I am a long way out on the water

“I hope your baby has both his eyes.”

She tells me this when she can’t find the card she made for Jackson. When she comes out for goodnight hugs to the group of women gathered to shower me and this little one with love, she hugs my belly separately from me. I hold onto the card, put it next to my bed. Her mom tells me that she and her brothers and sister have been praying for Jackson, for miraculous healing. I’m not sure there are more powerful prayers in the whole Kingdom than those of these children, who know Jesus with a closeness most of us have forgotten.

We are bringing her card to the hospital with us, and I have been praying daily that we might get to show her that God has answered her prayers.

My son’s elbows and knees (or feet, or something else) press close to the edge of my skin, and I remember that we are close to his birth. There are only a few weeks left. I have quieted down, my body moving deliberately, slowly. We have come a long way from the first positive test in January. We have journeyed far. And as I have slowed down, I hear something surprising. I hear Jesus ask me to be bolder. Pray, Hilary Joan. Come and kneel with me and pray. 

When we first found out about Jackson’s cleft, we drove in a stunned kind of silence to the new hospital. We sat in the new, terrifyingly quiet octagon room where we would have ultrasound after ultrasound, blood pressure, weight, the daze of normal and not. We waited, we listened, we drove home. I thought my heart would strangle me in its longing to escape from the car, from the little person nestled so safely, so joyfully inside me, from the news, from the everything-it-now-must-inevitably-be.

At 29 weeks, we had an MRI. Jackson was, as he always is, on the move. The results of the MRI showed that the right ear hadn’t formed completely. “This is new for us,” my doctor said. “But they can repair it surgically. The internal structures are there, so there is a good chance he can hear eventually through that ear.” I wrote down words on the back of a credit card envelope. I hung up the phone, and again, my heart and its desperate desire to escape my body, escape the ever-dwindling weeks, the soon-to-be birth. There were only 11 weeks left then. No time for a miracle. No time for Jesus.

‘I hope your baby has his eyes.” 3 weeks from our due date I meet this little girl, who has a boldness I’m not sure I have ever had. I meet this girl, who prays for something I claimed to be too hard, too late, too impossible. 3 weeks from our due date, I hold a card that prays for what I have been hedging around. I hold the prayer that I have been afraid to admit that I am praying.

The Jesus Storybook Bible includes the story of Jairus’s daughter. Listen to these beautiful words:

“‘We don’t have time!’ Jesus’ friends said. But Jesus always had time. He reached out his hands and gently lifted her head. He looked into her eyes and smiled. ‘You believed,’ he said, wiping a tear from her eye, ‘and now you are well.’ Just then, Jairus’ servant rushed up to Jairus. ‘It’s too late,’ he said breathlessly. ‘Your daughter is dead.’ Jesus turned to Jairus. ‘It’s not too late,’ Jesus said. ‘Trust me.'”

I know what the MRI says. I know the ultrasounds. I know the plans and the teams and the big words. I know the impossibility that it must seem to be.

But week after week, Jesus has shown up. Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid. 

Week after week, I have been invited to pray with the One who formed my son Jackson. Week after week, I have been invited to ask for something that is hard to believe. Week after week, I have lost my footing in that once-sturdy boat.

Week after week, I have learned it is safer on the water with Jesus than in the boat with only my anxious, strangled heart and the crowd that murmurs – it is too late. 

Jesus stands there: It is not too late. Trust me. 

“At Jairus’ house, everyone was crying. But Jesus said, ‘I’m going to wake her up.’ Everyone laughed at him because they knew she was dead. Jesus walked into the little girl’s bedroom. And there, lying in the corner, in the shadows, was the still little figure. Jesus sat on the bed and took her pale hand.

‘Honey,’ he said, ‘it’s time to get up.’ And he reached down into death and gently brought the little girl back to life.”

Jesus tells me to get out of the boat and get on the water. So here it is:

I am praying that God completely, miraculously, heals my son Jackson. I am abandoning the reasonable. I am abandoning the words – “well, whatever God wills,” or “if not, then we’ll do X” because those are the words that I use to stay in the boat while Jesus waits for me on the open water. I am abandoning the careful attempts to make you think that I am still “realistic” about our circumstances, to reassure a mysterious crowd that I am still seeing things as they are.

I am abandoning the familiar strangling anxiety of the boat, the familiar unbelief.

Hilary Joan, pray. Come kneel with me and pray. It’s not too late. Trust me. 

I don’t know how Jesus is speaking to you about prayer. I don’t presume to know. But if I can ask, if you would, come out here with me on the water for a little bit? Whether it is about Jackson or about something in your life, will you come out here, where the reasonable drowns in the presence of grace, where what is expected  falls at the feet of the one who promised it was not too late for Jairus’s daughter? Here, in the middle of the water, there is none but us and Jesus. And we are safer here, in the arms of the one who saves us, in the hope of the one who heals us, in the mercy of the one who loves us.

Will you come out here with me on the water? Will you come and pray with me?

Jesus is here. It’s not too late, Hilary Joan. Trust me. 


when I learn something about expectations

We are getting so close to Jackson’s birth it seems like I should be able to picture it all. I close my eyes on the couch, thinking – okay, we will go to the hospital. I’ll be in pain. There will be doctors, questions about medication, about how-far-apart-are-the-contractions… 

I can’t picture any of this. I sit on my bed and I feel him sliding around, and I am overcome by how much I want to be able to picture it. How I want to see it happening and unfolding before me – how much I want to picture my son.

But that’s the thing. I can’t.

I have closed my eyes, input all the information from doctors, from thousands of images, from the many appointments we never expected to have. I try to imagine holding this little guy, watching the NICU people love on him, as I know they will if they need to. I ask God for an image – just a glimpse, Lord? – and my mind is empty.

There are days and hours when I sift through the laundry or look at our statue of St. Francis or a spare pair of shoes lying somewhere they don’t belong (because I leave my shoes everywhere), and I am surprised at how God has broken open my ideas about being pregnant. How this was the summer of walking around the broken glass.

I had ideas about baby name books, about weekly self-portraits at the bathroom mirror. I had ideas about what growing another person would feel like, about the smiles from strangers and the pride of the hard work that it is to carry another heart around, and not only another heart, but another everything – kidneys and lungs built up from the cells, from the smallness. I was so proud at the beginning, so sure it would be everything I expected or better. I built a lot up on that idea that it would be better – I would look better than I imagined, my child would be the paragon of timely growth and expected physical and mental appearances, I would have the most stamina, I would be one of those moms who never gets tired, never has a hard time doing anything, merely carries her baby along on the inside until it emerges, and everything afterwards is picture-worthy, caption-worthy, other-approval-worthy. I had ideas from the pictures, the blog posts, the stories, from Facebook, from my own head.

And then, there was the 18 week appointment, the announcement that it was a boy, the first time we really saw his fierce being, his beautiful, alive, kicking self. And there, coming along behind him was a diagnosis, a list of names and symptoms, a list of coordinating appointments, new doctors, a new hospital.

And my expectations died.

With all death there is grief, there is an ache to return to what you were holding onto before it was pried out of your fingers. With all death, even the death of those things that weren’t real (those expectations and ideas, those pictures in my head) that is needed, there is a longing, a wish, a sadness or a patience or both. Some moments I lie in bed thinking, what has happened to us? 

I feel him move so often, I wish I could tell you. He is shy around other people – he moves for me, for his dad, sometimes for a patient grandparent. But he saves most of it, I think, for him and me, for the quiet of the sleepless nights.

He is the life that arrived when my expectations died.

He is the better that was standing on the other side of the broken glass.

I do not know what Jacks will look like. I’m not in denial about the words, the list and doctors and symptoms, the thin picture they might try to paint.

And I do still put my hand over this boy and I ask God to do something that I would not believe even if I was told. I tell God to remember His promises. I ask, and ask, and ask, for a miracle.

Every day since we learned about these things that will follow Jack into the world, every day since, I have asked.

Perhaps the real reason that I can’t picture what it will be like to have this baby doesn’t have anything to do with Jack’s cleft, with the mystery surrounding the right side of his face. Maybe the real reason is that Jesus is protecting us from the expectations, rescuing us both from the weight of my attempts to know too much, to see too far ahead.

Jesus is saving better for us.

And from the other side of the expectations, Jesus walks towards us, arms open. From the other side of Mary’s expectation of a body in a tomb, Jesus names her. From the other side of the crowd’s expectations that Lazarus and Jairus’s daughter can never rise from the dead, Jesus wakes them. From the other side of our expectations that we will drown in a storm we cannot control, Jesus silences the water, the wind.

I can’t picture what will happen in a few weeks.

I am, for the first time in my life, sure that means it is something better than I could imagine.


dear jackson: it will be better

Dear Jackson,

You are growing so much, little man. I am amazed at your hard work – the doctors say you’re right on time, even measuring a few days ahead. You move and squirm around a lot, but I know that the space is starting to feel small. The world here is bigger, and there will be much more space for you on the other side. We have a big backyard and sidewalks, we have the river walk where Dad and I go sometimes to talk and sift through our thoughts, where we go to wonder out loud.

It’s been a little while since I wrote to you about your cleft. We had the MRI, the ultrasounds, the follow-up appointments and there will be a few more before September. You are being such a good sport about letting these strange people take pictures of you. And I know it is a lot, and I think we’re both relieved when we pull out of the hospital each time, heading home, the three of us still making our way through.

I have been talking about you to God, every day. Lately I’ve been asking how this is happening to you, this complicated, challenging stuff.  I keep saying that it seems like you’re too little to have to go through all of this, that it’s so unfair, how much I wish I could be the one to have this instead of you. How much I would give for you not to need any extra help, how much I would give.  And I tell God that I don’t understand how this can be happening to someone I love so much, because, little man, I love you so much more than I can explain.

But then Jesus asked me while I was standing in my closet, trying to pick out something to wear, in that silence that so often carries the voice of God to our noisy hearts: Hilary, do you believe that I love Jackson? 

And then Jesus asked me, Hilary, do you believe that what I will do for Jackson is better than what you can imagine? 

Little man, I do believe this. And I want you to know that I believe it. I believe that when you are born, in those few short weeks that stand between us and the mystery and adventure of your birth, Jesus will be celebrating. Jesus will be rejoicing with us that you are here, that you are finally here in the world with us. And I believe that if you are miraculously healed before birth or if you go through some surgeries, if you come out screeching or if you need a little help breathing from the doctors and nurses in the NICU, if you have some or all or none of what we are preparing for right now, I believe that Jesus will do, and is doing, better things than I can imagine.

I could try to trust in ultrasounds, in MRI reports. I could try to trust in miraculous healings or dreams or prophecies or the late night prayers we are praying over you. I could try to predict what will happen, to imagine you, to imagine what is ahead. But I believe, little man, that it is better to put my trust in Jesus.

And Jesus has better plans for you than the ones I could come up with. Jesus has better things for you than I can ask or imagine. Jesus knows you and loves you so much beyond my imagining.

Jesus led me to your dad – and he is so much better than I could ever have imagined.
Jesus led me to studying philosophy, to asking big questions about disabilities and differences, about human nature and the image of God – better than anything I imagined when I was applying.
Jesus led me to the right college, to the right high school – both better than I could have imagined when I first set out.

And Jesus brought you to us, and you are already so much better than I could have imagined. Carrying you along with me, every day, I remember: what God has in store is always far more than we could have imagined by ourselves.

So, Jackson, these last few weeks, I am leaning on this for both of us. I don’t know what is up ahead. I don’t know where we will be in 8 weeks or what it will be like. But I know, I know, I know that Jesus is with us and ahead of us. He will be rejoicing when you’re born, for there are far better things in store than the things we can imagine.

I can’t wait to see you, little man. Just a few more weeks. We will be rejoicing.


this is what I’m waiting for.

Dear Jackson,

Your godmother asks what I’m looking forward to about you. She asked as she was holding your soon-to-be friend, her sweet daughter. I was staring, lost for words, worrying, making those lists in my head with big words like NICU and surgery and MRI and cranio-facial team – all those words that if I am honest, just mean the people and the tools that are in place to help you and me and Dad as we begin our life together. They’re just words for the friends and things that Jesus is bringing with Him in this wonderful season of your arrival.

But I was running short on words, a little scared, and right then, you kicked me. You have such a personality, little man. Mom, I’m here. I’m okay. Every day when I start to worry, and I stop and put my hand over you, you kick back. Mom, I’m here. I’m okay. 

We have read a lot of the stories of Jesus’ healing power these last few months. You know about Jairus’s daughter and about the son who Jesus raised from the dead. You know about the woman who reached out in the crowd, just to touch the hem of his robe, and she was healed. And all those crowds, after Jesus walked on water, who just touched him, and were healed.

But one of my very favorite stories to tell you is the one about Zacchaeus. Remember him? He was so curious about Jesus – like most of us are – that he climbed up a tree to get a better look. The Bible says Zacchaeus was a tax collector and very rich. This tells us that Zacchaeus was probably not a very just man, who was unfair to others in the city, who did not treat them well. He doesn’t really seem like someone that Jesus would hang out with.

But Jesus sees him and comes to the tree where he is sitting. And guess what, Jack? Jesus says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and climb down, for I must stay at your house today.” What do you think about that? He sees Zacchaeus, hiding up in the tree and he tells him to hurry, climb down, because I’m coming to your house. Jesus isn’t just able to see where Zacchaeus is hiding, but Jesus wants to be with him. Jesus is going to stay at his house.

Zacchaeus is so overwhelmed and excited that he scampers down the tree and is happy to welcome Jesus. And he says to Jesus that he will make right the things he had done wrong – he will pay back people he had treated unfairly. He will give half of everything he owns to the poor. And Jesus tells everyone there, “Today, salvation has come to this house… For the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.”

There is so much I want to tell you about this story. But right now what matters, Jack, is that sometimes I have been a little like Zacchaeus hiding in the tree. I have been scared to come down from my worrying to welcome you because I have been so scared that I won’t be able to be the mom that you need me to be. I have been scared that maybe I won’t be good at this or ready, that I will do things wrong.

But then I see Jesus standing at the foot of that tree holding you, and Jesus tells me to hurry, climb down, because you two are coming to stay at my house. You are coming to be with me. And when I hear that, and I see you and Jesus standing there, I climb down and realize that I am so happy. I am so excited for you, just like Zacchaeus was so excited about Jesus.

Jack, my little man so fully alive:

I can’t wait to hold you. To sit with you and reading you the books our friends have been sending you – Ping and James Herriott’s Treasury and The Going to Bed Book and The Mitten. 

To sing and dance around the kitchen for so many years that even when you’re 22 and you come home after college and you think I’m ridiculous, you’ll still join in.

To put you in the wrap or the carrier or the stroller or the whatever-baby-gadget-we-get and showing you the world. I’ll show you the leaves and their greenness, the water and the ducks that swim along the Brazos in spring. I’ll show you the big sky on our drive down 7. I’ll show you the cows, the wild orange and blue and purple flowers in April. I’ll show you the lilacs in Boston outside Grammy and Granddad’s house.

To introduce you to your aunt and uncles and cousins – they’ll show you the paddling pool and how to toss a football back and forth and probably how to get into mischief, too. I hope they teach you that.

To hold you. I already said that. But I’m so excited for that. Just to hold you.

Hurry, climb down, for I am coming to stay with you today. Jesus is bringing you with Him, Jack. He is bringing you to me and Dad. I can’t believe that we get to hold you, laugh with you, rock you to sleep, teach you about leaves and ducks and cows and the good things Jesus made.

I’m not hiding in the tree anymore. You and Jesus, you are waiting for me. You make me too happy, too overjoyed, too excited, not to scamper down.


the new shape of my heart

I cry in the bathroom some mornings when I think other people are just waiting for me to finish brushing my teeth. I stand stock-still at the sink and look at my reflection, touch the skin so effortlessly joined together over my cheekbones, the same place where the doctors will help my son’s skin join back together, scar tissue so much stronger than my own.

The days are getting warmer, summer bending around the next corner.

I smell the lilacs every time I pass them going in and out.

These past few weeks my heart has been stretched tight like the skin across my belly that pulls as my son grows, sometimes what seems like leaps and bounds every day. It has been pulled deep and hard, the same old words repeated: take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid. Words from Jesus, not just for Peter.. My heart has learned that there are fewer words, not more, that should be anchored in us: perhaps only these:

Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.

Jackson kicks often now, insisting on his presence, his being alive. His being, of course, mine and not mine. He pushes at me and sometimes it feels like he is shouting his own annunciation. You are my mom. No one else. And I am your son, no one else, and when I put my hand next to him and there is nothing but skin between us, I know this more than I know anything else:

My son is beloved by God. And I must be, too, because God let me wrap my skin and self around him for all these long months of his becoming.

On the mornings I freeze in the bathroom, overcome, Jackson still kicks, but more gently. He is brave for me more than I am brave for him.


I started this post thinking I would talk about the shape of my heart, how it has changed. Then I thought it would be about how grief is a strange, unexpected guest, one that joins you some mornings with the smell of lilacs and toothpaste when you touch your skin and imagine your son. Then I thought it would be about fear, and love, and walking on water.

But it is none of those things.

It’s just a post about my son, who kicks and moves to a music I cannot hear, whose skin will be stronger than my own, who shows me we are both God’s beloved.

My heart does have a new, surprising shape: the shape of being his mom.


when it has been 20 weeks

Dear Jackson,

You have a name! You love to remind us with every ultrasound visit that you are a boy, and the name belongs to you in the best way – it’s been yours for so long. I love using it when we’re on the go, you and I, grading papers or dancing in the kitchen or sitting on the porch, just being. I love talking to you with your name, Jackson, rolling off my tongue.

This week we learned a little bit more about you, Jackson. We learned different things from different places – a phone call and a follow-up detailed ultrasound and a genetic counseling appointment. It’s been a lot, but I think you probably know and feel my hand over the place where you’re moving, that sense of change in the air, new plans, new preparations.

You’ve got a facial cleft. From what we have learned so far, it extends up from your lip and involves your right eye and that side of your nose, and it goes back into your palate too. It happens sometimes; our bodies do unexpected things.

You have some unique things ahead, Jackson. We are so grateful that we know now, when you’re still wiggling around showing off your arms and legs, letting us hear your strong heartbeat. We are grateful because we can start to make sure we are ready to take care of you when we finally meet you this fall. And every single person who comes into the world needs taking care of. Me, your dad, the people who will meet you and take care of you in the hospital in September, the people at church, your grandparents. You will need some particular things – you’ll need help eating, maybe with breathing at the beginning, and the doctors will do some really amazing things to help you with the cleft so that you can grow, grow, grow – so that you can become your full Jackson self. But everyone needs. Everyone has scars that help tell the stories of their lives – I am praying that you become proud of yours, even as I am proud of where they come from, proud of your mighty self here at 20 weeks, proud of you.

Listen to me, my beloved first son: you have been befriended by the Almighty God. God is walking into every room, every waiting area, every surgery, every MRI or ultrasound or counseling appointment or wellness check, ahead of the three of us in the wild journey of becoming the family that we could not be without you. God is walking out ahead of us, and whenever we look around at the waves or the walls or the unknown-ness of it, when we cry out or you cry out, I want you to hear me: Jesus immediately calls back to us, “Take heart, it is I! Do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid of needing help in the beginning. Do not be afraid of what could happen. Do not be afraid, he whispers to me as I look at your ultrasounds on the fridge –  do not be afraid of the many statistics that cannot add up to the story of your one impossibly precious life.

So, Jackson, you whose name means God has been gracious, and whose middle name, David, means beloved, friend. At this the end of our twentieth week together, I put my hand over you and feel you push back at me, defiant already, sure of your own becoming, and we are making our hearts ready for you. We are making our hearts ready for the bigger wonder of who you are – the wonder of taking care of you, of learning your favorite things, of your discovery of the world.

We can’t wait for you to be here with us, Jackson. We can’t wait to hold you and kiss all these places that bear the marks of being human, of being alive. I can’t wait to meet you. Every piece of you.

All my love,

i pray you have a wilder imagination

Dear tiny person, 17 weeks alive now,

You will start hearing my voice soon – the sound of my heartbeat, loud and steady, the movement and rhythm of my body in the midst of all the ordinary work of these spring days. And you’ll hear Dad’s voice, the voices of the people around us, the noises of this life you’re coming into.

I have been hearing a lot of questions about you. People ask me, “but how will you still be a student?” and “will you quit school?” and “aren’t you going to need more time off?” and when I say no, they look at me surprised, a little concerned, a little knowing. They let the silence hang between us, the wide-eyed looks that carry the message across the inches of dusty floor – surely, surely, you didn’t think all this was possible. haven’t you underestimated how hard it will be? 

I am praying that you never hear these questions from me.

I am praying that when your dad and I hold you, we tell you the stories, again and again, that we are a people who never underestimate anything but the power of the Lord Jesus to walk into our lives and unfold the most surprising, most marvelous, most extraordinary things.

Your life is the gift that your dad and I never imagined we would be so privileged to see so soon. Your life is the greatest gift God has given us.

I pray that I do not ask you questions that say your imagination is too unrealistic. That you can’t possibly think you can do this and that at the same time, that you are underestimating how hard it will be, how much work it will be, how likely it is to fall apart.

I pray that you will hear me say instead that our imaginations should be wider, and wilder. I pray you will hear what I know in my bones, that we too often live limited lives because we limit our imaginations. We think that motherhood and philosophy graduate seminars can’t possibly both be successful; we think that you must choose between art and biology; we think that you cannot travel AND or be married AND or work this challenging job AND or …

and we teach this to each other, with our well-meaning questions and our expectant looks, with our heartfelt, “but how will that work?” Our imaginations grow small in the shadow of what we think more realistic.

I pray that your imagination is wilder than that. I pray that you hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, who will call you to get out of the boat, to leave behind what you know, to go into towns and cities, to leave the empty tomb with just the wild hope and these words: “I have seen the Lord!”

I pray you know that this is enough reason to rejoice in even what seems difficult or strange in the eyes of the world. It might not satisfy other people. And right now when I put my hand over the place where I know you’re growing, and I tell those who ask me these questions that I am not afraid to be a student and a mother, to be a wife and a philosopher and to hold you in the long nights and read to you about epistemology and the Rainbow Fish –

when I do this, it probably doesn’t satisfy the person who asked me.

But if it does not – if the question still lingers, how can she think all this is possible, then I dare them all to take that question and place it before the Lord Jesus. I believe Jesus will widen their imagination. I believe that Jesus will remind them of the stories:

Abraham, who left everything he knew to follow God,
Moses and the people of Israel, who followed God into the water of the Red Sea and walked safely,
Ruth, who left everything she knew to go with Naomi,
Hannah, who did not leave God alone in praying for her son,
Mary, who gave birth to God Himself in Jesus,
Peter, who got out of the boat, and even when he doubted, cried out and Jesus saved him immediately,
of the people Jesus healed, and ate with, whose faith, whose wild imagination carried them into the very heart of God.

And I believe that you, and me, and Dad, we are one story numbered among the thousands that Jesus tells about those who love Him. They are all stories of wilder imagination. They are stories of people who love, and this love, it casts out their fears, their idea of limits, their idea of what will be too hard and too much and so hard to imagine how it will all work. 

And so, beautiful, breathtaking tiny human being listening to my heartbeat, I pray that you are filled up all these many years with a wild imagination. I pray that you feel these stories around you, in your bones. I pray that you know most of all that God loves you, wildly, beyond your imagining – and when God calls out to you, you need never fear – it is His love, calling you to Himself.