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Tragedy & TrustCan You Still Trust God After Losing a Child?
By Thom Vines John Michael Vestal
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Thom Vines with John Michael Vestal
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSeptember 2, 2008 The Accident
"So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself." Matthew 6:34
Tuesday, September 2, 2008 was a typical warm and sunny late summer day in Lubbock, Texas. If the events of that day had not occurred, I doubt I would have remembered September 2.
It was the day after Labor Day, and I was busy dealing with construction projects in my role as Deputy Superintendent for Lubbock-Cooper Independent School District. Around 1:30 p.m. I was walking through the high school gym to check on the remodeling of the girls' basketball locker room. Both Kayla and Kelsey had been captains on the team as juniors, and we were looking forward to their senior season, their last season. Kels was walking through the gym at that very time. She saw me coming and broke into a big smile. We stopped and hugged, and then told each other "I love you." That was the last time I saw her alive.
For John Michael, or JM, as many called him, the final day began the night before with a Vestal family cook-out on Labor Day. He picked Kels up, and when he entered her bedroom there was a song playing on her radio repeating the lyric of "Kelsey."
"What's the name of that song?" he asked.
"Kelsey," she said with a smile. "So you can always remember me when you listen to this song no matter what happens, and no matter where I am."
Later at the cook-out, Kelsey told him about her new favorite verse, Mark 5:36: "Don't be afraid, just believe."
As JM later related these stories to us, we all wondered if God was not somehow subtly, subliminally preparing us and her as part of His loving grace. Of course, there is no real way of knowing, but it is a logical question that lingers. Personally, I don't think it was a coincidence.
Indeed, for several weeks an impending sense of doom had been hanging over me. Nothing specific; just the vague feeling that something traumatic was about to happen. And while it was never identified to a specific person or event, I found myself watching Kels very closely when she would walk through the living room.
There would have been a time in my life just a few years ago that I would have said that any attempt to make such a spiritual connection to these events, feelings and thoughts would be wishful thinking, nothing less than a silly superstition. However, by September 1, 2008, I was at least open to the possibility of God's guiding hand in such daily matters.
JM brought Kels home, and there on our front steps they embraced and kissed for the last time, clinging to each other's fingers until that last possible second. It was their last kiss, their last caress. They just didn't know it yet.
On the afternoon of September 2, as I drove home from the office, I came to the intersection of FM 1585 and Indiana Avenue. I looked left down Indiana, and thought: the twins should be coming up that way soon. I felt a slight tug of anxiety. Not a premonition, but just the usual parental fear when their kids were out driving.
I got home sometime after 4:30 p.m., and a few minutes later got a cell call from a school board member, Lanny Lincecum. He said Kayla had been in a car accident, and had been injured. I think I asked about Kelsey, and Lanny said something like, "I don't know." Then added in a voice filled with urgency: "You'd better get out here."
I blew out a breath that was more of a grunt, as fear seized my body like a surge of electricity. I rushed to the scene of the accident approximately four miles away. As I sped down the streets I prayed, a sense of dread welling inside me. Kayla had been hurt. Why didn't Lanny know about Kelsey? Was she not in the car? If she was, was she okay? If so, why didn't Lanny just say so? Whose turn to drive was it? Wasn't it Kayla's? I prayed: God, please protect my twins.
I thought about calling my wife, Becky, but I was going too fast. I remember Pat Henderson, the Superintendent of Lubbock-Cooper ISD, my boss and best friend, calling me on my cell phone, but I do not remember much of the conversation. By then I was near-frantic. As I reached the intersection of Indiana Avenue and FM 1585, I saw an ambulance going through the stop light heading south. I cringed and sucked in a breath. This is bad, I told myself. This is going to be really bad. My prayers turned to pleas. God, please let my twins be safe.
As I sped south down Indiana Avenue, I could see several dozen vehicles. I got as close as I could, skidded to a stop, and ran towards where a throng of people stood. There was a huge dump truck parked at an angle on the wrong side of the road. The dump truck was so huge it completely blocked the view of the Grand Am.
As I ran up, I noticed people turning to look at me. I ran around the back end of the dump truck and saw the Grand Am in the bar ditch. The left corner had been smashed and driven deep into the car. I looked to my left and saw Kayla being put on a gurney. I ran to her, and except for a few cuts and bruises, seemed reasonably okay. I breathed a sigh of relief. Kayla was okay, which seemed like a miracle considering the damage to the car.
I started to breathe more normally and relax a bit. It seemed like we had dodged a bullet, as the expression goes. It certainly could have been much worse. I took notice of who was in my immediate area. There was Pat, two Lubbock-Cooper police officers, Chief Jesse Pena and Lieutenant Rick Saldana, as well as Buddy Cooper, the husband of Sherry Cooper, who worked in our administration office. I learned later that they were the first on the scene, and saw Kayla walking in the field.
As I relaxed a little more, I started to re-orient myself, and it dawned on me that Kelsey was not there. I looked around and did not see her. "Where's Kelsey?" I asked.
There was no answer.
"Where's Kelsey?" I asked again.
"... She didn't make it," Buddy finally answered.
"No," I denied. I think a part of me already knew it, and did not want to confront the truth.
Buddy repeated himself.
"No," I said again.
"Yes," both officers said.
I turned, and looked at the Grand Am, and realized for the first time that my daughter lay in that crumpled heap. A sense of rushing came over me, as if suddenly I looked at the car through a zoom lens. The whole world shrunk as I focused in on the car. All I saw was the car and the ground between me and it.
I bolted for the car and they grabbed me. I fought with them. "Let me go to my daughter!" I yelled. An EMT rushed to me. He said a few things I do not remember, and I tried to step around him, but he blocked my path.
I yelled "No," and collapsed to the ground wailing, "No, no ..." I moaned over and over. Pat and the others picked me up and tried to walk me to a car, but I could not walk, and folded to the ground. They picked me up again and put me in the back of a car. And there, face down in the back of some stranger's car, I began crying. The first time of many times. The nightmare had begun.
As it also had for Becky. Bec taught first grade at North Elementary, approximately two miles north of the accident site. Principal Rita McDaniel received a call from Betsy Taylor, Lubbock-Cooper's Chief Financial Officer, about the accident. Rita was not told the extent of any injuries. She rushed to Bec's room, and told her to get her purse: the girls had been in an accident. Rita and assistant principal, Mitch Rasberry, drove Becky south to the accident site, parking approximately a hundred yards north where JoEllen Henderson, Pat's wife and Lubbock-Cooper's Director of Public Information, was waiting. Bec got out of the car, and there on a forlorn strip of asphalt got the worst news any parent can get: "It's the girls, and one of them didn't make it."
Becky told me later she knew in her heart it was Kelsey, but asked any way. Becky collapsed to the pavement, shaking, yelling, "No ..." over and over.
Meanwhile, I was in the back of a Suburban, my body heaving with cries and wails. This can't be happening, I kept telling myself. It just can't be. After several minutes, I pushed myself from the car, and looked around. Everything seemed surreal. I looked at the Grand Am. Was this really happening? As I look back on it, I was probably in shock. Some people that I do not remember came up to me and said things to me. This is all a vague memory.
Then I thought of Becky. I asked about her, and someone told me she was on her way to the scene from North Elementary where she taught first grade. I saw Todd Howell, Kayla's boyfriend, standing along the road. I rushed to him and hugged him. Then someone told me Becky was in Rita McDaniel's car. I turned and looked at the Grand Am once more, and considered walking to it. By now a blanket had been laid over Kelsey. I paused and looked at the Grand Am and imagined what Kelsey looked like under the blanket. I took a step towards the car, and then something stopped me. I paused, then turned away, and walked north towards Rita's car. In retrospect, I am glad the men kept me from viewing Kelsey, and I am glad I refrained from going to the car afterwards. Some things are best left unknown. Today, in a file, I have the autopsy photographs. I have not, and will not look at them.
I saw Becky sitting in the car, and I knew that this was going to be the hardest thing I had ever had to do in my life. I did not know that JoEllen had already told Becky that one of them did not make it. I blew out a hard breath and gathered myself. Kelsey and Becky had a very special bond. Kelsey was like her, just as Kayla was like me.
Becky looked at me, then plopped her head back, closed her eyes, and said, "Which one?" Even though she knew, I guess she just had to hear it from me.
I leaned in over her and a memory of our wedding day 32 years ago flashed in my mind. I gritted my teeth, and forced out, "It's Kelsey."
Becky shook her head back and forth.
"Kelsey is dead," I said.
"No, no, no ..." shaking her head back and forth. Becky wanted them to revive Kelsey. "She's gone," was all I said.
By now the ambulance carrying Kayla had left. Rita suggested we follow it to the hospital. That twenty minute drive to Covenant hospital was one of the longest in my life. I sat in the back seat cradling my stricken wife, telling her to pray, while I kept saying to myself: this can't be happening.
Kayla was brought to the ER. Initially, we were not allowed to see Kayla, and were ushered into a waiting room. I loudly demanded to be able to see my daughter immediately, and a young man with the hospital told me to settle down. All my emotion poured out onto him. "Don't tell me to settle down! I just lost my daughter, you sonuvabitch."
We were taken down the hall to where Kayla was being treated, and informed that her injuries were not life-threatening. She had a friction burn on her right leg and some minor cuts and bruises. Later, we learned she also had possible ligament damage in her right ankle. Overall, she was physically in pretty good shape considering that a 40,000 pound dump truck had just obliterated the car in which she had been riding.
While the doctors and nurses were attending to Kayla, she asked about Kelsey. Becky told her that Kelsey had been killed. She started crying and looked to me for verification. I nodded, and the hard reality of Kelsey's death sunk in just a little bit more for all of us.
Les Howell, Todd's father, went to the apartment of our son, Jeremy, age 24. Les escorted Jeremy to the ER, and I remember Jeremy being surprised by the number of people outside the ER room. Jeremy entered the room and saw Kayla on the table and rushed to her. Then he asked about Kelsey, and I forced the words from my mouth. Once more the hard facts were driven in even deeper. Actually, we were lucky that Jeremy had not found out by watching the local news. We learned later that a DPS officer had publicly announced Kelsey's death before all family members had been notified.
Much of what happened through the night is a jumbled memory. No doubt I have repressed some of it. Writing this forces me to relive the events. Several times I have had to ask God to give me the strength to get it out.
I remember once walking out of the ER room where perhaps a dozen people stood, including Pat and Jo. Someone said something that I do not remember, and I responded, "Kelsey is gone. She was the best of us."
At some point, I asked if John Michael was there at the hospital. I was told that JM was in the waiting room near the front of the hospital. With the assistance of Mitch Rasberry, Bec and I walked to the waiting room.
I entered the waiting room and saw JM. I will never forget the look of anguish on his face. His entire body was wreathing in pain. To this day, that memory makes me angry at what was stolen from him and her.
JM saw us and stood up. We embraced, and I said, "She loved you." He answered, "I still love her."
Also, in the hospital waiting room were April Ehlers and Brandi DeWaters, close friends of the twins, and part of what they called "The Magnificent Five," a half-tongue-in-cheek reference to their basketball proficiency. We embraced, and I think later they came up to Kayla's hospital room. Much of the rest of the night is a blur.
In this day of cell phones news travels fast. The bottom of John Michael's world fell out when he received a call at his job from one of the twins' friends, Paige Sterling. JM worked at his sister's daycare center, and as they did everyday, Kels and he had been exchanging text messages. He told her he loved her and that he would talk to her in a few minutes, and then went outside to play football with the little kids. When he came back, Kels had texted back, "Hey Sweetheart." He texted back, "Hey Sweety," but no return message was forthcoming. He sensed something was wrong and began to pray. He called Kelsey, but there was no answer. I have often wondered what the scene looked like inside the Grand Am: Kelsey crushed, Kayla pulled from the car, while JM's call rang unanswered.
A few minutes later was when Paige texted John Michael, telling him to call her immediately. He did and learned the love of his life had just been killed, and that the God of the universe had allowed his sweetheart to suddenly die.
Later, JM wrote me. "I felt then how I think Christ felt when He heard the news about the death of John the Baptist. He wept for his friend; yes, Jesus Christ, our hope of glory, wept for his friend, even though He knew the eternal plan of salvation. And so did I. Kelsey was not just my girlfriend; we didn't just love each other. She was my best friend; we loved each other through Christ, not through emotions. That's why it was so true and genuine. Cliché? You can believe that, but I know what I felt and what I was able to live for that year."
He hung up from Paige and sprinted to his truck. Just praying, not crying yet. It was still too unbelievable to cry. He called his dad frantically telling him what had happened. And then in the middle of the road, while talking to his father, the full realization of what was happening hit him with full force. He sped to the hospital while calling his mother. She had a good friend, who was a nurse in the hospital. The nurse had mistakenly told her that Kelsey was going to live, and that Kayla was the one who had been killed. For that split second, he felt relieved, but then he thought of Todd, of how Kelsey would take losing her sister, and pain stabbed him again. He thought of how much Kelsey cared for Kayla, and how they had both prayed for Kayla to come into her own intimate relationship with the Lord. Then he knew if anyone had to die, it had to be Kelsey. Kelsey had the strongest faith. Still, JM wanted to feel relieved and see both of them sitting in the hospital beds with just some bruises. That hope was fleeting.
He rushed into the hospital, but he did not see any one he knew. There was no one to comfort him, to tell him the truth. Then running into the front room of the emergency room office, came the mother and sister of Todd Howell, Kayla's boyfriend. They grabbed and hugged him, then led him into the same small waiting room Becky and I had first been brought. Sometime after that, Bec and I re-entered the waiting room, and saw JM in utter agony. Our journey in grief together had begun.
Excerpted from Tragedy & Trust by Thom Vines John Michael Vestal Copyright © 2011 by Thom Vines with John Michael Vestal. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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