The story stresses the importance of giving and accepting simple gifts like a kind word, a phone call, a hug, an e-mail, or any number of other simple gifts. This story is a sermon I gave in July 2006 about the gifts God gave my wife and I when our daughter was killed by a drunk driver.
GIFTS TO GIVE — GIFTS TO ACCEPT
We all have gifts to give and gifts to accept. Many of these gifts are simple actions and kind words. God works in our lives through simple actions and a few kind words. Often we are not even aware of the large impact a small action or a simple word can have on our life or the lives of others. As God’s children, not only do we need to give simple actions and kind words but we must be willing to accept them when they are given. In today’s world where individual strength and self reliance are considered assets, we are losing our ability to accept the simple kindnesses of our neighbor.
This is a story of great joy from some words and actions in the mist of great sadness and sorrow. The sadness and sorrow are about the loss of my daughter. The joy is about how God surrounded our family with loving people, simple actions, and kind words. I will likely shed some tears in telling this story. Mostly tears of joy over God’s gifts of kind people, simple actions, and kind words.
Since I am new to this congregation I will tell you a little about me and my family. In the early 1960s Iowa was in the mist of school consolidations. That is how I met my wife during our senior year of high school. We met in February of 1962 and were engaged in June of that year. Maxine and I married 3 years later and I went to work for Deere in Waterloo. In 1974 we moved to Hudson and raised a family of two boys and two girls. There was a dry spell between the two oldest, Galen and Kim, and the two youngest, Garrett and Karmin. That dry spell allowed Maxine to enroll in college at age 49 and become a Registered Nurse in 1997. Maxine passed away on June 4, 2005. We had 43 wonderful years together. It was a wonderful life as a 51% Dane, me, and a 100% Norwegian, Maxine, learned to make the journey of life together.
I need to tell you that I firmly believe everything in this story happened according to God’s plan. I don’t understand that plan but I accept it as God’s plan.
On Thursday, June 15 of 2000 Maxine and I were in Adel having supper with Greg and Trish DeTimmerman. On Saturday, our youngest son Garrett was going to marry their oldest daughter Stephanie. The kids were all meeting in Altoona for a bachelorette party for Stephanie.
As we were finishing supper the phone rang. I could tell Trish was troubled. She turned to Maxine and I and said Kim had been in an accident and that we needed to go to the hospital as quickly as possible. Greg volunteered to drive us to Methodist in Des Moines.
Our hearts sank at that point. Maxine and I had served as volunteer firefighters and EMT’s for 17 years. We had heard those words spoken too many times when we had taken accident victims to the hospital. Those words had hidden meaning. The reality is that the accident victim is dead or near death.
As Greg drove us to Methodist I rationalized all the reasons it couldn’t be true. Kim was a careful driver and she always used a seat belt. She had a new car with air bags and she was just beginning a brilliant career. After all those years of car wrecks with the fire department it can’t be happening to us.
As soon as we got to the hospital Maxine and I were ushered down a hall toward a room. I knew what that meant. Kim was dead. When we got into the room, it was confirmed. Garrett, Stephanie, Karmin-our youngest daughter and others were in the room.
In the room were counselors from Polk County Victims services. The counselor assigned to us was Martha. The story of Martha and us is a wonderful story but a story for another day. A deputy sheriff brought in Kim’s purse and some personal belongings. He told us a car had run a stop sign and hit Kim’s car in the driver’s door. It was a high speed impact and she was killed. I asked if alcohol was involved and he said it was. It took all the strength that God could give me to control myself. I had been on too many drunk driving car accidents. I had developed an intolerance for drinking drivers. Now a drinking driver had killed my daughter.
There was a phone in the room so I called my brother and told him, and asked him to tell my parents who lived in Ames. I started thinking of people who had to be called. Cell phones were still relatively new. Maxine and I, usually a step or two behind the kids in technology, did not have a cell phone. I was at the point I needed to step out of that room. I needed to collect my thoughts. I needed access to phone numbers.
I went down the hall to a desk. There was a man standing at the desk. He looked at me, extended his hand and said “I’m Jerry Whetstone of the Altoona Fire Department.” I introduced myself as Gary Stratton from the Hudson Fire Department. It took a few days but hind site made me recognize that God had placed Jerry at that desk at the time I needed some help.
Kim worked for the Fire Service Institute at Iowa State University. She held a staff position as Publications and Marketing coordinator. The Fire Service Institute was responsible for firefighter training in Iowa. Kim’s niche was getting un-cooperative groups of firefighters to cooperate and work together. In the five years she had worked for the Institute, she had become well recognized around the state of Iowa.
The firefighters and EMTs from Altoona and Bondurant who were at the scene of the accident recognized Kim. The name Stratton also rung a bell with an Altoona firefighter. “Didn’t someone named Stratton just apply for the position on the Altoona Department.” The Altoona folks went back to the station and checked new applications and found Garrett’s application. They went to his address and told him about the accident. Jerry Whetstone was the chief in Altoona. He waited for us at the hospital.
Kim had a boyfriend, a serious boyfriend as we were to find out. We only knew his first name was Troy. Kim was bringing Troy to the wedding to introduce him to all the family. We knew Troy was in a new recruit training class at the West Des Moines Fire Dept. I asked Jerry if he could be of any help in contacting Troy. He said he would take care of that. He knew the Chaplin for the West Des Moines Fire Dept. He would contact the Chaplin and they would handle telling Troy. The words “I’ll take care of that” meant so much.
Maxine and I had to decide what to do next. Our oldest daughter had just been killed by a drunk driver, and our youngest son was getting married in two days. I had to get outside to think. As I passed through the ambulance bay, the crew that had tried to resuscitate Kim was just putting stuff into the ambulance and getting ready to go home. I had a chance to thank them personally for the efforts they made to save Kim. Although not recognized at the time, God had made our paths to cross that night for a few small words of thanks and condolences. Not well planned or grand speeches, but just a few kind words exchanged.
As I got outside I found a small courtyard. It had some cement pillars. I kicked them, carefully, but I kicked them. You know Danes can have a temper! From my work on a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Team I kept telling myself, “You are a normal person having normal reactions to an abnormal situation”. You know preaching to yourself is not very effective!! Having had many experiences with fatalities in drunk driving accidents I vowed I would not let this incident drag our family down into hatred and bitterness. God helped me recall my firefighter training. You have to take action, you assess the situation, you make a decision, you take action. You do the best you can, with the equipment you have, in the situation you are in. Inaction is not an option. A first priority is to care for the living. I needed to assess the situation as there were decisions that needed to be made.
Maxine had somewhat collected herself together and in the courtyard we talked about what we should do? We agreed with each other that it was not Kim’s nature to feel sorry for yourself and do a bunch of whining. Kim would look at a situation, access it and get on with it. Kim was not the kind of person to postpone an action so she could feel sorry for herself. We gathered all the strength that God could give us and made a decision to go on with the wedding. Maxine and I gathered Greg, Stephanie, and Garrett and told them what we thought we should do. We all agreed we would go ahead with the wedding and then turn our attention to Kim’s funeral.
While all of this was going on, our oldest son, Galen, and his family were in route from Williamsburg to Methodist Hospital. We were very fortunate and blessed to be able to be with Kim’s body for an extended period of time. After Galen and his family arrived, we all said our goodbyes to Kim in the emergency room and then left the hospital.
While all the hospital activity was going on, the DeTimmerman family was arranging to take in our entire family for the night. It was near 2 AM when we left the hospital. DeTimmerman family members had been farmed out to neighbors. In an act that can only be described as an act of God, a stubborn and independent Dane, accepted the invitation for our entire family to stay at the DeTimmerman house that night. I cannot describe the joy that was felt by being surrounded by such loving and caring people. Again, a small act of an invitation given and accepted provided the exchange of a large amount of love and support between groups of people that hardly knew each other.
There was not much sleep that night for Maxine and me. We held tightly to each other as we had done in other family and fire department incidents. That night we also shed a lot of tears.
The next day Maxine and the rest of the girls in the wedding party went for hair doos, and some last minute preparation for the wedding. I used the DeTimmerman phone to make calls and arrangements that could not wait. Jerry Whetstone was a great help that day and offered all kinds of help by the firefighters of Altoona. By Friday afternoon we were finishing up those last minute wedding things and preparing for the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner. One of those last minute things was a candle. Garrett and Stephanie decided to get an eternity candle and light it in remembrance of Kim. That brought a lot of tears to the rehearsal but also a great deal of pride. In the mist of all this sorrow, the kids were thinking clearly and thinking of others. A good sign.
In the evening, after the rehearsal dinner, I had reached the point where I was very tired but wide awake. Stephanie’s grandmother approached me and handed me a bottle of Tylenol PM. She said “You look like you need these.” She told me to take some and go to bed. I took them and went to bed. I slept well that night.
Here was a simple action, given and accepted, that had a large impact. Maxine and I were able to get the sleep we needed. This was an example of God at work in our lives. Never underestimate the impact of simple actions given or accepted. When you get that feeling that you should offer a few words or a simple action, pay attention to it. It is God at work in our lives. When someone offers you a few kind words or a simple action. Pay attention to it. Don’t let your pride get in the way of accepting the gift.
The wedding and the reception were conducted as planned and a good time was had by all. I can’t begin to describe all the kindnesses that were extended to our family during these days. Most were simple acts and words. A niece asked me what she could do for me. I told her I would like a WWJD bracelet because I thought I would need it. The next day she gave me a bracelet. In the days and weeks that followed, there were days when that bracelet was the only thing I had to hang onto. Today that bracelet hangs from the muffler of a toy tractor on my office desk as a reminder that Jesus is always with us and that I need to act like a Christian. Again, a simple act with a large impact.
Maxine and I decided we were not emotionally capable of driving back to Hudson. Some of the firefighters from Hudson came to Adel to drive us back home. Their simple act of kindness will always be remembered. As we were getting ready to leave, Stephanie’s grandmother looked at Maxine and I and said “You did the right thing. If you had waited 6 months or a year, it would have been even more difficult.” A few simple words with great impact. I cannot describe the positive impact those few simple words had on our recovery from the loss of Kim.
As we were outside, getting ready to get in the vehicles, an aunt of Stephanie’s approached me from behind and put her hand on my shoulder. She whispered in my ear, “my prayers are with you, I have walked in your shoes.” Again, a simple action with a few words. They had a very positive impact on me. Regardless of what happens to us in life, it is always reassuring when you realize other people have had similar experiences. You are not alone.
As our family was preparing for Kim’s funeral we got an e-mail from Kim’s closest friend. Lisa had sat down to the computer to send us an e-mail and the Holy Spirit just poured out the words. Those words told us that in the last two years Kim had developed a spiritual life that Maxine and I did not know about. She had returned to the Lutheran Church after a hiatus that many college students experience. She had got God back into her life and she felt really good about herself, about life, and her spirituality. Lisa had wanted to write us and the Holy Spirit helped her do that. To this day Lisa and the rest of us are still amazed at how the Holy Spirit poured out the words that were such a blessing to all of us. I cannot describe the joy that Maxine and I got from reading those words. A simple act of writing an e-mail had a profound impact on Maxine and I as we prepared for the funeral and the recovery from the loss of Kim. I am still an awe of the power of the Holy Spirit and how God guided so many people to comfort us.
Maxine and I were often asked, “How did you do it?”. The simple answer is we didn’t do it, God did it. God gave us strength we didn’t know we had. God surrounded us with a lot of kind and generous people. God gave us the wisdom to recognize and accept the help he was sending us. God did all this while we were very mad at him. Previous experiences with ambulance calls and our personal life, and the help of a young pastor, had taught us it was ok to be mad at God. God would be there when we got over being mad. Romans 8: 38-39 tells us that.
As we go about our daily lives, never underestimate how much of a positive impact a simple action or a few simple words can have on someone else. In the most tragic time in our lives, God surrounded us with loving people who cared for us and nurtured us. This is not a once in a life time occurrence. Last year when Maxine was diagnosed with advance lung cancer and died 10 weeks later, God again surrounded me with loving and caring people. Those people offered lots of simple acts and kind words. Some of those acts and words guided me to Bethlehem. I didn’t just draw this church out of a hat. At this time in my life, I was guided here but that is another story.
Often we think God’s plan for our lives will result in the one grandiose action or speech that will make the world a better place. In reality few of us will have the grandiose event. In the everyday world we are all servants, and it is the everyday actions and the kind words that will have the greatest impact on ourselves and our neighbors and make this world a better place. In the hectic lives many of us live we sometimes get oblivious about what is going on around us. God sends people into our lives so that we can help each other. We need to recognize that and train ourselves to take an extra breath and have the wisdom to recognize those moments. So as we go about our lives this week please remember to give and to accept simple acts and a few kind words and be filled with joy.