The phone call will forever be embedded in my memory. It is one that I often wish I could erase, filled with a cry I only wish had never happened.
I was just feeling the sigh of relaxation come over me as the weekend quickly approached that Friday evening when my phone rang. It was a California number. My brain registered that it was my sister, whom I attempted to talk to frequently despite the three-hour time difference, but another part of me was already tuning out. Do I answer and converse or let it go to voicemail? Something told me answer.
As I answered so casually, about to pour myself a glass of wine to celebrate the week’s end, I was jerked into consciousness by a scream like none other; a scream so raw and guttural that the knee-jerk reaction for me was almost to drop the phone.
My sister was calling from her cell phone while at her hair-dresser’s, dye still burning into her scalp. Her babysitter had shaken her from her stolen escape of mommy-peace with a call every mother fears. Her son was dead.
She had been craving, needing, time alone that day. She was a full time mom of two small children, one with special needs who required hours of therapy each day. Her husband was working on the East coast and her regular babysitter had been on vacation.
She fed her son his breakfast that morning as her four-year-old daughter played with her mind focused on the break she would soon have when her babysitter arrived. As her babysitter came in, she quickly passed off Carter to Alma and instructed her to give him his bathe. He was happy and she seemed so happy to see him that Emily feel a sigh of relief as she snuck of to start her day of rejuvenation.
All she could think of was stealing some time for a relaxing soak in the tub before getting her hair and nails done; time justified away from the everyday, 24/7 responsibilities of caring for a child with special needs by the calling of a hair needing color and a cut. He was a child she loved more than herself, more than words could ever describe, with a love and care that exhausted her to her core. These rare breaks gave her the energy she needed to keep on going with all her being.
As she soaked in the tub that Friday afternoon she drifted in and out of sleep, letting the exhaustion melt away. She quickly dried off and before she ran out the door, peaked in the bedroom of her son who was sleeping so soundly. She gave her babysitter instructions for the day and left.
Just as Emily made herself comfortable in her hairdresser’s chair, closed her eyes and relaxed and let herself drift away into a stillness so foreign to her life these past few years, her cell phone rang, jolting her into consciousness. It was her babysitter. She never called her and she instinctively knew, something was wrong.
Alma could barely speak as she cried, “Emily, you have to come home.” Emily kept asking her, “Why?! Is he breathing?” With the single response, “I don’t know,” Emily knew.
Her head spinning, her heart racing and her breathe becoming so tight air was no where to be found, she found herself shaking as she dialed 911. Is there even a protocol for these actions? Are there directions on what to do when your child is thought to be dead?
Being her older sister of ten years, a mother-sister relationship without the fear of the mother-judgment and the comfort of the sister-bond was formed very early on. Emily’s knee-jerk reaction had her dialing my phone number. Her husband was on a business trip back East and she was all alone in California, stuck in the chair of a hairdresser, trapped with dye seeping into her scalp as she helplessly sat, absorbing what her babysitter had just cried out to her. Her baby was dead. Her baby that she had nursed and cared for every waking minute of his twenty months was supposedly gone and she WAS NOT WITH HIM. Her baby that was gifted back to her after a virus ravaged his newborn body and almost stole his life in the first week of it on this Earth was TAKEN FROM HER. Her baby that she had sacrificed everything for, moved her and her daughter to California for and lived apart from her husband for WAS GONE FROM HER ARMS. Her baby that became her world, her love, her everything WAS GONE.
As I answered that phone on the evening of March 30th, for the very first time in my life, I had no words. I had nothing to say to my sister as she screamed into the phone, “What do I DO? What do I DO?! I think he is dead, Jen!”
I had never felt as far away from Emily as I did right then. I am a fixer, a doer, a problem-solver by nature. I wanted, desperately ached, to be able to offer a solution. Fix this. Help. At the very least, hold my sister in her agony.
But I was 3000 miles away. And death is irreversible. There was nothing I could ever do to change what already was.
Within hours I had made the gut wrenching phone calls to my parents and siblings, Emily had confirmed that her son was indeed gone from this Earth, and her husband, my parents and siblings and I had all booked tickets on the earliest flight to California we could find. Neighbors and friends in California were notified to come and care for her daughter and hold Emily until we could arrive. The seas were in a tumultuous storm as she gasped for air, clinging to the faith that had brought her through thus far, trusting that the God that promised to hold her was clinging on for dear life.
Even revisiting these memories evokes an ache in my heart so deep, so raw that I want to run and hide from it, slamming the door shut on these moments in time two years ago.
Yet would doing that pay homage to a life lived with such greatness, such power and purposeful demonstration of our God’s love and grace for his children? Would running from this allow others to see and know just how almighty our Lord was through every single moment of my nephew’s life, start to finish right through to this day?
I cannot close the doors. I cannot run. This must be shared.
We all, at times, imagine the very worst that could happen to us and try and figure out if we could survive it. We are human and fearing pain is natural. And by imagining it we somehow think we are preparing ourselves; building our defenses so that IF the “worst” really does happen somehow we are ready. You never are.
These are the times that I SEE God for everything He is; love, grace, mercy, compassion, strength. When every single bit of you is stripped away and you somehow survive, this is GOD. When a mother can continue to find the air to breathe as her child lay dead in her arms, when a father can find the focus to cross the country to be in the arms of his family after receiving a call that his son has died, when grandparents can find the endurance to drive eighteen hours straight to hold their daughter in their arms as she weeps for her son, God is present and SEEN.
What I witnessed my sister and brother-in-law find the strength to do from the time their son fell ill at six days old with a virus that almost killed him, to the twenty months they spent giving him every opportunity in life to be all that he could be, to their empty arms as they buried him, I SAW GOD.
I sit here writing this, guilty of imagining just what I would do if the unimaginable happened to me, daring to think that this act alone of imagining will somehow help me through. When truth is, I alone will never have the capability to do any of the surviving ON MY OWN. I am a mere mortal; weak, helpless, powerless in the face of catastrophic loss.
It is only in my all-powerful, almighty, all-knowing Creator that I can ever find the strength to live through the worst of the worst. To survive. To endure.
Before Carter ever was taken from us so unexpectedly I knew God had a message to share with us. With indelible ink he made a mark on our hearts with this little boy that HE WAS IN CONTROL. He alone defined the parameters of this life; not doctors, not man, but the CREATOR of life itself. Carter survived the virus that ravaged his brain in newness of life and was left without man being able to define for him what his life would, should or could be.
Every day was a miracle. Every day a blessing to be celebrated with an awe for who he was. God knew from the moment he created this precious life that his days were numbered.
His time was done on Earth that day in March two years ago. We never knew. But aren’t all our ends unknown? Aren’t all our days numbered? We already know what we think we don’t. We are mortal.
What if we all lived life without expectations, without the exhaustion of trying to be someone whom we define ourselves to be, but allowed God to define us? What if we all lived with a celebration of each day and its blessings, never expecting more than was given, happy with what we had and trusting in the One who created us?
What if instead of imagining and fearing the “what-if’s” we trusted that God is and always will be IN CONTROL and that His embrace will carry us through anything? Now that would be living to its fullest.
That would honor Carter and the life he lived.
In loving memory of Carter Matthew Abbott
July 30, 2010-March 30, 2012
(click on the link below to watch a video honoring the message God sent through this little boy)
My nephew's life, start to finish, was one of the most transformative experiences that I have ever witnessed and forever changed my faith and how I viewed God. From that first time I gathered in the PICU in Kansas City over that sweet little baby, watching him cling to life and praying because I did not know what else to do, to the day I watched my sister and her husband say their final good-byes to a son they loved more than themselves, I saw, for the first time, God's promises in action. I SAW just what He meant when he said he would NEVER FORSAKE US and would ALWAYS BE BY OUR SIDE. As a mere human I know for sure I never could do what my sister did without the help of the Lord.
My ministry with my writing was inspired by my nephew and the message God sent to me through him. I will continue to seek God's guidance and will for my life in all that I do in honor of this life lived by the grace of our God.
Please share this message with anyone you may know who needs to know, there IS hope, in Jesus Christ.