“If I go halfway, maybe God will meet me somewhere in the middle,” I told myself. And so I walked, then swam, fully clothed into the Irish Sea – with no intention of turning back.
Rebekah yelled at me to come back. Failing that, she swam out to get me. “I want to die,” I told her, tears streaming down my face. “I can’t carry this pain anymore.”
“Let’s go home,” she begged. “The people on the beach think we’re nuts.” Rebekah, a nurse and lifeguard, lured me back to the beach – her calm voice urging me not to give up.
My fourth baby was born two weeks after we moved to Belfast where my husband, Curtis, was beginning a youth worker’s job at Knock Presbyterian Church.
We had spent many months living in a prayer community with Catholics and Protestants at the Christian Renewal Centre (CRC) in Rostrevor – praying daily for reconciliation in all forms, and for the country’s peace process. We had also prayed for Mercy, the baby we were expecting. As the pregnancy progressed, our prayers became more in earnest. Our baby was in trouble.
We had travelled this road before, back in B.C., at the time of our second wedding anniversary. I was hospitalized in my last trimester because the baby was having trouble growing in utero.
Our daughter, Flannery, was born in July 1996 with a rare neuro-muscular disorder. She lived for 26 days in the Special Care Nursery of Children’s Hospital, after facing several bouts of pneumonia and a collapsed lung. On August 19, 1996, after fasting the whole weekend, we turned off her ventilator and waited to see what God would do.
Flannery slipped away as peacefully as she had come into the world. We wept, and our spirits resonated with the hymn by William R. Featherstone: “I will love Thee in life, I will love Thee in death, and praise Thee as long as Thou lendest me breath; and say when the death dew lies cold on my brow, ‘If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus ’tis now.'”
It wasn’t until we were driving away from the hospital that the realization dawned on us: God had not answered our prayers for Flannery to be healed. But we had sensed his peace in the hospital room – and knew our girl was finally in a place where she would never feel pain again.
But our pain was just beginning. Over the next two years, we struggled to learn how to grieve together while attempting to lead normal lives. Curtis studied at Regent College, and I continued teaching. In 1997 and early 1998, we had two miscarriages.
We had both felt called to minister overseas, and in mid-1998 we were invited to join CRC. Together with B.C. friends and family, and CRC’s network of 700 correspondents, we believed in miracles; in the process, I accepted into my heart what turned out to be erroneous ‘prophetic words.’
Mercy was born in April 1999 with the same condition as Flannery, thereby confirming Curtis and I both as recessive carriers of this genetic syndrome. But she was stronger than her sister and could live days off a ventilator before an attack of pneumonia would disable her again. After an agonizing six weeks, we concluded again that we were prolonging our daughter’s death – and switched off her ventilator.
Our parents flew over from Canada and we camped out in the hospital, monitoring Mercy’s progress. A week passed and she appeared to be getting stronger. The hospital staff urged us to go home for the night. We were to be notified of any changes immediately. We slept long and well; I dreamed of having Mercy dedicated in church.
At 8 am, the phone rang with news that Mercy was in respiratory distress. We raced to the hospital and arrived in time – only to hear the last beat of her heart by stethoscope.
I immediately read Mercy’s chart, learning that her oxygen prongs had been removed at 2 am by the senior nurse without our knowledge or consent. Instead of feeling the peace of her passing, I was lost in a sea of anger and pain.
After all, I had had great faith. This baby was supposed to live. I had believed in a genetically modified miracle.
The hardest part of the situation was waiting for God to show up. To hear his breath in the room would have been a great comfort.
Instead, he seemed in another galaxy. My world was over. And the fragile representation of whom I believed God to be was shattered.
I don’t know how we survived the first year after Mercy. I worked through the stages of grief with counselling and antidepressants. My primary response to Mercy’s death was still anger. I wrote copious amounts of poetry and painted rooms in our house.
I began a correspondence with the hospital, which culminated – on the anniversary of Mercy’s death – in a meeting with a hospital representative. We brought along a friend to pray for us; when the discussion appeared hopeless, she asked me: “Can’t you see these people didn’t mean to hurt you?” We wept, and surrendered our anger at how Mercy died. We left it there in the reconciliation room, never to take it up again.
We began asking if God could take us home to heal. Several answers came, all within 12 hours: our little house was sold; I received an offer of employment from my B.C. school board; a family offered us a long-term house-sitting situation; and Curtis was accepted at Regent. We felt God’s breath blowing our 747 home.
Even with his attentiveness in these details, it was still a challenge to believe in God’s goodness. But we found great comfort imagining our girls at worship in Heaven; we also received the solace of family and friends, good medical help and counseling. We joined a great home group, and re-read Job and the Psalms of Ascents; our mothers and grandmothers prayed fervently that our faith would not fail.
In 2001, for our seventh wedding anniversary, Curtis and I declared a year of Jubilee. It would be a year for letting go, for appreciating what we had in each other regardless of what was behind or before us. Two months into this Jubilee, we discovered we were pregnant.
As the weeks passed, we slowly realized we were experiencing something different: a healthy pregnancy! In March 2002, we gave birth to our active and affectionate little Isaiah. After another miscarriage, our sweet Elena was born in January 2005 – a daughter to keep!
My mind travels back sometimes, lingering briefly by the little grave with the red soil in which Flannery and Mercy’s remains are buried – and to the kind stranger, now friend, who tends the weeds around the marker.
The rebinding of our hearts has been slow but complete – our questions and doubts about God’s love and goodness truly quieted by his healing song. I have come to realize that, during the years of pain, my hands were not upturned and open to God – but tight fisted.
After Flannery died, I began studying and writing children’s literature – to find a story world in which she could not only survive, but thrive. My first published work, Sam and Nate (Orca Echoes, 2005), is a whimsical story of positive classroom life – written during Isaiah’s naps.