Miracles big and small


Sitting on my youngest daughter Julia’s bed, sifting through boxes and boxes of pictures of her, her brown eyes sparkling in each photo as she rambled through every day like a fearless colt in a china shop, I select the pictures I want. Julia at 6, owning the pink and purple fashion sense of a Disney princess. Julia at 8, with her sisters, Meredith and Mallory, kitchen-dancing in their matching red polka dot pajamas on Christmas morning. Julia at 18, her long ponytail tangled and stuffed into a navy blue, camp-issued visor.

I add another picture to the stack for her memorial service — a picture of her at 13, sporting an effervescent smile while her eyes hide the humiliation imposed on her by middle-school peer pressure.

It is difficult to be in the present, so I return to the year 2003.

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A Peachtree City mom finds glimmers of grace after devastating loss
Tricia Stearns searches for meaning beneath the pain following the death of her daughter Julia
Enter

Miracles big and small

A mother finds glimmers of grace after suffering the greatest loss of all.

KickerThis is a kicker.

Sitting on my youngest daughter Julias bed, sifting through boxes and boxes of pictures of her, her brown eyes sparkling in each photo as she rambled through every day like a fearless colt in a china shop, I select the pictures I want. Julia at 6, owning the pink and purple fashion sense of a Disney princess. Julia at 8, with her sisters, Meredith and Mallory, kitchen\-dancing in their matching red polka dot pajamas on Christmas morning. Julia at 18, her long ponytail tangled and stuffed into a navy blue, camp\-issued visor. I add another picture to the stack for her memorial service a picture of her at 13, sporting an effervescent smile while her eyes hide the humiliation imposed on her by middle\-school peer pressure. It is difficult to be in the present, so I return to the year 2003.

**2**

**Investing in livestock** It had been a quiet night. Clouds hung low like a blanket, not a star in sight, when I woke in a fog of sleep, as if by instinct, to the sounds I heard outside. It was the cry of dependent hunger. I pulled myself out of bed to warm up the two\-liter bottle of milk. My slippers tiptoed on the hardwood floors, so as not to wake the girls. While I poured formula into a mixing bowl and hit the microwave, I pondered how in the world I had gotten here. Alone, with three daughters, was better than existing in a lonely closet of a dead marriage. But where had the time gone? No more babies. The girls were all in school, old enough to help with laundry and cooking. My middle child even wrote down for sale by owner phone numbers from signs she noticed to help my fledgling real estate career. We were a team, an all\-girls team. I funneled the milk into a large bottle and snapped on the giant nipple. Then I slipped on my rubber garden boots, tied up my robe and walked to the trailer parked in the driveway, breathing in the outside: fresh, cold with a whiff of cow dung. As much as I asked myself why in the world a 175\-pound calf was residing in my Peachtree City backyard, I knew the answer. I had caused this and my stomach ached from this nauseating reality. It had all started when I decided to start feeding my girls clean, healthy food. I had always been a foodie, but when I read a copy of David Steinmans Living In A Toxic World, I got serious about where and how we bought and cooked our food. We omitted the drive\-thru on the way to activities. No more hot dog and beans nights. We baked cookies with fresh farm eggs and organic flour. While I knew there were plenty of hormones, chemicals and additives already in the food system, I was going to make sure we did our best within the constraints of my budget and time. To quote most of our friends: We got a little weird. I had a friend who lived on a farm nearby in Senoia. I met her a few years back when I went to McDonalds for a diet coke; she was working the French fry machine. I could tell from her eyes she was miserable. We became fast friends over our love of homemade picante sauce and motherhood.One Sunday afternoon, the girls and I drove out to her farm to deliver yet another stray dog wed found. This time as we followed the gravel road to her house, we caught the smell of someone grilling supper. We found her mother poking at a skinned goat on a stick gurney above an open fire pit. She handed us each a cabrito taco without ever thinking we would not want one. I think most good decisions happen around a campfire. It was then that we decided I would start buying livestock, and my friend would tend it. Together we would trail blaze the clean food movement starting with our own families.

**3**

**Animal rescue** The next week, Julia and I followed my friend and her husband to the livestock auction in Jackson, which made me nostalgic for my childhood as a member of 4\-H Club, where I had raised a pig and a few sheep. The commingled smells of livestock, dirt, manure, popcorn and body odor brought me back. Now I was holding an auction paddle. Julia and I claimed the third bleacher seat, and in between bites of funnel cake, I bought a handful of chickens and a few goats. Shopping for these grass\-fed animals, each held by their owners, I was empowered in a way shoe shopping would never replace. Toward the end of the evening, my eyes locked with the deep brown eyes of an orphaned calf whose shaky\-scared moos seemed to say: _Ill die if you dont take me home._ Julia and I looked at each other and my paddle rose high. Ever since I was a kid, Ive tried to rescue everything birds, bunnies, dogs and now a cow. The other farmers knew better. A calf requires feeding morning, noon and night. I remembered that from my 4\-H days. I remembered doing it with my babies. I loved babies. So I took the calf to my house to live in a borrowed trailer until she was weaned. Two weeks later, here I was holding a bottle in Brownies mouth at 3 a.m. while she sucked with greed. After shed guzzled and blinked a thank\-you, I crawled back to bed. Mom! Wake\-up! The bus will be here. Mallory and Julia stood at the foot of my bed shaking the covers. Can you get Brownie not to moo? pleaded Julia. Kids are making fun of me on the bus. I popped out of bed, put a slipknot rope around Brownies neck, and tied her to a tree in the far part of our backyard. Inside, I hustled peanut butter fold\-overs into paper bags, sipped coffee and tossed bagels to the girls. By 7 a.m., our morning chaos boogied into full swing socks sorted, carpool arranged for dance class, reminders made to buy green Life Savers for a science project all while Brownie grazed in peace outside. Then somewhere in between the kids departure and my second cup of coffee, I heard a long, dark, tragic\-sounding _MOOOOOOO_. I looked out the breakfast room window and there was Brownie in my pool, kicking up waves in the deep end. Her front hoofs clambered on the cement as she tried to hoist herself out of the pool. _You go, girl, you can do it! You can do it_, I chanted out the window. But she didnt. She bleated and splashed in frothy circles. With each splash, I felt a knock of panic. She circled. My stomach circled, and I swallowed fear and regret. My gaze rose past the pool and up the hill where a gallery of buried shoebox coffins full of pet fish, ducks, frogs and a bunny resided. I didnt have a great track record. I had to save Brownie. There was no one else. I was also pissed that there was no one else. I was alone, and I was mad at myself for thinking I could do everything, and be everything to all people. I wanted to be rescued from me, from feeling like I could do enough, be enough, be fast enough. I dashed to the edge of the pool, my pink chenille robe dragging on the cement, and I tried to pull Brownie out by her front hoofs. But 150 of her 175 pounds remained in the water. Brownie glared and MOOOOed. I grabbed a green noodle from the patio storage chest, tore off my robe and jumped into the pool naked. Brownie circled in the deep end as I called her name like she was one of my children learning to swim. My teeth clattered her name, but she continued to circle and circle. By the third circle, her front hoofs scraped the sides of the faux tile pool liner. _MOOO_. I paddled ahead, treading water just shy of Brownie, her hoofs still trying to get a grip on the pool liner. I flipped onto my back, the plastic noodle keeping me afloat, and placed my feet on Brownies bottom. Then I shoved her scrawny rear end with all my might, lurching her forward and she almost got it. _MOOOO_, she cried out again into the 35\-degree air, her breath a series of vapor clouds. I shouted a new combination of cuss words, called out to God and the angels above, then I re\-positioned my angle. Once more I placed my feet on her bottom, closed my eyes and shoved with every bit of strength I had. My naked body was half out of the water by the time Brownie broke free. She would not join the other animals on the hill, but she would make it to steak\-hood at the farm.

**4**

**Surprise empty nest** After that, life with active teenagers skipped by, from musical theater productions to mission trips to proms. Soon it was 2008. Julia was 15, and her sisters were grown. Meredith was a senior at LaGrange College, and Mallory a sophomore at Marymount Manhattan College in New York. But the recession couldnt have happened at a worse time with two in college and one in the wings. As a self\-employed Realtor, providing groceries, health care and college expenses was problematic. No one was buying homes. Foreclosures became rampant. When houses sit on the market, especially with your name on the sign, you feel unemployed, but you cant collect unemployment benefits. Once again, I felt like I could not do enough, fast enough to provide for my clients or my family. I was circling in another kind of pool, cold and alone. While I worked, Julia was home alone juggling math problems, from her homework to the Master Card bill collector who called at the exact same time every Thursday. She also had her own set of problems. Her pack of girlfriends voted her off the cool girl island. I knew something was up but couldnt put my finger on it until her 14th birthday party when no one came. Her old crowd boycotted her birthday. I called her sister at LaGrange College and her father, and we had a family birthday party, acting like it happened just the way we wanted. I blamed myself, thinking it was because I had sold our larger home for something more affordable but no longer in the cool kids neighborhood. I loved our new house, but financial clouds still floated over our home, tense and still. Nightly news re\-enforced what Julia and I already knew, that we were in a big\-time recession. I said no a lot: No to movies, no to summer camps, no to anything that required too many gallons of $4 gas. That was when Julia decided she wanted to live with her dad on the north side of town, to start over in a new school. One suburban social scene is the same as another, I tried to tell her, but I lost that battle. My house, which had always been loud with kids and friends and meals and laughs, was sadly quiet. I was an empty\-nester after making the girls my focus for more than 22 years. From my living room, I could hear the freezer drop ice in the fridge. I realized I needed more meaning to my life than just meeting my personal sales goals. I had always wanted to tell stories, stories of my childhood, stories of parenthood, so I went back to school to earn my masters in professional writing from Kennesaw State University. The first evening I drove on campus, I circled and circled the parking lot looking for a space, feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of returning to school. A man, young enough to be my son, cut around me and took the last parking spot. Thats when I knew I had to stop circling and just jump in. I learned more than writing. I learned how to listen. How to embrace change, technology and what seems funny now: how to get on Facebook, attach a document to an email, create a PowerPoint complete with music, and have a diverse set of friends in various age groups. For years, I had regretted not going to graduate school, but waiting to go had changed my life and improved middle age.

**5**

**Family project** The passion that I had tucked away while raising my girls resurfaced. I think because I was happy, I found love and marriage again, too. And he loved and supported my ideas. I thought I would write a novel, but my real passion came from engaging and listening to long conversations around a dinner table with friends, while eating meals made with ingredients from my garden or the farmers markets in Atlanta. Inspired by the research for my thesis, Fresh and Frugal: How to Cook When Youre Broke, I wrote an ordinance to start a farmers market in Peachtree City. I envisioned white tents and people swapping stories and recipes, and calling the farmers by name. Getting the ordinance from the city was not nearly as hard as finding small farmers. With spotty GPS service in certain areas, I drove down country roads that turned my white car orange from the clay dirt, looking for farms, often dodging real bullets from folks who feared strangers as much as they did deer hunters. By June 2010, our market started. At first there were seven farmers and a few people making brownies and cupcakes in their kitchens. But the market grew to more than 50 farmers and vendors offering local produce, meats and gourmet food items twice a week, year round. On any given Saturday, there were more than 1,200 people there. I gained new admiration from my girls. We were laughing again, hanging out at the market in the summer. The girls often helped me run the market or sold peaches for college money. Julia loved chatting with customers and getting to know their dogs. I often saw her walking customers to their cars holding a fresh watermelon or holding their dogs leash. The market became a family business of sorts and helped me get to know my new stepsons. By the second year, it occurred to me that we didnt have enough small farmers. Our farmers produce routinely sold out by noon. I decided my next project would be to start a community garden with Julia as soon as she was back from building one on her mission trip to Swaziland in Africa. Julia was a freshman at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville at the time. She planned a career in social work, and it was much more than just a major for her. She often drove downtown and volunteered at the SafeHouse Outreach, serving pancakes to the hungry. Perhaps in part because of her experiences with the mean girls in junior high, she became a force for kindness to others. She was a source of encouragement to everyone from fellow students to people she met volunteering, even me. She had such faith in my idea to build a giant community garden. I wanted to heal the unspoken wound we both felt after she moved in with her dad. And this project did it. Together, we visited community gardens in Atlanta and the surrounding suburbs and talked about our project daily. We bonded over our mutual passion: growing as people and serving others. After a presentation and city planning meetings, a large site was identified. With the financial help and knowledge of the only certified organic farmer in our county, Larry Dove of Two Dove Farms, along with my husband Bern and a handful of dedicated volunteers, we constructed one of the largest community gardens in the metro area with 145, 8\-by\-20\-foot plots. My family grew in ways that cannot be fiscally or physically measured.

**6**

**Pray for a miracle** Pain quivers through my veins and bubbles in my throat before settling in my stomach. I sit in Julias old bedroom until its dark, shoe boxes of photos spread across her room. Years of our lives birthday parties, dance recitals and motherhood all reduced to 4x6 memories. My baby, the baby of our family, has died, at 20 years young. It happened on a Sunday. Summer was winding down and Julia was preparing to return to college. Shed stayed the night at her fathers. At 10 a.m., while I was outside loading her college things into the trunk of my car, she texted me to say she was leaving to come home. I was to follow her to Milledgeville to help her set up for the new school year. Her scrambled eggs sat on our stove. We suspect she was pulling away from her fathers townhome when she saw her backpack on the stoop. She forgot to put on the parking brake when she jumped out to retrieve it. Her Nissan Sentra began to roll; she chased it and reached the door. She was half way inside when the car struck a fire hydrant, pinning the door against her chest. All she could do was reach the horn, and she honked and honked. Her dad had already left for church. Her stepmother was in the shower unable to hear. On that sunny, hot Sunday morning, with the condo security guard on vacation, other residents heard the horn but simply sipped their coffee and ignored the noise. When a woman finally did call the authorities, it was after the honking stopped. She assumed the crime scene was now over and it was safe to get involved. The firefighters revived my daughter, but the big unknown was how long had she been unconscious? I stood over Julia in the emergency room. The blue, farmers market T\-shirt shed been wearing had been cut straight up the middle. I could see a massive scrape on the side of her right leg and upper torso, but other than that, there were no broken bones or blood. But there was fear in the doctors eyes when she told me to pray for a miracle. They were going to induce a coma to rest her brain from the injury. If she were going to make it, she would wake up on Tuesday around 5 p.m. _If she is going to make it, we will know Tuesday,_ I repeated over and over again in my brain. We all grabbed hands, my husband, Julias father, his wife, Mallory Meredith was in the car, driving from her home in Mississippi and we all prayed. With one Facebook post, a prayer chain grew by the thousands. Prayer vigils happened in living rooms around the world, from young campers to college friends, to mission\-trip families in Estonia to Swaziland. She did not wake up on Tuesday, but the doctors reluctantly gave it a few more days. Four days in, I began to notice the organ donor posters on the walls. I asked God to take Julia if he wanted her, I did not want to have to make that decision to take her off life support. God met me in the night, wandering the hospital halls. He found me on the bathroom floor, crying uncontrollably, and so did a woman named Earline, an aide dressed in blue scrubs. Throughout the week, she had come in and out of Julias room but never looked up. That Thursday night she sat on the floor, held me tight, and we cried. She had lost her son to a gunshot wound when was he was 18. At 4 a.m., we were each others world; two hurting mothers from different backgrounds, but sisters forever. When she picked me up off the floor, I had my answer. My loss would transform itself into 16 miracles from a plumber who got her heart to a 10\-year\-old boy who got her liver. I then knew that the faith I had before Julias accident was nothing but milk\-toast, phoned\-in, do\-the\-right thing kind of faith. For me, true faith, a take\-a\-bullet\-for\-my\-faith kind of belief came out of that pain. I decided to bury Julia at Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, which offers a natural, green burial on its grounds protected by the Honey Creek Woodlands conservation and easement. It felt like the right decision not only because Julia would be among plant species and abundant wildlife, but also, and even more important, because a monastery is one of the last places where people live for God, and God alone, focusing their life around praying for others the way Julia did every day. Blended families are hard to be with on good days let alone the worst of days, the day we walked through the forests of the cemetery to choose Julias resting place. We were all a big mess of emotions and none of them good. But I felt like I was in a thin place. That place where the veil between this world and the eternal world hovers, even whispers, to those who stop and listen.

**7**

**No good accidents** I need to deliver Julias photos to the church. I stare at all the beach vacations and the crazy, funny pictures full of big smiles. But no photo shows the power of love I had for my child or can come close to conveying the level of pain from her loss. With each snapshot, I relive the thankless work of raising a young family; all the mistakes and the wins, the living and loving that came with each softball game, birthday cake, first day of school. The rain gently taps on the windows as if the angels are crying with me. Oh, how I wish for do\-overs: to get back that lost time wasted worrying about stupid stuff. But mostly, I am sad that no one had been there to rescue Julia. She honked and honked, pinned in her car and no one had listened. No one had followed the noise. No one had paid attention. There are no good accidents. Just beneath the surface of an ordinary day, we may be suddenly forced to be brave to dig deep and find courage to face whatever circumstance hands us. And some days we fail. We tread energy, circling and circling only to create rings of fear, hesitation, even hate, each keeping only ourselves afloat. When that moment presents, that life\-giving, life\-changing moment the moment that demands action, requires bravery we have nothing in our circle to give. At that moment sitting on that bed, with all those pictures, I had nothing to give. Numb. I could not do anything for anyone. All I could do was look at those pictures and wish I could turn back time. Not a day goes by that I am not disappointed. I miss my daughter. I miss her contagious energy, our conversations in the kitchen while we cook dinner, my girls breaking into a dance by the fridge. But somewhere in my pain, I know there is meaning. The grief teaches me everyday. I appreciate the good days and the beauty of this side of life. I cultivate grace, to avoid being bitter. I did not get what I wanted. I look for those who are brave. I listen to all the people who loved Julia as a friend, a camp counselor, a sister. And I see circles of fierce love and miracles big and small.

Behind the story

[Click above to read more of our Personal Journeys.](http://www.myajc.com/personaljourneys)


**ABOUT THE STORY** I read an early draft of Tricia Stearns exquisite essay when she submitted it to the Personal Journeys Writing Contest last year. It didnt win, but it was among the runners\-up. Over time, her story haunted me. It was heartbreaking, but also funny and complex. It took unexpected turns. I decided to ask Tricia if shed be willing to work with me on revising the piece. Im really glad she said yes. I think our readers will be, too. **Suzanne Van Atten** **Personal Journeys editor** **personaljourneys@ajc.com**


**ABOUT THE WRITER** **Tricia Stearns** is a Realtor and writer and resident of Peachtree City for 23 years. Her favorite job has been a mother of three daughters, Meredith, Mallory and Julia. She loves to hike and bike with her husband, and watch the sunset at the end of each day. For more of her stories go to [www.tstearnsblog.com](http://www.tstearnsblog.com/).

**ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER** **Hyosub Shin** was born and raised in South Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States to study photography and joined the AJC photo staff in 2007. Past assignments include the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dreams Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves National League Division Series.

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