Yesterday was a beautiful day in the Tennessee Valley. Unseasonably warm temperatures flirted with the 90 degree record set in 1951. It would have been a great day to skip work or cut class, to enjoy lounging beside a swimming pool with a tall glass of sweet tea or to go boating in Harrison Bay or fishing at the Chickamauga Dam.
My day was much more routine than that, and while routine can become your enemy, there’s a certain appealing familiarity and comfort to it that gives you reason to stay in its embrace. Sometimes, in hindsight, you might find yourself longing for the monotony of "routine", realizing, in fact, it was your friend after all.
With a look of … bewilderment … Stephen hung up the phone, and turned to Thomas (12) and said, "Michael’s brother died today…his dad left him in his carseat…and they found him…and he was dead." This kind of proclamation is not processed right away, you’re rather certain you didn’t just hear what you absolutely just did. We asked Stephen to repeat it three or four times before we were sure he knew what he was talking about. At least according to his friend, this was reported on the news.
When you hear something like this, your first inclination is to think it’s a mistake. Like the old game of "Gossip" or "Telephone", my mind told me Stephen’s friend heard a horrible news story, and in childlike confusion, got the facts wrong. The sinking feeling in my heart told me otherwise.
I went straight to the internet and googled local breaking news. No names were given, but I did confirm a 15-month-old had died after being in a car for an extended period of time. Later that night, it was the leading local news story, still no names given, but another confirmation was that it took place in the parking lot of this family’s business. Prior to that, Tad had gotten his hair cut, and both his stylist and another customer (who also has children at our school) confirmed what we had hoped was only a horrible rumor. Bad news travels faster than the speed of light.
Two of this family’s children are friends of my boys and have been in
their classes since we moved here four years ago; Thomas has spent the
night with Michael on several occasions. Their parents are as active
and involved as you can be, chaperoning field trips and lending support
both in the classroom and for school events. They’re visible, both of
This morning, I guess still in partial denial, but realizing this was most likely true as we had originally heard it, I talked to the kids about it. We’re still reading through the Gospels before school every morning, and I so appreciated the timeliness of today’s passage (the first 11 verses of John 8). I explained that the parents would be vilified in the media–variations of "How could ANYONE be that careless as to leave a baby in a hot car…" Believe me, when I’ve heard similar news accounts in the past, that was a sanitized version of my first thought.
But it’s different now. I K.N.O.W. all the people involved. They’re acquaintance-friends. My heart is breaking for this family. I cannot begin to imagine their grief and guilt and confusion and pain and loss. My children now have friends who have had a sibling die. I never experienced that as a child… After reading through today’s scripture, I was thankful God had ordained a beautiful passage to remind us that He loves us no matter what, that mistakes (sins) are forgivable–no matter how horrible–even and maybe especially if consequences can’t be reversed, that everyone falls short of perfection, that it’s easy to criticize while ignoring your own "two-by-fours in your own eyes"…our discussion was meaningful this morning, it was relevant. Thomas is the most affected, and I’m proud of his response…his genuine concern for his friend, for their family.
As we drove to school and listened to the news, my additional concern was confirmed. The father, my and Tad’s age, was arrested last night and charged with criminally negligent homicide and aggravated child abuse and neglect. I’m sure in the past, in the court of public opinion, I would’ve tried and convicted him as soon as I heard what happened.
But that was before.
Now, I see a family who is forever changed, individuals who are forever CHANGED. Children who have lost their little brother. Parents who have lost their toddler son. Children who have, at least temporarily, lost their father. A wife who, in one day, lost both her husband and her baby. And a man who will live with the consequences of the most tragic mistake in his life, for the rest of his life. How does that not define you? How does that not become "who" you are–the father who killed his own son?
It is so easy to shake your head in condemning disbelief, certain you could never make this kind of mistake–of course everyone knows how a closed car heats up on a sunny day! No one in their right mind would knowingly leave a child–or pet, for heaven’s sake–in a closed car! There has to be a logical explanation amidst the illogical, I’ve constructed half a dozen scenarios myself. Immediately, I remembered a time I left Thomas at a swim meet, at night, because I simply forgot I was supposed to bring him home. Tad and I had driven separately, I had Rachel, but for some reason, I thought Tad had both boys. When I walked in the door, and Tad said, "Where’s Thomas?" I don’t think I even responded, I just turned around and flew back to the pool, sickened at the thought of him wondering where I was, alone, scared, and seemingly abandoned. It can happen. What you think you’d never do, what you think you’re incapable of, can happen.
In a moment, your future is inextricably altered, as are the lives of those closest to you.
And yet, I still believe God is at work in the midst, using circumstance to affect a people, eventually, ultimately for His glory…I have no idea how many lives will be touched as a result. There is an epic battle that has begun in the lives of this family–the Enemy would delight in defeating many of them, perhaps with generational effect; Jesus explains the nature of Satan by calling him a thief, whose intent is to steal and kill and destroy; but in the same breath, He explains His own nature as life-giving. There is so much in this life I don’t understand, but I feel no compulsion TO understand; the mysteries of God are a comfort to me. I don’t have to know "how" He works out things, but I’m thankful He’s given me reason to believe He IS at work, even when it doesn’t look like it.
If you’re inclined, I would appreciate your prayers on behalf of this family. Whatever your thoughts or judgments, there is incalculable pain borne by all affected, and I know intercession on their behalf will move mountains in their lives.
Photo credit: Brandon Bradley