This article was originally published in Deseret News on April 15, 2014.
With fresh tears filling her eyes and dangling from her long lashes, Naomi Avery looked at me and summarized the theme of our nearly three-hour-long interview.
“God loves us.”
Naomi said the words quietly, but with confidence. Dirk, her husband, smiled warmly, squeezed her arm and nodded in agreement.
On March 31, just one week before our memorable meeting around a friend’s dining-room table, the Avery family was tested in ways most cannot fathom. On a spring afternoon like any other, Dirk, Naomi and their five children watched an accidental fire destroy their home in Frederickburg, Va.
The fire chief told the family he’d never seen anything like it in his 20-year career. In just 10 minutes, their beautiful house on a large country lot was dropped to its foundation, and the Avery family was brought to its knees.
Dirk and Eleanor Avery. Photo Courtesy of author.
Losing your photos, journals and everything but the clothes on your back in the front yard would be tragedy enough. Such a trial would force most to ask why God would allow such a thing to happen.
But losing antiques and appliances wasn’t a concern.
Though four of their children were safe on this side of the veil, one would perish and be welcomed by angels on the other. Eleanor Avery, an infant just six months removed from heaven, was back home again.
Through his own tears, Dirk began our conversation with a simple declaration.
“She’s on a mission,” he said, his hands locked with his wife’s. “I just know she’s a leader on the other side and she’s bringing people the truth.”
He added that if sharing their experience would bring others to the gospel of Jesus Christ, if allowing strangers into their story would lead people to better know God’s plan, it was something they had to do.
“If she’s serving a mission there,” he said, “I want to serve with her here.”
Before and after photo of the Avery home. Photo Courtesy of author.
The truth is, Dirk might have been serving with Eleanor long before she even arrived. For months he’d promised there was one more meant for their family, with four children already in the nest.
“Every single day Dirk asked me if we could have one more baby,” Naomi said with a twinkle in her eye.
“She’s right,” Dirk answered. “I knew there needed to be another. I wanted one more child to have Naomi for a mother.”
Not only did Dirk believe another soul would join their family, he insisted from the beginning that baby would be a girl.
“Before the first ultrasound, and even when they were inconclusive,” Naomi said. “No matter what, Dirk said she would be a she.”
Both parents described how different Eleanor was from their first four.
“We noticed she was happy and vivacious,” her mother said. “Everywhere we went she was so content, so smiley, so engaged.”
“She made people feel special,” Dirk added, scrolling through photos on his cell phone. They are the only photos to survive the tragedy, and for some reason the family took an unusual number of Eleanor during her six months. “She was a light.”
As our interview evolved, the Averys spoke of the blessings of prayer and how constant communication with their Father in heaven has been the key to knowing the next step would be possible. Minute by minute they’ve asked for help — help they knew would come. “My faith in me might be shaken,” Naomi said, “but my faith in Him is not.”
The Avery family. Photo Courtesy of author.
Both mother and father addressed the strength of their marriage and how years of investing in their love has played a key role in their ability to survive these dark, painful early days of the tragedy. I noted more than once that though every member of the family is dealing differently, they are completely unified they are in their grief.
When one laughs at a memory or the silliness of one of their other children, the spouse laughs, too. And when one needs to stop and let the grief wash over them like a spring storm, the other offers an embrace and a loving ear. When one struggles the other is quick to say, “However you are is OK with me.”
Many others have offered their support, as well. Neighbors, family and church members have wrapped them in love and offered shelter of every type. Tears quickly returned when the Averys spoke of this outpouring of pure Christian service.
As our emotional discussion came to a close, I asked what message they would want the world to take away from their painful week of grief and disbelief. Naomi, without needing even a moment to gather and order her thoughts, looked me in the eyes and testified:
“The Resurrection is real; it will really happen. It’s not just a quaint fantasy that we use to comfort ourselves. It is real doctrine, and I know it as well as I know anything.”
As the spirit settled in and around us, Naomi boldly continued. “I know the Atonement covers all pain. It’s not just for our sins, but for every pain, anxiety, weakness. Everything and anything.”
Dirk, holding tight to his wife’s arm and hanging, like me, on every word, took a turn.
“It’s a blessing, isn’t it, to have loved someone so much that we feel this pain?”
As I hugged them both and packed my things for my long drive home, I thanked them each for sharing such sacred impressions with me and allowing me to share their story. Their love of their friends, their family and their faith is something no words on a digital or printed page could ever capture.
For many miles after leaving their temporary home, and even in the days since, I have heard those three words ring over and over like a heavenly bell.
They are three words that are eternal and undeniable, even on our darkest days.
“God loves us.”
Jason Wright is a New York Times bestselling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars" and his latest, "The 96th Annual Apple Valley Barn Dance." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, applevalleybarndance.com or jasonfwright.com
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