Until Reese was sure of her movement skills, I would follow her around all the time. But, by the time she passed two, Reese was running and climbing so well that Mindy and I would usually decide to sit on the sidelines and let her run amok. That was what we were doing that particular evening.
And things were going fine. But then Reese climbed one of the easier slide ladders. She made it almost to the top, and then she fell off backward and landed awkwardly on her head. The fall was probably from four and a half feet which, when you are less than three feet tall, is quite a distance. If you doubt me, just do the math for someone your own height.
We shouted and rushed to Reese without thinking. It was just reaction. We held her. I had Reese squeeze my finger with her right hand and then her left. After that, I had her wiggle her right foot and then her left. We asked her some questions and then had her show us her walk.
After a few snuffles, Reese was fine. A minute and a half later she was back attacking the play zone with everything she had to give (which is a lot). I trailed her the rest of the evening much closer than before. Hours later (or so it seemed) my heart rate returned to normal.
I found that I hadn’t been nervous in the moment, but a few minutes after the situation calmed down I felt sick to my stomach. I guess – a little like tears at a funeral – a physical sensation like that is an emblem of my love for my daughter.
But what if Reese had not been able to wiggle her feet a few moments and then a few years after the fall? What impact would have the accident had on my faith, on my relationship with Jesus?
I would have surely asked serious questions about my role in the accident. Should I have allowed Reese to play at such a distance from me? Was I guilty for causing the fall? Ultimately, I think I would have decided that maybe I should have made a different call, but the risk was not an improper one. Reese had proven she could handle the freedom I had given her.
I think I would have also asked questions about Reese’s role. Why did she fall then and there? Honestly, I think I wasn’t the only one who had become a little overconfident in Reese’s running and climbing skills. I think Reese had become a little overconfident in them as well. Overconfidence often leads to inattention and mistakes. But Reese’s fall finally wasn’t because there was something wrong with her or with what she was doing. It was, after all, an accident.
As a Christian I probably would have also asked questions about God’s role. Had God “caused” Reese’s fall? Unless I would have been clearly convinced otherwise, my assumption would have been that God didn’t push her backwards off the slides. I don’t remember many Bible stories of Jesus shoving children off play equipment. Not that there aren’t stories about God doing scary things, but that is not the norm.
In the moments and years afterwards I surely would have prayed for Reese’s healing, both through normal medical means and beyond them as well. I’m sure these prayers would often be full of pain and struggle. I would have rejoiced when things went well and ached when they did not.
But I hope my belief in Christ’s compassion, and so in God’s love, would not be dictated simply by our experience in that moment at the mall five years ago. I pray it would be shaped by the biblical stories of Christ’s mercy and his promise to be with us always – even until the end of the age.
I think my faith in the wake of the tragedy would also be shaped by the realization that God is not the only power in town. We make decisions that have real power to help or hinder life. And, I think there are forces in the world other than our own that can also decide to work against Christ’s healing and love.
Finally, I hope I would trust God to take care of business. If God can work a resurrection out of a crucifixion, God can take the worst things of life and do something blessed with them. If God is seen uniquely in a person named Jesus who dies for the world that betrayed him, then I trust this God with everything. This God is worth that confidence, at least in my opinion.
I also believe that this is the type of God who will make all things work out well in the end, and many things work out well long before then.
Imagining what could have been, I’ve gone through this “when bad things happen” checklist because I think there is a powerful tendency to make a one-size-fits-all assumption when disaster strikes us. It would be easy for me to say in one form or another after her tumble, “Oh, well. I guess God wanted Reese to fall off the slide and break her neck for some mysterious reason.”
However, this assumption looks nothing like Jesus and may be closer to fatalism than Christian faith. It may also blame God for things that aren’t God’s fault. And we know that blaming those we love for bad things they didn’t do often kills relationships – both relationships between people and relationships between people and God.
I know I would have struggled with despair. I pray that I would have allowed Christ to swallow that despair with his Cross and nurture hope with his Empty Tomb.