Wednesday, February 6, 2013

AVERYday: You Lead, I'll Follow - Part 23

Oftentimes, no matter how hard you try to plan something, things will never go as perfectly as they will if you just step back and let God lead.

Jamie Grace was scheduled to play at Winter Jam in Milwaukee this past Friday (Feb. 1st). So many kids from Avery's school wanted to go. But I didn't. I did... but I didn't. This happens a lot lately. I struggle between Avery would love this! and why is it that Avery can't be here to enjoy this? Grief is a delicate dance between joy and sorrow. I feel the hard tugging of joy on one arm and the hard tugging of sorrow on the other in every activity or event Avery could be found in. In the middle of this struggle I find false comfort in the dark and stillness; it's the perfect place to lay down, close my eyes, and pretend like this is all a bad dream. Except nothing changes. Another day dawns and still I have lost my daughter.

And so it was that as the days dawned closer and closer to Winter Jam, everyone became excited except me. The days got colder. I grew weary. Matt got excited. I sorted laundry. The truth was, going to see Jamie Grace at Winter Jam was exactly what Avery would have wanted to do. She would have worn her Jamie Grace t-shirt that she bought at the October 12th concert in Madison. She would have charged her iPod to take a thousand pictures. She would have grabbed scraps of paper and a chewed down pencil last minute just in case the opportunity were to present itself for an autograph. She would have sang all the songs on the entire CD over and over and over again until we parked the car. And knowing all that hurt my heart.

Nonstop, my soul weeps for her, begging: just one more minute. Just one more hug. Just one more anything.

And, over and over I hear God's quiet answer: No. No, my sweet child, not now. Soon. But not now. Please, take my hand. Let me lead you.

***

My phone rang at 3:22pm on Thursday, January 31st. I didn't recognize the number so I let it go to voicemail. The message left was from Jamie Grace's mother.

Go ahead. I'll let that one sink in for a bit.

The message left on my phone was from Jamie Grace's mother.

And ten minutes later I'm speaking with Ms. Mona who is going to be my Best Friend for Life and her smooth voice is hugging my soul tight and I am all wrapped up in her love and never wanting to let this woman go... because even though she has never met my Avery, she gets it. She gets it huge, y'all.

And I find myself spilling my guts and laughing out loud and wiping away tears that threaten to fall and shushing Matt out of the room. And I find myself listening. Listening to this woman I do not know tell me how nervous she was to call me and how humbled and honored she is to talk to me. Me?! Me? What I have I done but loved a little girl with all my heart? But Ms. Mona is telling me God is working miracles through your Avery. Don't ever forget that. God is working.

I try to explain; I try to thank her for loving her little girl with all her heart. But I can't put into words that make sense how her love created a child encouraged to put words into song and how important those songs would be to me; the right words, the right melody, the right chords that would heal my heart and remind my soul to what was truly important.

But I have no words to my heart gushing: Track 8 gets me out of bed! I play it in the shower and force myself to sing. "Cause I know what you got for me is more than I can see!" I picture Avery's face smiling as she sings along but more than that it reminds me to say to God, I don't seem to know where I'm going today, so you lead and I'll follow.

Track 5? Track 5 has sung me out of some dark moments. "Come to me when you're weary... " Oh, Lord, you know how my shoulders ache and my head throbs and my bones are so brittle from weeping - give me rest from my burdens, Lord. Give me rest. And He does. Every single time. I just need that reminder to go to Him.

I manage to tell Ms. Mona about the first track on the CD. Ready to Fly. It's a prelude to the CD really. Just about sixty seconds.

There's a feather in my hair
and a wing around my neck;
I'm ready to fly away.

And I've got the wishes
from all of my friends,
Hugs and kisses
from my Mom and my Dad.

There's a feather in my hair
and a wing around my neck;
I am ready
to fly
away.

I tell Ms. Mona that this was the last song played at Avery's funeral. This song that played in a church with over six hundred people trying to wrap their head around why such a precious, beautiful God Girl was taken from us. This song that answered our sobbing hearts: "I am ready to fly away and meet Jesus." If you knew her, you would know: she was ready. We were not.

***

I gathered my people Friday afternoon. My sister. My daughter. My niece. My fiancé. And my father. These same people stood for Avery's visitation. For her funeral. And now here we were, standing together in my sister's kitchen, preparing to conquer city traffic and troubled hearts.

I looked tired. I knew it. I felt it. "I don't want to go," I told my sister. I hadn't slept, hadn't eaten. There was a time once where I would have picked the right outfit, put on make-up, fixed my hair just so; instead I was watering plants, picking off brown leaves. Delaying time. When she asked why I tried to explain, "because Avery would have loved this... and she's not here." I dabbed at my tears. Always, the tears. "I didn't even bother to do anything with my hair. Look at all this gray! What's become of me that I'm about to meet Jamie Grace and I didn't bother to do anything about my gray hair!" 

Shannon looked hard at me. At my tired eyes and my gray streaked hair. "Come here." And then she did what only an older sister could do: she colored my gray hair 37 seconds before we piled into the car. With a brown Sharpie.

Yes, people. I was about to meet my sweet Avery's favorite music artist with Sharpie-colored hair.

And you know what? It totally worked.
***

We arrived at the arena and found awesome seats right up near the stage. We couldn't have imagined a more perfect seating section! Jadrian and Aleah found two seats on the floor in front of the stage. Oh, to be young again, we mused. We were old. We needed our space. We needed the back of our chairs in case we had to sit. You can't sit in front of the stage. That's the standing, rocking out only section!

Matt asked where all the kids from DCS might be. I told him not to plan on seeing them at all. The arena was huge. There was no way we'd find them. Besides, we couldn't save seats. We'd just have to trust that they'd find decent ones. I said a silent prayer, "please, God, these kids travelled a long way to see Jamie Grace. Help them find the right place tonight." Matt decided to go look for them. The doors were open, people were flooding in. "You're never going to find them," I yelled after his back.

Twelve seconds later he was back in front of me: The Pied Piper of the Christian School Kids. They filled the seats around us. Thank you, God. Thank you.

Just a sampling of the whole crew.

Girls giggled and squirmed and squealed all around me, faces printed with Avery's name across their foreheads and cheeks. A sliver of me hardened. Why couldn't Avery be here giggling and squirming and squealing? She should be here. With these kids. Laughing. Antsy with anticipation. Begging me for money to buy a drink. Why can't she be here?

My sister nudged me. "Do you see their sign?" I looked up a couple rows. The girls were standing, singing, swaying to the music, holding up a sign: AVERY.

These sweet children were making sure Avery was with them. My heart swelled.

***

"That was her! Jamie Grace! That was her! She walked right by in front of us!" I was gushing. "Did you see her?" Eyes followed to where I was pointing. There in the stands, surrounded by fans, stood Jamie Grace. The spotlight trained on her. Her heaven-sent voice reaching the ears of eager thousands.

She began her walk through the crowd. Singing and smiling, slapping hi-fives with twinkling eyes and a sure step, making her way to the stage. Avery, do you see her? Do you hear her? 

***

The mood shifted. I could feel it. God perking up my ears, listen...

I cannot do it justice; the words Jamie Grace spoke about this little 11-year old girl named Avery, who wasn't afraid to say I AM A GOD GIRL! I cannot begin to find words that show my gratitude and my love; that show appreciation for her choice to give my daughter a voice in an arena filled with thousands of people. To introduce these people to a beautiful girl who loved God so very much....

Jamie Grace gives tribute to Avery Johanna.
And then she sang.  

 I'm a God girl that's who I'll be
From the top of my head to the soles of my feet
I can't deny it, wouldn't even try
I'm your girl in a crazy world

Avery's song. The last song I heard her sing. The song she smiled and swayed to, throwing her hands up, be-bopping and bouncing, singing lyrics out loud and proud on an ordinary Wednesday morning of that disastrous day.

Tears - how could they not come? And then, the most amazing thing happened. In the middle of the song God Girl, Jamie Grace seemed to turn directly to where we were sitting - of course she had no idea where we were, but I swear it was like she was drawn right to us as she sang these most precious words:

...there's a feather in my hair and a wing around my neck...

A million slivers and shards of my heart swirled around me, drawn back together to dance for Avery's soul, and for mine.

***


Matt (who is running his Faith Journey).
My sister Shannon (who has an AMAZING video that she needs to upload).
Jamie Grace (with pink in her hair and God in her heart).
Me (with my Sharpie colored hair)
Aleah (who looks so much like Avery).
Jadrian (who needed every word of that concert).
My Dad (who wouldn't go home to Australia until AFTER he saw Jamie Grace in concert).

***

Let me tell you about meeting Miss Jamie Grace. She is a fabulous person. Down to earth. Real. Without pretentiousness or ego or any of those things people who are "recognized" may gather inside their hearts. I really, really liked her. As in, I wish she were my neighbor. Or my co-worker. Or Brody's Sunday School teacher. I wish she were Jadrian's friend, or our babysitter, or the super market checkout clerk because I know she would smile and ask how're ya doing today and actually mean it. Ever meet someone and think how amazing the world would be if there were more people like them? That's what I thought when I met Miss Jamie Grace.

She told me she met a good friend of hers, who happens to live in the Milwaukee area, for lunch. Her friend just had a baby a couple weeks ago and couldn't come to the concert. (New babies always make me smile: "The birth of a baby is God's way of saying, 'I want my world to go on.'" How can you not smile?!) Her friend asked if she were doing anything different for tonight's concert. Jamie Grace started to tell her about this young girl who was killed in a car accident a couple months ago named Avery... "I know about that!" Apparently her friend has heard about Avery, telling Jamie Grace about following it on Facebook and this blog.

How far is your love for Jesus reaching, Avery?

More than you can ever earthly imagine, Mama.

***

As exciting and yes, healing, as throwing my arms around the voice who continues to encourage and give strength to be a live-out-loud God Girl - especially to my Avery, part of me worried about the kids from DCS. They had their signs and their painted faces and they screamed their love for Avery through this concert... but I wanted more for them.

I know an unexpected death can harden hearts. I knew from those very first moments that how I reacted and how I talked and how I processed would be watched by a school full of children who sat next to, ate lunch with, went on fieldtrips together, shared inside secrets with...yes, they would be taking their clues from me. In fact, that very next morning I had pulled myself together as best as I could and sat cross legged on the floor of my no-longer-there baby's classroom and I looked each one of those too-young-to-deal-with-this kids in the eyes and told them God was making sure this was all going to work for His good. I have showed them that I will not allow my heart to harden; not with anger, nor with doubt and fear. That I can do all  things through Christ who strengthens me, even this really awful part that I don't want to be a part of.

One of Avery's classmates came to me, her innocence and naivety cloaked around her, "you got to meet Jamie Grace? That's not fair! I want to meet her!" "Be patient," I answered. "God always has something prepared for you." Please, Lord. Prepare them something awesome.

***

The concert was almost over. TobyMac was doing his tobyMac thang - strutting and jumping and getting us all on our feet. His energy is beyond contagious; it's intoxicating, addicting. I, like everyone around me, was singing, putting our hands up, clapping, praising. (Put "see tobyMac in concert" on your bucket list. You won't be disappointed.) I was smiling thinking about the last two days. The phone call from Ms. Mona. The beautiful tribute to Avery. Meeting Jamie Grace. All my silly fears and anxieties that were so unnecessary. Why I keep thinking I need to be in charge when I could just follow Christ. I smiled and sighed. My life is good.

I looked across the crowd at Jadrian. For more than half the concert she had stood awkwardly within herself, held by a hesitant heart. And now, I could so easily see something had happened inside her. Somewhere between the unsure movements of an I-don't-know-where-I-stand-as-a-Christian, through sobbing seeing her sister's face smile out at the crowd, amongst Matthew West's set about Forgiveness: Forgiving others. Forgiving yourself. (And it was powerful!) my gorgeous, hurting, absolutely-forgiven-even-though-I-never-blamed-her 17-year old daughter was dancing and smiling and letting her hurts free and letting God in. We've been planting the seeds, Lord, and we're thanking you for bringing the right people into her life to water them.

Yes, I thought as I looked across at my daughter and around all the people who surrounded me. My life is so good. Thank you, Avery, for watering my seeds.

I turned my head to the right and looked down at the floor next to the steps leading to the stage. There stood Avery's classmates, circling Jamie Grace, heads a-nodding, grins spread out from ear to ear. What on earth...?

At the signal the kids flew on to the stage: dancing with tobyMac and Jamie Grace and all the other artists that had performed at Winter Jam!

Look at those pink shirts flying onto that stage!
Unbeknownst to me, unbeknownst to Jamie Grace even -- she had grabbed our DCS kids to go on stage for the final number. ON THE STAGE, Y'ALL!!


All of Avery's friends. All of the kids she would include in her prayers. There they were. On stage!!


Confetti flying, faces beaming, words tripping: Can you believe that? I can't believe that! Did you see us? Jamie Grace wanted US on stage! and my favorite: It was like Avery told God to do something special just for us!
I couldn't have planned a better night if I had tried. For the kids, for my family. For my grief-tired soul. Because God was all over me. And I heard Him ask did you feel her? Because she was here.

Yes. Yes, I felt her.

Good. Here now, take my hand. If you follow me, I will always lead you to where you can feel her.