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Touches of Grace

January 23, 2012

The following article was published this week in The Barnabas Letter, a quarterly newsletter published by the Barnabas Center, a non-profit counseling, training and teaching ministry in Charlotte, NC. If you are on the mailing list and received a hardcopy, I would read that as it is more pleasant, or view the layout here. The Barnabas Letter articles are always phenomenal and I was honored to be asked to contribute. The focus of this issue was “Redemption Out of Suffering.”

 

A few weeks ago I finalized the design of my wife’s headstone. It reads, “Sydney Boone Gaylord; Daughter of the King; Magnetic, Vivacious, Spontaneous, and Ultra-Creative Spirit. April 13, 1976 – August 29, 2011.” It remains difficult to believe that my high school sweetheart, who I married immediately after college, and have three beautiful children with, would be taken from me so abruptly after only thirteen years of marriage.

The suffering of battling a brain tumor for the past three years has been brutal. Scenes of pain and suffering are cemented in my mind that I wish I could forget, and would be cruel to share. Now that she has passed, I miss my best friend, my lover and my partner. My identity as a person, and nearly every part of my daily existence is forever altered. Every decision, from what to have for dinner, to what to do on a Saturday is different, and feels unnatural. My kids miss their mom. It’s hard for adults to even imagine how pervasive a mother is in a child’s life. Try to read a children’s book, or sit in an elementary school class without mention of one. Practically, though I have the help of a nanny, I have had to learn to do laundry, take special notice of the kid’s emotions, schedule playdates, doctor appointments, carpools, and get involved in the kids education, and day to day schedule.

I would like to tell you about how God has redeemed the pain in our story. But, the truth is, I can’t fully answer that question, and I think this is an important part of addressing the issue. The kids and I are still very much in the process of both hurting and healing and I am convinced that until we die, at least to some degree, we always will be.

I will say, however, that in the pain, God has offered special “touches of grace” to remind us that he is with us, and that our story is headed somewhere with our best interests and nothing short of the glory of God in mind. Two specific examples of “touches of grace” include God’s provision of our nanny, Perren Rives, and a providential conversation with Sydney about her funeral and burial wishes.

Perren

In Sydney’s last year, as we were trying to figure out childcare, my mom consistently brought up the name of a nanny in Raleigh, Perren Rives. Perren and I exchanged voicemails once, but I didn’t give it much thought, mainly because she didn’t seem very interested and she didn’t live in Charlotte. Then, several months later, Perren seemed to develop interest, and at the same time I received an unsolicited but extraordinarily complementary reference from a cousin of mine, who also seemed determined to bring Perren to our home. So, in February 2011, Perren came to Charlotte to visit and discuss the possibility of nannying for our family.

As I look back, I joke with Perren that it was the most presumptuous interview I have ever conducted as she basically announced that God wanted her to have this job. If she wasn’t so impressive I would have rejected her immediately, but I was left to either believe that A) she had literally no self-awareness or B) God really did want her here. The funny thing is that our previous nanny, Waverly, did basically the same thing and she also, turned out to be a provision from God.

Interestingly, Perren lost her dad when she was five, and struggling with his absence has become the linchpin of her testimony. In fact, I asked her mom which of her seven children were most affected by their father’s death and she said, “without a doubt, Perren.” It was immediately apparent that Perren saw, maybe more clearly than I did, the vulnerability of the kid’s hearts as their mom struggled with a terminal illness. From her first day of work, she didn’t need me or Sydney as a boss. Her heart was intrinsically oriented towards loving our children. If anything, we needed her guidance.

While, on one hand, Perren was serving us, her stint as our nanny provided her with a chance to redeem her own story. She was using her vision, empathy, and past wound to love three precious children headed down the same road. One evening Vail (8) said to me, “Perren told me that even though I don’t have a mom, God will put special people in my life along the way,” and another day, “Right now I’m more sad than happy, but I think when I’m Perren’s age I’ll be more happy than sad.” Perren walked with us through the victory of Sydney’s miraculous comeback, as well as her decline and death.

Fast forward to the last week of Perren’s employment, only a few weeks ago. The kids and I were celebrating Christmas morning by reading the Christmas story and opening a few presents. Perren came in the house about halfway though the process. Christmas music was blasting and the kids were busy engaging their new toys, which were strewn all over the house. Vail was busy with her duct tape craft kit that Perren had given her, and Boone (3) was playing his Paper Jamz Guitar. Haven (5) was dancing and moving to the music with her new glittering dollar store jewelry on.

When I looked at Perren she was pointing to the corner of the sunroom. I made a curious expression, and she pointed again. I rounded the corner and saw Vail standing with her back to me. She was facing the life-sized canvas print of Sydney in her aqua blue dress that I had made after her death. Vail was holding up a headband she had made out of various patterns of duct tape, trying to align the headband with the outline of Sydney’s head in an attempt to picture it on her mom.

“Oh, Vail,” I said, hugging her from behind. She smiled, as if proud of what she was doing. Haven saw us, and immediately sensed her mom’s absence. She ran beside her sister and started crying next to her. As I comforted Vail and spoke to her, Perren picked up Haven and hugged her with the full force of her love. They were both holding each other tightly and crying.

This scene in my mind is a picture of a completed circle of redemption. Two five-year old hearts, wounded, but bound together because of their wound. There is literally nobody else on the planet who was more fit to comfort Haven in that moment than Perren.

Leaving our family was sad for Perren, mostly, she explained, because she knows how long the road of grief is, and how much is ahead of my children. She is quick to add, however, that she also knows the healing and redemption that God engineers through suffering. Perren has experienced so much growth and healing as a result of her wound that, as a part of her testimony, she will go as far as to say that she is thankful for her dad’s death and if she could reverse the course of her life, she would not do it. You can believe that we would not do it either.

The Conversation

Sydney’s prognosis was such that the doctors could not predict how much longer she would live. Her desire was to see our kids get married, and we consistently prayed for this. Based on my conversations with doctors, absent a healing from God, 5-10 years seemed to be a reasonable expectation. But after about two years, her conditioned worsened to the point where she was admitted to intensive care and I was told that she may not make it out of the hospital.

At this moment, while she lay unresponsive on the hospital bed, I looked at her with an overwhelming sense of regret. Except for a few song favorites, I did not know what she wanted for her funeral or where or how she wanted to be buried. I suddenly prayed a new prayer, which was, “Father, please don’t let this be it. Please give us more time together and give me the opportunity to ask her these questions.”

God answered the first part of my request by allowing her to survive that bout of brain swelling. However, the steroids she required over the next few months caused psychosis, and she was not able to mentally participate in any kind of serious conversation. I patiently looked for a window to talk with her.

In the Spring of 2011, after weaning her body from steroids, her clarity returned, and she made a comeback that earned her the name “Miracle Girl” in the doctor’s office. She soon was walking, driving, and doing nearly everything she did before. During this time we spoke about a potential funeral several times, and I got some details, but I wasn’t sure exactly what to ask, or how to advise her on cremation versus burial, open versus closed-casket, etc.

So, I proposed that we set up a meeting with our pastor, Mark Upton, to discuss what we would want in the event of her funeral. After weeks of procrastinating, I finally set up this meeting for the morning of Thursday, August 25th at 10:00 a.m. By this time, Sydney’s condition had deteriorated again and we had just begun radiation treatment, the most aggressive treatment available for her condition.

As it turns out, this particular Thursday was a fantastic day for her. She felt good, her mind was clear, and she took on the conversation with ease. I was nervous about the discussion, not wanting to upset her or cause her to be fearful, but very much wanting to resolve the many outstanding questions that I knew I would be forced to answer without her in the event her health took a detrimental turn.

The conversation was a home run. It didn’t trigger fear at all. In fact, she genuinely became excited about the possibility of seeing Jesus face to face. We talked at length on her preferences. Later in the day she told a friend, “It was fun. I was planning my wedding.” Nothing could have been better for my soul. The load was finally lifted, and we were able to connect and bond over one of the most intimate and difficult topics two humans will ever discuss.

The next day, Sydney’s headaches and vomiting became uncontrollable, and I finally drove her to the ER about 5pm. After two traumatic days in the hospital, her brain stopped working, and she was pronounced dead on Monday, August 29th.

Because of our August 25th conversation, we were prepared to set-up Sydney’s funeral as a celebration of her step over the threshold of eternity. It was a true honoring of her, which has helped me in my grief, and as a byproduct, affected many lives. I had several people tell me that Sydney’s funeral was the most profound spiritual experience they have ever had. I received a voicemail from a distant relative who said that he has had a complete spiritual awakening in the past four months due to our story and Sydney’s funeral. Just this past week I spoke with a family member who quit her job as an attorney to do non-profit work, because of the inspiration of Sydney’s life. Recently, I met with a friend who is taking a serious look at God for the first time, because of Sydney’s passing.

Conclusion

So, why did God answer my prayers to spare Sydney for another season and have an important conversation with her, and not our prayers for healing or for her presence at the children’s weddings? Why did God allow my children to be so deeply wounded, yet provide a nanny providentially equipped to love them through it? I do not know.

As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in the mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things. (Ecclesiastes 11:5)

As I look back at the past, or dare to think about the future, I am comforted by a quote by Charles Spurgeon in his sermon on divine providence.

Providence is wonderfully intricate. Ah! You want always to see through Providence, do you not? You never will, I assure you. You have not eyes good enough. You want to see what good that affliction was to you; you must believe it. You want to see how it can bring good to the soul; you may be enabled in a little time; but you cannot see it now; you must believe it. Honor God by trusting him.

From → Stories

8 Comments
  1. tip of hte iceberg. sydney now sees from heaven the monumental number of lives that you and sydney have changed. the stories you share are beautiful and what is so miraculous is those are just the stories you know of today. the wheels were set in motion by the Lord back when you and Sydney met in high school. my heart breaks for you and those girls every single day, but through the tears i find myself closer to God and thus you and Sydney after every post you make. it’s like church time for me. thank you. i am so blessed.

  2. Taylor permalink

    So beautiful.

  3. Lauren Laird permalink

    Wow! Thank you for touching deep places in my heart every time you post. I pray for you and the children often. That last quote is powerful and perfectly said…it was all perfectly said. Thank you for sharing your heart. It is healing to read your words…healing in many ways.
    Praying for peace and comfort for all of you.
    Lauren Laird

  4. Barb permalink

    Thanks for allowing us to share this journey with you. Sydney and you have touched many lives and will continue to change lifes. You Sydney were so lucky to have each other. Please know that we continue to lift you up in prayer.
    Blessings from NE,
    Barb

  5. Sadee permalink

    I was 8 years old when my mom died of cancer. My heart continues to heal as I read your stories. Thank you, Todd.

  6. Stephanie Blanton permalink

    Todd, this is beautiful writing. Thank you for continuing to generously share your story and lessons with all us all…my life is richer for it, as I am sure are the lives of countless. I pray for you, Vail, Haven and Boone every day, that the healing will soon eclipse the hurt. Thanks for letting us share in your journey.

  7. Janine Medlin permalink

    Hey Todd, Thanks for the map. I went by there today. It’s perfect. Beautiful.
    The other day at CDS I looked across the parking lot and saw someone with Sydney’s build and hair color, talking animatedly to someone and thought it was her, for a second. That split second when you see someone and want to run over to say hello, then it all comes back.
    I imagine that happens a lot with you guys. I loved your post; thank you so much for sharing it with all of us.

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