Issue 13.2 – Nonfiction

Issue 13 - Nonfiction (2)

As I stared at the dark gray wall before me, I imagined this home’s listing Realtor standing here with his clients, watching their confused expressions as they considered the riddle I now pondered. He’d know exactly what they were going to say—the same thing everyone who looked at this house must say.

“Why did they build a wall here? They blocked off the sliding glass door from the family room so there’s no way out to the back yard.”

The Realtor would shrug, having no explanation for the previous owners’ odd remodeling decisions.

Even as a foreclosure, this home would be difficult to sell—because of that curious wall.

***

Twenty years earlier

“This was an act of love.”

The voice wasn’t audible, but it intruded so clearly into the midnight silence that it might as well have been. I stopped my rocking chair in mid-arc, planting my feet into the carpet in the dark living room. It certainly wasn’t my voice—or my thought. Today’s events had resembled love less than anything I could imagine.

The words interrupted my mental replay of the day’s horror. I had laid my sleeping fourteen-month-old daughter, Acacia, on the living room floor while I prepared lunch. Despite the two little coughs I heard from the other room, I kept sautéing the vegetables—only for two more minutes. Then I checked on Acacia.

I shrieked. She was limp and purple! My husband came running, dropped to his knees, and began CPR. Frantic, I called 911. My heart beat a steady rhythm of panic: “No! No! No! Please, no!”

As we followed behind the ambulance, I desperately prayed for a miracle. Surely the trained EMTs with their lifesaving technology could resuscitate her. From the day of her birth—when I hadn’t even realized she was a Down Syndrome baby—and every single day since, I had poured my life into Acacia. She couldn’t be snatched away from us now.

But in a sterile room at the hospital, our fears were confirmed. She was gone. Gently the doctor consoled us, assuring my husband—a health professional himself—that administering CPR had been a commendable, if futile, effort. Even highly skilled paramedics rarely bring someone back who has stopped breathing. I didn’t dare look meet my husband’s eyes. The devastation there would only mirror my own anguish.

Was I now, twelve hours later, hearing from God? The God who had failed to show up in our moment of deepest need? Was this His outrageous answer—that Acacia’s death was an act of love?

I grappled with the implausible concept. “How so?”  I responded silently. “Do you know what this feels like? This ache so deep that caverns and canyons could never contain a fraction of it? Like I’ve lost a part of myself?”

As soon as I lashed out at God with those unspoken words, I cringed at my audacity. Of course, God knew. God the Father had felt this pain and more when His only Son called out for help from the cross. And though He knew what was coming, God chose to endure that agony for my sake.

He that spared not his own son, but delivered him up for us all.

I remembered the verse—I’d memorized it in vacation Bible school almost thirty years before. But now, for the first time, I grasped its meaning as only a bereaved parent can. I still couldn’t understand how having my daughter taken away could be an act of love, but a sliver of understanding glimmered. God wouldn’t lavish his love on me by giving His Son for me—and then turn around and deliberately harm me. That would be even more implausible.

The next day, I called Lanette. Before Acacia was born, long before I knew she had Down Syndrome, I had chosen the middle name Lanette for her, after one of the most compassionate women I knew. Years earlier, Lanette’s daughter Rachel, who also had a chromosome disorder, had died after spending months in NICU.

I tearfully poured out the news of Acacia’s death, then asked, “How did you handle it? Losing Rachel?”

“Read the whole book of Job,” she advised. “And Psalm 139:16. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. As short as Rachel’s life was, it was exactly the length God wanted it to be. Not one day more or one day less.”

“Wow,” I said. “What a beautiful thought.” Acacia had lived all the days that God had ordained for her. I let that comfort wrap around me.

A week or so after the funeral, offers of support and outpourings of sympathy thinned to a trickle. Errands I could no longer avoid demanded my attention. I had to go on with life. As my five-year-old hopped into the back seat and buckled herself in, I loaded my three-year-old son into the booster seat. Only one car seat now. Only two children. My chest tightened, and I felt my lips curving downward. Smiling and laughing were foreign languages now, beyond my ability to comprehend, let alone attempt.

As I snapped the buckle and tousled Joshua’s silky blond hair, worry for Mommy clouded his blue eyes. Could I do this to him? Raise him under a shroud of sorrow, like a little mushroom destined never to bask in the sunshine? I forced my lips upward. Those muscles still functioned, despite the weight of a punishing atmosphere bearing down on me. Joshua’s little white teeth gleamed back, and I feigned my real smile. He bought it. The sparkle returned to his eyes.

As life resumed for us, my husband and I envisioned the years ahead—years that no longer included Acacia—and reimagined our future. Looming before us was a day we dreaded: May 23, the anniversary of Acacia’s death. The following day, my birthday, would merit no rejoicing. I could never celebrate my birthday again.

One hope made the future easier to contemplate. Since both my husband and I came from large families, we had always wanted six or more children. Another child could never replace Acacia, but if we had a new baby when the one-year point came round, that dreaded day might be more bearable.

So my husband and I each prayed—individually, not together—that God would give us a new baby before the year was up. Despite having met at Bible college, we weren’t very compatible spiritually, especially after Acacia’s death. I only learned that he, too, had been praying for a child when I told him I was pregnant. The due date: May 10. Perfect.

***

“When’s the baby due?” When the date has come and gone, that can be an awkward question. And we heard it more than once.

“Any time now,” I answered.

“Any day but May 23,” my husband replied.

God must have rolled His eyes.

At 6:00 a.m. on May 23, I shook my husband awake to tell him I was in labor. He buried his face in his palms. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

Smiling at God’s sense of humor, I called our midwife.

Sylvia arrived in the early afternoon. More than a midwife, she was a dear Christian woman whose authentic faith permeated her life and her art. She had not only delivered Acacia at our home, but she had comforted us during Acacia’s first difficult days and then again at her death.

This time we expected things to move quickly since it was my fourth birth. But labor stalled. Trying to speed things up, Sylvia pulled every option out of her midwifery bag of tricks. In the late afternoon, she and I walked a four-block circuit around the neighborhood—with me stopping and leaning against her whenever a pain came. But the contractions couldn’t break through that invisible five-minute barrier.

At one point in the evening, Sylvia disappeared. She told me later that she finally sensed what the problem was. She pulled my husband into a private room and said, “You’ve got to allow this baby to come. You’re holding things back.”

He told her he wanted to be able to curse May 23 always.

Sylvia bristled. “You don’t get to do that. Stop thinking that way. God has better plans for this day.”

They returned to my side, and labor sped up. With plastic under me and lining the floor, I lay on the couch in the lower level family room. But after almost two extra weeks in the oven, Baby was bigger than any of my previous three.

“It’ll never come out this way,” Sylvia said. She spread some plastic behind the couch and pointed. “Get on your hands and knees, right there.”

I obeyed. I pushed. At ten-thirty a hefty baby boy emerged, born on the floor. We called him Isaac, which means laughter. Best early birthday present ever.

After that, whenever I told people how Isaac was born on the anniversary of Acacia’s death, I could see them shiver with awe. For me, it was healing to know that both life and death are in God’s hands.

In the year between Acacia’s death and Isaac’s birth, I had often skirted past the closed door of a room in my memory. Occasionally, I allowed myself to enter and review the events surrounding Acacia’s death. The could-haves and should-haves were overwhelming, often debilitating. But now, with the uncanny correlation of the two dates, I felt as if God had cordoned off that mental crime scene. Any investigations into how Acacia died were in His hands now. He gave me permission to move on.

***

One way we moved on from Acacia’s death was by moving. When Isaac was two, we sold the home where he was born in Savage, Minnesota, and built a spacious home on fourteen acres an hour farther north. That’s where we raised our growing family—two more children after Isaac. Unfortunately, my husband and I continued to grow apart. Years of marriage therapy proved unsuccessful.

Under the terms of the divorce, I had to sell the home we’d built. I started having strange dreams about our modest split-level house in Savage—the house where Acacia died. Each dream became more disturbing. In one, a second-story dog kennel had been tacked on above the room where Sylvia had taken my husband aside during Isaac’s birth. Making my way down the ramp away from the chain-link enclosure, my stomach flipped to hear neighbors gossiping about me—that I had recently lost a child. My cheeks flamed with shame.

In every dream the house had been strangely modified. Curious, I tried looking up our former home online. To my surprise, I found it: for sale, and in foreclosure. I squinted at picture after picture. A huge addition had enlarged it dramatically. Still, the photos were unlike anything I had dreamed.

On Christmas Eve I dreamed Isaac and I were in our old home’s utility room. A confusing array of tanks and pipes spread into the ceiling of the adjacent part of the family room where the sliding-glass-door walkout was. I woke up bewildered and upset. Would these dreams ever stop? Maybe God wanted me—and Isaac, since he was in this dream—to see the house in person.

Imposing on the house’s listing Realtor didn’t feel right—I would be wasting his time. But nine months earlier, when I put my home on the market, I had reconnected with Winston, a close friend from high school who worked in real estate. Over lunch, catching up on each other’s lives, we had discovered we’d each lost a daughter with Down Syndrome. When I asked him, Winston graciously agreed to show me the house in Savage.

***

Tomorrow I’d see the home I’d dreamed about a dozen times over the last year. Twenty years had passed since Acacia’s death. I still believed what God had told me on the night she died and on the night Isaac was born. But going through a divorce had made me more self-aware, and I could now face my own flaws more honestly. On that fateful day I hadn’t followed my motherly instincts. When I realized early that morning that Acacia’s respiratory infection was worsening, I should have taken her to the emergency room. But I thought my husband should make that call. I abdicated. Yes, God was ultimately in control, but I made a fatal mistake that day.

Guilt was stalking me again, compelling me back to the scene of the crime.

As I envisioned the layout of the split-level home and what had happened there, a chill spread through my body. During all those years, I had never realized it until that moment. The place in the living room where Acacia passed away was directly above the spot in the lower level where I crouched on my hands and knees to deliver Isaac. So it wasn’t just the date that linked Isaac’s birth with Acacia’s death—there was a spatial alignment as well. Perhaps this was what my dreams had been trying to tell me.

Dave, my friend’s husband, agreed to see the house with us. After Winston let Dave, Isaac, and me into the house, we toured the addition on the upper level first. Although the workmanship wasn’t high quality, the layout made sense. But when we descended the stairs and entered the lower level family room, I did a double take. Ahead of us to our right, a doorless dark gray wall extended from the utility room’s interior wall, splitting the family room in half. Now an ugly, almost unusable space, this room no longer connected to the back yard through the sliding glass doors.

I gripped the knob of the utility room door. Would I find the mass of tanks and pipes I’d seen in my dream? No, it was just as it had been—except that it opened near the back wall allowing entry from the sliding glass doors that had once been part of the family room. So in an eerily symbolic way, the utility room did overflow into the adjoining space as it had in my dream.

Confused, we pondered the strange configuration. Who does that? Who connects their walkout entry to their furnace room? Now only an oddly isolated little room had access to the back yard. We returned to the family room and faced the gray wall.

Dave furrowed his brow. “What could they have been thinking?”

I shrugged. “Why block off the back yard? The best thing about a split-level home like this is the walkout.”

“No wonder it hasn’t sold.” Dave looked around the now-narrow room. “It’s a very strange remodel.”

I imagined the unfortunate listing Realtor mystifying client after client with the ridiculous wall.

“Anyway,” I said, turning to Isaac and pointing to the other side of the room, “there’s where our couch was—where you were supposed to be born. But Sylvia made me come back here…” With my arm I drew the path to where Sylvia told me to kneel, ending—

Right where the nonsensical wall now stood!

My gaze followed the wall up to the ceiling. Directly above, Acacia had died. A shiver passed from my shoulders down to my toes. I met Isaac’s eyes. “This wall connects the exact spot where Acacia died with the exact spot where you were born.”

The three of us stood there silently as that truth settled onto us.

This mysterious wall had a divine purpose that I alone would recognize. God’s message—the part He had taught me so many years ago and the part I had only figured out the previous day—faced me squarely. Now the lesson was tangible. God was intimately present in my life, orchestrating not just the time, but also the place—within inches—of Isaac’s birth and Acacia’s death.

Something—Someone?—had inspired the previous owner to document in the material world that invisible truth by erecting this counterintuitive wall.

Recently I looked up the Savage house online again. A few months after we visited, it finally sold. Updated photos show that the wall has been removed, and a lovely family room with walkout access to a new patio now graces the lower level. Since the curious wall turned out to be short-lived, I’m glad I accepted God’s timely invitation to my own private showing of His handiwork.

As others, too, have found, God communicates in surprising ways. Through a series of dreams and a rekindled high school friendship, God brought me back to the house where He had previously spoken to me of His love. Because of the trauma of my divorce and selling my home, I especially needed that reminder. From now on, I’ll try to remember. Things that seem horribly wrong, like the death of a child—or stupidly pointless, like a wall that leaves you with no way out—can be something else entirely. They can be acts of love from the hand of God.


Rebecca Hope.jpgRebecca May Hope is an Adjunct English Professor for North Central University and in Minneapolis and the University of Northwestern in St. Paul. She also teaches middle and high school English at YEAH Academy and writes for eNotes.com as an online educator. Her short stories have appeared in Sixfold and TwoSistersWriting.com. When not teaching, writing, or reading, Rebecca loves spending time with her five children, walking her rambunctious ninety-pound Labradoodle, and pampering her Ragdoll cat. Find her author page and blog at RebeccaMayHope.com.

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