A Christmas Love Letter to Devon Mara-Leigh
On this final week of Advent, I’m sharing from the depths of a mother’s LOVE–which remains, even all these years later, a mystery to me.
One of my life’s greatest teachers was a baby who I held only hours, who lived only weeks. Still, her heavenly echo is heard nearly each time I grieve, because her coming gave me the gift of God’s comfort and taught me much about His grace.
May I introduce you to Devon Mara-Leigh. She lived less than two months on earth but is eternally with her Savior.
Dear Devon Mara-Leigh,
I don’t have a photograph of you–just several pictures of some of the special gifts you were given, at baby showers or sent to you in the mail.
I’d taken them on the day of your birth. A video too–though I don’t honestly know what happened to them. Sometimes I wonder if, one day, as I sift through old things, I’ll come upon them. Be taken by surprise. Burst again into tears.
And just as He’s always done, those tears, too, He’ll gather up to store in a bottle.
He’s a Comforter, that Jesus–just as He’s a Wonderful Counselor, a Mighty God, an Everlasting Father, a Prince of Peace. Isaiah said so right there in his prophecy, the foretelling of a Savior’s coming.
For unto us a Child is born … (Isaiah 9:6).
But you, of course, know this best.
I doubt I’ll ever forget the day we learned of you. After all, after years of waiting, I was in the throes of diapers, formula, and very little sleep. Ian was only several months old, and just the suggestion that we might consider adopting another baby so soon seemed, well, almost ludicrous.
“It’s a girl,” we were told. “They’ll almost be like twins.”
My dear friend Carri had heard my heart when she’d listened intently to our story some months prior. I’d told her of the waiting years–that barren season that brought a keen ear, had tenderized my heart. For over half a dozen spins around the sun I’d been journaling–chronicling what I considered God’s promise, culminating in words from Genesis–
“By this time next year.”
These words He’d spoken to my listening heart through Genesis 18–when God visited Abraham and Sarah, told them that, even in their old age, they would have a child. Specifically, He’d noted that, when He returned to them the following year, Sarah would give Abraham a son (v. 10).
This I’d journaled in the spring of 1996, and I hid these words in my heart–pondering them often. Professed them to several close friends. Treasured them like a promise.
And when I sought prayer just prior to a medical procedure I was preparing to undergo–a minor surgery that we hoped would increase my chances to conceive–the elder at our church who’d prayed spoke a promising word, as well. While he interceded over me, anointing my head with oil, I saw what I can only call a vision. Though I couldn’t see His face, I knew I was looking at Jesus, and on His lap were two children. Towheaded tots, each smiling ear to ear, one was a boy, the other a girl, and I heard in my heart–
“See! I know them already.”
Tears fell as the elder concluded, “Amen,” and as I looked up at him–a grandfatherly figure everyone called Bunny–he added with a smile, “And just think. Maybe you’ll even have twins.”
All this I’d shared with my friend Carri on that day in early January 1998. I’d entered her adoption ministry office on that late Friday afternoon hopeful that I’d depart with a better understanding of how to get the “baby ball” rolling, so to speak. Adoption had always been a bit overwhelming–all the paperwork and legality–and I just desperately desired a baby. So Bill and I determined that, after giving God the remainder of 1997, we’d pursue adoption in 1998.
The fact that a year had come and gone since God had spoken to me through His Word–that message from Genesis to which I’d clung with hope concerning my having a son “by this time next year”–only caused me to question what He’d meant. Coupled with the elder’s words that confirmed what I’d envisioned when he prayed, I’d truly felt God was going to give us a double blessing.
It was during this time that rainbows were particularly significant to me, as well, and I started collecting Noah’s ark items. “For the babies’ room,” I’d always say.
So when the time passed and there wasn’t one baby, let alone two, I couldn’t help but ponder God’s purpose in all He’d seemed to say. As I’d told a close friend, “I believe God meant something specific by it, and He doesn’t lie, but perhaps I’ll just have to wait until heaven to fully understand.”
As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait long. I’d shared much of this testimony with Carri in those hours in her office that Friday afternoon on January 2nd, 1998–telling of our journey, as well as hearing about hers. By the time I walked to my car, though the sun had set on the day, hope had risen in my heart, and I felt like words from Isaiah 55 had been written just for me–
You will go out with joy and be led forth with peace (v. 11).
In the weeks following that meeting, Bill and I worked unwaveringly–pulling together our adoption portfolio and filling out attorney applications. When the call came only weeks later and we learned of a birth mom who’d chosen us–wanted to meet us–we were ready.
Dorian Samuel was born on February 3rd to a nineteen-year old college freshman who’d first considered abortion, then planned to parent before finally deciding, in her last trimester, to place for adoption. And it wasn’t long after our son’s birth that Cindy confirmed that she’d conceived the previous May–exactly when God had said–
“By this time next year, she will give you a son … “
Only it wasn’t me who was Sarah in this scenario, as I’d thought. In actuality, it was Cindy–whose last name is Abrams, Abraham’s original name prior to God having changed it. She quite literally “gave” us a son, his life having begun in her womb exactly when God said it would.
So it shouldn’t have been any surprise when, only a couple months later, Carri asked us if we might consider adopting again–this time, a girl. After all, she’d heard our story and knew of my hope. “Just like twins,” she’d exclaimed. “Only several months apart.”
Though certainly not towheaded, Dorian–with his dark hair and skin–was a beautiful Gift for whom we’d prayed. Perhaps this other little one–this little girl–is also part of God’s fulfillment of a promise, I’d thought. My vision of two blonde-headed children two years earlier was likely just my humanness–how I’d naturally picture our children, thinking they’d come biologically, not yet considering they’d arrive through the miracle of adoption.
Bill and I prayed earnestly about this. Is this little one to be ours? And we heard in our hearts, Yes.
That’s when we made plans for you. Met your birth mom Tina and decided on a name. Devon–which means obedience and deep valley–made sense. Not only did it ring nicely with Dorian, but you were coming at a time when we felt we were walking in obedience to God’s call, as well as entering a valley in life, having struggled for years to climb the mountain of infertility. And we decided, too, on a hyphenated middle name–Mara-Leigh. I honestly don’t remember why exactly. I just think we loved the way it sounded, like a lullaby on our lips. Devon Mara-Leigh–I still love to sing your name.
All that occurred in the course of only weeks is now a blur, and that’s probably best. Like Ian, your arrival was coming soon–your birth mom having decided late in her pregnancy to place–but we were as ready as we could be, a relatively young couple with not only room in our home but, more importantly, room in our hearts.
I was there on the spring day you were born. I remember how you blinked back bright lights. Your skin, like your brother’s at birth, was fair–though I knew it would turn darker as the days passed, culminating in the beautiful pigment of you. I videotaped those early moments, captured your expression as you witnessed for the first time the world beyond the womb, and I wondered again what that must be like.
And it was then that I silently promised to help you discover everything wonderful about life, protect you from the bad as best I could. But even then, I spoke only in whispers as I held you close. Though I was the mom and you were the child, I, too, felt much like a little girl in those moments after your birth. A mountain of fear loomed large, and Bill couldn’t be with me until later. Because I’d been this path before, I knew the risks that come with adoption–that tugging question at the hem of one’s heart–
Will she change her mind?
Oh, there’s no skirting around the pain of placing a child, though I’ve only experienced the role of recipient. My tender heart hurt for both myself and for Tina–the nagging thought that I might lose you stirring anxiety and the idea that my receiving you meant Tina’s heart would be torn in two. It’s hard to explain, but I hurt either way, and so the moments after your birth were, best told, bittersweet.
And that’s how I faced that first night with you–the only night I’d spend, though I didn’t know it then, which was a mercy and a grace.
And with the arrival of day’s early light, you, like the moon, were gone.
And my arms were empty.
And my heart felt angry.
After all, hadn’t we prayed? Hadn’t we banked on a promise? Hadn’t we stepped out with faith based on what I perceived to be a foretelling, confirmed by the elder who’d prayed? Hadn’t Jesus Himself said–
“See! I know them already!”
That’s what I’d heard Him say to my then waiting heart, and that’s, at least in part, why we’d said yes to you–because you added to him made them.
But on that bright May morning, you were gone, and because no one told the birds, their song was salt in my wound as I shook my fists at the heavens, crying out, “Why, God? Why?”
And He answered. As I traveled I-26 toward home, I heard Him in my heart–words from both the prophet Isaiah and then words from Psalms. Like a biblical medley, they were to be my war cry–scripture my weapon against an enemy who threatened to steal my faith, rob me of joy and peace.
Listen, that you may live … ‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways … My word goes out from my mouth … [and] will not return empty but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it’ … (from Isaiah 55).
And then, as though I was to give an answer, I distinctly heard–
You are good and do only good; teach me … (Psalm 119:68).
Hearing this, however, I refused. No, I won’t say that. This isn’t good, God. How can this be good? But then He had to go and make it personal.
I am good and do only good. Let me teach you …
Silence in the car, and I shifted in my seat as I heard Him again–
I am good and do only good. Let. Me. Teach. You.
All I can say is that, over the course of those 100-westbound miles, Devon, God pierced my heart with the sword of His Word and rendered me fully His. Though my arms were empty of you–the one I desired as my daughter–your absence allowed Him room, and the vacancy of my heart was filled up with Him as He poured His healing balm to ease my sorrow, reminding me–
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matt. 5:4).
Indeed, I was blessed in my mourning, because I experienced His comfort in a manner I’d never known and was better equipped, too, to comfort others who mourn.
And today, dear Devon–all these years later–I can’t say I fully understand. Perhaps we’d heard right, and God’s best was for you to come home with us, but we live in a broken world, which is something you know best of all. As it turned out, after only weeks in a home ravaged by the brokenness of addiction, you returned to Jesus–the cause of death deemed SIDS, though we couldn’t help but wonder.
When we received the letter from our attorney in July, he shared the sad news, and he asked if we might reach out to the woman whose heart was hurting. Perhaps you could send Tina your condolences….
Because my heart had been broken, not once, but now twice with this news, and because we’d experienced the gift of comfort in our own mourning, we were able to do so genuinely, with love–though only by God’s good grace.
And I’ve wondered–perhaps that’s where the photographs are. Maybe I sent them to her. She was your mother, after all.
But so was I.
And in this mystery, I wonder sometimes about your name, as names have always been very significant, at least to me. What did Tina name you? I don’t think I was ever told.
But we know that the name we gave to you came from God–even more now, as we better understand its meaning in the full context of all that transpired. As we later learned, Devon Mara-Leigh quite literally means–
By obediently walking the deep valley (Devon), even in bitterness (Mara), she’ll come to rest in the pleasant place (Leigh).
God used you to help teach me this, just has I’ve learned that, despite all life’s brokenness, I’m truly blessed.
Merry Christmas in heaven, Devon Mara-Leigh. I’m better because you came.
Dear Jesus, thank you for the gift of adoption–which you understand best, as you, too, were adopted by Joseph. Your coming made a way for each of us to experience adoption as part of God’s great big family. Please tell Devon Mara-Leigh that we love her and look forward to the day we will get to see her again.
Thank you, sweet Jesus–our Savior and King. Amen.