Saving Grace

This is not my attempt to be different or distance my story from the thousands that will be told in remembrance today. Instead, it is my acknowledgement that I am not unique in what I experienced as a result of Sept. 11. Like you—with you—I was changed.

I remember a lot of things about that day—watching how the news anchors struggled to maintain their composure, waiting in line to donate blood as the president addressed the nation, and willing the peace that accompanies “It Is Well” to wash over me as a packed campus chapel was certain of only one thing as we listened to the hymn on the piano—we didn’t want to be alone.

And yet, as strong as those memories are, whenever this date arrives each year my first thought is of a baby girl named Grace who I never had the opportunity to meet but who stays with me every time I sit down to write a story. Her birthday was Sept. 11, 2001 and her parents—dear family friends—were kind enough to trust me with an intimate account of the days surrounding her life and loss.

I was still a student of journalism at the time, staying up all hours of the night to write leads to stories only my parents and roommates read in the student newspaper. I vowed I would never work as a reporter but knew I wanted—needed—to write in some capacity I hadn’t yet discovered. I took a Journalism as Literature class and asked Jack and Christina for the opportunity to try to do justice to their story. The piece that follows is not without its mistakes. At moments, I cringe at reading the voice I know is still maturing as a writer. But, I am also humbled by the reminder that writing that is work is also writing that can be healing. I am reminded of the power of shared story.

No matter your beliefs, I hope that you—like me—are at least able to connect with the idea of taking paralyzing circumstances and learning how to put one foot in front of the other again. Witnessing the strength of the human spirit through people like Jack and Christina has certainly been my saving grace on dark days like Sept. 11. Here is their story:

You will come to a place where the streets are not marked.

Some windows are lighted, but mostly they’re darked.

-Oh the Places You’ll Go-

I. As Jack made his way to the mailbox at the end of the driveway, he already knew what to expect. Just as every day before, cards and letters would be overflowing from its edges, sending love, sending sympathy and sending prayers – Have faith, Christina and Jack, have faith.

While he could detach himself from reality by going to work, these parcels that spoke of hope, perseverance and courage served as constant reminders of the long journey that lay ahead for him and his wife. Have faith, Christina and Jack, have faith.

The message, though familiar to the couple whose very occupations were devoted to ministry, was beginning to hold a new meaning.

Thirty-four weeks into Christina’s pregnancy and nearly three months since finding out the harsh diagnosis of their child-to-be, Jack and Christina knew God was not going to heal Grace. They had faith, but not in the way most people would expect.

When the doctor called Christina after that fateful ultrasound and told the story of Abraham and Sarah having a child when human logic deemed it impossible, it shared a different meaning for Christina. She knew it was not impossible for God to heal Grace, but it was not His intention either. At that time, the miracle she and Jack needed was strength to make it through the pregnancy, a feat that only managed to get harder with each passing day.

Once a social butterfly, Christina didn’t like to leave the house anymore. Being pregnant was like being examined under a candy-coated microscope. People were not looking for flaws, but they constantly wanted to know details. Inevitably, she would run into someone who wanted to know when the baby was due, if it was a boy or girl, what would she name the child, was she excited? Then, aside from those who cluelessly assailed her with questions, there were those who knew exactly what was going on. They would look pitifully upon her stomach and offer what words of hope they could manage to muster. Either way, the greetings and questions were constant reminders of the inevitable.

With time drawing near to her expected arrival and having finally come to terms with what would happen to Grace, Christina just wanted to see her – the child whose kicks and movements, though different than those of a “normal” pregnancy, served to remind Christina that she was indeed carrying life.

Heeding their special circumstances, the doctor had told Christina and Jack from the beginning that they could come in for an ultrasound at any hour, anytime they ever desired to see Grace. They had chosen not to take him up on the offer until that early September day.

Upon entering the office, the couple couldn’t help but be reminded of June 14, 2001, just a few months earlier when they had come ready with a videotape to record the first pictures of their first child. Being only days before Father’s Day, Jack’s first Father’s Day, they had decided to find out if the baby was a boy or a girl.

Jack could remember the excitement of that moment when the ultrasound technician showed them where the baby’s arms, legs and heart were in relation to the blurred images on the screen. After five years of marriage, everything seemed as if it was falling perfectly into place. They were finally going to be able to start a family, and the miracle was moving right before their eyes.

Christina could remember how they spoke excitedly of plans for the baby and what they would name it as the tech left the room to show the doctor the pictures. Looking back, those were the last few moments of naïve bliss that the couple would be able to share before hearing news that would forever alter their lives. Even now, the conversation that followed rang fresh in their minds.

“Is anybody in your family extremely short?” the doctor had asked, a question so out of place and unsettling that it left the couple wondering, Where is he going with this? He continued. “Your baby has a condition where its bones are not going to grow to keep up with the rest of the body. At birth, because of the small chest cavity size, the baby will not be able to breathe and will suffocate within minutes.”

Condition…not going to grow…suffocate within minutes…each spoken word was like having a thousand arrows shot directly at the center of their hearts. Christina cried. Jack fumbled. The doctor continued. “You have three options, really. Terminate, carry the baby to term and let nature take its course, or get a second opinion.” Each choice came as a jolt of sobriety, leaving the couple feeling as if they really had no options at all. Though hearing their child would die upon delivery cast a weight of hopelessness beyond definition on Christina and Jack, they knew terminating was out of the question. To them this child was a gift, no matter what the outcome.

After a moment of silence, the doctor interjected. “Would you like to know the sex of your baby?” And with a nod, the couple finally received the only words they had come in to hear, “You’re having a baby girl.”

Once outside the doctor’s office and in their car, Jack and Christina held each other tightly and sobbed. They didn’t know where to drive. They didn’t know who to call. They didn’t know what to think. Was it their fault? Could this have been prevented? The questions invaded their thoughts in hordes. The only thing the couple felt they could do was pray, and they wanted to pray for their child by name. It was no longer family names or suggestions from books and friends that were being tossed back and forth in deliberation. Only one name seemed appropriate to both of them and in the quiet of their car, the couple came to a decision. As a gift from God, this baby girl was going to be called Grace.

In the days that followed for Jack and Christina, the air seemed cooler and the weight of their steps heavier. Jack’s oldest brother was getting married, so the couple had decided to keep the news of Grace’s condition to themselves in an effort to preserve the happiness of the occasion. Silence proved hard among a curious public, and the couple ended up sharing the somber diagnosis with their parents and a few close members of the family.

At church, Jack told their Sunday School class about Grace while Christina stayed home. The ultrasound and wedding had drained her emotionally and physically, so she just needed to be alone. That week, Christina and Jack went to get a second opinion from a maternal fetal medicine specialist. He confirmed what the previous doctor had already told the couple, but went into more detail about the condition.

Grace had thanatophoric dysplasia, a severe inherited skeletal disorder that affects nearly one in 60,000 births. The condition is characterized by short limbs and folds of extra skin on the arms and legs, as well as a narrow chest, small ribs, underdeveloped lungs and an enlarged head. Commonly referred to as “death bearing,” infants diagnosed with the disorder are usually stillborn or die shortly after birth from respiratory failure. If any survive, they are put on life support and suffer from severe cognitive disability. The condition, which is caused by a mutation of the FGFR3 gene, cannot be prevented, but parents who have one child with the disorder are not likely to have another child diagnosed with the same condition.

The specialist then placed his card in Jack’s hand and told the couple to call at any hour they needed to see Grace or have any questions answered.

Nearly three months later, September 6, 2001, they took him up onthe offer. This time, the visit was more out of a desire to see Grace than to hear any real updates. But as the doctor began to disclose some of his concerns with regard to Christina’s health, the couple braced themselves to hear even more heartbreaking news. Christina had more amniotic fluid in her stomach than any patient he had seen before. To prolong labor would pose a health risk for Christina. Instead of waiting for Grace to come naturally, they were going to have to schedule a C-section.

For any other parents, this would have been just another routine procedure, but for Jack and Christina, it felt like being told to schedule the day their child would die. Now, all the scientific questions regarding Grace’s condition were answered, and it was the questions that could not be reduced to a science that the couple grappled with. How do you bury your first baby? How do you smile? How do you learn to laugh again? How do you ever go on?

Yet again, the couple left the doctor’s office feeling stripped of any hope they hadmanaged to salvage over these eight long months. Throughout the weekend, they cried for the loss they were already feeling and prayed for direction as to when their last day with Grace should be.

That Monday afternoon, the doctor called Christina to schedule the C-section. The only dates available were Wednesday, Sept. 12, and Monday, Sept. 17. Jack’s father was scheduled for surgery on the 12th, and his mother’s birthday was the 17th. The couple mourned to think they would have to put their family through such an ordeal, but Jack’s mother assured them she would be honored to share her birthday with Grace. So, Christina set up the appointment for the following Monday.

Throughout the day, Jack and Christina felt as if the weight of the world was resting on their hearts. Time with their baby girl had suddenly been shortened by a lifetime. In one week, they would be seeing and holding her for the first and final time. In one last plea, they prayed: God, if there’s any way we don’t have to do this, let it happen. Let Grace come in Your timing, not our own.

That night, as Jack drifted off to sleep, Christina lay restless. She hadn’t slept soundly in quite a while because of her size and increasing health problems, but tonight was different. She realized her time with Grace was coming to a rapid close. As the hours passed and she became increasingly uncomfortable, her water broke.

Christina yelled from the bathroom for Jack to wake up and they called the hospital with the news that she was in labor. The doctor on the line urged them to come in as soon as possible, and they rushed to the car. The time was 5:30 a.m.

Upon arriving, Christina urged the doctors to hold off on the C-section until her parents were closer to the hospital. She knew that once Grace was delivered, there would not be much time for them to see their first grandchild alive. But the doctor performing the operation insisted the surgery be done immediately. Grace was coming out breech and there was no time to wait.

While the procedure was going on, a crowd of Jack and Christina’s family, friends and co-workers gathered in the waiting area of the hospital. As they anxiously awaited an update on Christina, breaking news of a terrorist attack in New York City came on the television. A Boeing 767 carrying 81 passengers, two pilots and nine flight attendants was hijacked and flown into the North Tower at the World Trade Center. Images of the explosive impact flashed repeatedly on the screen, as the city appeared to have erupted in a state of chaos amid a whirlwind of debris. The time was 8:46 a.m.

Meanwhile, Jack watched nervously in the operating room as the doctor and a team of nurses continued to operate on Christina. In just moments, he was going to see his little girl. Before now, nights spent reading, Oh the Places You’ll Go, were as close as he could get to Grace. He would place his hand on Christina’s raised belly as she fell asleep each night and read the Dr. Seuss story out loud, trying to maintain as much a sense of normalcy as he could during the pregnancy. After today, life was going to be anything but normal.

At 9:03 a.m., television viewers witnessed the unimaginable. A second Boeing 767 crashed into the South Tower at the World Trade Center. People on the streets below screamed in horror, and people watching the disaster at home dialed furiously to get in touch with loved ones residing in the shell-shocked city.  Jack, oblivious to it all, continued to wait.

At 9:06 a.m., the moment Christina and Jack had been waiting for more than eight months finally came. Grace was born. As “Unchained Melody” played in the background and an anxious father hung in the balance, no cry was heard. Finally, a small cough echoed through the room and a tiny baby with a head full of raven black hair was held up in the light. To Jack’s surprise and comfort, she looked normal, almost like a porcelain doll. He and Christina had not known what to expect after hearing the grim reports of the doctors these past few months.

Weighing 5 lbs. 11 oz. and measuring 19 inches long, she was a perfect bundle of joy to the couple. Christina, weak from surgery, gazed at her beautiful baby, as Jack was able to hold her for the first time. Nurses, prepared for bereavement in the neonatal ICU, snapped pictures of the proud parents holding her, and then left the three to be alone in the operating room. Once afraid to hold babies, Jack now held Grace tightly, not wanting to let go. The couple cherished each second with her, aware of the limited time at hand.

Still in pain and groggy from surgery, Christina needed to rest and be cleaned up. The doctor suggested that Jack take Grace back to their hospital room for his parents and a few of the visitors to see. Having been in the operating room the entire morning, Jack had missed the news of the hijacked jetliners and World Trade Center crashes. When he emerged with Grace in his arms, he found the hospital abuzz with news that transportation into New York City had been shut down. Still, he focused on Grace, who peacefully slumbered in his arms.

When he entered the hospital room that had been designated for Christina, Jack found his mom and dad, as well as their pastor and Christina’s former boss. He felt a range of emotions, both pride and sadness, as he presented his parents with their first grandchild, knowing her fate was not far away.

Moments later, Christina was wheeled into the room. The pastor took Grace in his arms, as he did all the newborns of their church, and prayed a special prayer of thanksgiving, protection and dedication over her. A neonatologist in the hospital periodically came in the room to check her heartbeat.

As more visitors frequented the room, news in New York continued to worsen. At 9:45 a.m., stations reported that the Pentagon had been hit by a third hijacked jetliner carrying 58 passengers, two pilots and four flight attendants. Fear and frenzy began sweeping the nation, as Americans wondered which U.S. building or city would be hit next. Almost one hour after Grace’s arrival, the South Tower at the World Trade Center collapsed, tragically claiming the lives of hundreds of unsuspecting workers, bystanders, firemen, paramedics and police officers. Like a scene from an apocalypse thriller, the prominent New York structure came crumbling down in seconds, sending smoke, dirt, glass, cement and other debris in a rolling whirlwind down the streets of the city.  People were literally running for their lives in search of cover. Some individuals in the neighboring tower began leaping out of windows, realizing that to wait inside would only prolong certain death. Throngs of horrified New Yorkers were shown scurrying across the Brooklyn Bridge, as a cloud of black smoke billowed in the background. At 10:28 a.m., the North Tower came crashing down. The world seemed like it was coming to an end.

During this time, Jack was able to give Grace her first bath and tried desperately to file the image of his baby girl, the smell of the soap and texture of the blanket away for keeping. He and Christina could feel their time with Grace slipping quickly. As Jack gently rocked her, the doctor came to check her status once again. After listening for a heartbeat, he placed Grace back in Jack’s arms and reluctantly uttered the words the room had been both anticipating and dreading – “I’m sorry for your loss.” It was minutes after 11 a.m. Grace had lived nearly two hours.

Later that evening, long after Christina’s parents had finally arrived, impressions of Grace’s hands and feet had been made and visitors had come by to give their hugs and condolences, Jack and Christina were left alone with their baby girl for one last time. They wept to think they would never be able to hold her again, but knew it was time to let go. With one last hug and kiss, Jack finally called for a nurse to come and take Grace. Letting her go was like having a piece of their hearts slowly carved away.

Though exhausted both emotionally and physically from the day’s events, neither Jack nor Christina could sleep. With nothing but horrific images of the World Trade Center and Pentagon crashes being played repeatedly on the television screen, it was impossible for them to escape reality. Just as feelings of vulnerability, hopelessness and fear sat heavily on the hearts and minds of citizens across the United States, Christina and Jack felt their world had literally come undone. In just one day’s time, they had experienced the spectrum of life and suffered a loss unparalleled by any disappointment ever felt before.

 You’ll be on your way up! You’ll be seeing great sights!

You’ll join the high fliers who soar to high heights!

-Oh the Places You’ll Go-

II.  One day at a time, Christina thought to herself. Just take it one day at a time. Tears streamed from her face as she listened to a friend sing “Remember Me” to a packed and sniffling sanctuary of people six days after Grace’s passing.

Remember me when the color of the sunset fills the sky…when you pray and tears of joy fall from your eyes…Remember me when children leave their Sunday school with smiles…Remember me…Remember me.

The song had been playing on the radio the day she had first been informed of Grace’s condition. She had run to her car to escape the onslaught of questions from people at the church park wondering how the ultrasound had gone. Even then, she remembers breaking into tears and praying for God to help her take things one day at a time.

She stared at the tiny casket sitting at the front of the somber room. The only other time she had seen it was in late August when she and Jack had gone to make funeral arrangements for Grace. They had only been given two choices for caskets, and it felt so strange to be making such a morbid decision when Grace was still kicking inside her, oblivious to the fact no one expected her to survive. Christina missed those kicks. She missed Grace. Though they had been trying to ready themselves for this day for months, there was nothing more impossible to prepare for than the burial of their first child.

Later that night, Jack returned to Grace’s grave. He just wanted to be alone with her. He hadn’t remembered feeling such silence since the night he and Christina let go of Grace for the last time. The cars had left. The crowds of people were gone. No one else was to be found in the cemetery. It was just him and his baby girl. Flowers framed the inscription he never imagined having to write: Grace Elisabeth Cleland, September 11, 2001, Our perfect gift from God.

The chilling reality of this final goodbye was more than Jack could bear. There, on his knees, he wept and prayed that God would make some sense out of Grace’s death. Lord, please use it. Please use it.

I’m afraid that sometimes you’ll play lonely games too.

Games you can’t win ‘cause you’ll play against you.

-Oh the Places You’ll Go

III. The months that followed Grace’s death were lonely for Jack and Christina. The doctors had told them they would have to wait at least a year before trying to have a baby again. But with the state of the world and the state of their own hearts, Christina wondered if they should even bother. Was it worth opening themselves up to the possibility of experiencing such pain and loss again?

Everything reminded her of Grace. At Christmas, she had gone to run some errands when she came across a stocking that matched the pattern of the bumper pad she had ordered for Grace while she was pregnant. She had to leave the store.

All the minute tasks of the day seemed so trivial without Grace there. Christina had become so accustomed to carrying her and talking to her that the house seemed emptier with her gone. She seemed emptier.

Jack continued to work at Crossover Ministries, serving as an administrator for junior high and high school age camps and conferences across the country. But with each passing day, he couldn’t help but feel like something was missing. After talking with Christina and a few close friends and ministers, he finally decided that seminary was the next logical step for him in his career. If ministry was truly going to be his occupation for the rest of his life, then he wanted to get his Masters in Theological Studies. After some research, he set up a time to visit New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

He visited the seminary in January and took Christina to see the school a few months later, but neither of them felt a peace about the decision. Although Jack still felt like something was missing in his career, he did not want to rearrange his and Christina’s life around a plan that did not excite them. With that in mind, he and Christina discussed what his options would be if he left Crossover. Before joining the ministry, he had been a teacher. Education was a fairly secure job. He knew he could teach science and he might as well use the degree he had worked four years for at Clemson University. In August, he resigned at Crossover and began teaching 9th grade at Dorman High School.

Without even realizing it, Grace’s first birthday came upon them. It was hard for them to believe that one year had already passed. They could still picture that head full of black hair and those tiny toes and fingers. They could still remember the smell of the soap from her first bath and the heat of the sanctuary on the day of her funeral. Though the pain was fresh, it was comforting for them to know that they wouldn’t be the only ones pausing to honor Grace’s memory that day. No one could forget Sept. 11, and no one who was at the hospital or funeral that week could forget Grace.

While they knew that she would never be able to be replaced, they were finally feeling ready to try for children again. Almost 13 months after that fateful day, Christina found out she was pregnant. She told Jack, but both of them feared sharing the news with anyone else until they were certain that everything was OK with the child.

About five weeks into her pregnancy, Christina scheduled an appointment for an ultrasound. As she lay on the table, her heart almost sunk as the nurse paused and stared more closely at the screen. Expecting to hear more bad news, the nurse pointed to the image and exclaimed, “Oh look, there’s another critter!” Christina couldn’t believe her ears. She and Jack had prayed for twins, but she never expected their wish to become a reality.

She hesitated to become too excited because she knew that carrying twins was considered another high-risk pregnancy. She had seen and heard too many sad stories since Grace that she had begun to wonder if anything ever went right in a pregnancy. Though she was excited about the unexpected news of twins, she was more scared than anything.

Jack, too, felt mixed emotions upon hearing Christina was going to have twins. The announcement, along with the recent remembrance of Grace’s birthday, had caused his mind to dwell on an idea he had tried with all his might to keep from surfacing. Ever since their time in the neonatal intensive care unit with Grace, he had quietly pondered what it would be like to work in that area of the hospital as a doctor. Watching the doctors and nurses talk with parents whose babies’ lives hung in the balance or help an infant battle what some believed to be an insurmountable disease, was literally watching ministry take on hands and feet. At Crossover, he started the Call 2 Ministry Conference for people to hear the message that you don’t have to be in an occupation of ministry to minister to the world. But, it wasn’t until now that he was finally beginning to understand the message himself.

He hadn’t been in school for more than ten years now, and with a high school teacher’s salary, the cost of medical school itself seemed out of the question. He knew that many would be skeptical of the idea, perhaps even make fun of his varied career path that had already jumped indecisively from teaching to ministry, then back to teaching, but he couldn’t let that stop him. He was not even sure if it would be possible for him to become a doctor, but he was no longer going to attempt to explain his dream away. The thought of being a doctor ignited a fire in him not felt when he imagined teaching for the rest of his life. He couldn’t picture the long hours spent grading, disciplining students, and locking and unlocking doors. It was just a security blanket, not a passion. If in fact becoming a doctor was his purpose in life, as he believed it to be, then God would take care of the details. He just needed to be obedient.

At first, Christina didn’t really take Jack seriously. She figured she would let him pursue the whim wholeheartedly, until he finally realized it didn’t make sense. After sharing the idea with his friends who had already been through medical school, the couple set up an appointment for Jack to shadow a neonatologist. Jack had already met the doctor before, through Grace’s case, but this meeting would be under entirely different circumstances. Usually, the shadowing experience was just for college students, but the hospital made an exception for Jack.

When he arrived at Regional that February day, he received word that the doctor would be unable to make it and was then assigned to follow a different neonatologist. The doctor mainly spoke of the types of cases he received on a day-to-day basis. In this unit, you had to think small because you were dealing with some of the most fragile human beings in the world. Some parents of the babies would basically live in the hospital for months on end, while others would detach themselves completely so as not to get hurt. Jack found himself able to identify with both types, remembering what it was like for him when Christina was pregnant with Grace. He saw a father sitting next to one of the isolettes, gazing at his sick child within. He saw a nurse feeding one of the infants with a container as small and thin as a Tabasco bottle. The babies were so tiny, some as small as a pound. When he came home that night, he told Christina he was certain this line of work was something he wanted to pursue. When she asked him the name of the doctor he shadowed, her eyes widened to hear his reply. Without realizing it, Jack had spent the entire day shadowing the same neonatologist who had pronounced Grace dead more than a year ago. The surrealness of this knowledge, coupled with the images and stories he had seen and heard throughout the day, only served to further confirm his desire to begin pursuing medical school. He already had a passion for science, and after losing Grace, he knew he could use his personal experience to identify with the parents and family members on that fragile floor. All that was holding him back was the Medical College Admissions Test.

Christina was less than excited about the idea. She had just been placed on partial bed rest with the twins and knew they didn’t have the money or time for Jack to take the test. The MCAT was only offered in April and August, and the babies were due in June. It was too late in the game for Jack to take classes in time to prepare him for the April test and once the twins came that summer, it would be impossible for him to find time to study before August. Not only that, but he still had a job teaching. The cons outweighed the pros, and he would just have to give up on his dream.

But Jack just couldn’t let go. He knew the obstacles seemed insurmountable, but he couldn’t bear the idea of looking back at this time in his life and realizing he made a mistake by giving up. On the way home from school that week, he called a test prep center that offered a comprehensive, summer preparatory course for the MCAT.

“I know this is going to sound like a plot straight out of a movie, but my wife is pregnant with twins and we can’t afford to pay the $1,500 necessary for me to enroll in this MCAT class. I need to take this course to even have a slight chance of passing the test in August. Is there anything you can do?” The employee on the line said she would call him back.

Jack told himself that if nothing could be done, he would let go of the idea and move on. But with the ring of the telephone, he found the door swing wide open. Kaplan agreed to let him take the class for half the price if he would receive training to become a Kaplan SAT administrator. The job was part-time and would help cover the remaining cost of the MCAT course. Jack knew that he was being given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so he agreed and told Christina the exciting news. Though she would not say it aloud, Christina still wasn’t taking the idea seriously. She knew that once the twins were born in June and he had to juggle the class at the same time, he would rule the idea out. Jack would go on teaching.

The start of summer proved to be an eventful time for the Clelands. Jack began teaching summer school and would then drive 30 minutes to Kaplan Center for his MCAT course. The first day of his class, they had to take a sample version of half the MCAT to assess which areas they needed to focus most on. Knowing nothing about the test and having been out of school for more than a decade, Jack felt lost. He left one section of the exam completely blank. That night, he came home feeling as if his dreams had been shattered.

With tears in his eyes, he told Christina how he bombed the test. There was no way he was going to be able to learn all the information he needed to learn before August. He might as well give up. “If I quit now, I can get the money back,” he said, but Christina refused to let him. “You need to finish this, Jack. You need to see this through. If you don’t, you will regret it.”

He started breaking the information down piece-by-piece and studying at any free moment. Mornings and afternoons were spent teaching summer school, while evenings were spent at the testing center. The class met two to three days a week for three hours at a time, so he usually ended up getting home sometime after 9 p.m.

In the middle of this hectic schedule, a force that surged even more life into his efforts came in the form of twin boys. On June 7, 2003, Jackson and Wilson Cleland, Grace’s little brothers, were born. Jackson weighed 6 lbs. 6 oz. and measured 21 inches long, while Wilson weighed 6 lbs. 4 oz. and measured 21.25 inches long. They were two healthy handfuls from day one, the joys and duties associated with a newborn now being multiplied by two.

With new additions to the household and a shift in priorities, Jack’s schedule became even tighter. At 3 a.m. feedings, he would pop in organic chemistry tapes, learning the basics of science as he learned the basics of fatherhood. Though the balancing act was strenuous, he never wanted Christina or the boys to think the MCAT had become more important.

August and the MCAT came in a flash. So much had happened in the two years leading up to this moment where Jack’s dreams would be thrust into forward motion or stopped in an instant. He knew he had done everything he possibly could to prepare for the test, even cramming in last bits of information as he babysat Jackson and Wilson the night before.

At 31, Jack was a minority among the test-takers. The majority of the examinees were either fresh out of college or just finishing up. While most had spent their college career focusing on this very day, he had spent his twenties pursuing an altogether different vocation.  But in spite of the odds stacked against him, Jack knew that today was no mistake. 214 questions, two essays and six exhausting hours later, all he had left to do was wait.

You can get so confused that you’ll start in to race

Down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace

And grind on for miles across weirdish wild space,

Headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.

The Waiting Place…

-Oh the Places You’ll Go- 

IV. The MCAT is divided into four sections: Verbal Reasoning, Biological Sciences, Physical Sciences and the Writing Sample. The Writing Sample section is scored alphabetically on a scale ranging from J to T, while the other sections receive a score between 1 and 15, with 15 being the highest. While admission to medical school is based on your GPA, MCAT and interview, a score of at least 10 is needed on each of the three MCAT sections to even be considered among the competition.

Of the 32, 648 examinees that took the August 2003 MCAT, 14,708 were male and only 1, 321 were over 31 years in age. 15,459 test-takers were between the ages of 21 and 22 years old.

At the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, the only school Jack applied to, 400 of the 1000+ applicants are granted interviews and only 135 are accepted into the program each year. Most of them boast a GPA of at least 3.5 and an average score of 9.3 on each of the three MCAT sections.

Jack, who had a 2.98 GPA from his undergraduate studies at Clemson, needed a MCAT score of at least 27 to even be considered for an interview. His results came in, and he scored a 26.

Though some universities grant interviews to applicants outside the average academic standards, Jack decided it was best for him to start settling into his career as a teacher. With all the statistics stacked against him, he was certain his journey towards med school had come to an end and his chances of becoming a doctor were long gone. He was wrong.

When he called MUSC in December to check on his status, he was surprised to find out his application had been lost. By the next day, the Admissions Office found his application and scheduled him for one of the 400 coveted interviews in January. His journey was far from over. By the third week of January, the MCAT was taken, his application was in, and the interview was over. Jack was told he would know within a week if he was accepted, but in his mind he already knew the outcome. When he came home to find Christina looking at real estate magazines for Charleston, he told her not to get her hopes up. No one gets accepted into medical school with a 2.98 GPA.

Due to snow, the mail didn’t run the entire week that Jack was supposed to receive notification. By Saturday, he was a basket case and had gone to the backyard with a chainsaw in hand to start cutting down limbs and work out his nervous energy. It was getting close to dinnertime, so he finally gave up on waiting and went inside to clean himself up. Just as he was about to get in the shower, Christina yelled from the living room that the mail had finally come. She ran outside to check the mailbox and came back to the door with an envelope in hand.

“Jack, it’s thick,” she said, handing him the letter he felt he’d waited a lifetime to see. She watched as he pulled out the contents and studied his face to see if she could read his reaction. Unsuccessful, she begged him to share the news.

“Well,” Jack said, maintaining his composure so well it nearly drove Christina crazy, “Looks like we’re moving to Charleston.” 

You’re off to Great Places!

Today is your day!

Your mountain is waiting.

So…get on your way!

-Oh the Places You’ll Go- 

V. As Jack sat sipping his coffee and watching Christina read magazines in the bookstore, he laughed to himself remembering all the weekends throughout the years that he had sat here reading MCAT test prep books, merely fantasizing about what it would be like to be a doctor. Now, in just six months time, he would be entering his first year of med school, embarking on a journey he never dreamed of taking before Grace came into his life. Though his baby girl lived only two short hours, God used her to change his life in unimaginable ways. Just as he had prayed at her graveside more than two years ago, her death had not been in vain.

While the road ahead was sure to be challenging, Jack knew he, Christina, Jackson and Wilson would not be traveling it alone. As with every mountain he had come to before, all that remained was to pray. And so, to the same God who had carried him thus far, he wrote:


As my personality requires, I want everything to be “perfect.” I’ve prayed, asked, begged you for direction. I hope I’ve done exactly what you’ve required. Lord, as I have asked, doors have opened and shut. I’ve prayed you bless me and enlarge my mind. Never did I think it would be in such a way that I would lose so much.

I’ve spent days writing confirmations, concerns, fears…everything. Lord, you deserve my best. As I prayed at the altar on Sunday (and nights alone at First Baptist), I’ll do whatever. I say again, God I will do whatever. I belong to you. Christina, Grace, Jackson and Wilson are your gifts to me…As for me and my house, we will serve you Lord.

I want to be a vessel. You deserve my best. With all my fears and concerns, Lord I place them at your feet. Never to pick up again. I see the areas you have shaped me and the doors you have so tremendously opened. I stand at the River Jordan, on the edge of the flooding river, knowing what’s on the other side and knowing that it will be a battle to get there, but Lord if you require this of me, I will go.

 Lord, is there any reason why I should not step? I’ve prayed that you would shut the door. I begged you to shut the door, Lord, if I was making a mistake. But Lord, to date, that has not happened. The time has come for me to be obedient.

So Lord, with excitement and peace in my heart, I’ll step into this River you have asked me to cross. Lord, I will accept humbly and gratefully this gift you have given me. Praise God for your faithfulness and patience. I am so excited, God, of what you are doing. Thank you for allowing me to be a part. I am so unworthy of this task and realize that without you, I will fail. I know your presence is here, just as it was in the Jordan River. Wow! I love you Lord! Use me, bless me, enlarge my ministry and give me wisdom.

I pray all of this in the precious and holy name of Jesus Christ.

Your eternal servant,

Jack W. Cleland



11 responses to “Saving Grace

  1. Beautifully written, as usual. I’m dying for an update on this family, and Jack’s med school journey!

  2. Maureen, thank you for sharing this. I remember the story from college, but that didn’t stop me from tearing up! What a beautiful story. God’s purpose isn’t always evident in our trying times, but what a joy to see the whole story. Love you Marti!

  3. Oh, Maureen , what a beautiful, God given gift you have for writing. This was exquisite. Heartbreaking , but yet so beautiful to see how Jack and Christina have been used so greatly. Keep up the good work. Love you still. Donna Womick

  4. As I sit at my desk at work, fighting back tears, I feel an amazing peace. This was timely for me in multiple ways… such a sobering perspective. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Oh, friend! This was beautiful … thank you for telling their story with your amazing gift with words!

  6. If I hadn’t been at work, I would have blubbered and I did tear up. Beautiful story as only my beautiful friend could write. And I’d like to think on that day in September 11 years ago, Grace might have only lived for a few hours, but grace spread before her and spilled into the world. Thank you for such a beautiful telling of this story Maureen.

  7. Reblogged this on Sheila Ingle and commented:
    A story to remember…

  8. He is the best doctor in the world!!!! He is the doctor of my 3 children and this just made me a proud “mommy patient”!!!! Dr. Jack you are an awesome vessel of our God and I am proud to have the health of my children in your care!!! Thank you for all you do!!! You are our “Saving Grace” at times when I’m frazzled because my babies are sick and now I know that it’s because of your own ” Saving Grace”!!!

  9. Beautiful heartfelt story; beautifully & immaculately written.. Thanks

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