One September day in the late 1970’s, a family was traveling on a rare and much needed vacation. While stopped at a toll booth, the father leaned out the window, flinging the quarters into the bin. At that precise moment, a sleepy truck driver barreled into multiple vehicles, including this family’s stopped car, which burst into flames. Stunned, and momentarily unconscious, the adults fell from the car, burned. Their towheaded twenty-two-month-old was engulfed in his car seat, the plastic melting into his smooth skin.
A stranger, hearing the toddler’s screams, raced to the car and reached his bare arms inside, plucking the nearly dead little one from the inferno. He was alive, but barely. He was now charred beyond recognition. His skin was falling off his tiny frame in puddles as they waited for the ambulance.
Year’s later, on a warm summer’s day, when I was nine or so, our family drove into the city with relatives to enjoy a festival together. I would be meeting Joel, the little boy who had survived more than eighty surgeries after being burned from head to toe. His family were longtime friends of my aunt and uncle.
As we approached our meeting spot, my parents whispered: Be polite and Don’t stare, explaining that he looked different.
I was not prepared for what this meant. My heart was crushed for this little fellow. He had mere stumps for arms, and a type of surgeon-created claw for one hand. His face resembled someone adorned in a hockey mask with small slits for eyes. His mouth, not much bigger than a cheerio, was formed stiff in a surprised-shaped O.
People were pointing and staring; some openly laughing.
He looks like a monkey! a little boy shrieked, as his parents tugged him away.
Joel’s father remained calm, smiling wide and holding fast to his son, seated so high upon his shoulders. This is Joel, he offered, introducing him to my brother and me. I waved, and then didn’t know if that was okay, since he couldn’t really wave back.
Joel loves when people say hi! his father encouraged. And then, Wow, it’s hot! Let’s find some ice cream.
We followed behind, and in the midst of stares and ridiculing, Joel’s Dad strode forward, laughing and telling Joel about the beautiful day God had made, and how much fun it was to be outside together. His genuine cheer nestled deep within. Remember this, I thought.
We found a soft-serve stand, and I waited to see if Joel could even eat. His Dad lifted him down, tenderly placing him in a stroller. Then, taking the tip of the ice cream into his own mouth, and pulling upward, he created a thin, pencil-shaped tip to that vanilla cone. The perfect size for Joel’s tiny mouth.
And this is how he proceeded to share an entire ice cream cone with his boy. It was natural and steady and one of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed. Somehow I felt sorry for those kids making fun; it was Joel who was to be envied, with a father who clearly knew that he held the most precious of gifts upon his shoulders.
I was browning some ground beef last weekend, listening to it sizzle as I tossed in one finely diced onion, some garlic, salt, and pepper. Using a wooden spoon to turn the mixture, I held close the knowledge that this was the last dinner that I would prepare for our oldest son before his wedding. I asked him to choose any meal in the world.
Shepherd’s Pie, Mom?
Heart preparation is a good and holy chore, often necessary for life’s changes. As the mother-of-the-groom, I am swinging wide the doors of my heart. Memories are a fountain flowing daily, and as the ground beef cooked and the potatoes simmered, I remembered twenty-three-month-old Caleb sitting high upon my husband’s shoulders. We were at the park, and it was warm, and I was hugely due with our second baby. My husband jogged, holding our boy’s chunky hands tight, his golden hair bouncing, his baby laughter contagious. Father and son, enjoying the afternoon in perfect simplicity. People smiled at our handsome boy. I had no idea how quickly those days would pass.
As I mashed and salted the potatoes, I spoke truth to myself. Always, we begin again. Births and graduations and baptisms and weddings and funerals. God holds it all: the pain, the people, and the pleasure. It is our life’s work to follow him, holding fast to his robes; trusting.
So I was happy, stirring our son’s favorite dinner. And truthfully, a little bit sad, too. It is the end of an era.
A wedding sparkles: an adieu to the old, a breaking off of an established branch. The start of a new and beautiful family. Our son and his bride love God. It is lovely and right and good.
As I layered the shepherd’s pie: ground beef and spice, vegetables, cheese, mashed potatoes, I prayed for the layers of our family: our son, his new bride-to-be, our three other children, the hope of future grandchildren. Holding up our family as an offering, a fragrance pleasing to God. Every word we utter and love we share and forgiveness we cultivate matters deeply; weaving the fabric of family for generations to come. Fidelity to the Lord through both joys and trials.
And then I remembered Joel’s family. Their hearts did not have the luxury of time to prepare: one minute they were laughing and sailing out of town to grow memories, and a second later, life as they knew it had vanished. This too, is the Lord at work.
I can only imagine the weight of those surgeries, the sadness that could encompass their marriage and other children, the feelings of lost time and withered dreams. No time to slow down and grieve properly. One surgery after another followed by another. During those horrific years, God held them and carried them as they chose to trust and offer their son first to God and then to the often-cruel world, many times overlooking insults. Plodding through the promise that God’s Word never returns void. (Isaiah 55:11) He is always working: holding, pruning, loving, permitting us to walk next to him into the fellowship of suffering.
I read that Joel is a married man today, a pastor now with children of his own. He has traveled the world, sharing his story and the goodness of God with thousands.
This does not surprise me, because I was once that little girl, watching a God-fearing man love his burned little boy with both tenderness and strength. Joel’s father was weaving a tapestry that would warmly blanket his son; allowing him to flourish; pointing his boy to security in Christ. And really, is there anything richer than knowing that our children are forever safe with God?
We enjoyed that Shepherd’s Pie and hot coffee. I cherished small memories a mama’s heart holds close. Seeing the light in his eyes, the words of the future, and the smile so genuine provided lantern-light to my feet. Soon we will take the path that waves goodbye, and then, after a time, bids welcome to this precious family of two. A tapestry fashioned by God.