Category Archives: Family & Roots

Heart Rate & Heartbreak: All in a Mother’s Heart

This Mother’s Day marks the end of a full season of grief. Exactly three months ago today, on February 10, 2015, a date which will live in infamy, Suzanne and I heard the four most painful words of our lives: “no fetal heart rate.”

Only a few weeks earlier we had learned that we were expecting our (gulp!) fifth child, and we had experienced the emotional gamut in the wake of that news.

First, there was shock. After all, we are supposedly a fertility-challenged couple. Eleven years ago, when our Grace was almost three years old and we were trying to have a second child, a fertility expert told us that it would be virtually impossible for us to conceive a child without some medical intervention like in vitro fertilization. I asked, “If we’re unable to conceive, how do we explain our daughter Grace?” The doctor said, “I don’t know what to tell you. She’s a fluke.”

Fluke number two arrived nine years later when our Sage was born, but still, even after two conceptions and births, I don’t think either of us really believed that there would ever be another fluke. That’s why we were initially shocked when we learned in January that our family would grow again.

At moments, we felt overwhelmed. Our house has bedrooms for four children. How and where would we make accommodations for the fifth? I recalled the CNN story I had seen a few months earlier about the rising cost of raising a child to age 18. I had joked that we only needed a million bucks to raise four children. Now, seemingly overnight, we needed $1.25 million–and that was before college tuitions!

Our two year old Sage was just growing past the most difficult stages of infancy, and it made us tired to think of starting over again with a new child, especially at our ages.

Anticipated exhaustion gave way to laughter as our ages inspired hilarious thoughts and conversations. We calculated our ages at various milestones in the baby’s life. I joked about how people would ask me which graduate was my grandchild, since I would be sixty-two at his or her high school graduation. Suzanne imagined herself as the sixty-one year old mother of the bride or groom, if the baby married at the same age as she had. We joked that we would have children involved in the church’s youth ministries for twenty consecutive years, from Grace’s sixth grade year through the new child’s graduation.

Moments of laughter paled in comparison to the moments of outright joy! We imagined all the fun moments ahead as seven of us Jonases packed into our Honda Odyssey. We dreamed of how many grandchildren would gather at our house for future celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas. We felt blessed that two people who had no apparent reason to expect that they would conceive once were now expecting for the third time!

Bursting with the need to share that joy with the world one weekend, I put together a cute little video announcement that came closer to going viral than anything I had ever posted on Facebook. We felt warmly embraced by the congratulations, hugs, and Facebook “likes” that our friends and family piled upon us!

Just eleven days after posting that video, on a cold February Tuesday, Suzanne and I sat in the ultrasound lab as we had so often throughout two previous pregnancies. A couple of weeks earlier, she had gotten to see the tiny flicker of a heartbeat, but I had been at the pediatrician’s office with one of our other kids and had missed that ultrasound appointment. I was eager to see the tiny heart’s movement for myself.

As the technician began the scan, I knew that we wouldn’t be able to see any distinct features this early in the pregnancy, but I also knew to look for the heart flashing rapidly like a tiny computer cursor. I didn’t see it, but I didn’t worry. I couldn’t imagine there was any need to. The technician casually asked whether our doctor wanted to see the ultrasound for himself and said that she had better go invite him just in case. When they returned, he looked and listened for only a few seconds before he turned to us and said, “I’m afraid I have bad news. There’s no fetal heart rate.”

I feel certain that he said more, perhaps something about the hardest part of his job, but I didn’t really hear any of it. Once again, we were in shock, but for an entirely different reason. My mind and heart were stuck on those four words: no fetal heart rate. Just that quickly, we were no longer expecting parents. We were grieving parents.

And we have grieved.

But it’s a different kind of grief with an unborn child. There are none of the usual cultural trappings of grief–no obituary, no visitation, no funeral service. Rather than the customary surge of emotion that washes over a family over the span of one or two days with those public expressions of love and grief, we have experienced more of a tidal ebb and flow. Rather than sharing tears with a hundred people at a service, we’ve shared a hundred different moments with people over the past ninety days.

It’s a different quality of grief too. In every other experience of a loved one’s death, I’ve grieved because of a shared past. We’ve had a special bond and shared special experiences in the past, and I have mourned because there would be no more moments like those in the future. In this case, I grieve that I never got to have a past or future with our unborn baby.

In fact, for me, the mourning is best expressed in an almost endless series of we nevers. We never got to hold our baby, know if our baby was a boy or girl, know his or her hair color, smell his or her skin and breath, make comparisons of her or his physical and personality traits with other members in our family, settle on a name, and maybe most importantly, whisper “I love you” against soft baby hair or ears . . .

There are just too many we nevers. They’ve been my constant companions over the past three months as I’ve grieved my loss. What comforts me most is the image of Jesus holding my baby until I can.

But I haven’t just grieved for myself. I have grieved for my Suzanne.

Seventeen years ago, during our exactly fifty-one weeks of dating before we were married, Suzanne and I had a conversation about vocation. She was completing her preparations to be a French teacher, but she said to me that day, “What I really want to be is a mommy.”

We knew there would be fertility challenges, and because of that and her deep maternal desire and calling, we prayed and prayed for a baby. When we learned we were expecting our Grace, it only seemed natural to name her Grace, since we genuinely believed she was a gift from God. Her name became all the more meaningful when she was born two days after the 9-11 attacks. Grace became even more precious to us when we learned, in the words of the aforementioned fertility expert, that she was a “fluke.”

From the beginning, Suzanne was a natural. I’ve learned almost everything I know about being a parent from her. Sure, my parents taught me to be loving and compassionate, and my dad showed me what it means to be a nurturing dad, but Suzanne taught me the skills like diaper changing, bottle preparation, bathing, towel wrapping, and others. She’s still trying to teach me how to brush daughters’ hair and how not to be a pushover with our kids. Hey, I’m a work in progress, but she’s a natural.

When we had the conversation with the fertility expert and made the subsequent decision to adopt, she didn’t hesitate for a moment. She loved Brett before we ever saw him, and when we did see him for the first time in a hotel lobby where several adopting parents were meeting their adopted children, she spotted him across the room and said, “That’s my baby!” He has been ever since.

When our adoption agency called to let us know that Brett’s birth mother had given birth to another baby boy, she didn’t feel overwhelmed. She was thrilled! Micah bonded with her immediately and looked at me with suspicion. When I held him, he screamed, but when she held him, he was content. When we brought Micah home that December, she was the stay-at-home mom of three children under the age of five. I can imagine very few tougher jobs–and hers came without a paycheck.

When Sage (fluke #2) came along at a time in our lives when we didn’t expect to have an infant in the house, Suzanne talked about how much fun it would be to have four children in the house, and she was excited that we had greater odds of having lots of grandchildren.

You should see the relationship she has with Sage now! That two year old bundle of red-headed spirit thinks her mommy is the world’s MVP! Mommy does everything better than Daddy, or anyone else on earth, for that matter. Mommy is her security blanket, the gravitational pull at the center of Sage’s every orbit. Mommy is her best buddy.

In fact, if you’ve seen Suzanne with any of our kids, you didn’t have to hear the words. You know from watching that what she really wanted to be is a mommy.

And so, when we discovered in January that the fifth Jonas child was on the way, there were some nearly overwhelming moments at first, but Suzanne quickly started nesting. She had already made room in her heart, and she was making plans for the space this child would occupy in our family and home. No matter how early in the pregnancy, she was clearly this baby’s mommy, and this precious child was her baby.

Then four words–no fetal heart rate–broke my Suzanne’s heart.

We’ve both grieved, but her grief is different from mine. I joyfully expected a baby, but she carried our baby. She felt the changes in her body. She loved that baby right through the nausea and fatigue. She provided within her body the only earthly home our baby ever knew.

Because of that, her we nevers are accompanied by a million what ifs. She wonders what if she had eaten differently, acted differently? What if? What if? What if?

I have grown to hate the word miscarriage, and I refuse to say it. Like mistake, misuse, misappropriate, miscue, and all those other mis- words, miscarriage implies that someone did something wrong, resulting in an unwanted outcome. She did nothing wrong, and I hate that her grief is accompanied by second, third, and millionth guessing of herself. Next to God’s, our baby knew no greater love than Suzanne’s.

So, on this Mother’s Day, we’ve come to the end of a season of grief, but our grief has not ended. Suzanne no longer carries our baby’s body within her, but she still carries the love, the memories, the we nevers, and the what ifs. I suppose she always will.

Today will be a day of great joy for my Suzanne. She will be surrounded by two sons and two daughters who love and cherish her! She will celebrate that she’s living her dream and being what God made and called her to be–a mommy! But this Mother’s Day, the first since we loved and lost our fifth child, will also hold some grief.

Suzanne has adopted twice. She has been pregnant three times. And today, though she will only hold four of those precious children in her arms, I know she holds all five in her heart.

Will you please hold her in yours?

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To Be a Virginian

“To be a Virginian either by Birth, Marriage, Adoption, or even on one’s Mother’s side, is an Introduction to any State in the Union, a Passport to any Foreign Country, and a Benediction from Above.”
—Anonymous

Some call this “The Virginian’s Creed,” and though I’ve heard a couple of variations across the years, one sentiment remains consistent in every version–it’s pretty great to be a Virginian.

I can hear the ligaments popping as people from other states roll your eyes. You’re probably thinking to yourself, “Great. Here comes another arrogant, condescending, lost-in-the-glorious-past boast about the Old Dominion.” You may feel something similar to the wave of nausea I experience when my friends from Texas talk about much bigger and better things are in their “Republic.”

Hear me out, though. Even though I’m a Virginian by birth, by marriage, and on my mother’s side, my appreciation for The Commonwealth doesn’t come at the expense of your state. You live in a pretty great place, too, I’m sure. I’m certainly not saying you don’t. Nor am I saying my home’s better. However, I will venture this–your state and our nation wouldn’t be what they are without Virginia.

As a matter of fact, today is a very good example of what I mean. One hundred fifty years ago today, on April 9, 1865, Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee met in the parlor of the McLean House in Appomattox, Virginia, to negotiate the surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, effectively ending the Civil War. Other Confederate armies held out a little longer, but the hostilities effectively ceased with what Bruce Catton called “A Stillness at Appomattox.” I can make a compelling case that the United States were reunited at Appomattox . . . in Virginia.

It’s only appropriate that the Civil War ended in the heart of Virginia, because The Commonwealth was the war’s center stage. In fact, without Virginia, it’s very likely that there never would have been a viable Confederacy or a war of any duration. Apart from Virginia, its leaders, and its resources, the Confederacy probably would have amounted to no more than a brief, quickly crushed rebellion. Again, I’ll cite Bruce Catton, who said that the fledgling Confederacy needed Virginia as surely as a human body needs air. Virginia was key, as it always had been.

As early as the 1580s Sir Walter Raleigh launched failed attempts to establish an English colony in the Americas. He is the one who named this land Virginia in honor of Queen Elizabeth I, the “Virgin Queen.” In 1607, the first permanent English settlement on this continent began on a small peninsula up against the north bank of Virginia’s James River. A dozen years later in 1619, a handful of representatives convened in the Jamestown church for the first gathering of the Virginia General Assembly. Three hundred ninety-six years later, the General Assembly is the oldest continuous legislative body in this hemisphere. The representative government that our nation so deeply cherishes was born . . . in Virginia.

So were some of the greatest proponents and practitioners of our representative government. In the 1770s, after a century and a half of colonial status, Virginia and its neighbors along the Atlantic seaboard began to resent taxation without representation. In a session of the Virginia General Assembly in Richmond’s St. John’s Church on March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry asked a timeless question and offered his own timeless answer: “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”

Weeks later on June 15, 1775, the Continental Congress appointed Virginia’s own George Washington to command the fledgling Continental Army. Over the next six years, he would heroically lead the amateur army’s fights against not only the often superior British and Loyalist forces, but also against constantly expiring enlistments, stingy state legislatures, and persistent lack of food and supplies.

Just over one year later in the summer of 1776, another Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, penned some famous words of his own: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” With the signing of the Declaration of Independence he drafted, our independent nation began to come into being.

As Virginians fought under Washington on the battlefields of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, their neighbors from the southwestern part of the state headed into the war’s southern theater. Along with their western neighbors, these Overmountain Men from my corner of Virginia defeated Loyalists under the command of Major Patrick Ferguson at the Battle of Kings Mountain in October 1780. Thomas Jefferson, then governor of Virginia, called this victory the “turn of the tide of success” in the colonies’ war for independence.

Almost exactly one year after this turning point, Lord Cornwallis found himself and his army trapped at Yorktown. Before him lay the combined Continental and French armies under Washington and Rochambeau. Behind him, the French fleet filled the waters of the York River and the Chesapeake Bay. With no escape, he surrendered on October 19, 1781. The Revolutionary War effectively ended, and our independence was secured . . . in Virginia.

Throughout the 1700s, the colonies and states were expanding to the west, and Virginia’s roads were crucial to this expansion. Many immigrants to this land–perhaps most notably the Scots-Irish from Ulster–arrived in Philadelphia, migrated west through Pennsylvania, and eventually traveled south into and through Virginia’s Great Valley. The Valley Road along which these pioneers traveled is roughly preserved and/or paralleled by today’s U.S. Highway 11 and Interstate 81. There’s a good chance that some branch of your family tree includes a stop or two along the Valley Road.

Clearly, it’s true that western expansion didn’t end in southwest Virginia, but it just may be true that major western expansion into Kentucky and beyond began in southwest Virginia. Remember Daniel Boone? He was a Virginian for a significant part of his life. After living in Culpeper for a while in the 1760s, Boone returned to Virginia in 1775 to carve out the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. This road winds through southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee before passing through the Cumberland Gap into what is now Kentucky. During those early days, however, the Kentucky settlements were considered western counties of Virginia, and Daniel Boone represented them in the Virginia General Assembly for three terms.

Meanwhile, back in the east, leaders like George Washington and James Madison recognized the need for a more robust federal government than the one created by the Articles of Confederation adopted by the states at the Revolution’s end. So, in the summer of 1787, the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia and promptly elected George Washington to preside. Through the preceding year, James Madison sat in the second floor library of his home at Montpelier, writing a draft that would come to be known as the Virginia Plan for a federal government. The convention edited, amended, and revised the Virginia Plan into what we now know as the Constitution of the United States of America. It was eventually ratified with a Bill of Rights, modeled on George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights.

Four of the new nation’s first five Presidents were Virginians: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. Over the years, four other Virginians–William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, and Woodrow Wilson–would hold the nation’s highest office. Thus, Virginia claims she is the “Mother of Presidents.”

So many Virginians were crucial contributors to our nation’s early history. When my Texas friends make me nauseous, I remind them that Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston were both Virginians.

For all these reasons and because of all these people, Virginia was key in the Civil War. When Virginia seceded, war was inevitable, and it hit Virginia hard. There were nearly as many battles in Virginia as in all the other states combined. The capital of the Confederacy was here in Richmond. Many of the key generals, like Lee, Johnston, Jackson, Stuart, and Hill were Virginians. The primary industrial and rail infrastructure was in Virginia. So, it was almost inevitable that the Civil War ended . . . in Virginia.

And so it did, one hundred fifty years ago today in Wilmer McLean’s parlor in Appomattox, just over one hundred miles up the James River from Jamestown. So many crucial moments, events, and personalities of our story share this setting.

Our society took root at Jamestown . . . in Virginia.
Our representative government took shape . . . in Virginia.
The founding documents of our national identity took form in the minds of Jefferson, Madison, and Mason . . . in Virginia.
Our independence was secured in at Yorktown . . . in Virginia.
Our nation’s immigrants traveled the Valley and Wilderness Roads . . . in Virginia.
Our union was restored at Appomattox . . . in Virginia.

It’s not just history. It’s my story. It’s your story. It’s our story, and it’s here in Virginia.

So, when I say how proud and happy I am “To Be a Virginian,” you know what I’m saying, right? Because regardless of your current address, if you’re a proud citizen of the United States of America, you have roots in Virginia . . .

. . . maybe on your mother’s side.

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The One and Only Bebo at One Hundred

Her full name was Mary Ellen Davis Jonas, but to my sister, my cousins, and me, she was always Bebo. We can thank my cousin Bill for that memorable moniker. My sister Ginger, the first of four grandchildren, originally called her Memaw, but Billy’s pronunciation came out “Bebo,” and it stuck. Everyone who knew and loved her agrees that it’s appropriate that she had such a distinctive name, because she was one of a kind.

She was born one hundred years ago today, November 20, 1914, in Ivanhoe, Virginia, and she missed living an entire century only by a handful of years. What a century she witnessed! Her lifetime spanned the administrations of seventeen United States presidents, and she approved of the Republicans. Why? Because she blamed the Democrats–Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson–for getting us into wars. So, she was a Republican, and she even had a poster of Richard Nixon on roller skates. “Poor old Tricky Dick,” she would say, “He didn’t do anything worse than the rest of them. He just got caught.”

To put her life in historical context, consider some of the other memorable events of 1914, the year she was born:

  • Babe Ruth made his professional baseball debut.
  • Henry Ford introduced the Model T assembly line.
  • Charlie Chaplin debuted his character The Tramp.
  • Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, beginning Europe’s downward spiral into The Great War, World War I.

Twenty-two days before her fifteenth birthday, the stock market crashed on Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929. The ensuing Great Depression coincided with her teen and young adult years. The seasons of her life that should have been the most fun and carefree were neither. I remember being surprised once when she told us that she had the opportunity to go to Radford College when she graduated from high school, but because she felt the need to help out at home, she chose to forego college. In retrospect, I’m sure that those days of subsistence and survival made college seem somewhat extravagant and fanciful anyway.

Through all the time I knew her, it was clear that the depression era had left its distinct impression upon her. She clearly remembered that time when, in her own way of describing it, “We didn’t have nothing.” Because of that lasting memory, Bebo was not a spender. She cut coupons and checked sale papers, and when she and my grandfather went grocery shopping, they visited several stores and got the things they needed where they were the least expensive. Once when I drove her to the grocery store, she picked up a canister of Morton’s salt, looked at the price tag, and put it back on the shelf with disgust. She couldn’t believe that it cost thirty-three cents, and she wouldn’t buy it because she remembered when it had only cost a nickel.

Because of her frugal nature, she was ahead of her time in reusing and recycling. That’s a polite way of saying that she was a borderline hoarder. She and Granddaddy had three outbuildings–a garage, a wash house, and a shed. All were packed to the gills with stuff she couldn’t part with and/or might need again. The stairway to their bedroom had a passageway only about fifteen inches wide because the stairwell doubled as storage area too. I never really saw the mattress in the other upstairs bedroom because it was covered with things that needed to be kept. Over several visits, I noticed that she rinsed and reused a styrofoam coffee cup from Long John Silver’s. After her Great Depression experience, she was going to be ready for the next “rainy day.”

Her strict self-discipline about her own spending, saving, and keeping, did not translate to strict expectations about her grandchildren’s behavior. My sister and I loved visits to Bebo’s house because it was like stepping outside of the rules for a little while. I remember jumping on the bed in the downstairs bedroom with my cousin Toby as our mothers called from the living room for us to stop. Within the safety zone of Bebo’s house of fun, we began to chant, “We don’t want to! We don’t have to!” We knew that Bebo would come to our defense. “Let ’em have fun,” she would say, usually followed by, “poor little ol’ things don’t know no better.” At Bebo’s house, we could play in the creek all day, go without baths, pee outside, shoot guns, and raid her kitchen cabinets to make what Toby and I called “animal medicine.”

At Bebo’s house, we could say things that were off limits elsewhere. I remember sitting on the porch swing with her one day when I was probably seven or eight years old. My cousin Toby and I were shooting blooms off of  the flowers in the garden with a .22 caliber rifle when she asked us what “dirty words” we knew. The best I had was G-rated, probably things like “butt” and “fart.” She told me that those weren’t any good and shared with me her preference for “shit.” I’m sure I giggled, and if I had any sense, I realized how lucky I was to have a Bebo.

Bebo loved and was very loyal to anything that dated back to her childhood in Ivanhoe. This was especially apparent in her culinary tastes and in her descriptions of her “good ol'” favorites. She loved good ol’ country ham and good ol’ beans and cornbread. Her favorite dessert was cornbread mashed up in a cup of buttermilk. Once as we ate country ham she said, “Ain’t nothing better than ol’ hog, is there?” Without really thinking (poor little old thing, I didn’t know no better), I said, “Well, I guess there are probably some things better.” Those were fighting words. She quickly looked up at me, eye-to-eye, and demanded, “Like what!?” I changed the subject.

Her dietary rule of thumb was “Eat what your appetite calls for.” I guess that’s why I walked into the kitchen late one Thanksgiving night to find her eating some of the fat we had trimmed from the country ham earlier that evening. She was dipping that “ol’ hog” fat into horseradish and enjoying a nice little bedtime snack! I guess that’s what her appetite called for at the moment.

Speaking of appetites, you’d better have one around Bebo. She wanted you to eat, and she wanted you to look like you had been eating. We used to say that if Bebo told you that you looked good, it was probably time to lose some weight. Her habit was to put food on your plate as the meal progressed. I tried to warn my brother-in-law Wayne about that habit the first time he celebrated a holiday at Bebo’s. I told him to get only about half of what he wanted on his plate the first time around, because Bebo was going to provide the refills whether he wanted them or not. Wayne didn’t listen (poor little ol’ thing didn’t know no better), and she loaded him up with substantially more than his appetite called for.

She had a fairly unique home remedy for small maladies. As she would say, “I take me a Contac and a laxative.” I think I’ve figured out her logic–if you had some kind of germ making you sick, the Contac would help you to blow it out your nose and the laxative would help you to blow it out the other end. It’s genius, really.

One of the things that I loved most about Bebo was that she loved her sports! She loved the University of Virginia (“poor ol’ ‘Hoos”). She loved the Washington Redskins (“poor ol’ ‘Skins”). She loved Tommy LaSorda and the Dodgers. She loved any of the good guys and underdogs in professional wrestling (“poor ol’ Igor, Wahoo, etc.). On the other hand, she had no patience for their rivals. The University of North Carolina’s Dean Smith was “ol’ Schnoz” because of his prominent nose. More than once, she let us know that she “despised” the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Yankees. Once, when an announcer had the nerve to refer to wrestler Ric Flair as a “great champion,” Bebo invoked one of her favorite words and said, “Hmmph. He was a shitty champion.”

Bebo drops back to pass!

Bebo drops back to pass!

Of all the pictures I could share of Bebo, this is my favorite, taken when she was about seventy-five years old, as she prepared to throw me a pass in my back yard. How lucky was I to have a grandmother who would play football with me? Through our childhood and teen years, Bebo walked the tightrope between happiness that we grandkids played sports and fear that we would get hurt. That protective streak carried over into our adult lives. As we got ready to leave her house or to end a phone call, she often said, “Don’t let nobody run over you.”

I think she felt run over, or at least knocked sideways by my grandfather’s death in 1990. From that point on, having spent over fifty years as half of a couple, she was never content alone. In many ways, they exemplified the principle of opposites attracting. He was a quiet man. She was not a quiet woman. He was more reserved. She gladly spoke her mind. I guess they were counterweights to each other, and after his death, she was perpetually off-balance. She often talked about “poor old Payton.” She missed him, grieved him, and wanted to be with him.

On her ninety-fifth birthday, surrounded by her kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids, I tried to tease her into making a speech. “Ninety-five years,” I said, “That’s a lot of years to acquire wisdom! What do you have to tell us?” She frowned a little and said, “Well, I’ll tell you this–when I die, just have a graveside service, because I’ve outlived everyone!”

Seven months later, we gathered for that graveside service. I tried to lead the service, though my voice faltered and tears blurred my vision. Years earlier, she had come to hear me preach once, and as she hugged me at the door, she said, “J.B., you’re going to be a good preacher.” I thought I had touched her in some way until she continued, “Look, we’re getting out of here already, and it’s only 11:57!” That June afternoon in the Fletcher Chapel United Methodist Church cemetery, I wished that I could have been a better preacher. But, the tears that kept me from being good that day were tears of love. I guess their tribute was more eloquent than my words anyway.

In this season of Thanksgiving, I’m so grateful to God that Mary Ellen Davis was born one hundred years ago on this day in the little town of Ivanhoe, Virginia. I’m grateful that she and Payton Jonas found each other and spent their lives together. I’m glad that she became my father’s mother and my grandmother.

I believe with all my heart that there are millions of grandmothers out there, but there was only one Bebo. I’m thankful she was mine.

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Recent Distance: Twenty Years

I drove past Tri-State Livestock Market yesterday, and I could hardly believe that twenty years have passed since I stood in its sawdust or leaned against its office counter. Twenty years–nearly half my life! It’s remarkable that I’ve been away so long simply because it was such an important place for the first twenty-three years of my life.

My grandfather, Lloyd Blair, was the market’s founder. It was his little domain, and he was the unquestioned king. On sale days, he sat in the auction box facing the buyers and sellers, occasionally turning to the full-size window behind him to oversee the action in the barn. At times throughout the day, he would walk along the catwalks over the barn–lit Pall Mall in hand–looking every bit the commanding officer inspecting the work of his troops in the pens below where they sorted and herded the livestock into and out of the sale ring.

During the week, the office was his throne room, where he held court with the office staff and with the clients and customers who came to pay or to be paid. Here at the market, he was the tough version of himself. Here, he spoke with authority and with words I never heard him use when my grandmother and mother were around. Here, everyone knew him, most respected him, and some probably even loved him. Here, he was king, and because I was his only grandson, I felt a little like royalty at “the market,” as we always called it.

In the office, I reclined, revolved, and rolled on the squeaky office chairs. I used the rubber stamps to mark dates, “for deposit only,” and “PAID,” on checks and invoices. He teased me because I couldn’t seal a pile of envelopes nearly as quickly as he could. He let me turn the dial to the last number and lift the latch to open the safe, and when no one else was around, he let me make fake announcements on the public address system. I must have put thousands of pieces of scrap paper through the time clock, just so that I could hear the “thump” of the time stamp, and I knew that I should never, ever touch the security alarm button on the underside of the office counter.

In the barn, I ran down the sawdust alleys between pens, dodging the manure piles! I swung (that really is the proper past tense of “swing”) on the heavy wooden gates. As my granddad would have said, I “clumb” (that’s not the proper past tense of “climb”) on the tall wooden fences. He weighed me on the cattle scales, and we walked along the catwalks above the pens together. We proudly called it the largest volume livestock market east of the Mississippi River.

There at the market, I got into the livestock business myself when I bought my first calf just after my ninth birthday. Granddaddy did the bidding, and I used sixty-five dollars of birthday money to buy Puddin’. Over the years after that, I bought and sold several others. In fact, I sold a calf at the market in 1991 to buy the college class ring pictured on my hand at the top of this blog. Soon after that, I worked at the market a few summers to earn a little extra for my college and seminary education. There, in my granddaddy’s kingdom, I was kicked, stomped, butted, and knocked down by nervous animals on several different occasions. I remember thinking how much easier it was in the childhood days of running, climbing, and swinging.

Once, my grandfather sent me down the hill to chase away some penhookers–people who came to buy livestock directly off of someone’s truck before they could be sold in the market, thus depriving the market of its commission. He said, “J.B., you’re the biggest employee I have, and they don’t know you’re in seminary. Go run ’em off!” I did it, but I was glad that they didn’t know I was in seminary and really didn’t want to fight!

Still, I was proud to walk down that hill both as an employee and (as I thought then) as an heir apparent to my grandfather’s life work and legacy. I walked down that hill not only because I worked there, but also because I belonged there.

Things changed, though, and the last day I worked at the market was the last time I was there. That was in the summer of 1994 . . .

 

Just before I drove by the livestock market yesterday, I visited another place that reminded me why I haven’t been to the market for twenty years. Only a few hundred yards away, on the hillside at Forest Hills Memory Gardens, my grandfather’s name is on a bronze marker right beside my grandmother’s. Under his name are two dates–January 20, 1921 and November 14, 1994. How is it possible that tomorrow is the twentieth anniversary of his death?

In some ways, nothing has changed. I can still imagine the sound of his voice. I can still smell the mix of Pall Mall and Old Spice. I can still see his face. Occasionally, he still shows up in one of my dreams.

In some ways, everything has changed. He never met Suzanne or my children. He never knew me in what I now consider my defining roles–father, husband, pastor. He never saw me with gray hair or no hair.

Though the market is still there, it has changed over two decades. The formerly blue building is now brown. Now, the insulation hangs in shreds from the roof of the huge barn. I grin as I remember the motto: “Every hoof under a roof.” Maybe it’s still the largest volume market in the region. I hope it is, but I just can’t make myself care whether it is or not.

It was easy to walk down the hill that summer day long ago because it was his market. It’s difficult to drive up that same hill now precisely because it’s not his market. His absence makes it foreign. Honestly, I don’t even go back very often to the farm where I grew up, because it just isn’t the same without him either. Lots of things aren’t . . .

2nd Lieutenant Blair, I saluted your memory this week on Veteran’s Day.

Mr. Blair, founder, manager, and king of Tri-State Livestock Market, I remembered you with pride yesterday as I drove past your domain.

Granddaddy, I loved you then, I love you now, and I’ll always love you. I wish we had gotten to spend more than twenty-three years together our first time around. I still blame and hate Pall Malls for that.

My consolation is this–as good a time as we had in twenty-three years in your little kingdom on the hill in west Abingdon, just imagine how great a time we’ll have in The Kingdom that never ends.

I’ll see you there.

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Teen: The New Four Letter Word in My Life

Over the weekend, a scary four-letter word became a much more real part of my vocabulary: t-e-e-n! On Saturday, much sooner than I could imagine or prepare for it, my older daughter Grace became a teen, and though I am so proud of the young lady she is becoming, I’m also a little nostalgic for the little girl she no longer is.

Grace was born on the morning of September 13, 2001—almost exactly forty-eight hours after the first of the 9/11 attacks, so of course, for the first few days of her life, news cycles were full of stories about disaster, destruction, death, despair . . .

When I called to tell her that Grace had arrived, my grandmother said, “What a world for a child to be born into!” She made a good point. It was the saddest, scariest, and most anxiety-filled of our nation’s experiences during my lifetime. I remember the feeling–shared by many, I’m sure–that everything had changed, and not for the better. So, maybe we could have wished for a different and better time to welcome our first child into the world.

I looked at the timing of Grace’s birth a little differently, though. In the midst of all that suffering, my little newborn brought a little hope and, well, grace into one of our nation’s darker times. We had chosen her name months in advance, but it took on a deeper meaning and significance in the wake of tragedy.

A couple of years later, Suzanne and I sat in a fertility specialist’s office as he shared some disappointing news: we shouldn’t expect to have another child, short of significant medical intervention like in vitro fertilization, which would improve our chances, but would still leave us with only a chance. I was equally confused and upset. How could he say that we couldn’t have children? Didn’t we have empirical evidence to the contrary? I asked him how he explained the existence of my two year old Grace. His response was, “I don’t know what to tell you. She’s a fluke.”

At first, I was hurt and angry. Had he just dared to call my precious girl a fluke!? Gradually, I absorbed the weight of his words, and I realized that he had just told me that I never really had a right to expect my sweet, beautiful little Grace. The absolute greatest gift in my life to that point had come to us completely against the odds. In only a partial voice, because it was all I could muster at the moment, I said, “In my vocation, we call those miracles.”

And she is a miracle. I know every child is. But she’s my miracle. Through her early years, she has been a bit of a daddy’s girl. She has wanted me near. She has wanted my help. She has enjoyed spending time with me.

Lately, the change that always seemed to be out on the distant horizon has grown closer. She is as tall as her mother (although Suzanne will argue that point when she reads this). She has grown more independent. She no longer needs my help as often as she once did. Though she still tolerates it quite well, she doesn’t seek my company quite as enthusiastically as before. Far more frequently than in any previous season of her life, she worries that I will embarrass her.

In short, now she is a teen. In only a matter of days (or so it will seem), she will learn to drive, and a few brief spins of the earth after that, there will be graduations and college dormitories and a wedding all the unknowns beyond.

As we enter these teen years, I understand that I may be headed for some heartbreak. Friends and relatives tell me that I will soon know very little, but my father assures me that I will be quite smart again once she faces adulthood and all its responsibilities.

Uncomfortable days are ahead as young men notice my young lady. I plan to stand uncomfortably close to each one who comes calling, giving him no other option than to notice my size. Ever the protective father, I will question their motives and intentions, and if they break her heart, I will want to break parts of them.

As she becomes (or imagines she is becoming) increasingly self-sufficient, she will necessarily become (or imagine she is becoming) decreasingly dependent upon me. There will be times when she resents the boundaries I impose and resists the counsel I interject. In the heat of those moments, no doubt she will tell me that she hates me, and in the moment, she might actually believe she does.

I realize it’s coming. I’m trying to enter into these teen years with my eyes wide open. In those painful, hurtful moments, it will be crucial that I remember another four letter word: l-o-v-e. After all, it’s the word that most easily comes to mind as I reflect on the first thirteen years she and I have shared.

Grace, this is what you were meant to do! You were made to grow and to become that beautiful lady that God envisioned when he miraculously knit you together in your mother’s womb! You are uniquely gifted to play a special role in God’s unfolding drama of sharing love and grace with the world! There is a space in this world that only you can fill, and we’re all counting on you to do what God made you to do and to be all that God made you to be!

I confess that I will sometimes miss the little girl, but I also promise that I will always try my best to cherish the young woman that you are becoming. I guarantee that I will always be your biggest fan!

Teen. Even though that word has come into my life before I was prepared, I’m grateful to God that I get to explore that word and season of life with you, sweet Grace. We’re stepping into unknown territory together, but God is already there.

Blogger’s note: an abbreviated version of this post appeared in State Street United Methodist Church’s September newsletter.

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DADitude

Let me begin this post by saying that I have it made. I’ve had the privilege of welcoming two children into my family by birth and two by adoption. I’ve known the best of both worlds. I am humbled and I feel blessed to be the father of all four.

From my unique vantage point as both a birth parent and an adopting parent, I’ve learned that some people–certainly not most–have some inaccurate assumptions about adopted parents and children. In her wonderful book The Spirit of Adoption: at Home in God’s Family, Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner suggests that every adoption involves both grief and gift. For some couples, there is the grief of infertility. For some birth parents, there is the grief of poverty or some other circumstance that makes adoption seem the best choice for their child. For some children, there is the grief of abandonment or rejection. But for all adopting families, there is the gift of love, the gift of finding each other.

Some people–again, certainly not most–focus way too much on the grief.

One night this week, for instance, I was in a local business with my sons, Brett & Micah, who just happen to be my two adopted children. An acquaintance who knew that we had been expecting another birth child asked if our “bundle of joy” had arrived yet. I very proudly said that we have a six week old beautiful baby girl named Sage.

My acquaintance said, “Well! Two boys and two girls . . . now you’re even.” She continued, “I guess that’s the good news.” I sensed that she might have more to say on the subject.

She didn’t disappoint. She continued, “But the bad news is that you don’t have a true son.”

I’m sure my mouth dropped wide open for a moment before I quickly recovered and said, “Oh, I have two true sons, and now I’m just thrilled to have two true daughters too!”

I quickly looked at my sons to see whether they had heard the conversation, but–thank you Lord Jesus–they were blissfully unaware. They hadn’t been paying attention at all.

It’s not the first time I’ve found myself smack in the middle of an awkward conversation about my sons. No doubt it won’t be the last. The difficult thing for me is that my boys are growing up quickly and eventually they’re going to hear and be affected by someone’ s thoughtless comments.

Suzanne and I have had several years to get used to them. Our sons are natives of Guatemala, and Suzanne and I are fairly noticeably Caucasian. Across the years, some people have very helpfully pointed that out to us. Very early on in our lives as adopting parents, we named these encounters “ethnic moments,” or “EMs” for short.

There was the time that Suzanne had both of our boys in a shopping cart and a woman asked, “What are they?” Suzanne replied, “Boys.”

On another occasion, a woman in the checkout line at the grocery store went out of her way to say how precious they were. She then leaned down close to them and said, “Hola!” and every other Spanish word or phrase she knew.

A man in the McDonald’s playground once asked me, “Them your boys?” I assured him that they were, and he seemed puzzled. His next comment? “They look Indian.”

One of the most innocent ethnic moments I’ve experienced was at the primary school lunch table when I was eating with Micah. One of his classmates asked, “Are you Micah’s dad?” I said, “I sure am!” She looked at us both and said, “Your wife must be Mexican.”

I understand that we don’t look alike. I further understand that some–certainly not most–people are slightly confounded by that. But let me assure you that from my perspective (and, I feel confident, from my sons’ perspectives too), that no one needs to feel sorry for us. I feel pretty sure that my boys don’t feel let down by having me as their dad, and I know beyond any shadow of doubt that I feel blessed beyond description to call them my sons.

Genes are simply overrated. As I have often said, being my adopted sons means that Brett & Micah might have a chance to avoid inheriting my epilepsy, my baldness, and my unreasonable stubbornness. They might not inherit my best traits, but neither do they inherit my worst. They are their own persons, which is what we want for all of our children, after all. Right?

There is a faulty but common assumption that every man wants a “chip off the old block” and is somehow saddened or–God forbid–disappointed if he doesn’t have a birth son. Just as some people with really good intentions express their sympathy that my sons are adopted, some people–certainly not most–want to console me for having two birth children, both of whom happen to be daughters.

I remember sharing with another acquaintance this summer that Suzanne and I had learned we were having another girl. He let out a groan of disappointment and lamented, “I was hoping you would get to have a son with your genes!”

Again, let me assure the world that there is no reason to feel sorry for me. I have two absolutely beautiful daughters, and I cannot imagine or dream it any other way!

So, as I said earlier, some people–certainly not most–focus way too much on the grief, whether it’s real or perceived, and whether it relates to birth or adoption.

When it comes to my kids, however, I focus on the gift. I am immeasurably blessed, and I thank God every day for the privilege of having a part in the lives of Grace, Brett, Micah, and Sage. Each is equally my child. Each has an equal share of my heart. Each is a unique and priceless gift from God.

Don’t feel sorry for me. I’ve got it made.

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The Micah Adventure

Six years ago today, on Monday, December 4, 2006, in the lobby of the Hotel San Carlos in Guatemala City, I held Micah for the first time.

Ten months earlier, on February 9, I was in the middle of a typical Thursday in my office at Sulphur Springs United Methodist Church when I received an absolutely unexpected telephone call. The caller was Nancy Brown, a Christian World Adoption case manager  who had helped facilitate Brett’s adoption, and when I heard her voice, I had an immediate sense of guilt. I automatically assumed that she was calling because I had forgotten to complete some post-adoption form or another. Little did I know . . .

After asking how all of us had adjusted over the past nine months since Brett had come home, she got to the heart of the matter. “The real reason for my call,” she began, “is that Brett’s birth mother has had another child, and if you and Suzanne are interested in adopting him too, we want you to have the first opportunity.” Without thinking much, I said, “Yes, absolutely, I think we’ll want to adopt him.” After engaging my brain for a moment, I continued, “But let me ask Suzanne first.”

She went on to tell me that he had been born eight days earlier on February 1, my sister Ginger’s birthday. I remember thinking to myself what a neat coincidence that was–especially since his older brother Brett had been born on January 20, my grandfather’s birthday. She knew that his initial health assessments had been good, but she didn’t know much more. Since she needed to gather more information and I needed to talk to Suzanne, we agreed to talk again the following Monday.

Meanwhile, Suzanne was at the Johnson City Mall. When I called her cell phone, I asked if there might be a mall bench nearby and suggested that she might want to sit. I think I scared her half to death! Our conversation went something like this:

Jonathan: “Brett has a brother.”

Suzanne: “No he doesn’t.”

Jonathan: “Yes he does. His birth mother has had another child–a boy, born eight days ago.”

Suzanne: “Are you serious?”

Jonathan: “Yes, and we need to decide by Monday whether we want to adopt him.”

At this point in the conversation, I feel confident that Suzanne was glad I had encouraged her to sit.

Over the weekend, we talked about it a lot, but there were also extended silences between us during which each could tell the other was lost in thought. We talked about the dynamics of having three young children, as opposed to two. We talked about the fact that Brett and Micah were exactly twelve months and twelve days apart. Realizing firsthand (with the debt to prove it) that adoption is expensive, we talked about money.

But we also talked about the blessing of having three children. We talked about how potentially helpful it would be for them to have a possible genetic match if (God forbid!) either should need a transplant or donor in the future. We talked about how difficult it would be to look Brett in the eye in future years and to tell him that we had declined an opportunity to adopt his birth sibling. Decision made. We would adopt him.

Inevitably, we talked about possible names and agreed that Micah was our top choice, and when I spoke with Nancy on Monday, I discovered that his birth mother had given him the name Michael. Too close for coincidence, this was the work of God. Decision confirmed! Micah would be our son.

Micah's big smile

Micah in our Guatemala City hotel room

Unfortunately, most adoption documents have a shelf life of eighteen months, two short of the twenty months that had elapsed since we completed our documentation for Brett’s adoption. I’ve often joked that adoption is a part-time job, with all the hours spent completing forms, arranging home studies, scheduling appointments for finger-printing, and in this instance, moving to a new home, community, and congregation.

So it was after a very busy ten months of preparation that I held Micah for the first time on December 4, 2006. Because we had only a few days’ notice before our appointment at the U.S. embassy in Guatemala City, the only seats available on that Monday morning flight were first class. We gulped over the price, but we had to do what we had to do. After arriving in Guatemala City, we took the short taxi ride to the hotel to await Micah’s arrival that afternoon.

Our room overlooked the hotel parking lot and from my vantage point at the window, I watched as a woman steered a compact car into the lot with her left hand as she kept a baby from falling out of the front passenger seat into the floor with her right hand. With wide eyes and raised eyebrows, I said to Suzanne, “I think he’s here.”

In the lobby, we met the smiling woman holding a crying boy. His eyes were red and puffy from crying, and having witnessed only the last few seconds of his car ride, I imagined what the rest of the trip might have been like. I probably would have cried too! Suzanne held him and talked to him, and his crying subsided. He bonded with her quickly! She fed him a bottle, and he seemed perfectly at peace in her arms. Then it was my turn to hold him.

One of our very first photos of Micah

One of our very first photos of Micah

I would love to report that he looked into my eyes and felt a natural sense of connection. It would be nice to be able to say that it was love at first sight, that he trusted me immediately. The truth is that he screamed–loudly–and reached for Suzanne, a scene that would be repeated regularly over the next couple of days. He was mommy’s boy, and he made that clear to me.

So, Suzanne held Micah, and I held the camera, the documents, the stroller, or whatever else we had at the moment. We took care of business at the embassy and were ready to bring Micah home . . .

. . . until Micah vomited the night before our return trip. Then Suzanne’s stomach started to rumble. Then mine did. What was supposed to be our last night in Guatemala turned into a long, tortuous night, leaving all three of us exhausted, completely out of strength. I called the airline early in the morning to reschedule our flight, and for the second time in a week, we gulped over the price, but we had to do what we had to do. From our hotel room window, Suzanne and I watched with tears in our eyes as the Delta flight to Atlanta rose into the sky and disappeared from sight that afternoon.

Throughout that day, one of us occupied Micah while the other rested. We ordered toast and Sprite from the room service menu, unconcerned that it cost nine dollars. To give Suzanne a chance to rest, I carried Micah for ten or fifteen minutes at a time through the lobby. Frankly, it was all my tired body could handle. As we walked, I whispered to him things like, “You and I are going to be big buddies if you give me a chance.” We’ve been bonding ever since.

Micah finally warmed up to me.

Micah finally warmed up to me.

Our homecoming was overwhelming. A couple dozen of our  family, friends, and church members stayed up late to welcome Micah home at Knoxville’s McGhee Tyson airport. We were humbled to learn that several friends from Sulphur Springs who didn’t know we had changed flights drove a long way to Knoxville both nights to meet Micah.

But he was worth it. If you’ve ever met Micah, you know that he’s memorable. He’s a mold-breaker. There’s nothing he can’t do. Just ask him. He’s confident, courageous, and competitive. He is also caring, compassionate, and even protective. Above all, he is so lovable!

And I love him so much. I always have. From the moment he burst into my life in that unexpected telephone call, to the moment he served me notice in that hotel lobby that he would choose who held him, through all the moments since and all the moments to come, he is my Micah.

He has been an adventure from the start, and I cannot wait to see what lies ahead in this adventure that is Micah.

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