I saw the paramedic getting out of his truck in the driveway. I ran toward him and grabbed his arm. "You've gotta save my little girl!" I screamed over and over . …
So writes Mary Beth Chapman, who relives in heart-shattering detail the death of her 5-year-old daughter, Maria, in her new book, Choosing to SEE: A Journey of Struggle and Hope (Revell). In the chapter titled "May 21, 2008," Chapman — the wife of Christian music star Steven Curtis Chapman — remembers sitting at the dining room table, working on wedding plans for their oldest child, Emily.
She goes on to recount the horrible events of that afternoon: son Will pulling into the driveway, accidentally running over his little sister, the chaos, the panic, the blood, the 911 call, the emergency personnel, the hospital, the brutal news that Maria had passed away, the screams of "No! No! No!" giving way to Mary Beth telling her husband, "We have to let her go, sweetie. It's time to let her go."
That kind of gut-wrenching honesty and vulnerability runs throughout the book as Mary Beth, married to Steven for 26 years, shares the story not only of Maria's death and the family's subsequent grieving, but also of her own continuing feud with the Creator — a difficult childhood and teen years, adulthood battles with depression, and more.
Maria was the third of the Chapmans' three adopted girls from China; Shaohannah Hope (10) and Stevey Joy (7) are the others. Their biological kids are Emily (24), Caleb (20), and Will Franklin (19). Mary Beth is also the president of Show Hope, a nonprofit organization that cares for orphans worldwide by providing financial assistance to families wishing to adopt. Last summer, Show Hope opened Maria's Big House of Hope in China, a facility for orphans with special needs.
Christianity Today caught up with Mary Beth to talk about the book, the grieving process, and what she calls "a lifelong wrestling match with God." She, Steven, and the family will also share their story on a fall tour, "A Night with the Chapmans," beginning this month.
Steven told me he had to write songs as a part of his grieving process. Is this a book that you had to write?
Probably yes. After we lost our daughter, I began blogging, and it became one of those places where I could write like a stream of consciousness, the grief flowing out of me. People started to respond to that, and publishers asked us to consider a book.
At first the working title was Mary Beth vs. God, about my wresting match with God, and really with all of life — the theme of what do you do when things go wrong. This isn't just the story of losing Maria. It's also the story of the redemptive struggle that we all walk through when God doesn't seem to be who we thought he was, or when things don't work out the way we thought they would.
You write openly about your struggles — with depression, your marriage, and so on.
Steven and I have always been on what we call a preventive maintenance program. When we got married, we found out pretty quickly we were quite different. Sometimes it's holy headlock, not holy wedlock. And I write about my depression. When I finished the book, it was like a release. I felt God saying, That's all I needed you to do. You wrote it; it's in black and white now. I took you on a journey that wasn't easy, but I revealed things about my character to you. Now you can just let it go. So it was a really good process for me — really hard, but really good.
You don't hold anything back in this book.
I've never tried to hide these things or keep them private. When I talk, it's like, there she goes! I'm from the Midwest, and Midwesterners tend to just put it out there. Not for any kind of shock factor, but I've really wrestled with God. And when we lost our daughter, I had some anger to deal with. I was shaking my fist at God: Okay, you created me. You created the anger. I'm tenacious. I'm competitive. And I'm really mad, and you're going to have to answer some tough questions and bring me back to this place of knowing that you are a good God when bad things happen. But, man, it was a really difficult journey. And still is.
I never thought in a million years that I'd write a book, let alone speak and go on tour with my husband. I kind of feel like Esther: "for such a time as this." It's a limited engagement. But I realize that some of the interviews I've done have connected with women when I talked honestly — like when I talked about my depression with Today's Christian Woman. I've always wanted to be open, vulnerable, and as honest as I can be. In the Christian music culture, it's easy for the book cover and album cover to look great and for people to think, Man, they have it all together. Steven and I long to be authentic, because we don't have it all together. But we know who does have it all together, and that's the ultimate goal: redemptively struggling out the battles that come our way — whether that's our marriage or losing our child or whatever we are going through.
Given your wrestling with God, is Jacob your favorite biblical character?
I think so. I always feel like, I can fix this. Or, I can build it stronger, better, faster. Much of my life, I've thought that God needed help from me — like I needed to be the fourth member of the Trinity to tell him what was best for me. I think it took a lot of breaking to cause me to rely more on him. So I probably relate a little more with David and Paul. Like David, the Psalms have become so alive to us. One day David is praising God, the next he says, "How long do I have to cry on my pillow, God? This is miserable. Please come quickly." That's how we felt after losing Maria. It's like, "How long, O Lord? I don't think we can take another day."
And then Paul had his thorn in the flesh. I often talk to women about my depression and my ongoing battle of, Why can't God just take this away? But Paul's thorn kept him close to Christ. I feel that way with the depression. It continues to drive me back to Christ.
I identify with a lot of the characters of the Bible these days. Job, that's another! God has taken us on a really hard journey with losing our daughter, but even before that, we were never a family that had it all together. The Chapman bunch, we love hard and we fight hard, and we cling as tightly as we can to Jesus, and we want to finish the race well. And we know the Enemy has come to steal, kill, and destroy, but what he intended for evil, God intends for good.
As Steven read your manuscript, did he ever say, "Gulp. Please don't tell the whole world about this"?
When I decided to write it, he was like, "Uh oh." I definitely had to put the filter on some things. But for the most part, he has been my biggest cheerleader, so supportive of me. I'm just more out there than he is. I mean, he talks very openly and honestly and …
Yeah, but his words are usually a bit more measured!
Yes, I'm the loose cannon. He always says, "Okay, Mary Beth is talking. Everybody just hold onto your seats." Hopefully, I've tempered myself over the years. But he was pleased with how the book turned out.
Tell the story of the book cover, which has the word SEE in handwritten letters, and a flower that dots the i in Choosing.
After the accident, we avoided the house for several days. We were begging God to show us himself in this, because this was clearly the darkest place he had taken us, and we were drowning. We were like, God, please, let us see. Let us see Maria. Let us have a dream. Let us see something so we know that you're here.
The day after the accident, some dear friends came with us to the house to hold us up, to walk through, to go into Maria's room and get some things for the memorial service. Steven walked into our dining room, where our two little ones — Stevie Joy and Maria — have art tables. Maria loved to draw flowers. Her signature flower always had an orange center and six petals, and all the petals were usually different colors. On Maria's table, Steven saw a piece of paper with an unfinished flower she had drawn—only one petal was colored in, and it was blue, her favorite color. On the other side, she had drawn a picture of a little orange butterfly and written the word see in capital letters. We had never seen her write that word before. When Steven saw that, he was like, Really? Are you kidding me? This is unbelievable. We felt like it was God and Maria at the same time going, See, Dad? It's everything you told me it would be. I'm okay. I'm here. I left this for you. It's the very word that you were asking for.
A week or so later, I told Steven, "She always drew six-petal flowers. It's interesting that we have six children but there's only one petal colored in. It's almost like Maria was saying, My life is complete. I'm home now. I'm with Jesus. And some day you're coming, too, Mom and Dad. Just hang on. I'm going to see you again." And so that flower, the word see, the little butterfly — all of it became significant to us.
Psalm 34:8 says, "Taste and see that the Lord is good." That's hard to say, even two years later. I would rather be holding Maria on my lap and not doing this interview. But we have seen where the Lord has been good, even though things seem really bad. We have seen God's goodness, even at the expense of me not being able to cuddle my little girl this side of heaven.
Your work with Show Hope and especially opening Maria's Big House of Hope last year — how has that helped? I would think diving into work like that would be wonderful in some ways, but also a constant reminder.
It is a constant reminder of Maria because she was a special needs orphan. [Maria was born with a heart defect that eventually healed on its own.] At first we were building a Shaohannah's Hope healing home [in China], but after losing Maria, out of the outcry of people praying for us and wanting to help, we established Maria's Miracle Fund. Out of that fund, we were able to complete the building, and last summer — a year after her accident — we traveled to China and dedicated this special-care facility in her name. We renamed it Maria's Big House of Hope, where we care for about 150 orphans. Since then, we have been able to open two other units.
Yes, it's a constant reminder of who is not with us. But it is also a constant reminder of who is with us. When we went to dedicate the building, I was not in a great place [emotionally]. I was sitting in one of the rooms by myself. I was sad. I was angry. I just wanted Maria. I begged God, "Please show me something. Can I just see her for a minute? Can you just show me that she's happy? I know she is. But can I just see it?" And as I sat there sobbing, I began hearing the babies of Maria's Big House, and some of the older kids chatting in Chinese, and the Chinese nannies and all the commotion with the laundry and the cooking and all that was going on. I felt like God whispered, "You know you're not going to see her physically until you're with her again in heaven. But this is how you're going to see her. And you're going to see her in the work that's being done here in her name."
I didn't like that answer. I was like, "Really? Oh man. Can't you show me a picture? I just want to see her on a swing or something." But you know what? God met me there. I went, "Okay, this is going to be hard, and I don't like hard, but we're going to take this story and we're going to try to steward this as well as we can. We're going to tell as many people about Maria and her story as we can, and about Jesus taking care of us when things are really, really bad."
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