| This is the 259th story of Our Life Logs |
When I was a little girl my grandmother used to tell me that when it is raining outside, that means that God is crying. If that is true, God must have been crying right along with me during each of the lowest points in my life.
My parents tell me I was born on a perfect sunny day in July of 1959 in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. My dad was a Colonel from the 136th who helped my mom nurture my three older brothers—though, when I came along, my dad has admitted that he had no idea how to raise a girl. And so, we were all children of the military. The importance of patriotism and sacrifice was taught to us along with our ABCs, and orders were followed without question.
When I graduated high school in 1977, I went off to college determined to get my engineering degree and follow in my dad’s footsteps. After some walking along, I became a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force in 1981 and was stationed in California as a combat systems officer.
It was there that I met Scott, a fellow engineer, whom I would come to know as the love of my life. We married in 1986 while we were both stationed together in California, but six months after our marriage, we both were assigned to different base locations. It wasn’t ideal, but it made our time together that much sweeter, and really, those first five years flew by.
Finally, we were both assigned to Fort Bragg in North Carolina and almost immediately started our family. At that point, we were both more than ready to commence, “Operation Knock-Up,” as we jokingly called it, and within weeks I was pregnant. For the next nine months, Scott and I kept a cautious eye on what was going on in Iraq and Kuwait, knowing full well that our days together could be interrupted by our duty.
On May 10, 1990, I gave birth to a perfect, black-haired, blue-eyed baby boy we named Luke. He was bright, curious, smelled like innocence, and gave us more joy than we ever imagined. But just as we had expected, when Luke was six months old, my husband and I were both called to serve in Operation Desert Storm. I would be going to Al Busayyah in Iraq, and Scott was going to Kuwait.
It was sunny and bright the day I left. I remember kissing Luke’s baby skin so much and crying so hard. Scott still had two more weeks with Luke and even that made me jealous, but I was raised to never question orders, and my mom and aunt were going to watch Luke. He would stay safe and loved while we were away. That is what gave me the courage to leave.
Not quite four months later, I got a message to report to my commanding officer. While walking in the rain to his office, I knew someone had died, I felt it. I assumed it was my dad or mom. For a brief second, I even thought about my husband. In my wildest nightmares, I never imagined it would be my 11-month-old baby boy. But it was.
I was told Luke went to sleep and was just fine. My mom didn’t hear anything on the baby monitor at 2 am when he usually woke up for a feeding, and thankful for a couple more hours rest, she went back to sleep. She told me she woke up with a start at 5:30 am because she still didn’t hear anything from Luke’s room and immediately went to check on him. He was ice cold to the touch. The doctor told her he had been dead for several hours. Probably shortly after she put him down around 10 pm the night before.
I wanted to hit my mom. I wanted to blame myself. I wanted to hate the military. I just didn’t know which one to do first. Instead, I did none of those things. In my grief, I found that the most painful goodbyes are ones you never get to say, in a death that is never explained.
I remember very little of the flight home, or what happened during or after the funeral. All I remember was the rainfall that came down that day. Scott and I clung together but neither of us said a word. We couldn’t talk about it, so we shared our pain through touch. When I felt I couldn’t go on, somehow Scott would sense it and reach out to hold my hand, wrap me in a hug, or give me a kiss. When I felt Scott drifting away from me, I would put my head on his shoulder, or hold his face in my hands and look into his eyes. We never said anything. We both knew that this storm would end and that we would never be the same people as we were when it started.
Life continued around us until we caught up with most of it. In 1992, I found out I was pregnant again. After nine months of tears, joy, and an ever-growing love, we gave birth to a blue-eyed, blonde-haired baby boy on January 8, 1993. We named him Mark.
A few months later, the doctor told my husband and myself that I would never be able to have another child. In stunned silence and shock, we listened to the medical jargon that neither of us understood, and we packed away our dream of having a big family.
We were very grateful to have Mark…and perhaps that’s why we were a bit overzealous. Any cold, sniffle, temperature, or childhood illness would send us running to the doctor with him. But Mark thrived. We started laughing again at his innocent joys, loving ways, and deep thoughts. As he got older, we explained he had an older brother who would have loved him very much, but God loved him too and decided it was time for him to leave us. Mark must have thought about that awhile because a few weeks later, he came home from school and told us that Luke wasn’t really gone. With all the seriousness an eight-year-old can muster, Mark furrowed his brow and said that if we all loved him, he lived on through us. Those words became framed in a picture, embroidered on a pillow, and reside within my soul to this day.
In 2003, my unit was called up again for Operation Iraqi Freedom. This time the military did not call up my husband, just me. It was raining the day I found out, an ominous threat to my confidence.
I left in January and returned nine months later in October. I resigned my commission with full benefits shortly thereafter as I was never going to be away from my family again. I decided to become a teacher, and for the next fifteen years, life was calm.
I have yet to figure out if a woman who loses a child can ever be truly happy again, but what I do know is we never take one moment of joy for granted. And let me tell you, we’ve had many, many moments of true delight. Our son Mark graduated high school and then college. He went to medical school and then decided he wanted to be a teacher. He married and moved in with us. We enthusiastically supported every decision that allowed him to be happy, knowing all too well that life changes in the blink of an eye.
On May 18, 2018, when I left to go to work, it was sunny and bright. As I pulled in the parking lot, I noticed there was a pop-up shower that sometimes springs up in early summer in Houston and I thought briefly about the rain storms of my past and all that I have endured and survived. I then remembered how for the past 15 years life had been kind to us. I believed I was finally living in the rainbow. Now I know that God was crying that day.
At 7:40 am, a 17-year old shooter, with guns he shouldn’t have had, wearing an outfit that clearly didn’t match the weather, and with an expression of emptiness on his face, opened fired and killed eight students, two teachers, and wounded thirteen other people in my school. Another rain storm had brought more tragedy.
Through the countless funerals and remembrances we went to as a family, I watched the vacant, disbelieving eyes and empty chairs that were set up around grieving parents in honor of their beloved child or partner. What made it so hard to understand was that this had not happened during a battle or in a war zone. We weren’t threatened by a cartel, a gang or a known criminal. We were attacked by a 17-year-old student who had attended school every day with his victims, people who will no longer age, fall in love, get married, have children, and grow old. He tore apart families he didn’t know. Tore hearts out of grieving mothers and the souls out of devastated dads and family members.
Scott and I had never talked about Luke to anyone other than family and friends, but as we watched the bowed heads and silent cries, we knew it was time. It wouldn’t ease these parents’ hurts or heal their hearts, no. But maybe it would give them someone they could call or reach out to who have buried their child. Someone who knows what it is like to visit a headstone in a cemetery and talk to the wind, who can relate to quietly celebrating birthdays and holidays which they never get to share with their child or loved one again. The day we shared our stories was the day we began to truly heal.
The path going forward in our lives is never the same. But one does learn to go forward. It never gets better, but death unites as well as separates us. I tell them the tears they are crying now are not the ones that will hurt the most. Those are still to come. But then I tell them that grieving his life is better than never having known him at all. It is better because eventually, we remember the moments we keep forever, the moments that strengthen our hearts and let us share with others. When it rains, it pours, and yet, all the flowers grow.
This is the story of Renee Hettinger
Renee enjoys going on couple retreats with Scott and is very involved with her church and volunteering for those in need. All her life, Renee noticed rain often led to tragedy in her life, and she dealt with far too much. With the death of her 11-month-old Luke, the news that she can’t have more children, and experiencing a school shooting, she feared that the pain from these tragedies would follow her forever. But after the shooting, she realized that in order to heal, she must talk about her hardships and help others. Both Scott and Renee are volunteer members of one of the Natural Disaster Red Cross Emergency Response Teams. Renee enjoys long summer nights, sipping a Sangria while reading on a double hammock that Scott built and hung for them. Renee loves taking family vacations with her son and daughter-in-law and this summer they plan on going to Canada together which is on their bucket list. She and Scott go skydiving, scuba diving and whatever other kinds of diving they can find. Wherever she goes, if she is leaving their home, she takes Luke’s baby book and personal items so he goes with them in spirit and knows he has never been forgotten and is loved very much.
This story first touched our hearts on February 19, 2019.