"Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him." Psalm 127:3 (NIV)
Perhaps you know my family and have seen their pictures. But I don't own a photograph of all my children together. Only God can see that photograph, I guess. You see, they didn't all live on this earth at the same time. I have two sons --one in Heaven with the Lord and one in Austin, Texas. I also have two daughters. The youngest was born over two years after her eldest brother's death. Today is my first-born son's birthday: May 17, 1976. He died by his own hand on April 15, 1992. This entry is a brief look at Josh's story from my perspective.
God chose to give us a son while we were still in college. Both my husband and I were working on our masters degrees, mine in English, when I found out I was expecting. I was shocked to learn I was pregnant and didn't really want to be, but God changed my mind. My husband reminded me that it was God's choosing to give us this gift at this time in our lives. It was our job to accept it. I became more excited about the pregnancy after a few months, and I was able to restructure my classwork to take extra hours, write more papers, and finish my Master of Arts degree two weeks before the birth. We graduated, Josh was born, and we moved to Iowa--far from all family and friends--about three weeks after that.
Joshua was a brilliant, happy child. (Don't all of us think our first-born children are the smartest in the world?) He made us laugh, and we loved to make him giggle. He ate well and was a chubby, rolly-polly baby.
I was not prepared for that first winter in Iowa. We had snow from November to April, and January was a month of mostly sub-zero temperatures.We rented an old house with little insulation. When condensation formed on the insides of the windows, it would drip down the window and freeze! It was common to have a half inch of ice crusted toward the bottom of our window panes on the inside! That made for a cold house, and we got cabin fever that winter staying indoors so much.
I stayed home with Joshua and loved being his mom. Steve, my husband, was often gone due to his responsibilities as a campus minister at Iowa State University. I was busy trying to make a home, learning to be frugal on our meager monthly salary, teaching piano lessons in my home, and figuring out how to be a mom.
Those were beautiful days. Joshua had three imaginary friends: the brown and white spotted dog, Jane Jane Jane, and Mister Monster. He liked to play in his room in a big cardboard box that our washing machine came in. The end was cut out so that I could see him., and I had cut windows in it so that it looked like a little play house. He would arrange his stuffed animals inside and talk to them and to his imaginary friends. Sometimes he would "show" me a "yahnin", pointing insistently towards the wall saying, "See him, Mommy? It's a yahnin!! Don't you see it?" Later on, when Josh could speak more clearly, I learned that "yahnin" was "lion". I never did see it though.
|Joshua with my dad, Harry Harmon|
|Joshua and brother Tommy with their dad|
I started medical school in 1984, and both my sons attended elementary school in Bryan, Texas. Two years later we moved to Temple for my 3rd and 4th years of medical school where Josh again went to a magnet school. While we were there, he was involved in the Duke Talent Search for gifted children and took the SAT. When he was twelve years old, we were told by his math teacher that he could qualify for a college scholarship then, just based on his math scores alone. We were encouraged to push him along and let him graduate early, but we didn't think that best for him. He received a state award in 1989 for his superior performance on those tests, and his photo was in the newspaper. I think he was embarrassed by the attention.
We moved to Terrell in 1988 after my graduation from medical school so that I could do my residency in Dallas. My husband took a teaching job in Terrell. Joshua was a seventh grader by then, and Tommy was still in elementary school. Jenny began going to an in-home daycare while I worked at Baylor Hospital in Dallas. We found a church home in Terrell where the kids and I felt welcome. However, one year after moving to Terrell, our family went through a crisis. My husband decided, after 15 years of marriage, to leave and get a divorce, leaving the three kids and me alone in the fall of 1989.
This event was a huge blow to me and the children. It came on the heals of a major illness for me, and I was already knocked down by having been off work and on steroids for two months. I had been on call for only one night after returning to work when my husband told me of his decision to leave, and I was shocked by his statement. I started going to counseling the next week, and Steve didn't tell the children for another couple of weeks. When he finally called the boys into our room late one evening to tell them, Josh refused to believe it. He at first said, "You're joking with us. You're kidding." Then, our younger son looked at us, then at his brother, and said, "No, Josh, they are serious. They really are getting a divorce." Josh responded by yelling "NOOOO!" and ran out of the house barefooted in the dark . We didn't know where he was for a couple of hours. Finally, one of Josh's teachers called to tell us Josh had run all the way to his house and had been crying and talking to him about the situation. We went to get Josh and brought him home.
His dad moved out and into a garage apartment in town, but the boys would still see him frequently at school because he was a school teacher. Seeing him at school was difficult for them because they endured the rumors circulated by the other students about their dad being seen with other women and men around town.
None of the children handled the divorce well. Neither did I, for that matter. Joshua tried to play the man of the house. He continued to be responsible and self-motivated--always doing his school work, getting himself up in the morning, going to classes, playing in the band and on the tennis team, and participating in the youth group at church. I took him to a counselor for about six sessions, but he wouldn't talk to the therapist or to me either. When I tried to ask Josh how he was feeling, he would make a joke, chuckle, and say, "Aw, Mom, don't play Psychiatrist with me now." I had to remind him that he just needed to be a kid and didn't need to worry about me or the details of running our home.
Tommy, on the other hand, started blowing up. He went from being a model student to one who got angry at friends and teachers at school and ended up in the principal's office about twenty times during his spring semester. I also took him to counseling where he talked a great deal and expressed his anger and disappointment while playing bumper pool with his therapist. The therapy was beneficial for him at the time.
|Josh, Tommy, and Jenny after their dad left, 1989|
During the visitation times and Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, Steve took the kids to Wichita Falls where his parents and his girlfriend lived. That first Thanksgiving was particularly difficult for me without the kids, but Christmas was even harder. By spring semester I took time off from my work to be treated for depression and to regroup, taking a moonlighting job to make up for the lost income from Steve's leaving. The divorce, no matter how much I didn't want it, was final sometime around spring break of 1990, and Steve moved to Wichita Falls at the end of the school year. He was married in June to the other woman. The kids and I remained in Terrell where Josh started high school, Tommy was in middle school, and Jenny was four. This time was perhaps my greatest period of spiritual growth as I learned to lean upon the Lord and to trust Him for His best for my life. His Word became my daily food for survival.
Joshua always missed his dad. Initially he saw his dad every other weekend, but the visits started conflicting with school events and tennis matches, and he chose to do those things. That particular spring break Josh had been to Disney World with his high school band instead of visiting his dad.
It's difficult, still, to know what all played a role in Joshua's death. He made good grades his freshman year and was in the top ten percent, but he was still determined to bring them up his 10th grade year because he wanted to be in the top five percent. He accomplished that goal. In the church youth group he participated in youth camps and mission trips and once stated he might like to be a home missionary. He took part in the church plays and in youth choir and even attended a Disciple Now weekend shortly before his death. He wanted his friends to know the Lord and was concerned about the world at large. He was worried about world problems that I never even considered when I was his age.
At school he played percussion in the band--the quads, the bass drum, the snare, and even the timpani. At the time of his death, he was looking forward to playing the timpani for the first time in an upcoming band concert. He also played on the Terrell High School tennis team and had recently moved up the ladder before he competed in the district tennis meet. He was especially looking forward to getting his driver's license and had been driving my mom's big ol' Mercury for practice.
The week Josh died was also the week of six weeks tests. He went to the district tennis meet, lost, but went back with the team the next day. At the end of the day, when all the players got on the bus to go home, the coach announced that she was doing a bag check because a racket was missing from the the opposing team. The racket was found in Josh's bag, but he asserted that he didn't take the racket, have access to his bag during the day, have opportunity to take the racket, or have any reason to take it. He, in fact, was surprised to see the racket in his bag and insisted that he was innocent. The coach, however, castigated him in front of the other team members, and Josh was humiliated.
After he got home from that second day of district play, Josh talked to me and told me of what had happened. He promised me that he had not taken the racket and wept over the ordeal. I seldom saw Joshua cry, but it grieved him that his friends might think that he was a thief. He was concerned about what was going to happen the next day, and I assured him that I believed him and would stand by him.
The next day I went with Josh to his school and met with his athletic director and coach, explaining to them what kind of young man Josh was and how I believed his story. I then said "good-bye" to Josh and watched him walk across the street with his head down. The athletic director then proceeded to question the other members of the team that day and later called me at work. He assured me that Josh was innocent. Josh had been exonerated of the offense. The athletic director could find no evidence that Josh had taken the racket, and he believed that someone else had taken it and placed it in Josh's bag to get him in trouble. However, no one would confess to the prank. The athletic director was worried about Josh because he had seemed sad when he had left to go home.
I tried to call my son at home but got no answer. He went home alone, talked to the housekeeper a bit, played Amy Grant's "My Father's Arms" on the piano, left us a note on his desk in his room, and shot himself with a twenty-two rifle he had used for hunting. He did not die immediately and was discovered by my housekeeper who then called my son Tommy. Both Tommy, then 13, and Jenny, only 5, went into the room where Josh lay and saw him. Tommy knelt to see if Josh was breathing, took Jenny out of the room, and called the ambulance, directing the EMT personnel to Josh's location when they arrived.
Josh was airlifted to Methodist Hospital, Dallas, where I went directly from work. I was met by a chaplain and taken to a private room where the emergency room physician later joined me. His name was Dr. Nicodemus, and he was very kind, explaining how they had worked to resuscitate my son unsuccessfully. He hugged me and invited me to visit the trauma room where they had worked on Josh to see him and to say goodbye to him. There I found my son, still warm, his hands wrapped in plastic bags to preserve evidence for the police, with a tiny hole in his left temple and the breath gone out of him. He lay there, seemingly asleep, stretched out to his 5'11'' height--a sweet boy's face in a man's body--his hair softly tousled around his face, and I was supposed to tell him "good-bye." I stroked his face as the tears rolled down mine. This moment was the most difficult of my life, and my pastor and his wife walked in right then to help me. They had driven to Dallas from Terrell as soon as they had heard the news.
I don't remember what we said or who said it, but I know we held hands and prayed. I gave my son over to my heavenly Father for His care and thanked Him for the nearly sixteen years I had shared with my son on this earth. When I left the trauma room, the halls of the ER were lined with my church family friends who had driven in from Terrell. You see, it was Wednesday, and it was our custom to go to church on Wednesday nights. Kim, one of the church college girls, would go stay with my kids after school on Wednesdays and take them to church where I would meet them for supper. We would then participate in our Wednesday night activities before we would go home. When I got back to the little room where the chaplain had taken me, other friends from work arrived to be with me. They were from Minirth-Meier Clinic, the place where I had been moonlighting since spring of 1990. I was permeated with a peace that passed understanding, just as our Father has promised us. My aunt and uncle arrived to drive me home, and another Christian family in Terrell took my children to their house to keep them until I arrived. We spent the night in their home huddled together and holding on to each other as we faced our grief and the prospect of continuing on without Joshua.
Yet another family from my church went over to my house with a steam carpet cleaner and cleaned up the room where my son had died. They also took his blood-soaked clothing and washed it and returned it to me later. An aunt spent the night in my home and watched over things while the police lingered and did their investigation. At some point the next afternoon my ex-husband arrived, and we went to the funeral home and to the florist and cemetery offices to make arrangements for our son's funeral.
He was buried on Good Friday, and the church was filled with Josh's friends, my coworkers, and our family and church family for the funeral. It had rained earlier that day, but the sun came out before we had to go to the cemetery. I will be forever grateful to Ernie McCoulskey for the sermon he delivered that day to all of us attending that service and to Myron Wilson, our Worship Leader, for the songs: "I Know Where I'm Going" , a song I wrote and had sung with Josh, "Peace Be Still", from the album by The Watchmen, and "Because He Lives". In a time of loss and exquisite grief, both of those men poured out the love of God and were ministers of His grace to us. Ernie assured us of Josh's salvation and of his place with the Father and related stories of those in the Bible who had struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts. He pointed out that even Sampson is one who is listed with the saints in Hebrews but himself committed suicide after asking for God to give him the strength to destroy the Philistines.
Our church family and extended family were the arms of Jesus to us during that time as well. They provided food to nourish us and arms to hold us. My fellow residents in my training program collected donations to help me pay the Care Flight and hospital bills, and friends I didn't even know very well helped me with the kids and with the day to day process of living.
In the weeks that followed I got a report from the police from a kind Lieutenant who had done the investigation, was finally given my son's suicide note (after six weeks of not being able to see it or know its contents), learned more about Joshua's thoughts from his school papers and notebooks when I eventually got them back, and ultimately was given the duffel bag that Josh had carried on the tennis trip that day. In it I found his Bible. He had been reading it on the bus the day he died.
I thank God for the privilege of having had the blessing of this son for the few years he was with us on this earth. His friends have told me how Josh witnessed to them about Jesus. I am sorry for the things I did wrong as his mother and for the mistakes I made, but grateful for the forgiveness and redemption that is freely given by my Heavenly Father through His Son. I am reminded once again this year that His grace is sufficient for whatever happens in this life and that He lives in the people that make up His church. God proved to me in the darkest times of loss and grief that He is present and that He cares. He has been faithful always, just as He is tonight. I look out my window and see a beautiful full moon and know that He is there. I get a message on my phone at 4 a.m. from a sweet Christian friend and know that He is here. I am giving Him this song in the night because He first gave it to me.
I know where I'm going
And Who waits for me there.
It is Jesus Christ in Paradise
Who hears my every prayer.
And the ones who've gone before us
Will be just beyond the door,
And I won't have to wonder any more.
|May last photo of the 3 children together: Joshua, Thomas, and Jenny, Christmas 1991|