Saturday, November 14, 2009

An Anniversary of Sorts

In our study of the book of Job, one of the speakers says that God speaks to the suffering in their affliction. Earlier, he had said that God speaks to us in many ways. I suspect that God is always speaking to us, trying to get through to us somehow; it’s just that we can’t hear because we really aren’t listening. That is not to say that God afflicts us so that we will hear. But the truth is, when things are fine, we don’t think we need to hear from God so much.

I know firsthand that God does speak to the suffering in their affliction. Jill and I have never been more certain of anything as we are that God has spoken and continues to speak to us in our grief. Speaking for myself, I fear that is because only now am I finally eager to listen.

In the morning of the day that we learned that Rachel had been killed, Jill and I had read our One-Year Bible. That is and has been part of our routine for years, since we learned of the One-Year Bible from our beloved Brother Sam at Peaster Baptist Church in Peaster, Texas. I had been reading the One-Year Bible the morning of the day we learned of my sister’s death in a single car accident back in 1996. Brother Sam reminded me of Psalm 147:3 (He heals the broken-hearted, and binds up their wounds) from that day’s reading (we were all on the same page in those days). But it was another verse from Psalm 147 that caught my eye and the Lord used to speak directly to my heart about Vanessa that day:

He does not delight in the strength of the horse;

He does not take pleasure in the legs of a man.

The Lord favors those who fear Him,

Those who wait for His lovingkindness.

Vanessa was an accomplished horseman and a gifted runner. She had put a sticker in the window of her truck that said, “Fear God”. As proud as we were of her accomplishments, it was her reverence and devotion to the Lord that was the most impressive thing...and what made her a special treasure in His eyes.

So when we got the news about Rachel, I knew there was something in the Bible we had read that morning that God was speaking to us. The Old Testament passage we had read had been from the book of Ezra. Exiled for the past seventy years, the Jews had been permitted to return to their homeland and instructed by Cyrus, king of Persia to rebuild the temple. When they finish the foundation they have a dedication celebration. The song they sing is a song that should be familiar to anyone who has read through the Old Testament:

God is so good!

His faithful love endures forever.

These are the words God spoke to our hearts that morning, and this song has been the constant refrain I have heard in my grief. More often than not it has been a challenge to believe in God’s goodness in the darkness and the pain of losing our daughter. Often, to be honest, I just can’t see it. It has been an act of faith to cling to what we know of His love in spite of everything.

We take longer than a year to read through the One-Year Bible. We’re not “religious” about it. We read it when we can and mark our place for the next reading. So on November 11, 2009 we returned for the first time to the passage we had read the morning of February 21, 2008 (which, incidentally, was the entry for August 6th - so you can see how liberty we have). Coming upon that passage again took us by surprise. But, looking back, the Lord had been preparing me. I had ordered and just received Steven Curtis Chapman’s new cd, “Beauty Will Rise.” The music had been written in response to the death of his daughter, Maria, on May 21, 2008. Before I woke Jill to take our shower (we are passionate about water conservation) I had been listening, reading the liner notes, and weeping as I reflected on the similarities to our own journey of grief...and faith.

We are in a different place than we were 20 months ago. While I am more convinced than ever about the goodness and faithfulness of our loving God, this time different verses from the same day’s passage spoke to me. 1 Corinthians 2:10, from the New Testament passage from that day, says, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love Him.”

Along with the assurance of God’s goodness, faithfulness and love, the promise that the next world is better than we can imagine is a comforting thought as we continue to miss Rachel and grieve for all that we are missing without her in this life. As I’ve said to Jill and others, “Heaven is not the booby prize.”

A final thought from the book of Proverbs rounds out the Lord’s message to us on that red-letter day: “How can we understand the road we travel? It is the Lord who directs our steps.”

This is not the life I planned, expected or desired. The road has been difficult. It certainly has been and continues to be a “long, strange trip.” I don’t understand it. I can’t. But I don’t have to. What I can do is trust in the Lord to lead me where I must go. In the end, I believe this will be right where I need to be, right where He wants His presence, never out of reach of His loving arms.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Another Blow On The Bruise

Elva Diaz, the drunk driver who killed Rachel made a choice to get behind the wheel of her automobile and drive herself home even though she was fully aware of the likely fatal consequences (that’s why the Riverside D.A.’s office has issued a warrant for her arrest for second degree murder). Finding another way home was too much of an inconvenience. In her judgment, the life and safety of a fellow human being simply wasn’t worth the trouble it would cost to ensure.

The difference between first and second degree murder is intent. Elva Diaz didn’t plan to murder Rachel, even though, for Rachel and for us, the result is the same. As deplorable as her crime is, it wasn’t personal. Until recently. Whether she intended to kill anybody the night she killed Rachel is a matter for the court to decide. But the fact is, the subsequent harm she has inflicted and continues to inflict has been done with sober intent.

I don’t believe in good or bad people. I believe in free will. I believe in good or bad choices. Everyone is capable of anything. It’s simply a matter of choice. We make our choices and, in turn, our choices make us. The character of our choices can become habitual and develop into a life-style. The bargain of free-will is that we are accountable for the choices we make.

As human beings we do our best to make the best of the mess we make of the world because of our bad decisions. Justice isn’t built into the system. If it were, Elva would be dead and not my daughter. Ms. Diaz’ choice to drink and drive would have resulted in the loss of her life, not Rachel’s. What Elva did she cannot undo. Her fatal decision the night of February 21, 2008 determined the course of the rest of her life, a course that still allows her a range of choices, good and bad.

Once we have made a bad decision, committed a crime even, we must ask ourselves: What now? The best choices remaining may not be pleasant or easy, but even then we have the fearful responsibility to choose for good or for evil.|main|dl1|link3|


We don’t often get the chance to see what might have been. I found this article on the internet about a drunk driver who fled the scene of a crash that caused injury to another man. He was caught. When he sobered up and came to his senses he saw the error of his ways and, against his legal counsel, pled guilty to the charges brought against him and further pledged himself to make restitution for his crime. This man’s crimes are deplorable and worthy of punishment. But he has chosen the only path open to him to find redemption: admitting his wrong-doing and taking responsibility for his actions. His present choices will not change the past. However, he has chosen to set the course for the best possible future. Instead of choosing to continue to victimize his victim, this man has chosen to do the best he can do now to make amends.

I wish I could say the same for Elva Diaz, the woman who killed Rachel. I’m not interested in hearing about her alleged remorse. Her actions speak for themselves. At every step, Ms. Diaz has chosen her own self-interest without regard for the welfare or benefit of anyone else, including her own family. Rather than accept the consequences of her actions, she has chosen to skip bail and become a fugitive. Rather than dedicate her life attempting to redress the harm she has done, she chooses to continue to inflict pain on those who love Rachel. Rather than allowing us to begin to heal and put the dreadfulness of a criminal trial behind us, she ensures that the wound remains raw and open and delivers another blow on the bruise...

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


I need someone to explain to me why the establishments which profit from the irresponsible sale of alcoholic beverages to their patrons bear no liability for the devastation that results. I guess the answer is obvious. Sadly, in a contest between profit and propriety, money wins. As long as there is a buck to be made, the slaughter of innocents will continue. The profiteers will pour another round, turn a blind and jaundiced eye, and wash their hands of the deadly cocktail they have mixed. As far as I am concerned, they are accessories to murder. The drunk is intoxicated and impaired. Those who continue to sell alcohol to their drunk customers make a coldly calculated choice of money over life.

Why are the alcohol industry and its pushers treated differently than, say, the tobacco industry? Statistics indicate that the public pays a high price for maintaining the status quo. We the people effectively subsidize the damage inflicted by the abusers of alcohol to the tune of $1.00 per drink sold in the U.S. Should I be forced to pay for the murder of my own daughter so that a senseless drunk can have the privilege of buying cheap drinks at a seedy bar that has no higher accounting than their own bottom line? The real bottom line is too high to tally, and one that is carefully hidden from public view. 11,000 + casualties and billions of dollars in damages per year are acceptable losses as long as the liquor - and the money - continues to flow.

I continue to read about it everyday in the paper, and it breaks my heart. More than a year and a half after Rachel was killed by a drunk driver: Nothing's changed...

ATLANTA – One in 10 binge drinkers got behind the wheel the last time they drank heavily. And half of those drivers left from a bar, restaurant or nightclub after downing five or more drinks, a new study has found.

The study is being called the first to try to measure the likelihood someone will drive after binge drinking. It suggests a need for stepped-up efforts to prevent bars and restaurants from serving people after they're intoxicated, according to its authors at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The researchers focused on 14,000 "binge drinkers " — people who said that at least once month that they had five or more drinks on a single occasion. About 12 percent said they had gone driving within two hours of their last bout of heavy drinking.

Of those drivers, more than half took the wheel after drinking in a bar, restaurant or other licensed establishment. And half of the drivers who left an establishment said they had seven or more drinks; a quarter said they'd had at least 10.

Some people can handle alcohol better than others, and eating food or drinking over several hours can soften alcohol's impact. But clearly 10 drinks is a lot, said James Fell of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, a national research organization focused on alcohol policy.

"Almost everybody's going to be intoxicated after 10 drinks," said Fell, who was not involved in the study.

Binge drinking is a main factor behind the more than 11,000 deaths annually from alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes, said Dr. Timothy Naimi, an epidemiologist with the CDC's alcohol program. He led the study, which was released Tuesday and will be in the October issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Nearly every state has a law that in theory prohibits licensed establishments from selling alcohol to drunk patrons. But most states don't have enough enforcement personnel to stop in on bars and watch for over-serving of customers.

"These are among the most disregarded laws in the country," Naimi said.

Without policing, there's little incentive for bars, clubs and restaurants to discourage drinking. Tips depend on keeping patrons happy and buying, noted Jim Mosher, a Washington, D.C.-based legal researcher and consultant on alcohol issues.

The American Beverage Institute, a restaurant trade association, had no immediate comment on the study Monday. The organization's Web site promotes efforts to apprehend and penalize drunk drivers, but also notes voluntary server training and other efforts by restaurants to discourage drunk driving.

The CDC study was based on a telephone survey done in 2003 and 2004, and some things have changed since then. Drunk driving fatalities have decreased, dropping nearly 10 percent from 2007 to 2008, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. There have also been a variety of efforts to reduce drunk driving including court-mandated devices that prevent a car from starting if a driver is drunk.

But most efforts focus on punishing the driver and not preventing drunk driving by focusing on those who enable it.

"The drinking location is really important," said Naimi. "We're trusting these licensed establishments to serve responsibly, and more than half of the intoxicated people who drive have been drinking in these places."

A follow-up survey in 2008 found the situation hadn't changed, he added. Those results haven't yet been released.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


We are past the arbitrary but, perhaps, psychologically significant one year marker of Rachel’s death. A year of grief. It has been like climbing the Sierras from the central valley towards Nevada. Mountains beyond mountains. Sometimes we didn’t know if we could make it, or if we even wanted to, but we kept putting one foot in front of the other, one step at a time. We leaned on each other for support, carried each other along when we only wanted to lie down and sleep in the snow.

We are not “over” it, and we never will be. We have only made it over the most physically demanding part of the journey. 

We are sadder now than we have ever been. It is a deep, abiding sadness, that characterizes our lives. Though we don’t cry as much as we used to, we face a thousand reminders a day that we will never see our beautiful daughter again in this world. We want to touch the little beauty marks on her face; we want to smell her hair and kiss the top of her head; we want to hear her laugh. But that can never be. We don’t want to get out of bed and face the day. What is the point, now? Wake us up when it is over...

It is as if we have made it over the mountains only to be faced with a measureless expanse of desert stretching before us. We can never go back, but why go on through this wasteland? Is there a promised land just beyond the unreachable horizon? Is Rachel waiting for us over there?

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Talitha, Kum!

This chapter in our lives began, as every day does, with our morning reading. The day we learned Rachel had been killed began with a reading from the book of Ezra. It is a passage I believe God had prepared especially for us to guide us on our journey:

“When the builders completed the foundation of the Lord’s Temple, the priests put on their robes and took their places to blow their trumpets. And the Levites, descendants of Asaph, clashed their cymbals to praise the Lord, just as king David had prescribed. With praise and thanks, they sang this song to the Lord:

‘He is so good!

His faithful love for Israel endures forever!’

Then all the people gave a great shout, praising the Lord because the foundation of the Lord’s Temple had been laid.

But many of he older priests, Levites, and other leaders who had seen the first Temple wept aloud when they saw the new Temple’s foundation. The others, however, were shouting for joy. The joyful shouting and weeping mingled together in a loud noise that could be heard far in the distance.”

It is an accurate depiction of our conflicting emotions - grieving for what we have lost, rejoicing for what Rachel has gained - the two mingled together in an indistinguishable cry.

But there is a reminder for us in that passage as well, a reminder that is a challenge for us to affirm the goodness and the faithful love of God through the worst circumstances of our lives. In moments of doubt and confusion, we have chosen to embrace the love and goodness of God. God is love. A drunken woman killed Rachel; that woman was not doing God’s will.


Jill and I are a little off in our Bible reading. We came to the passage for February 21st a few days ahead of schedule. I suspected there would be something significant for us there. We were not disappointed. The passage in our Bible that day was from Mark Chapter 5, the story of Jairus’ daughter.

Jairus, the leader of the local synagogue had a daughter who was gravely ill. He put aside whatever objections he may have had to Jesus’ teachings and His claim to be the Son of God, and begged Him to heal his daughter. Jesus agreed to go with Jairus to heal his daughter, but on the way He was delayed by the pressing crowd with their desperate needs, including a hopeless woman afflicted for twelve years with an incurable hemorrhage. She touches the hem of his robe and is healed instantly. A bleeding woman was considered unclean, and she was not to put herself in path of a holy man. To her surprise, when she confessed her presumption, Jesus reassured her: “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace. You have been healed.”

Delayed by this encounter, messengers inform Jairus that his daughter has died and that there is no point in troubling the teacher any further. I can imagine that moment. The last hope dashed. Jesus, though, is unfazed by the tragic news, and encourages Jairus, “Don’t be afraid. Just trust Me.” I don’t know how Jairus felt about those words, but they did continue on to Jairus’ house.

When they get there, the house is fully involved in grief. Jesus cracks the mourners up by telling them they are sadly mistaken: “The child isn’t dead; she is only asleep.”

He tells the scoffers to wait outside. He takes the grieving father and mother and three of his disciples into the little girl’s room. He takes her by the hand and commands her to arise. She does, and the parents are ecstatic. The family is whole again.

I can see how someone would see this as a slap in the face: The story of a daughter brought back to life while our daughter’s ashes sit in an urn on our bedroom dresser. I could look at it that way. But I believe there is a comforting message there for us, a message about faith and hope and love: “Your faith has made you well...Go in peace...Don’t be afraid. Just trust Me...The child isn’t dead; she is only asleep...Little girl, arise!” 

Our hope is resurrection. It is a living hope, the hope that gives us strength to go on living.

“If our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world. But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died...The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

Thursday, February 26, 2009

February 21

What can I say about February 21st, except that we survived. It was not a day to celebrate, and most of the day we were preoccupied trying not to think about what was most on our minds.

We wanted to spend the day doing something that would honor Rachel and celebrate life. After we spent a little time lingering in bed while we drank our coffee and read the latest issue of The Sun magazine, I made an appointment to donate blood at BloodSource in Chico. Rachel received a scholarship from BloodSource for her efforts organizing blood drives on campus at Orland High School, and donating blood was one of the things Rachel and I shared.  Jill is ineligible for the time being because of the tattoo she got in honor of Rachel.  I would love to know what she thinks of her mother getting a tattoo. I am sure she would approve. 

I had forgotten about the drive into Chico. Because it was exactly one year later, the world looked as it did when we received the news of Rachel’s death: breaking into the blossom of early spring. Spring, with its promise of life, and the beauty of new beginnings...

The road into Chico is the road I was on when Jill called me with the news that Rachel was missing. While she was talking to me, she was visited by police chief Bob Pasero with the news that Rachel was “gone.” The way to BloodSource takes me past the exact spot on the road when I answered the phone and the exact spot I learned that Rachel was dead. It takes me past the exact spot I turned around to go back home, where everything had changed and nothing would ever be the same. How often I have wondered how life would have been if that call had never been necessary, and I could have driven past that otherwise unremarkable spot in the road and into the  life that lay ahead, the life that included my daughter’s loving presence and her bright future. There are no roadside monuments to mark those spots in the road where my life was changed, but they are indelibly carved in my mind...

After I gave blood, Jill and I spent some time at the Chico Farmers’ Market. For us, a visit to the Farmer’s Market is always an uplifting experience. There is laughter and fellowship and beauty and an abundance of life. Whether we need produce or not, just to stroll past the vendor’s stalls and look at the fruit of their partnership with earth and to observe people enjoying themselves and one another and the miracle of another day of life is ample reason to justify a visit. There is always a positive energy that pervades the atmosphere at the Farmers’ Market, but, with spring in the air, it was almost palpable. We left refreshed, lighter in spirit.

Unexpectedly, we had lunch with a man we became acquainted with through Rachel’s involvement with the Every 15 Minutes program when she was a senior in high school. At that program Daryl Spessard described his experience losing his daughter Andrea to a drunk driver. Rachel lingered after the program was over to thank Daryl for his presentation and to express her sympathy for the loss of his daughter. Daryl remembered Rachel’s compassion, and he attended her memorial service in Orland and has made a point of making himself available to assist us in our grief. Daryl remembered the significance of February 21st for us, and he arranged to meet us for lunch at a favorite cafe in Chico, Flo’s. Daryl encouraged Jill and I to participate in a Smart Start driver’s education program the following Wednesday night, to share Rachel’s story.

Lunch with Daryl seemed a fitting end to our visit to Chico. It was beginning to cloud up after a beautiful morning and early afternoon. We thought we should head back home. We took the back roads through the countryside to take full advantage of the spectacle of the blossoming almond orchards.  It was a sad day, to be sure, but not worse than we feared. We took the time to appreciate the goodness to be found, and we felt better for doing it. 

Saturday, February 14, 2009


Jill and I made a pilgrimage to New Mexico recently. We get away annually at the beginning of February to celebrate our anniversary. Last year, our 20th, we spent close to home, at a bed and breakfast (The Grateful Bed) in Chico. It was our last “happy” memory. A few short days after we returned we got the news that Rachel had been killed.

We chose New Mexico this year for several reasons: first, we had always wanted to visit Santa Fe - everyone we know who has been there (mostly artists themselves) rave about the amazing art that can be seen there. And the adobe. And the sky...Everything we heard was true - and more. We weren’t adequately prepared for the food...If you go there, bring your appetites! 

Secondly, we wanted to visit the Memorial of Perpetual Tears, recently opened in Moriarty, New Mexico, to honor victims of DWI traffic fatalities. Maribeth Robison, my aunt, and her husband, Jim, just “happen” to live around the corner from the memorial site. Maribeth volunteers there creating beautiful memorial pages for an on-site book of remembrance. 

The Memorial sits just off Interstate 40 between Albuquerque and points east. It was the vision and labor of love of Sonja Britton whose beloved son, Monty, was killed by a drunk driver in 1991. Since 1994, Sonja has been working to realize her dream of dedicating a memorial to the victims of DWI, a place to honor, to remember, and to heal. With the help of local and state legislators, dedicated donors, and volunteers, the Memorial of Perpetual Tears serves as a constant reminder to drivers traveling the Interstate of the tragic and irreversible consequences of choosing to drink and drive. While the Memorial was originally conceived to honor New Mexican victims, Sonja’s vision couldn’t stop there. She dreams of a National Monument on site. The only thing keeping her from realizing that dream is money...

Jill and I recently attended a lecture by Terry Tempest Williams where she discussed her new book “Finding Beauty In A Broken World,” which describes her journey to Rwanda to make mosaics with the victims and survivors of the genocidal horrors that occurred there in 1994. It was a symbolic, but very real, healing act, to create something of beauty out of the broken shards scattered around them. I was reminded of this when Jill and I stood and talked to Sonja in the newly opened visitor’s center at the Memorial of Perpetual Tears. There, in the middle of the floor is an inlaid tile mosaic depicting a tear.

It is a strange and twisted set of circumstances that brought us to the site of the Memorial of Perpetual Tears on February 7, 2009. Needless to say, we wouldn’t have been there except for the twisted set of circumstances that led to the event of February 21, 2008, the day Rachel’s life was taken by a drunk driver. We would give anything for Rachel’s life and for our lives to have made our trip to the Memorial of Perpetual Tears inconceivable. But this is the real shape of our lives. Our hope now, as Sonja Britton has done, is to make some beauty out of the brokenness.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

90 Seconds In Hell

Shortly after Rachel was killed we had an encounter with a book called 90 Minutes In Heaven by Don Piper. He was pronounced dead at the scene of a traffic collision and visited heaven before he was restored to his body in this world.We were given the book by some friends who had lost their son about 10 years ago now. Just after we read the book, we heard that the author was scheduled to give a presentation in Chico on Easter Sunday. It seemed like a divine appointment, so Jill and I went with Erik and Rachel’s boyfriend Jeff. Easter was a hard day, coming as it did so soon after Rachel’s passing, but the talk was hopeful. There were many things I brought home that night that have helped me through this difficult, but hearing of the miraculous work of God in Don’s life that enabled him to be there that night made us all wonder why there was no miracle for Rachel, or for us...But I know that Don would say life in God’s presence is not second best.

Anyway, the other day I had a small breakthrough, and I have been feeling better the last few days. I had written my friend Ray about it, and sent him a quote I had read in The Sun Magazine about living with the awareness that everything and everyone is “already broken.” The writers, Stephen & Ondrea Levine (from Who Dies?) relates the story of a spiritual teacher taking the breaking of a drinking glass in stride. His reaction to the breaking of the glass is “Of course!” It is inevitable that a glass will eventually break, and so we should not be surprised or distressed when it happens. We should use that awareness to heighten our appreciation of the glass. Similarly, we all know humans are not built to last. We and our love ones will pass from this life, and the wise thing to do is come to grips with this fact and live our lives accordingly.

“If we lived our lives as though we were already dead, how much time would there be for self protection and the re-creation of ancient mirages? Only love would be appropriate, only truth.”

They are beautiful words. I acknowledged the truth of them, and I was immediately tested.

I wake Erik up every morning at 6:00 to get ready for school. I generally tap lightly on his door, and he wakes right up - he is a pretty light sleeper and a relatively early riser (for a teen-ager). Monday morning he didn’t respond when I knocked on his door. I knocked again. I knocked again, louder. When there was still no response I opened the door and called his name. I turned the light on dimly and called again. I turned the light on full brightness and yelled his name. I could see his form motionless under his blanket. I was trying to see if there was any movement at all. I couldn’t tell. I started to get light-headed and weak. I couldn’t believe this was happening. How could a perfectly healthy young man wake up dead? How was I going to tell Jill? I stared into the abyss. I was right on the edge. I was afraid to touch him. If he didn’t respond, then I would really have to face the fact that he was dead. I shook him and called his name. He woke up with a smile on his face. He had no idea I was standing at the gates of hell.

To see him respond was such a relief I almost fell to the floor. My heart hurt and I felt weak all day.

Some parents do wake up and find their children have passed in the night. But it isn’t normally the first possibility that enters your mind when your teenager fails to wake up at first knock in the morning on a school day. But that is where our heads are at now. Our confidence in the predictability and safety of the routine is gone. Children can walk out the door and never come back; children can go to sleep and not wake in this world. The worst thing can happen, and it can happen again and again. There is no immunity. There is no security. The horrors that pass through your mind cannot not be ignored: they are real possibilities. 

All I can tell you is that the breaking of a glass is not the same as the breaking of a child. Yes, they are both impermanent things in this world as it is. But a human being is many orders of magnitude more precious, and I cannot imagine accepting the loss with equanimity - even if I wanted to. There is wisdom in living with the constant awareness that now is all we have, that life is short and no amount of love is ever enough. But when your child is shattered by the blunt force trauma of a collision with an SUV piloted by an intoxicated driver or simply fails to wake up one morning, there is no denying or escaping the living hell that awaits you. I want to be a noble-minded philosopher, but I have a daddy’s heart.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

3:30 am

Rachel was pronounced dead at 3:30 am. I know that this is an official time and that her spirit more likely left her body shortly after she was hit head-on by a drunk driver at around 12:30 am. The people on duty at the hospital told us that though her body was young and healthy and strong by the time she arrived there was really no hope of saving her life. At that point they were only trying to preserve her body so that they could harvest any salvageable organs. Rachel wanted to be an organ donor and had indicated her wish on her drivers license. Unfortunately, Rachel’s body was so badly damaged by the impact, there was nothing they could save. She was denied even that awful last wish.

It is remarkable that a person as young as Rachel would have the presence of mind to consider and record her intent to donate her organs in case of sudden death. Considering Rachel’s intention to become a forensic scientist, though, I guess it really is not too unexpected. I remember when she asked me if she could donate her organs and if I could help her register when she turned 16 and got her driver’s license. Of course I didn’t want to consider the actual possibility, and I thought at the time that to assent would really be agreeing to nothing. I could be the good guy and say “yes” and not have to live with any real change (unlike, say, agreeing to letting her get her nose pierced). She was surprised to learn that I had already filled out an organ donor card. 

I cannot find the words to express what it is like for a father to contemplate the fact of his little girl’s shattered body. I was not there when it happened. I did not see her body, and maybe that is a mercy. I would have been there if I could, even if it had killed me (and I think it would have). There was nothing I could do to save or help her. We weren’t even aware she had been killed until hours after it had happened. We were denied the horrific privilege of attending our daughter’s passing from this life as we attended her entrance.

For days after the wreck, I would lay in bed, wide awake, and listen to my heart pounding in my chest. I marveled it had the strength to make such a commotion, suffering as it was. How do you sleep after such a thing? How do you eat? How do you drink or carry on with a hundred other ordinary, insignificant tasks? Why? We tried to eat and sleep because we knew we must. We pantomimed normal life, knowing nothing would ever be normal again. We were victims of some hideous, debilitating disfigurement, but, somehow, the rest of world was oblivious to our condition.

When I did fall asleep, I would wake up promptly at 3:30 in a panic, my heart pounding against the mattress. It felt like a betrayal to sleep, knowing my daughter needed me. But I was too late; I had already missed her. I had slept through her hour of need, like Jesus’ friends in the garden. 

In desperation, I would pray. Everyone I cared for was suffering because of Rachel’s death, so there was plenty of need. I thought that if the enemy was keeping me awake to accuse me of being a crappy father who could not protect or help his daughter, I would spoil his fun by spending the time in prayer. Even if that wasn’t the case, I felt it was something I could do in the darkest hours of the night. And sometimes, the exercise would calm my heart enough that I could go back to sleep. 

11 months after the wreck, I still wake at 3:30 in the morning. I open my eyes and the digital numbers glare back at me from the clock on the night stand, an accusation. My heart doesn’t pound anymore like it did when the wounds were fresh, but there is a heaviness I can’t shake...and dreams that haunt me. I pray to save my own life and for my dearest loved ones who still suffer and have not found their footing. I pray for the truth to be revealed about exactly what happened February 21, 2008. I pray for a change in America, so that fathers like me can lay in bed in the darkest hours of the night knowing that their children are safe from harm from drunk drivers. As far as I am concerned THAT is the change we need.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Everything Happy Makes Me Sad...

President Barack Obama


     Today I pulled my truck over to the side of a country road and listened as Barack Obama took the oath of office and gave his inaugural address. Maybe it sounds silly, but I couldn’t hold back my tears. It was an historic moment for America, regardless of politics.


     At one point President Obama quoted scripture and said that “the time has come that we set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.” I believe he means what he says. I believe there is hope. I want to see America live up to the bright, but often broken, promise of her principles.

     I cried today because I was happy and that made me sad. Sad because I could not share this momentous occasion with Rachel. Sad because this would have been Rachel's first time to vote in a presidential election, and she was denied that privelege. Sad because, though I believe we can and will deliver the “great gift of future generations” if we put our hearts and our hands to the project, it will not be for Rachel or her children. For Rachel and for her children and her children’s children that gift was forever denied by a drunk driver.

     I still love America. I still care about this world and the welfare of those who inhabit it, though my precious girl is gone from it. The whole world is rejoicing. It is a good day. I am glad I have lived to see it. But everything happy now makes me sad...

Saturday, January 17, 2009

To Pray Or Not To Pray

"...theology must not try to be any clearer about God than God is about Himself." Mike Mason, The Gospel According To Job

Grief is a wicked cocktail: loss, pain, confusion.  All thoroughly mixed up. 

Would good theology make our grief any easier, I wonder? Would answers ease us into acceptance?

We keep coming back to the same old nagging questions. We admit that God did not cause Rachel to die. We acknowledge that a selfish, drunken woman killed her. But did God allow it to happen? That is the unavoidable issue of the Book of Job that we are studying in our Sunday School class. Job did not deserve to suffer, any more and probably much less than any other merely human that has ever walked this earth. His suffering was “caused” by the devil working through natural, human and spiritual agents. But it is also made clear that God allowed it. Satan had to get God’s permission in order to “test” Job with horrific loss and pain.

The night Rachel was killed, her car failed to start. It had never failed to start before. She and her friend Andre waited and tried to start her car three times before they finally succeeded, delaying Rachel’s departure for half an hour. If the car had started on the first or second attempt, she would be here with us now. If it had failed to start the third time, she would be here with us now. It is a seemingly small thing for God to accomplish: the timing of the ignition of an automobile. Of course, we did not pray that prayer specifically, but we did pray daily for Rachel’s safety. We prayed for her safety early in the morning of February 21, 2008, not knowing she was already dead.

Either God can answer prayer or He can’t. Either God does answers prayer, or He doesn’t. If He can’t or He doesn’t, why are we enjoined to pray? If He can and does then why did He choose to disregard our dearest request, the one we most cared about in this world? We are not perfect, and neither was Rachel, but none of us deserved this. If God can’t be trusted with our “big prayers,” our most heartfelt desires, why waste our breath nagging Him with the insignificant details?

I don’t have the answers. When I don’t understand, all I can do is fall back on what I do know. God did not rescue His own Son from the plans or the hands of evil men though He cried out to His Father to be delivered. We have to conclude that either God is so ineffectual that He could not even help His own beloved Son, or else He chose to allow it. Could we be callous enough to suggest He didn’t care? That would be contrary to what we know of parental instincts. We love our children. We are concerned for their welfare. We do everything in our power to keep them from coming to harm and to spare them unnecessary pain. God, if He is God, must be at least as good a parent as we are.

Of course, God has a plan. But did it have to be this way? 

Evil is a choice. Goodness is a choice. We can choose to work with God to build His kingdom or we can work against Him. God often accomplishes His purposes in spite of the choices we make. He uses the very worst intent of the most evil of His rebellious creatures to achieve His good purposes. There is some mysterious alchemy here we cannot fathom.

My daughter is killed by a wicked woman. God’s Son is killed by wicked men. I can’t imagine God scrambling behind the scenes for a contingency plan. I don’t think it works like chess with each player constantly adjusting their game in response to their opponent - God backed into a corner, wondering what move to make next, sacrificing pawns to achieve His ultimate conquest...

The questions are too big, and too confusing. My mind is stretched beyond my capacity to follow my own crooked line of reasoning. 

I must resign myself to the fact that I am not God. And I am not big enough or smart enough to judge Him.

Maybe we don’t have to understand. If we did, God would probably have made us smarter than we are, with eyes good enough to see a bigger picture.

I fall back on what I do know - what I have been taught and what I have learned through experience.

The morning Rachel was killed, Jill and I read in our One Year Bible that “God is good. His faithful love endures forever.” We choose to accept or reject that statement, and we are confronted with it again and again in the Bible - and in our own lives. I have learned it is a matter of faith. When the evidence of our experience doesn’t correspond with the truth God has revealed about Himself, we have a choice to make. Like Nicolas Cage to Diane Kruger in National Treasure, God is asking, “Do you trust Me?” 

“ the evidence of things not seen.”

I had a conversation soon after Rachel’s death with a good friend of mine, Josh Moreland. I explained to him that I had grieved the death of my best friend, Erik Kolar,  rejecting God, (not that He wasn’t there and ready to embrace me - In my anger and pain I rejected the comfort of His loving presence). And I had grieved the death of my sister, Vanessa Elliott, embracing Him. I have learned it is better to grieve with faith in God’s goodness and love than without it. It is better to trust in Him than to trust in myself. 

I don’t know why God allowed my daughter to be killed by a drunken fool. I think it may just be part of the bargain of being. My contention is that I would be offended by any possible explanation. No reason would be good enough for me to allow my daughter to be killed. I am not God...or Abraham even. I would not sacrifice my daughter to achieve any conceivable good. Myself maybe, but not her. 

I think it is better that I do not know. I let the question go. Perhaps, someday, with better eyes I will see, with a better mind I will understand. But I resign myself to the fact that I may never know. Rachel is God’s daughter; I ascribe more significance to my contribution than I deserve to take credit for her life. 

What I have learned is that presence is better than understanding. When we are in pain we need comfort, not a lecture. That is why Job’s friends were better to him in their silence than in their speech.

Job never understood what was happening to him. He was never given any answers, and the deaths of his children were never justified. Nevertheless, Job clung to God in the darkness for dear life. Of the people who speak in the book, only Job bothers to pray. He continues to pray, and his prayers are not nice, Sunday School prayers.

I believe God is good. I believe His faithful love endures forever. I believe He loves me and He loves Rachel. I don’t understand, but I will cling to Him in spite of my confusion. I pray because it reminds me of my dependence on God for everything I have and am. I pray because prayer reminds me of His loving presence. And that is a comfort.

As Job said, “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  Amen.


I went back to bed and slept in the middle of writing this. I dreamed of an angel telling me, “learning is the head catching up with the heart. You are learning,” she said, and she smiled a beaming, beautiful and loving smile, the kind of smile that blesses your whole day. 

I know: it is only a dream...

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Tiniest Light

The holidays are behind us now. We dreaded them in advance, and they pretty much lived up to our expectations. Christmas morning I was a wreck. Jill and I got out of bed and I wandered around the house in tears, trying not to spoil anyone’s day.

Every year for the previous nine years I have purchased mint sets of the five 50 State Quarters released over the previous year for Rachel and Erik and my two nephews, Levi and Samuel. It was my tribute to my grandfather, William Travis Temple, who was an avid coin collector. We spent many happy and memorable times together searching for coins with a metal detector on the beach (mostly we found pop-tops from soda and beer cans). When the US Mint began the program I thought it would be fun for the kids to look forward to building their collection as the years went by. This year was the tenth and final release of the 50 State Quarters program. I didn’t get to give Rachel her final set. 

I purchased a set for Rachel anyway. I couldn’t not do it. We had hung Rachel’s stocking in the usual place. I put the 2008 State Quarters Mint set in her stocking, and it was the only thing in it this year (I should have put a box of Andes in there also, because that was always a non-negotiable treat in her stocking). I didn’t know what else to do. It probably sounds crazy, but it was the only way I could think to send a message of love to my daughter this Christmas. 

Well, that set me off, and I struggled all morning to keep my composure. Of course, I couldn’t hide it from Jill. As much as I hate to admit it, she reads me like a book. We held each other in our bedroom, standing beside our dresser, crying. Ida, our family dog, is very sensitive to our emotions. She came and sat our feet, obviously in distress. Just when we thought we weren’t going to make it through the day, Ida farted. The noise surprised even her, and she turned around to see where it had come from. Our tears turned to laughter, our moods were lightened, and, I think, the day was rescued from the brink of complete disaster. God works in mysterious ways.

From “Concerning The Book Which Is The Body Of The Beloved”

by Gregory Orr

If deepest grief is hell

When the animal self

Wants to lie down

In the dark and die also...

If deepest grief is hell,

Then the world returning

(Not soon, not easily)

Must be heaven.

The joke you laughed at

Must be heaven.

Or the funny thing

The cat did

At its food dish.


Guides you back

To the world.

That dark so deep

The tiniest light

Will do.