Tuesday, April 23, 2013

How About a Romantic Story?

The day I first held Joy’s hand was in Central Park on June 2, 1997. But before I take you to that moment, I need to back up a year.

It was the last week of my last year of college. I leaned across the sprawling front bench seat of my 1983 Chevy Caprice Classic and planted an innocent peck on her cheek. We had never been romantic up to that point. She totally didn’t see it coming. I instantly knew I had overstepped. But her smile said, “It’s OK. I forgive you.”

Within hours after that regrettable peck, I moved 600 miles east to live and work in New York City. We exchanged letters (yes, paper ones) for a year. Our letters weren’t sappy at all. We just tried to make each other laugh about life. During that year, we even dated other people off and on.

The prospect of our relationship ever being more than it was seemed impossible. We both knew it would never go anywhere. The affections were there, but the circumstances were simply stacked against us.

Until, as providence would have it, she landed a summer internship at the midtown Manhattan company where I worked, and would be coming in June for the summer. When I got the news that she was coming, I somehow knew that my one constant friend and pen pal—whose letters had always made me laugh—would be making me laugh for a lifetime.

Back to June 2, 1997. It was a picture perfect day in New York. We had made plans to spend a Saturday together as casual friends, seeing the city that was still somewhat new to me, and even newer to her.

We were standing on a subway platform that morning, waiting for the next train, when a disheveled black street artist approached us. He had a large pad of white paper in one hand, and a few fat Crayola markers in the other.

He didn’t say much, if my memory serves me. He just stood there, drawing. Not two minutes later, he tore off the top sheet and offered it to me. On it, he had messily but masterfully drawn each of our profiles in green, facing opposite directions, inside a giant orange heart. Under the heart, he had scrawled

Love Forever

and his signature, in orange.

Upon seeing it, we both blushed and looked down at the empty train tracks, smiling speechless. I took the picture from him and gave him a $20 bill. I rolled it up and tucked it under my arm. We barely looked at each other, and laughed nervously, as he walked away. Within seconds, the A train arrived and we were on our way uptown.

Like her move to New York, that moment on the subway platform was completely unexpected, yet eerily prophetic in my heart the moment it happened. I'd thought I would know Joy well enough to know I loved her before the summer was over. But I ended up knowing before the day was over.

Later that beautiful afternoon, as we took a leisurely stroll through Central Park, laughing and talking with the drawing still rolled up under my arm, I reached over and slid my hand into hers. We both seemed to float off the ground at that moment. There was no doubt that it was the right time.

We’ve always kept that picture. The paper has deteriorated to an ugly yellow. The heart and the words are almost completely invisible. But our profiles are still easy to see.

Just like real life, a lot has changed in the picture, but we’re still strong.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Some Life Returns

Spring is no longer flirting with us, and has fully unfurled her beauty.

Flowering trees are bursting with more blooms than their branches can handle, leaving the ground under them sugared with the excess of their glory.

Every inch of virgin grass looks almost artificial—dotted with taller, thicker clumps where machines have yet to raze them flat. The broadleaf still slumber, making every lawn look like its owner spent a fortune on it. Random stands of Daffodils flank hedges like imperial guards surrounding a stronghold. Birds serenade the morning, celebrating this great awakening.

Some life has returned. But not all.

For the fifth Spring, her body still sleeps beneath the soil, under a plush stand of new grass once again. I drive past the graveyard daily before dawn, and gaze out over the sea of cold granite markers. I remember her warm smile. Her cry. Her laugh. She sleeps among the hundreds like her who once smiled, cried and laughed.

I remember how taking care of her broken body was more than we could handle most days. How grace was our only solace, and wellspring of sanity. How most days, we would leave every ounce of ourselves on the kitchen floor before collapsing into bed—only to be awakened by her night cries for help.

During her eight years of life, we reached such high highs and low lows, living from surgery to surgery, with barely a banal moment. When life is that frenzied, you long for uneventful, dull normalcy—boredom.

Today, five Springs later, her body sleeps on, while her spirit is away. I’m not sure where Paradise is exactly, but I know she is there.

One day, we will sleep, too. Our spirits will cross the same river, and she will welcome us in to join the feast she has long been enjoying at the feet of Jesus.

Until then, we lean on that same Jesus, by whose might we are able to even stand up in the meantime. It’s a lifetime of picking up pieces, sorting through ashes, groaning inwardly as we await the redemption of our own bodies. This will go on, no matter how long we live.

Some life has returned. But only One was human.

So I look to the One whose life returned. Who went before me, and conquered death. Who understands my grief.

The One Who, each Spring, surrounds me with reminders that He isn’t done raising the dead.

How about you? How does the arrival of Spring, and new life, affect your grief over a lost loved one? Is it a painful reminder, or a hopeful one?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Today Would Have Been Her 13th Birthday

Today, with heaviness of heart, we remember what would have been our first daughter Elli's 13th birthday. 

Elli went home to Jesus on October 19, 2008. This photo is me holding Elli just hours, maybe minutes, after she was born at 8:17 a.m. on February 26, 2000.

Below is what Joy and I co-wrote for the programs we distributed at Elli's wake, the night before her funeral. We wrote it in the first 24 agonizing hours after she died, with her wheelchair sitting empty in the living room, and her bedclothes still fragrant from the sweet flowery scent of her last bath. 

Our hope was to help people truly experience who Elli was—even those who may not have known her well. I hope that in reading it, you'll get a glimpse of the girl who forever changed our lives before God took her back home.

Elli, just a few weeks before she died unexpectedly in her sleep.
Elli Renee Bennett went home to be with the Lord during the early morning hours on Sunday, October 19, 2008.  In His great mercy, God chose to gently and quietly call her home in her sleep, with no apparent distress or suffering. In this time of anguish and weeping, we are deeply grateful for that.

Elli had life-threatening congenital heart defects that left her fighting for her life from the day she was born. A lack of oxygen and critical illness shortly after her birth left her with severe cerebral palsy and many other physical challenges. She never ceased to amaze the many doctors and nurses who cared for her throughout her life. Despite dire predictions, she clawed her way back from death’s door countless times.

Despite her many physical challenges, Elli’s mental faculties were intact. She was a bright girl who had amazing abilities, even though she could not walk, talk or do anything for herself. We and countless gifted people devoted ourselves to finding ways for her to demonstrate those abilities in ways that everyone could understand. She learned to communicate with a touch-screen computer and had begun learning to read. While this process of learning often led us through seasons of frustration, we took such pleasure in the priceless moments of delight when she mastered something new.

Using her communication device to talk
Elli enjoyed music from birth. We played music constantly when we were in the hospital, in the car, and at home. When she was a baby, her favorite songs were the ones with hand motions. 

As she grew older, she constantly requested either Veggie Tales music or praise and worship music. And when we would sing in church, she would smile from ear to ear, and then loudly protest when we stopped.

More recently, Scott began singing 80s pop music to her. She pretty much loved anything her daddy sang to her.

Everywhere she went, Elli made friends. The therapists who came to our home when she started Early Intervention still remember her today. She loved going to the Aaron W. Perlman Center and learning to use computers, communication devices, and power chairs. 

Singing a goofy song to make her laugh, 2 years old
One of her favorite things was swimming and playing in the water. She participated in aquatic physical therapy on a regular basis, and enjoyed every minute. She was able to control her body so much better in the water ­– walking, swimming, and playing games with her swimming buddies. 

At school, Elli never lacked for volunteer helpers among her classmates. She competed in the Special Olympics in first and second grade, and rang bells in her second grade music concert with the help of a classmate.

Elli was a pretty typical kid, too. She grumbled at her siblings over which video to watch and complained when she didn’t get her choice. She would hear someone mention McDonald’s, immediately go to her McDonalds touch-screen page, and request a yogurt parfait. She was very sensitive to anyone hurt or upset around her, and would weep with those who wept.

Sunday afternoon in the hammock, summer 2008
Through the ups and the downs, the terrifying moments and the serene, the frustrations and the laughs, Elli was an ever-present reminder that God makes no mistakes. He orchestrates all things for His greater plan and purpose, even the things that don’t make sense to us in the here and now. 

Elli’s little life changed so many lives permanently. Her radiant smile shining right through her challenges has been one of the greatest blessings to so many people. 

You may ask: “Why does God allow suffering in the world?”  To have people in the world with Elli’s joy, shining through such profound limitations, can glorify God more than almost anything in the world, apart from God’s own gracious, spiritual presence with us.

Elli, you are a precious gift of heaven. You have left God with us.

If you would like to participate in honoring Elli's memory, please consider what you might give to a fund we established in her name, Find a Voice: The Elli Bennett Memorial Fund. In partnership with Cincinnati Children's Hospital, all donations to the fund go toward the purchase of assistive communication devices for kids like Elli, who cannot speak. Most health insurance providers do not pay for these devices, leaving many kids without the help they need to communicate.