Met a new friend on the internet the other day and his story really drew me in. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Thank you Jack Hairston for sharing!
Dark eyes the color of steel bore into mine with an intensity that chilled me. The stark white surgical cap and mask could not hide the look I saw in the doctor’s eyes. It was like looking into a child’s kaleidoscope except that, instead of changing colors, I saw changing emotions—fear, pity, stress, fatigue, and back to fear again.
“How is she?” I asked.
“Your wife,” he stammered. “I hate to be the one to tell you that she did not survive the procedure.”
He would make a good insurance salesman or undertaker, I thought. He got the idea across without ever saying the hated words, “She’s dead.”
I stood there dumbfounded. The church elder’s hand on my shoulder was my only connection to reality. “What?” My brain denied what my ears had just heard. Vi couldn’t be dead. I saw her just an hour ago, and she was fine.
“The blood clot,” the surgeon tightened his fists. “It moved so quickly. It passed by before we could install the filter.”
That was the plan? I blinked, sure my eyes would refocus. My wife was in surgery. Why was the surgeon out here in the waiting room? Oh yes, the blood clot in her knee. It needed to be dissolved, but if they just dissolved the part that held it in place, it would pass into larger and larger veins, with nothing to stop it.
“There was nothing we could do.” The doctor’s hands were rubbing each other as if he were still scrubbing them before surgery. “The clot sped to her heart where it exploded into thousands of smaller clots that plugged her lungs. Her death was instantaneous. We gave her heart a shot of adrenaline to restart it, but there was nothing we could do to save her.”
Wave after wave of shock pummeled me, eroding the confidence I’d had when we entered the hospital. Just minutes earlier, I had distracted myself by calculating how long it would take to pay the hospital. We had no insurance, and no savings. I was a graduate student, juggling both a full load of chemistry classes, teaching assignments, and a minimum wage job. The doctors had been so confident. “Ninety-five percent success rate,” he had said, beforehand. Had I any indication of the risk of my wife’s surgery, I would’ve been on my knees, begging for Vi’s life.
The surgeon ushered me into a small room. He handed me several sheets of paper. “If you sign this waiver, we will cancel all surgical and medical fees.” My blank stare must’ve clued him to my confusion. “In situations like this, the hospital has a special fund to take care of all charges,” he confided. “As long as the doctors agree to waive their fees. Just sign here. And here. And here.”
I lifted the pen and signed my name. Years later, I realized that he was petrified that I might sue for wrongful death, loss of consortium, and other legalese that I still don’t understand. Any document signed under such stressful conditions would never be legally binding. He had no way of knowing that I’m not that kind of guy.
“You okay?” the elder said when I came back into the waiting room.
I probably mumbled some non-answer. The next weeks are still covered by a thick fog. It was unthinkable to be a widower at 24 years old.
How had this happened? Tears welled up in my eyes as I thought of the infection my wife had contracted six months earlier when she had delivered our little girl, our precious baby. Stillborn..
More than a year before, when I came home after a long day of undergraduate classes, followed by work, Vi met me at the door. “We’re gonna have a baby,”
“We’re what?” Sometimes the simplest ideas have a hard time penetrating, if they are unexpected.
Talk about strong mixed feelings! Vi and I had been married less than a year. We had met in the Pepperdine College chorus where we both sang. I planned to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in nine months, and then pursue PhD in chemistry. Children were not in the plan until after I graduated and started making big bucks—not now, not while we had to stretch our budget to cover cornflakes and macaroni and cheese. That had been the plan. Now I needed to sit down with a clean sheet of paper to come up with a new plan.
“A baby,” Vi whispered, her face glowing. She sat on my lap, tracing her finger along my jaw line. “I know this is a surprise, but a baby, honey. Can you believe it?” She placed my hand on her abdomen.
No, I couldn’t believe it. I was a chemist, not a biologist, but still I was fascinated with the complexity of creation. The replication of the fertilized egg intrigued me. It was exciting, all right, but not entirely in a good sense. Oh well, that’s why God gave us hormones. We’ll work this out, too.
“You’re grinning,” Vi said as I hugged her.
I pulled back to see her matching grin. “We’re having a baby.”
The pregnancy proceeded normally until Vi neared her due date. The day came and went. No baby.
“Typical,” the doctor said. “Especially with first time moms.”
When the days stretched to a week without any signs of labor, I began to worry. When my wife finally delivered our daughter, I stared at the small lifeless body, frustrated at my helplessness.
The cause of death was listed as congenital pneumonia.
My wife was devastated. “We need to give her a name,” she said through her tears.
We decided on Patty. I was only beginning to understand my wife’s pain. For nine months, she’d bonded with this child, only to have to say goodbye. My wife grieved a life. I grieved the loss of a dream.
When my wife’s episiotomy failed to heal, we knew something was wrong. Her body would begin to mend, then come apart again. Her wounds needed constant draining and washing—an ugly reminder of the infection that robbed my wife of strength over the next year.
I took a job in Stockton to begin graduate school. Vi—still bedridden—stayed with her family six hundred miles away in Los Angeles. Six months later, she was well enough to join me. Unbeknownst to us, the birth control pills she began to take interfered with the blood clotting mechanism. Our first clue was the clot that formed behind her right knee and eventually killed her.
Now I stood in the living room of our apartment like a stranger. Everywhere I turned, memories taunted me, reminding me that “happily ever after” vanished the moment my wife died.
A small hand tugged my pant leg.
My chubby eight month old stared up at me with big blue eyes. The olive cast of his skin contrasted with his strawberry blonde hair. He couldn’t talk yet, but he threw himself at me, his signal that he wanted to wrestle. I lifted him into the air and turned him upside down so that he swung from my arms. Kelly giggled, and my heart broke.
My wife wanted children so badly that I agreed to adopt. Her infection made pregnancy impossible. She’d gone through so much, how could I deny her the pleasure of motherhood? A preacher we knew asked us if we wanted to adopt the child of an unwed mother under his care. We picked up Kelly at the hospital on the day of his birth.
“He’s beautiful,” Vi said as she cradled Kelly in her arms. I couldn’t agree more. I stared at the tiny hands that would someday play catch with me.
He began to cry, so I took him from Vi. As he gulped at the bottle I gave him, my heart swelled with a love I didn’t know existed.
Eight months later, that love had only grown stronger. The adoption was scheduled to be finalized in two weeks, but now Vi’s death changed everything. Single parent adoptions weren’t an option.
I buried Vi during the second week in August, still living in a fog of emotion and denial. I appeared before the judge the following week.
“You understand the circumstances have changed?” the judge asked me. We were alone except for the stenographer, the court clerk, and the gruff looking bailiff with a hog leg on his hip.
“Yes, Your Honor,” I nodded. My voice squeezed through the pinhole that was my throat. “I understand that the court will not allow me to complete this adoption, now that I’m no longer have a wife. If it please the Court, may I suggest another plan?” The words tumbled out. I was afraid the judge would cut me off without listening to the alternative I had in mind. “Kelly is the only family I have, now. He needs to have stable parents. I propose that you conditionally make this adoption final, with the condition that I release Kelly to be adopted by my brother-in-law and his wife. That way, if anything should happen to him, Kelly would devolve to me, and he would stay within the extended family.”
The judge raised his eyebrows, cleared his throat, and shifted in his chair. I dreaded what the judge would say. “Hmmm.” The judge cocked his head. “Interesting solution.”
My hopes rose.
“I’ll consider your request.” The judge looked into my eyes. “Your situation definitely makes this adoption unique.”
Seven days later, the adoption was official. My brother- and sister-in-law welcomed their new baby into their home. This was all about Kelly’s future, and nothing about my comfort. Kelly Hairston became Kelly Webb.
My life was ripped in half. I actually thought I was going crazy. I packed away photographs and emptied the apartment of toys and clothes—any reminder of the family I’d lost. I called Vi’s sisters and asked them to take what they wanted. Everything else went in the dumpster. If only I could throw away the haunting pain. The concept of psychologists or therapy was unknown to me. Besides, if I had thought of it, I had no money anyway.
Loneliness stretched the next two months into what felt like years. I was failing all my classes in graduate school, but the teaching assignments and outside job kept me busy. Looking back, it was certainly deep depression. Days passed in misery, but they passed.
Even though life was a foggy nightmare after the funeral, I still attended church services every week. Events were swirling around me that I would never have guessed. I was an eligible bachelor. Across town in another Church of Christ, the mother of five children had been abandoned by her husband. The wife of one of my elders, a self-appointed matchmaker, had a plan for my future and hers. I had no idea that nearly every other woman in the congregation had a similar plan for daughter. Or niece. Or neighbor. Sister Matchmaker even introduced me to Carolyn, then stood back, ready to carve a notch on her King James Bible. In a moment of stubbornness, I was aloof and noncommittal.
In October, the phone rang one Friday evening. It was Carolyn. “Hey, Jack, the young adults of our congregation are having a weenie roast in the park tonight. Do you want to come hang out with us?”
Hmmm. I wanted to refuse. It had only been two months since the funeral, and yet the outing would provide a distraction. Hey, Goofus, I said to myself. You’re not going to break any laws if you go. It’s time to take off your wedding ring.
I learned later that Carolyn was three or four years older than me, but I considered us the same age. Not only was she beautiful, she was sassy, with a wicked sense of humor that fascinated me. She saw right through me like a pane of window glass, but she was totally opaque to me. I fell in love with her that night.
The news of my outing traveled around the church like wildfire, I learned later. All those church ladies that had designs on me were furious with “that hussy.” They were planning to do the decent thing and wait two more weeks before making their move.
“I don’t know how many affairs my husband had before he got married again,” Carolyn confided in me one night on the porch swing of her parents’ house.
“I didn’t know you were divorced,” I said.
“Oh, he never divorced me,” she said. “He just got married anyway.” The streetlight hit the auburn highlights in her hair.
“Ouch,” I said. Carolyn looked more like a model than the mother of five children.
“I was in denial.” Her normally hazel eyes were brown. She was matter-of-fact, not angry. “I didn’t want to believe in the booze and the women.”
I wanted to deck her husband even if he had grown up as a preacher’s son. “Preacher’s Kid” can have a bad connotation too. How could anyone throw away a prize like Carolyn? Carolyn never wavered in her faith in God. She was a prayer warrior who stood firm in her belief that God would provide.
“My parents wanted us to work things out, and I tried, but the result was that I got pregnant with Number Five.” Her laugh was bitter. “Right after that I heard about his second wife.”
The thought made me sick. “Well,” I suggested, “Why didn’t you divorce him?”
“Welfare mothers don’t have money for such things. I figured that if God sent the right man along, things would work out afterward.”
Had it not been for California’s lengthy divorce proceedings, I would have asked her to marry me then. I knew people would talk, but I was too empty to care. We clung to one another, each desperate in our loneliness.
I shouldn’t have been surprised when she announced she was pregnant.
“Are you sure?” I asked. Way to go, smarty, I told myself. Now you really did it—not to mention what God thinks of you.
Carolyn laughed. “Honey, I know what it feels like to be pregnant.”
My mind raced ahead. “Then we don’t have time to wait for the divorce to be final in California.” We were out on the swing again. I practically pushed her off to get packing. “I’ll take you to Nevada to establish residency. After six weeks, you can get a divorce, and we’ll get married.”
I was pleased with our plan until I realized we’d have to tell both sets of parents. I could imagine the pain etched in the faces of my parents. Telling Carolyn’s parents terrified me. The last time one of Carolyn’s brothers-in-law got crosswise with her father, he was loading his World War II Japanese rifle on the kitchen table, ready to go kill the bum. The only thing that saved the jerk was that the gun jammed.
“Carolyn is pregnant,” I began.
Her parents listened in silence. I never want to see anyone in that much pain again.
“We’ll serve the Lord and raise the children to do the same,” I promised, meaning every word. “Even though we’ve gotten off to a bad start.”
Understatement. I was not looking forward to confessing in church, either.
I’m not sure what convinced them to believe me, but I know they saw their daughter’s happiness—something absent for so long. When they finally blessed our intentions, I walked out of the house looking for goat deodorant.
My grandmother took me aside a month later to tell me a story. “There was a man who stole a piglet. When people found out that he had done it, he moved to the next town in shame. They found out about it, but this time the story was that he had stolen a pig. That was worse, and he moved away again. When the story caught up with him the third time, they were saying that he had stolen an 800 pound hog. So he went back to the town where he had stolen the piglet—and lived it down.
“You can live anything down, in time.”
Weeks later, my hands shook as I waited outside the Reno courthouse for Carolyn to emerge. My mind raced, fearing the worst. What if the divorce didn’t go through? What if we couldn’t get married?
I was sweating when Carolyn finally emerged, even though it’s not particularly hot in September. The small bulge to her abdomen reminded me of our child within her. Excitement competed with my guilt. I knew we’d broken God’s law and wished that we’d waited until marriage.
“You ready?” Carolyn asked.
I nodded. We walked through a door at the opposite side of the building and found the office of the justice of the peace. The marriage license cost more than I’d expected, and then there was a fee for the witnesses that was an unwelcome surprise. I handed over the money, knowing I had only two quarters left in my pocket At least we had a full tank of gas. I prayed it would get us back over the Sierra Nevadas and home.
“You look beautiful,” I said.
Carolyn blushed. She wore a simple purple knit dress. I couldn’t wait for the day I’d be able to shower her with expensive gifts.
The justice of the peace cleared his throat.
I took Carolyn’s hand.
“By the power of the state of Nevada,” he began.
I didn’t hear him as I stared at the woman who would become my wife. I knew there would be challenges ahead—we were dirt poor and we’d have six children to raise—but I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with Carolyn.
We had no rings to exchange, but meant every syllable of, “I do.”
The judge said the words I couldn’t wait to hear. “I now pronounce you man and wife.” Then he added, “And I don’t want to see either one of you kids here again.”
“You can bet on it, Your Honor,” I said. And he never did.
Oh, our wedding supper? A chocolate milkshake with two straws.
“This letter came while you were gone,” Carolyn’s mother said. The letter began, “Greetings.” It was a draft notice to serve in Vietnam. I sent a letter back to the draft board that day to explain that I was married, and had five children under the age of nine.
When the official reply arrived in the mail the next weeks, I was afraid to open it. Carolyn stood over me, her hand on her belly. We breathed a sigh of relief when we read that I had been reclassified IIIA. I would not be drafted.
To say that the next several years were difficult is an understatement. I made up in confidence what I lacked in maturity and wisdom. Becoming an instant father was harder than I thought, but Carolyn was a pro at raising children. My job—at least my initial assessment—was to provide and keep the peace. I got a job at a chemical company, and we moved into a teensy house with less than 800 square feet and no furniture. Instead of a kitchen table, our kids stood around the ironing board to eat. Worn out shoes had to be wrapped with duck tape until we could afford another pair, but we always had food and a home. Because the kids’ favorite pastime was arguing over what channel to watch, I took away the television. Instead, we developed their social skills over board games and Aggravation.
We moved to the San Francisco Bay Area where I worked, and attended the local Church of Christ. Following God was the only option. I would make good on my promise to raise the kids to serve God.
While riding the commute train to work, I used the time to study the Bible. I devoured God’s Word like never before, cross referencing verses and marking up passages that spoke to me. A friend pointed out something I hadn’t understood before in the first chapter of 1 John. I had lived under the belief that once I was saved, I was barely saved. If I forgot to confess a sin, I was destined for hell. Once I confessed, I was on the heaven track again. I began to see the fallacy in my thinking Verse 9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” That part I already knew, but the next verse was a light bulb moment. The blood of Christ was cleansing me continually! My need for confession was to acknowledge my relationship to God. God really wanted to forgive me, not condemn me.
Thirty years later, Dad died. My mother’s health was failing, and she needed our help. I’d shaken Modesto’s dust from my shoes after I graduated from high school. I didn’t want to move back to Modesto, but the decision was God’s, not ours. We put our house on the market for thirty days as a fleece. On Day 28, I was offered a higher paying job in nearby Livermore, halfway to Modesto; on Day 29, our house sold.
I had grown up at Davis Park Church of Christ in Modesto, except when we moved to nearby towns where Dad’s job took us. I know I was less than seven days old when I attended church for the first time. Everything revolved around church. My father, a blue collar worker who’d worked a myriad jobs, and my mother, a bookkeeper, took my brother and me to church three times a week, and any other times the doors opened. Not only was my father an elder, my grandfather was an elder, too. I grew up under strict discipline. There are still old ladies at church who remember me getting a spanking on the church house lawn.
I’d heard a sermon on Elijah that had always stuck with me. When Elijah hid from Jezebel, the Lord told him that he’d have to return the way he’d come. I felt God telling me the same thing. We moved to Modesto. A plateful of crow tastes bad, but it is packed full of vitamins. Lots of fiber, too.
The Davis Park congregation had a reputation for being very strict, so I wondered if I would be branded. And I was, but the reason was because I shot off my mouth before I realized it was loaded. During the next three years, I was the congregation’s Designated Heretic. It seemed like I was always in trouble with the elders. At the end of three years later I got a phone call from John Greff, one of the elders. “Jack, the elders want you to come to our meeting on Monday night.” You could have knocked me over with a marshmallow when they asked me to serve as one of the elders.
Guilt plagued me for years. Not only did I feel guilty about the circumstances of my daughter’s birth, a part of me felt guilty for my relationship with Carolyn. Because I refused to see Vi’s dead body, I had no closure. Even five years after her death, my mind played tricks on me. I would wake from nightmares, convinced Vi was angry at me.
This struggle raged within me until I began to understand God’s incredible love for me. A preacher once told a story that defined grace.
“If a cop pulls you over for speeding, justice would be a ticket.”
I considered my sins.
“Mercy would be a warning.”
I thought about the cross.
“Grace would be the cop handing me the keys to his cruiser and then telling me the trunk held a million dollars that’s all yours. You can keep my Smokey Bear hat, too.”
The light bulb turned on. Jesus died for me.
Being a parent has continued to build my understanding of grace. While our five daughters were compliant children, my son challenged me at every turn. If I ever questioned free will, Jim erased my doubts. When Jim became a teenager, the rebellion turned to open defiance. The lying and cheating increased, and he became addicted to alcohol and cocaine. More than once, the police knocked on our door with Jim in handcuffs. Jim went to addiction rehab, but he wouldn’t buy into the process of recovery. Even juvenile prison didn’t help.
Carolyn and I were on our knees constantly for Jim. After he blew a $20,000 accident settlement in two months on cocaine, Jim finally hit rock bottom. God led him to a recovering cocaine addict who worked for a Baptist Church. After talking to this man, crying, and praying for over four hours, Jim surrendered to Christ. Now as I watch my son raise his son, the sweetest sound in the world is when I hear my words coming out of his mouth to his son. He was listening!
In the book of Matthew, Jesus says, “Freely you have received, freely give.” Grace is the same. As an elder, I want to protect and encourage the broken people who walk into the doors of our church.
God doesn’t waste our pain, and He will use our mistakes to help others. As I tell my fourth graders in Sunday school, it’s never too late to start doing what’s right.
Jesus really loves you.
Davis Park Church of Christ, People of the Park: Seasons of Life, Good Catch Publishing, January 1, 1972