“Dad, our Heavenly Father is not preparing a place here for you. He’s preparing YOU for a place here with Him”. – Remain true. Love you, Braden
“I won’t ever earn a place in Heaven, but my hope lies in trusting my loving Father will allow me in anyway”. – Braden’s dad
Our north Texas community is growing (as are many others) so fast it’s insane. Real estate prices have climbed through the roof as California moves to Texas. We have friends in real estate who say they have no lack of sales opportunities but the asking prices are far above the appraisal price. Banks don’t loan on anything above proven value.
Today, a prospective buyer in north Dallas arrives at the closing table with a significant amount of cash just to pay the difference between the real versus perceived value. They even have something real estate agents call “Love Letters” which are buyers trying to pull at the heart strings of a home owner to persuade them the sell.
What a terribly wonderful problem to have as a seller. Still if I sold tomorrow I’d have to pay twice as much to move to a similar property unless I buy a shack!
After our son, Braden took his life the morning of October, 30 in 2018, we’ve remained in family counseling. A couple of months ago, I had a conversation with one of them that stuck with me. The counselor asked me about “where I go in my mind” when I replay the day when Cathy called screaming into the phone. We talked about ways to “re-script” that horrific event in order to somehow cope with the trauma in a more healthy way. I was asked to think about our son and where he is in this very moment. What he’s doing? Where is he living? What does he look like?
The doc asked, “Do you believe you’ll ever join Braden again where he is now?” After a thoughtful pause, I finally replied, “Honestly, it’s about a ten percent bet. I’m completely assured he is in Heaven. He deserves the largest and most amazing mansion along with everything he didn’t have here, but I’ve not personally earned the chance to enter Heaven much less the opportunity to live in a mansion God has prepared there. I might squeeze in through a side door, but I’m lucky if there’s even a shack awaiting me”.
Although it was my attempt to make light of a heavy question, there was a hint of some truth in that response. The hard fact is I do have my doubts though rarely have they been verbalized. after all, how could my life here could earn me a ticket into Heaven. Fortunately, I have really good counselors who are strong in their Christian faith. The response to my fully honest answer was met with helpful wisdom.
“There are no shacks in Heaven. No one gets what we deserve based upon what we did or what we didn’t do here. Otherwise, Heaven would be totally empty. Even a shack in Heaven is far beyond anything the saints could have earned”
In my immaturity, I’ve always wondered, “Why would God build a mansion for me? Can’t He just blink and make that sort of thing happen?” How ignorant. The word, “Building” in this scripture means He is “Preparing”. Rather than swinging a hammer or sawing a 2×4, my Heavenly Father is spending His time right now every day, preparing ME for the place He eternally has always had prepared which is with Him.
My faith and my sustenance lie in knowing I won’t have to pay even one dime toward any mortgage for my “Heavenly mansion”. The only price for such an awesome gift is my surrender and faith in the Builder.
Prayer: Lord, help us give up our selfish will for your perfect blue printed plan. Find and watch over those who are in dark places right now, falling prey to a lie by thinking they don’t deserve to receive your promises.
In Your Son Jesus’ name, Amen.
John 14: 1-4
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”
I allowed my hopes and God’s Truth to become overshadowed by Satan’s lies. Please help others know where they will find eternal hope. Love you all, Braden
“God told me I needed to do this job at no cost”– Prosper Contractor
“I need help! I have to talk to someone right now!” – Youth group student
I forgot my mask last night. Just as well. We had a business meeting scheduled but being such a large crowd, I figured my absence wouldn’t be noticed.
Instead of bothering to go home and returning, I decided to revisit some memories. I’ve learned sometimes this helps. Revisiting places where Braden walked is probably just asking to hurt. Still, at times even feeling pain is better than feeling numb.
First, I drove by the junior and high schools.
Reynolds was where we had registered Braden for school. It was literally the first thing we did upon arrival in our new community. On the run for the Fall semester with a U-Haul trailer in tow behind Cathy’s Toyota 4Runner double parked outside. We had just one day left to get enrolled upon our hasty arrival in Prosper, Texas.
The trailer was loaded with items the commercial carrier couldn’t legally haul, like paint and other combustibles. Plants, fertilizer, etc. Also, there was a snake named Jake and a tortoise named Spoons. Braden’s pets.
Next stop was PHS. As I sat in the parking lot, I could clearly see him trudging along in the dark, lit by the car headlights of parents arriving to gather their band kids. He was dressed in his overheated band uniform, carrying his trombone from the football game on a hot sweaty Texas Friday night. Exhausted. Hanging in there.
That night while the Prosper Eagles screamed, Braden played in the “suicide squad”. At half time, the higher performing players in the trombone section presented a crazy but fun show where they all bent and swung their horns in different directions. If just one player missed a single beat, it was very dangerous. I later thought the name of their ensemble to be beyond ironic.
Then I recalled our family waiting in the late hours at the band hall for him to exit. Sometimes he’d be smiling, hanging with a buddy. Often one of the last to leave, other times walking out alone.
The final stop on the memory tour was Frontier Park where the students of the Class of 2018 held a candlelight vigil. That November night we had at least a hundred kids and their parents circling near a beautiful fountain. Over two hundred crying eyes, praying and wishing they could have helped. That night by just being there, they did help our family have some hope. I added my two crying eyes along with inward cries to Heaven to help others not to have to experience our hell.
From the first dawn I saw our son at his birth until the last night I saw him on this earth, my goal had been to give him a good life. Through his loss, as parents we’ve learned that some of the most important things we consider to be our full responsibility fall well outside our control.
A few months ago we decided it was time to begin the difficult process of working on Braden’s bedroom. Although it sometimes felt like a dark place when he was sad, after he left it became cold. Starkly barren. No carpet. Just tacks around the baseboards. The bed frame sat without a mattress or springs. The nightstand without a drawer. The ceiling without a coat of paint. If Braden had been here, he’d be wanting us to finally get around to fixing up the room. I would have replied, “Everything in its time, son”. It was time.
As we began the monumental task, we were once again amazed as we have been countless times. Out of nowhere, a local contracting company offered their help. They wanted to paint and refinish the walls for free. A month or so later, another company came to re-carpet the room. As I sat upstairs working from home, I’ll never forget hearing the contractor say to Cathy, “God told me to do this, so I’ve decided to do this job at no cost”.
Before the work could begin, we’d need to remove the furniture and anything on the walls and floor. Not a task either of us wanted to begin. One late night, Cathy decided to go up and remove Braden’s many books from the shelves. With each book came a thin layer of dust having been still and unopened so long. Finally, Cathy began just stacking them without allowing her emotions to distract from the task.
Then, randomly she opened a book to thumb through its pages. In that book was a handwritten note Braden had hidden who knows when. His note read that he’d decided he didn’t want to be here any longer. It also said that he wanted to take his dad on a cruise for a guy trip and to take his mom to Italy where they had always dreamed of going together, even as a young child.
Like opening a time capsule and catching a glimpse of our son, this note contained his deepest feelings and hopes which he’d long kept hidden and never expected to share with anyone. It hurt to read, but helped to know he is now experiencing joys far above any he had hoped here in this world.
Two Asides: Questions with Too Few Answers
First. Braden’s sister, Caitlin is our dancer. Unfortunately, since the Covid lockdown began in March, she’s been in severe pain. We thought it was an ACL tear in her knee but after two MRIs and three doctors we still don’t know what’s causing her problem. If you’re a parent, you understand. Few things hurt us more than knowing our child is in pain yet we are helpless. The best we can offer is our assurance that we’re simply there, no matter what happens.
Secondly, just last week, a local church youth leader had us to speak with a group of middle and high schoolers on the topic of suicide. It was very uncomfortable yet something I’ve prayed about doing since the day Braden left. We’ve wanted to have the chance to speak openly and honestly about the reality of this epidemic called suicide.
Immediately after the talk, the lights dimmed and the microphones were turned off. Two young girls approached the stage separately. The first was a smiling and beautiful girl who wanted to say thanks and to share that she had attempted suicide just a year earlier. She assured us we were on the right track and to keep speaking to kids. There was a visible glow in her spirit and her joy was palpable. She now had a sense purpose not only for herself but for others she would help.
Next, another young lady approached weeping heavily. From the floor, she yelled, “I need to talk with someone right now!” As the youth leader and I listened, she shared that she had come that night knowing she needed a message of hope and help. One of her friends has been tweeting about taking her own life. This child’s face was just the opposite of the other teen. This girl was wrought with pain and her eyes were yearning for any wisdom or guidance.
Sadly, I was at a loss for words. It was that same lousy feeling when Braden needed help or when his sister needs help still with the pain she feels but can’t fully explain. I felt totally lacking but we thinly assured her that it would be alright and commended her for coming forth. I told her to just be there for her friend and to pray. As my mouth sounded out the words, I know they seemed empty to the listener.
Just then, the words shared by one of my new friends who had dealt with thoughts of suicide in high school came to mind. He’d said, “I realized I simply needed to TELL someone”. Too often, we think keeping our hurts inside will help them to go away or somehow diminish the pain. Ironically, just the opposite is true. Satan absolutely thrives in secrets and in loneliness. If he can keep us quiet, he can own our minds. Only when we open up, share and ask for help can we find healing and hope.
That evening, in addition to our encouragement to follow Christ’s example of peer relationship, we concluded as we always do. We emphasized how vital it is to find and to grow a personal relationship with Jesus whose acceptance and unconditional love never waivers. As a husband, father, child of God, and one who has experienced hurt beyond explanation, I can confidently say Christ is the only real answer to these impossible questions.
From now on, that’ll be my first response when presented with the unanswerable question: “How can you help me when life brings unmanageable Hurt?” First, TELL SOMEONE and get immediate Help. Then simply seek Jesus Christ who brings eternal Hope. He’ll do the rest.
Parents, Teachers, and Teens
We certainly don’t have all the answers when another person is in crisis, do we? What we have learned is by process of elimination one thing we can NOT afford to do is to ignore the problem and just hope it just goes away. Kids today are desperately needing others who are willing and eager to step forward and help them by coming alongside and walking with them. Encourage them and seek help from mental health professionals, counselors, and ministers.
Most importantly, just STAY. They need your help and hope. You not only will make a friend, you may very well save a life.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.Then you will call on me and come and pray to me,and I will listen to you.
“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.