“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.”
“A loyal friend who brought me in and with whom I was able to spend time would have changed my life”. – Braden
“I could be so far off course. Thank God for shepherds.” – Braden’s Dad
“Go out. And BE the Church”– Ron Hill; Retired Senior Pastor: FOSA
Wouldn’t we all like an opportunity to re-map some path in our life or perhaps even entirely delete a poorly written chapter? There’s no such thing as time travel. Still, authors and Hollywood writers attempt to weave fantasy stories about that possibility.
In mathematical theory it’s been proven that by outpacing the speed of light you could literally turn back time. Although we’ve come a long way, I don’t expect we humans will ever find this a trick we’ll be able to perform. Still, if we were afforded one chance to go back, would we? The more compelling question is, should we?
If so, it begs the next question: Where along our life lines would any of us purposely return or hit a restart button? It certainly wouldn’t be a positive experience or a decision that had a favorable outcome. More likely it would be some event or decision so horrible it had a disastrous impact on us and those around us. It would be something so bad we would quickly take the chance to re-script history.
Returning to those months and years prior to losing Braden October 30, 2018 would certainly be tempting for me as a father. I would return in a heartbeat to undo wrongs although done with every good intent. I’d accept and love Braden more unconditionally and encourage him more frequently.
On the other hand. There are chapters with experiences and with people (many who were strangers) which would never be written out of our story. Without some of these strangers who happened along our paths, some of us might have blown off course to a place distant and dark. Certainly, we’d be less well off.
This weekend I watched a live FaceBook feed from The Fellowship of San Antonio as a very special individual was celebrated for his 52 years of ministry for Christ. On this occasion, it’s important to share with you about him and how he has served me as a shepherd and a friend.
Until age 18 I lived in west Texas where “Cotton was King” (Wine vineyards are king now). We were the typical farm family before corporations took over. Then, farming was simple although uncertain and highly subject to the whims of Mother Nature.
As a teen, somehow life fell into my lap with few if any problems or crises of note. Summers meant Vacation Bible School. Sunday mornings had us all in Sunday School and “big” church (even some Sunday evenings and the occasional Wednesdays). What a lot of kids had been dealt in life just didn’t get served to my plate in large portions until years later. Of course, then I got the “All you can eat buffet”.
Social life during that time was relatively easy. After all I had a twin brother and we never lacked for friends. Still, as with every teen, you must find “your” place and your own identity. Beginning high school I decided the wisest choice for a core group was with the church youth, but I didn’t think I’d fit in. Even in west Texas, I felt like the hokey “farm kid” though you’d think that was an easy fit. It would be, but for the fact that the youth at First Baptist Church were all town kids.
At age 16 I drove a 1970 Ford pickup our dad had worn to its last thread pulling a thousand double-towed trailers overloaded with cotton. That truck was like a well aged suit. What looked good on the outside was ready to fall into a heap if shaken too much. No one else in the youth group drove a pickup not to mention lived on a farm.
One late Sunday afternoon, from my room I could hear my brother Mike’s trap set rattling the house. He’d fallen in love with drums when we were little kids living on the west side of town. Santa delivered his first toy set but this was a real one. It was well worthy of the double insulated walls dad had installed to muffle the noisy racket just to make living tolerable for us. We thought we were drowning him out, but neighbors were complaining half a mile away across open acres of dirt fields.
That Sunday, a total stranger was visiting our home. He was the youth group leader at First Baptist looking for a drummer to play in his choir called the “Celebration Singers” and “Sonshine Company”. Our sister, Karla was a singer in the group and they were preparing for a “summer tour” heading to California with stops along the way. A young Ronnie Hill was scouting talent for the group’s instrumental section.
As I sat in my room listening, I hoped somehow to get a chance like Karla and Mike were getting. To be invited into a place to plug in. Although my only talent had been first and second chair trumpet in junior high band, I might be able to do something, anything to be included. Heck, I could even do lighting.
As Ronnie was leaving, it was clear he was impressed and wanted my brother to join the group. Then he turned and looked up the hall toward my room. He came in and introduced himself. Seeing an old junk guitar standing against the wall, he asked, “Do you play “GUT-TAR?” (Until then, I had pronounced it “GIT-TAR”).
The neck had long warped and the bridge was almost completely unglued, leaving the strings a good quarter to half inch above the fretboard. To play it was painful at best and bloody at worst. I had a few songs I could play in single notes and only about three measures in length. “My Dog has Fleas”, (an old favorite), “Secret Agent Man”, and “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple. This was long before “Stairway to Heaven” had even been written.
This old “instrument” was scratched up by years of poor treatment and who knows how many kids trying to bang out tunes over time. The sound never came out quite flat nor sharp but somewhere just south of pleasant. Still, this was a chance to go on “tour” and Mike was being invited. This might be my chance!
“Do you know how to play?” Ronnie asked again.
“Uh, yeah”, I replied. And that’s how I learned to play the guitar. On the job training. More importantly, it’s how I learned about shepherds and how Christ uses them to enter into uncomfortable places, to find those left behind, and invites them when least expected. That one instance was the start of a lifelong friendship. One where I learned more about being a “Christian” than I perhaps ever would otherwise. It is certainly a chapter I’d never remove from my story.
We played the “Summer Tour”. About ten churches and a mall or two of uninterested shoppers. I kept my Mel Bay’s “How to Play Guitar Chords in Three Simple Steps” book hidden in my case. The whole tour, I mock played my “GUT-TAR” with the volume turned off completely. After each show, we’d have a fellowship and audience members would say, “Hey, I could hear everyone else but you. Man, you need to turn up your volume”. I always nodded and replied, “Yeah, it’s best for a guitar to just blend in”.
Pretty lame, but true. Still, I was invited. That was ALL that mattered then and a complete stranger named Ronnie Hill made a choice to do that. I’d not realize what he was doing until far later in life. That one choice he made changed my life entirely.
As a youth in Brownfield, either kids met at the “drag”, stayed home, or found some other place to gather. The drag was a one mile stretch on the Lubbock Highway between Coleman Park and the Sonic drive-in. Ronnie’s door never was locked and when his youth were unsure where to go, we could knock on the door knowing when it opened we had a place.
We played not only Christian music but popular music and many times the kids would just sit around talking and laughing. This was a completely new experience for me and I suspect for most of the others. Still, it was a place of absolute acceptance, inclusion, and encouragement.
As I became more comfortable as an outsider, I’d stay late after the other kids left. Ronnie and I would throw darts, tell jokes, and laugh until our sides hurt. Many times he pulled out board games and never acted like it was an imposition on his time. Ronnie had a knack for erasing the age gap and his kids felt we belonged, were valued, and we had a purpose.
Ronnie was later “Called” to move to a church in Dallas as a youth minister. There, he became just “Ron” and we remained friends. He actually wrote old fashioned letters that required a stamp. They were brief, sincere, and always asked how I was doing along with a scripture reference. I rarely returned the gesture but he didn’t stop.
After college graduation, I was in search of a job and headed for the big city of Dallas. Ron opened his home for a place to stay while job hunting. Once or twice we’d have a pretty good argument and once he even kicked me out. It was short lived but well deserved. I was being a selfish idiot.
Years later, Ron served as my singles minister in San Antonio. Most recently, he invited me to the church he founded and pastored for almost eighteen years. He asked me to share testimony about our son’s life and his death, openly and without shame. Ron’s church planted a tree in their prayer garden in memorial of Braden. Following Ron’s leadership and example his flock welcomed my family as their own and when we visit there, it feels like a second church home.
I could share so many stories about my friend and our friendship it would quickly grow boring. Suffice to say, they are memories we’ll both take into chapters yet written.
Here are just a few things I learned from this shepherd. Perhaps we all could better see how Christ works in the background and how we each should serve as His shepherds wherever lost sheep can be found.
Lessons from Ron
God blesses his children if we just look for those blessings.
God sends helpers so be looking for them.
God loves laughter. After all, He created it.
God loves us just as we are and He hears short prayers as clearly as long flowery ones.
God loves the humble, the unloved, and the outcast.
GOD LOVES ME and offers unconditional grace.
A shepherd’s primary responsibility is the safety and welfare of the flock.
Matthew 18: 12
“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off?”
Today was Ron’s very last message to the flock he leaves in search of his next. Perhaps his next flock will be scattered to all corners of the world. He loves travel, so that will suit him well. As he left the stage this morning, before they cut the microphone, he exclaimed “Now, go OUT. And BE the Church!” How perfect.
Prayer: Lord, thank you for sending us shepherds. I consider myself blessed to have met several along life’s path. Please open the eyes of the lost today in need of a shepherd who will choose to leave the beaten path and help bring others to You. Bless the Shepherds and may I serve as one to someone else. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
“Dad, if you had only one thing you would tell people about this experience, what would it be? No pressure here”. Braden
“I’ve learned that what I once considered to be important pales in comparison to a personal relationship with Jesus”. Braden’s Dad
Recently, I met again with a friend (my ex-boss) for coffee. We’ve met more frequently since our moves to Dallas following a major corporate overhaul. I’ve come to look forward to these brief moments over a cup of Starbucks. She likes the fancy version and I just order their plain drip. This morning was my turn to buy. It was an interesting conversation as they always are, but this one was different.
All my life, I’ve been on the standard upwardly mobile career track with the same company and throughout those years, I always looked ahead to that next level, job assignment, or tier of achievement. Sacrificing whatever it took to reach the “next level” and to gain another stripe for my prideful shoulder and career reputation. Isn’t that just what we do?
Through a series of promotions and/or re-locations over the years, my company placed me into various leadership roles, each presenting its own set of challenges but bringing recognition and another achievement notch to add to my career belt.
After an initial move to a first line leadership position in 1994, moving to San Antonio, I later promoted again in 1997. When that job offer was presented, I was only listening to hear if I was demoted or promoted. During a reorganization those are your options. My answer came. “Mark, you are being offered a Team Manager position in College Station, Texas. Do you accept?”
All I heard was, ” Offered a Team Manager position”. The part about the opportunity being located in a remote central Texas community called College Station went past me. I’d never even visited the place. I immediately blurted my answer. “I Accept”.
That’s the way my career worked during that season of life. For the sake of exposure, an offer to promote or even just move was to be accepted, no matter where or when, nor if it involved moving to the moon or possibly even worse, College Station. It was, after all, the almighty “PROMOTION”.
That move to College Station (which we in Texas fondly refer to as AggieLand) was challenging. The only thing in AggieLand is Texas A&M University and co-eds. I won’t share my age at that time, but I wasn’t college co-ed material. Thankfully, my best friend living in Houston and his girlfriend knew a friend named Cathy See. Cathy and I met and married soon after a hilarious and memorable blind date.
After starting our family with Braden two years old, we ultimately moved again to Houston where I worked for a manager who shared my background growing up in a cotton farming community in west Texas. Although we shared that common history, she remained tough with me.
She was the kind of manager that, if you didn’t perform well you better look for another job. She was not hesitant in the least about addressing performance shortfall. Still, although tough, her team respected her because she was fair.
Over a short period of time, this manager came to know and appreciate my ability to perform. We even shared personal experiences surrounding the challenges of family and raising little boys. I still recall her asking and being sincerely concerned about the struggles we faced at home while juggling work demands.
That was about 18 years ago.
Fast forward. In mid-2018 I decided job promotions and managerial stripes were no longer important in light of the demands on me at home and Braden’s need for a dad. I chose to step down and to take a road less traveled. Leaving leadership by choice was actually a promotion in a way. For myself and our family it would provide additional benefits of work/life balance and time with them, although it meant a significant financial shift.
My ex-boss and I have now become friends. We meet for coffee once in a while to catch up with our families and to talk about life. Just recently, we did just that. As she sipped her fancy coffee, she stopped and looked sharply into my eyes.
“Mark, I have a question I’ve been really wanting to ask for awhile.”
“Ok, ask me anything, I replied”. I’ll never forget her question.
“What is the most impactful thing you’ve learned about faith through this experience?”
Typically, when asked a question from someone I might be trying to impress or convince in an interview, I’ll think very deliberately and speak very carefully. Yet, my answer came before I could even stop myself.
I asked, “Do you remember when I worked for you?”
“Do you recall that you rated my performance based on what I did or what I did not do, subject to your own expectations of me?”
“Well… Yes”, she answered, wondering where this was going.
“Then, let me ask you something in answering your question: While we’ve been sharing coffee this morning, have you one single time even given a thought as to how I’ve spoken or presented myself to you?”
“Certainly not. No.”
“Have you once been concerned that I might say or do something that fell below or outside your expectations of me?”
“Well, of course not, Mark.”
“That, my friend is the most important thing I’ve learned. We no longer give thought to superior versus subordinate. We have developed a relationship. ”
I told her, before I surrendered my life to Christ that horrific night in October, I always believed God existed to measure my performance on this earth. He was the judge of what I said, did, or what I didn’t do. I perceived that His purpose was to gauge my performance and measure the results I provided.
And I always fell far below His expectations.
Through this very personal experience, I’ve come to now realize that my Creator loves me unconditionally. Period. He even prefers that I mess up once in awhile, because after all I am only human. If I had it all together, there’d be no need for Him. He simply wants me to fall down so I can look up to Him.
That’s what I’ve learned and I’m really glad my friend asked the question.
Coincidentally, after writing and posting this short story Saturday night, this morning’s Sunday message at church was in line and informative. The pastor said God (YWH -Yaweh) is beyond the NEED for anything at all. Yet still, He DESIRES a relationship with us because He is a “relational God”.
How perfectly amazing and truly unique is this characteristic in the one TRUE God. He’s not needful, but yet He is desirous of one and only one thing and that is the love of His children. He’ll never demand it, but He desires it.
IF we have a real relationship with Him, shouldn’t we strive to please our Creator knowing what He desires? Shouldn’t we also lead our families in the same way? I’ll keep trying… and YaWeH will eternally grant His grace and unconditional love when I fall below my own expectations.
Heavenly Father, thanks for those minor moments in our lives when we are given the chance to realize things are really very simple when we just stop and listen. Thanks for helping me realize ALL you desire is a relationship with us. Continue revealing who You are to us and to those we can serve as witnesses. Help us a parents to love our children unconditionally as you do your children.
“When people ask what they can do in despair, tell them to trust in Christ alone. That’s the missing piece all people need but too many fail to seek or to accept”. Braden
“Thanks for this reminder, son. I too often find myself frustrated by trying to force pieces together that look right but which don’t fit.” Braden’s Dad
The holiday season is behind us and let’s face it, there is some solace in returning to routine. After all, lax time around the season can get boring. Our kids annually put up a puzzle table to work while waiting for the “eventful” moments like opening gifts or a get together with friends. We don’t rush the project as it’s just a way to relax, talk, and laugh as we work to put the pieces in place.
This year, we worked on a pretty intricate puzzle. Honestly, it was my first time to participate as I tend to be impatient and give up after looking for the matching parts and failing for ten minutes or so. However, this year, I decided to play along and was somewhat encouraged and proud to say I found some success. Not to brag, but I got most of Santa Claus’ beard and bag done on my own.
As we neared completion, it began to look like we would finish before Christmas Day. The pace picked up as we could see the picture coming into full focus. We were only about ten pieces away from solving the puzzle when it became obvious some pieces were missing. Apparently, the dogs wanted to play along too and had gotten hold of three puzzle pieces, chewing them beyond recognition.
Here was this perfect picture and one we’d all worked with hopes of completing fully, but now it was futile. I mean, you can’t order one replacement part for a 2,000 piece puzzle so we were left a little discouraged. All our effort to complete the project and to make it suitable for framing fell short in the end. Oh, well. Maybe next year.
Since we began a not-for-profit ministry called “Braden’s Voice.org” there have been numerous opportunities to present to schools, churches, and youth groups. Most recently, I found myself in front of the congregation of the Prosper United Methodist Church. A ministry advocating for teen relationship-building and suicide awareness had never been on my radar. It certainly didn’t fit the puzzle of what my life would look like when I started.
Prior to that church presentation, Cathy and I were invited to speak with two church youth groups who gathered to discuss teen depression, culture, and relationships. The discussion was an open forum where we presented our story and the kids were asked to present honest questions.
It was going along great. We shared about life prior to the teen years and how changes presented challenges in the middle and high school years. How Braden found himself outside social circles looking in through a computer or phone screen. We talked about the false front social media puts on the world and how important it is to not fall for that façade.
The participation and engagement was outstanding. Several of the youth were outspoken as to their desire to make a difference in their culture and among their peers. I thought, “Wow. This is going well”. Then, we got a question that stumped me. It was from a teenage girl.
“Mr. Speed. All this talk about helping the Braden’s of the world is great. What can you tell us to do when we fall into despair, loneliness, or depression? What do we tell a friend who wants to hurt themselves and sees no hope in their world? What can you tell us about that?
… I have to admit I lost some breath at the bold question. This young lady was dead serious in her questions and desperately needing a real and practical answer. My response was knee jerk and I still regret how shallow it came out. “Talk with your minister, your parents, or a counselor”.
I still can see the look of disappointment in this child’s eyes when she heard the standard answer to such a heavy question until then, unasked. However, it was the most important question all night. I didn’t give her what she needed. After all, we had dealt with that very dilemma and as his parents, along with the capable help of counselors and ministers, we still couldn’t save him.
Through the following weeks after the youth group meeting, I prayed and sought wisdom on this most-important question. After a process of elimination of what DOES NOT work, I’m left with one solitary and crystal clear answer to the missing puzzle piece of a meaningful and valued life… simply this: Jesus Christ.
As I mentioned, we had a subsequent invitation to the Methodist Church several weeks after the youth group discussion. That week’s Advent candle was about Joy.
I knew the missing piece had to be identified and the answer had to be ready if and when the question was asked. The answer couldn’t be a traditional response: to get with the counselor or a parent. Although both are important, they are not the missing piece this and other teens need to identify.
So when Sunday at United Methodist came and I was again in front of now a full size church congregation, the pastor finally asked me the puzzling question: “Mark, our church has a number of teens today who you have an opportunity to speak into, following your family’s loss. What do you have to say to them?”
This time, my answer was better
“I know you are struggling right now. Some of you may even be thinking you don’t want to stay the course of your natural life. You may wish to leave early. I understand that and you need to know there is a better way. After living through this as a father, I’ve come to one conclusion, and that is to place your identity in no one nor in anything of this world”.
I went on. “I talk about going to your counselor or to your parent. Well, let me rephrase. Go to The Counselor who is your Heavenly Father and place your faith in a personal relationship with Him alone. We’ve proven the world is full of really cool stuff and millions of distractions. These things can bring about temporary happiness. However, there is a huge difference between happiness and joy.
Happiness is fleeting. It frequently comes but it always goes. Joy in knowing and having a true relationship with our Father in Heaven is ever-lasting even through the sadness and gloom of this world. Jesus didn’t come here to judge you but rather to let you know you are loved beyond any of your shortcomings. So be joy-filled in knowing and trusting this one eternal truth. And Live a life of JOY in HIM”.
Weeks earlier, I had been speechless and without a worthy answer to that young lady’s heartfelt question. This time, though I had sought His guidance and counsel. I was finally relieved to find the one and only missing piece needed to complete the puzzle: Seek Joy in Him.
We spend far too much of our time putting effort into building a perfect image of what we think life should look like. We buy things or plan events, trips, etc. because we long for happiness. Yet, time and experience confirms happiness from things, desires, and even in people are passing things. Every single thing other than the love of Christ will pass away or break down. If you’re missing the puzzle piece of real and lasting joy, you can find it by simply asking Him.
Heavenly Father and perfect Counselor, we accept your promise that if we ask, you will hear our plea. We do that now by seeking a personal and intimate relationship with you, our Creator and Savior. We pray against the temptation to be happiness seekers and instead to find joy in knowing You.
In your Son Jesus’ name we pray, Amen
2 Corinthians 4:18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
“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
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.
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
– 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
“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
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.
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.
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.”
“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.