“Happy birthday, Ruthanne!”

Homemade gifts for a beloved older sister. One day, they’ll get to meet her, I believe.

We had an unexpected conversation this morning in our house. Thinking about it now, I should’ve seen it coming and been prepared; after all, my daughter has a history of asking very pertinent questions about deep subjects at inopportune times. But I was actively trying not to think about the topic of her question this morning, and so I was utterly unprepared.

She was puttering around in her playroom, working at her art desk, pulling out an old stuffed animal that hadn’t seen the light of day in months. Suddenly she disappeared into my bedroom, and I heard the rustle of tissue paper and some sort of papery flapping sound; the next thing I knew she was standing in the kitchen holding a Hello Kitty gift bag up for Rachel and I to examine.

“It’s a birthday present for my sister,” she explained. “Today is Ruthanne’s birthday.”

I can say without reservation that my daughter has one of the most exceptional hearts that I’ve ever come across. While she can be a bit selfish at times, she also has a capacity for love and kindness that just floors me. I mean, she always wants to sit the villains in her Disney movies down so she can talk to them about choosing to be good. Kid just doesn’t seem wired for hate or cynicism or malice.

So it shouldn’t have surprised me that she would want to celebrate her sister’s birthday.

But it did. It took my breath away really. As I mentioned, I was trying not to think about it; I wanted to see if I could just go through the day normally, which is to say without dwelling on the loss of our first child, Ruthanne Camille Brooks. In fact, after a major breakthrough on the grief front last year (thanks to Ella and Jon), I was certain that this year would be different; that I would think of Ruthie only briefly, and without being consumed by emotion.

But there was Ella with a pink girlie gift bag, wanting to take it to her sister’s graveside.

“I’ll put it in front of the flowers you guys give her,” she said, cheerful.

Rachel and I told her that we hadn’t ordered Ruthie’s new flowers yet, but we were going to, and Ella could just hold on to her present until then.

“Okay. I’m giving her a card that I made for her and the Oopsy Bear that I don’t play with anymore.”

“That’s sweet,” Rachel said.

“How will she get it?” Ella asked.

“She won’t, sweetie,” I said. “But you can open the present up and show her the card and the bear, and she’ll see you from heaven.”

Ella paused. “Can she see me all the time?”

“Well,” I said, “the book of Hebrews says that we’re surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who cheer us on…”

Rachel cut me off. “No, honey. She can’t see you all the time. Only when God pulls back the clouds and let’s her look down. Most of the time, Ruthanne is focused on praising God.”

Ella looked at us for a second. I could see the confusion.

“Think of it this way, Ella: Ruthie is able to see you, but only on special occasions, only when God knows that we need the encouragement. So she doesn’t watch over you everyday; only on special days when you need her.”

Despite being theologically wobbly, that answer satisfied her and she skipped out of the kitchen with her gift bag in tow. I looked at Rachel.

“Didn’t expect that one.”

Rachel shook her head. “Me either.”

The next thing we knew, Jon came walking down the hallway with a gift bag of his own.

“Whatcha got there, bubba?” I asked.

“Issa gift for my sister,” he said. “Is for Roofann birfday.”

Ella stood behind him smiling.

I took them to her room and snapped a couple of pictures on my iPad. Instead of saying cheese, they kept saying “Happy birthday, Ruthanne!”

And instead of feeling my heart break, I felt happy. Joyful. Hopeful.

In eight years, I’ve learned that the death of a child, regardless of when it occurs, is a devastation unlike almost any other. It leaves a mark on your soul that doesn’t go away. It changes you.

But I’ve also learned that there is life after death, both in the Christian and metaphorical sense. It takes time to realize this, but eventually you do move forward, you do heal. You never forget; you never undo what happened; but you learn to give it the right place in your life.

And sometimes, when very special people come along who, in their innocence, want to celebrate the person you lost instead of the pain you got, you learn to live in ways you didn’t know were possible. You learn you can celebrate both the living and the dead, because that’s life.

But most of all, you remember that, one day, you’ll all be together again.

Dear Graduate: Here’s Your Chance to Make a Movie

Usually, I use this forum as a way of expressing myself. Today, though brief, this post is to help out other people.

I formerly worked for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries as a writer and project manager, and one of the major projects in development during my time there was the ASK Curriculum, an apologetics curriculum for students. We were mainly in the preliminary stages of the project, so I didn’t have that much to do with it, but (as you can well imagine) it was a project about which I was extremely passionate.

Well, fast forward a year and change, and RZIM is on the verge of finishing this curriculum up and bringing it to the masses. Only, in order to get it completed, they need some help.

Tomorrow, RZIM will be filming the final video for the ASK material, and they need extras from the Atlanta area. All of the details can be found here, but for clarity’s sake, I’ll let you know they are looking for people, ages 18-30, who can be at Georgia Tech’s Global Learning Center tomorrow morning at 9:00. Filming will go until around lunchtime, though some extras might need to stay as late as 2:00. The ministry will provide breakfast, a box lunch, and a $20 Starbucks gift card to those who register online and show up for the filming.

For more information, or to register as an extra simply click on this link.

I’ll be there. Will you?

The Speed of Time

Ella, on the first day of school. Suffice it to say, a lot has changed.

Yesterday afternoon my daughter popped in a DVD that her Kindergarten teacher sent home. It was a video slide show, set to music, that captured moments from the entire school year. As Ella watched, her and her friends transformed from fresh faced babies into tall and lanky children, all in a matter of minutes. With each picture Ella would call out, “There’s Pate!” or “That’s Ms. Mercier!” or “Look at Mackenzy’s face!” She took genuine joy in the reminiscence and when the video was done, she quietly asked if she could watch it again.

Since her brother was in the middle of a fevered coughing fit, I – grateful for something to keep her occupied – hit the play button again.

It took less than thirty seconds for the tears to start. One second, Ella is sitting there with a smile on her face; the next, she’s a puddle of tears and blubber. The transformation was startling, but so too was the realization that my six year-old was caught up in the powerful emotion known as nostalgia. A six year-old. Nostalgic. For a school year that wasn’t even officially over.

If her brother had been well, I would’ve lingered on that thought a moment longer, would’ve allowed it to blossom in my mind. Instead I hit “Stop” on the DVD remote and said, “You’re brother’s falling to pieces because he’s sick, Ella. I can’t have you falling to pieces because of some video. We’ll watch this again another time; why don’t you see if you can find something else to do?”

I know. Heartless. But you’re not holding a coughing, feverish three year-old and wondering whether or not you need to head to the nearest pediatric emergency room.

Ella did go find something else to do: she started writing a note to her teachers, telling them how much she loved Kindergarten, how much she loved them, how much she would miss them over the summer and how she would promise to come see them once first grade began. She tore the note from her little binder, brought it to me for my editorial eye, and then announced that she would like to take it to school with her for her teachers.

“You can’t,” I said.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because tomorrow is the last day of school.”

“That’s why I need to take it tomorrow. Because I won’t see them any more after.”

“But you can’t take anything with you to school tomorrow – not a book bag, not a lunchbox, nothing.”

Ella frowned. “I can take a sack lunch. Ms. Mercier said so. So I can take the paper.”

I sighed. “No, you can’t. The reason you’re not allowed to take anything to school is because the school board doesn’t want students throwing paper out of the bus windows.”

“But I wouldn’t throw this out of the bus window. I would give it to Ms. Mercier.”

“I understand that, Ella, but the school board doesn’t. They don’t know that you’re a sweet girl who follows the rules.”

She smiled. “I can just tell them.”

“You don’t know enough about the government to know how funny what you just said really is.”

The conversation went on until Rachel stepped in and explained that, while Ella couldn’t take the note with her to school, she could type the note up in an email and send it to her teachers that way. Ella loved the idea, and I asked me to help her. I gave Jon to Rachel and took Ella to the computer. I opened a new email and typed in Ella’s teacher’s address. Then Ella slipped into my office chair.

“I got this,” she said.

And she did. With the exception of me showing her how to use the space bar and the shift key (for capitalizing letters), Ella banged out the entire email on her own, one finger hunting for each letter like an archaeologist brushing dirt off rare antiquities. When she finished (she typed her name in all caps so the teachers “would know it’s me who signed it”), I hit send and the email vanished. Ella beamed with pride.

Then she teared up again. “I’m going to miss being a Kindergartener.”


“Because it’s all I know how to be!”

I hugged her. “I know how you feel, Ella, but if you’ll remember, you didn’t even know how to be a Kindergartener when school started this year. But you learned, honey, and you learned well. I mean, you just sent an email to your teacher that you wrote and typed yourself! You don’t have to be afraid. Or sad.”

She wiped her nose on my shirt. “But I like being a Kindergartener. It’s fun.”

“I know. But any learning can be fun if you make it fun.”


“Well, maybe not Algebra. Or Statistics. But for the most part, yes. I promise.”

She made a face. “What is Stabisitics?”

“Don’t worry about it. It comes much later in your school career.”

She seemed satisfied with my answers, and that was pretty much the end of our talk. This morning, as I walked her to the bus stop for the final time this year, I reflected on just how much she’s grown; she reads at a near second-grade-level, loves to write notes in her journals, draws pictures with much more clarity and detail. Even watching her walk, I was taken back by how mature she seemed. She’s taller than when school started, and her hair’s longer – in fact, she was so excited to be able to pull it into a side-ponytail for the last day.

“Just like the older girls do,” she explained.

In a couple of hours, I’ll have a Kindergartener no longer. The speed of time is exponentially increasing on me, and I’m just coming to grips with the fact that I can’t slow it down, not when a quick glance at Facebook reveals former students who have been married seven years, former students who are on their third baby, former students who have just gotten engaged, not to mention the students who are just graduating this year, whom I first met when they were barely the age Ella is now. It all reminds me that this is what life is: a continual progression, a relentless march forward.

And it’s meant to be savored.

So when my first grader steps off the bus this afternoon and plants that first foot solidly into her summer break, I’ll grab her in a huge hug and say, “Let’s go do something fun. What do you say?”

Hopefully, because time is short and precious, she’ll say, “Yes!”

All Grown Up

My parents on their wedding day, looking ridiculously young.

Yesterday was Mother’s Day, so naturally I spent some time with my mom helping homeless families pack up and move. She didn’t seem bothered by the fact that I forgot to get her a card.

There’s no punchline. My mom serves as our church’s coordinator for Family Promise of Gwinnett, which means that two or three times a year she’s responsible for transforming our church gymnasium into a home for people who don’t have one. She wrangles volunteers, schedules meals, provides transportation, and just in general spends time with families who are going through a hard time.

And she excels at it.

Obviously she has a lot of help with the details – we happen to have a lot of wonderful volunteers at our church, and they buy in on Family Promise like almost nothing else. I think it’s the idea of seeing transformative work right in front of you, of being able to see our church’s faith lived out. But at the center of all of these volunteers is my mom, joking and laughing and loving every person involved.

My dad is the silent partner in this venture; he’s the behind-the-scenes fella who makes sure that what needs to be done gets done. And to watch the two of them work together is to realize what makes their 38 year-old marriage so effective: they are as perfectly balanced as the Flying Wallendas. Watching them also reminds me why our home was so popular as a child–people just love them and are drawn towards them.

It’s weird as an adult to look at your parents through an adult lens. I often find myself looking at them as if I were still under their roof and their rules (a frequently quoted maxim during my youth); in fact, I often look at the entire world as if I were still a youth easily brushed to the side. It’s only been recently that I’ve settled into my adulthood, and part of that transition has been looking at my parents as peers.

Of course, my parents had me young (Dad was 22, Mom 20), so in a sense they’ve always felt like peer leaders; that’s not to discount their parental authority, because they had that in spades. (I still tell people my dad would whip my butt if he heard me being disrespectful to an elder, because he would.) But it’s more to acknowledge what I’ve been realizing: that the journey of parenthood is the simultaneous growing up of your kids and yourself.

So in a sense, realizing my own adulthood is to realize theirs as well. And what magnificent people they are: kind, generous, hysterical, fun to be around, genuinely welcoming, tireless caregivers to grandkids and grandparents alike, faithful, fun-loving, and wise beyond their respective 58 and 56 years. Watching them this past week, as they served the families at church and my own family, was to see the rare beauty of human nature, fully expressed through the grace of God.

Far from the people they were when I was a child, my parents are all grown up now, which means that I am too. It also means that one day the process will move to the next step, when we all move up a role in the cycle of life: I will become the caregiver, they will become the cared-for. It is a role I will relish because they have shown me how to carry it well.

I didn’t see or speak to my mother after our morning together; she had some Family Promise duties to fulfill, then went home to crash. I had church and then time with Rachel’s family. But despite not being together, I felt closer to her and my dad than I ever had before, in part because I felt in my heart the magnitude of what their lives mean to me and to others.

It was probably the best Mother’s Day we’ve ever had.

Dream Woman

Rachel and Ella. Yes, the woman on the right hand side married me.

Wednesday, some of the students I work with at the Grayson High School Christian Learning Center asked what was my most embarrassing moment. As a life-long goober, that’s like asking Michelle Duggard to pick her favorite kid: there’s just too many to choose from.

However, one of my church students called out, “Tell them about your first date with Rachel.”

And immediately, I knew she was right. There couldn’t be a more embarrassing story in my past, with the exception of the time I threw up in the planters outside the Georgia Theater. But that is another story for another time.

So I began to regale the kids with the story: how I, nervous and shy, worked up the courage to email Rachel for a date, and how she, intelligent and beautiful, agreed to go. We went to dinner at the Old Norcross Train Depot, and I talked the entire time.


I just couldn’t shut up. I was young and intimidated, and I wanted so desperately to impress her that my mouth just uncoupled from my brain and the the most inane, banal, flat-out ridiculous stuff poured out of my mouth. And it wouldn’t stop. It just kept coming, like a bad magician’s handkerchief.

So there I was with verbal diarrhea, and she with a case of the zips: she wasn’t saying a word, just suffering in silence. I tried to wow her with deep thoughts, bad thoughts, empty thoughts; she just looked at me as if I were a blank wall. Sure, she tried to be kind to me (as she pointed out later, I had this annoying, lost puppy quality) and made small talk when she could, but after a while she reached her threshhold and just shut down.

It was the footrace that was the last straw.

We had left dinner and gone to Stone Mountain to just walk around and talk (okay, she walked, I talked), and in a rare moment of lucidity, I asked her what she liked to do for fun.

“I run,” she said.

What happened next has been permanently scrambled in my brain. I remember it like a Monet painting: deep impressions but scant detail.

I challenged her to a race. An honest-to-God forty yard dash. And for some reason, she accepted.

And if that weren’t bad enough, I beat her. Badly. And then poked fun at her.

“I thought you said you were fast?”

I’ll skip to the end: the rest of the date, all 45 minutes of it, were completely silent. Rachel didn’t say a word. I could tell things had gone south, but was utterly at a loss for how to fix it. So I drove her home. The entire car ride was silent.

When we pulled into her driveway, she simply got out of the car, shut the door and walked inside without so much as a glance back. I didn’t even have time to get my door open.

I had done her the ultimate disservice: I had acted like a macho jerk. I tried to impress her instead of get to know her. I had, for lack of a better term, been everything that she despised about men.

Until the phone call.

See, we went out on a Saturday night, so the next morning as I was sitting in my church choir, I felt a strong conviction that I needed to call Rachel and apologize. I didn’t hear one word of the sermon, the thought was so strong in my heart. And when service was over, I walked into my office and picked up the phone and dialed her number.

She answered. “Hello?”

“Hi Rachel, it’s Jason.”


“I just wanted to call and apologize for last night.” And apologize I did. Sincerely. I told her that I was wrong to talk as much as I did, that I was trying too hard to come across as cool and impressive, and that by doing so I betrayed her faith in agreeing to the date. I told her that, while a second date was obviously out of the question, I wanted to remain friends because she was an intelligent, Godly woman and I appreciated her insight.

More silence. Then…

“Thank you.”

It turns out God was telling her to be gentle with me because I was different. She listened, and now, 13 years after that date, we’re getting ready to celebrate 11 years of marriage.

Which is why I KNOW there is a God.

But I told this story to the kids in the CLC class and they laughed at my stupidity, awwwwwed at the way things turned out and in general seemed to appreciate the humor of the story. One of the guys even leaned forward and said, “You just gave me a buttload of hope.”

That’s when my student yelled out, “Oh – and she’s hot. Really hot.”

At which point I smiled and said, “Yes she is.”

I went on to tell them that before I ever met Rachel, way back in the day when I was just a dorky kid with no romantic prospects whatsoever, I sat down and wrote out a list of what I wanted my wife to be like. It had all of the normal shallow boy stuff (pretty, athletic, thin, cheerleader, blonde) and some of my personal quirks (smart, funny, kind, Southern) as well as some bizarre specifics too embarrassing to list. I didn’t keep the paper that the list was on, but as I grew up I kept the list in my head, adding and subtracting as time and maturity dictated.

When I met Rachel, every single item on the list was checked off. Every one.

In short, I married my dream woman. And have never regretted it.

My heart still beats fast when we have a date (and I try really hard not to talk too much). I still wake up amazed that she’s next to me. I look at our beautiful children and thank God she had the dominant genes.

And with Mother’s Day being this weekend, I am happy to be able to celebrate her, because she is an amazing mom, forgiving friend, and the best wife in the world.

You want proof?

For her celebration, we’re going out to eat and then seeing The Avengers.

A smokin’ hot ex-cheerleader with advanced degrees, a beautiful soul, and a small nerd streak she likes to exercise every once in a while?

Dream woman indeed.