Names have always been important for Mindy and me. When we had our first child, a son, we knew picking the right name was a big deal. I love Jacob from scripture and therefore that name holds special meaning for me. Not only that, but I had a buddy in college that we called J and I loved that too. Thus, before Jacob was born his name and his nickname were set. We also like to use our family names. Jacob is Jacob Karl, with his middle name being my dad’s. Gavin is Gavin James, because his middle name is Mindy’s dad. Not knowing if Abby would be our last kid and only girl, we doubled up. Abigail Miriam is Gail for Mindy’s mom, just spelled differently, and Miriam for my mom. Naming our fourth child, a girl, was extra challenging for multiple reasons, one being that we had used up both girl family names on Abby. If we had a boy we could use Rod, my mom’s husband and father to me, but it wasn’t going to be that simple. Finally, one day while I was writing my blog, Mindy sent the name Madelyn Olivia to me and I immediately fell in love with it. The nickname took seconds to come up with, and soon she was Maddy O.
We talked to and about Maddy like she was already here. Jacob, Gavin, and Abby would talk about Maddy’s toys and pray for Maddy. I would have late night talks with Maddy, which drove Mindy nuts because as I called out “Maddy O” she would move like crazy kicking inside Mindy. Maddy was, no doubt, a part of our family. As we made it through Christmas, we got closer and closer to Maddy’s arrival. Mindy had one last ultrasound to check on a concern. I was not planning to go with Mindy to the doctor for the mere fact that we didn’t expect anything unusual. It was then she called in a panic letting me know that Maddy was dead. The thoughts that ran through my head were unbelievable. Mindy’s words to me were, “Will, I need you to be strong for me!” I rushed to the hospital after I knew my kids were covered, trying not to show my emotion to them. I instructed their uncle to still come over with my nieces so my kids would forget where their parents were and what they might be doing.
Over the next 24 hours I patiently waited for Mindy to deliver Maddy. While I had done this 3 times before, this time it was completely different. Usually joy is helping to prepare us for the journey, but in this case, it was fear of what was about to happen. Throughout the night Mindy and I waited and tried to distract ourselves. We were blessed to have Emily, Mindy’s sister, by our side. With Emily’s nursing skills and relationship with Mindy, she was a great asset to help us through the worst day of our lives. When the nurses first said this would be the hardest day of our life, I wondered if that would be true because of all the hard things I had dealt with thus far, but after I watched Maddy be born, I realized they were right.
Deciding whether to hold Mindy’s hand during the delivery or to watch Maddy come out was a tough one, but I decided that I wanted to do what I had done with our other children, I wanted to watch Maddy come out and hold her. I was Maddy’s daddy and therefore, while already in paradise, I knew I must treat her body with the same respect I treated my other kids, knowing that this is the little body that will be renewed in heaven. In times like this it helps to rely on my theology because I can recite the answers in my head. “This body will be in heaven one day!”
I did my job. I stayed strong for my wife and my family. I pressured myself to be that way because I knew people would be watching. Those are the vows I took when becoming pastor – people will watch your faith so walk the journey of faith. It is no doubt my faith was needed more than any theological truth. It was in my faith I trusted – in the very grace of God. It was in my faith that death became a little more real that day. Since the graveside was private, very few people got to see me crumble. As Rod made the sign of the cross upon the casket and poured dirt over it, I fell to my knees in front it. Finally, the show was over in my head and I could do whatever I wanted. Those are my favorite parts of graveside ceremonies. When death is in its most powerful moment and you are putting that body into the ground, we are reminded that it is because of sin we must face this. Yet it is then that we make the sign of the cross upon the casket and recite the Lord’s prayer. We speak the words He taught us – reminding us of His promises.
The next days I felt a numbness I had never felt before. There are few moments in life that have made me lose my composure. Sure, I was taught it was ok to cry as a man, but being a pastor often means holding it together. Painful days, moments, and hours came as Mindy and I walked the journey. We continued to follow what I knew to do next, properly walk through grief with counseling and side by side with each other and our kids. Mindy seemed to grieve harder than I did, which is typical since she carried Maddy. I thought nothing of it. Honestly, in the days afterwards, when it was bitter cold, I began to think of all the things that Maddy wouldn’t have to face in this life. I also began to realize that she would never disappoint me, unlike my other kids who will face sin and temptation in this life. It made me realize the blessing for Maddy to go home early, and made me think I was only being selfish to want her here with us. I did what I always do; got my systems back in place (like going to church that first Sunday) and moved forward. I tried to rush back to normal.
Three and half months later I was faced with a harsh reality. When I was 21 my dad died. There was a lot going on in my life at that time. My Dad and I never saw eye to eye and I always felt pushed to be more perfect with him. That last year of his life was the worst. My Dad had promised that God told him that he would be healed. I found those promises written on a piece of paper in his Bible. My dad had lied to us earlier that his cancer was in remission, so what seemed shocking to my brother, sisters and I was something he knew all along. This was his way of living – lying through life. At the visitation I was fully ready to convict all his false prophet friends who said he would be healed, until I talked with my grieving step-mom who shut me down. I expressed few tears at the funeral. During that same time, Rod went through an extreme illness, which meant that my mom was not there for me during my time home from school for the funeral. When it was over I rushed back to school and back to life. My buddies, my girlfriend, and a few others became my counselors. I was more focused on my dad’s horrible theology and if he was in heaven than the pain I was going through. I locked up the grief of my dad like a dragon in my basement and I moved on. I focused on my dreams of being a pastor and getting married. When the dragon made too much noise, I would unlock the basement and kick him in the face. I would remind the dragon that he was never allowed to show his ugly face. He had caused enough pain in my life and, once and for all, I was done with him. But time and time again he would make noise, and every time, I returned to the basement to give him the kick he needed to know he was not allowed to speak.
Then one day I had to lock a baby dragon in that basement with the big, mean dragon. The baby dragon was so cute. The baby dragon reminded me of why I hated the big, mean dragon so much. Unfortunately the big, mean dragon and the baby dragon had something in common, but I couldn’t kick the baby dragon in the face. I loved that baby dragon. Eventually it came time to unlock the basement and deal with the grief of both of my father and Maddy. For awhile I refused to accept this reality, but one day I gave up fighting. Letting the baby dragon live in my house, meant the big, mean dragon was there too, and he kept knocking stuff over. It was time to deal with him.
It’s hard to believe that a stillborn child can save your life. It’s hard to believe a stillborn child can help you face something that you have fought for 13 years to keep hidden. It’s hard to believe a baby you don’t get to hold can make you feel again. In this world, we can pretend to believe that sin does not impact our lives so deeply, but time and time again we are faced with the reality of sin, pain, and death. It is in those moments we have two choices: lock it up, or remember why Jesus came – so that sin and death would no longer hold the victory. Thanks, Maddy, for teaching your father to feel again, for reminding me how much I need Jesus, and why being a father is so important to me.