Joanna's field


It was the first spring after Joanna’s death that I started clearing her field, the spring of 1998. I didn’t know then that it was to be her field, that knowledge came a little later. The west most part of our rural place is secluded, and is located in the river bottom next to the Middle Fork of the Saline River in the Ouachita (wash-it-taw) Mountains. The waters of the old river channel there lap against the base of a sloping, one hundred foot high ridge.

The top of the ridge, where Native Americans used to camp, is now the resting place for our home. From the old channel to the present stream location it is sixty yards. This place of deep dark soil, about an acre and a half, was completely covered in timber when I began. The Hackberrys, Oaks, Gums, Hornbeams and Ashes had not been touched for generations. I’d never thought of clearing it before, and at first only planned to remove trees and brush along the west bank of the channel. This would make better access for fishing.

As I began to push over brush and the smaller trees with my tractor, it came to me that I should clear the entire area, and thus create a little hidden field. Other than being inundated by the occasional flood, the area was not being used. The field would be nestled between the present River channel and the old one. I proceeded by digging around bigger trees and those that had an extensive root system, then push them over with the front end loader. Smaller trees could be pushed to the sides of the opening and larger ones cut up then moved. The largest ones were Hackberry and some three feet in diameter. No need to burn the sawn and pushed aside tree tops, high water - often rising up ten or twelve feet - would move them ever seaward.

It took several months of full and part time work to clear the area. When working I would often uncover a nest of enraged ground bees or a prize winning Cottonmouth Moccasin. I would have to move my work to other parts if the bees were persistent in pursuing me. As I drove around on the tractor I would sometimes glance over to the sloping ridge beyond the water of the old channel. How long, I mused, had it been since the last hunting party of Caddo Indians came down that slope?

As the clearing work progressed I would envision in my mind’s eye a beautiful meadow, green in the spring sun and surrounded by the tall trees and bunches of wildflowers. It would be bordered on the east by the land locked channel and the high ridge, and on the west by the ever flowing waters of the Middle Fork.

The bed of the stream is gravel and rock and we can hear it from our lofty home as it gurgles it’s way southward. This vision of future beauty inspired me and kept me going, and fatigue was of no consequence. Whatever it took I was determined to do it. I did all of the work alone, as is my custom, and spent many hours riding the orange tractor, and in cutting logs from the felled trees.

It was sometime in this summer of 1998 that I decided to call it Joanna’s Field. People name things after happy memories and loved ones, and most certainly she was both. We had fished together many afternoons in the dark pool of the old channel’s still waters. The field would lie next to our fishing hole, and she would have called it “a small and cozy place”. Even as a toddler she loved small and hidden places, and had coined that phrase years ago. I even have a photo I took of her peeking out from a hiding place in our old house, with those big brown eyes and her blond curls.

She really loved to fish, and I can still see her standing on the bank above me and above the dark water of the old channel, casting a lure out and over the shadowed, still surface. We would lazily cast for fish as the afternoon sun waned and just enjoy doing something so peaceful together. My spirit took a snapshot of her in that pose on one particularly beautiful afternoon. I was at the south end of the pool, and I would glance up and watch her at length as she fished. Fathers never tire of seeing their children, and that picture has anchored itself forever in my heart.

On those afternoon excursions when it was time to go to supper, she would climb on the four wheeler behind me and put her arms around my waist. Joanna always had the prettiest hands, and a peaches and cream complexion as her mother described it. So then, with the mountain twilight beginning to fall we would ride together back up the darkening trail through the cedar filled hollow that wound to our highland home.

Joanna was insightful and sensitive. When I had to go away from home on business there would always be a note on the seat of my truck. It would be signed by her, Nathan and Laura. It would state their love and prayers for a safe trip and a safe return. I still have some of those precious scraps of paper. She would always see that the back porch light was on for dad. After her death I came home for the first time to a dark back porch. It was like a heavy blow, and I sat with my head resting on the steering wheel and wept for fifteen minutes. A light had been taken from me. Surely the world was just a little dimmer now. No, a lot dimmer.

Often as I worked in the field I would ponder the mysteries of life and death, and would be flooded with memories of my unforgettable fifteen year old daughter. To some secret watcher it would have seemed most peculiar to observe me. A grown man was riding around on an orange tractor and all the while crying his eyes out and intermittently wailing out to Heaven. I would beseech God to send something to fill up a massive Joanna shaped void. There must be something to remove the endless pain.

At times like that it seemed impossible that I could ever be comforted again. After awhile though, I would feel better and stop crying, blow my nose and wipe my eyes before I continued working. My comfort came from the knowledge that a wonderful wife, son and daughter still awaited me at the top of that winding trail, and that God was still in control.

As a believer in Jesus Christ I must know that all is in his hands, though I don’t understand things that happen. Counting your blessings is the best way to learn arithmetic. In this type of math you've got to pay much more attention to the plus signs than to the minus. Now though, I have to ride back up the trail alone with no small arms around me. I can feel them even now.

God took two of our children to be with him and left us two. There are many books in that sentence, trust me on this point. As always, my wife and I must bow before God’s almighty power and wisdom. After all, fourteen years went by before doctors told us we couldn’t have any children at all. My wife’s body killed my sperm on contact, and there was no medical fix. Even the test that determined the condition was new. But then God cast his creative and deciding vote and we won. No recount was required. Martha was thirty seven when Nathan was born and thirty nine when God sent Joanna. We lost a baby when Martha was forty two, and then Laura, our last “handful on purpose” from the Lord, came the spring after Martha had turned forty five.

After Joanna’s little field was cleared, I smoothed it out by disking and harrowing, filling in stump holes and leveling humps and rough places. There’s a unique beauty in a cultivated field that’s waiting for man and nature to fill the empty brown canvas and nothing at all compares with the scent of freshly turned earth. I rejoice in the creator, and so am able to appreciate his creation in the right way. It was in October of 1998 that I planted the fallow ground for the first time. It was very hot and dry that fall, as it had been all summer, and so I got a pump and rigged up irrigation lines to water the sown seed. There was no need, as it turned out, for me to do that though.

A gulf hurricane sent clouds our way, and it began to rain within a few days after it was planted. I was overjoyed and loved it. It was like God’s stamp of approval on all of my blood sweat and tears. When it all began to turn green the field was even more beautiful than I could have imagined. It’s always wonderful there now, and as long as I have the strength and help of God I will plant it each fall. Every time I take Martha there she weeps and says it’s a special place. We both know that it’s prayers and love that make places special.

When they were small, we once took the children to Pea Ridge Civil War battlefield in Northern Arkansas. Joanna remarked in a plaintive little voice “this place makes me sad”. She was tearing up as she spoke those profound words. Her innocent little spirit had discerned the uniqueness that was resident there. In case you didn’t know, that’s why many eyes tear up at old battle grounds.

The prayers of the soldiers that fought there are an oil of anointing that has totally saturated the ground. Those frightened living soldiers were pleading for life, the wounded praying for help, and the dying crying for forgiveness for themselves, and help for families they were leaving behind.

The spirit of God comes close when men are in prayer, and any time that he visits, a wonderful, subtle fragrance remains. We pray and God answers. It’s not hard to know what those men were saying. I would have been weeping and praying the same things. Men remain the same no matter what the century.

Continues below...

One year I was short of money for seed, fuel and other items necessary to plant the fields that I cultivate each fall. It seemed only fitting to use money that Joanna had made so that I could plant her field. She had earned a savings bond by winning the Saline County spelling bee against all private and public school entrants. She had been homeschooled, and was an excellent and ardent reader. By the time she was five, you could not leave anything lying around if you didn’t want her to read it. Her mother and I were filled with joy and gladness for her victory, but Joanna thought it nothing out of the ordinary. She was always a contender in everything that interested her. The prize savings bond she received had been put aside for many years, and kept for her.

I took the bond to the bank one afternoon that September to cash it in while Martha waited in the truck. My heart was weighed down with heaviness as I walked through the door. It was all I could do to keep the tears back as I stood in line waiting my turn with the teller. As I waited I thought again of how she would never get a chance to fulfill her dream of being a journalist and writer and to earn her living that way. We would not see her graduate from high school, attend her wedding or be there for the birth of her first child. There would be no senior prom or sweet sixteen birth day. There in my hand I held a certificate as receipt for the only few dollars she ever had the opportunity to earn. When I walked out of the bank I felt just like you do when you’ve been in swimming for a long time.

When you climb out of the water the weight of your body seems enormous, almost too much to carry, and you wonder how you've been doing it all of these years. I gritted my teeth, set my face as a flint, and with tears close by went to purchase Joanna’s seed with her very own money. Martha was with me that day, and we held hands as we have for the past forty two years.(now fifty) We've been equally yoked for all of that time, steadily plowing the fields of our life, with God blessing the increase.

When the weather warmed that next spring after the fall’s planting, Joanna's small and cozy meadow was more lush and beautiful than I’ve ever seen it. It was as if God blessed that seed sevenfold and caused it to grow and flourish as it never has before or since. It has never been more beautiful than the year it was sowed with seed Joanna paid for. Even though I used my hands and sweat to do the work, it was a joint effort between God, Martha, Joanna and I. I want to say that in everything I do and every task I undertake, the hands of my wife and children are right there on mine lending me their strength. I was just a laborer and observer. We have a unique and loving family, and have survived, with God Almighty’s help, many of life’s most terrible storms.
After Joanna's death I told Laura that the anointing that was on her sister was now hers. A father has the duty and honor of bestowing God’s blessings on his children. A double portion of God's blessing was now on and in her life. He told me "I'm placing Joanna's anointing on Laura and indeed she gas a double portion". She has since shown evidence of that father's blessing, and excelled in all she has undertaken. She graduated summa cum laude with a double major in English and history and works with children in a local library. Our fine son Nathan is a minister of Christ.

The deer and wild Turkeys come now to visit the place I made – that is that all of us together had made. I have sat hidden in the woods that edge Joanna’s field on many afternoons. I like to watch the creatures feed across the green of this "small and cozy" prayer anointed meadow nestled between the stream and ridge.

If Joanna were here now I know she would love it. Of all the little nooks on our hard won land there is no place as special as Joanna’s field. I’ll see you soon my little girl. God said so, and I’m sure he’s not mistaken. I know He had a small and cozy place all ready for you. The Good Shepherd always knows best, it's just, you see, that it hurts so terribly.

At meal times I would always pray and thank God for our food, for the day and so forth. Joanna would then pipe up in her small sweet voice “God’s just givin’ us a whole bunch a’ days!" Yes my little dear. God has given us “a whole bunch a’ days”. But somehow to me it doesn’t seem like enough. Not nearly enough.

How brief our flight through this thorny life. Prostrate before Him I grasp His feet and sob my thankfulness that He came and reteieved me from the dung heap of fleshly man and revealed His grace.

One day soon I shall be joined to the savior face to face and again see Joanna and all my dear loved ones that have gone before me believing in Him whom they've never seen. Are you ready friend?
As thankful as you are to the Lord, I hear your pain still coming through loud and clear. In a short march of years I have lost my entire family, and the pain still finds me at the most surprising moments. Maybe I am reading my own pain into yours or maybe I am just sensitive to bereavement pain in others. I just want to say that no matter what others may think, I believe that it is okay to feel the pain when it strikes, even though momentarily. There is no true healing from this sort of loss - it's more that we learn to accept it and lean on the Lord not only for strength but for the promise of hope that God has given us. I guess I just want to say I empathize, and I admire that you have bound the message of God's hope to your heart. May God continue to bless you with the wonder of his promise through the sacrifice of His only Son. Perhaps as a parent, you can truly understand what kind of incredible love it must have taken to offer a son to be condemned, tortured, and hung on a cross to suffer a cruel long death. Can any of us even begin to imagine this? Can we even begin to just think about sacrificing our children in this manner? This tremendous sacrifice, the proof of amazing love that it shows, must give you comfort of knowing how real God's promise is, and how those missing from your earthly life right now are truly being held safe in Jesus' care. There is nothing, NOTHING, that can come close to offering that kind of comfort, and I am joyful for you that you have found this comfort for yourself.

God bless you.
What a truly beautiful way to honour a loved one who has passed. Thank you for sharing your story.


Annie x