Dear Zoe, by Max De Pree (Harper San Francisco, 99 pp., $18, hardcover). Reviewed by John Ortberg, teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois.

Occasionally a book comes along that is a gift to the spirit. This is such a book. Max De Pree, the former ceo of the innovative furniture company Herman Miller, has had a second career as a writer of thoughtful books on the
art of leadership. In 1988 his granddaughter Zoe was born-15 or 16 weeks premature, 11 inches long, one pound 7 ounces. Her neonatologist gave her a 5 to 10 percent chance to live three days. To complicate things further, Max's son-in-law exited the picture, so Max became surrogate father as well as grandfather.

Dear Zoe is a series of extraordinary letters Max wrote to this little baby, not knowing whether she would ever grow up to read them. It is as gentle and tender as its subject.

As in his other writings, Max's great gifts lie in paying attention and in framing questions. As he contemplates Zoe's tiny body, puts his wedding ring over her fist and slides it up to her shoulder, he wonders what it means to be a "perfect" child: "Is perfection like the weather? Is constantly fine weather better than changing seasons? Where would we be without storms? Can we learn to sail without the wind? … Does being wounded make us less perfect or more perfect?"

The nurse tells him that, as surrogate dad, his job is to speak tenderly to his granddaughter, stroking her gently with one finger as he does, so that she can learn to connect his voice with his touch. And so Max and Zoe (and we) are led to reflect on the task of connecting life and word; voice and touch.

As the family walks through the early days where survival is doubtful, where they have to decide not just what but whether to name the baby, Max recalls other griefs: "My younger sister, Barbara, was accidentally killed on her 24th birthday. At her funeral we sang, tried to at least, 'What a friend we have in Jesus.' It was 25 years before I could again sing through that entire hymn."

These are letters of wonder: wonder at how life, when it seems most secure, is unspeakably fragile, and how when it is most precarious it is yet unspeakably good.

There are in the New Testament two words for life. Although scholars differ on this point, there is sometimes a slight distinction made between them. One word, bios, tends to be used if the reference is to mere physical animation ("biological life," if you will.) The other word, it is argued, tends to be associated with life that is spiritual, personal, eternal. That word is zoe. And this book is for all who share it.

Last Updated: October 4, 1996

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