My Daughter's Message

Death had ended her last chance to see her troubled daughter's heart at peace. Or had it?

Posted in , Oct 27, 2008

I was a bit uneasy when I couldn't reach Heidi on the phone that snowy day in March 2001. But I'd long since gotten used to being anxious when it came to my 24-year-old daughter. Over the previous six years Heidi had disappeared repeatedly, without explanation. During that same period she'd had four children out of wedlock, each father out of her life before the baby was even born.

But the last few months it had seemed she was finally coming around, holding a steady job at the Greencroft retirement home, taking care of her newborn twins, coming to church with my husband, Jerry, and me on Sundays.

The snow was coming down fast as I headed down the main hallway of Parkside Elementary after grading some papers, so it took me a moment to make out the two figures approaching the door. Policemen. "We're looking for Janet Hershberger," one of them said.

"I'm Janet Hershberger," I said, holding the door open.

"Is there a private place we can talk?" he asked quietly. And that's when I knew, even before we went inside and they sat me down in an empty classroom telling me how Heidi had lost control of her car on a slippery road and careened into oncoming traffic. The fear that had haunted me all those long restless nights when I didn't know where Heidi was had become reality. Heidi was never coming home again.

I wished I could turn back the years to shortly after Jerry and I adopted Heidi and her brother, J. D., when the two of them clung fast to my hands as we stood in that very spot just inside the door before school, Heidi's pretty green eyes turned up to me eagerly as I admired her latest crayon drawing. I never dreamed that one day those eyes would cloud over with troubled secrets, that I would search them for a clue to what was going on in my daughter's head, that Heidi would become more of a mystery to me than the impossible-seeming jigsaw puzzles she spent countless hours putting together.

The policemen drove me to the hospital, where one of Heidi's twins, Jasmine, was in critical condition. I closed my eyes and prayed, just as I had so many times since Heidi first disappeared, the night before her final exams senior year. We called her friends from church. No one had seen her. We called the police, then Jerry and I held each other on the living room couch, asking God to wrap his arms around our daughter and keep her safe.

She came home the next morning as if nothing had happened. "What were you thinking, Heidi?" I demanded. "Do you have any idea how worried we were? Don't you realize how disrespectful it is not even to pick up the phone and tell us you're okay?" Heidi didn't apologize, just sat stony-faced, answering in monosyllables, until finally tramping upstairs to her room.

It happened again that summer, but that time she vanished for two agonizing weeks. Jerry and I thought a change of scene might be the answer. We sent her to stay with family friends in Minnesota. "Mom, please forgive me for the way I acted," she told me over the phone. But soon after returning home she took off again. One month passed, then two. The police couldn't do much because she was over 18. I checked with her friends from her youth group, but the problem was Heidi had other friends, ones she kept hidden from us. The unfinished jigsaw puzzle in her room was a continual reminder of her sudden absence and our frustrated attempts to figure out where she was or indeed who she was. God, just give me a clue to help me find my daughter.

One day I reached into my jacket pocket and pulled out a phone number I didn't recognize. Curious, I called it. To my amazement, Heidi answered. My joy was cut short when she said, "Mom, I have to tell you something. I'm pregnant."

We encouraged her in the decision to put the child up for adoption. She went off to college. But there she ended up in an abusive relationship, and it resulted in another child, Joana. Jerry and I eventually took Joana into our home because Heidi's behavior was too unpredictable. We suspected drugs or sexual addiction, but never knew for sure the cause of Heidi's actions.

Over and over she tried to get back on track, returning home and to church. I'd slip into her room in the mornings and watch her sleeping, so innocent, so peaceful. But when she awoke I always saw turmoil in her eyes, some secret life that caused her to run off again and again.

Whether we were harsh or forgiving, confrontational or gentle, nothing Jerry and I said or did seemed to get through to her. In the end all I could do was pray—during the solitude of my morning devotions, in the fellowship of our church group, or at bedtime with Jerry, the plea was always the same: Lord, please give Heidi your protection and peace. Guide her back to you.

I thought maybe, just maybe, those prayers were finally being answered when Heidi moved in with two girls from church and took a job at a local retirement home. But then a letter in the mailbox the day after Christmas 2000 brought the news that she was about to deliver twins. Reeling, I went to the hospital to see her shortly after they were born. "I'm going to take care of them myself," Heidi told me. "I have the job at the home now, and I'm going to stick with it. I'm going to move in with a really nice older couple. No more drama, I promise."

Just two months later I arrived at the hospital to learn one of the twins, Joseph, had come through the car accident without a scratch, but Jasmine's skull had been crushed. She was being kept alive by a respirator. I found Jerry and we wordlessly embraced. Pastor Layman from our church approached me. "I just wanted you to know that Heidi was in my office yesterday, and we had the most wonderful conversation. There is no doubt in my mind that Heidi is with the Lord."

I felt an immense calm settle over me and his words resounded in my mind: "Heidi is with the Lord." That assurance stayed with me while I held our tiny granddaughter, Jasmine, as she took her last breath. I imagined I was handing her over to Heidi.

That's how we buried them, mother and child together. Hundreds of friends and relatives came to the funeral. Even some of the residents of the retirement home where Heidi worked showed up. After all the times Heidi had left without a good-bye, it was healing for me to be able to bid her one at last.

And what a blessing to come home not to silence but to the sounds of our grandchildren! Heidi and J. D. had been toddlers when we'd adopted them, so caring for two-month-old Joseph was a newfound joy. Jerry and I surrounded ourselves with mementos from Heidi's life so the children would grow up knowing their mother.

We talked about her often. It's strange, but Heidi's presence in death seemed larger than when she was alive but always missing. Her old clothes and shoes, the tea party dishes she used to play with, her senior picture on the wall, even Joseph's smile and Joana's laugh—all brought to mind my daughter. But gone was the fear that used to darken every thought of her.

"Don't you feel angry that it ended like this after everything you went through?" my friends asked. But the calm that had come over me in the hospital was still with me. Even though I missed Heidi, there was no anger, no crushing sorrow. How can I be so calm, Lord? I prayed. Shouldn't I be grieving more for my daughter? How could I have tossed and turned so many nights over Heidi while she was alive, yet now feel such peace when I thought of her? And then the answer came, as clearly as if Jesus were speaking to me. You've been grieving for her for six years. She's safe with me now.

The cards and visits from friends subsided as the months passed. But one afternoon a couple came to call. They were the ones Heidi had been staying with at the time of her death. "Heidi was halfway through this when she died," the woman said, presenting me with a jigsaw puzzle depicting a wintry holiday scene. "There was a piece missing, but we finished the rest and thought you'd like to have it."

I thanked them, but after they left, my eye was drawn to the empty spot in the puzzle. So like Heidi, I thought. Always a piece we didn't see. The good girl doing her homework, playing on the soccer team, going to church on the one hand. And on the other... elusive, troubled, unknowable. Staring at the puzzle, I was suddenly right back in the midst of the doubts that had besieged me while Heidi was alive. What if she'd just been deceiving us all, telling Pastor Layman and me what she thought we wanted to hear? What if she was as troubled in death as she was in life?

My fears nagged at me, though I told no one about them except God. They were soon pushed aside, however, by an unexpected invitation. The composer of some music we'd used at Heidi's funeral offered to fly me to Nashville to talk about Heidi and how the music had comforted us. I'd never flown alone before and was more than a little nervous about it. But Jerry thought it would be good for me to get away for a few days.

South Bend Airport was daunting enough—I didn't know how I'd manage my connecting flight at bustling Detroit Metro. Lord, please send someone to help me find my way. The person sitting closest to me at the gate was a lovely white-haired woman who didn't look any more worldly than I. Still, I felt drawn to speak to her. "Where are you headed?"

"Nashville, Tennessee," she said with a smile. I introduced myself and learned her name was Luba. Since she was also flying to Nashville and was nervous about flying by herself, we agreed to help each other find the right connecting plane when we landed at Metro.

In Detroit, despite the crowds of strangers hurrying to make their flights, porters pushing luggage carts, and bewildering signs and monitors, I felt so at ease with Luba at my side. "So what brings you to Nashville?" she asked as we walked toward our gate. Oddly I didn't feel the slightest awkwardness telling her about my daughter's death. "It feels so natural to talk to you about Heidi," I said.

Luba stopped suddenly, then turned to look right at me. "Heidi? Heidi Hershberger? You're Heidi Hershberger's mother?" I nodded. "My sister knew your daughter!"

Knew Heidi? In the middle of the rushing crowd, I was aware of nothing except Luba as she shared her story of Heidi. Her sister had been visiting a friend whom Heidi was looking after at the Greencroft retirement home. "She said she was really impressed by how caring Heidi was. So she started talking with her. Heidi told her she'd lived a troubled life, but had made things right with God. Later we were shocked to read about the accident in the paper, but heartened because we knew Heidi is with the Lord."

It took a moment to sink in, for me to make sense of it all. Then I reached out and embraced Luba. Heidi is with the Lord. Pastor Layman had said it, I had felt it in my heart, but it was through an unlikely meeting with a kind stranger that I was given the final assurance that my daughter had found the piece that was missing in her life. At last she was home to stay.

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