The gravel crunched loudly underneath the tires of the truck as it came to a stop on the edge of the road. Unhurried, the driver shifted into park and turned off the key. He had been here before, a number of times in fact, although none so memorable as the first. Each year on this day he came here to remind himself and to remember. Taking one last sip of coffee from his travel mug he set it down and got out. As he walked around the front of the truck a slight spring breeze sent a chill down his neck and back. Or was it simply the memory of what had taken place here? Probably it was some of both. As if time had been reversed it all came back in a torrent of memories. It always did when he came back to this spot.
Six years previous to this day he had been traveling this very road although it had not been as light as it was now. Returning home early from work he already dreaded the mountain of homework that awaited him. His senior year was coming swiftly to a close and it seemed the teachers were attempting to cram as much homework in as they could before the end of the year. But it had been a good day, both in school and at work. In fact, that day had been his 18th birthday. Because things were slow at the restaurant where he was a cook, and probably also because it was his birthday, his boss had told him to go home early so that he could celebrate with his family. Mom would have a cake made and certainly there would be a few presents. He and his father had been overtaken by turkey-hunting fever some weeks ago already and with the season fast approaching he was quite sure some of the gifts would be of use in the turkey woods. In fact it had become somewhat of a tradition for his father to give him something related to this shared passion each year for his birthday.
So enthralled in his musings was he that at first he failed to notice the car ahead of him begin to weave back and forth. Only after it veered sharply off the road did he realize that something was wrong. The beams of the headlights first seemed to pierce the darkness as if they were searchlights only to bury themselves in the earth as the car rolled end over end, finally coming to rest up against a large oak tree on the edge of the woods.
His car skidded to a stop at the edge of the road, the headlights illuminating the shocking scene. Instantly he took in each detail as he had been trained to do in his safety training at school. The air was filled with dust though there didn’t seem to be any smoke and although the car was severely damaged, there was no sign of fire. Snatching up his cell phone and grabbing a flashlight out of the glove box he jumped out of the car and scrambled down the slight embankment, catching himself with his hand as he barely retained his footing. Silently he prayed that everyone was all right. The scene before him seemed so surreal. Immediately his nostrils were assaulted with the foul stink of oil, gasoline, and engine coolant and yet it was so quiet; the idling of his car as it sat on the shoulder of the road above and his own ragged breaths as he struggled to remain calm the only sounds to be heard. Carefully he made his way to the car and shined his flashlight into the passenger compartment. He caught his breath as the beam of light fell on only empty seats. There was nobody there. But how could that be? Of course! They must have been thrown from the car as it flipped. With increasing anxiety he began to search the surrounding area, having forgotten one of the most important aspects of his first-aid training; to call for help. Not that it would have mattered. After only a few moments he saw what appeared to be a man, actually an elderly man, lying in the grass at the bottom of the embankment, his eyes staring lifelessly into the star-filled sky. He immediately checked for a pulse and found, as he had suspected; the man was no longer alive.
Retrieving his phone from his coat pocket with shaking hands he was just about to dial 9-1-1 when he stopped. What had he heard? There had been something, some kind of noise off to the right. His struggle with calm now completely lost he searched frantically for the source of the sound, waving his flashlight from side to side. Nothing. Then he heard it again. There, just outside of the light from the headlights of his car lay a small form. He stumbled across the fifteen or so feet that lie between them and fell to his knees as the beam of his light came to rest on the battered face of a small boy. Gently placing his fingers along the side of the boy’s throat he detected a pulse although it was very weak. Moaning softly again the boy opened his eyes and looked at Todd.
“Everything is going to be okay, buddy,” Todd said in a soothing voice, all the while knowing that it wouldn’t but not having any idea what else to say.
“Grandpa…Mike. He…got…sick…I couldn’t… steer,” moaned the boy. He winced in pain as he tried to move his hand up to his face.
“You just lay still, buddy. I’ll call for help on my cell phone. Someone will be here in no time.” Todd began to reach into his pocket once again for his phone but was stopped suddenly as the boy reached out and took his hand and gripped it tightly.
“Its okay now,” the boy said softly, still gripping Todd’s hand. “Jesus is here for me now so…I…have to go. Tell them…I don’t hurt inside anymore.” Ever so gently the grip of his hand lessened until it fell to the damp ground at his side. And then there was silence; and yet the silence seemed to roar in Todd’s ears, destroying whatever had remained of understanding. That stillness so incongruent with the events that had just taken place. Without really knowing it he began to sob and cry, his whole body rocking slightly back and forth, his heart breaking as he leaned over the little boy. He watched as if in slow motion; first one tear, then another and another fell from his face, landing on the boy’s left hand where it lay across his now motionless chest.
His father found him sitting under a large maple tree in the backyard and without a word he sat down next to him. For a while the only sound was that of the birds and the occasional car that would pass the house. It was spring and the woods around where they lived were alive again, the cold winter finally gone, at least for a while.
“There wasn’t anything you could have done,” his father said softly, finally, wanting more than anything to provide some kind of comfort to mend his son’s broken spirit.
Todd gradually looked up into the tree under which they sat and for a moment watched a chickadee flip from branch to branch.
“I know,” he finally said. “But you know, that isn’t what is so tough about the whole thing. It isn’t even the fact that a little boy died in my arms…” His voice trailed off as it began to crack and he had to stop for a moment in order to retain some composure.
“Why, Dad? Why did God put me in that place at that time if there was nothing I could do? It’s almost as if He is punishing me.” The tears were now rolling down his cheeks but he really didn’t care. “I’ll never forget what happened. Every time I close my eyes I see it all over again.”
His father, through his own tears, wrapped his arm around his son and held him tightly.
“Todd, more than anything I wish I knew the answer to that. I’m your father and I am supposed to have all the answers,” he said as he huffed in frustration. “This time… I just don’t know.”
After a bit he got on his haunches in front of Todd so that he could look him in the eye.
“I do know this though. There is always a reason. We may not know what it is right now; in fact, we may not know what it is until we’re in glory. But God always, always has a reason for what he puts in our lives.”
Todd nodded his head slowly in agreement. “I know. But even though I know, I still don’t understand.”
For some time the two of them just sat there and took in the activity around them. Finally his father got slowly to his feet.
“I talked to Uncle Pete. He called a while ago and wondered how you were doing.”
Uncle Pete was his mother’s youngest brother and a local police officer. He had been the first officer on the scene that night and although there was nothing to be done for the young boy and the elderly man, who they now knew to have been the boy’s grandfather, he had tried valiantly to help Todd deal with what had happened. Todd had been in shock and refused to let go of the little boy; his Uncle Pete had been the one to help him work through those first few hours of grief and confusion.
“From what they can tell it looks like the grandfather had a massive heart attack just before the accident,” his father said as he brushed leaves and grass from his pants. After a brief pause he went on. “He also let me know that there is visitation at the funeral home tomorrow afternoon and tomorrow evening. I thought you might want to go.”
Todd had been thinking about that and struggling, not with whether he should or should not go but rather whether he could handle it emotionally. It was at that moment that he realized he felt guilty for not having been able to do anything to help. How could he face this family?
“I…I’m just not sure yet dad. I don’t know if I could do it,” he said, wrapping his arms around his knees and resting his chin on them.
“Well, you think about it. I’ll be glad to go with you if you would like.” Slowly his father began to turn to the house but stopped as a thought crossed his mind and looked down at his son.
“Would you like me to pray with you?”
“No,” Todd replied after considering his father’s offer, “I think it would be better for me to pray alone right now.”
Nodding his head in understanding his father turned and began walking back to the house.
“Dad?” Todd called out after he had taken a few steps. “Thanks.”
His father stopped, smiled, and continued on to the house. Todd remained there under the tree for quite some time and finally, with much anguish and many tears, was able to pray.
* * * * *
He had never liked funeral homes. Although, he supposed, that was probably the way most people felt. As he and his father walked toward the door he had to fight the panic that was rising within him telling him to turn and run. His stomach churned and his hands were shaking. As they walked through the door his father put his arm around him to let him know he was not alone. It didn’t make everything better but it certainly helped calm him down.
They had arrived a bit early and there were only a few people there. On the left there were pictures, both of the boy and of his grandfather. In front of them, against the wall were the two caskets, both of them identical in every detail except for their size. Thankfully, they were closed. Not realizing he had stopped, a gentle nudge from his father brought Todd back to reality and they walked over to a man and woman who stood next to the smaller of the two caskets. Realizing his son was struggling to maintain his composure, Todd’s father took the lead.
“We would like to express our sincere sympathy to you and your husband,” he said as he took the woman’s hand in his. “My name is Roger VanElston and this is my son Todd.”
Recognition flitted across the faces of the man and woman as they heard the last name.
“You’re the one who found them,” the little boy’s mother said as she shook Todd’s hand. There was pity in her eyes. “Thank you so much for everything you did.”
“I….I….wish I could have done more,” Todd said as tears began to cloud his vision. He looked down at the floor not knowing what else to say. There was an emptiness in the eyes of these people. And then for some reason he went on, “He is with Jesus now. They both are. That is what he told me just before…just before…”
The man and woman stared at him with eyes wide following this last statement and for a moment neither of them spoke. Finally the man asked him questioningly, “Did you say that Andrew spoke to you?”
“Yes,” Todd said slowly, uncertainly. “Just as I was going to call 9-1-1 he stopped me and told me that Jesus was there for him. He also said something about not hurting inside anymore.”
Tears rolled down the cheeks of the little boy’s father and mother and they embraced, rocking slightly back and forth. The tears quickly turned to sobs and they slowly walked away toward the corner. Bewildered and confused by what had just taken place, Todd and his father began to make their way to the door only to be stopped by a woman who appeared to be in her mid- thirties.
“Please, don’t go,” she said as she stepped between them and the door, tears streaming down her face as well. “I know you’re confused but if you will give us a minute we will explain everything to you.”
Todd’s father nodded assent, took him by the arm, and both of them walked over to a sofa that was situated just to the right of the picture galleries and sat down.
A few minutes later the boy’s parents came over and sat down next to them. Neither said anything for a bit, seeming to search for the right words.
“I’m sorry about that,” said the boy’s father finally, pausing to look into Todd and his father’s eyes. “You have to understand that what you told us was quite a shock. I guess I should start from the beginning…”
As it turned out the little boy, Andrew, had not been this couple’s biological son but had been adopted by them only eight months earlier. He had been born exactly seven years to the day before the accident to a single mother with a terrible addiction to drugs and had lived in squalor his entire life. About four months before they had taken him in he had witnessed his mother brutally taken from him in death. He had not spoken a single word since that awful night. Often they would find themselves standing outside the closed door of his bedroom listening in agony of soul as he would cry himself to sleep, knowing only that there had to be a reason why God would have given this child to them and yet not understanding how His plan would or could be carried out. Though they had attempted counseling with their pastor and even several sessions with a Christian psychiatrist they had never been able to break through the wall he had erected around himself. The only one who had ever come close had been Grandpa Mike, not his real grandfather, of course, but his adopted grandfather. For some reason they shared a special bond and would often spend time together as had been the case the night of the accident. Maybe it was because they were both alone, the grandfather having lost his wife a few years previous. Whatever the case, Andrew had always seemed to enjoy spending time with him.
They had taken him to church with them; he had attended Sunday school, and had even begun to attend the Christian elementary school with some of his new brothers just the week before. Through it all, though, he remained silent, seemingly entirely without feeling. His new mother and father and even brothers and sister had spent countless hours reading Bible stories with him and explaining as best they could the mysteries of grace and salvation. They shared with him the amazing stories of Christ’s birth, life, and death on the cross. Each day, with profound patience they would search his face for some evidence that he understood and comprehended what they were saying but were invariably left not knowing what this little boy was thinking, unable to perceive what heartaches were bottled up inside this little one’s heart and soul. For eight months they had placed their trust in their heavenly Father and given themselves entirely over to His will.
“So you see,” the man said as tears streamed down his cheeks, “what you shared with us was an answer to more prayers than you could ever imagine.”
Wiping the tears from his face with the back of his hand he continued.
“These aren’t tears of sorrow, they are tears of joy. You have no idea what this means to us. Those few words you spoke earlier have turned this time of mourning into a time of rejoicing…..it is just a miracle that God put you there.”
There was silence for a minute or so as Todd, his father, and all those gathered around them attempted to take it all in, overcome as they were by the sheer magnitude of it all.
Once again Todd’s father took charge of the situation and suggested they take a moment to pray. All agreed that this was certainly fitting and requested that Todd’s father lead the prayer. Standing in a circle there in that room with the pictures of the grandfather and young boy in the background they gave thanks to God for their lives, and especially their deaths. Not that He had taken their loved ones away, for each of them grieved deeply for their earthly loss, but they rejoiced in their deaths because God through His mysterious wonder work of grace had taken them home to be with Him. Both of them.
As his father ended his prayer Todd realized that the prayer he himself had offered up only yesterday as he sat beneath the maple tree in their backyard had been answered. And what a marvelous, almost unimaginable answer it was.
Over the next weeks and months Todd and his family talked often of the events of those few days and had since become very close to Andrew’s family. Although the idea had occurred to Todd while he and his father had been turkey hunting some weeks after the accident, it wasn’t until early in the fall that he was able to follow through with it. On a pleasant Saturday afternoon he, his father, and Andrew’s family had gathered at the place where the accident had taken place. For two solid hours they carefully planted hundreds of daffodil bulbs just inside the woods and around the old oak tree. They had intended it as a memorial, not for the lives of those who had been lost but to the faithfulness of God to his people. A reminder each spring of that night and how God, in ways far above our ways, had out of death brought life, just as the daffodils bloomed with all their beauty after the cold of winter had faded.
Kneeling there now among the blooming daffodils, their sweet scent enveloping him, Todd whispered a prayer of thanks. There were still some tears even after all this time but more and more they had become tears of utter joy as he considered that night and the events that had transpired since.
After some time he gradually walked back to his truck and climbed in. As he shut the door he noticed that the little boy in the carseat next to him was now awake. Reaching over he placed his chilled hand on the boy’s cheek and was rewarded with a toothless smile that would melt the heart of a giant. This was his first child, born about eight months previous to him and his wife, the only sister the little boy named Andrew had ever had. There had never been any questioning or searching of names for the little one who sat in the carseat next to him. They had named him Andrew Michael.