As 2020 came to a close, I thought to myself, “I’ll be glad to get past this year.” Much of the world had been in lockdown. COVID-19 was in full force. People were dying, especially the elderly and immuno-compromised. We had no vaccine. Our top medical experts seemed unclear about the nature of this virus and how best to mitigate its effects. The 2020 election had been a gruesome display of political bloodsport.
During the height of the pandemic, my wife and I worried particularly about our son Sean. Because he has Down Syndrome, he does not have an especially strong constitution. Respiratory infections are quite hard on him. We were very cautious with him and took care not to expose him to COVID-19. On Christmas Day, however, he was admitted to the hospital and was diagnosed with COVID, pneumonia, and strep throat. Sean has a hard time communicating. We knew he didn’t feel well, but we had no idea how sick he was. At one point he entered the ICU because they couldn’t keep his oxygen levels high enough. There is a feeling you get as a parent when your child is in danger. It’s like you swallowed a giant ice cube. That ice cube didn’t melt for three days. When he was finally released from the hospital, we took him out for his favorite meal: french fries and cheese curds.
There was no love lost between the Watson family and the year 2020. We were glad to see it go.
Little did we know that 2021 was looking over at us saying, “Hold my bitter IPA and watch this.”
In March, Ciara, who is not our biological daughter, but who lives with us and is our daughter for all other intents and purposes, completely broke two bones simultaneously in one of her legs. She required reparative surgery and a long period of rehabilitation. It’s been a rough go for her.
Then in March, I was working on my back porch and the smoke alarm went off inside the house. There was a fire upstairs. I rushed to the second floor where I knew Sean had been playing, but I couldn’t find him. Soon the smoke was so thick I couldn’t see or breathe. I yelled for Ciara to call 911. Remember that large ice cube? It was more like an ice-basketball now.
I ran to the back of the house. I knew Sean must have been in that general vicinity, and after several tries I managed to break the second-floor window of the bathroom where he had hidden himself. He stuck his head out of the window. He could breathe. The fire department showed up within minutes–though it seemed like an eternity–and used a tall ladder to pull him out of the second-story window. They saved his life.
To be honest, I don’t know how he survived for that long. The story of the three Hebrew men in Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace has taken on new meaning for me. I have relived those moments many times in my head, each time overwhelmed with gratitude for his life.
While EMTs were attending to Sean, I looked back at the house. The second story was engulfed in flames. It looked like we might lose the whole house and everything in it. I didn’t care. It could all burn to ash. Sean was alive.
In trying to get to Sean, I had cut my hand badly. I don’t remember how it happened. My clothes were smeared with blood. The firefighters put both of us in the back of an ambulance and took us to Dayton Children’s Hospital. They had Sean on oxygen. He had sucked in a lot of smoke. I had, too. I began to feel like I was going to pass out in the back of the ambulance. I looked down at him and broke down in tears. He put his hand up to my arm and said, “I’m okay, daddy. It’s okay.”
My wife arrived at the hospital to find us in adjacent rooms receiving treatment. She was beside herself. They sewed up my hand and after checking me out for burns and various conditions you might associate with a stressed out fifty-year-old, they let me go. Sean had to stay to receive treatment for smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning.
Our house was a mess, but salvageable. The second floor had to be taken down to the studs. The first floor and basement suffered a great deal of water damage. We had to throw away many of our possessions. We lost family heirlooms and keepsakes. But compared to what we might have lost–our son–none of this seems important. In the days since the fire I have thanked God for his life more times than I can count.
Sean has never talked about what happened until quite recently. A few days ago he was sitting with his older brother Luke, whom he calls his “best friend.” Out of the blue he said, “Luke, I have an idea,” by which he meant, “I have a memory.” He proceeded to tell him the story of Ciara breaking her leg and being taken to the hospital in an ambulance. Then he said, “I have another idea,” and he told the story of hiding in the bathroom during the fire, being pulled through the window by firefighters, and taking his own ambulance ride. So he’s processing these things, which is good. At times he is non-verbal, and we have been worried about the emotional trauma of the event.
The subsequent months have been a blur. We stayed in a hotel for ten days. We finally found a rental house nearby and moved in. My wife has gone back and forth with the insurance company ad nauseam. We have learned more than we ever wanted to know about restoration of a home after a fire. Supply-chain issues have not helped, and getting permits from electrical and gas companies has also delayed the restoration of our home. We hope to move back in sometime in February, but we’ll see.
In October of this year, my friend and spiritual mentor Billy Abraham died. This has hit me harder than I thought it would. I really miss him. It was an honor to speak at his funeral in Dallas, and I’ve posted the short eulogy I wrote here. I also wrote a tribute to him in Firebrand. As I think about the future of the Methodist tradition he so loved and to which he so devoted himself, it’s hard to envision it without him. I find myself wanting to call him up and talk about theology, but that isn’t going to happen until Christ comes again in final victory, and we feast together at his heavenly banquet. By that time, the problems of Methodism will be utterly inconsequential.
2021 has been hard. And yet we have so much for which to be grateful. Sean is alive and healthy. Ciara’s leg is better. Luke and Harriet are dealing as well as can be expected with the uprooting of our family and the trauma of the last year. Our family is together. We have a roof over our heads. The Christian community both at United Theological Seminary and Stillwater Church has surrounded us with love and support. I miss Billy dearly, but he has left a theological legacy through students and spiritual sons and daughters.
There are people who will tell you that the Christian life is easy, that if you are faithful, your life will be one unbroken boulevard of green lights. That is not true. It is not biblical, nor is it consistent with the lives of the faithful. Life can be very hard. Tragedy strikes us. Loved ones die. People let us down. This world is broken. It is full of sin and the consequences of sin. And yet in the midst of life’s hard moments there are blessings, and these blessings anticipate the fullness of blessing we will know in the age to come.
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:8-12,
Christ gives us hope. He gives us resilience. It is in the midst of tears and hardship that his life can be most visible through us. The life of Jesus is made visible in our bodies–our embodied lives, the way we live, speak, and think. And because of that, we can live out the good news that brings life to others.
We often affirm in the church, “God is good all the time.” On a recent trip to Kenya, my friends there taught me a fuller expression of this affirmation: “God is good all the time–that is his nature.” These are people who live with incredible hardship every day, and yet affirm each day the inherent goodness of the God who came to us in Jesus Christ.
God is good. He cannot be otherwise because that is his nature. In both blessings and hardship, God is good. And so while we grieve, we do not grieve as those without hope. Even in the midst of hardship we proclaim in faith, “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”