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This is a 'book club book', another (like Francine Rivers' Redeeming Love that I reviewed some months ago) that I probably would never had read had it not been for our Church Ladies' Book Club. I am still to attend one of the discussion groups (one day!) but I'm still being allowed to join in on the reading.
"Choosing to SEE" is autobiographical, and involves the whole Chapman family. Steven Curtis Chapman is a very well-known contemporary Christian songwriter and singer in the States, and Mary Beth is his wife. She co-wrote it with Ellen Vaughn, and when you realise the subject matter, it's easy to see that a lot of support would have been needed.
The subject is one that all parents fear - the loss of a child. This is made clear right from the outset and doesn't come as a shock part way through. However, Mary Beth first takes us right back to her own childhood in Ohio, and in my opinion this background history is very helpful in understanding her reactions and feelings later on in the book. She grew up in a strong Christian family community, but cultivated a perfectionist, workaholic personality due to some ingrained doubts and uncertainties. This is something that we see challenged throughout her story, as she is taken through situations that she never would have imagined herself being involved in. We read about the arrival of Steven Curtis Chapman in her life, and the many trials and tribulations of their early marriage and parenthood, and her depression that set in with a vengeance after the birth of their third child.
What happened next is the real turning point. Following a trip with their 11 year-old daughter Emily to Haiti, the possibility of adopting from overseas came into the picture. It's a controversial subject, I admit, the idea of 'celebrities' adopting foreign babies 'to give them a better chance of a life in the west'. However, this is not that cheap or that simple. What actually happens is a deep commitment, not just to the three Chinese girls that they adopt, but eventually to children in the country itself in the form of direct support. However, in the middle of all this, tragedy strikes, and it is here that the book in a sense has its real heart and usefulness for the reader.
I had never before read a book on this subject, and I thank God that I don't yet have any friends who have been through this. But in reading the Chapmans' story, it is so vivid and so raw that I genuinely felt that I was walking through it with them. In fact, it took me a very long time to finish reading it, despite it only being 279 pages long, as I regularly broke into tears myself and often had to have a few days' break before reading the next few short chapters. Their adopted daughter Maria passed away in a shocking accident in 2008 and the book was published only two years later, so it's not surprising that everything is in such sharp focus.
As I said earlier, Steven Curtis Chapman is a Christian songwriter, and the whole family are committed Christians. The book is therefore very overtly Christian in its outlook. However, Mary Beth is very clear throughout about her doubts, her own felt failings, and often her anger, confusion and despair about events and situations that initially she cannot reconcile. It is a brutally honest account and never tries to sugar-coat anything with glib statements. It is a book about a family struggling to come to terms with, and finding a way to carry on living after, horrific tragedy. It's also about the inspiration to start up a children's home and hospital in their daughter's name in her native China which gives hope and a second chance to many more children.
The title, "Choosing to SEE", was inspired by a drawing that Maria had done that they only found after she had died - on one side was a flower with one petal coloured in blue, and on the other was a butterfly and the word 'SEE', which she had never written before. At that time these had huge significance for Mary Beth - "I realised it had six petals. Like I had six children. And only one of the petals was coloured in. Like only one of my children was safe at home in heaven with Jesus. And the petal that was safe was blue - Maria's favourite colour. Some people might see little things like this as coincidences, no big deal. But to us, these small signs were like a little trail of bread crumbs on a shadowed path, showing us the way to walk."
Each chapter starts with a verse from one of Steven's songs, or a helpful and relevant quote from someone else. As I said previously, most of the chapters are very short, and for me as a parent that was a real mercy, since I found some of them very hard reading and needed a break. There are also some colour photos in the centre of the book which cover pretty much the whole time-span of the story, and I found them a great help as they put names to faces, and made an already intensely human story even more poignant.
It is always very plain that they ARE trying to reconcile these events with the God that they trust, and their faith in his leading and provision in their everyday lives. It's this honesty that really strikes me about this book, and about Mary Beth in particular. I feel it could be of help in counselling other Christian families going through similar circumstances, although it could well be helpful to families of other faiths, or even no faith, in that the emotions and trauma would be common to all, and sometimes it's just good to know that you aren't the only one that this has happened to. Some of the therapies and counselling would also be familiar and perhaps an encouragement, maybe even could suggest other avenues that hadn't yet been tried.
Even so, in terms of helping Christian families I think this book is invaluable - there is such an honesty about the doubts and struggles here that are often covered up by people who, as Christians, don't feel that they should have them, still less admit to them. There's no "Pull your socks up, God loves you, get on with your life!" here. This is real life, and getting this stuff out into the open is a real help in dealing with the complex mix of grief, bereavement in very difficult circumstances, and the resultant struggle with faith. I found it an extremely challenging and ultimately inspiring read, and thoroughly recommend it.