Monday, May 29, 2017

Take a breath….

This is it:  the moment we've all been waiting for.  This is the culmination of years of work, oceans of tears, reams of papers, buckets of sweat…you name it.  This day will go down in history as "The Day That Couldn't Happen."  Or maybe "The Day The Impossible Happened."  How about "The Day That Was Never Supposed to Happen"?

I don't know what to call this day, because calling it what it is seems so anticlimactic.  But here goes:  Monday, June 5, 2017, is the day my son graduates from high school.

I told you it seemed rather tame.  After the opening paragraph, you might have thought we were sending another man to the moon, but no---we're simply celebrating Dale's graduation from Bethel Baptist Christian School.  He has completed his high school courses successfully and is ready to march across the platform to accept his diploma.  We're very proud of him.

If you are new to our family's story, let me fill in some background details that might help you understand the title I chose.

Five and a half years ago, my son died.

You read that right.  Five and a half years ago, on Friday, August 5, 2011, my son Dale, along with his two older sisters and half the youth group, went on a teen activity.  They headed for the coast two hours away to enjoy some sun, water, and general goofiness.  Dale was new to the youth group, having just finished sixth grade two months prior.  Amanda, our oldest, kept an eye on him, concerned that he would pull some crazy shenanigans (he did that a lot!  Still does…).  Katie, our second oldest, played with her friends while the chaperones watched over everyone.  Throughout the morning and into the afternoon, the group was having a great time.  Teens were wading in the water, scouring the beach for driftwood, or just soaking up the sunshine.  The day was perfect…until two of our boys got their legs swept out from under them.  The undertow quickly carried them out into deeper water than they could handle, and they began to cry out in distress.  Two people nearby, a father and his daughter, heard them and responded; the father managed to get the one boy safely back to shore, but the girl, only twelve herself, was struggling to help the other boy, Dale.  They tried swimming to shore holding onto her boogie board, but the ocean swamped them.  Nicole, that brave young lady, recalls feeling Dale near her, grabbing his belt, and shoving him up towards the surface.  When they broke through, gasping for air, she told Dale to swim for shore with all his might.  Glancing back, she saw him right behind her.  But when she reached the beach, moments later, he was gone.

Frantic calls began flooding the emergency lines, reporting the incident.  Rescue personnel went into action:  police headed out to the beach, ambulance drivers raced toward the scene, the volunteer water rescue team started suiting up.  A photographer overheard the calls on the police band and followed the line of vehicles out to the water.  I'm so glad he did because he sent us every picture he took that day, from the time he arrived to the time Dale was pulled from the water…over twenty minutes later.  Paramedics worked on Dale's lifeless body right there on the beach, giving him CPR and even using the paddles to try to restart his heart.  Remember:  the youth group is right there, watching everything with horrified, disbelieving faces.  Our teens were the first responders:  they knelt on the sand, some of them face down, prostrate, and begged God that Dale be found and then that he'd regain life.  Our daughters were there when the panicked call went out to clear the water because Dale was missing; they were there when their brother's body was carried ashore, arms dangling.  They were there when he was strapped to a stretcher and loaded in an ambulance to be taken to the hospital.  The scars they carry to this day are emotional and deep…

I have never been so proud of my family as I was that tragic day.  My husband's first words when informed of the accident were "We need to pray."  Once the girls arrived at the hospital, before they even got to go back to Dale's room, Chad told them and me, "No matter what happens now, God will receive the glory."  Mind you, we all thought Dale was dead.  The paramedics had managed to restart his heart, but Dale wasn't breathing on his own, and the doctors were kind but offered no hope whatsoever.  We were warned that Dale's body might simply give up and shut down completely; we were told that, even if he regained consciousness, he might be in a vegetative state or unable to walk, feed himself, might need to wear a diaper, might not be able to talk.  Dale had simply been underwater, without oxygen, without pumping blood, for too long.  My girls stood at Dale's bedside and sang praises to our God.  I had long prayed that God would use our family to bring honor and glory to Himself.  None of us had any idea what He was about to do.

Two days later, Sunday, August 7, 2011, a meeting with the doctor indicated we should prepare for the worst.  Up to this point, Dale had exhibited no signs that his brain was still functioning.  The machines were breathing for him; there had been no response to stimuli; the doctor had taken Chad and me aside and told us that they had done all they could.  Chad begged him, "Give God a chance."  That night, Chad asked a doctor to demonstrate what Dale should be responding to.  The doctor leaned over and barked in Dale's ear, "DALE, WAKE UP!"  To our shock, Dale's eyes flew open, startling even the doctor.  The room immediately filled with people, all working to give Dale this fighting chance.  What they didn't realize was that God, now that the doctors had stepped aside, was flexing His muscles, about to show the entire world just what He could do.

Dale began to improve from that moment on.  He began breathing regularly on his own; he began responding to verbal commands as well as physical stimuli; when they took the ventilator tube out the next day and encouraged Dale to cough to clear his lungs, Dale shocked everyone again by saying, "I don't NEED to!"  We spent a couple of weeks at that hospital, while Dale relearned how to walk and breathe properly and all.  Then we transferred to another hospital closer to home, spending the next several weeks there, allowing Dale to relearn how to swallow, how to eat, how to brush his teeth, how to talk, everything.  God's hands were so evident, holding our son, soothing our fears, calming my stress.  I'm deliberately glossing over those first weeks; it's still an emotional topic for our family and me, as the storyteller.  The next year is a blur for Dale:  we went to physical therapy twice a week and speech therapy once a week.  We assisted Dale as if he were a toddler, though he turned thirteen before the first anniversary of the accident came around.  He changed from a young boy into a young man during that time; his voice dropped from its high pitch to a much lower one---he had trouble singing because he couldn't adjust to his different voice very well!

He lost a full year from his life, has only fuzzy recollections of those months, doesn't remember his therapists though he spent so much time with them.  He lost a year of schooling, plus a large portion of the next school year, struggling to figure out how to learn again, how to process information and repeat it on a test.  One of our teachers pointed out recently, "Dale has worked harder toward his graduation than most graduates.  He took six years of high school and crammed them into five."  Four and a half, actually.  To say he's struggled academically would be to say the sun is a little warm.  Dale has had to put at least three times as much work, time, and brain power into his studies as the average student does; school work that should take between twenty to forty-five minutes has taken Dale up to two days to complete.  Our school with its wonderful teachers and principals has worked with us nonstop to assist Dale in every way he needs, focusing on an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) for him and eliminating extra requirements.  As I'm writing this, Dale is downstairs, working on his last English PACE.  He's going to walk across the platform Monday night, June 5, 2017, having actually completed his high school education.  He's not being handed a participation award; he's not being given an obligatory piece of paper so he doesn't feel left out; he's graduating.  Nothing short of amazing describes this accomplishment.

Please realize that none, I repeat, none of this would have been possible without the Almighty's power.  God chose to give Dale life when Dale was supposed to die.  That is my belief.  Dale's life was supposed to end that day at the beach, but God heard His people's prayers and changed His mind, giving the world a chance to see Him in action.  In the weeks following Dale's miraculous recovery, we received an enormous amount of mail from every corner of the world.  We opened letters and packages from nearly every state, numerous countries, and several continents, not to mention the emails and Facebook messages.  This accident, this tragedy, this horrifying incident was used by God to show that He listens and that He has power the wisest doctors do not.  I am not downplaying the tremendous effort those doctors put forth on behalf of my son; their knowledge, support, and caring were more than we could have wished for.  I am saying that, when the doctors said they could do no more, that's when God allowed Dale to wake up, to begin to live again.  He chose to give us back our son, and we will never stop thanking Him and praising Him for His goodness.

Dale continues to struggle each day with various skills.  He has difficulty walking, especially using stairs; he is very unsteady on surfaces that are not level (like gravel, thick carpet, changing from one flooring to another); he speaks more slowly; sometimes his brain literally gets tired and he can't think any more; he must have assistance to walk anywhere; his limbs jerk without warning; writing takes time and effort.  I could continue the list, but I don't want to focus on the negatives.  Dale can brush his teeth, use the restroom, and dress himself; he can read and understand; he's still crazy and goofy; he's worked through anger at God and is now more accepting of his abilities and limitations; he is still stubborn and will argue with a signpost. He's still…Dale.  God, in His infinite graciousness, not only brought our son back to life but gave him back his life.  Oh, not the one Dale had planned out, not the one we parents dreamed of our son living in the hazy future, but a special life that only God Himself could have imagined.  God allowed Dale to live when he should have died, and now Dale is set to graduate high school.

What Dale's future actually holds is unclear still.  Dale still has desires and goals, and we're working toward making those a reality.  We have looked into various opportunities and courses for disabled individuals; we have begun the lengthy process of having Dale declared disabled so that he can receive assistance that will enable him to pursue whatever he desires, whatever God desires.  For us, it's best not to dwell on what might have been---we don't do well when we start thinking about all that we used to wish for.  Not that we haven't talked about Dale's former dreams and goals, but we know too many walks down memory lane lead to anger and depression, which is counter-productive to moving forward.  God understands when we cry out in confusion and pain over the "used-to-coulds," but I believe we bless the Father's heart when we follow those cries with words of acceptance and gratitude for all He has done.  If you don't know our family personally, you might think that we're holier-than-thou people who float through life with our heads in the clouds.  Trust me---nothing is further from the truth!  We're an ordinary family, full of regular human beings, who faced one of life's greatest tragedies and are even now living in the aftermath of that event.  We feel the pain, the anger, the disillusionment, the fear, the abandonment, the "we were serving You, Lord; why did You let this happen?"  We simply chose---and still choose---to trust.  We.  Trust.  God.  Every day.  Every hour.  Every minute.  It's not easy and it's not pretty, but it's the life God gave us, and we're going to trust His plan…and live it.

So, kudos to all those graduating high school this year.  It took a lot of work and time, but you've earned it.  Congratulations also to all the parents and grandparents who've worked so hard to get your graduate to this point.  Goodness knows, we need a vacation after the last twelve years!  Maybe a refreshing week in a mental ward….

To everyone who has read this blog, especially those who have been following Dale's story since the accident; to all the wonderful folks who have prayed for our family; to the generous individuals who have blessed us with food, clothing, finances, and more; to the newcomers who are just realizing that the young man we're talking about is "that boy who drowned" whose image is forever frozen in our minds because of the heart-wrenching picture that headlined news accounts of the accident; to our God, Who is faithful and kind and all-wise and forever; to you we say, "Thank you."  You have touched our lives in ways we can never fully explain without choking on tears.  You have blessed our hearts with your love and prayers.  You have brought our son and our family before the throne so often that God's attention is always on us.  You have been so encouraging with your words and caring questions and love.  It's been a journey, hasn't it?  One we would never have chosen to embark on, but one that has changed our lives and enriched our lives in ways we could never have imagined.  And it's not over---I'm not shutting down the blog just because Dale is graduating.  Life doesn't end after graduation.  Just as life doesn't end after death…. Please, if you have never thought about where your soul will spend eternity after this life is over, please read the section of this blog entitled "Something Dale Would Like You to Know."  Talk to someone about God's desire for you to spend eternity in heaven with Him.  Please don't let another moment pass without settling this all-important matter.

We all want to see God's hand in our lives.  We all would love to feel His presence working with us through our hardships.  We all desire a demonstration of God's might and power.  Our family knows God is still in the miracle-working business.  We see one every time we look into Dale's eyes.

I've decided what to title this post:  "The Day Only God Knew Was Possible."

Mark 10: 27  "And Jesus looking upon them saith, With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible."

"Luke 15: 24  "For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found."