“911. What is your emergency?” – Prosper dispatcher
“”Family, we have a choice here. We can either react by going down because of this or we can respond by rising above it. We will choose the latter.
Do you know who that was? It was Jesus” – Braden’s Dad
“Mom and Dad. I’m proud y’all have responded by running towards Jesus rather than reacting and running away. Christ wants you to respond to His call, acknowledging Him as God’s only Son, worthy of your worship even in the firestorm of tragedy. I love you all so much”. – Braden
One year ago, I thought of the local fire department as those Gung-Ho guys who drove through town at all hours of day or night, running traffic lights while blaring extremely loud sirens and honking their horns (Not unlike the typical high school teen when you think about it).
I didn’t realize they lived almost half their working years away from their families on 24 hour shifts three times each week while training every day to become more effective at their jobs. I didn’t stop to think much at all about the impact their job must have on them emotionally and mentally. Especially, calls like ours to 911 that day. I think about it all the time now.
After October 30, I came to better know them as husbands and fathers just like me. Sharing a “trench” of tragedy together, I’m now honored to count several of these men as friends and extended family. We honor these noble men and women and those who have even sacrificed their lives in the line of duty.
This week I watched a Facebook-live feed being broadcast from downtown Dallas on an iPhone held by Prosper Fire Chief, Stuart Blasingame. He recorded almost an hour to honor lost brethren: fallen first responders in the doomed World Trade Center towers on lower Manhattan Island on the anniversary of our country being attacked by terrorists on 9-11-2001. Watching his crew and hundreds of north Texas first responders moved me deeply.
I found the timing appropriate to write our interwoven stories about our son and these heroes who serve to protect as they respond at all hours of the night and day, running red lights and honking horns.
In Prosper on every police and emergency vehicle you will find boldly emblazoned the phrase, “In God We Trust”. We share the very same faith and therefore, we trust in our community servants as well.
God bless and protect all first responders, police officers, and firefighters around the globe. Prayers today over the fallen heroes and their families. NEVER FORGOTTEN.
The following is how this past year’s journey began for our family. We’ve tried to recount as best possible but to be honest it’s hard to do justice in written form to all the “God Moments”. I pray perhaps even a small ray of hope will shine through darkness to readers in need right this very moment.
October 30, 2018
2:34PM. I know the time since it’s etched into my smartphone history. I was in a training class to re-learn a job I’d chosen to step into just 30 days prior.
Cathy knew not to call during the training sessions since I couldn’t leave the room. Texting was our only mode of communication. So why was she calling?
Knowing the call must be time-sensitive, I ran to exit the training room into the hallway with my heart rising into my throat. “Cathy, what is…” The voice on the other end of the line interrupted and was garbled. It didn’t even sound human. “Cathy what is it, what’s going on?” Honestly, I intuitively knew without her being able to verbalize it. Finally, one relatively clear phrase came out as a scream:
“COME HOME NOW!” The phone went dead…
My office campus is in Richardson, Texas. A commute to Prosper is thirty minutes at best and an hour at worst. With pre-rush hour traffic, the drive home at 100mph was less than twenty-five minutes. Yet it was the longest drive of my life. I couldn’t fathom what lie ahead. Cathy wasn’t answering the phone so I called our neighbor, Karla Tinebra who finally answered.
“Karla. Are you with Cathy?” “Yes. Mark, please just get home”.
“Is it what I think?”
Long silence… then, “Yes”.
The question I didn’t want to ask nor did I wish to have answered.
“Karla… is he… gone?”
Long silence… “Mark… Oh Mark.” Hesitatingly and tearfully, the subdued response was, “Yes. Mark, I’m so sorry”.
My mouth was instantly bone dry. My grip on the wheel could have snapped a tree in half. I just kept whispering a quiet scream aloud, “God please let there be a miracle. Make this a terrible nightmare”. But it wasn’t a dream/nightmare like I would have later. It was horrifically palpable and real. How could our 18 year old baby boy be, “Gone”?
I had to mentally prepare for the scene when I turned onto our street. I had to put on a brave and strong mask. To be strong for Cathy and Caitlin. I couldn’t cry. That would only confirm that this nightmare was real. I wasn’t ready for that just yet.
Like the scene at the Brownfield Regional Hospital when I was only ten, watching my brother’s 15 year old girlfriend dying in front of us, there are scenes the memory can’t purge. That’s true of my arrival at our home. Fire and rescue vehicles, and police squad cars with silent flashing lights were lined up for a half block and partially around the next.
I always park next to the garage, but vehicles blocked the drive so I parked in front, as a guest would, and walked up the steps to the front door. No one said a word, but I sensed each first responder was silently praying and thinking, “What would I feel like had I gotten this father’s call?” Yet they are the only people I recall being there. Several of these men stood in respectful silence. Yellow police tape strewn across the front yard and the front porch. This was my baby and they’ve put out police tape. Unthinkable.
Strikingly, as I recall this surreal experience, not one neighbor was there to gawk at our tragic spectacle. Not even one. You see, they were in their homes, discreet and careful to respect our privacy and to not speculate. Primarily to simply pray.
The neighbors present on that dark scene weren’t there to stare at a distance but rather to hold us close and to pray. To bring us into their hearts and weep with us. Each one to this day knows of whom I’m thinking.
Prosper fire Assistant Chief, Shaw Eft nodded a somber greeting at the door as he lifted the tape to allow access. At the top of the stairs with sunlight pouring through the back game room window stood the dark silhouette of a guard posted there to prevent anyone from passing into Braden’s room.
Shaw and his wife have two young daughters.
In the living room sat Cathy, crying in complete shock with three first responders surrounding her. One was the local fire chief, Stuart Blasingame. Stu is the size of a large bear, not only in stature, but I soon came to realize his heart far exceeds the size of his uniform. Chief Blasingame had been first to enter the home and open the door to our son’s bedroom to find him gone.
Stu and his wife have two teenage boys of their own.
The second responder was a chaplain John Herring, who had been on call that day. He was kneeling beside Cathy, holding her hand and consoling both her and the large-hearted fire chief who was red-faced with tears pouring from his own eyes.
John and his wife, Roni have three kids from age 12 to 19. Two girls around Caitlin’s age and one boy, Caiden (18). Braden’s age.
The third presence in that grieving group was the Holy Spirit in human form, manifest through this crew of first responders.
After we prayed together, we were escorted to our next door neighbor’s home. Karla and Joe Tinebra have been our dear friends since we moved from Katy about five years ago. The chaplain confirmed what we knew. We had to get Caitlin off the bus before she arrived at a scene that would certainly generate a lifetime of nightmares.
Chaplain Herring counseled me very specifically on how to proceed. We needed a trusted mom to collect Caitlin before she got on the school bus. With social media probably informing her of an incident on Camden Way, we needed to rush her to a peaceful place where she’d never go again. And the hard part. Tell her straight out. John and I even role played and practiced the message.
We had less than ten minutes to prepare to share this unthinkable news with an innocent eleven year old child: that her only sibling had died while she was at school.
Taking several cars, we quickly headed to rendezvous with mom and friend, Heather Dlabik, who met us at a small community pocket park across from the Mayhard Egg Farm on First Street.
Delivering the news to Caitlin is another memory a father can never forget, yet having prepared with John I soon realized his counsel was wise. Chaplain John then asked if we had a church to hold the memorial service.
Being members at a very large church, Prestonwood Baptist, it would typically make sense to go there. However, we didn’t expect to fill a venue quite that large. We preferred something smaller, though John didn’t know that.
“I don’t know if you have a church home, but I go to a church right around the corner and you’d be welcome there”.
We struggled with the decision of where to hold the memorial service but didn’t want a very large, partially empty space, so elected to go with John’s offer. He went to church there and was such an amazing guide in this emergency, his church seemed a perfect choice. Little did we know he not only went to First Baptist Prosper, but was the senior pastor at that time.
We worked together to plan a memorial for our Braden. The day of the service we had friends and family from all parts of the country. These second responders (the FBC Prosper church family) served us as they would their own family. We were treated to a feast a king would consider worthy. To this day I still see the faces of those in the serving line. They looked at us with love and empathy like I’d never experienced from strangers.
The memorial service was filled to overflow with many standing along the walls. Afterwards, neighbors catered a reception in our home. Never had our home been filled with such love and support from community members, friends, and family. To this day, we don’t know for sure all who contributed but we are so thankful!
After a full day, with the suicide “Walk Out of Darkness” that morning, the memorial for Braden and the evening reception, we were beyond exhausted in every way. Then about 9:15 a man called to ask if he might come over and just talk. Chaplain John Herring was still there after all this. When he arrived, I had assumed he must need payment or some kind of forms signed. After all that he and his church had done for complete strangers, non-members, they would need reimbursement.
Yet as our last guest departed, John remained with us. I asked if he needed anything. His response was, “No. I just wanted to make sure you didn’t need anything else for now”. With that, he and I talked and shared some stories. Mostly, he was helping me gear down and it worked. As Cathy hugged our last guest and said good night, John remained. He was last to leave our home late that evening.
We hugged and I thanked him. As I locked the door behind him and he drove away, I returned to the living room couch where Cathy and Caitlin were waiting. Suddenly, it became clear. “Girls. Do you know who just left here? This man came into a totally dark and uncomfortable place. He counseled us and guided us. He invited us into his church, loving us. And he was the last to leave. Do you know who that was? It was Jesus”. And then we just cried.
I’m certainly no expert but when asked, “What do we need to learn from your experience?” Life is about relationship with Christ and with others. These connections make life worth living and without them people ultimately come up dry with no meaning. In hopelessness, more and more are opting to leave this life early.
The pieces of this story may seem fragmented as my writing skills are lacking. However, to this writer the message is clear as crystal. What Braden needed, what we all need, is meaningful and lasting relationship. A sense that we have value.
Life without a true and lasting relationship with Christ has no value. We find temporary satisfaction at best, but it fades. People are conditional. Christ is eternal. Life without Him is not life but rather existence.
Readers: How to have an impact
If you’ve followed this blog you know through our experiences over the past year we’ve tried to piece together some practical helps which others can put to use in their own lives and in parenting our children.
This may seem a little corny, but acronyms are easy to remember if they tie with a concept. The following acronym can work if it’s tried and modeled by moms and dads. After all, aren’t we all first responders? Shouldn’t we continually train to be better at what we do?
U.C.I.S.: “You’ll See, I’ll Stay”
Uncomfortable places. Step INTO them rather than avoiding;
Connect with the hurting. You may be next;
Invite the hurting into our lives, homes, and churches; and
Stay, even when it isn’t easy.
This story of first response aligns with our Lord, Jesus Christ and the way He lived each day. He was born in a dirty stall and throughout his life, walked boldly into the darkest places on earth to find relationship with many who were “uncomfortable” (think leprosy colonies, a demon possessed mad man, the temple/ den of thieves). Christ ministered, counseled, taught, and healed people in those dark places. He invited those lost into relationship with Him. Most importantly, He STAYED. And He remains with us eternally.
Prayer: Lord, I ask that you open my mind to the fact I’m a reactor. Knowing that truth, I pray I will break old habits and learn new healthy ones. Train me to be a responder. I love how you speak truths into my life. In my darkness you shine your light. You are THE one true and awesome God.
I pray over every reader and their families right now, whether they are on a mountain top or in a dark lonely valley. We pray they will be encouraged in finding relationship with their unconditional and perfect loving Father. Grant us peace beyond understanding. It is in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; 6 in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.
“I didn’t want to die. I just wanted the pain to go away. I’m sorry for leaving you all to deal with the consequences of my decision”. – Braden
“I still cry like a baby when I think about losing Pam. I wish it didn’t hurt, but after all these years, I admit that it always will. I know that’s not comforting , but it becomes more bearable. Moving on with purpose makes it better. Maybe my testimony might help another young person in a similar place”. -Braden’s Uncle Randy
Readers: This is a painful story particularly for it’s main character, but he has courageously allowed his story to be shared to possibly speak into the life of someone in need. By publicly journaling, our intent remains to be transparent about teen depression and suicide. We are beyond grateful for many understanding friends walking alongside us who care enough to stay. Even when it’s uncomfortable.
“TWA Flight 427 was a regularly scheduled TWA passenger flight departing Lambert-St. Louis International Airport in Bridgeton, Missouri on November 22, 1994, operated using a McDonnell Douglas MD-82. On the takeoff roll it struck a Cessna 441 Conquest II, killing both of its occupants. It was the second of two flights numbered 427 that would be involved in an incident that year, the other being USAir Flight 427, which crashed in September near Pittsburgh, PA killing all 132 on board.
Thanksgiving week, 1994. TWA’s most junior pilot was appointed to take the routine Denver leg on a late night flight. However, this would not be a routine flight. As the passenger carrier accelerated to full throttle, the crew spotted an unlit private plane sitting on the commercial liner’s designated runway.
The pilot on the jumpseat yelled “That’s an airplane!” The junior pilot veered hard left, throttling back, applying reverse engines and brakes. He remained mindful from his training that an over-reaction could mean turning the aircraft onto its side. However, bearing straight ahead would certainly cost the lives of anyone aboard the private Cessna. The young pilot’s gut instincts and hundreds of simulation training hours kicked in: “Just keep your bearings… remain calm… Steer THROUGH it all the way to the end”.
The MD-82’s right wing sheared the top of the stray private plane and the aircraft skidded to rest 300 yards beyond the initial impact. The crew could hear the screams of horrified passengers. Still, they’d been trained to act quickly, calmly, and professionally under duress.
“Tower, this is 427. Repeat, Four-Two-Seven. Are we on fire?… Tower…. Tower…. Repeat: Are we on fire?”
With no response, the captain made the difficult decision to evacuate the aircraft so as to ensure the safety of his passengers. After numerous distress calls and without confirmation from the tower that they were not on fire, he did the unthinkable. The captain left the ship to rule out any flames. A single spark would be catastrophic.
The captain turned the lever on the cabin front cabin door, triggering the escape slide. He jumped onto it, and dropped directly into a river of jet fuel. He then turned to the junior pilot with instructions that whatever he did, don’t let them use this exit. First Officer, Speed had all passengers exit through the tiny forward right side galley door. There was no safer way out.
142 passengers and flight crew safely escaped onto the tarmac, moving to a safe distance. Not one person was injured on the TWA aircraft, but tragically the two occupants aboard the private aircraft which had wandered onto the wrong runway were killed instantly.
Miraculously, with all that metal and friction there was no spark. No explosion. After checking the cabin and confirming no one remained on board, the TWA junior pilot was the last to exit the aircraft. All passengers were out of danger.
The TWA flight crew later received the Award of Excellence from the airline and the Superior Airmanship Award from the Airline Pilots Association for their handling of the accident. The junior pilot soon became one of TWA’s youngest captains in their fleet. His name wasn’t on the front page. It hardly made the back page when the investigation was complete weeks later.
Through Hollywood sensationalism, the world will forever know Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger safely landed on the Hudson River, but relatively few know the name of the pilot that night who helped save a similarly sized aircraft fully loaded with passengers. Randy “Rand” Speed. My brother. Still today when asked about the incident, he responds, “I just did my job”.
Early the following morning, mom called me in San Antonio, leaving a voicemail. “Mark. Randy has crashed his plane… but he’s ok”. WHAT?? Mom, might you have reversed that statement! I don’t know a lot of people who crash a jetliner and come out ok. But what a Thanksgiving we had that year.
I love telling this, and other “Rand stories”. This particular event could have easily ended more tragically had the wrong choice been made while moving down that runway at full speed. Had he veered too hard to avoid the private plane, rather than steering “through”, it could have cost the lives of almost 150 people.
We each have our own very personal story. That single defining experience, shaping who we are. Our testimony.
Recently, Rand was in town for his final flight medical exam required for his return to the cockpit again flying, now for American which had taken over TWA. Randy had been out of the cockpit over two years.
His visit was unexpected. First, I had no plan to see my Tennessee brother on such short notice. Secondly, only two years prior he was diagnosed with advanced stage esophageal cancer. His oncologists, and even Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center gave him a bleak prognosis. He should go home and prepare to die within the next eight months if he took chemotherapy. Left untreated, he had only half of that.
Today, he is completely cancer free. Not a trace. What a miracle! That’s one reason I asked if we could share his story. Hopefully, the rest of the story will help this all make more sense.
Often, our older siblings carry an unrealistic and lofty position in our eyes. Personally, my “Big Brother” has always been my hero.
We were “dry land farmers”. That means you only irrigate when it’s desperately dry. A family of six. Farming cotton in the west Texas red dirt. Three boys, Randy the oldest. Karla, the only girl (bless her heart), and twin boys, Mike and Mark, the youngest.
Growing up with a fairly large age gap, we felt like this grown-up, Randy, was a stranger under our roof. Too busy being older and responsible to spend any real quality time with us. He had his own room, which we thought was so cool and private. A place us kids weren’t allowed to enter.To touch his Ford LTD was a death wish and don’t even think about coming within ten feet of his motorcycle.
One Sunday afternoon, Mom came outside abruptly. “Boys… hurry! Randy and Pam have crashed his motorcycle. They’re at the hospital right now”. What? This can’t be serious. I mean, after all we’d never had anything serious happen before so it couldn’t be that big a deal.
Arriving at the Brownfield Regional Hospital ER, it became a big deal. I’ll never forget seeing Randy’s ashen face. Emotionless. Destitute. Like every ounce of blood and oxygen had been robbed from him. It was all moving in slow motion. He was just 15 years old and he was afraid of losing his first love, Pam Brown, who was screaming like I’d never heard a person scream while doctors and nurses surrounded her.
I stood on my tip toes and looked into the room through the glass window to see my big brother’s girlfriend writhing in fear and pain. She couldn’t be dying… could she? My very first experience with tragedy. Personal loss. Loss I saw in my family’s eyes. I’ll never forget it. Randy was uninjured, but was forever changed.
Mom and Dad acted as most parents would. To protect the kids, they wanted to minimize the possibility the worst could happen. For the sake of the of the innocent young ones, make sure they don’t know how bad it is. For Randy, how do we even comprehend what to do? Make him feel like it’ll be ok. That was difficult with the Brownfield News plastering horrific front page photos of the two teenagers at the scene while they placed Pam in the ambulance.
Sadly, Pam passed within a few days of the accident. Randy was affected far more deeply than we knew. Only recently has he confided in me and allowed me to share. He was not assured life would be ok again. He worked hard to deal with his unspeakable loss. One that few unfortunate souls will experience, and he was only a young boy.
To complete this story, Randy agreed to allow me to share the following. When he turned 16, he was sitting on his bed, fully prepared to run… permanently. To end his own life. Without too many details, it was a matter of a split second decision. He chose instead to run in a different direction: to live.
Randy decided to become a pilot. I never understood what led him to that vocational choice but I do now. You see, our brother still wanted to end the pain, but if it was intentional that would devastate his family. Instead, he thought as a pilot he’d have a better than average chance to lose his life “accidentally”. Now, it makes more sense. Yet what Satan intended for evil, God turned around for good.
I’ll never forget one Sunday evening after church, Rand took Mike and me above the town in a single prop Cessna purposefully flying straight up, stalling the engine… then free falling into a nose dive! He liked to place objects on the instrument panel and dip the plane to catch the object in his hand. He also loved to surprise the family on a weekend afternoon by “buzzing” the house. (picture Maverick in Top Gun buzzing the tower).
To this day, he has a passion for flight. Ironically, the very thing Randy wanted to use to end his life became the very thing that made him want to live it.
The parallels between Randy and our son, Braden’s stories as teens in crisis, are too clear to ignore; and the contrasts as well. We all have moments we feel like running from the pain life brings. HOW and WHERE we run makes all the difference. Some choose to “run” by avoidance or by leaving the world to escape, feeling no other way to leave. Some “run” to the wrong group of friends or to addiction, drugs, etc. Still others choose to “run” towards Jesus.
Thank God, our big brother chose to continue his run. Later in life he has run to his Creator. Today, his testimony inspires many who have watched him run his race. How many lives could have possibly been lost on that St. Louis runway, and how many lives would have gone uninspired by his healing from certain death to cancer had Rand run another way?
If you can’t tell. I consider my brother to be one in a billion. We pray readers may find hope through his story; perhaps someone who in this very moment feels they have no option but to run away permanently will instead choose life.
Godspeed, Rand. Keep flying high.
Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
Prayer for readers: Lord, when we run life’s race we are too often blinded to think we run alone. Please remind us that you are right by our side and you go before us. Thank you for opening doors we could never pry open alone, allowing us to run to you. Thank you for answered prayers we call miracles and keeping Randy here to share his inspiring story. May someone in need of hope find it today. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
“This doesn’t look like what I’d planned. I’m completely lost.” – Braden’s Dad
“Dad. Just remember to surrender. He’ll provide the way” – Braden
School’s in session again. Another summer in the memory books. The summer of 2019 was at least a somewhat brighter than the 2018 Fall and Winter. The warm months have been a time for healing and connection with friends and families.
In early September 2018. I’d simply had enough. Seventy hour workweeks and little to no quality time with family. I’ll leave out the details, but after a very successful career in leadership at a company I married straight out of college, the price of success was becoming too expensive.
Just one month prior to losing our son, we decided to make a major change. I elected to self demote and re-tool for the remaining years until retirement. Scary and some might say foolish. Ironically, most describe the decision as courageous. I really don’t care what anyone thinks. Not one time have we looked back with an ounce of regret.
Unplanned, this change afforded us time to deal with the loss of our son, rebuilding health in our family, working on a mission to help others facing a similar nightmare, and culture change in our schools. Certainly, we had a significant reduction in income, security, and the sense of accomplishment in my life’s work. Still the exchange has been worth it and long over due. This summer was one filled with time together without distractions of working from home and a ridiculous level of stress.
What’s ahead on our path? TBD. We’re just taking one day at a time and trusting God. It will be interesting.
Before the 2019 summer break, our family was graciously invited to a Christian family camp in southern Colorado by Sky Ranch. This is a not-for-profit organization founded in the latter 1950’s with camp sites in Texas, Oklahoma ,and Colorado. This particular location is on the Horn Creek in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range of the Colorado Rockies. It was amazing and needed. (Thank you Sky Ranch!)
Funny story. The nearest town with a grocery store is Westcliffe, CO. A town of approximately 500 residents and a very laid back feel. Mid-week, I dropped the girls at camp and headed to town for supplies, the three basic camping food groups: Chips, Cookies, and Cokes.
Unlike the Super Walmart in larger towns, Westcliffe Supermarket is the only option within at least 50 square miles. That day there were only maybe ten people shopping. As I entered the checkout line I asked the clerk and her customer how long they’d lived in Westcliffe. Both proudly responded. “Where ya from?”
“Dallas”. “Oh… Bless your heart”.
Bless my heart?? Really? As a Texan and moreover a Dallas Texan, I suddenly felt somehow disadvantaged. Guess everything is a matter of perspective. Big cities have everything you could want within five minutes. Small towns have simplicity and serenity.
A Very Non-Griswold Vacation
Family Camp is a foreign vacationing concept for us. I grew up with the traditional version of vacations to include the imitation wood-grained panel station wagon, landmark roadside stopovers, and fussy family drama. In my adult years, vacation has meant Disney, cruises, or similar.
In my mind, “summer camp” always reminded me of the song, “Camp Granada”, or something for a funny movie plot. I mean, people don’t actually send their kids to formal summer camp much less go as a family, do they?
Still. What an amazing blessing! I felt God must have something planned in this. I told Cathy we’d need unscheduled time alone without rigid plans or worries of being someplace at some specific time. I selfishly needed rest and total withdrawal. She agreed.
All week, the Weather Channel projected evenings would bring heavy rain showers and/or the threat of hail or tornados. I thought we were leaving those in Texas! We did have a few rough nights. One where the whole camp hunkered in the laundry room and took cover from a tornado, covering the windows with sheets. Yet, each morning was amazing. Crystal and deep blue skies, cool temperatures and gentle breezes.
Tuesday morning was ideal. After breakfast and Bible study, it was a perfect chance to sneak away and spend time. Just me and God.
I struck out southwest on a trail about a quarter mile just beyond the group of cabins. A simple route, just seeking a shade tree where no humans were within sight or earshot. Maybe I’d even take a nap.
Finding the perfect spot, I sat on a pallet of leaves and pine needles, along with some overly friendly ants, biting my legs. Trying to focus on prayer and reading, while itching and swatting. After an hour of uncomfortable peaceful bliss, I stood to return to camp. It should be a quick ten minute walk to the cabins for lunch. Heading: northeastward.
After about a hundred yards, I came across a barbed wire fence? This wasn’t here before. Must have just not remembered it. Then another fence just a few yards beyond. No problem. Yet, there hadn’t been any fences on my original trail to my perfect place.
About a half mile into the return hike, things continued to look increasingly unfamiliar. Where was the creek bed I had walked and those railroad ties leading into camp? Where was the dadgum (look it up) sign warning, “Beyond this point, hike at own risk”? Now the worry sets in. “What if I’m lost? Well, I still have my trusty iPhone. I’ll just ask Siri”.
“Hey, Siri. Where am I right now?” [No internet connection]. Are you kidding me? No signal? Really? I’ve heard of this before. Guy goes for a short walk and is later found dead of dehydration. Alright, I’ll admit to letting my imagination run a bit loose, but stay with me.
Cell data is non-existent in such a remote location in the mountains. Trying to avoid over-think, in my mind I said a prayer for connection. Then, maybe fifty yards forward one tiny bar displayed. The signal lasted just long enough to find where I was which was: fifty yards from a blacktop road and about two miles past the cabins.
This was a familiar experience. Just weeks earlier, the Fellowship of San Antonio planted a tree in their prayer garden in Braden’s memory. The garden has a mile-long walking trail which I decided to hike while spending a few days in town. The garden also has a cautionary warning at the trailhead to walk at your own risk . The area is a bit over grown and it’s difficult in places to clearly discern where the trail is cut.
About half way through the hike, my natural worry mode set in: What if the worst happened and no one knows I’m out here alone. What would my family do? Right then, out loud I said,”God, please give me direction here, about where to go and which path to follow”.
At that very moment, I looked up and saw a tower with a cross at the very top. I began walking through the woods and across cut trails towards that cross and I was able to find my way. Here’s the interesting thing: It had been there the entire time, yet I’d been focused on finding the right trail on my own.
In my walk in Colorado and on the hike in San Antonio, out of no where I received signals and signs. No cell lines were within miles of my mountain location. Still, I got a signal. On the garden trail, there was no map. I simply looked up to find my way.
Today, I had lunch with a good friend who came into our lives the day we lost Braden. He’s a Prosper fire chief who’s crew answered the 911 call. He was the first to enter Braden’s room and he’s also a father of two teenage boys. His crew has a lot of dads with teens. I’ve long wondered how a father could witness such a horrific scene and continue doing that job. I could not. I can’t begin to describe how we are amazed and respect these heroic men and women.
Today, Stuart and I had a long talk about fatherhood. I finally asked the question. “How in the world can you witness such things as a dad and keep doing what you do?” He pulled out his phone and read aloud the “Serenity Prayer”.
That was my answer. It was also his advice to me personally as a father. Only God knows the dark path we’ve been walking. But I’m so grateful God placed this friend there, in that moment to help guide the way. So many have been that to us. They know who they are.
When I left a comfortable career path. After we lost our son. When we began writing about it. I had no clue if, when, or where to move ahead. The trail is unmarked and subject to wrong turns. Still, I’m convinced every step of the way will be directed by the Holy Spirit as long as we surrender to Him. Only by accepting the serenity available through surrendering our own plans can we find true and lasting peace. We count on His plan. Evidence here is that sometimes not at all pretty, His plan is far better and purposeful than our own.
Lord, we are lost. Thank you for providing signs to help guide us. Thank you for the blessing of a community of Christian brothers and sisters who help serve as your guiding hand on our path. You alone are our Shepherd. (Psalms 23).
God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish one from the other.
Living one day at a time, Enjoying one moment at a time, Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, Taking, as Jesus did, This sinful world as it is, Not as I would have it, Trusting that You will make all things right, If I surrender to Your will, So that I may be reasonably happy in this life, And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
“Son, we missed you this Fourth. We won’t ever move on, but we will move forth.” – Braden’s Dad
I didn’t hate school but I most certainly didn’t like it.
What I did love about school were those amazing brief warm months of summer. My twin brother, Mike, and I could never understand how three months in school felt like a year, yet 90 summer days came and went at the speed of light.
Of all required school subjects, Algebra was among the most daunting. Not bragging, but I passed with a JGB grade: (“Just Got By”). Can’t honestly say I’ve ever used Algebra in real life but learned that equations are tested formulas and held to be consistent. Here’s an equation I find to meet that definition… Particularly this year:
Summer = Lazy + Sun + Family + Friends + Fun + Laughter = Memories
July Fourth = Memories
Last week was personal. I hesitate to write about it because it is really too much so. Close to home. But, then again I signed on for this.
Prosper, Texas is a small but rapidly growing suburb north of Dallas. It’s yet one more farm town being consumed by the expansive DFW population explosion. I’m confident Greater Dallas will cross the Red River into Oklahoma within my lifetime.
Our little town is currently growing by about 2,500 new residents per year. If you commute on Hwy 380 every day, it feels more like twice that. Prosper residents are a diverse mix. Many of us are native Texans, but more and a growing number are “Texan Imports”.
A popular bumper sticker comes to mind. “I wasn’t born in Texas but I got here as fast as I could”. Funny. The Texan “Imports” frequently become some of the most staunchly minded wanna-be natives. I’ve always loved our contagious pride, not only for our state, but more importantly for the country where we are so overly blessed to live. That pride is sadly fading these days, but that’s a topic for another blog.
Prosper hosts an annual Independence Day celebration to commemorate America’s birth. The town hosts a festival and fireworks display at Frontier Park, a multi-use field for baseball and community events. This year’s firework display was larger than I’ve ever experienced, short of Disney. I mean, just how many rockets can be launched in 10-15 minutes? The national anthem and Lee Greenwood’s song, Proud to be an American with fireworks always move me emotionally.
This Fourth was particularly emotional. You see, Frontier Park is also where the community held a starlit candlelight memorial for Braden in early November 2018. In contrast with the amazing fireworks and festival last week, the November vigil was a somber and sobering event I did not want to attend. To be very honest, I almost didn’t go because of my anger and pride. Not the good kind. However we were blessed and glad that we decided to attend.
We were devastated. Just trying to take one single step at a time. “Don’t fall apart. Don’t say anything you will regret. Don’t fall on your face”.
As the crowd made our way to a grass field next to a peaceful pond, I ran into a complete stranger. He was also a father. He’d just returned from a business trip and made his way to join the vigil. He and I are now friends with common ground. I moved my family six times. He’s relocating his family to Florida this summer. He made a tough decision for the long term benefit of his family.
That evening I also met with students who were deeply saddened by the loss of yet another peer. That evening it became clear. There needs to be more transparency in the conversation about teen depression and suicide which is now the second leading cause of death for teens. During that starlit candle light vigil, we were inspired to do something positive rather than simply shrink into the darkness of blame and shame.
Last week, along with two other moms, Cathy met with U.S. Congressman, Van Taylor and gained his insight on a strategy to move forward with a grassroots effort towards bringing legislation at the state and hopefully the national level for funding public school suicide prevention training programs.
To those who attended that November starlit candle light memorial in Frontier Park. To those who joined our family at First Baptist Church of Prosper and those wanting to be there that day. To our church families who welcomed in strangers and loved on our family and friends with your hearts, prayers, and encouragement. To the Prosper Fire First Response and Police Departments. To every neighbor and every pray-er over our family in this season. To each parent who is in our unfortunate but growing “club”:
Thank you from the depths of our hearts. We love you and want to confirm that your prayers are heard and felt. You have changed us and we pray each and every day for you as well.
YOU have helped us move forth.
Prayer for readers
Heavenly Father, thank you for blessings and miracles beyond measure as we experience loss beyond what we could ever be imagined or described. You have taught us that by simply surrendering to your will, through tragedy can come triumph. We are in awe. Please hear the plea of each and every child and adult who is in a desperate place as they read this. Bring peace beyond understanding and please, please Lord. Let them move forth.
It is in your precious Son’s name, Jesus, that we pray. Amen
“Is heaven everything you had hoped? Are the gates really made of pearl? Are the streets laid with gold? Is heaven real? Can we see each other again?” – Braden’s dad
“Happy Fathers Day! Pearls and gold are only earthly creations. I really can’t describe Heaven, but you’ll understand when you get here. I’m joyful just knowing I’ll be here to welcome you home, Dad. And I’m ok. See ya soon!” – Braden
I’m not a runner.
I do exercise some but I hate running. There isn’t a single person on the planet who honestly likes to run… Of course, that’s just one opinion. I could be wrong.
Although I personally despise running, there’s been a lot of it going on lately. Ever since October 30, 2018 it’s been a full out sprint. Running from reality and towards purpose by helping prevent other families from a similar loss.
Today is my first Father’s Day without our son. And I’ve become weary. Completely exhausted. Every emotional and physical nerve. Spent.
To share all the experiences we’ve had in the span of eight months would be impossible here. But we write to pull out some threads of insight and encouragement. This has not been a race we signed up to run. But we believe it’s an important one.
I’m off work all week and hoping to get some rest and re-charge, to continue the race.
Speaking of rest, I have a phone app for relaxation to help wind down and relax at night. One feature on the app has different narrators who read “sleep stories” designed to get the listener’s mind off their own thoughts and to relax. It sounds weird but it really works and it’s certainly better than sleeping pills.
One of the stories is narrated by international space station Commander, Terry Virts. He led numerous earth orbit missions and published a book loaded with photos titled, “View From Above”. He has a passion for photography and the indescribableness (new word) of the universe.
Virts is a brilliant man and a gifted photographer. On each of his missions, he captured hundreds of thousands of images. The photos of earth are amazing. Yet still, although he tried on every one of his voyages to capture the expansive view of the opposite side of the space station, he just couldn’t do it.
He personally saw galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters, yet he couldn’t clearly capture and share what he had witnessed. Can you imagine going through something so indescribable that it changed the very way you looked at your own existence… yet, you couldn’t give an accurate account to others?
I found Vert’s experience to be very interesting and personal. Although commanding space stations isn’t my thing, I’ve had experiences that are impossible to sufficiently describe.
Once, I recall a fishing trip to the Texas hill country in the spring of 2007 with a group of dads from a church in Austin. We all went to a fishing camp west of Lampasas, Texas. It was the darkest and clearest night sky any of us had ever observed. We couldn’t even see our hands in front of our own faces much less one another as we walked along a dirt trail from the dock to our cabin.
We all looked up and tried to verbally describe the view. The sheer number of stars was beyond anything any of us had witnessed. Although we’d been taught and read about the universe, we hadn’t actually seen it in such a way until that night. Such a clear view into the “Heavens”. Well, I can’t really describe it. Guess you had to be there.
Braden was a curious person. He loved to watch videos about the unfathomable size of the cosmos in comparison with Earth. One he watched over and over was by Louis Giglio how Earth’s size compared to the moon, then Venus, the sun, unimaginably huge Kanis Majoris (his favorite) and that our planet is located in just one of billions of galaxies. Far beyond what the mind can fathom.
He was mesmerized watching that video and that’s the way he perceived his world: a lone grain of sand on an expansive sandy beach. He was so exceptional in his ability to think deeply it was scary. I still remember him, at a very young age asking, “Why are we here?” I responded, “Because we’re playing cards, son.” He repeated, “No, why are we here?” I clarified, “Oh. Because daddy’s work moved us to Austin”. He became frustrated. “No, dad. WHY ARE WE HERE?” Then he said something that still gives me a chill. “Why doesn’t God just take us to heaven when we trust in Him? I wish I could be in heaven with Him now.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about Heaven these past few months. Losing a child forces the question. Is Heaven real? We certainly hope our loved ones who pass from this life go to a place where they are at perfect peace. That’s always been a given source of peace to those left behind. It definitely applies in our circumstance.
There are two things that confirm our faith in truth. They’re both as evident as any that could be produced to a jury or judge:
First, following such an unspeakable loss, we remain standing. Even walking forward. None of us know how, but we have. God has answered too many specific prayers to even list here. Some would say (or think) these events have just happened by chance. The odds of this many random events “just happening” would be like saying an orchestra of instruments “just happened” to play a symphony in perfect harmony. These are miracles through events and a community of people that would not, could not occur without our Father’s guiding hand.
Secondly, we have been confirmed in our faith through shared experiences of fellow witnesses who have experienced similar miracles. Have you ever talked with someone who believes something from having actually seen it with their own eyes? Their testimony is far more credible than that of a bystander who heard someone else tell of the experience. We have talked with so many eyewitnesses to this truth that we are fully convinced Heaven is real and not fictional.
I’ve been reading a lot lately. Recently, I finished Don Piper’s second book about his near death experience over 25 years ago and the people he met at the gates of heaven. Don and I had a chance to meet a few months ago and he has crystal clear recall of many details of his 90 minutes in heaven. He told me about the gates and the sound of a thousand songs being sung simultaneously but understanding each one distinctly. He remembers the music still but can’t fully describe it.
Of all we talked about, Don said one thing I’ll never forget. He told me he was deeply sorry for our temporary separation from our son. It’s not what he said as much as how he said it. Like someone who had witnessed the indescribable and wanted simply to confirm the facts.
Also, have been reading the Bible on the topic of losing loved ones. One Old Testament story tells of the great King David and how he responded when his seven year old boy passed away. Instead of going into a hole, David worshipped and became even closer in his faith in God. David was fully confident he would see his son again when he went home.
When we are exhausted from running life’s short but trying race. When we have nothing left to give, we need to surrender and look up to reach for our Heavenly Father’s hand.
Prayer for Readers
“Lord, thank you for every trial. Thank you for every tragedy. Thank you for every subtle message you share in our daily lives. Forgive us for thinking we can run life’s race on our own. Humble us to know we can rest in You and have confidence You have prepared a home for us. Happy heavenly Father’s Day.
It’s in your Son’s name, Jesus which we pray these things, Amen.”
“Happy birthday, son. We miss you and we’re all hurting.” – Braden’s Family
“I love you all so much! Please look and listen closely for what God has to say, and He will help heal your pain”. – Braden
May 8, 2019. 1:30PM. The day before Braden’s birthday.
Lately, we’ve written more than usual. Cathy told me I’d have to write because when things get to be too much, that helps. This week has been just that. Too much.
Woke to rain this morning. It hasn’t slowed once. The last time I remember it raining like this was Oct 31st. That day it began at sunrise and stopped late that evening. This is a familiar rain. Slow, steady, yet gentle with rolling thunder. No house-shaking booms though and no visible lightening strikes.
The weather guy said it was supposed to clear by noon but he was wrong. I’ve heard it said that, other than a weather reporter, what other occupation allows a person to keep their job when they’re inaccurate 90 percent of the time!
Yesterday I finally finished a huge backyard project staining our fence. All 17 gallons worth. That came after another two days of preparing the wood. The goal has been to be done for Caitlin’s half year birthday party. It’s been far over-due. It gave me a lot of time to think. Hard work helps me do that. A couple of things I observed while staining hit me pretty hard.
I took some before-and-after photos and thought, why would we need to stain a natural thing that God created from a tree? Wouldn’t it be beautiful just as it was made and without changing it? All I know is the “after” version certainly looks better than the “before” one.
Also, I was working in the corner where we have a large and quick- growing tree. I’d never noticed something before, but suddenly a memory of our son flooded my mind. On the trunk of this tree was a single scar. You see, Braden loved to shoot. BB guns, air rifles, pistols, shotguns, a home made potato gun. You name it. He would never shoot an animal, but loved shooting targets. When younger, he really took little time to consider the collateral damage potential.
Of course he shot clays and fixed targets, cans, and bottles. But as a kid, he also shot lawn chairs, windows, glass doors, and the occasional wall. Once he had a BB gun and failed to consider the ricochet. Kind of expensive for dad! He wasn’t wanting to destroy them of course. He just thought, “Hey, I wonder what would happen if…”. What happened was often I’d get mad and want to kick him down the block! But that was our boy. Very much a boy.
In 2017 Braden got a crossbow with allowance dollars he’d saved. He went online and got a nice one along with a supply of arrows. The expensive kind of course. Now, a crossbow and a regular bow are two entirely different things. A regular bow is loaded by the strength of the archer’s arm. The arrow’s range and accuracy are limited to human strength and skill.
The crossbow is engineered to exceed human strength by far and often has a scope, allowing the accuracy of a sharpshooter. It can pass completely through the target (be it prey or a bale of hay). What it will not go through, no matter how much pressure is placed on the bow… is a large and quick- growing tree like the one in our backyard.
I was there when Braden loaded his first arrow along the back fence behind our pool . I saw his intended target. I spoke up. “Bud. What do you think will happen if you hit that tree?” His response was expected. “Well, let’s see”. And with a squeeze of the trigger, he’d shot this poor, innocent, helpless, large and fast-growing tree.
At once he knew what I had already known. His expensive arrow had found its final target and would never be removed to fly free again. We had to break it off and move on to find another target. One that would allow him to retrieve his arrows so they could be re-used for lawn chairs, etc.
At the time, I gave little to no thought of that tree. I was more concerned that my son had experienced another disappointing moment at the height of his excitement, in his very first shot with a new crossbow.
The scar on that tree is there today and will remain for its entire life. Although injured, the arrow didn’t phase it in the slightest. The leaves produced every season will give visual beauty and audible comfort to those around it by the sound of breezes and rainfall. In fact, I have enjoyed sitting outside many mornings just looking and listening in times I need that tree.
Now, I mention these simple observations because God does speak when I listen. Why would we stain something that is already beautifully made by God? I would submit we who have accepted Christ are stained improvements as God’s children. We are stained by the blood of His son, Jesus who volunteered to die in our place so we can have more abundant and ultimately, eternal life. And we are so much better after than before. I certainly was a project over-due and remain very much a work in progress.
The Bible talks about how Jesus died on a tree and when his disciples and others saw him, they didn’t realize who he was after his resurrection. That is, until they saw the scars from being pierced and nailed to that tree in their place.
I don’t know exactly why Jesus chose to give us perfect grace, but I can testify personally that when I’m injured by life’s arrows, they don’t kill me. They do hurt. Sometimes beyond my pain tolerance. However, in tried and confirmed faith, I am strengthened ever more. You can see some of my scars. Some you can’t. Still, they’re certainly not attractive. We can only pray our scars might help others who need to know Jesus SAVES lives.
We take a great deal of comfort in knowing beyond a doubt, Braden loved Jesus. He accepted the free gift of salvation a few years before he took his eternal reward. It was far too early for our timing and it leaves scars each of us will bear the rest of our lives. His great “Aunt Jo” went to be with Jesus just a few days ago. She held a special place in all our hearts and Braden held a very special place in hers.
I thank God every single day for each moment we got to share on Braden’s 18 year journey here on earth and for Aunt Jo’s living testimony for almost 87 years. Mostly, I thank God that we all are assured of the Holy Spirit’s presence here and a full blown family reunion that we can only imagine.
Thursday, we mark the day our firstborn came into the world. On Friday we say goodbye to Aunt Jo. Sunday, we celebrate all mothers for their love and sacrifice in bringing our children into this world.
Tomorrow, we’ll see another sunrise. One I will be anticipating and watching through the beauty of a scarred tree.
Family Prayer: Father. How often we look right past the little things You wish to say while we are working through life on our own. Thank you for helping open our eyes and hearts to the beauty of your creation. Thank you for taking on each one of us as your special projects and for sending your Son, Jesus so we might be stained by His cleansing blood. We pray for every one of your children and for every family facing the scars this world produces. May they look to You for healing and strength. In Jesus’ name, we pray these things, Amen.