For many people, there are days which standout to them throughout their entire lives. It may be a wedding date, the birth of a child, their retirement date etc., All of these most certainly have significance and are understandably carved into their psyche. While I also enjoy our wedding anniversary, and of course birth dates, there remains a date which has divided time. August 24, 1997 remains the great day of reckoning for me.
That day fell on a Sunday. Our family had been home from church for just a couple of hours. My wife had taken her brother home to a neighboring town and I was at home with our three young sons. It was shaping up to be a typically hot day in southern Georgia. We had finished our lunch and two of my boys wanted to go outside to play. I remember distinctly standing sideways in the doorway as they squeezed through and ran outside.
I decided that while my wife was away, I’d chip in and started cleaning the dishes and kitchen. Yes, ladies, there are a few southern gentlemen who don’t mind helping from time to time. The Nascar Truck series race was just beginning. That was a bit unusual for the Truck series to be run on Sundays but on this particular weekend, Nascar’s Cup race had been on Saturday night. I mention this only because I see in retrospect how God smiled at me through an unlikely detail. I was a huge Nascar fan in those days, but also, the only one in our family.
That meant that when I watched the race, I usually did so alone. That was okay. We had a small TV in our bedroom and I didn’t mind. That particular Saturday night, to my surprise, our youngest son, Mathew, who was only three years old at the time, walked into the room and climbed up onto the bed beside me and watched the race until he fell asleep. This was so unlike Mathew. He was a ball of energy, constantly keeping pace with his older brothers and often, getting the upper hand. For him to come lay down with me, to watch a race of all things, was entirely out of character. As I think back on it, I see it as a gift from the Lord.
Now fast forward back to Sunday afternoon. As I was taking care of some cleanup in the kitchen, one of our sons came back into the house looking for Mathew. My heart sank. We had an above ground pool in our backyard. It was fenced in and had a deck around it. It was only a few steps from our back door. I ran immediately to the glass sliding door and to my horror, I saw Mathew floating facedown in the pool.
The pool gate was open, which didn’t register with me at the time, but in what seemed only a moment, I was there at poolside, pulling my baby boy from the water. Fear. Terror. Desperation; all at once it consumed me. His eyes weren’t focused and his body was limp. ‘Fortunately,’ living in a small town, the local hospital was literally a hundred yards away. I put Mathew over my shoulder and ran and hard as I could through the ER doors. Again, it seemed like Providence, there was no waiting and a doctor was right there. They took Mathew immediately into an examination room and went to work.
When he left my arms, I collapsed into a corner, on my knees and without shame began to pray openly and desperately to God. I was made to leave the exam room as they were working so I got to a phone, and called our church on the wild hope that at 2 Pm on a Sunday, someone, anyone, might answer. Sure enough, a friend, also named Matt picked up the phone and I gave him the message in seconds, ‘please get in contact with everyone you can and ask them to pray for Mathew. We’re in the ER!”
I went back to my pleading with God for His mercy. I quoted every Scripture I could think of. I made every deal imaginable. “If only You will…If only You will…” The ER lobby began to fill with our church family. They rushed in, asked no questions, but gathered around me on the floor. their arms around my shoulders, joining in desperate prayer. I didn’t dare to hesitate. I didn’t want to draw a breath that was wasted on anything but a plea to God. I kept my head bowed, my eyes tightly shut, confessing everything I thought that could be a hindrance to our prayers. There must have been 15 or 20 of us at the time. We were just a huddled mass of people praying in unison, our faces tear soaked. Above it all, I heard the sound of the swinging door open. I kept praying. There was silence. That wasn’t good. I kept praying, not daring to even pause. I could sense footsteps approaching, still without any words. I kept my head down, my eyes squeezed shut, ‘PLEASE GOD! PLEASE GOD!’
The next sound I was aware of was the snap of latex gloves as they were being peeled away. Then I heard the words that still bring tears to my eyes, ‘we did all we could.’ I lost control. There would be no consoling me. I ran into the exam room and there he was. Laying there on the bed, nurses standing there with their hands at their sides. No one was doing anything! I desperately tried to revive him myself, pressing on his chest, screaming and begging someone, ANYONE! PLEASE! DON’T GIVE UP! DON’T GIVE UP!
“I’m so sorry…” never seemed to mean so little as it did at that moment. By now my wife had returned from taking her brother home. She had no idea of what had happened. There were no cell phones in those days. I can’t explain the agony of having to tell her what was going on. We had been married eight years. We had been so blessed with three wonderful sons. Now this…
I couldn’t help but feel as though something had been severed from me. I imagine an amputation would feel similar. It was like, and remains even today, part of me had been torn away; not broken, but removed. I felt like I had been gutted like a fish. The sun had dimmed. There was no more warmth. Colors had lost their hue. A part of me died that day.
It would take a small book to thoroughly detail all of the events that followed, but to move on, our home was filled with friends and church family. At the time, we lived hundreds of miles from either of our families. Dutifully, yet sincerely as well, they each hugged us, and offered their own versions of hope and consolation as they also brought their dishes of food. “We don’t know why…you know he’s in a better place…,” all typical, well-meaning phrases that inundated us. We smiled as well as we were able, and thanked each one, but on the inside, none of those comments brought any comfort at all. We just nodded in agreement.
After the last one had gone, we looked at each other, realizing our family was now incomplete. We cried our eyes out. I remember laying in bed that night, dreading the horrible reality that we were about to attempt to close our eyes and sleep, knowing Mathew wasn’t with us. Just that morning, everything was fine. It now seemed perfect. I had joked with Mathew as I was getting him into his car seat in the church parking lot. He joked right back. We had no idea, no clue what that day would hold for us. Everything, forevermore, would be different.
I remember specifically sitting at our kitchen counter the following night. I had my Bible there in front of me. It was in these moments that I could look back and begin to sense that God had not abandoned us. We all experience pain and heartache from time to time. We’ve been betrayed and disappointed, but I’m not sure there is any pain that is quite like enduring the death of a child. There is no room for pretense or ambiguity. With my Bible there in front of me, I prayed to God with a broken, yet somehow bold spirit.
I thanked Him for all of the attempts at comfort from our friends but at the same time, I knew they were only happy thoughts and well wishes. Somehow, when it is your child, you hear with a different ear. I needed more than their kind consolations. I needed the truth and that is exactly what I said to the Lord. As I prayed, I amazingly confessed that I believed the truth was in that Bible. It was then that I began to realize the power and grace of God after all. How could I, having been denied the miracle I had begged for, still rely on a God that had seemed to turn a deaf ear to my pleas?
I can only explain it this way. Unbeknownst to me, through it all, He was holding my heart in His Own Hands. He was catching every tear and patiently listened as I screamed in torment, if only in my soul. Nothing was hidden from Him…And He loved me anyway. I asked Him to reveal to me whatever the truth was about our son. I had to have it, nothing else would do. I believed it was in that Bible, and if He would only show me, I would accept it.
Over the years that have followed, he has more than assured me of Mathew’s place. We are so comforted by the certainty that we will be reunited with him one day but additionally, He has shown me so much more. I had never imagined how great God is and how great His promises are. In a phone call to my parents, to give them the awful news, I was able to lead my own 62-year-old father to salvation. The world may have mocked my faith. It may have looked on and wondered where my God was while our son was drowning but in fact, Heaven gained TWO souls that day, forever. I have committed my life to preaching the everlasting Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. His Truth is such good news. It’s amazing at what it took to bring me to this point.
Twelve days from this writing will mark 17 years since time divided for me. But we are 17 years closer to that glorious day of eternal reunion, never to be separated again. Thank God Almighty for His Only Son Jesus Christ, and the eternal life He has purchased for us. If you don’t have it, I would so love the opportunity to talk with you and tell you just how good God truly is.