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 freedom...to 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?” 

“Faith...is 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.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

60 Minutes - DWI Deaths: Is it Murder?


60 Minutes ran a story Jan. 4, 2009 about the growing trend to prosecute traffic fatalities involving DWI offenders as second degree homicides. The story profiled New York state Nassau County District Attorney, Kathleen Rice, who has successfully prosecuted several high-profile DWI murder cases. DA Rice pushes for more severe DWI homicide penalties because "nothing else is working...People drink and drive because they're not afraid of the law, and they think they can get away with it." Stricter penalties are one necessary step in our efforts to change the culture and wake America up to the real consequences of DWI. Those who think that facing 10 years or more in prison for taking a life while driving under the influence is too severe are still under the inexcusable and convenient illusion that DWI is an accident (I didn't know if I pointed this gun in someone's face and pulled the trigger it would kill them!) and have no idea of how much harder it is to face a life sentence without their loved one. I applaud DA Rice's tough stand against the senseless and reckless disregard for human life. I hope her message will spread from coast to coast.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Prohibition VS. Prevention


This article tells the familiar story of how a habitual drunk continued to drink and drive until the inevitable tragedy finally played out. It illustrates the weaknesses of our current approach to dealing with DUI: convicted DUI offenders continue drinking and driving even when they have had their licenses revoked; drunks with impaired judgment and driving abilities continue to take the wheel and to the roads despite their awareness of the possible consequences.

Prohibition is a failed enterprise. As a nation, we have tried that and it didn’t work. Punishment has limited value as a deterrent. Drunk people have poor judgment by definition and cannot be relied upon to make responsible life and death choices. Tough regulations and punishments are small consolation for a family deprived of their loved one.

  Education is necessary, but despite the well publicized consequences of DUI, people, because they are human, continue to make bad choices. Sex education in schools, for instance, hasn’t improved the incidence of unplanned pregnancy or STD’s. We need to educate because it will influence a few, and we need to eliminate the excuse of ignorance completely. 

Prevention is the only satisfactory and effective answer.  We need to make it physically impossible to get behind the wheel of an automobile while impaired by anything: sleep deprivation, prescription pharmaceuticals, illegal drugs...as well as alcohol. The technology is in development and could be available quickly if we as a people decided it was a priority.  Check this article out to see a system already under development by Nissan.


I envision a day when driver impairment detection systems like this are standard equipment in automobiles, like seat belts and air bags are now. Rachel’s seat belt did not save her life. Rachel’s air bag did not save her life. A driver impairment detection system that prevented the woman that killed my daughter from driving her deadly SUV while intoxicated would have saved Rachel’s life. Now I want the woman to suffer, as we suffer, severe, costly, painful, and permanent consequences for what she did to my daughter. But, to put it mildly, I would be so much happier if the tragedy had been prevented in the first place.

Of course, systems like this will add costs to new vehicles. Consumers, automakers and legislators will object. We have to speak louder. We have to make them look us in the eyes and explain why their money is more precious than our lives and the lives of our loved ones.

Even when, eventually, these systems are included as standard equipment, there will be a long period of time when responsible drivers who drive new vehicles will be imperiled by irresponsible drivers who still own old vehicles unequipped with the new technologies. Drunks will continue to plow their old cars into innocent, law abiding citizens. We will have to continue the fight to educate, legislate, prosecute and punish until all those old automobiles have been scrapped and DUI is no longer a threat to us and our loved ones. 

There will be lots of little steps to take before this dream is achieved, but, I believe, step by step it can, must, and will be done.