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.