Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a dream fulfilled is a tree of life.
Heather Jo sits in her eighth grade home economics class sewing a pillow. The shape is uneven and the stuffing bulky, so she decides to rip open the seams and try again. She knows that if she keeps trying hard enough, it has to work eventually. Stitch by stitch, she painstakingly pulls apart days of work. With the soft cloth in her hand, she returns to a thought that has been floating in her mind for the past few days, ever since her social studies teacher spoke of displaced children from other countries. Everyone needs a parent. The sentence plays like a repetitive song in her head. She keeps returning to that sentence, then packs it away for later reflection.
While other girls are thinking of boys and puberty, Heather Jo notices children and parents everywhere. She is drawn to the children in shops and at the grocery store, wondering about those who don’t have a parent walking with them down the aisles or a parent telling them to watch out for cars in the parking lot. She thinks about them at night after her mom comes to tell her goodnight and kisses her on the cheek. She wonders, Who is kissing those children?
In college she meets and falls in love with Jason. A contrast to her bubbly and fast-talking personality, Jason is quiet and introspective. She has a clear expectation though. Whoever she marries needs to support her burning desire to be a parent to orphans. The plight of these children has solidified in her mind, and she feels strongly the road to adoption is meant for her. Why else would her heartbreak at the mere thought of these little ones longing for love?
Jason is on board. One of the songs they hear playing on the night of their engagement is David Wilcox’s song “Hold It Up to the Light.” After they marry, this becomes a mantra for them on their journey together. Whenever there is a decision to make, Jason reminds Heather Jo to hold it up to the light.
If I keep my eyes open and look where I should
Somehow all of the signs are in sight
If I hold it up to the light.1
Anxious for the desires of her heart to come to fruition, Heather Jo waits patiently, repeatedly asking God like a child on Christmas morning, Now? Now is it time?
They have two girls of their own before the answer seems to be yes. The haze of parenting two little girls saturates her days, and she lives in the space where her greatest desire is a clean floor and a full night’s sleep.
Sitting by her fireplace, she sees an advertisement in the Sunday paper about children waiting in the foster care system. Children who need parents.
Without hesitation she visits the website, searching the faces of these boys and girls of all ages, looking deeply into their eyes. Their sweet eyes long for someone to love them. Take care of them. Parent them.
Now, God? Is it time?
She sees a picture of Sydney and Mark. They sit together on a bench with colorful leaves on the ground from the fall foliage. They are half siblings with the same birth father, ages fourteen and nine, left to be raised by a mother who recently died. They were placed in foster care to await adoption. They have no one. No next of kin wanted them. In the photo, Sydney, the nine-year-old, looks down at the ground, her eyes so sad and heavy looking. Heather Jo sees this and is drawn to them.
Yes, Yes. The green light begins to shine. Both Jason and Heather Jo begin to open the door to the dream that has lived so long within her.
One night they are lying in bed talking about their life with their two daughters and how healthy and happy these little girls are. They are thriving in their schools and comfortable in their home and family. Year after year, the Christmas card bears the smiling faces of this cheerful and content family of four.
“Why mess with something that’s working?” one of them asks.
The next morning Heather Jo is back in the chair by the fireplace praying and reading her Bible, hoping for clarity. As she reads, she discovers a card she had tucked between two pages. It’s from her Mothers of Preschoolers group, and it bears a quote from pastor Rick Warren:
Life is a series of problems: Either you are in one now, you’re just coming out of one, or you’re getting ready to go into another one. The reason for this is that God is more interested in your character than your comfort. We can be reasonably happy here on earth, but that is not the goal of life. The goal is to grow in character, in Christ likeness.2
They move forward with fostering them into their home with the hopes of adopting them in the future. When Sydney and Mark walk in through the foyer of the warm home to bedrooms they can call their own, the little girls hug them and invite them in. Sydney and Mark are hesitant and quiet, having been in various homes already, none of them permanent. The littlest girl grabs Sydney’s hand and takes her on a tour. Excitedly she shows Sydney her dolls and her toys and the pretty pink room Sydney will now sleep in. Mark stands in the entrance, unsure what to do. Unsure if he belongs. Unsure if he should trust this family.
They settle in and sit down at the round table for dinner while Heather Jo retrieves the milk from the fridge. She watches them from the kitchen and thinks, The six of us, a family.
She hears the little ones asking questions and sees the older ones relax a little. Her dream, so long growing in her heart, is finally reality. Right here at her dining room table. “Thank you, Lord,” she whispers. “Thank you, Lord.”
The normal challenges arise as the family adjusts to Sydney and Mark, but nothing Heather Jo and Jason have not anticipated. Until it all begins to quickly unravel. Four months into their new life, this dream starts to come apart at the seams.
Heather Jo takes Sydney to a stylist to help with her unruly hair and leaves the girls home alone with Mark for the first time. He has been doing well; Heather Jo feels it is safe. When she returns, her daughter is courageous enough to tell her the awful, true details. Mark made inappropriate choices with one of her daughters while he was alone with them.
“Unsafe. The situation is unsafe,” the social workers and counselors say to them. “The boy needs to be removed from the home.” Heather Jo and Jason are afraid. Already they love Mark as their own. How can they take him away from his sister? An unanswered question also rises to the surface: Is Sydney even safe around him? They are devastated and worried. Where will he go? Who will take care of him? How will he get help for his unfortunate choices? They don’t know.
They only know that to protect the girls, they need to let him go.
Is this really God’s plan? Heather Jo asks herself. Was this not the right time? Did I make a mistake? How did this happen?
On a rainy day in April, Mark’s social worker takes him away from their home. The family hugs him, and he shows very little emotion. This young boy’s emotional armor is strong. Heather Jo worries that no amount of affection can break through.
As quickly as he arrived, Mark is gone. Heather Jo grieves the loss as she would her own child.
In the midst of heartbreak, Heather Jo and Jason set their focus on healing the family, repairing what has occurred and integrating Sydney into the home. Heather Jo is hopeful Sydney can grow some roots and find some stability. They proceed to legally adopt her, hoping this will help Sydney know how much they want her.
The proceedings have the opposite effect.
The adoption triggers Sydney’s reactive attachment disorder. She lashes out in ways above and beyond that of a typical preteen girl. Day after day the screaming and the angry outbursts morph into terrifying rages. The police arrive as a backup when Sydney’s rage threatens others. Social workers explain to the family that Sydney still has the needs of a baby. She has missed those critical years of attachment and belonging. Heather Jo and Jason start to wonder if they had unfair expectations of this girl. They try to adjust so they can give her what she needs.
They seek counseling and prayer in multiple places, hoping to find help for this emotionally unstable girl. They learn more about Sydney and Mark and find they were both sexually abused in violent ways as children. Heather Jo’s heart breaks at this news.
The situation continues to fall apart. Sleepless nights become the norm for Heather Jo and Jason, and fear pervades the air in the home as the years drag on.
“There are five of us in a sinking ship, and we are trying to save one while the rest of us drown,” Jason says to Heather Jo. “And we aren’t even saving the one—we are all drowning.”
Heather Jo’s dream has become a nightmare.
She knows they have to find a plan B, but she is confused and perplexed by this. Why would God offer her this vision, this desire of her heart, only to fulfill it and then rip it from her in such a painful manner? Now when they hold the situation up to the light, it’s so messy they can’t see any answers.
Through counsel with the team that is now helping the family, one truth becomes clear: Sydney needs a home where there are no other children. She needs a place where she can heal from her trauma and potentially have a corrective experience for the younger part of her. This will take full-time care and attention from someone who isn’t also parenting two little girls reeling from the turmoil inflicted by Mark.
There are no clear-cut answers to this challenging problem. She prays and waits, trying to settle the constant storm in her home.
The answer comes in the grace of a phone call. Before Sydney was placed with Heather Jo and Jason, she lived with a foster family, Terry and Joe, and they have an older son who will soon be leaving for college, so they can focus exclusively on Sydney. They love Sydney too and have continued to play a role in her life since she left their care.
Terry calls and says, “We will do whatever the family needs. Even if it means taking Sydney back. We are open to that option if it is the right move for Sydney.”
How do you let go of a dream that has been growing inside of you for most of your life? How do you surrender to the death of this dream—once so alive and colorful and beautiful, now dark and messy and unfathomable? And how do you not feel tricked, as if God wasn’t in the decisions in the first place? Why would he ask you to follow a dream and then snatch it out of your hand, leaving wounded people behind?
These are the questions facing Heather Jo, whose dream dies not only once but twice.
She has no answers. She only has trust. She simply trusts that God is bigger than any of it and will direct her next step. “He will not let you stumble,” she reads in her Bible, “the one who watches over you will not slumber” (Ps. 121:3).
They tell Sydney about the option to return to Terry and Joe, fearing her anger and the hurtful words she will probably throw back at them. Sydney’s response is unlike what they expect. She wants to go back to Terry’s. Somewhere in her, she knows it is better for her. Sydney was with Terry when she found out her mother had died. Terry is the only one Sydney has ever actually attached to.
Everyone knows this is the right decision. But Sydney’s eyes take on the look that had made Heather Jo’s heart ache back when she first saw the siblings’ picture in the newspaper. They are the eyes of a little girl longing for something she believes she can never have, something she wants more than anything in the world. Every time Heather Jo and Jason had previously offered Sydney love, she reacted with violent resistance born of great fear. But this time, she is solemn and resolved.
Heather Jo packs Sydney’s room while she is at school, removing the pink comforter and stuffed animals they won at the amusement park. She packs away the photos of the family and the trendy clothes Sydney picked out at the mall. Her heart breaks open and resembles the shattered pieces of her dream.
The only way for Heather Jo to move forward is to hold everything loosely, trusting it is all God’s, both the messy and beautiful parts. She finds courage in her faith, the only thing that helps her slowly let go of these children. None of it makes any sense to her. She leans on friends who sit with her in her pain, not offering platitudes but being present with her.
Heather Jo walks around her home in a fog. Her mind spins with questions, and she replays decisions over and over. Her tortured mind attacks her. Was the dream only mine, and not God’s too? Was all this my fault? Memories and questions berate her, but no tears, just an ache deep in her bones.
She walks in and out of rooms with no real reason but just wanders as if she is looking for something for someone. What if Mark and Sydney were to be here only for a season? The familiar words from Ecclesiastes offer truth but not comfort. “For everything, there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven.… A time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance” (3:1, 4). She thinks that maybe because they were here, Sydney’s and Mark’s pasts could come to light. What if now both of them can get the help they need? She doesn’t know the answers this side of heaven.
Sydney is gone, her bedroom bare and the family table flanked by two empty chairs. That night Heather Jo’s friends sense her and Jason’s pain and invite them out for dinner. Three other couples have walked along this road with them. No words need to be spoken. They are friends just hoping to help hold some of their pain.
They sit at a long table staring at their menus, all of them sensing Heather Jo isn’t simply in grief but in shock. They ask her what she wants to eat. They ask her if she wants to talk about what has happened. She doesn’t. She holds her anxiety and sorrow close, so her friends love her in the only way they know how. They tell funny stories to try to brighten the mood. Heather Jo is engaged and laughing at something while dessert is being passed around the table until out of nowhere something happens. Her mood changes without warning. She freezes, and her eyes glaze over.
Her grief has grown too large for her body. She starts to convulse and suddenly begins to vomit. She isn’t aware of what is happening. Two of her girlfriends lean in and try to shelter her from the people in the restaurant now looking at her. They try to help her body settle. The scene is traumatic for everyone watching who are unable to help her. They clean up the vomit. They try to console and comfort her, but nothing works. Jason rushes into action and quickly swoops her up out of the restaurant. His beautiful wife, now in a zombie-like state. Once outside, her lungs fill with air. She flails and screams. Her cries are the guttural moans of a mother who has lost her children. Jason clumsily gets her into the car where she begins kicking the dashboard, the door, and the windshield. Her force is so powerful the windshield cracks.
Out of her mind with grief and pain, everything becomes painfully real as her body erupts again in a violent rush of vomiting and screaming.
At their home, Jason carries her into the house and into the shower, where she stays, sobbing. Heather Jo cries out to God, her heart broken, her dream so quickly gone like the water down the drain, slipping away.
Heather Jo’s grieving, just like her dream, took time.
When she was able to, she processed the grief and disappointment and confusion in therapy. She came to understand why the children weren’t ready for a forever home. She could see from this vantage that her original family of four reeled from the trauma Mark caused. It made sense that Sydney couldn’t attach to them. And today Heather Jo knows beyond a doubt that her marriage would never have survived had Sydney stayed in their home. She knows that releasing her dream was right, even though it was a sacrifice she never expected to make.
Even now she continues to question, ponder, and grieve. But nothing can erase the pain.
“I just keep saying, this world is messed up,” Heather Jo tells me. “I longed for adoption to be part of my story, and with all that happened, it broke my heart. But I trust there is a much bigger story than my own being told in all of this, that good will come out of it. That’s what gives me hope.”
Hope. Heather’s trust in God in the face of pain is her brave. Because she trusts, she also can hope, and hope is her supreme beauty.
This kind of faith astonishes me. Her heart senses what her mind can’t yet grasp: “It is in and through the travail of the pains of suffering that God creates something new,” philosopher James Olthuis wrote in The Beautiful Risk. “God weeps for us. God mourns with those who mourn—and ‘where God is at work, mourning is not the end.’ Then comes the promise of something new, the dawn of a morning of hope, the promise that God will turn mourning into joy and replace sorrow with gladness.”3
None of this—stepping out in faith, following our dreams, or even letting dreams die—is without pain. That is why it is so difficult. It takes courage to take the beautiful risk of following a dream without a guaranteed outcome; it takes even more boldness to follow the dream without knowing whether you can accept the outcome. True bravery recognizes the need to release our vision and even our desire to control as much as possible, so our dreams can be fulfilled as God sees fit. It takes real trust to believe God is the author of our dreams even if they don’t play out the way we hope they will, even if our stories this side of heaven fall short of happily ever after.
“You will grieve,” Jesus told his disciples, predicting the response they’d have when they realized that it was not God’s plan for him to seize political power, “but your grief will suddenly turn to wonderful joy.… I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth, you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:20, 33). Because we serve a great God, we can find the strength to trust that his goodness will win out, somehow, someway, sometime.
© Lee Blum. Excerpted from Brave Is the New Beautiful: Finding the Courage to Be the Real You published by David C Cook. All rights reserved.
1 David Wilcox, “Hold It Up to the Light,” Big Horizon, 1994, A&M Records.
2 Rick Warren, interview by Paul Bradshaw.
3 James H. Olthuis. The Beautiful Risk: A new psychology of loving and being loved (Wipf and Stock, 2006).