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It was the middle of February, and we had taken a weekend retreat to my brother-in-law Tommy's home in Clarion, Pennsylvania. Shane, our older son who had just turned sixteen, did not go with us and stayed with one of his friends. Our other two children, twelve-year-old Kelly and nine-year-old Bethany, made the trip with my wife and me. We were in the prime of family life.
Clarion is in a rural area northeast of Pittsburgh. Tommy and his family live next to Cooks Forest State Park, which is 2,000 acres of virgin timber—mostly tall pines that have seen the test of time. There was fresh snow that Saturday morning, and the two families elected to go sledding. We all went, including Tommy's three younger children. What a joyous time it was. I felt like a young boy again, jumping up off the sled after a great ride, performing a celebration dance as I screamed out with excitement. I shall never forget the moment on that mountaintop as the snow continued to fall; it was so peaceful and quiet. There was no sound except the occasional chatter of a blue jay, the intermittent laughter of the children, and the sound of air rushing through my nostrils. Huge snowflakes were falling as I gazed across the valley surrounded by large pines draped in fresh-fallen snow. This was an exceptional moment. None like I could ever remember experiencing. I was at peace with my world and felt so secure and happy. Life was so good! I felt so alive! I was reminded how blessed I was tohave a lovely wife, three healthy children, and a successful career. God had indeed been gracious. I stood there for a few brief seconds, appreciating the glorious feeling of contentment and joy. This moment was the pinnacle of my life. Never again would it all fit together as it did that day.
We returned home to Elkton, Maryland, on Sunday and started a routine week on Monday. However, things began to deteriorate Monday afternoon. I began to feel nauseous as typical flu symptoms began to emerge. I left work early to return home, finding Bethany and Kelly also showing the same symptoms. Kelly's symptoms were a bit more violent, but we were confident that a good night's sleep would help us all feel better in the morning. How blinded we were to the reality of what was happening.
In God's providence, we all stayed home the next day. Everyone had aroused by 9:00 A.M. except for Kelly. As my wife, Patty, opened his bedroom door to wake him, I heard the dreadful scream. I rushed to his room to find Kelly's blotchy blue body. I knew the moment I saw him that his spirit was gone. Patty called 911 as I attempted CPR, but I could not even open his mouth. His jaws were locked shut, and his body was already stiff and lifeless. I returned to our bedroom where Patty was still talking to the 911 operator. I took the phone from her and told the operator that my son was dead.
The next moments were sheer pandemonium as Patty ran back to Kelly's room screaming. I have never had such a feeling of helplessness. There was absolutely nothing I could do. Patty ran out of the house and into the front yard, falling to her knees crying. It was a gray, rainy morning. I ran after her and tried to lift her up, but I was too weak. A passing motorist saw us and stopped, wondering what in the world was happening. She parked her car and hurriedly walked up to us. I told her that we had just found our son dead in his bed. She told us that she was a nurse and asked if there was any way she could help. In our dazed state, I am sure we seemed quite unresponsive and had no idea of anything she could do. She offered a brief condolence and left. Patty and I went back inside to be with Kelly.
It was over; no warning; no second chance. The agony and reality of death were upon us. What had happened? How could a young, vibrant boy be alive one moment and dead the next? Why had this happened to us? This was only the beginning of those dreadful "why" questions.
I soon began to realize how little control I had over life. The police arrived, and hours passed as the detectives inspected Kelly and his room with the door shut. There was an interrogation by one of the detectives as I explained all that had transpired. We waited for the medical examiner to arrive. Finally in desperation I asked the detective if we could proceed with removing Kelly's body. He agreed, and the cart was taken upstairs to Kelly's room. With a flood of emotions I said, "This is my son; I'll take care of him." I lifted Kelly's body up off the bed and placed it in the body bag with trembling arms and hands. And then the final act—weeping and trembling, I fumbled to zip up the bag. A tremendous pressure gripped my chest as I gasped for air. That moment is scorched in my mind, never to be forgotten. I did not realize then that I would be faced with a lifetime of replaying that video over and over in my mind.
After Kelly's body was placed in the van, the medical examiner arrived. I recounted for him all the events. I told him how our son had flu symptoms the night before, and I speculated that he either choked on his vomit or a blood vessel had broken in his head. However, there was no sign of vomiting, and he was lying in a peaceful, sleeping position.
We were told that our son's body would be transported to Baltimore for an autopsy, in spite of our severe objections. We made a hasty call to our pediatrician only to have him tell us that we had no choice and that we must comply. This was the first of many hard lessons as I was forced to accept decisions and plans that were different from mine.
After Kelly's body was removed, the critical phone calls had to be made. How do you tell someone your twelve-year-old son has died? How do you gently drop a two-ton weight? There is no way! The shock of those words "Kelly is dead" pierced the morning air from coast to coast as I called our relatives and closest friends.
I called my office to tell my secretary I would not be coming in today nor did I know when I would return. I stumbled to find the right words. There were no right words. I then blurted out we had found our son Kelly dead in his bed.
That evening as the word spread, well-meaning friends began to arrive. I shall never forget the face of one neighbor who had coached Kelly in basketball and whose son was the same age as Kelly. When I greeted him at the front door, he could not speak; his facial muscles trembled; his eyes were wet with tears, and he stumbled to make a sound with his voice. We could only embrace each other and postpone the words for another day.
Two days later we had the confirmation that Kelly had died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage from an A-V malformation. There was an artery or vein deep in the center of his brain that was deformed from birth, and it had failed abruptly. The doctors reassured us there was nothing that could have been done even if we had known what was happening. We were told the symptoms of a cerebral hemorrhage are very similar to that of the flu. It was as if God had disguised what was happening so no human would intervene.
Preparing for the Funeral
Over the next few days, we slid into automatic. We had to decide which clothes Kelly would wear for the funeral, we had to select the casket, pick the songs for the service, choose the burial location, decide if the casket would be open or closed, on and on. These were very difficult decisions that no one plans to make for their child.
Choosing the Clothes
My recollection was most people are buried in their best clothes; that was usually a suit for the man. Kelly did not own a suit. It would not have been his nature to wear a suit. He was a twelve-year-old who felt most comfortable in jeans and sneakers. Patty and I realized without even discussing it that Kelly should be buried in his favorite outfit—the old white turtleneck covered by the favorite T-shirt with a small hole in the chest, blue jeans, Nike sneakers, and the old dirty white University of North Carolina baseball hat. It was not fancy, but it was Kelly.
As we chose the clothing, I recalled the shopping trip to buy his sneakers. It was the beginning of the seventh-grade basketball season. Kelly had finally made the big leagues of organized sports. He was on a real team with uniforms, scheduled practices, games, referees, the whole ball of wax. He was so excited! There was only one place in town to buy these special shoes—"Save on Sneaks," the sports shoe Mecca. Kelly and I gazed over the display of shoes. This was indeed a special moment. One of life's highlights for a twelve-year-old boy. Kelly already knew in his mind the weapon of choice; however, I could see his usual reluctance and apprehension. He was afraid the price was too high. I thought, Do we go for it? Should I make his day? We did it! We bought the Nike Air Jordans. He loved those shoes. It was now fitting that he should wear them into eternity.
The Private Viewing
It was now Friday morning. The service was to be that evening, and Patty and I were scheduled to go to the funeral home to see our son for the first time since his death. We invited Patty's sister, Cynth, and brother, Tommy, to go with us for support. As I drove to the funeral home, I was weak and light-headed, wondering if I could even drive there without passing out. I concealed my weakness from the others and tried to be strong. In retrospect, I should have asked Tommy to drive. By God's grace, we arrived safely.
As we entered the room, my eyes immediately went to him as he lay so still in the casket. I slowly walked up to the casket, wondering if it was really him. As I began to look at every detail, I could see the telltale signs of the autopsy. I quietly reassured myself that no one else would notice, because no one would look him over so intently as I.
His face was different. It was no longer the face of a boy but the face of a more mature person. I realized he had grown up in those last moments before his spirit departed. He had come face-to-face with life, the spirit world, and those eternal things that appear only occasionally in our dreams.
We were faced with the question of having the casket open or closed. I recalled someone saying it is better to leave the casket open as it helps people face up to the reality of death. One begins to run through the arguments in your mind—all the reasons to leave the casket open and all the reasons to close it. What do I wish to do? I realized no one had the right to question our decision. Patty and I chose to leave the casket open. Kelly was a beautiful young boy even in death. There was no reason to close the casket, unless we wished to protect others from the stark reality. At that point I had no desire to spare anyone from experiencing a small taste of my agony.
One of the officiating pastors asked if we had any writings from Kelly that might be used in the service. We had no recollection of such, but Patty decided to look through his things. To our surprise she found several writings Kelly had done in recent months. These may have been for a school Bible class or may have been written in a private moment. Kelly had chosen two verses of Scripture and had written out what they meant to him. We were amazed at the depth of these two writings.
"He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters" (2 Sam. 2.2:17). This verse is trying to tell what the Lord does when you believe and trust in him. He will protect you from sin, and especially Satan. You will also get to go to heaven to reign with God. I love you Lord,
"The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God's people. Amen" (Rev. 22:21). This verse is saying that everyone who knows and follows Jesus Christ will be in the grace of our Lord Jesus, the almighty one. For He is great and this is why I trust in Him for He will guide me and help me in troubles I will run into later in this life. Even when I'm not in troubles He is with me. He is the best. I just wish everyone in the world would find Him because He is the best. I love you Lord.
Reading these writings helped Patty recall something Kelly had told her several weeks before his death: "I'd rather be in heaven than on this earth." How remarkable was the comment and how unnoticed it was at the moment he spoke it.
I was reminded of Jesus' words in Matthew 18:3: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
At age twelve, Kelly had the faith of which Jesus spoke. He did not question the existence of heaven and, in his young mind, the conclusion was obvious—heaven was a much better place to be than this earth. There was no doubt or question. This is the faith of the little child, believing and never doubting. He accepted it as fact because the Bible said it was so.
Letter from a Friend
Friday morning we received a letter from one of Kelly's friends at school.
Dear Mr. & Mrs. Burton,
I'm so sorry to hear about Kelly's death. Kelly was one of the kindest and nicest friends I've had. He never stabbed you in the back and never talked behind your back. I was able to play soccer in the fall with Kelly. Basketball in the winter was really fun playing along side of a good player like Kelly. Kelly was a different kid in the way that he always was happy, never moody. We are all going to miss Kelly. He was a great friend, classmate, and teammate. I'm going to miss him but I'll never forget him. I'm looking forward to seeing him in heaven. I'm thinking of you and your family in my prayers daily.
I was so touched by this letter. My desire was to somehow include it in the service.
The service exceeded our every expectation. Over eight hundred people attended. The church was packed and people were turned away. Patty, Shane, Bethany, and I stood next to Kelly's body at the front of the church where we greeted everyone starting at 7:00 P.M. As Matthew and his parents came through the line, I asked Matthew's father if Matthew would be willing to read his letter. He was to give me a sign later if Matthew agreed. The service was scheduled to begin at 8:00, but by 8:30 we were still greeting people and the line was continuing. Our pastor elected to discontinue the greeting, so that the service could begin; he announced we would resume the greeting after the service. Each of us had selected our favorite hymns including one for Kelly, which was "As the Deer." I am reminded of the words we sang. "As the deer panteth for the water, so my soul longeth after Thee. You alone are my heart's desire, and I long to worship Thee."
How beautifully these simple words conveyed the single-minded, passionate relationship we are to have with the Lord Jesus. Was this Kelly's favorite song because he understood and appreciated that kind of relationship with his Savior? I want to believe it was.
Shane had not shown much emotion in the last week, which was not unusual for a sixteen-year-old; however, as the service continued, he began to wail and release all the emotion that had built up. As we grieved openly, our pastor later told us he became uncertain about his ability to deliver his message, because he was overwhelmed by our grief.
We had planned for a time of sharing before our pastor's message. I glanced at Matthew's father and he gave me the "go" sign. My heart was so heavy for Kelly's friends, young children who were forced to deal with grief at such a young age. I had prepared some comments addressed to them. As the sharing time was opened there was a brief period of silence. Who would begin? I stood up and shared my comments, reminding everyone there was a heaven and I would see my son again one day. I encouraged the young people to support one another by being mindful of the glorious place where Kelly now resided. At my conclusion I mentioned the letter and moved toward Matthew. I had no way of knowing he had just told his father he could not read the letter. By the time I got to him he was already in tears. I was prepared to read it if he could not. I passed him the letter and microphone. By God's grace young Matthew was able to read it while sobbing all the way through.
Patty followed with her comments and others shared. What a comfort it was to hear so many people speak of how special Kelly had been in their lives. As parents we have so many desires and goals for our children, and my wife and I were no exception. As I listened, I realized as parents we only see part of our children. As the comments were shared, I was able to see a part of Kelly I had not seen before. Later I remarked to Patty that Kelly had become the child we desired. Through the sharing our pastor was strengthened. He told us later that in seeing Patty and I speak about our son, he received the encouragement he needed to continue.
After the service concluded, we resumed greeting people in the narthex as they departed. Many people remarked at how gracious we were to greet everyone. I had unlimited energy at that point and could have greeted people for hours. God had indeed given us special strength for such an ordeal. Afterward Shane remarked that his chin had become chapped from rubbing on people's shoulders as he was hugged.
That night twenty-six people slept in our house. People were all over the house—on the floor, on couches, any available place. Several neighbors were also kind enough to put family members up for the night. As I walked through the house during the stillness of the night, it was like walking through a disaster shelter. I repeatedly said to myself, "Is this a dream? Oh, Lord, please let this be a dream. May I wake up to find my son alive."
I always thought it did not matter where one was buried. I had previously told Patty I did not care where I was buried. But when the moment arrived, I did care. I have always believed the body was nothing more than a shell and once the spirit leaves, the body is as nothing. But now it was different. This body was my Kelly's and it had been created by God, custom made for him. We now had to make a very personal decision of where he would be buried.
My parents had a family plot in Oakhall, Virginia, three hours away, which is where my sister is buried along with other relatives. It was offered and space was available. We could choose one of the local cemeteries, which was unfamiliar to us. I was overcome by a feeling that I did not want my son buried among strangers. How can that be? From where do such feelings come? In the throes of grief one does not always think clearly. Previously well-thought-out plans are subject to change. Positions that were extremely important before can become insignificant. In the midst of our grief we chose the family plot. In retrospect it was the wrong decision. Many times I have longed to visit Kelly's grave, but it was too far away. We have discussed moving him to a nearby place, but that decision is always put off until tomorrow.
We had three pastors participate in the service; however, when I was told none of them was able to officiate at the graveside my mind began to whirl. I quickly concluded I did not want some stranger performing this last earthly act for my son. What were my alternatives? My pastor reassured me he could find a suitable substitute or ... our minds reached the same point simultaneously. Or ... I could do it. Yes, I would do it.
Early Saturday morning we assembled the caravan at our house and headed south for the three-hour drive. There was more than enough time to replay how I was going to do this over, and over, and over again in my mind.
As we arrived at the cemetery, the hearse was already in position and a small group of relatives and family friends had gathered. I pulled the car up behind the hearse, leaving enough space to remove the casket. I sat in silence as my eyes scanned the site. It was a cold, brisk February day. I could see the breath of those standing quietly waiting to see my next move. How can this be? Is it true I am here to bury my son, or is this all a bad dream? This private moment was interrupted by my mother knocking on the car window saying, "Go speak to your grandmother; she's unable to get out of the car." I returned to reality. This was real. Oh, how very real! After visiting briefly with my grandmother, I returned to the car for a moment to gather my breath.
This was it! It was me, only me. This dreadful ceremony was now solely on my shoulders. I got out of the car and moved toward the hearse, motioning to the other pallbearers. Again, this was my son, and I wanted to participate in each solemn event. I was the first one to reach for the casket handles. I can't even remember what happened to Patty. How did she get from the car to her seat? I was so intent on my responsibilities. We placed the casket in position. Standing beside the hole in the ground, I read Revelation 21:1-7, which speaks of the New Jerusalem. I emphasized the fourth verse: "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away" (Rev. 21:4).
I asked several of my friends to pray, and I concluded. It was over so fast. I did not know what to do next. Was there anything left to do? Do we now just walk away? I moved toward Patty, reaching for her arm and slowly raising her out of the chair. She was limp. She reached to touch Kelly's casket one last time.
The small gathering retired to my father and mother's house. It was quite crowded in the small living room where I stood, but I was all alone. No one knew what to say to me. I was able to occasionally create a small smile when I was approached by a few people. I could already begin to see relief in some people's eyes. For them the solemn event was over; they were eager to return to their normal lives. I was beginning to realize how everyone else would be returning to normal except me. There would be no more "normal" for me.