It's a story about coming home and being met by The Father. Like The Father before, He ran to meet us. He welcomed us with love and clothed us with His grace.
He celebrated our return by giving us gift after gift.
It was as if we had never been gone.
Seven years ago today . . .
"What are you doing? Why are you stopping? We don't have time for another stop."
We had only been driving for two hours.
We had been driving since the call came. The call with the awful, terrible words.
I remember hearing Jim say the words to Ethan's roommate on the other end of the phone . . . "Don't say that to me. Don't say that to me."
My first thought, when the words became real, and while we were caught in traffic with other Christmas shoppers, was to get out of the car and run. To run to Gainesville, to get to Ethan any way I could.
We were on interstate later that Sunday evening when I asked Jim why he was taking the exit to make another stop. It was around 5:30. There was now little traffic. We were two hours closer to Ethan.
When we weren't screaming, or praying, or crying, or begging, we sat in silence as we stared ahead at the miles that separated us from Ethan.
Seth was back home alone. He called every few minutes begging for answers and reassurance. I had none to give him. Leaving Seth at home with the unknown and the fear that came with it, had been an unbearable decision to make. We couldn't lose an hour to return home to get him. Seth agreed that we just needed to go. To go to Ethan.
That's why I was confused when Jim exited the interstate. Why would we stop?
"The tires, Cheri. Something is wrong with the tires."
The station off the interstate, close to where Jim had noticed the tires beginning to wobble and the car beginning to swerve, was our only choice. Having traveled this road many times to see and to touch our college boys, we knew there was not going to be many options.
Jim jumped out of the car to find both back tires were flat. There was a spare for one but we needed two. Apparently, somewhere over the last 100 miles, we had picked up two large nails.
Jim ran into the convenience store to ask if the clerk knew of any business close by that could give us help. The answer was no.
I sat in the car. I couldn't move. I thought of the mother in the movie Home Alone and her desperation as she tried to get across the ocean back to her little boy. Gainesville seemed an ocean away. I wished I was a character in a movie, and that the last two hours had been something someone had written and not something that I was living.
Jim put on the spare and used a patch kit he had in the trunk on the other. The air hose at the station had been cut. We soon learned as we drove further down the interstate that cutting air hoses was a favorite activity of vandals with nothing better to do with their time.
I remember Jim breathing hard as he worked frantically while taking in the cool December air. I was afraid he would die and that I would never get to Gainesville. The only way to fill the patched tire with air was with a little cigarette-lighter-operated compressor Jim had bought on a whim and kept in the trunk.
It had been a blessed whim.
It seemed to take forever. When Jim got in the car, trying to catch his breath, his hands were shaking and bleeding.
We had lost precious time.
Nurses called my cell requesting our permission to use life-saving measures. One specialist after another quickly explained what was being done and why. We gave our permission for every request. We had no choice.
Before we got back onto the interstate, Jim wanted to call the doctors from a land phone. He had thought of questions while he had been working on the tires and knew we could quickly lose cell coverage.
I was able to finally move and get out of the car. I stood beside Jim as we shared the phone receiver. The doctors listened as Jim asked his questions. They tried to answer. But the answer Jim wanted to hear, when he asked if Ethan would make it, the doctors couldn't say.
After driving a few miles, we realized that the patched tire wasn't holding air. We stopped again only to find another cut air hose. We once again used the little compressor. It seemed we could have blown up the tire faster with our mouths. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion.
We were losing time with every stop. The calls from the nurses and doctors were still coming. We received a call from a woman named Simone. She worked as a volunteer liaison between the hospital staff and family members. Just a few hours before we were buying Christmas presents for Ethan. And now a woman, whom I had never met, was giving me updates on my son's condition, on his life, and reminding me to drive carefully. She shared the statistics of families being involved in traffic accidents as they traveled to get to a sick or injured love one. I didn't care about other people, or her statistics. I wanted to get to Ethan.
We were relieved when we saw a billboard advertising a nearby truck stop. Maybe they would also have auto tires. Or maybe they would have a better patch kit and an air hose that wasn't cut.
They didn't have what we needed, but the girl behind the counter told us that there was another truck stop a few miles down the road, The Red Onion Grill. She said there was a mechanic that had a little garage behind the truck stop/restaurant. If he wasn't there, she said that we could go into the grill and ask the hostess to call him. The mechanic lived close by, and maybe he could come and help. She said she thought he had some tires in his shop.
We prayed as we watched for the billboard that marked the exit where hopefully we would find The Red Onion Grill. We saw it just ahead, and with our hearts racing faster than they could beat, we turned into the parking lot.
And then, behind the grill, we saw this . . . with the mechanic standing out front under the light.
He was resting his back on the garage door, smoking a cigarette. He looked as if he was waiting for something. I believe he was waiting, even though he didn't know why, or for whom, or for what. I believe, on a quiet Sunday night, that God had him waiting for us. There was nothing more beautiful than seeing that mechanic.
I jumped out of the car before Jim had put it into park. I ran to the man, grabbed him and screamed, "My baby is dying in Gainesville, and we have two bad tires, and you have to help us."
He looked at me calmly and said, "Okay."
He had a truck trailer in the back with old, used tires. He told us the tire he found that would fit the car was not very good, but that it was better than the patched one that wouldn't hold air. Jim ran into the grill to get cash out of the ATM, while I listened to Simone tell us to be careful.
I also talked to a special person in our lives that was already at the hospital with Ethan. Ethan's roommate was also there. I asked them if Ethan was alive. I had decided that if he wasn't, Simone, and the doctors and nurses, wouldn't tell us over the phone. I knew they would wait until we were off the road and safe.
"Yes. He is alive." they said. "But, it is very, very bad. You need to get here soon."
The mechanic quickly had the tire on the car and added air to the spare with his air hose. He didn't have much to say. He was a quiet angel. He did remind us, as Jim handed him the cash for the tire, that he couldn't guarantee it, and that it might need air along the way.
Our praying, our crying, our screaming, and begging continued as we drove in the night.
We had to stop again to put more air in the tire with the small and slow compressor. More time lost.
We were a short distance from Gainesville when I noticed the car was beginning to pull to the right. I mentioned it to Jim. He looked straight ahead and said, "I am not stopping again." I was scared about what would happen if the tire went completely flat. What if we had made it so close, only to be stranded alongside the road minutes away from Ethan? I made my case for one more stop. And Jim repeated, "I am not stopping again."
We saw the familiar signs. The University of Florida. Alachua County. Santa Fe Community College. We saw the green gators with the "F" on their bellies that decorated the billboards of stores and restaurants advertising their goods and services. On previous trips to Gainesville, this was the place where I'd get the mirror out of my purse and put on a little blush and lipstick. I wanted to look pretty for my boys. That night I was crying.
Jim, who had gone to school at the University of Florida, knew the way to the hospital. It wasn't the campus hospital complex where Seth had been admitted for serious strep infections twice before. It was the small, original downtown Gainesville hospital, just a few blocks east of the campus. It was called Shands at Alachua General Hospital. It was an old red brick building with huge oak trees sprinkled throughout the parking lot.
Simone was waiting for us at the front door of the hospital. She was there to take us straight to the Medical ICU. She was waiting to take us straight to Ethan.
We jumped out of the car and ran to her. As I was running, trying to keep my feet in my shoes, I did something, which I still do not know to this day, why. I stopped in the parking lot and turned around and looked at our car.
Both back tires were completely flat.
The tires weren't low. They were completely flat, like all the air had been pulled out with a syringe.
We had made it. A four and a half hour trip had taken us almost eight. But, we were there and, Ethan was still alive.
I've wondered why. Why the nails? Why the flat tires?
God had to know, even before the day had begun, that we would need to get to Ethan. He knew the way we would go, and He knew where the nails would be.
So why the tires?
Why the three-plus hours of added fear and pain and struggle?
I've wondered if we had gotten to the hospital sooner, if we would have been asked to make decisions for Ethan that would have been too difficult to make. Maybe we would have made the wrong decisions.
In the car, on the interstate, we had to trust in what the doctors thought was best, and gave them permission to do so. There wasn't time for them to make a case about every one of their decisions. And we were in no position to respond. Maybe, God was protecting Ethan by keeping us away.
Maybe the doctors would have been distracted by two grieving parents. Maybe our tears, or the look in our eyes, would have caused them to make different decisions. Decisions that weren't the best for Ethan.
Maybe the sounds and the sights of the emergency room and watching the doctors trying to save Ethan's life, would have been more than we could have handled. Maybe we would never have been able to get that scene out our minds. Maybe it would have tormented us.
Maybe God was protecting us by keeping us away. (When we first saw Ethan, he was in a quiet, peaceful ICU room with two male nurses standing beside him. They looked like angels. I will never forget the peace I felt in that awful, awful moment.)
Maybe God just wanted to have a little more time with us. We had been away for a very long time.
Maybe He wanted to provide for us through
Maybe God just wanted us to ask Him, to cry out to Him. Maybe our cries that night were truly "better than a hallelujah."
My mind works overtime always trying to figure things out. I wear myself out sometimes with all the "maybes." I try to make sense of it all. It reminds me of the verse from Job I shared on my last post.
"I admit it. I was the one. I babbled on about things far beyond me, made small talk about wonders way over my head." (Job 42:3)
For whatever reason, the nails found their way into our tires. Why, I don't know. I probably never will. But, this I know: God was faithful. When we had run away, and stayed away, when we were at our worst, He was there. When we were faithless, HE WAS FAITHFUL.
He was faithful in all the wonderful gifts He gave that night. His keeping Ethan alive, the wonderful, dedicated doctors and nurses that cared for him, my sister and brother-in-law that dropped everything to be with Seth and to drive with him to Gainesville the next day. He was faithful in the gifts of the tire and the spare that got us to Gainesville and most certainly for the mechanic on duty.
His gifts were better than we could have asked for or imagined. But the gift of Himself was the best gift He gave us that night, seven years ago.
God has given us many gifts since December the 7th, 2003. Gifts too many to name, and some so wonderful words can't describe.
But He has been, and will always be, the Greatest Gift we could ever, ever receive.
"Behold what manner of love, the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called the children of God!" 1 John 3:2a