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The straight, empty road was a deadly optical illusion.
The leaves barely clung to the old oaks lining the highway that cool November morning. As Alex and I drove to church in my old Honda civic, I finally began to relax from the sense of hurry I had felt while getting my oldest son dressed and out the door.
In our family, as in many others, getting organized to go to church involved fighting the forces of chaos. We had already been running late when Alex streaked through the house in his birthday suit to sit and watch a nature show on TV instead of getting dressed, as he had been told to do. No clothes, no breakfast, and, truthfully, no obedience to mommy all added up to strained nerves and short tempers. But much more than this was going on in our family.
Only the day before, our newborn, Ryan, had come home from the hospital. That put the count at four children, ages six and under. Can anyone truly be ready for four young children? It seemed that the best way to preserve some sense of normalcy was for at least two of us to make it to church that day.
Now, glancing into the rearview mirror, I smiled as Alex's eyes danced back at me.
"Hey, buddy, I'm glad you're with me today."
"Me too, Daddy. This is daddy-Alex time, isn't it?"
"That's right, Alex. Just you and me!"
Alex was my buddy. From the beginning, we had done everything and gone everywhere together. Never too far away were several of Alex's "barneys." Some kids have a fuzzy animal. Some kids have a security blanket. Alex had his "barneys"-small cloths he liked to chew on. Six-year-old Alex was my oldest of four-four! What a huge number! Now that was going to take some getting used to.
We drove on in silence. As if involuntarily peering into the future, my eyes fixed on the horizon, on a future that seemed filled with equal measures of richness and, frankly, uncertainty. The full weight of the responsibility of being "Daddy" to four young children pressed against me. The deep breath I unwittingly sucked in burst out in a loud exhale. I couldn't help but think about the medical bills.
We had recently switched medical insurance providers and wouldn't be covered for pregnancy for a few more months. To arrive without insurance coverage didn't make our new little boy any less wonderful, but there was no getting around it-it did make his coming brutally expensive.
Leaves blew across the highway, the evidence of a stiffening breeze. The season was changing. Everything was changing-new home, new church, new baby. Seasons-they are natural and good. We were embarking on a new season in our family-another child. It was natural and good too. Things would work out with the money. They always did. The quick refocus brought a sense of reassurance and helped me savor what had happened just yesterday: my beautiful wife, Beth, and I had filled the hours with multiple turns of holding, touching, and cooing over our newborn.
Alex hadn't wanted to.
"Come here, Alex," I said. "You're his big brother. Come hold baby Ryan."
"Daddy, I don't really want to. Can I just hold the camera? I'm not into holding babies."
I studied my oldest child for a moment and traded glances with Beth.
"Sure, Son; here, you hold the camera."
Who can figure out the mind of a little boy? He'd grow close to baby Ryan in his own time. Why force him?
Pulling into the church parking lot brought me back to the present. Beth and the new baby were now resting at home with Gracie, age two, and Aaron, four, and Alex and I were about to meet some new people. We had only attended this church a few times.
Before I left the car, it struck me in a fresh way how much I really did have to be thankful for, how much I had been blessed, how much I'd been given: we had a new member of our family at the same time we were becoming members of a new church family, having moved to a new home in the country not long before. Even though my psychotherapy private practice had been slow lately, I did have an occupation-unlike many people we knew who were struggling greatly.
But was I truly thankful? Yes, kind of ... in a general sense. The continual pressure of ever-mounting bills has a way of demanding attention, of obscuring all the good things from view, of distorting the beauty that surrounds us and fills our lives. It's like an annoying drip from the faucet that you just can't fix, or in my case, like the piercing screech of a smoke detector, warning of the smaller bills that hadn't been paid and of the mortgage payment that still hadn't been sent ... for the second month. The truth is, the cloud of that financial pressure obscured the beautiful, crisp sunshine of God's truths for me. Even so, it was Sunday, and on Sunday in our family, you go to church.
With Alex off to his class, I took a seat. I smiled politely at everyone who made eye contact as they looked for seats in the auditorium, but my mind was consumed, again, with an image of our bill basket, which seemed to glare at me every time I walked through the front door at home. The singing stopped, and suddenly I was back in the present with Pastor Gary brown opening his bible on the pulpit as he began to speak:
"We have been exploring different aspects of the character of God. God has identified Himself in scripture by using many names. Today we are considering how God has revealed Himself to us relative to our needs: Jehovah-jireh. Ensuring we have what we need is a responsibility that God takes on Himself, a message He gives by His name, which means, literally, 'the lord will provide.' Let's be clear: God didn't say He would provide for all our wants but for things He believes we need. If God has said that our needs are His concern and responsibility, why do we spend so much time being anxious?"
I felt as if there were a bull's-eye painted on my forehead with a large dart sticking into it. The sermon could have ended right there. My burden, so palpable moments before, was replaced by a lightness of spirit I hadn't known all morning. This was only my fifth visit to the church, so there was no way Pastor Brown could have consciously tailored his sermon to my situation. My head fell into my hands, and I had to smile at the timeliness of the rebuke. God is the Provider. He knows what I need. I thought again about our bill basket. First thing I'm doing when I get home is tape a big sign on the front of it: God Will Meet Our Needs.
Following the service, I got into a conversation with the children's pastor. We walked the lawn in the now-pleasant late-autumn air, discussing the vision of the pastor and staff for this church. Alex tried to be patient during this adult conversation. We exchanged glances and smiled at each other, but it was tough for my little guy to endure a conversation that, for him, felt as if it would never end. I leaned down and whispered, "Alex, you're such a good boy. Let's find a park on the way home, okay?"
A big grin signaled his approval.
A few minutes later, Alex and I made our way back to the car, now virtually alone in the parking lot. I buckled him into the backseat, but before getting behind the wheel, I let my eyes wander across the pavement to the front doors of the church building. I had come with anxiety and was leaving with hope. How could I not give thanks?
"Remember, daddy, we have to go to a park!" Alex called as I got in the driver's seat. "You bet, Alex. But you have to help me find one. Keep a sharp eye out your window."
We drove down the road looking for the elusive playground with the intensity of hunters stalking big game.
During the short drive, a cemetery came into view. I had often used the appearance of a cemetery to teach Alex that we each have a spirit. "Hey, look, Alex, a graveyard. What's in there?"
"Just bodies, daddy. Graveyards don't have people, 'cause when they die, their spirits leave their bodies and go to their new home."
"You got it, Son. Now, where's that park?"
Before long, Alex shouted, "Look, there's one. Over there!"
The car had barely stopped before Alex jumped out on a dead run to the ladders, bars, and chutes. It was only a few months back at some burger joint that Alex had lost his nerve on the top of the tube slide. There I was, squeezing my six-foot-two frame through the tunnel-dad to the rescue! Not anymore. Somehow since then, Alex had transformed into the Daredevil Kid. "Alex, be careful," I warned. "You're scaring me. Watch where you're putting your hands and feet."
Beth was usually on hand to keep a lid on things, but with her absent, I suddenly felt Alex was taking way too many risks. I had good reason. Alex was already a two-time veteran visitor to the emergency room. On his last visit, I do have to admit that Alex's timing was good. There I was in emergency, getting Alex stitched up. When the doctor was finished, I passed Alex off to his aunt and hoofed it to the birthing room to be with Beth just before Aaron arrived! The way Alex was swinging, hanging, and balancing now, it was easy to imagine another visit today.
"Daddy, look, no hands!"
"You're a champ, Alex. Now be careful." Where was my timid little Alex?
After about fifteen minutes, I started to get antsy, knowing Beth would be wondering where we were.
"Come on, buddy. We'd better get home. Mommy is already wondering what happened to us."
Between Heaven and Earth
After securing Alex in the seat directly behind mine, I pulled the strap to make sure it was tight. The next challenge was to find our way home through this unfamiliar territory-not that I didn't know how I got to the church, but finding shortcuts and exploring new roads are all part of the fun of living in a new area. I pulled out onto the road, and a short distance ahead, an intersection came into view. I began dialing my cell phone to let Beth know where we were.
"Hey, Alex, I'll bet that road will get us home. Let's take it." Though a rural road, it was bordered by several ranch-style houses with deep front yards.
Ring ... Ring ...
Stopped at the intersection with the phone to my ear, I looked both directions-as always. No oncoming traffic for at least half a mile. What I didn't know was that at this unfamiliar intersection I was not looking down a perfectly straight half-mile stretch of road. Several hundred yards ahead, just before the road curved off to the left, was a huge dip that obscured anything that might have been there. The straight, empty road was a deadly optical illusion.
"Hey, Beth, how's it going? ... Well, I got into a long conversation after the service, and then we found a park, but we're on our way home now. We should be there ..."
"Dad, I'm hungry. When are we going to be home?"
I turned to answer Alex while still on the phone with Beth. I pulled into the intersection and then ...
The deafening crunch of metal ripping metal flashed and then faded into brilliant silence. All was silence.
* * *
As unconsciousness yielded to confused awareness, my mind strove to bring order from chaos. The meager beginning of a thought forced its way into clarity: Why am I lying in a ditch next to my car? My mind raced. What is going on? With the first light of reason flickering in my still foggy mind, I sat up, bewildered. What had happened? Why was I here? Alex-he was with me, wasn't he? Where is Alex? Where is my boy?
I do not know how long I was unconscious, but several people had already run from the nearby homes to the accident site. "Lie still. don't move," someone implored. I couldn't. Every fiber of my heart was screaming, Where is Alex? now that I was on my feet, everything sounded muffled. I was moving in slow motion, as if I were walking on the bottom of a swimming pool. Over and over I yelled, "Alex, Alex, Alex!" no answer. My heart pounded out a rhythm of fear. The silence fell like a hammer but was soon pierced by the wail of sirens.
Just as my mind was being overthrown by fear, a gentle arm wrapped around my shoulder. I turned to look into the kind eyes of a total stranger.
"You've been in a car accident, son. There is a young boy still in the backseat of the car."
Firemen and policemen swarmed everywhere, concentrating on what used to be my car. Before I had a moment's thought about what I might find in the backseat, I ran over and looked. An acrid, evil smell violated my senses. Amidst thousands of glass shards, torn upholstery, and twisted metal, there sat my boy, my firstborn son, on whom his mother and father's dreams rested, still strapped in his seatbelt-still in his church clothes. He's okay, he's okay. He's been knocked unconscious and probably has a concussion, but he's going to be okay. But in that moment of desperation, what I frantically hoped was no match for harsh reality. And as I continued to stare, dread soon overcame my hope. Blood ran from a gash on Alex's forehead. And what was wrong with his head? It hung so unnaturally down to the left, bizarrely lower than it should have been. Vacant, hideously bloodshot eyes stared down.
Alex, my son ... he looks dead! I've killed my son.
An immense wave of incredulity, horror, and crushing grief loomed above me, threatening to swallow me. On the other side of the car, the paramedics worked furiously, trying to remove Alex and get him onto a stretcher, all the while attempting to establish an airway in order to get oxygen into his lungs.
Moments later, a senior medical officer consulting with the policeman who was first on the scene said, "We'll need to contact the coroner's office and cancel MedFlight."
"Yes, sir, but the chopper's already landing."
Panic stabbed my chest and breath came in short gasps as my mind raced uncontrollably through the mayhem: I'm the cause of all this. Have I killed my son? What about the people in the other car? Where did that car come from? Am I going to jail? Is Alex really dead?
*** I heard a mighty crash at the intersection only a few dozen yards from my front door. I had been a fireman and thought I might be able to help, so I sprinted toward the accident scene. When I arrived, Kevin, whom I didn't know at the time, was in a daze. People were urging him to sit down, as he was obviously disoriented. I first went up to the other car, but those people all seemed to be okay. I then went over to Kevin's car and could see that a little boy was in the backseat. I climbed in the back as best I could, but I had no idea if the little boy was dead or alive. I knew enough not to touch his head but placed my hand over his chest. There was no perceptible breathing. I'm a man of faith, so I started praying for this little guy. I also talked to him as if he could hear me, although there was no response. I said, "Hey, little guy, don't worry." And I kept praying.
"You're going to be all right."
And I kept praying.
"Don't be afraid. You just hang in there."
And I kept praying.
"You're going to make it, buddy. Help is on the way."
I didn't have any indication that Alex was alive, but I kept praying for him and his dad. Dan Tullis ***
As bystanders gathered around the organized confusion of the rescue effort, shame poured over me-the father who had caused destruction in so many lives. Were all these people secretly condemning me? They were too late. Condemnation had already invaded the very recesses of my heart. Oh God, what have I done?
Fear coursed through my body like an electrical surge. Utterly bewildered as to what to do, I turned when a hand on my right shoulder interrupted my thoughts.
Excerpted from The boy who came back from heaven by KEVIN MALARKEY ALEX MALARKEY Copyright © 2010 by Kevin Malarkey. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Chapter 1 At the Crossroads 1
From Alex: I Went to Heaven 13
Chapter 2 Three Journeys 17
From Alex: I Watch from the Ceiling 29
Chapter 3 72 Hours 31
From Alex: Inside the Gates 47
Chapter 4 An Army Gathers 51
From Alex: Heaven and Earth 66
Chapter 5 Miracles, Messes, and More Miracles 69
From Alex: Angels 86
Chapter 6 We Meet Another World 89
From Alex: Angels Helping Me 114
Chapter 7 Homecomings 117
From Alex: Telling Others 144
Chapter 8 War and Peace 147
From Alex: Demons 169
Chapter 9 Endings and Beginnings 173
From Alex: I Still Visit Heaven 190
Chapter 10 The Road Ahead 193
Afterword: Questions and Answers with Alex 211
Scripture Appendix 215
Discussion Questions 225