The word “orphan” is not a word one would ever have to look up in the dictionary. It is understood by small children, who learn the word from fairy tales and pray that they never truly understand the impact of its meaning. For a child, the thought of losing his or her mother and father in death is a tragedy beyond comprehension. I look at the word and even the “O” looks so empty, like a gaping and very sad hole.
Just a little over three years ago, I joined my son Garrett for Mother’s Weekend with his fraternity. We had a wonderful day full of events for the two of us, ending with a lovely sit-down dinner. At almost 20 and a sophomore, he was handsome. He dressed so dapper in his suit and bow tie, but there was also a sense about him; he was nearly a grown man, and I had seen him mature so much since he had left high school. After I dropped him off at his dorm around 10:30, he leaned in to give me a hug goodbye. Side hugs are even a little more awkward in the front seat of a small car, but as a mom, you never care. Then right as our hug was ending, my sweet boy leaned back in and gave me the sweetest kiss on my cheek. We didn’t say anything else except goodbye and I love you, but my cheek felt warm the whole ride home because it was such a sweet and treasured moment, almost sacred.
The next morning I came downstairs with the dogs about 6:30 to start the coffee, but almost as soon as I entered the kitchen, I thought I heard a tapping at the front door. So I went to the front hall, looked out the side window, and saw a policeman standing on our front stoop. I asked him if I could help him since I knew he must be at the wrong door. He asked me if my husband was home and told me to please go get him. I ran up the stairs and awakened my husband in half screams and tears, telling him that a policeman was at the door and needed to speak to us. We both knew before we ever opened the door to that young policeman early on the morning of November 4th.
A blur of phone calls, the arrival of our brave and dear friends and family, the tears, the disbelief, the horror that our beautiful son had died in an incomprehensible accident overwhelmed us immediately. By instinct I held tightly to the anchor of my soul and the promise that my sweet boy was already in heaven in the presence of our God and Savior. But I also knew that with his death, I was no longer a mom and my husband was no longer technically a father. We would never be grandparents; we would never know our daughter-in-law; I would never meet the grandbabies I’d always dreamed I would hold and rock.
Unlike the word “orphan,” there is no word in English, no noun in any other language, for two parents whose children have all died. For some reason the lack of a descriptive word for us made me feel even that much more isolated. No one could really comprehend our situation. There truly were no words for our loss, the loss of our hope and our future……..But Jesus: the only Name, the only Word, the only hope and future for us to find light in our deepest darkness.
It has now been 1,212 days since I got that treasured kiss on my cheek from my boy. Garrett first asked Jesus into his heart on Christmas Eve before turning 5 and was baptized the following May. I was worried that he was so young, but his heart was completely tuned to the heart of the Lord and thankfully that never changed. After a heart-breaking freshman year in college in South Carolina, where his dream of playing college baseball did not work out as planned, he transferred back home to college in Texas. But instead of coming home that transitional summer, he went to work at the camp he loved in Missouri. There he coached high school boys in baseball and was a counselor to those young men who needed to hear that life doesn’t always go as we plan, but that the Lord never leaves us and continues to direct our paths. The staff and other counselors poured into each other and allowed God’s Word and His truth to deepen their faith. And in so many ways, I saw the Lord heal my son’s heart and use his testimony of loss to impact those around him.
Garrett looked like he had the world by the tail. He was tall, blond and athletic. He had achieved his dream of playing Division 1 baseball. He was a brilliant scholar, made the Dean’s list and was able to transfer into the Honors program when he moved back. In everyone else’s eyes, he looked like the golden boy who had it all, but his message came from the pit, from the failures and brokenness where the Lord met him and gave him a bold and transparent message to share with others about God’s faithfulness and plan.
After Garrett’s death the boldness of his faith, his conviction of God’s plan and purpose, and his unwavering message that life may change from the course a person plans propelled Joe and me to believe, take tiny baby steps, and truly allow the Lord to carry us down an unforeseen path. During that first year, the Lord called me with very specific words and actions. I was to “come home, come to the Word and come to the Water.” I had already planned to retire from teaching high school Spanish, and I knew I was supposed to come home and be available to help my husband find rest and healing. He also called me back to the Word, and I began reading the Bible through and allowing it to teach and feed me in ways I will never comprehend. It was truly my daily bread in those early months. The final calling was to come to the water, the River of Life and healing. I knew the Lord was giving me a visual picture of floating in the river. I wasn’t supposed to be swimming or even trying to get to the other side; I was just supposed to let the water wash over me, carry me, and guide me on a path of healing that had no course and no time frame. I leaned into this calling and path of healing—and I trusted. The slowed pace, the time at home and in the Word took so much pressure off me. And the women who came alongside me and walked through this valley with me all were a part of my healing process.
Sadly though, my husband did not receive this same grace. He jumped back into work about 6 months later and was very quickly consumed with his workload, travel, and anything that helped him escape or numb the pain of our reality. Although the men around him cared deeply, called at times, and met him for lunch, very few of them really wanted to press into his pain, or really even knew how. It just isn’t the way for men. They soldier on, they find comfort in their work, they don’t wear their emotions on their sleeves, and they don’t cry in public or really show any transparency in pain. This tactic may work when dealing with stress, finances or even something like the loss of an aging parent; but when you have to bury your only child, your best friend, and the source of so much of your identity, no man can escape the life-altering depths of this pain. My husband started spiraling downward farther, faster, angrier and more unreachable by the day. I soon discovered that the Lord had given me a gracious period of rest, filling and healing, because I was going to have to be very, very strong for the two of us while He started the healing process in my sweet husband.
Our paths and everyone’s paths of grief are very different. There is no time line, there is no set check list of feelings you must experience in a certain order to get through the process, and the world of men and women also greatly influences the path of grief. Women are not afraid to hurt, to cry and to walk alongside one another in the very darkest of times. It is one of the best things I have come to love about the women in the Body of Christ.
At about the 18-month milestone, our son’s best friend posted that he was looking for financial support to go on a mission trip to Zambia. He was going to help orphans at Camp Life alongside the work of Family Legacy. I had been familiar with the ministry through others who had gone on this trip, but I clicked on the support link because I believed our broken young friend was in need of healing. Losing a best friend as a 20-year-old college student is so hard and would challenge the faith of anyone. I contributed money because I believed working with orphans and serving would hopefully bring some healing and restoration to his broken heart. And it did. He came back a very different young man.
Two weeks later, another very dear friend (and the younger sister of Scarlet and Gold owner Megan Smalley) also went to Camp Life in Zambia. The mission work made a huge impact on her; God planted a seed, and upon returning home, she shared it with family and a few friends. She wanted to build a home in our son Garrett’s name for orphans in Zambia, and she really felt like the Lord had put a calling on her to do this. The big confirmation came when she spoke to our other friend who had gone a few weeks earlier, and he too had felt the Lord clearly calling him to build Garrett’s House in the Tree of Life Village in Lusaka, Zambia.
Enlisting the help of family and friends and, of course, Family Legacy, the two of them then followed the Lord’s leading. They came to us in August and told us what the Lord had put on their hearts and asked if we would give our blessing for them to proceed. Well, when two precious young friends of your son and family ask if you are ok with building a home to house African orphans, you don’t say no! We were humbled and honored, but the emotional process was hard. Anything that has “memorial” attached to your child’s name just feels wrong and surreal. But we knew they were being obedient to the Lord, and this knowledge gave us reason to support the goal. Our only request was that we not be told about donations and that we not be the ones asking people to donate. We felt like people needed the Lord to stir their hearts to give and not feel pressure from us.
They launched the goal on Labor Day 2014, and on November 4th, I got a call from Greer Kendall, President of Family Legacy, telling us that Garrett’s House had completely funded and that they wanted us to come to Zambia for the opening. This exact day was the two-year milestone of Garrett’s death, so despite the thrilling news, it was bittersweet. We never imagined it would happen this quickly or that we would be thrust into this reality with the world of orphans and third world devastation to become “parents” to the young men who would be living in a home with our son’s picture hanging on the wall.
We somewhat half-heartedly began planning the trip for July. My husband decided to add on a safari while we there because this trip was really a “one-time deal.” As he would say, “Orphans in Africa were never on my radar,” and he had no intention of going back after we opened the house and “did our part.” The truth is that the second year of adjusting to life without our son was even harder and emptier than year one. Some had moved on, and others were so thrilled about the house in Zambia yet couldn’t understand our divided hearts. But we moved ahead with planning how to decorate the house: color choices, bedding, books on the shelves, little stuffed puppies and an entire wardrobe of new clothing for each young man…from socks to bow ties and baseball caps.
When the time arrived to leave for Zambia, we were in full-blown spiritual warfare. We were angry with God and angry at each other and grieving again as Joe’s mother had died rather unexpectedly in June. Neither of us felt healed enough or prepared to do mission work. We were such broken vessels. But Jesus! Just Jesus: the only Name, the only Word, the only hope and future for us to find light in our deepest darkness. The Lord had already gone before us and prepared so many avenues of healing for us. We just had to get on the plane.
When we walked up to see Garrett’s House for the first time, we read the plaque on the wall. “For I know the plans I have for you declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11 had hung over our son’s crib and in his room for years and ultimately became the life verse he embraced and shared with others. Were we really seeing the plan and purpose of Garrett’s life here in Zambia? Then we walked into the African version of a ranch house and saw the boxes, furniture and pictures waiting to be a part of this home. And sitting propped up on a bookshelf was a portrait of Garrett that had been painted by a Zambian artist. The moment overwhelmed all of us; we stopped our work and cried because this was a very real and tangible memorial of our son that was going to impact so many lives for the kingdom. We all felt the power of that blessing.
Over the next 3 days we swept, cleaned shelves, hung clothes, put pictures on the wall, laid rugs, and prayed over every square inch of this home. So many friends came to help us in the process and to be there with us for the opening. Finally, the hour came: the boys arrived and the presence of the Holy Spirit engulfed us with praise for the moment we were experiencing. We truly were watching beauty unfold from ashes. As we met and hugged all of the boys who were moving in and transformed into their new “Mama Janell” and “Daddy Joe,” our hearts were melted by the love and appreciation these boys had for their new chance at life. It was like Christmas Day as we watched them discover their clothes, new shoes, beds and pillows of their own. But at the same time, these teenage young men wanted to hear about Garrett and how his story had intersected theirs. Their hugs and love were transformational for both of us, and their joy became ours.
As we transitioned from opening Garrett’s House in the Tree of Life to working at Camp Life, Joe and I learned that both of us had a group of 10 little boys ages 8 to 11. Camp Life is a different part of Family Legacy’s ministry in which orphan children are brought from the compounds to participate in a very fun week of day camp. The children are assigned an American counselor not only to lead them but also to ensure they get sponsored to begin school. Our amazing Zambian helpers love these children deeply and serve the kingdom of God by ministering to the least of these in the slums of Lusaka. When we finally got to meet our boys, Joe and I assumed they were 5 and 6 years old due to their size. Then we fed them and began getting to know them and their stories.
The second morning of camp was the most powerful to me because I saw these darling little boys hop off the bus and fly into my husband’s arms. I captured the moment when he had 4-5 of them hanging onto his powerful hug and fully engulfed in his love and embrace. It wasn’t forced; it was genuine. And in that moment, I saw some of the cracks in his daddy heart begin to heal. Over the week I watched him love freely and fiercely. Each morning and afternoon, he carried one of his tiniest boys to the clinic to change the dressing on a burned foot, and as he cradled that precious boy in his big Daddy arms, I marveled at how the Lord chose to begin healing the big hole in my husband’s heart. The Lord was reaching places in both of our hearts that I thought would forever be broken and unreachable. But He used these precious little dirty-faced orphan boys to show us that in our complete brokenness and orphan-like status, He Himself will carry us, heal our wounds, and allow us to rest in His loving arms of grace.
Zambia changed us. It wasn’t just a mountain top experience; it was a life-altering and perspective-changing trip. These children who live in abject poverty, who are abandoned and beaten and don’t have any hope for a future, showed us that the light and hope of Jesus is enough. In a very dark place in the world, they shine this light to their communities and find joy in the simplest of things like blowing bubbles or jumping rope. It inspired us to do the same thing here, where we live, as we, too, are different kinds of orphans.
We are thrilled to be going back to Camp Life this summer where we will get to see the difference a year has made in our camp boys’ lives now that they all go to school. We also look forward to time with the boys living in Garrett’s House and will continue to parent these boys as they finish high school and make plans for college and careers. We did not “lose” our only child. We know exactly where he is and know we will see him again in heaven one day soon. But we have gained 29 new Zambian sons. Their pictures hang on our fridge and mirrors, and we can’t wait to see them this next summer. We thought we were going to Camp Life to serve alongside the mission of Family Legacy, but we are the ones who were served healing and hope from Zambian orphans. We are still broken vessels but we have learned it is easier to see the light when it shines through cracks.