Choosing to See: A Journey of Struggle and Hope
by Mary Beth Chapman
Choosing to See
It was the day the world went wrong.
“Beauty Will Rise” Words and music by Steven Curtis Chapman
In the bleak midwinter frosty wind made moan,
earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone
The sky was a bright, springtime blue that day. We were planning a wedding and a graduation. We were happy.
It was May 21, 2008. It didn’t look like winter--yet.
We were the parents of six beautiful children, blessed beyond our dreams. Our twenty-three-year-old daughter, Emily, had become engaged four days earlier. Just the night before, we had bought her wedding dress. I had brought it home to show Emily’s three little sisters from China. Shaoey was eight, Stevey Joy was five, and Maria had just turned five a week earlier. They shrieked about the lacy white gown and all started talking at once about being flower girls at her wedding.
On this particular Wednesday afternoon, Emily was at work, and Steven and I had converted the dining room table into Wedding Central. We had phones, laptops, calendars, and notepads spread all over the table. Caleb, our eighteen-year-old, was to graduate high school in a few days; he was messing around with his guitar in our music room. Will, who was seventeen, had driven over to his school to try out for a play. The three little girls were running in and out of the house, playing together like a thousand other afternoons.
Maria ran up to me, breathless. “Mommy!” she said. “I can’t get Cinderella Barbie’s gloves on her! Can you do it for me?”
“Sure,” I said. Maria climbed up on my lap. She was sticky and sweet as usual. She sat for a second while I tried to scoot the tiny, elbow-length white gloves onto Cinderella Barbie’s rubbery little hands. It was hard; no wonder Maria hadn’t been able to do it.
Maria got impatient. There was fun to be had. She scooted off my lap and ran away giggling. As Steven and I continued to talk, I used my fingernails and tugged, eventually succeeding with the gloves.
“Hey, Maria!” I yelled. “I got Cinderella’s gloves on her!”
There was no answer, and I assumed that the girls had gone outside to their playground. They loved to climb on the monkey bars, swing, and pretend they were “the Chapman Sisters,” a famous musical group.
Steven took a call on his cell phone and walked out on our front porch to get better reception. He saw Will arriving home and watched as Will slowly turned his old Land Cruiser into the driveway, which winds past the house to the garage in back, near the playground. I was sitting at the table, writing a list.
Then everything changed forever.
I realized I was hearing odd sounds outside--not just the yelling of happy play but screams and commotion. I bolted into the kitchen to head outside just as Shaoey ran up the back steps and met me there.
“Mom!” she yelled. “Will’s hit Maria with the car!”
I flew outside. Will was near the garage, holding his little sister in his arms. There was a lot of blood, on both of them.
“Maria!” Will was crying. “Maria! Wake up!”
Not My Plan
Love of God is pure when joy and suffering
inspire an equal degree of gratitude.
Obviously, I never planned to write this book.
No mom can come up with words to express the ripping pain of losing a child . . . and no words can do justice to the mysteries of God in the midst of tragedy.
When people ask how we are doing, the first thing I always say is, “I want Maria back. I want my son Will Franklin not to have this as a chapter in his story. I want my children to be healthy, my family secure. I don’t really care whose life has been touched or changed because of our loss!”
That is the heart of a mother who lost a daughter and is determined not to lose another child. I believe God can handle my heart, my questions, and my anger. It’s okay to want Maria back. It’s okay to be angry. The question is, what do I do with it all? What do I do with God? In the midst of such heartbreak, do I really believe that all things work together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose?
The answer to that question has come at a great cost. It has been agonizing to choose to see God at work through the tears of losing my daughter. I have, however, experienced the kindness, sweetness, faithfulness, and redemptive heart of God. I believe none of my tears have been wasted.
So here I am, putting down these words one by one, because God has surprised me over the long days since Maria went to heaven. I have come face to face with evil and what part it plays in our lives, past, present, and future. I am realizing, though, that God is God, and He is purposeful in destroying what evil intends for harm. He is surprising me in good ways beyond what can be measured on this earth! I am living what I once only read in Genesis 50:20-21, where Joseph tells his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children . . . ”
Even in this free fall of pain, I’ve landed on a solid foundation and my faith has held . . . on most days. I have learned that God is good . . . always. Hope is real. I have found--even in the awful pain of tears and grief so intense you think it will kill you--that my family and I can do hard. We’ll never get over our loss, but we’re getting through it. And so I have prayed that our journey through the shadows of loss might be of some help to those who have experienced similar pain . . . that our stewardship of this story would comfort many.
But I need to be clear. This book isn’t just about the spring day when Steven and I lost our precious Maria Sue in a terrible accident. It’s about a story . . . a story God is writing. All along the way, He has changed my story in ways I didn’t like. I’ve had whole chapters added and deleted and strange plot twists that I never saw coming.
The truth is, I was born with a plan. I wanted life to be safe and predictable. My plan was to marry someone with a nice nine-to-five schedule and have a tidy, organized life--everything under control.
Absolutely none of that came true!
And if it had--if I had lived the life I thought I wanted--I know I wouldn’t have experienced the grace or the miracles of God in the ways that I have. What I’ve found is that it’s in the most unlikely times and places of hurt and chaos that God gives us a profound sense of His presence and the real light of His hope in the dark places.
So this book isn’t so much about me and Steven, as broken and crazy as we are. It’s about God . . . and how He can comfort, carry, and change us on our journey, no matter how hard it is. My husband has always been considered the creative, public side of our marriage. Everyone loves him and people assume that I’m a lot like him.
Steven is an extrovert who gets his energy from being around people. He loves to speak--and speak--and speak--in front of large groups. I am an introvert who loves to nest at home with my kids. If I’m invited to speak in front of a gathering of people, I get so nervous I feel like I’m going to pass out.
Steven is an optimist; I tend to be more melancholy. To him the glass is half-full; to me the same glass is half-empty. He is overflowing with great expectations; I’m sure that if things can possibly go wrong, they probably will.
Steven would never think of pulling a practical joke; it’s not nice. I laugh and get all excited just thinking about playing jokes on my friends. It’s like a love language to me! The other night I took Shaoey and Stevey Joy, and we headed over to my daughter-in-law’s house.
My son Caleb was out of town, playing a show, and I knew Julia had a friend over to spend the night.
We parked our van, snuck around the back of the house, and proceeded to scratch on the window screens and knock on the walls. I could hear Julia and her friend running around in panic, and then it got real quiet. I decided we should go around to the front and knock on the door so they would know it was us.
When my sweet Julia opened the door, she had tears on her face and the phone in her hand. I heard her tell the 911 dispatcher through her tears, “Oh, never mind . . . it’s just my mother-in-law!”
I promised I’d never do it again, and I think she still loves me! Anyway, it’s obvious that Steven and I are very different, kind of like Tarzan and Jane, but we’ll get to that a little later.
As long as I can remember, and throughout my twenty-five-year marriage to Steven, I’ve held on to certain expectations about life. But Jesus has always loved me enough to show me that even when I push my own ideas and expectations, He is there to guide me back to green pastures. He has shepherded me through the mountainous terrain of my stubbornness, shame, depression, and inadequacy and brought me gently back to the lushness of His love. He loves us enough to never let us go . . . even when it feels like He has.
It wasn’t like I wanted a life that was unreasonable or questionable. My plans had to do with a Christ-centered ministry, an easy marriage, a peaceful and orderly home, constructive growth rather than shattered dreams, protection rather than fires . . . all good things.
Still, God has turned my life, my expectations, and even some of my dreams completely upside down so many times.
I hope that in these pages you’ll find a friend for your own journey . . . whether you’re in a good place, or in a place that’s hard, sad, mad, or desperately hopeless. In the midst of it all, God really is with us and for us. I have found that even during those times when the path is darkest, He leaves little bits of evidence all along the way--bread crumbs of grace--that can give me what I need to take the next step.
But I can only find them if I choose to SEE.