A Time to Build
Some moments leave us breathless with joyful anticipation, yet others swallow us with an avalanche of emotion. Jessica Borah, along with her four children, Rebekah, 18, Scott, 17, Lizzy, 15 and Benn, 14, have learned through the years to live the message from Ecclesiastes 3, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.”
More than 20 years ago, Jessica came to Liberty University as an elementary education major. During summer breaks, she would return home for Bible camp. That’s where she met her future husband from South Dakota, Chad Borah. Jessica’s father gave his blessing on their marriage but only if she finished her degree. So on August 5, 1995, the couple married and moved down to Lynchburg. Upon graduation they applied for jobs throughout the north Midwest but eventually landed jobs in Lynchburg. Jessica began teaching at New Covenant Schools, and Chad started working for Taylor Brothers Home Improvement.
As the young couple began to settle into Lynchburg living, they resolved that Virginia was becoming their home and knew they would be planted here for a while. So they began to hunt for property. After a year of searching and waiting, they discovered a piece of land in Amherst County that wasn’t graded for construction.
“We looked at other homes already built, but I grew up in a log home and was familiar with my dad building log homes,” Jessica said. “We waited for this property. We drove for over a year looking. Mountains were not something we were familiar with, but the Amherst Realty Company helped us get that spot to be able to see the mountains.”
Since the land had not been cleared, Chad climbed a tree to scope out the view ensuring they would have Virginia’s iconic mountains as part of their scenery.
“I was just worried about him falling,” Jessica said.
The property was very well priced at less than $1,000 per acre, so they planted their roots on that country hill.
Jessica grew up in Northern Michigan in a log home built by her Dad, so when it came time to build a house, her father was instrumental in the process. As a gift to their four children, her parents, Jack and Dolores Geers, offered Jack’s labor and time to build homes for each of Jessica’s siblings. Through an auction bid, her father won the rights to harvest as much cedar timber for three years as he wanted on a plot of land in Michigan, which enabled the Borahs to build their first house. In fact, it saved them so much money that hauling the logs to Virginia cost more than the actual logs themselves.
In Michigan, while much of the cedar timber resides in swamp, in the winter it freezes, making it easier to harvest logs. The couple traveled north that winter and helped Jessica’s siblings harvest logs for each of their homes. The Borahs had estimated they would need roughly 400 logs to build their now-five-bedroom, four-bathroom cabin, so with chainsaws, four wheelers and snow mobiles, they trudged through the swamp cutting down cedar. Then, they peeled off the bark and let the wood dry. It was a family project.
“Everyone helped each other,” Jessica said.
After several trips north to secure their wood, the Borahs came back to their life in Virginia. By the summer of 2000, a truck from Michigan hauled the wood to their new home. That fall they had their basement dug. Since a wood basement is not typical in Virginia, they had to convince building code inspectors that it was acceptable. Once the basement was approved, the pea stone gravel, plywood and sub-floors were installed. During Thanksgiving weekend that year, family, friends and church members pitched in and helped them put up walls. In log homes, it is ideal to thread for the electrical wiring while the exterior walls are being installed, so Jessica found herself making decisions on a whim to determine where outlets and switches should be placed. Since they were doing all the work themselves, they did not have a professional blueprint to work from—they simply relied on her father and brother’s knowledge and the graph paper they had sketched.
“We did everything ourselves,” Jessica said. “We learned how to wire with books from the Amherst County Library. I called him Edison—I was very proud of him for that.”
There are little oddities in the house that are now fun memories to Jessica. Since the couple literally touched every wall and stair, Jessica said any mistakes are also a part of the home’s story. There is one light switch in the house that is still a mystery.
“That one light may be turning on a light in China. I don’t know,” Jessica said in jest.
A Time to Embrace
In May 2001, the Borahs took a break from building because their third child Lizzy was born. Just two weeks after her birth, they packed up their rental house in Madison Heights and moved into their new log cabin. Every holiday Chad had off, he would invest his time into finishing the house. Memorial Day that year he laid hardwood floors. During the Fourth of July, he stained and finished those floors, and over Labor Day he worked on the deck outside. It was then that he came down with a bad case of what they thought was the flu. He backed off of working on the house for a while, but even so, his health got worse. By Thanksgiving he started to work on the home’s aesthetics, but he continued to feel bad and couldn’t even eat Thanksgiving dinner.
On December 16, 2001, he called Jessica from work and said he was going to the Emergency Room. He told her to stay home, and he would call her. (This was before cell phones were prominent, so it caused Jessica to worry while waiting.) By the next morning, they learned Chad had stomach cancer that had progressed significantly.
During that holiday season, the festivities were not their priority. After a brief hospital stay that ended December 23, they knew they were coming home with three young children to a house that wasn’t decorated for Christmas. But when they arrived, the family found a shower of blessings, thanks to Hyland Heights Baptist Church in Rustburg where they attended church and Taylor Brothers where Chad worked.
“Our home had the largest Christmas tree it’s ever had,” Jessica said. “Our home was taken care of.”
The tree that year stood nearly 22 feet tall in the loft area and was draped in decorations that Jessica still uses each Christmas. Friends took care of all the Borah’s physical needs that year and encouraged them both emotionally and spiritually. During that memorable Christmas, Chad’s family, including his two brothers and parents from South Dakota, also came into town as a surprise.
After the holidays, they threw all of their energies into Chad’s healing, focusing on possible surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments. But by February 2002, outside of a miracle, they knew the prognosis was not good. By that point Chad could no longer work, and all of the details left in the house came to a screeching halt.
“He lived in the comfort of the house not worrying about unfinished projects but being thankful that he had a home for his family… while he was busy fighting to live longer with us,” Jessica said.
Since Jessica had been so focused on her husband’s health, she had not taken time to care for herself. She thought her body was reacting to stress and didn’t realize until she was five months along that she was pregnant with their fourth baby. It was during one of Chad’s oncologist appointments that she confided to the nurses her thoughts. They gave her an ultrasound in the adjoining office that day.
“I went into the x-ray rooms with Chad not knowing,” Jessica said.
“The Lord protected Benjamin. I knew the Lord was watching over him.”
The nurses recognized the sex of the baby but didn’t divulge the gender to Chad and Jessica upon their wishes. So Chad decided they should write both a boy’s name and a girl’s name on a piece of paper, let the nurse circle the correct gender and then fold the paper in case they ever wanted to know—but they never did.
“I carried that slip of paper from May until September as a symbol of hope, not needing to peek to find out in case Chad wasn’t around—he was going to get better,” Jessica said. They kept that little slip of paper to themselves until Chad passed away on September 16, 2002.
At his funeral, Jessica put that undisturbed piece of paper into his hand in the casket believing he knew what God had given them even before their baby boy was born. Their son Benjamin Jack was born October 4, 2002.
“It was so tender to bear a baby and Chad not be there, [but]what a joy when Benn was born,” Jessica said. “I knew that Chad knew and was with me.”
During that season, Jessica said she found comfort in scripture and felt very safe and protected on that country hill.
“I found solitude up on this ridge,” Jessica said. “It was very healing. I found the peace and serenity and protection of the Lord. Chad is a part of this home and his children’s home. It is a physical reminder their dad cared for them. He built this for them, and they can look and see what their Daddy in heaven has done for them.”
A Time to Heal
With the help of survivor benefits after Chad passed away, Jessica and the children lived for a season on the generosity of others.
“It met our needs and some of our wants,” Jessica said. “The amount of generosity from Taylor Brothers and Hyland Heights, those two bodies, sustained us. The first five Christmases I didn’t even need to buy my children a present. People gave monthly [to our family]for years because they wanted to — there are people that do that. We were never in want. It inspired me that I need to behave that same way.”
After time and distance began to heal, Jessica was able to get her wits about her and began making small but thrifty additions to the home. During that time, she also started to homeschool the children, which welcomed her into a new circle of friends. Due to the long distance drive, as well as the physical reminder that Chad’s presence was missing each Sunday, she made a change. With their blessing, she left her home at Hyland Heights Baptist Church in 2004 and started attending Providence Church in Lynchburg.
“I stepped from one family into another,” Jessica said.
In 2008, Jessica returned to New Covenant Schools as a part-time teacher, which also allowed the children to attend school there. She said the distance from their home became a blessing because the drive time provided them each a chance to exhale and clear their minds after school.
A Time to Plant
During the fall of 2009, Jessica attended the wedding of a friend from New Covenant Schools. At that wedding she sat on the bride’s side while a gentleman named Robert sat on the groom’s side. They began talking and formed a bond. In June 2010, they were married.
“I knew that if and when I ever married, it would have to be a very special man,” Jessica said.
She acknowledged that she didn’t want Robert to feel like Chad was always present and the family was comparing. But with his personality, he got to know her and the kids and completely stepped into his new role.
When Robert, along with his three sons, now ages 15, 19 and 22 joined the family, they added a new and fresh dynamic. With four young children, Jessica never had the time to focus on landscaping, but Robert took the liberty to add a huge vegetable garden, providing the family with an abundance of bounty, including blueberries, strawberries and blackberries, along with 20 different prospering fruit trees. He also introduced them to chickens that provide eggs. When it’s time to get fruit, all the kids climb trees to help out; the boys take care of the chickens. Throughout the fall, the boys are expected to get up and cut wood to help heat the home during the winter months. In turn, the girls help gather from the garden and have learned from their mom how to prepare and can vegetables.
“Robert had a vision,” Jessica shared. “He plants it, he waters it, he’s the voice and we try to keep up with it. It has helped everyone try new things that I may not buy in the grocery store. It is very satisfying.”
Robert also helped upgrade the log cabin’s heat source and finished the basement, adding one bedroom and one bathroom to accommodate his older boys when they are home.
“He picked up what Chad started and has carried on,” Jessica said. “Chad is their Daddy in heaven, but Robert is their flesh and blood Dad now.”
Photography by Tera Janelle Auch