By Amy Paulsen-Reed, Assistant Editor and Sales Representative
I recently had the pleasure of experiencing Meadow Rue Merrill’s new book, Redeeming Ruth. I say “experiencing,” because “reading” is too meager a word. In Redeeming Ruth, I found myself going through Meadow’s experiences with her: her deer-in-the-headlights feeling as she realizes God has placed a special needs child in her path who will die if she’s not adopted; her exhaustion at caring for Ruth, but the great love that spurs her on to keep going; and her raw grief when Ruth unexpectedly dies. Although the story is at heart a sad one, the sadness is not what stood out to me while I was reading it; what I took away from the story was a renewed sense of the strength of the human spirit, the power of love, and the power of faith. Ruth could neither control her body nor hear, yet her joy in life was not extinguished and when given the chance to learn something new, she grabbed at it hungrily. Although caring for a special needs child is difficult, the love that Meadow and her family had for Ruth kept them going. Love truly does conquer all. While adopting, and then advocating for Ruth, Meadow faced one terrifying uncertainty after another. But love and faith kept her going—love for Ruth and faith that Someone would meet her halfway.
I was interested to read Redeeming Ruth because I myself have lost a child. Our daughter Ava was diagnosed with Turner Syndrome at 14 weeks into my pregnancy, and she was born stillborn because of it at 21 weeks. That experience plunged me into a grief I had never imagined possible. I felt like my heart had been ripped out of my chest while bitterness, emptiness, depression, and exhaustion took its place. Although I felt alone, I knew I wasn’t. I made contact with the Turner Syndrome Society of America and met other women who had or were experiencing the same thing I was. And this is why it’s important to tell stories that don’t end with “happily ever after.” Because life isn’t always “happily ever after.” Although grief can be incredibly isolating, stories like Meadow’s remind us that we aren’t alone. Grief can bring us together just as much as it can rip us apart.
One vignette from Ruth’s funeral reminded me powerfully of my own experience:
Then, as “Release me, Oh Lord” played over the speakers, Dana clasped a hot pink helium balloon—Ruth’s favorite color—and led everyone outside. Mourners poured down the church steps, crunching across the snow-crusted lawn to line the street.
“Ready?” Dana asked as our family took hold of the string dangling from Ruth’s balloon.
“One, two—“ Dana counted, and I could almost see the grin spread across Ruth’s face that bright fall day as she sat in the backyard swing more than six years earlier, black-buckle shoes rocketing past my head. “Three!”
We all let go.
But instead of soaring into the heavens, the balloon bobbed over the street and across a neighbor’s lawn. Would it snag in the bushes?
“Come on,” someone urged as it struggled along.
With one arm around Asher, I raised my free hand as if to give it a lift. Then an unseen breeze caught the balloon up, up through the winter-bare bones of an outstretched tree, higher and higher until the single, solitary sphere became a shining pink speck against a cloudless sky—and just like that, it was gone.
When Mike and I lost Ava, we were living in Long Beach, Washington, a small beach town close to the Oregon border. We decided to have her cremated, and we scattered her ashes into the Pacific Ocean, which became her final resting place. When the one-year anniversary of her birth and death came, we were living in Stoneham, Massachusetts, three thousand miles away. But before we moved, I made sure to pack a Chinese lantern among our things. People at Long Beach often release Chinese lanterns over the ocean at night. It’s a sight Mike and I watched together, more than once, standing on the wooden boardwalk that parallels the ocean, watching them float away into the darkness. I thought it would be a fitting way of commemorating Ava in Massachusetts, to have a piece of Long Beach with us that also symbolized how we had to let her go.
Except, when you plan such beautiful symbolic gestures, you never think of what can go wrong. We decided to release Ava’s lantern over Horn Pond in Woburn, which is a lovely spot. But it was a windy day, and after we lighted and released the lantern, the wind pushed it down towards the water. “If that lantern gets extinguished in the water and sinks, I’m going to lose it!” I thought. What a horrible symbol of death and loss that would be! But then, the wind changed, and the lantern bobbed up, slowly drifting up and away into the twilight. Whew! These twin stories reminded me both of how fragile I felt when I was grieving, and how many others have felt the same way.
I appreciated very much how open Meadow is in Redeeming Ruth. She doesn’t shy away from her doubts, her fears, or her anger. And this pulls you in and makes the book speak to you personally. You find yourself asking, “How would I feel if I were confronted with a special needs child that would die if I didn’t adopt her?” (Very challenged and uncomfortable). “What would it be like to carry the burden of caring for several children, as well as Ruth, day after day after day?” (Oh, wait, I’m a parent—I do have some idea!). “How would I feel if I lost my child?” Ah yes, I know how that felt. While not all of us will adopt special needs children or lose a child, we all are faced with the choice to love or to close our hearts. Closing our hearts is safe. If you never get married, you’ll never have to deal with separation through either death or divorce. If you don’t have children, they can never break your heart. If you’re never vulnerable with your friends, they can never betray your trust.
Love is never safe. And it never will be. But what would life be without love? And when love does lead us down the path of grief, we will find others there as well. The broken, the bleeding, the human. This is real life, and we all experience it. In that sense, Redeeming Ruth is a real story; it reflects the messy reality of love and loss, but it also reflects how grief can bring us together and urge us on to help others.
Reading about Meadow’s visit to Ruth’s orphanage in Uganda reminded me of a desire I have had for a long time: to volunteer to hold babies who are either in the NICU or don’t have someone to hold them. I know how life-altering and crucial it is for their physical, emotional, and mental development, and I long to give them that physical touch they crave. Redeeming Ruth is both a reminder of what I have to give and a challenge to give it. Because, while love is never safe, love does conquer all.
Amy Paulsen-Reed is an Assistant Editor and Sales Representative at Hendrickson Publishers. She has a doctorate in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University, where she focused on Jewish biblical interpretation in antiquity. She lives in Burlington, MA with her husband Michael and her daughter Lillian. She is a self-confessed language and grammar nerd, and enjoys cooking, baking, and napping in her spare time.