While on vacation with my family in Florida last month, we visited a memorial garden which had recently been built at a local elementary school. The memorial was for three kindergarten boys who were killed in May 1978 when a tornado struck their school. My parents had traveled the distance of several states to see this newly constructed memorial to their only son, Garey Lee, and two of his classmates.
My brother, Garey, was struck by flying debris and killed in his own classroom when a tornado ripped the roof off the building and collapsed the walls. So many years later, the events of that day are still fresh in the minds of many. The tragedy still haunts countless former students, my sister included, who was only seven when the tornado struck the school.
Recently, a group of those former students raised some funds to build a small memorial garden for the three boys which now resides at the new school which was completely rebuilt. In the courtyard, there are three benches in honor of each boy, a plaque with their names, a tree, and some flowers. The efforts of those former students who wanted to remember their classmates meant a great deal to my family.
I was born a little more than a year later, and it’s hard to grasp the death of a sibling I never knew. But I remember the first time I accidentally came across some old newspaper clippings while I was rummaging through my parents’ file cabinet looking for something;. What I do remember, and will never forget, was the newspaper I found: a full color front page photograph of my mother standing in a sea of flattened debris—that used to be a school—holding onto the hand of my sister as she searched the rubble in the aftermath for her missing son. The expression on my mother’s face, one of severe grief, haunts me and will stay with me the rest of my life. I heard the story many times and had seen various photos of the destroyed school, but I had never seen that one –the photo that made my family’s nightmare a reality for me.
My father was in the Army and stationed in Korea when the tragedy occurred. He did not know that when he said goodbye several months before, it would be the last time he would ever see his little boy alive. He was rushed back to the United States to bury his son and take care of his family. My sister said, “I remember dad holding me at the casket and he was sobbing, and I remember thinking it would never be happy at our house ever again.” To make matters worse, my mother experienced a miscarriage only a few months later.
If my parents had given up under their enormous grief, I think there are few who would have blamed them. But they didn’t give up. Statistically, most marriages don’t last after the death of a child. Sometimes grief drives couples to drugs, alcohol, suicide, confusion, disillusionment, and despair. But the glue that held my family together was God. Their faith was strong, and they clung to that faith which made all the difference. God carried them through and preserved their marriage. The years of grief and healing that followed were very difficult years, but they made a commitment to stick together, to overcome, to not lose hope.
My mother and father still do not know the reason why. They do not know why their worst fears came true that dark day in May 1978. But they did not let the weight of a broken heart crush the dreams that remained or drive them apart. Instead, they remained true to each other and used their brokenness to help others.
They took in many struggling people over the years that followed, they served others whenever they saw a need that was in their power to meet. They moved on with life as best they could and enjoyed the births of two more children—Happiness did come back to our house once again.
In just a few months, my parents will celebrate 50 years of marriage together, and together, they are still serving others, demonstrating real compassion, and sharing the love of God. Only a few years ago, they decided to adopt a special needs child and give her a forever home.
My parents’ lives remind me of an old quote that I have always admired: “There is nothing as whole as a broken heart. You can’t have a broken heart unless you are deeply involved in life. Being deeply involved in life will give you a broken heart. A broken heart is the last thing you want, but only once it is broken can it truly be whole…..a broken heart is part of a full life—its prerequisite, its price.”
My parents’ have used their own brokenness to help others who are hurting. When they meet other couples who have experienced similar loss, they truly understand that particular hurt and can offer the kind of sympathy that only belongs to those who have also experienced deep grief.
Even after thirty-eight years, the pain and memories still linger, and every anniversary of Garey’s passing, they are fresh yet again. But my parents are living proof that grief does not have to be the end of a marriage. God can restore hope, bring healing, and rekindle purpose once again.