Having ended my last blog with my poem, “Tears in the Night,” I thought I should recap God’s grace over the last 38 years to “wipe away every tear.” My grief for Jessica was not only due to the shortness of her life, but also the fact that I was not able to connect with her for her short six days of life or in the days that followed her death. With both our children the hospital offered to take care of their bodies to spare us the agony of having to make funeral arrangements. Little did I know then how much I would regret this “gift.” As a pastor, I am called to bury other people’s children. I stand beside them as they silently place their children in the ground and say their painful goodbyes. The grave of their son or daughter is forever marked with a stone. That stone becomes a sacred place of memory to which they return on a regular basis to remember, to mourn, to worship, to cry and to laugh. For years Emily and I had no place to go.
Where did the Sower plant the seed?
I long to know,
but it is hidden from me.
Years passed and then my friend Jim Zeigler, a counselor at Alta Mesa Cemetery, discovered that Jessica’s ashes had been scattered at his cemetery. He called me to get all the information about our children, and then had a gravestone specially made for them. Their names and dates are now etched in stone in our backyard. Underneath their names is the verse from David’s psalm:
Weeping my lodge for the night,
but a shout of joy comes in the morning.
How do you thank someone who goes to such lengths to carve your children’s names in stone? One tear wiped away.
After we had been restored with sacred space, God gave me the gift of my daughter’s voice. Whenever I teach the Psalms, I always have my students share their personal psalms at the end of the quarter. It is the highlight of the class. On one occasion at Western Seminary, a young woman named Jessica stood to read her poem. Before she began I asked, “What is your middle name?”
She smiled and said, “Lynne” (my daughter’s middle name).
“What year were you born?”
Now I can feel my gut tightening and my tears beginning to swell.
“November 30” – the exact day my daughter had been born.
As Jessica read her poem, I was in speechless wonder that, for just this one day, I was able to hear my daughter’s voice. There may be joys that equal it, but for this father none surpass the elation of hearing a daughter’s voice. One more tear wiped away.
Time would fail me if I were to recount the scores of conferences, retreats and schools where I have had the joy of teaching the Psalms and the power of the poem––locally, Southern California, Texas, Colorado, Canada, Oregon, Washington, Romania, Albania, Croatia––and on each and every occasion, after teaching on David’s lament for Jonathan, I offer my poem to Jessica. Funny thing about poetry, the words never get old, worn out or banal. The metaphors remain as rich and carry as much emotion as the first time they were uttered. And the love that I experience for my daughter is enriched and deepened in the presence of God’s people in ways I couldn’t have imagined. The key is you have to be free to cry. Many more tears wiped away.
God’s grace was still not done. In the spring of 2011 my dear friend Jim Zeigler died of ALS. Jim was deeply loved by our church and community, so much so that we had to move his memorial service to a church that could accommodate over 1000 people. The service was one of those rare times where time stood still, the worship was dense with a palpable presence that released our tears, and every word was as heart spoken and tender as our beloved Jim. A residue of God’s presence from Jim’s memorial carried me into the pulpit the next day. My text I had planned that week was 2 Samuel 1, to be concluded with Jessica’s poem. However, after Jim’s passing I wasn’t sure it was appropriate to do my daughter’s poem. But Karen (the one you all know) encouraged me and said, “When you read her poem, make sure you breathe in between the lines to let her in.” I took her advice and it worked. A special tear wiped away.
The next day our pastoral staff left for a retreat at Lake Tahoe. We were led by Jim Gaderlund, a fellow pastor and gifted spiritual director. The first night he led us in a reflective communion time. Before we took the elements he told us to take stock of where we have been. If we were hurting, we cold select a rock from a selection he had arranged on the table and place it on the altar. If we were rejoicing, we could select a flower from a large bouquet he had bought and place it on the altar. When my turn came, I decided I wanted to express my appreciation to Jesus for incredible gift of healing he had granted to me since the death of my daughter, Jessica. From the bouquet I selected a large yellow daisy and just before I set it on the altar I kissed it. Immediately after I kissed it I had the strange sensation that I had just kissed my daughter––Jessica’s presence was palpable. I couldn’t hold back my tears and felt compelled to tell someone, but I thought, “Who can I tell who won’t think I’m crazy?” When communion ended, I grabbed my friend and co-pastor, James, and said, “I just kissed my daughter!” Now more tears, but these are ones I don’t want to wipe away.
On the eve of Mother’s Day I thought it appropriate to include one more Jessica moment. Emily and I never had celebrated Jessica’s birthday until 2011. Two of our grandchildren were coming for dinner, and being that it was Jessica’s birthday, she thought it would be fun to celebrate her birthday. Since God had allowed me to hear Jessica’s voice, I thought Emily should as well. So I composed a letter from Jessica to her mother. I called my daughter, Jenny, and asked if she would come join us for dinner and give her sister a voice to her mother, which she did.
November 30th, 2011
Today is my 35th birthday and I heard you will be celebrating with dad and my little sister, Jenny, along with my nieces, Mary and Emmy, and my nephew Wesley. So I asked papa to get you some yellow roses to remember me by. Yellow is my favorite color, because it matches my blonde hair, but most of all, because it reminds me of you. You probably wonder what I look like. It’s hard to describe my glorious, new body – but I look a lot like Jenny, but with Katie’s curls. Lucky for me I didn’t get daddy’s nose, but like all your children, my eyes are blue.
As you celebrate my birthday I want you to know what a blessing you are to me.
Though I was tragically taken out of your arms to be by my brother’s side, my little life was shaped and sheltered solely by a mother’s love. For nine months as I bonded with you i n the sweet shelter of your womb, my delicate frame was knitted together by God’s loving hands. I was wondrously made, and all my days ordained for me, were written in His book, before even one of them came to be. You took such good care of me, even though you could not see my face. I know you and dad worked hard to prepare a special place for my arrival, with new wallpaper, a refurbished crib and a changing table.
When I arrived, you held me with an indescribable love and tenderness. For three wonderful days I had the privilege of gazing into your eyes as I nursed. The feeling of security and well-being you provided was so compelling, I quickly learned to trust God in the trouble that lay ahead.
Those were painful days, I know more for you than me. You wanted to see me grow up, to crawl, to walk, to sing, to play soccer, to date, to give me away, and to see my children. But, as daddy wrote, it ended much too quickly:
My eyes could not gaze on your little tent,
which would all too soon
be broken down and laid to rest
in the earth, rather than upon a breast.
As you and daddy were engulfed in sorrow, I lay down to sleep and awoke in a new world where heaven fills the very air you breathe. I began to grow and explore its never-ending beauty with my brother, David. Like him, I never experienced the pains of sin or any of the cruelty that happens on earth. I only knew a mother’s love.
But there is more. I got to see another side of things, that perhaps you could not see. When you prayed for me, heaven became silent for about half an hour. Then I heard the deepest groaning and sighs that were beyond compassion, followed by a sudden burst of energy and commotion. Angels were summoned and sent with an urgency I have rarely seen. Out of the death of dreams, seeds of hope were planted in human hearts and corporate prayers were offered in faith. A baby born by Christmas, who would have thought? The gift of another daughter for my broken-hearted mother.
As I peer into your world 35 years later, I can see the fruit of a mother’s prayers. Did you ever dream of being entrusted with so many gifts? One son and four daughters, three granddaughters and two grandsons! Not to mention the scores of preschoolers who found shelter under your wings.
In Hebrew your name means “mother.” And I, Jessica Lynne Morgan, am forever privileged to be known as your daughter.