Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Beauty for Ashes

I am standing with my three girls in the middle of Epcot when my phone rings. Crowds bump past us as I stall the wake of moving people and fiddle with my phone to see who's calling. The name on the screen is one I love, but I am surprised by the call, so when I answer I say her name with a question mark. Immediately, I notice the strain in her voice. Something is wrong.

She comes to the point quickly, tells me her brother has taken his life. Ended it. And she is not even 24 hours past knowing. I stand motionless, my girls tugging on my shirt as individuals break stride to move around us.

I say nothing. I am speechless. The breath has been knocked clean out of me.

This is a family we adore, with parents Doug and I have come to care for like our own. They have four daughters and one son, Rob. It is their daughter Hillary on the phone. Sweet Hillary, who came to help me when the boys were born.

Hillary holding spencer

She came once, twice a week (sometimes more), to keep our household functioning. She helped me shuttle the girls to swim lessons, held babies, folded laundry, sat on the edge of my bed while I nursed. I felt an instant closeness to her. She is the kind of person you can speak honestly with because you know she will not judge you. She is open, accessible, and good to her very core.

Hillary's mother, Gaylyn, who has been my visiting teacher since we moved to Utah (visiting teaching and home teaching are how LDS congregations care for each other), suggested Hillary might be able to help after the boys were born. Hillary's father, Bob, has been our home teacher. Together, they have brought good books into our home, home made bread, comfort, service, and always it has been ladled with love.

Paper-cutting by Hillary that I keep on our piano

One of their other daughters, Betsy, lost her newborn baby only months ago. And Hillary's first baby boy, who came two and a half months early, finally returned home around Christmas after an extended NICU stay. This family has known heartache and loss. The kind of holes that on certain days seem impossible to fill.

So to hear Hillary's voice telling me about her brother Rob, was more than I felt they could bear.

I cried through the next two rides at Epcot, gathered some thoughts, then texted her back, apologizing that I hadn't known what to say. You can't anticipate that kind of wrenching news, the kind that leaves you changed forever, your spirit dangling by the blow.

I thought of Gaylyn's mother heart. I thought of my own children. To lose one of them would be to lose part of my soul.


We arrived home Saturday night and for days now, I have not been able to stop thinking about Hillary and her family. A constant prayer has been rising out of my chest, spilling off my lips, that God will comfort them in the ways only He knows they need.

On Monday I saw them. Hillary, Betsy, Becca, Mary - all four sisters - and Rob's wife, hugging friends in a sober church setting. I saw Bob and Gaylyn standing at a distance, greeting each person as I waited in line. Bob was tender as always, his demeanor calm and peaceful. I read Gaylyn's lips as she embraced a friend and they held hands. "It is okay," I watched her say. "It will be okay." And I knew those were not just words to her. She was living them, believing them.

A soft light hung round the outline of her body. She was radiant, floating on the shoulders of angels. How are they doing it? I thought, as I fought back tears.

Hillary spoke at the funeral. It was perfect in every way. Redemptive, tender, humorous. Her sisters read scripture, prayed, read Rob's obituary, and we came to know Rob for who he was. For the summation of choices and kindness with which he lived his life, not a single event. I met Rob only once, but I felt I had missed out by not knowing him better.

Then Hillary read from Isaiah and I felt as if I would burst.

"The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek, he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; To...comfort all that mourn... to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness." - Isaiah 61: 1-3

Truly, there is no sorrow on earth that heaven cannot heal.

I couldn't write about anything else this week until I attended to this. To the deep emotion this sorrow has roused in me. My girls mention Hillary and her family in each of their prayers. Doug and I speak their names, one at a time, in ours.

We have no doubt Rob is in a loving place, freed from the exhaustive, valiant fight he fought here. But Rob's meekness and goodness are unique to him, and it is obvious he will be very missed.

The healing road is a long one. Look around and we are all on it, for one reason or another, carrying seen and unseen burdens. Would that we could carry each other with less scrutiny and more acceptance.

Portrait of Jesus, by Eliza

Paul taught us to come boldly to the throne of grace in our time of need (Hebrews 4:16). Why then, do we wait? I know of only One who has traveled into all the darkest places. Only One who can restore our breath, pick up our tired feet, and keep us moving.

I believe Isaiah's words, that it is possible to trade ashes for beauty, fill our cups of mourning with a measure of joy. Because I saw it in the steady, peaceable walk of the Stephenson family.

We love you Bob, Gaylyn, Hillary, Becca, Betsy and Mary.


  1. I know dear Hillary from college and I was so saddened to read Rob's obituary this past Sunday. My prayers are with Hillary and her family. Thank you for this sweet post! I don't know you personally but really enjoy reading this blog...I have four under 4 years, including identical girls. Anyhow, you can imagine my surprise to see Hil's pic on your blog. Thanks again for sharing.

  2. Wow...what to say. We just got home from attending my sister-in-law's funeral. She was 34, married to my only brother, mommy to her precious 2 year boy. So reading this really hit home.
    Praying that the Lord will send healing in hurting hearts, yours, theirs, and ours.

  3. So sorry to hear thoughts and prayers are with you and your friends.

  4. Oh Catherine, I am so sorry to hear of this loss. I really cannot imagine how heartbreaking such an event must be for family and friends and those who loved him.

    Rob sounds like an extraordinary individual, with deep compassion and love. His family members have clearly loved and blessed others so much. I will be thinking of and praying for them.

    Dearest friend, you will be in my prayers. Love you

  5. Thank you for sharing that beautiful scripture from Isaiah. Praying for your friends and am inspired by your message to love more, in action, thought prayer, all ways.

  6. Thank you Catherine. I'm so thankful for your heart and the way you share it.

  7. Lovely post, Cath. Beautiful and wise.

  8. Gretchen - Such a small world for you to know Hillary. She is a great soul. And I'm fascinated with your own story of four under four. How old are your children now? Thanks so much for reading and for leaving a comment. I told Hillary I had written something here and that I couldn't figure out how to go about with less detail (more cryptic or ambiguous) so I simply told the story in a personal way because it's how I process thoughts and events about people I love. I worried maybe I had shared too much but Hillary's response was that personal is how Rob would have wanted it. Thanks for contributing.

    Dear Marian, I am so sorry to hear of your sister-in-law. I am pained for your brother, his small son, and all of your family. My deepest sympathies go out to you. I can only imagine the haunting, hollowing nature of this kind of grief. Rob was also 34. It is too young to go, so hard to leave a young spouse behind. Your prayer is a beautiful one - for healing to come into all of these hurting hearts. Tears and love to you friend.

    Knit1Knit2 - you are kind, thank you.

    Anne Marie - Yes, Rob learned compassion and love from his family. All of them are good and beautiful people. Thanks for your words. Hope your week has been a good one. xo

    Cristie - love you.

    Jen - I've been thinking a lot about love this week, about gentleness. Thanks for your thought here. Appreciate you.

    Samsel - Would love to see you soon. xo

    Kara - You are a good friend, to read and leave words. I love you.

  9. I want to be a little more like Hillary, her parents, and the Savior through reading this. My heart mourns for all of you.

  10. Catherine, I started reading this and immediately knew who you were talking about. I love the Stephensons and was so sad to hear this news after it happened. Bob and Gaylyn are so inspiring to me and I love them dearly. Small world that you live in their neighborhood.
    This post was so beautiful. I love the Isaiah reference, love the blessing of truth, the beauty of love and family and goodness and knowledge of reunions hereafter. I loved what you said about carrying each other with less scrutiny and more acceptance. Perfect.
    If Rob is anything like his parents (I never met him), that speaks highly enough, right there. This is such a lovely, beautiful family, and I feel blessed to know them.

  11. Candice - me too.

    Elizabeth - you've just endeared yourself to me even more! Since you know the Stephensons! Aren't they exceptionally beautiful people? You are indeed blessed to know them. Loved reading through your happy blog last night. You are a lovely person, inside and out.


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