April 1 came on a Friday that year. A young couple in their early 30’s, we’ll call them Jim and Tammy, began making their plans for the evening and the weekend. Tammy was divorced with a young son. To save money, she lived at home with her parents. Jim was what you might say “between families”. Both of his parents were divorced and each has “new” families of their own leaving Jim in need of family roots. He thought he found it when he met Tammy and when her parents cared enough for him to let him live at their home as well. They were Jim’s new family. Jim’s small business had just started to pick up a little in the midst of a great recession, and about 5 pm on Friday, he and Tammy decided to go out and spend the evening together, just like they always did. They talked about going to a movie, but decided instead to stop off at a local restaurant and bar and have a couple of drinks to, in Jim’s words, “take the edge off”. Time passed and they stayed a little longer than they had expected, but were enjoying each other’s company over a few drinks. They decided later to meet a friend of Jim’s at another bar in a small town about a half hour away where Jim grew up. When they finally arrived, the friend had already left, so they stayed and had a few more drinks before going home. They didn’t want to be out too late. That Friday evening was a cool are somewhat rainy night. They paid their check a little after 10 pm and began the trek home in Tammy’s car. At approximately 10:50 pm, the Sheriff’s Dispatch got a 911 call of a single car accident with apparent injury. Somewhere between checking out and the time of the 911 call, the car Jim was driving left the dark road near a sharp curve. It hit a couple of trees deploying both airbags, then traveled back across the road, into a ditch and came to rest after finally hitting yet another tree on this other side of the road. Witnesses said Jim was walking around outside the car in a daze. Jim remembered nothing. Emergency crews quickly arrived on the scene and took Jim to an area trauma hospital where he woke up having no idea what was going on. In his words, he thought someone was playing a cruel April Fool’s joke on him. Indeed, the story was about April Fools. Unfortunately, Tammy was not as lucky. About the time the County Coroner was taking Tammy to the morgue, my telephone rang at just about 1 am on Saturday morning. It was Dispatch. I was the Chaplain on call covering for another Chaplain who was out of town that evening. My job was to go with two Sheriff’s Deputies to the parent’s home to notify them of the accident and their daughter’s death.
Nothing can prepare you for what may happen when you knock on someone’s door in the middle of the night. When the Police and a Chaplain show up at your door at that hour, it is never good news. Tammy’s mother came and opened the door after knocking persistently. A Deputy asked “may we come in for a minute and speak with you?” As we sat down, Tammy’s father came in to see what was going on and we had to tell them there had been an accident and their daughter didn’t survive. It never fails to break my heart when I see the reactions knowing my own reaction is absolutely nothing compared to the shock they must be feeling at that moment. I can’t even imagine how I would feel in that situation. I don’t think anyone can understand unless they’ve actually experienced it. Yes, we’ve been trained in so many ways to help us prepare to make that notification, but no parent has ever had any training to receive that news about their own son or daughter, or loved one. They were in shock; almost unable to even process this information. There were only a few tears welling up in their eyes, but not the kind of reaction I might have expected. It seemed like they were asking themselves “are these people at the right house?” “Surely, there must be some mistake.”
The Officers asked a few questions about distinctive tattoos, and the look turned to confirmation that we were at the right house. Tammy’s young son was asleep in another room and they didn’t want to wake him up with this news, deciding to wait until morning before having to tell him his mother would never be coming home. We asked if they would like us to take them to the hospital morgue to see her. Tammy’s mother said she couldn’t bring herself to go see her right at that time. Tammy’s father, however, said he wanted to go but he would drive himself. First, he went to notify his son, Tammy’s brother, and both came and met us in the lobby of the Emergency Room. The Coroner was waiting too, and escorted Dad and the brother to see her. Fortunately, we have a wonderful Coroner. He is one of the most caring, compassionate people I know, and he always goes to every measure he can to make the body as presentable as possible for the family. This was no exception. Because of the trauma she received, only her face was exposed and a bit of her hair, but that is all her Dad needed to know it was true; it was his daughter laying there on that stainless steel table. Her brother stood stunned; speechless and without any observable emotion other than shock and disbelief. We spent a few minutes there with them quietly and they looked at her and her Dad touched her face. “May I kiss her goodbye?”, Dad asked the Coroner. “Of course”, he said, and Tammy’s Dad bent over and kissed her on the forehead. Then we all left together for the evening. Later, Saturday afternoon, my phone rang again. It was a Sergeant at the jail. “We have a new inmate who has asked to see a Chaplain. He was involved in an accident last night and his girlfriend was killed.” I knew exactly who he was and I thanked the Lord that I had the opportunity to be the one still on call and have the opportunity to talk to the young man myself. I immediately went to the jail and the Officer brought him out of one of the padded cells where he had been placed on suicide watch. It was Jim; a little beat up from the accident, but totally overwhelmed with guilt and grief for what he knew he had done to the one he loved so much. I asked him if he was a Christian, and he said “yes, but I haven’t gone to church in a long time.” He said, “in fact, Tammy said just a couple weeks ago we should find a church and start attending regularly.” Then the questions began. “What have I done”, he asked? “I don’t know how to forgive myself.” “I loved her so much and her family was the only family I really have anymore.” He asked, “How can I ever look at her parents again who took me in and cared for me?” “I took away that little boy’s mommy forever.” The questions went on and on. How do you answer those questions at a time like that? I prayed and asked the Holy Spirit to speak for me because I had no idea what to say. Thankfully, the Lord spoke to him through the Spirit as scripture kept coming out of my mouth. The one thing that also brought him some comfort was when I told him her parents wanted to know how he was right after we told them the news, and they were very happy he was going to be ok. They didn’t blame him and were not angry with him in any way. He seemed relieved but in a bit of disbelief that they wouldn’t hate him for what he had done to their daughter. The next day, Tammy’s father stopped by the Sheriff’s Office to ask me to tell Jim that they still care for him and they want to come and visit him. Again, he was comforted by that but one could also see he wondered how anyone could be that loving and forgiving. Our Heavenly Father is that loving and forgiving. His trials and perseverance are just beginning, but the Lord reminded him of the words of Solomon, that there was a time for everything. A time for grieving, a time for healing, and I told him a time for restoration. All would come in time, but now was the time for grieving and it was ok to grieve. When I saw him on Monday, he was still very distraught, but a lot better than when I met him on Saturday. I know the Lord will work in his life. The Lord will also use his story and his testimony to hopefully help countless others who may find themselves in the same or similar situation. It doesn’t matter what one’s “claim to fame” is, be it drugs, alcohol or whatever. Bad decisions will breed bad results. I remember the words my father used to tell me as you young boy, “Accidents happen when you’re doing the wrong thing.” The story will go on, in Jim’s life, in Tammy’s family’s life, and in the lives of countless others who want to “take the edge off”. As the commercials say, “buzzed driving IS drunk driving.” I believe it is important that we never forget to lovingly remind ourselves, our family, friends and others, that drinking and driving had far reaching consequences. Those who often choose to do it say it’s their “right” and their “decision”, but they never think of how those decisions affect other people, including the people they love and who love them the most. Don’t drink and drive. Don’t text and drive. Love your family so much that you would never put them through the pain and agony this family is going through. But even if you won’t do it for them, think of what Jim is going through, now facing two “C” felonies. At least, do it for yourself.
Tom Kendall is a Chaplain with the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Chaplaincy program and serves both as a road Chaplain assisting Officers in the field and as a jail Chaplain serving and counseling inmates in the Hamilton County Jail. This is a true story, however the names have been changed so no undue attention will be brought upon the family or anyone involved in the story. The story is told from the Chaplain’s perspective. The message is intended to help people think through the consequences of the decision to drink and drive, or even text and drive in today’s world. Please ask yourself how you might feel in the position of any of the people involved in this story.