Two Bites from the Apple

 

Ominous clouds hugged the treetops. The stiff wind funneled icy air between the buttons of my trench coat, wrapping my torso in a bone-chilling shiver. Here in the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania, even nature seemed to be spewing out its wrath of resentment.

I stood stunned, staring at the gaping grave that waited to swallow eight-year-old Robbie, my oldest son. It seemed so crude, so heartless -- the rocks and dirt just waiting to cover him up.

My feelings fired off wildly, like bullets ricocheting through my whole body, until my emotions finally fell numb.

As the casket descended, my mind filled with images of Robbie. Jumping with glee at home plate after his first home run. Grinning broadly as he triumphed over me in a recent game of checkers. Pulling our twins for a ride in his red wagon. Once again Robbie was peering down at me from our backyard tree house with a sheepish grin--his mouth bulging with secret cookies.

Another movement of the casket jolted me to attention, as the half-visible box slipped rapidly from sight. My fantasy of Robbie someday becoming a surgeon like me sank into the hole with his casket. Its decorations seemed cheap and meaningless--even repulsive--and unworthy of the moment.

In utter despair I gazed through the dark overcast toward heaven. Heaven seemed faint and far away. But its promise offered a shaft of light: the hope I would see Robbie again--a reason for living today.

Robbie packed a lot of punch into his eight short years. His first battle was just to be born. Robbie came through birth a bit bruised; other problems led to surgery before he was three days old. But he bounded back strong.

When he took his first wobbly steps, his staid, medically trained parents almost went bananas, as if no child had ever done it before.

While we lived in France, he attended the local French school, and a neighbor described his French as "absolutely native." Only his military-style haircut revealed his American roots. Robbie couldn't resist the aroma of freshly baked French bread and loved to nibble bite-size chunks on his way back from the bakery.

By third grade, we had moved to Pennsylvania and enjoyed engaging father-son talks and highly spirited wiffle ball games.

On Halloween he went trick-or-treating; he spooked the neighbors and was treated to some juicy red apples.

Next, we stacked the winter's firewood in the basement together. He learned how to stack it well so the pile would stand solid and straight. His eyes searched my face for approval, saying "Feel this one Dad, solid as a rock; it'll never fall down."

One early November morning, we went "hunting" in the autumn woods. He was swimming in my vest, but he had a ball. He kicked heaps of colorful leaves which splashed out ahead of every step. Suddenly a cottontail leaped in front of him, rocketing toward some nearby brush.

"There goes one, Daddy!" Robbie shouted, pointing with his walking stick. "Bang, bang!" I smothered him in warm hugs, and we rolled in the drifts of dry leaves, giggling and laughing.

Just four days later, while crossing the road to catch his school bus in front of our home, Robbie was struck by a car. He almost made it across. Instead, he crumpled at the road's edge. Robbie needed only one more step. It was almost a near miss.

But almost didn't change anything.

In a screaming ambulance, seconds ticked away as life drained from his body. By the time the ambulance reached the hospital, his situation was hopeless.

As a surgeon who had helped others to live, I could only stand and pace with my own son. I could only wait....while Robbie died.

At the funeral home, before the first public viewing, I had my final father-son "talk" with my buddy. I strained to focus on the lifeless form before me. I felt pain and emptiness in my chest, as if my heart had been torn out of me.

Robbie was dressed in his new blue suit; he looked too sharp to be dead. He liked to play possum acting like he was sleeping, then jump up with "Surprise. I wasn't sleeping." I wistfully looked for him to jump out of that casket and yell. "Surprise, Dad, I'm not dead, but really had you worried this time!" But he remained stone still.

I stumbled for words to tell him my feelings, talking to myself yet hoping somehow he could read my spirit. I explained how much I loved him and how empty I would be without him.

I thought of the great times we'd had building tree houses, playing ball, fishing at Pine Lake, and taking camping trips. And I shared my regrets; my jammed and unpredictable schedule, the "let's have fun quickly" times, and the many times my surgical practice had stolen a wiffle ball game or a camping trip from him.

After returning home from the cemetery, I walked down to the road again. I paced back and forth across the accident scene, checking it from every angle. The blood stains were still visible despite Aunt Peg's scrubbing.

I stared toward heaven and wondered, "Why?" Robbie loved God, prayed, read his big green Living Bible, and went to church, even dragging me with him on those days when I came home from the hospital too tired or too late.

All he needed was one more step. Couldn't God have granted him just one more step so he could be here beside me?

With utter frustration, I kicked some loose gravel at the road's edge and spun toward the house. As I turned, my eyes spotted a shape just beyond the dark blood stain. I went over, slowly bent down, and picked it up.

A red apple, with two small bites missing!

I gripped it firmly, just staring. It went out of focus. "Robbie...My Robbie!"

I examined the apple carefully, slowly rolling it around to see all sides from every perspective, like God views the world from every perspective. Unlike God, I was trying to understand how all "these things" could possibly work together for good.

I looked into the sky. "God, I want to trust You, but I just don't understand. Give me something to help me accept this; heal my gaping wounds."

That night, when Ruth Ann and I finally fell into bed, we tossed and turned, struggling for that elusive sleep. Then Ruth Ann rolled toward me.

"Hon, I just thought of something. Maybe God somehow warned Robbie this was going to happen. Maybe Robbie somehow sensed something wasn't just right." I wondered why she said that.

"You know, he hugged and kissed me goodbye, like always, and left to go out to the bus stop. Then for the first time ever, he came back into the house. I thought he may have forgotten something, but he said no, he hadn't.

"He put down his umbrella and said sheepishly, 'Mommy, I just wanted to hug and kiss you again, and tell you how much I really love you.' and we enjoyed a good long hug, and then he was gone. The next thing was those horrible screeching brakes!"

I wondered. Did God somehow warn Robbie? Did He make him feel insecure or give him some other unusual feeling so he would return for that one last, long hug? For our sake? So we could know it was all part of God's plan?

Or was it just a coincidence?

Then I recalled Robbie's memory verse. On his last Sunday at church, Robbie recited to his teacher John 3:16. "For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life," Robbie said. Although very familiar, the words of that verse burned into me.

Yes, I thought, God really cares for me so much to choose to give up His one and only son for my sake. That amount of love seemed too incredible for me to comprehend while still feeling the loss of my firstborn son. Yet a heavenly Father who loves me that much wouldn't allow anything to happen to my family that would not "work together for good."

John 3:16 helped me enormously in my struggle to accept Robbie's death. Was it mere coincidence that Robbie learned that verse when he did? Or was it because God knew I would need it to teach me that He understood exactly how I felt?

Too many coincidences! I began to feel God's gentle hand touching my wounds, beginning the healing.

It was the beginning of accepting Robbie's death--and resolving with God's help to be a real father to my four other children and a more caring surgeon. With Robbie's death, God began to scrape away the insulating scales of indifference that had built up with years of being near, but not a personal part of terrible loss. Robbie's death made me more vulnerable to feel the hurts of my patients and their families.

But from time to time, I still found myself mentally sneaking down to the road, measuring that short distance Robbie needed and questioning why God couldn't have granted him one more step.

Then one day as I again relived that last awful moment, it struck me like a thunderbolt from heaven:

God did grant Robbie one more step. One more giant step. Not the one my broken heart ached for, but one far more important than any step Robbie could have taken here on earth.

I closed my eyes and saw it clearly: Robbie running as hard as his little legs would take him, arms pumping and heart pounding, the car coming ever closer. Then God reached out His hand to Robbie and called, "Robbie, take just one more step....to Me."

In heaven, there are no accidents and no coincidences. Robbie knows that, and now I know too.