in my heart because I have been hurt. Help me to trust you more. Give me joyful purpose that is unquenchable. Give me power that moves me toward even the things I cannot see. Cause me to expect great things once again! In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”  Matthew 5:8

Friday, March 11, 2011

I Gave You My Heart. You Gave Me This Pen.

Have you ever received a consolation prize? You know, it’s what you get when you enter a contest but don’t win. (Think about that non-descript participation ribbon you “earned” in elementary school on field day.) The very name of the “consolation” prize is unfortunate. There’s really nothing consoling about it. One definition says that a consolation prize is “generally a parting gift offered to contestants who did not win their competition. The purpose of a consolation prize is to console the contestants who can only watch the winner walk away with the big prize.” In other words, a consolation prize is meant to comfort you, or at least distract you from the truth…which is that you LOST!

When I was a child, I remember accompanying my parents to a time-share hard-sell. My young, inexperienced parents brought my brother and me along to sit in the waiting room while they endured what seemed like hours of sales pitch, all for the promised award: a boat with motor. The writing on the letter they received in the mail seemed irrefutable. No matter what they decided about the property, it seemed they would undoubtedly win a “boat with motor”. So, they spent a Saturday in this random building while strangers tried to convince them to buy something they knew they could not afford…all the while hoping to get a boat out of the deal. Zach and I were excited. We could just picture our family cruising on the lake. The hope of that boat somehow made the time in the waiting room a little bit more bearable. I will never forget the look on my parents’ faces when they exited that conference room. Out they trod, alongside a handful of other suckers, lugging a box carrying their big prize: an inflatable raft with a battery operated motor! We had been bamboozled! That raft turned out to be a lot of fun in the swimming pool, but it was not exactly what we bargained for! My now very wise parents would probably be embarrassed by my telling you how they fell for this scheme, but it illustrates my point precisely. A consolation prize isn’t really much consolation after all.

Fast forward to the day my daughter Audrey died. Bryan and I sat in the chaplain’s office, stunned by the news we had received. I was in absolute shock and on the verge of fainting, so the hospital staff brought me a wheelchair. They wheeled me down to the chapel to begin to process our unbelievable reality. I sat in silence, and then I fell to the floor in a puddle of tears. Friends and family began to arrive to wrap their arms around us. I don’t know how long we were there. I remember Bryan leaving the room to talk with the coroner. You know, the stuff of nightmares. I remember coming to the conclusion after a time that we needed to go home. There was nothing left for us at the hospital.

The staff was professional and accommodating. When we decided to leave, they put me back in the wheelchair and took me to our friend’s car. I remember the surprise on the social worker’s face when I profusely thanked her for helping me and praised her and the chaplain for their efforts toward our family. As they lifted me to standing so I could climb into the car, the chaplain placed an orange box in my hand. It was an easily recognizable box, one from James Avery jewelry. As we traveled home, I remember looking at that box incredulously. I left my child at the hospital, and they gave me a piece of jewelry in exchange? It seemed like a very uneven trade…the worst consolation prize ever. I could not get that line from the movie “Say Anything” out of my head. You might remember it. John Cusack’s character falls in love with a beautiful girl, but he gets burned. When she breaks up with him, she gives him a consolation prize Gen X won’t soon forget: a pen. In disbelief, he tells his friend, “I gave her my heart. And, she gave me this pen.” I wanted to shout out the window of the car that day: “I gave you my heart. And, you gave me this pen!”

I was conflicted by the hospital’s gift for quite a while. On the one hand, I was appreciative that Dell Children’s Hospital had done everything in their power to communicate their concern for us and show us their sympathy. On the other hand, the tiny orange box made me raging mad. I didn’t want to open it. I didn’t want to know what was inside. How could it possibly make me feel better? It was an insult! Only minutes before it was placed in my hand, I had lost one of the most valuable things I could have ever lost. The Hope Diamond could have been in that box, and I would have tossed it into the ocean if I could have.

I don’t know if days or weeks passed, but eventually I managed to open that box. Inside, I discovered a silver tree charm. In the center of the tree was a heart-shaped hole. How fitting. A hole. A heart-shaped hole, no less. I immediately began questioning the meaning of the charm. James Avery often assigns meaning to their jewelry, especially their religious items. I had never seen this one before, though. Was it new? I immediately figured that it must be symbolic of our family tree, suddenly missing someone (hence the heart-shaped hole). Yes, a sad, sad family tree.

I will be honest. I didn’t like it at all. In fact, I hated it. I could not imagine actually wanting to attach it to my charm bracelet, only to be reminded of that horrific day at the hospital. What were they thinking? I felt sorry that the hospital had spent money on that charm. I knew it wasn’t cheap. But, I could not assign any comforting meaning to it. It was, indeed, a consolation prize that offered no consolation.

Still, I don’t believe in coincidences. I felt deep down that the Lord had a reason for getting this charm into my hands. So, I investigated further. The next time I shopped at James Avery, I inquired about the charm. Did the designer of the jewelry assign it any meaning? I was told that it was commissioned for the hospital specifically, and James Avery could not tell me what it meant. Great, I thought. I now knew that the only people who get one of these things are those who have the unlucky privilege of losing a child. It was like a membership card for a club I didn’t want to join.

Time went by. I kept that stupid orange box in my closet. Every once and a while, I would catch a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye, and I would get that sick feeling in my gut. “I hate that thing”, I would think to myself. Nonetheless, I could not bring myself to get rid of it.

Then, one day I was reading what the Bible has to say about the tree of life. In the middle of the Garden of Eden stood the majestic tree. God gave Adam and Eve access to this tree that was “pleasing in appearance and good for food” (Genesis 2:9). However, after Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they were forbidden from eating the fruit of this tree (Genesis 3:22). No big deal, you may think. But, the fruit of the tree of life sustained life forever. It was the equivalent of a death sentence! God was so serious about this punishment that He placed a cherubim with a “flaming, whirling sword” to guard the way to the tree of life (Genesis 3:24). Quite a predicament for mankind, huh?

The tree is not mentioned again in Scripture until the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation. Jesus, speaking through John to the church at Ephesus, says that He will give the “victor” the right to eat from the tree of life (Revelation 2:7). Who is that victor? According to Revelation 22:14, they are those who keep His commandments. The Bible says that those who love God will obey Him. So, the victors are those who love God, believe in Jesus, and keep His commandments. To them will be given the right, once again, to eat of the tree of life. The death sentence will be removed. Eternal life will be granted. And, it will come by eating the fruit of the tree of life. Where will the tree be located? According to Revelation 22:2, it will grow in the center of the city of New Jerusalem on the New Earth (Heaven as it is after Jesus returns). The fruit of the tree will be for “the healing of the nations”. The tree of life is real. We who believe in Jesus will see it one day and also partake of its fruit. But, it is also a symbol of healing and of eternal life.

Learning this truth was like God turning on the light in the darkness of our traumatic hospital experience. He had, as I had rightly assumed in the beginning, placed that little orange box in my hand for a purpose. He was communicating with me before I was even able to perceive it. He wanted me to know that my heart was not suddenly ripped from my body, though that was the way it felt. Instead, He was helping me to see, perhaps for the first time, that my heart, my real true self, and all of my deepest desires are held safely in the promise of Heaven. In Heaven, there will be healing. And, even in the midst of my pain, the Tree of Life reminds me of God’s provision for me in every moment—from here until eternity. This charm that had plagued me finally communicated HOPE to the depths of my soul.

Is there some area of your life that has been a big disappointment? Have you experienced some great loss? Are you disillusioned by the difference between the way you thought your life would turn out and the way it actually is? Do you feel like you have received the dreaded “consolation prize”—the one set aside to make the losers feel a little bit better? Then, listen, I have hope for you today! If you will trust in Jesus Christ, you will receive a prize that can never be taken away from you. If you trust Christ, you have treasure stored up for you in Heaven that nothing can destroy.

3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you… 1 Peter 1:3-4

Heaven, friend, is NOT a consolation prize. It is not the trophy of the losers’ bracket! It is not what we get when life has dealt us difficulty and we can “only watch the winner walk away with the big prize”. Heaven IS the big prize! It is so much bigger and more alive than what we have previously imagined. It is so much broader and more enticing and exciting than what we have conceived. It is not merely relief from all of our burdens, it is the fulfillment of all of our grandest desires!

Believers in Jesus, quit underestimating what awaits you! In so doing, we rob our life of the power and joyful purpose it could have. And, we give non-believers nothing to write home about. Sadly, we misrepresent the faith we claim to believe. We must wrap our mind around the grand prize that we have been given if we want to experience contentment in the midst of disappointment and loss. Moreover, we must joyfully anticipate eternal life if we wish to convince anyone that Jesus is for real—that Christianity is authentic and worth investigating.

When God broke through my grief and showed me the true meaning of that tree with the heart-shaped hole, I rushed over to James Avery and asked that they attach it to my bracelet. And, I asked that they place it right in the middle where I would always see it. Each time I look at it, I am reminded not of the traumatic aspect of the hospital ER, but instead, of how God reached into my most desperate place and put His sovereignty over it. I am reminded how He made Himself known even in the darkest place and how He asserted His dominion, even over death. Now, when I see my “Tree of Life” charm, I am encouraged to think on Heaven, to remember its reward, and to consider the healing that is promised. Today, I rub my fingers over that heart-shaped hole in the tree, and I anticipate embracing in paradise the one who is still holding part of my heart in her hands.

Skeptics, consider: Maybe faith isn’t a crutch for the weak and Heaven isn’t a consolation prize for those whose dreams didn’t pan out. Wonder: Could it all be true?

Believers in Jesus, rejoice! Won’t you quit walking around with your shoulders slumped as if you’ve received the consolation prize?! We are all Grand Prize Winners. It IS all true.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The 99 and the 1

I am embarrassed to admit that I cried when I found out I was pregnant with Mary Claire. I remember sitting on the rocker in my bedroom, and through sobs saying to Bryan, “Caroline hasn’t had enough time to be the only child.” Caroline was just 10 months old when we found out we were expecting again. In some ways I was still trying to play dolls with her. I was in love, and she was enough. I wasn’t mentally prepared for our family to grow. Surprise! Conflicting emotions popped up. What if I could not love another child as much as I loved Caroline? What if she felt ignored or jealous or squeezed by a new baby in the family?

Many a young parent has had similar feelings. My mother was one of them. When I was born, the “enlightened thinking of the day” suggested that you give your older child a gift from the new baby. This was supposed to help the older child accept the new baby. My grandmother tried to help my mom relax. “Don’t apologize for making Sarah a brother to love,” she said. Still, my parents, trying to be prepared, purchased a purse for me and had it ready upon their homecoming from the hospital. Family lore has it that when my mother tried to offer me the gift, I pushed it aside, pushed her aside, and made my way to my newborn brother. So much for the adult interpretation of three-year-old thought processes…

Now that I know what I know, I feel silly telling you how I fell into that same trap with my own children. None of my fears materialized. When Mary Claire was born, Caroline was 19 months old. She arrived at the hospital to meet her sister in her navy and white sailor dress, toting her own “baby” in a doll-sized carrier. She crawled up into the bed with me, and smiling all the time, she beheld her little sister. It was love at first sight. My daughter, barely walking herself, cradled her infant sister like a pro. Still the most nurturing child I know, Caroline was made to be a big sis.

When we discovered Audrey’s surprise conception, we were not gripped at all by the fear that she would rob our other two of their time in the spotlight. We knew they would love each other deeply and become best buddies. When Audrey was born, Caroline and Mary Claire were still so small (3 and 1 ½), but they were in awe of our amazing gift. As they sat in the hospital room and inspected our newest family member (umbilical cord stump, tiny feet and all), I knew in my heart that our love had been multiplied, not divided. Sure, our time and money would be divided once more, but not our love.

Having all three of them was like Heaven. Seriously. I’d like to share some pictures of my “best day ever” with you (that’s a shout-out to you, Mary Claire…Little Miss “This-is-the-BEST-DAY-EVER!”). I know there are more good days to come. But, the day we took Audrey home from the hospital will always be one of my fondest memories. It was a gorgeous spring day, not unlike today…sunny, breezy, and mild. All was right with my world. The peace and joy I felt were indescribable…a foretaste of Heaven. Caroline and Mary Claire came dressed in their “big sister” t-shirts to escort us home. We went out to lunch, and then we went to play at the park. As my mom and I sat on the park bench admiring Audrey in the afternoon sunlight filtered through the shade of giant oaks, Bryan and the girls chased each other through tunnels and sifted gravel with their hands. Why, in my rocking chair, in the privacy of my bedroom, had I ever wondered if I could love another child? My cup ran over. I had all my little chicks gathered in my arms.

In the few years that followed that moment in time (maybe in the hours that followed), I discovered that meeting the needs of three children that small was demanding. My hands were indeed full! But, my heart had plenty of room. My girls learned from the beginning to share and take turns. If I was busy, they had each other. If one cried, I comforted. If one was hungry, I fed her. If one needed a snuggle, I offered a lap. If one had a question, I answered. It was never even, but no one seemed slighted. It was challenging work, but I treasured each one of my children.

I had no reason to think that my “rocking chair question” would ever resurface. But, when I faced Audrey’s sudden death, I began to question again, “Do I have enough love to go around?” My grief required so much of me that I was afraid I would unwittingly harm Caroline and Mary Claire…somehow not give them enough of me.

Like the voices of the baby advice books rang in my mother’s ears, the voice of well-meaning neighbors and friends echoed in my ears for a long time after Audrey’s death. People, jaded by their own experiences or those they had “heard of”, advised me to “go on” for my living children. No less than four days after Audrey’s death, I remember wailing in grief, “She was just so perfect. She was beautiful and healthy and perfect.” This comment came out of my very gut. It was an expression of my confusion at the sudden death. How could my adorable little girl have been so alive one moment and gone the next? Instead of hearing my heart and offering me comfort, one loving family member, wanting to be helpful, warned me that calling Audrey “perfect” might make Caroline and Mary Claire think that they are somehow less than perfect. If I recall the situation correctly, there was a story behind the admonition. An adult friend she knew still had issues with feeling unloved because of her mother’s grief over the death of a sibling. It was heartbreaking for me to hear this story. I didn’t love Caroline and Mary Claire less because I wanted Audrey back! I didn’t think I needed to worry whether they would be harmed by my grief. Did I need to be? Was I going to miss something important? Would I be able to meet their needs and also meet my own? There was enough emotional space in our family for three children a few days ago. Wasn’t there still enough space for three now?

As the weeks and months rolled on, these questions nagged at me in the quiet moments. I could not seem to reconcile the need to continue loving Audrey with the fact that I had no tangible way to do it. I could no longer brush her hair or rock her to sleep. I could not make her a plate at the dinner table or read her a book. Though I appeared to have only two children to care for, in my heart, I still had three. How could I show my love for Audrey? And, would doing that make my other children feel less important?

Here is my journal entry from February 28, 2008, only three short months after Audrey died:

“I’ve thought of this before, but I’m not sure I wrote it down yet…So many days I find myself just checking out…longing for Audrey. Sometimes I think I’d do anything—anything—to go to her. I often feel guilty about this. After all, I do have a lot here to be grateful for…people and things I am responsible for and love. But, there is this overwhelming need to take care of the one I can’t get to. I can’t even count the number of well-meaning folks who’ve told me I’ve got to “go on” for my husband and kids. Not necessarily in so many words, but that’s the gist. And, still, I’m longing for the one who’s missing.”

In that same entry, I mentioned a Bible story that brought me great comfort. Today, three years later, it still makes my heart skip a beat. It is a story you probably know…one that, to me, reflects the essence of the Father’s heart for each of us, His immeasurable love for us. It is the parable of the lost sheep (Matthew 18:12-14).

“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.”

Let me set up the scene for you. Before Jesus tells the parable, His disciples have just asked him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven?” (Matthew 18:1). Can you imagine what Jesus was thinking? (Oh, for goodness’ sake! When are these people going to get who I am? When are they going to get what I came to do?)

Jesus knew He was going to need a visual aid to get through to His disciples as He answered them, so He called over a child. I can just imagine Jesus, standing amongst the men, extending His arm out to that child and drawing her close. I can see Him putting His hands on her shoulders, pointing to her, and stating emphatically, “If you don’t become like this little child right here, you will not even enter the kingdom of Heaven!” (v. 3). Bet that’s not what the disciples expected to hear!

Jesus always taught in allegory. And, what He said almost invariably meant more than one thing at once. That was one of the reasons His followers’ heads were always spinning. In this case, Jesus wanted the disciples to see how important children are to Him, but more than that, He wanted them to see themselves as little children. Jesus wanted the disciples to see themselves in relationship to Him. He spoke as a loving father to His children.

As I read the parable of the lost sheep in my grief, I absorbed it on two levels. I identified with both the parent role and the child role in the story…both the role of the protector and the one who needed protecting. Perhaps you can, too. Notice that this man owns a hundred sheep. Only one of them has wandered away. Ninety-nine of his sheep are near, accounted for, and under his watch care. What is one little sheep? Apparently, that one little sheep is irreplaceable. For, the man leaves the 99 and goes out on the hill looking for the one that is lost. Think about it. Might that involve some risk to the 99 on the hill? Was there anyone there to watch over them while he left? I don’t know. But, I love what this desperate action communicates. It says that this shepherd did not just feel sad about the missing sheep. He didn’t just say, “Oh, well. That really stinks. I hope he is o.k. I sure hope he comes back safely.” No! On the contrary, that shepherd dropped everything to go out and look for the sheep! The shepherd’s response involved not just feelings, but action. He went in pursuit of the one that was lost.

I know sheep aren’t people, but if they could think and interact like we do, what do you suppose the 99 were thinking while the shepherd was out looking for the lost sheep? Let’s just assume this lost sheep was a brother of theirs. Do you think they were all grumbling? “Seriously? There he goes again chasing after our brother when he could be spending time with us!” Or, do you think they were expressing loving concern? “I sure hope the shepherd finds our brother. I am scared for him and don’t want him to be lost!” What do you think the shepherd’s actions toward the 1 communicate to the 99 about his love for each of them? Maybe they realize if any one of them was lost, he would look for them, too. Maybe they don’t feel jealous. Maybe, instead, they feel deeply loved.

This parable speaks volumes into my grief. I am reassured that within the bounds of a healthy, attentive relationship with Caroline and Mary Claire, no amount of time given to Audrey (even in her absence) is going to make them feel unloved. In fact, I cannot think of a better way to communicate my love for them than to authentically show them how I would feel, think, and act if they were taken away from me. Over time, my behavior will teach them how very important they are. Sharing time with Audrey was and is normal for them. Sharing me with Audrey was and is normal for them. Their place in the family is secure. And, her place in the family is secure, too. She still requires our time and energy. How, you may ask? We talk about her. We talk about where she is, what life would be like if she were here. We celebrate her birthday. We talk to her, pray for her, talk to God on her behalf. “Send things to her” by balloon. Bryan and I speak to anyone who will listen about Heaven and eternal perspective. We cry. I write. We take family pictures and try to put something in them to represent her. We hang her stocking at Christmas. And, we are just getting started. We will always include her in our life, and that will enhance, not diminish the life Caroline and Mary Claire have left to live. I am as confident of the goodness of this as I am about the goodness of bringing her home to my family in the first place.

Best of all, letting my little girls see the deep pain I have over the loss of our Audrey will eventually convince their hearts of God’s relentless pursuit of them. He will NEVER quit coming after them. As a loving father, He wants them near, accounted for, and under His watch care. Even if there are 99 others safe in His arms, God will risk everything to rescue them.

Jesus is the kind of God who embraced a little child and said, “This is what I’m talking about.” Do you know that Jesus? Unless we turn to Him like little children to a loving father, we will not see the kingdom of Heaven. Won’t you turn around and start running toward Him? Jesus said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37, Luke13:34) It broke Jesus’ heart that people did not run to Him. Still does. He has a longing to gather his children together, just as I did on the day I brought Audrey home from the hospital. He wants us all in His arms. But, some of us are still not willing. And, He lets us make the choice. The love I feel for each of my children is so intense. I cannot imagine how an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving creator God must feel about me…and about you. I can’t imagine what pain it causes Him for us to be far away from Him. Won’t you accept His love for you today?

Some of you who are reading have still not chosen to see yourselves as little children in need of rescue. You do not acknowledge Jesus as Lord of your life. Still, He is your Father. And, He will never stop pursuing you. He may have many of us already under the umbrella of His care, but His love for each He has created is so strong, it is as if no one else ever existed but YOU. He will leave the 99 and come looking for you…not just if you get lost…but, even if you are running away from Him. And, He will be happier when He finds you than He is about the 99 who did not wander off (v. 13). This doesn’t diminish the love He has for those who already acknowledge Him! Instead, it reveals His love for redemption! And, when I finally see Audrey in Heaven, my mother’s heart will likewise rejoice. It is all redeemed!

I admit I stole the idea for the picture above from Angie Smith (author of the blog "Bring the Rain" and of the book "I Will Carry You").  But, I could not resist it.  Doesn't a picture speak what a heart cannot?  Doesn't this picture communicate what my mouth will never be able to utter?  Dearly loved child of God, there is a place reserved for you that no one else can fill.  Won’t you wake up to God’s relentless pursuit of you? Won’t you let that encourage your soul today? There may be 99 on a hill, but to God, YOU are the 1.