28 years on . . .

Twenty-eight years ago today our son Don Isaac was born, and died, in a government hospital in Papua New Guinea. As always, this day is bittersweet as I mourn what might have been and rejoice in what is. The essay below is an updated version of one I wrote five years ago, and, as I edited the original piece, I reflected on how much has changed in five years, much less 28. I appreciate how my archived writings provide the opportunity to stop and pause over the constant change that is life.

Twenty-eight years on and I still find myself wondering about the “what ifs” and the mysteries and the joy and the pain. Twenty-eight years on and I am still incredibly grateful for how Don Isaac, my first born son, changed my life forever through his brief, sweet life. In honor of him I repost my words, updated, from 2013.


When my son Sam was 8 years old (19 years ago – when did that happen?) he asked a “what-if” question that caused me to momentarily hold my breath. At the time of Sam’s question, Nathan was 2 ½ years old, a sweet, beautiful boy who’d entered our lives with gusto. (Jack had yet to be born.) While sitting at the counter in our sunny Kenyan kitchen, Sam asked out of the blue, “Mama, if my big brother and sisters hadn’t died, would Nathan be my brother? I mean, it would be cool if Don Isaac and my sisters were here, but I would never want Nathan to go away. Would I have to choose?”

Like Sam, I missed my son, Don Isaac, and daughters, Jennie and Maggie, who’d died during a traumatic delivery. Nathan was born in April of 1997; the girls were born 3 months later so I often compared Nathan’s physical development to where they girls would have been at the same time. What if, in the middle of my pregnancies, I’d been allowed to see the future and seeing it, was given the choice. What scenario would I have chosen if allowed? Knowing Nathan today as a handsome, intelligent, incredibly empathetic 21yo man and Jack as a questioning, intelligent 18yo justice-seeker, I cannot imagine loving them any more, and yet, if faced with THE choice, would I have chosen my biological children over my sons? Would I have chosen to forego all that has transpired since?

What if we imperfect humans were given the ability to see the future, to know beyond a shadow of a doubt the result of our actions and choices before they happened? What if we were allowed the “gift” of changing events before they occurred based on our perception of what would be best? Would that knowledge be a gift . . . or a burden?

Today would have been Don Isaac’s 28th birthday. As I do every year on this date, I find myself thinking of him, wondering how life would have been so very different if he were still alive. A man, possibly married with children, carving his own path separate from his parents. I imagine him kind and caring. Handsome, self-assured. In fact, Don Isaac, in my mind, would be the perfect son in every way imaginable . . .

. . . today, however, I am mother not to a 28-year-old man but to three adult sons, each incredibly unique. Each dearer than life. Perfect? Of course not but their place in our family is perfection indeed. My sons, with their triumphs and trials, were placed in our family by a God who knows best and who is wise enough to keep the future hidden; to sons who fill me with a joy that is hard to describe and that I could have never in my wildest dreams imagined. What if I had been given the choice and had chosen the appearance of best? Oh how much joy I would have missed.

Singer Amy Grant Gill’s album How Mercy Looks from Here includes a song entitled Better Not to Know. The song is based on an experience from many years ago. She recounts the story much better than me, but the gist is that she planted 75 fruit trees on a farm that only a few months later she and her soon-to-be-ex-husband would have to sell after the demise of their marriage. She wonders aloud . . .  if she’d known what would soon transpire, would she have still planted those trees? To plant trees at such a time . . . what a waste . . .

. . . fast forward many years. Amy receives a call from the current property owner who says, “You know those trees you planted back in the late 1980s? You should drive over and have a look.” Driving down the farm’s entrance, a flood of emotions overtake her as she thinks back over her life. She finds those trees, planted during such a bitter time, laden with fruit, so much fruit that the branches touch the ground. In spite of all that was not known, in spite of the sadness and brokenness of certain situations, the fruit still bloomed.  With that image in mind she wrote these words:

We sowed our seeds, watered with tears
Waiting for signs of growth
Took months of days and then took years
We took our steps; we took our falls
Somewhere along the way
We just got lost and lost it all . . .

The risk of living is the pain
And what will be will be anyway

Oh, it’s better not to know
The way it’s gonna go
What will die and what will grow
Goodbye more than hello
It’s better not to know

Those tiny stems became these trees, with dirt and storms
And sun and air to breathe
Like you and me
And some fell down and some grew tall
And those surviving winter thaws
Have the sweetest fruit of all
But innocence and planting day are both long gone
So much has changed
And if we had to do it all again?

Nothing stays the same
Life flickers like a flame
As the seasons come and go
Goodbye more than hello
It’s better not to know
Is it better, is it better, is it better?

We sowed our seeds watered with tears…

Oh, it’s better not to know…

Yes, it’s better not to know. It’s better for me to look into my sons’ faces and know that their presence in our family is not by chance but is by design.  And truly, that is  all I need to know.




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19 Responses to 28 years on . . .

  1. Meredith Strickland

    Beautiful, as always.

  2. Peggy Sammons

    My favorite line in the entire blog…
    “My sons, with their triumphs and trials, were placed in our family by a God who knows best and who is wise enough to keep the future hidden; “

  3. Vicki

    God is good and knows the best for each of us! I love you dear Sheila and thank you for your words; as always they hit the spot!

  4. Amie

    Beautifully written, as always. I feel honored to have spent the morning with you. So thankful for you and your strong faith. I have been blessed with two healthy, beautiful children- one boy and one girl. Some don’t know that I had a miscarriage in the years between. Was it traumatic? Yes. Was it heartbreaking? Yes. Was it the end? No. I know that I wouldn’t have my sweet, funny, little girl- and my kind-hearted son wouldn’t have his fun-loving little sister- if things worked out according to my plans. Romans 8:28: For I know that all thugs work together for good to those who love God.

  5. Emily

    I too wonder “what if” a lot. And I wonder what if for my friends too, including for you, dear one. God makes beauty from our ashes, and there is weeping for a night, but joy in the morning. What a paradox. One goodbye and another hello.
    I’m so very glad for those sons of yours, Sam, Jack and Nathan, and I look forward to one day meeting the other 3 On the other side.

  6. Penny

    Thank you again for sharing your wonderful stories with us. I feel compelled to send this on to a friend who has experienced a sudden loss of her teenage son. I love what Emily said above about “Beauty from ashes”. I am thankful that His mercies and new every morning and that God has filled you with faith to sustain you. God bless your family and you.

  7. Janet Fleurant

    Thank you Sheila for sharing your heart so freely and vulnerably. I love your writing. I especially enjoyed this one. It brings me back to those precious years spent in Kenya. So grateful that God allowed our paths and lives to cross. God bless you and your beautiful family.

  8. Deborah Demers

    Beautiful reflections on past and present as always dear Sheila. We love the babies we’ve not held, the ones we’ve held and the ones we’ve raised. I so look forward to seeing those babies someday! God really does know what’s best and works all things together for our good. We have a lot of blessings to count. ❤️

  9. Vassie Mae

    November 5th, 2018…Grand Daddy Roberts would be 120 years old, the same age as when the biblical Moses died? Just had to share that with some family member. Secondly, does Sam remember speaking forth his question about his deceased siblings? This essay reminds me of the movie ” Sophia’s Choice”! Jesus turns our decisions to meet his plans!

  10. Mary Navarre

    You have such an incredible talent, Sheila. I feel privileged to read your thoughts and know you more. Thank you for your willingness to share.

  11. Louise Samuelson

    Thank you, Sheila for carefully choosing words that bring to life the questions we all have that arise from our loss. Your generosity in sharing your experience is gift.

  12. Renn Edenfield

    Love, admire, and miss you, sweet friend. Always.

  13. Emily

    Don Isaac, Jennie, and Maggie, you are loved and remembered.

    Sebastian’s mommy

  14. Sally

    Sheila, as we step farther away from when the tragedies happen, the picture becomes clearer and the air sweeter. Thanks for the reminder.

  15. Marian Dingle

    This was beautiful, Shelia.

  16. Hi an importantdonation
    Fair-minded click

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