Thanks Giving and Taking

“Kids are out there right now. Lonely and missing connection. Please do your best to help them find it. I love you., When ya comin’ home, Dad? – Braden

I’ve surrendered to do everything possible to help them. I’ll get there as fast as God lets me. By the way, why did we get TWO dogs?”. – Braden’s dad


When we began writing, we had no idea how the blog would resound with others walking a similar path. It might surprise you to know this simple blog has reached readers in more than 73 countries and over 67,000 readers. This confirms the experiences we describe are now common to so many. That’s both sad and hopeful. Two sides of a coin.

In the Internet world, sometimes telling an honest story can make an impact even when the author has not an ounce of skill in telling that story. The good Lord knows I’m no story teller, but a heartfelt tale shared in honesty can evidently make a connection. We’re glad and sad that it has.

To be certain, I detest this story and would prefer a brighter one. Maybe one about a blessing in disguise or a success in light of failure. On the other hand, maybe that’s what our story is after all. As determined the day our son took his life, our mission remains to surrender to God’s plan. That others may hear and perhaps learn something.

In my thinking, it would be wrong not to share it.


2:30PM Saturday.

The girls are at a dance convention. This is one of those marathon weekends when it’s ALL about dance. Fathers may make a trek in for a few brief dad sitings, but conferences are about learning technique and finesse. Details. Unlike recitals, “Dad participation” expectations are low at conferences, which works well for me. I have lots to do around the house.

Early November means the annual final mowing of the grass, cleaning the pool, new a/c filters, bringing boxes out of the attic for holiday decorating (I haul the boxes, she does the detail work), and cleaning up the yard for winter.

Cleaning the yard includes one of my least favorite chores: dog duty. More accurately cleaning up dog doodie. We buy the 50lb giant size dry Purina Dog Chow. Nothing fancy or extravagant like many others who feed their pets like humans (or royalty). We have one friend who feeds her “FeeFee” human gourmet food! Not us. We keep it simple. Still. 50lb of chow intake by two large dogs and do the math on the weight of this unpopular chore.

I’ve got the method down. I use a mini rake and scoop. Picture the person at every theme park scooping up trash. No bending or squatting, just swiping into the scoop and then into a Walmart bag for disposal. This afternoon, while the girls are dancing, I’m mowing, trimming, leaf blowing, and pooper scooping. Did I mention I hate this chore?

Still, as this weekly routine is going on I’m thinking to myself, “Why would I even do this job? Why did I get two dogs in the first place?” The answer, as often happens, came quickly. “Because, dummy, you have two dogs and a yard”.

When I was in college, I’d always dreamed about having my own private back yard with kids playing with their dogs. I didn’t think about the hard work to keep such a dream alive, but it didn’t matter at the time. It was just a dream.

Thanksgiving Tree

Every year, we are into traditions at holiday season. Cathy and the kids have always loved doing a Thanksgiving Tree. We have a small tree placed in the center of our home and each day we write something for which we are grateful. I (as always) am the Grinch who stole Thanksgiving. Putting off doing my thankful leaf.

While coming to clarity on the pooper scooper curse / dog-back yard blessing, I began thinking of other things in my life that had perhaps similar upsides with an offsetting downside: Career/ work; Children/responsibility; Marriage/ differences; Friends/ disappointment; Faith/doubt; Health/laziness. Etc.

Suddenly, I realized every single blessing comes with a cost. Every single cost comes with a blessing. In an instant, I was much happier completing this unpopular distasteful chore. Dog duty wasn’t such a bad thing in the larger scheme of God’s plan.

I just needed to give thanks for the things I take for granted. This year, I will commit to being first to do my “Thankful Leaf”.

Parents:

Think about what you always wanted. Was that dream a home? A family? Children? A spouse? Health?

Do you have one or more of the things you dreamed of having?

If so, give thanks for each one.

Never take for granted anything. They can be taken just as quickly as they can be given.

Then take stock in what God has granted toward that dream. Take time to give thanks for what you take for granted.

Prayer

Lord, we’re grateful for every blessing undeserved, unearned, and unacknowledged. Forgive our selfishness and for our taking as a given, what we are given. We love you so much and ask this season be one of deep and sincere thankfulness. We pray also for those in this world who are lost, lonely, hungry, and without. Bless them in their circumstances. Bless them with your peace and assurance. Fill them with your presence.

In your son Jesus’ name, Amen.


Colossians 3:17

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Fishtrap and Legacy

“Prosper: A Place Where Everyone Matters” – Town motto

Dad, I wish I had someone to hang out with. Just one real buddy”. – Braden

You were loved and your life meant a great deal to others and still does. We will never stop missing you“. – Braden’s Mom, Dad, and Caitlin


According to Wikipedia, Prosper, Texas is… “an affluent suburban town located in Collin and Denton Counties within the state of Texas, United States. The Town of Prosper is located within the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area. As of the 2010 census, the population was 9,423; As of 2019, the estimated population was 28,039.  Prosper High School cost $113.5 million to construct and is 590,000 sq ft.”

If you’re thinking, “Holy cow, that’s a large school by any measure”, you’d be correct. It’s like a mall, right down to the Burger King and Chick Fil-A in the cafeteria. We have another school the same size set to open in the Fall of 2020 and yet another just a couple of years beyond. Expect there’ll be another mega football stadium to throw in there too.

Local farmers had a large cotton yield in 1902 and initially wanted the town’s name to be “Richland” but since that name was taken they went with “Prosper”. Land was being sold at only three bucks an acre. Now Prosper is more synonymous with being the land of plenty but not just cotton. I bet those old prosperous cotton farmers are laughing all the way to the bank, counting their money from us city folk.


This post began after a very full Sunday afternoon with my brother, his wife, and our family shopping for Christmas. Yes, I know. It now starts before Halloween… Although our family often has full Sundays lately, it’s too often that Sundays can be particuarly down days for many. It may be biological but more likely it’s psychological.

Kris Kristofferson wrote about it, “On A Sunday Morning Sidewalk”. What a depressing yet honest country song about a guy who’s got no family and no one to call a friend on a day when people typically enjoy fellowship with both. One such Sunday in 2018, our son was experiencing that sort of a “down” day when he asked if we could do something together.

As I’ve mentioned in prior posts, Braden had a passion for shooting or blowing up things just to see what would happen. He hand built a catipult and potato gun. He loved shooting his crossbow, pellet guns and a Marlin .22 gold trigger I gave him along with a Remington 12-gauge shotgun. We often went to the Frisco gun club for target shooting.

That Sunday he wanted to just get out of the house. He’d had his fill of video games and social media, both being full of empty. He just wanted someone to share his time with, preferably a buddy to go “do nothing” with. As often was the case, that day he’d have to settle for his dad.

We loaded the car with guns, ammo, clays, and targets, headed west for a location. As a teen in west Texas I could always find an open field most anywhere outside the city limits of Brownfield. Very few fences or “No Trespassing” signs existed there. However, leaving the Prosper city limits was quite a different story. We drove a few miles west looking for open fields but everything was marked for suburban land tracts soon to be built out.

Waiting for dad to throw a clay

First Street becomes a black top road named Fishtrap and the first dirt road I could find to leave civilization was one named Legacy. I’m sure it’ll be a six lane thoroughfare by the time Caitlin graduates.

We headed north about a half mile and pulled into a grassy field to set up targets where we began destroying things. Just then, a flashy black SUV approached. The driver rolled down his window and waved me over. Expecting to be busted I asked if it would be ok to shoot targets. Pleasantly, I was surprised at his response. “Absolutely, just don’t shoot each other”. He was a very nice gentleman who manages land investments for the Cowboys’ owner, Jerry Jones.

We talked about our sons. We shared about the trials and joys of being fathers. He had taken his boy out shooting years earlier and we agreed that open land is becoming harder to find. We talked about how our community’s growth was both a blessing and a curse. How in such a small town, growing this fast we were watching quaintness becoming chaos before our very eyes. How businesses, roads, and the schools were bursting at the seams as a result of the boom.

In May, 2019 around Braden’s birthday, I found myself on Fishtrap Road again. This time I wasn’t carrying a trunk filled with guns and targets. It was just me. Along with memories. To save my life I didn’t know why I was going out there. Later, a friend told me it had to be that I wanted to be near my son and that’s where we felt close.

I drove slowly westward and stopped to stare at the sign where we’d turned north onto Legacy. Parked the car in the same place we always parked. The ruts of my tires long plowed under for plots where young families would soon be building new homes for fresh starts and new beginnings.

Then, I began to think. “There must be something here to remind me of his being here”. All remnants of our memories had to be buried six feet in the freshly broken ground. Still, I kept looking. After just a few minutes, I stumbled onto a spent shotgun shell. A Remington 12-guage shotgun shell.

I picked it up and sniffed for that familiar powder smell we both loved. But the scent was long gone. Just the hull remained. However, I could remember the smell and I remembered my son. That empty hull remains with me today as a reminder of our son and of his legacy to help others. Although he could never be convinced, his life ultimately had purpose.


That evening as the sun faded and I stood alone, I thought how far we’d come since October 30, 2018. The longest year of our lives. How many positive changes have been helped forward in the wake of that horrific October day. Perhaps how many like him have since found hope. Before leaving our shooting field, I spoke aloud, “Braden. I miss you, buddy. I hope you’re proud”.

Legacy is defined as something with value transmitted by a predecessor or from the past. When we hear of even one person who postponed or elected to stay instead of taking their life, I can’t help but think of the word, legacy. It’s not the way any of us would have chosen, but we don’t always get that which we seek.

This upcoming weekend, we join our friends and family for a suicide awareness event called, “Walk Out of Darkness”. Ironically, we will be walking within less than one mile from Fishtrap and Legacy in a subdivision filled with new families, making their new beginnings.

Funny how God maps out things when we don’t even realize we were lost.


A note from a parent to parents:

1) Love your kids unconditionally. Tell them you are proud of them but most importantly model it and confirm that their Heavenly Father loves and is proud of them. Remind them no one’s opinion of themselves has more weight than their own.

2) Spend that time with them you don’t think you have. Time is what you make of it. Don’t give too much of it to your employer or to your business.

3) Make sure YOUR legacy is one your children and family will always remember and know they were more important than your work.

Prayers:

Thank you Lord for allowing us the brief opportunity to borrow the special spirit we called Braden Thomas Speed. We pray his brief time in this world will play even a small part in your greater plans. That’s what he’d want.

For those who are alone or struggling in this moment, we say a special prayer for peace and strength to stay the course. Grant them a sense of hope and encouragement. Tomorrow is a new day of hope. In Jesus’ name. Amen

Measuring Up

“I wasn’t TALL enough. Tough. Handsome. Cool. Worthy enough. At least that’s what I thought about me”. Braden

“Son, if I could have taught you one thing about mirrors, they only reflect that upon which the viewer focuses their own eyes. God looks only on our hearts, and yours was larger than any I’ve known”. Braden’s Dad

Measuring our kids

As we near the anniversary of October 30, I’ve had so many friends and family gauging me on how we’re doing. What an amazing blessing to have others thoughtful enough to be thinking in such terms. By this phase of loss, typically those most immediately affected are the few who still remember.

I want to just acknowledge that we are ALL subject to loss. Only recently, I’ve lost two dear friends who were fathers with young families. I’ve attended more memorial services than I wish to recall. Another special friend lost her mother and just a week ago, a friend and fellow dad lost his bride at the young age of only 49. She left behind two beautiful young ladies and one handsome young son. All to live the rest of their days to grieve their loss.

Last evening was the service for this young mom. Standing room only. As each person stood to share the stories and memories, my mind drifted ahead to my own memorial. What will people say about my life here. Was I a loving and faithful husband? A caring and wise father? I’d certainly like to think those qualities would be the theme, but inside my own mind, I had my doubts.

More likely, if honest they’d say I was short-tempered and highly impatient. Demanding. Conditional. Selfishly motivated. Prideful and hypocritical. And those are just my good days!

But then I stopped. No, that would be a personal eulogy for myself. Don’t we do this too often? We put down the rose colored glasses and look at ourselves with a microscope. Are we not our own worse critics?

I certainly am.


Braden constantly measured himself in every way. Physically, intellectually, spiritually, and relationally. He grappled with how the world perceived him. Sadly, he was one of the best looking people I’ve known (no bias) yet he thought he was unattractive.

We told him thousands of times how good looking he was and that physical looks didn’t matter. “It’s the heart God sees”. Yeah. That went over like a lead air balloon you can imagine.

He always ran just below the charts on height and weight. It didn’t help that we had him on ADHD meds which quashed his appetite. You really do need to eat if you want to grow but he ate like a bird.

Every couple of weeks he’d say, “Hey I think I’ve grown. Come measure me” or he’d weigh himself desperately looking for another inch or an ounce. Too often he was disappointed to find little to no development had occurred.

Sadly, we could see him growing in every way but he could not. I truly believe the Bible is accurate in describing Satan as a deceiver and a liar who comes to steal and to destroy. He tells each of us we are not good enough and that we could never measure up.

Ironically, it’s true. We can never meet that goal of perfection. Anything short of it fails the test of measuring up. Here’s the awesome good news: God NEVER expected us nor wanted us to “measure up”. You see, that term isn’t in his vocabulary. He made us, knowing we would fail miserably in our own efforts. So much so that we would have no choice but to fall on our face and to look to Him. What a perfect plan and awesome good news!

We know Braden never felt he could become “good enough” but are confident he understood God’s grace was sufficient. The note he left for us clearly confirms that he asked God to allow him into Heaven even after making such a terrible choice. And I’ll go to my grave knowing that when I do so, I’ll meet my son on the other side because we both gave our hearts to God and that’s all He sees.

Our hearts will measure up when it counts the most.


Prayer for readers:

Lord, we love you so much. We acknowledge that our words are insufficient to express that love. You have shown us through your perfect plan that nothing we can ever do or not do will separate us from you. Although our words are insufficient, please know our hearts in this.

I pray over every reader. Every single person who right now thinks they don’t measure up with what this world expects from them. Let them know they are being deceived by the master of lies and they need simply to look to You as their measure, knowing accepting Jesus is sufficient to receive the ultimate rewards.

We pray these things in the name of your son, Jesus. Amen

Romans 8:38-39

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Small World

“This world is an enormous place yet it could be as small as the human heart”. – Braden

“We need more acceptance and less ‘exceptance'”. – Braden’s Dad


Firsts typically bring excitement and anticipation. Joy. Laughter. First born. First birthday. First steps and first words.

We’ve now had a full year of firsts, lacking the joy and laughter for which firsts are known. This October 30th’s final first is just one more, and we’ll deal with it once more. Still, it will be good to have it behind us. Now, we look ahead to the seconds, thirds, and so on.

I expected October to bring a flood of emotions yet my eyes have been strangely dry. Guess I’ll never understand emotions. You can’t predict them any more than a weather reporter can predict a storm. Still, like the drought that broke this month in north Texas, I expect the dry spell won’t last long and God will again bring the healing rain of tears. Surely I’ll cry again. I sure hope so.

Crying or not, we never will stop missing our baby boy.


This month, two local news affiliates asked to interview our family on the topic of mental health and the positive developments that have come about as a result of our loss.

In December 2018, we had been asked to speak with ABC on the topics of teen depression and suicide. Reporter, Jobin Paniker was courageous and did a great job on a short piece shot in our living room. The setting was in front of the fireplace and among Christmas holiday decorations.

Recently, two other news reporters came into the same living room, now ten months later. Each report had their own slightly different spin on the same basic theme:

DATELINE: “Folks, this middle American suburban family with seemingly all going for it experiences the loss of a teenager by his own hand. Viewers, what is going on and what can we do to ensure it doesn’t happen to YOUR family?….. details later in this broadcast…”

Although we did several of these short vignettes, it never became comfortable. The reporter and photographer exchange greetings and pleasantries while the camera person scoped out the best place for a good background.

They set up the seating arrangements and placed extremely bright lights in our faces. Sound checks and the interviewer sat facing us off camera like we were rare bugs on display in a jar. Though we were fortunate to have an opportunity to share some hopeful messages, it felt weird.

Interviewer: “Ok,try not to be nervous. Just think of this as a normal relaxed conversation with a close friend”. Yeah, right. More like 50,000 strangers!

Following these uncomfortable “normal relaxed conversations”, the videographers shoot stills for overlays to later be edited into the narrative.

For stills, every photographer gravitated to our sofa table, covered with family photos, some of which have remained for five years untouched other than dusting. These are photos of our family’s brighter days and more joyful moments. Smiles were sunny and hearts were hopeful.

Disney 2006

One of my favorite vacation photos is one with us in the street at Walt Disney World. We were beaming as we began a day of adventures in a fairy tale world, where memories would be made to last a lifetime (as Disney advertises). Little did we know how those memories we made would sustain us later.


One unforgettable memory was one when we had watched the early fireworks display on Main Street USA and decided to stay in the park, wandering around checking out the rides while a majority of families were still awaiting for the more popular later fireworks show.

We had the run of the park. NO LINES! We could choose Pirates of the Caribbean, Big Thunder Mountain, and Space Mountain. We could pick any ride with no waiting yet among all those choices, Braden wanted to just ride “It’s A Small World”. What? This was not even on my list!

Small World is an enclosed gondola ride where the entire amusement is traveling through different countries and cultures with robotic characters, time pieces, clockwork animatronics, and music playing the song, “It’s a Small World After All”.

Disney animators outdid themselves with attention to intricate details they infused into the experience. The song’s lyrics play continuously (and incessantly) yet alter to match the various languages as the boat navigates through the different countries.

After ten minutes of this ride, the typical parent (especially this one) will refuse to return. After all, yes it’s a small world but there are no thrills, no spills. No screams or breathtaking moments.

Just simplicity and extraordinary detail.

Simplicity and detail intrigued Braden

The simplicity and amazing amount of detail intrigued Braden. But too, he was mesmerized in that each individual country and character related across cultural and geographical differences. Everyone was kind to one another.

He connected so much with the theme of this ride, we repeated it over 17 times in a row. No exaggeration. Each time we exited the final country, he would ask if he could go again. Each time we thought, really? But instead we’d reply, “Sure, why not”.

Each ride, we’d find some new thing not previously seen. Cathy and I were blown away by our son’s connection with the experience. Finally, after 17 re-rides, I called it quits. He understood.

I’ll never forget what happened next. As we made our way toward the monorail to return to our hotel, Braden ran ahead, turned around and held out his arms. “STOP! Right now I want to tell you guys something and I don’t ever want you to forget this. Bend down”. We complied, both kneeling to look him directly in the eyes.

“I want you both to just know this has been the very best day of my entire life”.

You can’t buy those memories and we’re so glad for no regrets on that marathon ride.


What strikes me to this day is how perceptive Braden was at the tender age of six. He saw the world as few ever will. From a universal view. When we flew, he spent much of the time gazing out the window at how small everything was at such a height.

Braden saw people through a non-judgmental lens and couldn’t understand why others didn’t see the world in a similar way. It grieved him deeply. His “small world” view was so unique that he felt alone in it.

I’m just glad our son knew his creator personally and now eternally resides in a world where this one is just a tiny grain of sand by comparison.

To Braden, this now is truly a small world after all.


Readers

Recently, I heard a speaker say something profound, yet simple. “You never know who around you is hurting, so that just means we need to be kind to everyone we meet”. I thought this was so simple. Why is it so difficult?

I charge us all to be mindful in our own personal interactions with each other of this simple truth. Moreover, I challenge parents to consciously teach and model this behavior in our homes. Teach our children that we live in a small world where we’re all the very same and we have so much room for acceptance and none for “exceptance”.

Prayer:

Heavenly Father, thank you for this small world and for the beauty in it to include the hearts of those you created. Let us see one another the way you see us and help us remember to love, accept, and encourage each other as you would have us do. Thank you for your Son who died so we could have life and an eternity in heaven. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Matthew 7:12

In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you…

Out of Darkness

“The real battles are with forces no one has seen. Shine the light in every dark place you can find and you’ll be amazed at what is revealed” – Braden

“Thought of y’all when I heard this song” – Braden’s Aunt Karla

“I think your son’s story would resonate with many and was wondering if either you and/or your wife would be interested in telling his story to our students”. – 7th Grade School Teacher

2018 Walk Out of Darkness

Have you ever moved to a new home?

Some people never leave their first home and others never would consider moving from their hometown. Others, like myself have to move constantly, like a pesky fly at the Dairy Queen. They can’t seem to just light in one place and stay. I grew up in a small town where “moving” meant loading a livestock trailer with all your worldly possessions and hauling them across town or a few blocks to a newer house.

Later, after having graduated and entered a career in the corporate world, moving became “relocation”. Sometimes it’s voluntary, but too often it must be done due to a company need. In any case, particularly the latter, relocation really stinks.

Moving away from friends, family, and familiar. Moving into uncertainty  is miserable, not only for yourself but exponentially for those you love. Trust me. I’m now an expert, having relocated seven times with my company.

When I hear a successful executive give his/her work history and cite that many moves, there is a part of me that always wonders, if they’re such a high performer why couldn’t they hold down a steady job? But success often means moving talent around. No matter the reason, moving just stinks.

On the brighter side, re-lo comes with its perks. Typically, there is a moving bonus, all expenses are often paid including a guaranteed buy-out if your house doesn’t sell. You also have an opportunity to continually find a place to better suit your needs, including things like a pool if you’re so inclined.

When we moved from Cinco Ranch in Katy and bought our home in Prosper, we all knew the place just felt right. It looked a lot like the home we’d left. It also already had a pool which was a deal breaker to get the kids to willingly make the move. Previously, our pool was about five feet above the ground, full of grass clippings, and had the brand, “Intex” painted across its side. We went through at least four of them.

Moving with my family, the transfer to the DFW area was our fifth in 20 years. Prior moves were done as a single. In 2014, I  finally convinced the family to move one final time, since my career was on the line. The kids eventually came around. At least they got to pick their new room and decorate it like they wanted. 

Our new home had been owned by a couple who also had a boy and a girl. The larger room had been occupied by the daughter and the small one by the younger brother. Of course, Braden got the bigger room, which meant the chandelier in hers  and the urban skateboard graffitied wallpaper in his had to be swapped and walls painted.

One thing I never liked was Braden’s bedroom location. Tucked into a corner behind the game room, it felt isolated by location. One good thing is the large east facing window which allows bright light to flood the room when the blinds are left open. If Braden left them closed, it felt too dark.

It was dark the day he left it.  I could go into a long discussion about the dark and what the Bible has to say about it. Although I’m no Bible scholar, I can say there are more negative references about the dark and positive references about the light. God’s word tells us the dark is where sin hides its face. Where dark forces reside. And where fear thrives.

For months prior to Braden’s death, we felt a sense of dark forces somehow working within those four walls although there were no tangible signs. Obviously, we couldn’t see nor hear anything. We could however see visible signs we were losing our son, slowly but certainly. On the day before Halloween, we did. We lost a battle in a very spiritual war.

Halloween never had been a holiday we enjoyed. We’d be fine to skip it altogether. Maybe this year, we will.


Coincidentally, on the morning of Braden’s memorial service, the  American Foundation for Suicide Prevention had planned a national event called, Out of the Darkness Walk. The local chapter held the walk just five minutes from First Baptist Church and I decided to go.

I know this sounds crazy, but I did it to confirm Satan wasn’t going to keep me on my back but rather our family was going to stand and walk forward. I was joined by a couple of family members from out of town and some friends from the community.

It was a gorgeous sunny weekend with mild temperatures and a slight breeze. Perfect for a walk. Before leaving that morning, I was up before dawn. The previous evening, Cathy and I spent long hours into the night selecting photos for the memorial. I’d hauled down six or seven albums and was returning them to the media room just off Braden’s room. 

We had closed his bedroom door expecting it to be months or years before we unlocked it. It was a dark place we knew would remain closed for some time. As I balanced the over-stuffed photo albums up the stairs, I got a text notice. The message from my sister Karla read, “Thought of y’all when I heard this song”. She does that every once in awhile and they’re usually pretty darn good tunes.

I clicked the text link and slipped the phone into my PJ pocket to continue putting away the photograph albums. As the song played, I immediately was moved. Rarely does that happen on the first listen to any song. Now, as I walked into the game room and leaned on the pool table, I pulled out the phone to see the artist and to just stare at the phone. As tears began falling, my eyes moved to Braden’s bedroom door.

The sun had risen enough to see light under the bottom space of the door, but it was oddly bright. The door wasn’t closed! It was standing about two feet open and sunlight flooded the area  into the small hallway. The song titled, “Tremble” was about the power of the name of Jesus and how He makes the darkness tremble. How He overcomes fear. To this day, I still get chills when I recall that image of the light shining through that open door.

The light was oddly bright

That morning, I stepped into a brightly sunlit park to walk alongside friends and family. Since that day, our family has walked into places we never dreamed we’d go. Caitlin has walked into her school and has danced on many a stage. Just recently, Cathy and I walked together onto the floor of a gymnasium full of middle school students to speak about how they could play their part in saving lives and in changing their culture. We’ve all walked paths we never dreamed.

Only a month ago, I finally opened Braden’s bedroom door all the way. I went to the blinds and opened them fully and sat down to allow the flood of tears to wash away some pain. I prayed against the forces of darkness that once filled that space. And I thanked God for revealing His truth, that we do face unseen forces but not alone.

Who knows where God will lead from here. All we can do is surrender to Him and remain determined to walk out of the darkness.

Prayer:  Although we lost one battle, Lord thank you for assurance that you already won the war. Protect us in our battles. In the all powerful name of Jesus. Amen.

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” John 10:10


Tremble

– By Mosaic

Peace… Bring it all to peace
The storm surrounding me,
Let it break at Your name

Still.. call the sea to still
The rage in me to still
Every wave at Your name

Jesus, Jesus, You make the darkness tremble
Jesus, Jesus, You silence fear

Breathe… call these bones to live
Call these lungs to sing
Once again, I will praise

Jesus, Jesus, You make the darkness tremble
Jesus, Jesus, You silence fear

Your name is a light the shadows can’t deny
Your name cannot be overcome

Jesus, Jesus, You make the darkness tremble
Jesus, Jesus, You silence fear. Your name is alive forever lifted high

YOUR NAME CAN NOT BE OVERCOME!

Holding On

“I loved family movie nights and doing things together. I could always use a good long hug. That made me feel secure, like everything was ok”. – Braden

A hug lasting seven or more seconds produces oxytocin. This natural chemical restores damaged brain cells, allowing them to live again and to give a sense of well being. Everything will be ok. A sense of hope.” – Sarah Feuerbacher, family counselor

Could we have held you longer and might you have held on just a little longer… enough to find your way?” Braden’s mom and dad


Sculpture: “Emptiness”
Depicts my last memory of our son the night before he stopped holding on.

Lately, I’ve been overcome by the need to write. It’s been like a flood building against a dam of time constraints, distractions, and the difficulty in conveying so many thoughts and emotions pouring over my mind.

We’re approaching one year now since last Fall. Writing somehow allows a tiny stream of emotional relief through that dam. It can flow out as humor, reflection, or too often just tremendous sadness. Fall 2019 begins this week and although no rain is forecast, we can expect to have a flood or two.


Pizza Nights and Groundhog Days

I began writing this late one Friday afternoon. Many parents know what Friday evening means. The pizza chains certainly do. Families want fun and memorable experiences together without having to cook. They need an easy way to feed their kids and a little self indulgence at the end of a hectic work week.

A few weeks before Braden left, I was heading home on a Friday evening after a full work week . The Friday night routine call home… “So how’s it going? My ETA is around 6:15. What’s the plan?”

“The kids want pizza”. Mark concedes, “Ok. What’s their order?” Cathy: “‘Braden wants pepperoni and she wants cheese only”. No surprise. They never agreed on the same toppings and neither choices were my preference.

“Ok, get what they want and a meat lover’s for me. Also some of those crunchy thingies sprinkled with cinnamon sugar”. This is the Friday night equivalent to the movie, “Groundhog Day”. You know. The one where the lead character wakes each morning and goes through the exact same day hundreds of times over and over again.

Of course this is a slight exaggeration, but whether it’s movie night, game night, or inviting friends over, somehow Friday nights always seem to involve a similar experience. Pizza, zero pressure, acceptance, warmth of the familiar, and a good chance everyone is wrapped in their own TV blanket.

I must finally admit it’s not all bad, this Groundhog Day thing!


And a Different Kind of Fort Nite

Sometimes family night included video games together. Before we lost Braden, he went through a phase of playing a virtual game called, Fort Nite. This is another one of the “kill or be killed” variety and once your character is killed, you lose. We tried to play with him, but always lost. Braden had his wins but when he lost, you’d hear him yelling from three houses away.

A few months before we lost him, Braden helped his sister build a “blanket fort”. She loved those. Later, Caitlin planned all summer to build an “Epic, Ultimate Fort”, before 7th grade began.

Caitlin’s “Epic Ultimate Fort”

One night, she begged me to bring in the Little Giant ladder from the garage and split it in half. “Can you build the two ladders?” “Sweetie… I’m completely exhausted… but, Ok”.

Later I arrived home to see that my girls had built that “ultimate fort”. Trust me, I know how to build a fort. My brothers and I built hundreds of them in the dirt fields and in living rooms of childhood friends, but nothing like this.

That night all three of us were in the ultimate fort watching TV together. Like her brother, she loved it because it felt close. Safe. Cozy, and this sort of activity together built memories.

I lay on the floor and Caitlin moved from her comfortable chair, laid next to me pulling up our “love blanket” (the quilt I’d bought Cathy one Christmas) and laid her head on my stomach. As we watched our movie, I gently patted her back and snuggled her in close.

Suddenly she was not a twelve year old fort builder about to become a young lady. She was just my baby girl. The tiny little bird I’d held before they put her into the warmer on Christmas Eve morning 2006. She was still so innocent, and I knew she would be gone too soon. You see, you can’t hold on too long or little birds won’t fly.

Without warning I had to try and deny the tears silently beginning to fill my eyes. I couldn’t even sniff or else she would realize her daddy was crying. I was so much missing Braden in this special moment, realizing we’d never have another one like this together, at least this side of Heaven. Still, I could hug his sister tight. And I did.

As the father to a teenage boy I consciously chose to show physical affection to him daily. Did I do it out of my heart or from my head? It doesn’t matter, I did it because it was important. But did I do it enough? What’s enough? What’s too much? Who really knows? I would say however, yes, I did it from my heart and that more is better than less.


Science of the Mind and Heart

A few months ago, out of our own experience and with the Holy Spirit’s direction, we formed with other parents struggling during the adolescent and teen years. We come together on a monthly basis to learn about shared challenges. Those things we’ve historically faced alone.

Last week during our second PTP (Parents-R-Partners) session, family counselors Sarah Feuerbacher and Ardis Lo presented on the topic of social media. Within their slide presentation, they depicted the physiology of the brain.

They presented the scientifically proven fact that when a person is physically touched or hugged for as long as seven seconds, the mind has an interesting and amazing reaction. It stops thinking negatively about stressors and instead fires a chemical called oxytocin. This natural body chemical tells the brain everything is ok simply because it is being loved. Not judged. Not too short. Not too tall. Not ugly or unaccepted. Just. LOVED.

Furthermore, this chemical has healing properties for the mind. Neurotransmitters long damaged or killed by cortizol and adrenalin, are mended and recovered. As a result of the injection of this natural “Love Potion”, the brain instantly feels “ok” and it recovers in proportion to the amount of time and frequency of the “injection”.

I don’t know about you, but this simple science lesson will help me as a father to know that unconditional love and physical touch (again, specifically hugging / holding longer than before) can impact the brain and emotional well being of those I love.


Shared Experiences

Since losing Braden, we’ve heard so many stories about other children or even adults dealing with depression. Many are so similar in detail it reminds us of a movie with the exact same storyline but different actors. Fortunately, in more cases than not, their stories have had a better ending than ours. Still, too many end in the same way ours did.

Recently, a woman confided to having failed at five attempts to end her own life and thanking God she was spared. She said, “One time the doctors pronounced me dead and actually informed my family, but they demanded that the doctors keep trying to resuscitate me. It was a terrible time, but it got better”. She continued, “I’m glad God saved me, and that my family held on for me when I couldn’t hold on for myself.”

Readers: If you are contemplating harming yourself , taking your own life, or if you or someone you know has a plan, we plead and pray that you’ll take it seriously and get help immediately. You see, the world needs you here. Perhaps to make a difference in someone else’s life.

We would give anything to have had that be Braden’s story, had he just held on.

Holding On to the Everlasting

We all want and need to hold our children. Subconciously we hope they won’t grow up, while in the very same moment we pray they will. Our Heavenly Father wants His children to accept His promises and assurances. He wants us all to lean into His EVERLASTING arms. IF we model this and if we do so ourselves, we stand a very good chance as do our children of finding that perfect peace for which we all hunger.

Our Father wants us to just hold on and watch for His perfect plan.


Prayer over readers and families

Heavenly Father, You know our hearts and our minds. Thank you for creating us in your wonderous image. Of all your creations, you made your children uniquely capable of recovering from damage done by this world if we will simply take time to love you and love one another. Your word confirms these two things to be the greatest of all commandments. We love you so much and pray for every person and every family reading. May you direct us to share your message with others who may need encouragement and hope. In your son Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Matthew 22: 36-38

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Responders

“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

Prosper First Response team who arrived on Camden Way on 911 call: Left to Right: Armando Fernandez (Driver/ Engineer); Jason Graham, Captain; Stuart Blasingame, Fire Chief; David Weimer and Lee Marshall, Firefighter Paramedics, and Shaw Eft, Assistant Fire Chief. Not pictured: Tim Easterling and Chase Lowery, Fire fighter paramedics

In Memoriam

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.


Preface

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.


First Response

Coming into uncomfortable places

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.

Walking together in difficult times

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”.

Second Response

Inviting into our lives

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!

Third Response

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.

Stay

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”

  1. Uncomfortable places. Step INTO them rather than avoiding;
  2. Connect with the hurting. You may be next;
  3. Invite the hurting into our lives, homes, and churches; and
  4. 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.

Proverbs 3:5-6

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will make your paths straight.