January 23, 2008

Nine Years Less One Day

2008 1503 page26 capEARS WELLED UP IN TERRY’S EYES, RAN down his quivering cheeks, and dripped onto his hospital bed. I reached across and patted the arm of my 27-year-old son as I struggled to keep back my own tears. It was Sabbath, and I was sitting next to his bed as he listened to the “gospel twang” radio station on www.Live365.com while his roommate on the other side of the curtain watched some shoot-’em-up action drama.
We were both surprised by the tears. They had sprung up suddenly, as we remembered two significant events and realized they were separated by nine years and one day.
May 8, 1996
At 4:30 in the morning the ringing phone jolted me out of the last of a short night’s sleep. “Hey, Dad,” 18-year-old Terry’s voice sounded strained and husky on the other end of the line.
Suddenly I was wide awake. “What’s the matter, Terry?”
“Dad, there was a bad accident yesterday. Jon is dead!”
“Oh, no! Not Jon!” I groaned, tears flooding my eyes and choking my throat. Terry and Jon had done everything together. They shared a dorm room with our oldest son, Homer, Jr., went caving and hiking together, built a log cabin in the woods, and played pranks on their friends. They both loved life and loved God. Jon had spent a lot of time at our place on weekends, and we considered him another son. Now he was gone! Suddenly! His car crushed under the wheels of a tractor trailer.
The hole in our heart was huge, but with time it sort of healed over. We never forgot Jon, but the date had blurred and faded into our unconsciousness. Life went on. We had to also.
May 7, 2005
2008 1503 page26My wife and I were living in Cyprus and working for the Middle East Union. We had recently arrived in the United States for a few days’ vacation and a meeting of the Middle East Fellowship in the mountains of southern California. As we sat in the Sabbath school class at Pine Springs Ranch, someone slipped up behind us and handed me a pink sticky note, whispering, “Homer, we just received a message for you. You need to call your son, Homer, Jr., or your sister-in-law, Beverly, right away. Here are the numbers they left.”
Minutes later I slipped into the office and dialed the number. “Hey, Dad,” Homer’s voice sounded strained and husky on the other end of the line. “Today Terry was part of a 100-mile charity bike ride with 1,200 others in Chattanooga. About 20 miles into the race he lost control coming down the back side of a mountain at a high rate of speed. No one knows for sure what happened, but he crossed the line and hit a car head-on. He’s still alive and they’ve airlifted him to Erlanger Hospital, but they don’t know if he’ll live till we can get there. He has a broken back, broken leg, multiple broken ribs, and who knows what else. You’d better try to come right away.”
The Unknown
Every time the plane touched down for the next connecting flight, we pulled out the cell phone and called Tennessee as we taxied to the gate. Each time the message was the same: Terry was still alive, but they couldn’t say what the news would be when we made the next call. Friends picked us up at the airport with a van and a large cooler of food. I hadn’t eaten in 24 hours, but the knots in my stomach wouldn’t let me begin to think of eating. Our friends understood and whisked us directly to the hospital and up to the trauma intensive care unit where the staff said we could come in for a few minutes, even though it wasn’t visiting time.
As we walked into the room, there was my boy, covered with bruises and cuts; tubes and cables filled his swollen face and protruded from his motionless arms. Monitors flickered and moved, IVs dripped steadily, and alarms rang when anything wasn’t quite right.
Doctors in the emergency room had given Terry an 8 percent chance of survival. They said if he lived they didn’t know what his mental capabilities would be. A paramedic had been just seconds behind him on the ride and was soon joined by three doctors and other medical personnel who were also part of the ride. They had done their best to keep him breathing until the Life Force helicopter got there, but everyone who passed said there was no hope. Even the doctors didn’t know if sufficient oxygen had been getting to Terry’s brain or how much internal damage had been done by the impact.
The Future
Now, three long, agonizing months later, I am sitting by Terry’s bed in Shepherd Rehab Center in Atlanta. He is sitting up, eating, smiling. His trache is gone. His peg (stomach tube) has been removed. There are no monitors beeping quietly and lighting up his room at night with their eerie flickers. His motorized wheelchair is parked in the hallway, and he gets to drive it around to his various therapy appointments and outside to the garden/park. He is laughing, talking, and planning for the future.
“Dad,” he says, as he chews the last bite of his lunch, “I was thinking. I should call Dr. Swafford* and talk with him about what jobs I can still do.”
I have to turn away so he won’t see the tears welling up in my eyes—tears of joy at the tremendous changes that have taken place in Terry’s mind and body; tears of worry and confusion about what is still to come for my son.
I don’t know what the future holds for Terry and his wife, Shannon. Terry still struggles with his speech and coordination in his hands. He knows what he wants to do and say, he just can’t always make it come out the way he wants (at least as quickly as he wants). He has no feeling or movement from midchest down.
I didn’t know what the future held for Barbara and me, either. We had left a job and people we loved in Cyprus and the Middle East to move back from the mission field so we could help Terry and Shannon with his care and rehab. We hadn’t found a job, a house, or a car yet. I guess that made us homeless?

Questions for Reflection

1. What's the right thing to say or so when someone you know experiences a personal tragedy? What's the wrong thing to say or do?

2. How helpful is it during times of personal tragedy to try to explain the mysteries of God's will?

3. When you've experienced nearly crushing disappointment, what was one thing that brought you the most comfort?

In your life experience, what ways seem most effective in comforting others?

It wasn’t that we weren’t searching, but so far our skills just weren’t needed for the openings available within the church.

Some told us of openings in churches and conferences in other parts of the country. One conference even contacted us to see if we would consider pastoring the church where the conference office is located. That made us feel good, but we felt we needed to be near Terry and Shannon. We had a number of applications pending with various companies, schools, and government entities in the area, and we waited to see what might result from them.
Questions boiled around inside me and sometimes threatened to spill out. I didn’t know why God allowed the accident. I didn’t know why He spared Terry’s life and let Jon die. I didn’t know what to say when Jon’s parents called to comfort me. I didn’t know how to answer people who said, “It’s such a shame!” or “You have so much to be thankful for.” Both sentiments are right; and I felt both with an intensity I didn’t know was possible—often both at the same time.
My emotions were like roller coasters (a type of torture machine that no one in their right mind would ever want to ride). But it seemed that whenever I started to struggle with the unknown future, my computer screen-saver popped up one of the pictures I took on that first day as we arrived to see Terry. I shuddered and started to turn away from the image of that bruised and bloated body lying motionless in the intensive care unit.
Then I looked over at Terry, sitting there smiling at me, or telling me what he did in therapy a few minutes ago, or playing a game with Shannon and his mom. Suddenly I was overwhelmed at my petty complaining.
“I’m sorry, Lord. Thank You so much for what You’ve done for me to this point. How can I doubt that You’ll continue to lead from here?” I prayed.
For two months after I wrote this story we continued to sit with Terry in the rehab hospital. Little by little he learned how to swallow, write, and find his way around without getting totally disoriented. I will never forget the first Sabbath he was able to go back to church. What a high day that was for us all. Things improved slowly; but I still didn’t have a job.
Barbara and I had been searching for five months with absolutely nothing available. Then one night during our prayers we felt strongly impressed that God wanted us to consider something in the Chattanooga area. Up to then we had turned down every such suggestion, feeling our responsibility was to be near Terry and Shannon, to offer any help we could. But now the impression was so strong we couldn’t resist. Tearfully and fearfully we said, “OK, God, we are willing, but we don’t know how it can possibly work.”
The next day Gary Krause, Adventist Mission director, called from the General Conference to ask if I would consider an invitation to work with the Office of Adventist Mission.
We are thrilled to be back working with missions. We make regular trips to spend long weekends with Terry and Shannon. Various family members and friends have pitched in to help when we aren’t there. Shannon got a job as a social worker for the State of Tennessee. Terry was retrained as a volunteer tour guide at the Tennessee Aquarium (he was a volunteer diver before the accident). Terry helped to teach a youth Sabbath school class, and he and Shannon spent many hours working with the Pathfinder club in their church.
They have flown to Texas for our daughter’s graduation, gone camping with the Pathfinders, and a few months ago they moved to Andrews University for a year where Shannon is doing her Master of Arts in Social Work (a dream that was interrupted by the accident). Terry cooks and helps around the house, spends time in the library, works on the computer, plans things for Pathfinders, visits family in the area, and is looking into job training options.
Questions? We still have lots of them. The future? We still don’t know what it holds. But as we look back on the past two years we can say with certainty that God has walked with us at every step.
*Director of the M.A. in Outdoor Education program that Terry completed at Southern Adventist University.
Homer Trecartin serves the Office of Adventist Mission as director of planning.