Monday Morning, March 31, 2008
The north-south Indiana super-highway is familiar to us now. It connects Indianapolis to Forth Wayne right through America’s heartland. One farm after another, barns and silos, wheat and cornfields and dairy cattle line the highway. All along the straight, interminable road are big ponds and unpaved roads among the full oak trees and hedgerows and under a big blue sky it’s hard to imagine anything more beautiful.
When I took our middle child, our daughter, on a college tour her senior year in high school, we took our first drive up Interstate 69, passing what became a familiar Billboard identifying the home town of favorite son James Dean. Back in the 1950s, for a brief and shining moment, he maintained his place as heartthrob of the decade. From a small farm town in rural Indiana he escaped boredom at a New York acting school. The rave reviews over his performance won him a Hollywood contract and his one major performance on the big screen, Rebel Without A Cause. In his shiny new Porsche Spyder, Dean found the one country road in California that reminded him of rural Indiana, and on September 30, 1955 on highway 41 in Cholame at a very high speed, Dean collided head on with another car. A nation of teenagers mourned.
Maybe that billboard is the reason this dad worried all four years about the safety of the daughter who was determined to study two thousand miles away from home. That separation is hard. The headlines are a daily dose of tragedy. Parents whose children grow up and wander far away wonder – will she be safe?
Taylor University has a solid global reputation. It’s a sophisticated school with high academic standards and a first rate learning environment. It ranks with the best of the Christian colleges across the nation. Surprisingly, Upland’s sprawling campus is surrounded by cornfields. It was our daughter’s choice.
I remember hearing about students traveling to the Fort Wayne Campus. Vanloads of them would frequently assist with special events. Late one night, on the return trip home, such a van traveled down Interstate 69 after a banquet in Fort Wayne and a pizza stop. They headed home on the final stretch of the familiar trip. Without warning, the driver of an eighteen wheel tractor trailer fell asleep on the opposite side of the long straight road through the farmland. The rig jumped the center divider and smashed headlong into the small van filled with students.
The possibility of such a telephone call late at night is every college student’s parent’s worst nightmare. When Colleen Cerek picked up the phone and the caller identified himself as a county coroner, her knees gave way. “Your daughter Whitney was among the dead,” he said. Whitney’s sister Carly helped her mother to her feet. They held each other and through the sobs, Carly said, “We’ve got to call dad.”
Newell, a forty-five year old Youth Pastor at the Gaylord Evangelical Free Church in Michigan, was on a mission trip.
The same night, Laura Van Ryn’s parents, Don and Suzie also got a call. “Laura is the only survivor,” they were told. Immediately, they left home with sister Lisa for the long drive to an Indiana hospital where the young blonde student lay in a deep coma, broken and bruised and on life support.
For the next five weeks, Don, Collen and Lisa stayed on a twenty-four hour vigil; praying, singing, reading, blogging, welcoming visitors and fellow students and a boy-friend, Aryn Linenger. In the meantime, there were memorial services for the other five victims of the crash. On campus. And in the home towns. Grief swelled up. But hope, too. These families share a firm faith foundation. And hope filled that hospital room where a mom and dad, a sister and a boyfriend surrounded a swollen, broken twenty-year-old co-ed with love and care.
As she mended, in the long weeks following the trauma, little hints struck the support team. Odd things. Like the teeth. The belly-button ring. The eye color. Each by now was so attached to the person in the bed as Laura that these little signs meant little.
Until Lisa, the articulate sister who wrote a nightly blog for a caring world to read, rolled the patient down the hallway in a wheelchair and called her by name, “Laura…” The girl corrected Lisa. “Whitney,” she said. Lisa’s suspicions firmed up into fears. She stopped, knelt before the girl in the chair, looked her straight in the eyes and asked, “What are your parents’ names?”
“Newell and Colleen,” was the straightforward, unemotional reply. Lisa’s stomach tightened. She thought about her mom and dad, Don and Suzie. It was a terrible moment of truth. This was not her sister. That meant her real sister, Lisa, was dead and buried.
But in what can only be called a moment of sublime grace, out of care and love for the fragile, recovering young woman, just five weeks into her return to health and strength, Lisa smiled and said, “That’s right Whitney. Newell and Colleen.”
And Lisa continued, pushing the chair down the hospital hallway towards the sunlight outside, tears flowing.
* * * * * * * *
It’s Monday morning. You are a leader. If you are a parent, and your children have taken flight and left the nest, then your heart breaks with the story of mistaken identity that has so captured the nation’s attention.
As did ours. The unexpected journey of the Cereks and the Van Ryns is particularly poignant to us because our daughter, Candace, is a graduate of their college in Upland, Indiana. Both Whitney and Laura look so familiar to us. We don’t know them personally, but they are so reminiscent of the girls who became our daughter’s close friends and roommates and classmates during those formative years. They came to her wedding. We laughed and played; and when this sort of tragedy strikes, we all feel it.
So Carolyn and I tuned in to the Matt Lauer interviews. The Christian witness was riveting. Lauer seemed powerfully moved, too.
And somehow, someway, God works in the vortex of calamity to remind folks of all sorts of what is real. And what is true.
Copyright, Kenneth E Kemp 2008