"Just One More step"

 

The rising sun began another incredibly busy day for the Brandt household. My wife, Ruth Ann, was up and moving about in high gear, getting our five children fed and dressed for school. My drowsy head was stuffed with details about my surgery cases scheduled for the day. I mulled over each patient's problem and the surgical techniques that I would use. I was sleepily tugging on my trousers when my oldest son, eight-year-old Robbie paused at the door and tossed in, "Hi, Dad!"

I barely mustered up, "Good morning, Robb," before he zipped down the stairs. He raided his trick-or-treat bag and stuffed a red apple into his pocket.

I gulped my cereal and orange juice, hugged Ruth Ann and the children and hurried off to the hospital. In the surgeons' locker room I had tugged my bow tie loose and had my shirt unbuttoned when a nurse shouted through the door, "Dr. Brandt, there is a phone call for you from your home."

Aunt Peg was on the phone, her voice quaking with a terse message. "Robbie was hit by a car and is in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. Ruth Ann is with him."

My stomach wrenched into a tight knot. I told a nurse that I would be delaying surgery, and I raced down the back stairs to meet the ambulance. I paced the floor, taking stabbing glances through the windows of the emergency entrance doors where I have received the ill and injured so often. This time the jolting experience, the bad news, the questions and uncertainties were mine. This tragedy was mine!

When the ambulance screeched to a stop, I pushed through the entry to meet Ruth Ann. She was frantically climbing out the back, pointing to our bloody, motionless son. Sobbing, she collapsed in my arms. I peered over her shoulder at Robbie as the attendants were sliding him out. He was ghostly pale, a large bandage around his head. His eyes were closed; he was perfectly still. My heart sank.

He was quickly placed on a wheeled stretcher and rushed up the ramp past us. I wanted to reach out and begin treating him, to try to make him well. But the swinging doors into the emergency room were split by the slam of the nurse leading the way; then they slowly closed, obscuring our view.

After a long wait we saw the E.R. doors swing open again, pushed very deliberately by my colleague. As he approached us, his sober face said it all--his expression vacant of hope. Ruth Ann and I embraced, and our tears flowed in a moment of utter helplessness.

"Do you want to see him?" a nurse asked. Ruth Ann and I nodded. We entered the curtained cubicle where Robbie lay, so still and so silent. His wounds were covered with fresh white bandages, his face clean and shiny. He appeared surprisingly peaceful.

As we stood at his side, the earth seemed to stop turning so that I could get off and spend some timeless moments with my son. I felt as if I were empty, all the life drawn out of me. I remembered his first wobbly steps, his bright wit, his loud laugh and broad smile, his big Bible under his arm, his dragging me to church when I arrived home late and tired. I wished for an alarm clock to go off so that I could awaken with everything normal and Robbie alive. I couldn't imagine life without Robbie.

The next few days were filled with torment and questions. After the funeral I walked down to the road in front of our house where Robbie had been hit. I paced back and forth across the road, looking at the long skid marks and the blood stains.

When Robbie, full of life, his eyes flashing with enthusiasm, had paused at my bedroom door and said simply, "Hi, Dad," he had spoken those last two words to the slave of a crowded schedule. That day I was loaded down with the concerns of my patients and their families. There had been very little of me left for him.

I examined again the location of the tire marks on the edge of the road. I stretched out my hands, as if to measure the short distance to safety. He had been so close to the side of the road, just one step from safety. Couldn't God have granted him just one more step?

With utter frustration I kicked some loose gravel on the berm of the road and spun toward the house. As I turned, something on the edge of the road caught my eye. I went over and slowly bent down to pick it up.

It was a red apple with two small bites missing; the apple that Robbie had stuffed into his pocket that morning. As I gripped it firmly and stared at it, tears blurred my vision and the apple looked hazy and out of focus.

"Robbie! My Robbie!"

The apple was like something sacred in the middle of a trash heap. As I slowly rolled it around to see all sides, I wondered how God would make "all these things work together for good."(1)

I paced along the edge of the road and anguished, "If God really keeps count of my hair,"(2) how could someone as precious as Robbie fall through the cracks by accident?"

Robbie loved God, prayed, read his Bible and memorized Scripture. In fact, on his last Sunday at our church he had recited John 3:16 to his Sunday School teacher. I could see him, in my mind, standing straight, shoulders back, reciting: "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."(3)

Now I heard something new in that verse, something I had never fully understood before. Can it be true that God loves me so much that He chose to allow His one and only Son to die for my sins? Of our four sons and one daughter, I could not choose any of them to die, no matter how great the cause.

That realization focused a floodlight on God's love for me, hidden in the darkness of my grief. I realized that I was filled with grief and self-pity. I needed to "trade in" feelings of hurt for feelings of love and trust--trust that God does know what is best, for all eternity.

I began to feel loved by God who had permitted Robbie to die. He knew exactly how I felt because of His own experience at the cross. It seemed impossible that God would allow Robbie's death without a clear plan for "all these things to work together for good."

I looked up at the overcast sky and envisioned Robbie in heaven, snuggled up next to God. That reminded me of something which had until now been too theoretical in my life: my ultimate parental goal is to see all my children in heaven. In that sense Robbie's life is complete and successful. It had just ended earlier than I had expected. I resolved then to be a real father to my other children rather than just a busy surgeon who happens to have four kids.

As I gripped the red apple, I sensed God giving me a better grasp on handling my loss. I rolled the apple around again, looking at it from every perspective--as God looks at us and our world from every perspective. Somehow I felt more willing now to trust God's perspective.

I wondered what to do with the apple, so incredibly precious. I knew I had to give it up too. I slowly, almost ceremoniously aimed it at the nearby woods.

Healing has come gradually. The scars are still visible and tender when touched. I wish I could say I haven't mentally walked into the woods and scooped up that apple, but I have--many times. But remember how God gave His only Son for me makes it a little easier to throw the apple back into the woods--and to give Robbie back to God.

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(1) Romans 8:28. (2) Matthew 10:30, Luke 12:7. (3) John 3:16, NIV.