What Story is Your Life Telling?

Who doesn’t remember the scene in Groundhog Day where the mechanical clock radio rolls the digits to 6:00 am, begins playing I Got You, Babe by Sonny and Cher, and Bill Murray finds himself living the same day again?

For the past 20 years, I find myself caught in a similar suspension of time and place; a cycle of sadness, over which I seem to have little control. As the leaves begin to change color, and the sun heads south for the winter, my emotions embark on an all too familiar journey. My heart becomes heavy. My memories blur with tears. My focus seems fixed on one sad story. My sixteen year old son, Scott, is dead.

Scott’s sixteenth birthday, November 23, 1995, was the last birthday we celebrated with him. A few days later, Scott and Tony brought home our family Christmas tree. We waited another week for Amy to return home from her first semester at college, as Scott declared, “We are never going to decorate our Christmas tree until we are all together.” Little did we know that Christmas 1995 would be the last time we were all together.

Exactly six weeks after Christmas, Scott was fatally injured in an accident in the woodshop at Immanuel High School. After thirty hours on life support, Scott was declared brain dead.

Every year since the year of lasts, my mother’s heart seems overtaken ~ from November to February ~ by some mechanical response that sets in motion a deep sorrow. The earth seems to join in my pain as the sky grays, the air chills, and the nights become long. I tell myself that I am not going to fall under its control, yet here I am twenty years later, still having memories turn to tears.

How very tragic if this was the end of my story. How sad if there was no hope of redeeming the future. God is the God who restores; the God who redeems the future by bringing value to our losses. One of the many verses which became real to me as I began my journey of grief is found in the Wisdom Literature. It states, Many are the plans in a man’s heart; but the Lord’s purposes prevail.

On Sunday past, I was challenged by the pastor to answer the question, What story is your life telling? As I reflected upon my story over the past week, here are my thoughts in answer to that challenge, as I attempt to flesh out the words of old, the Lord’s purposes prevail.

The day of Scott’s accident in 1996, lives were changed for eternity. Scott’s split-second decision to use a rasp file on his table top spinning on the lathe became his last decision. The reality of death became forefront in the minds of his classmates. The certainty of where they would spend eternity became a question that begged an answer.

Luke Thomas, one of Scott’s classmates shared at the time, “Lives were changed because of the way Scott Redfern lived and died.” And that is a redemptive facet of my story.

Our family struggled to understand this journey of grief. We sought out grief counseling. We became trained in death and grief studies. But most of all, we looked to the Lord to renew His joy in our hearts. Out of our own griefwork was born a desire to give back to others who experience loss. That desire grew into a reality with establishing New Path Center (NPC), a nonprofit that exists to help others discover pathways through difficult times. God has graced hundreds with His hope and peace through the ministry of NPC, and this is the transformative theme of this story.

After 30 hours on life support, we gathered around Scott’s body to say goodbye. Kept “alive” with machines to provide the gift of life through organ donation meant we hugged a boy who looked like he was sleeping. That’s the hideous reality of brain death.

Yet, as if this story needed another wonderful feature, in August 2015, after almost 20 years, we have had the remarkable experience of meeting a young woman who received Scott’s gift of life. In finding her, we found an entire family who has carried deep gratitude for Scott in their hearts for decades. We have been invited to share the story of our journey, and to hear their story. We have found great joy in knowing the immense value of our loss in their lives as we have received their thankfulness for giving life to their only daughter, only sister. And we rejoice in the restorative aspect of the story.

I am grateful for the challenge to look at this story of my life. The pain of losing Scott will always be a part of my story. But what a wonderful experience to look at my story through a lens that sees the purposes of God prevail.

As this season brings the opportunity to reflect on the best and the worst that life has brought, I challenge you to consider, what story is your life telling? If you are like me, many are the plans in your heart. Many are the hopes and dreams of your future. But when these plans, hopes, and dreams do not come to pass, what a comfort to know that the Lord’s purposes prevail; purposes that redeem and transform, and restore the joy of the Lord. 

My heart still feels an immense Scott-shaped hole this Christmas. The deep sadness I felt in 1996 has changed. It is hard to describe, but today it is a sadness bathed in hope. Hope that comes with the birth of the Babe of Bethlehem who truly injects His joy into my story.

Special thanks to Jeff Doolittle at The Well Kingsburg for his powerful sermon, Christ is Now Here

Like Meeting Old Friends for the First Time

For as long as I can remember, I choose to view the experiences of my life through a lens that illuminates the amazing grace of the God who restores; the God who will redeem the broken pieces of my life for His glory! It is this personal belief that allows me to move toward experiencing peace with the loss of our sixteen year old son, Scott.

Part of my own journey as a bereaved mother is to share about my loss, and my pursuit of peace. The story I share of Scott’s death always involves two families; neither of whom would ever forget the winter of 1996. (If you are not familiar with the story, click on the following link to read it on my blog, Redeeming the Future.)

The story of these two families is an account of profound grief and overwhelming joy. It is a story I never dreamed I would be cast in; never imagined being played out in my life.

Now almost twenty years later, God, in His providence, is changing the story. Well, not exactly changing it. He is writing a new chapter; one that only He could author as it is filled with his amazing grace and promise of restoration.

Inspired this summer by a news story about the first hand transplant ever performed on a child, I felt led again to search for the “other” family in my twenty-year-old story. Although they were an integral part of my story, I had never met them. I admit that I searched often to find them since Scott’s death. Now, inspired again by the story of donation, I pulled up electronic copies of newspaper articles from 1996 I had stored in a file on my computer. I enlisted the help of friends on social media. My searching at length over the years always ended in frustration and failure. But this time was different.

I was filled with anxiety as I thought about how best to contact this individual through social media. How do you compose a private message to ask someone if she may be the person who received your son’s liver? She was 13 years old in 1996; she would be about 33 years old now. I wrestled with the wording for a couple of hours, forming an introduction, sharing how the gift of organ donation added value to our loss, and then asking “the” question. The stress of choosing the correct words, of not pushing too hard, almost made me back out. Even after composing the message, I waited about twenty more minutes before pushing SEND.

As I was turning off my phone at bedtime for the night, I literally began to shake. There was a reply; an answer we had waited almost twenty years to receive.

Hi Bonnie and Tony, I am the Jennifer Chang you were looking for. Because of your son, I was given a second chance in life and I am eternally grateful. I would love to share my story with you.”

Making the decision to donate Scott’s organs was not an easy one for me, on several levels. It required us to agree with the determination of two neurologists that Scott was brain dead. (Brain death is hideous.) It required us to leave a son who was kept alive by machines. It required us to know that the surgeons would “harvest” (their word) parts of his strong, soccer playing, mountain biking, beautiful body, before “pulling the plug”.

We knew the importance of organ donation and its ability to save lives. We made the decision to become a donor family primarily to add value to our loss; to know that Scott’s death was not in vain in this physical world.

What a privilege to witness God’s grace at work in the past few weeks since I sent that first message on social media. Tony and I have traveled to Berkeley to have lunch with the three siblings who had been in critical condition in 1996. We heard them share about this life changing event from their family’s vantage point. We were blessed to answer their questions ~ what was his name, how did he die, how old was he, does he have siblings, and what was he like?

It became quite clear that although our families had never met, we were indeed an integral part in each other’s lives. So much so, that God’s grace continues to bring us together. Jennifer’s parents flew into San Francisco from Taiwan. We look forward to welcoming them into our home tomorrow.

A friend asked me if I was nervous about meeting them. Strangely, I am not. They have been a part of my life for almost 20 years. I feel a sense of joy as we are privileged to see God’s redemptive power over loss.

Seriously, it is like I am meeting old friends for the first time.