It’s been 7 months and the waves of grief continue. It is easier now for my mind’s eye to remember her as she was prior to our bone marrow transplant. Sometimes I can hear her laughter in my head causing simultaneous smiling and tears. Every time I step into her room – I feel like I have been socked in the gut. Regularly on my drive home from work, I think of something that I want to tell her only to remember that she will not be twirling through the kitchen when I get home. I miss her trail of random shoes throughout the house. Rarely, I even miss math homework but only for a second because I realize that both she and I are relieved of that burden.
Some days are harder than others and some things you just never consider until you walk in these shoes. It’s surreal. Everything changes from the way you were before. From your grocery buying habits to your dinner table conversation. A void that is impossible to fill with other things. There are always reminders, and they often catch you off guard. One day, I looked down and saw a pink rubber band from her braces. My normal response in the past would have been an eye roll and the following comment, “Good grief Khaleda, that is just disgusting. No one wants to look around and see dirty rubber bands from your mouth.” But this time, it stopped me in my tracks and caused an instant ache in my chest. I picked it up and held it in my palm realizing– “oh my goodness, this was in her mouth. I will never find these lying around again. A piece of her right here.” Such indescribable sadness.
Another day, I pulled out a blanket only to unfold it and find strands of her hair. As I looked at them, I was paralyzed. I thought, “I can’t pick them off and throw them away. Not yet. There will never be more. I can’t wash her off this blanket.” I just folded it back up and put it back into its place for another day. Most of the time, I focus on where she is and then my selfish desire for her presence on this Earth will subside. The reality is that I would never wish her back here, and the truth is she would never choose to be back if that were a choice. It seems hardest for those of us left behind.
It’s Christmas Day – our first Christmas without her. She was so excited about tradition and would have been sure that we didn’t miss a single part of our normal agenda. Her love for family time was so powerful and moving. Last Christmas, we were at Duke coming off of what I thought was the worst week of my life to that point. There were no decorations, traditions or gifts, but it was a sweet, sweet Christmas. One that taught me so much about life and priorities. We celebrated in a way like never before and were thankful for the greatest gifts — those that cannot be purchased or wrapped.
I’ve thought a lot about gifts this year. I haven’t wanted to shop or buy many at all. There is no material gift that I just can’t live without. I realize more than ever that they are fleeting and only offer limited happiness and no real lasting joy. I’ve thought about what I consider my greatest gifts. This year has been bitter sweet. Some of life’s greatest gifts and greatest hardships have come in 2016, in the most unlikely of ways.
Last December, a dear friend sent me a beautiful letter of encouragement while I was with Khaleda at Duke. This letter, a great gift in itself, included the story entitled “The Gift of the Magi.” If you haven’t read the story take a few minutes and enjoy. I pulled that letter back out to read it again this year. It’s a story of sacrificial love. An act of selflessly giving up your most cherished possession out of love for someone else. It’s something so rare and moving and beautiful.
My mind immediately shifted to Khaleda’s parents who sacrificially gave their only daughter to us in hopes of a better life for her. The recipients of a selfless act of love. What an honor for us on so many levels! One of our greatest gifts, better than anything we could have ever imagined. And then – of course how do I not immediately shift to the focus of this day – Christ and His sacrificial love. The ultimate example of sacrifice – for me. I am humbled and full of awe. So undeserving and yet so blessed. I have reflected on the grace and mercy overflowing from my God. James 1:17 say, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness…” Khaleda was an amazing gift from above. We are better for knowing and loving her. The people we have met along the way and how the Lord has weaved lives together has been such a blessing to behold. We have heard stories of how her life impacted others and it brings us to tears. Those dreadful months in the hospital were oddly a gift. We spent day in and out sharing a bond I could never describe. I learned what is truly important on a whole new level, and I was brought to a place of utter dependence on the ONE who gives all gifts. Sometimes our gifts are hard to recognize. They don’t always come beautifully wrapped with gorgeous bows. Sometimes they are messy, and we don’t understand their value or significance until much later.
So many of you have followed our story. You prayed fervently for healing and ached with us as we walked through the valley of physical death. How could all of those miracles not end with healing? How can this be the end of this amazing story? “Not this way Lord,” was my thought as I wept on so many days. So many people are praying and watching. Will not this ending for some cause disbelief in a God who is good and merciful? So many people have been moved and are cheering for us and a happily ever after outcome. This is not the ending we hoped and begged for. Her story has to strengthen the faith of others not lead to wavering.
God is the master author. He sees from a perspective that we can’t even begin to understand. Sometimes, He says, “No, child” because He knows what is to come. It takes daily renewing of our faith and dependency to keep moving forward sometimes. So for us, our amazing story does not end with Khaleda’s wedding reception. She is with us every day, and I know she is singing and dancing in a perfect healthy body, in a place we can’t even fathom. My son reminds us of her in some way every single day of our lives. We all miss her dearly and will never be the same after this year. But our God, who is faithful and who binds up the broken hearted and knows our needs before we do, had a plan for us that we could have never imagined. We have experienced yet another act of sacrificial love. The week following Khaleda’s funeral in the midst of our greatest grief, we were contacted by a family who would once again alter the course of our lives. A telephone call that I will never forget from a lifelong friend. For what will be an obvious reason, I can’t remember the conversation word for word – but here is the paraphrased version…“Hey, I know this is horrible timing, and I’m so sorry for that. My family has been watching your story and praying for your family. We are heartbroken for you but there is more. We have a relative who is having a baby, and she is unable to keep this child. It is a little girl to be born in a few weeks. We have prayed about this, and we believe this is your baby.” Ringing ears, pounding heart, dizziness and confusion. ”What do you mean a baby? Right now Lord? When my heart is hurting so much? How can this timing be good? Is this your plan Lord? What do we do? Will people think we are trying to replace our daughter? I’m so confused yet filled with excitement. Do things like this really happen? Is this some sort of cruel joke? I can’t handle any more heartache. What if the mom changes her mind at the last minute?” On and on and on – the thoughts continued.
After a few days of prayer, Mike and I agreed that we would be thrilled to adopt this child should this really come to fruition. We moved forward cautiously optimistic and dazed over the thought. It seemed so unlikely and too good to be true. We had spent years trying to adopt again only to hit one dead end and disappointment after another. Four days later, on May 30th, our son’s 4th birthday, we received a call that the baby was coming earlier than expected, and we needed to come to the hospital. If you could have been a fly on the wall, you would have been entertained like never before at the Assell house. Shock – pure and overwhelming shock. “Oh my goodness, we haven’t told anyone. Not even my mother. What do we do?” Mike and I headed to the hospital right after digging the infant car seat out of the attic. Upon our arrival, we were given a birthing suite. I’m not sure I can put into words the emotions experienced that evening. At 12:29am on May 31, 2016– we experienced another beautiful gift of sacrificial love. Our daughter Naomi Jude Assell was born. So perfect and beautiful! Only 23 days before, we sat in a hospital room holding our daughter as she took her last breath on this Earth, and now here I was again in another hospital room- holding our baby girl – blessed to be present the second she took her first breath. All I could think was, “Oh Lord, Khaleda would have loved her. She is dancing up there, I just know it.”
I stand in awe of my Creator and Sovereign Lord. His plan is not our plan. Life is hard and heartache is real. But He loves me and has given me a healing balm for a time so painful, and I am so gracious. We have been so unbelievably blessed by this gift. I am speechless when I ponder God’s hand in our lives through the good and bad. I can only hope that others will have renewed faith in some way through this journey. I am deeply moved when I reflect on our lives over the last year. The sacrifices were heart wrenching and the acts of love were tremendous. Today, I steady my gaze more solidly than ever before on my greatest gift of all… the cross.
Naomi Jude Assell
6lbs, 5 oz May 31, 2016