With fresh tears filling her eyes and dangling from her long lashes, Naomi Avery looked at me and summarized the theme of our nearly three-hour-long interview.
“God loves us.”
Naomi said the words quietly but with confidence. Dirk, her husband, smiled warmly, squeezed her arm and nodded in agreement.
On March 31, just one week before our memorable meeting around a friend’s dining room table, the Avery family was tested in ways most cannot fathom. On a spring afternoon like any other, Dirk, Naomi and their five children — members of the Hartwood Ward, Fredericksburg Virginia Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — were devastated as an accidental fire destroyed their home.
The fire chief told the family he'd never seen anything like it in his 20-year career. In just 10 minutes, their beautiful house on a large country lot was dropped to its foundation, and the Avery family was brought to its knees.
Losing your photos, journals and everything but the clothes on your back in the front yard would be tragedy enough. Such a trial would force most to ask why God would allow such a thing to happen.
But losing antiques and appliances wasn’t a concern.
Though four of their children were safe on this side of the veil, one would perish and be welcomed by angels on the other. Eleanor Avery, an infant just six months removed from heaven, was back home again.
Through his own tears, Dirk began our conversation with a simple declaration. “She’s on a mission,” he said, his hands locked with his wife’s. “I just know she’s a leader on the other side and she’s bringing people the truth.”
He added that if sharing their experience would bring others to the gospel, if allowing strangers into their story would lead people to better know God’s plan, it was something they had to do.
“If she’s serving a mission there,” he said, “I want to serve with her here.”
The truth is, Dirk might have been serving with Eleanor long before she even arrived. For months, he had promised there was one more meant for their family, with four children already in the nest.
“Every single day Dirk asked me if we could have one more baby," Naomi said.
“She’s right,” Dirk answered. “I knew there needed to be one more. I wanted one more child to have Naomi for a mother.”
Not only did Dirk believe another soul would join their family, he also insisted from the beginning that baby would be a girl. “Before the first ultrasound, and even when they were inconclusive,” Naomi said. “No matter what, Dirk said she would be a she.”
Both parents described how different Eleanor was as a baby from their first four. “We noticed she was happy and vivacious,” her mother said. “Everywhere we went, she was so content, so smiley, so engaged.”
“She made people feel special,” Dirk added. “She was a light.”
As our interview evolved, the Averys spoke of the blessings of prayer and how constant communication with their Father in heaven has been the key to knowing the next step would be possible. Minute by minute, they’ve asked for help — help they knew would come. “My faith in me might be shaken,” Naomi said, “but my faith in him is not.”
Both mother and father addressed the strength of their marriage and how years of investing in their love has played a key role in their ability to survive these dark, painful early days of the tragedy. I noted more than once how unified they are in their grief, and when one struggles, the other is quick to say, “However you are is OK with me.”
When one laughs at a memory or the silliness of one of their other children, the spouse laughs, too. And when one needs to stop and let the grief wash over them like a spring storm, the other offers an embrace and a loving ear.
Many others have offered their support as well. Neighbors, family and LDS ward members have wrapped them in love and offered shelter of every type. Tears quickly returned when the Averys spoke of this outpouring of pure Christian service.
As our emotional discussion came to a close, I asked what message they would want the world to take away from their painful week of grief and disbelief. Naomi, without needing a moment to gather and order her thoughts, looked me in the eyes and testified: “The Resurrection is real; it will really happen. It’s not just a quaint fantasy that we use to comfort ourselves. It is real doctrine, and I know it as well as I know anything.”
As the spirit settled in and around us, Naomi boldly continued. “I know the Atonement covers all pain. It’s not just for our sins, but for every pain, anxiety, weakness. Everything and anything.”
Dirk, holding tight to his wife’s arm and hanging, like me, on every word, took a turn. “It’s a blessing, isn’t it, to have loved someone so much that we feel this pain?”
As I packed my things for my long drive home, I thanked them each for sharing such sacred impressions with me and allowing me to share their story. Their love of their friends, their family and their faith is something no words on a digital or printed page could ever capture.
For many miles after leaving their temporary home, and even in the days since, I have heard those three words ring over and over like a heavenly reminder. They are eternal, and they are true.
“God loves us.”
The Avery Family Fire Relief Fund has been set up to help the family, and contributions can be made via Paypal.com or sent to Avery Family Fire Relief c/o Wells Fargo, Celebrate Virginia Branch, 35 Bank Fords Parkway, Fredericksburg, VA 22406. A Facebook page is at www.facebook.com/AveryFamilyFireRelief.
Jason Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars" and "The Wednesday Letters." Learn more at jasonfwright.com, or connect on Facebook at facebook.com/jfwbooks or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company