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Etched...Upon My Heart What We Learn and Why We Never Forget
By Jill Kelly
FaithWords Copyright © 2013 Jill Kelly
All right reserved.
This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
1 John 4:10–12
Who could have known it wouldn’t last? My young life made sense and my belief in love was relatively intact when Jane’s voice echoed through the hall that fateful day. “Jill, do you want to walk home together?”
You bet I did!
As I scrambled to gather my books, a bundle of papers erupted like a shower of confetti from the heaping pile in my arms. Grinning, Jane rushed over to help me pick them up as hordes of students mindlessly trampled through my school work.
Once we had control of the crisis, I grabbed my coat and turned to go. “Ugh, I can’t believe how much homework I have tonight.” I grunted as I shut my locker and then started toward the door. Jane was a year older than I was, so she understood the workload and pressure I shouldered. Pretty and popular, I looked up to her, and with the junior high school pecking order being what it is, I felt just a little bit cool by association. We talked about teenage nonsense for the first mile or so as we meandered homeward, and then our conversation changed abruptly. Why? To this day I don’t know.
“You know your mom was pregnant with you and that’s why she married your dad,” Jane blurted out unexpectedly.
Caught completely off guard, her words pierced my soul like a serrated dagger—and it hurt.
“What?” With a jolt I stopped and immediately let her have it, my words driven by frustration and pain. Popular or not, I wanted to punch her lights out!
Fear, doubt, and shame flooded my mind, overwhelming me…
What in the world is she talking about? My mom? No way!
“C’mon,” she fired, eyes blazing, “as if you didn’t know. Jill, please. Your parents had to get married because of you.”
Blood rushed from my head to my toes—I thought I’d faint and fall down right there on the cracked sidewalk. The rest of the walk to my front door seemed like an eternity, and I sure felt a little older when I got home. I don’t remember anything else Jane said that day, but I’ll never forget those words.
It was a beautiful September afternoon the day I began to question love.
It’s hard to say when we first understand what love is. Hopefully we experience it through our parents as children right from birth, but that’s not exactly the love I mean. I’m talking about the love relationship we’re hard-wired with a longing for. An ache to hear someone say “I love you” and mean it. An ache to say those words to someone who will treasure them and the risk we take when we share them. We hear the words, but do we know what they mean? What is love, really? What does it look like? Feel like? Why is it so central to the human experience that it has dominated art, music, literature, movies, and more for centuries?
As a child I was certain that my parents loved me. Not because they told me so—even though they did tell me. Not because they expressed love in a tangible manner—although they did, and I remember the hugs and tears wiped away. I suppose I knew they loved me because that’s what parents do—right? They love their children.
Love at an early age manifests itself in the form of security. Security in the way our parents are physically there, how they clothe us, provide shelter, and protect us. I came home to family meals, my parents attended all my activities and sporting events, they supported my very existence. I was secure, therefore, I felt loved.
Then Jane… Her words cast a gloomy cloud of doubt upon one of the most important things—if not the most important thing—I had believed to be true up to that point. During our walk home from school on that beautiful September afternoon, as my feet were planted on cracked sidewalk, that defining moment driven by recklessly spoken words from a teenage friend redefined me. And I began to doubt…
…the only love I knew.
I was young, naive, and hadn’t lived enough life to understand love in all its purity and authenticity. I didn’t know that love can’t be separated from reality—where it’s needed most. The Author of all that is had yet to open my heart and mind to understand and receive the truth. I would have to wait until the fullness of time, when Love Divine would reach down and rescue me. But that day, in that moment, my mind raced, pitched, and heaved—tossed on seas of insecurity. If my mother was pregnant and had to get married because of me, was I a mistake? If my parents didn’t plan for me, spend moments dreaming of what life might be like for me, if they didn’t long for their first child to be born…then maybe they didn’t really want me. Maybe they didn’t love me. And if they had to get married, well then, maybe they didn’t really love each other. With questions such as these raging like a storm through my heart, my sense of security and love was far from securely battened down.
None of what I was thinking at that time was true. It was all lies churning around in my mind, pressing deep into my heart. From that day forward, like a splinter jammed beneath my skin, those lies infected my hope in my parents’ love and love in general. It grew worse with each passing day, as I carried those venomous lies around with me while their poison spread through my soul. They weighed me down, filling every emotional step I took toward relationships with fear and doubt. I didn’t talk to my mother about this. When I was a teenager, we didn’t talk about or even approach taboo subjects like sex with our parents. I knew I was going to have to live with this one, so I probed, pondered, and questioned love for a long time. I wondered about my parents, doubting their love for each other and for me, though they never gave me a reason to do so. Unfortunately, Jane’s words were somehow stronger than the attitudes, actions, and words of parents who really did love me. My warped understanding captivated me and sent my heart careening on a wild goose chase for love—or what my fallen heart and mind thought love was.
“Jill, my dad’s not home tonight, so we’ll have the house to ourselves,” he said, smiling.
“Oh good.” I laughed, hopping into the front seat of his car.
Gripping the steering wheel with one hand, he reached for me with the other. “I have something special planned for us,” he whispered softly. Captivated by his charm, I slid across the seat to be near him. He smelled great and he was all mine—dating him had been the highlight of my young-adult experience.
“So what’s the special surprise you have planned?” I asked eagerly. “You are what’s special,” he said with a smile, “but you’ll have to wait for the surprise…” His words trailed off and filled my heart like moonlight filled the sky, and I was swept away, imagining all that might happen.
The night unfolded somewhat romantically—we watched a movie, laughed, drank, and cuddled. I wasn’t old enough to consume alcohol. That’s just what we all did and how could it be wrong if everyone was doing it? The movie ended and we kissed. Something was different about his kiss, however—it was rough, and I could feel his heart pounding against my chest.
I pushed him away so I could breathe.
“I’ll be right back. I have to go to the bathroom,” I said, getting up from the living room couch.
My radar lit up white-hot but I didn’t quite understand its warning; all I had was a vague but distinct sense of danger. “What am I doing?” I whispered to myself in the bathroom down the hall. “I don’t want to go back to that kiss. What am I going to do?” The smell of his cologne was all over me, making my head throb.
Startled by a knock on the door, my safe zone crumbled. “Hey, are you okay in there?”
Because he was older it was a big deal to be with him, and the pressure was relentless. As I realized where this night was going, the questions began to corner me. I can’t say no this time, can I? I mean, he loves me and I love him—right? I think he does… Besides, I don’t want to lose him. All the girls envy me, they want what I have—the cute older guy. I have him…what would it cost to keep him? Is he worth it?
After wrestling with what might actually happen in the next few minutes, I hesitantly opened the door to his eager embrace. The fear was smothering as he pressed his now-bare chest against me. I was terrified of what I might allow myself to do. Would I say yes? How far would I let him go to show his love for me? How far would my love for him take me?
“Come here,” he murmured, wrapping his arms gently around my back. He walked backward, drawing me down the hall into the bedroom, holding me as close as he could.
I laughed nervously. “What in the world are you doing?” I asked as we almost tripped and fell on the floor. A small pile of dirty clothes decorated the corner of the room, and his trophies were covered with dust. I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d take my place among them and soon be covered with dust as well? The clock on the nightstand glowed with the wrong time; he must have forgotten to turn it back when Daylight Saving Time ended. The navy-blue comforter on his bed was pushed against the wall, and the checkered sheets looked like they needed to be washed. He was messy.
His scent filled the room as fear filled my heart.
I swallowed hard, feeling like jagged stones were wedged in my throat, and let this boy touch me. I let him move me. I didn’t stop him. I tried to believe this was where true love would be found. He was so close to me that I struggled to breathe, instinctively pulling away and trying to resist. But words fell from his mouth like rain washing over me, and I got caught up, drenched in the moment.
“I love you, Jill. I really do.”
Did he really? As he tightened the gap between us, my mind exploded with fear and doubt. Is this what it’s supposed to be like? I wondered. Does he really love me? Is this love for him? Love for me?
It happened in the deep darkness of the room. The clock was still wrong. The sheets were even dirtier now. And so was I.
Dirty, that’s what love felt like.
My tears hid in the blackness of the moment as I wandered, lost, through the valley of this shadow. I couldn’t see his face but heard the breathing. I felt his heart beating. This moment and its emptiness had already begun to haunt me.
I gave my love away and it was nothing like I thought it would be. Instead of embracing what I dreamed would be among the most meaningful moments of my life, I wanted to run away from his room, from his smell, from his love.
I wanted to run away from myself and the shame that now defined me.
You never forget the moment you give love away; the moment you give of yourself physically, emotionally. It’s the moment you’ve hoped for, the moment you expect to be life changing—the unforgettable fairy-tale dream you’re misled to believe has come true. You’ve hoped for it, longed for it, and convinced yourself that this is what real love will look and feel like. But you never ache for love more than when you’re lying in the arms of the one you’ve just given it to, because as high as your hopes were, that’s as deep as the disillusionment pierces. It was anything but what I expected. Like a thief coming to steal and destroy, what I thought was a priceless treasure turned out to be a piece of dirt painted gold—and I bought it all, paying full price. Something immeasurably valuable was stolen from me in a moment, something I could never replace—that’s what giving love away felt like for me. I’m making no excuse whatsoever, because I knew exactly what I was doing. And although I felt like I had no way out, the truth is, there was a way out—I just didn’t take it. I could’ve walked out of that house unscathed. Untouched. I could have…
But I didn’t. I let him in. I let the enemy school me in love.
And I discovered that sex isn’t love at all. How could it be if it made me feel so disgusting and dirty? I didn’t know it in that fragile moment I lay there bleeding before my emotional wounds could even begin to scar. I didn’t have the heart or mind to understand the reality of this holy celebration because I didn’t know the One who is Holy. The culture around me was swallowed up in immorality and perversion; immersed in the distorted, casual attitude about love, marriage, and sex. The abyss my heart had fallen into was filled with a twisted, self-gratifying expression of what the world called love. Which was the furthest thing from reality. All I knew in the resounding emptiness of that moment was that Love in its purest form had absolutely nothing to do with sexual intercourse. I didn’t get it. How could I have possibly understood the beauty, wonder, and deep waters of this God-given covenant and marital expression when I wasn’t even married? So I kept searching and hoping, never knowing that all the while Love was running hard after me.
It was the end of a very long day—our wedding day. The traditional Catholic service had been flawless and beautiful and the over-the-top reception provided fun for all. But now, in the haze of the early morning hours of the day after, I found myself confused and scared. Jim was passed out on the bed already, though his friends continued to party on the first floor of our suite. I could hear them celebrating. My hair, makeup, and dress were no longer picture perfect and my picture of the perfect marriage was already eroding in my heart and mind.
My best friend and maid of honor, Karyn, interrupted my troubled contemplations with a loud whisper. “What are you doing? Are you kidding me? He’s already asleep? Come downstairs and hang out with us,” she urged—Karyn was always ready to party.
“No, I’m good. Besides, I’m exhausted.” I hugged Karyn, telling her I’d see her in the morning. As she walked away I heard someone come into the room from the entrance around the corner. Walking over to find out who it was, my mother came into the room.
“Hi, Mom,” I whispered in relief, hugging her.
“I thought you might need some help getting out of that dress. How many buttons are there?” she whispered back with a smile. “What an amazing day. I can’t believe Jim isn’t downstairs with everybody,” she said, her voice tinged with amusement.
“Yeah, I know. Shocking. From the sound of it, they’re still having a blast,” I responded wearily, completely drained.
“Sit and I’ll help you out of that dress. You still look beautiful, Jill,” Mother said, motioning for me to sit on the bed. Jim was sleeping soundly, so we spoke about the wedding in whispers, revisiting how magical and magnificent everything was. When my mother finished helping with my dress, she kissed me good night and left, quietly shutting the door behind her.
As I lay in bed next to Jim, I pondered the excitement of our wedding day.
It was all so perfect…or was it?
Even on this momentous day, doubt tried to cast its ugly shadow across my heart. “What in the world am I doing here? Who do I think I am marrying an NFL quarterback?” Tears filled my eyes and cascaded down my cheeks as I continued to wonder—is this what it’s going to be like? It’s our wedding night and here I am lying next to my husband but I feel a thousand miles away. I feel alone. Bombarded with questions, fear, and doubt, I turned to look at Jim as he slept. And as I lay there, I tried every way I knew how to think positively about the circumstances that were now my life. But nothing helped. And so, on my first night as Mrs. Jim Kelly, I quietly cried myself to sleep.
My doubt was well founded. You see, one of the guests at our wedding ceremony was our firstborn, Erin Marie. Like my mother, I had gotten pregnant before I was married. Initially I was terrified and dreaded telling Jim, but he was as sweet and honorable as he could be. He never veered off course and was true right to the altar where I had found myself standing earlier that day—dreams in one hand, bouquet in the other. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder, Does he really love me, or does he love our daughter? What if he married me because of Erin Marie? And what about me… It didn’t last long, but on the happiest day of my life, a ribbon of doubt coiled around my heart like a snake, gradually tightening.
Would love still be ugly?
We may have been adults, but we were absolutely clueless. As much as I hate to admit it, Jim and I had no idea what we were doing the day we got married. Yes, we understood that we were making a commitment to each other, but it was the furthest thing from the covenant of love that marriage is ordained by God to be. We didn’t know that then. How could we, when the true, unadulterated, pure love of God wasn’t filling our hearts? And maybe for this very reason so many marriages fail and end in divorce. People enter into a covenant they don’t fully understand because they don’t know its Creator. Although we were sincere in our commitment, marriage was more about finding the right person rather than being the right person. Our self-serving pursuits drove the relationship, which is probably why everything about our marriage became more of a drain than a wellspring of life and love.
I went into marriage full of starry-eyed, idealistic expectations, and consequently found myself disillusioned and discouraged. Sadly, the expectations I had of Jim were outrageous and unrealistic. Based not so much on what I could pour into our union but what I might take from it, I heaped the crushing burden of my deep heart longings on his shoulders, thinking he was meant to fulfill them. My empty places ached to be filled, as did Jim’s, but we were never meant to carry those burdens to begin with. Disappointment and frustration, unmet expectations, and drowning desires became the norm for us, dominating our routines and pushing us further and further away from each other. Unfulfilled longings continued to slowly harden my already bitter heart, and the murky shadow shrouding our relationship darkened. We lacked everything we needed in our marriage for it to even survive, much less thrive. We didn’t have it in us to make it work because the God who will “work all things together for good” wasn’t in the picture yet. And so we struggled for a long time, being held together by what we would later understand to be sheer grace from His heart full of love.
And it’s that very love that true marriage was designed to reflect by its Creator; the love between Christ and His Bride, the Church—those who truly believe in Him. When we enter into this marriage, a covenant treasured and beautiful, as takers, soiled with the grime of our self-centeredness, we eventually find that our love is grossly inadequate to sustain our union. I’m speaking from experience. It was only when Jim and I surrendered our marriage to its Creator, allowing His selfless love to fill us, that we stopped seeking fulfillment from each other—something no human can give another. We’d found it in Christ and consequently had the meaning, value, calling, and love we had desperately ached for, for so long. We didn’t have to suck each other’s soul dry, trying to take from each other what neither of us had to give.
Maybe you’ve experienced what I’ve shared here. Maybe the expectations you had for your marriage and husband have never been met. Maybe you’ve given up altogether. I want you to know that although you might not see it right now, there is hope for you and your marriage. There’s hope that this commitment you’ve made can be so much more; more than you’ve ever in your wildest dreams imagined. When God gets involved, nothing stays the same—including your heart. And isn’t that the very thing that needs Him most?
“Come on, Hunter, tell Mommy,” Reggie said as she held my son’s right hand.
He looked like such a big boy in his stander. How could this helpless babe be so full of life and joy? Without a word he speaks amazing gifts that I unwrap daily. Unspoken treasures that enrich my life beyond measure. Love that is completely unadulterated, unconditional, and pure.
Grabbing my son’s left hand, I bent down so we were eye to eye. His beautiful green eyes looked right through me. In an instant I was overcome with my frailty and his faith, my weakness and his strength. Somehow, this little boy, this only son of mine, flesh of my flesh…somehow he understands—this thing called life and love. He spills out joy, hope, and peace so naturally, so effortlessly.
“So what’s going on here, Hunterboy? I hear you have something you want to tell me. A secret. What is it, Hunter?” I asked eagerly.
“Go ahead, Hunter, tell Mommy. Tell her what we’ve been talking about,” Reggie encouraged.
My eyes fastened on his and in a moment it happened. Hunter blinked one, two, three times in a row. Three blinks for “I love you.” Time stood still as my son wrapped his silent love around me. I exploded in celebration even as my heart crumbled.
“I love you too, Hunter. I love you too,” I squealed, jumping up and down in crazy celebration.
As I continued celebrating, Reggie’s soft voice spoke words so true. “See, Hunter, you know exactly what’s going on. You really can talk.”
But he can’t—yet he can. He doesn’t even have to say, “I love you,” because we already know. It pours out of him in full, overflowing buckets. It’s spoken without words. It’s felt without a touch. It’s understood without explanation.
“Hunter, you’re amazing! I’m so proud of you. Thank you for trying so hard. Thank you for telling me that you love me. I love you so much.”
I started to unhook the vest that held his little diseased body in the stander. Once again our eyes lock and he speaks. “Blink, blink, blink…”
I thought for sure I had experienced the pinnacle of real love after the birth of our firstborn, Erin Marie. Completely overcome, I felt so full. She captivated my life in such a profound way that I honestly thought I could never love another person as much as I loved Erin.
But then her brother, Hunter, was born. On February 14, 1997—Valentine’s Day and Daddy’s birthday—the pride and joy of the Kelly family joined the team. The protégé son destined for greatness. The boy who would be his father’s lifelong companion. With his very first breath, Hunter captured our hearts in every way. I could barely contain the joy.
Then, in a moment, a diagnosis was given…
And everything changed.
When Hunter was diagnosed with a fatal genetic disease at four months old, everything changed. Life as we knew it fell apart. When we were told he wouldn’t celebrate his second birthday—that he would probably die by the age of fourteen months—the false foundation upon which we had planted our lives crumbled. Everything we understood about life, including love, fell into question.
What does love do when hearts are breaking into a million pieces?
How does love respond to immeasurable pain and anguish of heart and soul?
Like a lioness, my love for Hunter was fierce. The threat of disease would be no match for me. In the depths of diagnosis-driven despair, the fear of death made me all the more determined to display a greater love. A sacrificial love that I had never experienced nor extended before. A love that gushed out in overflowing abundance until there was nothing left to give. It would be our love for our son that would hopefully save him. We determined to go to the ends of the earth to do whatever it took to help Hunter. Nothing would we withhold for the sake of the boy.
Even at this point in time, as much as I loved, I still didn’t know what real love was because I didn’t know the who yet. The fog of desperation and gloom due to my son’s suffering became the veil that God would eventually lift to show me…to reveal to me what love is…
And what it’s not.
Through Hunter’s unconditional love and life of suffering, God would begin to allow me to see that love was so much more than what I had understood it to be. I began to reach for it, desire it, and yet I didn’t fully comprehend what it was that I was searching for. But with every heartbeat I longed for more. And instinctively, I knew something else—I knew that I would know when I found it. Whatever that something else was, it would quench my barren, thirsty soul…
“Jill, as much as you love your children, and I know you do, you will never know what real love is until you know the love of God through His Son, Jesus.” Uncle Mark spoke with grace and piercing conviction. He had been visiting often since we found out about Hunter’s disease. Joy radiated from my uncle, but in such a raw moment his words hurt. Yet, unexplainably, I longed for more.
Other than the sound of bubbling water from Hunter’s oxygen tank, silence filled the room like emptiness filled our souls. My mother and I were ravenous for hope, help, and healing for Hunter. With open arms and hardened hearts we struggled to grasp these words that shattered the truth as we knew it.
“What do you mean? I know I love my kids. I would do anything for them,” I abruptly responded, dripping with arrogance. Mother shot me a look. She knew I was wounded, confused, and ready to contend with what I had just heard.
We were desperate, but the pain and longing that filled our hearts was stronger than the pride that entangled us—and so we listened and learned. We talked some more and Uncle Mark explained the good news. The Gospel. God’s love. Sin. Separation. Redemption.
“Jill, no one can know what real love is until they know God. God is love. I’m telling you, when His love fills your heart, you’ll never be the same. His love isn’t what we understand love to be. It’s not what we’ve learned from the world. He’s not like us,” Uncle Mark enthusiastically explained.
The living room filled with a bit of tension, yet he continued to smile and share his heart. We listened as if our lives depended on the love-filled truth pouring out of my uncle’s heart. And even though we didn’t see clearly, our eyes were being readied to open and our hearts to receive. What is this passion and love he speaks of? I want to know all about it. I want what he has. I’m not even sure what it is, but just talk of Him makes my heart race.
My mother sat on the couch near Hunter’s head and ran her fingers through his wavy brown hair. It was time for a breathing treatment and some chest therapy for the boy, so Uncle Mark gathered his Bible and coat. As the door shut softly behind him, I realized that he may have left but the truth of what he shared stayed with us.
Not long after this visit with my uncle, I surrendered my life to the Lord. I share this life-defining moment in a later chapter. Initially, I didn’t fully grasp the deep chasm of sin’s separation that God’s love had bridged for me—and for all who place their faith in Him. It was as if I was a little child, learning everything I thought I knew all over again for the first time. Early on in my faith journey, I began to recognize the lies I had believed about love for so long and the inertia they had. The truth about who God is and what love is not began to fill my heart as I read His Word and countered the lies as it poured life and truth into my mind. Though not completely, I began to appreciate and understand that love isn’t about me; it’s about Him.
And I began to learn…
God is love (1 John 4:8)
This simple yet deeply profound three-word sentence found in Scripture encompasses the rock-solid foundation upon which everything else in life rests. Love is not just what, it’s who God is. We need to get this foundational watershed reality as if our lives depended upon it—because they do: Jesus is love. It’s all for Him, all because of Him, and all about knowing and loving Him. Love itself became a man in the flesh. All mystery and glory wrapped Himself in clay. He came here to display to the world; to show you and me what Love is. What it looks like, feels like, and how it lives and loves.
Love does not exist apart from God—it is not a created entity. Love always was, is, and will be.
He’s the fulfillment of our every want, need, desire, expectation, and hope. We were created by Him and for Him—a home for His love, purpose, and plan (see Col. 1:16). All that we are—the reason we live and move and have our being this very moment is to know Love—the person (see Acts 17:28). And through the knowing comes its life and expression filling us. If we miss this, we will remain empty—vacant inside, searching for love in all the wrong places and faces. We will continue aching, seeking for a love that isn’t love at all. We will believe the lies, settle for the substitute, and continue to wander aimlessly through minefields of broken hearts and dreams.
Like the moments I have shared, most of us fell deep into the cesspool of the darkness and deception of the enemy’s (the devil’s) lies early in life’s journey. Born into this world of sin and chaos we yearned for love’s filling—like a heart-cry for home as we wandered about lost in a barren wilderness of sin. Our hearts were on a scavenger hunt, turning over every rock, desperately searching for the satisfaction our souls craved. We filled the empty spaces with all the garbage the world deviously dished out. From the very beginning we’re spoon-fed an understanding of love that is self-seeking rather than sacrificial. Worldly rather than godly. All about getting rather than giving. And so we grow increasingly more relentless in our search for it, looking for a love that is not love at all, because everything we find just accentuates the emptiness. But even still, God is more relentless to reveal truth. To reveal Himself, and share Love in all its fullness, beauty, and reality.
A wandering heart can only find satisfaction—find “home”—in the One who created it in the first place. God created us and knows us better than we know ourselves. In Him we find provision for all that we need. We need Him. And because of love, He lets us seek and find all that love isn’t. He gives us the freedom to wander through the smoke and mirrors posing as love, to seek after all that our heart of flesh craves and all the world has to offer, so that when we get to the end of ourselves and everything we think life and love should be, we find only emptiness. We end up with nothing but the deep longing for what we desperately needed in the first place—Love Himself. Simply put, we’re sinners, and until we become consciously aware of our own wretchedness and need of forgiveness, we will never know real love and its Author.
The God who is love demonstrated the fullness of who He is with convincing evidence through the cross, where humanity and divinity were crucified as one. It was there that God’s One and Only Son, Jesus, was slain for us while we were still swallowed up in sin: the Righteous One for the unrighteous, the Savior for the sinner, the Strong Tower for the weak ones, the Perfect, Unblemished One for the imperfect, soiled soul.
Excerpted from Etched...Upon My Heart by Jill Kelly Copyright © 2013 by Jill Kelly. Excerpted by permission.
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