The Boy Who Lived
Now that I’ve spent two days in and out of the UNC hospital labyrinth, now that I’ve visited the crash site and been to the junk yard where they took what was left of the car, I know that my boy shouldn’t have survived this wreck. He certainly shouldn’t have walked away from it—or even crawled out of it, as he did. He’s not right yet (we were back at the doctor’s yet again, today), but he’s going to be right, and he’s been laughing and talking and joking with his friends and asking for his cell phone. Praised be God our Helper!
I want to give credit where credit is due: God did this. This claim is, I realize, a matter of faith, but I will be a witness for what I have seen and known.
Here is the first thing I know: That when I went on my bike ride that morning my iPod was out of juice and I stuffed it in my jersey and said to myself, “I suppose I should pray.” I am not a great pray-er. I don’t think God is greatly honored by such prayers, such last resorts, such bones as we throw him when we’ve gnawed away all that we can possibly enjoy. And so I know that it is hardly a question of getting credit for praying. For from him and through and to him are all things. But prayer is prayer, and I prayed. Not long, not well, but I prayed. I prayed for my own safety (Chad was not the only one in danger on the road). And I prayed for my family, for their safety and for other assorted needs. All this is a sort of mush in my mind (how I depend, in all my praying, on the superior, infallible, perfect Memory of God!), but this I do recall, distinctly. So distinctly that I know which hill I was climbing—the one on Old NC 10 which runs under the railroad trestle and heads up and over toward Mt. Herman Church. So distinctly that I remember the Psalm I prayed. I memorized Psalm 121 in seminary, in preparation for delivering a mediocre sermon, which I hoped might be better for the memorization. I can’t say as it helped the sermon much, but I know it helped my praying on Saturday. I prayed the words I could remember: “I lift my eyes up to the hills”—especially the ones on NC 10. “Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He who watches over Israel neither slumbers not sleeps. The Lord is your keeper, the Lord is your shade at your right hand. He will not let your foot be moved. The sun shall not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will watch over your going out and your coming in, forevermore.” Anyone with a Bible can see how muddled I’ve gotten this psalm. But it turns out it doesn’t matter.
I’ve preached on this psalm at least three times in my life. Once not too long ago at St. David’s chapel, the week after the Virginia Tech tragedy. I have to confess that I don’t understand it completely. I really don’t know how it’s true that God watches over us completely. I believe it’s true, but it’s not a full-throated, raise-my-fist-to-the-sky-like-Tiger-sinking-that-put-on-the-eighteenth-at-Torrey Pines-true. More like the dissertation qualified by a thousand footnotes kind of true. Because, if I’m honest, I don’t see how this psalm describes how God watched over little Eliza Jackson when she was born; or Brad Friesen last year when his cancer came back; or the students at Virginia Tech, for that matter, even though I did my best to reconcile the ways of God to man, or at least the young men and women at St. David’s last spring. But we both knew, the students and I, that I had a lot of explaining to do after I had read the psalm.
Today I don’t have any explaining to do. Just some telling. Because God watched Chad. Totally. Unblinking and unsleeping and with a providential artistry which shuts me up and leaves me amazed.
Chad came down Jones Ferry toward the first bridge at the creek, around a downhill curve, and found himself edging over into the oncoming lane. When he saw a Jaguar coming at him, he swerved back into his lane, but with a rookie’s jerk of the wheel. At that point he had lost control of the car, and it began to swerve back and forth as he tried to right it. But he never did. In his panic he didn’t hit the brakes, and at some point, before the bottom of the hill he must have jerked the car too hard back again to the left, so that he crossed the oncoming lane and crashed straight into the guardrail, which saved him from heading down into a deep ravine and a sure head-on crash. He rebounded off the guardrail so hard that (according to the driver of the Jag who told me he what he saw in his rearview mirror) he flew twenty feet into the air and hit the pavement, beginning a series of rolls side to side, passenger side rolling first, heading down the road obliquely back across both lanes of traffic. Mark Bell counted six gouges in the pavement, two for each roll he took before he crashed sideways into the guardrail on the opposite side (that would be the side he was originally travelling on), upside down, nose of his car pointing back towards the Bells’ house. If he had rolled once more, of if the guardrail hadn’t held, he would have fallen twelve or fifteen feet into the creek below. Chad says he remembers the huge crash at first, then the turning, like in a roller coaster, only waiting to die at the end, and the loudest noise he can ever remember, and hugging the airbag for all his life. He sat—or hung—upside down for maybe a minute, and then he remembered his NASCAR and all the cars that catch on fire, so he unbuckled himself and climbed out the driver’s window, which like all the windows in the car were gone completely, out into the middle of the road, where he began to stagger around, until the angels came.
The angel is a black woman with a cell phone. Her name is something like Terran Hairstan, or at least that’s what the LED on my land line reads. I’ve tried to call her but haven’t been able to get her. Maybe her cell phone is, like her body, immaterial. Or maybe I’ve got it all wrong and she’s really not an immaterial spirit who appeared on Jones Ferry Road on Saturday; maybe she and her husband were really the African American human beings several witnesses saw, the ones who must have screeched their car to a halt just in the nick of time, so that Chad’s car bounded over their hood and missed them barely; maybe it was flesh and blood who told the Bells “I saw the car roll and roll, and then this baby crawled out!” But until I see her in the flesh, or at least talk to her on the phone, I will humor myself and think that it might have been an angel who grabbed my boy and hugged him and told him that God had saved him. Indeed. If an angel is a messenger of God, then this woman, with her cell phone and her big hug surely qualifies.
There is more: Remember the guy in the Jag. He saw Chad coming down the hill and said to himself, “That car is out of control; it’s going to crash.” As he passed Chad, he looked back in his rearview mirror and saw him flying through the air. He drove up Jones Ferry to the first turnaround and headed back down the road to see what had happened. When he got to the scene, he took charge and put Chad in the passenger seat of his car. He knew he should have laid him down flat, but Jones Ferry is not a safe place to lie down flat, so he improvised. I’ll bet he’s pretty good at improvising wisely, seeing as he is the surgeon who runs the Burn Unit at UNC. He told me all this when he came to the ER. He also told me he knew me, from the Church of the Good Shepherd, and he stuck around for a while. I don’t think it was because of the novelty of the ER. I think that he, like all of us, wanted to get one more look at the Boy Who Lived. I think he was truly amazed. In fact, he came back by Chad’s hospital room Sunday morning (they kept him overnight to observe him), and we enjoyed again remembering the wonder of it and spoke of God’s good protection. His name is Bruce Cairns and I thank him for taking such good care of Chad until the ambulance came.
Let me tell, also, of the Highway Patrolman. Officer Johnson his name. He came to the hospital to give us the report, but he stuck around too, for a while, to explain why he wasn’t citing Chad, to tell me about his sixteen-year old, to tell me how blessed I was, to tell me he knew “someone was watching over him today.” He called again on Sunday to check on Chad.
And the Bells. Alan and Pam were at the scene immediately. I suppose Mark called them. Mark had been driving his car ahead of Chad, and when he got nearly to Hwy 54 he realized Chad wasn’t following and he turned back. He was terror-stricken when he came on the site, so I’m sure he called his parents. All I know is that they were there when we were driving to the hospital. And that Alan is a physician who was able to calm us down with his informed observations. And that Pam is a nurse who loves Chad like one of her own. They stayed at the ER for a long time, until we were reasonably sure he was OK.
And the car. We saw the car today. It is truly a wreck. The only part not smashed to smithereens is the driver’s side. If he had rolled the other way, his side would have been crushed. If he had had a passenger, I shudder to think what would have happened.
If I were going to write the script for a story entitled “He Will Not Let Your Foot Slip” or “The Lord Is Your Shade at Your Right Hand,” I could not do better than this. Heck, I could not do half as well. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our sight. Thanks be to God our Savior.
Chad’s phone wallpaper has Jeremiah 29:11 plastered on it. On the way home from the hospital, I asked him if he could recite it, and he could. The Lord knows the plans he has for Chad, and I think we can be reasonably certain that they’re not done, that a hope and a future are his. I wonder why He made sure that the Boy lived. I wonder what he will live for. I wonder Whom he will live for. Who is Chad, that God should be mindful of him? Who is this God, who takes such care of us when we are crashing?