(Written July 2, 2016)
October 7, 2002
Tomorrow was the day! Our annual family trip from Lake Hawkins to The State Fair of Texas. Chelsey, my 29 year old daughter, and Zoë, her 6 1/2 year old daughter were spending the night so we could get an “early start.” We have made this trip virtually every year since Wendy and I were married in ’72. I pictured our day. Wendy and Chelsey, now best friends as well as mother and daughter, walking through the fair, side by side, seeing opportunities for crafts, or cooking, or creativity in general, laughing, sharing the sights, sounds, smells of that wonderful place. Zoë and I in our own world, me seeing the things that she found interesting, through her eyes, showing her things that I found interesting (fair food, new inventions, midway games, rides, fair food, inventions(all those wonderful toys)).
Chelsey was a single mom, who succumbed to the temptations of moving into an independent life in her early twenties, had gotten pregnant, dumped by the dude, and had returned wholeheartedly to the faith she had strayed from, finding strength and purpose from her creator. She returned to college, discovered a passion for the American Sign Language and the deaf culture, and became an interpreter for the deaf. She also, after her work day, would pick up Zoë at our house, go home and make phone calls for my chimney sweep/window cleaning business, as my office manager, dispatcher. (In other words, she planned my days.) She always planned two days off during the week in October for us to go to the fair.
My tendency is to get pushy about the leaving time associated with the “early start”, so, I actually prayed that night, “LORD, help me to realize that the time with family is more important than the arrival time. Help me to stay calm in the morning, no matter how late we leave.”
October 8, 2002
The big day! Up at 7:00, everybody already starting to rouse. It takes me about three minutes to get ready, we had packed the night before, so I quietly began to load the car. It was incredibly amazing how calm I was. Not once did I tell anyone to hurry, or even mention the time.
We were actually in the car, pulling out of the driveway by 8:00.
Wendy was driving, I was navigating, Zoë strapped into her booster seat in the middle of the back seat, and Chelsey behind Wendy by the door.
I love this Christian talk radio station in Tyler, and we always listened to it as we drove.
Chelsey preferred the other one that played contemporary Christian music.
This day, my station was playing contemporary Christian music.
As we neared Terrell, Tx, Chelsey made the statement, “I am so glad your station is playing music today. I love this song! I’ve never heard it before.”
I called the station, spoke with the announcer and found out the name of the song.
“Pull into this station, Wendy. They have Krispy Kreme donuts and good coffee!”
Zoë and Chelsey waited in the car while Wendy and I went in to grab a few donuts. All the favorites.
When we got back to the car, Chelsey saw one I had gotten for myself (I didn’t think anyone else would want one) and asked if there were any more. I told her where they were, and watched her beautiful self as she strolled into the store, moved through the store, paid and got back in the car.
Back on the highway, music playing, coffee and donuts, on our way to the fair. Can it get any better than this?
Zoë had finished her donuts, was feeling kinda sleepy.
Chelsey: Yes, Baby?
Zoë: I love you.
Chelsey: I love you too, Baby.
Zoë: You’re my best girl.
Chelsey: You’re my best girl, too.
Wendy: Oh my God!
I looked up. A two ton truck carrying construction supplies on the eastbound side of the highway had turned across the median and was barreling toward us.
Wendy had quickly moved from the center lane, to the right lane, to the shoulder, trying to get out of his way.
Crash! Impact into the side of our Suburban pushed us into the grass, and we began to spin around. A mini van behind us swerved onto the grass to try to avoid the collision, and hit us in the rear after we had spun one complete revolution, making us turn backwards, still moving, go down a hill, through a small gully, and up the other side, still facing backwards. Then we stopped.
Airbags had deployed in the front seat, coffee was everywhere, but I was totally okay.
My first thought: Well, I guess we won’t be going to the fair.
As I turned to look back at Wendy, then Chelsey and Zoë, Zoë was still strapped in, crying, and there was a gaping hole in the side of the car where Chelsey had been.
“Where’s Chelsey?” I yelled, jumping from the car, running back to find her.
I found her. Lying on the ground at the point of impact, clothes shredded, huge gash in the thigh of her left leg. No blood.
Her face. Peaceful.
I knelt beside her body, wordlessly letting God be there.
A woman’s voice behind me, a hand gently stroking my back, “Jesus loves you.”
I never saw her.
I walked back toward the car, picking up things I recognized from our car along the way.
Wendy was standing outside the car, talking on her phone to her mom, crying.
“Chelsey’s gone,” I said.
Two men were standing to the side, one was holding Zoë. Her skin had a bluish tint.
(Wendy told me, later, that those two men were standing by the car as I jumped out. “Give me the baby,” one said, and somehow, Wendy unstrapped Zoë and handed her to the men)
The helicopter arrived to take Zoë to Children’s Hospital in Dallas.
I turned to Wendy, “How are we going to get there?”
“We’ll take you.” Two ambulance drivers were standing there. They took us.
When we got to the hospital, we were met by the Chaplain to take us where we needed to go. He did not say a word. Imagine what I was imagining, but afraid to vocalize.
My cousin, Glenn was there, to meet us.
“Zoë is okay,” He said, and showed us where she was.
The doctor was checking her over, touched her right shoulder and she winced, and he knew, rupture of the spleen and kidney.
In September of the previous year, we had started attending Hollybrook Baptist Church near Hawkins. We immediately joined a Sunday School class, even before we joined the church so we could get to know some folks. Debbie Havens, who had lost a grown son at a young age to cancer, had recently joined the same class and mentioned to us that there were several people in that class whose children had preceded them in death.
I remember later that day, Wendy saying, “I’m not sure I want to be in that class.”
We did, though, and Chelsey and Zoë also joined the church.
Chelsey saw a guy signing during the songs one day, went up to talk to him after, and found out that he had lost his hearing and he, Wally, and his wife, Billie had been asking God to bring an interpreter to the church so he could “hear” the sermons.
Chelsey became that interpreter, as well as the substitute pianist on occasion.
Those days, Chelsey would be playing the piano, would slide out when the preacher began to speak and sign for Wally, then slide back onto the bench to play.
There was always a supernatural glow around her when she was doing this.
So, the first people there, other than my cousin, Glenn, were Cramer and Debbie Havens, and Jim and Vicki Shaw, who had lost a son in a car wreck.
Both members of that Sunday School class.
Zoë was checked into a room. The doctor decided that surgery was not needed, but she needed to stay in bed and be observed for several days.
Zoë for the first day showed little to no emotion, stoic, not even crying.
That day, Wendy, having lost the numbness of shock, turned to me in Zoë’s hospital room while Zoë was asleep. “Randy, I don’t think I can do this.”
The next day, they had to take a blood test, and in the process, Zoë lost it, became almost hysterical. Then she started responding to us, and others.
One conversation I had with Zoë.
Zoë: Hey, Pappy. I really liked that helicopter ride!
Me: What?! How is that possible? You are scared of heights, right?
Zoë : Yes.
Me: And you hate loud noises, right?
Me: Then how is it possible that you liked that helicopter ride? It was high, and it was loud.
Zoë: I know. But just turn it around, just turn it around.
I laughed. She laughed.
We felt the presence of God through that time. Physically felt him. An unexpected peace. The people who needed to be there for comfort being there. A sense of being able to live in the moment. A sense of being thankful. A deep, real sense of sorrow, with a strength that was not ours.
Our lives took a different path, not one we planned. Everything changed. We became Zoë’s grandparents / parents. We became friends with people twenty years younger, who had kids in Zoe’s generation. We had to stop being indulgent grandparents to become responsible parents. Zoë told me one time that she and her mommy would pray at night, “and Mommy would always say, ‘and God, please send us a husband for me, and a father for Zoë.”
Chelsey found her “husband’s” arms on October 8, 2002.
I became Zoë’s father.
The weird, unhurried calm while loading the car.
The music that Chelsey loved filling her head on her last day here.
The last words between Chelsey and her daughter.
The sudden appearance of the woman with words of truth, “Jesus loves you.”
The two men suddenly outside the car.
The ambulance ride.
The friends who were there, who knew what we felt.
The peace of Zoë’s helicopter ride.
On and on and on.
But God never changed. He was there all the time.