At long last I was finished with work for the day,and I was on my way to have dinner with friends. My husband was en route and intended to meet me there with our two young children. It was December. And it was cold. I mention what might otherwise seem obvious because this was a below average Carolina winter cold. This was the kind of chill that crawled into your bones, frosted your marrow, and refused to thaw until the first shoots of spring. Driving at dusk, my mind was systematically stacking my worries like building blocks. A broken dishwasher.Clack goes one block. The final notice on our electric bill. Clack. My freelance work had slowed considerably, not atypical for the season, but we were feeling the pinch. Clack. It was going to be an exceptionally lean Christmas. So lost was I in my accumulation of woes, that I narrowly escaped a rear-end collision when the car directly in front of me abruptly swerved to the shoulder of the road .
It appeared that he had almost hit something as well. With an aggrieved backward glance at the offending obstruction, the driver barreled onward. As I edged cautiously forward, what I saw..was horrifying. A woman stood in the road. She had no coat. One shoe. Frantic. Shrieking. And shrieking is the only word for it. Even through the insulated warmth of my car, I could make out her cries of “My BABY! My BABY! PLEASE! Help me, JESUS, my baby!” Pacing..back and forth..back and forth…I pulled over, quivering with barely disguised fury over the fact that there wasn’t so much as an ebb in the flow of traffic. What was wrong with people?! Was I the only one seeing this?? When I reached her, I had to shake her slightly to get her attention. I’m still not sure she ever saw me. “Help me..”, she stammered. My gaze which had, heretofore, been fixated solely on this woman, grew suddenly panoramic. I took in the small car crushed nearly in half and only part-way off the road. One cockeyed headlight swung wildly from a tangle of wires, blinking flirtatiously at the oncoming influx. A rangy young man stood near what must have once been the hood of the vehicle. He, too, was without a coat,wearing only a man’s white undershirt. He seemed wholly impervious to the frosty gust. One hand rested lightly on his brow. Belying this casual stance was the cascade of blood pulsing through his fingers at an alarming rate. And then there were the children. Three of them. Small. None adequately dressed for this temperature. The woman and I were making our way to the wreck as fast as we could while clambering for purchase on the icy pavement. “In there!,” she told me unnecessarily. “Help him, please! Help him...” I climbed into the backseat of the steaming heap.
A perfect little boy was strapped into his car seat. He looked to be about my daughter’s age, size-wise. Two or three. He seemed unharmed. Not a single scrape marred that sweet mahogany visage. But he wasn’t moving. I wondered what the hell I was thinking when I pulled my car over in the first place. I wondered what the hell I imagined I could possibly do to help. I wondered how long the guilt would haunt me if I ran away right at that moment. I didn’t run though. I touched him. Held his hand.
It took me four tries to successfully dial 911. “NO, he’s not bleeding…HOW can I tell if he’s breathing??…Okay,.. his mouth…I can’t tell!..No! I don’t KNOW if I feel a heartbeat, just PLEASE – where is the ambulance?? Well, tell them we need them FASTER, tell them we need them now! Please, you have to hurry! I just…I just don’t know what I’m doing..I TOLD you I can’t tell if he’s breathing! Please…tell the ambulance..tell them..” I felt voltaic. Everything was amplified. The clumsiness of my hands, the disquieting stillness inside that car, the ongoing weeping of the boy’s mother. I did not let go of his hand. We waited for the ambulance. I blew on his fingers. They felt so cold to me. We waited. I told him (told myself?) that help was on the way..that it would all turn out fine. We waited. I held his hand. We. I blew on his fingers. Waited. I told him….
Had the accident happened in front of the Emergency room, the outcome might very well have been the same. I don’t know. What I do know is that we waited far too long for EMS, and they seemed far too dispassionate for the gravity of the scene that awaited them. The paramedic gave me a curious look when I raced to embrace him and tugged at his arm . I would have given him a piggy-back ride at that point if I thought it would get this kid some help. But when we got to the car, he scarcely examined the child before straightening up and heading back for transport. “He didn’t make it.”
The sound of his mother’s keening as she collapsed to the concrete, echoed in my memory for far too many years. “He said ‘he didn’t make it’. That’s what he said, ‘He didn’t make it.’ ” The man with the head wound was whispering to no one in particular as he was being hoisted onto a gurney. “You didn’t really LOOK at him! How can you be sure?! You…don’t just give UP! PLEASE!! You must be able to do SOMETHING!” That was me. My wretched imploration. To his credit, he did turn around then. The paramedic. Looked at me. He allowed his face to expose a fleeting but transparent mien of unbearable anguish. And I understood. Understood why he had to go. For the very same reasons I had to stay. Amity. Humanity. Love.
I lay down on the ground and wrapped my coat around the woman whose name, I would soon learn, was Theresa*. I embraced her. And though I knew she couldn’t hear me , (” NO!! JESUS! PLEASE! My baby!!“) , I prayed. I sang tenderly. I wept. I stroked her shoulders, her hair, her back. In my most soothing voice I tried to assure her with empty platitudes.”It’s all right. You’ll be okay.” Shut up, Jennifer. How is this helping? If it was me on that ground, I would have smacked myself. I racked my brain for what might conceivably give me any consolation in the throes of such grief. The answer was plain. Not. One. Thing. Nothing on this earth. This..earth. And then I knew what to say. My tears saturated her own as I leaned in closer and pressed my face to hers. “Listen to me. He’s okay now! ” ( God, please let me say the right thing here.) “Your son…he isn’t cold…he isn’t scared…or hurting. He doesn’t feel any pain…and never will again…He’s not in the dark..He’s..(deep breath)..he’s with Jesus..” Even though she had been invoking His name, she could subscribe to any number of beliefs. Panic tended to bring out religion in people. I’d seen it before. Maybe she was agnostic. Or Muslim. Or Wiccan for all I knew or cared at that moment. But I knew the Lord had us enveloped in His arms. I knew He was rocking her baby boy and that the child was at peace. I wanted her to know it too.
At some point, a police officer came over to peel Theresa and I from the ground. She had never stopped her sonorous lamentations. Had never asked after the other children who had been in the car. Maybe she had already seen that they’d survived. I saw that my husband , Jeff, and the friends that we were planning on having dinner with had arrived on the scene. I vaguely recalled being on the phone with Jeff and telling him I was pulling over to help someone. He had traced my route, called our friends Tim and Michelle, and they came prepared to serve. They bundled the children in warm blankets and offered mugs of steaming coffee to the overworked EMT’s. Tim is a former Hell’s angel and very much looks the part. He easily slid into the critical task of helping divert the assemblage that thronged too close to the now cavalcade of emergency vehicles. Michelle? She was the one who discovered the infant. She was trussed fixedly in her small plastic car seat and had apparently slid on the ice and into the woods upon impact. Unhurt, she sat patiently, regarding the night sky with wide eyes, until she was rescued. Had it not been for Michelle, she might not have been found until it was too late to save her. After a couple of hours of tireless labor, Tim and Michelle withdrew discreetly. I looked around for them once, and they had seemingly vanished. They merely had the sense that they would only be in the way at that point….. People will tell you today that there are no longer angels who walk among us. Don’t believe it for a second. We all saw two on assignment that night.
The ambulance had left, but Jeff and I stayed. We were sitting in a police car with one of the little girls. Neither of her parents was in any condition to care for her or her siblings and the system was at work trying to find interim placement. The girl looked up at Jeff. “My brother is dead.” A statement. “Yes”, he responded simply. Sadly. She nodded and scooted into his lap. Nothing further need be discussed. I stared at her little head, transfixed. Her hair was so carefully braided into at least a dozen tidy pigtails. Each adorned with a brightly hued plastic barrette. There were yellow daisies and red hearts, purple butterflies. It was all so cheerful looking. Someone had done her hair that morning when everything was fine. When they had all been getting ready like so many other families, fussing at each other for the same reasons we all fuss at each other..assuming the end of their day would be much the same as the end of the previous day. I ached so badly for all of them, I had to step outside. I didn’t think it was good form to be sick in a cop car.
The boy’s name was Derek*. He had turned three just a few weeks before his death. I did not cope well with the loss of this child, whom I never even met. I was, if not necessarily angry at God, certainly disappointed. I couldn’t understand. God could have prevented this. The family of seven was sideswiped in their subcompact by a drunk driver in a lifted pickup truck who ran a red light. He was driving with a license that had been revoked after repeated DUI’s. If this driver had stayed home..if Theresa had taken two minutes more to get ready before leaving the house or one of the children couldn’t find a shoe or…or…or…My ‘what-if’s ‘ were nearly my undoing. The story of Derek’s death didn’t make the local television news, but it did appear in the city paper. A brief article that never made mention of how or why the collision occurred, nor who was at fault. The pith of the article was this: Poor, unwed , extremely young black couple. Five children, two car seats, you do the math. WHAT did they expect?? I wasn’t too absorbed in my own mourning to be appropriately incensed over this appalling misrepresentation. I had to wonder how many readers would dismiss this tragedy with a sniff of racism, class-ism, or moral superiority. And worse yet – If I were to get mercilessly real with myself, had I not witnessed this family’s devastation personally, would I be one of those readers?
My path to recover harmony with God was an arduous one. Ultimately, in order to have serenity, I had to first surrender. Let go of the idea that God owed me some kind of explanation for everything that goes awry in what is, after all, a doomed world. Let go of the notion that even if God suddenly manifested and disclosed His intentions for us down here, that my finite mind would be able to absorb them. And let go of the idea that I’ll ever, ever make sense of the terrible, nonsensical catastrophes that happen in the world. I won’t. Because I’m not God. I’m a mere speck…a speck on a speck in the grand design of it all. But still He sees me. And He Loves me. And in that knowledge I secure my peace. Even in the maelstrom.
I went to Derek’s funeral. I was the sole white person there. And I truly am. Lily white. A fact that did not go unnoticed by any of the couple of hundred mourners attending, although only a few of the children spoke their thoughts aloud. “Mama.. there’s a white girl here!” “You hush now.” I don’t think I had ever been more aware of my race than I was that day. The article that was written about Derek’s death ran through my head. I speculated that it might be in the mind of others as well. And I was ashamed. I sat in the back. Sobbed. People stared. Nobody knew who on earth I was save for the fact that I was clearly mentally unbalanced. The only thing that finally drew attention away from my breakdown was Theresa being led in and the sound of her ululating as she hurled herself onto the impossibly undersized coffin. I didn’t go to the graveyard. I really only had one aim in going to the funeral. Something I had yet to do. I took one last look at Theresa and little Derek in his open casket and silently bid them goodbye, slipped into the foyer, and found the guest book. There was no point in signing my name; nobody would know it. Instead, I slipped inside, a letter.
“ Dear Theresa, you don’t know me, and my name isn’t important, but I was the woman who pulled over to be with you the night that Derek went to heaven. I know that it’s a night that you’ll never want to relive, but you will..many times, and I was hoping it might give you some comfort to tell you some of what I’ll remember. Derek was the picture of serenity when I climbed into the car and held his hands. The paramedics told me later that he was gone at the moment of impact. He never knew or felt a thing. He never experienced fear or pain..not cold or distress. He was riding with his family one moment and being scooped up into the adoring arms of his Savior the next. It’s all any of us could hope for. To spend Christmas with Jesus. Celebrate among the angels. I held you as we lay in the street. I sang and prayed over you. I felt God holding the both of us. I knew He was crying too. I don’t have the answers you want and I want. Why such awful accidents happen. Maybe someone does. But I believe in the promise that those who know Jesus will live together forever in a paradise beyond our most glorious imaginings. And that’s where Derek is now. Will be forever. Waiting. You probably don’t want to hear this right now and I don’t blame you. But maybe you’ll keep this and pull it out again someday. Maybe someday you’ll be ready. Ready to feel joy again. I’m sure Derek would want that for you. One more thing. Being a Mommy is a special and wonderful gift. I know you already know that. And just as you are a Mommy to four wonderful children here on earth, you are still Derek’s Mommy as well. No matter where he is. You will always have that. I will never stop praying for you. All of you. You are beloved.”
That was ten years ago. I have Derek’s obituary taped to the inside of my Bible. I pray for their family often. Reflect. Speculate. I once cried to Jeff, asking him how we’d survive such a heartbreak. How does one go on? He said we’d hold tight to God. To each other. That we’d go on because we’d have to. I guess that sums it up. The people who seem to feel the most hopeless are the ones who truly believe that they are all by themselves. Theresa believed that the night she lost Derek. She wasn’t. She was surrounded. Strangers were loving her. Taking care of her family. Even taking care of those taking care of her family. God never took His eyes off us. Never. Maybe she’ll realize that. Or Derek’s siblings will. Maybe other lives will be saved in the ‘pay it forward’ vein. Maybe something praiseworthy will be born from pain. I’ve heard that God never lets our pain go to waste and I’ve seen evidence of that in my own life. Gather Derek close to You, Lord. Let Theresa discern Your great Love for her today and everyday until they meet face to face once more. Remind us all, each one of us, that we are never, ever alone.
“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things had passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
*Names have been changed