Saturday, October 8, 2011, ushered in a lazy, sun-shiny, crisp fall day. While lavishing in the final weekend of the kids’ Fall Break from school, I decided I better fulfill my promise to our youngest who had begged all week to go “4-wheeler riding”—a joy both I and my kids grew up with. This would be our last chance before school resumed the following Monday. Elated, the kids ran outside, threw open the shed doors, gassed up, suited up, and had the two ATV’s parked out front, ready to go before I could make it out the door!
The pecan orchard we usually romp and race through was overgrown, forcing us deeper into unfamiliar territory. I rode alone for a bit to scope out the area. Once the safe perimeters for riding were determined, I gave the larger ATV to my oldest and only son, Drew, and our daughter, Emily. I waved the other two girls over to ride the smaller 4-wheeler, and pointed out the safe areas to all four of them. By the time the exchange ended with Drew and Emily, Ashley and Abby were nowhere in sight. So, Drew and Emily drove off in search of them.
As they also disappeared into the orchard, I began to hear screams…
My heart stopped along with my feet. Above the roar of motors in the distance, I couldn’t discern if it was play or serious. The sounds stopped. I assumed they were playing and resumed walking to find a place where I could keep watch, thinking to myself, “When they get up here, I am going to tell them not to scream like that! It’s scaring me! And to stay where I can see them!”
Sickening screams reached my ears again. Suddenly, Drew bolts back into eyesight driving full-speed towards me with panic on his face. Then, I see Emily racing into view on foot, screaming, “MAMA!!!” Over and over and over again in a frantic call no mother wants to hear.
Running in their direction, my heart sunk when Abby appeared—only ten years old at the time. Emily and Drew had put her on their ATV, but she jumped off without him even knowing, just trying to get to me. Even far away I could see the bloody mess from head to toe. Up close, her face was so badly crushed in the center, severely affecting her nose and eyes and everything behind them, that she didn’t even look normal.
Ashley and Abby had driven into another area of overgrowth in the unfamiliar territory.
Knee-high grasses completely concealed a narrow, V-shaped gulley almost seven feet deep. There was no time to react as the 4-wheeler soared off the edge, dropped down, then slammed them into the opposite side wall. As the law of motion played out when the ATV stopped, the girls’ bodies kept moving, forcing Abby face down into the center of the metal steering wheel column. Her precious face absorbed the brunt force of the crash.
Though I saw horror in Abby’s young eyes and felt it in my bones, a calm strength overtook me that bears no other explanation than God. When Drew pulled up beside us on the larger ATV, I steadied her in his big-brother arms to do the first thing that came to mind. All I knew to do was touch her sweet head and pray, to plead for God’s healing!
Next, I quickly thought through scenarios of how I might attempt to take her to the hospital on my own.
None of them would work in her fragile state.
A neighbor’s shout from the last house before the orchard entrance broke my darting thoughts, “Do you need an ambulance?!” She saw the kids riding earlier and heard the screams from her bedroom window. I ran toward her, then stopped mid-way. I couldn’t answer clearly. Every word and footstep I stumbled over brought me closer to the reality that Abby needed help beyond what any of us or our local hospital could give her. The woman read through my lack of an answer by dialing 911.
Abby was no longer crying, but clearly in shock. Since I was out of earshot from her, I called Andy who was at work. He knew we went riding, so, I dove right in. My calm composure broke down at the sound of his voice as soon as he said, “Hello.”
"Hey...Andy, Abby and Ashley had a wreck...it's really bad, Andy... Abby's face is crushed...it's really bad, Andy... It's really, really bad... A neighbor called an ambulance... It's really bad...I already know she's going to have to have surgery, it's so bad!"
“I’m on my way” he breathlessly rushed on his way out the office door. We decided the other three kids would meet him at the house (thankfully they were all teenagers and could get the un-wrecked ATV, plus our gear, home), then hung up with desperate “I-love-yous.”
“Where is Ashley??” I worried out loud to Emily. They told me earlier she wasn’t hurt (as far as she could tell at the time), that she’d made a phone call to beg for prayer. But I could not see her! I found her doubled over on the ground crying, her eyes terrified. Another sight a mother cannot forget. We embraced.
Then I cupped my almost 15-year-old daughter’s beloved face in my hands to tell her,
“This is not your fault. It was just an accident. This is not your fault.” I prayed aloud in earnest for her, too, that false guilt would not overtake her.
The ambulance bounced across the uneven orchard floor over to where we waited. A towel from the neighbor loosely covered Abby’s face. When the paramedics asked us to remove it, they gasped out loud as one jumped back, covering his mouth at the reveal. Surely they’re trained not to react so strongly, but I understood why he couldn’t help it.
Climbing into the back of the emergency vehicle while reassuring my other three they would be ok was the oddest thing I’ve ever felt. For them to leave on their own to meet their dad without me and Abby was excruciating. Never more had my heart ached to be in two places at once!
When the surgeon on call came to see Abby in the ER, he had to ask if she was a boy or a girl. Another sting of the severity of her condition.
It felt like days before our family was reunited. I am not exaggerating when I say Drew, Ashley, and Emily clung to me for several minutes each as we hugged, one at a time, reunited in the waiting room.
As I write this page, we are in the 10th year anniversary week of that fateful day.
We had no idea in the beginning where all this would take us. Unaware how much Ashley was injured in her hips and wrists, with very little answers or help despite seeking several different doctors for a few years. Clueless that Abby would endure 11 reconstructive surgeries totaling 31 hours, with some recoveries requiring her to sleep six months tucked tight in a recliner, wearing a face shield. Not to mention the depth and wide range of trauma emotionally, mentally, and spiritually for both girls.
We came home from the hospital that first week to a very different family. Abby not only looked different, but she also was painfully quiet, withdrawn, somber and serious. No longer the feisty free-spirited child. Ashley was scared. She called her dad and me up to her room to tell us she was tempted to take her life. Depression was setting in quickly.
You don’t get guidebooks for this sort of thing. It isn’t something we can ever be fully prepared ahead for or know exactly what to do at every shift or blow.
One key thing made a difference.
Only days before the accident, I attended a Captivating Advanced retreat in the Colorado Rockies. The very last session was on suffering. I learned pain isn’t the worst part about it, but rather the damage it can do to our heart. When suffering snatches the rug out from under our feet from behind, landing us flat on our back wondering what hit us, our heart is most vulnerable to the adversaries of the flesh, the world, and the spiritual realm.In a freefall moment of the heart, the only safe landing is Jesus. Click To Tweet
We were urged by the speaker to utter a specific cry in those moments. It’s the one thing I remembered in the orchard that awful day. When I hung up the phone from Andy, before walking back to my children, I heaved these breathless words as my physical heart thundered in my chest,
“Catch my heart, Jesus! Jesus, catch my heart!! Catch my heart, Jesus!! Jesus, catch my heart!!!”
The mercy of God went before us with that message, and the mercy of God came again and again and again in the years that followed. Mercy is still needed. Each of the six of us experienced a different angle and perspective through all that happened. Each one traumatized in a different way.
When Andy drove home by himself the first night Abby and I stayed in the hospital, he heard a “stranger’s voice” whisper, “If you quit, I’ll quit.”
Two years prior to the accident, he and I launched a ministry for men and women involving boot camps, canoe trips, retreats, weekly gatherings, and writings. The focus was healing the heart to set women and men free to live fully as God created them.
It has been a battle ever since to reject the stranger’s voice and follow the voice of Jesus.
““Let me set this before you as plainly as I can. If a person climbs over or through the fence of a sheep pen instead of going through the gate, you know he’s up to no good—a sheep rustler! The shepherd walks right up to the gate…He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…they follow because they are familiar with his voice. They won’t follow a stranger’s voice but will scatter because they aren’t used to the sound of it.””John 10:1-5 MSG
For me, following the first month we were home from the hospital and first surgery, I kicked and screamed internally against the obvious; that this was going to be a very long road. I fell on my bed one morning to beg of God:
“If we have to go through this, if we have to go through all this suffering, I want to know the Truth, Jesus. I’ve heard it all inside and outside the church my whole life, and I’m tired of it. I want to know the Truth of what You have to say. I want to know who You really are in it all. And if we have to go through this, please bring beauty from ashes as You promise. Please bring beauty from all these ashes!”
I was the main writer for the ministry I mentioned in those first two years. But my words went into chaos in the aftermath of the accident. However, the years are not wasted as I once thought. The closeness I found with the Father inked onto the pages of many journals, chronicling conversations and experiences between God and me, Scriptures, songs, good stories, and many dear ones He’s used to usher in that Truth I prayed for 10 years ago.