An Anniversary to Forget: One Year Since That Day

It’s 1:14 a.m. and I can’t sleep. The wind is howling outside and storms are on the way. I’ve been dreading this day for the past 364. I don’t know why. It doesn’t change anything. But it is an anniversary by which we will be able to mark the rest of our lives.

April 30, 2019 was a beautiful Spring day. I was excited to have an evening assignment for work on such a sunny warm afternoon. I came home early to change clothes and take a few minutes before overseeing a nighttime portion of a film shoot in the neighborhood next to ours.

It was about 4:15 p.m. when I pulled in. I said, “hi” to my son working on schoolwork at the table and headed upstairs. I didn’t have to be at the film site until 6, and since it was literally right up the street, I laid my head down for a moment. I regret that to this day.

Within 45 minutes my life would change dramatically. Our family would be forever different. I didn’t have a clue.

“Where is he?” I remember the door popping open quickly and my wife frantically saying, “I can’t find him anywhere.” The same son, who was quietly, yet agitatedly working on a handwriting assignment was gone. Like most boys, he hated practicing handwriting, for which I assumed was the source of the frustration.

I didn’t know that the war inside his adolescent brain would momentarily erupt into actions with near-fatal consequences.

The production that day was with our hometown police department, filming an educational video about opioid addiction. I led the work on the project in my role with the county health department. Ironically, while the interior scenes were being shot, that same police department would be saving my son’s life nearby.

I never made it to my nighttime work assignment. But, I did make it to the spot two miles from our home where he was found, safe. I did make the drive, somehow, to the mental health emergency room where I collapsed into the arms of our youth pastor. I’m convinced he teleported in order to arrive so quickly.  

I’ve dreaded this day because I had no idea where we would be on this journey. And, no matter what I could have thought, I wouldn’t have known we’d be still near the beginning. With an illness, there’s a treatment plan. With a death, there’s a grieving process. With the type of mental health issues we’re dealing with, there’s just cycles of uncertainty and nuance as you navigate out of a thick forest with no map to guide you.

There’s been a lot of good in this darkness.

We’ve seen the love of Christ in an extraordinarily tangible way. We’ve developed deep friendships with people we barely knew. We’ve seen friends become family and have seen the bonds within our own family grow unshakeable through this experience. We’ve found a love for one another that has been forged through trials of unimaginable heat. And, we’ve learned the deep impact of the simple presence of others in dark moments, like 2 a.m. in a hospital waiting room.  

The pain, of course, is obvious and plentiful. What parent wouldn’t want instant healing for their child dealing with an irrational, unpredictable and not completely diagnosed illness daily.

We’ve socially distanced with some friends who don’t get it and don’t want to. There’s also the not knowing what’s to come next. My wife said that April 30 was the worst day of our lives until the next worst day and then the next and so on. We’ve had unexpected lifestyle changes, job changes, foster care changes, income changes, social changes … so many painful moments in the past year all because our child is the priority.

And there’s a lighter side.

My knowledge of the pediatric mental health system in North Carolina is quite impressive. CIT, PRTF, MCO, CRH, IIH… I can play a version of acronym bingo that rivals all the airport codes I learned while in the aviation industry. I also got to claim over 8,000 miles in hospital trips on my taxes- yes!!!

And, I realized this week that normal is relative, like when I slipped the receptionist at the mental health ER my card when she asked if I could book her a cruise after this pandemic settles down. Last time I was there, I had just started my new job. Oh yeah, and that one time when I stood at the trunk of my car eating Taco Bell while the flashing blue and red strobes of the first responders provided light to dine by.

The Lord has taught me much this year. Trust him. Accept help (I still don’t like that one). Acknowledge your own struggles (nope- not that one either). Keep family first. Value today, because you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Open yourself to community – you can’t do this as an island. Let the unimportant things be unimportant. It’s not a lack of faith to struggle with mental health, as I was once taught. You can teach a 40-year old new tricks.

And we’ll keep on learning. This past Monday, shortly after returning home from some errands, our four months old cease fire in this war for his mind ended. With corona raging through our community and our state’s congregate care facilities, we won’t be able to visit him for a while… this is going to be very, very hard. We’ve always been able to do that.

I don’t know what the next 365 days will bring. I don’t know what tomorrow holds. But, I know that God holds tomorrow. I also know that he cares about every detail. One of the songs that has brought me the greatest comfort this year reminds me of this. I sing screech it to our littlest one as part of his bedtime songs every night.

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,

Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heav’n and home,

When Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is He:

His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;

His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free,

For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Civilla D. Martin & Charles H. Gabriel, 1905.

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