My Friday blogs are about broken hearts, and I encourage you to read the previous posts if you have not. I shared a few things I have learned about broken hearts, but I’ve not told the story of Jennifer in much detail. Now is the time. (I’m taking some deep breaths here because even though ten years have passed, it’s still hard.)
When I went to the gynecologist in late March of 1980, I had decided that my prayer for a baby had been answered “No” by God. What a shock it was to hear her say that I was pregnant, and then fear and sadness soaked in as I learned that I could lose the baby. The doctor ordered complete bedrest for a week. My prayers that week were thanksgiving and joy tempered with pleas to save the baby. God’s blessings were granted in November when our baby girl, Jennifer, entered the world kicking and screaming.
I loved staying home for most of her pre-school years but went back to teaching the year before she started kindergarten. Years of shyness and low self-esteem marred Jennifer’s early school years, but we watched her blossom in high school into a beautiful servant of God. She pushed herself out of her comfort zone at school and church by quitting band and taking up track. She went to Jamaica three summers to teach children in Bible school and build a room for twin boys. After graduation from a Christian high school, she chose Tennessee Techological University in Cookville, TN for her college career.
Changing majors three times and giving up a track scholarship to work with the teenagers at her church helped her settle on her life’s path: nutritionist with an emphasis on promoting wellness in young girls. She worked one summer at camps in Missouri and Colorado, sometimes teaching water sports as a counselor and sometimes cooking for the campers.
During her freshman year she met a young man and gave him her heart. They were engaged at Christmas during her junior year and planned a wedding in the spring of her college graduation. Jennifer and Josh loved the outdoors and frequently hiked, biked, or explored the beautiful mountains in Tennessee. One weekend in April they hiked in the Cherokee National Forest near Chattanooga.
On Saturday, April 13, 2002 I answered the phone, and heard Josh’s voice. He didn’t sound like himself, and he tried to tell me the unbelieveable. He was crying, and I kept asking him to repeat himself. I could not believe his words and asked him if anyone was with him. He put his mother on the phone, and she confirmed that Jennifer had fallen off the side of the mountain and had died on the way to the hospital.
The shock and trauma Larry and I experienced can only be understood by those who have gone through the same experience. The last time we saw Jennifer was the weekend before when she and Josh stayed with us after looking at wedding sites in the area. They were so full of love and excitement, full of plans for the future. It was a delight to be with them. In the blink of an eye, the slip of a foot, a crash to the ground, Josh jumping, leaping down to reach her to no avail. Everything changed. Lives changed.
What do you do as parents of an only child when her life is taken in a moment? You cry, you weep and hug. Your heart aches, so you let others pick up the burdens. We leaned on our physical families and our church family. Hands were ready to do anything – clean our bathrooms, change the sheets, vacuum, prepare food, mow the grass. We received an outpouring of love and comfort, friends who offered a limousine to the grave, beds for out-of-town family members, to play bagpipes at the funeral, money to pay for the funeral, a burial plot. The list goes on and on. So we leaned and planned a funeral.
And did the next thing and the next thing. As friends stood in long lines to greet us, we heard stories of the influence Jennifer had on teenagers and college students. Stories we had never heard, and it warmed our broken hearts.
The path I have traveled since April 13th has not been straight. I often walked in the valley of the shadow of death.
I thanked God and praised Him for her life.
I cried to God and asked why?
I despaired and became depressed.
Through it all I wrote and read and prayed, and then
I stopped praying.
When I read my first journals after her death, I remember the closeness I felt to God. Her funeral was a celebration of life well-lived as a servant of God. So I share with you those first journal entries with this caveat — I did not always feel this way. It was a journey, and this is how I began.
April 20, 2002
Jehovah Raphe, my healer,
It has been a week since Jennifer, Josh, and his sister climbed that mountain in Cherokee National Forest, and she fell to her death.
Words are so inadequate to describe these past seven days. But this I know, God was glorified each day. Thousands of people know that her life was a holy sacrifice to El Shaddai.
In my study today of gratitude I realized that if I can daily praise God for the gift of Jennifer’s life that I can keep his purpose in perspective.
Lord, her life was a gift from the very beginning. You heard the wailings of my heart in Topeka. You walked beside me in Lincoln with health problems, and somewhere in the next few years you gave me peace in my circumstances. Her birth was a miracle, and I never thanked you enough. Eventually I took this gift for granted and became absorbed in the every day.
I marvel at how you used her from the first days of her involvement with the teens at church. There were building blocks that were strengthened her faith, her trust, her service, and her example. It all became a beautiful tapestry of a life of service.
Thank you for all those people who were active in the weaving of her life:
- Color guard coach
- 5th and 6th grade teachers
- Band director
- Bible teachers at school
- Track coach
- Youth ministers
- Minister and wife in Jamaican church
- Young couples who mentored teens at church
- Families and ministers at church in Cookeville
April 22, 2002
Lord, do you feel my heavy heart? My chest is tightening as the elephant gets heaviers and heaviers. I have mourned these last few days but now this is a physical pain. O my soul!
O God, you are my God! This burden is so heavy. Turn my ashes into a crown.
Thanks be to God for her life of joy and praise!
April 23, 2002
“Why am I so sad?
Why am I so upset?
I say to God, my rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why am I sad
And troubled by my enemies?
As a deer thirsts for streams of pure water,
So I thirst for you, God.
I thirst for the living God.
When can I go meet with him?”
Today I’m counting joy for the life of Jennifer and the lives she touched.