dear jackson, what it means to be healed

About a month ago, we found out our first son, Jackson, would be born with a severe facial cleft affecting the palate and causing his right eye not to form. You can read about that here.

Dear Jackson,

We found out about you on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

We were planning on volunteering in the community garden of a historically black church in east Waco, but your mom and I delayed a few minutes so she could take one of the just-in-case pregnancy tests we kept under the bathroom sink. It probably won't surprise you I was listening to the soundtrack of a musical when your mom walked around the couch I was sitting on like it was Jericho, the same way she did a few years before when I asked her to marry me.

Left my troubles all behind me, back there when I climbed on board.
Jordan River's where you'll find me, it's wide but not too wide to ford.

I kept playing the soundtrack in the car when we drove the opposite direction of the church to the grocery store, where we bought five more tests. Your mother took all five of them, in rapid succession. While most said it would be a good minute before we had a result, every last one read pregnant or two lines or emoji child within seconds. You have, from your earliest days, been fiercely assertive of your existence.

Your mom and I sat on the couch for awhile, grinning like fools. Scared fools. Not scared of you, but scared of what it meant to be parents. What it meant to try and care for a tiny human. All the while knowing there was still the ordinary of our lives to do: your mom had class the next day, a special seminar session she had to go to that afternoon; I was on deadline for something, though I forget what.

Then several months later, we found out about your cleft, your unformed right eye, and we were scared for different reasons. Again, we weren't scared of you. We were scared because we wanted to make sure you had everything you ever needed, that you were taken care of, that whatever help or treatment or option could, might be—we would find it. I've already written you about those days, those first days of finding out, how we joked about eyepatches and cried when we didn't know if you were okay.

I don't want to tell you that part of the story again. I want to tell you about the day we found out.

Left my troubles all behind me, back there when I climbed on board.
Jordan River's where you'll find me, it's wide but not too wide to ford.

The cast recording I was listening to that day was for the musical Violet.

Violet is the story of a young woman who sets out to beg a television preacher to restore her face. When she was young, her father, a lumberman, slipped while sawing a piece of wood that Violet was holding on one end. The saw slid down the frame and sliced open her face. They were up on a high mountain, in a remote town, and though her father ran her down as fast as he could, the town doctor may have been a bit drunk stitching her face back together, leaving Violet healed but disfigured. And so Violet boards a bus headed to claim her miracle of healing—to look normal, as she thinks of it—on September 4, 1964. (Twenty-five years before my birthday, if we're attending to details.)

Along the way, Violet meets two army servicemen, Monty, a smooth-talking white man, and Flick, a kindhearted black man. Violet bonds with them over poker, which her dad taught her to play as a way to make friends with men despite her looks. Violet reveals to Monty and Flick her intentions to become an amalgamation of every beautiful woman she has ever seen, expecting all she needs to do is have the preacher pray and she'll get it. Monty treats Violet's hopes as foolish, while Flick tries to explain he doesn't think Violet needs any healing. After all, it's just how she looks. She's not sick. She's not dying.

I'm going to skip over a good deal here, because it involves some complicated choices of adulthood I'd rather you not dwell on just yet. But suffice it to say after a good deal of effort, Violet does meet the television preacher, who tell hers she doesn't need a miracle because she doesn't need to be healed. Her face is not a disease. Her condition is not hopeless. Violet, enraged, begins to shout every prayer and Scripture she knows, grabbing the hands of the preacher and forcing them on her face. After this, she shouts that she has been healed and runs off. She makes her way back to a bus station where she's to meet Monty—the smooth talker she talked to a bit too much—and when she presents herself to him, convinced she has been healed, he sighs, shakes his head, and pities her for surely finally seeing what he always knew: she was never going to be healed, religion is just a joke.

Overcome with grief that her face is still the same, Violet refuses to see Monty anymore, fleeing from him. Monty considers going after her, but proves himself as he always was: a certain kind of coward. Flick shows up then, and, finding Violet, reiterates to her what he said all along: she didn't need her face to be healed. She had already been healed and was healing. Flick, as a black man in the 60s, knows a thing or two about how the way a face looks can feel like an affliction, when it is anything but. In the closing song, Violet, Flick, and the cast reconcile how maybe what God gives in healing isn't always physical, because what we assume needs healing isn't always what needs healing. Healing is sometimes, and maybe more often than not, the gift of seeing each other as we really are: whole even when we don't so quickly see that for ourselves.

What makes all this so powerful, Jack, is that the actress who plays Violet wears no makeup on stage. She's not made to look disfigured and she's not made to look like a member of the cast. She is plain. We never see the disfigurement, it's not the focus of our attention. We see her. We know she has it—she tells us often enough, it consumes her—but we get to know her as who she is before we even remember the burden she carries on her face. Violet's healing is being free to see herself as we have seen her the entire musical—beautiful, just as she is.

Jack, when we sat in the hospital in Temple and found out you didn't have your right eye, that you had a facial cleft, all I could do was think about sitting on the couch, driving to the grocery store, Violet playing the whole way.

Left my troubles all behind me, back there when I climbed on board.
Jordan River's where you'll find me, it's wide but not too wide to ford.

Violet sings this when she first boards the bus to find her miracle. All the life before is left behind, what awaits her, surely, is everything she thinks she has missed out on. The reference to the Jordan River is striking. It was this river Jesus was baptized in. Baptism is the sign of new creation, Jack, the old being taken away and the new being completely given. When Violet says you'll find her in the Jordan River, it's because she believes that God is going to give her a new face. In the closing song, she repeats the line, but this time it means something else entirely. She has walked out on the other side of that river, she has found her healing, but it was not as she nor society expected. But it was as God intended.

Your mother and I pray for your miraculous healing all the time, but especially every night. I pray the monastic hours over you, the psalms and the old collects, the meditations on the Scared Heart of Jesus and the intentions to the Theotokos to intercede with us for your healing. Every night, without fail. You kick most when we talk about Jesus, which your mother switches between finding endearing and wishing you'd let her sleep with great rapidity. (Again, you like to assert your existence.) We're not stopping those prayers until Jesus tells us otherwise, Jack, because we have already seen him miraculously heal you once.

Jesus grew your jawline, Jesus made it so you could breathe. Your mother and I look at the ultrasounds, but a month apart, and we can see the difference. It's subtle to everyone but us, trained to search for every last bit of evidence of you we can find. But Jesus did do that; Jesus brought cells to perform miracles weeks after they were supposed to. The most life-threatening part of your condition was healed. You have been, already, healed.

Jackson, I want you to know something. I want you to know that we'll keep praying for your healing until Jesus says stop, but your mom and I don't attach healing to how you look. What we want for your life is for you to be whole in the sight of God. We don't know what that means. We don't know if that means by miracle you'll have both eyes and no gap in your face, if that means you'll have both eyes and a gap they heal through surgery, or a glass eye, a surgically healed gap. Or maybe this other thing. Or that other thing. We don't know. We're not scared of that. Regardless of what happens, regardless of what miracles are still yet to come, you were healed by Jesus, you were made to be able to breathe. Can I tell you how that's enough? Can I tell you how much that already is?

We have just over three months until you're born. We've spent a lot of these past months trying to talk as openly as possible about you to help other people get a sense of the language we want to use. Most people, almost all people, want to say the right thing and are so afraid they won't. (It's those people, as it happens, who usually say the right thing because they bothered to wonder that in the first place. It's a sign of moral character. It's the people who quickly tweet you a photo of the 'kid who had the same thing' so 'feel better' that should ... pause before proceeding.) People want to know how to pray, they want to know what they can do. We tell them to both pray for your miraculous healing and pray for you to be whole in God's sight. How we read it, no matter what happens with your face, both of those prayers have been and are being answered.

Jack, well-meaning people are going to say some silly things in your life. They're going to read healing passages in the New Testament and assume that physical healing is superior, is the sign of something exclusive and the property of God. Be kind to these people. Help them read slowly. Help them see how often Jesus only heals when he is asked to. Help them see how what Jesus heals people of is often culturally damaging, not personally. It's really hard to live in the ancient world if you're blind. It doesn't have to be so today. We live in a world that caters to able bodies and defines those able bodies very narrowly. But we don't notice because we assume our own experience is the normal one. So people may say things about how you still need healing if you don't have that eye, or if you need surgery to help finish forming your face. But you can remind them, gentle as you can because sometimes it will be hard to be gentle, that Jesus has already made you whole. You're like Violet, Jackson, no matter what is happening with you physically, God already sees you wholly, as you are. Your mom and I look at 3D ultrasound images, Jack, and we see the same.

See, bud, healing isn't always for the individual. It can be for the community, too. And you're already helping so many people see how much bigger God can be than what we think of as normal. You're already healing expectations and assumptions. Jackson, you are whole in the sight of God and your parents, grandparents, godparents, and a whole wide community of people who pray for your wholeness, whatever that looks like or means.

Jordan River's where we'll find you, too, Jack, in the arms of the Good Shepherd, because no matter how you look, you're on the other side, it's not too wide to ford: you're already whole.