Chapter 1: Minute 180—Reality and Choices
My wife, my lover, my best friend, the one who knew and loved me better than any other, to whom I had been true for twenty-eight years, was dead. My son Kevin, with his incredible Christian faith, his crazy, fun-loving personality, and his passion for sports and the outdoors, would never graduate from college, marry, or give us grandchildren. Bart was down the hall suffering a grief and shock that seemed even more intense than what I was feeling. At fifty-five, I would be facing the last third of my life without most of my family.
For years I have told people that faith is not a feeling but a conscious act of will. You have to choose to trust and believe, especially when circumstances and your feelings are screaming that you can't trust God. The Bible says that God can take everything and work it for good for those who love him and are called to his service; well, Tricia and Kevin loved him, and so did I. We were all called to his service, but how could these murders possibly be worked for good? I could imagine no such scenario. And if that verse of the Bible was untrustworthy, what other verses might not apply when I needed them? I might as well throw it all away.
So here I was, in the middle of a horrific situation in which I had to choose to either go with my feelings and slip into bitterness and despair, or follow my own advice and stand on God's promises even when they don't make sense. I wrestled with this for a long time because I knew that I could go either way—and that the consequences could be serious.
Finally, I chose to stand on the promises of God. It was one of the most important decisions I've ever made.
When I resolved to trust God, I felt a peace come over me that had nothing to do with the morphine drip. Then the next thought popped unexpectedly into my mind: What about the shooter?
I realized that God was offering me the ability to forgive, if I wanted to take advantage of it. Did I really want to forgive this guy? I know the Bible says we are to forgive those who hurt us. I know God tells us that vengeance is his, if he chooses to dispense it. I have even heard secular health professionals say that forgiveness is the most important thing people can do to heal themselves. But did I really want to forgive, even if God was offering a supernatural ability to do so?
In an instant the answer sprang full-grown into my mind. My heart told me that I wanted whoever was responsible to come to Christ and repent for this awful act. At that moment I felt myself completely forgiving him. This forgiveness astounded me, because earlier I had experienced feelings of incredible sadness and intense anger—even the desire to kill the person responsible with my own hands. Little did I realize just how important my decision to forgive would be in the coming months. It would change everything.
I have had a hundred people tell me that they think I'm nuts—that I should hate the shooter and cry out for vengeance. Perhaps I am crazy, but I believe that in those early moments God worked supernaturally, allowing me to forgive completely and immediately because he had plans for me, and those plans required that I settle the forgiveness problem once and for all.
For the next two days, as Bart and I waited in our rooms for surgery, we had a nearly unprecedented number of visitors. People were always lined up in the halls waiting to see us; they came and went day and night. In fact, the crowding was so severe that the hospital converted a double room on our floor into a hospitality suite stocked with fruit baskets, cookies, coffee, soft drinks, sofas, and chairs. The hospital showed a lot of class, but I think crowd control was also an important factor.
The next day I had my first visit from Detective Marshall Slot and his partner Billy Baugh from the Sugar Land Police Department. They questioned me extensively about what had happened, and I cooperated, telling them I would do everything I could to help them find out who was responsible for this murderous attack.
The detectives returned a day later to tell me they had learned that Bart was not about to graduate from college after all. In fact, he was not even enrolled in school. I was shocked at the news and horrified at the realization that, if this was true, this knowledge coupled with some mistakes Bart had made years earlier might distract the police from searching for the real killer and lead them to look at Bart as a possible suspect. Marshall told me that they were looking at every possibility, which confirmed my fears.
After they left I fumbled my way into a wheelchair and rolled down to Bart's room, where I found him asleep, as he seemed to be whenever I came to visit. It was as if he had crawled into a hole, trying to escape this nightmare. I asked his girlfriend (who had camped out at the hospital since the first morning) for a few minutes alone with my son.
"Bart, what were you thinking? You weren't even in school? How could you lie to us about graduation?"
Bart seemed to forcibly pull himself out of some private hell as he sat up in his bed. The curtains were closed, and the room was dark. Gloom pervaded the atmosphere, with those areas just outside the edge of my vision in deepest shadow. At the time the thought did little more than register in my subconscious, but I would later recall this oppressive darkness and do much thinking about it. For now, my thoughts were focused on Bart. A momentary flicker of strange emotions danced in his eyes; he seemed to careen between grief, shame, regret, and fear.
"Dad, I'm so sorry! I didn't want to tell you because I knew how much you and Mom were looking forward to my graduation. I just figured I could work it out and take the classes next semester, and nobody would know."
"Nobody would know!" I was furious. "How would we not know? How would they let you graduate? How did you get into this mess in the first place?"
"Things were crazy at work all summer. Some guys quit, everybody was working long hours, and with school starting, I just didn't have enough time. I'm so sorry! I decided to help at work and make up school in the spring."
"Do you have any idea what you've done? Thanks to this 'little' lie about graduation, the police think you're a suspect! In fact, right now you seem to be their only suspect. You weren't in school, you told everyone you were graduating, and they think you arranged to have us killed to cover it up. Can you see how stupid that was? Your lie has done the impossible—it has made Tricia's and Kevin's deaths even worse because now the police think you were involved! Do you have any idea how bad this is?"
Years ago, on a bike ride, I saw a hawk fly right over me, so close I could almost touch it. Clutched within its talons was a field mouse, still alive. I saw the bird swoop up to its nest, bringing breakfast to her young; it would be impossible to forget the look of resignation and terror in the mouse's eyes as he passed over me. For a moment I saw the same look in Bart's eyes, but it was gone almost instantly, replaced with resolve.
"Dad, that's nuts! I didn't have anything to do with the shootings! I'm sorry about the lie, it just happened. I didn't mean to lie to you and Mom—I was just afraid of what you would say, and I didn't want to disappoint you. This will be okay."
"I don't know. I'm so mad now, I could spit! I've told you before: you cannot ever allow yourself to start lying again! Look at the consequences of this one! If you hadn't told the lie about graduation, they would be looking elsewhere and might find the real killer before the trail gets cold. Now they're wasting time on you, and who knows how long they'll keep at it!"
After a while I calmed down, and I told him I loved him and that the police would soon realize nothing tied him to the shootings. I went back to my room, still angry, disappointed, and depressed. What would happen next?
As the days passed, two things happened: First, the investigation centered more and more on Bart as the mastermind of a plot to kill the rest of the family, assuming that his motives were greed and to cover up failures at school. Second, I came to realize that perhaps my life had been spared for a reason. God must have something important for me to do, because I could see no logical explanation for my still being alive. The bullet hit me well away from my right lung, and nearly six inches from my heart. The gunman couldn't have been that bad a shot. Not at that close range.
It occurred to me that perhaps my purpose was to be God's agent of guidance and instruction for Bart. If he was innocent, I would be the anchor he relied on as he weathered the storms of suspicion; I wouldn't let him go through that horror alone. If he was guilty, I would be in a unique position to model God's unconditional forgiveness and love. I might be the person God would use to soften Bart's heart. And since I already had forgiven whoever was responsible, if Bart was guilty, he would be covered in a pure forgiveness, granted before I ever thought it might apply to my son. Either way, until I knew more, I would be nonjudgmental and supportive. While I couldn't gloss over anything or minimize the consequences of any wrongs Bart might have committed, I still needed to show him that God forgives and that there is always hope.
Maybe I'm crazy. But I took comfort in knowing that I was doing what God wanted me to do. I like reading that line in the Bible about the wisdom of God being foolishness to man. Maybe a nut was exactly whom God intended to use.