I don’t know if you remember this, but when you were two weeks old, we read ” To Heaven and Back” by Dr. Mary Neal. I didn’t know at the time how important this book would be to me.
Our church was going to have Dr. Neal as a guest speaker the week after Easter to discuss her book…her “resurrection story” if you will. When Pastor Ed Noble flashed the name of the book on the big screen the week before Easter, I got really excited. I felt like I was receiving a prompting from God to read this book.
Prior to all of this, I had participated in a small group where we did I the “Soul Revolution” 60:60 experiment. It’s an experiment to experience a change in your life by reflecting every 60 minutes for 60 days on the question “Where is God in my life right now?”. That experiment would teach me how to listen to God and how to see his presence in every hour of every day. I wasn’t just learning to listen to God, I was learning to also act upon His promptings. I really struggled with that. I’m the type of person who, if I can’t see the whole staircase, isn’t going to take the first step. I had faith that there was a God, but I struggled with the belief that he had a plan for me, so I didn’t really trust him. I also really resisted the idea of Jesus being God’s son and I loathed the implementation of organized religion. I had a very confusing religious upbringing; come to find out, many people do…I am definitely not alone there.
Needless to say, somehow, when I felt this pull to read Dr. Neal’s book, I did it. I put my God issues to the side and just listened…for the first time in my life. I spent the week after Easter reading her book with you in my arms. It was blissful…that is how maternity leave should be spent. I got some high quality time just loving and holding you while I read a book that was feeding my soul and bringing me closer to God. I had really only expected to read a fascinating story about what Heaven is like, but I got so much more.
Reading that book transformed my faith in God to trust in God. It was absolutely incredible. I will never forget crying for the loss of Mary’s son Willie as I held you, my newborn son, in my arms. My heart broke for her and I couldn’t understand how she, the mother, was supposed to be the pillar of strength for her family and community. That was all certainly beyond my realm of understanding. I remember feeling fortunate that I couldn’t understand her loss.
I was so grateful for the way her book changed me. I talked about it every day to your dad. I tried to explain it all to him in-between chasing your sisters around, cooking dinner, holding you…in-between just being a busy mom of a perfect family of five. I was so excited to hear Dr. Neal speak and to meet her. I invited friends and family, I recommended the book to everyone, I couldn’t stop talking about it.
I insisted that we go see Mary speak on Friday night and not on Sunday. I wanted to hear her “first-cut” as opposed to the second or third version of the same story. In retrospect, I’m glad I went on Friday because I heard that Sunday was so packed that we wouldn’t have been able to meet her. It was so awesome to hear her tell her story. And right when she got to the part about going to Heaven, you started fussing, so I took you into the nursing room to feed you. You wouldn’t eat though, and you started crying like I’ve never heard you cry before. Your nana even commented on it after church because she could hear you screaming from outside the room and it was out of character. I had this strange thought that you were trying to get Mary’s attention. I decided that thought was just a result of “hormonal imbalance” and pushed it aside. You were probably just cranky. I also kept having this really weird recurring thought that Mary’s son Willie was with you. The whole time I read her book, I kept feeling that you somehow knew him or that he was with you. I couldn’t shake the thought, but I tried anyway.
So after the service, we waited and waited to meet Mary. You were so quiet and patient…you didn’t fuss once. When I spoke to her, you just lay comfortably in my arms. I made a dumb joke to Mary about autographing my iPad because I had the e-book version of “To Heaven and Back”. I thanked her for writing her story and for sharing it, because it changed my life. I kept telling your dad that Mary’s book was put in front of me for a reason…I just wasn’t sure why. He agreed. The way that the book impacted me and the way that I spoke about the experience to friends and family was a clear attestation to how much I had changed. I trusted God. I didn’t just believe that he was out there somewhere, I believed that he was right next to me, working through me, working around me, sometimes waiting for me to acknowledge him so we can take the next step together. I felt stronger than ever that God was real.
I kept wondering, sometimes to myself, sometimes aloud, why God put this experience in front of me, why I felt so strongly about all of this. I couldn’t figure it out, but I knew one day I’d know…and sadly, that day came sooner and with much more fury than I ever thought.
On Wednesday, April 10th, we had the best day! You and I went shopping for the first time alone and when your dad and sisters got home from work, we went to the YMCA to work out. Afterward, your dad took you and your sisters to the grocery store alone! He said that people would just turn around and go down another aisle when they saw you guys coming. We had a “Princess Party” and had a fun dinner and movie night at home as a family. I went to sleep that night thinking, “I can’t believe this is my life. I can’t believe that this is what having three kids is like.” I was beyond happy, I was beyond “in love”, my heart was bursting with goodness and thankfulness.
I had no idea that April 10th would be our last day together.
At 1:30am on April 11th, your dad woke me up because you had blood on your face. You know the details of what happened better than I do, so I won’t attempt to describe your death to you. But when your dad woke me up, I was so confused. Why were you bleeding? When your dad turned on the lights and asked me if you were breathing, panic set in. I hadn’t even thought to check that. You weren’t waking up when I moved you, but you were warm. We called 911 and I started CPR on our bedroom floor. I watched your eyelids turn blue and I heard your last two “sighs” as I gave you your last two “rescue breaths”. Paramedics took over from there as my life started to crumble in front of me.
That whole morning was heart-breaking. After hours of waiting and questioning from police officers and detectives, we were informed by the Doctor that you had “expired”. I think I’m still in disbelief that you passed so suddenly. You were perfectly healthy, you were only 26 days old! And on top of losing our son, we were homicide suspects. My heart was shattered and the detectives were stomping on what was left of it, breaking me into a million pieces. Thankfully, the doctor told detectives that he didn’t suspect foul play. So we left the hospital without you. It felt so very wrong. It still feels wrong. (After a lot of investigation and a thorough autopsy, your death was eventually ruled “Sudden Unexplained Infant Death”. Basically, we have no idea why you passed away.)
We went home, back to the place where, just hours ago, my life was “perfect”. We told your sisters that you passed away and I had nothing left, I was weak and totally drained. I laid in bed…the bed where you passed away, and I cried. I couldn’t stop crying, I felt like I couldn’t even breathe, which was fine, because I didn’t want to breathe. I sent an e-mail to pastor Tic Long and within a few hours, he , Ed Noble, and Bill Yaccino were in our living room, Bibles in hand, praying for us.
I began to speak. I don’t remember exactly what I was saying, what I remember is the look on everyone’s face. We were sitting in a circle in my living room, I was holding your baby hat, I spoke about Dr. Mary Neal. I told them the story of how her book was put in front of me, of how I met her and, most importantly, about how her book turned my faith in God to trust in God. I told them of how I had wondered why this book was put in front of me and how I knew instantly that I had these experiences with Dr. Neal because God was preparing me for this moment. For the moment when I would be asked to be a pillar of strength for my family, for my community. I wholly understood something that I couldn’t even fathom just one week before. Everyone cried and though I was, for lack of a better term, heart-broken, I kept hearing “rejoice always” in my head. That crazy hormonal imbalance voice was talking again…but I chose to believe that it was God.
So, in a daze, I began to listen and follow that voice. There were so many things to be thankful for, but first and foremost, Dr. Mary Neal’s book, that had changed my life, was what I was thankful for. That day, between visitors and uncontrollable tears, I re-read the highlighted sections of her book on my iPad. I was in the valley of shadows, as Dr. Neal so eloquently explained. Last week, that was just a concept to me, and now, it’s real. The Valley of Shadows is a real place, and I’m still in it to this day… I suspect I’ll be in it until my time comes too.
I reminded your dad of how Dr. Neal described knowing if you’re doing God’s will and we began to live by those words. Those words would be our lifeline.
Our world was upside-down, inside-out, broken, just a total mess. How do we move forward without you? Is it possible? I was so scared that “reality” would set in and I’d be blasted apart by the pain when it finally hits. I was hurting so badly, but surely I was in shock, and when the shock wore off….well, is it even possible to feel worse that we were feeling at that moment? I wasn’t sure, but I was scared to find out.
People came out in droves. Some had comforting words, others had none at all, and still others had advice. It confused us sometimes. How do we know if we are doing the right thing? So I re-read that section in Dr. Neal’s book again. To paraphrase, it says, you know you’re doing God’s will when things just work out. When it feels like you’re swimming upstream and that, despite your best efforts, things just aren’t working, you know you’re not doing God’s will. So we planned your funeral living in God’s will. When it started to bring us more sadness, we would stop, and make a different decision. To this day, I still live my life by Dr. Neal’s words.
I whole-heartedly trusted in God. I gave up the notion that I had ANY ounce of control over my life. I gave up my plan and turned my life over to God, and in return, he gave me the strength to push on, the purpose to continue living, and the words to inspire and help others. But if it wasn’t for Dr. Neal’s book, if it wasn’t for the Soul Revolution experiment, if it wasn’t for Journey, or for your dad’s spiritual awakening that brought us to church in the first place, I would have been lost in grief, in a God-less world. I would have believed in an Old Testament God who was surely punishing me for something I did and I would have stopped believing altogether. Instead, because God quietly pushed me and I listened as best as I could, I had the strength to get through losing you.
I still hurt badly and I still miss you like I can’t even describe, but I know you had your own ripple effect. Your death brought people to God, not away from him. Your death made me a better person and Dr. Neal’s book taught me to trust in God and to rejoice always. I am forever changed by you, Leo. My amazing angel.
I love you always,