Etched...Upon My Heart

What We Learn and Why We Never Forget


By Jill Kelly

Read by Jill Kelly

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Our lives are made up of moments. Some we hope to remember forever and some we long to forget. But it’s the tapestry of these moments that come together to write the story God is telling through each of our lives. In ETCHED . . . UPON MY HEART, Jill Kelly shares some of the unforgettable moments in her life-some sorrowful, others filled with joy-as a “living epistle” to her daughters. Kelly’s raw and honest reflections provide encouragement and inspiration for women and mothers who long to pass on hard-won knowledge of God’s steadfast love and healing grace to their children. As she writes, “God will break our hearts, but He will hold the pieces. He will cradle us and redeem every tear we cry.” Although great personal pain informs these pages, Kelly’s story is ultimately one of forgiveness, reconciliation, and hope. Through the moments in time that Jill Kelly recounts, you will recognize the daily reality and eternal value of God’s plan for your own life.



If something were to happen to you—if today was it—what would you want your children to remember and never forget?

Loaded question. Yes, I know.

However, I figured I should probably give you a heads-up before you read on because that very question is what this book is all about.

Let me fill in some of the background.

At the time this question brashly intruded into my life, we were less than two months away from our oldest daughter, Erin, turning sixteen years old. It was a big deal to her—and to our entire family. Not so much because of all the planning involved or the fact that she would soon be driving, along with all the other fun and scary when-you-turn-sixteen stuff. But more so because of the many amazing things the Lord had done in all of our lives to change our hearts and reveal Himself to us.

We’ve been through a lot together.

Erin walked through the deep valley of heartbreak over the loss of her terminally ill younger brother, Hunter. The pain of watching him suffer for over eight years had taken its toll on Erin’s heart, and yet the joy of God’s presence in her life was (and still is) evident. She radiates Jesus; but even so, Erin’s life is a work in progress. As her mother, there’s so much I long for Erin and her younger sister, Camryn, to know. I want them to grasp and be captivated by the deep eternal truths that will change the trajectory of their lives.

I’m mindful that most of what I desire for them to know is being caught rather than taught. In other words, my kids are watching and learning all the time. And I pray that my life thus far, whether I like it or not, has been a living example or epistle, leaving an imprint etched upon their hearts every day. It’s in this hope and spirit that I have tried to chronicle the spiritual heritage and highlights that have given me the perspective, passion, and vision I long to give to my girls. This book is everything I hope my daughters eventually learn, always remember, and never forget. It’s everything I would share with you, woman to woman and mother to mother.

Between two covers and etched in black ink is a treasure wrapped up in moments. Moments in time that add up to a life changed by an unchanging God. Moments lived raw and wide open. But the treasure is not necessarily found in the moments or in what we learn and never forget as a result of them. Rather, the greater gift is found in the Creator of those moments and the truths we learn about Him and His character in the midst of the moments we never forget.

Etched…Upon My Heart is an extension of my soul; the heartbeat of what I have learned thus far in my journey as a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and child of God. It’s an expression through defining moments, of what God has taught me about love, suffering, forgiveness, prayer, giving, death (all the themes and titles of chapters), and so much more. Believe me, I don’t have this life thing all figured out. Who does? I still have so much to learn and hopefully a lot more living to do.

However, I think you’ll discover that the gems found here contain untold riches. The profound and almost ordinary moments offer a priceless, much-needed, down-to-earth perspective on heavenly principles that are life altering if trusted and lived out each day. Not by any stretch is this book meant to be a scholarly thesis or exercise in what to do and what not to do. It’s intensely personal—filled with the deep desires and impassioned longings I have for the two young girls I love more than words can say. As a mom, I’m sure you’ll agree I need it straightforward and to the point. So what you’ll find here is simple and honest, yet deeply challenging as well. Digging down deep into the moments that have shaped who you are, who God is, and who He longs for you to be is not easy. But that’s where freedom, life, and everlasting peace and joy are found.

Ultimately, I hope when this life of mine is all said and done, the treasures found in the moments shared here and the heartbeat of the One behind it all will echo and remain.

Before we move on, I’m going to ask you to do something. I would like you to come away with me and bring your memories with you. And please don’t tell me you have a terrible memory. That excuse is only acceptable from former football players like my husband, who suffered more concussions than he can count—or remember!

This is not some superficial memory exercise to help you blast through your past. This is about you, the God who created you, and the moments you’ve held on to. It’s about the precious children He has entrusted into your care for such a time as this, the everyday moments—like right now. Every day you’re leaving and living a legacy as your children watch you in the midst of the moments. The moments that have already come and gone—the ones that have helped to define who you are right now are also part of what has shaped you for the many God-moments still waiting to happen.

Think of this as if you and I were sitting across from each other right now; girl talk, friend to friend, and mother to mother. I’ve reserved the best spot in my living room for us, the brown couch in front of the fireplace.

Are you with me?

Sometimes we need an arm around our shoulders to help us see the picture the way it is instead of the way we want it to be. Because we can’t move toward the way we want it to be until we see it the way it is—it starts with real moments, in real time, with real people. I’m going to share some very personal moments with you, but this is not meant to be a one-sided conversation. There are precious treasures waiting to be unearthed in the moments already etched upon your life. And I hope that in sharing some of mine, you’ll be willing and brave enough to open up and share yours.

Saying that, I’d like to share a moment—the one that led to this book. A treasured moment in time that left me amazed by how down to earth the King of heaven really is. I took an unexpected step closer to Him that day, and maybe that’s one of the best ways to view the other moments I share here in the midst of these pages—as steps that lead closer, deeper into His heart.


* * *

We were scurrying around trying to get everything done. Jim and his crew of buddies were dealing with the stuff guys usually take care of, while I focused on the details and decorating. It seemed like we had been preparing for this day for weeks. Erin’s Sweet Sixteenth birthday party. It was two o’clock in the afternoon, and with only four hours left, there was still so much that had to be done before her guests would arrive. Centerpiece table decorations, final testing of the twinkle lights scattered all over our backyard, backup toilet paper in bathrooms (funny but true), and the tying of fuchsia-pink sashes. That’s when it happened; during the tying of beautiful satin sashes. “Enjoy this moment. Right now! As you tie bows, I’m here with you. Your daughter is sixteen.”

It was as if God sat down at the table right next to me. While I was feverishly tying splashes of pink all around the tent, He was there reminding me to enjoy and appreciate the moment. So right there under the white tent filled with pink sashes and sparkle, I paused. While the hustle and bustle continued all around me, I stopped and thanked God…I thanked Him for Erin, for the gift of life and breath—her life, and the blessing of every moment that God has given to our family.

And in that moment God gently reminded me that every good and perfect gift comes from Him (see James 1:17). Including pink satin sashes, the celebration of turning sixteen, sunshine when the forecast said rain, and moments that turn into memories we never forget.

* * *

Because the gift is in the moment.

And moments aren’t mathematical. They aren’t measured like minutes, which stretch some sixty seconds—period. No, these gifts, these moments aren’t measured by length, but rather by depth. And as my son, Hunter, taught me, how long we live is not nearly as important as how deep we live.

So I believe that in reflecting upon the moments already etched, we might become better prepared to walk into the moments yet to come. The God who loves us more than we can fathom will hopefully help us to number our days…

And our moments…

That we may gain a heart of wisdom and a longing to know and love Him more. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll find that the legacy of moments we’re leaving behind for our children and the generations to come clearly reflect…

A picture of the Father’s heart,

The way it is,

And the way we long for it to be…

All of the moments I share here are personal. They involve real moments with real people. Some of the names in certain moments have been changed in order to respect and honor the privacy of those who were involved. The individuals who chose to allow me to use their real names have granted me permission to do so.

chapter one


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.


  • Praise for WITHOUT A WORD by Jill Kelly:

    "Jim and Jill must be commended for sharing this heartfelt story. Their bravery and courage is unsurpassable. This book has given us a different view of the Kellys. We always knew them as part of the extended football family, but now we see them as a family with real struggles . . . a family who used their faith in God and their love for one another to press on! We will forever look at them in a different light. The Kellys are amazing parents, but off the football field Hunter was the true warrior!"—Brett and Deanna Farve
  • "We know through our own experience of having a son with Autism that challenges also present many blessings. We admire the fact that Jim and Jill have been willing to share both their struggles and successes with the world. This story is a tribute to Hunter James Kelly. Hunter's short life transformed the Kelly family, and through the work of Hunter's Hope, the foundation that bears his name, his life will touch countless other families. Reading this book was like watching a miracle unfold."—Dan and Claire Marino
  • "Jim and Jill Kelly were always headed toward greatness. Who knew that a Hall of Fame career with the Buffalo Bills would be dwarfed by their son, Hunter? This is a story that refuses to detail a sadness that would seem only natural. Instead, it is an uplifting tale of courage, hope, and love. We are proud to call the Kelly family our friends. You will, too!"—Chris and Katherine Berman
  • "The story of the Kelly family is painful, but it is not a story of pain. It's a story of redemption, grace, reconciliation, and the powerful activity of the work-all-things-for-good God. I found myself left without a word as I read it--humbled by the courage of Hunter, the love of his sisters, and the indescribable way that God demonstrated His love to Jim and Jill. Their story has served to enflame my faith, and it will yours as well."—Dr. Jerry Gillis, lead pastor, the Chapel at CrossPoint, Buffalo, NY
  • "I was emotionally drained but inspired when I read Jill's book. God's timing was perfect. This wonderful book helped me to see my own 'trials' in a completely different light."—Denise Jackson, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller, IT'S ALL ABOUT HIM

On Sale
Jan 22, 2013
Hachette Audio

Jill Kelly

About the Author

Jill Marie Kelly is a New York Times bestselling author and the wife of retired Buffalo Bills Quarterback and Pro Football Hall of Famer, Jim Kelly. Jill and Jim have three children, Erin, Hunter (February 14, 1997-August 5, 2005), and Camryn. After Hunter was diagnosed with a fatal, genetic disease called Krabbe Leukodystrophy, Jim and Jill established the Hunter’s Hope Foundation. As Chairman of the Board of Hunter’s Hope, Jill speaks to groups around the world about leukodystrophy, and extends the hope and comfort she has received through her relationship with Christ.

Erin Kelly-Bean is a New York Times bestselling author and is the oldest daughter of Jill Kelly and retired Buffalo Bills Quarterback and Pro Football Hall of Famer, Jim Kelly. She is a 2017 graduate of Liberty University. She was married in early 2018 while writing the prayers and tips contained in this book. Erin has always had a passion for writing, journaling, and sharing her faith in Jesus. As member of the board of Hunter’s Hope, Erin travels with her mother speaking to groups around the world.

Learn more about this author