Five years ago today, I stood in the little hospital’s ambulance bay, hands trembling, trying to dial my mother on my cell, to tell her the worst possible news. Inside the brick building behind me, my 19-year-old daughter lay in a coma after a near-fatal accident. Unresponsive. Absent.
The sky above me was deep-spring blue with tufts of cottonwood drifting by on balmy breezes, stark against the towering oaks and maples of that historic Elgin neighborhood. In the distance a lawn mower hummed the soothing, monotonous tune of early summer. The serenity of that scene crashed against my awful reality.
I couldn’t think. I couldn’t remember my mom’s number. I couldn’t make my fingers to push the right keys. Rattled, numb, shocked. Is this happening? Is this real?
Then suddenly a hush swept over me, and I heard His whisper.
“I am good,” I sensed God say. “This circumstance doesn’t change my character. It doesn’t change who I am. I am good.”
Good?! Could this be true? What if—what if the worst of things happens?
The worst of things did happened: Katie didn’t pull through. A few hours later, she was pronounced brain-dead. Then we donated her organs. Then she died.
That was five years ago. I hadn’t known such agony could exist this side of hell. I could taste the pain—a sickening, metallic flavor, under my tongue each morning when I awoke. As the fog of sleep would fade, and throughout each day, and into my dreams, her death shocked me anew. If you have lost a child, you understand: Five years later, I am still shocked.
But I have survived. Slowly, slowly, as moments turned to days, then to weeks, then to months and years, the tsunami of pain receded, and the waves crashed less violently on the beach of my soul. And whenever an undertow of sorrow threatened to pull me under, I found the comfort and strength I needed—not enough for months or weeks at a time, but enough for each moment. God’s presence was like a miner’s lamp in an ink-black cave, showing just enough light for the next step, and no more. He showed up through the people who rallied around us—the meals they delivered, the cards they sent, the silent compassion they expressed, standing sentinel alongside our family as we grieved. We were carried in those days, truly.
His goodness showed up, too, in the private moments when I was alone in my agony, railing against our new reality. God’s unbending gentleness didn’t flinch. He didn’t recoil at my anger. He didn’t shame me for my despair. He simply was. Gentle, tender, present. I felt Him, always near, but never intrusive. The blanket of His embrace never slipped.
I had not been back to that little hospital in Elgin since those days—to that horrid brick building in the beautiful, victorian neighborhood where my daughter had died, to the place where God’s whisper had seemed baffling at the time—a cruel joke, yet somehow tempting, if it could be true. When I awoke this morning—five years to the day—I knew I needed to return to that place once again. I’d heard they shut down the hospital a year or so after Katie’s death. Did the building still exist? I googled it on my phone, plugged the old address into my GPS, and climbed in my car.
I retraced the route my husband and I had driven with frantic focus after receiving the hospital’s phone call five years ago. We had unknowingly passing our daughter’s freshly vacated accident site. This time, I slowed my car and acknowledged the spot with quiet reverence. As I approached Elgin, my “body memory” of the little town began to creep over me. The look of the streets was familiar. The turn-of-the-century homes, the ancient oak trees towering above, even the air smelled vaguely familiar. Its moist, flowering late-spring scent swirled through my open window and a tuft of cottonwood bumped softly against my windshield as I passed by.
I turned onto Central Street, and there it was, before me. Larger and more modern looking than I remembered—but on that day five years ago, I had not taken a good look. We had parked haphazardly by the ER entrance and ran up the ambulance bay into the ER, not knowing what awaited inside, not realizing I would not leave this building again until after. Until two days later, at 3 o’clock in the morning when the organ donation surgery was complete and Katie’s heart had beat its last. I would leave my daughter’s body behind in this building, for a mortician to come and collect.
I drove past the main entrance. A sign above the front door reads, “Greater Elgin Family Care Center.” They had repurposed at least part of the building. I rounded the corner, surveying, thinking, looking for the ER entrance, but the backside of the building had been torn down. No ER. No ambulance bay. Just a half-block patch of dirt scored with bulldozer tracks, oily puddles dotting the lifeless, grey soil. A chain-link construction fence surrounded the site to keep vandals out. To keep me from wandering the vacant, desolate lot above which a trauma room had once cocooned my daughter. I would not be revisiting that ambulance bay today after all.
I parked across the street and tried to get my bearings. Which direction had the ER once stood? I walked around the block, and the familiar oak trees and the direction of the sun brought it all back: I had stood just here, facing west, the sun warm against my left cheek as I had flipped open my cell phone. I had strained my eyes down that block, looking for our friend to arrive with our youngest two kids—quick—before their sister died. I had tried to dial my mom. And then came the whisper: “I am good.”
I leaned against the chain link fence and looked up. The sun once again shone down on me, as it had before—and as it has so faithfully over these past five years. I breathed deeply and exhaled.
They say I have experienced the deepest pain a human can experience—the death of a child—and yet the sun still shines. Slowly, as those first weeks had turned to months and then years, I had sensed a subtle shift inside. Small splashes of joy had begun bursting through the clouds of sorrow that hovered overhead—tentatively at first, but soon without apology. And eventually, life once again began to hold more joy than sorrow. My life was indeed still beautiful.
The whisper had been true. This circumstance had not changed God. His steadfast character had held firm. He had carried us through.
We will always feel the shock and the searing ache of Katie’s absence, but the “always” is actually an “until.” Until the someday arrives. Until the next reality. Until the other side. And as I stood there, my back resting against the chain link fence, it hit me: It has been five long years since my eyes have beheld my daughter—since she flitted out my kitchen door on her way to work, and I watched her drive away… And with each passing year that distance grows greater. But today I am five years closer to seeing her again on the other side. Perhaps this day marks not the fading distance behind me but the approaching reunion before me—five years’ less time until I step across that veil into the next reality and hold her in my arms once again.
Five years ago today, I had wondered, could it be true? Is God really good?
Yes. Yes, He is good. He is good, indeed.